Saturday, 8 May 2021


First broadcast: November/December 1966
Written by David Whitaker and (uncredited) Dennis Spooner
More plot spoilers!

Rebels Without Much of a Cause 

”This lot's too busy arguing amongst themselves to do much about anything.”
– Ben (summarising the storyline while also predicting the internet) 

The new Doctor in an exciting adventure with the Daleks? Troughton would only come up against the pepperpots once more, later this same season. About half Hartnell's number. Nevertheless, it reinforces the primacy of the antagonism to his enemies. (A primacy which gets foregrounded still more clearly a couple of stories down the line.) He knows what the Daleks truly are, knowledge he shares only with us in the audience. Even Ben and Polly haven't seen them before. But equally the Daleks are able to recognise him. At the same time as Ben doubts him, the Daleks know this is the Doctor straight off.

The scenario, should anyone not know, is that a human colony on Vulcan has dug up a Dalek capsule. The Daleks affect at being dutiful servants, while nicking the power supply in order to surreptitiously make more of themselves and generally await their chance to start exterminating.

In short, the whole thing rests on the eternal evil of the Daleks having being established. The idea they might have turned Boy Scout, that isn't even worth considering. The general problem with recurrent enemies is of course repetition. You know what they will do, and pretty much how they will go about it. Laws of return diminish. And this leads to the most common criticism of the Troughton era, that after the manifold eccentricities of Hartnell things become merely formulaic.

But here that foreknowledge, that predictability, the very limitations which should lose our interest the story, are turned into the source of all the tension. Like the Doctor, we know full well where this is going. And that knowledge doesn't help us in any way. Because no matter how much he waves that Examiner's badge of his, no-one else is listening. It's like the excruciating experience of watching an accident while powerless to stop it. It's like an anxiety dream where nothing works the way it should.

(In this way the New Who episodes which most resembles this isn't the direct copycat 'Victory of the Daleks', but the far superior 'Midnight'. As with 'Power' the Doctor needs to get what he knows over to everyone else to ensure their multiple survival. But don't count on it...)

So, why won't the humans listen? Apart from that powering the story. (No pun intended... oh alright, I only ever say that when the pun is intended.) Asking that question tells us a lot about what sort of story this is.

'Tenth Planet’ had approximately two-and-a-bit locations. But it's predicated on the idea we see the diversity of the Antarctic base not just as a microcosm of the Earth, but with actual connections all over the world. It's a global story, even if it looks suspiciously like a featureless cupboard. It has intra-story 'real life' devices, such as newsreaders announcing things.

'Power' isn't like that at all. There's no attempt to evoke the sense of Vulcan as a real place. It's not like one of those scenic landscape pictures, where you can imagine the contours extending past the frame. When the Governor goes off to inspect the perimeter, you don't picture a perimeter - full of perimeter people doing perimeter stuff. You just assume the actor's standing patiently in the wings, trying not to get jostled by stagehands, waiting his cue to come back on. It's even called “the perimeter”, like there's nothing to gain by giving it a place name. Things aren't there to be somewhere. They're there to stand for something. Asking further questions would be like asking where the Good Samaritan was headed for in Jesus' parable. It would miss the point of the thing.

In the argument the show has an allegorical nature, this may seem like Exhibit A. What we have is a morality play. Or what passes for one given the complete absence of anything resembling morality. The enclosed space is to tell us we're focusing on particular features, like the base is a kind of petri dish in a human experiment.

But there's a twist to this. As already seen, aliens in 'Who' are actually monsters – they're shadows cast by us, enlarged and dehumanised to demonstrate human foibles writ large. This idea is toyed with via the Pandora-like opening of the Dalek capsule. (Another echo of Quatermass, this time 'Pit'.) Yet it's toyed with only to visibly discard it.

The Daleks cleverly find and then utilise weaknesses among the humans, be that thirst for scientific knowledge, desire to improve production and impress bosses back on Earth, or plain old lust for power. And with this last example they catalyse the coup at the centre of the story. Yet they clearly don't cause it. It was set to happen anyway, sooner or later, capsule or not. (The Examiner was called for, before the story even began, to try to quell it.)

In the story's most quotable line, a Dalek is told by one character to exterminate another. He complies, but then asks “why do human beings kill human beings?” This isn't part of their scheming, he's virtually breaking cover by asking but feels compelled to. It's both bookend and corollary to the Cyberman in 'Tenth Planet' asking Polly why humans care about human life. It's alien to him. We're alien to him.

Rather than any previous Dalek story, this most resembles 'The Ark' with the internecine power wars amongst the Monoids. Except they were monsters given allegorical number names (Number 1, Number 4 and so on), devices in a cautionary story.

In other words, what's problematic about humanity isn’t projected on the Daleks. It belongs to the humans. Who are a shopping list our of foibles - ruthlessly power mad, blindly arrogant or recklessly curious. And they're us without the distancing devices of rubber suits or antennae stuck on heads. They aren't even handed distancing science fiction tags, like Mondor or Zerk, but regular names like Bragan and Quinn.

