The wildest space adventure on…or off the Earth!
The BBC television series Dr. Who remains one of the longest-running and most enduringly popular programs ever created. It ran from 1963 to 1989, a whopping 26 seasons. This beloved show has also been the source for a number of television specials and feature films. Dr. Who has also attracted a sizeable cult following on this side of the pond over the years, attracting devoted fans willing to stay up far into the night to catch it on local PBS stations. In 1965, when the show was relatively young but sweeping the UK, producer Milton Subotsky decided to produce a big-screen version, which now makes its way to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Who (Peter Cushing—Star Wars, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, Dracula A.D. 1972) is a kindly, slightly befuddled grandfather who happens to be an eccentric scientific genius. He is often assisted by his granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey—Operation Third Form, Not in Front of the Children) and Barbara (Jennie Linden—Women in Love, A Severed Head, Vampira) who appear to share his love of things scientific. Dr. Who (yes, he is really called that in this version) has invented a time machine in his backyard. For reasons unexplained (in this version, at least) it is disguised as a British police call box, a sort of emergency phone booth. He calls his machine the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.
While the Doctor is showing off his invention, Barbara's boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle—Carry On up the Khyber, Legend of the Werewolf) accidentally activates the machine and sends them off to an unknown location in time and space. They find themselves on a stark, dead planet surrounded by a ruined landscape and petrified flora and fauna. The planet is the site of an ongoing struggle between two races. There are the mysterious Daleks, who have built mechanized robotic shells to keep themselves alive in the face of the radiation and destruction, and the humanoid Thals who wear far too much makeup and happen to have discovered a drug to protect themselves from the radiation and keep them alive without the protective coverings required by the Daleks.
Curious to explore this world, the Doctor fakes an equipment malfunction and ventures into the Dalek city with the three young people. They soon take it upon themselves to get involved in the final battle of the age-old struggle between the Daleks and the Thals.
Once again, Anchor Bay comes through with an excellent DVD of a cult film. Dr. Who and the Daleks is presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. They have done an outstanding job with this transfer, especially given the age of the movie. The image overall is very sharp and clear, with a minimum of background artifacting and surprisingly little film grain evident. Colors are crisp and faithfully rendered, including the tricky reds and blacks, and the deep blue of the TARDIS police box. The few drawbacks to the transfer are that it seems slightly dark for most of the running time, and colors tend to be a bit oversaturated and garish in places. Still, these drawbacks are minimal and for the most part Anchor Bay has done an excellent job.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Sound quality is good but not great. There is no noticeable distortion or hiss, but dialogue does come through as a bit muffled and hard to understand from time to time, as though the audio is skewed a bit to the low register and has sacrificed high-end clarity.
Anchor Bay generally provides a solid repast of extra content, and this disc is no exception. First up is a theatrical trailer, narrated by Peter Cushing and terribly cheesy. There is a huge collection of posters and production stills, totaling around 77 in all. I've never been a big fan of static photo galleries on DVD, but this collection shows a lot of effort on the part of the good folks at Anchor Bay. There is an extensive "photo essay" on the history of Dr. Who, with several pages of text accompanied by photographs. It is very thorough, and very honest in pointing out where Dr. Who and the Daleks diverges from the accepted background of the television series. There is also an extensive biography of Peter Cushing, again filling many screens with text and photos paying tribute to his extraordinary life and wildly varied career.
This disc also includes a commentary track featuring Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey and moderated by journalist/British cult film expert Jonathan Sothcott. The two women are quite chatty and pleasant, and Sothcott helps greatly by asking appropriate questions to direct the conversation, and providing additional background information as needed. Together they supply some interesting anecdotes about the film, as well as some nice information about Peter Cushing and Ray Lovejoy. As one might expect they approach the details of filmmaking from an actor's point of view, and give an interesting account of their experiences and struggles. It is fairly informative, both in terms of the movie itself and the larger Dr. Who phenomenon. They both appear to have a genuine affection for this movie and the time they spent making it, and this makes the commentary track a pleasant listening experience.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the DVD is very nice, the movie itself is not. It is Dr. Who in name only, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the mythos established by the television series. In the television series the main character is an alien, a Timelord from the planet Gallifrey, whose adventures through time and space are partly the result of curiosity, partly misfortune, and partly some Quantum Leap-style do-gooding. He is referred to as simply "The Doctor," no more name than that, and certainly never as "Dr. Who." Also, while he has been portrayed by a number of actors over the years, he always maintains a level of intellectual superiority which gives the character a certain edge and attitude. In the big screen version all of this careful backstory is jettisoned in favor of a warm and cuddly, very human old man called "Dr. Who." The reasoning for this is that the powers behind the picture wanted it to be a box office success in the United States as well as in Britain. American audiences had not seen the BBC series yet by the time the movie was to premiere in 1965, so the producers cut out anything that they though might confuse the dullards on the west side of the Atlantic. In the process they destroyed everything that makes the television series interesting and imaginative.
That Dr. Who and the Daleks has none of these things is of course its greatest failing. However, even without the superior BBC version for comparison this movie would be a disappointment. The plot is weak, and the theme of convincing the peaceful, pastoral good guys to rise up and fight their evil oppressors is far older than any time or place The Doctor has ever visited. and depends far too much on amazing coincidences and leaps in logic. The dialogue is terrible and leaden, and favors long expository passages, especially when delivered by the Daleks in their loud, metallic, halting voices.
Then there are the Daleks themselves, which never appear as a credible threat. For such a formidable, technologically advanced race they are remarkably easy to outwit and destroy. The final confrontation between the Daleks and the Thals plays out more as slapstick comedy than anything else. Many times a given human or Thall character will merely sneak up behind a Dalek and point it at another one, which it obligingly fires on and destroys. At one point several characters lasso a Dalek and hurl it down an open elevator shaft. At another point a Dalek charges across a room and runs into a wall and explodes for no apparent reason. These ungainly, '60s-kitsch robots fail utterly to give any sense of danger or dread.
The bright spot in all this comes from two acting performances. Peter Cushing's take on the role is altogether too soft and friendly, but he gives a solid performance. The other impressive performance comes from Roberta Tovey, who was only about 11 or 12 years old when the movie was made. She gives a surprisingly good performance for a child actor, and responds well in a number of situations. It's a shame her later acting career never really caught on. These two actors give the only noticeably good performances in a movie filled with quasi-profound pronouncements and an overall lack of energy on the part of most performers.
At only 83 minutes, Dr. Who and the Daleks barely qualifies as feature-film length. Still, it is one of the longest movies I have seen in a long time. It took me three tries to get through it awake, and when I finally did, I realized that I hadn't missed much. The makers of this movie took an intelligent and witty television program and turned it into a mindless, sterile, harmless movie pitched to the kiddies. Whatever this is, it is certainly not Dr. Who. I advise you to avoid this movie and check out the BBC series instead.
Dr. Who and the Daleks, along with those who made it, is guilty. Peter Cushing and Roberta Tovey are acquitted on the strength of their acting performances. Anchor Bay is cleared of all charges except for "neglect of English subtitles."
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, and Author Jonathan Sothcott
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