You Were Expecting Someone Else? (Dr. Who and the Daleks)


I wonder what the major selling point of this movie was.
You Were Expecting Someone Else is a recurring feature covering non-televised Doctor Who from classic eras, generally more or less in the period where they came out. Today we look at the 1965 film Dr. Who and the Daleks, staring Peter Cushing.

It is August 23, 1965. A month after Doctor Who left television for its summer break, and a little under three weeks until it returns. As it should be, The Beatles have #1 with "Help!" And, in order to fill the sad gap in our lives between July 24th and September 11th, AARU Productions have helpfully released Dr. Who and the Daleks.

More than anything, to understand this we need to back up and look at British culture in the summer of 1965. We've done this to some extent already - we know about Swinging London and the rise of mod and post-mod youth cultures. We know that we're in the midst of a Labor government, and that there's a strong sense of overthrowing the old and putting in the new. We know that the Beatles are big, and that they brought with them a wealth of other bands that, at least temporarily, put the fallen industrial power of Liverpool at the center of the cultural map, second only to London.

We know perhaps less well that the Daleks are massively popular. But they are. The term "Dalekmania" that describes this era is perhaps overstated, if only because it obviously attempts to equate the Daleks with the Beatles. But on the other hand, there is a mass of Dalek merchandise. Little rolly action figures, Dalek play costumes (which are ludicrously valuable today), Dalek board games, and far weirder things like Dalek White Boards to draw on, or Dalek Viewmasters.

The Daleks, then, up to this point sat exactly on the line between Doctor Who's public service duties as a good and proper BBC series and its status as a commercial hit. On one level, Doctor Who was like air. For almost two years straight, it aired faithfully on Saturday evenings as part of a family programming block. You watched it whether you liked it or not. (In fact, the steadily climbing AI figures for the program over its classic run are probably less a product of the show getting better and more a product of the fact that the changing nature of television meant people who didn't like it stopped watching it.) It was clear that a secondary market of people who really liked it existed, because the toys sold, but the show was not "for" that market.

And so the first thing to realize about Dr. Who and the Daleks is that it is the first time Doctor Who was made entirely for fans. Because this was Doctor Who for people who cared about it enough to pay for it. This, more than any other fact about the movie, including that it was in color, is the most important thing about it.

Thought of this way, one of the most striking things about the movie is how much it changes, given the modern day obsessions of fandom whereby failure to completely and slavishly adhere to everything that has ever gone before is cause for extensive denunciation. Most obviously, of course, the Doctor has become Dr. Who. This is explicit - he is repeatedly referred to as such. (Presumably, then, his daughters are Susan Who and Barbara Who [Yes, Barbara is his daughter now], which possibly explains Barbara's eagerness to find a mate - so she can get a proper last name.) Equally significant, however, is the fact that Dr. Who is a human inventor. We'll talk about the former more in a later entry, but for now I want to focus on this other change to the Doctor's origin.

Of course, calling it a change is slightly off-target. In the original version of An Unearthly Child - the unaired pilot - the Doctor was a futuristic human inventor and not an alien. And even after that got changed, Doctor Who stories well into the second season presume that the Doctor built the TARDIS himself and that it is one of a kind - it's not until the Monk shows up at the end of the second season that this notion gets overthrown. And so this change is not so much a violation of what's on television as a return to the mean.

Which is unsurprising. It is not as though this movie was made with no attention being paid to the TV series. Some of its Daleks were lent to the TV series for The Chase, and when Terry Nation was unavailable to adapt his script to film they turned to David Whitaker for an uncredited rewrite. So the writers, at least, were familiar with what Doctor Who was. And remember, the Doctor's alien origin is, at this point in the series, an ambiguous signifier. The Daleks were still treating him as human in The Chase, and although the Doctor has a home, that home is thus far defined as little more than the place he cannot go. The Doctor and the Monk we saw a month ago were merely not of this Earth, not Time Lords as such, and any attempt to read them otherwise is a retcon. (Not invalid - just a retcon.)

So the change to make him a human inventor is not as drastic a change as it seems, given that his original design is much closer to human inventor than to immortal Time Lord. But where this fact really comes into its interpretive own is when it's combined with thinking about the movie as being in color.

Well, colour if we're localizing properly.

In any case, a quick glance at the movie poster up ahead gives you a very clear sense of what the movie's selling points are. In ranked order:

  1. Daleks
  2. Colour
  3. Dr. Who
We've talked a bit about Doctor Who as pop spectacle, and this is the embodiment of it. The use of color is not about realism, but about spectacle. Which is why Skaro is, in this film, a technicolor monument to retrofuturism, complete with lava lamps. And the fact of the matter is, once you see Daleks with lava lamps, there's no going back. I guarantee it. Even if you go watch Genesis of the Daleks, with the most explicit Nazi Germany version of Skaro ever seen, you'll find yourself going "Hm, maybe if there were a lava lamp or two..." 

