Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Serial 30: The Power of the Daleks

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Ben and Polly

Written by: David Whitaker (and Dennis Spooner)
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance: Once the Doctor Who production team had made the decision to let William Hartnell step down as The Doctor, producer Innes Lloyd set about trying to find a suitable replacement. But instead of going for Hartnell 2.0 (which Robert Shearman cynically and perhaps rightly suspected was part of the point of "The Savages") they sought something different. They needed a fresh take by someone who could do new and good things with the character. Eventually they settled on Patrick Troughton, and according to legend, William Hartnell endorsed the decision, saying "If there's one man in England who can replace me it's Patrick Troughton!"

That is, of course, probably legend.

But after "The Tenth Planet" Hartnell would step down, leaving in his wake this new actor in the same role, and the production team put a lot of work into Troughton's new character and coming up with ways to delineate him from Hartnell. One of the great stories to come out of this time was the notion that Troughton might perhaps play the character "blacked up", although that was probably a passing thing one time in a conversation and was remembered years later from a purely "wtf were we thinking" retrospective. Eventually they settled on the idea of Troughton as a "Cosmic Hobo", which is, of course, how his Doctor is still remembered as a character to this day.

Now all they had to do was introduce him.

To do this, they brought in David Whitaker, the man who had defined Doctor Who more than just about anyone in the history of the show up to that point. It was he who made the TARDIS the TARDIS and it was he who had overseen Hartnell's fantastic first season. This would help, because what they were attempting (replacing the lead actor in the middle of a season) was ludicrously insane. They'd need to keep things as stable as possible to convince the audience that this was something that would be okay. In terms of companions, this meant keeping around Ben and Polly, the companions who had been around for the past three stories. In terms of villains it meant bringing back the Daleks, because putting this new Doctor up against his greatest foe would be the best way to encourage people that this Doctor was still The Doctor, only different.

I mean, who else would defeat the Daleks? That's what The Doctor does.

Whitaker (to his credit) included a bunch of different ideas of this new Doctor, chief amongst which was the notion that this wasn't The Doctor's first regeneration (something that would, again, be picked up upon in "The Brain of Morbius"). Head of Drama Sydney Newman (who had helped bring Doctor Who to life) was somewhat dissatisfied by these aspects of Whitaker's script and requested a re-write. Whitaker (having completed his scripts and having moved on to something else) was unavailable, so duties fell to Dennis Spooner, Whitaker's successor as script editor, who trimmed up Whitaker's drafts and tweaked the portrayal of The Doctor to better align with Newman's ideas.

The result is "Power of the Daleks", the first ever regeneration story, the first ever 2nd Doctor story, and the last entry for this blog. And I'll just say this before we start: just like "Androzani" last week, I have been saving this one. And now for the last time...

So let's get to it!


Commentary!:

Part 1:

Let’s put this out there on frontstreet. This has to go on the short list for one of my favorite first episodes of Doctor Who ever.

Part of that is the fact that there’s no comfort to this character. God knows I’ve seen every episode of Troughton and I still kinda don’t know what the hell is going on with him here. He’s deliberately putting his weird foot down and clearly not making it easy for Ben and Polly to rest easy in knowing that this new man IS The Doctor. And because Ben and Polly don’t know, it’s clear that we shouldn’t know either. As a move, it’s brilliant. Instead of having the characters go with it and the creative team behind the show saying “we’re gonna do this and you’re on board because you’re Doctor Who fans” they assume you won’t be on board and play it as such. This man is going to have to earn your respect and your trust and he seems to know it as well.

It’s almost the exact opposite of “The Twin Dilemma”.

Back when we talked about “The Twin Dilemma” we found ourselves talking about how ballsy it was to do a post-regeneration about a Doctor who is that blatantly questionable from the get go. But what’s the difference between that and this? Both stories and first episodes present a scenario that is a far cry from The Doctor we just witnessed and something that welcomes us to accept that “things are going to be different.” So they’re similar in that respect. Where they’re different is in the way they present those arguments. Peri is perturbed by The 5th Doctor’s regeneration into the 6th Doctor, but mostly accepts in a way the audience doesn’t. She’s remarkably okay by The Doctor throttling her wheras the audience…. Isn’t. So yeah, I suppose you could use the word “ballsy” to describe the actions of the creative team during “The Twin Dilemma” but I’d rather go for “hubris”, because nothing is more apt.

In this episode you see the same sorta deliberateness and confidence that they put into “The Twin Dilemma”, but without any of the assumption that it will work. Yes, the confidence is there, and Whitaker’s writing (along with Spooner, I suppose) points to people who seem confident in their vision of the show moving forward, or at least, with the Doctor moving forward. He might be new and strange and different, but he’s all there and every move they have him make in this is deliberate and specific enough that the writing can pull you through from one beat to the next without it feeling too terribly jarring. That’s a far cry from “The Twin Dilemma” which has no sense of structure or what-happens-next. They just want to see The Doctor strangle Peri and then see him convince himself he should be turned into a hermit. There is no rhyme or reason to what happens next. It just does.

Here, Whitaker puts The Doctor’s shift in identity to a story that’s thematically about mistaken/stolen identities.

Take, for instance, The Doctor’s first travails into the swamp. He comes across a man who is summarily assassinated. The Doctor is shocked and horrified and almost runs for cover but stays to see if there’s anything he can do to help this man. Once he realizes the man is dead, he steals his Examiner identification badge (which allows him total access and doesn’t even have a picture ID on it!) and heads to this colony that’s on the planet Vulcan (which is the planet we landed on) and proceeds to pretend to be this Examiner for god knows why to accomplish god knows what. Some new body has taken over his body and made it look different, and now that whoever-it-is that’s replaced him has picked up a new persona and identity.

