Tony Fyler gets animated.
There are a handful of stories in Doctor Who history on which the whole history of the show as we know it pivot. An Unearthly Child, for obvious reasons. The Dead Planet, for turning Doctor Who into a runaway success. The Dalek Invasion of Earth, for proving The Dead Planet was no fluke.
And then there’s The Power of the Daleks.
Faced with a lead actor with a debilitating illness, costing the show money and time by being unable to remember the density of lines required in a role like the Doctor, the Production Team in 1966 took the third extraordinary leap of imagination in the show’s history. After ‘It’s a time and space machine that’s bigger on the inside,’ and ‘the Daleks,’ the idea that the show could continue with a different actor in the lead role was a revolutionary one. The idea that, far from being a Hartnell lookalike, that actor could look like anyone was a gamble of staggering proportions. Just the previous week, our beloved, sometimes crotchety grandfather-Doctor had beaten the creepy bandaged giants from Mondas, but had paid a heavy price for his victory, collapsing on the floor of the Tardis and seeming to change. Now, here he was, this completely different man. Could he be the Doctor? Could the audience accept him? The success of The Power of the Daleks is pretty much the reason we’ve had anything more than four years of Doctor Who at all.
David Whittaker’s script plays with us, pushing the danger of the decision to have the Doctor ‘renew’ himself into some darker corners, giving the immediately post-regenerative Troughton Doctor some moments when he seems morally murky and unpredictable, and having him refer to the Doctor in the third person, making us wonder whether he really is the Doctor, for all we’ve seen his face change, and Polly seems quickly convinced by the idea that when his body wears a bit thin he can just ‘get himself a new one.’
But to some extent, you know all this – write-ups and audio versions of The Power of the Daleks have been available for decades. You want to know, especially if you live in the US, whether the new animated version’s any good, don’t you?
Well, facing the facts of the importance of Power of the Daleks in the history of Who, and its quality as a story and as a use of the Daleks (it’s still up there among the best of the Dalek stories), means this was never going to be an entirely scathing review. But dealing with episode 1 dispassionately, there are pluses and minuses.
Among the pluses, the environments are rich and give a realistic sense of the Sixties show that matches well with the wood and fibre-glass clunk of the audio track. Some of the facial work is excellent too, particularly on the Tardis crew, where it needs to be. And bodily movements feel natural, so the whole thing convinces overall, and allows the story to capture you and drag you along on its knife-edge of questions – who is this new man? Why’s he acting so oddly? Can we even trust him? What’s in the capsule? . More or less, you’re being given a gift in the animation that makes the audio more lifelike – as in a sequence where the new Doctor uses the old Doctor’s spectacles to try and see something more clearly, and realises he no longer needs them. When, in the final sequence of the episode, we gain entrance to the Dalek capsule (that’s not a spoiler, right? I mean, they are right there in the title), quality levels take another hike up – the Daleks themselves look ‘real’ while being consistent with the animated environment, the ancient cobwebs hanging from them have an extra-real feel, and the scuttling Dalek creature that ends the episode moves with a speed and a naturalism probably unmatchable with a real prop in 1966.
The minuses? Well, sadly there are a few, even on as much of a gift as The Power of the Daleks is. Walking is one – the way people get about the place belies the naturalism of some of the simpler body movements, and looks a little Thunderbird-like, to the point where it’s almost – but thankfully never entirely - distracting. Some faces, especially when poking through environment suits, are almost identical, which if you’re not careful will have you wondering whether some members of the Vulcan colonists are actually clones, or at least twins. There’s an admittedly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clothing error with Ben and Polly, but once you’ve seen it, it’s difficult to unsee. And – and this is no fault of the animation, but - viewing it in this format, where you actually get to see moving images along with the audio, allows some of the Sixties gaps and padding of lines to stick out, because you have a visual focal point, rather than an imaginary one.
But let’s be clear here. These are minor niggles, mostly mentioned only in the spirit of factually honest reviewing. Overall, what you have here is a platinum-plated, mercury-coated triumph, a labour of what feels like love, with care taken all along the way, from Martin Geraghty on Character Art to Daryl Joyce on Background Art, to the whole animation team, to Mark Ayres on Sound Mastering and Restoration – there’s a specific sackful of thanks with Ayres’ name on it, because this is The Power of the Daleks as you’ve never heard it before – immediately when the first episode starts, you notice it sounds clearer and more coherent than any time you’ve listened to it before. The search for missing episodes absolutely must go on, but if this is what the future of ‘missing stories’ looks and sounds like, it gets a hearty ‘hellyeah’ from us. Watch episode 1 of The Power of the Daleks as soon as you can (again, sorry, AmeriGeeks!), and revel in the fact that you can watch episode 1 of The Power of the Daleks, and that it looks and sounds as absorbing and tense and dark and rich as this.
The Daleks are back – and back at their best.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk