Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Unknown Power (The Power of the Daleks)

Of the many things to love about Daleks, the
way their eyestalks wilt when they lose
power is perhaps the smuttiest.
It's November 5, 1966. The Four Tops are at number one with "Reach Out I'll Be There." In two weeks, The Beach Boys will take it with "Good Vibrations," and two weeks later it'll be Tom Jones with "Green Green Grass of Home." Meanwhile, in the news, the Rhodesia situation goes worse and worse, John Lennon meets Yoko Ono, and Barbados declares independence from the UK.

While on television...

Sometimes Doctor Who is magical. I mean this on several levels, but one of them - and a significant one - is that the show is a clear formative influence on the sci-fi/fantasy culture that will eventually produce writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. As with many things about the future, we'll get there in time. For now, the only thing you really need to know is that it's hardly unusual for the show to have something of a spiritual dimension.

I mention this because, as The Power of the Daleks spins up, it's essential to understanding the only thing that's on anybody's mind - what the heck just happened to the Doctor. Again, this is something it's easy to forget in hindsight. We've had eight further post-regeneration stories now. We know how these work. But The Power of the Daleks isn't written for us. It's written for an audience with no idea what is going on. And it's establishing all of this for the first time, which means there are no precedents for this. This isn't "a regeneration story." It's the regeneration story - the story about what happens when the Doctor changes who he is.

It's tough to say what does happen, though. Minimalist exposition and the fact that we're on the joint longest stretch of missing episodes in the series conspire to make this a maddening thing to piece together. So let's go to the behind the scenes and look at what the people making this thought was going on. For me, the choice quote from Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd's notes on what they call a "metaphysical change" is this: "It is as if he has had the LSD drug and instead of experiencing the kicks, he has the hell and dank horror which can be its effect."

What does this mean? I probably should have tossed Timothy Leary in back when we did our roundup of 1966 counterculture. But suffice it to say that talking about LSD and metaphysical changes ties right in with the existing discussions of spiritual journeys that we've already had. But what, specifically, does LSD evoke? Well, let's crack open our Timothy Leary - specifically The Psychedelic Experience - and look at his incantations to be used in case of massive acid trip:
That which is called ego-death is coming to you. Remember: this is now the hour of death and rebirth; take advantage of this temporary death to obtain the perfect state - Enlightenment. 
So that's kind of familiar.

The other thing we need to take notice of is that this is a David Whitaker story, albeit one with Dennis Spooner doing an uncredited rewrite. Here I'm mostly just summarizing Wood and Miles in About Time (as always, available from finer Amazon widgets everywhere), but it's worth noting. Wood and Miles make an extended argument that Whitaker's writing has a ton of themes from alchemy and classic occultist sources. They demure on the extent of Whitaker's knowledge of these themes, but make a compelling case that they're there. I'll go a bit further - Whitaker said in interviews that "the lure of alchemy" was one of this favorite themes. So reading a sense of metaphysical weight and import into a David Whitaker story is hardly a massive leap.

So to recap, we have the Doctor engaging in some sort of metaphysical change brought about by exposure to the rampaging energy of Mondas, which we recognize as a dark mirror of Earth and thus a daemonic power, though not necessarily one that does not lead to enlightenment. (Remember, the Cybermen themselves took a spiritual journey - they just became horrifying monsters as a result of it. But this is the big theme of Kenneth Grant, and even to a lesser extent Timothy Leary - that the unenlightened are not qualified to judge the enlightened. The Cybermen are horrifying because they are enlightened and we are not.) The tension is simple to start - who is this man who replaced the Doctor? Is he still the Doctor? Is he still a good guy? Or has he been corrupted by Mondas?

In practical terms, however, coming right off of a story about existential body horror and daemonic shadows of humanity, we get Ben and Polly bickering. It's worth noting that we've seen Ben and Polly enough now to know how this works. When Ben and Polly disagree, Polly is right and Ben is wrong. In particular, think back to The Smugglers, where Ben systematically rubbishes every single premise of the series for comedic purposes. It's a subtle thing, but the fact that Polly believes this strange man to be the Doctor and Ben doesn't is actually a major reassurance that this is the Doctor. The show is still going to have to prove it to us, but from the opening moments, it does clearly signal where this is going.

