Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 031—The Power of the Daleks


Hasslein Blog

Monday, July 7, 2014

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 031—The Power of the Daleks

By T. Scott Edwards

It is often said that the function of a companion is that of an identification figure for the audience – and never is that more true than in The Power of the Daleks. With the introduction of Troughton as the Doctor, the audience should be confused and bewildered by what has happened. It is all too easy nowadays to shrug nonchalantly at a regeneration. But at the time, this was a complete game changer, never seen before.

From the opening scenes of Troughton in the TARDIS, he is muddled and unclear. No explanation is given at any point for his strange behaviour, and his unexplained presence in the ship is confusing for the companions, Ben and Polly.
What is more, Troughton comes across as a dangerous addition – he speaks, at first, in hushed tones, grating and guttural. He is unknowable, unsure even of himself, and constantly refers to himself in the third person, and Ben in particular feels unsafe in the presence of this unknown interloper. He has invaded the sanctity of the TARDIS, and brandishes Saladin's knife with glee, before picking up, instead, a recorder. At no point can we be sure exactly what is happening – and this is a very brave decision.

After 3 and a bit seasons of watching Hartnell grow from an alien outsider into the lovable hero that he became, we are suddenly faced once more with Troughton's equivalent of the Doctor from An Unearthly Child, mysterious and alien. What is most interesting about Troughton's portrayal throughout this serial, though, and also the most courageous decision on the part of the production team, is just how different from Hartnell he is. Whilst Hartnell portrayed the character as aloof and noble, with the ability to have fun at times, Troughton instead focuses solely on the more comical elements, with only the occasional glimmer of the seriousness we typically associate with the role. Troughton is to be the template for most Doctors to follow, laden heavily with comedic elements but an underlying menace and fury at times coming to the surface. Here, though, it comes as a shock to the system.

Ultimately, The Power of the Daleks is a serial entirely about appearances and their very deceptiveness. We are given a new Doctor, who doesn't act like the Doctor. That same Doctor assumes a false identity, becoming the Earth Examiner. Meanwhile, we have Governors incapable of ruling, a doctor who is really a rebel, rebels who are actually being betrayed by those persuading them to rebel, and the Daleks pretending to be our "ser-vants".

The Daleks are wonderful here, though. Usually I try to write my blog in chronological order, from the beginning of episode 1 through to the end of the serial. If I were doing that now, I wouldn't be mentioning the Daleks until about the 1000 word mark. But that's no longer important – I mentioned this as I reached the end of The Gunfighters, and we saw the end of the individual episode titles. Sadly, The Power of the Daleks is the very first casualty of what we predicted – the removal of any tension in the grand reveal of the cliffhanger. Here, as the Doctor and his companions finally make their way into the strange ship dredged from the mercury swamps, we know full well that it will contain a Dalek, since the title has signposted their presence from the outset. Before we even saw this new Doctor and his strange ways, we knew the Daleks were coming. What that does do, though, is presents us with the premature realisation that this story will be something special. We have a new Doctor, and he's facing up to his arch-nemeses, and so anticipation is high.

From the introduction of the new Doctor, we are wrong-footed, as Ben and Polly are – from the obscure repetition of choice phrases – "renewal!" – to the bizarre behaviour looking for the diary and the recorder, we can never be sure of this man. As the companions follow him out of the TARDIS, they are still not safe; and neither are the audience. It works, though – regardless, as we see him discover the body of the Earth Examiner in the swamps, and his joyful dancing across the pools of mercury, we root for him. The emergence of strangers behind him terrifies us. Even in a ridiculous hat, acting so unDoctorly, we root for him.

In the camp, meanwhile, political intrigue is abound, and scientific curiosity is being explored; Whilst Bragen, Quinn and Hensell are battling it out so supremacy within the government of this rag-tag group of settlers, Lesterson and Janley are busy in the laboratories. When the Doctor arrives, with Ben and Polly following, he is mistaken for the Examiner and granted full access to the area. Lesterson is a fascinating character, putting the importance of his scientific explorations over the "pressure groups" and rebels within the society. The supporting cast are all superb, but particular mention must go to Robert James as Lesterson, whose drive brings about the downfall of his society. His gradual decline into madness as everything falls apart around him is wonderfully underplayed and is pitch-perfect.

The cliffhanger of the first episode is wonderfully tense, as the Doctor leads Ben and Polly into the space ship, and with a flourish introduces the companions to his nemeses – "Come in and meet the Daleks". What I love most about this serial is the way in which it takes for granted the power of the Daleks, if you'll excuse their pun, and the Doctor's very real fear of them. The appearance of a clawed mutant scuttling across the floor sounds wonderful, and Anneke Wills' linking narration on the audio seems palpable. Ben's response in episode 2 that "The real Doctor was always going on about Daleks" is brilliant too – I can just imagine Hartnell gloating over his defeat of them in the past, bragging to his companions that he destroyed, time and time again, the most feared creatures in the universe.

