Random Musings: “The Power of the Daleks”, a key part of Doctor Who history

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Power of the Daleks

In November 1966, during the fourth season of the original run of Doctor Who, the BBC aired “The Power of the Daleks.” This episode did more than bring back those popular villainous antagonists, last seen in late 1965/early 1966; it gave us Daleks who were cunning and devious, rather than direct about their intentions. In this story, a Dalek proclaims, “I am your servant” rather than the usual “hello” of “Exterminate.”

Discovered in an ancient space capsule that had crashed on the Earth colony planet of Vulcan (no, not that Vulcan), the Daleks are revived by an ambitious scientist named Lesterson (Robert James), who convinces the governor (Peter Bathurst) that these self-proclaimed servants can be useful in the colony’s mining operations. All these “servants” need to fulfill their duties are access to power supplies and some technology.

What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, argues a new arrival to Vulcan, a man carrying the credentials of the Earth examiner and calling himself the Doctor. He offers no proof to substantiate his warnings about these “Daleks”, and his own companions, Polly and Ben (Anneke Wills and Michael Craze), seem uneasy around him.

Encountering the Daleks

The Doctor introduces Polly and Ben to the Daleks.

Amid all this, a group of rebels is active within the colony and a killer— the murderer of the real examiner— lurks somewhere about. The killer also knows that should the real examiner’s body be found, the Doctor would be the prime suspect.

In addition to presenting viewers with “friendly” Daleks, a murder mystery and political intrigue, “The Power of the Daleks” also gave them another twist— a new Doctor. “The Power of the Daleks” was Doctor Who’s first post-regeneration story (though the term “regeneration” wouldn’t be used for several more years). It marked the debut of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, taking over for the ailing William Hartnell.

In later years regeneration would become an established part of the program, but in 1966 replacing the popular Hartnell was a risk. Keep in mind, also, that viewers still knew almost nothing about the Doctor at this point. The terms “Time Lords” and “Gallifrey” wouldn’t even be coined until 1969 and 1974, respectively, and there had been no on screen evidence that the Doctor wasn’t a human being. There was nothing to suggest the Doctor could change his appearance, but the production team decided to make that risky move.

“What a reckless and brilliant piece of television inventiveness that was,” current producer Steven Moffat said about the Doctor’s first regeneration in the 2013 documentary The Doctors revisited: The Second Doctor. “It would have been so easy, if you think about it, for them [the producers] to say ‘his face will change slightly. We’ll put another bloke in a white wig and we’ll have explained his slightly different features and he’ll carry on playing it roughly the same way.’ They didn’t do that at all. And I still don’t know how they came to this conclusion and how they knew it would work to say ‘we’ll make him completely different.’”

Moffat is right. It would have been more “sensible” to replace Hartnell with an actor who looked somewhat like him and keep on going (and maybe future generations would have made comparisons with Darrin Stevens), but the producers avoided the “safe” choice.

In interviews, Troughton said he was initially reluctant to accept the part, believing Doctor Who wouldn’t last more than six weeks with him. He was wrong, of course, but it might only have lasted that long with a Hartnell look-alike.

It certainly wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. “The Power of the Daleks” didn’t just introduce Patrick Troughton as the Doctor; it introduced Doctor Who as the series is presently understood.

“I think Patrick Troughton created the Doctor as he is now,” David Tennant (the 10th Doctor) said in that same documentary. “William Hartnell created something that was unique and brilliant, but actually, the Doctor we recognize today is much more Patrick Troughton’s Doctor… If Patrick Troughton hadn’t done what he did so confidently and with such charm and so brilliantly, then I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

The Hartnell era gave us the Doctor, the TARDIS and travels through time and space with companions. Every other significant aspect of Doctor Who can be traced— directly or indirectly— to Troughton.

A few years ago, Doctor Who Magazine featured a debate regarding whether Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker was more influential. When you think about it, the obvious answer is Troughton. Yes, Baker, who played the part for seven years (the longest on-screen tenure), brought Doctor Who into the U.S. market (through PBS), but if Troughton hadn’t succeeded in making the part his own, Doctor Who might have been a little-remembered television curiosity.

Despite its historic significance, “The Power of the Daleks” was once only available for viewing by those who happened to have access to a time machine. It only aired once and was one of the many programs the BBC wiped from its videotape archives in the early 1970s.

Fortunately, the audio survives. That, along with images from the broadcast, allowed a team of animators to revive this 50-year-old classic on DVD.

“The Power of the Daleks” is a worthwhile addition to your video library; not just because of its historic significance, but also because it’s an engaging story of mystery and suspense.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.