Scream Horror Magazine

Amicus goes futuristic – Dr Who and the Daleks (1965)

Posted on: August 20th, 2020

By 1964 Beatlemania had become a worldwide export for British popular culture and it was no surprise the Fab Four were subsequently ushered into films. But that year also saw another craze sweep the nation, Dalekmania, which similarly wasted no time in forming the basis of a movie.

The Daleks were introduced to British television viewers in late 1963 as the bad guys of the second ever DOCTOR WHO serial, popularly known by the title of its opening episode THE MUTANTS. By the time the seven part adventure had run its course, the Daleks had captured the public imagination and the merchandisers were preparing to cash in big time.

Written by Terry Nation, the serial concerned the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford) and her school teachers, Ian and Barbara (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill), materialising on the nuclear ravaged planet of Skaro where two distinct races survive after generations of being at war with each other.

The Thals, now evolved into pacifistic, beautiful humanoids, have become an agrarian society living off the land. The Daleks, once humanoid, are now mechanical robotic casings containing the hideous mutations that they have devolved into. They are confined to a metal city and unable leave, the static electricity generated through its floors being both their source of mobility and life support.

The Thals have travelled to the Dalek city to make peace and establish mutual co-operation as their crops have failed, but the Daleks perceive the Thals as impure and plot to wipe them out completely with a neutron bomb. The Doctor and his companions join forces with the Thals to infiltrate the city and stop the device being launched, only to end up annihilating the Daleks when destroying their power source.

Just as the acknowledged creator of DOCTOR WHO, Sydney Newman, was inspired by H. G. Welles’s THE TIME MACHINE, writer Terry Nation drew on the novel’s situation of the childlike Eloi versus the monstrous Morlocks as the template for his story, further adding in concerns about nuclear destruction which were driving Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protests at the time.

The Daleks proved the series breakthrough and while the BBC negotiated with Nation for a rematch, a certain pair of London based American film producers also took notice. Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky’s Amicus productions was already establishing itself as a rival to Hammer in terms of horror films, and were now turning their attention to the family adventures that Hammer were producing for the school holiday market. But while Hammer went for swashbucklers, Amicus were thinking more in terms of fantasy and the popularity of the Daleks offered an obvious proposal.

Knowing that such a film would be costly to realise, Amicus joined forces with producer Joe Vegoda for his own company, Aaru, to co finance the project. As part of this arrangement, it was agreed the movie would be credited and released under the Aaru banner, though it remains essentially an Amicus production.

Successful negotiations with the BBC and Terry Nation resulted in a three picture deal, the first being based on Nation’s premier Dalek adventure. His second Dalek story was optioned as the possible basis for a sequel, along with his non Dalek serial THE KEYS OF MARINUS.

With Freddie Francis pencilled in to direct, production was announced in the November 12th issue of Kinematograph Weekly, just under a year since the first episode of the series itself. And for those who had been following the TV adventures, their eyebrows must have been raised at Subotsky billing the upcoming movie as a “science fiction comedy.”

The television DOCTOR WHO had been conceived by Sydney Newman as fulfilling the BBC public remit of reaching a cross section family audience. Having been commissioned to fill a Saturday teatime slot it was required to be exciting enough for children, but also educational with historic stories set against genuine events and scientifically authentic tales. To also appeal to the parents, the scripts were written to be as adult in style and characterisation as a late afternoon schedule would allow.

While this approach worked for the television format, Subotsky felt it too dark and troublesome for the school holiday audience to which the film would be far more squarely aimed. He was also conscious that the potentially lucrative merchandising tie-ins would be dependent on it gaining a U certificate, given they would be mainly in the toy market.

Terry Nation was unavailable to adapt his original teleplay so Subotsky worked on it himself with input from DOCTOR WHO’s script editor, David Whittaker, reshaping the story to appeal more to the magical imagination of children. Subotsky later referenced the Swiss Family Robinson as his inspiration.

The change of approach is illustrated in the film’s opening section, comprising of a new origin story specially conceived for it. The distant, darkly motivated character known mysteriously as “the Doctor” is now the warmer, friendlier “Dr Who”. He is no longer a detached alien whose spacecraft resides in a junkyard, but a human scientist who literally builds the TARDIS in his back garden.

There was never any question of using William Hartnell or other members of the regular television cast, partly due to being precluded by their TV commitments but also because Subotsky wanted the characters to be more relatable to the younger audience and adapted accordingly.

Peter Cushing was first choice for the lead and, being internationally well known, a potential box office draw.  As the warmer, grandfatherly Dr Who, he was practically a prototype for Patrick Troughton who would later take over as the TV Timelord.

Cushing looked back on his casting over Hartnell with a sense of irony. “I had played Winston Smith in 1984 on television and it was probably the highlight of my television career. I’d like to have done the film version but they gave it to Edmond O’Brien… Then the next thing is, I’m playing Doctor Who while Bill Hartnell is doing it on TV! That’s the way it goes.”

The gentler approach taken with Cushing epitomises the film itself right from the opening set up. While his granddaughters are studying books on science, Dr Who is exclaiming “Most exciting!” as he finishes reading the latest instalment of Dan Dare in the Eagle comic, a further wink to the audience that they are in for a similarly colourful comic strip adventure as opposed to the more dramatic original.

The story then wastes no time in having Ian arrive as played by well-known entertainer Roy Castle. Having starred alongside Cushing in DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964), Castle was thought of as a good name for the film and a source of comic relief. Consequently Ian is longer a teacher but the buffoonish boyfriend to Barbara who accidently activates the TARDIS and sets the whole adventure going. Thankfully, he is granted some heroics along the way.

Barbara is recast as an elder granddaughter to Dr Who and was originally to have been played by Ann Bell, who had come to public attention as Jane Eyre in a 1963 BBC adaptation of the classic novel. Freddie Francis decided instead to bring in Jennie Linden who he had just directed in the 1964 Hammer production NIGHTMARE.

The casting of Linden turned out to be Francis’s sole contribution to the Dalek film before he was replaced by Gordon Flemyng, father of actor Jason Flemyng. The new director wholly complied with the producers’ targeting of the U certificate market and later explained “most children went to see these (U) films without adults (and) they could shout and scream and cheer and do what they liked.” This was emphasised with the casting of the fourth principle cast member.

The Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, would have been perfect for the likes of Janina Faye or Pamela Franklin had she remained a mysterious fifteen year old as with the character in the series. But to chime more fully with an audience of children, it was decided Susan should be a normal ten year old to make her identifiable, albeit a very brainy one.

Gordon Flemyng did the rounds of stage schools in London before finding eleven year old Roberta Tovey who perfectly fitted the revised role. The young actress proved to be a star turn in more ways than one when Flemyng promised to give her a shilling for every scene she got right first time. During the last day of shooting he presented her with a bag dedicated to “One Take Tovey” containing a total of 21 shilling pieces!

With the main cast assembled, filming was booked to commence on 12th March 1965 in Studio H at Shepperton, the largest sound stage in Europe at the time. Having raised an unusually high budget of £180,000, Amicus and executive producer Joe Vegoda invested the production with a greater visual impact than could be achieved on television.

Being shot in colour became one of its selling points, giving the audience the chance to experience more colourful Daleks than the black and white TV versions. Using the original blueprints by designer Raymond Cusick, eight new Dalek casings were constructed for the total sum of £4,500, which was quite considerable back then.

The movie Daleks were mounted on larger bases to make them more impressive on the big screen, and given metal claw pincers instead of the famous sink plunger arms of the originals. They were also painted in different colours to denote their rank and function, in accordance with Terry Nation’s own concept of how Dalek society was structured, something the black and white series was unable to portray up to that point.

In fact, the BBC was so impressed by the new casings that they borrowed two of them for the third TV Dalek adventure, THE CHASE, which was screened before the film’s release.

The original operators of the BBC Daleks – Robert Jewell, Kevin Manser and Gerald Taylor – were brought in to drive the new models, along with some newcomers including Len Saunders who had appeared in the TV series as an extra. The BBC’s Dalek voice artists Peter Hawkins and David Graham also came on board to perform the same honours for the movie.

The larger and more colourful Daleks were also complimented by ambitious sets for their city and surrounding petrified jungle, mainly built with fibreglass. With the addition of colour and the perspective of widescreen, the film was certainly impressive looking and more spectacular than its budget would suggest.

Perhaps the only disappointing set for fans of the series was the TARDIS interior. While the outward police box was retained, the right to use the futuristic console room as designed for the TV series was not included in the deal and strictly off limits. Given the movie TARDIS was supposed to be home built by an Earth scientist, Amicus decided to reflect this in a flung together laboratory interior of cables and machinery.

Subotsky also curiously also changed the nature of the TARDIS’s propulsion. Instead of voyaging across the space and time vortex, Dr Who’s home built vehicle operates on the principle of matter transference, so that both ship and crew are instantly transmitted and reintegrated at the point of destination. And since Ian sets off this process before any co-ordinates have been set, it just so happens they arrive on Skaro.