As the Examiner, the Doctor is granted full access and he uses it to perform his first really Doctorly speech – demanding that the Daleks be broken up or melted down, and suddenly pausing over this wonderful phrases – "Up or down, I don't care which". The Daleks are powerless throughout much of the opening sequence, but the Doctor realises that a third Dalek casing is missing, and demands that Lesterson stops his experiments. Of course, Lesterson is too fascinated by the results to pay attention to such a demand, and the scenes in which, with Janley, his assistant, they test the Dalek responses and study its casing are terribly unnerving; they have no idea of the dangers, and as they point out the "short, stubby arm", wondering what purpose the gun stalk could have, we eagerly wait for the inevitable... but it doesn't come, not right away, and that's what makes The Power of the Daleks such a spectacularly effective serial. The paranoia of the Daleks is inherent in all of us at home – we've seen what they are capable of – yet here they are impotent, passive slaves, grating the phrases to do with servitude with an effective and affected weariness. It is telling, in fact, that the only person murdered by the Daleks in the first few episodes is also the only person that suspects them of not being as subservient as they appear to be. The death is swiftly ignored, though, by Janley and Lesterson as Janley covers it up, driven as she is by her desire to arm the rebels.

The very idea of the subservience of the Daleks is one which we have since seen revisited in the new reboot – Victory of the Daleks does almost exactly the same thing, but rather than an alien planet with a colony of humans, in that story is placed the action during the second world war. Here, though, it is rather more effective – we as an audience, and Ben and Polly as companions, are now almost certain that this funny little man in his funny little hat is our Doctor; and to consolidate it, the scenes between him and the Daleks show that he is. No-one else could fully appreciate the very danger of having the Daleks within the compound, and the Dalek's recognition of the Doctor, despite his regenerated appearance, confirms it utterly, whilst also unnerving the audience further. The shot of Troughton seen through the eye-stalk of the Dalek at the cliffhanger for episode 2 is terrifying, as it closes in on him, only to offer its services.

The Doctor's order for the Dalek to immobilise itself in episode 3 is equally unnerving – the fact that it does not do so quickly shows that it is clearly not as subservient as it claims, and the very speed at which it reboots itself as he leaves makes the audience uncomfortable – this Dalek is cunning, it is watching, waiting for the right time. 3 episodes in, and the Daleks are still holding their cards close to their chest, and the audience is unclear when their time to strike will be; since serials range in length from 2 to 12 episodes, nothing is certain.

The political intrigue elements continue with the arming of the rebels with the Dalek gun stalks; by disarming the Daleks, we imagine that they will all be safe, but instead the story turns the point on its head – the weapons of the Daleks are still usable, but this time by humans, with a thirst for power, rather than the Daleks themselves. What is interesting is that there are few redeemable humans in this serial. They come across as conceited, selfish, power-mad, and all the more dangerous for it. By the time the Daleks return to their old ways, which is surely inevitable, we don't care anymore; each and every one of them deserves to die. They have it coming to them, but again, it is simply a question of when. Throughout episode 4, in fact, this becomes even more prevalent a concept; as the rebels plot their political coup d'etat, they are served drinks by demeaned Daleks with trays instead of weapons. They are blind to the clear danger amongst them, as they are so blinded by their desperation to succeed.

The ending of episode 3 is yet another brilliant cliffhanger, as the Daleks close in on Lesterson, chanting "we will get our power" ad infinitum. Of course, Lesterson reasserts his 'control' in the opening of episode 4, but the seed of doubt is planted – he begins to question the motives of the creatures, and finally starts to see how dangerous they could perhaps be. This turning point in James' characterisation is wonderfully handled – vocally, there is only the slightest nuance of fear in his delivery, but it sells the idea completely. The disgust with which James delivers the line "More important than human life?!" upon hearing that Rezno was murdered by a Dalek is smashing – again, he is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he has been blinded by his own desire to succeed, and that scientific progress is no excuse for ignoring the sanctity of human life. It is this realisation, though, which makes his death in episode 6 all the more shocking – but more on that later.

The concept of the multiplying Daleks is wonderful, and verging on comedic – whilst we can't see the visual, the surprise in the Doctor's voice implies that there was almost a double-take upon seeing the 3 Daleks in the corridor, after leaving one in the office. I also love the idea that the colonists are so self-obsessed and ignorant that they have failed to notice the increase in numbers; again, to the settlers, these Daleks are simply obedient servants and waiters, nothing to pay a great deal of attention to.

The scenes in the rebel meeting are all rather spurious; the manner in which the Doctor decodes the 'simple anagram' is rather silly, but it does allow our heroes the chance to infiltrate the second plotline, one which until now they have been merely skirting. Throughout the story, they have been distracted by the Daleks, and whilst the Daleks have done nothing, Bragen and his rebels have actually been achieving a fair amount, via the gradual overthrowing of the current governor during his absence.

The cliffhanger to episode 4 is probably the most terrifying yet; as Lesterson hides in the shadows, watching the production line of Daleks, Wills' descriptions are truly bloodcurdling. The mysterious bubbling liquid, the green blobs being probed with metal spikes and electrocuted, before being dropped into the casings all sounds horrifying. The image is so horrifying, in fact, that it drives Lesterson mad. Utterly, stark-raving bonkers. And James is outstanding here; again, we can't see this, and only have the audio to go from with a few stills and the occasional snippet, but here we can almost feel the insanity radiating from him, all eye-rolling and with spittle running down his chin. The way in which Janley uses Lesterson, denying his claims and pointing out that he is clearly mad, is brilliant; he's driven mad by what he helped to create, yet that very madness is what prevents anyone from listening to him or taking him seriously.

With the Doctor imprisoned, the story begins to speed up at a rate of knots; his warnings are ignored after being accused of killing the real Examiner. He has uncovered who the real spy is, and is unable to prevent them from taking over the colony with their group of rebels. Meanwhile, Bragen has taken over control, using a Dalek weapon to exterminate Governor Hensell, and the remorse in his voice is smashing – he sounds genuinely appalled by what he has done, bringing just a touch of humanity to the role. The reproduction of the Daleks is simply dismissed, as they point out that this way they are "twice as useful." Episode 5 is simply wonderful – jumping from set piece to set piece, with the Doctor using his cunning to escape from his prison cell by emulating the sound of the sonic key on the rim of a glass of water. These days, in the reboot of the series, it is all too easy for the Doctor, between the psychic paper (one of the laziest yet most overused tools at the Doctor's disposal) and the sonic screwdriver. Here, though, it is by sheer brain power that the Doctor and Quinn are able to make good their escape.

The final scenes of episode 5 set up the show-stopping final episode, as the Daleks finally drop their pleasantries, and the rallying cries of "Exterminate!" come from every corner of the colony. The final episode is, for the most part, based around the epic battle sequences, which sound magnificent. The sound effects are fantastic, as is the sparing use of incidental music, and some of the stills and snippets we have show a grand sense of scale. There is an unnerving moment when, to evade extermination, the Doctor and Quinn hide themselves under a pile of corpses. It is grim, and gritty, and all the better for it.

The realisation of the colonists that they no longer have any control over the Daleks is wonderful, and Bragen's calls for his men to return to the centre of the colony is bleak and darkly humorous; his calls are sent through empty halls, as almost all of the men have died, fighting the intruders.

Lesterson is the best thing about this episode though, if not the whole serial; his decline into madness is racing now, as he sits back and sighs "you have to admire them! They're the new species!" His faith in humanity has now utterly dissipated, and in his current psychological state, it is all he can do but fall to his knees and praise the Daleks. His Dalek impersonation is blackly comical, as he puts on the infamous grating voice to hear him utter "I am your ser-vant!" before being neutralised in a flash. He is certain, or at least as certain as a lunatic can be, that they will not kill him, because he helped to create them – he brought them back from their hibernation and gave them "life". It is a tragic end to someone who was, frankly, wonderful, albeit naive.

Of course, throughout the story the Doctor has warned that this would all happen. And no-one listened to him, so most of them are dead; but again, this helps to solidify Troughton's Doctor. He knew. We can trust him... except we can't, because although he saves the day, even he doesn't know how he did it. He messes around with some wiring, and is ecstatic that it stops the Daleks dead, but he can't for the life of him figure out what he did to save the day. Gone are the assured actions of the First Doctor. This Second Doctor is a liability. Whilst he may be funny, and silly, he is the Doctor; he fights evil, and he wins. But reminiscent of The Daleks' Master Plan, he doesn't do it without casualties. The camera panning across the fallen men and women reminds us of this, and his uncertainty about what he actually did is troubling. Bragen's death at the hands of a human shocks us – it should have been a Dalek that did it. We weren't expecting such a callous execution, although of course he deserved it. It's all so shocking, so final. And then the Doctor and his companions leave, with Vulcan a warzone, with the inexperienced Quinn forced to rise to the challenge of bringing Vulcan back. As they leave, the group examines a fallen Dalek, before dematerialising... and we see that the Dalek was, in fact, examining them.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home