That level of recursion is brilliant.

But then it goes further. For we find at the end of this episode that there’s Daleks here and that they have been crash landed on this planet and dormant for hundreds of years. As we’ll see soon enough, the Daleks are going to pretend they’re something they’re not and this motif will percolate throughout all the different combinations in this story. But The Daleks? The Daleks spend the majority of this episode hibernating and when we finally get to them they are powerless like we’ve never seen them before. It’s a brilliant reveal, seeing the Daleks encased in cobwebs like they are. It’s not what you’d expect from the show at this point, where every previous Dalek reveal (and I mean every single one) was dramatic and intense and “OH MY GOD”. Here, there’s something oddly tranquil about it, and it’s unsettling.

It’s why you jump whenever that Dalek plunger arm drops.

As a reveal, it’s one of the best in the series ever. Because it’s not a big reveal, it’s very quiet, and while The Doctor has been clowning around and goofy all this time, for those of us paying attention at home, the moment at which he quietly says “Ben, Polly, say hello to the Daleks” is about as chillingly Doctory a line as I’ve ever heard. It’s here that his worst suspicions are confirmed, he drops the pretense, and becomes the man we all know him to be. It’s not this new and dangerous situation he finds himself in. It’s not the threat of being assassinated (I dare say he’d even relish in that). It’s not even his companions being terribly concerned (he does not, after all, actually know them all that well). No, it’s his mortal enemies the Daleks that make him drop all pretense and show his true colors.

And then to add things onto that, we end on the revelation of a Dalek mutant skittering across the floor. It’s a Dalek in its true, stripped down form. These aren’t just tin pepper pots. Those aren’t the things that make them scary. What’s inside of that outer shell is a horrible slimy little monster thing that’s full of hatred and evil. That’s the real Dalek. And that’s really what drives the whole point home: it’s what’s on the inside that matters, and no matter how one might change their outward appearance or pretend to be something they’re not,  it’s what’s on the inside that truly reflects the outside. The outside is just window dressing. Inside is a wonderful man who’s putting his new clothes and taking his wonderful new body on the scariest, best first test drive ever.

And aren’t you excited?

Part 2:

It’s weird that we’re talking about this story just a week after we talk about “The Caves of Androzani” because I see a lot of structural and technical similarities between the two.

One of the things we mention in Androzani that kinda gets lost in the shuffle is that we are privy to all the pertinent conversations that are going on all across Androzani Minor so we understand every beat that’s paid off in the final episode. We are privy to Morgus’s teaming up with Stotz even though it’s not necessarily relevant to The Doctor and Peri’s poisoning or even Jek’s eventual successful revenge against Morgus. Part of the argument with that story is that the whole situation The Doctor and Peri find themselves in the middle of is one big powder keg ready to explode and all it takes is one spark to light the fuse that blows the whole thing sky high. But we’re given access to all the different facets of the powder keg to better appreciate why everything suddenly goes tumbling to the ground.

It is, in a word, inevitable.

So it was in Androzani so it is here.

What Whitaker does here that’s so masterful is paint a full picture of this colony to convey all the different aspects that go into making this whole situation so volatile. All of these characters come laden with their own perspectives and agendas and while it isn’t so elegant as “Androzani” is (“Androzani” had a number of different factions that went beyond “The Establishment” and “The Mutineers”) it’s still fairly awesome to see, especially as we dig in and learn that while it might seem “Establishment” and “Mutineers” at the outset here it will not be nearly so cut and dry in just a few hours.

But all of these characters have their own agendas at this point, don’t they?

I mean, take Lesterson. Lesterson sees The Daleks that have appeared on his doorstep and sees them as technical marvels to harness and use in the name of helping the colony. And yet, it’s more than that. There’s an aspect to his desires that finds itself rooted in pride and the power that could come from being considered a technical incredi-face. It’s why he risks The Doctor’s ire when he violates The Doctor’s demands to know where the “Third Dalek” is. Because whatever scolding or wrist slapping Earth would give him (assuming The Doctor were the real Examiner, but Lesterson doesn’t know about that) is worth risking if it means becoming super great in the long run. This is what causes him to not be nearly AS caring about the murder of Resno as he probably should be caring. Deep down, I’m sure he knows what went down when The Dalek shot and executed Resno, but he just can’t bring himself to care about it because the work’s too important. He’d rather take Janley’s word for it. Because he trusts her and that’s good enough for him at the mo.

Janley also clearly has her own agenda. What this is we’re not quite sure, but it’s enough that she considers it worth it to cover up a murder (a MURDER) if it means getting her closer to her eventual goal. Whatever that is. More on her later.

But Janley is one of those things that hints that Whitaker is playing a longer game here. That’s a private moment between us and Janley just like watching The Doctor talk to Ben and Polly is something that we are given access to. What’s key to that last bit, though, is that someone tries to get an eavesdrop in on that conversation. And why not? I mean, there’s definitely some paranoia and distrust going around this colony. No one seems to trust one another, no one seems to want to let sleeping dogs lie at all.

No, we’re in a story called “The Power of the Daleks”. The clue’s in the title.

It’s an old adage, but “knowledge is power” is incredibly true here. Whoever knows the most is going to get the furthest. I mean, the sense here is that this whole colony is bordering on total chaos. You have Quinn actually pushing Bragen to the ground to get him out of the way (which is character thing made real: stay out of Quinn’s way), which, if we break it into societal roles is the Deputy Governor pushing the Head of Security out of the way. So it’s chaos. I mean, you can’t have that level of societial disruption in a sane society, especially not one that has a secret rebel group threatening to assume control of the colony at any given moment.

