Dr Who: Too Broad for the Big Screen

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Dominic Fellows pays tribute to Dr Who.

To my mind the most under rated of all Doctors is none other than the great Peter Cushing. Often unfairly maligned because he didn’t play Dr. Who as an aloof alien but an eccentric human inventor. Well I hate to state the obvious, but that was the brief. It seems sacrilegious now, but you have to remember the Doctor Who in those days was not an institution, much of its iconography was yet to be established as Iconography.

When Dr. Who and the Daleks was released The TV series was only into its second series. Get that? second series. Aside from The Doctor himself, the Daleks and the TARDIS, all the other series icons such as the Cybermen, The Master, The Time Lords, Gallifrey, (and I could go on) were yet to be introduced. In fact if you take a step back the Cushing films actually feature all but one of the series icons up to that point. The ‘one’ in question being the theme music. As the BBC did not (and still doesn’t) own the theme and so its usage would have incurred another fee, coupled with the fact that at the time it was ‘just another theme tune’ this omission becomes forgivable. Could you imagine a big budget movie of Doctor Who being made in 2006? Well of course not, it’s quite mad, but in the sixties it happened, and before Patrick Troughton gave us his sublime second Doctor, Peter Cushing gave us his equally sublime second Doctor. That’s right, I rate Cushing just as highly as the rest. I didn’t always, but more on that in a moment.

As I noted before, Cushing was not required to succeed Hartnell, he was required to play an off the wall human inventor who possesses the same talents as the TV character the Doctor. And in this he succeeds admirably.

For many a year, I sneered at Cushing. ‘He doesn’t count’ ‘he wasn’t even alien’ ‘he’s just a doddery human’ ‘it goes against the series ethos’ were just some of the pseudo intellectual nonsense I would peddle. But in recent years I have re-evaluated my opinion thanks to the efforts of someone very close to me; my four-year-old son.

He had shown an interest in ‘Doctor Doo’ (or specifically any episode with Daleks) and asked if he could watch one. Not expecting him to sit through it, I put on the first Dalek escapade that came to hand which just so happened to be Daleks Invasion: Earth 2150 AD.

To my astonishment not only did he sit through the whole thing but absolutely loved it. I’ve made numerous attempts to introduce him to ‘real’ Doctor Who and although he has fondness for Planet and Remembrance of the Daleks, when asked ‘who is your favourite Doctor Who?’ he will inevitably and adorably answer ‘Peter Cushion’.

The simple fact of the matter is; he doesn’t view the show with any kind of pre-conceived notions of how it should be. He doesn’t have a fans or even a regular viewer’s sensibility. He doesn’t pick up on the different styles of production or subtleties of character, as far as he is concerned, it’s all part of the same thing and he deems Peter Cushing the best.

To misquote another Doctor ‘Children are the best audience because they won’t be bullsh*tted. It’s either good or its bad’ and if we’re all honest with ourselves as adults, don’t we miss our own childlike sense of wonder?

And so, thanks to my son, I found myself forced to re-evaluate Cushing’s performance (not least of all because he made me sit through it seventeen times).

And you know what?

He’s bloody good.

He’s likeable, he’s engaging, he’s interesting, he has a sense of fun, he’s a little dangerous, yet you feel safe with him, he’s seemingly daft yet you believe he’s a genius. It’s an incredibly subtle performance that certainly gives some of the more recent incumbents a run for their money. Okay he doesn’t do the heavy stuff, but he isn’t required to. The filmmakers of the time made no secret about the fact that these films were bright, colourful children’s adventure films and the main attraction was not Dr. Who but the Daleks. You need only look at Cushing’s hefty contribution to the world of Hammer, or his turn as one of Star Wars’ equally under rated villains, Grand Moff Tarkin to see that he could have done the dark stuff, he could have done the heavy stuff, but that is not his Doctor. His Doctor is not an embittered war survivor, he’s not a man that goes out to right wrongs he is, essentially, a mad in a blue box, just exploring for the thrill of it. Matt Smith cited Troughton as a major influence, but I’ve always felt he had more in common with Cushing. I shall perhaps be lynched for saying this, but I did find myself asking ‘Why resist Cushing? Quite honestly I enjoy his take on the character a lot more than I ever enjoyed Smith’s or, dare I say it, even Tennant. Well, 50% of Tennant actually but that’s another story for another time. The truth is, as a character and a concept, The Doctor really doesn’t work on film. To be quite honest whenever the latest ‘Doctor Who movie deal’ falls through, I breathe a sigh of relief. The Daleks make for a fun movie but the Doctor is just ‘too broad and too deep’ for the big screen, especially now, when shows like 24, Game of Thrones, Angel and indeed Doctor Who itself have shown the scope of story you can tell on television and with the production values to match, even cinema these days tries to turn everything into a franchise.

There’s a fan theory that suggest that the meta crisis Doctor grew old and became the Cushing Doctor. I choose to believe this. Alright, so he wasn’t officially sanctioned by the BBC, ok so his stories had a different style and tone to them, ok so he wasn’t playing the character as we know him now. He was however, an actor doing a job and doing that job well and playing the iteration of the character that was required of him.

But does all that really matter? What we are left with is an entertaining performance in two fun films that are not pretending they anything other than a rollicking good time. And he was still fantastic in the role, which as far as I’m concerned make his take just as valid as the rest.

But don’t take my word for it. Let the man speak for himself;
‘Playing Doctor Who was one of the most heroic parts one could wish for. He was already tremendously popular on television with children, and I thought it might be possible to make him just as popular with older audiences. I certainly did not want to copy the way Bill Hartnell played the role. I sensed the Doctor was a man of many parts.’
I'll leave you with this. In 1978, as Milton Subotsky still maintained rights to a third Dalek movie, he approached Cushing with the idea of Starring in ‘Doctor Who’s Greatest Adventure’ with then incumbent Tom Baker.

I think that would have been brilliant.

Dominic Fellows is an actor and writer from Birmingham in the UK. He is also producer of the group Stripped Down Theatre (find them on Facebook). His shows have had more than one or two ‘geeky gags’ in them. 

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