A Lost Classic, Back From The Dead – Doctor Who: The Power Of The Daleks – The Animated Version Reviewed

Within sci-fi fandom few pieces of media are as legendary as the lost episodes of Doctor Who. Talked about like mythical artifacts – sometimes as lost masterpieces we'll never get to see, and sometimes as tantalizing what-ifs – they will forever be a source of speculation and frustration for fans of the long-running series. They are the 97 episodes from the first six seasons of the original Doctor Who (just over a third of the episodes from those years) that were destroyed by a tragically short-sighted decision by the BBC, and have not been seen since their original mid-1960s broadcasts. Of these lost episodes, none are more mourned than The Power of the Daleks: the 1966 (season four) story arc which introduced the world to Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and with him the concept of The Doctor's ability to regenerate. Not only was this six-episode saga a pivotal moment in the series' mythos and overarching narrative, it is also commonly regarded as one of the best of all the story arcs featuring those fan-favorite villains, the Daleks. The story has been kept alive in other mediums over the years, but since the late-60s no one has been able to actually watch it as the piece of television it was intended to be... until now. Just in time for the story arc's 50th birthday, the BBC has done something pretty amazing to right the wrong of the episodes' destruction as best they can: they have rebuilt The Power of the Daleks in animated form. The full six-episode series showed in theaters across the country Monday night as a one-night-only premiere, and will air on BBC America on Saturday, November 19th before debuting on-demand the next day, and on various disc releases over the next couple months.

First, some background on how so much of such a well-loved show came to be lost in the first place. It was the late-1960s and early-1970s: home video wasn't even an idea on the distant horizon yet, two-inch videotape (on which Doctor Who and most other shows were shot) was extremely expensive, space was at a premium, and archiving old shows wasn't considered important. Once an episode of a series was old enough that it was unlikely to be re-broadcast again anywhere in the world, BBC management considered it expired: they had no plans to show it again, and thus they thought it had outlived its usefulness. The way TV was thought of by its creators and the population at large was very different from how we consider it today: TV episodes were one-time-only events that you had to catch on their first airing, because you wouldn't get another chance. For lack of a better term, TV was disposable. It was standard practice for the two-inch tape on which an episode was shot to be wiped and recycled – I can't overstate how expensive the stuff was – but all episodes of Doctor Who were made into 16mm prints for global distribution and syndication, so they easily could have been archived, if the network cared to do so. But when their shelf space filled up, and BBC staff was faced with the choice to either build bigger archives or clear out the shelves, they made the incredibly short-sighted decision to purge the collection – literally throwing every print of every episode of the first six seasons of Doctor Who into the trash. Yes, originally it wasn't just 97 episodes that were lost, but all 253 from the series' first six years.

Outcry by fans made the network realize their mistake, and the destruction of episodes halted after season six. Over the years, the majority of the episodes that had been destroyed were recovered, some from private collectors, some from locations in the BBC itself where the prints had been misplaced, and some from overseas TV stations that syndicated the show, and kept their copies. Lost episodes have continued to be recovered as recently as 2013, when the six-episode arcs The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World were found in Nigeria. But 50 years later, it seems likely that most of the 97 episodes that remain lost are gone forever. Well, almost: the audio tracks from every single one of the missing episodes survived, in a most unlikely and ironic way. They were saved by piracy, and the bootlegging community within the fandom. Since each episode was usually only aired once, right from the beginning serious fans would use reel-to-reel audio tape recorders to record each episode off-air for their personal collections, and would make copies to trade with other fans. These audio-only bootlegs were traded at conventions long before the days of home video, and once the episodes themselves were destroyed, they became the only surviving copies of them. Eventually the BBC actually bought these bootlegs off the fans who originally made them, remastered the audio to bring it as close as possible to its original broadcast quality, and released the audio versions on CD. Whenever at least half of a serial has been recovered, but some episodes are still missing, they have used these audio recordings to complete the serials using Ken-Burns-style montages of stills, and more recently using animation. But never before have they animated from scratch an entire story arc that was lost. With The Power of the Daleks we are seeing a first: either a one-off treat to give fans the most sought-after of all lost stories, or the start of a new era of bringing those stories back to life.