It's true it's not at all clear what the rebels are rebelling over. Donald Trump had a more coherent programme than them. Ostensibly a political story, crammed with plots and machinations, it has no real interest in this line of enquiry. As far as we can tell, it's a military coup against military rule. But the criticism that the story is about politics while having none misses the point.

And the point’s up there in the title. More than anything since ‘The Aztecs’, perhaps even including ‘The Aztecs’, ‘Power’ is a parable about… well, power. Say it out loud and it can sound hackneyed. The Daleks need power, like electrical power, but it's also a metaphor, geddit? But spelling it out is like explaining a joke. Within the story, it's extremely effective. People need to be fighting over power and power alone, for the allegory to work.

Bragan might be masterminding the whole thing just to get a bigger office. Certainly his first act is to get a smarter uniform. And on taking power he cries “from now on I will have complete obedience – from everyone!” Power here is like pirate treasure, there to be owned, stuff you want just to run your gloating hands through.

In fact the problems stem from the places real-world politics do intrude, like water seeping into seemingly solid rock. Both Governor Hensell and his deputy Quinn have educated RP accents, while Quinn disparagingly calls Bragan's guards “muscle boys” and an “army of layabouts”. The Governor's described in the script as “old fashioned, single minded” and “autocratic, a man used to making decisions”. Polly even says of Quinn “there are some people you know are all right. You can tell just by looking at them”, which events conspire to prove true.

The result is a rather reactionary story where the whole problem reduces to Bragan having ideas above his station. Rebellions don't change anything, but at the same time they disrupt the existing order so they'll turn out badly. It's the doublethink of British conservatism – power = bad, yet status quo = good.

And the petty-minded, rule-book-waving Deputy and his more flexible-minded Superior is a ’Who’ commonplace. It even gets satirised in the Golgafrincham spaceship in ’Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’. ’Power’ just takes this further.

And that's even before we get onto Janley.

Janley and Polly are the only women with speaking roles. And significantly they have no scenes together, they function like opposing poles. Polly doesn't do much, but she senses things. She senses – not works out – that the Doctor is the Doctor or that Quinn is “all right”, through 'women's intuition'. Much like Susan in ‘The Sensorites’. Against which Janley is cold, calculating and scheming, but worst of all active. As much as she does anything womanly it's to use her wiles to manipulate men. (There does seem to be something suspiciously Freudian in the image above.) While the workers, inasmuch as they appear at all (perhaps via the rebels), are the speechless equivalent of cannon fodder.

The Daleks Take Over the Asylum

”We are not rea-dy yett to teach these hu-man be-ings the law of the Da-leks.” 
- A Dalek (You may have guessed that)

One way to look at this story is that the Daleks are being rebooted as much as the Doctor. Originally intended as a one-off foe, 'Dalek Invasion Earth' had made a reasonable stab at reworking them for general use while not entirely losing track of what made them special. But with both 'The Chase' and 'Daleks Master Plan', they'd degenerated into a general menace, running round the universe doing the sort of stuff you'd expect bad guys to do. Their coinage was fast becoming debased.

And just as 'Alien 3' worked as an alternate sequel to 'Alien', effectively bypassing the first attempt, so this goes back to 'The Daleks'. They're not just antagonistic but treacherous. They're even back to being powered by static electricity.

As El Sandifer points out, “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.” Look, now more Daleks and with flying saucers! Look, now they have a time machine! Look, now they have a time destructor! And so on... Whereas this story shows us things up close. (And wasn't it ever thus? What's your favourite Dalek story from New Who? One of those where armies of Daleks drag planets around for the sake of it, or the one with just a single Dalek in it?)

And it's a story which would only work with the Daleks. Comparing them to the Cybermen of the previous story really establishes the distinction. The Cybermen set themselves tasks and try to carry them out with maximum efficiency. Here the Daleks, deprived of their exterminators and low on numbers, resort to their killer app - malevolent cunning.

This YouTube vid, sequencing all the times the Daleks chant ““ex-ter-mi-nate”, shows a sharp increase with this story. Yet that's kind of misleading. For they're not ceaselessly shouting it like a comedian with a catchphrase. In fact they take up an escalating series of chants (such as “we will get our po-wer”), which between them make up four out of the five cliffhangers. And they only start with ““ex-ter-mi-nate” once they're able to come out into the open. (The Doctor has used the term twice before they get to it.)

Their chanting punctuates the story, underlining their unity as the antithesis to human self-serving factionalism. When the now-crazed scientist Lesterson babbles that the humans don't stand a chance against them (“Man's had his day. Finished now... all we can do is marvel at the creatures who are taking our place”) you can't help but feel he has a point.

And that variation is important. For the story never falls into the trap of depersonalising the Daleks, even as it counterposes them. A recurring element is the way they can barely bear to play dumb and kow-tow to the pathetic humans, a necessity which really sticks in their imperious craw. (Or whatever they have for a craw.) You sense they might slip up at any point.

And that leads into one of the key images of the story – the army of Daleks being built inside the capsule. Previous stories had lost sight of the green globby creatures that lived inside the Dalek casings, which seems indicative of losing track of their characterisation overall. Yet the point isn't so much that the tentacles are back, but that we see them as part of a production line.