On the other hand, the road is, to say the least, a bit rocky. The Doctor awakens from his change screaming, and seems exhausted and relieved to see that it's over. But noticeably, the first thing we see from this new Doctor is weakness - he screams, gurns, flails about, and when he finally laughs, saying that it's over, there is something deeply unsettling about it. The sense is that the Doctor is shrunken - diminished. (One thing that is not remarked upon nearly enough in reading the regeneration sequence is that the Troughton's outfit was intended as a "degraded" version of Hartnell's)

On the other hand, we do quickly get a reassurance that this is the Doctor. Ben accepts before long that this is the Doctor changed - though he wonders what's changed besides his face - and when Troughton looks in a mirror we see a last flash of Hartnell looking back at him. But this is contrasted with Troughton referring to the Doctor in the third person, and flitting about mercurially before starting to play his recorder madly and obsessively.

So what we are left with when we take off from the TARDIS towards the promised Daleks? Surprisingly little that is sensible. There is someone that might be the Doctor. But he acts wrong, and seems shrunken and ill-suited to the task. And once he gets to the main action on the Vulcan colony, things get worse - he continues to sulk and play the recorder instead of answering fairly straightforward questions about what happened to him and what's going on. And when he finds the Dalek ship, he seems positively giddy, singing "extermination" in an almost taunting voice and actively soliciting the colony to open the Dalek ship, despite knowing full well what's inside. All of this is unsettling. We've been given enough assurance that this man is now the Doctor. But by establishing that, the story brings something bigger into doubt - now we wonder if we actually know who the Doctor is, and whether he's up to the task in front of him.

And in episode two, at least, he isn't. He seems out of his depth, scared by one or two Daleks when he's previously faced armies of them. He keeps referring to Hartnell as though he was the real Doctor and Troughton is just a poor impostor. Until finally we get what is frankly the key scene of the entire six-parter. The Doctor and Lesterton face off, and Lesterton unveils the Daleks. One glides past the Doctor and turns to look at him, clearly recognizing him and acknowledging who he is. This, finally, nearly two episodes into Troughton's tenure, is the firmest assurance we have that the Doctor is the Doctor, and that he is a hero - the Daleks fear him.

And then the Daleks win. They get everybody on the colony to turn against the Doctor, shouting him down with their repeated cries of "I AM YOUR SERVANT" as he insists, louder and more pointlessly, that they are evil terrors. And this sets up what The Power of the Daleks is actually about. The Doctor, having confronted the ultimate cosmic darkness in Mondas and having engaged in a terrifying metaphysical battle with it, has to rebuild who he is in light of that revelation. And he has to do it in time to stop the Daleks, threats that can call into question the very nature of who he is and how heroic he is.

To be clear, this is not a narrative collapse story. This is something altogether stranger - a story in which when the Doctor shows up and gets started, the narrative has already collapsed. The Doctor has been reduced to nothing and has to rebuild his entire character, and the Daleks, the usual engines of narrative collapse, have already taken over the story. This isn't about the Doctor trying to maintain the integrity of what a Doctor Who story is against an onslaught of Daleks. It's a story about the Doctor trying to create a Doctor Who story in the face of a story where the Daleks have won.

And so it's striking that, in episode three, all of the uncertainty over whether Troughton is the Doctor is gone. Instead, the uncertainty is whether he's good enough at being the Doctor. And what we see over the next few episodes is a magnificent slow burn. Rather than continuing to harp on dramatic moments like the "I AM YOUR SERVANT" confrontation, the story, with astonishing confidence, assumes that cliffhanger to have been as disturbing as it is and trusts that it can spend the next two weeks slowly ratcheting up the tension. The Daleks get closer and closer to the point where they are in charge, and the Doctor continues to fail to get a toehold into the plot. This could be taken as a disappointment - certainly, rereading that paragraph, it sounds like I'm saying the story delays for three episodes. It doesn't. I can't say that enough - this is grippingly plotted, and absolutely worth tracking down a reconstruction of. This is, simply put, the best Doctor Who story we've seen yet. The slow burn here is a beautiful building of tension, and it just keeps building and building.

