Decades ago, the world got a big-screen version of Doctor Who ... sort of. But are these often-overlooked films worth watching today?
It sometimes surprises me when I find out how many of my nerdier friends and colleagues have not only never seen, but never even heard of the two Dr. Who films produced in the mid-1960s. Sure, they don't factor into the continuity of the television series, and they never got much traction in America, but still. We're nerds. Shouldn't our completist sensibilities compel us to see what, if anything, we're missing? Emboldened by Who's recent return for season eight, I decided I would carry out this exploratory mission, for the good of all Whovians.
Before we get to the films themselves, though, a little backstory: In the mid-'60s, producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg were looking for family-friendly genre properties that they could adapt to film in order to compete with the family-oriented adventure fare being put out by rival studio Hammer. At the time, kids all over the U.K. had a growing obsession with metal monsters from Doctor Who known as Daleks. We now know them as one of the most enduring Who enemies ever, but at the time the Daleks had only starred in two TV serials: 1963's "The Daleks" and 1964's "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." For a nation of children watching from behind the sofa, though, that was enough to propel them to pop culture icon status, and by Christmas 1964 they had their own holiday novelty song.
Subotsky and Rosenberg decided to capitalize on the Dalek phenomenon by bringing them, and their adversary "Dr. Who," to the big screen, presenting them to audiences in color for the first time. The result was 1965's Dr. Who and the Daleks and 1966's Daleks -- Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (catchy title, that), both starring Peter Cushing in the role of Dr. Who. Both were adaptations of Doctor Who Dalek adventures written by the creator of the creatures, Terry Nation (the first adapted "The Daleks" and the second adapted "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"), and though the plots remain largely true to their TV forebears, there are some key differences. It's in those differences that the films first begin to suffer, not because they're not Doctor Who anymore, but because they strip some of the charm and power of the TV series away and fail to replace it with anything that really clicks.
In this version, Cushing isn't playing the Doctor we know. He's just a human inventor whose last name is "Who," and he just happens to have built a time machine that looks like a blue police box on the outside. Instead of the one granddaughter and two schoolteachers with whom First Doctor William Hartnell began his travels, Dr. Who's traveling in the first film with two granddaughters (Roberta Tovey and Jennie Linden) and his eldest granddaughter's boyfriend (Roy Castle). This creates a more familial dynamic, but some of the Doctor Who mystique is sacrificed along the way. In the second film, Dr. Who travels once again with Tovey as his granddaughter Susan, alongside his niece Louise (Jill Curzon) and a London constable who just happened to stumble into the TARDIS (Bernard Cribbins, who would later join the Doctor Who TV series as Donna Noble's beloved grandfather).
Despite the screen presence of Cushing, and the solid comic timing of Castle and Cribbins, the real stars of both films are the Daleks, and since they're why the films got made in the first place, that's fitting. Turning Dr. Who into a guy who built a time machine, and his companions into relations or random acquaintances, allows the films to ditch the Time Lord mythology and just get right to the exterminating. In Dr. Who and the Daleks, the action takes place on the (unnamed) planet of Skaro, where the Daleks fight to overcome deadly radiation left in the aftermath of their planetary war with the now-peaceful Thals. In Daleks -- Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., the action is set in a future England, where the Daleks have enslaved humanity and forced them to drill into the Earth's core, so they can turn the planet into their very own giant-sized spaceship.
Now, before we go further, it's important to acknowledge that these films -- like Doctor Who at the time -- were made for children who were obsessed with Daleks and couldn't wait to be terrified by them on the big screen. It would be entirely unfair to compare these flicks to the layered, weighty storytelling of, say, Russell T Davies, or to sophisticated sci-fi fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are supposed to be big, bold, uncomplicated space adventures, and both films fit all three of those adjectives very well.
If you were a kid paying your allowance money to see Daleks, you certainly get your money's worth. They're everywhere, dozens of them, shouting in their robotic voices, their bodies painted in bold shades of blue, red, black and gold. Some of them even get the innovation of a clawed arm that they can use to operate computer consoles or grab humans by the wrist. If you want Dalek destruction, you also get plenty of that. Both films feature climactic battle sequences, which, while clearly low-budget and steeped in cheesiness, still manage to be exhilarating. Daleks are tipped over, crashed through walls, pushed down mine shafts, exploded, melted and crushed everywhere you look, and if nothing else about these films brought out the 5-year-old in me, those sequences definitely did.
The combined budget of both films was apparently less than 500,000 pounds (by contrast, the 1965 action hit Thunderball had a lofty budget of $9 million), but you can't help but feel that it's all up there onscreen. Both films are packed with low-rent but endlessly colorful sci-fi sets, sliding spaceship doors, petrified forests on faraway planets and weird alien machinery. As a kid, you probably wouldn't know it looked cheap, and even as an adult I found it all very fun to look at, particularly the entirely impractical-looking but still dazzling Dalek spaceship from Invasion Earth.
So, at this point you might be wondering where my real problem with these films is. I've acknoweldged that they're low-budget, made for children and very of their time, and I've even complimented the action sequences and the bright set design. What's the deal? Well, as much as I wanted to love these films, if nothing else as cult curiosities, and as much as I enjoyed looking at them, they both wound up -- in comparison to their source material -- rather soulless. Now, that's not to say that those early seasons of Doctor Who were the peak of sci-fi storytelling, but there was something powerful and innovative about even the crudest early episodes. William Hartnell's stern, authoritative Doctor compelled you even if you didn't like him, and you care what happens to Susan, Barbara and Ian. In the films, Cushing's Dr. Who is a shuffling granddad with a few moments of cleverness sprinkled in, which is a shame when you think about what he might've done with the role had he begin given more to work with, and his companions -- with the exception of a few moments of comedy -- feel less like people and more like vehicles for the action. In the end, these films are loud, uncompromising showcases for the loud, uncompromising Daleks (which remain as cool and fierce as ever), and everything else gets pushed aside, to the detriment of both stories.
With my mission of exploration at an end, I have to say that I find both Dr. Who films to be more like cultural curiosities than cinematic experiences. They reflect just how huge the Dalek phenomenon got in the U.K. back in the 1960s, and they present the creatures in a way they've never quite been seen on the TV series, but as fully formed films they end up rather flat. If you're curious, or if you're just a completist, give them a look. You might even find out you think I'm wrong about them.
What do you think of Peter Cushing's big-screen adventures as "Doctor Who"? Are they worth watching for the Who completist, or relics better left to gather dust? Let us know in the comments, or tweet at us at @syfywire!