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Dr. Who and the Daleks Review

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by Chris McEneany May 6, 2013

    Dr. Who and the Daleks Review

    The Quatermass-inspired creation, Doctor Who, was going from strength to strength for the Beeb on British television, so it was hardly a surprise that a big screen outing was on the cards. With William Hartnell still playing the cosmic magician in living rooms all across the country, Amicus, under the auspices of the prolific producer/screenwriter Milton Subotsky sought to energise the character with the more audience-pleasing and bankable face of their regular star, Peter Cushing, who was six years the TV adventurer's junior, though considerably more dynamic.

    And utilizing Technicolor and widescreen cinematography wouldn't do any harm, either.

    When the film was made in 1965 Cushing was already indelibly associated with Hammer Films and with his classic interpretations of Baron Frankenstein and the vampire-slaying Professor Van Helsing. But he had just played the fateful role of Death, himself, in the great portmanteau picture, Dr. Terror's House of Horror, and the unfortunate recipient of the Marquis De Sade's brain-box in the delirious chiller, The Skull, both for Amicus. Taking on the role of the egg-headed Doctor seemed like a breezy sojourn by comparison. Something for the children at long last. Donning greyed locks and 'tache, spindly spectacles and a doddery gait, he transformed the Time Lord into an enjoyably eccentric scientist and doting grandfather, completely jettisoning the air of mystery and alien quality that would become increasingly essential components in the Gallifrayian’s DNA in the years to come.

    Here, he is just a clever, yet absent-minded grandfather … who somehow managed to build the TARDIS.

    The plot is a purely one-note business. Together with his two nieces – young Susan (Roberta Tovey) and older Barbara (Jennie Linden) – and Barbara’s hapless, farcical would-be suitor Ian (Roy Castle), the Doctor makes his first journey through time and space in his funky TARDIS, and ends up on the distant planet Skaro, that has been blighted by nuclear war. Two factions struggle to survive on the irradiated surface. On the one hand, we have bowl-headed peaceniks, the Thals, and on the other the dreaded Daleks, a race of warriors so hideously mutated that they can only exist within a protective, highly armoured outer shell. By far the more fun, the Daleks inhabit a weird citadel with mischievous doors and elevators, and all manner of machinery and circuitry that they, confined in their iconic casings, could never have constructed in a million years, babbling verbally jerky threats to all outsiders and generally plotting all manner of depravity. In contrast, there are a great many reasons to hate the Thals (daft makeup, silly eyelashes, golden Beatle barnets – and this is just the men!), but the Daleks crave the radiation-staving drug that they have somehow manufactured for themselves out in the wasteland. When the Doctor and his chums arrive, they inadvertently disrupt the fragile détente that has existed and, after much screentime spent with our heroes occupying a prison-cell and pondering their predicament, the Daleks set about finally erasing the Thals from existence with another, far more powerful nuclear device.

    And I wish them luck.

    What with a petrified forest, a bubbling swamp of unmentionables and a corrosive atmosphere all that’s out there, the best policy would have to be all-out annihilation.

    Based upon the seven-part story The Dead Planet from the TV series, Subotsky’s film, directed by the jobbing Gordon Flemying, after Hammer and Amicus alumnus Freddie Francis stepped down, was an exercise totally designed to indulge in the nationwide phenomenon of Dalekmania. Now in glorious colour and shot in luxuriously wide Technoscope, the big movie treatment offered Who-fans something that they couldn’t get at home in black-and-white 4:3. With a relatively mid-range budget, though still modest by anybody’s standards, the film sported a conveniently created company name – that of AARU – so as not to upset any concerned parent who might blanche at the thought of little Charlie trotting off to see a film from the Amicus stable, whose name normally adorned lurid and grisly horror posters. Subotsky and his American partner, Max J.Rosenberg, also saw the mighty potential of marketing the metal monsters for toys and lunch-boxes, pillows, replicas and annuals in a pitch that cleverly predated George Lucas’ epic franchise-building sensibility. This said, Rosenberg still found it difficult to sell the concept Stateside, since the TV show had not yet travelled that far. This, of course, was the primary reason that Peter Cushing was recruited to play the Doctor, and not William Hartnell, who was understandably more than slightly peeved at being overlooked. Cushing was considerably well-known due to his outstanding Horror credentials, although he would be less than his customarily superb norm in this poorly written and pedestrian-directed outing.

