THE HISTORY OF THE DR. WHO FILMS
Dr. Who and the Daleks
Dr. Who: Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
Peter Cushing was perhaps the least likely of actors to take on the mantle of BBC televisions tea time hero, Doctor Who, when the popular Saturday afternoon series made its transition to the big screen in 1965, but nevertheless he did.
He bravely piloted the TARDIS through two battles with the dreaded Daleks, before hanging up his velvet coat, and returned to the screen in his more familiar roles as a horror maestro.
Doctor Who had launched in November 1963 on BBC1, as a six week filler between the football results and the Telegoons. The BBC executives never expected to last, but on the arrival of the Daleks, its future was assured. Five weeks into its run, we glimpsed the stalk of the tin machine for the first time, and the nation was enthralled.
The success of Doctor Who after that, is now well noted in history. It remains the world's longest running science fiction show. It ran for 26 seasons, finishing in 1989 unexpectedly, with returns in 1993 and 1996 on television and 1993 and 1996 on radio. If one includes the spin-off videos, the novels, the stage plays, and the new breed of audio dramas (featuring the original casts), that makes it 37 years this November.
For us today, the time remains firmly in the mid sixties, as Dalekmania sweeps the country. when we allowed our imaginations to run riot. When everything seemed so much simpler. When all our heroes were real.
It was perhaps inevitable, that as the sales of Dalek models, toys, related board-games, a comic and annuals excelled continuously, that a motion picture might be a venture worth following through. Milton Subotsky, head of Hammer's biggest rivals in the horror business at the time, Amicus, would be the one to carry the idea through.
Amicus were still a fairly fresh company at the time. Their films weren’t pure x-rated horror, but more often, tales of fantasy and imagination. Had Hammer themselves taken on the project then the result would have been much more akin to Quatermass in its terror factor. However, with Amicus, what we get is a fantastic tale with the real terror remaining in the Daleks.
British actor William Hartnell had been the incumbent of the title role in the BBC TV series. Hartnell had made a name for himself through type-casting as a hard, tough authority figure in such films as The Sporting Life, Hell Drivers, or The Army Game. In fact it was perhaps for this last TV series that he was best well known. He was the straight man, the sergeant, dealing with a unruly group of layabouts in the likeable Thames TV sitcom. They reprised their characters for what became the first in the Carry On... film series, Carry On Sergeant in 1957. So great was the success of that film, well, I'm sure you know the rest. Needless to say, the last Carry On... was produced in 1992 (and incidentally featured actor Jon Pertwee, who stars with Peter Cushing in The House That Dripped Blood for Amicus in 1972, and was himself the third incumbent of the title role in the Doctor Who TV series).
For William to take on the role of the Doctor was something of a challenge. However he settled into the role right away, and enjoyed the pleasure that he was able to bring to people through the series. He stayed for three years, leaving in 1966 due to ill health, and returning in 1972 for the anniversary special -his last television work before his death in 1975.
Completely against the normal type, the Doctor was a strange grandfather type figure. Warm, and yet strangely sinister, he was a exile from his own people - a renegade. He is a traveler in time and space, an explorer and a paradox. He travels with his granddaughter Susan, who attends the local comprehensive school. As her two teachers Barbara and Ian, stumble upon the TARDIS, cunningly disguised as a Police Box in a junk yard, the Doctor is forced to leave taking them with him. The doctor of the TV series is something of a mischevious old sod. The sneaky grandfather figure that most of us have come across at some stage.
"The difficulty with playing Dr. Who on the screen was that one couldn’t expect everyone in the world to know about him and his TARDIS and the television series. So we decided to play him simply as a professor who has invented this machine which travels through time and space, and I created my own character out of that idea, realising that a lot of people in Britain might be disappointed. Actually, most people weren’t."
For the films, the whole set up needed to be different. Whilst the BBC were getting complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her campaign for morally upright TV, about excessive violence and fear, Subotsky deliberately aimed his films at a family audience. Amicus itself couldn't deliver the cash to finance the features, and so they went into co-production with the backing of British Lion. British Lion insisted that the film was not billed as an Amicus horror, and so the company Aaru was quickly formed.
