Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (1966) [DVD]

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powerdaleksOf the 97 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who that no longer exist thanks to a cost-saving policy of wiping and reusing master video recordings, perhaps the ones whose loss are most acutely felt by fans of the show are the six comprising “The Power of the Daleks”, Patrick Troughton’s first outing in the role. Not only was it the story that established the act of regeneration in series lore (without which Doctor Who would never have lasted 53 years), it’s also one of the very best stories featuring the Doctor’s arch-nemeses the Daleks. Sadly, although fandom rejoiced when two long-lost stories (“Enemy of the World” and “Web of Fear“) were rediscovered a couple of years back, there’s no hope that any such miraculous resurrection will be possible for “The Power of the Daleks” and so instead we’ve had to make do with a novelisation and an off-air sound recording made by a fan at the time of the story’s single airing on BBC television.

That changed this month with the BBC’s release of a specially commissioned animated reconstruction of the serial. It’s not the first time that the BBC has used animation to cover for a lost episode, but in the past this has been limited to when just one or two episodes of a longer serial are missing (“The Reign of Terror”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The Moonbase”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Invasion”.) It appeared that the BBC had gone off this idea and the part-completed animation of missing episodes of “The Underwater Menace” was abandoned, while the one still-missing episode of “Web of Fear” was replaced by a series of static stills made up of telesnaps (photographs of a television screen taken during broadcast.)

It’s therefore quite a surprise to see the BBC return to the idea of animation, and moreover for a serial where no episodes at all survive save for a few short clips that had been re-used in other programmes. It’s a mark of how highly regarded the serial is, and how keenly fans of the show have wanted a chance to see it in some form or another. The question is, does it work?

Broadly speaking, the answer is an emphatic yes. It’s a joy to be able to see this legendary story again for the first time, with all the dialogue, music and sound effects provided by that aforementioned off-air recording of the genuine broadcast originally made by Graham Strong and newly restored in Dolby 5.1 by Mark Ayres. Of course it’s not the same thing as watching the real production – how could it be? – but it’s the next best thing, and so much love and hard work has gone into the project that you can’t help but be won over by it. In some ways the animation could even be said to have the upper hand as it can improve on the live action original since you can’t see the cheap sets, the cardboard Daleks propped up in the background and the miniature shots using toyshop models. In 1966 the BBC only had three working Dalek props, but now this reconstruction can wheel out Daleks in their hundreds and thousands without blinking an eye. While sticking very closely to the telesnaps where available, the new version produced and directed by Charles Norton can also innovate in terms of noir-ish lighting, artistic cross-fades, innovative camera angles and slow zooms to give the whole thing a bit more of a modern spring to its step. It treads carefully to avoid the ire of purists who would tolerate no Lucasian retro-tampering with hallowed source material, although the decision to make it in widescreen rather than the original 1.33:1 full frame format has caused some controversy among fans.

Presented in glorious monochrome, the six part story opens with a teaser depicting the last minutes of William Hartnell’s First Doctor as he collapses on the floor of the Tardis and transforms in a burst of light into Patrick Troughton, much to the discombobulation of his companions Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze). Ben in particular is convinced that this new man is an impostor and not the Doctor at all, and therefore becomes the doubting audience’s surrogate in the matter of disbelief. The new arrival hardly helps matters when he refers to ‘the Doctor’ in the third person and refuses to confirm his real identity. However there’s no time to hang around as the trio quickly embark on a new adventure on the planet Vulcan (no, not that one) where the ‘impostor Doctor’ quickly assumes another false identity, that of a dead man, in order to investigate mysterious happenings at a nearby Earth colony.

The chief scientist of the colony, Lesterson (Robert James), is busy studying an alien space capsule recently discovered and extracted from a mercury swamp. The Doctor quickly recognises it as a Dalek vessel and is all too well aware of the danger it represents. He wants it destroyed but no one will listen or believe him: unlike the patrician First Doctor, this new incarnation looks like a tramp and acts very oddly, and thus doesn’t convey the authority needed to get people to take him seriously. To make matters worse for him, when the Daleks do emerge, they’re also acting atypically: rather than trying to exterminate everyone as is their usual preferred approach, they declare “I am your servant” in order to get materials and power supplies they need. A Dalek that uses guile, cunning and duplicity rather than brute force to achieve its ends is insidious, unnerving and creepy and is beautifully underscored by Tristram Cary’s unsettlingly sly music. Such scheming on the part of the Daleks was something that hadn’t been seen up to that point and wouldn’t be again until 2010’s “Victory of the Daleks” wherein writer Mark Gatiss knowingly using David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner’s script as an inspiration for the tea-making Ironsides in the Matt Smith adventure.

