“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future,” observed art critic Robert Hughes. He was discussing the architecture of the modernist city of Brasilia at the time, but it’s a truism that holds for many a Doctor Who adventure.
The Power of the Daleks takes us to the Earth colony planet of Vulcan in the far-flung future of 2020; at least according to the serial’s original TV trailer – broadcast 50 years ago to the day. Vulcan is a world where men are men, and a woman is called Janley. It’s an ascetic, cheerless place, patrolled by jack-booted guards and seething with fear and mistrust, devoted to scientific study. It’s a time when humanity has mastered the secrets of interplanetary flight, but not yet found a cure for male pattern baldness. It is a world of mercury pools and widow’s peaks.
In November 1966, when The Power of the Daleks was broadcast, the year 2020 was a place of fantasy. Here in 2016, it’s just over the brow of the next hill. If we’re lucky. And so today, our dreams for 2020 are more modest. Perhaps the BBC might manage to produce a new series or so of Doctor Who by then. Sure, we’re short on rocket ships and alien colonies, but we can confirm that the first three minutes of the newly-animated version of The Power of the Daleks will be livestreamed on Twitter. ’Tis a brave new world indeed, forged in the white heat of social media marketing.
In the past this viewer has expressed reservations – in the reviews section of Doctor Who Magazine – regarding the value of presenting lost Doctor Who episodes with as animation. The Reign of Terror DVD gave us a nightmare vision of William Hartnell as a talking onion. Six months later, The Ice Warriors took a step forward, but struggled to depict its characters moving in a naturalistic way. The Power of the Daleks takes another step, capturing excellent likenesses of its characters, and the quirks of their facial movements. The cartoon Patrick Troughton is especially persuasive. The animators have captured the way the actor talked from the side of his mouth, as if sucking Popeye-like on a pipe. Troughton’s little black tooth is lovingly rendered. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop looking at it.
This production is clearly a labour of love (certainly, no one has ever worked on Doctor Who spin-offs for the money) and the production team have given it their all. And that little bit more. At the press screening for the first two episodes – which is all I am able to review here – producer Charles Norton looked ready to slide under his seat with exhaustion. When recalling a particular scene from Episode 1, he couldn’t quite reach the words to describe it, but the shot number came immediately to his lips. He looked haunted, like a soldier stumbling wounded from a harrowing battle. “It’s a triumph!” the gathered civilians assure him, but our producer can, for the moment, only recall the suffering and loss.
The shortcomings of The Power of the Daleks – as has often proved the case with Doctor Who since ever Doctor Who there was – can be ascribed to lack of time and lack of budget. The artwork is exemplary, and some shots are of frameable beauty. But it’s clear that compromises have had to be made to get the job done on a BBC Store/BBC Worldwide budget. Most frames are kept to mid close-up, to avoid having to animate too many arms or legs. It takes a little while to get used to, but you do get used to it. You’ll be won over by the time of the big argument in Episode 2 – where the Doctor tries to convince scientist Lesterson about the dangers of the Daleks – if not before. This scene works especially well thanks to the fast dialogue, which requires frequent changes of shot.
It’s only when characters have to move about in silence that the spell dissipates. If a character has to walk across a room, we will see them bob almost comically across the screen. Every so often, the view will cut to a shot of their feet but, sensibly, we rarely see the whole figure move at once. This puts one in mind of The Sooty Show or The Muppets, when you would sometimes glimpse Sooty or Kermit’s little feet scampering along.
(All of which raises a question in the mind of this viewer. Is 2D animation the only way to recreate these lost episodes? I’d pay good money to see A Very Muppet Evil Of The Daleks. Just think of it. Fozzie as the Doctor. Kermit and Miss Piggy as Jamie and Victoria. Bunsen and Beaker would share the role of Theodore Maxtible. And, on Skaro, the Great Gonzo would be Emperor of the Daleks. No, not Daleks. Chickens. The Doctor must defeat his plan to spread The Chicken Factor through the history of the Muppets. In the final shot, looking down on Gonzo’s burning shed, our hero would utter those immortal words: “The final… end… Wacca wacca wacca.”)
