Doctor Who is incredibly popular now, as evidenced by all the posts about it I do, but in the 1960s, it was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. There was a mania, my friends: a Dalek Mania. After the very first appearance of the homicidal paranoid salt-shakers, the UK exploded in a wave of EX-TER-MIN-ATion. The writer and “creator” of the Daleks, Terry Nation, was eager to capitalize on the breakout success of his bad guys, and so sold the film rights to his first story, which became 1965’s Dr. Who and the Daleks, starring Peter Cushing as Earth inventor Dr. Who (whose first name in my head is Jehoshaphat), who built a time machine out of a police box. This was popular enough to warrant a sequel, based on Nation’s second Dalek story, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and so the following year Cushing was back for the last time as Dr. Who in Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., a movie that is miles better than the first one, but still cuckoo bonkers.
The basic plot is thus: young policeman Tom Campbell, played by future grandpa/companion Bernard Cribbins, a character not in the original TV story (they changed him from Ian), is attempting to foil a jewelry heist. He doesn’t do the best job, however, and soon runs for backup in the form of a blue police box that happens to be sitting on the city street. He enters and sees that it is not indeed a box for policing, but it is, in fact, a time machine which is bigger on the inside, though not AS bigger on the inside as the TV show version. There he sees the dotty but brilliant and stout-hearted Dr. Who (Cushing), his granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey), and niece Louise (Jill Curzon). Tom faints and Dr. Who, needing the story to start, just up and moves Tardis (the name of the ship, not an acronym for anything) somewhere, to London in the year 2150.
As they look around the ruined, seemingly deserted city, they are soon set upon by Dr. Who’s former nemeses, the Daleks, who have a stranglehold on the planet Earth and are enslaving humans for use in a secret mining operation in the countryside. The Daleks have also begun changing humans into “Robomen,” or weird sort of cheap-looking brainwashed soldiers who do the dirty work of the ones who can’t climb steps yet. Soon, the heroes meet up with some of human resistance, including the young, brash David (Ray Brooks), the grizzled veteran Wyler (Andrew Keir), and the wheelchair-bound ringleader Wells (Roger Avon). People get captured, escape, get re-captured, strike out in pairs, and eventually regroup at the mine where they have to stop the Daleks’ evil plan once and for all.
It was inevitable that the success of the Daleks on TV would produce films, especially with Nation doing his damndest to spin them off into their own series on American television. The problem, of course, is that the Daleks don’t really work without the Doctor. They aren’t like Dracula who is a villain but is compelling and complex enough to carry his own story; they need the hero to actualize their potentiality, as that dumb saying goes. For these films, writer-producer Milton Subotsky adapted Nation’s TV scripts and got a little extra help from Who’s script editor David Whitaker, who would go on to write Patrick Troughton’s two Dalek encounters (“Power of the Daleks” and “Evil of the Daleks.”). Subotsky, who was one of the men behind Amicus Films, a competitor of Hammer, was very smart in casting Peter Cushing as his non-canonical version of the lead, Dr. Jehoshaphat Who. Cushing gives the character enough gravitas and is immediately heroic enough, even in his sillier (and more likeable, it must be said) big screen version, that we buy him right away. He shares a lot of the protagonist duties in this film with Cribbins and Keir, the way they would have in the television stories, but by the end of the thing, you know you’ve been watching a Peter Cushing movie.
As with its predecessor, Daleks’ Invasion Earth – 2150 A.D. ups the comedy ratio by giving its secondary lead character, Officer Tom in this case, some slapstick stuff to do. He pretends to be a Roboman to infiltrate the Daleks’ ship and ultimately save Louise. In one extended sequence, he tries to blend in with Robomen marching in formation, sitting in rows, and eating health pellets. Hilarity ensues, of course, which is all well and good, but this story is much darker in tone than Dr. Who and the Daleks had been, and the allegories to the Nazi regime and the London Blitz haven’t been dulled down very much from the teleplay. There is still a lot of death and fear, which makes the scenes of broad comedy stick out rather a lot, unfavorably. They’re played and even staged well on their own, but in relation to the rest of film, they’re sour notes.
The other downside of the movie is its length. The original TV story was six parts, clocking in to a total of about 147 minutes. This is crammed into a brisk 84-minute movie that tries to have both action sequences and comedic pieces. It really flies by, and with all the characters in it, no one really gets to take center stage. Dr. Who goes off with David for a lot of it, Susan (who is a child in this, as opposed to a teenager) travels with Wyler, and Tom and Louise go together. So, everybody’s got a partner and their own adventures on the road to the third act, but there’s almost no character development. In fact, the only intro we get to our four main characters is in that brief scene in Tardis at the beginning. “I’m Dr. Who, these are who these young ladies are, this is a time machine, let’s start the plot.”
Despite these things, what really makes this work are the action and design. This film, as with the previous one, was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who really does construct exciting spectacle on a miniscule budget. There’s a sequence where Wyler and Susan flee the city in a van and have to dodge or hit Daleks on their way. It’s excellent! Things go flying everywhere. The finale consists of Dr. Who and Tom tricking the Daleks, which results in all the angry tanks getting magnetically pulled into the mine. Tons of multi-colored Daleks go careening through walls and down holes, and it’s a joy. There’s also a really great model Dalek spaceship, which does at times look like something out of Thunderbirds, but it’s still great fun and very well made. Give me a model over CGI any day.
Ultimately, Daleks’ Invasion Earth – 2150 A.D. is just a bit of fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. That doesn’t, however, mean there aren’t some excellent set pieces or performances, specifically from Cushing, Cribbins, and Who-veteran Philip Madoc in his brief role as a shady secrets-trader. And, it has to be said, Gordon Flemyng does an infinitely more interesting job in his direction of this movie than did television director Richard Martin. To be honest, I’d rather watch this movie than the TV story. Yes, blasphemy, bad fan, run me out of town, etc. etc. If you’re at all interested in the Peter Cushing Dr. Who movies, the first, Dr. Who and the Daleks is on Hulu, though the second one is only legally available on some fairly low-rent DVD versions. Both got a Blu-ray release in the UK, though, so maybe we will too.