    Cushing is never terrible in any role. And you can be certain that he always gives a character his utmost commitment. But this filmic version of Dr. Who simply doesn’t do anything. He barely ever comes up with any solutions or takes the lead and, in fact, he is responsible for the British suburbanites getting trapped on Skaro in the first place … simply because he lies in order to get a closer look at the city outside the forest. This Dr. (and not Doctor as he is in the TV show) is just part of an ensemble, and poor Peter ends up plodding about, chewing an invisible Werther’s Original in dramatic panto brainstorming, and sheltering little Susan from harm. Curious, as well, is his accent. Although he is fabricating an old, grandfatherly voice, his cultured Home County diction is often countermanded by a slight Scottish lilt that just seems to come from out of nowhere. Perhaps this is a reflection, or a distant echo, if you will, of the Doctor he would become once David Tennant took over, eh? One terrific aspect of the character, but something that is thrown away once the adventure gets underway, is his childlike innocence and charming sense of wonder. In the very first scene in which the camera slowly pans across the sitting room, we are introduced to Barbara, Susan and Dr. Who. Both the girls are reading scientific periodicals whilst the soon-to-be time-and-space traveler is reading an SF comic and praising its imaginative flair. If only the screenplay had allowed him to continue with such playfulness.

    Cushing is much more active in the second of Flemying’s Who films, Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD, providing more comical nuance and a surer sense of purpose. He’s merely in this story, as opposed to leading it, reacting to things and gaping in mock awe and befuddlement, and I can’t help but feel that this is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Peter Cushing slumming-it.

    Another of Amicus’ amicable faces was popular performer Roy Castle, who would be drafted-in to assume the sort of role that William Russell essayed on the smaller screen. Castle had been on the wrong side of Cushing’s deadly hand in Dr. Terror, and there is a true chemistry between the two, almost a knowingly conspiratorial wink. He bumbles and prat-falls and walks into things, and generally has a congenially buffoonish time. And he needs to because the Thals are such a wooden gathering (porters and barrow-boys from Covent Garden, most of them) that you could build a stockade out of them between takes and nobody would see much difference. Clownish and willing to throw himself into things, Castle even gets knocked-about a bit. Look for when a suddenly angered Thal shakes off his apathy and socks-it to him, sending him sprawling, for instance.

    The girls are good, especially Tovey, who portrays juvenile pluck and gumption without making her derring-do contrived and wince-inducing, which is nothing short of miraculous. She would return for the sequel alongside Cushing, reputedly at his direct insistence. Linden, too, is not simply reduced to scream queen tactics, and it is certainly something of an antidote to have her as the stronger lynchpin in the relationship with the ever-clumsy Ian. Compare this to any number of American genre films, in which the women would yelping millstones draped helplessly around the hero’s neck, and the British stance was much more forward-thinking. That hairdo is quite something though, isn’t it? It’s like a swirling vortex on top of her head. Tovey would even make a record for Polydor entitled Who’s Who?

