Friday, 30 October 2015

030. The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 6 (10 December 1966)

In Whitaker’s hands, ‘power’ in the socio-political sense has been continuously equated with ‘power’ in the electrical sense, as though both can ebb and flow, can be stemmed or redirected – though never created or destroyed. Power is out there for the taking and it is for individuals, lone rangers, brutal and Orwellian societies or alien marauders to compete for it. It is a very political script, right down to the previously-discussed references to “the law of the Daleks” which we rarely hear in other, more adventure-themed scripts. That is not to say that this story is devoid of exciting action; indeed, The Power of the Daleks Episode 6 opens with the promise of an all-out Dalek assault on all human life. These are the scenes that one longs to see at the end of such a claustrophobic thriller, as the tension reaches breaking point and everything on Vulcan finally snaps. Sure enough, there are tremendous casualties, and the colony’s corridors are strewn with the dead. There are moments in this that – if only we could actually see them – would be rather like those of a war film. It is in this aspect, coupled with the way it reflects the darker sides of our nature, that The Power of the Daleks is essentially a tragedy. Significant players on the chessboard – Hensell, Janley, Bragen – are dispatched swiftly and mercilessly, granted ignominious deaths. Few are spared. Christopher Barry even edits this final episode like the closing acts of a typical Shakespearean tragedy like Antony and Cleopatra, cutting rapidly back and forth between short, tense, anguished scenes so that the tension never flags.

Whitaker’s relentless attack on human callousness pulls no punches, displaying it ever more starkly in this final instalment. The notion that humans are so often little better than Daleks suffuses so much of this story, but nowhere is it better epitomised than in the chilling figure of Bragen. Like Peter Miles’ Nyder a decade early, there is something even more terrifying about Bragen than the Daleks themselves. Like some Stalinist dictator, the moment he is in power he turns against the people who put him there, ordering the deaths of Valmar, Kebble and “the rest of that rabble”. The revolution is not over until it is only him left at the expense of all other viewpoints (now who does that remind us of?). This early scene is very tensely composed – Janley’s hesitation when she hears of her leader’s ruthlessness, Bragen’s secretly cocking a gun meant for Janley in case she refuses, Valmar watching on with terror as he learns of the fate in store for him. This is displayed even more broadly in the scene in which he calmly addresses the troops scattered around Vulcan, ordering them to round up all the rebels – violent revolutionary in secret, but authoritarian security chief in public, how many times have we seen people “restoring order” in our own world? – all the while watched on a small screen by a clearly anxious Ben. And then there’s his latest in a long line of fantastic lines, to a guard who has come to tell him that the rebels are using the Daleks as part of a revolt: “Well, why have you come running to me? What do you think the guns are for?” It says everything about his priorities and what he assumes are the duties of leadership. There is more than a hint of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler from the sublime Untergang (Downfall) in Bragen’s lone scene in the bunker, desperately calling out on the radio for military troops to answer him. It is little wonder he is alone, in the end.

When a Dalek says “your usefulness is over” to the humans it is fighting, it might just as well be Bragen talking to his former allies. The Daleks in this final episode are utterly unmasked, trusted by no one – everybody sees them for what they are (even if this varies depending on the person who is doing the observing; Bragen thinks they are soldiers, whereas Lesterson relates with a certain glee how he finds them a scientific fascination, “a new species, taking over from homo sapiens”). But crucially they are unchanged from what we, the audience in our position of experience and our foreknowledge of Daleks, would expect. The Daleks are always the Daleks – the key point of so many Dalek stories and, indeed, Dalek Empire. Attempts to change them are almost always futile.

Lesterson’s final moments opposite those creatures which he helped reawaken, the creatures that he set loose to wreak havoc upon the world, are masterful. “I could tell you who [moved your cables],” he taunts, mocking and mirroring them with a reflection of their own line “I am your serrrvant” – all an elaborate distraction as the Doctor is able to do what must be done. And then there is the beautiful Frankenstein-like exchange “you wouldn’t kill me; I gave you life!”/“Yes. You gave us life,” followed by the Daleks’ extermination of Lesterson. He gave them life; they brought him only death. He was much better than them, whatever the evil in which he played a part. In this sense, then: to the humans, the triumph. Even when we do our worst, we are better than the Daleks. Like most of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, it may mean death, but as a later Doctor will say, all anyone can really hope for is a good death.