So it’s a race to know the most. But more than that, part of the “game” is trying to not let on what you do or do not know.

And of course, at the center of that are The Daleks.

What makes The Daleks wonderful is that the ONLY person who knows what The Daleks are capable of is The Doctor and no one wants to listen to him because, well, why bother? The Examiner is not someone who comes with inherent power. He’s just given “unlimited access” to everywhere, which means he CAN be the most powerful person in the room. But it’s what he does with that knowledge that matters. And of course The Doctor doesn't really care too much about the internal power struggles of this pithy colony, certainly not when there's three Daleks on the loose and (as he says in one of the defining quotes about Daleks I've ever heard) "Just one Dalek is enough to destroy this entire colony." Damn. What a line. So good, in fact, that Rob Shearman would run with that quote and write the wonderfully masterful "Jubilee" and "Dalek" in which you see the carnage just one Dalek could incur if set loose upon the world.

So the Daleks are this story’s X-Factor. More so than even The Doctor is. In “Androzani” it was The Doctor’s arrival that lit the fuse that catalyzed the whole thing. Here, it’s The Daleks.

As a use of the Daleks, it’s brilliant, because it takes monsters traditionally known for being “active” and turns them into passive creatures. The Dalek who’s brought before the people at the end of this episode and made to perform is the epitome of passive. It is doing that which the characters command. Which is… haunting. It’s haunting to see The Daleks used in such a way. Nothing could tame The Daleks til Davros and he’s a good nine years away from existing at this point. So these Daleks have been pacified? And by some loony mad scientist? Nonsense. They don’t expect us to buy that for a moment, do they?

No. Of course they don’t. Because even though knowledge is power, there’s more to it than that. Yes, it’s about what we know, but it’s also about what we do with what we know.

We are, ultimately, powerless. We know EVERYTHING. About The Daleks, about Janley, about The Doctor, and we can do NOTHING because we are viewers. To rub salt into that wound, Christopher Barry even shoots certain shots from the Dalek POV, placing us in a Dalek headspace to emphasize the situation. We see what The Dalek sees and because we’re all Dalek fans suffering from Dalekmania we can tell what The Dalek is thinking: “I’m going to exterminate all of you. I’m just choosing my moment and biding my time.” We are trapped in that case with that Dalek and we get to hear all its vicious, evil thoughts in our ears even though it’s saying nothing.

So what we’re looking at is one of the best use of the Daleks ever? Or at least, clearly the best to this point. Whitaker plays on what we know and makes us scream at our TV, terrified for whatever’s coming next.

And of course, we have the phenomenal last scene. It’s a scene in which The Doctor skitters back from The Dalek as it’s trundled into the room and made to perform for an impressed everyone. And The Doctor is screaming the whole time. You can’t do this. You can’t let this happen. You can’t let The Dalek into your heads. You can’t trust it. It’s going to kill all of you and I can’t believe you’re all just going to sit around and make that happen.

But The Examiner is a threat to every single person in the colony. He could bring them all down so they turn their back on him. And that’s when The Dalek look at him. Stares right in his face. And you can hear it almost laugh at him as he knows The Doctor’s pleas and cries for help are falling on deaf ears.

“I am your servant,” it says. And by putting itself at the mercy of every other person at the colony and letting them all think they have power of it, it has turned the tables. For we know just like The Doctor does that this Dalek is going to stop at nothing to see everyone dead. It executed Resno and saw no recompense for that. The colony thinks this marvel is eating out of their hand when really, with one role reversal and a teensy tiny lie it now has all of them eating out of its hand. We watch in horror, just along with The Doctor as we realize the terrifying, ultimate truth of one of the best Dalek cliffhangers that’s ever been.

It took The Doctor six words to take down the Prime Ministership of Harriet Jones. It takes a Dalek just four to bend an entire colony of humans to its will. Language is The Doctor’s power, and The Dalek just beat him at his own game. It has The Doctor and the colony EXACTLY where it wants them. How in the hell is The Doctor going to get out of this situation?

One Dalek could take out the entire colony? I believe one just did.

Part 3:

When I was in Spanish class back in high school, I had a textbook that was rubbish. None of the students liked it. We all thought the series of textbooks were rubbish and stupid, but it’s what the school had paid for and it’s what the district had deemed worthy of teaching us Spanish. So we were stuck with it.

A few years later I had a teacher who openly hated the Spanish book. I mean, she was required to teach from it because that was the curriculum, but I’ll never understand how she would speak so derisively about the thing that we were obligated to use. It was weird seeing the person in power railing against a different power (in this case, teacher versus her district), and I remember one time she spoke candidly about how upsetting it was to be in the meetings to choose which line of Spanish textbooks would become the new district standard and how all the teachers had picked their favorite, and then a beautiful woman from the textbook we ended up going with came in with a shiny presentation and pristine, hip textbooks and stole the contract away from the one the teachers all wanted. It was the presentation and the glossy flashy she remembered. She had a hell of a pitch and style won out over substance.

Okay. Cool story, bro. But what does this have to do with the Daleks?

Because we’re Doctor Who fans and because Dalekmania is inextricable from Doctor Who fandom, Whitaker is given license to run wild with our conceptions of the Daleks. As I’ve stated before, we know they’re evil and we know they’re the most vicious, vile creatures in the universe. So we watch in horror as they are given freedom to move about the colony and act slightly menacingly and test the bounds and limits of what that freedom will grant them. Hell, this episode ends on a semi-terrifying moment that really hammers home the point that the Daleks are evil and menacing and scary, with three of them closing in on Lesterson threatening him and demanding that they get the power they so desperately need to enact whatever it is long game/plan they have in their little Dalek heads.

