October 24, 2021

Doctor Who comes to the big screen

The following is part of the Third Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, running this weekend at many of your favorite blogs. Be sure to check our sponsors,Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget, throughout the weekend for the latest posts.

In a just world—that is to say, one that responded to our every whim and folly—the two Doctor Who movies made by Peter Cushing would have featured not only the Daleks, but The Master, who of course would have to have been played by Christopher Lee. The sky would have been the limit: Cushing as the brilliant, eccentric genius, against not only the most malevolent creatures science fiction has ever seen, but Lee as the most suave, charming, and sinister villain anyone could ask for. Think of it!

Alas, the world is not just, which is why we still have to put up with taxes and rainy days and Jimmy Kimmel on late night television (or any television, for that matter). Instead, our story opens with Terry Nation, the mastermind behind The Doctor's eternal adversaries, the murderous metallic marauders of the universe, the Daleks. In an era when monsters (including those seen on Who) were frequently little more than stunt men in rubber suits, the Daleks were a revelation: they bore no resemblance whatsoever to a human being, had no visible means of propulsion, and spoke in a harsh, grating voice, threatening anyone who attempted to get in their way with "extermination." They were also cruel, ruthless, and virtually indestructible, not to mention ideal for product tie-ins. Their appearance in the second serial of Doctor Who in 1963 made them instant stars, soon to appear in books and a comic strip. 

Nation, who conceived and wrote the early Dalek stories, was eager to capitalize on the popularity of his creation, and harbored hopes that he could spin them off as a separate entity, into the United States. As a possible first step, Nation sold the film rights to his first three Dalek serials—The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and The Chase—for £500 to a pair of Americans, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who in 1964 had founded Amicus Productions, specializing in in low-budget sci-fi and horror films. 

The potential for a series of movies featuring the Doctor and his arch enemies must have been the cause of great excitement on the part of Whovians, which probably lasted until they heard of Subotsky's plans to turn the stories into thrillers—for kids. While it's true that the TV series was often seen as children's programming, there was a subliminal adult sensibility to many of the stories, and the Daleks themselves were an allegorical representation of the Nazis. As well, many of the Who stories during the first few seasons were historical dramas set against the background of real events such as the French Revolution. In other words, the show's appeal to children was based on excitement and adventure, with just enough education to satisfy the BBC.

Another important element, however, was the ability to provide children with a good fright. The show had become known for the image of kids hiding behind the sofa, peering around the corner to watch the Daleks that they couldn't quite stop watching. As anyone who's been a child—which basically means all of us—knows, kids find the prospect of being scared to be equal parts daunting and enthralling. This, however, was not what Subotsky had in mind, as he told Kinematograph Weekly in April 1965:

We’ve taken Terry Nation’s first seven episodes of the tv serial and re-written them into a screenplay, at the same time injecting a considerable amount of comedy. On tv, they take themselves so deadly seriously. This is all action, excitement and comedy. We intend to full use of the colour, spectacle, and action that make the difference between large and small screen entertainment. One of the things we have to make it different and better is splendour.

I find this kind of surprising, to be honest, considering the reputation that Amicus would have over the years for horror movies. Not only that, but they had Van Helsing himself, Peter Cushing, playing the Doctor. But then, I've never been in the movie business, so I don't pretend to understand how the moguls think. Or don't as the case may be. 

With that in mind, let's take a brief look at the two movies that resulted from the Amicus-Nation deal, and why true Doctor Who fans should give them a look despite their, ur, limitations.

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

The first, and perhaps most critical, decision was to strip the Doctor of his unearthliness. No longer was he a renegade Time Lord, on the run from his own people. In fact, he wasn't any kind of alien; instead, Dr. Who (a title and a name, not a question) was one of those eccentric inventors that we've all come to know and love over the years, experimenting (as all eccentric inventors must, it seems) with a machine capable of time travel. Why the change? Well, in addition to helping streamline the story without getting bogged down in details, there was a very real reason for the change: as writer Kyle Anderson points out, the deal Subotsky made with Terry Nation didn't include anything other than what was in Nation's Dalek scripts; since the premise of the series was laid out in the very first episode, the Time Lord concept (which was the IP of the BBC) couldn't legally be adapted into the movie. 