Peter Cushing was, like William Hartnell, cast against type. Although generally the hero, Peter's long association with Hammer Films had made him something of a horror star -not the sort of name to associate with a family film. The Daleks themselves although much bigger in the film, were censored enough. Originally planned to shoot fire, instead they shot fire extinguishers because it was less frightening.
A capable actor, Peter's doctor, was actually called Dr Who. A real person, rather than an alien visitor, he was an eccentric human, with two granddaughters -the teenage Barbara and the ten year old Susan. An inventor, he had created his time machine TARDIS; and rather than flee, they only arrive on Skaro (home planet of the Daleks) because Ian (Barbara's boyfriend) as accidentally hit the take off lever.
I did not consider myself a fan of the programme, I did watch it when I agreed
to take the part. I decided my Doctor had to be a bit less eccentric and crabby,
and a bit more lively and amusing."
- Peter Cushing
Peter looks at his most bizarre. One finds it hard to believe that it is Peter Cushing underneath the moustache and gray wig at all. At this stage, he was still very fresh faced, and full of life unlike the Peter he became following the death of his wife in 1970 and yet he looks rather aged and mad. Hunched over, he does everything to play up the eccentricity of the grandfather figure, and succeeds admirably.
It is just a shame then that the wig lets him down. Peter was actually only five years younger than William Hartnell, though on-screen the difference looks far greater.
A very different portrayal from Hartnell, for a very different audience. The entire set up is so far moved from the TV series that it is hard at times to see the comparison.
William Hartnell would almost certainly have relished the chance to return to the big screen, and to make the transfer of his character himself, but he was an unknown in the US, whereas Peter had already made a name for himself with his Hammer pictures, and his Amicus feature Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964 (which also stars Roy Castle, the big-screen Ian)
"It was a curious experience taking over Bill
Hartnell’s role while he was playing it on television. Especially as I knew
Bill and I know he would love to have played the Doctor on film.
" It seems a shame Bill isn’t doing the film because he is so good in the part. I remember how I felt when they were casting for the film 1984. I was so keen to repeat my TV role, but they gave it to Edmund O’Brien instead. All part of life’s ups and downs."
Dr Who and the Daleks gave the public its first chance to see the Daleks in colour. It wouldn't be until 1971 that the BBC would actually transmit its first colour Dalek serial, and the plebs queued up around the block to catch a glimpse. Dalekmania (as it is now commonly referred to) had begun.
But with the transfer to the big-screen, the producers were aware of tight censorship and worked closely with the BBFC to ensure they go their "U" certificate. Subotsky explained to reporter Derek Todd on set about the precautions taken with the Daleks: "We were going to have them shooting out flames, but John Trevelyn, the censor, thought children were frightened of flames. So we went to the other extreme and armed them with fire extinguishers".
Director Gordon Flemyng noted "We were definitely going for a ‘U’ certificate, and if it hadn’t received a ‘U’ certificate it wouldn’t have succeeded"
The massive sets and the graceful movements of the Daleks enthralled and scared the children. Peter himself pulls off the Doctor well, and always fondly remembered his time as Dr Who.
As it was, the public couldn't get enough, and Subotsky promptly greenlighted the sequel, Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD, also based on a Dalek serial from the BBC TV show.
Creator of the Daleks and Blake’s 7, Terry Nation (who died in 1997) was paid a mere £500 for an option on his original script and two proposed sequels, with the budget for the original film coming in at £180,000. Shooting took place over six weeks in Shepperton beginning in April 1965, whilst in Riverside Studios the BBC had cast Jean Marsh and Julian Glover alongside the regular BBC cast in The Crusade.
It was released eventually in June 1965 amidst a glorious blaze of publicity (and just as The Chase was finishing a six week run on BBC1 giving an unending supply of Daleks for the summer of ‘65), including all sorts of publicity including a national competition where three film Daleks were given away.
The film had flopped in the US. The series was still unknown there, and it wouldn’t be until the arrival of the Tom Baker stories in the mid seventies that the series would ever leave its mark. Yet, returns were much better than anyone could have hoped for, and no 2 in the Dr Who films was to proceed.
