Originally published in Strange Skins 2013 #3
Who-oo-oo-oo is Dr Who? Where is he from? What does he do? These are the questions posed by Frazer Hines on his 1968 ‘hit’ record Who’s Doctor Who. A question to which the answers are – if a particular Toho Films production, released in the same year, is anything to go by – A) a crazy scientist hell-bent on world domination, B) Japan and C) he creates gigantic mechanical gorillas, ostensibly for mining but just as useful for trashing Tokyo. Confused? Well you better get used to it, as we enter the strange and frankly ape-shit bonkers world of King Kong Escapes!
By 1963, the rights to the character of King Kong were in dispute. Producer of the original 1933 smash hit film King Kong and its unsuccessful 1935 sequel Son of Kong, Merian C Cooper believed that Kong was licensed to RKO, the studio that made it, for just the two pictures but RKO believed that since they had made the films, they owned the character. When RKO leased the rights for a King Kong movie to Japan’s Toho Studios for their monster mash-up King Kong vs. Godzilla (KinguKongu Tai Gojira), Cooper instigated the legal proceedings that dragged on well after his death and were only finally solved in the year 1980. Nevertheless, Cooper was not able to stop the production of King Kong vs. Godzilla and the film went on to be a big hit for Toho both in Japan and in foreign territories.
With the success of the first film, Toho were keen to proceed with a new series of King Kong pictures, pitting the giant ape against their roster of deadly monsters. A script was written called King Kong vs. Ebirah (KinguKongu Tai Ebirah) in which Kong battled monster shrimp Ebirah. Pre-production was well underway before RKO capriciously pulled the plug on the multi-picture deal, wary of not creating more trouble with Cooper. Toho protested that the decision would leave them out of pocket and insisted that they be allowed to make one more Kong film to use the sets and costumes they had already built. RKO agreed, but they did not like the script for King Kong vs. Ebirah. They suggested that the script department at Toho approach a man called Arthur Rankin.
Arthur Rankin was the business half of Rankin/Bass Productions, specialists in affordable TV animation. In 1966, the ABC commissioned Rankin/Bass to create a cartoon series based on the character of King Kong, for whom they had obtained the animation rights from RKO. Rankin/Bass reimagined the King Kong story as a kid-friendly tale of a boy called Bobby Bond who befriends the giant ape when his scientist father takes him to Mondo Island (not quite as threatening as Skull Island, is it?). A recurring villain becomes a thorn in the side of Kong and the Bond family in the form of a bespectacled, bulbous-headed mad scientist called… wait for it… Dr Who.
Part of the Rankin/Bass deal with RKO had been the option to produce a full-length animated feature for cinema release if the TV cartoon became a hit. The cartoon wasn’t a hit (which is why it is mostly now forgotten) but someone at RKO remembered the proposed script for the animated movie, in which Kong battles Mechanikong, Dr Who’s gigantic robotic version of the great ape. This was the script that RKO was keen for Toho to run with. Luckily, its themes of gigantic robots and mass destruction of property related very closely to the Japanese psyche and the people at Toho agreed the deal.
The animated feature script was re-written by US TV scriptwriter William J Keenan to be slightly harder and less cartoony. Out went Bobby Bond and his family in favour of the crew of a nuclear submarine, led by the square-jawed all-American marine Carl Nelson with his love interest (and later Kong’s too) Lieutenant Susan Watson. Dr Who is retained from the original script and teamed up with the sinister villainess Madame Piranha. The script was then translated from English into Japanese under KinguKongu No Gyakushu (King Kong’s Counterattack).
There was never a chance that the character of Dr Who was going to look anything like his cartoon counterpart. There simply aren’t any actors who look like that and make up effects weren’t sophisticated enough to create the Mekon meets Mr Magoo look of the original. Although some of the primary cast was filled with American actors (for example, Captain Nelson was played by the quite amazingly monickered Rhodes Reason), the main villain was played by a renowned Japanese character actor called Eisei Amamoto. His partner in crime, the icy Madame Piranha was played by Mie Hama; an actress who had gained recognition in the West by appearing in the Bond film You Only Live Twice.
It’s when you look at the outfit the evil Dr Who wears that things get interesting for Doctor Who fans. His ensemble of short cape and forage cap unmistakably echoes the outfit worn by William Hartnell in his early days as the Doctor. It’s hard to imagine that the combination of that name and that outfit were just a coincidence. Its there that the similarities end though, because the Dr Who from KinguKongu No Gyakushu – renamed as King King Escapes for the English speaking world – is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and more like an early version of the Master than the Doctor we know and love. In fact, later in the film when he sheds his hat and cape, the outfit he wears underneath appears distinctly Masterish with its Nehru collar and jet-black colour scheme.
King Kong Escapes is a much better film than its campy predecessor King Kong vs. Godzilla. Although it is very much in the Japanese Kaiju tradition of men in monster costumes knocking seven bells out of each other, there’s a definite post-James Bond feel about it. Dr Who as represented here is very much in the Bond Villain mode and it’s easy to imagine that his name might be a pastiche of Dr No, rather than a reference to a BBC sci-fi series. Yet the similarity in costume appears to be too relevant to dismiss altogether.
All of the major Western players in the production of King Kong Escapes were American and no US network had broadcast Doctor Who before 1972, but the CBC was broadcast the show in Canada as early as 1965, so it’s not totally impossible that someone involved might have seen it. Similarly, Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor to be seen in Japan. The two Peter Cushing Dalek films were distributed in both territories, but Peter Cushing doesn’t wear either a hat or a cape, so that can have no relevance. Even the name is unlikely to have come from the Dalek films as the King Kong Show TV series will already have been in production when Dr Who and the Daleks was released in the USA.
All things considered, I think the most likely explanation is that it’s all a big coincidence that Dr Who, probably named after Dr No, happens to dress a bit like William Hartnell as that other Doctor Who from the BBC. As Doctor Who fans, we’re all a bit obsessed with finding clues and connections in other media, but don’t watch King Kong Escapes because you think it’s got some hidden homage to Doctor Who. It really hasn’t. Watch it because it’s colourful, bonkers entertainment from a bygone age!