Silver Screen Nemesis

Years ago, there was a joke doing the rounds:

Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. None – they just sit there and hope it’ll come back on.

Post-2005, of course, this doesn’t work (although it’s still funny, if you know your history). But I had to change it:

Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a lighbulb?
A. Thirty – one to change the bulb and the remaining twenty-nine to rant about how much they preferred the other one.

Actually, the twenty-nine is probably misrepresentative: there will be a fair few who will argue vehemently that Russell T Davies was the best thing to happen to the show in its fifty-year history, that the soap aspects humanise the show, and that there was a reason Doctor Who was cancelled. They’re right about the last part – the rose-tinted spectacles are out in full force when it comes to classic Who, and I think we let it cloud our judgement. I’m abivalent about much of new Who, but when it comes to comparisons with the old stuff I do confess to seeing both sides of the argument, and am therefore, as Oscar Wilde once said, a man who can’t actually see anything at all.

But that’s a whole other blog post that I will eventually write. To summarise just here, the digital age has brought about a new wave of critique and online commentary that can be as acidic as it can be sycophantic. There are few shows that are subject to as much critical scrutiny as Doctor Who, and I can think of no other programme – in the UK, at least – that is grilled, dissected, torn to shreds, hung, drawn and quartered by the people who profess to be its fans. We’ll justify our behaviour by claiming that we love the show for what it once was, or what it could be, or what it should be, or what it…never won’t be…sort of thing. All the while we’ll ignore the little voice inside that says “It’s back. And you always wanted it back. Isn’t it better to have it like this than to not have it?”. (For some reason, mine always sounds like Patrick Troughton.)

Anyway. The fans were out in force yesterday afternoon over the announcement that Doctor Who is “to be made into a feature film”. There’s no script, no cast information, no story, no release date and no production crew. That didn’t stop the Guardian readers launching into a passionate debate about the whys, wherefores and whethers. Suffice to say that the article and subsequent commentary tell us nothing that we didn’t already know, except that Dan Martin is an idiot (but I knew that already) who knows bugger all about Doctor Who and will fill his columns with provocative puff pieces that serve only to fan the flames, rather than support the cause of decent, constructive journalism. I have stayed firmly out of this debate – I have nothing to add to it and no firm opinions either way (what’s the point of speculating about a film that hasn’t been cast or scripted and for which even the tone and context has yet to be announced?). And it’s curious, because staying out of the Doctor Who debates always leaves you with one of those Naked Lunch moments where you suddenly stop and wonder what on earth you’re actually doing with your time, and what the point is, so I read the first few comments and then abandoned it completely, so as to avoid winding up thoroughly dispirited with my wasted life.

It’s not as if the series’ planned jaunt to the cinematic format is new. Only yesterday I mentioned the rotten 1996 TV movie, clearly pitching (unsuccessfully) at a different target audience and changing the very essence of Doctor Who in the process. It’s not so much the inconsistencies (Paul McGann’s revelation that he was “half human on my mother’s side” had the fanboys tearing up their parents’ basements in anger, but anger is only there if you choose to believe him, because “rule number one: the Doctor lies”). It’s the whole tone of the piece that’s wrong: Eric Roberts is hopelessly miscast, the new TARDIS’ interior seems unnecessarily elaborate, and the story is tedious and meandering. It’s a shame, because with a little more effort it could have seen the start of great things for McGann, who has had to be content instead with his radio work – which, while admittedly prolific, is scant compensation for the screen time that the eighth Doctor really deserved.

But what I want to talk about today is the 1965 production, Doctor Who and the Daleks – the first of two jaunts for Peter Cushing, playing a wholly human, non-canonical and quite different Doctor. The film has a TARDIS (homemade, and lacking the definite article), and Daleks, and the Doctor has a (human) granddaughter, and supporting characters who share the names of the television Doctor’s first companions, but that’s about the end of the similarities. This adventure sees Dr. Who (as he is named, which is a less rare occurrence than you might think) set off on an adventure after Roy Castle falls on the controls.

TARDIS interior. Different to what you might expect.

Undaunted, the gang travel to a retroactively named Skaro to oversee the end of a conflict between the Daleks and the Thals. Searching the plastic jungle for the McGuffin mercury they need to repower TARDIS, the team find themselves captured by the metal monsters. After several futile attempts to escape their prison cell, the Doctor finally twigs as to the reasons for their lack of success, rising from his seat and seemingly breaking the fourth wall. “There!” he cries triumphantly. “That’s how they know what we’re doing!”

Right, so that’ll be the really really big security camera, then.

The gang eventually escape by insulating a Dalek and then removing its brain from the casing, allowing Roy Castle to climb inside. Handy, this chap.

A single protruding fin gives the only clue as to what’s hiding beneath that blanket.

Meanwhile, the other Daleks don’t suspect a thing.

Dalek lava lamps. Because even when you're a disembodied brain trapped in a wheelie bin, style is important.

Heading into the petrified jungle, the gang regroup with the Thals.

Years before The Truman Show, painted backdrops were in.

There’s a bit of plotting and scheming in the jungle, and more of those tight costumes.

Nothing remotely homoerotic here. Honest to God.

Eventually, the Doctor manages to get the Thals to overcome their pacifist instincts long enough to launch a counter-attack on the Daleks, and everyone heads back to the city, where – in one of the film’s most amusing sequences, a Dalek is pushed down a lift shaft:
It all ends well, and the gang head back to the jungle for their farewells.

Cushing's Doctor. Still not ginger.


Which you can't really say for this lot.

As cinematic forays go, it’s not a disaster. Cushing himself is affable and fun, the Daleks are suitably menacing (despite being disappointingly vulnerable to people grabbing them and pulling off their eye stalks) and the sets and supporting cast are fun. Taking the film out of continuity and giving it a parallel context is arguably its greatest strength: if the new film were to emulate this formula, the fans would be suitably outraged but at least there would be no problems with trying to make it fit. The weakest element – one David Yates should bear in mind – is the use of Roy Castle, who is implemented here as a fundamentally silly character, whether he’s falling over things, trying awkwardly to impersonate a Dalek or running around TARDIS in a blind panic in the film’s epilogue. He’s a character who eventually finds an inner strength but who exists, for the most part, in a vacuum of simple and rather gratuitous comic relief.
Thank goodness those days are gone…
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