The Power of the Daleks
Tony’s feeling powerful.
The Power of the Daleks is rightly regarded as one of, if not the biggest holy grail of the ‘missing episodes’ of Doctor Who. It’s the third story that can genuinely claim to have secured Doctor Who for the decades of its existence, and it’s the story that takes the second biggest gamble in the show’s history. After finding a machine that can travel through space and time, looking like a police box and bigger on the inside just sitting in a junkyard, and turning an educational, breathtaking premise into something a bit boring about cavemen and then suddenly, out of nowhere in week five capturing the imagination of a nation of children with the bug-eyed monster to beat all bug-eyed monsters, The Power of the Daleks gave the show it’s next big breath-holding moment, as the concept of regeneration (or renewal as it’s described here) was tried out for the very first time. In context, it’s utterly mind-boggling – the snappy but twinkle-eyed and chuckling white-haired old man we’d come to know and look up to as our anchor in a cruel and complicated universe, including the universe of our own history had saved the world one more time, defeating the creepy bandaged monsters from Mondas, but the victory had cost him dearly, and he’d lain down on the floor of his ship. And there, right before our eyes in one of the best versions of the process on record, he had changed into an entirely different man. A shorter, darker, more saturnine man. Where was the Doctor? Where was our Doctor? What was going on?
The Power of the Daleks needed to utterly convince us that the Doctor could be both entirely different and still in his fundamentals the same – our trustworthy anchor in a dark universe.
It doesn’t, for the most part, make it easy. Troughton’s Doctor is dark and potentially dangerous from the very beginning, the intensity of his performance having little about it of the ‘cosmic hobo’ that has become his immortal cliché. He speaks of ‘the Doctor’ in the third person, has a dark chuckle, and is suspiciously silent sometimes, preferring to communicate through the tooting of a recorder. As Episode 1 ends, he wanders off with his companions, only one of whom (Polly) really believes he is the Doctor, and introduces them to the dormant Daleks. Throughout the six part story, he shows himself to have an entirely different approach to the dangers of the cosmos from his previous incarnation – more patience, different skills, and an almost frightening insularity and doggedness of focus: when trying to break out of a cell, his only concern is getting more water, so as to create the right resonance pattern to unlock the door, not the increasingly unhinged scientist Lesterson as he’s dragged off to his own incarceration. And most especially at the end, Troughton’s Doctor seems entirely too pleased with himself and too laisez-faire about the methods he’s used and the lies he’s told, given the uncomfortable body-count of Power. It’s really only in the intensity of Troughton’s portrayal, and a mid-section in which he begins to act clearly with the same essential motivations as the original Doctor, that the battle for the future of Doctor Who is won in The Power of the Daleks. He does enough that’s right, or at least intriguing, to make you want to tune in the week after Power is finished, to see what he does next, but at the end, he undoes much of the work he’s put in to form a bond with the audience by running away from Vulcan ‘before we get stuck with the bill’ for rendering the whole colony powerless for months (hard months, presumably, if their generators are down). There’s a carelessness, a cavalier attitude that makes us want to see what this new Doctor does next, but not really to trust him that much yet.
In terms of the fundamentals of the story, The Power of the Daleks is a cracking allegory of exactly what it says it is – power. The nuances of David Whitaker’s script mean you can read it any way you like – nuclear power, political power etc - but in these days of potential darkness, it’s entirely fair to read the ‘power’ at the heart of Power of the Daleks as being analogous to the Daleks themselves, the power of racist, Fascistic views of the universe, used by cynical political players for their own ends. The Vulcan colony, before the Daleks gain their power, is an outwardly harmonious place, with faction, self-interest and power-plays beneath the surface. From the moment they are woken though, the Daleks become a factor, a ‘power’ in themselves, with every different faction wanting to control them, while for their own part, all the Daleks want to do is increase their numbers and gain more power, just like Fascistic personalities within any society. While Lesterson, the first to try and use them, becomes a Cassandra of their dangers as soon as he realises they’re not his ‘servants’ – for which read ‘slaves’ - it’s actually Bragen who’s the allegory of our times, conniving to use the Daleks to get the governership of Vulcan, only to misjudge the degree to which the Daleks will let themselves be used, and eventually be taken out by a ‘Second Amendment Remedy’ from a fellow human, sickened at his shameless use of the Nazi Pepperpots of Death for his own ends.
Meanwhile, as we’ve mentioned, The Power of the Daleks is a staggeringly dark script throughout – for a series already throwing the audience one of the most audacious curveballs in TV history, in the idea of regeneration, it pulls no punches and gives no quarter at all. The Daleks here, for pretty much the first time since The Dead Planet, have to be conniving, have to be cunning, and are not able to simply slide about and exterminate people. It adds whole layers of new, slow malevolence to their being, and its exactly that – the slowness, the control with which they do certain things, like turning to look at a human that’s just said something stupid – that sends new chills down your spine in this story. That and the gleefulness with which, when they achieve their aim, they set about exterminating everyone they meet (except, in a moment of lost scripting focus, the Doctor and his party. Because who needs to exterminate them?).
There are weaknesses to The Power of the Daleks though. For the most part, they are lulls in the action, theatrical pauses between actors when the camera is on them that have a tendency to slow down the pace of both scenes and episodes. There are occasional moments where the script becomes nonsensical too – that moment where the Daleks, on an extermination-spree, simply point the Doctor and his friends in the right direction, then comically turn to one another to gossip that ‘They will be exterminated.’ There’s another of those moments when the Daleks explain that they have orders to wait till the humans start fighting, do a bit of shouting, and then announce that the plans have changed and they can exterminate everyone after all. Those moments are few and far between though, and the drama of the Vulcan colonists is gripping as a human drama of power confronted by malleable opportunity.
As a Dalek story, Power takes the sons of Skaro into new territory and gives them a hell of a lot of their static-dependent mojo back, while also seeding their next appearance, Evil of the Daleks, by having them actively contemplate the question of why humans kill humans – a question of individuality that will come back to haunt them when they experience the human factor for the first time, and which will plague them to the end of their Classic Era run.
If you’ve heard the hype about the new animated version of The Power of the Daleks and you’re wondering whether to buy it, the short answer is yes. As a story, The Power of the Daleks stands on its own base even without visuals, and while there are pluses and minuses in the animation – backgrounds are glorious and detailed with a degree of seeming geek-love, faces are sometimes less successful and human motion, most especially walking, is a bit Seventies rather than CGI, the thing that most makes the animated Power of the Daleks stand out is the Daleks themselves. More than would have been possible in the Sixties with actors in heavy wooden costumes, there’s that malevolent slowness and deliberation about their movements, which makes them more unnerving even than they were on screen originally in this story. Get it on DVD now and give yourself an early Christmas present. There’s time enough to debate whether the colourised blu-ray version is the best thing to happen to Who fans in a decade or an abomination that should be burned with fire come February.