Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Power of the Daleks

Previous viewings - few

A new Doctor! It's not every show that can replace their lead actor to play a same-but-different character and simply carry on as if it's all part of some big masterplan. Until now, there was no such thing as regeneration, it was simply a device to retire William Hartnell from the role, and I doubt anyone imagined it was going to happen again and again as the show ran and ran. Suddenly the show theoretically has no expiration date beyond what the BBC decrees.

It wasn't guaranteed to be a success, and a lot of the credit goes Patrick Troughton and to the writer of his debut story, David Whitaker. The story begins with an extended scene in the TARDIS showing the aftermath of the regeneration. Future writers take note. As will become something of a tradition, the Doctor is slightly unhinged and unforthcoming to his companions who are questioning whether this change of appearance means this isn't the Doctor. The question is left in the background until later. His odd behaviour (referring to the First Doctor as if he's a different person, his dismissive behaviour towards Ben and Polly) is offset by plenty of comedy (playing the recorder), so that even if we're unsure what's happened, at least we're entertained. Best of all, there is a genuine sense of mystery, making this one of the most effective post-regenerative scenes, lacking the self-awareness and more forced manic behaviour of some later versions.

Patrick Troughton impresses straight away. A younger Doctor for the younger companions - somewhat showing up William Hartnell as a relic from an era of the show that had already ended when he left. The scruffier, less refined look goes well with the absentmindedness of Troughton's Doctor, which is at such an extreme in his opening scenes that it's not obvious that behind the buffoonery the Doctor is a very intelligent man. Visually, the most striking difference from Hartnell's Doctor is Troughton's dark hair and haircut, seemingly shedding a generation from his age, leaving the 'grandfather' aspect of the character behind for good. No more walking stick!

If there's one flaw, it's that as newish companions who didn't connect with Hartnell's Doctor, I'm not invested in Ben and Polly as characters much and I would expect them to show more fear at what they have witnessed.

The TARDIS lands in a mercury swamp on the planet Vulcan. The Doctor barely acknowledges his companions and they explore separately. It's a horrid, unwelcoming place, from which we dive into the main plot - a human character enters the scene and is murdered. The Doctor takes the place of this Examiner to investigate his murder as he and his companions are taken to the nearby human colony. The characters we're introduced to here are the stoic head of security Bragen and jovial deputy governor Quinn. The colony on Vulcan is not immediately interesting, being merely a lot of people in dull clothes in dull featureless sets, with little sense that this is a city and not merely a military base - keeping in mind we've just had one of them in The Tenth Planet. However never has the setting for a story been so deceptively uninteresting. By the end of the first episode it's already proved appearances can be deceiving - impersonating the Examiner, the Doctor has free reign of the colony, and as he inspects a mysterious capsule in a science lab, he finds some inactive Daleks inside, and they've been there a while, and something skulking around the floor...

The Power of the Daleks does not appear to have a large budget. Fortunately, for once it's actually fine from the off that there are only three Dalek props. Viewers know the Daleks, Ben and Polly have heard about them, and through his recognition of them, the Doctor convinces viewers that he is the still the same man he was before. The scientist inspecting the capsule, the ever-so-slightly eccentric Lesterson, wants to revive the Daleks, and succeeds, albeit removing their weapons. Gone are the Dalek stories of yesteryear, which each one upping the stakes from the last, because this is smaller in scale. The Daleks don't have their weapons, so they can't simply exterminate everyone (though that is obviously their ultimate goal), and have to use psychological manipulation as their weapons. By offering their services as servants to the humans, their plan is to find a way to make their own power source and reproduce. A race like the Daleks can come across as robots or machines, so when they use intelligence and cunning to survive, distancing themselves from that misconception, I think they're more effective. Automatons chanting "exterminate!" might be the iconic Dalek image, and a good way for the Daleks to make an entrance in a story, but beyond that there has to be something deeper, something that lets viewers know and understand the Daleks a little more. It's chilling that their operation in the story has nothing to do with leaving the planet and rejoining their fellow Daleks but simply exterminating the humans. I would expect nothing less of course, but they gain points for willingly putting themselves at a disadvantage in the meantime.

Of course, the story is not all about the Daleks. A rebellion is flaring up in the colony, which the "Examiner" has been brought to Vulcan to address. Quinn is implicated in damaging the communication equipment, preventing the Doctor from warning Earth about the Daleks. Lesterson's assistant Janley is a rebel and kidnaps Polly, while the Doctor and Ben eavesdrop at a rebel meeting and find out Bragen is the leader of the rebels, and with Governor Hensell on a tour and Quinn in prison, Bragen is serving as relief Governor, a position he intends to be permanent. The two plotlines are cleverly intertwined; ignorant of the Daleks' true nature, the rebels plan to use the Daleks to take control of the colony, assuming they can control the Daleks so that they don't kill rebels. It's desperate situation that makes use of the viewers' knowledge of the evil of the Daleks. We know that as soon as the Daleks can strike, they will do so, and the Doctor knows it, though he is prevented from acting because everyone else is convinced the Daleks can be controlled.

