Bigger On The Outside: Gordon Flemyng’s Dr. Who And The Daleks (1965) – Blu-ray review
Bigger but narrower than the original version, this is better viewed as an insight into 1960s’ faddishness, rather than a supersizing of a TV legend.
Dr. Who And The Daleks
(Gordon Flemyng, 1965)
These days, the BBC branding police would have kittens with the liberties taken with one of its most enduring and lucrative properties. Back in the mid-1960s, however, nobody knew that Doctor Who would time-travel into immortality. All anybody saw was a hit series that was ripe for exploitation, especially after the Daleks wheeled in the action to steal the Zeitgeist.
Dr. Who And The Daleks is a document of those times, the Widescreen, primary-coloured romp that toy manufacturers and comic strip artists envisaged during the height of Dalekmania – as opposed to the creepy claustrophobia of the BBC’s cramped sets, austere monochrome imagery and otherworldly sound effects. The TV show was disposable, just one series amongst many. The film, in contrast, was designed for commercial domination, with a genuine movie star (Peter Cushing) and relatively humungous sets. The difference is most palpable in the sequence where Susan must bravely journey into a forest. On TV, the actress ran on the spot while stagehands brushed her face with foliage; here, Gordon Flemyng exploits his budget with lavish tracking shots.
We know this because the BBC serial still exists, although, in fact, the BBC came very close to junking it in the 1970s. The irony is that, nowadays, the original is the touchstone for a television legend, and the film’s flaws are all too obvious in comparison. Put it this way: had the TV series never existed and Dr. Who And The Daleks was the firing salvo in a brand-new franchise, would Doctor Who still be around today? Probably not, but the whys are instructive.
The source is the second ever Doctor Who story, a seven-parter commonly referred to as The Daleks, as well as a reimagined version of Who’s first episode, An Unearthly Child. That’s a grand total of eight x 25 minutes to blaze through, which the film does in an astonishing 82 minutes. Do the maths: Flemying takes around 10 minutes to tell what took 25 on television. Yes, this is partly because of the superior editing techniques available to a film director compared to the BBC: recorded primarily ‘live’ on multiple cameras, and vision mixed on the day. Yet mainly it’s a matter of structure, for Nation had to pace himself over nearly two months’ worth of Saturday evenings, so some padding was inevitable.
Even so, a lot of the original’s length was generated by the textures of an ongoing, evolving saga, with the lead characters still getting to know each other. Ironically, despite the title, the biggest casualties of the film are Dr. Who (nee The Doctor) and The Daleks. On TV, William Hartnell’s Doctor began life as a cantankerous, cruel man hiding out in a junkyard, who kidnapped two schoolteachers in a panic and put them into harm’s way out of hubris. In the film, Cushing’s Dr. Who is an eccentric inventor in a big, Victorian-style house for whom the trip is a jolly adventure. His impishness anticipates future TV Doctors –and especially the public’s conception of the character – but it short-changes this particular story.
The plot of both The Daleks and its film version is that the Doctor tricks the TARDIS crew into visiting the Daleks’ city out of curiosity. Hartnell did it out of pig-headed arrogance; Cushing does it out of childlike naughtiness, with a wink to the audience. Everything that follows no longer has the weight of the hero being taught a lesson, a key stage in the character’s evolution into the hero he eventually becomes. Instead, Cushing’s irresponsibility is never questioned.
As for the Daleks, it’s difficult to see how they became such a hit on this evidence. Yes, the design is still outstanding, but as antagonists they are mostly reduced to brief cutaways, watching the Doctor on a monitor and explaining the plot (although, in a cut touch, the monitor images are black-and-white, so it looks like they’re watching Doctor Who, the series). Over three hours on television, though, they became characters: devious tacticians and frightened xenophones, a potent blend of hate and ability. Shorn of that, they are no longer chilling Nazi symbols but generic space aliens.
Sadly, that’s what the film mostly resembles: a B-movie. Without the slow-burning alchemy to create legendary characters, the film becomes beholden to Nation’s plotting, whose obvious reliance on 1930s Flash Gordon serials was passé even then. The results are breathless but bland, the gentle ebb and flow of the TV series’ triumphs and setbacks translating into a staccato momentum that jumps the story forward every few minutes.
Flemyng doesn’t help matters by allowing such unimaginative design work into the film: the pink-hued corridors have nothing on their stark metallic equivalents on the BBC, which TV director Christopher Barry shot in Caligari-esque distorted angles rather than spacious but inert wide shots. Likewise, the Daleks’ foes, the Thals, might have looked ridiculous on telly but their Aryan looks offered an intriguing counterpoint to the Daleks’ ideas on racial purity. On the big screen, their silver make-up and blond frightwigs look like any old B-movie.