I was fortunate to be among the few attending Fathom Events’ cinematic screening of “Power of the Daleks,” one of the fabled “lost episodes” adventures of the long running Doctor Who franchise. It’s certain to be available on your home or mobile screens. Do yourself a favor: wait until you can see it for free. BBC America will eventually broadcast it. It’ll keep until then.
It’s not bad. And it is an important artifact for many reasons so, if you’re a true Whovian, you must watch. But BBCA is the way to go on two counts. First, there’s no added value to seeing it before all your friends (unless you have a review blog). Second, you won’t mind the commercials. It’ll break up the tedium. DW has characteristically had its struggles with pacing, and binging on six straight 25-minute episodes isn’t the best way to approach the story.
The story, incidentally, is fairly standard. The freshly regenerated (“renewed,” as they said in 1966) Doctor and his telegenic companions find themselves on an alien planet (“Vulcan,” to the chagrin of the nascent Star Trek’s producers who lost the opportunity to grab the trademark by a matter of days). They encounter a mad scientist who is trying to bring a squad of deactivated Daleks out of their crashed rocket ship and revive them. Against the Doctor’s warning, he succeeds. There’s a useless subplot of political intrigue with the Very Important Lesson that we must unite and work together to make our lives better.
Should I have included a spoiler alert? Really? Are you new here?
You’re not going to watch it for the plot. You’ll more likely watch to see how the crew overcame the technical challenges of taking a good audio track then, with nothing to go on but seconds-long clips and a series of screen captures, reproduce the whole serial.
Imperfectly. A bonus feature at the end explains how only about half of what you’ve seen came from original director Christopher Barry’s vision. The rest relied on the license of the animators, who have a lot more leeway than live-action crews. It’s inexplicable why they decided not to edit out a single second of awkward silence or hammy mugging. I’m also scratching my head about how much more lifelike the Daleks are than the humans in this animation style. Even so, it occurred to me that, had “Power of the Daleks” survived the bin at the BBC’s curb and there were no reason to animate it, it would’ve looked even cheesier.
All that aside, “Power of the Daleks” is a crucial step in the development of both the character of The Doctor and the milieu of Doctor Who. Exactly 50 years ago as I write this, audiences were wondering how the show could continue post-William Hartnell. The Doctor was instantly transformed from the gruff but gentle old man into the guise of edgy, manic Patrick Troughton. His wardrobe changed simultaneously, something the producers wouldn’t do again once they had time to think about it.
Knowing that the audience wouldn’t unanimously buy the conceit that this was in some unprecedented way a continuation of the same character, writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner gave voice to the debate. Polly (Anneke Wills) quickly goes with it, while Ben ( Michael Craze) remains skeptical until Doctor 2.0 gets them in and out of the same sort of trouble his previous incarnation habitually did.
And that trouble had to be the Daleks. Just three years into production, and they were already DW’s signature bug-eyed monsters. And since neither the guest cast nor the companions in tow had ever seen one before, this new entity with the plaid pants and sloppy bow tie just had to be The Doctor.
So this was the serial that saved Doctor Who. For the historical importance alone it’s worth the watch. The performances are strong, as well as the writing (in macro for both cases). Troughton’s seemingly effortless but incredibly gutsy habitation of the role is brilliant.
Just like there’s no one right way to play Hamlet, there’s no one right way to play The Doctor.
But in 1966, who knew?