It’s 50 years since the Dalek’s last big screen outing. The 1960s were packed with science-fiction invasions, but this was something else. Riding on the unexpected wave of Dalekmania, the fiendish pepper pots of hate were ascending through pop-culture awareness to immortality. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. released 50 years ago this month.
Print the neg-a-tive!
“I didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters and the Dalek is what made Doctor Who” – Sydney Newman
AFTER BEATLEMANIA, THERE WAS DALEKMANIA. THEY ARRIVED ON SCREEN AT THE VERY TAIL OF 1963, FAMOUSLY THOSE BEMS SNEAKING PAST PRODUCER SYDNEY NEWMAN’S BLANKET BAN. And classic, early production issues with their resulting risky decisions by a producer, in this case the inimitable Verity Lambert, is what phenomenon is made of. True enough, by the end of their first serial in February 1964, the Daleks were a hit, and Doctor Who with them. Come the end of that year the pepper pot tyrants had seeped into popular consciousness, happily employed in newspaper cartoons and headlines. They would return the following year, for not one but two seven part serials. None of the other early Who monsters earned a repeat, let alone triggered a cultural shock. Those quick returns, all penned by their creator Terry Nation, remain the perfect comebacks against which all of the Doctor’s foes must be measured. Perfect escalation.
After the travails of that first story on their home planet of Skaro, the show’s first alien world with its distinctive petrified forest, deadly whirlpools and gleaming city, they then made it to Earth. It was an planet, a country, very familiar to the one we knew, but set in the exotic reaches of the 22nd century. An utterly alien and yet a terribly familiar environment where the monsters had… Won. And everyone, after years of occupation looked like they were from the 1960s. That Wyndham-styled sequel was followed by a third story in the show’s second year that saw the Daleks build on their mastery of space to tackle time, pursuing the TARDIS crew through various points of history and future.
Simply named, The Chase was the Doctor’s first odyssey, a lightweight but spectacular blockbuster tale completing a set and thrilling the viewing public. It’s a miracle of the show, but testament to the power of the Daleks, that each of those first three serials survive in their entirety. Sadly, the same is not true of their fourth and most extravagant story. The 12-part Daleks’ Masterplan sought to tie up winter for the third year in a row. Now almost entirely missing, it was an epic journey of galactic politics and suitably imposing McGuffin, the Time Destructor: a devastating weapon that could do just that. Combining intrigue and invasion with the multi-location approach of The Chase, that adventure would conclude the monster’s first age. Credited with half the episodes, something rather scoffed at by then script editor Donald Tosh, it would be Terry Nation’s television swansong to his creations during the 1960s. He had other plans for his deadly creations.
The Daleks barely changed…
No one mind produced the Daleks full-formed and ready to exterminate like Victory of the Daleks’ Progenator. Their design was typically fortuitous. Nation’s script directions had been light, really only specifying that they should not have legs, apparently inspired by dancers Nation had seen glide across a dance floor. When young BBC designer Ridley Scott wasn’t available, the job fell to Raymond Cusick who had mere hours to formulate their look. The classic anecdote that the distinctive design came from the designer sliding a pepper pot across a canteen table is apparently apocryphal. That happened, but only when Cusick demonstrated the movement of his design, already based around the idea of a man encased in a sitting position.
The final design would become a 1960s classic, and it had staying power. Cybermen came to be defined by upgrading and change, other monsters would return during the classic run with vastly different designs (Sontarans) or when they arrived in the 21st century New Series new budgets and design allowed them to update (Ice Warriors, Zygons)… But the Daleks barely changed. That’s not to say there haven’t been considerable attempts to do so. But the spider modification that would have met brought the Daleks to the mid-90s American series were ultimately pushed into expanded universe fiction. The poorly thought through New Paradigms of 2010, while not as huge a change as they first appeared, were quickly dissolved in the in-continuity spats of renegade factions and racial purity that dogged Dalek culture since the 1960s.