Much like the Daleks themselves, the lost episodes refuse to stay dead!
And bring it back to life they certainly have: I've listened to the audio-only version of The Power of the Daleks, and even in that form it is excellent, but seeing it restored on-screen is beyond awesome. The animation team has re-created the six episodes as accurately as possible, following the surviving stills and script notes from the production for their visual structure, and using a black-and-white 1960s aesthetic. They aren't trying to re-imagine The Power of the Daleks; they're trying to re-create it as close as possible to how it was. They even resist the temptation to accelerate the pace to make it feel more like an animated feature or a modern Doctor Who episode: the pacing and rhythm of the editing is a spot-on representation of how the episodes were made in the 1960s. The goal is clearly to serve the surviving audio track faithfully, and let what remains of the original production shine through rather than making it into something else. And in that regard, it is definitely a success.

The Power of the Daleks begins as The Doctor (the original, William Hartnell) has just died, following a devastating first encounter with the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet (the last episode of which was also lost, and recently resurrected using animation). As he regenerates into a new form (Patrick Troughton) his companions, Ben and Polly, are left appropriately disoriented, confused, and skeptical. But they don't have much time to acclimate themselves to The Doctor's new face and personality: The TARDIS has taken them to a remote deep-space colony, where they immediately get caught up in both political turmoil and an invasion by a group of especially cagey and manipulative Daleks. This story arc shows us a very different side of the Daleks: they aren't just ruthless killing machines here, but cunning political manipulators, entrapping the humans in a plot with a more elaborate endgame than mere extermination. At the beginning of the story they are without either power or weapons, and they have to do something that they have never before need to do on the series: use their wits. This change in characterization elevates the Daleks from great enemies to brilliant ones, and makes this one of The Doctor's most memorable encounters with them.

At a script and story level, The Power of the Daleks is Doctor Who
"For our next journey, let's go back in time
and teach the BBC about proper archiving!"
at its absolute best: it really shows just how well-written and compelling the series can be. With the central conceit that the Daleks are unarmed, the focus is much less on sci-fi action and much more on a web of mystery, suspense, and political intrigue. Between the iconic alien villains and the various human factions involved in the colony's political turmoil, The Doctor, Ben, and Polly have a pretty complicated maze of motivations and double-crosses to navigate. Even removing the sci-fi elements, it all works very well as a thriller. And it is even better as a sci-fi story because it takes these familiar villains and does something dramatically different with them. With all these plot threads being juggled, it genuinely earns its long running time of six half-hour episodes: it never feels padded, and moves with a solid momentum and sense of suspense.

Then, of course, there is the matter of it being Second Doctor Patrick Troughton's first story, and the one that introduces the concept of regeneration. We are now so used to the idea of regeneration as an integral part of the Doctor Who canon, but when watching this one must remember that at the time this was an incredibly bold move, which must have disoriented viewers just as much as it disorients the bewildered Polly and Ben within the story. To the BBC's credit, they don't hedge their bets and ease viewers into it: also like Polly and Ben, we are just thrown into the thick of it, as Troughton immediately makes the role his own, and goes all-in with an unpredictable, irreverent, and very funny vision of the character which could not be more different from William Hartnell. This is ultimately what sells the concept of regeneration, and probably what saved the show when the gamble could have easily backfired: Troughton is so fun and charming and kind of ridiculous that it's impossible not to be won over. This is also where the animation does a crucial job of helping the story to work: so much of the way Troughton asserts himself into the role and establishes his Doctor's personality is through the physicality of his acting, and that physicality is obviously totally missing from the audio-only presentation of the story. Once he's thoroughly established in episode 2, the audio version worked quite well, but in the first episode it was always painfully obvious that a huge part of the storytelling was missing. Now, thanks to the BBC's ambitious reconstruction effort, it is more or less restored.

