Who Wednesday/Doctor Doubleheader: Dr. Who and the Daleks & Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
I’ve been on a bit of a Peter Cushing kick lately…mainly his Hammer films, often times starring opposite of Christopher Lee. Those familiar with his oeuvre know that he’d leave Hammer from time to time to work with Amicus, continuing to work in similar horror themed films, but now no longer confined to historical or gothic periods instead opting to take place in the modern day.
Cut to November, 1963. Doctor Who had premiered on the BBC and was becoming a hit show. What some might say helped to trigger the show’s success would be a seven-part serial that would air from December 1963 to February 1964, introducing the Doctor to his most famous nemeses: Terry Nation’s The Daleks.
Then, just like now, when something captures the public’s imagination, in this case a hit show with rampant merchandising, filmmakers take notice and most likely will make any effort to exploit it. While the show would not make it to American shores until 1972…and even then not really taking root until 1978…this effort would certainly not come from Hollywood. Still, it’s worth remembering that the English film industry is no slouch, so when Amicus acquired the film rights to the Doctor it certainly was a prize indeed. However, this would actually give rise to an interesting problem. Yes, while the Doctor has always had at least a little bit of a horror/thriller vibe to the program (most fans that took to the show early in life have often admitted to watching it from behind the sofa!), the BBC wasn’t entirely sure they wanted their newest golden goose to be affiliated with a known horror movie production house. To provide a bit of comfort for the “Beeb”, Amicus spun up AARU Productions to handle assembling the movie. This film and its sequel, Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 AD, would be the branch’s only output.
Enough with the impromptu history lesson though, let’s look at that synopsis:
English scientist, Dr. Who, along with his two granddaughters (Susie and Barbara), has at long last completed his greatest invention: The TARDIS – Time And Relative Dimension In Space. While appearing to be nothing more than a simple Police Box, within it contains vast machinery allowing this vessel to travel to anywhere in space and time. A clumsy encounter with Barbara’s boyfriend Ian sends the group hurtling to the far-off planet Skarro which has been devastated by war fought between two factions, the human-like Thals and the armored Daleks. Can the Doctor and his companions find their way back home from this alien conflict where things are not always as they seem?
Of course anyone familiar with Doctor Who lore is going to know who the good guys and the bad guys are right off the bat, so the initial plot twist really isn’t going to be much of a surprise here. And for any Who fan, the first 15 minutes or so are going to be the hardest to get past as many of the core concepts of the show are done away with for no real particular reason. The Doctor is no longer an alien from Gallifrey who steals the TARDIS, but as alluded to in the synopsis above, he’s an earthling, an English scientist in the form of Peter Cushing who actually created the TARDIS. While William Hartnel’s first Doctor was stubborn and abrasive primarily, although moments of grandfatherly charm would become more and more regular as his time in the role progressed. Cushing’s Doctor in some ways is your typical doddering old Englishman, completely embracing the grandfatherly charm right off the bat while still retaining a bit of a sly subtext to his performance. This Doctor may be doddering but he’s certainly no fool. Susan, now Susie, is no longer a teen but instead very much a pre-teen and is very much the focal point of the movie: the action either follows her or happens around her. Barbara is no longer a school teacher as was her initial incarnation but as stated above, is the Doctor’s eldest granddaughter. We’re given no information about Ian’s profession in this incarnation, only that he’s Barbara’s boyfriend and, as we clearly see, the clumsiest of the lot. While at times useful, he really is more the comic relief than anything.
Another departure from the series fans will notice right away is the music. Gone is the instantly recognizable theme and in its place is what can only be described as said theme as interpreted by the worst 60s lounge band ever. Ron Grainer by way of utterly shitfaced Monty Norman. It’s…interesting. Utter rubbish, but interesting rubbish to punish your eardrums too. As for the music throughout the film, it’s pretty unremarkable – your standard 60s B-movie sci-fi fare.
Much of the story is still present, albeit condensed, and I have to say that this actually works for the story. The serial nature of early Doctor adventures can at times seem padded out. After all, the original Daleks serial ran seven half-hour episodes. That’s three and a half hours! And while yes, a little bit of added time to give all the characters a bit more depth would certainly be welcomed in the film version, you must remember that at this early stage in its life, the TV show was primarily aimed at children. Thus, one would have to expect that movie would be as well and let’s face it, how many times do you find children who will ask “Yes, but what exactly is Ian’s motivation for sitting on the chocolates? Is he intimidated by the Doctor? Or is he just that nervous about his date?” [Although I do have to admit, kids are getting frighteningly smart these days…so maybe this would not be as hard as you’d think! – Ed.] Running at a brisk clip of 83 minutes, the film actually does a decent job at condensing the core plot of the serial as well as its main themes.
Now, the other thing modern audiences are going to overlook here is just the sheer fact that the film is in COLOR. An easy thing for us to take for granted now, but in the mid-60s, this was going to be a big deal! Not so much a color movie per se, as those were commonplace by then, but the fact that the TV show remained in black & white meant that this would be the first time kids would be able to see the Doctor and the Daleks in color. However, the saturation of color here actually helps the story: blues and greens dominate the screen in times of suspense while reds cascade over the proceedings in the presence of the Daleks or during conflicts.
What you get out of Dr. Who and the Daleks is going to depend greatly on how you approach it. If you come at it as a Whovian, demanding it adhere to established chapter and verse, you’re going to be incredibly disappointed, if not outright enraged, filled with far too many “What about…?”s to be tolerated by anyone. If you come to it as the curiosity of an abandoned timeline or just simply as a 60s sci-fi B-movie, there’s a lot of charm here…from the ‘good enough’ sets to the very clearly matte painting that establish the landscape. At the center of this curiosity is Peter Cushing himself, practically being the polar opposite of his downright bastardly Dr. Frankenstein and it just works so well, due in no small part due to a performance that echoes what many have described to be his real-life persona. Heck, kinda makes you wish he was your grandfather. And that charm alone merits this film our Happy Cat ranking.