Until finally, in episode five, we get something truly impressive. Episode four ends with the revelation of a massive assembly line of Daleks. One thing, in fact, that this story does extremely well is make the Daleks scary again. After their massive universe-threatening antics in The Daleks' Master Plan, Whitaker instead makes them an intimate threat and takes care to repeatedly stress the contrast between their robotic exterior and their fleshy interior, playing up the essential strangeness of the concept to make the Daleks seem unusual. This is brilliant work on Whitaker's part, and gives the Daleks a new lease on life - previously they had to be in bigger and bigger adventures to satisfy us. Now, suddenly, they are in a much smaller adventure, and scarier than ever.

Then, in episode five, we get Lesterton - previously the Daleks' stooge - having a complete nervous breakdown at the horror of what he's done. And it's like nothing we've ever seen - an extended scene of clear mental agony. Lesterton rants, eventually declaring that humanity is doomed and the Daleks are now the supreme species. And again, what Whitaker is doing here is taking where the Daleks were in The Daleks' Master Plan and tweaking it - re-using battle-tested Dalek tricks and just streamlining them. Because this is the exact same scene as Mavic Chen going from top dog to extermination fodder at the end of that story. It's just done far better because now there's tension - if only Lesterton can pull himself together, he might save the day.

But, of course, he can't. And now there is an army of Daleks. The Doctor has failed. The Daleks have won. And there's a side point to make here about the fact that there are two revolutions going on here. First the Daleks are overthrowing humanity, and second a bunch of rebels are trying to use the Daleks to overthrow the colonial government. There's an intimate link between these two phenomena - one that is highlighted when a Dalek asks, in all seriousness, why humans kill humans. (Another brilliant touch - giving the line that challenges the notion that humans are morally superior to Daleks to a Dalek.) The Daleks, here, represent the same horrific darkness that Mondas does. The same one that destroyed the Doctor. (Ironically, then, it's this story that actually establishes Cybermen as villains on the level of the Daleks.)

By this point, Ben and Polly advocate just running for their lives. The Daleks are running rampant and slaughtering everybody. And only here, after it's gotten apocalyptically bad, does the Doctor step up and intervene.

But what is most striking is how he intervenes. Throughout this story we see the big thing that is different between Troughton and Hartnell. Troughton has the magnetic charisma of a leading man in the John Steed tradition - he's charming, witty, and energetic. So when he finally gets to work on the task, there's an electricity to it - especially given that the previous three episodes are all about him failing to get a toehold into the plot and being relegated to the sidelines to sulk on his recorder.

And then what he does. First he sacrifices a ton of guards in order to distract the Daleks, seemingly unworried about the ethics of sending Bragen's guards to certain death. The Doctor is going to play this his way, and woe befall those who get in the way. The Daleks declare that the law of the Daleks is in force - a fact terribly demonstrated when the Daleks, after Lesterton begs for them to spare him, saying that he gave them life, simply respond "Yes. You gave us life" and then shoot him dead. But in response, the Doctor demonstrates his own law.

Except his law is calamitous. The Daleks are destroyed in explosions of horrific viscera. And the Doctor is knocked out for it, coming to and reacting with glee when he's told the extent of the destruction he wrought. ("Did I do all of that," he asks energetically as he finds out the extent of what's been done.) And then, when confronted by the colonists with how much damage he did, the Doctor laughs it off and sneaks away. And, more troublingly, when Ben asks him if he had a plan all along, he returns to sulkily tooting on his recorder. 

