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Power of the Daleks. Saving the Franchise.

March 12, 2016


In the space of twenty five minutes on the 5th November, 1966, Patrick Troughton saved Doctor Who.  This episode has not survived – nor have any of the other five episodes of this adventure.  There is no adventure  whose recovery would be more eagerly welcomed.  However,  the soundtrack and the still photos give a fair idea of what this outing was like.

The story itself is a simple but effective one – so simple and effective that it was appropriated, made silly, and essentially ruined by Mark Gatiss for Victory of the Daleks, one of my least favorite twenty-first century stories.  The idea that Daleks might allow human beings to flatter themselves into thinking that they might be able to control Daleks and cultivate and exploit them as servants is chilling and plausible.  If there’s anything scarier than a Dalek threatening to exterminate you, it’s a Dalek offering you a glass of water.  Watching stupid people relax around Daleks is a surprisingly scary experience.

The Daleks exploit a pre-existing political powder keg on the colony of Vulcan.  There are rebels, who dream of overthrowing the governor, who are in turn manipulated by the  Deputy Governor who only wishes to control the colony dictatorially himself. As one Dalek tellingly remarks: “Why do humans kill other humans?”   Say what you like about mutated Kaleds – they are at least team players.

Among the featured players, nobody has a better time than Robert James as the scientist Lesterson, more responsible than anyone for bringing Daleks back to life,  who then collapses into a state of hysterical giggly despair combined with sincere admiration for our new Dalek overlords.

But this story is really about Patrick Troughton.  It is almost impossible to think back to a world where the idea of a different actor playing Doctor Who was something of a desperate gamble.  Could Patrick Troughton own the role – managing to be different from William Hartnell while suggesting that he was, at heart(s), the same man?  The word being used is “renewal” – but no attempt (thankfully) was made to try to play William Hartnell as a younger man.

There must have been a bunch of nervous people at the Beeb in November 1966 thinking “is this actually going to work?   Will people actually buy this?”

In his first twenty five minutes as the Doctor, Troughton succeeds – largely by being intriguing and evasive.  The recorder functions for him as an alternative mode of speech, a way of communicating by mood rather than with words.   And he is prone to “illeism” – talking about The Doctor in the third person as a way of demonstrating that he is feeling his way into a new role.  The fact that Ben and Polly differ as to whether or not this more genial if more mysterious younger man is in fact the Doctor assists the transition.  Patrick Troughton and writer David Whitaker (along with Dennis Spooner apparently) make us accept the new Doctor by getting us interested in the question of whether he is or not essentially the same person.

Nowadays, a period of erratic behaviour following re-generation is to be expected.  Without even a concept of regeneration (and it was not until the Pertwee-Baker transition that the concept was properly established), Troughton offers the perfect newly re-generated performance.  It’s like watching a new born foal totter on its feet on the day of its birth.  Everything he does, he does very deliberately, with a heightened sense of self consciousness.  The universe is made strange to him again.

And with Daleks poised to endlessly re-produce, the Doctor has to hit the ground running.



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