Who Rejuvenated: The Power of the Daleks

One of the great tragedies of Doctor Who is that so many early episodes have been lost to posterity. The BBC’s policy of deleting archived material between 1967 and 1978 means that almost one hundred episodes of the Doctor’s adventures are still missing, forming large gaps in his history.

One of the serials most keenly missed by fans is “The Power of the Daleks.” It is the first story to feature Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, marking a brave moment in the series’ history as the BBC replaced the beloved William Hartnell in the title role. Now, fifty years after it was broadcast, the BBC have released all six episodes as an animated recreation, accompanied by the audio from the original broadcast. For the first time since 1966, audiences are able to watch Patrick Troughton’s debut as the Doctor. And younger fans, such as myself, are finally able to understand why “The Power of the Daleks” is one of the series’ most cherished storylines.

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The Daleks gather for war.

Fans of Doctor Who have become accustomed to his frequent rejuvenations. First episodes with a new Doctor are always about finding out the persona and quirks of this new incarnation, setting the tone for subsequent adventures. But back in 1966, the whole concept of “renewing” the Doctor was as alien as the character himself. And Patrick Troughton doesn’t hesitate to embrace the change. “The Power of the Daleks” opens with a tense scene in the TARDIS, as companions Polly and Ben try to reconcile the stranger in front of them with their beloved Doctor. He doesn’t act like the man they know, referring to himself in the third person and exercising a new-found passion for the flute. His behaviour is odd and erratic. Troughton is at his alien best in these scenes, stretching and distorting his face as he adapts to his new features. Polly’s instinctive belief that this is the same Doctor is contrasted by Ben’s doubt, clearly allowing audiences in 1966 to sympathise with either one of these viewpoints.

Once the action moves outside the TARDIS, the series regains its familiarity. Human colonists on the planet Vulcan have discovered three dormant Daleks in a crashed spaceship. Various factions of the colony conspire to use the Daleks as tools to further their own political ambitions. But, of course, activating the Daleks leads to catastrophe.

The TARDIS arrives on Vulcan.
The TARDIS arrives on Vulcan.

The presence of the Daleks serves to reassure audiences that this is still Doctor Who. They haven’t lost any of their potency in the transition to animation. The scenes of an army of Daleks coming off an assembly line are still horrifying, as is their continuous repetitions of “We are your servants!”, dripping with barely-disguised malice. Yet the serial sees a new side to these old enemies. They are not just mindless war machines, but cunning and intelligent foes who manipulate the human colonists into trusting them. When the slaughter starts, they don’t discriminate between the scientists who helped them and the soldiers trying to kill them. They are ruthless.

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In typical Doctor Who fashion, the serial forces audiences to question the nature of evil. The Daleks may be driven by cold machine logic, but the human colonists are driven to kill each other by greed and ambition. In one memorable scene, a Dalek asks “Why do human beings kill human beings?” We are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that humans may be no better than manipulative Daleks.

The serial also hints at the beginning of the personal relationship between the Doctor and the Daleks. The Doctor is the only character on Vulcan who recognises his foe; likewise, the Daleks are the only ones who immediately recognise the Doctor, despite his rejuvenation. This relationship between the two enemies is a recurring theme in subsequent Who, especially the modern episodes. It is fully realised in “Dalek” (2005), which suggests the Doctor isn’t as different from his enemies as he would like to think. In fact, many of the plot elements of “Dalek” borrow extensively from “The Power of the Daleks,” with humans experimenting on a captive Dalek for personal gain. These links to the modern series reaffirm the BBC’s selection of “The Power of the Daleks” to recreate in animated form.

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The animation is appropriately simplistic, preserving the black-and-white aesthetic of the original serial. The animation team have resisted the impulse to expand the visuals beyond the capabilities of the 1966 broadcast, with only a few scenes marking a departure from the original. As a result, the backgrounds still look like they were made from plywood and cardboard. Yet the animation manages to convey nuanced expressions from the actors, especially Patrick Troughton. The Daleks look suitably imposing, crisply rendered in a way that would not have been possible in a 1966 television. However, the animation does struggle to capture the fluidity of human movement – most of the characters look more like Thunderbirds puppets as they canter across the screen.

The animation team has lovingly preserved a couple of mistakes and continuity errors from the original broadcast (it’s strange to see animated characters struggling with a door which keeps bouncing open), and even managed to put a few sneaky references of their own in there – the words Bad Wolf can clearly be seen on a noticeboard in one scene, a homage to modern Who. As a result, “The Power of the Daleks” is in a unique position of feeling like it belongs simultaneously to original Who and the modern series. Fans of both should be delighted.

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The last scene of the serial is perhaps the most memorable. The Doctor walks past a half-melted Dalek as he steps into the TARDIS. As it disappears, with that familiar wheezing siren, the eyestalk of the Dalek slowly rises towards the sky. Audiences in 1966 knew that the Daleks would return. In hindsight, fifty years later, the Dalek’s gesture of defiance could almost be interpreted as a salute between two immortal foes.

If you’re fortunate enough to catch “The Power of the Daleks” at the movies, then don’t miss the opportunity. But it is also available to stream or download from the BBC store, and will be available on DVD on 21 November. It’s definitely going on my Christmas list.

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