Until the realisation in the late 1970s that it might be worth preserving TV programs for historical and culturally important reasons, it was generally the practice of British broadcasters to save money and create storage space by throwing out their old film stock and taping over their old videorecordings. Like a great many other programs, huge swathes of Doctor Who were lost to the dustbin, but unlike a great many other programs, Doctor Who had developed an obsessive following and as a result almost half its originally destroyed episodes have been recovered since 1978. However, some allegedly all-time classics remain extant, so it was with great joy that I saw the announcement that 1966’s “Power of the Daleks” would be reconstructed through original sound recordings and animation for its fiftieth anniversary.
If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop here.
We encounter the TARDIS crew of The Doctor, Polly, and Ben coming out of the end of “The Tenth Planet”. The First Doctor has just been through a “renewal” and changed into the Second Doctor, though Polly and Ben are reluctant to believe it’s the same man. The Doctor, unpredictable and erratic, sends the TARDIS to Vulcan, where he and his companions become entangled in a factional power struggle between Earth authorities and a colonial rebellion. As the conspiracy unravels, the Doctor and his companions make a horrifying discovery about the real power behind the scenes.
Years ago, my father told me he stopped watching Doctor Who as a child when Davros and the Daleks terrified him. When the show was re-run a couple of years later on the ABC and I finally saw the Daleks for myself, I never understood how people could be so afraid of these things. Now, 13 years later, I finally get it. “Power of the Daleks” succeeds in making the Daleks as unsettling as they were in 1966.
What’s most striking about this story is how differently it uses the Daleks. It’s primarily a commentary on the way in which power corrupts; the Daleks manipulate the human colonists into tearing themselves apart, and they very nearly succeed.This story was written by David Whitaker, one of the greats of classic Who, and the complexity and mystery of the plot is textbook Whitaker. He comes to the fore during the Second Doctor era, and sets the perfect tone here in the very first story. It’s the first time we see the Daleks being cunning and manipulative, and that is what makes them threatening here. They play on the unfamiliarity of Daleks to the colonists, and the Doctor’s companions’ mistrust of his new self. The Daleks, with their humble claims of servitude and supposed goal of improving human quality of life, seduce the human colonists by appealing to various faults. For scientist Lesterson, it’s glory and fame. For Governor Hensell, electoral success. And for the evil and corrupt Bragen, it is the titular power. Anyone who subscribes to the apparent goodness of the Daleks is tainted by them, and ruined. I particularly enjoyed and was surprised by the horrific way in which Lesterson is driven slowly insane over the six episodes.
This is also a very early instance of the Doctor encountering a situation over which he struggles to gain control. The whole story sees his footing slowly eroding, and it was exciting to see him try to claw the situation back from a precipice. The story clearly inspired 2010’s “Victory of the Daleks”, with the Doctor’s crazed ranting about the evil of the Daleks falling upon deaf ears, and indeed even causing people to discount him as a hysterical lunatic. The cliffhanger of episode two, where Lesterson’s test Dalek repeats flatly over and over again, “I am your servant,” whilst the Doctor screams in terror that Daleks destroy human lives, was phenomenally unsettling. (Just going to take a moment here to say I love Patrick Troughton’s Doctor so much.)
This being the first time a new Doctor appeared in the series, the companions more than ever formed the role of audience surrogates. Ben and Polly throughout the story almost talk to the camera as they try to work out if they can trust this new man. Polly tends to want to believe in him, whilst Ben angrily asserts it cannot be. Fortunately Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, tasked with much of the heavy lifting in the first episode, rise to the challenge and deliver performances that progressively show their characters more at ease with the Doctor, which gives us permission to like him too. It’s worth remembering that if they didn’t pull this off, we wouldn’t be talking about Doctor Who today, so thank goodness they did!
It’s a relief that this is one of the better acted and directed stories of classic Who, because you don’t lose too much of the actors’ performance through the simple animation. Their expressive voices are well matched by sympathetic facial designs and active eyebrows, and on the whole I didn’t feel there was any major setback performance-wise. Patrick Troughton truly is one of the most enjoyable and energetic Doctors to watch (not to mention witty as all get out), and this was well captured. The animation does tend to disappoint only when it’s clear there was rather more going on action-wise than they were able to portray. I nearly lost confidence in the production during episode 1 in a place where there would have been an exchange of may confused facial expressions between Ben and Polly, where the animation simply makes them shuffle awkwardly from side to side. But it truly does get better, especially once the Daleks arrive. The directors have absolutely nailed the movement of those evil things, and, dare I say, actually improved on the original material in some places. This is a story famous for its use of cardboard cutouts to stand in for an army of Daleks, so it must have been a joy to create the various and dynamically moving shots of Dalek hoardss screaming “Exterminate” and streaming down corridors. Dark, shadowy set design, doubtless emulating the low quality of the film and lighting in early Who, really add to the feelings of unease.
This is certainly an accessible production for fans young and old. Watch out for Easter eggs, including a very discreet implication-by-logo that the Whoniverse may share a connection with Weyland Yutani, from Alien, and that Magpie Electrical from new Who appears to be their major competitor. Suspend your disbelief as animated characters battle with what would have been lightweight sets which don’t behave as they ought. Laugh as the Doctor takes a momentary break from schooling a rude security guard as he is handed a basket of fruit. And recoil in horror as Daleks raise their new kin from boiling vats of fluid.
“Power of the Daleks” was a truly wonderful experience. I had wondered if rose coloured glasses had given this story an undeserved reputation, but without a doubt, it deserves its title as a classic – it is absolutely one of the best Who stories ever made. From the fantastic characterisation, the offbeat and bizarre musical score, the writing, and the new animation, it was most enjoyable. I can’t wait to watch it again. If you can still catch it at the movies, do.