A year later, many of the same cast and crew returned for Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., however, much like the transition from Star Trek The Motion Picture to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there are definitely some course corrections to bring this movie in better alignment with the parent TV show. We see that right from the start in the opening credits where we go from the generic opening of the original film to now at least an attempt to mimic the Time Vortex that has been seen for the vast majority of Doctor Who openings. The opening theme, on the other hand, remains a hot mess although it has been steered at least a little bit closer to the source material.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s look at the synopsis:
The Doctor travels to the future, where the Daleks he thought dead have now taken over the Earth in the distant year 2150! To prevent the Earth’s destruction, he joins up with the English Rebellion to stop their sinister plan, but it won’t be easy. Not only are Daleks kidnapping humans and turning them into mindless Robomen, but there are traitors and Dalek sympathizers around every turn! As always, the Doctor won’t have to face these challenges alone. Joining him in the TARDIS are his granddaughter Susan as well as his niece Louise and London constable Tom Campbell. Will they be enough to turn the tide and stop the Daleks’ evil plans or will their mechanized might prove too overwhelming for the outmatched human race?
Once again in the opening scene where Tom, played by the recently departed [as of 27 July, 2022 - Ed.] Bernard Cribbins…who would find himself in the Doctor’s world once again during the David Tennant run as Wilfred Mott… stumbles into the TARDIS, Cushing’s Doctor introduces himself as ‘Dr. Who’ again, but otherwise this is the only time we hear this error, with Cushing being addressed as “Doctor” throughout the remainder of the film…even by his niece! [Although Susie still addresses him as Grandfather, which holds to canon. – Ed.] Much of everything else really starts to mesh much better with the TV show, most noticeably the TARDIS interior no longer looking like an amalgamation of bits and bobs like in the previous film but instead having the more refined look of consoles and scanners and such that fans of the show are far more accustomed to. Still no labored whooshing sound to indicate the TARDIS moving though. [Sad face. – Ed.]
Strangely, perhaps the biggest deviation from the source material actually helps to bring this film much better in line with the tone and spirit of the original material. Gone are Barbara and Ian from the first film and by and large with them the shoehorned comic relief. Here instead we have Louise and Tom who have no romantic attachment at all but still end up working well together. While this doesn’t necessarily free Tom from potentially being locked into a comic relief role, the writer, Milton Subotsky, understands that this invasion in pretty serious business, so while there are moments of lightness…and one scene that is strictly comic relief…all of it works within the context of the story, thus avoiding any one particular character being labeled as strictly the clumsy oaf.
Speaking of the writing, once again this is an adaptation of a six-part serial from the second season of William Hartnell’s run by Dalek creator Terry Nation. And again Subotsky does a pretty good job of trimming the fat off the original and turning it into a pretty taut 84 minute experience. Unlike the previous film, we do notice a shift in tone. The first film was very clearly aimed at children while this film skews a little older. You can’t help but wonder if maybe one of the biggest notes they got from feedback on the first film was that they needed to remember that adults would be with the children these films were aimed at. While the film’s themes remain fairly simple, adding slightly deeper concepts such as humans that would betray their own kind just to ensure their own well-being at the hands of oppressors does add at least a touch more maturity to the proceedings as opposed to the generally fanciful tone of the first film.
Cushing’s portrayal of the Doctor has evolved here as well. While still prone to the occasional flub, there is markedly less of that doddering nature to the Doctor this go ‘round. There’s still some playfulness and he retains his sly charm, but Cushing allows for some of Hartnell’s impatience and crankiness leak into the performance as well. Given Cushing’s strength in portraying those traits, as countless Hammer films can attest to, this second turn as the Doctor really made me wonder what a full run…or at least a couple more movies…would look like and how he’d evolve this character even further. Alas, ‘twas not to be. Although a third film was slated, once again with the Daleks and based on the Doctor Who serial The Chase, the low box office returns from this film proved to be the death knell to this burgeoning franchise.
One big upgrade from the prior film, thanks largely to the earthbound nature of this story, is the fact that the movie is no longer confined to sets but instead is able to make use of actual locations. This helps to give the film a much more open feel as well as a better sense of the stakes involved. It also eases the burden placed on the sets to support the film which, sadly, don’t really see much improvement as the interior of the Dalek flying saucer is going to look very similar to the Dalek city of the first film. Ultimately, while the exterior scenes serve to elevate the film, the combination of the reused sets and the very clearly B-grade costumes for the Robomen keep this film from ever being mistaken as anything but a B-movie, it’s a pretty solid one and certainly nothing to turn one’s nose up to.
One last note: for Whovians that wonder where the Sonic Screwdriver is during either of these films, as I did on occasion, well, it turns out that it’s not there because it hadn’t been devised yet! The trusty Sonic didn’t emerge in the Doctor’s arsenal until 1968, during the Second Doctor’s tenure. However, as if to foreshadow the Fourth Doctor, Cushing’s Doctor is awfully fond of his relatively bland light blue scarf…
While critically derided at the time and not financially successful enough to warrant continuing the series, I found Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. a much more solid entry than the first film and pretty enjoyable for what it is. The storytelling is more solid with a touch more maturity to it and the overall tone and contents hew a little closer to the source material. While certainly a B-Movie, with a running time under an hour and a half and very little of that being fluff or unnecessary material, it’s a quick, fun little diversion and like its predecessor an interesting tangent to the official Doctor Who canon and timeline. Whovian or neophyte, I’d certainly recommend this interpretation of the good Doctor with this film also meriting a Happy Cat rating!