And yet The Power of the Daleks is still the opening story for a new Doctor, and so in that respect it is not just a tragedy, but a more intricate and murky distortion of that genre. Episode 6 is in many ways the first key turning point of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. Having procrastinated and ummed and ahhed for five weeks, alarming us and causing us to lose our footing with regard to the Doctor’s nature, it is imperative that we finally see him do something Doctorish. Even well into Episode 6, he remains low-energy, abstemious, holding back (just look at the reunion with Ben; Polly and Quinn rush forward to greet him, while the Doctor lurks in the background). All around him, guards and rebels are being gunned down. The first *inkling* that he might be able to do something about all this comes about half-way into this final episode (that is to say, 92% of the way through the whole thing), when he excitedly notes Lesterson’s reference to a secret power cable. And suddenly he is everywhere, seemingly in all places at once, dashing around the colony like a madman, his sentence tripping over one another as they strain to escape his throat. In answer to one of Ben’s questions about his MO, he snaps, “because I prefer to do it my way!” Yes, he has arrived, after six disconcerting weeks.

But note the peculiar manner in which he saves the day – first attempting to work at the controls in a logical and calculated manner, and then, when that is unsuccessful, he grows frustrated and seems to operate the switches at random. It is precisely this unplanned, unpremeditated random meddling which causes the static power supply to fluctuate and fail, and the Daleks to veer out of control, screaming as they do so (and how gorgeous are these monochrome shots of smoke billowing out of cracked Dalek casings; the original Ben Wheatley Dalek explosion sequence from Into the Dalek). In other words, the Doctor’s very chaos is what brings about the end of the Dalek’s fixed-hood; his anarchy turns out to be the colony’s salvation, however much of it is wrecked by his actions. Not the power-hungry anarchy of Bragen and his rebellion, who want to tear things down so that they can seize what’s left, but a flavour of anarchy rooted in silly trousers, and a love of hats, and a fondness for the frankly annoying pipings and whistlings of a tinny recorder. Vulcan is purified in the Doctor’s crucible. And for all that, where we might expect some great boastful moment of authority, we get nothing of the kind. His first questions upon reawakening are “what happened? What did I do?...did I do all that?” and then chuckles. He refuses to answer the question “you did know what you were doing, didn’t you?” and once again laughs, like some ancient trickster. It is almost as though he has finally decided – in the wake of his identity crisis – that he has received a mandate for meddling. We might still be wary of him, but he seems to know who he is now. The man who mixes things up, refashions societies for the better, but doesn’t stay around to help them tidy up the mess. He leaves them to a second chance, makes a quip, and journeys on. He has faced his first Labour of Hercules, passing over the threshold into Olympus. He is ready to see what the vast canopy of space has to offer. And somewhere in the battlefields of Culloden in 1746, a man without whom this Doctor barely feels like he is the Doctor yet, a young Scottish highlander by the name of Jamie, is waiting for him…

To end on, I must note the interesting shot of a melted, ruined Dalek amid the mercury pools as the Doctor, Ben and Polly are leaving Vulcan; it ties in quite nicely with the Daleks having sat below the mercury pools for decades before Lesterson woke them. They will gather dust and sit out the centuries, keeping watch like statues even as the colonies of the future rise and fall like the Roman Empire and indeed every other empire, before or since. But if they could be pieced back together, what then? They’d be just the same as they ever were. The Daleks never change. And as the ending of the sublime Jubilee suggests, surely human history will summon the law of the Daleks again, some day, as we always do, and the Doctor may not be there, and thus we shall pay for it.

Other things:
There are a number of Dalek POV shots throughout this story – particularly of the Doctor himself. We see him as his greatest enemy sees him, fearful yet resolutely determined.
Valmar: “I thought I was going to be on the winning side.”
“We will fight,” says a Dalek, and then adds, “for you,” as an afterthought.
It’s probably unintentional, but the rebels’ barricade inevitably reminds me of Les Misérables. This story never really shows whether anyone is dissatisfied with their current poverty or hardship – probably its greatest weakness in terms of the rebels’ motivations – but the power clash at the top (which is, after all, its focus) is so effectively done that that never really occurs to the viewer until later.
“You must be absolutely quiet. They know everything that’s going on. Everything. They even know what you’re thinking!”
“I tried to turn the power off, but they were miles ahead of me…”
The broken-minded Lesterson: “All we can do is marvel at the creatures who are taking our place.”
The music that plays over a continuous stream of shots of the dead in this episode is rather haunting.
“I think we’d better get out of here…before they send us the bill.” Both funny and mildly troubling, given how difficult things will be for the colony from now on.

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