Friday, 7 June 2013


In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess: I am not a science fiction buff, and I have never seen an episode of Dr. Who in its entirety.  I am also approaching these two films, clearly aimed at juvenile audiences, from the perspective of a somewhat cynical and adult perspective.  In short, I am not the “ideal” audience for these two pictures – but given that reviews should encompass all varying points of view, hopefully my perspective will not seem invalid.

Having dispensed with that, let us get down to brass tacks.  Dr. Who made a tremendous splash on UK audiences in the 1960s, initially with the distinguished actor William Hartnell cast in the title role.  The show was low on budget but big on ideas, and like so many programs of its era, it was in black and white.  When producer Joe Vigoda decided the time might be right to bring the good doctor to cinema screens, he knew it would be necessary to sweeten the pot by adding color – and widescreen photography.  Given that Hartnell’s name was unknown outside of the UK – and given that much could be said for the character of Dr. Who himself, who had yet to mushroom into an international “brand name” of sorts – it was decided that it would have to be sold on the basis of a bigger box office draw.  Vigoda was affiliated with producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, the heads of Amicus Productions in the UK , and so the casting of Peter Cushing in the lead seemed a master stroke.

Cushing was already an established name on both side of “the pond,” and his presence would help to ensure that audiences would respond to the concept.  Screenwriting chores inevitably fell to Subotsky, a process expedited by the fact that Terry Nation, who created the series, was unavailable.  In addition to watering the material down so that it would be more suitable for the matinee crowd, Subotsky also altered the character of Dr. Who himself – in the series, he was an alien and a Time Lord, whereas in the film he’s a kindly old duffer and most definitely human.  The changes put Cushing firmly in “kooky old man” mode, which hardly shows him at his best.

The first of the film films, Dr. Who and the Daleks, was released in 1965 – with much of the same technical personnel carried over from another, vastly superior, Cushing-Amicus vehicle: The Skull.  The story deals with Dr. Who’s invention of a time travel device known as TARDIS, which enables one to be transported to any time frame, past or present, anywhere in the universe.  The plot is set in motion when the beau (Roy Castle, wearing thin early on and getting more and more irritating as the story unfolds) of Dr. Who’s granddaughter (Jennie Linden, previously terrorized in Hammer’s Nightmare, 1963) accidentally triggers the device, thus transporting them all – including Dr. Who’s younger granddaughter (Roberta Tovey) – to a remote future, wherein the world has been reduced to ashes and is lorded over by the power-hungry Daleks, a race of robots.

To his credit, director Gordon Flemyng does a decent job with a laughable screenplay.  The humor is flat and heavy handed, and Cushing’s absent minded professor routine is about as stale as stale can be, but the low budget production has some nice camerawork and is paced at a good clip.  The Techniscope framing is eye catching throughout, and some of the lighting (courtesy of John Wilcox) evokes the ornate, color-drenched aesthetic of Italian genre filmmaker Mario Bava.  Unfortunately, all the technical polish imaginable can only do so much to redeem such a hopelessly hokey enterprise as this.  There is zero suspense, the characters are flat and listless, and the whole thing is so relentlessly pitched at children that it seems virtually impossible for a more mature audience to get much out of it.  Cushing would normally present as something of an oasis in such a situation, but in this instance, even he falters.  To be fair to the actor, he played the character as written by Subotsky – as a sweet natured eccentric.  To be fair to the audience, however, this only serves to make the character tolerable in small doses – and with him at the center of so much of the action, he is ill equipped to fill the role of hero.  The supporting cast includes a number of actors (playing part of a tribe known as the "Thals," who are being oppressed by the power-hungry Daleks) who look embarrassed to be kitted out in ludicrous wigs and heavy eye liner, including Michael Coles, who would later reunite with Cushing on Hammer’s two modern day Dracula adventures: Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

The film opened to withering reviews and big box office, so Amicus wasted no time lining up a sequel.  Cushing returned to play the lead once again, apparently on the understanding that he would only do it if they brought back Roberta Tovey to play his granddaughter.  And thus it came to be, Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 AD would emerge in 1966...

Here, Dr. Who is accompanied by his niece (Jill Curzon), granddaughter (Tovey) and a hapless Scotland Yard bobbie to the year 2150... for no real apparent purpose in particular.  Upon arrival, the group of time travelers discover that London is now a bombed out shell of its former glory, with a group of freedom fighters engaged in a desperate struggle against an alien force... which turns out to be those pesky Daleks.

Unlike many sequels, this one manages to improve upon its predecessor - but given the quality of what came before it, it seems to be more of a case of the filmmakers learning from their mistakes.  Flemyng is again in charge of direction, and again he makes good use of the 'scope format.  The canvas is larger this time, with more exterior shots and more ambitious matte and miniature work; alas, the quality of the FX is highly variable, ranging from the effective (some of the matte work is pretty well done) to the downright laughable (the Dalek spacecraft is plainly supported by strings).  Cushing is allowed to play things a little more low key this time, which is most definitely for the best.  It's still not a characterization that will ever rank among his more distinguished, but at least there isn't quite so much emphasis on his being a slightly dotty old duffer this time around.

The supporting cast is an improvement, as well.  Bernard Cribbins is far more engaging as the outsider roped into the plot compared to Roy Castle in the first film.  Cribbins had previously played opposite Cushing in Hammer's She (1964) and would go on to play the nasty bar man in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972).  Tovey is plucky and engaging as the doctor's brainy grandchild, while Andrew Keir adds plenty of gusto as one of the freedom fighters.  Keir had already effectively subbed for Cushing as the gun toting Father Sandor in the Van Helsing-less Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965) and would later go on to replace the ailing thespian on Hammer's troubled Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971).  Philip Madoc, later to star in the superior British crime series A Mind for Murder, is also in good form as a mercenary whose lust for cash gets the better of him.

On the downside, the film is saddled with a horrendous score by Bill McGuffie.  McGuffie would later add an equally jarring lounge score to the tacky Cushing vehicle Corruption (1967), so clearly he did not make much improvement over time.  The first film had been scored by Malcolm Lockyer - who also provided the music for the Cushing sci-fi items Island of Terror (1965) and Night of the Big Heat (1967) - and his music, though not among his finest efforts, was far better suited to the material.  John Wilcox's classy photography adds as much gloss here as it had in the first film.

Sadly (or fortunately, depending on one's point of view), lighting did not strike twice.  The sequel garnered reviews every bit as dismal, but it failed to repeat the first film's box office performance.  Subotsky and company were ready and willing to push ahead with a third Dr. Who adventure, but it was ultimately decided that it was a case of diminishing returns, to plans to continue with the doctor's adventures were scuttled.  Given that the sequel improved on the first film in so many areas, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the third may have been better still... that's firmly in the realm of supposition, however, as we are left with only two vehicles for Cushing's Dr. Who.

Fans of the series have long dismissed the films for being too far removed from the mythos of the series, while other viewers may have a hard time relating to them on any level.  For matinee audiences of the 1960s, however, these were probably rip roaring entertainment - and Cushing can hardly be faulted for essaying the character as (re)conceived by Subotsky.  Fans of the actor will want to check these films out, and this is much more convenient to do now that they have emerged on DVD and Blu Ray in immaculate condition courtesy of Studio Canal.

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