Dr. Who has not one, but two granddaughters: Susan (played by Roberta Tovey) and Barbara (Jennie Linden). Barbara's old enough to have a boyfriend, Ian (Roy Castle), so we still have the Barbara-Ian dynamic. Best of all, we have the Daleks—big, bold, and colorful. (The television version on steroids, so to speak.) The plot, adapted to accommodate the changes to the premise and not constrained by the need to segue into the subsequent story, roughly follows that of the TV version: our heroes are whisked off in the time machine that Dr. Who has been working on, a machine he calls Tardis, and wind up on a barren planet called Skaro (although it's not referred to as such until the sequel). The Doctor tricks the others into journeying to the large city they see in the distance, telling them that Tardis' fluid link is leaking and they must try to locate mercury to repair the leak; in reality, there is nothing wrong with the link; the Doctor just wants to investigate.

As they are exploring, the Doctor and his companions are taken prisoner by the Daleks, who confiscate the fluid link from the Doctor, trapping the four on the planet. While in captivity, the Doctor overhears the Daleks talking, and finds out that  find themselves in the middle of a civil war between the human-looking, pacifist Thals and the murderous, Nazi-like Daleks. They also find out that the planet is contaminated by radiation: it keeps the Daleks prisoners inside their casing and the city, and it means death to the travelers unless they can get the anti-radiation drug that conveniently happens to be inside the Tardis. The Doctor makes a deal with the Daleks: if they allow Susan to return to the Tardis and bring back the drug, they will share the drug with the Daleks. 

Stick 'em up!

On her way back from the Tardis, Susan meets Alydon (Barrie Ingham), leader of the Thals, the other race on the planet. The Thals and Daleks are old enemies, having fought the nuclear war that contaminated Skaro. The Thals also have an antidote to the radiation poisoning, but they have problems of their own: their crops have failed, and they're hoping to trade it with the Daleks in return for food. The homicidal Daleks, though, don't need it anymore (thanks to the Doctor), so they lay a trap for the Thals, hoping to wipe them out and take over the planet. 

In a wonderful scene, the Doctor and his companions are able to overwhelm a Dalek, and escape from captivity. They haven't really escaped, though; as long as the Daleks have the fuel link (remember that?), they remain stranded on Skaro. They try to convince the Thals to help them recover the link, but not so fast: remember, the Thals are now pacifists, horrified by the war and vowing never to fight again. But the Doctor, devious as ever (and when it comes to that, Cushing need not take a back seat to William Hartnell), makes as if he's willing to trade the Thal woman Dyoni (Yvonne Antrobus) for the link. In fighting to prevent Dyoni from being used as a hostage, the Thals find out they aren't such pacifists after all, and they launch an attack on the city

The Daleks, for all their fearsomeness, have always had an Achilles wheel, I suppose you would call it; I think it was Tom Baker's Doctor who speculated that it was their inability to think the way humans do, but I've forgotten the details. Anyway, in the movie version they retain that knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; the link is recovered, Ian is able to trick them into accidentally blowing up their own control counsel, and everyone lives happily ever after, or at least until the next movie.*

*James Bond isn't the only one with no time to die, after all. The Daleks never really do disappear, do they?

The movie was, I suppose, successful enough; the always-reliable Wikipedia reports that it was the twentieth biggest British box office moneymaker in 1965. (The #1 movie at the box office that year? The Sound of Music, which could have used a Dalek or two.) The critics hated it, as they often do with movies of the genre; my favorite review is Stuart Heritage's 2013 retrospective look, in which he said, of Roy Castle's Ian, "to call him hammy would be to provide the greatest disservice to pigs." It is perhaps the single biggest mistake that the movies would make; making the Doctor an eccentric scientist is questionable enough, but defensible when considering the terms of the contract. The television version of Ian Chesterton, though, was cut from the bolt of heroic cloth, an intelligent and compassionate teacher who nonetheless maintained his cool when thrust into what would have been an incomprehensible situation for anyone. He was not, under any circumstances, a buffoon, and Castle's portrayal, whether or not dictated by the director and the script, brings credit to no one.

The movie won plaudits for the sets and use of color, but everyone agreed that Cushing, in attempting to take on a role that had already been made iconic by William Hartnell, was in a no-win situation; as a human Doctor, he couldn't possibly satisfy fans of the series, but Subotsky's script* didn't give him enough to do.

*Even though Subotsky was assisted in both movies by David Whitaker, the TV series' first script editor, as well as the ghost writer of the Dalek comic strip. 

