I can vividly remember my introduction to Doctor Who. I was in about 3rd or 4th grade and was spending a Friday night sleeping over at the home of a friend we called Than (short for Nathaniel). His family lived in a big old house which always intrigued me. His parents were music teachers, so the bottom level of the house was devoted to practice rooms…the living quarters began on the 2nd floor. I thought it strange that the kitchen was upstairs! Anyway, there were several friends at the sleepover that night…I don’t remember what all we did, but I do know that Than informed us that we needed to stop whatever we were doing by 10:00, which was when Doctor Who would be on channel 11, our local PBS station.I admit, I couldn’t really follow things that first time. It was a middle episode of a story, so I was completely lost, but the show intrigued me. Eventually I learned that Doctor Who fandom was not exactly something that made you popular at school. Of course now, the actors playing The Doctor have legions of female fans who gaze over their pictures the way girls dreamed about Chachi in my day. Very different from the gangly guy with the tripping hazard scarf I saw at that sleepover.
There have been 11 Doctors in the almost 50 year history of the TV series, but there was another that is largely forgotten today. In 1965, Peter Cushing played Doctor Who (not “The Doctor”) in the first of two big screen, colour, adventures, Dr. Who and the Daleks. Since this stuff is British I inserted the “U” into “color.” Long live the Queen.
The film follows Dr. Who along with his two granddaughters, adult Barbara (Jennie Linden) and child Susan (Roberta Dovey) as they try out the Doctor’s latest invention, a time and space travel device known as TARDIS. Just like on the series, the TARDIS has the look of a blue police box and is much bigger on the inside. They are joined by Ian (Roy Castle) who was to be Barbara’s date for the evening, but stumbles into an adventure on another planet.
They end up on the planet Skaro where they encounter two very different races…the peaceful lovers of bright blue eyeshadow, the Thals, and the warlike Daleks. The Daleks are mutants who live inside mechanical bodies that resemble garbage cans with toilet plungers for arms. Due to a past war, the planet is highly radioactive. The Daleks cannot survive outside of their city, however the Thal have come up with an vaccine that has cured them of radiation poisoning and allows them to roam free. When the Daleks capture the four curious earthlings, they take the opportunity to use them to try to get the vaccine from the Thals, who they will then destroy…or to use the correct Dalek term “EXTERMINATE!”
This probably all sounds pretty familiar to Doctor Who fans as it is simply a retelling of the original story from the Doctor Who series called “The Daleks,” which featured the 1st Doctor, William Hartnell. There have been some changes…on the series the main character is an alien Time Lord who goes by the name of “The Doctor,” here he is a brilliant but somewhat absent-minded earthling named Dr. Who. Only Susan is The Doctor’s granddaughter on the series and is an adult, not a child. The character of Ian is much different in this version as well, often being used as comic relief. There are other changes here and there, but ultimately this is a remake of the TV version.
So, you may wonder, why bother? Well…to make money of course! The Doctor Who TV series was hugely popular in 1965…and the Daleks were somewhat of a phenomenon. There were all sorts of Dalek toys and even a song, “I’m Gonna Spend my Christmas with a Dalek.” So the Daleks were definitely a box office draw. Plus, at this point the Doctor Who series was only broadcast in black and white…believe it or not, the thought of seeing Doctor Who on the big screen in colour (there it is again) was a novelty.
The look of the film is great, if a bit campy…but hey, we’re talking Doctor Who here. I think most viewers would agree that the original TV series version of this story is better, but it is fun seeing a slightly different take on the material. Ultimately, for me the movie’s weakest element is Cushing himself. It has nothing to do with his acting ability. He’s a great actor…he was Van Helsing…he was Grand Moff Tarkin! But his take on the Doctor just doesn’t work for me. This doctor seems to be a genius by accident, somewhat bumbling his way through this adventure.
Though far from being a cinema masterpiece, Doctor Who and the Daleks is fun. Watching it, it’s easy to imagine yourself a young British kid heading off to the cinema on a Saturday and gazing wide-eyed at seeing talking garbage cans in colour for the first time. There it is again…”colour.” Time for tea?