Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The Peter Cushing Dalek movies
Mark Harrison | On 13, Sep 2020
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors – and, for one month only, human scientist Dr Who…
Long before John Hurt and Jo Martin came along, “How many actors have played Doctor Who?” was a loaded question for foolish pub quizmasters. If you want to get properly pedantic about the character’s name, Cushing is the only actual “Dr Who”, the human inventor who appears in two films based on the BBC One series. As the 1960s Dalek movies have just arrived on BritBox, we take a break from our regular programming to explain what they’re all about for new series fans.
Created by Terry Nation, the Daleks made Doctor Who a breakout hit when they debuted in the show’s second serial. Although they were at odds with the sci-fi show’s no-bug-eyed-monsters remit, Nation’s metallic monsters shaped Who’s early evolution and a lot of its early merchandise too. That’s why Amicus Productions, a competitor of Hammer films, optioned the film rights to the first three Dalek serials from Nation and the BBC for a whopping 500 quid. (Dear BBC, I will match this bid to make my Muppet Christmas Carol-style series that casts classic stories with Daleks, starting with Pride And Prejudice And Daleks.)
Directed by Gordon Flemyng, 1965’s Dr Who and the Daleks and 1966’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD are reverent in some aspects of their adaptation and less faithful in others. Produced out of continuity with the BBC series, (which was undergoing its first regeneration at the time), the films aren’t on our watchlist for Classic BritBox Who, but they’re worth a look to see a different take on two of the First Doctor’s most famous stories.
Dr Who and the Daleks (1965)
The first five minutes of Dr Who and the Daleks is a capsule version of the pilot we get in An Unearthly Child, with some choice amendments. Ian (Roy Castle) is no longer the teacher-turned-action-hero but the comic-relief boyfriend of Barbara (Jennie Linden), another granddaughter of the scientist who goes by the name Dr Who.
He’s invented a dimensionally transcendental time machine inside a police box, which he calls TARDIS and, before long, they’re off on an unplanned trip to a planet ravaged by nuclear war many years ago, with the Daleks and the Thals warring over the petrified spoils. Adapting the first seven-part serial into an 82-minute feature has the immediate effect of streamlining some of the source material’s more repetitive beats but, aside from some of the series’ trappings, it remains a faithful adaptation.
As Dr Who, Peter Cushing is playing older, like William Hartnell did, but that’s where the similarities with this more avuncular portrayal end. From his buttoned-up white shirt down, his performance is a clear influence on the portrayal that his life-long fan Peter Capaldi would grow into throughout the Twelfth Doctor’s era, but Cushing brings no edge to his doddering doctor in this first outing.
Castle is similarly dulled as a slapstick stooge, with Ian’s more heroic or insightful moments from the serial either given to other characters or recontextualised as opportunities for him to fall over or get thumped. Meanwhile, Linden’s Barbara never really makes an impression. Roberta Tovey’s Susan, although younger than her TV counterpart, does display some of the nous that otherwise vanished after the first serial, as brave and eager at the prospect of adventure as her granddad.
What really shines through here is the improved production value. Costing £180,000, this is a full-colour, American-funded rendition of a story we know, enhanced with more impressive sets, such as the petrified forest where the TARDIS lands, and a dazzling array of Dalek props, which shoot lethal jets of steam rather than expensive laser beams.
All in all, Dr Who and the Daleks uses the same jumping-off point as Nation did in his scripts for The Daleks and skew more towards HG Wells’ The Time Machine than Who as we know it. It’s not unexpected that the sequel rotated out some of the main characters – for this instalment at least, it’s absolutely the Daleks’ show.
Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966)
The sequel immediately gets off on the right foot by introducing once-and-future companion Bernard Cribbins as the new have-a-go hero. As bumbling bobby Tom Campbell, he stumbles into the TARDIS after mistaking it for a real police box (it’s mad that we’ve never had a version of this companion introduction in the series proper) and meets Dr Who, Susan, and his, er… 20-something niece Louise (Jill Curzon) as they’re charting a course for the year 2150 AD.
Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD is based on David Whittaker’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the monsters’ first return appearance in the Whoniverse. Accordingly, Dr Who and friends discover that the Daleks have conquered the Earth with the aid of mind-controlled Robomen (a forerunner to Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’ Cybermen, both in and out of the show) and nowhere is safe. Whittaker’s story is the better of the two serials and makes the better of the two films too.
Darker in tone, this serial takes the Daleks as Nazi allegories to dramatise a successful German invasion of Britain and, frankly, the serial could as easily be called The Dalek Invasion of London for as far outside the M25 as it gets. Like the first film, Flemyng draws on that inspiration as much as the text itself but, in this case, there’s much more of a spirit of adventure to restaging the ideological conflict of World War II as a sci-fi dust-up.
There are some spectacular stunts early on and, once again, this is a film that doesn’t skimp on the simple pleasure of watching a Dalek get pushed down a lift shaft or slowly roll down a ramp and explode. Likewise, it’s the first time we really see Daleks en masse – unstoppable and everywhere. It’s a shame that Barry Gray and Bill McGuffie’s incessant jazz music score tootles all over everything because it ill befits the more exciting tone that this one pulls off so well.
Cushing is a bit more active as Dr Who this time, even playing a lovely bit of speechifying Doctor-y business at the story’s climax, but it’s Cribbins who steals the show. Whether he’s got better comic timing than Castle or he’s simply given more to do, Tom’s a far better companion than Ian. Plus, Cribbins seems to enjoy getting more action hero material than he’d get anywhere else in his career, at least until he picks up a paintball gun to take on the Daleks again during the Tenth Doctor’s era.
It’s a shame that Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD was a comparative flop, because it’s definitely an improvement on Dr Who and the Daleks. Grander in scope and more independent of the televised version, the film thrives in a war-torn London setting, playing closer to Who’s overriding mission of keeping the British end up when the dominance of American sci-fi makes such fancies seem depressingly remote.
If you’re interested in the ones they made earlier, The Daleks (Season 1, 1963) and The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (Season 2, 1964) are also available to stream on BritBox. Reportedly, a planned third film would have adapted the next Dalek serial, The Chase (Season 3, 1965), which sees the pepper-pots pursue the Doctor and his friends through time in a bid to capture the TARDIS. It’s hard to imagine Cushing’s “Dr Who” ever winding up in a Time War with the Daleks, but a wacky run-around like The Chase feels about right.
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.