Doctor Who was never meant to be an institution, never meant to still be going strong 53 years after it premiered, never meant to still be telling what is fundamentally the same big story it began in 1963. The show’s cast, writers, and production team took the show seriously from the start—part of the reason it succeeded far more than anyone could have imagined—but they were making something ephemeral, an entertaining half hour every Saturday evening. That thinking explains why the BBC chose to delete more than 100 episodes in the 1970s, leaving 26 stories from the first two Doctors’ eras incomplete, with only fan recordings of the missing episodes’ audio surviving. No story is more legendarily lost than 1966’s “The Power Of The Daleks,” Patrick Troughton’s debut adventure as the second Doctor. Often named by a certain generation of hardcore fans as the best Doctor Who story of all time—missing or otherwise—the story has received a hell of a 50th birthday present, as the BBC has brought it back with animated versions of all six episodes. The resulting version of “The Power Of The Daleks” is half 1966 and half 2016, with the viewer left to judge whether the reconstructions ultimately reveal or obscure the otherwise lost story.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Doctor’s regeneration in “The Tenth Planet”—although that actual term wouldn’t be coined until Jon Pertwee’s departure in 1975—“The Power Of The Daleks” takes the Doctor and his companions Ben and Polly to the planet Vulcan (no relation), where they find themselves embroiled in a deeply petty power struggle between the colony’s government, a fledgling rebel group, and a would-be authoritarian usurper. A very sudden murder maneuvers this enigmatic new Doctor into assuming the role of an official from Earth. He uses that position to investigate the colony’s research into what their scientists take to be a bunch of lifeless robots but that the Doctor instantly recognizes as his mortal enemies, the Daleks. Without their usual power supply, the Daleks must bide their time and pretend to serve the colonists, who are all self-obsessed enough to believe the Daleks are anything but scheming, manipulative conquerors.
Classic Doctor Who, particularly in its earliest black-and-white incarnation, tends to be a slow-moving affair. Some of that is down to a shift in viewers’ sensibilities, and some of it is down to the fact that a story like “The Power Of The Daleks” wasn’t intended to be watched in a single feature-length go but rather in half-hour chunks over the course of six weeks. Even allowing for all that, this story can feel downright glacial in the early going, and here the animation can do the adventure few favors. The understandably low-budget animation limits the characters’ movement and expressiveness. That’s less of an issue once the story builds some momentum and the characters really start arguing with and plotting against one another, but the first couple of episodes originally relied on subtler, non-verbal acting from the cast.
Indeed, animations have previously filled in a missing episode or two for mostly complete serials, but this is the first time a story has no surviving episodes to inform the reconstructions. This animation can’t capture the infinite expressiveness of Troughton’s face or body language, or the little unexpected bursts of mercurial energy that make his Doctor so captivating, and the lack of surviving episodes makes it harder to guess what all that might look like in the context of his debut outing. The audience’s familiarity with other Troughton adventures makes it easier to imagine some percentage of how he would have acted, and the same is true to a lesser extent for his relatively obscure companions Ben and Polly—both of whom are among the most affected in terms of now-missing stories—but the versions of the guest characters the audience sees here are necessarily much flatter than the performances the audience would have seen in 1966.
This isn’t a fair representation of “The Power Of The Daleks,” but it also is the best viewers can reasonably expect to get. The audience can only guess as to the accuracy of the story’s costumes and sets, and there are a couple instances of wonky staging that might be poor interpretations or faithful recreations of things that looked just as silly a half century ago. Classic Doctor Who already tends to be talky and stagy, and the simplicity of the animation cranks that to 11. Still, the animation is legitimately effective whenever the action can benefit from minimalism, which sounds like a backhanded compliment before one considers how chilling the sleek, silent glide of a Dalek can be. The budgetary limitations the animators faced vary in the particulars from what original director Christopher Barry faced in 1966. Yet, both efforts strive to get a lot out of a little, offering a sense of unity despite the divergent formats.
What shines through most clearly is David Whitaker’s script. This is a bleak tale of petty human ambition and venality blinding people from the obvious threats in their midst. A scientist is convinced his genius is sufficient to control the Daleks. The governor sees the creatures as a way to prove the colony’s self-sufficiency to Earth. Another government official sees them as another cog in his power grab. People just keep assuming they are the stars of this story, but their squabbles are just collateral damage for the latest round in the battle between the Doctor and the Daleks. It’s as though Doctor Who reasserts itself over the course of the story, a nifty narrative parallel for the Doctor rediscovering himself.
“The Power Of The Daleks” occupies a unique place in Doctor Who lore. The notion of swapping out one Doctor for another is now well-established, but it’s difficult to imagine just how bizarre this concept must have seemed to viewers in 1966. Troughton’s Doctor makes few concessions to an uncertain audience or to his equally uncertain traveling companions, as he spends much of the story’s running time spouting nonsense, playing a recorder, or saying nothing at all. A kind of logic behind his actions eventually emerges, but the new Doctor remains a remote figure. This is also the lone Troughton story that doesn’t feature his definitive companion, the 18th-century Scotsman Jamie McCrimmon, making “The Power Of The Daleks” feel that extra bit disconnected from the typical expectations of a second Doctor adventure. This is a story that would probably always have felt a little lost in time, even if it had survived. The animation can only capture a shadow of what made this story so special, but a shadow of something like “The Power Of The Dalek” is still well worth seeking out, all the more so for the remarkable nature of its resurrection.