Doctor Who (Classic): Dr. Who and the Daleks

Directed by Gordon Flemyng
Written by Milton Subotsky

I’ve talked plenty in the past about just how big the Daleks were for a period in Britain (not from first-hand experience obviously as my dad was actually born during the period the first serial was on the air and in NYC which is notably quite far from Britain), but it bares repeating that the show would not still be around or remembered if it wasn’t for them. Their debut serial “The Daleks” (only the second of the show’s run) was a breakout hit and moved the show further away from its original intent to be an educational show and focused on the historicals which made up a significant portion of the First Doctor’s run, into a show focused on aliens. As Dalekmania swept the nation, Amicus Productions (best known for their anthology horror titles such as Asylum) swept in and decided to capitalize on it with a big screen adaptation a year after the serial wrapped up (1965) and as the poster prominently proclaims “IN COLOUR”.

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The show wouldn’t be produced in colour until the beginning of the Third Doctor’s run five years later with “Spearhead from Space” and aside from the follow up movie in 1966 wouldn’t hit the big screen again until the NuWho era which has featured a number of special showings of episodes. Aside from those two bits and the use of a few new Dalek models which would reappear in Season Two’s “The Chase”, that’s about all the movie brought new to the series. I say bring into the series but this film is very non-canon. While it retells the first serial plotwise, the details of the film were changed from that of the show and these changes would become especially egregious in hindsight.

The TARDIS is now just called Tardis in the way one would call a ship and not the name of the machine and comes complete with a radically redesigned interior (which is thankfully still bigger on the inside).

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The Doctor is now and to the delight of the countless people who don’t watch the show actually referred to as Dr. Who (a name which was used in the credits of the show through the Fourth Doctor’s run, but only referred to as such in “The War Machines”). Dr. Who is now an English human (played by the great Peter Cushing who would later decline the opportunity to play the Second Doctor) who invented time travel instead of a being of unknown race (referred to at the time as being human and later confirmed to be a Time Lord) from another planet who merely stole his machine (though at the time the stealing part was not yet canon).

Barbara and Ian are now explicitly boyfriend and girlfriend with no reference to them being teachers and their first adventure with Dr. Who is not back in time, but to an unnamed in the film Skaro to fight the Daleks. Barbara is also now related to Dr. Who as his granddaughter while only Susan was on the show. Ian is now as dorky and clumsy as hell. Susan on the other hand is a much younger child though still portrayed as being more intelligent than her age would suggest as was originally a thing.

Also gone is the kidnapping aspect which may have dogged the first two seasons of the show morally, was a crucial aspect of Season One and a source of much of the conflict. Instead, they are all transported by accident thanks to the wacky antics of Ian and seriously, he is constantly falling over the place and knocking shit over and serving as the obnoxious “comic” relief for the film. As in the original, the crew arrive in a petrified forest and must travel to the city of the Daleks to retrieve some mercury needed to operate the Tardis. Unlike the original, there is no Doctor related sabotage causing this need, instead it is just the Doctor straight up lying about needing mercury. Otherwise, the plot is basically the same as that of the original serial. The Daleks want the radiation medicine of the Thals (the other race living on Skaro) while the Thals are still opposed to all fighting making it a challenge to get them to fight back.

The film is much shorter (at less than 80 minutes) than the seven episodes of the original (or about 175 minutes) and it shows. Cutting out plenty of the filler of that serial is not necessarily a bad thing, but the film still miraculously feels padded in places and yet rushed in plenty of others. The film confuses lengthy, silent scenes of walking down corridors and climbing to be what suspense is made of, time that could be better spent on actually developing a few of the characters, including that of the Doctor and his companions. There’s no build up or suspense for the Daleks, they just show up en masse by virtue of Chandler’s Law and never seem all that threatening. Sadly, Cushing is not an especially interesting Doctor and instead he is just a generic, bumbling old scientist. A softening of the First Doctor’s character is to be expected, but this is a complete personality change and not even in a regeneration sense.

On the plus side, Skaro looks far better than in the original and the higher production values are much more apparent. It’s still very much a modestly budgeted 60s British sci-fi film so don’t expect anything lavish. Heck, Star Trek: The Original Series is probably a more comparable point of reference, but it is still nice to see the show with a bit of polish. The Daleks get some absolutely fabulous colors fit for a 60s kitchen appliance which aside from a black Dalek (an idea later reused) hardly gets me to take them more seriously even if they were done so to indicate a sort of hierarchy amongst them. Neither does the change from the laser guns to fire extinguishers which while understandable (the special effect used at the time wouldn’t work on film), doesn’t make it any better. The Thals are still pretty much just blond, bare-chested humans but now with long eyelashes and thin eyebrows looking like they are supporting David Bowie.

As nice as the production value increases are, these are basically the only improvements. It’s an interesting experiment, but I’ll take the original serial any day of the week. If anything, I think it brings what works about the show into sharper focus. Sure, the Daleks are fun and all, but it’s the characters and especially The Doctor that make show stand out. Remove them and you are left with a mediocre sci-fi movie at best or as seen here, an interesting failure. It’s hard to grade this since it’d likely be a notch higher if I wasn’t familiar with the show, something perfect to watch and forget on a lazy weekend afternoon (I love throwing these on when they come up on TCM), but it isn’t and I can’t recommend it even to people put off by the charmingly poor effects of the show.

Grade: D+

Stray Observations
– The version here watched was the Rifftrax version because while I would have preferred to watch the original for this review, I have already seen it and the Rifftrax version is free on Amazon Prime. As for why I will be watching the next movie in Rifftrax form, what can I say, it saves me $2.
– There’s also a 1995 documentary Dalekmania about the production of both movies and which I rented in preparation of both of these reviews. It is nothing special. A behind the scenes featurette about two films with mostly no name actors who sometimes struggle to remember it (especially this first film) and have little to add to the copious footage. The bits where they briefly discuss the Daleks as a phenomenon are the clear highlights, but it’s not a bad watch, just not something you should feel the need to check out.
– The first film was a financial success and finished in the top 10 British films of the year thanks to the enthusiasm surrounding the Daleks.
– Gordon Flemyng would go on to direct the other Doctor Who film, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. as well as a number of other films including the mediocre and Jim Brown starring The Split. Better known however may be his son Jason Flemyng of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
– Also gone from the show is the awesome theme tune, replaced in the film by this shit.

– Speaking of changes, the sound of the TARDIS disintegrating has been replaced and the machine does so much quicker
– The Daleks still need to maintain contact with the floor which although essential to the plot of this serial, I figured it would have been written out considering it would be written out of all future serial.
– We only get one shot of the Daleks outside of their metal shell, and it is only of their hand which makes for an effective choice.

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– This Week in Cliffhangers: They are all set to return home only for the Tardis to instead transport them to ancient Roman times, as Ian madly rushes throwing random levers to take them anywhere but there.

Next Up: I continue to get back on schedule with the second non-canon Amicus movie with Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. on 1/22. I can’t make a promise for when I will start Season 6 after that, but I hope to start that up not long after.

“The Dominators” (Where we will finally be caught up with where I left off to start this feature)

“The Mind Robber” (Where we head off into the great unknown together)