One intended carry over from the original serial that did not make it in the end was a scene where a mutant octopus-like swamp creature menaces Ian and later devours one of the Thals. A creature was constructed for the film but the producers felt it too ineffectual and dropped its actual appearance.

Instead the sequence was restricted to Ian dowsing his face in the water and seeing something which sends him into a panic. Later the party hear one of their comrades screaming from the edge of the swamp and then find him gone, dragged into the now bubbling water by a thing unknown. The imagination of the audience did the rest, probably more disturbingly so than if the creature had been shown.

Another element which proved difficult to transfer was the Dalek’s extermination ray. For the television series, the projected energy effect was achieved by a close up shot of their victim and the studio lights turned right up which gave the picture a negative effect.

While the approach worked for a television camera recording on videotape, that same result was not achievable on film. Simulating a death ray during post production could only be done with an optical printer, which would have imposed on the budget as British studios did not have one at the time and the film negative would have to be sent to America for the process.

An alternative live effect was sought and flamethrowers were considered before being judged as too frightening for the juvenile audience. In the end they had the Daleks spraying gas in the manner of fire extinguishers, which at least did the trick.

The Thals were less problematic being simply human actors made over in compliance with Nation’s original concept of beautiful, perfect specimens. Barrie Ingham, who played the Thal leader, Alydon, described his look as having “John Wayne legs, chest with no hair and, on the top, the head of Jean Shrimpton”, referring the dyed orange mod hairstyle, eye shadow and lipstick. This was the look of all the male Thals, and did cause one snag.

Seeking extras to play the non-speaking male Thals, Amicus recruited workers from London’s Covent Garden as they wanted well-built men who would look good in costumes that bared their arms and chest. In fact one of them was a young Mike Reid in his days before stand-up comedy and as Frank Butcher in the BBC’s EASTENDERS.

Despite being tough, working class guys, they were quite happy for the make-up girls to dress them in coloured wigs and facial make up. It was only when told their arms and chests were to be shaved that they objected, considering this to be an affront to their manhood. After negotiations, the inducement of more money persuaded them to comply.

Filming wrapped during April and went into post production, during which another problem with the Daleks became apparent. Flemyng had not appreciated that the flashing light bulbs on top of their heads were meant to synchronise with their speech, not just indicate which one was speaking. The Daleks’ dialogue had to be restructured and redubbed to fit the random pattern of the lights, which is why their speech is more broken than usual.

The finishing touch of the soundtrack was the music, and audiences expecting the legendary Ron Grainer television theme as realised by Delia Derbyshire were in for a disappointment. To keep within the budget, Subotsky had relented from acquiring the rights to use it and instead turned to Gerry Anderson’s resident composer Barry Gray to compose an entirely new score. The opening theme he came up with does echo the TV original in pace and tempo, though not too closely to qualify as infringement.

As it turned out, reaction from established fans to the unfamiliar music was to be the least of their concerns. The main criticism from youngsters upon seeing the finished film was that the Daleks did not do enough exterminating. In fact they only make a single actual kill when ambushing one of the Thals, despite the TV version showing more victims being zapped in its climatic battle.

Ironically this had been a deliberate move by the production team to protect those very complaining children from the Daleks being too frightening. Conversely, there was also awareness that children felt an empathy with the Daleks, or more pointedly the helpless small creatures inside them.

Barrie Ingham recalled how there was “this feeling amongst kids at the time not to be too beastly to the Daleks because they kind of can’t help it… they were kind of like kids.” DOCTOR WHO writer Terence Dicks later pointed out “Every little kid likes the idea of getting inside a Dalek and zooming around giving mum, dad, teacher and anyone else who gets up their nose a quick exterminating blast!”

Consequently there was a conscious decision not to have the protagonists be seen to destroy the Dalek creatures inside the casings themselves. The physical fight scenes were restricted to them to blinding or disabling the Dalek machines, pushing them down lift shafts or manoeuvring them into zapping one other.

For adults in the audience, however, the Daleks represented something far more unsettlingly real. Their parallel with the Nazis is one which would be made more explicit in the 1975 television story GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, but Terry Nation was deliberate about the implication right from the start. The Dalek perception of the Thals as being genetically different “monsters” who must be purged once and for all can be read as a paradigm of the “Final Solution”, their cries of “Exterminate” coming with the same association.

Being still less than twenty years since the full horror of the Holocaust was uncovered, that aspect was perhaps still too uncomfortable for audiences at the time and not more fully dwelt upon. But as a subtext it was very much intended by Terry Nation and the original serial producer Verity Lambert, unlike some other interpretations put upon the film at the time of its release.