Significantly it’s the way that the Daleks instantly identify and react to the Doctor’s presence despite his new appearance that convinces us, the audience, that he’s really still our hero. The story is also very clever in making the Doctor alone aware of the danger the Daleks present: the viewing audience know he’s right and so we’re immediately on his side railing against the clueless colonists and confused companions, and in that way any reservations we might have had about the regeneration are quickly quashed and forgotten in pursuit of a common aim and shared enemy. Remarkably for a six-part story of this era, “The Power of the Daleks” completely maintains its pace and tension with panache throughout in a completely coherent plot about the dangers of the enemy within. The ultimate stamp of success for how smoothly the show achieves the vital transition from Hartnell to Troughton is that Doctor Who is still running today, because if this serial had dropped the ball then it likely would have been the end.

It’s a great story, and one that I’ve enjoyed before by listening to the soundtrack which had linking narration to describe on-screen action. Getting to see how it would have looked is a delight and genuine treasure, with certain things that were confusing in the audio-only version now making complete sense. That said, there are some sequences where things aren’t so clear, likely unscripted ad-libbed moments that no one is still around who is able to clarify or explain. There are other moments where the animation rather runs out of ideas and spins its wheels waiting for some unspecified action on the soundtrack to complete its course, perhaps because the action is too subtle or fleeting to be captured by animation or else possibly there was a genuine moment of ‘dead air’ in the original programme, something quite common in 1960s productions. Also watch out for a curious slip in the animation of the first episode regarding a costume change, doubtless one of those things that fell through the cracks in a hectic production schedule to get the story out in time for its 50th anniversary.

As for the animation itself, there’s a lot to commend it – not least its authenticity to the original sets and actors. At one point in the accompanying audio commentary, Anneke Wills is so caught up in what she’s seeing on the screen for the first time that she’s reacting to the arrival of characters as if it’s the real actors (“Oh, there’s Peter Bathurst!”) which is delightful and touching. That said, fellow actor Edward Kelsey sounds underwhelmed by his own animated representation and complains that one Dalek PoV shot wasn’t in the original. (Moderator Toby Hadoke responds that it was, as evidenced by the telesnaps.)

This all goes to show that when it comes to artistic representations there is inevitably a lot left to the eye of the beholder and you’re never going to get consensus. For example, Wills loves the way Troughton is represented but I was somewhat less convinced (he has such dark shadows under the eyes that he looks like a very tired panda) while Ben looks curiously generic and little like Michael Craze; but any such shortfalls are swiftly swept away by the soundtrack and by hearing the unmistakable genuine voices at work. The presentation is on much safer grounds when it comes to the Daleks themselves, their design perfectly suited to animation which makes them look particularly sparkling and realistic here. The little lurch and acceleration of the Daleks as they come over the top of a ramp is quite wonderful, and the wordless assembly line sequence an absolute tour de force.

Overall it has to be said the animation is on the cheaper side – more Ivor the Engine than Finding Nemo – and apt to be rather choppy and jerky, especially when the picture pans or zooms. No one is going to turn around smoothly in this production and such on-screen movements are minimised accordingly. Surprisingly the depiction of characters walking is done rather well (it tends to be the Achilles Heel of most animations which struggle to authentically portray this flowing action) but is understandably not overused in order to keep the amount of work required by the artists to an affordable level. The animators have intelligently added nicely subtle background movement to most scenes to stop the frame looking dead and static, and there’s a particularly fine CGI-enhanced moment when the Doctor sees the Daleks for the first time and they’re covered by cobwebs that are waving back and forth in the breeze – a beautifully atmospheric moment. However the motion of foreground characters tends to be composed of a number of stock tics and gestures that can end up being distracting and artificial when over-applied. It’s at this point that the new medium most intrudes and distracts, and makes you miss being able to see the original performances, although to be fair the animators are also capable of extracting moments of great nuance from their ‘actors’ which convey a great deal from just a small tweak to the artwork.

In summary, the new version of “The Power of the Daleks” is a laudable attempt at restoring a long-lost, much-loved story from the classic era of Doctor Who and I can’t praise the BBC enough for having taken the bold step to produce it. I hope it’s a success and that it’s the spur for them to do many more, and if they do then I shall certainly be toward the front of the queue to pick up any new copies – whatever minor quibbles and qualms I might end up finding to talk about!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Available for download from the BBC Store from 14 November 2016, The Power of the Daleks was released on DVD in the UK on November 21. It contains production notes, a ‘making of’, photo gallery, test animation footage and surviving original recordings, and audio commentaries as well as a full telesnap reconstruction of the story. A Blu-ray version will be released on 6 February 2017 where as well as high-resolution it will also be presented in a colour version.

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