Dr. Who and the Daleks
out of ****
It is impossible for me to talk about the film Dr. Who and the Daleks without discussing my life-long love affair with the legacy and universe of which it is a part. The picture is an early expansion of the beloved BBC network series “Doctor Who,” now nearly fifty years old and still going strong—a part-sequel, part-remake of the show's earliest episodes, back when it was still new and developing its legs as what is now the most successful and endearing sci-fi television franchise of all time (with all apologies to “Star Trek”). Viewed today, this picture's primary value is in direct relation to its role in the TV show's evolving history, and it thus resonates with nostalgia and good memories. It also happens to be a fun, B-grade sci-fi epic in its own right, even though it's unthinkable to view it if you don't also intend to immerse yourself in its small-screen counterpart. If you have never encountered the show, this film in an excellent starting point to a journey that you will soon find increasingly layered and riveting as you plunge deeper into the adventures of the time-traveling Doctor.
For the uninitiated, here's a brief recap (the rest of you can skip a paragraph or two): The television show “Doctor Who” concerns the escapades of an immortal Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, known only as “the Doctor” (the “Who” of the title is a jab at the fact that we've never learned his real name); he leaps about various worlds and histories in his time-machine, the TARDIS, which on the outside looks like an old Scotland Yard police box and is famously “bigger on the inside” —the inside being a gigantic console room that is larger, I guarantee, than your house. The Doctor brings along with him a rotating cast known as Companions, usually humans who he picks up along the way; together, they have had many encounters with various alien species across history that are both good and evil. His most famous nemesis is a race of cyborgs known as the Daleks, mutants of immense intelligence who live in nearly-indestructible killing machines that look a lot like salt and pepper shakers, if such household tools had glowing eyes and plungers for arms that fired death rays.
Since the show's beginning in 1963, eleven actors have officially played the Doctor, who has withstood the inevitable aging problem by explaining that when the Time Lord dies, he simply “regenerates” into a new body. With each rebirth comes a whole new set of quirks and personalities; for example, the current Doctor in the newest series is a wiry young fellow played by Matt Smith, even though he began life as a crotchety old man in 1963 when he was portrayed by William Hartnell. Most fans, however, remember Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, the most fondly—he had the role for the longest run (eight years) and certainly created the mannerisms, moral code, and eccentricities with which most people associate the character today.
So distinguished, in fact, is each interpretation of the title role that a question Who fans commonly ask each other is, “Who is your Doctor?”, meaning, which Doctor did you grow up with? That such a question can be asked so affectionately reveals the unique charm and thoughtfulness of this show—after all, who asks the same of the endless incarnations of James Bond or Sherlock Holmes? Admittedly, this is a question pondered more by British than Americans audiences: Until the re-launch of the show in 2005 (which had been on hiatus since 1989) and the birth of BBCAmerica, “Doctor Who” was a mash hit literally everywhere in the Western world but the United States. Still, PBS aired the show in the 80s and 90s in an attempt to introduce it to us yanks, providing me with my own answer to that question at the age of eight: One Saturday morning when I was flipping channels in the search for cartoons, I saw Tom Baker going head-to-head with a Dalek, and I was enraptured by the low-budget charm. I subsequently returned week-after-week, until I certainly knew more about the universe of Doctor Who than I did about He-Man or Wildcats (much to all my peers' chagrin).
So I suppose that Tom Baker is technically my “first” Doctor. But when people ask me who “my Doctor” is, I have but one answer: Peter Cushing, who played the role for the two cinematic extensions of the TV show—this one, and 1966's Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD. I owe “my Doctor” to the elementary school janitor, of all people—a British fellow named Greg, who heard me talking about “Doctor Who” in the lunchroom with my clueless friends and, his eyes lighting up with excitement, brought a VHS copy of this film the next day and insisted that I borrow it. So I did, and the film excitedly provided for me the answer to the question that I'd been dying to know since I first watched the wide-eyed Tom Baker square off against an army of Daleks: How did these two opponents first meet? Sure, it was Baker who I initially watched dodging the plunger death rays, but here, by God, was Grand Moff Tarkin himself landing on their planet for the first time, entering boldly into their city, and ripping one of them out of its salt-shaker body with his bare hands. He displayed absolutely no fear as he faced them down and demanded their respect; for an eight year old who had nightmares about Dalek invasions, this was a superhuman act of the first degree. Needless to say, all subsequent (and failed) attempts to play Doctor Who with my friends on the playground had the Cushing Doctor firmly in mind.
Dr. Who and the Daleks is indeed the chronicle of the Doctor's inaugural encounter with the dreaded Daleks, as the title states. What I didn't know when I was eight, however, is that it was a remake of a series of episodes starring William Hartnell, with a shortened and simplified script. That doesn't make the film any less of a sequel, since we're dealing with time-travel and constant ruptures in the space-time continuum that create multiple, alternate realities within the show. How the Cushing Doctor fits exactly in the television series has been a matter of fierce debate since the film's release; keep in mind that it was produced during the earliest run of the series featuring Hartnell, before any of the writers or producers ever knew that their show would have the sort of longevity that would require the “regeneration” gimmick. Cushing's casting was therefore intended to boost sales for the cinematic adaptation, since a bigger budget required a more famous name in the title role. Adding to the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey confusion is the fact that the Doctor here prefers an English summer home to Gallifrey, keeping his TARDIS in the backyard and mysteriously going by the literal name “Dr. Who,” an ominous and appropriate pseudonym if there ever was one. These revisions have led some fans to assume that the Cushing Doctor is meant to be human, but the film never makes that claim—Hartnell’s Doctor often took long vacations on Earth too, and multiple Doctors have used aliases; it’s therefore necessary to conclude that the Time Lord here is merely on a holiday again, using another false name.
Today, accepting the Cushing Doctor simply as a different regeneration is the standard, unofficial explanation for his existence, despite having never seen who he regenerated from or into. He's therefore not counted among the official eleven Doctors, and the matter of how his time-line flows into the canon is as buried a secret as the Doctor's real name—even though revealing hints dropped throughout the series' duration (especially in the expanded universe) make clear that the Cushing Doctor is as legitimate as Hartness, Baker, and all the rest.
Well, of course the Cushing Doctor is genuine: The Time Lord, after all, is the sort of part that Peter Cushing was born to play. He was an actor of invaluable range who often found himself typecast as a villain, but he was always a baddie of the first degree, never hammy and always treating his absurd, macabre scripts with the professionalism of a Globe thespian. To him we owe the beginning of the now archetypal cinematic British foe, a tradition that reveals its value to the fullest in franchises like James Bond and Harry Potter. In his heyday, Cushing played roles no less iconic than Baron Frankenstein, Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, the Grim Reaper, Darth Vader's boss, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and he therefore steps into the TARDIS with the sort of commanding presence that the role demands. He is undoubtedly one of the best Doctors, playing him as an eccentric mastermind who hides a calculating, slightly sadistic streak behind the mask of a warm, bumbling grandfatherly-type.
The plot involves the Doctor and his Companions hitting a wrong button in the TARDIS and ending up on the planet Skaro, where they encounter two opposing alien species—the Thals, peaceful humanoids who live in the forest and look like Beatles impersonators who have rolled around in green glitter, and the Daleks, who live in the glowing city on the mountain. The plot is not dissimilar to H.G. Well's The Time Machine, with the Thals filling in for the Eloi and the Daleks representing a more advanced form of the Morlocks, but the film is less interested in exploring the social structure of these species so much as using them as an excuse to place the Doctor into one moment of certain death after another and watch him calculate his way out of them. Needless to say, he and his Companions find themselves as the Daleks' prisoners before escaping and leading an army of Thals to their liberation against the machine tyrants. If the outcome of this fairly standard sci-fi premise is obvious, Cushing's Doctor adds incalculable interest and flair to the proceedings; in particular, the scene when he effectively uses emotional manipulation to convince the Thals to take a stand is certainly among his boldest, most cunning acts in the franchise's history.
This film also marked the first time in which fans of the series could watch the Doctor's adventures in color (and the last time until John Pertwee's run as the Third Doctor in the mid 70s), and the only time really until the 2005 reactivation that the franchise would have a respectable budget. Certainly Dr. Who and the Daleks is pretty-low grade by today's standards, much less its own—next to, say, The Forbidden Planet, it's small potatoes. But it contains superior sets compared to the television series, including creative mattes that effectively convey a unique alien world, and a fantastic (if dated) indoor city made up of knobs, wires, television screens, lava lamps (!), and automatic panel doors where the Daleks roll about, screech orders, and scheme.
As for the Daleks, they've rarely been better represented than they are here. In fifty years, their look and mannerisms have hardly been upgraded, and that's because they have consistently made superior sci-fi villains since their very conception, and to modernize them would suggest incorrectly that they are outdated. Dr. Who and the Daleks makes particularly good use of Technicolor in its interpretation of their society, transforming the cyborgs into various ranks organized by bright color schemes. Their most famous line, as fans know, is a mechanical, high-pitched order to “Exterminate!” which they use wastefully here; it is to the film's credit that the word gets more frightening with each shriek. The picture also has the luxury of telling their origin story, which means that the Doctor has no idea initially what he is getting into when he faces off with them and underestimates their resilience. After decades of watching them battle on TV, it's fascinating to see the Doctor fighting them before he understands the rules of engagement, and since we know that they will one day master time travel themselves and declare war on history, the exchange in which the Doctor reveals his TARDIS becomes sort of a catastrophe—we are shocked to realize that it is our hero himself who inadvertently inspired his greatest enemy to wreck havoc on the universe. Batman now has company on the list of heroes who create their own arch-nemeses.
Viewed today, Dr. Who and the Daleks is a family-friendly entertainment that functions best as a crash course on the history of the television series. As a film judged on its own merit, it is pleasant without being superior—an effective blend of low-budget thrills and cerebral ideas. But as a benchmark in the development of the television series, it is absolutely invaluable—it provides a fitting origin for the Doctor, his Companions, and the Daleks, and it led the way in suggesting that the role of the Time Lord was too big for only one pair of shoes to fill. Twelve actors later, we can only speculate excitedly about what dimensions and quirks the next twelve will add to the great character. As for the television series, it's never too late to take a look, but I’ll warn you that it’s a life-long commitment: Well over twenty years after catching it on PBS one Saturday morning, I am still as devoted a disciple as I ever was. And as terrific as the old episodes are, the new ones are catching up and just keep getting better and better. The latest Doctor, Matt Smith, is a particular revelation with his Bill Nye-meets-Prospero interpretation. I'd insist that this is the best show on TV today, but how the hell would I know? It's literally the only show I watch.
Peter Cushing: The Doctor
Roberta Tovey: Susan
Roy Castle: Ian
Jennie Linden: Barbara
Barrie Ingham: Alydon
An AARU Production. Directed by Gordon Flemyng. Written by Milton Subotsky. Based on the BBC television series. No M.P.A.A. Rating, but fine for the family with only mild sci-fi violence. Running time: 82 minutes. Original British theatrical release date: August 23, 1965.
This review is dedicated to Jessica Bingman, who asked me one day if I was interested in watching a cool new show with her and accidently woke up a sleeping, giant geek.