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Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)

By the time we get to Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, we are now in, well, the year 2150, and rather than taking place on Skaro, the action has moved to earth itself, which the Daleks are now attempting to conquer. It was inevitable that there would be a sequel, given the relative success of the first movie and the continuing popularity of the Daleks. Once again, Peter Cushing is on hand as The Doc—I mean, Dr. Who, with Roberta Tovey as Susan. Thankfully, we're spared the Ian/Barbara duo; instead of Roy Castle's bumbling Ian, we have Bernard Cribbins* as bumbling policeman Tom, who accidentally stumbles into the adventure when he mistakes Tardis for a Police Box. (Imagine that.) And Dr. Who's granddaughter Barbara has been replaced by his niece Louise (Jill Curzon), meaning that the Doctor not only has a child out there somewhere, he also has a sibling. How big is this guy's family, anyway?

*Cribbins will return to the Whoniverse in 2007 as Donna Noble's grandfather Wilfred Mott, making him the only actor to play two different companions in any iteration of the story.

At any rate, the Doctor, Susan, Louise and Tom have traveled to London of the year 2150, and discover that the city in a state of near destruction at the hands of the Daleks. (They probably also discovered that even in 2150, England hasn't won the World Cup, but that's a different story.) A resistance has formed (more shades of the World War II allegory), including David (Ray Brooks) and Wyler (Andrew Keir); meanwhile, the Daleks have turned some captured prisoners into brainwashed Robomen (not to be confused with Cybermen or Cybernauts, of course), while other prisoners are forced to work in the mines in Bedfordshire.

The Doctor and his three companions take turns being captured and recaptured during the struggle between the Daleks and the Resistance. Eventually, it transpires that the Daleks' ultimate plan (as opposed to their Master Plan) is to use the mine to blow out the Earth’s core and turn the earth into an interplanetary spaceship from which they can maraud about the universe, and the various elements of the plot contrive to bring everyone to Bedfordshire for the climactic struggle. Looking at diagrams of the mineshafts, the Doctor realizes that an old shaft leads to a convergence between earth's magnetic poles, and that if the Dalek bomb can be redirected to blow up here, it would result in a force that would suck the Dalek saucer into the core, destroying it.

During the ensuing battle, Tom is able to create a ramp that will serve to redirect the bomb; meanwhile, Dr. Who uses the radio to order the Robomen to attack the Daleks, allowing all four of the earthlings to escape. While the Daleks are able to put down the rebellion and release the bomb, their plans are foiled when the bomb explodes and, as the Doctor anticipated, sucks the Daleks into the core, and brings their saucer crashing down on the mine, delivering a blow to the British mining industry perhaps, but saving the rest of the world. Dr. Who and his companions return to the present day, and everyone lives happily ever after—until the next time. . .

Reviews for Invasion Earth: 2150, as was the case with Dr. Who & the Daleks, were mostly negative, with the Times calling it "little advance on the first." The technical depiction of the Daleks once again was the most praiseworthy element of the movie, and critics had kind things to say about the climactic destruction of the Daleks' saucer. Compared to the first movie, Invasion was a financial disappointment, and plans for the third movie, The Chase, were abandoned.  

A criticism often made of Invasion is that Peter Cushing isn't given enough to do, and winds up being more of a device to advance the plot; in fact, Cushing became ill during production of the movie, with the result that his participation was cut back, with some of his scenes rewritten for other characters.

Even while acknowledging the changes that were made to the stories, whether required by the legal terms of the contract or by the running times of the movies (neither of which exceeded 90 minutes), the movies fall short of expectations. The Doctor's male companion, whether Ian or Bernard, is generally unherioc. The plots can be difficult to follow, and a warning should have been included that these movies could induce considerable eye-rolling in anyone over the age of six. There's also a decided superficiality to the movies; while the television series (at least originally) sought to be educational as well as exciting, and with a basis in history as well as rousing adventure, Invasion plays more like a Saturday-afternoon serial—all sugar and no nutrition. 

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And so you're forced to ask the question: why? Why make the movie, when the series is already there? Why use some aspects of the Whovian canon, and not other? In other words, why change it and yet leave it the same? And what does watching the movies today offer to the modern viewer, one who has had far more access to the Doctor Who universe than could have been imagined when the movies came out?

To answer the first question first, the movies offered the obvious appeal of seeing the Daleks in glorious color, and almost larger than life, compared to the television series. For modern eyes, especially those who tend to avoid anything in black-and-white, you can't underestimate the power that comes from seeing in crisp, vivid color for the first time something that's only been viewed previously in various shades of gray. It's almost like viewing a two-dimensional image in three-dimensions--perhaps not as stark, but not far off. 

In addition, there's the status of the movies as a historical document. As one critic perceptively noted, the great value of the movies is that they serve as a visual record of the Hartnell era at a time when those episodes weren't readily available. You might balk at that description, given how much canonical ahistoricality there is, but remember that back then, the original Hartnell episodes were rarely replayed--and, in the United States, they weren't seen at all, except perhaps in brief clips, until the late 1980s. It wasn't as simple as just popping a disc in the DVD player, or streaming it on the Doctor Who Roku channel; if you wanted to see, and not just read about, the genesis of the Daleks (no pun intended), this was about as close as you were going to get. Even with all the changes that the movies, the storylines would have been obviously recognizable to anybody seeing them at the time. And so while we might complain about them, we should also view them with a certain gratitude for the context they can offer.

If the movies do have something of the intellectual content of the Saturday-afternoon serials, it should also be remembered that those serials could be fun. Reviewing Invasion, the film critic for the Times wrote that "Grown-ups may enjoy it, but most children have more sense." Sometimes, though, grown-ups are right about these things; children may have sense, but they're also prone to being very literal, and maybe you need to be a grown-up to appreciate that kind of movie that we have to admit is just a bit silly.

Finally, of course, there's the performance of Peter Cushing himself as The Doctor. After all, he's Peter Cushing, and there's something charismatic just about that.  One of the concessions that the television series had made to William Hartnell's age was to cast William Russell, who had played Sir Lancelot in the ITV series of the same name, as schoolteacher Ian Chesterton; his Ian would be capable of providing the traditionally heroic, action-oriented stunts that an adventure series required. Cushing, however, was more than capable of convincing viewers that he could take care of himself; having played everything from Baron Frankenstein to Profession Van Helsing in the Hammer oeuvre, he didn't need a stand-in, as it were, to assume those duties for him. Perhaps the script does fall short, but Cushing has enough residual hero cred from over the years that he doesn't need the script in order to play the part. 

Unlike Hartnell, Cushing's Doctor is instantly likeable, and doesn't rely on Ian for masculine heroism (a good thing, too). As is so often the case, the best way to approach Dr. Who and the Daleks is to forget about the TV series altogether and just appreciate it for what it is. I didn't have the insight to do that the first time I watched it, back when I was in the throws of discovering the Whoniverse; as a matter of fact, I don't know that I'd even seen Hartnell's Doctor that first time. To watch it that way was a mistake, one I didn't repeat.

And so we're left to wonder what Cushing, an actor of great dignity, would have been like in the TV series.  "With those piercing eyes and his dramatic gravitas," as one critic put it, "he would have been marvelous" as the TV doctor. By the time William Hartnell had handed off the keys to the Tardis, he had morphed into the heroic Doctor that we've all come to know and love; Cushing would have fit that mold magnificently. 

I would quite like to have seen Peter Cushing play the Doctor, with all of his indefinably alien characteristics, on television. And of course, I'm still waiting to see Christopher Lee as The Master. TV  


  1. Thanks for this great look at this double bill. Did try and watch the first one when it was added to Netflix, but found it unbearable due to Roy Castle's "comedy" role. I havent seen the other one but Bernard Cribbins has always been a favourite since The Railway Children so might give it a go. Thanks for bringing them both to the blogathon.

  2. Great review! 👍
    As a whovian, I have problems with the movies but I also enjoy them. Like you said, forget the television series and enjoy the movies for what they are. Plus, Peter Cushing is worth it because he's Peter Cushing.

  3. I grew up with these movies, as they were on TV quite a lot in the 70s and early 80s - I definitely prefer the first one, partly because of the alien world sets. In the second one, everybody looks like they're from 1950, not 2150 ...

    I can see Subotsky's point - he made them for the summer holiday kids market i.e. unaccompanied children - Cushing apparently loved doing them, precisely because they were kids movies, who wouldn't have seen most of his work. The first one was very successful, but Dalekmania was pretty much over by the time the second one came out.

    Tom Baker tried to get a Doctor Who movie made in the 70s - I don't think the Master was going to be in it, but Mr Lee as the Master against Tom would have been AWESOME!

  4. Look forward to seeing these again. Peter Cushing was a great Dr. Who in the scheme of things, just like I consider George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton to be pretty decent James Bonds, though not the first actors you think of in the role.
    - Chris

  5. The movies are effective if the viewer places them in some 'alternate universe'. The studio did not pick up its option for a third movie(it would have adapted yet another Dalek story, either 'The Chase', or 'The Dalek Master Plan'). There was also talk about Cushing playing 'Doctor Who' in a radio show.

