Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Power of the Daleks


Power of the Daleks 1:

OK, I'm going to put my cards on the table right now. I love Power of the Daleks. As with all these reviews, I'm not exactly coming in blind, I have already got some opinions on the stories. Sometimes my opinion has changed on rewatching and rethinking (yoo-hoo the Crusade!). And this is a statement of that. If I could have a limited number of missing episodes back, I could live with fifteen returned. Four of those are the Myth Makers. Six of them are Power of the Daleks. The other five... well, I think I might leave you in suspense with that. Suffice to say, it ain't Hartnell episodes.

Power for me is one of the great stories in all Who. It also is, or at least used to be, indicative of the way fandom thinks. You see, I've always been bemused by why Evil was, for most of my years in fandom, regarded as the Troughton Dalek classic. And this was it's lesser stablemate. Evil is fun, don't get me wrong, but it's just a romp, and it's got a bit of a silly plot (haven't heard it in ten years though, I may change my mind in a month or two). Power is a proper drama, and has the weight of a Greek tragedy. It's actually about something, it's not just fun for the kids.

What this indicates to me is that all these 'Best Doctor Who story' polls are seldom what they claim. They are a poll of favourites, nothing more. (Think Britains Best sitcom, or the Big Read - the latter is at least honest, it wanted favourite books rather than greatest, but generally these polls are stupid, as a mass vote is never going to be a good guide to whether soemthing is good or not.)

This is not, of course, necessarily a bad thing. To say that something popular can't be good seems to me to be a bit smugly elitist, and ultimately the most popular things are scarcely ever devoid of merit. But the ultimate point is that we have to know precisely what we mean. And these polls never tell us which stories are the best written/acted/made, whatever. They tell us which are the most popular. And popularity is defined by a number of things. And I feel a lot of Who fans equate their favourite stories around which ones are closest to an ideal Who paradigm, they rate stories by their similarity to other favourites - and Victorian/Gothic settings do well by this - and by the response they had to them as children.

I don't want to get totally distracted, and I might return to this theory around the time of Evil. But to get back on topic, not wishing to distract anyone new to the thread, this brings me back to Power.

Power is not a kid friendly piece. It's also blatantly futuristic, with no gothic styling. Which I think has always undermined it (thankfully, it's getting noticed more and more - it's high placing in the Top 3 poll would help suggest that). Ultimately, it's a incredibly sophisticated bit of writing.

More on that later, as this first episode is a fairly standard set up. Well, I say standard, there's a fairly obvious new element to the beginning. The arrival of the new Doctor is really jarring, made all the more so by a complete lack of explanation. For all the familiarity of regeneration as a concept we have now it's hard to appreciate the impact this has. We're expected to believe that this is the Doctor - no other explanation is presented to us, and there's some OHMSS like reiterating of the character, with his awareness of past adventures. At the same time, he talks about the Doctor in the third person... The central character is a total enigma, and it's noticeable that we are taken back to the sense of fear of the first few episodes of the first series. Ben and Polly really shine in this episode, guiding us through the shock somewhat, as we reach their viewpoint.

One thing I can't recall being mentioned is that whilst soaps and sitcoms have replaced actors, Who is the only series that replaces the entire personality. This is clearly not the same Doctor as before. He's a little bit strange, a little bit uncomfortable. There's a certain amiability and sense of fun about him - but we can't quite relax with him or feel warm with him yet. What's shocking is the scripts almost total disinterest in making him feel like the same person. It's hard to realise how strange this feels when the whole process of replacement comes so easily these days. This is possibly the bravest move in the series history. We are in the same boat as Ben and Polly - we trust him because we have no other choice, because he is presented to us as the lead. But we're still distant. We can't embrace him yet, he's too weird, too strange, too creepy. Too alien.

The plot itself takes something of a back seat to the changeover, understandably, but it does kick in properly about half way through. Full marks to the series for not going overboard on the new Doctor's post regenerative state, as the JNT years did. It's pretty much business as usual ten minutes in.

It's pretty textbook Who from then on in. The central mysteries of the story are nicely laid out (who killed the examiner, who asked him here, are they one in the same). It's slightly obvious who called for the Examiner if we're being honest... but the rest is quite intriguing. And the guest cast, environment are set up simply and elegantly. (there's real subtlety in the scripting, as well. Watch how the reference to Janley's pressure group is a brief throwaway - when it's to become pretty much the entire plot.)