No one in the colony expects this, though. Lesterson leads the charge in proclaiming them as hard workers, just the thing this colony needs to shore up whatever it needs to shore up. If they’re behind on anything the Daleks can do the heavy lifting to get everyone back on track. If they’re ahead, The Daleks can free up man power so everyone can work on various other good projects. Everyone gets on board. There was an accident with Resno in the last episode but that’s in the past and this Dalek has been disarmed. Not only that, but this Dalek has basic reasoning skills, coming up with the clever lie that it disobeyed The Doctor’s order to “immobilize itself” because if it was immobile why how would it go about serving humans? That is its function after all. Everyone takes this in the way only they would: it has reasoning? We have smart servants? That means they’ll be even more efficient.

So they take the Dalek at its word. And why not? You have a seemingly inferior creature that poses no physical threat and looks a little ridiculous offering freely of itself.

No wonder they don’t heed The Doctor’s warnings.

That’s the thing about this episode that gets me. There’s nothing about The Doctor that sounds even remotely sane here. We know he’s telling the truth so Lesterson and Hensell and co. all sound like they’re utter fools for even considering this (and they are; it’s the ultimate too-good-to-be-true situation), but turn it around from this perspective. You have this utterly mad off-worlder who knows not what it’s like to live on Vulcan coming in and insisting that this scenario that has posed NO threat (remember that Resno’s death is now an elaborate coverup) is the worst thing in the world.

What? These things? The things with the plungers for arms?

It’s a brilliant twist on the traditional Doctor Who story. All too often The Doctor is squared off against the Daleks and is immediately on the side of the angels, with the conflict being between The Doctor and The Daleks as both camps pitch their own strategy for how to move forward. They will help the colonists make Vulcan the best colony ever by serving in any way they can. They claim to be creators. The Doctor, on the other hand, comes in waving his Examiner badge and threatens to tear up all the existing structures, raze the society to the ground, root out the rebels, clean house, and then send the colonists all on their own way to forge ahead with a new, cleaner society. Self-determination. That’s what he wants.

The Colonists, though? When has anyone been about self-determination when they can be coddled and babied? Be honest.

So the colonists cast The Doctor aside in favor of an all-sugar cotton candy solution. Only I understand why the hell the humans take this option. Not just because it’s easier, but also because The Doctor comes across looking like a total lunatic. And that’s not something that comes across in many Doctor Who stories.  Perhaps the best example of The Doctor being treated like he’s an utter loon is in “Snakedance”, where he comes across like an utter lunatic. And that’s the point of “Snakedance” and it’s done there very specifically because Christopher Bailey is a genius. Only here Whiatker ties it into the opening image of this story: we don’t know this guy. He’s new. Why SHOULD we trust him?

And Whitaker applies that microcosm concept to the scope of the macros of the story. The colonists don’t know him. Why SHOULD they trust him?

That, though, is the colonists’ mistake. Now we’re just waiting for the hammer to drop. We’re waiting for the Daleks to make their move that will reveal them as evil to this colony. But they’re playing it so smart that they can explain away anything. “I reactivated myself because if I’m deactivated I can’t serve you.” “I woke up the other two Daleks because three Daleks are better than one.” “I took away their guns because we don’t need guns to serve you.” And each act of good faith only brings the colonists in closer, flies drawn into the spider’s web.

They’re still Daleks, though. Only they’re incredibly smart. While there is the thought that the Dalek The Doctor confronts in Lesterson’s lab would have shot The Doctor in the back if it could have (its gun’s been removed), I’m not convinced it would have. I mean, when it gets back up towards the end of the episode and The Doctor finds himself going up against three Daleks instead of the expected, the three Daleks do NOT shoot The Doctor as he flees. They easily could have, they could have disposed of the body, they could have vanquished their one-true-foe once and for all. Only they choose not to. And why? I mean, yes, the Daleks are playing a long game. But the one Dalek did seem to click its weapon frustratingly as The Doctor left the lab earlier. Why wouldn’t it affect The Doctor’s execution once it has the chance?

I’ll tell you why: it never planned to kill The Doctor at all when it was clicking its empty gun holster ineffectively. That was just a stress relief. It’s the Dalek version of your aggravator walking away from you and you miming strangling them as they do.

So the Daleks are smarter than anyone is giving them credit for. Even The Doctor is underestimating them at this point because they’re that many steps ahead of him at this point. It’s enthralling to see. The further we go down this rabbit hole the more frightening it gets. How are we getting out of this one? We have the Daleks openly mock-strangling The Doctor while his back is turned. Will there be no end to this madness?

I assume not. Not until everyone is dead anyways.

The one other thing I’ll point out in this episode is the power dynamic shift between Quinn and Bragen. It’s here that Quinn outs himself as the man who called for The Examiner to inspect Vulcan and report back to Earth. This, of course, is done to keep order under Hensell’s governorship. The rebels are scaring him and so he does this. Why, then, would he have assassinated the Examiner if he was the one who brought him in in the first place? The correct answer is “he wouldn’t”. Only Bragen manages to Hensell that Quinn has betrayed him (undermining his authority by calling for the Examiner is the thing that does it more than even the button I think) and Quinn is summarily dragged away in handcuffs.

What’s great about this is it’s a great game of mystery. It’s the secret to solving any crime: you have to ask “who benefits”? In this case, Bragen benefits, so it’s not hard to take the logical leap and say that Bragen really helped organize this whole thing. I mean, spoilers I guess? But come now. Bragen is exactly where he wants to be, just like the Daleks are exactly where they want to be. Their respective plans aren’t completed, of course, but they’re well on their way to making their dreams reality. What kills me is no one is asking the queston, “What does The Doctor accomplish by railing against the Daleks?” The answer is “he stops them from doing exactly what he says they’re going to do.”

