Pulp Pleasures: Dr Who

Ahead of FACT’s screening of a pair of Peter Cushing-starring Dr Who films, Adam Scovell investigates their enduring appeal…

There’s something distinctly pleasurable about the two 1960s Doctor Who films.  They’re completely farfetched, kitsch to the extreme and ridden with issues (both cinematically and in the canon of Doctor Who) but they’re easily some of the most enjoyable creations to exist within the brand. Trying to analyse them in the same way, or from the same mental positioning, as you would a more academic piece of cinema would be fruitless; any issues they broach have evolved from their original Television scripting and are largely scraped out, leaving an enjoyable slice of pulpy genre action.

Though the idea of a Doctor Who film is something met with a great deal of suspicion in the current age (a backlash last year is testament to this), in the mid 1960s it wasn’t anywhere near out of the realms of possibility. Though Dalekmania had already begin to waver by 1965, the filmic adaptation of the first ever Dalek story served to inject fresh life into the program, generating enough interest for a sequel as well as proving to the producers that the show had more to offer in spite of the current leading actor’s desire to leave.

Dalekmania allows for visual splurges of excitement and boy’s own comic book madness to appear onscreen; this was the first chance to see Doctor Who in colour, having been on TV screens a mere three years when the first of the two films came out. The productions take full advantage of this by making the Daleks and their worlds some of the most colourful to appear on screen since Forbidden Planet (1956). Ignoring the apparent influence on the recent, awful colour update (said to be homage to the film Daleks), they become the most visually effective Daleks to ever grace a screen.

“In contrast to the Television stories, they are far lighter”

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) takes more creative licence with the Terry Nation material than Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), though the latter’s title instantly sounds more exciting than the original; The Dalek Invasion of Earth. This looseness with the script perhaps explains some fan indifference to the films, though it’s rare to find a fan that doesn’t love some aspect found within. In contrast to the Television stories, they are ironically far lighter, more Sunday afternoon fun than questioning, Cold War dystopias. This perhaps explains their success; in taking only the basic structures of both television stories, it allows the films to focus on excitement and adventure over the academic parallels to the Nazis and the Cold War that the television serials took the time to ponder over.

Elsewhere, the idea of spectacle over thematic content would be mostly frowned upon, but here it is something extremely desirable.  Its spectacle is a 1960s-hued explosion of colour and light, clear from the openings of both films which take the psychedelic to the extreme with their title sequences, replacing one with a sleazy, jazz band score and other with frantic Tropica madness. This visual cacophony is both exciting and adorable, especially in the earlier film that is full to the brim with pulpy alien landscapes that make up Skaro. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is the better of the two though, both in pacing and in style. A battered London is well realised, crawling with huge, colourful Daleks, and boasting one of the best spaceships in sci-fi cinema. Even the Robomen, the human slaves of the Daleks, are changed from ragged trousered zombies of the low-budget Television episodes, to black PVC clad soldiers, clearly on the cusp of the swinging era.

The casts of both films are also excellent. Peter Cushing is an underrated Doctor in spite of him determinedly referring to himself as “Doctor Who”; something that causes most fans to squirm and cry out “that’s not right!” His gentle scientist is of the Jules Verne/ H.G Wells variety that The Doctor started out in before he descended into the more typical, faceable hero/God of modern Who. His companions are somewhat under-par, though Bernard Cribbins as Tom the policeman is a wonderful, clumsy creation. He steals most of Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. both with his comedic moments and the emotive opening and closing of the film, offering a brief window on a moment in his life.

These segments are extremely touching. Showing the viewer a whole new world in the same way it does with Tom, before happily and comfortably placing them back into his with the added bonus a few seconds into the past can give: a relationship mirrored for the viewer. Forget canon, plot holes and all the other criticisms that these films often draw from fans; they occupy that special place in 1950s/1960s, sci-fi kitsch and sit happily alongside George Pal’s The Time Machine and Fred F. Sears’ Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956) in terms of quality, panache and giddy, (almost) guilty, pleasure.

Dr Who and The Daleks screens 6pm @ FACT on Sunday

Posted on 15/05/2013 by thedoublenegative