Friday, August 4, 2017

The British Invaders Blogathon: The Dr. (not Doctor) Who Films

This is the fourth annual British Invaders Blogathon, and I believe I've taken part in every single one of them. For this one I decided to focus on a subject that is as British as you can get--but with a twist. The BBC television series DOCTOR WHO is a worldwide entertainment phenomenon, with over 50 years of history....but this post will be covering the two films based on the character. DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was made in 1965, and DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. was produced the very next year. Both movies starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor--or more accurately, "Dr. Who", which is what the character was called in the films. The difference between Dr. and Doctor is a subtle, but telling one. Cushing's "Dr. Who" has very little in common with "The Doctor" of the famed TV series.

Perhaps the Dr. Who films should be referred to as the Dalek films. The evil aliens had been a sensation since they were introduced on the DOCTOR WHO TV show in late 1963, and executive producer Joe Vegoda joined forces with Amicus' Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to make a feature film taking advantage of this popularity. The Daleks are the real stars of these films--Dr. Who himself takes a backseat in the movies' advertising (just look at the original posters below). Amicus wanted the Daleks to be the main attraction since the character of the Doctor was only known in England, and these films were meant to be seen all over the world. (Amicus assumed that robotic-like creatures with a penchant for destruction would grab the attention of kids rather than a grouchy mysterious old man, which was how the Doctor was then played on TV by William Hartnell.) DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was based on Terry Nation's multi-episode story "The Daleks", which introduced the aliens on TV.

Peter Cushing as Dr. (not Doctor) Who

Milton Subotsky's screenplay for DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS follows the original TV story closely for the most part. The big difference is how the Doctor is portrayed. Instead of a crotchety alien, this film's Dr. Who is a kindly, absent-minded human professor who has invented a device called TARDIS, which can travel throughout space and time. Note that I did not call it the TARDIS--in these films the device is called just TARDIS. The eccentric Dr. Who, along with his granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey) and Barbara (Jennie Linden), and Barbara's clumsy boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle), takes flight in TARDIS and bumbles his way to the Daleks' home planet, where the group helps the native Thals fight the robot-like creatures.

In DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D., Dr. Who is joined by Susan (Roberta Tovey again) and niece Louise (Jill Curzon). A London constable named Tom (Bernard Cribbins) inadvertently enters TARDIS, thinking it to be a real police call box. Soon Dr. Who & company arrive in the year 2150 (where everything looks suspiciously from the mid-1960s). They find that the Daleks have taken over the Earth, and the group joins forces with other rebels to defeat the aliens and save the planet.

DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. is the better of the two films, with much more action and special effects, including Dalek spaceships. Milton Subotsky once again wrote the screenplay, this time based on the TV serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth". This second Dr. Who feature was not as financially successful as the first, and Amicus decided not to make further films based on the character or the Daleks.

I believe that the Dr. Who films are nice, Saturday matinee-type adventures. Both films were in color and in widescreen, which was a major selling point when the films were originally released (the DOCTOR WHO TV show at the time was shown in black & white). Gordon Flemyng was the director on both films, and he keeps things at a rapid pace. The fact that both movies were condensed versions of multi-episode TV stories works in their favor....if you have seen enough classic DOCTOR WHO stories you know that much of the action involves the Doctor and his companions being captured, and escaping, and being captured and escaping, over and over again. The Dr. Who movies eliminate extraneous plot devices.

Many people look back on the films today and find them disappointing, mainly because the character of the Doctor differs so greatly from the TV show. But one has to place the films in their proper context. The movies were made for a mostly children's market, and sci-fi action was the major highlight. One has to consider that much of the extensive mythology surrounding the character of the TV Doctor had not yet even been created yet (the Doctor had not even had his first regeneration when these movies were made). The producers were trying to ride the wave of Dalekmaina, and they were not all that concerned about keeping continuity with a children's TV show that had only been on the air for a few years. The films have to be looked on as a separate entity from the television show--especially the 21st Century version of the program, with its overly complicated plots and soap opera-like elements involving the Doctor's companions. I'm sure that no one involved with the Dr. Who movies thought that they would be still discussed and debated 50 years later.

Peter Cushing's performance as Dr. Who has come under some major fan controversy. Bring up the Dr. Who feature films on any Peter Cushing groups on the internet and you're bound to get some strong reactions. There are some Cushing devotees who can't stand it when the great actor tries to be comic. I have to admit that Cushing lays the "funny old man" routine on a bit thick during the Dr. Who movies....but these films were made for a younger audience, and Cushing felt that this was the way to go. He certainly wasn't going to do a William Hartnell impression. The Dr. Who films give no backstory on the character (we don't even find out how such a muddled person can invent something like the TARDIS, let alone how he got the money to finance such a thing), so Cushing didn't have much to work with. He decided that these movies called for a more lighthearted portrayal than one was accustomed to getting from the actor in his many horror roles. His Dr. Who may frustrate some of his fans today, but Cushing enjoyed working on these films and getting away (if briefly) from the terror genre. I wouldn't want to see Cushing's "funny old man" routine in film after film, but in the Dr. Who movies I think for the most part it works.

I feel that the best way to appreciate the Dr. Who movies is to look on them as being part of an alternate universe. This is science-fiction, after all...who's to say that Cushing's Dr. Who isn't just part of a different time stream. The Dr. Who films are not part of the official continuity of the Doctor Who character--the BBC doesn't even have the rights to the films (Studio Canal does). Obviously the BBC is not going to go out of their way to bring attention to these movies. The result is that the Dr. Who films now reside in a type of limbo. They're based on DOCTOR WHO...but it's not really DOCTOR WHO. Cushing is not considered to belong among the constantly growing group of actors who have played the Doctor. (I can't tell you how many times I've mentioned to someone that Peter Cushing played Dr. Who in the movies, only to have that person respond with absolute surprise.)

However you define Peter Cushing's Dr. Who, the two films made around the character are worth seeing. Both movies are colorful, lighthearted, fast-paced adventures which were made to be enjoyed--not obsessively nit-picked over like so much of the Doctor Who Universe is today.


  1. Great read! Whatever Peter Cushing wanted to do with "Dr. Who" is fine with me. As you point out, it was for a niche market and no one could possibly predict the cultural impact of "Doctor Who". Let's just battle the creepy robots and have a bit of fun.

    I hope there will be a bit of fun with the upcoming regeneration. I get a headache thinking of plots that are over-complicated simply, it seems to me, to befuddle the audience.

  2. I know some younger Whovians might not care for the films, but I have always enjoyed them despite the fact that they depart from the canon. They are a lot of fun and enjoyable in their own right! And, as you point out, the movies were made primarily for kids, well before Doctor Who became a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Anyway, great blog post and thanks for taking part in the blogathon!