And so we end with Ben, Polly, and the audience putting their trust in this new Doctor. But that trust is granted warily. The Doctor is dangerous in a way he wasn't before. Hartnell was alien because he was a temperamental old man. Troughton is scary because he is a force of pure chaos, willing to bring the world down around people's ears. Even if we've been reassured of our initial concern - that the Doctor has somehow become possessed by Mondas - now we have a whole new one. That this impish, chaotic Doctor, while he is clearly capable of stopping any monsters, might take the rest of us down with him. 

But that was always a part of the Doctor - the anarchic spirit and slight revelry in chaos. It's just that now those aspects of him seem wholly unchecked. The fear at this point is not that this isn't the Doctor. It's that maybe we never really knew who the Doctor was.

6 comments:

  1. I'm intrigued by your comment that the death of the Daleks in the episode involves "explosions of horrific viscera." How graphic is their demise?

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  2. Its always interested me that primarily people have remembered the "clowning" part of Pat's persona, and completely missed the grinning maniac who does tend to laugh it up when the big explosion has happened. He alternately appears to gain control in stories and then have it slip through his hands in a flash... so his level of unpredictability is pretty damn high. He does come across as the mad clown, not the clown, and it certainly is a very big difference.

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  3. BatmanAOD - Tough to say, given that it's a reconstruction. More visceral and biological, though, than they had been of late (save for their regression in Daleks Master Plan), but not moreso than modern standards.

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  4. I just finished the reconstruction last night. This review is pretty accurate in as far as it can be. I think the lack of moving images make the beginning and ending difficult to judge. The "renewal" sequence of events are hard to understand. There is a very strange moment when the Doctor keeps saying to concentrate on one thing and then the Tardis stops making a very irritating sound. Then, and I think it's sort of confirmed, the Doctor pics up Dalek metal and puts it in his pocket. Almost as if the Tardis knows the Doctor needs to go to Vulcan and fight the Daleks to get his wits back. Odd.

    The ending chaotic and reminds me a lot of the end of Genesis of the Daleks ... at least in terms of the random chaos going on.

    I'm sad to say that, since it is such a great story, I find it hard to get anyone to sit through the recon. If any story is a blue print of things to come (at least the really good things to come) than it is this one. Playing to all the strengths of the show.

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  5. Philip Sandifer:
    "But that was always a part of the Doctor - the anarchic spirit and slight revelry in chaos. It's just that now those aspects of him seem wholly unchecked. The fear at this point is not that this isn't the Doctor. It's that maybe we never really knew who the Doctor was."

    Since I take most of what The Doctor says about his past adventures on face value, I tend to assume that he had a lot of adventures before we ever met him. And, that somehow he got distracted from them when he & Susan decided to come to Earth (perhaps the Hand of Omega was involved-- heh).

    On that score, I therefore tend to feel that "The Doctor", as we saw him as William Hartnell, while he may very well have been "the original" (I believe it) was NOT the way he'd always been. Because he'd gotten old and weak and frail and was starting to go senile.

    And so when Patrick Troughton arrives, we may well be seeing the "real" Doctor, as he may have been in his prime, for the very first time.

    I got such a huge charge when I first read that, in the wake of Colin Baker, JNT decided to find a "Patrick Troughton type". And BOY, did he ever. It amazes me how he lucked out the way he did. Sylvester McCoy was apparently the first (and only) person he interviewed for the part. And despite having seen every previous Doctor before him, McCoy became MY favorite Doctor. I only wish he'd done as many episodes as Troughton had. (Maybe more.)

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  6. "This isn't about the Doctor trying to maintain the integrity of what a Doctor Who story is against an onslaught of Daleks. It's a story about the Doctor trying to create a Doctor Who story in the face of a story where the Daleks have won."

    Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about this story(having just watched it over the last few days) was that when the Doctor, Polly and Ben arrive in the colony, there is a very strong sense of a full story that is already going on which neither they nor the audience understand at first. It's very quickly apparent that there are plots and factions going on, before there is enough information to work out who we should side with.

    Which makes what follows, with various characters trying to use the Daleks as a tool for their own strategies, all the more satisfying. Not least because while the characters are focused on their own machinations, the audience knows that they have missed the important strategy: that of the Daleks in using the humans as tools.

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