Looking back at the two big-screen revisionist interpretations of the popular sci-fi character.
Given the current (frankly baffling) popularity of Doctor Who, it’s hard to remember that for decades, efforts to get film versions off the ground were doomed to failure, and even harder to imagine that Amicus films – under the name Aaru – could snap up film rights for a presumable pittance and crank out two rather odd movies in the mid-Sixties. At the time, Amicus had not quite become established as horror specialists, having only made a couple of films in the genre, and were just as likely to become a science fiction and family entertainment film company, which producer Milton Subotsky might well have preferred. By snapping up the rights to a TV show that was itself still quite new, Subotsky showed a certain canniness that would crop up again when he bought the rights to EC Comics a few years later, and then snapped up a handful of Stephen King short stories when the author was not as ubiquitous as he is today.
Both the Dr Who films are adapted from Terry Nation’s original TV serials, Dr Who and the Daleks retelling the first appearance of the mechanised dustbins. The film, strangely but perhaps understandably (given the need to sell to an international audience for whom Doctor who? would be the usual response), rather reinvents the character. This Doctor – played as a bumbling eccentric by Cushing – shows no sign of being a Timelord; rather, he’s an elderly inventor and the TARDIS is his latest invention (which makes the fact that it is disguised as a Police Box entirely irrelevant, given that it’s kept in his back garden – something that would surely arouse rather than divert suspicion). And his surname actually is Who. This is, in other words, an alternate universe Dr Who and not one considered canon.
When showing off his invention – which is still bigger on the inside than the outside but here is a seemingly unfinished mass of dangling wires – to Ian (Roy Castle), the erstwhile suitor of granddaughter Barbara (Jenny Linden), the lot of them, together with other granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) are sent hurtling through time and space to an unnamed planet (later revealed in the sequel as Skaro), where they find themselves the captives of the Daleks. I don’t need to explain Daleks, do I? No? Good. Trapped in their city and their metal shells thanks to the radiation caused by an atomic war, the Daleks are keen to use the captives to gain access to anti-radiation drugs held by fellow survivors the Thals, who look like a tanned Steve Strange and are pacifists. Tricked and attacked by the Daleks, the Thals are convinced by an escaped Doctor that they have to battle their enemies in order to avoid being wiped out.
In Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150, policeman Tom (Bernard Cribbins) stumbles into the TARDIS (now seemingly finished) after being assaulted during a robbery, just in time to be whipped off to London in 2150 by the Doctor, Susan and niece Louise (Jill Curzon) – no word on where Barbara is, so presumably she’s shacked up with Ian. On arrival, they find a bombed-out shell of a city, with survivors hiding out from the invading Daleks, who are enslaving the population (either as slave labour or brainwashed Robomen) in order to hollow out the planet and use it as a mobile spaceship. No, of course it doesn’t make any sense.
As the group are split up, they find themselves teamed with resistance fighters like Andrew Kier and Ray Brooks, or at the mercy of turncoats like Philip Madoc and Sheila Steafel, as the Doctor tries to find a way of defeating the Daleks.
While Dr Who and the Daleks was a big box office hit, the sequel didn’t perform as well, and so plans for a third film were quickly dropped. A pity, as both movies are entertaining nonsense, and it might have been nice for them to evolve into a franchise. Of course, they both bear only the faintest similarity to the TV show that inspired them, but that’s no bad thing, especially as the show was particularly primitive at the time. These films benefit from a larger scale and vivid colours – the significance of which is probably lost on modern audiences, but just imagine seeing these after watching the show on a blurry, black and white small screen TV. It must have been remarkable.
While the first film is a straightforward interplanetary action romp (with an anti-pacifist theme), the second is more interesting, playing on still relatively recent memories of bombed-out buildings, resistance fighters and quislings from World War 2. Watching the pair of them back to back, I can’t decide which is the more entertaining – Invasion Earth is certainly the more action-packed, but the first film might have the dramatic edge. Certainly, the second film is a little less overtly juvenile – there’s more violence and cynicism at work for sure, and even the good guys seem gruff and world-weary. The first film, on the other hand, is a lot more wholesome.
Cushing’s Doctor is rather different from any of the others – both films are based on William Hartnell stories, but while Hartnell was irascible and temperamental, Cushing is scatter-brained and fluffy. I’ve never really taken to his performances in these films (or At the Earth’s Core, where he channels much the same character) – they feel a little too much like playing down to a juvenile audience for my liking. I’m not saying these are bad performances (so settle down, Cushing fans!) – but the characters just don’t appeal to me. The supporting cast is a mixed bunch – Roy Castle, making his second Amicus film after Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, was clearly a man of many talents, but acting wasn’t really one of them, and both he and Bernard Cribbins (who is a lot better) seem to have been cast to provide some ill-timed comic relief that irritated me even when I was a kid. On the other hand, Tovey is far less annoying than she should be as a precocious child, and the second film, in particular, has a pretty remarkable supporting cast.
The Daleks themselves – slightly redesigned from the TV versions – are great villains of course, and here seem more threatening than in most of the shows, something helped by the techniscope vistas. The effects, in general, are not that bad all things considered – the flying saucer in Invasion Earth holds up remarkably well for a low-budget 1960s movie.
On the whole, the two films remain good fun, if not exactly classics. I doubt they’ll mean much to the modern Who fan, lacking as they do soap opera elements, a wild sense of self-importance and painfully bombastic music, but for those of us who grew up with Doctor Who when it was at its creaky finest, they will always have a nostalgic charm, instantly bringing back memories of a time when these films turning up on TV was probably the most exciting thing you could imagine.
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