Friday, 23 December 2016

The Power of the Daleks

Chapter The 39th, after fifty years - and six more weeks - it's finally here...

The Doctor has been through a renewal process where his body, face and personality have changed. His companions Ben and Polly are suspicious, and to persuade them he is who he says he is, the Doctor does something characteristic and defeats some Daleks. These particular Daleks are a party of three who are marooned, and have been hibernating in a capsule on the planet Vulcan for hundreds of years, during which time a colony of humans has established itself. While colony politics are getting fractious, a scientist, Lesterson, is experimenting on the excavated capsule and the creatures within. Posing as an examiner from Earth, the Doctor tries to stop this, but the Daleks are wily, and pretend to be servile in order to be given raw materials and power. They start a Dalek production line, and amass an army. They've killed loads of colonists before the Doctor manages to stop them. Moral of the story: always listen to your Doctor, and never trust anyone who's nice. Maybe not that last bit.

After getting an unexpected last-minute invite to the BFI screening on the 5th November this year, see below, which included in the ticket price a copy of the DVD to be sent out later, I cancelled my pre-ordered DVD and put on hold any plans I might have had to buy it from the BBC Store. At the event, I saw the first three episodes, but once the disc arrived in the post, I rewatched those first ones, and then the rest, with the whole family, an episode per day approx. across a week (with a gap to watch the Strictly final live) finishing just before Christmas.

First-time round:
I think every time I've seen The Power of the Daleks has been the first time: it's been a different beast each time I've grappled with it. The very first experience was audio only, and would have been in 1993 or thereabouts when the cassette version came out. I've mentioned these tapes before: unfortunately, their makers misunderstood their market, and overdid the new aspects (freshly written narration links by a more modern Doctor, in this case Tom Baker, written as remembrances of an almost forgotten adventure) when the purchaser was likely much more interested in the old episodes themselves. The framing device got in the way, plus Tom did have a tendency to ham things up which did not help. This may be why I have no memory of first hearing that tape, though I definitely bought it, and I definitely didn't give up halfway through. (A decade later, it came out on CD with better quality recordings, and a much more considered narration voiced by Anneke Wills.)

The second time I saw Power, a couple of years later, there were some pictures, though not moving ones. It was a reconstruction from off-screen still images on a video tape which I'd borrowed from someone, or maybe saw at their house - I forget. (A decade after this, a reconstructed version also came out on CD with the same narration by Anneke Wills, and I bought it again). Finally, another ten years on approximately, and I see the animated version. Watching the first half with an audience really highlighted how funny it is - it got big laughs in all the right places. Watching it with the family really highlighted how scary it is: towards the end of episode 1, when the TARDIS team are investigating the capsule, accompanied by eerie anticipatory Dalek electroinca, the middle child - a boy, aged 7 - literally hid behind the sofa. I was so proud.

I'll get on to the animation later, let's start with the story itself: it's brilliant.

Want more? Okay. First of all, the story is significant. Doctor Who fans are lucky in some ways: it wasn't planned, but most of our favourite show's key episodes survived the indiscriminate junking one way or another. We still have the very first story, we still have the first appearance of the Daleks, we still have The War Games and Spearhead from Space where the show is rebooted. The most seismic change to the format, though, is where our luck runs out. The seven episodes where the lead actor is first recast, where one Doctor changes into another, and the first adventure of that new Doctor where we see the aftermath and find out something of what the new guy will be like - they're all missing. Even though they've all now been nicely animated, even though another set of seven could complete seasons, or give us all of, say, Marco Polo, if I were to be gifted any seven episodes to be returned, I would still choose Tenth Planet 4 and The Power of the Daleks 1-6, just for the sheer history of them.

So, this story is always going to be important. Is it enjoyable too? Yes, yes, yes. That this is so, is because of two particular gentlemen and one insanely clever decision. The decision was to recast the lead role but with a completely different characterisation. He looks, acts and talks differently to William Hartnell's version. The script, and the Doctor in the narrative, don't let us off easy on this either - the differences are pushed to the fore. Then, the Dalek story starts, and presents the true character underneath the characterisation, and we see it's the same hero we always knew. Genius. Imagine how tempting it must have been to play it safe, just get a similar actor in and glue on Hartnell's wig. The series would have lasted a year more, tops.

