In the early 1960s, Hammer had scored a considerable hit by issuing pirate movies (The Pirates of Blood River, The Devil-Ship Pirates) specifically timed to meet the demands of children on the school summer holidays. Milton Subotsky, who had successfully taken on Hammer at the horror game, saw the potential to rival these holiday films too. He acquired the rights to the first Dalek story from the BBC’s Doctor Who series and gained co-financing from another American, Joe Vegoda, whose chief specification was that the films go out under the Aaru name rather than Amicus. Realising that they still needed an international name to front the picture, Subotsky cast Cushing as Dr Who without an audition.
Cushing considerably softened William Hartnell’s portrayal of the mysterious alien time-traveller, making him everyone’s favourite Uncle, a kindly, dotty, distinctly terrestrial boffin, though in his white wig, corduroy jacket and with perpetually bowed legs, he looks something like an elderly Wild West sheriff. Subotsky revised and simplified Terry Nation’s TV script, making it unequivocally family entertainment. While missing the intensity of the black-and-white television serial, it remains a charming and endearing children’s film, bursting with colour and spectacle and catching, at several moments, a real sense of the magic of outer space.
In his home-made time machine TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) the eccentric Dr Who transports his grand-daughters Barbara and Susan, plus Barbara’s accident-prone boyfriend Ian, to the distant planet Skaro. Here they encounter the mutated Daleks, who inhabit robotic shells, and the blond, humanoid Thals. Thousands of years of war have reduced the planet to ashes, and the Thals have become pacifists. But now the Daleks plan to explode a neutron bomb to wipe out the Thals once and for all.
The film was shot between 12th March and 23rd April 1965 at Shepperton Studios. The director was Gordon Flemyng, with Roy Castle as Ian, Jennie Linden as Barbara and Roberta Tovey as Susan.
There is some childish comic business at the beginning with Castle (Cushing’s co-star in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) but once in his stride, Cushing is in total command. He gives an expression of undiluted wonder on seeing the surface of Skaro for the first time, and a terrific wink to Susan as he suggests they explore the futuristic city that they have seen in the distance. The petrified jungle set filled the whole of Stage H at Shepperton, at that time the biggest sound stage in England. It was partly lit from below with concealed lighting, and the anamorphic lenses were removed from the cameras for the jungle scenes to give a weird distortion to the picture. Director of photography John Wilcox came straight to the picture after finishing The Skull.
Roberta Tovey remembered that there was a magical atmosphere on the set. ‘Peter Cushing was a great flower man,’ she recalls. ‘For the scene when Susan finds a flower in the forest, he phoned up the Royal Horticultural Society and found the name, which I then had to remember.’ Before finishing the film Cushing agreed to do a sequel, on the condition that Tovey return as Susan.
The stars of the film are undoubtedly the Daleks themselves, possibly the most malevolent and certainly the most melodramatic robot-creatures in science fiction. (‘The Daleks are beyond reason,’ states the Doctor, ‘they wish only to conquer!’) £4500 of the budget was assigned for building the Daleks from the BBC’s plans and they look magnificent. Most importantly, the Daleks’ easily-imitated electronic voices were preserved intact from the television version, and in the echoing city they are genuinely unnerving.
Bryan Hands was one of the Dalek operators and had to control the Black Dalek during the climactic battle. ‘I suppose being the Dalek leader was a kind of honour,’ he said, ‘except that I was still inside it when it exploded!’ He remembers that Cushing was enthusiastic on set, and was concerned that the ‘Dalek boys’ were looked after. ‘He would occasionally join us in the canteen but would generally take to his dressing-room when not required.’
There are some breathtaking mattes for the crags of Skaro, Malcolm Lockyer’s music is equally monumental and at times strangely moving. There is also a grim moment when the Doctor realises that the travellers are dying of radiation sickness from the planet’s poisonous atmosphere. While this revelation is not quite as harrowing as it was on television, it is still a chilling touch for such an upbeat film.
Cushing provided a bewitching narration for the trailer – ‘Come with us into that strange new world. I cannot guarantee your safety ... but I can promise you unimagined thrills!’ – and, riding on the success of the Daleks on television, the film was one of the top ten British films of the year. Like Dracula, there were queues round the block at cinemas. ‘Kids will love it,’ said the People. ‘Their parents will find this gigantic schoolboy lark Dalektable!’ ‘The dotty Doctor is played by Peter Cushing rather in the manner of a mad hatter looking for a lost tea party,’ wrote Leonard Mosely in the Daily Express on 23rd June.
Although Terry Nation had reservations about the big-screen version of his story, his contract gave him a percentage of the profits. Nation recalled with some amusement that the film’s blockbusting success meant that Subotsky was forced to pay up with the royalties after the first year.