Peter Cushing seems like the perfect person to play the Doctor. He was and is an icon of genre film. The supremely talented British actor portrayed some of horror literature’s best-loved heroes and most feared villains: Sherlock Holmes; Professor Van Helsing; Dr. Frankenstein; Winston Smith in 1984; Grand Moff Tarkin. Why shouldn’t he get to play one of Britain’s most iconic modern-day heroes? And he did, in pair of movies in 1965 and 1966. To a lot of people, however, Cushing’s Dr. Who (yes, that’s his name) isn’t the character, and thus not worth remembering. But, with those movies out on glorious Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, it’s time we give Dr. Who the respect, or at least the understanding, he deserves.
For the sake of pedantry, I need to point out that, technically, these aren’t Doctor Who movies; they’re Dalek movies. After their debut in December of 1963, the trundling, eye stalk-sporting death machines created something of a mania. Their creator, writer Terry Nation, had the rights to the creatures and the stories he wrote for Doctor Who, and he was doing everything he could to make the Daleks a global phenomenon as well as a British one.
As such, Nation sold the film rights to his first two Dalek TV serials to American ex-pat producer Milton Subotsky who, along with his partner Max J. Rosenberg, were excited to make big spectacle science fiction films… for kids. Subotsky, who adapted the scripts himself, saw the huge marketing potential for kids to see the Daleks in full-color, widescreen adventures. And to get a star like Peter Cushing to play the hero was something of a coup too.
But the devil’s in the details, and though Subotsky adapted the seven-part serial “The Daleks” into the 82-minute feature Dr. Who and the Daleks surprisingly faithfully, the differences are pretty profound. The biggest difference is that the movies didn’t (and couldn’t, legally) adapt anything that wasn’t in Nation’s scripts. Subotsky also needed to make the premise easy to relay for audiences who might never have seen Doctor Who on TV.
So this necessitated a quick change to the characters: the Doctor was no longer an alien, instead he was a doddering Earth inventor name Dr. Who. The time machine, though still a police box and still somehow bigger on the inside, was no longer the TARDIS, an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space; now it was just a vessel named Tardis, which is objectively stupid without the acronym. Rather than a teenager, his granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) was a child. And grown up school teachers Barbara and Ian are now Dr. Who’s twenty-something other granddaughter (Jennie Linden) and her bumbling, befuddled new boyfriend (Roy Castle).
When William Hartnell played the Doctor (which he was still doing in 1965 when the first movie came out), he was in his mid-to-late 50s, playing older via a wig and disposition. Cushing was only five years younger than Hartnell in life, but always seemed much younger. So in order for him to play Dr. Who, he plays up the avuncular elderly man aspect and, since it’s a movie aimed squarely at children, gone is any icy edge from the character. Dr. Who is fun where Hartnell’s Doctor is somewhat dangerous.
Which is so funny to think about, given that Nation’s scripts for “The Daleks” and especially “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” seven and six episodes, respectively, are supremely dour. The Daleks are the result of chemical warfare and genetic experimentation. In the first story, they’re confined to their metallic city, plotting their revenge against the now-docile Thals who defeated them eons ago. In the later story, Nation shored up a direct comparison to the Nazis.
Dr. Who and the Daleks is a sumptuous, colorful romp. The Daleks, no loner confined to small black-and-white televisions, were larger, with bright reds, blues, and golds adorning their familiar frame. The jungles and ruins of the planet of Skaro were similarly lush (well “lush” in a studio setting) and the Daleks’ city was positively ornate. Director Gordon Flemyng made the story look as cinematic as it could, even if large portions of the story, written for TV, are deliberately small.
The sequel, released a year later, is in most respects a better movie. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. finds Dr. Who and Susan, now with his twenty-something niece Louise (Jill Curzon), traveling to Earth’s future with Police Constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) who accidentally enters Tardis thinking it’s an actual police telephone box. Go figure. When they arrive, they find a London completely ransacked. The Daleks have taken over the planet, turned the dead into mind-controlled Robomen, and are working to round up the remnants of resistance while mining the Earth’s core.
Where Dr. Who and the Daleks was a thoroughly alien plot—the Thals are weird, blonde pacifists who dress like Disney’s Peter Pan—Daleks’ Invasion feels supremely Earthly. Though nominally set in the future, it feels distinctly 1960s. There’s no escaping the WWII connections, and most of the threats in the second half of the film are humans willing to sell out our disparate groups of heroes to the Daleks for a little bit of food or preferential treatment. It’s all for naught, of course; the Daleks don’t care about humanity.
Which brings us to the Dr. Who-ness of it all. These movies were made at a time when the Doctor on TV was only ever William Hartnell, from scripts written before he was the forthright hero of the masses, instead a complex and often self-serving adventurer who would do anything to protect his granddaughter and himself. But Cushing’s version of the character, though much more comical, is the upstanding hero. You never once get the feeling that he’s anything but 100% forthright and upstanding in the face of danger. And truly, who better to face off against the Daleks on the big screen than Peter MFing Cushing?!
And Cushing’s portrayal may be much more influential than we realize. He’s much different from William Hartnell even with Hartnell-era stories, and that’s the point. No one had ever played the Doctor except Hartnell; Cushing is not doing a Hartnell impression, he’s doing his own distinct take on the material. He proved that you could replace the actor and play him differently and still be Dr. Who. The second Dalek movie came out in August ’66, and Patrick Troughton took over for Hartnell in November that same year. Would the producers have even thought they could replace the Doctor if not for Cushing?
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray editions of both movies contain a brand new audio commentary that is maybe the best Doctor Who value-added material in forever. It features film historian, author and critic Kim Newman leading the discussion along with Rob Shearman and Mark Gatiss, both enormous Who fans and writers who wrote Dalek stories in the new series. You’ll definitely want to listen to both back to back.
One of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever heard is on one of these tracks, and it absolutely pertains to Doctor Who fandom, and geek fandom in general. Shearman says when we’re children, we just like things. It’s only when we’re older that we overthink the things we liked, are embarrassed of liking childish things, and demand that our passions age-up with us. This is why Batman went from comedic in the ’60s to gritty and violent in the ’80s; the kids grew up and demanded Batman grow up too.
The Peter Cushing Dr. Who movies aren’t “cool,” and yes they aren’t in-continuity or mythology of the series. But Cushing is an excellent Doctor, Time Lord or otherwise, and these movies are big and fun and full of delightful ’60s spectacle, humor, and heart. I’m not going to be ashamed for liking them anymore, and neither should you!
Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. are both available on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber.
Featured Image: AARU Productions
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