This film is also where the dominant visual look of the Daleks comes from. If you're wondering why the New Paradigm Daleks introduced in Victory of the Daleks look the way they do, scroll up and look at the poster again. This is where that idea came from. And since, ironically, this "for fans" version of Doctor Who has had more re-airings on television than any actual episode of Doctor Who, these technicolor Daleks are actually the most iconic image of the Daleks around. Which is part of why fans (who have, by now, mostly rejected the Cushing films as non-canonical fluff) are considerably grumpier about the Dalek redesign than normal people. 

(In fact, the number of things that Moffat's Doctor Who clearly borrows from this movie is kind of stunning. The gleaming blue TARDIS? That's from the movie - the TV ones were always much duller and older-looking. The TARDIS interior made up of cobbled together objects? Check. And look at Peter Cushing's delivery of "We could be anywhere in time and space, which is rather exciting" and ask yourself if Matt Smith would change a single thing about that delivery if he were playing the role.)

But there's one more very significant thing to note about the intensely visual style of the film, and it's what connects the Dr. Who as doddering inventor to the rest of the film. Consider, for a moment, the opening shot of the film - a pan across Dr. Who's living room. Susan and Barbara Who are reading serious works of science. Then we get to Dr. Who, who is reading a Dan Dare comic.

At some point I'll have to do a Pop Between Realities, Home In Time for Tea on Dan Dare, but for now all you really need to know is that Dan Dare was an enormously popular comic character in the classic pulp tradition. This tradition, if you extend it back, eventually gets you to the Victorian adventurer. Consider the Jules Verne or H.G. Wells style hero, perhaps most obviously in the protagonist of The Time Machine. So this is actually part of his characterization as an eccentric inventor in the Victorian tradition. It's clear from the moment we see him and realize he's Dr. Who that he is a skilled scientist. So his choice of reading material is not a comment on his lack of commitment to science, but rather a comment that he is so well-versed in science that he can move on to the next stage of a man's life, adventure. 

Why is this significant? Because the TARDIS console is a cobbled together bunch of machines. Much like, as I said, the TARDIS in the current series. We can see here that this view of the TARDIS has its roots in 1960s memories of the tradition of the Victorian inventor. Now, when you do things like that and then create a TARDIS full of gleaming metal and levers and cobbled together wires in 2010, everybody knows what to call it. In 1965, there wasn't a word for it, or a visual aesthetic. But make no mistake - this film is where the basic roots of Doctor Who as steampunk come from. Even if the film lacked the visual vocabulary to go full-out steampunk, and even if it opts for a bit of a blend between 1960s and Victorian aesthetics, this is clearly where the image of the Doctor as an old-fashioned Victorian inventor has its first major appearance. 

The other thing to happen in this film, visually, is Peter Cushing's performance. Cushing plays, basically, a prettied up version of the Hartnell Doctor - all of the wandering eccentricity, none of the snappish irritability. But what's most interesting about Cushing's portrayal is that he turns the part into a broad character performance. Cushing always walks with stooped legs, giving him an artificial gait and visual style. And because he's acting on a much larger movie screen, where Hartnell had to characterize his Doctor via smaller hand gestures, Cushing can characterize Dr. Who via broad motion that takes up the whole screen. 

Over time, however, television has become much more cinematic in this regard. This is much of why, in 1980, the change was made to give the Doctor something much closer to a costume than the mere clothing style he'd had before that point. Because suddenly, on television, you could do what you could always do on film, which is use design to have your main character be recognizable from any angle and visually distinct on the screen at any time. (Moffat, on the DVD commentary for the first episode of Sherlock, talks about outfitting Sherlock with his "hero coat" and about this exact visual issue) And though Cushing is doing it here via physical acting and not costume, the basic point remains - this performance exemplifies a certain approach to playing the Doctor in which he is not just the hero because of any character traits he has, but because the entire visual logic and structure of the show is designed to highlight him as the hero. Dr. Who is not the mythic hero because of years of past stories in which we know the character, nor is he the mythic hero just because someone says so. He's the mythic hero because he has his own set of visual iconography and signifiers that means that whenever he is on screen, the film highlights this fact. When it comes to how the film is put together, the world really does revolve around him.

Unfortunately, the companions suffer badly from the elevation of Dr. Who and the Daleks into being mythic forces in the visual logic of the film. Ian is reduced to a pure comic relief character. Barbara makes no sense and has no meaningful role. Her most iconic contribution to the original TV story - being the person menaced by the unseen advancing Dalek - is removed. She screams at some unseen threat, but we see nothing of the Daleks, with their appearance instead being held off until Dr. Who can meet them. (This shot is impressive, taking place in a room shot to feel constrained. Eventually the camera is positioned in close to Dr. Who, Ian, and Susan Who. As they turn to see the Daleks, the camera pulls back quickly, and the Daleks have filled the space we had been led to marginalize in our conception of the shot. Again, this heightens the degree to which the Daleks and Dr. Who are both mythic forces in the film - every shot, to a real extent, is centered around them.)

Susan, ironically, is the one character to fare pretty well in all of this. The casting of a 12-year-old girl who plays her even younger goes a long way here, because it removes the Problem of Susan entirely and, by making her the small child in every shot and precocious every time she speaks, gives her a sense of the mythic that, while far less than that of the Daleks or Dr. Who, is still bigger than that of any other humanoid character.