  6. History Time:
    Sometime in the mid-to-late '60s, my brother and I (both teenagers at the time) got hold of a paperback book about science fiction and horror movies - very low-budget - which happened to include a chapter about a British TV serial called Doctor Who, which was totally unknown in the USA.
    How far back was this? William Hartnell was still the incumbent Doctor.
    Brother Sean was the Science Fiction aficionado (as I think I mentioned before here, he hated the term "Sci-Fi", considering it a slur); I was (and to this day am) sort of indifferent to the genre as a whole, but that's another story.
    Since Britain was still using the 408-line transmission standard, it was accepted that Doctor Who would be unsaleable to America, so that was that ...

    Fast-forward to the early '70s:
    The two Doctor Who features were included in a TV package that many local stations bought to fill time at all hours; the main buyers were UHF stations with a lot of time to fill, and the Who movies got quite a bit of play on weekends.
    The BBC series was still unknown here in the USA.

    Fast-forward again:
    By the late '70s, British TV had switched to the PAL system (and colour), in order to crack the international marketplace.
    Somebody (I forget who, so to speak) decided to try and sell the daily half-hour serials to local US stations: this was during Jon Pertwee's term as the 3rd Doctor.
    The problem here was that the BBC's non-commercial format made the show a hard sell to any but PBS stations; the sales program was not successful (read: profitable), and thusly was short-lived.

    Jump ahead to the '80s:
    Time-Life swings a deal with the BBC to start selling their shows in bulk to PBS (almost but not quite networking).
    Doctor Who (then in Tom Baker's term as the 4th Doctor) is offered to stations in two formats: as a daily half-hour, or with the storylines edited together into "features", of two or more hours in length.
    This turned out to be the format that worked: here in Chicago, Channel 11 (the main PBS station in town) made Doctor Who the anchor of an "all-British" Sunday night slate, with comedy lead-ins like Monty Python, Dave Allen At Large, The Two Ronnies, The Goodies, and several others that rotated in and out over the years.
    Sunday nights became Ch 11's pledge nights of choice, with Who fans often showing up in force to man the phones, usually in costumes and makeup; Ch11's chief announcer was a witty man named Marty Robinson, who willingly stage-managed the whole thing for many years.
    Ultimately, the business changed: Cable came in, followed by streaming, followed by the Beeb's decision to pause the show - I'm not a devotee of things Who- related, so you probably know more of the details than I do.
    Now, as then, I'm still indifferent to the whole Who megillah; all the rest of you, go with God (and the Doctor of your choice).

    Meanwhile, I can answer (sort of) your question above about why the Cushing movies were made:
    The whole idea was to sell Doctor Who in the USA.
    Otherwise, why sell to an American producer?
    Milton Subotsky was already having some success with his Amicus horror anthologies, with Peter Cushing a major figure within; combining the two would be at least an entry into a potential US market.
    In 1965-66, it was just a little too early ...

  7. A good overview of these two films.

    I think that suggestion that they're a record of the Hartnell era to be quite strange, since this would only give you the wrong impression of early Dr Who. As you said, this is much more light hearted and aimed squarely at kids. Amicus's horrors tend towards spoofiness, so maybe the injection of more humour isn't that surprising.

    Despite the increased budgets, the TV versions are better, especially the Invasion serial. I also think Invasion Earth is slightly better as a film than the first one, so it's ironic it wasn't as successful. Presumably people had seen Daleks in colour once on the big screen and that was enough.

    The films' portrayal of the Doctor as just an eccentric inventor is weird. I hadn't considered that Subotsky might not have the rights to the Time Lord concept, but I don't think this is established until the Troughton era anyway. I think they could easily have made his origins more ambiguous.

    I have to admit, I didn't get your joke about England not having won the World Cup, especially given this film was made in 1966 ...

  8. That sounds like a great idea for a double-feature. Thanks!

  9. A wonderfully thorough combination of a dual film review and a lesson on the films' history. I do not claim to be familiar with the Whoniverse. What little I know has been taught to me by my daughters. So perhaps, I know just little enough to enjoy these films on their own terms.

  10. Glad there are others who share the idea of Christopher Lee as The Master. Perhaps in a third movie featuring the Cybermen? Also sneaking in the idea of Time Lords . . . ?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!