It could have backfired, of course. The main reason why it didn't is the first of those gentlemen: Patrick Troughton. A consummate character actor, Troughton can make you love someone who, let's face it, is being irritating for quite a lot of the running time of this serial. He's Hartnell's equal in terms of comic timing too, which is essential to make Doctor Who work. I bristle against too much emphasis being put on Pat's casting being the main reason the show is still going (something Steven Moffat mentioned at the BFI), not because it's not true necessarily, but because it downplays his predecessor who had to make the thing work from a blank slate. It's down to both: both the first two actors to play the Doctor, the Grumpy one and the Flautist, were essential to its longevity. We are so so lucky that lightning struck twice in the Sixties.

The second of the two gentlemen responsible for Power's brilliance is the writer David Whitaker. His worrying obsessions with mercury and static electricity (both of which turn up in Power) notwithstanding, he delivers a faultless script. There were a lot of midwives to the delivery too - Innes Lloyd, Dennis Spooner et al - but what comes over most of all is Whitaker's passion to do his take on the Daleks. It's the first time that Terry Nation has let another writer compose a whole new Dalek serial, the first time he's properly let someone else play with his toys, and Whitaker responds with the best written Daleks in the best Dalek story ever. Like 'Dalek' in 2005, it shows how powerful they are by putting them in a weak position at first: they are only three, they're deactivated, they have their guns removed; yet, they still end up dominating.

How they go about this isn't the most original plot ever; but, from the Penguin running for mayor of Gotham, right back to the wolf in Grandmother's clothing in Red Riding Hood, it's always fun to have a bad guy pretend to be good; even better is it to have the good guy telling everyone how bad the bad guy is, only not to be believed. Of course, it could be pure panto, but it's paced and played so well. Peter Hawkins' vocal work, with gradual changes in inflection of the "I am your servant" refrain, as the Daleks get more and more cocky, sells it. The ultimately irrelevant machinations of various venal colonists bounce around the through-line of the Daleks growing and growing in strength, so we're never bored by what is essentially a linear narrative - in fact, the inevitability becomes part of the beauty of it.

Without the visuals, it's hard to know how good the direction is, but even audio-only one suspects director Christopher Barry rose to the historic occasion. The same can be said of the team behind the animation. With the addition of these new visuals, the only flaws I'd previously been troubled by disappear (for example, some of the locations and characters aren't that distinctive when you can't see them). The animation is not perfect, but it is certainly a marvel for the time and budget they had (which was very limited): the humanoid characters don't move very convincingly from a to b, for example. But even this actually turns out to be a strength as it throws into sharp relief the much smoother gliding motion of the Daleks, and makes them seem all the more alien. It's as hard to write originally about the new work done on this story as it is about the work that's 50 years old; it is a classic, and it has had new life breathed into it. Animation producer Charles Norton, like Lesterson, has found something languishing for decades, and obsessively - maybe a bit more obsessively than Lesterson even - worked on it until it's ready to take over the world.

Both stories feature alien races pretending to be good to get people to let their guard down, before going on the attack.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Earth Examiner's Report: BFI's The Power of the Daleks event, 5th November 2016. It was the morning of Saturday 5th November, and David - my long-term friend and fellow fan mentioned often times on this blog - texted me to ask if I wanted to go to the event happening in London in a few hours time, as he had a spare ticket going begging. The family, once consulted, very kindly gave permission to defer our planned garden fireworks to Sunday night, so I high-tailed it to the railway station. I live in the South-East and there was a train strike that day (there's a train strike most days) but I didn't let that deter me.

Surprisingly quickly considering, I was at the South Bank - there's some great urban art now where Ogrons and Draconians once roamed (the New Brutalist underpasses were used as locations in the 1970s Pertwee serial Frontier in Space) but other than that its not much changed from when I hung around here a lot; when I was an aspiring and perspiring screenwriter I would often be at the BFI (it was the NFT in old money) and a writing group of which I was a member used to meet in the Royal Festival Hall nearby. With memory lane successfully sauntered down, I met and had a nice spot of brunch with David, Chris P (also mentioned here previously) and David's friend and another fellow fan Trevor, who I was meeting for the first time. Saturday lunchtime is quite a civilised time for an event like this, with enough time before for leisurely catching up, appraising the effort gone into by the cosplayers, and celebrity spotting - Anneke Wills was eating in the same joint we were, but that was about it - plus a large expanse of afternoon post-event for drinking and talking.

