“Dr. Who and the Daleks” (1965)

by A.J. Hakari


“Doctor Who” is a gargantuan force of geek culture that I’m not even sure I want to try to breach. One episode is all I’ve been convinced to watch thus far (sorry, Elise), and with the show’s history stretching back for so long, finding a good point to jump in is rather intimidating. Thus, I figured the 1965 feature Dr. Who and the Daleks would be as safe an introduction as possible, what with it being a stand-alone sci-fi outing with virtually no connection to its source program whatsoever. From what I gather, it’s not an embarrassment on as grand a scale as the Star Wars Holiday Special, but fans largely don’t like to talk about it, and as a man who’s seen many a corny genre spectacle in his time, this film is pretty unremarkable stuff.

Widely known otherwise as an alien visitor, Dr. Who and the Daleks recasts its title character as a kooky old human inventor, the Emmett Brown of his era. Peter Cushing plays the good doctor, who’s just whipped up his time- and space-hopping machine, the TARDIS, right in his back yard. But five minutes barely pass before a goof-up sends Who, his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey), and Barbara’s beau Ian (Roy Castle) careening across the cosmos. The gang ends up on a seemingly-barren planet, populated with just two races: pacifist models with He-Man hairdos, and the Daleks, mutated creatures who ride around in armored golf carts. The Daleks would love nothing more than to have the planet to themselves, and if they hope to see home again, Who and his companions must stop the floor scrubbers of doom at any cost.

As I mentioned before, my understanding of the Who-niverse is remedial at best, so you won’t hear any complaints about Dr. Who and the Daleks not sticking to canon, continuity, or what have you. But speaking as an aficionado of sci-fi cheese in general, the film can be almost unforgivably dull at times, which clashes with its bright visual spread and initially plucky spirit. For its first third, Dr. Who and the Daleks had me wrapped up in its can-do attitude, with Cushing’s character cheerfully accepting the prospect of exploring strange new worlds. The interior of the TARDIS is a rat’s nest of gadgets and gizmos, and the Daleks’ home base is a collage of flashing lights that’d get Katy Perry weeping. But soon after the plot starts taking over, that awe-inspiring sense of wonder and discovery fades fast, leaving you with a good 45 minutes of clanging and electronic belching before the credits finally pull the plug.

Dr. Who and the Daleks was meant to occupy a younger audience than production house Amicus was used to, but even that doesn’t excuse how the thin story is often stretched to near-transparency. Essentially, this is H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” with Doctor Who caught in a battle between peace-loving and war-hungry beings. The only difference is that they’re on another planet, but neither the characters or the stakes are developed enough for the conflict to get a rise from us. Pleasant as Cushing’s performance is, the Doctor can be a real idiot (it’s his fib that lands his family in danger to begin with), as are the facepalm-inducingly naive peaceniks he befriends. As for the Daleks, their design and concept is cool and all, but two straight minutes of their grating mechanical speech is all it took to have me dreading the villains for entirely different reasons. The supporting actors are okay, though Castle’s blundering Ian could’ve really eased up on the zany.

Colorful, boring, and completely harmless, Dr. Who and the Daleks is far from the basement-dwelling bastard child of the “Doctor Who” franchise. On the other hand, it’s not a great place to turn to for newcomers like myself who’re wondering what the big honking deal is with this series. I’m sure the show has a lot more enthusiasm regarding the fantastic, just as you can assume that Dr. Who and the Daleks isn’t a sterling example of what British science fiction cinema’s imagination can do.