The patient before (below) and after (above)
his appointment with Dr. Herbert West.
(...because, re-animated... get it?)
I have to say more or less because, sadly, there is no getting around the fact that the animation just isn't quite as good as the real thing. It approximates the physicality of Troughton's performance very well, and does a solid job of bringing the story back to life, but it has its shortcomings too. The animation is clearly of a fairly low-budget variety, very reminiscent in style and level of polish to that of Archer. On its own terms, it's pretty good, but it struggles to capture really realistic character movements – and especially the movements of facial features. The likenesses of the actors are pretty effective: in particular The Doctor and Polly are very accurate representations of Patrick Troughton and Anneke Wills. The issue is that the way they move isn't always convincing, and the character models don't have a ton of depth. Perhaps the issue is that this type of animation is more suited to comedy like Archer than more dramatic material like this, or perhaps the issue is that it's very, very hard to watch this and not compare it to the real-life actors. I'm not trying to be overly critical: the animation is by no means bad, and the art style is quite cool, it just isn't quite there. However, the animation of everything involving the Daleks is absolutely great. The faceless cyborgs are quite a bit easier to animate on a budget than the human faces of actors we know so well, and they are beautifully realized. In fact, the visuals of the Daleks and the internal workings of their ship show major improvements over their real-life counterparts. It is no secret that vintage Doctor Who was a low-budget show, with sets and special effects that were often hindered by financial constraints. That is not true here, and while the visuals are accurate to what was actually produced in 1966, they are quite a bit more polished, with some awesome added design flourishes.

The animation ends up being a bit of a mixed bag, but the good certainly outweighs the bad, and given the budgetary and time constraints that the BBC animation team had to work with, they did some great stuff here. Sure, nothing will ever be as good as if the original video had never been destroyed, but this ambitious animation is a more than good enough consolation prize. The story, script, and acting are all so strong that they easily sell even the visually weaker moments. The remastering of the audio, meanwhile, is absolutely wonderful. You would never know it from hearing the soundtrack, but this is a fan-made bootleg recording, recorded on a consumer reel-to-reel tape deck with the microphone sitting next to the TV speakers. They have cleaned up that audio with mind-blowing precision and care, and have brought it back up to what honestly sounds like professional broadcast quality. The dialogue is clear and understandable, and the only rough-around-the-edges moments sound like they were probably not from the recording, but the result of the production itself (I'm sure all the dialogue was recorded on-set with a shotgun mic during the filming, and they didn't have the time or money to re-record any lines in post-production). They did, however, remix the soundtrack with music and sound-effects from purer sources, and the mix sounds very good. This is easily the best The Power of the Daleks has ever sounded, and in a way that is just as much an accomplishment as the animation.

Having only one hand-ish appendage, it is
notoriously hard for Daleks to do the dishes.
The Power of the Daleks makes its television debut this Saturday – 50 years from one of the six Saturdays when it first aired – and its on-demand debut one day later. We know that a physical-media release will follow sometime in the next couple months, but no details have been given about what form the American release will take, or what the release date will be. We do, however, know what the UK physical releases will be like: a DVD is coming out later this month, and a limited-edition blu-ray/DVD steelbook is coming in January, which will contain not only the black-and-white version, but an alternate color version as well. Both releases sound like they will be loaded with special features. It should be a pretty safe assumption that the North American release will follow the same template: standard DVD followed by special edition (and possibly limited-edition) blu-ray. It should be noted that all of classic Doctor Who is, and always will be, a DVD-only series: the show was shot in standard-def on tape (with the exception of one special episode that was shot on 16mm, and did get a blu-ray), and thus it cannot possibly be up-converted to blu-ray quality, since the resolution just isn't there. With that in mind, making The Power of the Daleks' primary release a DVD release makes a certain amount of sense, given that with all aspects of this production their goal was to make it as technically accurate to the original version as possible. But still, since it was animated in HD, it's good that (at least in the UK, and presumably in North America too) they're giving it a blu-ray release as well – especially since that will allow them to include the alternate color version.

While the animation has its low-budget flaws, it is nonetheless a dream come true to be able to finally see The Power of the Daleks in something pretty closely approximating its intended form. It is a fantastic introduction to Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor, and a wonderfully unique take on the series' most iconic villains. It definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the finest of all Dalek stories – now more than ever that the visual element and physicality of the production is more or less restored. This is a story arc that I have always wanted to highly recommend to anyone who wants to experience the Troughton era at its best, but I found it difficult to recommend six audio-only episodes to anyone but the most hardcore fans. With this animated reconstruction, the BBC has made The Power of the Daleks accessible again, to casual fans as well as those who already love the show. We can only hope that this is successful enough that they decide to animate more of the lost stories. But even if they don't, this is one awesome surprise for the fans.

Score for The Power of the Daleks itself:

Score for the animation:

- Christopher S. Jordan