If you thought Sony’s plan to create a viable cinematic franchise based around a popular recurring villain from another franchise with “Venom” was a bold new idea, then I’m here to exterminate your misconceptions with the news that Amicus tried it decades before.
In the early sixties, Amicus’ founders American-born Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg saw an opportunity to steal a march on their Hammer Films rivals and break into the increasingly popular sci-fi market by cashing in on the enormous popularity of the BBC’s “Doctor Who” or rather, the Doctor’s instantly iconic adversaries – The Daleks! For the princely sum of £500, Amicus secured the rights to remake ‘The Daleks’ for the big screen, with an option for two further sequels.
It’s all a far cry from today’s coveted IP situation where director David Yates’ public statement of intent to make a “Doctor Who” movie with separate continuity to the television series was crushed with such brutal finality by then showrunner Steven Moffat that Yates immediately abandoned his plans for a feature film franchise based on an eccentric Englishman who travels around with a box that’s bigger on the inside and fights monsters and made “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” instead.
But back in the swinging sixties, the BBC was still largely ignorant of the important or longevity of “Doctor Who” (as their woeful retention policy attests to) and so the door was open to Amicus to bring the Doctor to a whole new audience. Basing their initial outing on the Daleks’ small screen debut, Subotsky and Rosenberg began their masterplan to break the franchise into the American market. Had they been successful, the entire history of “Doctor Who” could have been very different. Alas, a fundamental lack of understanding of the series unique quirkiness would lead them to focus on the wrong aspects and so the film, while successful in the UK would fail to gain traction in the US, despite the transatlantic appeal of headline star Peter Cushing.
“Doctor Who And The Daleks” starts brightly enough. After the gaudily psychedelic but forgettable opening titles, we’re introduced to the man himself. While his granddaughters conspicuously read advanced physics texts, the Doctor amuses himself by reading “The Eagle” comic book. Deciding that the Doctor simply came with too much expository baggage for a new audience, Amicus jettisoned much of the character’s origin. The Doctor was merely an eccentric human scientist, not an alien, and his ‘companions’ consisted of his granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey), Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Barbara’s boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle). The TARDIS retains its time and space capabilities and, inexplicably given the lack of alien origin, its bigger-on-the-inside Police Box appearance but it’s simply something the Who family have invented.
Apart from these differences, the rest of the movie follows the television serial’s plot fairly closely but despite the technicolour trappings of the big screen, it always feels a very small production. It’s conspicuously studio-bound and while the sets are large, they’re sparse and basic. The interior design of the TARDIS itself is atrocious, a far cry from the wildly imaginative sets the TV series managed and the humanoid cast deliver somewhat flat performances, unlike their bouffant hairstyles.
It’s much more successful with the Daleks, who burst onto the big screen in all the colours of the rainbow and lose little of their menace as they plot to exterminate their mortal enemies, The Thals. Performance-wise, the script gives Cushing very little to work with, and the story keeps him largely side-lined given he’s just a human who has no more knowledge of the situation than his companions instead of the wise and knowledgeable Time Lord he should be. Roberta Tovey makes for a likeable Susan but Jennie Linden is wasted by the bland Barbara and Roy Castle simply irritates with his guileless and unconvincing slapstick.
Successful in the UK where it could leverage the existing fanbase of the TV series, it failed to make much of an impact Stateside – no doubt to the disappointment of Dalek creator Terry Nation who had always nursed the suspicion that his villainous creations were more popular than the series’ title character. Nevertheless, the box office receipts were enough to justify a sequel and Subotsky and Rosenberg pressed on with an adaptation of another Terry Nation story: “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth”.
Peter Cushing and Roberta Tovey both returned to reprise their roles in “Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.”, this time joined by Doctor Who’s niece Louise (Jill Curzon) and unfortunate policeman Tom (Bernard Cribbins). No mention is made of the Doctor’s other granddaughter so we are left to assume that Barbara married Roy Castle’s Ian and settled for a life of tiresome slapstick, tap-dancing and trumpetry.
Many of the production shortcomings which plagued the first movie are addressed here. The TARDIS – while still not a patch on its small-screen counterpart – is much improved and the introduction of location filming brings the whole film a more substantial and authentic feel. Of course, it helps enormously that, quite simply, “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” is a much better story than “The Daleks”. Where the abstract conflict between the Daleks and the face-beaten Thals feels distant and unengaging, “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” brings the Daleks right back down to Earth where their allegorical origins play perfectly into the still-fresh World War II fears of Nazi invasion.
Although famous for one of the series’ most poignant goodbyes as Susan left the TARDIS, the movie can’t quite make the same emotional leap at the end but for the most part it sticks quite closely to the main beats of the Doctor and his friends becoming involved with a resistance movement and eventually defeating the Daleks by inverting the Earth’s magnetic field.
While the production values are much improved by moving the action out of the studio, the story calls for a similar leap forward in the special effects and unfortunately here, Amicus’ reach exceeded their grasp. Then again, the results aren’t too terrible – especially for fans of the TV series who have tolerated far worse while still enjoying their favourite Saturday tea time treat. Not even the budget-boosting deal with Quaker’s Sugar Puffs was enough to fund the special effects although it’s good to know that even in the depths of alien occupation, we’ll still be able to tell ‘em about the honey, mummy.
Although now consigned to a truncated service track of continuity, there’s still much in Amicus’ two “Doctor Who” films which influenced – and continued to influence – its progenitor series to this day. It’s the first appearance of the Dalek time unit ‘Rels’ which would go on to be assimilated into the TV lexicon and the divisive introduction of the colour-coded New Paradigm Daleks in 2010’s “Victory Of The Daleks” owes everything to these two movies. In fact, the Amicus movies loomed large over the revived series, with the TARDIS interior doors looking like, well, the inside of Police Box doors.
Both films have a warm nostalgic quality to them – they positively reek of Saturday afternoon TV – and while they both have many flaws, they still retain a loveable and charming innocence, thanks to the commercially-mandated U certification. It’s a shame they couldn’t make more of what they had to work with – Cushing often seems lost in an underwritten role and a terrible wig which serve to age him to a ridiculous degree and rob his portrayal of the Doctor of any sparkle, something which was exacerbated by him being ill during much of the making of “Daleks’ Invasion Of Earth 2150 A.D.” and in jettisoning much of the Doctor’s backstory they lose a lot of the ‘magic’ of the character too.
They’ll always remain fascinating footnotes in Whovian lore and we can only speculate on what a third Amicus film would have been, as Milton Subotsky held the rights to make one more Doctor Who movie right up until his death in 1991.
Doctor Who And The Daleks
Daleks’ Invasion Of Earth: 2150 A.D.