And what I really love about the story is this - it's all set up for a good, intriguing adventure... and then the Daleks turn up AS WELL! Bear in mind that, bar the capsule, everything else set up in this part is nothing to do with them, clearly. These Daleks are the icing on the cake, rather than the sponge. The sense of a Pandora's box ready to be opened is quite promising. If this is what it's like before the Daleks have arrived, what hell are they going to break loose?

One final word - for all the complaints about the titles of these stories giving away the cliffhanger... well, it's not too much of an issue here. Anyone paying any attention to the story can tell what's going to be inside the capsule well before we physically see the Daleks. The joy is in the anticipation. The wait to see how the tensions and human pettiness is going to be affected by rheir arrival.

As I say, I adore this story. I loved listening to this part, and it's all just set up really. Can't wait for part two.


#3 1 May 2004, 12:56 am


The Power of the Daleks 2:

The major strength of this story is in its use of dramatic irony. All of its effect is derived from us knowing more than the protagonists (bar the Doctor, who is once again our trusted ally). This is what gives the story it's sense of menace. We, the audience, know what the Daleks are, what they do. So there's much tension derived from waiting for it to happen. This applies to the story as a whole, and to this episode in microcosm.

The experiments and analysis of the Dalek illustrate this perfectly. It's almost unbearably tense watching the false assumptions, the mistakes that we know are being made. The scene is about waiting for something to happen. It's a scene with little actually going on, but it is loaded with potential, and that's what makes it work. To watch these people messing with things they have no hope of understanding is quite uncomfortable viewing. Or listening rather. You know what I mean. We know something nasty is being built to, it's just a matter of when it does.

Apply this to the rest of the story. It's a story about waiting too. The Daleks become a focus point in the script, but it still really isn't about them. They're a point around which the tensions in the colony rotate. They do nothing. But we know this is only a matter of time, we're used to them, and so the tension is about when and how it's going to happen, not what. It's a nice trick and really does rejuvenate them as monsters - they seem so much more cold and calculating... and the irony being that this is without doing anything. It's in contrast to what we already know. They're menacing, without being actually nasty. And I think I slightly prefer that (it is of course easier to get someone scared of a killer rather than a seeming servant.

The guest cast remain well drawn (Resno is in barely two or three scenes, but still manages to get a distinct characterisation). The battle lines are drawn, and whilst there remains little to surprise us in the characters (they are pretty much all they seem on the surface) there's enough depth there to bring you in. All the little mysteries remain and the society is genuinely intriguing.

The regulars spend most of their time failing to acheive anything. But, in contrast to the similar situation in the Tenth Planet, this matters less. Firstly, the Doctor is our chief voice in this story - he is articulating everything we want to tell the characters. Secondly, his impotence is the entire dramatic point, for reasons of the theme of the story (which I'll get to another time, again). He's not getting involved, but he's trying to, desperately. It's by design. The 10th Planet Doctor didn't affect a thing because he was badly integrated into the script, and because his entire intention was to do nothing. He suggested doing nothing, whereas Troughton is forced to do nothing.

Now there's a school of thought that suggests every old monster story should have to be about them - that you couldn't do the story with an alternative monster, random alien race q, whatever. Whilst this is a nice idea, in practice it does mean that all Cyberman stories become obsessed with conversion, Dalek stories with Nazi-ism, etc. I've always felt the best way is to take a story that could be about any monster, and then filter it through a Dalek shape. Keep in mind what they're about, but don't make the story itself about that. Power does something different again - it essentially has the Daleks take over another Dalek-less story. And somehow it works. The story on the top is enjoyable enough, if unexciting. What takes it to new levels is the constant ticking clock waiting to blow underneath. It's amazing to see how little has actually happened, but it doesn't seem padded. Power is essentially a wordy, intelligent drama, serious and thoughtful, and about man, rather more so than the Daleks themselves. Maybe that is what makes a good old villain story - it's not about them, it's about how we respond to them. Certainly, my favourite Dalek story til now is probably DIOE, and that's entirely about the Daleks' effects on the humans.

It's still quite quiet, but it builds, and has one of the best cliffhangers of all time, again relying on dramatic irony. The cliffhanger only has impact through that, through our understanding of the way Daleks work. The contrast is creepy as hell.

#4 1 May 2004, 11:49 pm

The Power of the Daleks 3:

Well, I said I'd get into the themes of this story later on. They're all but spelt out here, so this seems as good a place as any. Power is clearly about the evils of self-interest.