Again, it’s no wonder no one believes them. But it’s also probably not a surprise to note that this won’t end well for anyone.

Part 4:

To get out of the cliffhanger to the last episode, Lesterson cuts the power running to the three Daleks, saying “Remember. I control you” to which the Daleks begrudgingly acquiesce.

As we’ve said previously, this story is built on the power struggles and the hierarchies of a small, isolated colony, and the narrowness of that scope is wonderful because it keeps a really tight focus on that constraint. Every scene, every beat, every line of dialogue all pushes forward exploring who is on top in this colony. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear who’s been on top this whole time, but it’s only with this episode that we learn just how powerful The Daleks actually are. But before that, we’re given hints and tips as to who thinks they’ve consolidated the most power and who’s most in control over the shape of this narrative that’s unfolding in front of our eyes.

Of course, the one who probably thinks he’s in the best position is Bragen, the man of two worlds. With the last episode Bragen became the Deputy Governor of the entire colony and in this episode we see him in the garb that signifies him as the Deputy Governor. But it’s also here that he starts to assume the governorship of the colony. It’s a subtle thing, but he takes to sitting in the governor’s seat in his absence. The nerve of that! Can you imagine the Vice President sitting in the Oval Office while the President is traveling outside of D.C.? It’s something that someone should probably mention or see as a giant red flag. This is a guy who’s clearly got his eye on the governor’s seat, isn’t it? Someone should probably note that he has his own office and his own desk that he should be using. I mean, the guy’s been in the position a day (if that) and he’s already making moves on the big chair. Come on. Someone figure it out.

We also find out that Bragen is the leader of the rebels. So he’s heading for the Governor’s job on both sides. Sounds like the governor is fucked, isn’t he?

Working for Bragen is Janley, who functions as Bragen’s connection to the Daleks. It’s she who brings the Dalek gun and arms the Dalek for its demonstration of power. And I love Janley, mostly because she’s such an enigmatic presence, which, in this story is saying something. There’s something recklessly dangerous about her. It takes a lot to stand up in front of a Dalek and invite it to shoot her with the same weapon that just shore a hole through a heavy steel plate. And yet she does. It’s that recklessness and fearlessness that keeps her outside of the things we can fathom. She knows what the Dalek gun can do to a person (she did cover up Resno’s murder) but she’s got her own specific agenda, and she also has power over the Daleks, and it’s a direct power that other people would need to go through her to get.

It’s also worth pointing out that this is really more of a big game of poker than it is a game of chess. Players aren’t revealing their hand until they’re assured that they’ll take the whole kit and caboodle. That’s why Bragen does not fear revealing himself as leader of the rebels to The Doctor. There’s nothing The Doctor can do about it.

But it’s telling that this is also when the Daleks start to get reckless as well. Well, okay. Reckless is not the best word. I suppose the word is confident. Because they start to move out in bigger numbers. Lesterson gives them the slap on the wrist and before even the halfway point of this episode we get The Doctor and Ben learning that there are more than three Daleks strolling around on this base like it’s nothing. And so it is a surprise to them, so it is a surprise to us. There’s nothing scarier, is there, especially because it’s so nonchalant. Think about the most melodramatic version of the reveal that there are more than three Daleks. Someone walks in demanding something of the Daleks and the three Daleks are in front of him; there’s a lull in the conversation and then he turns around and comes face to face with a fourth Dalek! DUN DUN!

But Whitaker goes for something all the more chilling. The Daleks seem to think nothing of showing up in groups of more than three.

And poor Lesterson finds that out the hard way.

It’s The Doctor who races to Lesterson and tells him there are four Daleks the second he finds out. And it takes Lesterson off guard. But what’s key is the minutes before, when Lesterson is running through the equipment the Daleks claim they will need to… whatever and Janley blackmails Lesterson into keeping his mouth shut to the Examiner. She then reveals that Resno was murdered by that Dalek that shot him because the information damages Lesterson’s claims that the Daleks are harmless and would thusly shut down the whole project. Reeling, Lesterson DOES keep his mouth shut, and is disturbed by The Doctor’s revelation that there’s more than three Daleks. Perhaps the Daleks are replicating?

Oh. Oh buddy.

The revelation of the Dalek assembly line is gobsmackingly good for… so many reasons. For one thing, it shows Lesterson once and for all that he has NO control over these machines. They’re replicating and have been for a while (because there’s a LOT of them). They are vicious killers (they killed Resno). They’re not the machines Lesterson assumed they would be (because they’re actually mutants, which is a phenomenal reminder of that). And oh. They are clearly planning something. It’s enough to drive Lesterson completely insane as his entire world crumbles around him, especially because he can’t do ANYTHING with this information. The Examiner’s in prison. Janley has committed mutiny against him. The Governor is away. And no one is going to believe him. He brought them here. Whatever happens next is on him.

God dammit is this cool. All of it. Everything in this episode, everything in this story so far. And for us to end on seeing the mass production of Daleks sends the geeky nerd bits of my brain kicking into overdrive. I wish this episode existed just so we could see the pure horror of seeing Daleks fish Dalek mutants out of a frothing solution and dump them into Dalek chassis. It’s insane, and then to get the slow reveal and realization that this is only the beginning and the Daleks are now going to unleash themselves across this colony and that they’re just picking their moment. We are as Lesterson: gobsmacked and shocked and appalled that it spiraled this far out of control this quickly.

