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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 1966 film Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, starring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who, Roberta Tovey as Susan Who, and Bernard Cribbins as Not-Ian-Chesterton.
On the other hand, if we think back to the actual story this is based on, one of the things we’ll see is that it’s a story that’s trying to be a much later version of Doctor Who than it is, and doing a mixed bag of a job at it. It’s hard to oversell how absolutely essential Terry Nation’s writing is to the style of Doctor Who, but the fact of the matter is that his ideas beat his execution a lot of the time, and that much of the fun of watching The Dalek Invasion of Earth is watching the series start to discover what it is, not watching the series actually succeed – exhibit A on this remains, of course, the spectacularly bewildering plot point of the Daleks planning on flying the Earth around as a space ship, a point that they manage to make even weirder in the movie. On the other hand, exhibit B in the “why The Dalek Invasion of Earth doesn’t quite work” game is probably the Slyther, which, to its credit, the movie omits entirely as one of several fixes David Whitaker applies to Nation’s script in order to shrink it to movie size/make the pacing not mind-wrenchingly excruciating. (As we saw in Season 3, and will see again in Seasons 4, 12, and arguably 17, taking Terry Nation’s concepts and having someone else write them is generally a recipe for success.)
I’m dancing around it a bit, so I may as well come out and say it – almost everything that is well-regarded about The Dalek Invasion of Earth is done better and more memorably by this film. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say most people who have not watched either lately imagine the episodes to be much more like the film when they wax nostalgic about it.
Watching Doctor Who and the Daleks, one got the sense of the TV show being done more competently but with less soul. That doesn’t vanish here, but the fact of the matter is that when the series is flailing about trying to find what it’s good at as much as late Season 3 was, seeing a film that’s at least confident about its strengths is oddly relieving. In some ways, watching the film clarifies just how odd the run from The Ark on has been – a series of experiments often (but not always) with dramatic high and low points, but never a show that felt like it knew what it was doing. That’s going to settle out, though if you set the date where Doctor Who stopped knowing what it was doing at The Ark, we’ve got as many stories ahead before it settles down as we do behind.
But this film is useful, if nothing else, in that it shows us very clearly some things that work in Doctor Who. Things that we’re going to see integrated into the series proper over the next few weeks of entries.
First of all, let’s talk about Peter Cushing. Back in the first film, I observed the way in which he uses the visual space afforded to him in order to characterize the Doctor, using a stooped walk and physical presence to do what Hartnell does with small gestures, and how that lends a cinematic feel to the proceedings. Here he fine-tunes that even more. He drops the stoop slightly, and adds a proper action hero edge to the character that, while short even of the Jon Pertwee era, little yet of a standard action hero, enlivens the action considerably. The eccentric Victorian inventor is still clearly the base, but the character has been reworked into a more viable leading man.
And for two of his three companions, there’s some significant stuff going on as well. Susan Who, as in the first film, is played by child actress Roberta Tovey, and while she can be a bit overly precious, she still works better than Susan Foreman ever did. The dynamic of a child companion is intriguing, and one of the few places where movies may work better than television for Doctor Who. The logistical reality of a child actress on a shoot as grueling as Doctor Who, to say nothing of how many plot problems it would introduce, makes a child companion something of a non-starter in the series (although it is difficult, even as a dedicated Karen Gillan fan, not to wish that the Doctor had come back after five minutes and we’d gotten a seven-year-old Amelia Pond as a companion). But on the screen, it’s a delight, with Susan a satisfying mix of precocious and vulnerable.
And then there’s Bernard Cribbins as Tom Campbell, our Ian Chesterton stand-in. It is, of course, impossible to mention Cribbins without pointing to his later turn as Wilfred Mott, one of the highlights of the David Tennant era. Especially because, as I said in the entry for The Chase, there are clear similarities between Wilf and Ian, so casting Cribbins as an Ian stand-in makes some real sense. Cribbins’ stand-out scene is a lengthy comedic bit in which he, dressed in a Roboman costume, has to try to impersonate the mechanical Robomen and flails about trying to keep in lockstep with them. It’s easy to see this scene as pointless faffing about akin to Roy Castle’s comedic sequence trying to get a door in the Dalek base to stay open last movie. But where the Castle scene was just broad slapstick, Cribbins gets a scene with some real tension underneath it. Yes, Cribbins is doing some physical comedy here (and he’s great at it), but there’s a genuine tension underlying the scene. It may be funny, but it’s funny played out over a backdrop of immediate danger – every comedic fumble Cribbins makes is also a direct threat to his life. One thing that makes the Hartnell era of Doctor Who harder to watch for a fan of any later era is that theres markedly less comedy in it, and the comedy that is there is generally based more on broad concepts than on specific “gags.” This scene is very much a template for the sort of humor that does come in later, and much as I love the Hartnell era, I confess, this scene was a welcome omen of the future.
There’s also the Daleks, who are effective in a way they aren’t necessarily on television. Part of this, to be frank, is that there are six of them and they can be used in action sequences, with explosions, at night. Yeah, the show isn’t going to come close to that for decades. But the point is less that the Daleks are terrifyingly effective like this than that the movie highlights the importance of getting a set piece to work well. We’ll see some startlingly good ones in both The Tenth Planet and Power of the Daleks in which the show thinks about what it can manage and does that effectively – in a way that highlights the degree to which maybe having Daleks overruning London was a bit much for them. (The flip side of that night shoot is that the iconic shots running around London are replaced with some very generic cityscapes, and the action focuses heavily on the countryside. Of course, as soon as the UNIT era begins, we’ll get lots of stories in which aliens invade everything in England they possibly can except for London itself.) Even if the story falls down here for its excessive reliance on action sequences, the movie is a sobering reminder that a good spectacle goes a long way. (See also the glam rock Daleks, two years too early and still just as fabulous as last time.)
The last thing we should note is something we didn’t talk much about in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and I should hat-tip once again to Wood and Miles’s About Time, available from finer Amazon Associates widgets everywhere. The normal brief on The Dalek Invasion of Earth and thus this film is that it’s about the Blitz. But Miles and Wood compellingly argue that the story is best read as part of the “tear it down and rebuild” fervor of the youth culture in Britain. In other words, for all the darkness of the premise, this story, as with the television version, has a real sense of hope about the future. Yes, we might be slaughtered by Daleks, but we’ll rise up, overcome them, and build something better. (A sense that is heightened by the Doctor talking about “mother Earth” and sounding positively eco-friendly and Gaia-hypothesis when he does it) Which is perhaps the big thing – Doctor Who works very well when it balances a scary universe with a genuine sense of optimism. The movie, for all its faults, captures that well, and that alone makes it a major influence on where the show is about to go.