In the realm of quintessentially British pop culture staples, few have quite the sheer amount of content as Doctor Who. For over fifty years, the escapades of the time-traveling Doctor and his many companions have delighted audiences the world over, spanning countless serials, TV episodes, audio dramas, comic books, and novels. Unfortunately, when it comes to cinema, the good Doctor is a lot less prolific.
Despite many, many studio attempts (covered in the wonderful Now on the Big Screen by Charles Norton), only three adaptations of Doctor Who ever made it to film. The Canadian TV movie Doctor Who in the ’90s, starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor, is commonly agreed to be a weak oddity, but that’s not what this article is about. Because in the mid-60s, the British horror studio Amicus Pictures got Peter Cushing, one of the greatest horror actors ever, to step in front of the camera for two family-friendly Doctor Who films. And they were quite odd.
Released in 1965 and directed by Gordon Flemyng, Dr. Who and the Daleks is a Doctor Who film that doesn’t seem to know much about Doctor Who. Peter Cushing stars as the kindly Doctor Who, a human scientist who has invented TARDIS, a time machine disguised as a police box that’s bigger on the inside. If you’re even remotely familiar with the premise of Doctor Who, you may have noticed quite a few odd/straight-up-wrong details about the Doctor’s character in there, and this is a trend that will continue for the entire film. Honestly, Dr. Who and the Daleks is best enjoyed if entirely divorced from the lore of its source material, and instead seen for what it is: a Doctor Who adaptation with a very, very different Doctor.
Even with an entirely different setup to any iteration of the series, Dr. Who and the Daleks still captures the spirit of classic Doctor Who. Doctor Who lives with his two granddaughters; the young Susan Who (Roberta Tovey), and her older sister, Barbara (Jennie Linden). Barbara has invited her new boyfriend over, the mild-mannered and slightly dim-witted Ian (Roy Castle), and one series of kooky misunderstandings later, the four have stumbled into TARDIS and traveled to another world. The setup comes at a rapid pace, and before you can get a good grasp for any of the characters, they’re already walking through a petrified forest on the alien world of Skaro.
Not that there’s a ton to the characters anyways. Doctor Who is easily the most memorable of the bunch, although that has more to do with Peter Cushing than the script. Cushing, who’s most famous for playing either madmen or monster hunters, does a phenomenal job playing the kindly old grandfather here, dispersing wisdom and whimsy in equal measure. It also helps that in a film filled with comedic asides of varying degrees, the Doctor Who-centric jokes always land best, with the visual gag that introduces his character easily being the funniest moment of the whole film.
Still, while the other cast members aren’t quite on the level of Cushing, they’re never outright grating like many retro sci-fi sidekicks. Ian, while full of stupid comic antics and a persona more needlessly cowardly than his small-screen version, at least furthers the plot, and Susan shares Doctor Who’s same infectious sense of wonder while exploring Skaro. Unfortunately, this leaves Barbara as a sort of fourth wheel, a character with so little focus that she doesn’t add much to the film, but she doesn’t really detract from it, either.
Once on Skaro, the story proves to be a fairly faithful recreation of The Daleks, the second serial of Doctor Who’s first season and the first appearance of the iconic extraterrestrials known as Daleks. The crew ends up exploring a seemingly abandoned high-tech city that’s run by the evil Daleks. Like the rest of the film’s locations, the city sets fluctuate between being amazing and terrible with clunky wooden structures and an abundance of reflective surfaces. They are, at the very least, extremely colorful, and John Wilcox’s otherwise-middling cinematography does a great job at displaying just how interesting and alien the sets are.
Of course, the real star of the Dalek city are the Daleks themselves, who cause trouble for Doctor Who and his companions from the moment they appear. Much like The Doctor (referred to in the film as Dr. Who), the Daleks have gone through a few changes of their own. While they still look like souped-up trash cans and speak in robotic whines, their “plungers” have been replaced with claws, and they now shoot painful mist from their blasters instead of lasers. They’re also, as it turns out, a big fan of exposition—for some odd reason the Daleks deliver large exposition dumps throughout the movie, and while their distinct voice may be fine for brief exchanges or vague threats, it becomes unbearable when they’re delivering large chunks of plot-critical information.
The majority of the film from first contact onward is either spent in the Dalek home city or the petrified forest and its surrounding caverns, where the pacifist Thals live in peace, unaware of the Dalek plot to exterminate them. The Thals, while instrumental in both fighting the Daleks and communicating the film’s firmly anti-fascist message (the Daleks are perhaps even more blatant Nazi metaphors than even Star Wars’ empire), add little to the characters’ dilemma, and lack any distinctive characteristics besides “peaceful and subjugated.”
There’s no way around it, Dr. Who and the Daleks is a bad movie. Besides Cushing, the soundtrack, and the Daleks’ production design, there’s very little I can point to and say is genuinely all that good. But it doesn’t matter, because Dr. Who and the Daleks is just too much to hate. It’s fun to watch Peter Cushing commit to being the kindest old man he can be as Doctor Who. It’s fun to see the cast traverse oddly lit sound stages filled with strange architecture and oddly colored lighting. It’s fun to see the heroes and Daleks fight it out, complete with exploding Dalek shells and wrecked sets. When you get down to it, Dr. Who and the Daleks is not very good, but it’s certainly a very good time.
