Matthew Kilburn reviews the newly released animated version of the classic 1966 story which introduced the second Doctor.
BBC Worldwide’s animated The Power of the Daleks is one of the projects one thought would never take place. We’d seen cold water poured on the volcanic flames of an animated parts one and four of The Underwater Menace, and had been assured for years that more than two episodes of a story would never be attempted again. Then, almost without warning, The Power of the Daleks was upon us, and BBC Store was no doubt gratified with many more new customers to strain its servers. As widely trailed, the budget and timescale only allowed for limited powers of expression and motion for the characters and must have entailed difficult choices for a talented team of recreators.
Nevertheless the right calls were made. Polly largely looks concerned, Ben angry or suspicious, the Doctor enigmatic, amused or intensely curious or alarmed. Particularly striking, though, is the likeness of Robert James as Lesterson, which manages to track Lesterson’s transition – I hesitate to call it a descent – from arrogant and self-important giant of science within the Vulcan colony’s small talent pool, to deranged defeatist celebrant of the end times. James’s angular distinctiveness and the way he used it is deftly captured by Martin Geraghty. The backgrounds grasp the design principles, blending the practicality of the prefab with flourishes reminiscent of Imperial India or the Far East, particularly in the governor’s office. There are details which underline that the visuals are a 2016 production, not from 1966: some of the typefaces used on notices, for example, and the in-joke of a Magpie Electronics logo on the meteor-detecting device glimpsed fifteen minutes into episode three, placing the production of the new Power after The Idiot’s Lantern. However, the dominant aesthetic remains consistent with the original as seen in the telesnaps: the colonists seem largely to live in a white world of synthetics with the occasional wood furniture, panelling or office equipment for prestigious office-holders, while the Daleks emerge from a metal canister with as much resemblance to an oversized bomb from World War Two as something from the Apollo missions.
As the Daleks as good as recognize, this is a story about human beings which questions how much substance is actually inherent to the concepts by which humans underpin their society. The Power of the Daleks is remembered for the (literally) killer question, asked by one Dalek: Why do human beings kill other human beings? This question is supported before and after by a series of Dalek difficulties with verbal expression used for both chilling and comic effect: they find it difficult when outlining their plans not to start escalating into a chant of superiority and conquest, but they also have trouble with the concepts of friendship and perhaps also difference, where ‘different’ is a late substitute in one line of dialogue for ‘better’. I’m perhaps anticipating later iterations of Dalek by emphasizing this. The Daleks, though, are almost uniform. Even their ‘organic component’ (I’m looking forward again, in this case to Remembrance of the Daleks) is produced in an automated factory which would surely win the approval of Henry Ford. The sight, in this animated version, of the Dalek mutant being scooped inert from a tank, then brought to pulsing life by a burst of electricity, suggests the Daleks as self-made Frankenstein’s monsters determined to root out any hint of pathos. They know they can win sympathy, but they only want to reflect it through a distorting mirror as death.
Meanwhile, human beings are shown to be jealous, self-satisfied, greedy, vindictive, and even lustful. Both supporters and opponents romanticize a squalid little coup run by members of the officer class as a revolution led by ‘rebels’ rather than recognizing it as a plot by Bragen and Janley who resent the enlightened paternalism of Hensell and Quinn. Sides are chosen for the wrong reasons and there is no guarantee of the establishment of equilibrium at the end of the story, only that the Daleks have been removed from Vulcan and from a colony which couldn’t grasp the nature of their threat even when mass extermination was underway. Yet for all their weaknesses, human beings demonstrate and elicit sympathy and compassion. They pursue their own agendas, subtly, brutally, with vacillation, by turns, but these are their own rather than the unvaried path to the destruction of other life forms championed by the Daleks. The gaps between people can be filled with poison but they are also, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen as several are this week, the cracks where the light gets in.
The achievement and tragedy of this animated interpretation is that it brilliantly shows its audience how much it is missing by not having access to the destroyed visuals. The animations restore the structure of an episode and its scenes, often obscured on audio, but they can only suggest what a performance looked like. The soundtrack, engineered by Mark Ayres from Graham Strong’s off-air recordings, are of superb quality and so much is gained by it: though I’d listened to soundtracks and seen reconstructions before, the use of the same musical sting to accompany the Doctor’s discovery of a piece of Dalek metal in his chest in the TARDIS, and his later identification of another piece on Vulcan, struck me for the first time as an uncanny parallel, as if the viewer was being encouraged to think that the first discovery somehow, through the undisclosed workings of the TARDIS and the Doctor’s transformation, led to the second. The stress laid on static electricity as a power source also recalls The Daleks; David Whitaker delves deep into his memory of working on the series two and three years before to reconstruct the Daleks as characters with specific needs and qualities rather than the icons of universe-crushing ambition they had become.
One of the appreciated details of the story is that while the Daleks never explicitly challenge the Doctor, they do recognize him; not only does this signal the moment when the sceptical viewer (represented by Ben) is expected to stop questioning the Doctor’s identity, it puts in context the revelation of the destroyed (but not quite inactive) Dalek machine at the end of episode six. It might well be a sentry specifically despatched to stop the Doctor leaving. Delving further into fan theorizing, the suggestion in The Daleks that the TARDIS was reliant on mercury as a vital component might also explain why the TARDIS came to Vulcan – exhausted by acting as midwife to the new Doctor’s birth (and having eaten some of his clothes on the way) it has needed to recharge and departs high on mercury vapour. It’s also an appropriate setting because the TARDIS is mercurial – difficult to predict or direct – and the Doctor, always thus, has just demonstrated how fluid his own character and physical shape are. This Doctor is perhaps more powerful than Hartnell’s; he prefers recorder-playing to hectoring and doesn’t need to assert his position on the high ground; he just makes a few impassioned pleas or flippant remarks and then waits for others to notice that he’s a reservoir of knowledge. In that respect he’s more godlike; a winged messenger who waits for those around him to interpret events correctly before acting. In this way the Doctor completes a transition arguably begun as far back as The Daleks but accelerated once Verity Lambert had left the series, where the Doctor ceases to be merely a witness to change and becomes if not its catalyst, than at least a decisive force in the shape that change will take. The Power of the Daleks is not quite the beginning of Doctor Who as we know it, because so much was already present and there have been other remixings since; but it is a major developmental hurdle and this animation project will enable it to be more widely and deservingly appreciated.