These days, the gap between TV and films is not as great a divide as it used to be. Production standards have risen to the point where TV programs increasingly look and feel like films; only the grandest of Hollywood blockbusters have a scale and scope that TV can’t emulate.
But come back in time with me, to September 1966. If you were looking to watch Doctor Who, BBC TV was offering The Smugglers, a charming if hokey historical adventure, recorded at Riverside, black and white, a 16th century power struggle between smugglers, pirates and revenue men. But the cinema is offering Daleks. Loads of them, all sorts of colours, spaceships, explosions, the whole deal. Will Captain Avery’s treasure be found. Who cares? There’s a Dalek invasion happening just down the road at the Odeon!
If further comparison be needed, compare the punctuation mark heavy Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. with its TV ancestor, The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The TV show had pie tins for spaceships. Its Robomen had clunky helmets which had to be balanced precariously on extras’ heads and looked faintly ridiculous. By any production based measure, the film is a superior product. No wonder when Chris Acheillos came to produce the cover art for the novelisation, he turned to the film to copy the bloated art deco looking spaceship and the impassive, black vinyl clad Robomen. The film was the definitive product.
The two Aaru Dalek films are not widely celebrated by fandom, not just because they deviate from the TV series established history but also because they are a little cheesy. We look back on them now as dated Sixties artifacts, but I think that neglects what a revelation they must have been at the time. Your favourite show, but in colour, on the big screen and with something it had never had before… a decent budget!
Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. was clearly trying to shake off Doctor Who. The film’s trailer makes no mention of the Doctor (Peter Cushing, “in his most thrill making role!”, less doddery than in the first movie) or the TARDIS. Shh, don’t mention the TV show, it seems to be saying. We’re slightly embarrassed by it, and besides, we might want to make Dalek only movies in the future.
And the film itself feels no pressure to stick to the original story. Dr. Who and the Daleks made only rudimentary changes to characters and left The Daleks‘ plot more or less intact. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D takes liberties with both: our schoolteacher chums Ian and Barbara are done away with and replaced by policeman Tom (Bernard Cribbins) and Louise (Jill Curzon). Resistance fighter Jenny is done away with completely. The basic structure of our friends being separated and then making their different ways to Bedfordshire stays is kept, but who goes with whom, and by which route is rejigged.
The story’s showcase moments are kept, though. Driving a van through a phalanx of Daleks. The destruction of said van via aerial laser attack. The disastrous assault on the Dalek’s saucer, the treacherous women in the hut and the Dalek emerging from the Thames all survive. But other, perhaps less successful, elements of the TV show are lost. The rubbery Slyther is nowhere to be seen. Susan’s sewery adventures with baby alligators is gone and so too is her romance with resistance fighter David (thankfully, as in this film, Susan is about 8 years old).
The film’s biggest innovation though, is the injection of humour. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was pretty grim stuff, and there weren’t many chuckles in it. Think of the Robomen, basically the walking dead with transistor radios. In a family film, there’s a need to lighten the tone.
Enter the young male lead. In the first film, it was variety performer Roy Castle. Here it’s actor and comedian Bernard Cribbins, and so he gets put on the pratfalling duties. He gets a whole routine with the Robomen (not so much creepy cadavers as madcap marching troupe) where he can’t fit in with their jerky robotic gestures, and later gets a rerun of Lucille Ball’s conveyer belt schtick. We fans might not like this concessions to slapstick, but I gotta tell you, Master Spandrell cacks himself at these bits.
This mix of humour and action would gain more prominence in the Troughton era. It’s another of this film’s quiet claims to have influenced the series. For instance, isn’t this film’s title sequence the first use of the a spiralling tunnel, now so associated with Doctor Who as to be a visual cliche? This particular influence even extends to the show’s 21st century incarnation.
When looking at Dr. Who and the Daleks, I couldn’t help but notice the influence that film had had on Steven Moffat and his version of the show. And you can see it in the second film too. In the very first scene, Constable Tom fails to stop a smash and grab when he stumbles into the departing Tardis. In the last scene, Dr. Who returns him to a slightly earlier point in time so that he can foil the crime. Well, blow me down if time can’t be rewritten.
September 1966 at the cinema is all well and good. Still, that’s not how most of us came to these films. Most of us would have watched them on telly.
Come back in time with me again, this time to regional NSW in the 1980s. Here, the two Dalek films were occasional Saturday afternoon treats, popping up at random on the schedules of regional network WIN TV.
Even in this unexpected place, they garnered some admirers. One not-we I know, when the conversation turns to Doctor Who, always nominates “that movie with all the different coloured Daleks” as his favourite. Meanwhile on ABC TV Tom Baker reruns go as disregarded as The Smugglers.
Sure, this is Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. But also 1966 A.D. And 1986 A.D. And 2010 A.D. And on it goes.
LINK TO The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit: big pits reaching down into the centre of the planet!
NEXT TIME: Three of ’em! I’m fairly sure that’s The Three Doctors.