It’s of crucial importance that the Daleks have retained the same, undeniably distinctive shape and design for over 50 years. With most Doctor Who monsters, any lay man would struggle to identify one from its shadow. Not so a Dalek. Everyone knows that.
And soon to become science fiction’s premier recurring fascists, it’s fitting they looked ridiculous from the start.
Growing the mutants
Thousands of years sat enclosed on metal walkways in their supreme ignorance.
Nation based his famous foes on the ideology and beliefs of the Nazi threat that had dominated his childhood. The Second World War broke out shortly after his ninth birthday and that menace informed much of the Cardiff-born writer’s work throughout his career. But although he termed the Daleks his “intergalactic Nazis” some of his stories would stress those parallels more obviously than others. It would never be more overt than when Nation returned to their roots on Skaro in 1974’s classic The Genesis of the Daleks. There he explored the final days of the Kaled humanoids on Skaro and created an on-screen alter-ego for himself. The other creator. A maniacal, disfigured combination of Fuhrer and Mengele, surrounded by his Schutzstaffel, who would come to dominate the Daleks for the remainder of the Classic Series run.
For the 11 years prior to Davros’ reveal, his prodigal children had enjoyed a glorious run of evil, one split into various ages. Wonderfully deceitful scheming, neither robots nor unemotional, but every action dictated by their frustrated hatred for anything different to them, they sit distinct in the Who canon as having a traceable if confused and time twisted story. We know far more about them than their nemesis, the Doctor, or indeed his race, the Time Lords. And watching the Doctor’s first on-screen trip to an alien planet, certainly one alien to him, he may have started Dalekmania, but also triggered their journey across the universe in the fabric of the show. There’s a strange substance in staring into the blank light of a Dalek eye-stalk. But also, thinking back to those thousands of years they sat enclosed on metal walkways in their supreme ignorance.
That initial tale found them intriguingly unaware of the rest of the universe, but masters of their own gleaming city, happy in their simple and defining hatred of the blond, (now) peaceful Thals who also inhabited their continent, but making little effort to eradicate them. The racial difference was clear, even in those early days, unenlightened of the Daleks’ true origins. Those analogies were given plenty of rope in their return, the successful invasion of Earth and enslavement of the human race in the 22nd century. The Dalek Invasion of Earth probably stands second only to The Genesis of the Daleks as the greatest exploration of the monsters as intergalactic Nazis. From then, the strains of ruthless, twisted and evil remained but shone through a prism of monarchy, technology, identity, fraud and internal rebellion during the Second Doctor’s tenure, both under the pen of David Whitaker. Whitaker was eager to provide the fiends a huge send-off just four years on from their introduction, as again Terry Nation had other plans, mostly involving dangling them like carrots in front of American television networks, having had a spin-off project shelved by the BBC. It looked like they were on their way out, and the threat of the Cybermen grew to fill the vacuum.
They couldn’t survive on their own.
In late 1963, the unexpected popularity of the Daleks made Doctor Who. Much to the BBC’s surprise it turned a light, educational show into a ratings winner. But the armoured aggressors that secured the show’s future also set a trap. With rights split between the BBC and Terry Nation, a balanced equation was written that has niggled up until the show’s successful reboot in 2005. Dalekmania didn’t just see the show transformed into a hit, and find kids screaming “Exterminate!” In the school yard. A slew of merchandise quickly emerged to take hold of children’s imaginations and pocket money. The appeal and potential of the creation was clear, but they couldn’t survive on their own. While the likes of the Dalek Chronicles surfaced in the pages of comic Century 21 in the mid-1960s, credited to Terry Nation but often penned by others, the Daleks needed airtime to maintain their popularity; they were in a symbiotic relationship with the show that spawned them. No heroic Doctor, no Daleks.
The Dalek Movies
To the Big Screen
The Daleks are utterly transformed as technicolour beasts…
Which is why what became known as the Dalek Films of the 1960s, not only brought the pepper pot fiends to the big screen, but many familiar trappings of the show with them. There was the design of the monsters, their sentiment and an adaptation of their first story itself – that was all wrapped up when film studio Amicus bought the rights to the Daleks’ first appearance and the option of two sequels from the BBC for £500.
Distant and removed from a television series that hadn’t notably changed by the time it was released, Dr Who and the Daleks emerged in the UK in August 1965, two months after the Daleks’ third serial had aired on television and three months before their grand Masterplan began. Major diversions from the original Dalek serial were few in the loosely adapted £180,000 production, and almost all driven by the drastically reduced story time. Most fell on the crew of the TARDIS. Dragged along for the trip, the character names remained the same, but this time the questionably named Dr Who was a bona-fide human scientist who had constructed his time ship TARDIS in his back garden. Dimensionally transcendent for no good reason in the form of a Police Box, it was the eccentric genius’ intention to travel through time and space with his granddaughters Susan and Barbara. That is until the rather hapless Ian Chesterton barges in and sets the machine in motion with his backside.
The interior of TARDIS is vastly different to that of the television show. It’s a mass of wires with little structure, but then never intended for episodic storytelling. Of the TARDIS crew Susan is younger than on television, a child who’d make no concession to growing 1960s culture as her counterpart had. Ian and Barbara may be a couple in waiting, but are by no means inquisitive teachers or voices of reason. Ian’s main role is comic pratfalling in the capable shoes of Roy Castle, rather than acting as ears and eyes into this strange new universe.
Dr Who himself, in the wonderfully against type form of Peter Cushing, is nowhere near as irritable or crafty as his television incarnation. He displays genuine and continually concern for his wards and wrenches that side of the story into a much more peaceful state, despite his early deception, helped greatly by the run-time. His ruse to provoke the Thals to conflict is there, but short-hand compared to the televised version. And it doesn’t quite ring true as a result. Even though a throwaway line in the sequel suggested that the Thals had risen to ascendency on the planet and pushed the Daleks out, a lot is rushed on a planet of prolonged stagnation.
But the changes are to a certain extent inconsequential in a condensed story that works almost beat for beat to the original template. It’s a heady mix of The Time Machine, 50s B-movies and the intrinsically British television show it adapted.
The real change came in the spectacle. And of course, that was in the full employ, for the first time of colour. It would be seven years before the Daleks broke into colour on the small screen, and they’ve never looked better than in their big screen outings. The Daleks are utterly transformed as technicolour beasts.
Design of the Daleks
Some consider the fire extinguisher weaponry lacks a punch line..
The change isn’t drastic of course, but must have been mesmerising for children whose only experience of colour Daleks were in cast toy form and books. The light ‘ears’ were extended from the hemispheres of the television show, and a vibrant, warning red. The length was happily picked up for the 2005 reboot redesign. Huge platform bases added height on their counterparts, while they boasted vibrant colour schemes. Blue and silver with gold trim for the standard varieties, leaders shone in red and black against the huge metallic sets of multi-colour pastel. Why colour is important to Daleks remains inexplicable, but thank goodness it does. In place of the usual plunger, some accessorised with rather sinister claws.
When it came to weaponry, thoughts of flamethrowers were quickly vetoed on set, but a more physical solution did make it on to the big screen. It’s a divisive answer. Some consider the fire extinguisher weaponry lacks a punch line and should have been completed with an optical effect. While it can appear loose and highlight the erratic approach to extermination of creatures obsessed with killing. there’s no doubting the power of massed Daleks swarming and extinguishing humanoids in streams of vapour.
The original serial had featured some stunning FX and production work, from the petrified forest to the far off city. The whirlpool threat of the swamp lands, to the long shot of the secondary party climbing through the Skaro cave system. But the film could raise the profile of everything. There’s more of the vertical, far more of the wonder in director Gordon Flemyng’s hands. A television director, Flemyng rose to the challenge.
Return to Earth
“Attention! Attention! Survivors of London!”