One Dalek could take out this Colony. At the end of last episode three Daleks made their presence known. Twenty five minutes later we’re looking at a small army of Daleks with their numbers growing by the second.

That’s a hell of a place to leave your story for seven days if you ask me. It’d have me screaming at the walls. It’s the cliffhanger to “Bad Wolf” only done forty years earlier and revealed to no one but us. The Doctor has an idea that there’s lots of Daleks at the end of “Bad Wolf”. Here he’s locked in a cell and thinks there’s only four, five at most.

He’s no idea that sitting on his back porch an entire Dalek army assembles in secret. One Dalek can take out the entire colony? God. Looks like we don’t even need to test that theory any more.

Part 5:

When discussing suspense, Hitchcock very famously used the example of two people sitting at a table having breakfast. Now imagine there’s a bomb under the table set to go off in five minutes. It’s a surprise if it goes off, he said. But if it doesn’t….

So it is here. Under this colony is a massive army of Daleks growing in number as the seconds tick by. With every new Dalek, a massacre is more and more assured. Only we’re the ones who know about it. A Dalek itself is a surprise. Fifteen seconds of “OH SHIT.” But we’ve been watching the Daleks for the last four episodes and we’re waiting for their move. And they keep not making it. They keep biding their time. They keep waiting for whatever it is their moment is. And it drives us nuts because we’re seriously just waiting for the bomb to go off.

Only now there’s someone on our side. Someone voicing our concern. Who knows this is going down and is shouting to the heavens what’s going on.

And no one will listen to him.

As a move, it’s brilliant and why Whitaker is one of the best writers to tackle Doctor Who in the Classic era. He takes traditional storytelling rules and puts them into practice in this episode. Clearly he’s not ready for the bloodbath to begin and why would he. It’s what he’s been promising going all the way back to the first episode and we’ve still got an episode left on the docket. So this whole episode needs another stalling tactic. So he gives us two suspense options, both based on varying degrees of dramatic irony. Because it’s not just that Lesterson is shouting up and down the corridors that the Daleks are on the rise, but also that Hensell walks into a trap and doesn’t realize it.

But Lesterson first.

What I love about Lesterson (and admittedly, it’s a me-tickler) is his descent into madness because it’s really honest-to-goodness Shakespearean madness. And I don’t know what it is about Shakespearean madness that just gets me, but I love it when it happens in Shakespeare and I love it when it crops up into other aspects of my life watching/reading/etc. things. There’s something primal about it and it’s always completely fascinating to see a character who was once so seemingly well-adjusted reduced to a simpering, blubbering mess. It’s why it’s so amazing to watch Hindle in “Kinda”. Because these characters are reckless and no one (in the history of fiction) ever knows how to deal with a character who has descended into madness beyond “send them to a sanatorium” because… what solution is there? You can’t reason or cure them, best remove them from the situation before it gets too bad.

And so too Lesterson is removed from the narrative, but not before he screams to every single person he can think of that the Daleks are replicating and making more of each other and that they’re not the benevolent robots he thought they were but rather autonomous mutants in metal chassis.

It’s exhilarating to hear. Finally! Someone in the colony trusting The Doctor and speaking the truth! We have a convert! Only no one listens to him, and it’s one of those things that stories do that make them great: nothing is more wonderfully frustrating than the suspense of dramatic irony. All we want is for someone to switch sides and agree with The Doctor. Only Lesterson comes across like a raving lunatic, so no one listens to him. But even if he wasn’t mad no one would listen to him anyways because the Daleks are the centerpiece of Bragen’s plan. He doesn’t even want to hear Lesterson’s thoughts because they conflict with his own brand of hubris.

So we’re frustrated that we’re getting what we wanted, only it’s going horribly, horribly wrong and our situation is getting more and more dire.

It’s also in this episode that Bragen makes his final power play against Hensell. This is where Hensell re-enters the narrative, having walked out of it to examine the colony’s borders for the past twoish episodes. So he arrives early to find Bragen sitting in his chair (Ah! Ah! I told you that would be an issue!) and too late to stop Bragen from assuming control of the entire colony. It’s an extended scene, taking a few minutes to play itself out. And again, this is Whitaker’s phenomenal implementation of suspense and dramatic irony. We know that Bragen is dangerous, but Hensell assumes he isn’t because… well… why would he be? He just got a sweet promotion. Isn’t that he wanted? Only we know that Bragen is impossibly ambitious and will stop at nothing to make this happen.

For his hubris and ignorance, Hensell pays the ultimate price, executed by a Dalek under Bragen’s orders.

To say it’s a great scene is an understatement because the tension is so dire, and I love that the way Whitaker in all of these episodes has built numerous points at which they can go back on what they’ve done. But no, what we end up watching is more nails going into the coffin and each move that looks like it might be a point to pull out of the freefall we’re in ends up being just one more nail in the coffin that dooms this colony. Surely if Hensell were able to take control of the Colony again, perhaps there’s a way for them to shut down the Dalek problem (because Bragen believes The Daleks are his to command). Surely if Lesterson can be heard we might be able to shut this whole thing down. Surely if you didn’t activate that first Dalek we wouldn’t be in this complete mess in which we've now found ourselves.

What really drives it home, though, is the Dalek’s extermination of Hensell. No sooner has Hensell fallen than the Dalek turns to Bragen and asks “Why do human beings kill human beings?”