    Perhaps unsurprisingly given its frivolous nature, the film was critically drubbed when it premiered, but it proved an expectedly big hit with the school kids, and with older teens, who found a nicely off-beat allure in its swirlingly stylised psychedelics and groovy 60’s vibe. The look of the Thals was derived from the Eloi in George Pal’s excellent adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and somewhat amusingly seemed to then inspire the mop-topped Mia Farrow-look of Ed Bishop’s Commander Straker in Gerry Anderson’s UFO and, then, ahem … of Geoffrey in Rainbow. Of course, the most lasting connection between the Doctor and the kids’ cherished lunchtime TV show was the voice of Peter Hawkins, who brought to life the electro-warble diatribe of the Daleks as well as that one-armed, yellow freak, Zippy! (And, of course, Bungle-Bear was voiced by John Leeson, who, asides from providing the odd Dalek voice, himself, would go on to speak for robo-mutt, K-9!)

    Why do the Thals all dress alike and do their hair the same way? These are the freedom fighters of the realm and the ones who will overthrow their Dalek overlords. It doesn’t seem right that they would all simply conform to a single code that denied them individuality. Aye, I’m probing a bit too much with this … but doesn’t it annoy you when these alien creeds all look exactly alike? The Eloi, we are told, get their clothes from the Morlocks, who provide everything for them. I’m not sure if they style their hair as well … but their society is very definitely that of a flock of sheep, so the lazy standardisation makes sense. The Thals are much more in control and certainly have minds and opinions of their own, so this join-the-flock mentality doesn’t work. Well, you are not supposed to wonder about such things in a pulpy dose of SF hokum, but the very fact that you do question them only aids the ensuing drama in coming apart at the seams.

    And if you think it is wrong to poke fun at the good guys … well, let’s even-up the score.

    Now you would reckon that any time spent in the company of these pepper-pot tyrants would be entertaining, wouldn’t you? Nazi-like dominators with nothing but “Extermination!” on their collective minds. But the truth is that practically every time we hear them issuing commands or, worse yet, conversing with one another, the film grinds to a stuttering, staccato crawl that becomes teeth-grittingly interminable. Apparently this came about because Flemying didn’t realise that their little light-bulb ears should only blink when they spoke, and not at random as he had them appearing during the shoot. And this, in turn, led to the post-synched Dalek voices having to be slowed and staggered all the more to fit in with the light-show. The result wrestles these iconic voices down to the depths of sheer rasping irritation. Thankfully, they get this right in the sequel, but here it mangles any and all menace that they could hope to muster. When you consider that the film hinges upon that old chestnut of a countdown to doom, and that this hundred-second tick-tock is audibly spoken by a Dalek, you come to understand that you are in for an especially long haul. In fact, you could build a spaceship from scratch and fly it around the galaxy before the clock has even reached half-way – that’s how slow this thing is. And couple that with the robo-razzle zombie voice and its slit-your-wrists time, Geoffrey!

    Although a fan-favourite and certainly the “monsters” that even non-Who-disciples immediately think of when quizzed about the Time Lord’s adversaries, the Daleks are the most clichéd and downright boring as far as I am concerned. In later years, when Chris Eccleston and David Tennant valiantly battled them, they reduced me to bouts of jaw-unhinged yawning, so dry, old and stale they were. Yet they perfectly fit into the camp sixties vogue for colourful, megalomaniacal baddies, and you just cannot refute how iconic they appear in their visually captivating , colour-coded varieties here. It is a shame that the BBFC rallied against the concept of having flames emanating from their whisk-like weapon, because the burst of smoke (ironically created by onboard CO2 fire-extinguishers!) looks so pathetically insipid. The sight of people writhing about in agony as they are engulfed in little puffy clouds does not inspire even the semblance of a shudder.

    They still look cool, though. The decision to use dancers to operate the eighteen or so Daleks seen in the film was an inspired one. The way that they move around the sets, gliding, never bumping, is quite hypnotic and, in a way, balletic, especially when the frame is filled with them all going about their duties.

    I like the way that the metal meanies have a system of colours to denote something akin to a social order amongst their ranks. But, in all honesty, this culture is hardly explored at all. I suppose we shouldn’t really expect it to be. Terry Nation was perfectly adamant that the Daleks would return throughout the series, and was fiercely protective of them, so a spin-off movie was hardly the place to betray too much of their background and their plans. Here, they were simply the baddies who must be overthrown. And, let’s face it, we only side with the Thals because they are humanoid. They may have been the nastiest race during that war, and this reluctance to fight back now merely a cultural mass guilt-trip.

