Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Monday, May 04, 2009

“Dr. Who and the Daleks”

There was a time when Bank Holiday Mondays always seemed to see a dodgy Dalek movie stuffed into the schedules of BBC2 or Channel 4 so, in the strange absence of a showing today and having written about the original The Daleks last week, here’s a holiday treat. Don’t say I haven’t warned you. While I won’t pay this quite as much attention as the TV stories, there’s still something hypnotic about “Dr. Who and the Daleks” – with its slightly better sequel, perhaps the sort-of-Doctor Who seen more often than any other, and isn’t it interesting that the first two stories got about two goes each, in very different ways?

This film is now extraordinarily easy to track down on DVD, having been released in multiple editions, in multiple countries, and with the reels in multiple order (though less noticeably than the second Dalek movie). It’s best to pick up one of the ones that package both films with the lively Dalekmania documentary and groovy trailer narrated by Earthbound “science professor” Dr Who, with its big glowing letters that are SO CLOSE, you can feel their fire, and which blatantly gives away the end in case by some miracle you’d not seen it all before. When I was a boy, though, I’d been thrilled by the novel and had seen the sequel – Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. – several times, so when each time I managed to miss a showing of this one on TV it grew in stature in my imagination. By the time I eventually got to see it, we’d even got a colour telly, so I’d been waiting years and years. And I have to admit, the whole farrago and the green Thals in particular were the first time that Doctor Who(ish) seriously disappointed me. These days, of course, I have no problem with camp men in the woods, and I can appreciate it for what it is: rubbish. On the bright side, the TV series since 2005 has made kids across the world thrilled by great big Daleks with great big ‘ears’ more than this film ever did.

But enough grumping. Though they’re not a patch on the telly versions, I’m very fond of warm, friendly Dr Who and Barbara Who, and of Susie Who (who gets all the best bits), though a pit of starving alligators would be too good for Ian Not-Who. As far as DWM goes, Time Team put off having to confront the movies for a while, but enjoyed them when they did; rather than covering them immediately after the originals, or with the 1965 and 1966 stories that were airing when the films were released, they were well into Patrick Troughton’s stories before doing these as a special. So, jumping ahead to that issue, they’d gone from one page of Time Team to two some time before, and they’d long been printing a selection of readers’ views at the side. By then, I’d started sending in my own contributions – though they didn’t pick any for this particular movie – so the one-liners below were the ones I actually fired off at the end of 2000 (I’ll be travelling back in time again for my next post), along with a handful of others from watching it today. See if you can spot how I cobbled together my 2004 review by the brilliant notion of sticking some of my (de-bowdlerised) Time Team one-liners together with daytime TV-style links! Enjoy.

My ‘The Review all Doctor Who Challenge’ posting in an online discussion, January 2004:

Yes, it’s my first DVD-style special feature, IN COLOR…

All right, this film remake of The Daleks isn’t ‘proper’ Doctor Who, but a lot of people will know it much better than the ‘real’ version. On the surface, the vastly larger budget and colour film instead of monochrome telerecording mean it both looks and sounds far better than the original, so a lot of people would watch it that wouldn’t touch the old black and white one with a barge pole. And it deserves kudos for its constant screenings helping to keep the series in the public eye. The trouble is, if ever there was one piece of “Doctor Who” that gave people the impression that it was a load of silly running about in corridors, this is it…

It’s both over-coloured and a pale imitation; it badly needs a theme with the punch of the fantastic TV version and an exciting look instead of a blurry mishmash, though the rest of the score is as memorable in its own bombastic way as the disturbing music concrete of the telly. The leads are very odd – Cushing is definitely a cuddly human inventor called Dr Who, and marvellous actor as he was, he just didn’t give it the same edge as Billy the Brilliant Bastard. Barbara is just a ‘dolly bird’ whose only common feature with her TV counterpart is big hair, though Jennie Linden is quite good – just given nothing to do. Roberta Tovey’s Susan gets a role that TV’s Carole Ann Ford would probably have killed for, mainly at the expense of Ian, who’s downgraded to lobotomy victim and comic relief, responsible for all the worst scenes.

The TARDIS set, meanwhile, achieves the extraordinary achievement of looking an absolute mess and much cheaper than the TV version. Sets in general are a huge problem – they’ve clearly been built bigger, and had money flung at them, and some of them (the Dalek control room) actually look terrific. They just don’t have much imagination – TV’s budget meant models, design and careful camerawork all contrived to give the impression of small sets aiming high, trying to trick you that they’re big. The film has comparatively enormous sets that only try to look as big as they are, from the ‘part of the city’ exterior that’s all you see to the Daleks’ ‘Nazi rally’, which has a lot more Daleks than the telly, but is still trying to do Nuremberg in… a room. There’s just no sense of scale. Even the Daleks themselves are bigger and thus less effective, as it makes it easier to notice there are people inside them – though it makes more sense of the weakest part of the original script, where Nation undermined his aliens by having the tallest member of the cast climb inside one! Here, at least, the Daleks are bigger and Ian smaller.

