Wednesday, 28 October 2015

030. The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 5 (3 December 1966)

The opening to Episode 5 is extraordinary, as we see both quite how mentally unbalanced Lesterson has become and yet how sensibly he is able to operate even under exceptional circumstances (rather an appropriate parallel for the Daleks, then). In a state of severe shock after witnessing an army of Daleks arise in the space capsule he himself has been investigating, the poor scientist attempts to have every single one of the creatures shut down. Robert James plays the distressed Lesterson very well, not straying too far into hamming it up, which could have wrecked the tension of these scenes. What Lesterson comes to see here is crucial to the overall theme of The Power of the Daleks. His first conversation with a Dalek after learning the truth runs: “How did you get there? I cut off the power!”/“We can store power!” It is not simply a matter of denouncing with hindsight the evil which one has done, as by then it is too late. By then it is loosed upon the world, and by then all pretence that it is under our control slips away (“You forget, I control them. I gave them life. Now I can take it away. Finish it. Stop it.” Oh, Lesterson. If only…). By this point, Lesterson – the only one who’s really seen the light – is painted as a raving madman with a few patronising platitudes from Bragen and Janley, the Daleks fabricate orders they claim he has given them, and the colonists are all keen to sweep his insights under the carpet. This gestures at what happens when society accepts the kind of xenophobia which the Daleks represent – such views become the norm, and panic is condemned as mass hysteria or disloyalty (the way Lesterson is treated reminds me of Gogol’s haunting short story Diary of a Madman, in which the eponymous character believes he is the King of Spain. But entertain the idea for a moment: what if he was the King of Spain, and it is everybody else that is wrong?).

Take also Janley’s line, “you convert our electricity into your own power.” This explanation of the Daleks’ MO also reminds me (in a much more symbolic way, of course) of the Dalek translation sequence seen in The Witch’s Familiar. The Daleks reconfigure our electricity, our speech, that which is best or most creative about us into the ways in which they function: evil as a vampiric force, creating nothing of its own, merely leeching off other creations and expertise in order to further itself. Another one of the most beautifully evil crypto-fascist Dalek phrases appears here, as one Dalek refers to “teaching these human beings the law of the Daleks!” It’s all the better for not really getting a follow-up scene in which the Daleks explain what their law is. Left unexplained, it’s a proper horror of the imagination. We can’t see what’s going on in the hell-hole that is North Korea, so it feels apt that we will never witness the apotheosis of Dalek fascist rule.

In fact, this is if anything the most colony/Dalek-heavy episode, while the TARDIS regulars get much less to do, especially in the first half. There’s the curious absence of Ben (locked up by the rebels and left unseen, like Polly last episode) and the incarceration of the Doctor in a grimy jail cell. On the plus side, we do get Anneke Wills’ return as Polly, who is a perhaps more immediately compassionate and earnest presence than the Doctor and Ben. She’s thrust right into the thick of things and gets a few good scenes opposite Janley and Valmar (regrettably she also gets lines like “you think you’re tough, don’t you, pushing a girl around. I’d like to see you come up against a real man. Like Ben, for instance” and spends too much of the time parroting the Doctor’s arguments). Her obvious soft spot for Quinn is kind of cute, however.

It’s interesting that, in these pre-sonic screwdriver days, Troughton’s very first story features him playing about on a recorder and making sonic vibrations with a water glass. On the one hand, the “recorder-unlocks-the-door” guff is daft plotting, and yet it is exactly the kind of incongruous silliness we will get with the sonic screwdriver in later years. There’s also something oddly perfect about the Doctor breaking out of authoritarian confines using a childlike and whimsical musical instrument. And yet, in one sense, the Doctor continues to disappoint us. Even his one effort against the Daleks here – blocking a door with a spanner – hardly holds them back for long. Why is this new man not doing anything proactive? Why is he letting the Daleks grow so powerful and take over the colony so effectively? When is he going to save the day, dammit? (spoiler: in Episode 6). There’s almost a sense in which he wants to let these idiotic humans balls things up so badly, despite all his warnings to the contrary, so that at the eleventh hour, when things are at their worst, he can swoop in and save them.

Throughout this story we’ve seen how the humans have been scheming and plotting in their various different ways – the primary thrust of it being Bragen’s rebellion against his Governor so that he can rule the colony for himself. This accelerates at a rapid pace here, as Hensell returns, finds his colony crawling with Bragen’s private guard and, sure enough, is exterminated by a Dalek at his own desk under Bragen’s command. What this gestures to – and it’s very significant for the overall ambitions of the story – is how brutal and cut-throat a storyline this would have been even without the Daleks. The humans do all this to themselves. The Daleks are just the external embodiment of their worst excesses, the point at which we no longer recognise what friendship or compassion means. In turn, David Whitaker puts one of this story’s all-time brilliant lines of dialogue – and brilliantly simple, too, the kind of line a child watching in 1966 could perfectly well have understood – into the mouth of a Dalek. “Why do human beings kill human beings?” it asks Bragen, a Dalek itself questioning the human notion that we are in some way morally superior to them. It cannot understand why we kill our own kind, why our nature is red in tooth and claw. And Bragen cannot answer. How could he?

Read my take on the sixth episode here.

Other things:
Badass Polly: “And when you’ve won, the Daleks will just go back to being servants again? You’re bigger fools than I thought.”
I’ve just thought of another way in which the Dalek dependence on static electricity is rather apt – static, fixed in one state, unmoving. Much like the Daleks themselves.
“There’s no one to interfere with our plans.” *camera cuts to the Doctor* - nicely played.
“You forget, Hensell, they’re not your guards. They’re mine.”
Note how Bragen quickly takes the gun-stick off the Dalek once it has dispatched Hensell; he knows better than to trust them.
A rare moment of Dalek humour (even if there’s a chilling implication behind it): “With static power the Daleks will be twice as…useful.”
The biggest cliff-hanger yet, as an entire army of crazed Daleks embarks hell-bent on destruction: “DALEKS CONQUER AND DESTROY!”

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