    However, it is quite clever the way that our sympathies do tend to float over towards the Daleks when the Thals and Ian start mobbing them and spinning them off into walls or down elevator shafts during the big revolt. We know that they are just slimy little wretches once you prise them out of their knobbly war-machines, and this does, inevitably, elicit some misgivings over their extinction. Barrie Ingham, who plays the most vocal of the Thals, Alydon, says that there was much debate at the time about the irresponsible politics of turning pacifists into fighters, even if it is for the purpose of their own survival. But then this is precisely what Rod Taylor’s Victorian time-traveller did with the docile Eloi to halt their harvesting by the grim and cannibalistic Morlocks. Back then, of course, such a peace-loving culture was openly frowned-upon and quite naturally dragged down to our more aggressive understanding of what it takes to battle right from wrong. In the sixties, although Flower Power hadn’t yet hit the UK with as much swaying love as it had the US, the trends were definitely a-changing, so this concept of turning pacifists into packin’ fists was actually quite radical. It is all dealt with in a very childish manner, but the notion is still a lurking right-wing stance that has insidiously crept into a fantasy romp. The hippy movement was all set to swing and the conservative mentality, in the form of Amicus and, essentially, Milton Subotsky, who saw himself and his films as the antidote to the establishment rocking taboo-breakers over at Hammer, sought to correct the modern youth from any novel ideas they had of flouting class morality and social order.

    Another film to which Dr. Who and the Daleks owes a debt of gratitude is Joseph M. Newman’s outlandish SF romp, This Island Earth. In that iconic 1955 flick from Universal, scientists from Earth are shanghaied to the distant planet of Metaluna, which is at war with another world, the conflict set to destroy both sides in utter catastrophe. Although hailed as a classic, This Island Earth is actually quite ridiculous and all rather staunch. Its politics are worn on the sleeve of its spacesuit, and the performances are dire, especially that of ugly heroine Faith Domergue. The infamous Metaluna Mutant may be truly fantastic, but many of the FX are actually quite shoddy, and the flamboyant escapism that Newman aims for can’t help but fall to the ground in garish pieces. Which is precisely the problem with Subotsky’s first Dr. Who film. In spite of its intentions, it just isn’t entertaining enough. We wait interminably for some action, but when it finally comes it is lackluster and over too quickly.

    More problems arise from the ponderous musical score from Malcolm Lockyear, that just has to feature one of the most memorably dreary main themes I’ve ever heard … that for the Daleks, themselves. He composed for a few genre films during the 60’s, providing each with a jazzy, upbeat title cue – such as Night of the Big Heat and Island of Terror (both for Planet Films, incidentally) – but he does supply one cue that is nicely atmospheric, for the scene of little Susy being sent back through the forest alone and being shadowed by the as-yet unseen Thals until she gets inside the TARDIS. I am sure that many fans will decry my belittling of his famous Dalek theme, but I find it as exciting and intimidating as a funeral dirge. I suppose you could attribute its overtly grandiose pomposity and slow march to Lockyear’s appreciation of the Daleks’ syllable-punching speech pattern. If this was the case, then fair play. But with half the film given over to the slowest monsters in the universe, this theme just exaggerates the sluggish pace all the more. Compare this score with the crazy, almost nonstop musical accompaniment of the second film. That one from Bill McGuffie is possibly just as bad. It, too, has a truly awful “march” theme that seems engineered just to get on your nerves, but at least it helps generate a frenetic pace.

