Sunday, 25 October 2015

030. The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 1 (5 November 1966)

Watching The Power of the Daleks in 1966 necessitated some getting used to the new Doctor, of this we can be sure; what fascinates me is the way that even rewatching it in 2015 is a somewhat alarming and indeed off-putting experience. One forgets quite how audacious this is, quite how strange David Whitaker’s dialogue sounds and quite how curiously Patrick Troughton pitches his performance of it. In other words, even viewed now this first episode is something of an oddity, 25 minutes of Doctor Who at its most unexpected; it’s just that we are approaching it from the opposite direction to the 7.9million bemused viewers who tuned in on that November night forty-nine years ago. Of course this is not a story that can be watched now – only, alas, experienced as a reconstruction, and this no doubt has an effect on our experience of it, especially because Troughton’s performance is so often so marvellously physical. We can never fully judge the way he pitches lines without seeing that wonderfully expressive face. But what we do get of his initial debut is nothing short of magic in a story that is long on smart and innovative ideas.

Troughton awakes to blinding light and a high-pitched wailing sound, as though coming out of a bad acid trip (which was, indeed, the show-makers’ intention as a metaphor for regeneration). He finds himself in diminished versions of his predecessor’s costume, as if he has been through a hellish experience and is, in the here and now, momentarily weaker for it. He stumbles about, seems confused, cannot remember who he is, examines a random bit of memorabilia from The Crusade, namedrops Saladin, asks questions about his former self. He sheds his cloak like a snake shedding an old skin. His maniacal chuckle after saying “it’s over” is almost sinister; even the whimsically infuriating recorder, the silly stovepipe hat and the 500 Year Diary are off-putting simply because they’re not things the Doctor does. The measuring of a rock’s height, then speaking to his legs, saying “time I put you through some tests, I think” and leap-frogging the rock, seems like a combination of things Hartnell would never have done. Whitaker seems to be going to great lengths to unnerve us, to deliberately perplex us and ensure we are *not* confident that this is the same man we have followed since the junkyard on Totter’s Lane. Only three years in, the show still has that freshness and innovation to it that allows them to get away with utterly disorientating, bonkers ideas like this. We are so used to the concept of regeneration nowadays that it’s hard to get our heads around how odd this piece of television really is.

And how wonderful that this renewal, this metamorphosis, takes place against the backdrop of the element of change: mercury, winged messenger of the gods, fleet of foot and always on the move. Vulcan is well-rendered visually, all craggy cliffs and mercury pools, but it’s the effective symbolism of the mercury that makes it most memorable. “Two hundred years in a mercury swamp and this piece of metal drops from it. A couple of minutes’ polishing and it’s as good as new. Rain, damp, heat, mercury, nothing touches this metal. No corrosion”: this is the perfect description for the absolute fixed nature of the Daleks, those unchanging horrors. Where the Doctor is all changeable whimsy, the Daleks are absolute. Terrifying machines of war sit cobwebbed under an ever-shifting mercury planet for two centuries, but when they awake, as they will next week, they are utterly unchanged.

Polly instinctively ‘gets’ that this new man is the Doctor, recalling Hartnell’s line in The Tenth Planet that ‘this old body is wearing a bit thin’, whereas it takes the generally more distrustful Ben a little longer to acclimatise to the new incarnation. This dynamic between them is present in most of The Power of the Daleks, and it works terribly effectively; without doubt they are captivated by the new figure, just as we are, even if they remain unsure of him (just look at them following him into the capsule by night). We are generally predisposed to trust Polly, but Ben’s objections are frequently reasonable and do not sound at all irrational, and thus the presentation of their differences works on us rather subtly. I could have done without Polly being the first to take a load of mercury to the face, but you can’t have everything I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, the story that The Power of the Daleks goes on to tell is all about power play and the ways in which this works itself out in the colony on Vulcan (the science/leadership tensions are already established even in this first episode, as is Janley’s association with the rebels) – so it is a perfect fit for Polly and Ben trying to get used to this new Doctor. And Whitaker very cannily uses the dual deceit by having the new ‘impostor’ Doctor posing as the Examiner from Earth to gain access to the colony (and very neat, too, because of all the Doctors Troughton is the one most befitting of the title “Examiner”, he who carefully considers everything and everyone around him before making decisions – just look at him scrutinising their uniforms). Suddenly the stakes are all a little higher, simply because we are less certain of everything. Perhaps we never really knew the Doctor, after all? In one fell swoop, with a tense slow-burner of a script, David Whitaker has changed everything about Doctor Who.

Read my take on the second episode here.

Other things:
I like the way Troughton-era stories retain Hartnell’s title sequence for a while until he gains his own. It’s like an acknowledgment that it takes while to earn the mantle of the Doctor.
“The TARDIS seems to be normal”: perhaps the first subtle little hint that this is something that’s supposed to happen. Indeed, regeneration is at this stage in the show’s history explicitly linked to the TARDIS as though it is in some way needed for the effect to work.
It’s a little thing, but I like that Hartnell’s ring falls off Troughton’s finger. A proper nod to two different bodies there, done in charming microcosm.
“It’s not only his face that’s changed, he doesn’t even act like him!”
The moment where the Doctor sees his former face in the mirror is a cheeky little joy. I wonder if that gag in Vincent and the Doctor where Hartnell’s face is printed out from Smith’s mug-shot is a nod to this. But it’s also a wonderful way of showing that that daft old man lives inside this strange new younger one.
“Who are we?”/“Don’t you know?” (the polite version of “I think I know my own name!”/“You think you know your own name? How stupid are you?” from Rose)
“I’d like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it had spread its wings.” Gorgeous piece of dialogue.
“Life’s about change, renewal.” We all die tiny deaths and are reborn all the time, must re-centre ourselves, work out where we fit now and where we’ll fit next. Regeneration is simply the same thing on a cosmic level.
“Oxygen density 172, radiation nil, temperature 86, strong suggestion of mercury deposits. Satisfied, Ben?” This reminds me of Smith’s atmosphere check in The Time of Angels.
“When I was a kid we used to live opposite a brewery.” I love the little insights into Ben’s past.
“I picked them for their physical fitness.”/“I thought it wasn’t for their IQ.” Bragen and Quinn’s bickering is great.
The music that plays in the laboratory scenes and right up to the cliff-hanger is terrific.
“Extermination,” the Doctor mutters absently to himself several times.
Isn’t the retro design of the space capsule a thing of eerie beauty? All rivulets and echoey metallic sounds.
Ben surreptitiously trying and failing to make any sound with the recorder is a great little touch.
“Polly. Ben. Come in and meet the Daleks.” I like the way Troughton underplays this line.

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