The Power of the Daleks

Do you think I can ever be secure in that chair while that rabble are still loose? They rebelled against Hensell yesterday. Tomorrow it’ll be my turn. Well, let them rebel. Tell them the guards have taken control. Let them attack, and then we can crush them, utterly!
Several Daleks

So as part of my continued quest to take my mind off the rise of fascism throughout the Western world, I’ve been watching DVDs. The next one after Gurney Slade was another long-unavailable 1960s TV story starring Anneke Wills. This one is about a coup, in which a powerful but stupid man who wants even more power, a populist movement disenchanted with the current government, and a bunch of monomaniacal genocidal racial-supremacists all work together to put the powerful man in power. Each group thinks they’re using the other two for their own ends, but they eventually start betraying each other, and after martial law is imposed in the name of a false security, everyone ends up dead and the whole structure of society collapses. The only person who shows any decency at all is an illegal alien, travelling using false ID. And some of the fascists have an aversion to stairs…


“It may even provide the end to all the colony’s problems!”
“Yes, it will end the colony’s problems — because it will end the colony!”

The Power of the Daleks
is one of many Doctor Who stories which were unconscionably destroyed by the BBC during the mass cultural vandalism which also saw them destroy their recordings of the moon landing, performances by the Beatles, and other such ephemera of no possible interest to future generations. Despite rumours a few years ago, no copies of it are known to exist, but happily for Doctor Who fans people were, from the beginning, making audio recordings of Doctor Who from their TVs. Those recordings have been available on CD for years, with narration to fill in the visual elements.

And for the last few years, the BBC have been animating odd missing episodes in otherwise-complete serials, with mixed but largely positive results. However, up until last year they had not released an entire animated story, believing the demand would not justify the cost. A deal with BBC America for a US TV broadcast, however, meant that they could afford to do The Power of the Daleks.

That story, more than any other, is one that fans wanted to see — it was the first story to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and one of only two in which he meets the Daleks (the other, The Evil of the Daleks, is also largely missing). It’s also largely regarded as one of the very best stories the TV series ever did.

The resulting animation is a mixed bag. No attempt has been made to be photorealistic, or to reproduce what viewers in 1966 would have seen — the animation is in widescreen, and while the DVD version is black and white, the Blu-Ray version (which I’ve not seen and which is out next week) has the option of colour.

Visually, the backgrounds and the Daleks look absolutely gorgeous, and some of the shots in scenes concentrating on them are utterly superb. However, the character animation was clearly done on a lower budget than it really should have been — the characters are so clearly made up of separately-drawn sections that they look almost like Bitstrips pictures, while the limited nature of the animation reminds me of the old animation of Shada that the BBC did for RealPlayer streaming so long ago that RealPlayer was a thing.

This is particularly galling in the case of the Doctor — Troughton was *such* a visual, physical, actor that even the best animation couldn’t capture him, and this is far from the best animation.

But on the other hand, the animation, even at its worst, is enough to tell the story, and that’s a major success in itself. Before this was released a couple of months ago, the only way to experience this story was either through the soundtrack CD (which was difficult, as the story was obviously designed for a visual medium), or through a particularly bad novelisation written by the inept John Peel (not that one).

If nothing else, at least having the characters visible, and being able to see whose lips are moving, makes following the story *much* easier — almost all the characters in the story are male, and they almost all have the same accent, and while it’s a simple story to follow, it still taxed my patience slightly when I listened to it in audio form.

But, quibbles aside, how does it work as a story?

The answer depends on how comfortable you are with the conventions of 1960s TV dialogue. There’s a certain amount of exposition and info-dumping which would simply not be allowed in modern TV, and which may well sound clunky to people used to today’s conventions. But this *is* a matter of different conventions, rather than of objective quality — I can say with some certainty as someone whose experience of TV over the last couple of decades has been fairly minimal that on the occasions when I’ve watched newer TV drama the dialogue has sounded at least as artificial to an ear that isn’t attuned to it.

And the script is by David Whitaker, which those who are familiar with 60s Doctor Who knows is the cue for stories that use the *words* “static electricity” and “mercury”, but use them to refer to concepts which bear no relation to the things we humans refer to by those terms.

But 60s Doctor Who fans also know that Whitaker, more than any other writer on the show in that period, was a great ideas man, and we have that here. For the first time, we have the Daleks pretending to be friendly to humans, claiming “I am your ser-vant!” and bringing them cups of tea. And rather than the traditional goodies versus baddies rebellion-versus-government story which Doctor Who would do a million times, we have a story that’s about different factions within the rebellion, all hiding their own motives in order to build alliances with people they intend to betray.

Because what we have here is a story that is actually *about* something — something that is rare in Troughton’s Doctor Who. Specifically, it’s a story about identity, about how people’s behaviour can hide their true motives, and to what extent labels matter.

The new Doctor refuses to confirm he even *is* the Doctor to his friends, and starts acting in an un-Doctorish (yet still curiously Doctorish) manner. Yet he happily steals a dead man’s ID and answers to his title of Examiner (and indeed, he spends most of the story examining things). The Daleks say “I am your servant”, but quickly become the masters. Bragen, having installed himself as Governor thanks to manipulating the rebels and the Daleks, quickly discovers that merely saying “I am the Governor” does not make people obey him.

Throughout the story, we are encouraged to judge people, not on what they say they are, and not even on the apparent motive for their actions, but on what effect their actions might be expected to have. We’re led to be suspicious of everyone, and in that context the viewers’ suspicion of the new Doctor (remember that they had no history of other actors playing the role, or expectation of regeneration — “the Doctor” and “William Hartnell” were the same, and the idea that there had been a “first Doctor” and now there was a “second Doctor” wasn’t one that would take hold for several more years) becomes part of a generalised suspicion of everyone — when his actions then result in the Daleks being defeated, while the other suspicious people one by one reveal their true duplicitous natures, it becomes clear that this *is* the Doctor, whether he takes that name or not.

It’s still a story that has, to my mind, been rather overrated by fandom simply because of its importance to the series’ history — I’d rate Whitaker’s other Troughton/Daleks story, The Evil of the Daleks, ahead of it on pure quality grounds — but it’s still one of the better stories of the 60s, and I’m very glad it’s now available in a way that allows viewers to get at least some taste of what the experience of watching it must have been like.

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6 Responses to The Power of the Daleks

  1. Tony Harms says:

    This may be completely at odds with your taste Andrew but if you are looking at old sixties television I would recommend Big Breadwinner Hogg which my memory recalls as increasingly surreal as it progressed.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. I’m currently working through a huge backlog of unwatched DVDs, but I’ll certainly take a look at it at some point…

      • Tilt Araiza says:

        Hog doesn’t get surreal in the way that Gurney Slade does, but there’s a deliberately mannered style and black absurdity running through it. It’s actually the end of an epic franchise. It starts with The Man In Room 17, two series starting in 1965 where a pair of experts fight crime from their office without ever meeting the criminals. This spawned a sequel, The Fellows (Late Of Room 17) which is the same show but with longer speeches about the philosophy of crime and punishment. In that series there were 3 episodes featuring gang boss Alec Spindoe, who span off into his own 1968 miniseries. Hog was meant to be a sequel to that, with George Sewell’s character from Spindoe returning, but he was unavailable so his part was recast and renamed, but the show makes sense as portraying a changed gangland after the events of Spindoe.

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