It's the combination which counts. The horror isn't that they're organised around a production line, animate non-life. The horror is that they're living things, which are organised around a production line anyway. To quote El Sandifer again, Whitaker “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.”

The assumption that the Daleks are just robots, so widespread even some scriptwriters seemed to start to take it in, was possibly the inspiration for this story. Certainly the colonists make this very mistake, blithely assuming the Daleks are “machines”, and hence can be controlled. There's even talk of setting them to work in the mines, the neat inverse of the Dalek task reserved for humans in 'Invasion Earth'. (And just about every subsequent story.)

Doctor Who in an Exciting New Adventure With the Daleks 

”I think we'd better get out of here, before they send us the bill.” 
- The Doctor

Throughout the story, the Doctor deflects rather than answers questions. And his reaction to power is similar. In an ending remarkably similar to the just-gone 'Tenth Planet', his solution is to destroy the Daleks by giving them the power they seek – and plenty of it. But, on top of the pile of dead bodies, this shorts the Colony's entire power supply. “There's a lot of clearing up to be done”, says one of the few surviving rebels, with some of that English understatement you hear about.

When you put this into not just the first Troughton story but the first reincarnation story, with it’s inevitable theme of change... well, change and order are almost made into antonyms. There’s really four sides at play; the Governor (described by the Doctor as “jealous of his own position”) who wants to retain power, Bragan who plots to usurp it, the Daleks who scheme to “control and destroy” and the Doctor who wants nothing except to thwart all of that. Quinn's left nominally in charge, but by that point there isn’t much to be in charge of. The theme would seem to be, if we want change we must also expect disorder.

El Sandifer describes this new Doctor as “a force of pure chaos, willing to bring the world down around people's ears.” And this is true to a degree that's even troubling. In fact what's really troubling is that it’s hard to work out whether this is good troubling or bad troubling. There’s story-gets-edgy-in-getting-you-to-question-your-assumptions troubling. And in a series which can too often be sentimental in its indulgence of ‘human values’, in its easy assumption we must be the good guys, that's kind of welcome.

But it's simultaneously troubling in a way where it doesn't seem to understand that it might be, that troubling sort of troubling. The Doctor's plan is essentially to thrown Bragan's guards at the Daleks’ exterminators as a distraction, to give him time to work. Which seems barely distinguishable in means from Bragan's plot to stir up a revolt in order to suppress it. Ironically, Bragan's initial response to this is his nearest moment to morality in the story - “I refuse to allow my guards to be sacrificed”.

But sacrificed they are. Given the already-mentioned authoritarian underpinnings to this story, its hard to escape the notion it doesn’t matter much if a bunch of people die when they're just extras and hired help. Their corpses become a character tic to notice in the new Doctor. Someone in the Whoniverse should really start a Guard Lives Matter campaign.

But then again the lack of power has as much of a symbolic value as the power did. Remember what sort of story this is. The Daleks are not our shadows, and the humans don't overcome their differences to unite against their greater threat, holding them back while the Doctor gets all Doctorish. Both Bragan and the Daleks are now out of the picture. But as the bodies are swept away and the power put back on, another Bragan could easily rise through the ranks to try and depose Quinn. Nothing has been solved or healed.

If regeneration was to prove popular, regeneration stories didn't necessarily follow suit. (At least in the classic show.) If Pertwee and Davison had reasonably popular initiation stories, it also led to two of the show's direst clangers - 'Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani'. But that might be in part due to the first ever regeneration story setting the bar so high. Despite the impediment of all the episodes being missing, 'Power' proved a classic. The best Dalek story at least since their first appearance, and possibly of all.

Further writing: This time a suggestion that someone writes something - ‘Compare and Contrast the Examiner’s Pass to Barbara’s Necklace.’ There are so many thematic parallels between this and ’The Aztecs’, both critiques of power unable to escape the perspective of power, that someone should really write a comparison between the two. Go on, why not give it a go? Your time starts now...


  1. I am delighted that you're doing this!

  2. Just so you know (or have I told you this before?), the reason that my initial comments on some of your posts are so terse is that I mostly read blogs in bed on my terrible Kindle-branded tablet, which is just about capable of rendering a blog post, but definitely not what you'd want to use to write a significant comment. Then when I get the email notification that my comment is up, I can return on my laptop and comment properly.

    Troughton is probably the Doctor I am least familiar with. The only story of his that I have watched all of is Tomb of the Cybermen. I would love to see The Abominable Snowmen, having adored the Target novelization as a kid, but ... you know how it is.

    I remember early in Matt Smith's residency, a lot of critics saying that he based his portrayal largely on Troughton's, or at least found inspiration there. If that's true, I'll look foreward to hearing more about it, especially as Smith is my favourite of the 13.

  3. Troughton's the Doctor most are least familiar with, as he was most plagued by missing episodes. On the other hand 'Abominable Snowmen' was the first Target novelisation I read. So for me he's kind of strangely familiar and Hartnell's the foreign one.