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Posts Tagged ‘The Power of the Daleks’

It is, obviously, quite difficult to come up with an informed opinion about Patrick Troughton’s tenure in Doctor Who, or even one concerning most of his individual stories, quite simply because the majority of his work isn’t there any more. As a result, the consensus is that the actor was brilliant and hugely influential – Colin Baker and Matt Smith, actors whose performances are wildly different, have both cited Troughton as the man they’re looking to emulate – but people are less willing to talk definitively about the stories – certainly the missing ones.

It wasn’t always thus, with heartfelt declarations that Tomb of the Cybermen was one of the all-time classics being widely made – right up until 1992 when the story was miraculously rediscovered in Asia. Watching it again now, however, one gets a strong sense of a story where the production values and plot ephemera are actively fighting against the effectiveness of the narrative’s core: the creepiness of the Cybermen and their tomb are vastly undermined when they spend much of their (limited) screen-time looking after their peculiar little pets and quacking like ducks.

Anyway, I’m not here to write about Tomb of the Cybermen, but a Troughton story I’ve always really liked. The problem here is – well, as I say, there are only really a handful of intact Troughtons, mostly from his final year, and those are a really mixed bag. The Seeds of Death rivals Asylum of the Daleks in terms of plot incoherence, The Dominators is very dreary, and The Mind Robber is jarringly weird and atypical. I really like The Invasion and The War Games, but this is something that’s crept up on me rather than being there from the first time I saw them. Outside of Season 6, the only intact story is Tomb of the Cybermen, which I’ve already explained my issues concerning.

So it’s going to be another missing story, and if this current series of reviews is going to be properly representative of Doctor Who, I’m going to have to do a full-blooded Dalek story at some point – and, as it happens, one of my favourite Dalek stories is a Troughton – not Evil of the Daleks, for which we at least possess one episode, but The Power of the Daleks, Troughton’s debut, and the only Dalek story for which only scant remnants are available.

power

The story opens with a lengthy TARDIS sequence introducing the new Doctor: his companions Ben and Polly are understandably dubious about this odd new individual. The story proper begins when the TARDIS arrives on the planet Vulcan (this story predates the debut of Star Trek, in case you were wondering), a hostile planet partly covered with mercury swamps.

There is, however, an Earth colony on Vulcan. In terms of the wider Doctor Who universe we are given no clue as to exactly when the story is set, and as a result there has been much speculation and debate about this – but it doesn’t really have much bearing on the plot, so I don’t think we need to get into that*. Almost at once the new Doctor finds himself caught up in the murder of a visiting official from Earth, whose identity he adopts. The colony is riven by conflict between its governor and a group of rebels (this was not such a cliche at the time the story was made, nor is this element of the plot as hackneyed as it sounds).

However, the Doctor’s attention is more immediately grabbed by the activities of the colony’s chief scientist, Lesterson. Lesterson has discovered an alien capsule in one of the mercury swamps and is keen to exploit what he has found within: apparently robotic entities who declare their only objective is to serve the humans of the colony. But the Doctor knows better, because these creatures are the Daleks, and they are only being so helpful because this will give them access to the resources they need to rebuild their strength. Once they have achieved this, the prospects of the colony look set to take a sharp downturn…

The first thing that strikes one about Power of the Daleks is the extremely pragmatic approach it takes to handling the regeneration – this isn’t really a story about the aftermath of the regeneration itself, and after the first few minutes the Doctor is notably less prone to post-regenerative trauma (amnesia, coma, sudden mood swings and mania)  than he is on almost any other occasion. The main plot of the story is nothing to do with the change in the Doctor or his altered relationships with his companions.

That said, even the Moff has praised Power for its supposed bravery in (briefly) toying with the idea that the new Doctor may not in fact be the Doctor at all – the reasoning being that on this crucial occasion, you would have expected the production team to go all out not to unsettle the audience too much. I’m not so sure; I think the approach the story takes is the obvious way to go in this kind of situation. Once you’ve established that regeneration is a fact of life (so to speak), you lose the option of playing this kind of game with it forever after, so it’s possibly a shame the story doesn’t go a lot further down this route.

On the other hand, given that what we get instead is arguably one of the really great Doctor Who stories, and surely one of the best two or three Dalek stories of all time, it’s difficult to argue this with great force. It’s possible to say this of a story for which only a tiny amount of material survives because its strength doesn’t necessarily lie in the production values or the direction, it’s all there in the script.

Most people would say that author David Whitaker’s big idea is to depict the Daleks as devious and manipulative, rather than the squawking maniacs of many another script. (You could argue that you can see everything that makes David Whitaker a remarkable writer and Terry Nation a fairly pedestrian one in the way they handle a story in which the Daleks can’t use their ray guns: Whitaker gives us three episodes of the Daleks plotting and scheming to achieve their ends through other means, while Nation just has them bolting machine-guns onto themselves after about fifteen minutes.) This is true, but – as Victory of the Daleks, something of an heir to Power, demonstrates – this in itself isn’t enough to make a story really great.

For a while I was wondering quite what it was that I liked so much about Power of the Daleks, and what made it so special, then I came across something that threw the story into sharp relief – another version of it.

