Hedging bets, playing dumb and The Power of the Daleks (1966)

powerradioThese days we’d call it a soft launch. When Doctor Who first changed its lead actor, it made no big deal about it. The publicity for his debut story story barely mentioned new Doctor Patrick Troughton. The Radio Time story focuses on familiar elements: Ben (Michael Craze), Polly (Anneke Wills) and the Daleks. They didn’t change the title sequence. The message being sent is this is business as usual. No need to panic.

Last random, we saw how you change a Doctor with utter confidence. The Power of the Daleks shows no such bravado. It’s not making a fuss, just in case it all goes wrong and in a few weeks they have to ask Hartnell to come back. Not only do the production team soften the new Doctor’s appearance with a return of the show’s most famous monsters, they also bring back a team of old hands to work behind the scenes; writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner were the series’ first two story editors and director Christopher Barry worked on the very first Dalek episodes. Bets have never been so hedged.

In fictional terms too, how and why the Doctor has changed is kept very vague, in case it has to be retrofitted later on. The new Doctor refuses to give a straight answer to a question, babbling about change and renewal. Nothing there which couldn’t be revised later on, should this whole risky experiment go wrong.

Of course, it didn’t go wrong. It went spectacularly right. Not only has regeneration become a mainstay of the series and an essential element of its lasting appeal, Troughton was a brilliant success in the part. These days, we’re well acquainted with the second Doctor and his mischievous, child-like ways. It’s hard to imagine just what a shock it was watching The Power of the Daleks and seeing this, well, clown, leapfrogging boulders, tootling on a recorder and ripping door knobs of walls. “It’s little things like this,” says Ben “that make it difficult to believe that you’re the Doctor.”

It’s clever of Whitaker and Spooner to vocalise the audience’s doubts through Ben, just as it is to give their counterpoints to Polly, who far more readily accepts that this newcomer is the same man, just changed. She seems entirely convinced by the time the new Doctor indulges in some playful tongue twisters. “Lesterson listen. Exercises the tongue. Try it!” he urges, and she joins in. If anything indicates that the old Doctor has gone for good, it’s surely this scene, which Hartnell, famously shaky on his lines at the best of times, could never have pulled off.

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The Daleks have also undergone a change. Having crash landed years ago on the colony planet Vulcan, they are being slowly awakened by starry eyed scientist Lesterson (Robert James). Rather than adopting their usual modus operandi of killing everyone within reach of a sucker arm, they instead adopt the pretense of working for the human colonists.

Various Vulcans see the Daleks as a way to further their own personal goals, whether it be scientific advancement like Lesterson or revolution and conquest like rebel leaders Janley (Pamela Ann Davy) and Bragen (Bernard Archer). Though you’d have thought the obsequious way the Daleks keep insisting to be everyone’s serrrr-VANTS! would have raised a few suspicious eyebrows. Not to mention that one almost gives the game away when it says, “a Dalek is bett…is not the same as a human!”

I’ve talked before about Whitaker’s idiosyncratic take on the Daleks, but its worth saying again that what he does is to personalise the Daleks by giving them a dose of human foibles: lying, deception and scheming. Lesterson even sees them as humanity’s replacement, although he says so once he’s gone doolally. “We understand the human mind,” one of them grates, and they do demonstrate an ability to psychologically manipulate those around them, by appealing to their greed. Still they haven’t entirely got us sussed. When Bragen orders one of them to kill the colony’s Governor (Peter Hensell), it ponders “why do human beings kill other human beings?” It’s played nicely too, as much as a ring modulator can convey emotion. The sense is not so much of a poignant Dalek reaction to death, but more a surprised reaction to how easy this conquest of the colony has been. #Trump.

The Doctor spends the whole story warning everyone about the Daleks, to no avail. If anyone watching still shared Ben’s doubts about this newcomer’s identity, it’s this suspicious attitude to the Daleks which shows he’s the same bloke as the white haired geezer he saw in the mirror. The audience knows he’s right too – as early as Episode 3 it’s clear that a Dalek can’t change its bumps. It’s another clever plotting trick of Whitaker’s, to put the audience on the side of this new Doctor. Even though he looks different and won’t answer a straight question, we know he’s right about the Daleks, so we’re on his side.

The power politics of the Colony and how the Daleks aid and abet it take up five episodes, and make for interesting enough listening. Episode 6, though, turns things up a notch. It starts with the Daleks finally articulating their true plan, to annihilate all humans, and then methodically setting about the task. The episode is almost entirely made up of the Daleks mercilessly mowing down humans, rebels and loyalists alike. It’s as grim as sixties Doctor Who gets. At one stage, a desperate Ben and Polly can do nothing but hide in a cupboard and hope to survive.

The Doctor’s plan comes worryingly late in the day. It’s to use the Daleks’ own power supply to blow their domed tops off. To make it happen, the Doctor has to resort to desperate measures. He has to use Bragen’s guards as a distraction, to allow him time to lash the set up together. It works, but the death count is Sawardesque.

Not everyone is grateful. The Doctor’s solution destroys the colony’s power supply, ensuring months of hardship. But there’s something even more worrying; an indication that the Doctor’s motivations are far from clear.

POLLY: Mind you, he wasn’t very convincing when he was trying to explain it to Valmar and Quinn and everybody.

BEN: No, he wasn’t, was he?

POLLY: Doctor, you did know what you were doing, didn’t you?

(The Doctor laughs softly)

What’s the suggestion here? That the Doctor deliberately botched his own attempts to explain the danger presented by the Daleks, so that he might play some long game of his own? A game which left scores of people dead?

One thing’s for sure, this is no longer business as usual. It might now be time to panic.

RANDOM QUESTION: when the Doctor tells Ben and Polly to go away and amuse themselves for a while, what do you think they get up to? I hope they had fun. Maybe in one of the empty rocket rooms.

LINK TO The Twin Dilemma: Doctory debuts.

NEXT TIME… It’s a flying beastie! We’re sticking with Troughton to face The Faceless Ones.

BUT BEFORE THEN: an random extra post, on The Power of the Daleks animation.

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