A year after Dr. Who and the Daleks hit screens, Amicus put out Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (here on referred to as Daleks: 2150 A.D.), yet another Flemyng-helmed, Cushing-led adaptation of a Daleks serial. This time, the source material is The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the second appearance of the Daleks in the TV series.
Of course, much like its predecessor, there are a few notable differences. Ian is out as the audience surrogate, and in his place is the hapless police officer Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins)—basically the same character, just with significantly less comic antics. Also out is Barbara, who is now replaced with Louise Who (Jill Curzon), Doctor Who’s niece. Once more, the opening exists only to set up the characters in the broadest strokes possible, and as soon as everyone’s introduced, it’s off to the main plot!
After Tom has stumbled into TARDIS, Doctor Who sends the gang to London in 2150 A.D., only to find the city reduced to nothing more than eerie, bombed-out ruins. From the second the group arrives in London, it’s clear that the production values for Daleks: 2150 A.D. are a huge step up from the first film. Sets are sprawling and cluttered with rubble, and cinematographer John Wilcox gets to show them off with some lengthy, sweeping tracking shots that outshine any of the prior film’s camerawork.
Almost instantly, the party is split, with the women stumbling across a raggedy group of human resistance fighters, while Doctor Who and Tom run straight into the army they’re fighting off, Robomen (not to be confused with the much more iconic and interesting Cybermen)—black-clad, brainwashed humans working for an unseen invading force that has enslaved the majority of surviving humans.
Of course, it only takes a single scene for the invaders to be revealed as the Daleks. While the Daleks were blatantly modeled after Nazis in Dr. Who and the Daleks, Daleks: 2150 A.D. is jaw-droppingly on the nose with it its allegory. The Daleks have bombed out London, they’ve built concentration camps in the hills, and the human resistance, while all British, may as well be called La Résistance. While a good majority of sci-fi media models their villainous armies after the Nazis, Daleks: 2150 A.D. comes dangerously close to just being a sci-fi World War II film.
Unfortunately, the Daleks’ crushingly evil presence is lessened by how the Amicus Daleks function. Thanks to the fact that their lasers have been replaced with some ambiguously harmful mist, they can be a tad hard to take seriously during one of the film’s many skirmishes between the aliens and the human resistance, where the Daleks are completely unable to harm anyone that isn’t within eight feet of them. Sure, the Robomen are equipped with laser cannons, but it’s not a good look when the cannon fodder are hundreds of times more threatening than the “muscle” of the villainous force.
Also not helping matters is their deliriously stupid plan, which I dare not spoil, that gets gradually revealed over the course of the film. By the time the last act kicks into high gear, the Daleks have gone from a chilling force to be reckoned with to sub-Saturday morning cartoon villains. I don’t have anything against the transformation on principle, but thanks to the fact that the story is that of a multi-hour serial cut down to an hour and twenty minutes, the shift comes so quickly that it feels like an entirely different movie has just been put on. The pace doesn’t just harm the Daleks—the characters don’t fare much better either, being split and reconnected and split again at a pace so breakneck it’s hard to keep track of who is with who and where they might be. Plus, it means entire lengthy segments from the serials have to be cut down to pathetically short beats. How short? At one point, two characters are captured and thrown into a Dalek cell, and in a little less than a minute, they advise and execute an escape and are captured again. This is played deadly straight.
Really, Daleks: 2150 A.D. is the exact opposite of Dr. Who and the Daleks. While the first film had shoddy productions anchored by lovable characters, Daleks: 2150 A.D. is brought down by a shoddy script and performances that lack an ounce of the charm of the preceding film. Even Peter Cushing, who knocked it out of the park as Doctor Who before, feels oddly lifeless, and the companions are close to being completely inconsequential on the greater plot.
Instead, the film hinges on its spectacle, and I must admit, it’s quite effective in that regard. Beyond having better sets, the Daleks are more consistently polished than before, and the model of their mother ship is among the coolest flying saucers I’ve seen in a sci-fi film. On top of that, Daleks: 2150 A.D. features some surprisingly impressive (and lengthy) war scenes, with long shots capturing chaotic firefights between the resistance and the Dalek armies. One could make the argument that making large-scale armed conflict the most enjoyable part of a Doctor Who film would be missing the point, but considering how inept Daleks: 2150 A.D. is at actually capturing the sci-fi wonders of Doctor Who, the technical craft on display during combat must be commended.
Really, neither Doctor Who film released by Amicus can be compared to their source material. Beyond the numerous plot differences, they’re both far too short to be effective sci-fi epics like the serials they’re based on, and instead exist in their own realm of misguided oddities. They’re not good Doctor Who films, and they’re not all that great as sci-fi films either, but as far as low-budget ’60s sci-fi goes, few are as consistently fast-paced and bonkers as the Daleks duology. And nothing else out there features a group of Daleks getting ripped apart by a speeding van. That has to be worth something.