Friday, 29 September 2017

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker (BBC) | review by Jacob Edwards

Seeing is believing – the BBC is your ser-vant.

Although most Doctor Who fans have a favourite Doctor, for many the choice is as much about era as actor. Style of story, and the broadcast years during which the viewer was of formative age, must go a long way towards shaping this preference.

Regardless of who comes in at number one, few people will rank the Doctors of the classic series without listing Patrick Troughton in their top two. Whatever the show itself was like, the second Doctor himself was exceptional.

Which merely adds to the tragedy of the BBC’s junking policy. Fifty-three Patrick Troughton episodes are missing – the equivalent of two whole seasons of new series Who – and the word “missing” is itself a misnomer giving false hope. The master tapes were wiped, their content destroyed. When a lost episode miraculously turns up at a relay station in Nigeria or a rubbish tip in New Zealand, any celebration is tinged with cold comfort.

For many years one story particularly lamented for its absence was The Power of the Daleks. Not only was this Patrick Troughton’s first full appearance (following the regeneration scene at the end of The Tenth Planet), it also sounded like a cracking tale: Earth colonists on the planet Vulcan find and activate three daleks, which pretend to be subservient while repowering. Heedless of the Doctor’s warnings, blinded by their own conflict, the colonists are turned upon and for the most part exterminated.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it is probably because Mark Gatiss pinched the idea – more kindly, homaged it – when writing the Matt Smith story Victory of the Daleks (2010). And why not? The concept is far more chilling than the daleks’ usual mindless blather; and after all, it wasn’t as if new generations of Who fans had the opportunity to watch the original…

Not until 2016, fifty years after The Power of the Daleks was first broadcast, when the BBC, in celebration and atonement, released the story in full animation. All six episodes!

Animation was first used to reconstruct episodes one and four of the eight-part Cybermen classic The Invasion (1968), synching the footage with audio recordings of the original broadcasts. It was employed in similarly stopgap fashion for several other stories, but never had fans expected it to pull a wholly missing serial from the hat. Who would have thought? Half a century on, the chance to watch (and review) The Power of the Daleks

Beyond its mere existence the animation is in many ways extremely good. Granted, the characters often stay front-on when moving sideways, resulting in an odd shuffle reminiscent of paddle pop stick puppets; true, there’s a fair bit of bobble-about background acting; but this is entirely understandable. Remember, we’re not watching a multi-million dollar production for cinematic release! More importantly, each person is well portrayed. The movement of mouths matches their speech. The characters are facially expressive. They have personality.

The backgrounds too are superbly rendered (and expertly lit), capturing the sinister moodiness of the story at large. Reconstruction producer-director Charles Norton has handled his job well, drawing from camera scripts, no doubt, but also conceptualising the action to complement a soundscape that features long sections without speech; passages that in audio alone would be quite bewildering. The first episode in particular sees the Doctor behaving erratically post-regeneration, and Ben and Polly wracked with uncertainty. From the patchiness of dialogue it seems the original broadcast version must have relied heavily on nuances of movement and expression, which the animation to some extent captures.

And so, to the story itself…

The Power of the Daleks is something of an oddity: yes, in part due to the nature of its reconstruction; but also because Patrick Troughton is feeling his way into an (at the time) unprecedented situation; and because there’s a deliberate intention to obfuscate from viewers in 1966 whether this new Doctor really was the Doctor (a neat parallel with the newly submissive daleks); and indeed because it’s the only second Doctor adventure not to feature steadfast companion Jamie McCrimmon. Add to this some obvious flaws – such as why Lesterson believes a single dalek, armed with a sink plunger, will double the colony’s mining output; and why he and Bragen go unnecessarily stark raving mad – and one might start to doubt the “classic” appellation bestowed upon this so-called great lost serial…

And yet, it really is very good. The Vulcan colony, with its scheming factions, has a complexity that more or less justifies the story’s six episodes. The Doctor shows newfound fallibility and a sorrowful, Stan Laurel-like expressiveness, the acting is impeccable (until Lesterson goes to pieces), and through much of the story there resonates that unnerving dramatic irony of the viewer perceiving an impending doom of which most of the characters aren’t cognisant. All told, we have here the blueprint for the classic Troughton-era “base under siege” tale, kick-started by the daleks in a more frightening and cunning manifestation than seen so often before or since.

And of course the big point now is that we can see it. Just as portended by that final scene where the TARDIS departs and a shattered dalek raises its eyestalk, the destruction wreaked upon The Power of the Daleks turns out not to have been total. All in all, it’s a most admirable un-junking.

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