The Daleks are not the villains of this story, not really. They are Nemesis, they are angels of vengeance that come to punish the wrongdoers of the story. And those wrongdoers here are those who are out purely for themselves. As the Doctor himself puts it, it's all about greed and ambition. Every major guest character, with one exception, is out for themselves. Lesterton wants scientific glory, Hensall thinks the Daleks will make him more successful (note how he's only really convinced to lock up Quinn when he thinks it might threaten his position), Bragen wants to rule... and so on and so forth. They're all so obsessed with their own self interest that they don't see what's going on. They all think of what the Daleks can do for them - without asking what could be in it for the Daleks. The Daleks aren't the villains because they don't choose to kill, it's just they way they are. Whereas the humans choose to make the mistakes, to ignore the signs for the sake of their own gain. They are evil in a way that the Daleks are just immoral.

Having said all that, the Daleks are still ruthless and cruel if they want to be. There's a lovely slow build up for them, as it's only really this episode that they really do start to feel like the Daleks we love. It's only now that you do really get to see them as the creatures we know they are - but with added cunning. Up until this story the Daleks have sort of worn their evil on the sleeves - they're a bit treacherous in the first story, but they can't keep their plans secret (blurting out their evil schemes without so much as a nod), and after that they pretty much keep everyone informed. One of the chief menacing elements of the script is that underlying tension - slowly we begin to be sure that they are up to something, not entirely sure what. Until this episode, it's even possible that they might have been affected by the time in the swamp - but we slowly get the cracks. The moments when the facade drops away even a little and we get to see the hate and racism underneath (the unarmed Dalek trying desperately to exterminate the Doctor, the hurried adjustment as it nearly says the Daleks are better than humans) are chilling in a way that straightforward threats and screeching just don't manage. It's all in the contrast - even though we are pretty certain they're lying, the moments of hate just leap out, accented almost. These Daleks, lying, manipulative, and hate filled are easily the scariest the series has had... partially through the contrast, partially through the pressure cooker air. You can tell they want to kill everyone - it's just a matter of when. That wait is the tension that underlies the whole story. It's the factor that makes you scream at the cd player, wanting the humans to ignore their petty plots.

One other theme is manipulation. Everyone's at it. Janley is manipulating the rebels, Bragen's manipulating everyone, the Daleks manipulating the humans. Again this connects with the self-interest theme... everyone thinks what's in it for me, no one thinks what's in it for them. Interesting that this culminates in the mexican standoff between Bragen and the Doctor. I can't recall any scene so early where the villain has the confidence to put all his cards on the table. The man's as cool as a cucumber, and it's something of a shock to see the Doctor not only impotent, but not vastly fussed by this.

The plot is beginning to gain momentum. Whitaker makes sure we don't get bored by answering the mysteries posed by episode one - who sent for the Examiner and who killed him. The tension has got us gripped by this point so we don't need them.

The Doctor really has consolidated his place now. I've got used to him very quickly, I don't find his presence jarring any more. Troughton is in control pretty much straight away. Polly and Ben are remaining slightly samey - Polly has disappointingly reverted to her housewife persona, offering to clean up whilst the boys have all the fun. And Ben still tries that little too hard (quite why the Doctor asks him a question that he doesn't think Polly would know the answer to is a mystery - it's clear who the brains are in this pairing and it ain't Mr Jackson)

Another fab bit of drama. Solid, engaging, scary and meaningful. Who could want more?


#5 3 May 2004, 11:28 pm

The Power of the Daleks 4:

Well, due to an unplanned stopover in London last night, I'm a little behind with this report. I listened to the episode yesterday (in a central line tube going to Epping, if anyone's interested) but then completely failed to have any write up time til now - and due to needing an early start tomorrow it means I've had to drop a planned listen of Power 5. So apologies for not quite keeping the faith. This is also the longest time since viewing/hearing an episode that I've done the write up, so it may be brief due to the memory fading.

One of the things that strikes me most about this episode, partially helped by the cd format, is that the scenes are quite long. I was wondering why it didn't feel particulalry stretched at six episodes, like so many others. I think this might be part of the reason. Power is written like a stage play, filled with detail and characterisation. The plot proper might not be galloping along at a particularly smart pace, but there are enough threads and ideas being developed that we don't notice, we're so interested in them. Having said that, this story is a model of how to structure Who - there's a clear build, an ever increasing series of high points, each cliffhanger raising the stakes and staying there. And each episode brings some new revelation or twist, keeping our interest up.