To make this quote make sense, we have to pull in a Dalek story that hadn’t yet been written by the time this story was before the cameras, but we know from “Evil of the Daleks" that Whitaker sees humans and Daleks as diametrically opposed forces, with one being the opposite of the other. So we have a Dalek commenting on the strangeness of human nature. And it’s a fair question. Why do Humans kill each other when you don’t see that happening between, say, gazelles or eagles? We have a propensity to hurt and kill, and why? Whitaker doesn’t solve any philosophical problem here (nor should he, his job is to get you to think, not to tell you what to think), but he does make it an interesting choice.

And because Whitaker is so interested in the topic, we have to ask the corollary: isn’t it curious that humans could ask a Dalek “Why do Daleks NOT kill Daleks?”

That, I think, is an even better question, because watching Bragen we’re seeing the dregs of humanity. A completely self-serving, amoral asshole concerned only in his own petty power. The second he claims control of the colony he places it under martial law. The second he is questioned by a Dalek he orders it get back to work. But what’s the worst example of a Dalek you’ve ever seen? They’re all hateful green blobs with a whisk and plunger for arms, virtually indistinguishable for one another. But Daleks don’t kill each other. Does that make them better than people somehow? I’d say so. Murder is one of those things that’s really deplorable and awful and unfathomable if you get right down to it. What does it accomplish? Not really anything. It’s just wanton destruction that doesn’t accomplish jack.

So if Daleks are, objectively, better than humans, doesn’t Darwinian theory say that Daleks are more fit to survive? Humans will probably wipe each other out anyways, so why not allow someone else a shot at this thing we call life?

Only The Doctor knows they’re evil and works all episode to get his way out of the prison cell he’s been locked in. And I wouldn’t probably mention this usually, but I have to mention that Troughton’s Doctor here gives one of those truly, inherently Doctor quirks here. And I always forget about it, but it’s truly phenomenal because it’s so clever. I mean… The Doctor using glasses of water and getting the harmonics on the glass to resonate at the same aural frequency as the sonic key? That’s hilariously wonderful. And the icing on that cake is the bit where The Doctor finally escapes and makes sure to take his handiwork with him so the guard won’t have a chance to pull off what he pulled off.

Here’s the thing, though, while The Doctor manages to escape his cell before Bragen executes Hensell, it still feels way too late, doesn’t it? Maybe if he had been out in the last episode he might have protected Lesterson and come up with something. But no. Nothing matters now. No one listened to Lesterson. Hensell is dead. Bragen is in charge and has given himself over completely to being The Daleks supposed master (and in so doing has become their one, true servant). And at the end of this The Daleks are finally released to exterminate every single person they see. They’re taking the colony. The day of reckoning is arrived. And five episodes of suspense have suddenly reached their tipping point.

And we end here with all of the Daleks screaming "Daleks conquer and destroy!" in a cacophonous chorus as they all stream out of the capsule. That's what's coming. Or rather, that's what's here. They are arrived. All of them. To conquer and destroy. This is it. Here we go.

Part 6:

Watching the opening of this episode, seeing The Doctor and Polly carted off by Bragen’s men, it catches us in a moment of off-kilterness. Again, we have a case of Whitaker deferring a moment we walk in expecting and playing it as realistic.

It’s remarkable, because by the time this episode starts, it’s easy to forget that we’re the only ones who are privy to the Daleks’ decision to exterminate everyone. But it’s a stunning reminder when we get the incredible beat of a Dalek quietly moving into position while The Doctor’s group is brought to wherever it is they’re brought to. It’s impossibly ominous because we’re waiting for the Dalek to do something. And yes The Doctor is terrified but he’s got no idea when it’s going down. For all he knows the Daleks are still biding their time. And it’s this that creates even more suspense. We know the Daleks are about to make their move. This Dalek knows it’s about to make its move. But no one else in the room does.

That’s a lot of power for one Dalek to have, methinks. Oh. And there’s a whole army of them like this one.

But it just hammers home how ridiculously silly and trivial every single subplot in this story is when compared to the imminent massacre that’s about to go down.  The scene between Janley and Bragen in the office as Bragen tries to suss out Janley’s allegiances is tense and exciting, but ultimately trivial. What does a power struggle matter between two people who will soon be dead? And what makes it terrifying is not that they’re about to die and don’t know it, it’s that they’re still playing this game. Clearly, this is an attempt by Bragen to see just how much power he has and if there’s going to be a threat to that power any time in the near future. It’s a squabble on the eve of a slaughter.

What’s funny is once the slaughter starts it becomes very clear that Bragen is just Eldrad: A King of Nothing.

This, I think, is a key point. Power is important, clearly. Power establishes a hierarchy. Only power is like currency: it really has no intrinsic, autonomous value. All its power is wrapped up in relativism, the way it’s established with regards to other things. Someone can claim himself the most powerful man on the mountain, but that doesn’t make him the most powerful man on the mountain. You gotta be able to back that up. You have something that those “beneath you” want. You need something that leaves people at your mercy.  It’s a nasty way of putting it, but really, it’s true. Power is a gross, inherently corrupted concept. It’s fairly arbitrary, isn’t it?

No one gets the message more than Bragen. Just when he thinks he has all the power in the Colony the Daleks rise up and very quickly Bragen has nothing but a microphone and a voice to shout ineffectually to a bunch of dead men. And really that’s all this is as the world burns.

Perhaps the best thing about this, though, is the fall of Lesterson. By this point, Lesterson is stark raving mad, but I love the way he accepts his fate. There’s a calm tranquility to his acquiescence that’s really chilling. He defers to the Daleks in everything because he thinks them the next step in natural evolution. They are here to replace the humans, aren’t they?, he asks. And it’s shocking and dark to watch him come to a Dalek in supplication and say “I am your servant” and to watch the Daleks exterminate him because they care not for servants is heartbreaking because it’s really just rewards for letting the Daleks out of the cage. Just like creators are always brought down by their creations, so too is Lesterson brought down by the Daleks.