To the anniversary. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. hastily arrived in August 1966, a more avant-garde affair than its predecessor despite its more pedestrian setting. Dr Who and the Daleks had little time for set-up, but was beaten by the silent caper of Bernard Cribbins’ copper Tom Campbell injured by criminals during a smash and grab and falling into a handy Police Box. As a passerby says, “that’s always happening round here”. The more immediate jump into action is warranted, within seconds the TARDIS crew and the erstwhile new companion (“Of course it’s not Sunday, I’m playing football Sunday”) brushing through the concept of time travel to arrive in an epic set of devastated London, soon separated from the definite article TARDIS and each other. The Doctor, now named as such, with Tom Campbell, and Susan with new addition, the Doctor’s niece Louise. The location and threat is closer, the involvement of the protagonists more disparate.
It’s easier to see where the padding of the original serial is swatted away, especially when the heroes fight their way out of London to Bedfordshire. Terry Nation’s love of mutant creatures found little room in the movie universe. The previous film had spent little time explaining the cybernetic nature of the Daleks, with only one claw visible during the hijacking of a travelling unit thanks to studio concerns. While in the mine area, the Daleks appear not to have brought any guard-monstrosities with them to keep the local slaves in check. Second only to the prominent branding of Sugar Puffs is the full pelt action in the dangerous rubble of a familiar city.
“They’ve turned the whole of Bedfordshire into a gigantic mining area”
Talk of cosmic rays, destroyed continents, the forcible conditioning of humans into Robomen, pragmatic rebels, flawed rebellion and sacrifice as many Britons are put to a slow death in the Daleks’ gigantic mine… It’s bleak stuff and there’s little room for balance. The Thals had offered an opposing force and glimmer of hope in the alien world of the first film. On Earth, in Nation’s intergalactic retelling of a Second World War gone wrong, there is only the clean-cut need to beat the odds. While all the time, the Daleks who as ever are pretty feeble at achieving total domination, offer rebels the chance of “life” over a city-wide tannoy.
Focus on Humanity
“Obey motorised dustbins? We’ll see about that!”
And on the way, the film picks up the baser aspects of occupation and survival.
On the way to Bedfordshire, an odd euphemism, but a welcome departure from London, Susan and Wyler, played with gruff imperative by Andrew Keir, stumble across the fairytale cottage in the woods, with duly poisonous withes. Collaborators, able to survive through their betrayal, it’s a chilling side note. And while the Daleks’ first entrance had been true to form, rising from the River Thames, it wasn’t quite as iconic as the television version had managed two years before. The same cannot be said, oddly, of the Daleks’ appearance behind a curtain at the cottage. For all the realism in this oh-so contemporary future, it’s a scene that shows something’s been lost with the fantasy.
At the mine, the ever watchable Philip Madoc has little to do with his brief screen-time as Brockley, but makes his way into the memory. No move or statement isn’t loaded with threat or duplicity. When he sells the Doctor out only to be executed himself, Cushing’s weary acknowledgement that he expected as much is sublime. The perfect reverse of the absent-minded portrayal that was very much his own by this point.
And in London, again subject to less screen-time than his small screen counterpart, Godfrey Quigley’s Dortmun pulls as much as he can from his role as a crusading, flawed scientist. There’s perhaps less ambiguity in the character who’ll defy occupation at all costs but doesn’t quite have the brilliance needed to back up his plans (“at least we can make the gesture”). Still, when he makes his sacrifice, burying himself and the Daleks in rubble, it’s a brutal death.
The comedy and the major action comes in the landing site of the Dalek saucer in London. Scene of full-scale attack and futile rebellion it’s also where the ever-wonderful Bernard Cribbins can inject some comedy. The shimmering slave Robomen are something else in colour, in spite of their ungainly black shell suits and unnerving fixed, off-centre foil glasses. Inadvertently undercover, joining the slave ranks, Cribbins’ seizes his great comedy moment. All the better in a mess hall where the Daleks’ have insisted on labelling everything.
