The Power of the Daleks: Episode Four
It’s quite a surprise that, after three episodes of increasing blinkeredness and self-deception, Lesterson makes such a volte-face in the fourth part. James plays the character with the same nervy consistency, but now with an increasingly cracked aspect. The doors of Lesterson’s perception buckle as the truth begins to break in on his reality.
This is very much his episode, as the inevitable Doctor Who standby of locking up the central character(s) is called upon to mark time. Ben and the Doctor are captured/arrested and there’s no sign of Polly (Wills on holiday). It’s a testament to the scripting that it doesn’t feel obviously like the story is sagging here. Nothing much is really happening, other than slow progression (of the Daleks’ plan, of certain characters’ realisation of truths). But that in itself is of a piece with the approach to this story; bangs and whistles are very much a secondary requirement.
Lesterson’s arc seems him recover almost forcefully from being unsettled at the cliffhanger to being aghast at the next one (notable to have him central to two consecutive ones). Dizzy Daleks; if only they’d reined in the ranting, Lesterson might have been unalerted for longer. As it is, he rallies himself by doing to the Daleks what the Doctor attempted; he cuts the power supply.
Lesterson: I want you to remember that I control you.
But the Daleks are less willing to take shit by this point, and the episode suggests this with subtle dialogue and unsettling pauses. They aren’t yet up to strength, but their numbers are growing. Much is made throughout of the mystery of the fourth Dalek, and it’s a compelling hook that finds its answer at the end of the episode.
Dalek: We obey.
Lesterson: I’m glad we understand each other.
Dalek: We under-stand the human mind.
A fantastic line, all the more resonant for what is left unsaid. With the seeds of doubt firmly planted in Lesterson’s mind, the deft reintroduction of a thread from the second episode is required to keep advancement of the plot in check.
Lesterson confides his concerns in Janley. Why do the Daleks need all these raw materials?
Lesterson: I don’t want them to do anything without consulting me. What is it they do inside there?
Janley tells him he’s worrying too much.
Lesterson: I’m beginning to believe the Examiner is right about the Daleks. Their original thinking terrifies me. If I cannot control them, I will have them destroyed.
Pointedly, Janley’s threat of revealing what happened to Resner highlights Lesterson’s essential values. Just as realisation of the Daleks brings his mind back into focus (for now), so Janley’s manipulation resolves his moral outlook. On learning that Resner is dead, he tells Janley, “You’ve done a terrible thing”. There’s no room for movement there, and his code informs him that “Experiments are not more important than human life”.
Nevertheless, the Doctor’s revelation that the Daleks are reproducing is too much for Lesterson, who passes out. His next scene is at the climax of the episode as he observes the truth of the Daleks’ activities in increasing horror.
Lesterson: They’re conspiring together. Why didn’t I realise? They are evil!
His almost delirious terror recalls Poul’s robophobia in The Robots of Death, and the climax of the episode takes its time, allowing Lesterson to silently explore the ship and observe the Dalek manufacturing process. It’s difficult to judge how effective this sequence would have been; the photos of the mutants being deposited in cases look rather good, but then there are the cardboard cut-outs…
Until the climax, the Daleks are all impending threat. This is best illustrated with the Dalek with drinks attachment (“Do I bring liquid for your visitors?”), all the more disturbing for acting like a butler.
Dalek: Have you finished your liquid?
Bragen: No, no. I haven’t.
Bragen, who believes he has mastery of the situation, is visibly (I say visibly, although this is a recon) unsettled by their imposing presence. The Daleks are now gliding about the colony unimpeded. Not until Revelation of the Daleks would a story again pick up on how effectively the tension of Daleks interacting with humans without displaying direct aggression can be sustained.
The scene of the rebels testing out a “controlled” Dalek with its gun stick attached is less compelling. It reveals that the rebels are planning to take over by actually utilising the Daleks, and the trap of believing that they can manipulate the creatures, but it doesn’t add much new to the mix with the Daleks themselves. Indeed, repeating the “Dalek gets angry with the Doctor but can’t shoot him” from earlier in the story is a bit unnecessary (I wasn’t clear if the Dalek threatening the Doctor in this scene had its gun removed at the end of the rebels’ test; if it did I don’t see how it would be that worrying anyway).
A big question here is how are the Daleks reproducing? I suppose it must come down to a relatively simple answer like gene banks. It seems unlikely that they’ve got a batch of frozen mutants on the ship. The script never broaches this, though. Only the nuts and bolts of their casings are addressed.
The Doctor: There’s only one explanation. The Daleks are reproducing themselves.
Janley: These things are machines. How could they reproduce?
The Doctor: Machines? The Daleks are brilliant engineers. Nothing is beyond them, given the right materials.
This story takes pains to position the Daleks as worthy adversaries of the Doctor. He acknowledges their intelligence and fortitude throughout; equal parts horror and respect.
But the Doctor doesn’t have much to do this week, other than react. He’s in the position of recognising that any influence he had under his assumed identity has floundered, and that the Daleks have gained the upper hand (“So they’ve given you the run of the colony, have they?”) There’s still the opportunity for flippancy, such as his reaction to Bragen’s promotion.
The Doctor: Oh, what a nice new uniform. Very smart, very smart. I would like a hat like that.
He succeeds in impressing his concern over the fourth Dalek trundling around on Lesterson, but any further action is blocked by Janley. Then he confronts Bragen.
Bragen: I am the leader of the Daleks.
The Doctor: Well, see if you can stop this one from killing me.
His main meat is being locked up with Quinn, who proves quite scathing. He blames the “Examiner” for events reaching this stage but, while he knew Bragen was up to no good, he didn’t realise he was leader of the rebels. It’s curious that the device of concealing Bragen’s identity at the meeting of the rebels is used initially, as it can’t come as much surprise to any viewer who saw him conspiring with Janley the week before. Quinn seems to think the Governor can count on mine workers for support (they’d never strike, presumably). There’s a nice touch where a dog barks in response to the Doctor attempting to pick a sonic lock through whistling.
Bragen’s first seen in the episode having a set-to with Valmar, who is probably wisely suspicious of one authority figure replacing another authority figure. I’m still not finding the rebel plot entirely convincing, because they seem to be rebelling for the sake of the plot alone. But I rather like that Hensell is so unaware of the dangers around him that he’s happy to swan off on a tour of the perimeter for a day or two.
Janley shows herself to be more than up to the challenge of Bragen’s calculated manipulation; not only does she threaten Lesterson and lie that the Doctor attacked him, but she volunteers to have the Dalek with gun re-attached tested on her. If Bragen at least shows a bit of wit, Janley reveals only cold conniving.
This is Lesterson’s episode, and a great performance from James. The drinks-holder Dalek is inspired, and it’s remarkable how well-sustained the subdued presence of the Daleks is. They don’t go on the rampage until the final episode. I’m not sure any other story exploits their status so economically.