Power of the Daleks

Airdates: November/December 1966 (6 episodes)
Written by: Dennis Spooner, from scripts by David Whitaker
Screen Credit to: David Whitaker
Directed by: Christopher Barry
The Story So Far: The TARDIS lands on Vulcan (a different one) at the exact moment that a mining colony is about to revive three dormant Daleks found in a swamp.  Ben and Polly are still unsure of the new Doctor, and no-one listens to their warnings about the suddenly-servile Daleks…
Novelization by: John Peel (July 1993)

I really, really hope that this story has been found, if any of the rumors are to be believed. If you can judge the quality of a story from the surviving audio, the telesnaps, and the 2 minutes and 19 seconds of surviving video, this is, pound for pound, the best Doctor Who made to this point in the series.  The script perfectly fills out its 6 episode length; some of the acting performances are incredible; Troughton takes over the role of the Doctor so deftly that you don’t have time to miss that other fellow, and the brutal, uncompromising ending, is not marred by, say, the comedy appearance of a wacky teenager in the final minutes.

The first seven minutes of The Power of the Daleks are, not to be melodramatic, the seven most important minutes in Doctor Who since the premiere episode. William Hartnell’s Doctor was abruptly killed off in the final seconds of The Tenth Planet, and popular character-actor Patrick Troughton begins this story a very dizzy Doctor.  The soundtrack centers on a loud, thumping heartbeat; his first words are the hardly-reassuring, “Slower, slower, concentrate on one thing, one thing!”, an indicator of some pretty significant pain or discomfort.  This is an unexpected way to introduce the new series lead.

Who is this man in my kitchen?

Who is this man in my kitchen?

A fan in Australia, correctly sensing that A) this was going to be a story for the ages, and B) it was never going to be aired on TV again, not in a million years, grabbed several moments of footage by pointing his 8-millimeter home-movie camera at the screen.  We know from these scant seconds that Troughton inserted a very careful brand of physical comedy into the role of the Second Doctor.  He grips the screen almost from the get-go, and it’s impossible to not focus on him.  Now… just think how adored Power would be, if we had the whole thing, and not just the surviving 35 seconds from Episode 1…

You’ll note from those surviving seconds that Troughton, as soon as he stands up, comes to life with comic stumbling and grabbing of his legs — the direct template Matt Smith chose for his first appearance as the 11th Doctor in The End of Time, Part II.  When Troughton, before recording this story, was struggling for a characterization “hook” to latch upon, Sydney Newman suggested that he play the part as a “cosmic hobo”.  Hence, Troughton’s costume is a deliberately shabby version of Hartnell’s clothes… baggier pants, a poorly-angled bow tie, and that fancy upper-class ring falls right off his finger. But we can see him inhabit both “cosmic” and “hobo” as he dances to the “Lesterson Listen” song, or says “One Dalek… all that is needed to wipe out this entire colony,” or storms out of a room in anger.  You can tell this is a meticulous physical performance, even from the mere scraps we have left to look at.

When Plastic  Man awoke from his own transformation, he made this same gesture... and then stretched his face, like, a mile in each direction. Troughton does nearly the same thing!

When Plastic Man awoke from his own transformation, he made this same gesture… and then stretched his face, like, a mile in each direction. Troughton does nearly the same thing!

It is interesting to follow Troughton’s trajectory during his first eight episodes, encompassing all of this story and the first two episodes of The Highlanders.  We know in retrospect what he’ll be like — a comic, bumbling persona masking a very keen, calculating mind — but the keen and calculating are a little less on display here.  We know he’ll turn out all right, but here is the Doctor at his most helpless, only barely saving the day in the end (and, impliedly, by accident).  Still, even in episode 1, we get the nicely subtle characterizations, like where Troughton can no longer see through Hartnell’s spectacles, or where he uses quiet observations and silent deductions to unravel the plot, leaving us wanting more exposition.

More interesting is how Troughton here is grasping at props, before he’s settled his on-screen persona.  And so we get the stovepipe hat, the 500-Year Diary (a store-bought version of which I use to record my notes throughout this marathon), the recorder (a tune on which is played in every episode of this story), the oversized magnifying glass (“Unless it’s in micro-print?”), and the first of two quasi-recurring catchphrases (Hartnell didn’t have catchprhases): “When I say run, run like a rabbit!”, and, “I would like a hat like that!”  Soon enough Troughton would find his place and just about all these affectations would disappear.

Jon Pertwee would have hidden his lines in that book.  Troughton is, gloriously, improvising the whole thing, nearly...