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The animated Power of the Daleks gifts us a little pre-credits treat of the regeneration sequence from The Tenth Planet, which is practically pornography for fetishists of the TARDIS console. You heart lifts at the simple pleasure of peering deep into the central column, right down to the slotted plastic colander that Rassilon, in his ineffable wisdom, decided was just the thing to restrain the awesome power of the TARDIS engines. When our new adventure begins proper, you recognise some of the colossal challenges of animating old Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton’s first scene contains a good minute of rattling about in a cupboard, and nobody scripting an animation from scratch would ever include a sequence like it. Weirdly, what the new pictures do at times like this is really tune you in to the sound. When this scurrying gerbil of a new Doctor Who barks a sudden “Come here!” at his travelling companions, you sit up in shock.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Patrick Troughton was keen to move on from Doctor Who after only three years. He’d long since done everything he could with the part, given that he completely nails it within his first 20 minutes on screen. Because Troughton pulls off this first (and incredibly risky for the programme) regeneration with such seemingly effortless skill, it might be tempting to conclude that the role is actor-proof. But history has proved that not to be the case. Here, even as a line drawing, you feel the full force of Troughton’s charm – a charm that Peter Capaldi, after two years in the role, transmits only in brief, if dazzling, bursts.
The other Power performance you appreciate anew thanks to this animation is Robert James as Lesterston, the scientist obsessed with reactivating the strange machines he has found in a capsule dragged from Vulcan’s mercury swamp. James clearly understands his character. The jealous, insecure scientist is a core Doctor Who archetype, but Lesterson is surely the best of them. There’s a nice subtlety to the way he momentarily resists using the word ‘Dalek’ to describe the alien machines, because he knows it surrenders just the tiniest bit of control of the situation to the Doctor. The animators clearly relish James’s performance too, as Lesterson seems to receive special attention. There’s a nifty shot in Episode 2 where his face is reflected, distorted, in a Dalek’s shiny dome.
The rest of the colony is, at least in the first hour of this story, something of a confusion of middle-aged men. It’s long faces all round on Vulcan, especially in scenes where Lesterson lines up with deputy governor Quinn and chief-of-police Bragen. Here, the animation caused this viewer to appreciate the text in an entirely new way. With their twitching lips and frequent sidelong glances, a powerful homoerotic tension simmers between Bragen and Quinn. Speaking of his troop of manly guards, Bragen boasts: “I pick them for their physical fitness”. “I thought it wasn’t for their IQ,” Quinn cattily replies. Later, the Doctor greets Bragen with the words “A-ha! Fruit!” This kind of language might have been acceptable in the 60s, but now is frowned upon in our polite society of almost-2020.
The Power of the Daleks truly takes flight once dormant Daleks are – and never was the word more appropriate – re-animated in Lesterson’s lab. You truly appreciate the genius and potency of their design, and those voices. As the Dalek eyeball begins to glow; as the gun arm begins to twitch; as Lesterson and his team’s voices rise with delight and anxiety…. This is when you will, if you haven’t already, forget that you are not watching this story in its original form. This ability to mesmerize, across all times and all media, is the true power of the Daleks.
The Dalek voices, when they come, are just a part of a rich soundscape that’s heightened further by Mark Ayres’ gorgeous restoration and remastering in 5.1 surround. Composer Tristram Cary’s atmospherics and jarring metallic clangs come straight from the soundtrack to a nightmare. The scene towards the end of Episode 1, where the Doctor breaks through to the inner chamber of the seemingly empty capsule, may be a steal from Quatermass and the Pit – complete with its sudden, shocking moment of movement – but you can’t watch it without holding your breath. And it’s Cary’s music and Brian Hodgson’s sounds that make it so especially potent.
Of course, the fact that we can hear this story at all is the great miracle of The Power of the Daleks. We must express all gratitude to fan Graham Strong, who wired up his tape recorder to his TV set and bottled this magic for us all to enjoy half-a-century later. This wonderful, fastidious recreation – and surely many more to come even better than this – could not exist without him. And so to Graham… Thank you.
Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future – or so they say. Well, it depends how you look at it. This new Power is being released in daily instalments on the BBC Store, beginning at 5.50pm on Saturday 5 November – exactly 50 years to the minute from its original transmission. This means that Episode 5 will be available for download on Wednesday 9 November: the day after the US presidential election. Episode 5 of The Power of the Daleks tells the story of a colony taken into the control of a bitter, vengeful fascist.
Hopefully, in this case, fiction will prove to be stranger than truth. If not – then somebody, please, send for the Doctor.
The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC Store from Saturday 5 November.