Release Date: August 1965
Written by: Milton Subotsky (based upon the TV serial by Terry Nation)
Directed by: Gordon Flemyng
The Story So Far: A big-screen adaptation of the second Doctor Who serial, featuring an all-new cast, more and bigger Daleks, and the grooviest color scheme imaginable.
Now here’s a movie that lies somewhat slantways from the Doctor Who canon. The title character, named “Dr. Who”, travels in space and time inside a British police box, and encounters villainous metallic creatures on the planet Skaro… but, apart from the obvious parallels, the movie has nothing to do with the Doctor Who that had become a top-10 TV show in England over the previous almost-two years.
Dr. Who and the Daleks happened because the rights to certain key concepts from the TV series were acquired by Amicus Productions – a shlocky English film house run by a couple of Americans. The film is a visual treat and is, apart from some differences in cast and basic premise, nearly a carbon copy of Terry Nation’s TV scripts. The original production of The Daleks had put Doctor Who on the map, launched Dalek-mania, and is still a sacred touchstone for those of us who follow the show. The film version… is an oddball curiosity, gorgeous to look at and difficult to sit through.
Let’s talk about the differences, first of all. The four main characters are still the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara. But Susan is much younger, and Barbara, in hot pink pants, is now also the Doctor’s granddaughter. Ian is a bumbling clown who engages in four – count ’em, four – comedy pratfalls in the first ten minutes alone. And the Doctor is actually called Dr. Who, a human scientist who’s just happened to invent a TARDIS in his backyard. When we are introduced to Dr. Who, via a slow pan across his living room, we first see Susan and Barbara engrossed in scholarly texts, while he himself is reading… comic books. This is awesome, brilliant characterization, even before Peter Cushing has uttered his first word.
But, alas, that’s the high point of Cushing’s performance. If you’ve been watching the TV series in order to this point, you’ve been spoiled by two years of William Hartnell taking his character from an angry, shifty anti-hero, to an avuncular anarchist with comically violent tendencies. Cushing, in a running time of just 79 minutes, doesn’t get to exhibit nearly Hartnell’s breadth. He’s just … bizarre, really; overly made up and overly mannered.
After the introductory sequence, where Ian bumblingly causes the TARDIS to take off, we land on Skaro, and what follows is essentially an abbreviated version of The Daleks — minus the first cliffhanger, which had been a seminal moment for the TV series. Here, the Daleks are over-sized and brightly colored, just the way Steven Moffat re-imagined them for Doctor Who‘s 2010 TV season. They look fabulous on the big screen. We also get very, very glam Thals. Barrie Ingham, here playing Alydon, one of the lead Thal roles from the TV serial, is wearing acres of bright blue mascara, a blond wig, supermodel boots, tight pants, a freshly-waxed chest, and glitter. These are the Thals as designed by David Bowie. Or, perhaps, Ke$ha.
The problem with the script adhering so closely to Terry Nation’s plot structure, minus most of his dialogue, is that the TARDIS crew loses much cleverness, Temmosus (the short-lived Thal leader) loses his poetic speech right before the Daleks exterminate him, and the movie actually gets… dull, once Roy Castle has stopped being farcical. Gone is the tension of the Doctor being at odds with his companions. Gone are the moral debates from Episode 5 of the original, with Ian and the Doctor having to talk the Thals into fighting the Daleks. Oddly, though, stupid plot contrivances from the original are kept in, like Ganatus and Antodus causing the rockfall that traps them in their tunnel. So what’s left are all of the plot points but none of the nuance.
Also, with Roy Castle taking center stage, the movie really becomes about Ian’s journey from klutz to hero. Dr. Who, unlike what Hartnell did with the Doctor across seven weeks of television during the original serial, remains resolutely undynamic. More development is given to Antodus – because this is more family fare than gritty science fiction, Antodus actually gets to survive the noble act of self-sacrifice that had killed him on television.
What really makes the movie watchable, though, are the Daleks themselves.
Boy, they look great, don’t they? And if the color scheme and enormous the-movie-Sliver-totally-copied-us bank of monitors don’t pull you in… check out those lava lamps! Daleks with lava lamps! This is a marked contrast to the low-budget, videotaped-in-a-shoe-box, black-and-white TV series. The scene towards the end of the film where the Daleks emerge in formation from their city, framed over an enormous light panel (corresponding with their capturing the Doctor and Susan in Episode 6 of the original), is just gorgeous eye candy.
So… what we have here, at heart, is the opposite of TV Doctor Who. It’s bright, flashy, and fun to look at… but the script is without any clever wordplay, creativity, anger, violence, dark comedy, or light tragedy. By August 1965 on TV, Doctor Who was best when William Hartnell got to trade witty barbs and polysyllabic insults with old-time British comedy film stars; never mind the monsters or the sets. The best parts of the TV series as it was in 1965 are absent from its first film adaptation.
This is not a bad movie. It’s oddly assembled. But it was popular enough to generate a sequel, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD, which came out in theaters a year later. As Rob Shearman stated in Running Through Corridors, it also showed the producers of the TV series that you could make popular Doctor Who without William Hartnell in it. Which would have very significant ramifications for the TV series a few short months after Dr. Who and the Daleks came out.
I probably like the film more than this post would suggest. I come to it with too many expectations, preconceived notions, and 30 years’ worth of fannish baggage. It’s short and trifling but, if you’re not looking to challenge your brain, the colors and lights are nicely hypnotic. You kind of feel bad for the actors in it: Peter Cushing is, honestly, not well-used; Roy Castle didn’t get a tap dance number so instead had to resort to a number of prat-falls (including his spastic performance during the “twist” ending). Barrie Ingham, meanwhile…
Barrie Ingham’s had a pretty impressively diverse career. He played an Irish space farmer in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He spent most of the rest of the 1980s playing Stock British Guy in a number of American TV series, including Matlock, Webster, Murder She Wrote, and Crazy Like a Fox (I swear I am not making this up). Alydon was an early role and probably not the one he’s proudest of. But one of his most over-the-top TV performances was yet to come, only a few short weeks after Dr. Who and the Daleks premiered…