Looking Back At DR. WHO & THE DALEKS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At DR. WHO & THE DALEKS

Tony is not canon.
When the story known variously as The Daleks and The Dead Planet was first broadcast as part of the original run of Doctor Who stories on TV in 1963, it’s fair to say it saved the show and set its long legacy in motion. The first story broadcast had been an origin tale for the first Tardis team – the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and two of her teachers from a local London school, Ian and Barbara. It had been…OK, but three of its four episodes mainly dealt with the discovery of fire by Earth’s cavemen. It had failed to show the runaway success that the format was capable of.

A script to follow it had been written, but it failed to satisfy the production team of the day, so Terry Nation – a one-time joke-writer for the likes of Tony Hancock – was drafted in to quickly write a seven-part outer space adventure. Nation, under time pressure on other projects, wrote the story at a rate of one episode per day.

With hindsight, that was quite the week.

Nation blended elements from theatrical science fiction serials with a neat message that reached back to the Second World War, creating the Daleks as a kind of Fascism avatar, scarred survivors of a nuclear war, locked into personal tanks and rabidly xenophobic. He also created the anti-Daleks, known as the Thals – worryingly Aryan, blond, beautiful people, out of whom all aggression and hatred seemed to have been drawn as a result of their ancestors’ war. There was little rule for nuance in either species – they were good versus evil personified.

When the Doctor and his friends arrive on Skaro, the planet that raised both races, they set a train of events in motion which leads to a life-or-death struggle, making the pacifist Thals fight the oppressive, destructive bullies, the Daleks for the very right to exist.

The story was solid, with rigorously 60s values. The design of the Daleks, by Raymond Cusick and Bill Roberts was an instant hit. And by the end of its 7-episodes, Doctor Who’s ratings had increased by 50%, saving the show from the shadow of the axe.

Almost as importantly, children and adults across Britain had taken the idea and the visual of the Daleks to their hearts, sparking a remarkable wave of demand for product, known as Dalekmania. Stick an association with the Daleks on a product and it would fly off the shelves.

Why all the background?

Simply because when the idea of making a feature-length movie of a Doctor who adventure was mooted, remarkably soon after the programme had started…nobody recommended re-telling the story of An Unearthly Child. If you wanted bums on seats for a Doctor Who movie, it was Daleks or nothing.
There were several excellent reasons for re-telling the story of The Dead Planet as a movie, too. You could actually fold the essential beats of episode 1 of An Unearthly Child – strangers come to terms with the life of the Doctor and his time machine, and head off on an accidental adventure into space and time – in about five minutes of screen time. Origin story – done.

Then you could upgrade and tinker with the cast. Ironically, the cast of TV Doctor Who were busy…making TV Doctor Who, so it would call for new actors in all the lead roles. That meant you could anchor the movie with a big name like Peter Cushing, and bring in a comic actor like Roy Castle to deliver some pratfalls and lighten up some moments of the script. And by a slight re-jig, you could establish a romance between Barbara (Jennie Linden, playing one of the Doctor’s granddaughters in the movie) and Ian, while lowering the age of the Doctor’s TV granddaughter, Susan (played in the movie by Roberta Tovey), to appeal to younger children.

And then of course, there were the filmic elements. The big difference between the movie version of Dr Who And The Daleks and the TV version of The Dead Planet was colour. The Daleks had managed to be scary in black and white, and in fact Doctor Who on TV wouldn’t switch to colour for another five years. But Gordon Flemyng, who directed the movie, could send a brand new thrill up the spines of Dalek-fans everywhere by delivering the demonic pepperpots in colour in 1965. That was almost guaranteed to bring in the audiences – and it did.
And as much as that, the Daleks underwent what might be called a sensitive redesign for the movie, making them bigger, bolder, and chunkier, with dodgem car skirts, brightly coloured bodies, and losing the sink plunger which had originally been added as a cost saving by the BBC. On the other hand, the movie saved itself a post-production headache by stripping the Daleks of their TV laser guns, in favour of a gas jet that could be a practical, in the moment effect.

The movie Daleks looked absolutely epic and scary, and Flemyng filled the screen with them, compared to how many the BBC could afford in shot at any one time. If the point of making the movie was to show the Daleks as big, bold, dangerous and colourful, Flemyng succeeded spectacularly.

Dr Who And The Daleks raised the game of that initial Dalek story a lot with those decisions, and the film is still an insatiable popcorn-cruncher to this day.

The story, bar the introduction of Ian to the Who household and Tardis at the start, is more or less the same tale that appeared on TV. Daleks bad, Thals good, radiation poisoning, a point of crisis, a Thal uprising to demand their right to survive, and the Daleks defeated. It’s missing some iconic cliff-hangers, naturally (not least the Episode 1 classic, where Barbara is menaced by a Dalek from the Dalek’s point of view). And it’s by no means the 3 hours and change of the original 7-episode TV version, zipping along at a much kinder 1 hour, 22 minutes.

But what the movie adds in place of those lost elements and some inevitable TV padding is a lot more consistency and fluidity. Where the original TV Daleks sometimes sounded exactly like humans with grating voices, the movie version makes their scary staccato voices much more uniform. And likewise, while the TV Daleks sometimes juddered as their operators made uncertain movements, in the movie version, they’re positively balletic in the certainty of their motion – there’s impressive choreography as one Dalek gets out of the way of another which is equipped with an oxy-acetylene torch, and there’s even some graceful Dalek reversing in this movie.

Similarly with elements like the Tardis control room, while there was something iconic about the TV’s six-sided central console and the sparse white d├ęcor, the movie gives you a properly huge room behind the doors of the police box, and fills it with both comfort and equipment – in a move which foreshadowed the TV version by at least 30 years!
There are purist fans by the thousand who’ll tell you that only the black and white version of The Dead Planet is worth watching.

Don’t be fooled. Get the popcorn in and settle down for a weekend adventure with Dr Who and the Daleks. Big Daleks, in colour that still blares off the screen. Daleks who move like they mean it. Daleks who’ll kill anyone with their gas-jet guns. Daleks who, for reasons never explained on-screen, have…lava lamps – hey it was the 60s, after all. This is the first Dalek story that your movie-going heart really wants.

Plus, you get Peter Cushing in one of his most loveable, camera-winking grandfather film roles, and a competent story about the effects of war and trauma and how they can turn us harsh and isolated or make us into pacifistic doormats. All in glorious, eye-popping colour and with a visual hallmark that would go on to inform what the world thought Daleks looked like for generations to come.

Dr Who And the Daleks is classic 60s family adventure fun, and nearly 60 years on, it’s still an absolute belter.

Watch Dr. Who & the Daleks today with a seven-day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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