Jon Pertwee would have hidden his lines in that book. Troughton is, gloriously, improvising the whole thing, nearly…

But the early character experiments do give us some wonderful moments.  There are entire scenes where Troughton replaces dialogue with tootles on his recorder, usually when answering Ben or Polly’s questions, or when trying to guide their thought patterns. The telesnaps and surviving footage hint that Troughton walked around Vulcan’s deadly surface while holding his diary at eye level to read, or that he tried running and jumping over mercury pools to test out his body’s physical capabilities.  And, of course, he saves the day in Episode 6 while being knocked unconscious by a spinning Dalek’s sucker-arm.

Meanwhile, the plot of The Power of the Daleks is perfectly suited to a new, incomplete, only questionably competent, Doctor.  Vulcan is one of Earth’s early colony worlds — only the third one we’ve seen in the series, and, like Dido and Refusis 2, is only barely established — and it is deep under threat from two of the deadliest forces Doctor Who has ever shown us: Daleks, and, even worse, scheming humans.

An iconic telesnap from Episode 1: dusty, seemingly-dead Daleks.  Almost certainly an in-joke about the then-recent death of Dalekmania...

An iconic telesnap from Episode 1: dusty, seemingly-dead Daleks. Almost certainly an in-joke about the then-recent death of Dalekmania…

The Daleks here are not the only threat.  The different colony characters are well-drawn, with varying motivations, and each one reads into the dormant Dalek shells the fulfillment of their deepest desires.  This allows the Daleks to be a lurking menace, rather than their customary blatant evil.  Director Chris Barry — the director who helped bring the Daleks to life three years before — plays this up by reusing the iconic soundtrack from their first story, introducing it seconds before we first see the dusty, seemingly-abandoned Dalek shells; for observant audience members, this provides a wonderful sting of precognition (if the story’s title hadn’t already clued them in first, that is).

Once the Daleks come to life, they are expertly written by Dennis Spooner (working from David Whitaker’s bloated and unfilmable pre-Troughton-casting scripts).  It helps that each cliffhanger incrementally increases the menace of the Daleks’ threat:

  • A Dalek claw is seen out of its casing, moving in the shadows of their spacecraft
  • “I am your ser-VANT!  I am your ser-VANT!  I am your ser-VANT!”
  • “We will get our power… we will get our power… we will get our power!”
  • “We are the new race of Daleks… We are the new race of Daleks… We are the new race of Daleks!”
  • “DALEKS CONQUER AND DESTROY! [ad infinitum]

We, the audience, know that the Daleks are up to know good, and the Doctor knows they’re up to no good.  The notion that one single Dalek can wipe out the colony, will be a critically important concept for the show going forward;  even in the new series, both Dalek and Victory of the Daleks pay huge homages to Power.  But… on Vulcan, nobody believes the Doctor.  The colonists, as we’ll see, have their own conflicting agendas.  Even Ben and Polly aren’t sold that the Doctor is Who he says he is (I’m so sorry…), and while all this is happening, this impostor Doctor is even busy impersonating someone else — an Earth Examiner summoned in to check up on the colony’s political problems.

" `Metal-tron'.  Thought of it myself.  Good name, isn't it?  Although I'd much prefer to find out its real name..."

” `Metal-tron’. Thought of it myself. Good name, isn’t it? Although I’d much prefer to find out its real name…”

The Daleks’ early attempts to insinuate themselves into the colony’s day-to-day functioning, then, become black comedy.  We, the audience, and the Doctor, both know exactly what’s going on, but nobody else does.  The Dalek bearing refreshments (“Have you finished your li-quid?“) or offering suggestions to improve the colonists’ machines, or their silent lurking in the background, are funny and sinister all at once.  Much of the credit for this goes to Peter Hawkins, one of the original two Dalek voices, and working solo here.  Some lines of dialogue skate right to the edge of cartoon villainy (“A Dalek is bett — is not the same as a human!“, or “With static power , THE DALEKS WILL BE TWICE AS … useful!“), but Whitaker imbues them with a devious humor, obvious enough to let the kids in the audience feel clever for having unraveled the Dalek scheme, but subtle enough for the colonists to feel safe in ignoring the Doctor’s warnings…

Which brings us to the humans.  To date, the Daleks have been both thinly-veiled Nazi surrogates and comedy robots.  But here, they’re squared off against some of the worst elements that humanity has to offer, and they come across much better as a result. Whitaker, through Spooner, cleverly portrays a series of two-dimensional human who are vivid enough to sustain audience interest; credit Christopher Barry with essentially note-perfect casting — just about every human colonist will return to have memorable roles on this series again.

