Tuesday, 27 October 2015

030. The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 4 (26 November 1966)

Much as the Doctor will often treat the Daleks as a joke in an attempt to turn such revolting fascist ideology into something mock-able, Episode 4 of The Power of the Daleks begins with a gag at the Daleks’ expense. “WE WILL GET OUR POWER!” they continue to squeal, carrying on from last week, and Lesterson promptly cuts the power, which means they all flop limply and stop shrieking. “Turn on the power supply,” one of them orders weakly, to which the canny Lesterson replies, “I will, I will. But I want you to remember that I control you.” And yet he seems ever more shrunken, that great scientist, as Robert James pitches his voice slightly more broken and reedy with each new scene – power ebbs and flows both ways, and as the Daleks are on the ascendant, Lesterson is growing weaker. As he does so, the doubt sets in, and he confides to Janley that he fears the Doctor is right. “Their original thinking terrifies me,” he says. It’s one of our greatest fears: that our computers, our tools, our servants, our slaves, even the very ideas we entertain, could simply turn awry. Could do their own thing. Could no longer need us for support or wages or power supplies. “We understand the human mind,” a Dalek tells Lesterson, and their metamorphosis into fully-fledged, terrifying psychological threats we know them as later is complete. We see something similar on the human level when Janley confesses to her boss that Resno is dead; it hadn’t occurred to Lesterson that his lab assistant would withhold information from him. His grip on the power structures of his world is loosening further and further; no wonder his breakdown begins.

The human-Dalek interactions are rarely if ever as interesting as they are here. We’re past the half-way mark now, a point at which many a six-parter has been known to sag in pacing terms, but Whitaker still comes up with new ways of surprising us as paranoia and fear continues to run rife in the colony. One such surprise is the marvellous imagery of a Dalek serving drinks on a tray (no wonder Mark Gatiss pilfers this for Victory of the Daleks forty-four years later, it’s so superb an idea), which fits perfectly with the Hegelian ideas of Master-Slave relationships: the two are utterly alienated from one another, to the extent that you look into the eyes of your slave and see only a dead robotic eyestalk staring back (lest we forget, the word ‘robot’ is of Czech origin, meaning ‘toil, labour’, but the original Old Church Slavonic is closer to ‘slavery’). And, of course, the Daleks are multiplying all this time, slowly infiltrating from the inside, growing ever stronger. The scene in which one of them is rearmed by the rebels rivals some of the best Genesis of the Daleks testing scenes for its totemic, almost mythical power: Janley effectively hands their servant a weapon and stands in its line of fire as a way of proving the Daleks’ reliability and gaining the rebels’ trust.

This is also the first episode since the mercury pools of the opener to really show us the world outside the claustrophobic colony, albeit only briefly in the form of Hensell’s video message from out on the perimeter. In the classic Shakespearean fashion of a messenger coming on stage and describing the terrible battle that is raging, this is a low-budget way of showing your audiences a greater scope above and beyond the tight, immediate focus of what is in front of them. It also heightens the tension by removing the colony’s nominal leader and placing control in the hands of Bragen, a man we know to be corrupt and venal. Since we’re on the subject of world-building, also note Whitaker’s careful control of his cast and characters: for a story that feels so taut and claustrophobic, he actually fills the colony with a reasonably large number of individuals (Kebble’s brief appearance here marks another notch on the list), which ensures it doesn’t feel too underpopulated, as these inexpensive BBC productions of the early days can often do. This reaches its height, perhaps, in the crowded meeting in Rocket Room P, where the rebels plot to overthrow Hensell with the Daleks’ help (although keeping Bragen in the shadows is a touch too obvious).

Episode 4 is all about the dropping of façades: Bragen reveals he is the leader of the rebels, the Doctor confesses to Quinn that he is not the real Examiner, and Lesterson discovers just how many Daleks are on Vulcan. This last is without question the most impressively handled – Lesterson watching Daleks give one another orders, obeying without question, is terrific stuff, cementing just how far their original thinking can get them. The slow build of this cliff-hanger works supremely well – Lesterson sees how the Daleks can conspire together, evades them and enters the capsule, finds more Daleks inside operating equipment, creating a production line for thousands of new Daleks… Whitaker’s tightly controlled sense of scale is a thing of beauty to watch; each cliff-hanger has enhanced the threat and moved the goalposts by revealing a little bit more about the Daleks, and each has done so in an organic way. Christopher Barry handles these scenes very well – and thankfully a few clips of these final moments remain, so we can actually see the Daleks move forward in their multitudes and chant their vile screeds. In the hands of both of these two talents it is a properly iconic cliff-hanger. It really looks like the Daleks have won.

Read my take on the fifth episode here.

Other things:
“We obey,” the Daleks chorus to Lesterson’s every demand, starkly reminding us of the “I obey” answer every Dalek gives its superior.
Notice the Doctor’s immediate comment on Bragen’s “nice new uniform”, the latest of many such remarks – as though the Doctor is careful to take into account military rank and hierarchy when he is dealing with a power game. Similarly, his brilliant deductive skills come to the fore as he deduces the rebels’ code (although this is a rather too quickly solved mystery for my taste).
As Ben, actor Michael Craze’s delivery is always fluent and naturalistic. He never fails to sound like he’s completely sincere in any given situation and that whatever he’s saying has just occurred to him on the spot. It’s a shame this episode sees Anneke Wills on that typical 1960s “holiday”, so Polly doesn’t appear at all, but on the other hand it provides a nice urgency to underpin the Doctor and Ben’s actions.
The business with Daleks, static electricity and floors quickly becomes phased out over the years, for which I’m generally thankful as it’s not much to my liking, but I do appreciate the way it’s alluded to here, especially given the overarching ‘power’ theme to the whole thing.
“Machines? What makes you think they’re just machines?”
“Murder’s a far worse crime than impersonation.”/“Yes, but you can’t prove that I’m the murderer, whereas I can prove that you’re an impostor.”

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