    Visually, the film is quite ravishing. It makes terrific use of the stages at Shepperton, with a good sense of size and scale, totally eclipsing the flimsy micro-sets seen on the telly. This would be maximized furthere in the more enjoyable and far more action-packed sequel, but Dr. Who and the Daleks certainly enjoys that giddy sense of the lavish and the opulent that signified some of the best visuals that the genre had to offer during the sixties, courtesy of DOP John Wilcox, who would provide dazzling results for Hammer and Tyburn, as well as Amicus. Then again, this extravagance and determination to go where the TV show simply could not results in some good sets and some decidedly goofy ones. The model work was more elaborate in the sequel and the blighted future London cityscape quite effectively depicted. Here, the alien vistas struggle to maintain the appropriate atmosphere of fear and wonder with the distant shots of the Dalek citadel most unimpressive and understandably guarded from full view by branches, and one admittedly nice matte painted canyon lingered-on during a protracted cliff-climb for much too long – the production really showing off one of their best images to the point of brainwashing the audience. Art Director George Provis had free-reign to be as imaginative as he could – Subotsky always took an avid interest in the elaborate scenery of his films, and was one of the most visually astute and immersive of producers. Flemying certainly enjoys investigating the sets as much as he hopes we do. The control room of the Daleks is all rather Bondian, although this is perfectly understandable. We’d had Dr. No’s atomic installation and the interior of Fort Knox for Goldfinger by now, so vast and elaborate strongholds were very much in-vogue. The set for the petrified forest is also deep and marvelously involving. Sadly, there was meant to be more action taking place in the swamps but, again, the censor wasn’t too keen on the idea of depicting loathsome and foul beasties rising from the sludge.

    Nowadays, both Dr. Who and the Daleks and its sequel are curios that exist in some wacky alternate time-line to the TV’s Doctor. Many fans that I know of the ongoing series actually despise what Amicus did with their beloved character and prefer to ignore their two experimental productions, and it is not hard to appreciate their not inconsiderable misgivings. The story messes around with the character and the focus of the pioneering show, afraid to address the queer eccentricity of the Doctor and avoiding the sense of cliffhanging suspense and mystery. No matter how you cut it and dress it up with nostalgia, this is a quite a poor film indeed. SF-aficionados can naturally be very forgiving, and I would certainly count myself as being amongst their most charitable, but even I have a terrible time raising any enthusiasm for this tediously mundane and inconceivably boring production. Even Science Fiction themes as obvious and well-worn as those served-up by Subotsky should not be this dry and poorly executed. But this isn’t even second-rate stuff. It is simply dreadful. Buster Crabbe defeated this sort of evil scheming in virtually every episode of Flash Gordon and then Buck Rogers, and it was never this run-down or poorly developed. Yes, the film is aimed at children, and it would be prudent for me to remember that it is also supposed to be amusing and lightweight. But this still doesn’t excuse a first half that is stilted and repetitive, and a second half that may be bolstered by some action scenes but still feels lethargic and hugely anticlimactic.

    Subotsky and Amicus attempted SF a few times but, unlike Hammer, whose trio of Quatermass pictures and the surrogate Quatermass tale, X The Unknown, are high-water marks for the British wing of the genre, failed either to inspire or excite with any of them. The Terrornauts and They Came From Beyond Space, anyone? Their horror movies were excellent, of course, but they simply couldn’t exploit the more fantastical of material with anywhere near the same level of intelligence, wit or flair. It is tempting to imagin what Freddie Francis could have come up with had he remained onboard, but I doubt he could have salvaged what is, essentially, a painfully protracted TV episode that just seems to drag on and on and on despite such visual delights.

    Going further against the grain, folks, you will find that I actually really like the second Dr. Who film when it was mauled even more than this one by the critics, as will become clear in my review for its equally restored Blu-ray release. Flemying seemed to have learned not to allow his story to move so slowly, and created an alarmingly fast-paced spectacle with the emphasis almost entirely upon action.

    Dr. Who and the Daleks has its devotees, though. And they will love this regenerated release.