Power of the Daleks Reimagined is a fan-made adaptation of the original scripts, written and directed by and starring Nick Scovell as the Doctor. On many levels this is a highly impressive production, with production values at least as good as those on many stories from the 63-89 run, huge numbers of Dalek props – more than the original story – and some top-end CGI in places. Scovell’s Doctor – a rumpled, Donnish figure – is definitely more old-school than any of the 21st century TV Doctors, but his performance is very engaging. This production is easy to track down and I would recommend it to fans of old-school Doctor Who.

Couldn't find a photo of the Scovell Doctor with the Daleks. Sorry.

Couldn’t find a photo of the Scovell Doctor with the Daleks. Sorry.

However, it falls a long way short of the original story, and the reasons for this were, I thought, indicative. This is despite Reimagined retaining many of the character names and some of the most memorable dialogue from the original story, along with the general thrust of the story. The key thing is that, in Reimagined, everyone is fascinated by the Daleks, pretty much as an end in itself: they’re the primary focus of everyone’s story. In the original, on the other hand, everyone has other things on their minds, other objectives, and if they’re interested in the Daleks then it’s only as a means to an end. Lesterson believes they can teach him new science, the Governor can only see the economic benefits of a new robot labour force, the rebels see them as a weapon to help them take over, and so on.

Whitaker spends a lot of time and effort developing the human characters and their various conflicts, and this is crucial to the story, because what both his Dalek scripts – this, and the (to my mind) somewhat overpraised Evil of the Daleks – are fundamentally about is the difference between Daleks and human beings. Humans are innately chaotic, riven, factionalised, pursuing individual objectives. The Daleks think and act as one: their unity is part of their strength. It’s almost amusing that, in the story, the Daleks seem more curious about the nature of human beings than vice versa: one of them is clearly baffled by the human tendency to kill each other.

At the risk of treading on my own toes, I think this is the story where the characterisation of the Daleks that we are most familiar with really starts to come into focus. We are so often told that their primary objective is the extermination of all non-Dalek life (here this is usefully summarised as ‘the Law of the Daleks’), but – for sound dramatic reasons – this is something we hardly ever see them trying to put into practice.

Part of the pleasure of Power of the Daleks is waiting for the moment – and it’s obvious this is going to come – when the Daleks drop their pretence of servility, move in force, and start killing everyone in sight. And it’s a sign of how brilliantly the story is structured that the Daleks’ rise to ascendancy is deftly summarised across the story’s five cliffhangers. The first has the Dalek shells immobilised and literally powerless, the creatures within having been forced to emerge (or so it’s implied). The second has a lone, unarmed Dalek ingratiating itself with the colonists, and the third a trio of Daleks making their plans for the future clear. Episode Four concludes with Lesterson stumbling upon a Dalek production line – a tremendous image – and the swelling host of new Daleks, while the final cliffhanger is the point at which the Daleks start to make their move on the colony.

Whitaker’s Daleks are clearly psychotic, but rationally so, quite capable of dissembling when it suits their purposes. When they gather en masse within their capsule, however, it’s as if some kind of mob frenzy grips them: they endlessly repeat each other in a sort of twisted chorus, as if they can barely restrain their killer impulses. They are genuinely disturbing as in few other stories.

And, needless to say, it’s only the Doctor who saves the day – even so, it’s clear that much of the colony has been laid waste by the conclusion. Nevertheless, it shows that the new Doctor is still the Doctor, even if he is clearly a very different individual from in previous stories – he has already begun to acquire the slippery, mercurial qualities that ultimately came to define Troughton’s characterisation, while there’s little sign of the autocrat, usually so secure in his own authority, that William Hartnell brought to the screen.

So, a turning point for the Doctor, and a real high point for the Daleks: I can’t think of another story which has used them so intelligently. Will we ever get to see this story properly again? We can only hope: I can’t believe it could do less than live up to expectations.

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* Oh, If You Insist…

There’s no on-screen date given at any point during The Power of the Daleks. Trailers at the time suggested the story was set in 2020, but publicity isn’t what I’d call a primary source. It seems very unlikely that Vulcan is a solar planet, which would appear to place the story no earlier than the late 21st century, which is when the human race made its first FTL flights (according to The Waters of Mars). The level of technology in use on the colony seems to be quite low – projectile weapons rather than ray guns, and so on – so it doesn’t look like it’s too far into the future.

No-one in the story recognises the Daleks – this is a crucial plot point – which would seem to preclude it taking place after the Dalek invasion of the solar system round about the 2160s (one of the few in-universe events of the 60s that other stories routinely refer to). Personally, my instinct is to place it very late in the 21st century or early in the 22nd: I find myself somewhat whimsically inclined to plump for 2120, given the popularity of the 2020 date elsewhere.

However, if we’re talking about people not recognising the Daleks, recently-made stories made it retrospectively strange that no-one on a space colony is aware of an alien race which spectacularly attacked Earth twice in the early 21st century (in 2007 and 2009). Possibly mindful of this, the current writers of the series have established that Amy Pond – and by extension the rest of the planet – have had their memories of the Battle of Canary Wharf and the stealing of Earth erased, the implication being that this is a result of the cracked universe which is such a feature of Season Thirty-One.

Exactly how this happened is difficult to work out – other consequences of the Battle of Canary Wharf, such as the Tyler clan relocating to a parallel universe and the collapse of Torchwood One, still seem to be in effect. One must also imagine strange things occurring in Van Staten’s vault in the late 2000s, as everyone suddenly forgets what the Dalek incarcerated there is called. But we’re in danger of seriously digressing here, and at least this oddity means that dating Power of the Daleks is not made unduly challenging.

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