‘Power of the Daleks’ a Doctor Who story by David Whittaker, first broadcast in 1966 was a landmark show in the series history; it was the first ‘regeneration story.’ William Hartnell, exhausted from his first struggle with the Cybermen in “The Tenth Planet,” had collapsed at the end of the previous series and the audience had gasped as his face changed before their eyes. This story begins with that moment, and William Hartnell becomes Patrick Troughton. Imagine the strangeness of that. Doctor Who fans are used to this now, and new incarnations of the Doctor are always preceded at least a year in advance by an immense media buzz and speculation, as we are seeing now in the “best woman to play to Doctor” discussion. But then this concept was as alien as the Doctor himself. The cast, crew, writers and production team must have been holding their breath. Would this work, or was this the show going off a cliff?
Sadly this entire show has been lost from the BBC archives, so we’ll never see this moment as the audience first saw it. But the audio survived, and from this we have two recent constructions, a narrated audio drama using the original soundtrack, and an animation. This gives us very good representations of this first regeneration scene, and as far as I’m concened, it does work spectacularly well. The Doctor’s disorietntation and the baffled and frightened reactions of his companions Ben and Polly, and some hostility (from Ben), are all understandable and dramatically satisfying reactions.
And that’s not all that works well. This is tense, satisfying and scary story that continues many of the hallmarks and repeating motifs of a great Doctor Who adventure. Stumbling and dazed from the abrupt transformation of the Doctor, the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive on fog shrouded, swamp infested world and are hailed by an Earth official who is promptly shot. The Doctor is then knocked unconscious, and a button pressed into his hand, to the purpose of framing someone else for the murder. Our heroes are then taken to a human settlement on this alien world of Vulcan. This is a colony under tremendous internal pressure from politicking and factionalism. There is a rebellion against the Colony’s Governor that is on the verge of turning violent. In the meantime, scientists have discovered an alien ship crashed on the planet and have taken it into the colony (never a good move!), and the chief Scientist, Lesterson (Robert James)), has discovered in the ship deactivated Daleks and is attempting revive one, ignorant of course as to the nature of this creature. Posing as an Earth Examiner (the identity of the murdered man), the Doctor is horrified to learn of Lesterson’s experiments and even more horrified when a Dalek activates, screeching out in an iconic moment, “We…are…your..servants!” Lesterson and others become convinced they can get the Daleks to serve them. (Literally) disarmed, the Daleks play along with this. Dalek weapons are also discovered, and the scheming Bragen (Bernard Archard), conspiring with the rebels to seize power, decides to try and use the Daleks to seize power. Meanwhile, the Daleks pursue their own agenda of extermination and conquest. It’s all going to end in tears.
This story and prodcution has many of the hallmarks of a great Doctor Who story. Let’s look at these:
1) Doctor and companions on top form: the chemistry and intreaction between them is a joy, given the trauma of the regeneration. Troughton quickly brings into play the Second Doctor’s playfulness, mischief, and ‘clownish,’ antics whilst retaining the gravitas and seriousness of the first. Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) are companion gold, stumbling into traps, voicing confuison, being kidnapped. Listen to one show with them and you feel they have been around forever.
2) The Daleks: deadly as ever, their menace is given a new edge by the way they ‘play’ the humans in this story, scheming and fooling them into helping them create an army! It’s such a transparently diabolical plan, and yet we accept it. We get to see, clawed, slithering Dalek mutants too, and there’s memorable scene where we see a Dalek production line, with a mutant being placed into the case of it’s new machine.
3) The cliffhangers: they are great, from the first story’s mutant scuttling for freedom, to the “we are your servants” cry of an activated Dalek, to the monstrous production line, to the twitiching eyestalk of the final moment.
4) A human colony under pressure: here in all its dysfunctional glory, with it’s stratas of ruling governors, scientists, guards and citizens. The human and Dalek schemeing coming together makes for an interesting dramatic tension.
5) Action packed, uncompromising pay off: Play with Daleks, you’re going to get exterminated.
A stand out performance must go to Robert James as Lesterson the Chief Scientist. In many ways a stereotype, he’s a compelling character in how he develops, through his organal scientific hubris, to his dawning horror at what he’s done, to going slightly mad.
What, then, do the audio and animation bring to the story, and how well do they tell it?
1) The audio
Released by the BBC as part of its BBC Radio Collection series in 2005, this has the original audio of the series with linking narration by the actress who played Polly, Anneke Wills. She does a fantastic job, and the story flows with perfect clarity. It’s immersive, tense, compelling listening. It’s great to listen to this first before the animation, as you can then compare how you imagined the scenes with what is represented there. The audio can be found on Audible.
2) The animation
Released by BBC DVD in 2016 this links the audio drama with a crisp black and white animation, retro and basic in style but appropriate given the similarly basic (as by today’s standards) original visuals. It’s the closest you’ll get to seeing the original. It’s got an impressive range of extras, with interviews from some of the original cast and production team, original stills, and the entire audio drama with the linking narration provided by the audio release above.
This is manna for Who fans everywhere, but if you are new to classic Who, do check this out, it’s a great, tense sci-fi drama in it’s own right.