It’s a great episode and jam packed with the carnage you’d expect from five episodes of suspenseful buildup. The release of watching a Dalek massacre is really great, isn’t it?

Then there’s the fact that once the smoke has cleared Bragen is left standing and is summarily gunned down by Valmar for letting everything go down. That’s an interesting choice, methinks. Why let Bragen get killed by humans when it’s really his fault the Daleks got so far as they did? Seems counterintuitive, when you put it that way. Only fair that he’s killed by his own handiwork. But isn’t he? Valmar seemed fairly loyal until he learned about Bragen’s ridiculous paranoia, and it’s that knowledge that makes him execute Bragen in the end. And why not? Bragen is reaping what he’d sewn.

Shoulda listened to that bit about human beings killing other human beings.

What I also love about this is the way The Doctor solves the day by basically unplugging the power source. I mean, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but the Daleks relied on one source of power and played their cards before they were ready. And that is their ultimate downfall. Unlike Bragen, who made his move when he had all of his cards and thought he had his best hand, there’s no rhyme or reason to the Daleks’ timing. It just seemed like a good moment and they ran with it. And that’s too bad. If their static circuit had been active The Doctor would’ve had to figure out a more intense, hardcore way to shut them down.

As it stands, he could just overload the power and be done with it. Which is what happens. And it’s a nice ending. Simple. But this episode was never around whatever cockamamie scheme Whitaker coulda come up with. No. It’s about the tension and the suspense and the release of that. And that’s good enough for me.

Final Thoughts?: I stand by the notion that this is the finest Dalek story ever forged.

What really makes it work for me is the way it's all about a slow buildup. At six episodes it never feels too long or drawn out, really ever. That's almost impossible to do, and yet Whitaker makes it seem almost effortless.

But beyond its structure, it's also a phenomenal showing for the Daleks and a brilliant showcase for what they can accomplish if they put their mind to it. Their plan is elegant in its simplicity, and it's executed in such a way that makes them smart and dangerous. And everything about them is played out with all the suspense Whitaker can possibly wring out of the premise. The Daleks offering to be our servants is about as wrong as anything I could imagine. Servants? And yet it works because we know the Daleks' true nature. We know they're up to no good and Whitaker's playing with expectations is one of those times that really shows you what you can do with the Daleks in a way that's not just Terry Nation cackling "Heh heh! They can time travel now!", which is... I guess. But I'd rather see a phenomenal Dalek doing something exciting and new.

This story is more than that, though. Whitaker takes what is a simple premise and turns it into an impossibly dramatic character piece. It's not terribly twisty turny, but that's what makes it more impressive. It puts characters with wants into rooms and just pits them against each other.

It's also a phenomenal first story for Patrick Troughton and a great showcase for his Doctor. I mean, what the hell else is there that's this good of his? He comes out of the gate kicking and screaming and yelling. and telling you to grab on for dear life. And by the end he's taken the characters and the audience on a real journey. He shows just how different this Doctor is going to be while still being The Doctor and what started off as an extreme lack of comfort and handholding ends with slightly less discomfort and almost no hand holding. Here at the end there's a bit of a wink, which comes because we know The Doctor just defeated the Daleks, which is something The Doctor does. So while we're sure it's him I love that we're still left in a place where we're not exactly sure. Hell, it won't be until "The Moonbase" that we're actually given a real definitive "No. This is The Doctor" moment.

It's a perfect blend of introduction story and Dalek story and something the series never felt the need to attempt again. The closest we ever get is The Master bridging across "Logopolis" and "Castrovalva".

Here, though, we get an amazing story that stands on its own not just as a great introduction story but as a phenomenal piece of Doctor Who. It's a taut, suspenseful thriller full of intrigue that pulls you in deeper and deeper all the way to the very end. As far as I'm concerned it's the best use of the Daleks ever, and it does so by being remarkably simple. The Daleks are never more sinister, never more conniving, and never more nefarious than they are here. It's remarkable to watch and holds up even to multiple viewings, so it's more than just a novelty to see the Daleks sliding around and offering tea.

No. It's an exploration of power dynamics and identity. The Daleks can never change their true nature just like The Doctor can never change his. But they still pitch and sell themselves to the colonists to disastrous effect (for the colonists mostly) to try to convince the people of power that their true nature is perhaps not what it actually is. That mirror is wonderfully thematic and clever in a way that I feel Classic Who doesn't always hit. Only Whitaker hits it and does a story that they could literally drop in today without changing much of anything. And it's one of the biggest losses to the archive. Were but this could exist so everyone could experience it and recognize it as not just one of the (if the) all time greatest Dalek stories ever, but also one of the top ten (or even top five) greatest Doctor Who stories ever committed to film. It's spectacular and phenomenal and just about anything/everything you could possibly want from this show.

Daleks. Power struggles. Bastards. Troughton. Whitaker. It's no wonder it hits it out of the park. A top five Classic story for me. A top ten overall story of all time. Just utterly genius and a high point Doctor Who's only ever reached/surpassed a few times since.

Next Time!: An Afterword! Because we're done. And that's what's up.

2 comments:

  1. You know, while I occasionally posted a contentious response when a story I hated was lauded or loved was panned (and for that I apologize), I really do appreciate everything that you've done here. I always looked forward to finishing a new serial (sadly, now I've seen them all, just as you have) so that I could go and see what Classical Gallifrey had to say about it- and even today, I was going back to re-read. Thanks for this labor of love, and well done.

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  2. Just finished reading the book for the first time, and I couldn't put it down. Brilliant story.

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