Due to a lack of foresight, and a belief that television programs would not need to be archived for posterity, the BBC wiped or “junked” a huge swath of their output back in the early 1970s. This resulted in hundreds of missing episodes of shows like Dad’s Army, The Quatermass Experiment, and Doctor Who from the ’60s and prior. Much of Who has been recovered, but there are still 97 episodes missing, presumed lost forever. This is why what the BBC has done with “The Power of the Daleks” is so brilliant and necessary: animating the missing episodes allows people to “see” the story for the first time.
“The Power of the Daleks” is a landmark story, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, and has become the holy grail of stories the fans hoped would someday be found. It is the very first story to feature Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, meaning it is the very first post-regeneration story. The episode ushered in a new era to the show, one that ensured it could continue for 50 more years with different actors in the lead role. Beyond that, it’s also hailed as one of the (if not the very) best Dalek stories of all time, showing that the time-tested villains could be sneaky, underhanded, and could play humans like fiddles if they needed to.
This rich history was running through my head while watching the story, now animated using monochrome Flash animation made from off-air recordings of the original audio, and utilizing existing clips and photographs of the production itself. As of this article’s publication, every extant episode of Doctor Who has been released on DVD, though some stories of the classic run had an episode or two missing, necessitating animation be used to fill in these gaps. “The Power of the Daleks” is the BBC’s first attempt to commission an entire missing story—a six-episode arc—completely in animation. By and large, they succeeded masterfully.
I’d listened to the audio of the story before, with linking narration by co-star Anneke Wills (interviewed here), but it’s another thing entirely to see it played out visually. Written by David Whitaker, arguably the most important writer in all of 1960s-era Doctor Who, the story plays out as a mystery with an ever-ticking doomsday clock, all with a Doctor who doesn’t put his companions at ease, and who even talks about “the Doctor” as a different person. Arriving on the planet Vulcan (no, not that one), the Doctor quickly encounters an examiner from Earth who is murdered by someone offscreen. Quietly assuming his identity, the Doctor begins his quest to find out what’s going on.
His companions, Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Wills), argue over whether the man in charge is actually the Doctor after all. Instead of giving them straight answers, he plays recorder annoyingly. As the Doctor continues to act as an examiner, he learns of the Vulcan colony’s trouble. A kind but naive governor is trying to put down a rebellion while his security chief and deputy governor engage in a pissing contest for supremacy. At the same time, a scientist named Lesterson (Robert James) becomes obsessed with the seemingly dead robotic beings he found in a crashed capsule. Naturally, the Doctor knows these to be Daleks, and knows that if they are brought back to life, the lives of everyone in the camp are in danger. When the Daleks awaken, they appear to act only as servants to the humans, and no one seems willing to believe the Doctor, perhaps before it’s too late.
Earlier I mentioned the ticking clock element to “The Power of the Daleks,” which played much more prominently in the animation than it ever did while listening to the audio some years ago. We know the longer the Doctor is unable to convince the Vulcan population of the Daleks’ threat, the closer everyone is to destruction. Fascist regimes seem to take hold as double crosses upon double crosses play out between the characters, none of whom recognize the gravity of the situation, much more worried about their own petty squabbles and power struggles. The Daleks themselves, for perhaps the first time in their existence, play it cool and bide their time until they can spring their trap, resulting in a truly dire, pulse-pounding finale.
The animation is terrific, for what it is. Evidently, the production company didn’t have a ton of time to work on the episode before it needed to be delivered. As a result, the human characters don’t tend to move around more than they have to, with most movement carried out in the face (which is what you need, really). The Daleks, however, are incredibly dynamic, and their scenes are the most exciting and visually interesting of the bunch. Any nitpicks about the animation aside—and if you’ve seen any of the other animated episodes, you’ll know this is on par or better than those efforts—this was fantastic viewing experience. At a certain point toward the end, I stopped even realizing I was watching an animated reconstruction and instead just felt like I was watching “The Power of the Daleks.”
The BBC commissioning this story in animation all but solidifies that the actual episodes will never be found (why would they spend time and money on animation if they had any hope of recovering the real thing?), but it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for this era of the show. I’d love to see other missing stories depicted in this way. Stories like “The Myth Makers,” “The Evil of the Daleks,” or “Fury from the Deep,” which are entirely missing; even some where only one or two episodes exist, would be amazing to see in this way. Let’s hope enough people watch “Power” and we might get to see others.
“The Power of the Daleks” airs Saturday, November 19, at 8:25/7:25c on BBC America.
4.5 out of 5 Long Lost Burritos
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!