The side characters vary in success; Lesterson is probably the most interesting, starting off as the scientist swept up by the excitement of his discoveries but through working with the Daleks and seeing glimpses of their true selves he gradually turns against them, and goes mad as he realises what he's done. The cliffhanger to Episode 4, where Lesterson enters the secret compartment of the Dalek capsule and sees the production line, is a classic. Robert James plays the different sides to him well, although I didn't feel any sympathy for him when he died - he was in a position to stop the Daleks but ended up useless, simply ranting and raving so that everyone thought he was mad and didn't listen to him. He gets a cracking death scene in Episode 6, offering to serve the Daleks as they served him, but getting exterminated instead.

Polly is missing while she is locked away in Episode 4, and Ben gets the same treatment in Episode 5. It's disappointing but there is so much of Doctor/companion interaction in the story that I can forgive it. Ben isn't convinced that he is really the Doctor until the Dalek recognises him. There are moments when the Doctor seems distant or more interested in being silly, but over time we learn that during these moments he is actually deep in thought. This more playful interpretation of the character seems more intelligent than Hartnell's Doctor, where what we saw was what we got most of the time, something perpetuated by things like getting Ian's name wrong. After getting over the Doctor changing, Ben and Polly are their usual dependable selves; rather two-dimensional but very likeable, enough to liven up any scene they're in.

The Doctor himself is locked away with Quinn in Episode 4, so as a result he doesn't get many scenes with the Daleks. The Daleks have been given more equipment and have made more Daleks, with only a source of static electricity still to finish. Bragen kills Hansell when he doesn't co-operate and the rebels get ready to take control of the colony, just as the Daleks descend on them with weapons at the ready. Episode 6 is a bloodbath, as the Doctor, his companions, Quinn and the one rebel who has seen sense work to destroy the Daleks' power source. As this is the action episode, it didn't transfer as well to audio/static visual as the more dialogue-driven episodes, but I've seen enough Daleks shoot people in featureless corridors to visualise it. Bragen gets his comeuppance and the Doctor blows up the Daleks before they can spread through the whole colony.

With the adventure over, the Doctor, Ben and Polly return to the TARDIS, wishing things had turned out differently. As the TARDIS dematerialises, a 'dead' Dalek looks on.

A story like this is an odd choice to launch the new Doctor. It's gripping and it's tense, things a lot of great Doctor Who stories are, but aside from the Doctor himself it's a little lacking in comedy. There's the possibility that the producer wanted to play down the fact that William Hartnell had been replaced by drawing attention to the popular monsters. Also as a studio-based story it is limited in scope, and as great as it is, doesn't herald a new era as say Spearhead from Space does.

However, I won't judge it by those failings, as they don't consider the story itself, just that fact that it has been chosen to introduce Patrick Troughton, because he is very well introduced. By the end of the story, I'm not thinking I want things back to normal, but that I want to see more of this stranger. He's not quite as we will later know him but still gets to show a lot of sides to him; he's a strong believer that evil must be fought, and we see this when he talks about the Daleks, we see his fear when he reacts to the Daleks, his cleverness when he escapes from the cell, his humour as I mentioned earlier, the only thing missing is the bond he has with his companions, especially Jamie, but that will come later. I'm very much looking forward to seeing more.

Horror quotient - Doctor Who has scarier days to come, but this is no comedy. The Dalek saying "I am your servant" over and over while the Doctor tries to shout over it, warning the humans in vain that the Daleks will destroy them, is on a whole other level than a bog-standard "exterminate!". The Daleks gliding off in their masses, so many of them chanting "Daleks conquer and destroy" that it ends up sounding like white noise, has a similar bond-chilling effect.
Comedy quotient - The Doctor doesn't let a bad situation get him down. Troughton is a natural at comedy, and while Hartnell was too he tended to have "serious stories" and "funny stories".
Drama quotient - Six episodes and not a second of padding. While there isn't any more plot than a typical four-parter, it's written so well that I wouldn't want to lose any of it. I criticised Galaxy 4 for being predictable, and I suppose the same applies to this, but here the predictability is the whole point rather than bad writing. The ignorance of the colonists gets frustrating after a while, but I think that's intentional.

Many Troughton stories will follow a similar formula to this, but The Power of the Daleks sets the bar very high. Can it be beaten?


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