(L to R) Johnson, Fiddy and Skinner
The event itself consisted of  screenings of the first three episodes interspersed with panels of various personages involved with the story, the Troughton era, or the animation. And Frank Skinner. I got the distinct impression that Frank just came along to watch, but was instead thrust onto stage to introduce proceedings; in so doing, he proved, as ever, that he's every bit as much a fan as those in the audience watching this warm-up act. From no other comedian will you get recognition humour about the rush of joy that accompanies the point where a reconstruction of a missing Doctor Who lurches into a few seconds of blurry moving footage. Also providing funnies were our hosts, the BFI's Justin Johnson and Kaleidoscope and Missing Believed Wiped's Dick Fiddy, who did a Doctor Who quiz. You had to "shout for Dick" (ho, ho) if you knew the answers, and one question about Steven Moffat bagged the prize of a DVD for the person who got it right... who happened to be Steven Moffat. This quiz was apparently a staple of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who screening events the BFI did in 2013, which makes me wish I'd attended them at the time.

Before any of that, the first thing that happened at the event was perhaps the nicest: Graham Strong was asked to stand up and take a bow, which he did to a hearty round of applause. Graham was the young fan that 50 years ago recorded the audio of The Power of the Daleks, and so inadvertently was the instigator of the project we'd come to see. The HD visuals to accompany the sounds that Graham preserved stood up to the big screen treatment, though unfortunately, due to a mix up, we didn't have the 5.1 audio, only a mono mix-down, but I was satisfied. It seems churlish to mention, but there is a continuity error in episode 1, which everyone noticed with a murmur in the theatre: at one point, very briefly, Ben and Polly are shown in their new colonist gear before they've changed into it. I'm sure the team are still killing themselves over this tiny lapse (but I can happily report that no one noticed this when I replayed the episode at home). When the first three episodes completed, all I wanted was to see the rest. So, a definite success.

(L to R) Ritchie, Norton, Ayres plus Fiddy
There was a discussion with three of the production team on the animation (producer-director Charles Norton, audio remasterer Mark Ayres, and 3D animator Rob Ritchie) then later a panel covering the whole of the Troughton era so they didn't have to leave out Frazer Hines; Power is the only one of Troughton's stories he doesn't appear in as Jamie. With him were Anneke Wills, who played Polly, designer Derek Dodd, Graeme Harper - who was the floor runner or call boy on Power (who knew?) - and Steven Moffat, a viewer at home as a lad - although, as he told the crowd, he missed epsiode 1 back in 1966, so seeing it on the BFI big screen, he'd finally caught up. It was a good-natured panel with a nice mix of the new (I'd never heard or read Dodd speaking about Doctor Who before) and the well-worn (we got the anecdote about the "Come Back Bill Hartnell All is Forgiven" T-Shirts). What came over most, as it always does, was how much love everyone had and has for Pat. At the end I veritably skipped to the exit, the event having been a well-needed boost to my happiness quotient.

(L to R) Dodd, Harper, Moffat, Hines, Wills plus Johnson
In the bar afterwards, there followed that post-event drinking and talking with friends and fellow fans, new and old. As I do every time I see him, I agreed with Chris P - the only one of the trio I met up with who lives in London - that I really should go to the monthly fan gathering at the Fitzroy Tavern, which would be a similar group of people, similarly happy and buzzing; but I think I'll end up too shy to turn up on my own, as ever. I persuaded Trevor to give the series Community another try, and promised I'd do the same with Fringe (and I will Trevor!). I discussed with David the best touchscreen gloves to allow me to play Pokémon GO during the winter months (he is a die-hard player of the much cooler but similar Ingress). And finally, slightly the worse for wear for the many craft ales I'd supped, I made my way home, my happiness quotient off the scale, even when the train strike entailed a 90 minute walk to get all the way home

In Summary:
'Power' to the people, right on! (And, incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!)

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