Tony’s found a soapbox. Which idiot let Tony find a soapbox?
If you empower monsters, you do not have the right to be surprised when they come for you as well as your enemies.
That seems to be the message of Episode 6 of The Power of the Daleks, which makes watching it in November 2016 a very sobering experience.
It’s the culmination of a story that, from the beginning, has been about people who want to use an unknown force for their own ends, and so feed it and turn it loose, convinced that they control it. Given that the force in question is the Daleks, let’s call that power what it is – the notion of racial purity, equipped with a screaming hysteria and a weapon.
It was written by David Whitaker as pure science fiction, relevant, at most, to the idea of not equivocating or excusing the racism of the Sixties (the era of the struggle for Civil Rights by African Americans), for fear of a slipback to the racism of the Thirties (out of which the notion of the Daleks was originally born). It feels strange to watch it now and have it be, if anything, more relevant, as the world of the Vulcan, previously stable but with underlying tensions between factions, dissolves into chaos and carnage, as Lesterson, and Janley, and more importantly Bragen, who used the Daleks to rise to political power, are swept up and destroyed by the power they’ve unleashed – along with countless other victims of Dalek bloodlust along the way.
In the world of Brexit and Trump, which has seen a sharp rise in incidents of racist violence in Britain after the referendum, and intimidation and violence against Muslims, Mexicans, LGBTQI people and women across the US being reported at sickening levels in the wake of the Trump election, Episode 6 of The Power of the Daleks stands as a warning to our times, just as much as it was in 1966. Unleash the forces of bigotry, give them power and try to use them to your advantage and they’ll give you what you want in the short term. But never fool yourself that you control those forces – they understand no notion of control. For Bragen, read Farage. Read Trump. Idiots who get what they want in the short term. But the Daleks and the forces of real world bigotry alike will run rampant, uncontrolled and deadly, just as soon as they have the power they need.
Enough political allegory. What’s Episode 6 like in terms of its storytelling?
Grim. Utterly grim. But also, if we’re absolutely honest, a little nonsensical – beginning with the Daleks rolling out to exterminate all humans, it almost immediately gives us a scene where Daleks, encountered by a group of humans, do nothing but act as traffic cops, directing them that the area’s restricted, and then, positively comically, turning to one another almost to gossip that ‘they will be exterminated.’ Clearly not if all the Daleks are as lackadaisical about the process as them. It’s a case of storytelling special pleading that allows our heroes to escape at the expense of logic and Dalek ‘characterisation.’ But let’s not kid ourselves – that’s one of less than a handful of dodgy moments in Episode 6 (the Doctor avoiding being shot by a Dalek weapon by the expedient of…erm…ducking being another). Seeing the tour de force of Daleks going extermination-crazy, gliding down corridors, killing everyone they encounter, is chilling – possibly even moreso in the animated version because the idea that there’s nothing to reason with in the Dalek façade comes across more clearly in two dimensions.
Perhaps the most sickening expression of the power of the Daleks is the daisy-chain of dead bodies strewn on the corridor floor, with Janley most noticeable – past which a Dalek glides, entirely unmoved. Similarly, the death of Lesterson, who by this point has come to regard the Daleks as they view themselves, a superior species who will out-survive everything else, carries a heavy impact – he’s sure they won’t kill him. Not him of all people, because he gave them life and power. ‘Yes,’ agrees the Dalek. ‘You gave us life.’ Then it guns him down without a second thought. Beware all those who empower the forces of racism.
Tellingly, Bragen survives the Daleks, only to be brought down by what has sickeningly been referred to as a ‘Second Amendment Solution,’ someone with a gun and a conviction that he must be stopped at all costs.
Beyond all the political and power-based struggles, the Second Doctor emerges from The Power of the Daleks as a very different character to the First. When Ben gives him the solution of ‘just pulling all the plugs out,’ he snaps that he ‘prefers to do it his way,’ a mission statement of change for all the fans still not convinced by this new Doctor. But then he delivers a solution at once more violent and more irresponsible than anything the First Doctor would have thought of – he proposes to sacrifice Bragen’s guards to the Daleks, just to give him time to engineer a solution which involves blowing the Daleks up, rather than simply de-powering them. The Tenth Doctor may have had a compulsion with offering alien aggressors (and indeed human ones), one chance to show him they could change, but the Troughton Doctor, comparatively young and in a universe of relatively black and white choices (he was eventually to characterise his battles as being against things which ‘must be fought’) decides to blow the Daleks up without a second thought, and plunge the colony into further chaos and powerlessness as a result. When told what he’s done, his contrition is shockingly false – ‘Did I do all that?’ followed by a chuckle. And as they creep away ‘before being presented with the bill,’ Polly asks him ‘You did know what you were doing, didn’t you?’ – she, like the audience, having grown used to First Doctor plans that were thought through. Again, he gives a dark chuckle which seems to make light of all the grimness and death which The Power of the Daleks has entailed. The Second Doctor begins The Power of the Daleks as a dark and somewhat frightening presence in the Tardis. Along the way through the story he’s been brilliant, quixotic, self-absorbed and certain, intense, inventive and darkly playful. But at the end, there’s something that seems callous about his actions, something irresponsible about the lives he’s willing to lose on the way to a victory. It’s a born-again Unearthly Child, re-establishing the alien nature of the show’s central character and, to borrow a later phrase, retconning the cuddly old grandfather that the First Doctor had become. There are reasons for doing that, not the least of which is that with an unpredictable enigma at the heart of the show, you absolutely want to tune in next week to see what he does next.
The Power of the Daleks has been described as the ‘Holy Grail of lost stories.’ There’s absolutely no doubt it deserves that mantle: the first regeneration story, entailing one of the biggest risks in the show’s history; the launch of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, and a reminder of quite how dark and intense he could be beneath the tired old ‘cosmic hobo’ label; the first time the idea of the Daleks having to be cunning to get what they want, of having to abase themselves, is used, giving us a renewed interest in them as villains; and one of the grimmest, most body-count heavy stories in Doctor Who at least until Philip Hinchcliffe got his hands on the show. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece of Doctor Who.
The animated version – which in Episode 6 reverts to the standards of Episodes 1-4, actively improving on the Daleks’ motion and malevolence from the original live action show by virtue of smoothness and a lack of wobble – is a creation of time and effort and vision and what feels at least like love. Beyond much of a shadow of doubt, it’s the best version of The Power of the Daleks you’re ever likely to see, even if the original’s discovered. As a proof of concept for fully animated lost stories, it’s everything the fans could have hoped for and more – yes, in a couple of episodes, human motion’s a bit of an issue, and in Episode 5, somewhat inexplicably, the Daleks lose their animated smoothness and revert to wobbliness as if drawn more closely from life than in any other episode – but if you have time to let those things spoil The Power of the Daleks for you, you really don’t have enough to worry about. Get The Power of The Daleks. Get it as a download now. Get it in black and white on DVD, and get it in colour when it’s released on blu-ray. It will be, beyond question, one of the jewels of your Doctor Who collection.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk