Most Exciting: Doctor Who & the Daleks on the Big Screen… IN COLOUR!

Most Exciting

When I first got into Doctor Who fandom in a big way in the late 1980s, the received wisdom amongst fans was that the two Peter Cushing films from the 60s, Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad, were worthless rubbish. Which is strange, because almost everyone that I spoke to would say ‘Actually, I rather like them’ with a sort of guilty pleasure look on their face. Everyone had an incredible fondness for them from watching endless reruns during on a Saturday morning or during the school holidays in the 70s, wedged between episodes of Champion the Wonder HorseBoss Cat (as the BBC would insist on calling Top Cat) and Marine Boy. And yet, the fandom of the time – obsessed as it was with continuity and canonicity – seemed determined to retcon these anachronisms out of Doctor Who history.

Fortunately, the day of the pernickety 80s fanboy, taking it all terribly seriously with his book of production codes and his flask of weak lemon drink, has come and gone. These days, the average fan has a much more blasé attitude to what constitutes ‘proper’ Doctor Who. It took the cancellation of the show and an extended wilderness period to get us there, but we’re now willing to accept audio dramas, novels, comic strips and spin-offs on an equal playing field with the actual series. And this new, more relaxed era has embraced the Dalek films – so long the pariah of the Doctor Who universe – with open arms. This is a good thing.

For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past 53 years, the plot of Dr Who and the Daleks is as follows: absent-minded but brilliant inventor Dr Who – we’re never told his first name, but I like to think it might be Leonard – has invented a time machine in the back garden of his suburban cottage with the assistance of his precocious young granddaughter Susan. His other, older, granddaughter Barbara is less interested in time travel, despite her choice of reading material, preferring a trip to the pictures with her clumsy but dependable boyfriend Ian Chesterton.

During an awkward first meeting at the Who household, the Dr offers to show Ian his latest invention. Inexplicably, Dr Who and Susan have built their time machine in the shape of a London police box and named it TARDIS. During an ill-advised fumble in the control room, Ian and Barbara accidentally transport the Who family +1 through time and space to the planet Skaro, where Ian gets stunned, poisoned, lost and shot in quick succession. They encounter the nasty Daleks – who look like their TV counterparts on a mixture of steroids and Skittles – and the nice Thals – who look like a gay pride parade on the planet Venus. These two unobservant species have failed to notice each other for the past several hundred years since blowing the bejesus out of each other in a massive atomic war, but once Dr Who brings them together, there’s all manner of Technicolor™ excitement.

It’s pretty much the plot of the TV serial if you scribbled it on the back of a postcard with a pack of Crayola under the light of a lava lamp. If you think that sounds awful, you probably won’t enjoy Dr Who and the Daleks, but if it sounds like a whole barrel full of fun then, A) you’d be right and B) if you’re not already in possession of a copy of the film, you should rush out and buy it now. It’s just been released on Blu-Ray™, don’cha know?

It’s easy to hurl criticism at Dr Who and the Daleks for not being up to the dramatic standard of its TV counterpart but to do so is to really misunderstand the fundamental difference between a TV serial and cinema release in 1965. It is essential for any film to at least make back its budget and to do so, Dr Who and the Daleks had to convince a UK audience to get of their bums and pay money to see something that they had already seen on TV for free. To do this, it had to transpose the glamour of the silver screen onto the story of The Daleks. All of those elements that you couldn’t get on UK TV in 1965 – colour, spectacle and big-name stars – were essential to the film’s success.

Also, this film was expected to sell abroad, often in territories where the Doctor Who television series had never been shown. Primarily the USA, most of which had never even heard of Doctor Who in 1965. Peter Cushing was a big name internationally, mainly through his long association with Hammer Films and his casting as Dr Who was a real coup as far as foreign sales were concerned. To the UK cinema-goer, this had to be sold as a spectacular big screen version of that show you were familiar with from Saturday teatime TV, but to the overseas audience, it had to be sold as a thrilling outer space monster movie starring Peter Cushing. Does it succeed in both of these tenets? You bet your metal ass it does!

Cushing’s Dr Who is a much softer and friendlier figure than his television counterpart. He was the Grandfather who’d give you a mint imperial and a cheeky wink, unlike Hartnell, who’d just as likely give you a jolly good smacked bottom. What Hartnell and Cushing do have in common though is that their interpretation of the role is a million miles from the part with which they were previously associated. Hartnell was known for his gruff sergeant majors and policemen, which he left behind to play the Doctor, whereas Cushing was known mainly as the amoral Victor Frankenstein and the zealous Professor van Helsing – roles completely apposed to that lovable old duffer Dr Who.
Consummate all-rounder Roy Castle makes a decent fist of playing heroic Ian Chesterton, but the writing of the character works against him. For some reason, the producers chose to present Ian as a clumsy simpleton for most of the movie, which seems at odds to his sudden turn of heroism once he gets in the Dalek city and the tunnels leading up to it.
Jennie Linden’s Barbara fares even worse; presented as little more than tight-sweatered eye candy. She doesn’t get to scream all that much (in fact, there’s precious little screaming at all in this film) but she doesn’t get to do much else either. Of the characters from the original TV version, Barbara definitely comes off worst in the transition to the big screen.

Susan however is a different matter altogether. Although presented as a much younger character than on TV, she is ably played by 11-year old Roberta Tovey and written as a far more interesting character than that played on TV by Carole Anne Ford. TV’s Susan was full of missed potential throughout her time in the series; she starts off as an interesting character, but very, very quickly devolves into a childish screamer. Worse still, the TV Susan is often responsible for getting the TARDIS crew into trouble with her immature and thoughtless behaviour. The movie Susan, on the other hand, is infinitely resourceful and often has to get her friends out of trouble created by her overly inquisitive Grandfather. It’s no surprise at all that, of the companions on display here, Susan is the only one to return for the sequel.

In all, Dr Who and the Daleks does not let the side down at all. Most of the criticisms aimed at it over the years are unfair – it’s never dull, the production design is gorgeous and it certainly doesn’t look cheap. In fact, compared to other British sci-fi efforts of the same era – Moon Zero TwoThey Came from Beyond Space etc. – it is in a different league. And it was by no means a flop either; Dr Who and the Daleks was a big hit both in the UK and abroad. Big enough to spawn a sequel… and that’s where we’re going next. Set the TARDIS for 2150ad!

On TV, The Daleks had been followed by the bigger and more spectacular Dalek Invasion of Earth and the movies followed suit. A mere year later, Dr Who and the Daleks was followed by Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad. It’s an amazing title, isn’t it? It just oozes overblown blockbuster appeal from every syllable.

The plot, for the hard of remembering, once again roughly approximates its TV counterpart. Dr Who, his Grand-daughter Susan and his niece Louise (I’m guessing they picked her up on a visit to see Dr Who’s sister somewhere on their travels) accidentally whisk a bemused young policeman called Tom Campbell off to the London of the future where a few desperate survivors are struggling to survive among the rubble with nothing but an inexhaustible supply of Sugar Puffs to eat. You see, the Daleks have managed to overcome their debilitating dependency on static electricity and have conquered the Earth! Conquered the Earth? The poor pathetic creatures; don’t they realise that before they can conquer the Earth they have to destroy all living matter?

Apparently not.

The TARDIS is buried under bits of a collapsing building and Susan, in a homage to her TV counterpart twists her ankle. While Louise tends to her, Dr Who and Tom Campbell explore a warehouse and discover a man in a PVC fetish suit who’s been knifed to death amidst some empty cardboard boxes. The girls are gone when Dr Who and Tom return, having been whisked away by grizzled rebel Wyler. Instead, they find a Dalek having a quick dip in the Thames and are taken captive aboard the Dalek flying saucer.

The rebels attack the Dalek saucer and Dr Who and Tom are separated. Louise and Susan are separated and Susan teams up with Wyler. Tom teams up with Louise and Dr Who teams up with rebel David Campbell. Susan and Wyler escape London in a van which then explodes. Tom and Louise escape the Dalek saucer through a waste disposal tube and Dr Who and David head towards Bedfordshire, where the Daleks are mining the Earth’s magnetic core for their own highly unlikely reasons.

After assorted escapades, everyone meets up at the Dalek mine and hatch a plan to fix the metal meanies for good, resulting in the Daleks and their spaceship (but not the iron-work supporting the actual mine) being sucked into the magnetic core of the Earth. It’s all jolly exciting and manages to condense a 6-episode teleplay successfully into just over 80 thrill-making minutes (approx 300 rells).

As with its predecessor, there’s an awful amount to enjoy about Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad. It’s big, brash and colourful, but with a slightly darker tone than its predecessor. By the time this film was released, Pat Troughton had just replaced Bill Hartnell on TV and the first thrust of Dalekmania was coming to an end. This can be seen quite clearly from the way the film is marketed – the UK poster foregrounds a rather brutal looking Roboman, with the words ‘Invasion Earth’ dwarfing the rather puny word ‘Daleks’. In fact, the name of the main monsters, splashed all over the poster for the first film, is the word in the smallest text of the sequel’s title.

Cushing is on sparkling form, giving a witty performance that has all the charm of the first film but with greater scope for emotional depth. Similarly, Roberta Tovey gives a more nuanced performance. Whether this is because she’s slightly older or because the script gives her more to do is unclear. Probably a bit of both. Jill Curzon gets a slightly better deal as Louise than her predecessor. No longer the screaming cipher, Dr Who’s elder companion this time actually gets to show a bit of intellect as well as a bit of leg. Not a great amount, but certainly more than film Barbara was ever granted.

Of the supporting cast, Bernard Cribbins – the man who would be Wilf – shows great promise as PC Tom Campbell. His comedy bungling is thankfully restricted to the odd show-piece, most notably the Roboman food machine sequence, which is actually rather sweet and nowhere near as embarrassing as fandom’s humourless minority would have you believe. Ray Brooks – the boy with The Knack – is a better actor than his TV counterpart as David Campbell, but is given less to play with. It would have been interesting to see Brooks tackling the David character as written on TV. Stalwart character actors Philip Madoc, Eileen Way and Andrew Kier provide sterling support as lesser characters.

The common perception amongst fans is that Daleks’ Invasion Earth is the better of the two films because it has a more adult tone, but I’ve come to the conclusion in recent years that I actually prefer Dr Who and the Daleksfor the same reason. These days I find I prefer something childlike and fluffy to all that death and destruction. That’s middle age for you. Sadly, Subotsky and Rosenberg never exercised their option to make a third film, adapted from the TV serial The Chase and the rights expired some time in the early 1990s, but perhaps it might’ve looked something like this….

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