Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

I learned something new about Doctor Who from watching this film.

Or maybe I should say “something old,”

It’s been a long time since I saw this one, and my perspective has changed considerably.  I saw it long before the current revival series, , and, in fact, before I’d actually seen William Hartnell’s version of the Doctor, and all I could see at the time was that it just wasn’t like Doctor Who — well, not like Tom Baker.

But even after I’d seen William Hartnell as the Doctor, it still didn’t seem much like his version either.

Now for those of you who don’t know much about this one — or who perhaps never knew that there had been a theatrical movie version of the classic BBC TV series, there are some basic points we need to cover:

First of all, even though their name isn’t anywhere on it, this movie and its sequel were made by Amicus Productions, best known as Hammer Films’ number one competitor and for their often gory horror films.  Amicus’ co-founder, Milton Subotsky, was afraid that putting the Amicus name on a children’s film would drive away the potential audience, no matter what the film was like.  And you have to admit, when you look at films like The House that Dripped Blood or Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, that he probably had a point.  Mind you, Subotsky still made sure his name was all over it!

Second, the films stars no less than Hammer horror legend Peter Cushing.  It is easy to forget just how good an actor he was, because most of us remember him for Frankenstein, or Van Helsing, or the Gran Moff Tarkin and not for some of his less typical roles in films like The Abominable Snowman and Cash on Demand.  Here he is almost unrecognizable, playing a lovable eccentric elderly scientist.

William Hartnell was disappointed that he didn’t get to reprise the role he’d created (and was still playing on TV), but apparently the deciding factor was that he was well known to the American audience.  Although I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Subotsky had worked with Cushing before (supposedly, the BBC would later offer Cushing the role three times, and he regretted turning it down.  It is hard to imagine how the show might have changed if he hadn’t!).

The third thing to remember is that, while we have the same characters as in the show, they have been changed a bit.  Well, quite a bit, really.

It is a surprise to see the Doctor’s granddaughter actually played by an eleven year old child — although the production realities of an early TV show  which turned out a new episode every week would have made casting an actual child problematic.

But Barbara and Ian Chesterton have undergone a remarkable change.  They are far younger and no longer Susan’s teachers, but the Doctor’s daughter and her clumsy beau.

And true blue Whovians will note that the Doctor is actually called “Doctor Who.”

This is a different Doctor than we’re used to seeing: not a Time Lord, but an English inventor who has built his own time and space machine out in his garden.  Nor does the Tardis interior look much like the Tardis we know:  it lacks the familiar circle panels on the walls and the classic Tardis console.  Instead it has wires, gauges and gimmicks — and it doesn’t make the familiar sounds we associate with the Tardis, either.  The classic Police Box exterior is unchanged, of course.  You couldn’t change that (well, one Colin Baker episode did, but that hardly counts).

The Daleks are also the same — although larger, and their weapons shoot clouds of CO(The original ideas was to have them shoot flame, but they were afraid it would be too frightening for the children).

However, these Daleks come in bright colors, as does their city — and the petrified jungle around the city is lit in wild, psychedelic colors like a Mario Bava film.  This would be a hallmark of most of Amicus’ SF films, this extravagant use of bold, primary colors — at least, those that were directed at children.  However, compared to the series, the Dalek sets are large and impressive, with a number of impressive mechanical elements — opening doors, moving panels and a cliff that splits open to reveal a secret entrance to the city.  I found it interesting that the set designers obviously followed the rule of thumb in Forbidden Planet, and when we first see the apparently deserted city, one knows whose city it will be because the doors are all Dalek shaped.

This does lead to the fourth point:  this is essentially a remake of the first Dalek episode, and follows its plot quite closely.

Seeing this unusual Who again after all these years, I am surprised by how much I liked it this time.  It is still a minor film, but I suppose the many revisions of the Doctor since the death of the original series have left me far more open to this version.  Cushing is cheerful and likable as “Doctor Who.”  He doesn’t have the somewhat gruff quality Hartnell could bring to the role while still remaining appealing, and when Cushing’s Doctor claims the Tardis isn’t working so he can go visit the Dalek city, it comes across less the act of a devious old man (as often was true of Hartnell’s earlier version of the Doctor) but more that he got carried away by an excess of childish enthusiasm.  True, he would have been a more interesting  Doctor if he’d had that same quality, and Cushing does come across as a little bland, but it is a very different take on the character.  That was  probably a wiser choice than simply copying William Hartnell.

And I’m willing to forgive a lot thanks to the film’s brilliant first shot: as the camera introduces us to the Doctor’s quiet British cottage, showing us Susan, first, then Barbara, both reading heavy scientific tomes, and then finding the Doctor, behind a copy of The Eagle, with the classic Dan Dare space comic clearly visible on the front page!

But the film also taught me a lot about the reality of Who — and how the series has changed:  the Daleks former enemy, the Thals, abhor the thought of fighting anyone.  When the Doctor tries to get their help to stop the Daleks, they refuse until the Doctor seizes a Thal girl and threatens to trade her to the Daleks.

Their leader then throws a punch at the Doctor.  Well, well, the Doctor chortles that there are things they will fight for.

At which point my 9 year old Nephew said, “That’s clever!”

I believe this was borrowed from the original version of the story, particularly as it gives us a less sympathetic Doctor, even if only for a moment.  But it does point out something that distinguished those early days of Doctor Who:  this is a clever moment, particularly for the children in the audience.  This was very typical of the way the Doctor solved problems back then.  After all this was long before he got his sonic screwdriver.  In those days, The Doctor applied his intelligence to problems, often without the aid of fancy technologies.  It was something which the children in the audience could understand – and even try to copy.

I’m not sure  the Doctor can do this anymore.  After all,  far too many — or should I say, nearly all? — of the new episodes get resolved through a bit of handwaving, a bit of “sonics” and some wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.  None of which the nine year old members of the audience will ever be able to do.

…Even though they might have been able to learn from his example before.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem like an improvement.

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3 thoughts on “Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

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