This episode we begin to get a sense of precisely how ruthless Janley and Bragen are (it's never quite explained why they are in league with each other. OK, Janley's need for Bragen is clear, but why does he need to involve a lab assistant. Relatives, or perhaps more likely, lovers? Certainly their supreme self-confidence and arrogance are a clear match). The scene where Janley offers herself as a potential sacrifice grants her considerable power.

The scene where Bragen is revealed however is something of a weak point. It muddies the story somewhat - wasn't Janley supposed to be manipulating the rebels in episode 2? Would she need to if her colleague was the leader? Perhaps most contentiously, it doesn't really add much to the story. It feels like a twist for the sake of a twist - the revelation tells us little new about Bragen, we already are aware he's a nasty piece of work. He's so thoroughly nasty (and with a face designed for baddies) that it would be a surprise if it was anyone else. Also, seeing as we don't know there's a secret leader until this scene, and then we're given the answer about two minutes later, it feels rather pointless. A bit contrived.

The Doctor's well and truly the star and in charge once more by this episode. Only possible note is that the photos seem to make him looked scared of the Daleks rather a lot. An interesting detail that I hadn't entirely realised was there - the first Doctor never really seemed scared. Worried, perhaps, but never as actively defensive as the 2nd. This should have been obvious, really. This is after all the man who practically coined the 'when I say run' cliche (and who can forget the chase in Seeds of Death). So it's a clear indication of who the new Doctor actually is. The same eccentric, basically good explorer base, the same moral indignation and sense of rightness, but clumsier, madder, less immediately commanding, less brave (or less foolhardy depending on your interpretation). Interesting that this should seem to be a completely different character - he's nothing like the old Doctor. But the constant repetition of who he is helps. We realise he is, cos we keep getting told he is. We have no alternative but to agree.

Finally, we have one of the probably great set pieces we can barely see any of. Bits like this make that damned junking all the more annoying, as the telesnaps seem to suggest this would have been a breathtaking bit of work. But we can't really tell. But it's still worth a look, as some of that fear is telegraphed in Robert James' face. This is clearly a man going mad. It must be horrible.

Hopefully, part five tomorrow. Bar complications.


#6 5 May 2004, 12:12 am

The Power of the Daleks 5:

One of the changes of the last episode is continued here. An odd trick of this story, for most of the first four episodes at least, is we are not let inside the world of the Daleks. This sounds like a weird thing to say, so I'll explain - in every story up til now we witness the Daleks plotting and scheming. Here it takes right up until episode 4 before we get a scene that features only Daleks, plotting as these scenes inevitably have them doing. It's an interesting change, as it really affects the scene dynamic. There's a real menace in not knowing exactly what they're up to - as I said before, they always used to wear their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. This episode changes, however, with the Dalek plotting being a bigger part of the episode shape.

However the story never really feels like it's about the Daleks. It is in the sense that it's about the affect they have, and the threat of the Daleks - but most of the actual plot avoids being about them. Their plans operate in the background, as a subplot, with the political wrangling of the colony taking centre stage. Arguably, it's more about what the Daleks are, what they represent, than the Daleks themselves. The Daleks as the ultimate metaphor (and this means that, oddly, the Daleks, whilst not obviously vitally Daleks, couldn't really be replaced by any other monster, by a one off or anything - our pre-knowledge defines them). This means that whilst the Daleks side of the plot doesn't progress a vast amount this episode, it doesn't matter seeing as they aren't properly the plot anyway - there's enough main plot to keep us occupied.

The main plot gets increasingly nasty. It's hard to think of a time in the series when humans have been so demonstrably nasty to other humans as they are here - particularly in the assasination of Hensall. What I like about this is the sheer pettiness. The rebels are at least trying to change the world for the greater good (it ain't entirely clear what they're rebelling against, but it scarcely seems to matter). But Bragen's motivation is tawdry - lust for power. There's always something dispassionate about assasination that chills me, and it's here too. Hensall is killed for convenience, rather than neccessity, and the pettiness of that tells you a lot about Bragen. There's a real cynicism and pessimism to the characterisation here, with most of the characters, bar Quinn, being unlikeable or unsympathetic (can you recall any other group of rebels that the Doctor doesn't side with?) Everyone is duplicitous, or weak, or just thoroughly unpleasant. Even Janley, seemingly thick with Bragen, lies to him when Lesterton bursts into his office, falsely claiming he'd agreed to go to hospital (she could of course be saying this just for the benefit of the guards, but I don't think so - it's again that self-confidence, self interest at work).

