And now for something completely different! Or at least, a little different. I’m taking a brief break from my Classic Doctor Who rewatch today, and talking about something related: the 1965 theatrical release, Dr. Who and the Daleks!
Wanting to expand the Doctor Who brand (and of course make more money, though that’s understandable), in 1965 the BBC and Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, struck a deal with Amicus Productions (by way of AARU) to bring the Doctor and the Daleks to the big screen. It seems hokey now, but at that time it was a big deal: The already-popular series would get an adaptation with wider reach, and—revolutionary!—in color! Technicolor, to be exact. The film, titled Dr. Who and the Daleks, was released in June 1965 in the UK (1966 in the US), and starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor. Loosely based on the Daleks’ first appearance in the TV series (1963-64’s The Daleks), it was the first of two such films, followed by Daleks: Invasion Earth—2150 AD (based on The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Rumors have persisted for years that a third film was to be produced, possibly based on The Chase, the serial that saw the departure of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. Famously they’re known as a sort of alternate continuity of the Doctor.
I had wanted to see this film for years, and (courtesy of a great Christmas gift from my amazing girlfriend) last night I had the chance. It was a surreal experience; it’s just similar enough to The Daleks to feel familiar, but just different enough to catch you off guard on occasion. Some obvious differences: This “Dr. Who” is no alien, but rather a human, a mad scientist type whose last name is literally “Who”. His Tardis—small letters—is a ship called “Tardis”, and it is no acronym. The ship itself is vastly different inside from that depicted on the small screen, though it is still dimensionally transcendental (if described somewhat differently). Barbara, here, is not a schoolteacher, but rather is one of Dr. Who’s granddaughters along with Susan, who is some years younger than the version played by Carol Anne Ford. Ian is Barbara’s boyfriend (perhaps presaging the relationship that had visibly begun to develop in their later appearances on the series, and that has since been more heavily developed in spinoff media).
This film wouldn’t be out of place among the Disney family films of the era. You almost expect to see Mary Poppins arrive and start up a musical number at any moment. The Doctor is the somewhat-bumbling-but-grandfatherly paternal figure, and Susan fills out the precocious-child role. It’s the Daleks who save the film from Disney territory; they’re still frightening, and somehow more bloodthirsty than their early-series counterparts. I really had no complaints about them, except one: I commented that they were too easily pushed around by the humans, manhandled even. You would think that powerful death machines would be able to put on the brakes when shoved. Then again, even as I type this, I’m watching season ten’s Planet of the Daleks, and just saw a couple of Daleks get pushed into frozen pools. I guess some things never change.
The Daleks’ enemies, the Thals, are overblown compared to their television counterparts: angelic faces, copper hair, gold eye shadow—it has the feel of a terrible drag show. If I was expecting Mary Poppins earlier, I’m expecting the Village People now. Still, I realize it was a different time, and the things that constituted innuendo would have been different then, so I’ll overlook it. It was harder to overlook Ian Chesterton, however; that character’s portrayal was the one truly disappointing thing here for me, as I like Ian as portrayed in the series. On television he’s the sixties’ ideal of a man’s man—confident, capable, strong, good in a fight, handsome. In this film, he’s a wuss. He alternates between whining, stumbling, and getting knocked out; and I couldn’t help wondering what Barbara sees in him. It’s not often I’ve rooted for a companion to die, but this was one of those times…alas, he survives.
But I digress. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated the movie; on the contrary, it was a fun watch. In some ways, it even exceeds its television counterpart: you get more Daleks onscreen, and a pretty good destruction scene near the end. The moment when the Daleks ambush the Thals at the cliff outside the city is very impressive indeed, and is played out very differently from the series version. The addition of color to the film is a dubious benefit, given that the colors used are roughly equivalent to an Austin Powers film, but it was at least gratifying to see the Daleks in full color (in the series, you completely miss the notion that color signifies rank among the Daleks, at least for the first six years). You get a few laughs that are absent from the more serious television version—Ian having trouble with doors in the Dalek city makes for a decent sight gag. And of course, there is Peter Cushing’s great performance. Although his early lines are lackluster, that’s hardly his fault; and by the end of the film, he is the Doctor, as much as William Hartnell ever was. I was chiefly familiar with his career from his turn as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, which, while fantastic, is a completely different kind of role. He pulls off the eccentric, benevolent-but-mad scientist just as well (as anyone familiar with his history of Frankenstein films could probably have told me!). Of course this film isn’t canon; but you can see how it could have been.
Thinking about this film, I can’t help thinking about the question of canon in general. It’s famously been said that Doctor Who is a show without canon; and if you poll any group of fans, you’ll get widely differing opinions on what constitutes canon in Doctor Who. Do we limit ourselves to the television series? Or do we allow other material? The novels, and if so, which ones? What about the comics? The Big Finish audio dramas? That controversial 1996 movie? Or—one of my personal favorites—the parodic Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death? Where do you draw the line? I’m not in any way suggesting that this movie or its sequel should be canon. I am saying, as a fan, that they can be. There’s room for all the Doctors here. It’s not unusual for these things to become an argument, because if there’s one thing we science fiction fans can do, it’s argue. (And, let’s be clear, I’m all for debate—that’s half the fun!) But there’s no reason to let those arguments divide us. After all, when you boil it down, we’re all in this for the fun of it.
Dr. Who and the Daleks, if nothing else, is a lot of fun.
So, Whovians, what are you waiting for? Find a copy**, and check it out! You won’t be sorry.
*The image above can be found at the creator’s DeviantArt page, here.
**I am not endorsing Amazon.com as the only source for this material; it is simply the first vendor I found. Please feel free to do business with any vendor you prefer.