Come the end of the film, the plot resolved, the film series makes its only concession to the implication of time travel. Creating a paradox, Cribbins’ Campbell lands before his earlier failed arrest and is able to foil it. An odd ending, but while the TARDIS family wave before the Doctor ushers them back inside, Cribbins looks forward to his glittering promotion in the driving seat of a getaway car. “Detective Inspector Tom Campbell. OBE.” He says. Sir Bernard Cribbins more like it.
London to Bedford
“Attention all Robomen! Attack the Daleks!”
The documentary of the making of the films, Dalekmania, has ensured that the huge London set will be remembered for its injuries as well as its action. Particularly teeth-grinding is the stunt lapse that saw long-time Christopher Lee double Eddie Powell falling through rafters during an escape attempt. Thanks to a mis-timed joist collapse, he was left him with a broken ankle while being mass extinguished by the Daleks.
Talking of the fiends themselves, gifted with along ramp to access the craft, the revolt which sees one hapless pepper pot slung the length only to topple over amid a primed explosion almost resulted in a flambéed operator. Still, the set is vivid. If anything, it’s undone by the familiarity that the previous film never had a problem with. A slight issue on the depth of field left the ruined skyline painting of London looking entirely like that.
Similarly, the promise of Bedfordshire, a gigantic mine to the Earth’s core, could never live up to the hype. There is a lovely distance shot of the area, especially impressive during the final climactic saucer crash. But mine’s often come up short in films that place world or continent imperilling threats at their centre. The same was true of 1985’s A View to a Kill less than two decades later.
That said, the Doctor’s observation that Bedfordshire is not Texas or the Middle East propels the plot and helps fuel its Anglo-centric eccentricity. Add into that the Doctor’s audacious plan and all parties reuniting for the final assault and you have a satisfying if slightly underpowered film.
Sadly, this was to be the last live appearance of Cushing’s alternate Doctor. On television, the character was to regenerate in a few short months, only to face the Daleks in his first adventure, away from the pen of Terry Nation. On screen, Dr Who leaves on a high. His first cell-break aboard the Dalek saucer is wonderful,. As he immediately fails, unlike Dortmun’s inability to cope with his frustrated situation, Cushing opens his eyes to Dalek eye-stalks with a meek “Back in the cell?”
Cushing’s Doctor almost continued, but the idea for an ambitious 52 part radio series never made it into a production. A pilot did, penned by future Doctor Who writer Malcolm Hulke, although that’s been sadly lost to time. In the end, that Dr Who would move into occasional cameos in extended universe fiction.
The missing third
The film’s main legacy was to capture the zeitgeist of early Doctor Who…
Television tale The Chase was ready and primed to make it to the big screen but there wouldn’t be a third Dalek film amid disappointing box office returns and negative reviews that met the second instalment. While the first made it into the UK’s top 20 films 1965, America remained defiantly unbroken.
The film’s main legacy, while never achieving much affection in the minds of fans, was to capture the zeitgeist of early Doctor Who in Technicolour, wild and vibrant music and cinema ratio. It’s a sojourn to feature-length storytelling – something the Doctor’s never had much luck with – that is probably better regarded 50 years on than ever before. Nation would persist with plans for a third film many years afterwards, let alone attempt to drag them onto small screens across the Atlantic before he returned to the British series in the mid-1970s. Shame really. They would have fitted right into 1960s Original Series Star Trek, let alone made subsequent conventions of both mega-franchises a lot tastier.
Come 2005, eight years after Nation’s death, with the rights to the Daleks held in estate represented by his agent, the entwined fate of the Daleks and the Doctor was as prone to scuppering as it had been since they first met. Ultimately, amid considerable publicity, the Daleks did make it back to the series, taking main villain duties in the first series no less. And so the balance was re-established, continuing a fascinating tale of intellectual properties persisted in fighting as much off-screen as on.
At the close of Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D, the Doctor proclaims “They’ll never dare land here again,” concluding the film with a broad metaphor for digging deep enough to find the truth. It’s not the strongest conclusion the film could serve up, but fifty years on it resonates in the history of the Daleks, of which those curious 1960s film form just one, multi-coloured scheme.