Sunday, 25 October 2015

030. The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 2 (12 November 1966)

Read my take on the first episode here.

It’s in this serial’s marvellous second episode that Whitaker really gets his teeth into his principal theme: power. Power of all kinds. The power that the new Doctor wields, both under the false mantle of the Examiner and as a new incarnation of a Time Lord who has yet to prove his mettle against his oldest enemies. The power of Governor Hensell as challenged by Deputy Governor Quinn, watched over by the ambitious security officer Bragen. The power of the manipulative Janley and the meddling scientist Lesterson, trying to resurrect the Daleks for his own purposes. The power the Daleks exert over all other creatures and the power they need to function. It’s a big tapestry of themes, but it ultimately boils down to one single, simple fact, which will resonate in almost all Dalek stories after this one, including such triumphant works as Genesis of the Daleks and Nick Briggs’ Dalek Empire series.


The Daleks’ power comes from us. We give them that power. They are the timeline of our darkness, always lurking even as the mercury worlds re-shape and mould around them. They simply wait for the right being to come along and revive them, in so doing making the most terrible error, turning back to the hatred and zealotry that the Daleks represent and always have represented. For to err is human. Humans bring about the power of the Daleks time and time again through their own mistakes, whether it’s behaving as allies, or (functionally human species like) Kaleds bringing them into being on Skaro in the first place. The awful effect they have on human beings is even hinted at by the Doctor: “I know the misery they cause, the destruction. But there’s something else more terrible. Something I can only half-remember…” It’s also literalised in this story as Lesterson and his assistants *actually* grant the inactive, dormant Daleks the electrical power they need to function (the Doctor compares deactivation of dead Daleks to the simple flicking on and off of a light switch), but it really isn’t hard to see David Whitaker’s sharp commentary on what that truly means: it’s turning the Dalek on that kills Resno, and yet despite turning it off again you can be sure it will be reactivated before too long.

The breadth of Whitaker’s thematic ambitions is enormously aided by the relatively small scope of the story. The Doctor here is terrified, it seems, of a single Dalek in a way that he never seemed to be when faced with huge armies of them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth or The Chase or The Daleks’ Master Plan. But this small-scale story focuses on the Daleks again, puts our hero in a room with just a single Dalek and forces us to re-evaluate the way we relate to our hero. And in so doing, by grounding these cosmic slaughterers in a claustrophobic story about power struggles between human beings, they become properly scary again. The scene in which the scientists re-awaken the first Dalek is masterful, and gives us our first extermination of the story; note that it is just when Resno is training a camera on the Dalek – i.e. trying to see into it as much as it sees into him – that it chooses to wipe him out. Key to anchoring all these scenes is Robert James’ great performance as Lesterson; obviously we can’t see all his acting decisions, but even the close-ups of those ambitious, desperate, slightly mad eyes behind the spectacles give me chills, and his vocal work is always strong.

Patrick Troughton is exceptional; one of the first things to note about him is that he is a sharply observant Doctor – picking up on Lesterson’s rather unsurprised reaction to the Daleks and (better still) finding the bugging device hidden inside the fruit. He carefully lurks exactly where he wants to lurk, then pounces when he knows what he’s going to do with the information he has been clandestinely taking in. He knows he has to stay on Vulcan once it’s clear the Daleks are involved, as though he knows it’s a test of his own personal mettle. Ben giving Bragen the first name Charlie on the basis that “Fred wouldn’t suit him, would it?” (!), his jive about having “a headmaster once who got nicked for not paying his bus fare” and his assertion that “governors are all the same; if he sent for help it’d look as if he couldn’t do his job properly” are just three of his great character moments in this episode. Polly gets a bit less to do here, although she does display some admirable faith in Quinn in the face of Ben’s scepticism.

But this episode will always be remembered for the gripping nature of its last 5 minutes. As Quinn’s trial spirals on, Lesterson and Janley unveil their reactivated Dalek for the first time. Human attempts to regulate justice are interrupted by science’s false claims of progress. “What have you done?” hisses the Doctor, alarmed. The Dalek glides in and everyone goes silent, backing away. The Dalek’s eyestick focuses in on the Doctor – we view him as the Dalek would, scared but nonetheless resolved. It’s the ultimate ‘test’ moment for this new Doctor, just like he tested his new legs in Episode One: can he face the Daleks and win? And the Dalek recognises him. It knows him as the Doctor. Not only does this fully cement that Patrick Troughton’s take on the Doctor *must* be legitimate, as even his archenemies grudgingly accept him for who he is, but it also leads us into the stunning cliff-hanger. As the Doctor tries with increasing exasperation to warn the colonists of the Dalek’s evil nature, this fascistic, imperialistic hate-machine that we have seen destroy lives and worlds stops, turns to him, and rasps “I – AM – YOUR – SERVANT!” over and over.

The genius of this line, and Whitaker’s conception of Daleks as subservient to humanity, is that it is both false and true. False, because the Daleks are ultimately superior life-forms that are plotting to wipe out the colony and have no intent to serve human beings. But it is true because it always is, and always has been, human beings who have created all the forces which the Daleks stand for. The Daleks are in the palms of our hands. What will we do next? What we always do: wake them.

Read my take on the third episode here.

Other things:
The Handmines from The Magician’s Apprentice are rather reminiscent of the mutant seen in the Episode 1 to 2 cliff-hanger, come to think of it.
“All is not well with this colony” is Doctor Who’s own version of “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. And to a similar purpose, too – “murder most foul, as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange and unnatural.”
“Doctor, if they’re that dangerous, what are you going to do about it?”/“Save my breath.”
The “Lesterson listen” sequence is an absolute hoot, and crucially establishes Troughton as one of the funniest Doctors to boot. That it culminates with a rather sheepish “listen” as Lesterson walks in on them all is the icing on the cake.
“It says ‘allow all access’. It doesn’t say ‘except your laboratory’ anywhere, does it, unless it’s in micro-print.”
The Doctor: “I want [the Daleks] broken up or melted down, up or down, I don’t care which” (Capaldi gets a very similar line in The Caretaker).
“I never talk nonsense – well, hardly never.”
“You’re a fine one to be a research assistant,” Janley tells Resno after he urges to ‘leave well alone’. The character interactions are uniformly excellent.
A jump cut that feels very unusual for its time occurs 11 minutes into this episode, from Lesterson to the Doctor, with the latter finishing the former’s sentence but in a completely unrelated conversation. The pivotal word that makes the jump is “Daleks”. Kudos to director Christopher Barry for making that work.
“Look at the eye-stalk! It’s watching us!” Resno’s dialogue here feels like it has an echo in Shearman’s Dalek, where Rose feels the Dalek looks into her soul.
The Doctor-Bragen-Quinn scene feels awkwardly staged, although I think that’s a case of the recon not quite being able to sell how it would have been properly performed.
Nice matte paintings of Vulcan’s landscape outside the colony windows.
“Examiner, you seem to be in two minds.”/Ben, under his breath: “Yeah, and two bodies.”
“Yes, it will end the colony’s problems…because it will end the colony!” I got chills.

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