The High Priest tries to convince Marcus Scarman and Chinn of the Daleks' true nature: "Demnos will not be cheated of his pleasure, little one!"

Robert James as Lesterson (L) reminds Mr. Chinn and Marcus Scarman that “Demnos will not be cheated of his pleasure, little one!”

Apart from the cleverness of the Daleks’ subterfuge, this is one of the few instances of the Classic Series, before the arrival of Robert Holmes, sketching out the broad outlines of a universe with only a handful of characters. Hensell, the Governor, is a blustering bureaucrat (as Peter Bathurst would again do in The Claws of Axos); he’s not in the story much, but his lengthy and frequent absences are explained by his being away on colony business — in Episode 4, he features only in a remote video chat sequence, charmingly wearing a hardhat while visiting the colony’s miners).  Quinn is the sensitive but hapless Deputy Governor who spends much of the story in jail.  Lesterson is a brilliant but single-minded and slightly squirrely mad scientist; Janley is his glamorous assistant who’s too wrapped up in the colony’s anti-Governor “pressure group”; and Bragen (Bernard Archard, who would return as one of the all-time great henchmen in Pyramids of Mars) is the oily, hawk-eyed chief of security, who, like Peter Hawkins, does a marvelous job of making his utter evil seem merely ambiguous until he’s ready to reveal his true intentions.

Back during The Massacre, I noted that the human villains in that story were more calculating, sinister, and scary, than the Daleks could ever be.  Power, with regard to Janley and Bragen, once again proves that point.  Janley (Pamela Ann Davy, whose career sadly did not extend much beyond this story) is the most calculating female villain that the series has featured up to this point, with Catherine de Medici being the only other competition.  There’s a hint that Janley may have realized her folly at the point that she exits the story.  Bragen, however, remains oblivious to the end, and it’s nice to see his character lose all control once the Daleks betray him; he spends most of Episode 6 in his office, sending out increasingly desperate phone calls to the ever-dwindling number of survivors.  He’s also, incidentally, the first human character on the show to lose a moral point to a Dalek, something that even Mavic Chen hadn’t managed to do…

Chillingly staring into the camera and reminding us that "We are not yet ready to teach these human beings the law of the Daleks!"

Chillingly staring into the camera and reminding us that “We are not yet ready to teach these human beings the law of the Daleks!”

In Episode 5, after Bragen uses a Dalek to assassinate a political rival, the Dalek turns to him and asks, “Why do human beings kill human beings?”  Bragen, who only sees the Daleks as mindless servants, refuses to answer, not that he would have been able to. Here is Doctor Who for the first time asking us to consider our actions from the moral perspective of the baddest-of-the-bad guys.  And there is no answer.  In this one quiet moment, the Dalek assault on the colony has a justification, and one human has just taken away any reason we might have to actually root for his fellows over the Daleks.

The humans are not all bad, though.  Valmar, one of Janley’s rebel acolytes, one of two victims of Polly’s epic put-down (“I’d like to see you come up against a real man!”), soon joins the good guys.  Lesterson (Robert James), the scientist who reactivates the Daleks and then properly becomes mad, gives another great voice performance (sadly, we have no remaining clues to his body language in the story), straddling excitement, joy, ruthlessness, compassion, betrayal, and disbelief.  Doctor Who later became known for guest stars doing completely raving over-the-top “turns”, and Lesterson helps start the trend (after Nero). But James preserves some dignity for the character; Lesterson’s suicidally facing up to the Daleks at the climax enables the Doctor to flick the switch that will blow up all the Daleks.

A less cartoonish mass-Dalek-extermination than was shown in "The Chase"...

A less cartoonish mass-Dalek-extermination than was shown in “The Chase”…

We can suspect that Christopher Barry directed the story in memorable fashion; the surviving clips include the Episodes 4 and 5 cliffhangers — first, the conveyor-belt line of Daleks reproducing themselves (with vile-looking mutant props, the likes of which were, fortunately for the sleep of British children in the late ’60s, quickly retired), and then the parade of Daleks exiting from the capsule doorway.  This last bit is famous for utilizing the only four practical Dalek props in existence, and making that quite obvious due to the big break in the Dalek conga line every fourth prop that sails by. But the footage left of the Daleks’ mass destruction in Episode 6 looks disturbing, and is most likely an upgrade over Richard Martin’s two cracks at a similar effect at the beginning and end of Season 2. Check out also how Lesterson begins a line of dialogue in Episode 2, and Barry then cuts to Troughton finishing that line on a different set, across the studio floor.  Lastly, the massacre of the humans that takes up most of Episode 6 must have been shocking; we have telesnap evidence that Barry filmed a slow montage of close-ups of sprawled-out Dalek extermination victims, which… brr.

