Probably the best Doctor Who EVER: My review of The Power of the Daleks

Merry Christmas readers! I’ve been sitting on a review of The Power of the Daleks for a while, and so I have decided to use the Christmas break to pen my thoughts on the wonderful animation provided by BBC Worldwide.

As long term readers of the blog will recall, Power was one of the three stories I was most keen to see recovered, for the reasons I set out in this blog post. Indeed, so curious was I to sample Patrick Troughton’s sadly missing first adventure that I eventually gave in and watched the Loose Cannon recon – and it only increased my excitement for the animated release when BBC Store confirmed the animation project.

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Now I have watched the animated reconstruction … several times. In such a short space of time, I think that is probably the highest complement I can pay The Power of the Daleks – one watch (even two!) simply has not been enough to enjoy a high quality adventure. I was nervous what standard the animation would be, with the quality varying substantially between previous BBC releases (The Moonbase was excellent, The Ice Warriors less so). In the end, I need not waste any words commenting on the quality of the animation – it is excellent, and a worthy alternative in the absence of the original prints. Sure there is the odd niggle here and there, but one is not only able to follow the story, crucially one is able to enjoy the story and establish some degree of empathy with the characters.

Which comes to the crux of this review: Power of the Daleks is an excellent piece of Doctor Who. The very best stories combine a good story, good characters and a good cast – and the most excellent stories have that extra edge that leaves you hooked. Power of the Daleks excels on all of these counts and then some. Even before you add the unique variable that this is the first regeneration story, it is already a fine example of Doctor Who well done, and would stand up well if it were any other Doctor, and indeed not even a regeneration story. As it is, Patrick Troughton’s first foray into the role of the Doctor is the cherry on the icing that makes this story exceptional.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward: the newly regenerated Doctor arrives with his startled companions Polly and Ben on the planet Vulcan. The earth colony on the planet has three resident challenges: a group of discontented colonists planning a rebellion against the governor; a discontented member of the administration plotting to use the rebels to usurp the governor, and an obsessed scientist who has discovered a space capsule containing what he takes to be three machines – but that the Doctor has no hesitation in identifying as dormant Daleks! When the Doctor witnesses the murder of an Examiner sent from Earth, he steps into the shoes of the Examiner to investigate the mysterious circumstances of the colony. As the wonderful extras explain, much of the tension in the episode stems from the Doctor (and the viewer) knowing that the Daleks are evil and not to be trusted, while the earth colonists are deceived by the Daleks’ pledge of servitude. The viewer knows full well that sooner or later the Daleks will betray their human ‘masters’, and the tension ramps up as the schemes of the rebels, the discontented administator, and the Daleks themselves reach a dramatic and violent climax.

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In fact, if one had to identify one reason why this story is a triumph, it is precisely that word: tension. Power of the Daleks is a glorious lesson that modern television writers could heed well – sometimes the best way to develop a drama is to allow the tension to ramp up slowly, carefully, and deliciously much more slowly than the viewer finds comfortable. Undoubtedly one could argue that without the regeneration and some of the background scenes, this could easily be a four part adventure. I think that would be a shame however – the slower pace allows you to enjoy the excellent characters – and while we can only judge by the voices of the original cast how good their performances were, it seems the cast were all on top form; most importantly, at no stage is there any sense of a cast member being superfluous – each plays their role and plays it well. You find yourself draw in and emphasising with the characters, and hoping that somehow the Doctor can help the colonists to defeat the Daleks.

That said, there are two outstanding stars in the performance who deserve particular praise. Top of the list has to be the incomparable Patrick Troughton – right from “It’s over!” he absolutely nails the part of the Doctor. The BBC took a bold decision to completely recast the role of the Doctor, and if it had backfired they could well have pulled the plug after this adventure. Right from the start Troughton puts his own inimitable charm upon the role, and this is certainly a much better introduction to Troughton than the more comic persona he adopts in his earliest surviving episodes in The Underwater Menace. The animators deserve a lot of credit for taking the soundtrack with all of Troughton’s character, and managing to convey something of that in their animations – it is a simple fact that Patrick Troughton not only made this story a success, he also saved Doctor Who for future generations.

