September 20, 2020
Stars Peter Cushing, Roy Castle, Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, Barrie Ingham, Michael Coles, Yvonne Antrobus, Geoffrey Toone.
Science-fiction fans who weren’t previously aware of this early big-screen treatment of the BBC’s popular “Doctor Who” series will likely find it a fascinating curio, not only for its place in the history of the series and the genre, but the very nature of the filmed entertainment industry.
Premiering in 1963, “Doctor Who” chronicled the adventures of an alien named The Doctor, a member of an alien race known as Time Lords. His traveling companions included his granddaughter, Susan, and a pair of schoolteachers. Their time machine the TARDIS, was bigger on the inside than on the outside, and disguised to resemble a blue police box, essentially a large wooden phone booth, commonplace in England at the time.
Episodes were grouped together to tell serialized stories, and the second serial was called “The Daleks,” introducing an iconic villainous race of irradiated aliens who transformed themselves into mechanized warriors using robotic armor (which is why they are often described as merely robots). Interestingly, the design of the creatures was originally assigned to Ridley Scott (yes, that Ridley Scott), who had to drop out over scheduling issues.
With “Doctor Who” and the Daleks in particular proving to be massive hits with British audiences, it wasn’t long before movie producers came sniffing around looking to cash in, and made a deal with the BBC and Dalek creator Terry Nation to acquire the option for three Dalek-based movies. The first would be an adaptation of the “Daleks” serial.
Now, this wasn’t like today, when the natural assumption would be that the movie would be a continuation of the series, using the same actors and storylines. In the mid-1960s, “Doctor Who” was virtually unknown in America, and the film’s producers wanted the film to have an international appeal (the show wouldn’t gain a solid cult status in the U.S. until PBS and syndication airings a decade later). So writer Milton Subotsky and director Gordon Flemyng essentially deconstructed the concept of the series. The result is this first of two standalone adventures that otherwise have no connection to the series.
The first major change was the casting. Instead of bringing on the relatively unknown William Hartnell, who was playing the Doctor on TV, the filmmakers cast Peter Cushing, who had international clout thanks to his association with the Hammer horror films. All the other roles were recast as well, most notably having 11-year-old Roberta Tovey playing Susan, an adult character on the series.
Nor did the main character keep his name — the show’s title is a bit of wordplay based on people’s confusion over being introduced to “The Doctor,” with their first response being “Doctor Who.”
In the movie, Cushing plays a man simply named Dr. Who. Instead of being an alien adventurer, this Dr. Who is an eccentric scientist who invents the TARDIS himself, rather than stealing it from the Time Lords as he does on the show.
As the film begins, Dr. Who is showing off the TARDIS to his other granddaughter Barbara’s boyfriend, Ian, who accidentally activates the controls and sends them to a distant planet, where they discover the remains of a nuclear holocaust. The conflict’s two warring sides are still at odds: the Daleks, who have encased themselves in robotic suits and city-like fortresses to shield themselves from radiation, and the Thals, seemingly primitive people who live in the remnants of the planet’s forests, but who have developed a cure for the radiation that the Daleks desire. So, Dr. Who and the newcomers set about helping the Thals defeat the Daleks so they may repair the TARDIS and go home.
As a streamlined adventure, it serves as an interesting abridged version of “Doctor Who” for those who weren’t invested in following the TV show on a weekly basis. And for fans of the series it offered a couple of big incentives. First, it was the first presentation of any “Doctor Who” material in color; the series wouldn’t shoot in color until 1970. And it gave them a chance to see the iconic Daleks and TARDIS, the designs of which were consistent with their look on the TV show, on a big, wide screen.
Interestingly, the descriptive blurb on Kino’s Blu-ray packaging still takes a number of cues from the TV series, referring to Cushing’s incarnation as a Timelord (he isn’t, strictly speaking) named The Doctor, rather than his humanized name for the movie.
To those who don’t know better, though, the movie just comes across as another cheesy British sci-fi ‘B’-movie. While some of the more complicated aspects of the Doctor’s TV origins were changed, other elements, such as why the TARDIS looked like a police box, were given no explanation. Nor does the movie use the familiar console control room look of the TARDIS interior from the TV show, or the show’s famous theme music. So the appeal of the movie aside from the nostalgia of those who saw it as kids, or “Doctor Who” fans in general, might be somewhat limited.
The Blu-ray presentation takes advantage of a restoration by StudioCanal done in 2013 for a European Blu-ray release, and the results are pretty good. The film’s colors really pop on the Blu-ray presentation, from the psychedelic lighting of the alien jungles, to the color schemes of the Dalek ranks, to the bluish-purple body paint used for the Thals.
The Blu-ray includes a seven-minute featurette about the restoration process.
Despite a lukewarm critical response, Dr. Who and the Daleks was a hit with fans when it hit screens in 1965 and spawned a sequel the next year, Daleks’ Invasion of Earth. The second film wasn’t as successful commercially, so the third film in the option was abandoned.
However, the two films on their own did develop something of a cult following apart from that of the TV series, and inspired a 57-minute documentary in 1995 called Dalekmania, which is offered as a much-welcomed extra on the Blu-ray.
Other extras include a seven-minute discussion of Dr. Who and the Daleks by author Gareth Owen.
These are all fascinating extras for “Doctor Who” fans, as is an audio commentary joined by film historians Kim Newman and Robert Shearman, with filmmaker Mark Gatiss, who wrote Dalek episodes for the 21st century iteration of the “Doctor Who” television series.