Friday, 4 November 2016

The Power of the Daleks preview

“We will get our power…”


The sinister chanting of the Daleks at one point in this story has suddenly taken on a surreal double-meaning. Because for a long time, nobody dared to dream that we would ever get to see The Power of the Daleks.

One of the most important stories in Doctor Who’s history, The Power of the Daleks introduced Patrick Troughton as the ‘renewed’ second incarnation of the Doctor. It was a pivotal moment for the series, a ‘make or break’ scenario of the highest magnitude. With the benefit of fifty years of hindsight, audiences of today are completely used to the idea that, from time to time, the lead role in the series is recast. But in 1966 things were very different. William Hartnell quite simply was the Doctor. The one and only. So, when the mysterious old man collapsed at the end of Cybermen debut The Tenth Planet, and his features blurred and dissolved into those of a complete stranger, it’s scarcely possible to imagine how audiences must have felt. Doctor Who had dived head-first into uncharted waters.

Which makes it all the more tragic that The Power of the Daleks – such a significant moment for Doctor Who, both in terms of production and the fictional ‘mythos’ – doesn’t survive for us to enjoy today. Along with many other stories of its era, all six episodes fell victim to the archival purges which were a common occurrence until the late seventies. But although no complete film recordings of The Power of the Daleks survive, the original soundtrack does, thanks to the diligent work of Graham Strong, who recorded audio copies of the episodes during their original outing in 1966. Additionally, numerous still images (or ‘telesnaps’) from each episode exist, having been photographed from the television screen by John Cura. There are even a handful of original clips in existence – so in some respects, The Power of the Daleks isn’t quite as ‘lost’ as it might seem. It’s just tantalisingly out of reach.

Enter the Animation Unit.

In September, BBC Worldwide announced that it had commissioned a team of artists and animators to recreate all six episodes of the story using the original soundtrack, under producer Charles Norton. This technique has been used on a few incomplete Doctor Who serials over the years, but only ever for a couple of episodes at a time, to plug a gap. The wholesale recreation of a lost story, let alone a six-part lost story, is without precedent.

On Thursday 3 November 2016, BBC Worldwide held a press launch for the story in central London with a preview of the first two episodes – so what’s the result like?

On paper, this isn’t a seismic departure from previous animated episodes – nobody is trying to reinvent the wheel. But on the basis of the first couple of episodes, The Power of the Daleks may prove to be the strongest animation of a lost story to date. It certainly demonstrates a strong attention to detail. The backgrounds and sets are especially beautiful – the Dalek capsule in Lesterson’s laboratory being a notable highlight. Elsewhere, the misty swamps of the planet Vulcan are realised beautifully, as is the interior of the TARDIS. The characters, meanwhile, are relatively simplistic in terms of character design and movement. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; when some of the prior animations have attempted more complex characters it hasn’t always paid off. Here, on the other hand, the designs are – for the most part – just fine. However, there are a handful of occasions when the movement of the characters drops the ball slightly. It’s important to stress that this is confined to just a couple of shots across the first two episodes, but these do perhaps betray the time constraints that this animation was made under. (Episodes 4 and 5 were only finished the day before the press launch.) There is one prolonged shot of Ben and Polly walking in long-shot towards the Dalek capsule, but the motion is rather puppet-like with limited joint movements. Even Polly actress Anneke Wills made a joke about this after the screening, with Charles Norton admitting that walking is a difficult thing to animate. (He was also rueful of the Doctor’s checked trousers – a tricky thing to animate when you can’t move the pattern!) But this very small quantity of slip-ups (in the first two episodes at least) is more than made up for by the amount of times the animation just gets it right.

The animators have attempted to find a sympathetic balance between remaining faithful to the original, and embellishing a few moments here and there. Right from the word go, there is a new pre-titles sequence at the start of Episode 1, which is an obvious deviation from the original episode. But the sequence makes sense in context, and since it takes place before the beginning of the episode proper, it is unlikely to be much of a problem save for the most ardent of purists. This aside, the two episodes we saw seemed very faithful to the original, apart from one or two little touches. One beautiful shot pans across the alien landscape of Vulcan before pulling back through a window to reveal the three protagonists in the rest room. Another key difference to the overall production is that whereas the original broadcast was formatted in the full-frame 4:3 (non-widescreen) aspect ratio, this animation is in 16:9 widescreen – a first for an animated reconstruction. But this appears to have been achieved with a great deal of care; the animation has been created with close reference to the existing telesnaps wherever possible, but with additional detail at the sides – as opposed to a drastic deviation from the original framing. In fairness, there will be those who would have preferred to watch in the original 4:3 ratio seen in 1966, as per the previous animations in the range. But pragmatically, the decision to go widescreen is an eminently sensible one.

The sound shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Long-serving audio restoration expert Mark Ayres has surpassed himself, upmixing the original mono audio recording into both stereo and 5.1 surround sound. We heard the 5.1 mix at the screening, and when you consider that this is an off-air audio recording of a programme which doesn’t even exist, it’s rather breath-taking. The Doctor’s initial post-regenerative shock has such a sense of immediacy, it’s almost uncomfortable (in a good way).

As for the story itself?

The Power of the Daleks is hailed by many as a classic. That may be, but if it is, it’s not because of the first two episodes. It’s important to remember that they are designed as a build-up to a greater whole, but viewed in isolation they do tend to sit at the more ‘talky’ end of the spectrum. There was very much the sense that the best (both for the story and the animation) was yet to be seen. But nonetheless there are highlights aplenty. It’s surprisingly touching to see the Second Doctor’s first scenes actually move. It may not be the original footage, but there is a palpable sense that something has been resurrected from the ashes here. There are more superb moments when the action reaches the inside of the capsule. The dark, dusty recesses of something best left alone. The eerie, glistening cobwebs. Especially effective is the cliffhanger ending of the first episode which, even if you know what’s coming, is surprisingly scary – in a way which a still image simply can’t convey. This is heightened further by the final stab of incidental music being even punchier in the 5.1 mix. It’s quite a stomach-twisting moment…

So, has it worked?

Based on the two episodes we’ve seen, yes. The Power of the Daleks is a story which nobody ever expected to be able to ‘see’ again. The fact that such a crucial moment of the show’s history has been restored to a viewable format is rather heart-warming. What’s particularly pleasing about this animation is that it feels like a faithful evocation of the original, whilst having the confidence to break the mould here and there – and there may be more surprises to come later. But equally, some of the later episodes will also face a challenge. There are some major visual sequences which have extremely little surviving representation – the real test of this animation will be in its interpretation of those moments. But from what we’ve been able to see, the animated Power of the Daleks shows signs of being a wonderful restoration of a lost gem. What better way to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary?

One day to go. We will get our Power.

With thanks to BBC Store