So here we have it, the first ever Doctor Who movie: Dr. Who & the Daleks. Hold on a minute. No no no. A quick glance at the movie poster for this film will reveal that the title is actually:
Dr. Who & the Daleks
But this is Milton Subotsky and Amicus Productions, makers of horror films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Scream and Scream Again and The House that Dripped Blood. So horror was their thing, and their approach to Doctor Who was always going to be to make the monster the star. The choice of Peter Cushing, a famous Hammer Horror actor, was obvious in this context.
The first couple of years of Doctor Who were fairly ambiguous about whether the Doctor was human or alien, whether he had invented the TARDIS or not, and whether his name was actually Dr Who (the end credits said that for years). Films need clearer, self-contained stories to tell, so Subotsky comes down on the side of human inventor, which makes for a more obvious contrast with the monsters and aliens. This does lead to the rather odd situation where he has daughters who must therefore be called Susan Who and Barbara Who. And, oh yes, Barbara. Poor Barbara. Even little triumphs like the making of mud in the original story are taken away from her, and she doesn’t get her iconic moment where she is menaced by a plunger. Ian is also radically changed for the adaptation, but this I prefer. The film doesn’t muddy the waters by having two heroes, and he is instead reimagined as the comic relief, which is all rather fun. But the big improvement over the television series is Susan, who is a remarkably well-acted brave little girl, whereas in the original she was a young woman being treated like a little girl instead. As for Dr Who himself, apart from being human his characterisation is actually a lot closer to the Doctor as we know him nowadays than William Hartnell’s. He has that combination of brilliance and eccentric fun, such as when he is shown reading a comic.
Something that might seem a bit off if you come to this well-versed in the television series is the naming of the Doctor’s ship as TARDIS, rather than the TARDIS, lacking the definite article. That might seem like something very insignificant, but then again it might also remind you of something: the annuals. And there is a huge amount of common ground between the two films and the early annuals, presenting us with the big budget version of Doctor Who. The films and the annuals play in the same playground, which is much closer to the Doctor Who that children might have seen in their imaginations, free from the constraints of being limited to a couple of thousand pounds being spent on each episode. £180,000 was spent on this, and it’s half the running time of the original. You can buy a lot of lava lamps with that kind of money. Where the money is really a benefit is scenes such as the mountain climb, which is hugely impressive and the accompanying music is superb. This is one area that is often overlooked when people compare the film to the television episodes: the benefit of having money to splash on a proper orchestral score. The music is just sublime, making everything seem so much more epic.
Considering it was made by horror specialists, the film oddly pulls its punches, shying away from showing the Daleks shooting fire (which the television series would do very soon) and giving Antodus a happy ending rather than showing him plunging to his death. The Daleks have a very different visual aesthetic to make use of the Technocolor, particularly the very bling black Dalek with silver and gold balls, but more colour doesn’t necessarily equal more frightening. However, these are horror film makers and they know how to make things scary. The moving cameras on the wall are creepily reminiscent of Dalek eye sticks, and the Daleks themselves are as menacing as ever, such as their delivery of this line:
One – of – you – four – must – go – outside – the – city – whichwillitbe?
Although benefiting from a faster pace, the film does suffer from some of the trims to the script. The dispute about going to the city is so truncated that Dr Who’s trickery makes no sense, and this Doctor doesn’t seem devious enough anyway. Some of the added comedy is at the expense of any kind of logic, such as the door that opens by sitting on a seat, which only works if you think of the Daleks as practical jokers who have big butts hidden somewhere inside that casing. Also, for a film with the luxury of repeated takes and as much editing as necessary, it is a shame that they couldn’t make the countdown work any better. Try counting along with it as the action plays out on screen. Time bends to accommodate the needs of the story.
Looking at this in the context of the time it was released, all the colour and DALEKS! stuff was obviously very exciting, but it does also feel kind of old-fashioned despite that. The sci-fi is much more obviously clichéd than the television series and, premiering on 23rd August 1965, this is slap bang in the break between Seasons Two and Three of Doctor Who, and therefore just beyond the point where every character featured in the film apart from the Doctor has departed from the television series. It made sense for the second film to introduce its own companions instead, but we are getting ahead of ourselves there. For now we will leave Dr. Who, Susan Who, Barbara Who and Ian Idiot being menaced by some stock footage. But we can’t go on that journey with them, because the money has run out. They spent it all on lava lamps. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve got to be honest: on that grand viewing of Doctor Who that my son and I embarked on from January of 2014 until December of 2017… not once did I think to show him the Peter Cushing movies. Largely this is because we’ve been there already. You know phrase “been there, done that”? Well we literally had been here before. And it was light years better with Hartnell piloting the TARDIS.
It’s not that the movie, Dr. Who and the Daleks is without merit. Daleks in colors – for 1965, this was stunning. On the big screen; even better! Those Daleks are also sporting new headlights, which took me a while to like but now can’t stand the original look! Go figure. And Peter Cushing, AKA Grand Moff Tarkin (Star Wars), or Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. Van Helsing, or half a dozen other great roles… he’s awesome. Is it possible not to like Cushing? Only if he is playing Dr. Who. Yes, not The Doctor. His family name is Who; he’s a human inventor and he has a mustache! Sacre bleu! His granddaughters are Susan and Barbara. Barbara, whose head is so big with that hairdo, she might be a Metaluna monster from This Island Earth, is dating Ian who isn’t even a shadow of the Ian Chesterton we know and love. He’s a bumbling oaf. Yes, he adds a sense of humor, but our Ian is awesome, not a bungler. Susan, played by Roberta Tovey, is adorable, and went on to sing Who’s Who which is a surprisingly catchy song. It didn’t help make the movie better, but I’ll give her points regardless. And it’s interesting to note that this version of Susan is far younger than the TV version but still seems less fearful of things than her Gallifreyan counterpart. And she seems more intelligent too. Odd, right?
Then there’s TARDIS. I left off “the”, as in the definite article, you might say? I know. That’s what they call it in the Cushing movies. TARDIS, like Voyager, is the actual name of the ship. And, although it would be common post-2005, seeing the outer doors from the inside of “TARDIS” was unexpected. The high-tech look of this alien ship from the TV series is replaced with a disorganized, messy, wire-covered lab.
The rest of the story is pretty true to the original so if it wasn’t one of your favorites, you’ll probably think even less of this one. The Thals wear eyeliner, as one does. They also look like a precursor to the Eloi from The Time Machine. The strange irony is that for some reason, this movie and its sequel have a special place for most Doctor Who fans. It’s like going to buy an especially expensive Coach wallet, and finding it’s a fake and yet still giving it a place in your heart anyway. It makes no sense to me! It’s one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it’s the colors, but that didn’t help Colin Baker’s jacket.
Look, as a fan of Doctor Who, this probably bears at least one viewing. It’s a piece of history. It can’t compare to William Hartnell, but it’s a fun attempt. And you’ll finally learn that Admiral Akbar from Star Wars was quoting the Doctor when he yelled, “It’s a trap”! The more you know… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.