There are just so many things that go wrong. I’m less horror-struck by the camp green Thals than I was as a boy, but I still think the short-range clouds of vapour the Daleks shoot out are rubbish (what are they trying to do, freeze off their enemies’ verrucas?). At half the original length, there are huge cuts, but not enough to the pointless clamber through the mountains, and we get the ghastly soft-centre of the cowardly Thal’s sacrifice turning into a “What a relief” cop-out. It would be a shoe-in for worst scene, were it not for the closing scene in the TARDIS, not just slapstick but totally inept slapstick, with Ian at the centre of it so the film ends not with a bang, but with a wanker. Ian’s attempt to convince the Thals to abandon their pacifism certainly works; I’m a non-violent man, but Roy Castle’s so irritating here I’d have struck him.

OK, some bits are good; there are sinister moments in subdued lighting, and the spectacle of big rocks splitting and Daleks shouting is great, if completely barmy. The climax still doesn’t really work, but that looks far better than the TV version, despite relying on eye-poppingly stupid, suicidal Daleks. It ends up entertaining and irritating in almost equal measures, but far more blatantly talking down to the kiddies than the series ever did on TV, and pretty colours aren’t a patch on cheap, scary black and white.

The trailer is the grooviest thing about it. Who could resist those big, glowing letters – “SO THRILLING you must be there!” But for me, it remains a warning that Doctor Who is much better off with an imagination and no budget than the other way around, while the definitive version of this story remains the book by David Whitaker…

And I Said…

The trailer is the grooviest thing about it. Who could resist those big, glowing letters – “SO THRILLING you must be there!”

From Ian’s opening pratfalls, it’s instantly clear which character has suffered the biggest downgrade from TV, and despite appearances, it isn’t “Susie”.

Ian has devolved from brave science teacher to idiot, slightly cowardly comic relief (ironically the only lead with no apparent interest in science at all), and is responsible for all the worst scenes.

Barbara is just a ‘dolly bird’ whose only common feature with her TV counterpart is big hair; a shame, as Jennie Linden is quite good – just given nothing to do (her first scene reading The Science of Science is her only sign of intelligence in the film).

Roberta Tovey’s Susan is the real eye-opener, gaining from the deficiencies of the other leads to be actually rather strong – in some ways, stronger than on TV – and an unusually watchable and unpatronised child actor. Cushing plays very well along with her, constantly encouraging her, too.

When they arrive in the petrified forest, things finally look good; the blue ‘night’ lighting is quite eerie, and for the first time “Dr Who” in colour really works. Why does Susan recognise a “lily amphiladelphicum” on an alien planet, though?

Oddly enough, as the set is clearly much larger, the Dalek City appears much smaller. Perhaps the larger-scale sets like the City and cliffs look more like sets with fixed limits and edges. Without claustrophobia inside, too, the sets aren’t able to be big enough to be really grand. Oh, and Ian has more desperate slapstick with the doors. How very entertaining.

For no apparent reason, the dastardly Daleks choose the Doctor to search, and so, of course, they immediately find the fluid link in his pocket and confiscate it (but not Babs’ lipstick, or Ian’s string?).

These Men of Steel have a major tendency to talk amongst themselves to show us they’re evil – discussing the drug, ooh, Mr Callous Dalek exclaims, “Let them die.” Then they decide, again for no apparent reason, to search our heroine by sticking her on the plinth under the big light, and find the extra drugs. But now she can keep them anyway. Make your mind up, can’t you?
The Daleks’ rally is well-staged, but as with the big-with-edges City set, and the high-with-edges mountain set, the relatively bigger budget exposes its own limitations. By trying to look bigger with more money rather than more imagination, it looks better-made but more blatantly small – it’s not an army of Daleks, just a roomful.
Throughout the film, Daleks always plot out loud, and they can’t help blabbing. They tell Susan that now they’ve got her note – to say nothing of English, why would the Thals know her writing? – they’ll kill the Thals anyway, so nerrr!

The high shots of the Thals entering the City are very effective, and at last there’s a really good bit of music. Very grand and ponderous! Shame it all peters out slightly as the Thals run in every direction, but at last there’s been an impressive bit of melodrama.

Cushing plays Dr Who not as a grandfather but a sort of kindly uncle, with that reckless schoolboyish quality – endearing, but no presence. There’s no way he could ever convince in the “Take her to the Daleks!” scene, even without another big panto wink. Someone should have told him.

The Daleks’ rally to “Destroy the Thals!” is rather well-staged, but as with the big-with-edges City set, and the high-with-edges mountain set, the relatively bigger budget actually exposes its own limitations. It tries to look bigger with more money rather than more imagination, and so looks better quality, but more blatantly small – it’s not an army of Daleks, just a roomful.

