We won’t technically see a new episode of beloved BBC sci-fi series “Doctor Who” until Christmas Day 2016… But this Saturday, you can see an episode that barely anyone has ever seen before.
Credit this to one of “Doctor Who’s” strangest legacies: the saga of the “lost” episodes. Think Nicolas Cage’s obsessive tendencies in “National Treasure” were farfetched? Nick’s got nothing on the fans who have diligently worked for decades to recover the earliest years of the classic BBC series — specifically, the 97 episodes that were deleted in some form or another by television executives who underestimated their potential appeal. While audio recordings exist, as well as a patchwork of other records, it’s now impossible to see many significant adventures as they originally aired… Leading to some unconventional means by which to correct this tragic oversight.
The latest triumph in the quest to recover these missing stories is “The Power of the Daleks,” a pivotal 1966 “serial” (six-episode miniseries) for which all that remains is the original audio. The BBC’s solution? Animation.
Airing 50 years after the its original premiere, “The Power of the Daleks” comes to life in cartoon black-and-white, as madcap time-travelling alien the Doctor copes with the aftermath of his new regeneration (the process by which he extends his life and/or gets recast), while also handling a murder mystery on a far away space colony that brings him face-to-face with his most notorious foes.
The absence of a viewable version of “Power of the Daleks” was always one of the biggest tragedies of the wiping, as not only does it feature Daleks (always fun) but it’s the first serial starring Patrick Troughton, who was the second actor to play the Doctor, and thus the first introduction of the concept of “regeneration,” which has been the essential ingredient to keeping “Who” alive for over 50 years. The fact that such a major milestone of the series was basically lost to history has always felt offensive (if only from a completist viewpoint), and it’s a treat to see it get new life.
The animation has pluses and minuses: Don’t go in expecting Disney-level work, as some of the motion and action comes off as a bit crude, hinting at low-budget execution. But the look echoes the best tropes of “Who’s” 1960s mod aesthetic, and the level of personality achieved in the facial animation does a lot to keep the story grounded in its characters — which is usually where “Who” shines brightest anyway.
The writing and pacing of course feel dated — it’s not really until Russell T. Davies’ 2005 relaunch of the series that “Doctor Who” feels like it holds up to the high standards of the Golden Age of Television. But for those with a little patience, the innate charms of the show do come together, especially as Troughton’s Doctor feels out his brand new identity, uncovering his quirky charms.
This ties awfully closely into the ongoing fan experience for those who have watched more than one iteration of the show; “Doctor Who” remains a fascinating television icon in part because of its ability to evolve. Sometimes, those evolutions meant recastings and secondary characters, sometimes, they mean a complete transformation for the show. This is what has led to a 50-years-plus series that might seem completely unrecognizable from its origins, but for one central core idea: a madman in a box that can travel through space and time.
One of the reasons “The Power of the Daleks” and other episodes like it were erased was that it was assumed no one would ever want to watch them again — it was the 1960s, after all, and the way we thought of television then bore no resemblance whatsoever to our current Netflix-driven environment. The BBC had no idea that the show would last for decades, that it would continue to delight young and old longer than any other sci-fi series to date. Which is why any fan of the series today might go ahead and give this simultaneously old and new series their consideration. After all, it’s almost like time travel.
“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” premieres Saturday at 8:25 p.m. EST.