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As a brief aside, it is worth saying that the regeneration (referred to in the story simply as a ‘renewal’) is both better explored and less explored than in future stories. The first ten minutes are entirely focused on the TARDIS, where Ben and Polly try to work out who this ‘new’ man is. Their suspicion and incredulity is well played, and essential for helping the viewer to weigh up the ‘new’ Doctor for themselves. In the end, the Doctor throws himself straight into the action, almost akin to Matt Smith in The Eleventh Hour, and demonstrating the fundamental continuity to the departing William Hartnell by doing what the Doctor does best – getting involved! I think for the first ever regeneration it was very well handled, and it was a delight to experience it.

The other stars are the Daleks themselves, in what is perhaps their most clever and nuanced appearance in the show. Most often we are used to the Daleks adopting their standard method of Dalek Diplomacy (“Seek, locate, exterminate!”) – so it comes to a shock to the senses when the episode two cliffhanger has the Dalek professing “I am your ser-vant!” The craftiness of the Daleks is a joy to behold, and especially the moments when the Daleks momentarily forget that they are meant to be concealing their true natures: witness the Dalek correcting himself from “Daleks are b- are different to humans!” in episode three; or the delicious moment when a Dalek, exhulting in the prospect of their own power supply, says: “With static power, THE DALEKS WILL BE TWICE AS … *pause* … useful.” There is something scarily human in the way the Daleks reason and plot; a potent reminder that their appeal was not least due to a sober reminder of what humanity can become when it gives in to its own worst instincts.

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Even without the original footage I am ready to make the controversial statement that I think Power of the Daleks is the best Doctor Who story ever. It certainly runs my top three very very close, and the only doubt remaining is precisely because we are not able to see the original footage. I feel confident however, that were Philip Morris to work a miracle and recover Power of the Daleks against all of the odds, this story would justifiably take its place as one of the best regarded stories in Doctor Who fandom. It is that good.

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3 thoughts on “Probably the best Doctor Who EVER: My review of The Power of the Daleks

  1. I only saw Episodes 1 and 3 on BBC America, so my opinion is based on that.

    There are two things that I didn’t like about the animation:

    1) It wasn’t in the original’s aspect ratio (i.e., it was in widescreen, where the original episode was not).
    2) The regeneration scene was moved to before the opening titles. (I don’t know if this was just for the BBCA broadcast.)

    It is my understanding that previous animations tried to do a best approximation to the original broadcast version. However, these two things seemed to be conscious deviations from that formula, presumably to appeal to fans of New Who. The first of these points might be particularly troubling if some of the original picture was left off the animation in order to make it widescreen.

    That being said, I still have every intention of buying this story on DVD and/or Blu-ray.

    If what I saw is different from what you saw, please let me know.

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    • Hi Christopher! Sorry for getting back so late. The BBCA broadcast is the same as what we got on BBC Store here in the UK. I didn’t actually mind the changes so much – I think all animations, from necessity, are an interpretation of the original content. Given that the animators had a completely blank canvass, I think the creative decisions they took worked quite well. It will be more of a headache if they try to rework Evil of the Daleks episode 2 into widescreen of course …

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      • I just bought the DVD a few days ago, and I watched the black and white version. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the animation style (I wasn’t thrilled with the thick black outlines of the human characters), I’m making allowances for the time and budgetary restrictions the animators had to face.

        A couple of observations:

        1) I don’t quite agree with your comment that the animators had a completely blank canvas, as there were many clips and telesnaps available to work with. That being said, despite the aspect ratio thing, the end result was IMO a reasonable approximation to the originals.

        2) I may have been wrong about the regeneration scene. Although (from what I read) the first pre-titles scene appeared in “Castrovalva”, the regeneration scene may not have been in the episode at all. I was just going by a (Loose Cannon?) reconstruction I downloaded. If that scene was absent from the original episode, I can live with it appearing before the opening titles.

        3) I still think that this animation (and the DVD release) is being made to appeal to fans of New Who, at least on this side of the pond. The design of the DVD cover and disc labels are based on that used for the recent new series releases, as opposed to the design of the classic range. (This makes it totally out of place alongside the other Troughton DVDs.)

        If I seem too nitpicky, I apologize.

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