A higher budget and a much cleaner feature, Barabara is replaced, as is Ian, but Peter only agreed to return as Dr Who on the condition that Roberta Tovey return as Susan (well according to Roberta anyway). The film was also famous for being the first real feature to use product placement. A substantial amount of sponsorship was provided by Quaker cereal's Sugar Puffs, and littered throughout the battered landscape of London we see posters strategically placed in shot advertising the wheat cereal.
"I am afraid my memory of that picture is not too clear because I was quite ill during much of the shooting and they had to work around me a good deal. But I did enjoy playing the role because it was a change from all the horror pictures, and made me popular with children, which I was very pleased about. I still believe that Doctor Who as a heroic figure is one of the best parts any actor could play."
Without drawing an in-depth analysis of the film (there is scope for this in other articles and books, and websites), the colour footage of the Daleks on Westminster bridge and in Trafalgar Square is enough to make anyone's blood turn.
2150AD was budgeted this time at £286,000 -which included a £50,000 promotional budget providing a number of TV commercials. Filming began in late January 1966, with the cameras wrapping in March. Peter Cushing’s ill-health caused a great deal of disruption to the film schedule, as Philip Madoc recalled: "It was not an easy film to make because Peter Cushing was ill a lot of the time and the shooting schedules kept getting changed."
By the time the film was playing in cinemas everywhere in August, the receipts were lower than expected.
Peter talked to William Hall on the set of this second
feature, answering criticisms:
"A lot of people have accused me of lowering my standards, but I’ve never felt I’m wasting myself. You have to have a great ego to play Hamlet all the time, and I just haven’t got that ego. Challenge me on this and I’ll say: ‘Well, I’ve kept working.’ and that’s surely the important thing.
"It was not surprise
to me to learn that the first Doctor
Who film came into the top twenty box-office hits last year, despite the
panning the critics gave us. That’s why they’ve done this sequel, and
that’s why they’re spending almost twice as much on this one"
Peter’s Doctor is not to everyone’s liking, but he has a certain character, and Peter always turns in an excellent performance. The faults with his portrayal of the dotty grandfather are probably more to the directorial mistakes. Roy Castle was in awe of the great man:
"I learnt such a lot from him. I remember the way he would take advantage of lighting and things like that. He could keep his eyes in the shade of a light until he made an action he wanted to impress you with. He could lift his eyes, just that much, until the light caught his pale blue eyes. That was very, very striking and impressed me a lot."
A sharp product, Subotsky had hoped to make a Dalek film every year, and The Chase looked set to be the outline for the third feature. Sadly, despite the increased production values, and a superior feature, it would seem that the public had had their fill of the Daleks for now, box office receipts were down noticeably and the plug was pulled on Subotsky's plans.
As the second film was playing the cinemas in August 1966, Patrick Troughton was signing his contract to take over from William Hartnell in the TV series. Troughton himself had appeared with in a number of Hammer films including The Curse of Frankenstein (though his scenes were later cut), The Phantom of the Opera and The Viking Queen. It was whilst shooting the Viking Queen in Ireland that he was offered the role. Small world isn't it.
Actually, Milton always planned to shoot a third film, and retained the rights up until his death. Tom Baker and Ian Marter (who played Harry Sullivan in the TV series) announced their plans for a Doctor Who film in 1976. The idea for Doctor Who Meets Scratchman had been conceived and worked on whilst the pair were holidaying in Italy and director James Hill (later to work on Worzel Gummidge on Southern Television with Jon Pertwee) seems to have agreed. The proposed £500,000 budget couldn’t be raised and plans fell through, despite the intention to have Vincent Price as the villain.
Milton Subotsky tried in vain many times throughout the seventies and eighties to get his third Dalek film made. So far nothing is forthcoming. Unless you count the awful Paul McGann TV movie in 1996. However, a company called Chaos Films Plc now owns the film rights and we may see something yet. After all, Big Finish are now providing full cast authorised audio dramas...