It’s too bad that there isn’t a real TARDIS lying around some vault at the BBC. If there was, someone (a doctor perhaps) could go back in time and save the now-destroyed 60s and 70s episodes of Doctor Who, many of which are considered lost classics.
Among those episodes stranded in the void are the six that comprise the 1966 series’ fourth season serial, The Power of the Daleks. This serial has been reconstructed (regenerated?) using the original 1966 audio and newly commissioned animation. The recreated animated episodes air Saturday nights, (8:25 PM Eastern Time/7:25 Central) on BBC America.
The Power of the Daleks has long been considered one of the most important of the lost serials, as it features the first “regeneration” (called “renewal” in this serial), from the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, to the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, along with an early appearance of the titular monsters, the most famous in the show’s history.
Any attempt to reconstruct a seminal lost serial would be a big deal in The Whoniverse, bound to cause both excitement and controversy amongst the show’s fans – and there is plenty in the new animation, produced and directed by Charles Norton, to do both.
The very fact that the show exists in any watchable format is amazing, and makes the serial compulsory viewing for all Doctor Who fans. Not only does it contain the aforementioned original regeneration scene, it also gives fans a complete story featuring Troughton’s Doctor. The destruction of the 60s and 70s BBC tapes (one pictures a bunch of trashcan like monsters gliding around the BBC offices screaming, “exterminate”) hit the second Doctor particularly hard, as none of his complete serials have survived. Fans should jump at the chance to watch a complete story arc featuring this influential Doctor, who established the premise that has allowed the show to survive and adapt for over 50 years. He has also been cited by Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Matt Smith as their favorite version of the iconic character.
The reconstruction uses the original sound recording, which survived even though the video was destroyed, so the viewer listens to Troughton’s acting, along with his companions, Polly and Ben (Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, respectively). The music and soundscapes are original, as well. What the viewer sees, however, is entirely new, and it is from there that most of the discussion—and controversy—about the reconstruction will most likely arise.
The animation, which is a combination of computer generated and hand-made elements, is decidedly low-budget. The character designs and 3D renderings, designed by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon, are beautiful, and the black-and-white-retro aesthetic perfectly matches the vibe of the surviving Classic Who episodes (through a color version is available for download at the BBC store website). It is when the characters start moving, however, that the issues caused by the small budget manifest. The stop-motion-style of the character’s movement, along with certain basic animation errors that should have been caught in editing, initially takes viewers out of the experience, and provides a barrier they must overcome to fully immerse themselves in the story. For a program like Doctor Who, which already heavily relies on the willing suspension of disbelief, anything that takes its watchers out of the experience, and reinforces the idea that what they are watching is not real, is an even more serious problem than it would be for another, more realistic program, and a segment of the viewers will likely reject the recreated series right off the bat because of these flaws.
For another group of viewers, however, the simple, quirky animation will be an endearing call-back to the original, low-budget, live-action, classic Doctor Who episodes of the 60s and 70s. Let’s face it, Doctor Who—especially in the early years—was never about fancy visual effects; rather, it was about character and story. The lack of bells and whistles, slick modern animation, and anything that can remotely be considered fancy, is, in its way, true to the source material, and fans of the original program may appreciate the quirks in the animation as an authentic nostalgic throwback (whether the producers intended it that way or not).
I tend to lean toward the second reaction. After the first 10 minutes of the first episode, I stopped noticing the animation, and was able to focus on the acting and the plot. The animation did, however, hinder my focus for the first 10 minutes, and I sympathize with people who see it the other way.
The story itself is a strong one. It begins with the above-mentioned regeneration scene. The companions’ reaction to the “new” Doctor is one of mistrust and confusion. They do not know exactly what has happened (remember that this is the first regeneration in the history of the show), and the new Doctor’s propensity to refer to the old Doctor as “the Doctor” and speak of him in the third person as if he was someone else does not help their comfort level. Fans of the “New Who” shows will find much familiar here, as every regeneration in the new program echoes this original regeneration in some way. Polly and Ben’s confusion and inability to initially accept a Doctor with such different physical and personality traits reminded me particularly of Clara Oswald’s initial reaction to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in the show’s most recent regeneration.
In the midst of this discomfort, the TARDIS has landed on Planet Vulcan (no pointy ears: apparently, Doctor Who and Star Trek both had the idea of naming a planet after the Roman fire god independently), where the new Doctor assumes the role of a recently murdered inspector from Earth. He discovers that the residents of Vulcan have found a very old space pod, and are unsure about whether to open it. Eventually, they do, and it contains—spoiler alert, but not really, since it’s in the title of the serial—Daleks. The story makes brilliant use of dramatic irony as the Doctor and the viewers know the true intent of the Daleks, while the human colonists of Vulcan do not.
The script, by David Whittaker (with an un-credited assist from Dennis Spooner) is strong, especially considering the age of the program. It is considered to be one of the strongest—if not the strongest—Classic Who serial by many fans, and it is easy to see why. It is well-plotted, suspenseful, and speaks to universal themes about human nature. Troughton is excellent as the Doctor, and the ensemble cast holds up its end of the bargain well. Of course, some of the nuances of the performance are necessarily lost both because of the animation and because there is little surviving footage on which the animators could base the lead character’s facial expressions and movements.
The pacing, however, is much slower than a typical modern television program, let alone a “new” Doctor Who episode, where the storytelling style is “don’t blink” or you’ll miss something. For fans coming to the classic material for the first time, this will necessitate some adjustment. The excellent score and soundscape helps, and, by the end of the first episode in the serial, viewers will likely get used to the “dramatic” pauses in between the dialogue.
Overall, there is a lot to like about the animated reconstruction of The Power of the Daleks. While it isn’t perfect, it is a welcome addition to the Doctor Who Canon, especially during a lean year in The Whoniverse.
Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine,Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org on twitter as @thesurrealari .