Since Doctor Who rematerialised back onto TV in 2005, many millions of people have experienced the joy of discovering this extraordinary series, and of those, a fair number have doubtless gone back to the very first serials, transmitted at the beginning of the early ’60s and now readily available on DVD and various streaming sites. For any Whovian, this is a special moment, a moment that links you with history in a very particular way. To see the very first episode of debut serial “An Unearthly Child” (1963), set in a London junkyard, in a world of chalk-smelling schools, transistor radios, and bobbies on the beat that seems as far away from 2016 as it’s possible to be, is to be present at a pivotal moment in what we might describe as the mythology of science fiction.
For this is Doctor Who, a show unlike any other. It’s a show about a being who’s thousands of years old and travels the universe in a phone box doing good (as high concepts go, that’s about as good as it gets). It’s a show that speaks as much to the adults who appreciate the political allegories and occasional sexual innuendos as to the children who love the robot dogs and sonic screwdrivers. It’s a show that, by accident, has found itself painting its picture on one of the largest canvases of any sci-fi show, for it’s one big story; the post-2005 series is no reboot, merely a continuation. For all the changes in tone and production values, it’s possible to watch it from the very beginning in 1963 to the present day without a break in narrative or core concepts.
Except it isn’t.
Fans who marvel at the flawless opening episode and the Stone Age adventure to which it leads will naturally go on to “The Daleks” (1963-64), the first serial to feature the Doctor’s archenemies, which so enthralled the British public that the show, previously under threat of immediate cancellation, was warmly embraced by the BBC. After that, “The Edge of Destruction” (1964) comes next, a two-parter written under horrible time pressure to fill a gap in the production schedule that’s nevertheless oddly compelling by dint of the gamely playing of the cast, not to mention its overall weirdness: a Beckett play re-imagined for the millions watching with fish suppers on their laps.
And then, nothing. For the next serial in the run — the magisterial John Lucarotti seven-parter “Marco Polo” — doesn’t exist.
Television was the ultimate in 20th-century ephemera. Although some thought otherwise — the brief of educating the masses that held sway at the BBC for so long under the corporation’s managing director Lord Reith (1889-1971) being a case in point — the prevailing view of light entertainment programming was that it ultimately constituted throwaway amusement for the masses. Hence the unfortunate fact that for decades, there was no requirement for the BBC, or in fact the vast majority of television companies, to archive their programmes.
To look upon the voluminous output of, say, British television stations of the ’60s is to cast an eye over a denuded wasteland. Thousands of hours of material was junked, wiped, mislaid, or simply thrown away in efforts to reduce storage costs, or reuse valuable videotapes. Many well-loved series were completely destroyed; others — including, it’s said, Monty Python’s Flying Circus — only survived due to the personal intervention of the makers.
It seems strange to say it, but Doctor Who didn’t fare quite as badly as others. Out of the more than 250 episodes found to be missing when the first audit of the BBC’s holdings was carried out in 1978, more than 150 were eventually found, firstly through systematic inquiries at the corporation’s various depots, libraries, and storage facilities, and latterly through the searches of Doctor Who fans understandably eager to recover the earliest stories from the show’s history. Episodes have turned up in the most unlikely places: car boot sales, garden sheds, the bottom of filing cabinets, a Mormon church (seriously), and most recently in a TV relay station in Nigeria, in which film archivist and fan Phil Morris discovered nine episodes of the long-lost Patrick Troughton serials “The Enemy of the World” (1967-68) and “The Web of Fear” (1968) in 2013.
There remain, however, 97 episodes that are still unaccounted for; after almost 40 years of searching — and in spite of persistent rumours of the rediscovery of the “Marco Polo” serial — it seems unlikely that more will ever be found. The BBC, however, has one last card up their sleeve. Although these serials are probably gone forever, the audio tracks for all 97 still survive, thanks to the efforts of a small handful of technically-minded fans who recorded them during transmission in the ’60s using hand-held microphones and the like.
Since these recordings came to public attention in the ’90s, they’ve been released on CD, and enterprising groups of fans have even made “recons” of the serials, combining them with off-air photographs and the few short surviving snatches of footage. In the last decade or so, the BBC took the process one step further, commissioning animation companies to create animated versions of missing episodes to allow incomplete serials to be released on DVD. Around half a dozen previously unavailable serials have been marketed in this way, including the eight-part masterpiece “The Invasion” (1968), the historical epic “The Reign of Terror” (1964), and the first ever regeneration story, “The Tenth Planet” (1966).
“The Power of the Daleks”, released last month, is different, as for the first time, the BBC has commissioned an animated version not of the odd missing episode, but of an entire story. Patrick Troughton’s 1966 debut — referred to in fandom simply as “Power” — has long been thought of as one of the finest serials of the ’60s, but will the animations stand up to scrutiny?
The story is a runaround in the best possible sense, a jaunty and at times offbeat adventure starring Michael Craze and Anneke Wills as Ben and Polly, the Doctor’s companions. Very few of their episodes have survived, so for many viewers, their animated versions will be the first they’ve seen of this likeable pair. The TARDIS materialises on the planet Vulcan (a mainstay moniker in science fiction, of course, but arrived at independently of its use on Star Trek by writer David Whitaker; “Power” premiered in the UK two months after Star Trek’s first episode was aired, but almost three years before it crossed the Atlantic). The action initially centres around a human colony on the planet, and a mysterious capsule discovered by the colony’s scientist, Lesterson (Robert James), before the Daleks burst onto the screen.
Storytelling in ’60s-era Doctor Who is different to today; “Power” is no exception. Although the audience isn’t quite led by the hand, the pace is slower, more measured; tropes are more often explained rather than set down, and the action is sometimes contrived (although in this last respect, one is sorely tempted to add that nothing changes). That said, there’s a satisfyingly mysterious tone to “Power”. For much of the first episode, the new Doctor keeps Ben and Polly guessing as to his true nature. It’s important to remember that audiences in 1966 would’ve been just as in the dark about what had just happened, for the Doctor’s periodic regeneration was then a complete novelty. Ben’s exasperation at the Doctor’s refusal to offer an explanation for his abrupt change reflected what must have been a very real confusion on the part of viewers at the time.
As anyone familiar with previous attempts will be aware, one of the dilemmas facing animators is the issue of fidelity. These aren’t cartoons, but animations, rendered in black and white (all ’60s-era Doctor Who episodes were monochrome) and with a bare minimum of artistic flourishes. Panning is perfunctory and there is, to digital eyes, an overabundance of medium close-ups and “tight four” shots that’s probably as reflective of the original camera set-ups as it’s possible to get from the surviving scripts and production notes.
The animations of the actors, however, are quite startling; Troughton’s idiosyncratic facial expressions are captured perfectly — not always the case in previous animated episodes — and movement is never less than adequate and often tidy. The soundtrack, too, benefits from clean up by the irrepressible sound engineer (and former composer of music for Doctor Who) Mark Ayres.
It’s difficult to know what to think of the decision to animate “Power”. The most depressing thing about it is that it represents a tacit admission of defeat; no business, and certainly not the BBC, would spend thousands of pounds on a project of this sort if they weren’t absolutely certain that the original tapes and any copies made of them are irretrievably lost. There’s much talk in missing episodes circles of a print made for overseas markets, last heard of at a Singaporean TV station in the early ’70s. Even if by some miracle this copy came to light, there will from now on be a section of fandom for whom this impressive animation is how they experience Patrick Troughton’s first outing in his most famous role.