The movie works much better in subdued lighting, as really quite sinister shadowy Thals creep up to the City walls with their silly mirrors. It also helps make the blazing lights as the big rocks split to reveal the front of the City looks very impressive, as are the shouting Daleks, shot from below. Shame it’s completely barmy, but hey, don’t knock the film’s best spectacle!

Drama in the mountains of terror is cruelly undermined by Antodus’ plunge to his death being called off. After his heroic slice of the knife, his cry from the ledge of “Hey! Get me out of here!” is a terrible anti-climax. “What a relief,” says Barbara. No, we don’t think so. It’s probably the worst cop-out until The Trial of a Time Lord 14.

The climax still isn’t as good as it could be, but much better than the TV version, with Daleks shooting each other and some satisfying bangs. Shame the Daleks have all turned fantastically stupid, though, not spotting the Thals (I mean, how could you miss them in those outfits?), constantly shooting each other and even ganging up to destroy their own controls – though that console blows up jolly nicely.

The closing scene provides more of Ian’s woeful slapstick with a stupidly waggling lever, but the real let-down is the careless selection of a completely different film grain, angle and general appearance for the Roman soldiers seen through the doors, which I knew looked very bad even on a little TV as a child. So, the film ends not with a bang, but with a waggle.

It’s entertaining and irritating in almost equal measures, but far more blatantly talking down to the kiddies than the series ever did on TV – even if the most ‘childish’ part goes to the ‘male lead’, while the usually sidelined girl part is serious and effective. Not a bad stab at colour, at least when it’s dark, but not a patch on cheap, scary black and white.

And I Didn’t Say…
(but would have done if I’d thought of it at the time)

Perhaps the terrible TARDIS set is meant to be an endearingly ramshackle contrast with the highly organised Dalek control room, but while the Dalek City has a certain tacky grandeur, you can’t help noticing that the fluid links are just hung on hooks on a board, and don’t actually link anything to anything.

Some of this version is impressive, but too often bigger seems smaller: showing everything rather than hinting with close-ups and the TV series’ ‘bigger, further away’ model makes the movie compare surprisingly poorly for sense of scale. On TV, the sets were small, but trying to trick you that they look big. In the movie, the sets are bigger, but they only try to look as big as they are.

It’s hysterical that they only realised after shooting Dalek scenes that their ‘indicator lights’ were supposed to flash in time with speech – sit back and gape as the bored Dalek operators flash very slowly indeed, then decide to flick their finger on the button really quickly for a bit, so that the dialogue attempting to fit the pattern paces out as “One… of… you… four… must… go… out… side… the… ci… ty… Whichwillitbe?”

Susan in the big, dark, scary forest builds quite an effective atmosphere… Until that pan up from Alydon’s split elfin boots to his outrageous make-up. Barrie Ingham, bless him, tries to recover a little dignity by playing it dead straight. Or as straight as you can in that eyeshadow.

While Ian and Babs go off on a bit of a trek (which seems to take no time at all in this version), Dr Who does some entertaining. He burns the cakes, nabs the silly jagged mirrors (they’ve invented a polishing machine for getting a reflective surface, but no heavy-duty sanders to file off the sharp bits, eh?) and cries “Madam!” in a hugely amusing way. It’s fun, but it doesn’t exactly pile up the tension.

You just know that the Thal cloaks the time travellers are given at the end will only be worn if the Thals come for tea.

What They Said…

Time Team, Doctor Who Magazine 300, February 2001:
“The lights are already low as Peter struggles to his seat. The air is crackling with anticipation and the floor is crackling with spilled popcorn. Clayton is sucking on a beaker of Fanta roughly the size of delegate Beaus, while Richard is cradling a hot dog so large that Vicki would probably have given it a nickname and adopted it as a pet.”

“‘They’re superb, aren’t they?’ agrees Richard. ‘So imposing, and the tone of the voices is deep, echoey and menacing. They’re actually scary!’”
“‘Their voices are very slow, though,’ adds Clayton. ‘You wouldn’t want to be cornered by that Red Dalek at a party.’”
Unsung ‘compiler’ Gary Gillatt has really got into the swing of things by this point. Track down a copy of that issue’s Time Team for the full context of his mention of Ann Widdecombe.
“The film does demonstrate that the strength of the BBC broadcast was in the characterisations of the regulars… The most intelligent of the TARDIS crew is young Susie, played by Roberta Tovey as smug and humourless and far too bloody clever for her own good. Not so much an unearthly child as an ungodly one.”
Rob Shearman, London
Rob was for a long time the undisputed king of the Time Team readers’ comments – for some reason, they stopped printing what he said when his own Dalek stories started being made – and I have a suspicion that he didn’t warm to Susie.
“Hey! Get me out of here!”

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