Shag-a-Dalek, baby!

Posted on April 8, 2013 by Kevin Harley

Categories: General

To celebrate the restorations of two Dr Who feature films, now available for booking on DCP, we invited groovy Who-vian Kevin Harley (The Independent, Total Film) to tell us what he digs about The Doctor.

Dr Who and the Daleks
Groovy alien world, man!

Dr Who and the Daleks (1965)

The title implies otherwise, but the key element in Dr Who and the Dalek’s isn’t Daleks. It’s doors. As the TARDIS doors open and the travellers peer into the psychedelic glow of a random alien planet, the only thing wrong with the picture is that the preceding, Earth-based scenes weren’t shot in black-and-white. “Rather exciting, isn’t it?”, chuckles Peter Cushing’s kindly Dr Who to Roberta Tovey’s young Susan, bridging the age gap on-screen and among fans (age range, seven to 70) who relish that week-in, week-out not in Kansas anymore spirit at Doctor Who’s core: a spirit of any-time, any-place possibility that has thrust the show through 50 years of life.

True, Amicus’s 60’s Dalek movies contain enough deviations from Who lore to give hardened Whovian’s hernias. But they also embrace enough of the source to prove its versatility. Challengers to Hammer, American producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg changed the Doctor (doing some serious eyebrow acting, known quantity Peter Cushing replaced cranky William Hartnell); his name (the Doctor became Dr Who); and his identity from alien to human (he doesn’t say he’s human, though, so insert open door to fan-fic options here: maybe hes just in retirement?). Susan, the Doctors granddaughter, became younger; the TARDIS became just TARDIS; the wum-wa-wum theme tune went; and jaunty humour and pop colours dominate so much, you half expect Austin Powers to burst through a door crying, Shag-a-Dalek, baby!

Yet vital elements remain. Hints of teatime horror include a POV woods chase: yes, it’s The Evil Dead for kids! And that thing creeping out from under a coat… is it… could it be… a claw? The appendage belongs to a Dalek mutation, seen here for the first time in colour. The multi-coloured paint jobs on the casings compromise their uniformity, but the comeback to that criticism isn’t rocket science. Never mind the naff fire-extinguisher gusts (safety regulations) these Dalek’s shoot: don’t they look cool in colour, towering over the invading Thal’s from the peak of the Dalek city? Every home should have one. Every home surely did in 1965, when they were bigger than God, the Beatles and, even, Doctor Who.

The stress on the toy-friendly tyrants reminds us that this is Doctor Who aimed younger than usual: the film is shorter, simpler and more open to marketing tie-ins (Dalek’s in more colours? More toys to collect!) than the seven-part TV story it drew on. But the beauty of Doctor Who is that there’s room for all-comers in the TARDIS, from those who revel in the adventure, to those who see (not too fancifully, as it happens) depths in the storytelling. Then and now, its a benevolent open doorway to the imagination, with no strict door policy on viewers. The new series agrees: notice the way the doors open on the story at the end of the new title sequence, revealed in 2012’s Christmas special. Wherever Doctor Who opens its doors, that’s its home until next week or, in this case, the next movie.

Dr. Who and the Sugar Puffs

Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966)

The success of the first Dalek movie made a sequel a shoe-in. This time, Amicus adapted the TV story The Dalek Invasion of Earth and upped the budget, with the serial offenders of morality ushered to the screen by the fiscal power of cereal. Sugar Puffs sponsored the film, leading to blatant product placement and the fear that the Daleks might at any point threaten to Tell em about the honey, mummy.

Slightly alarming as it is to see Sugar Puffs posters pasted all over a devastated London in Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 AD, that impressively realised capital still helps to sell this superior sequel. London 2150 doesn’t look too far removed from London 1965, but the wrecked buildings (one great stunt sees a character flinging open a door to an empty space where the front of a building used to be) and murky undergrounds (home to a resistant Tube-way army) are ravaged and resonant; especially so, you’d imagine, for audiences of the day. With the Second World War relatively fresh in peoples minds, the political subtexts of Terry Nations creations could not have been more obvious had the Dalek’s romped up a cover of Springtime for Hitler.

But if DIE isn’t subtle, it is fun. High points include the Dalek spaceship docking in Sloane Square; the Dalek’s rounding on a shed in that classic Whovian mix of the alien and the banal; the Dalek-converted Robomen and a submersible Dalek trapping our heroes in a scare sandwich; a Dalek towering over Bernard Cribbin’s, whose cockney copper ably replaces Roy Castles comic relief from the first film; and the way the Dalek’s die.

DIE elevates the Dalek defeat from its predecessor to the level of Dalek death porn, which tells us something about kids special relationship with the rotters: the way that it straddles the fear/fun divide somewhere between the Dalek’s relentless death-rattle intonation and the buzz of seeing them flung down bomb shafts, smashed by speeding vans or otherwise battered. The heroes deliver the smackdown, with the Doctor sorry, Dr Who declaring, There’s always an answer to be found, if you only dig deep enough. Or whack the buggers hard enough.

The film merely died at the box office, sadly. Producers pockets didn’t go deep for a third: where were Rice Krispie’s when they were needed? But the Dalek’s lived on in the TV series, the big-screen redesigns (check out those sexy bumpers) being famously re-used in a story called The Chase. And, you might argue, their big-screen incarnations helped to show how Doctor Who’s MO of simplicity and possibility might last: by embracing the promise of change.

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