Half a century has passed since the “Power of the Daleks” storyline aired on Doctor Who, arguably the series’ boldest moment — the first test to see if the show’s wild idea to rejuvenate its star with a new actor would work (spoilers: it did). But re-watching it this week has given me an altogether different appreciation for the story.
The reason I can rewatch it is because the BBC has released a fully animated recreation of “Power of the Daleks” using recordings of the original audio from the episodes. The original video was lost to time, along with 97 other episodes from early Doctor Who history scrubbed from BBC archives and potentially lost forever.
So this animated version allows Doctor Who fans new and old to experience a profoundly important moment in the show’s history, a wonderful bit of time-travel quite appropriate for a show like Doctor Who — although one admittedly experienced through some rather basic animation. This was made on a BBC budget, not a Pixar one, after all — but the relatively stark and simple nature of the animation suits the retro roots of the material it is recreating in a way that isn’t really any more off-putting than watching classic TV in the modern day is anyway. (Keeping it black-and-white was a nice touch, too.)
Animated or not, “Power of the Daleks” is still important as a moment of huge change for the show, showing how Patrick Troughton slipped into the role of the Doctor, the first “rejuvenation” that would become one of Doctor Who‘s hallmarks. The transformation isn’t particularly sad or played for humour, but is altogether more petrifying and alien at first. His first real scene with companions Ben and Polly isn’t friendly or mysterious — it’s tense and hostile in a way that is weirdly gut-wrenching to see play out, despite having 50 years of hindsight to reassure us that this is indeed the same Doctor, and will continue to be over 10 more such radical changes.
If any nuance in Troughton’s performance was lost in the animation process, it doesn’t seem evident; the rejuvenation is disorienting and it’s scary to watch the Doctor grapple with his new persona now, just as it must have been in 1966. Even if by the end of the six-part story we are reassured and convinced that this is still the Doctor — he’s warmed up, he’s got Ben and Polly back on his side, and of course, he’s saved the day — it is still a fascinating moment to witness this key moment in Doctor Who history unfold.
But the real joy of “Power of the Daleks” is found in its titular foes, which were picked specifically to reassure viewers that new lead actor or not, this was still Doctor Who. “Power” shows the Daleks in a fascinating light that had yet to be really examined at this point in the show, and for the most part has since been forgotten. Usually Daleks are pepperpot rage machines; simple, faceless soldiers, an endless sea that inspires fear through their sheer strength of numbers. They invade in swarms, they never stop, and for every Dalek defeated, 10 more can glide into its place with a chilling cry of “Exterminate!”
But “Power” knows Daleks are much, much scarier than just mindless, angry weapons. Daleks are clever. They are cunning and ruthless, and they will do everything they can to undermine their foes until the perfect time to strike. Writer David Whitaker focuses on this truly fearsome aspect in the serial, in which human colonists on Vulcan have discovered and are experimenting on a group of deactivated Daleks they believe they can control as their own servants.
David Whitaker’s script is a master class in tension, as the Doctor slowly realises they aren’t deactivated at all, and have been secretly building up a new army to take over the colony. The moment the Daleks finally reveal that they have been in charge of the situation the entire time, rather than the human scientists experimenting on them, is still one of the most satisfying surprises in all of Doctor Who‘s lengthy history.
Regardless of its importance in Who canon, “Power of the Daleks” is considered a masterpiece, and it turns out for good reason. It’s not seeing the arrival of the new Doctor that makes this story one you must watch; it’s because it’s one of Doctor Who’s best adventures ever, as well as an excellent exploration of his oldest foes. Now that you finally have a chance to see it — albeit animated — you shouldn’t miss it.