50 years ago, Doctor Who was heading into its fourth season and, while the ratings were still pretty good, the health and mental capacity of its star, William Hartnell, were on the wain. He also flatly didn’t get along with new producer Innes Lloyd, and the decision was made for the man known as “the Doctor” was destined to become “the First Doctor.” How would it all work out? One person who was there for the whole thing was Anneke Wills, the actress who played companion Polly, and who spoke to us about “The Power of the Daleks,” new animation, and Patrick Troughton‘s beginning.
“We knew that Bill Hartnell really couldn’t hack it anymore, sort of during “The Tenth Planet,” Wills told us. “[Co-star Michael Craze and I] were taking over his lines, he was collapsing, this was not going to happen. We had a summer break coming up. They said, ‘Okay, at the end of this summer break then, we’re going to have to have a whole change of scene. We’re not sure. We’ll have to see.'” But even that wasn’t as easy as it might have sounded, because a very different approach was going to be taken. “Then there was the decision that, would we have an actor who looked like William Hartnell, a lookalike, or would we have a completely different person? This was a new concept, it could have made or broke the entire show. This is very dangerous moment.”
She and Craze—who played companion Ben Jackson—were left totally in the dark as to the future of their program, a very nerve-wracking prospect. However, soon a bit of light shone through the uncertainty. “Then we heard during the summer [that] they had managed to persuade [an actor]; it was going to be Patrick Troughton,” Wills remembers. “Then it was very exciting because we thought, ‘Oh, boy, now he could be the absolute perfect person.’ When he walked through the door of the rehearsal room that first time, and Mike and I got to meet him, I mean he was the most utterly delightful, charming, ego-less, humble, talented man. He was so beguiling. We knew then actually that this could work. This is going to work. I think the public are going to accept this and they loved it.”
In the years since the six-part story first aired, “The Power of the Daleks” has become a pillar of Doctor Who‘s ethos, often considered the very best Dalek story of the classic era and a great story otherwise. I asked whether there was any indication, other than the changeover of lead actor, that it was a cut above the rest. “We were aware that the BBC had done everything it possibly could to make this one work,” Wills shared. “Six weeks instead of four. David Whitaker, a brilliant writer would bring back the Daleks. When you’re in trouble, bring back the Daleks! They’ll always be good.”
Part of the legend that has been built up surrounding “The Power of the Daleks” is due to the fact that it no longer exists in the BBC archive. In the ’70s, many tapes of older programs were wiped or flatly destroyed, just to make room. The idea was that nobody would ever want to watch old television again. Little did they know. (Click here for a fuller breakdown of that process.) As a result, of all six episodes of “Power” lost to time, the BBC has commissioned the story be animated using the entire original soundtrack—thanks to fans at the time who taped the audio for their personal use later—and being reconstructed using the few existing clips or still images. A gargantuan undertaking for the story’s 50th, but one that Wills found a revelation.
“I must say,” she began, “I do think the drawing [of the animation] is beautiful because it’s very ’60s. It’s like a little ’60s comic. Beautifully drawn, especially Patrick. Seeing Michael and I, I’m so touched actually because there is so little of us to see [because of the wiping of the archives]. Here’s Polly and Ben, I hope that people enjoy us two looking so sweet. But then Patrick, the Doctor, they’ve really managed to get absolutely his essence. How they’ve done that, I don’t know. It’s absolutely brilliant. Then of course there are those bloody old Daleks who you know, they are just really good. Yeah, I think for me, it gets 99 out of 100.”
Wills said the one thing that still stood out to her after all these years is the performance of Patrick Troughton, even now in animated form. “We heard the depth of Patrick’s voice, when he talks of horrors that he’s seen, and that absolutely blew us away. Then the next minute, his delightful and charming bit of humor that had us absolutely rolling with laughter. After all these years — and I’ve read the narration for the audiobook, and I read the Target novelization and everything — to be once again, to be surprised and delighted at the quality of his performance. Without the quality of his performance, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”
Doctor Who “The Power of the Daleks” airs Saturday, November 19 at 8:25/7:25c on BBC America.
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!