A few words about John Peel’s novelization, which is based on the original and oversized Whitaker scripts rather than on the final product.  This is a pretty competent book, with Peel rewriting the end of The Tenth Planet, in order to rectify the novelization of that story not having matched what happened on screen.  We then get more insight into the colonists, and a pretty interesting economic and political explanation for why there are rebels in the the first place — hint, they subscribe to the same leftist ideals that Malcolm Hulke would later celebrate in Colony in Space.  Peel even adds a new character, not present on TV, to help illustrate these points.  And the idea of a private corporation running the colony into the ground with financial cutbacks and oppressive labor policies, is least at much at home in 2013 as it was when Peel published this in 1993.

DALEKS CONQUER AND DESTROY! ... but not in the book.

DALEKS CONQUER AND DESTROY! … but not in the book.

But in this case, less might have been more, and Peel doesn’t exactly give us less.  In the added scenes, he makes it a bit too obvious who the human bad-guys are.  On TV, Janley’s villainy was held back until Episode 3, and Bragen’s until Episode 4, but such subtleties are largely absent from the book, where those characters’ POV scenes give the game away a bit early.  Ben’s annoying suspicions of the new Doctor are also more vociferously stated, and last longer in the book, than on TV.  But, oddly, the iconic Episode 5 cliffhanger is essentially deleted.  Consider how heavy-handedly Peel writes up Janley’s sexual manipulations, or endlessly describes how shapely she looks in her form-fitting colonist jumpsuit, or tells us how many of the male colonists wish to get it on with her (although, to be fair, even the Dalek sucker-arm is seen fondling Janley’s breast in one surviving telesnap).  Given all that, it’s a bit odd that he considered that cliffhanger too cheesy to write in full…

Fortunately, the original scripts are quite clever, and that shows through in the novelization.  There are great clues planted here for all the junior Sherlock Holmeses watching on TV in 1966.  The Dalek scheme is revealed by the incorrect number of Daleks spotted throughout the colony, and Troughton unravels’ the rebels’ secret messages by using acrostics.  Now, if only the full five-minute long Dalek conveyor-belt sequence from Episode 4 still existed… then there’d be no doubt at all that this is truly one of the most perfect Who stories of them all…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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8 Responses to Power of the Daleks

  1. Having been born in 1976, like yourself I’ve obviously never seen the original broadcast version. I haven’t sat through the reconstructions with the Telesnaps & original soundtrack, but I have read the John Peel novelization twice. Not having anything to compare it to, I thought it was very good. I have always found that the Daleks to be much more scary when they are sneaky and conniving, rather than rushing about screeching “Exterminate!”

    A few years ago, when “Victory of the Daleks” first aired, it was incredibly obvious that it was very much inspired by this story, and it so effectively tapped into the manipulative quality of the Daleks. It’s interesting to see the Doctor’s reaction to them in both stories. When the fascist mutants from Skaro are on the warpath, acting like the obvious genocidal monsters that they are, then in certain respects it is easy for the Doctor to deal with them, because they are a readily identifiable enemy he can rally everyone against. But in both “Power” and “Victory” you see that by pretending to be harmless, the Daleks are able to drive the Doctor completely up the wall, totally get under his skin, because not only can’t he figure out what the heck they’re up to, but he’s unable to convince anyone else that they’re dangerous. In “Victory” the Daleks are actually counting on causing just that reaction in the Doctor, it’s a key part of their whole plan, and they totally succeed in playing him.

  2. drwhonovels says:

    Not only were we born in the ’70s, but also in a country that never even screen “Power”! I would highly recommend a look at the video reconstruction of this story… or, at least, watch the surviving seconds of off-air footage from Episodes 1 and 2, if you haven’t seen them already. These little fragments of early Troughton acting (especially in the context of the rest of the episode) make this story one of the easiest of the recons to sit through!

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  6. If I were to actually sit down and make a list of the stories I would most like to see recovered, “The Power of the Daleks” would definitely top my list. I agree with basically everything you wrote here. I think it is the best Dalek story because they are not simply running around exterminating people. Here they are cunning, calculating, and manipulative, which makes them far more menacing. I also love the way they play off of the colonists plots against each other, bringing into question just who is the real villain of the story.

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