One sequence that attracted critical attention is one where Dr Who is trying to persuade the pacifistic Thals to fight the Daleks for their very lives. When they refuse to compromise their principle of non-aggression, he urges Ian to take one of their women to the Dalek city as an offering. Not realising this is a bluff, the woman’s male companion is outraged at the apparent betrayal and violently punches Ian, to which Dr Who declares “You see, there is something you’ll fight for.”

This message of morally justifiable aggression was certainly recognisable to those who had lived through the war, but controversial among critics across the political board. The reviewer for the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph commented “Very immoral, the way (Dr Who) overcomes his allies’ tendency to pacifism”, while the left wing Daily Worker was even more outraged at what it saw as “a rather blimpish and militaristic” film “in which pacifists were persuaded to become war-like citizens”.

Yet an alternative Marxist perspective could just as easily interpret the sequence as a call to the landless proletariat represented by the Thals to rise up against their materialist, property owning oppressors, the Daleks. This just goes to show the diversity of meanings that critical evaluation can read into a narrative if it tries hard enough.

Most reviewers of the time concentrated on grudgingly acknowledging the appeal of the Daleks while faulting the film on other levels. Alexander Walker wrote “I am not at all surprised that the Daleks are so popular, I am only a bit depressed. For Terry Nation’s armour-jointed serial on BBC TV, now mutated into a wide-screen Technicolour movies, embodies everything I shrink back from in daily life.”

Barry Norman undoubtedly shared the annoyance of fans with Roy Castle’s buffoonish portrayal of Ian, commenting “If there is a door to be hurtled through, a box of chocolates to be sat on, a pratfall to be taken, Mr Castle hustles, sits and takes, skidding through the film like a man on a banana skin.” However, he also admitted the production had “all the preposterous ingredients for box-office success.”

At least the critics were right about that. The film premiered at the Studio One cinema on Oxford Street on 24th June 1965 before a national release on 22nd August. Distributors British Lion invested in a blanket advertising campaign which paid off with queues outside the cinemas and reported takings of £2000 by the close of the first week. Over the Christmas period of that year, a further hundred copies of the film were ordered for distribution. Little wonder it became one of the top twenty grossers at the U.K. box office for 1965.

The film’s success was undoubtedly due to its timing. Dalekmania was to hit its zenith during the Christmas period with stores across the U.K. packing an estimated 160 different items of Dalek merchandise, further promoted by an epic 12 part Dalek TV adventure which the BBC screened in the run up to and during the festive season. A big screen Dalek movie in colour around this time simply could not fail.

Paradoxically, this may also partly explain why DR WHO AND THE DALEKS did not do so well in America when released there the following year by Continental Distributing. The television show had yet to be aired Stateside and wouldn’t be until the 1970s when Time-Life imported episodes of the Jon Pertwee series for syndication. Consequently the Daleks were unknown to Americans and the film had to rely on its own merits, which clearly were not enough.

The film’s under performance in America has also been blamed on a lack lustre promotion campaign by the executive who acquired it for U.S. release, Walter Reade, the most notable coverage being a post-release feature in the May 1967 issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.  Even so, the very English, whimsical approach taken by Milton Subotsky was unlikely to connect with American movie audiences at that time.

Interestingly, Gold Key published a comic book adaptation of the film to coincide with the U.S. release which played down the comedic elements. In particular, the film’s closure where having arrived back on Earth, The TARDIS doors are opened to reveal a legion of Roman soldiers marching by, causing Ian to run round the control room and clumsily flick switches in panic.

The Gold Key version has the TARDIS materialising in the Stone Age instead of back home, and Dr Who promptly taking off again. The strip then concludes open ended with the TARDIS in transit and Susan wondering where they will actually end up, hinting at a possible comic book series. This did not follow but at least it gave DOCTOR WHO its first break into the American comics market, which would not be repeated until 1980 when Marvel reprinted strips from its UK produced DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY in its MARVEL PREMIER showcase.

The lack of an American breakthrough did not concern Amicus too unduly. Its box office success in the domestic market was more than enough to warrant a sequel and plans immediately went into operation to get a second Dalek film out the following year. The producers sensed the Dalekmania craze would not last forever and they would have to move fast to capitalise on it.

Having secured Peter Cushing and Roberta Tovey back on board, THE DALEKS INVADE EARTH was announced and pre-production began. And with it came a whole new set of challenges.

Words: Barry McCann

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