Robert James pretty much steals this episode. Lesterton has a complex journey in the story, quite an arc for a guest character, and his slow descent from methodical fastidiousness, to fear, to insanity is taken slowly and is the most convincing the series has done (mainly derived from the slow pace, and it's resultant development of characters and detail). It's a clever mutli-layered performance - Lesterton is never just mad, he's always more complex than that.

But of course, amazingly, every single guest character is a terrific part. The script is rich enough that all the non-regulars have lots of interesting stuff to do. Quinn, a fairly straightforward nice guy is perhaps the weakest, but with the strength of the other roles this is hardly a hefty criticism. Polly gets to shine as well in some nicely perormed persuasion scenes, coming over as smart and forthright (and her and Ben's abscences are very nicely done - barely acknowledged at all, just enough so we don't wonder were they are, but just little enough that we forget them).

A good cliffhanger - albeit one a little too similar to the end of part four - grabs us for the final episode.

5 May 2004, 11:55 pm


The Power of the Daleks 6:

What I've said before about final episodes falling together fairly easily if enough plot threads are left hanging. Well, this is another example of that. For a story that's been all about potential (as in potential versus kinetic energy, one of the few things I remember from science lessons) it's rather fitting that when it finally explodes, it explodes big style. In comparison to what I've said about the previous episodes featuring long scenes, investigatng the characterisation and politics, taking it's time with the conflict and the detail, it's interesting the way part six is a coiled spring that suddenly snaps. Note the way on the cd episode six contains as many scenes as the previous two episodes put together. The tension has been built, and the release is exhilirating.

Things worth noticing about this episode - well, it really is extremely nasty. The Daleks attack on the colony is brutal and vicious and - this is the kicker - utterly without cause. With earlier stories where they've been a bit unpleasant - DIOE leaps most clearly to mind - it's always been in the context of an overall plan. Here they kill for no better reason than that they hate everyone else, because it's what they do. It's this sort of meaningless slaughter that chills to the bone, and means that the Daleks have never ever been scarier. This is a force of destruction that you cannot reason with, that kill without compunction.

And the themes of the story come into play again, as those whose interest is not purely personal and look to the bigger picture (Quinn, Valmar) are the only survivors - and those who don't (Janley and Bragen) receive their comeuppance. It's a slight disappointment that Bragen spends this entire episode in his office, and has to be killed by Valmar rather than the Daleks - but it does seem thematically right. The man is revealed as an arrant coward, and he is at least destroyed by those he tried to use.

Once again the characterisation shines - the subtle touches work well to flesh out the characters (Valmar's crush on Janley is covered in no more than two or three lines in the entire story... but they're so well placed and written that they say all that is needed to be said: his final plea that she wasn't as bad as she seemed is great). All the characters have changed and progressed with the story (always a good sign). Lesterton has the most obvious journey (and probably the most affecting and powerful one, his gradual breakdown being tragic and sad, his dying moments blackly humourous, the general sense that he was a good man unwritten by circumstances, unlike the other murdered speaking parts) but he isn't the only one, the others change in subtler ways. Bragen goes from subordinate to dictator to tyrant to coward, Janley from lab assistant, to hard-nosed bitch, to doubter, and so on. None of them are quite the same in this episode as they were in the first and that's to be applauded.

The Doctor still seems engagingly weird - one aspect of the new persona I haven't really touched on is that he's a little harder to warm to than Hartnell. Hartnell was your lovable grandad. Troughton is a slightly scary uncle who you ain't sure if you like yet. The bumbling over the solution adds to this - we don't know how this Doctor thinks, who he is yet. We aren't quite comfortable.

Overall then, this is a terrific story. I suspect it's the best Dalek story, none of the others come close for me. It's mainly because it concentrates on being a proper drama, with strong characters and political/sexual undertones, and a slightly more grown up sense of cynicism where human's are not inherently good. The performances are terrific, the script is great. I wish it existed, as I'd be sorely tempted to have it as my all time fave. Astonishing, intelligent, scary and profound. Quite simply one of the very best Doctor Who stories ever. Sublime.


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