The Thals suffer less, not because the film is terribly interested in them - it's not - but because they're dressed as sparkling proto-Ziggy Stardusts seven years too early. This does clear up the creepy racism of their first appearance, but it's no less distancing.

On the whole, though, the film feels sharper than the television serial. It's not just the bright colors and simplified characters. It's that the film moves along at a much nicer pace. It's about half as long as The Daleks itself was, and this reveals just how much padding there was in the original story. Now to be fair, this is only a partial criticism. The original story is meant to be watched over seven weeks in twenty-five minute chunks. It's not a huge surprise that the story doesn't hold up quite as well when you shotgun it in one nearly three-hour sitting. The movie is meant to be watched in one sitting, and is paced like it. But on the other hand, even within a given section of the story, the movie works at a much faster and more exciting pace. I recognize this as a deeply unpopular view within fandom, but the fact of the matter is that if you sat ten people in front of this and ten people in front of The Daleks and told them they could leave if they got bored, you'd lose audience on The Daleks way, way faster. Dr. Who and the Daleks shows how much better the pacing on Doctor Who could be, and provides an extremely compelling case for why the serialized format is less than ideal for Doctor Who.

And yet despite all this, it's almost impossible to say that the film is better than the TV series on the whole. Part of this is that the increased production values mean that the show loses some of its manic charm. Compare the final fight between Daleks and Thals in the movie - an immaculately choreographed affair - to the fight between Daleks and Mechanoids in The Chase, where the whole thing becomes a blur of superimposed images. Yeah, the movie fight scene looks better. But The Chase's is much more interesting, telling the story of the climactic fight in an unusual way.

But more than that... in the end, the genius of Doctor Who is not the fact that it has Daleks, or anything else. This is one of the things we easily forget when we look at The Daleks today. What made it a classic serial was not just its well-designed monsters. It is a classic serial because it follows three episodes about cavemen with radioactive jungles and robot monsters. What is brilliant about Doctor Who, in other words, is that any two stories are likely to have no connection and, often, not even a common look or feel to them. The point of Doctor Who is not any one story, but the fact that there are so many very different stories.

(The film makes a token effort to accomplish this by landing the TARDIS in an ancient Roman battle at the end, but here the special effects are so bad as to be laughable. The open TARDIS doors are used to project what is obviously stock footage of Romans running, giving the impression that the TARDIS is buried in the ground, as the Romans are clearly running over it. Rather than suggesting new adventures to follow, it mostly suggests that the budget ran out.)

This is why I've never managed to get excited about the constant rumors of a Doctor Who movie. Because even a well done Doctor Who movie - and the fact of the matter is that this is a pretty well done film for what it's trying to be, which is a big action story (and let's face it, that's what The Daleks is trying to be too) - is still only not going to work. Doctor Who can work as audio plays, as television, as DVDs, or as comics quite well. But film, in the end, is just not a medium it's well-suited to. Because what makes Doctor Who brilliant is there's no such thing as the iconic Doctor Who story that captures the feel of the show. The feel of the show is the vertigo when you're pulled from one story to another. Film, focusing as it does on individual stories, can never capture that.


Mr Coxy 9 years, 9 months ago

"But film, in the end, is just not a medium it's well-suited to. Because what makes Doctor Who brilliant is there's no such thing as the iconic Doctor Who story that captures the feel of the show. The feel of the show is the vertigo when you're pulled from one story to another. Film, focusing as it does on individual stories, can never capture that."

Thanks for articulating something that has always bugged me about the idea of a movie. The 1996 TV movie suffered from this too. It attempted to come from somewhere (McCoy) but had nowhere to go from there and had to overload itself with exposition for the new views.

It's not only Doctor Who that has the problem though. Other shows with a sense of continuity share the problem. An X Files movie leaves me cold, but Charlie's Angels makes perfect sense. As you point out, Doctor Who's vertiginous shifts add another layer of strangeness to the idea of a standalone movie.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 9 years, 6 months ago

"The Daleks were still treating him as human in The Chase"

And in "The Sensorites" the Doctor says "we humans."

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William Silvia 7 years, 11 months ago

I'd like to present the argument that you're treating "film" in the manner with which it was during both your and my childhood: something that was designed to stand alone, whereas anything in a serial nature is more at home on television. In the modern era, film is more as it was in the days before home television: that is to say, serial is equally at home in film. Literally the only difference between, say, Sherlock and the average film series is that the audience has more expectation of spectacle and dramatic visuals in film, something which Doctor Who since 2005 has done very well. Add an extra million dollars to the budget of an episode of either of these shows, and it's a film as post-Lord of the Rings, post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight and now post-Avengers audiences have come to understand it.

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TheGhostSquirrels 5 years, 10 months ago

I can think of one film that almost captures the Dr Who experience you describe, Time Bandits. In its romp from one tale to the next, with almost no connecting theme, at least until the latter parts of the film, it has the feel of a season of Dr Who compressed into a single film.

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