Starring: Peter Cushing, Roy Castle, Roberta Tovey, Jennie Linden
Directed by: Gordon Flemyng
If you were asked, out of a clear blue sky, to name a movie that could benefit from a 4K restoration, you’d struggle to get a better candidate than Doctor Who and the Daleks. In almost everything it does, the film’s unique selling point is in its scale, its size, and its colour, all of which are absurdly enhanced by a 4K version.
The original impact of the film is almost impossible to calculate. It was released in 1965, just two years after the version that went out on TV and turned Doctor Who from a slightly ropey show involving cavemen into the smash hit TV sensation it would remain for years.
But whereas a lot of the power of the original was in the combination of imaginations of writer Terry Nation and designer Ray Cusick, the TV version of The Daleks (The Dead Planet, or whichever other name it now fashionably goes by) was a story told within the budgets and time constraints of the early 1960s BBC. It was black and white, it was constructed and set on a small studio floor, and it was of course created almost boldly in contravention of show creator Sydney Newman’s decree about there being “no bug-eyed monsters” in the show.
Just two years later, the story would be re-told on the big screen, with a motion picture budget (albeit a relatively small one), and it would be told in glorious, glorious colour.
Daleks in Colour!
Imagine that for a second. Colour wouldn’t come to the TV version of Doctor Who for another five years, and another two whole incarnations. This was a time when the very idea of there being “other” incarnations of the Doctor hadn’t even hit screens.
Producer and screenwriter Milton Subotsky knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, what he was up to with the first Doctor Who movie. Colour is everywhere here, from the trippy title sequence (no, it’s not as good or mysterious as the TV one of the time, but it does think carefully about how to translate the same sense of mystery to the big movie screen without creeping out its audience) to the weirdly aesthetic Dalek city, to the vampish eye make-up stylings of the Thals and the weirdly colourful lighting of the petrified forest, right through to the Daleks themselves.
And oh, the Daleks themselves. Red, blue, gold, you name it, there’s a rainbow and a half of Daleks here, and while they made a big enough presence on the black and white screen, here, their extra ‘bumper car’ skirts, their sheer size, and their colour combinations make them both full-on power-packed bullies, and impossible to tear your eyes away from whenever they’re on screen.
The Time Tunnel Effect
Again, if you were choosing a single movie to get a 4k restoration, all of those things would scream to you in favour of doing over Doctor Who and the Daleks, because in this version, everything’s ridiculously crisp, redolent, and colourful, and the effect is that you forget you’re watching a movie that’s nearly sixty years old.
That’s an impressive upgrade, not because it brings the film up to modern visual standards, but because it does the other thing – it telescopes you down a time-tunnel and makes you an 8 or 10-year-old in 1965, watching the big-screen Daleks with as much awe and excitement as you would have, had you been there in your local fleapit cinema of a Saturday morning, when the world of the Daleks suddenly exploded across your vision, bigger and bolder and just… just… better than they’d ever done on your little black and white TV in the corner.
If the 4k restoration does anything to add to your experience of this movie, that’s fundamentally it – it restores not just the picture quality, or the colour balance, or the sound. It gives you back the sensation of being there when it first came out, and helps you appreciate quite how different an experience the movie was from anything TV Doctor Who had so far managed to do.
The Daleks’ Master Quibbles
We can quibble forever about the film itself, and fans always will.
Peter Cushing is doing a kind of 1965-Hartnell impression – much more twinkle and affability than the original who starred in the TV version of the story. That’s entirely understandable given the pressures of the time – there had been no other Doctors than Hartnell, so at that point the idea of delivering an interpretation of the character that wasn’t based in the Hartnell original was probably unthinkable.
But the TV Doctor had softened around the edges with the arrival of Vicki, and it was a sensible move to make the movie Doctor that twinkly version, rather than the spiky original, because he only had an hour and a half to charm his audience, not an almost year-long TV run. It’s also of course worth remembering that neither Doctor Who, nor Hartnell himself, was any kind of known entity in the US in 1965, so keeping Hartnell in the role for the movie – even had his health and the TV shooting schedule allowed – would have been a death sentence for the film, right out of the gate.
The Firsts in the Movie
If you can get through the first five minutes of set-up – which make this Doctor entirely different to the mysterious TV version, not least by being human, and being called “Dr Who” – there’s a lot to love about the film. We see the Tardis for the first time in what Matt Smith would eventually call “the bluest blue.” Opening the doors of “Tardis” (rather than “the Tardis”), we get the first time the effect of the size of its interior really works. On TV, it was effective enough to open up a small box and find a bright white room inside, but in the movie version, the room is huge, as it has been for the whole of New Who, and the Eighth Doctor TV movie version too. It blows our minds in a way in which the TV version of the Sixties never quite managed.
And yes, yes, the differences. Barbara as a member of the “Who” family. Susan no longer an oddish teenager but a relatively unphased young girl with arguably the biggest brain in her family. Roy Castle as Ian, openly sweet on Barbara and much more of a pratfalling Norman Wisdom-style goofball to start with than William Russell’s stand-up post-war Ian ever was. It all makes for a very different fundamental feel to the TV version.
But oddly, in this version more than any of its previous releases, you get the sense coming through that if you were going to launch a movie based on a British TV series to an audience that included Americans even today, this is probably how you’d re-engineer the premise of the show.
Sure, you’d eventually have to re-invent a way for regeneration to work, but there’s not enough that’s objectionable about the “Human Who” to make it unthinkable compared to the TV version. And it’s worth remembering that while Hartnell had delivered a speech about getting back to his own people and planet, at the time the movie was released, we were still four years away from meeting the Time Lords and starting to nail down the Doctor’s exact origins.
The point is that the film manages to deliver in just under 90 minutes what on TV filled something closer to three hours, doesn’t feel like it skimps much, and gives you a vast number of full-colour, wide-bodied but still hugely menacing Daleks for the price of admission. There’s no way you can say you feel cheated after that.
And the 4k restoration delivers it straight down your eyeballs in the best quality you will ever have seen it in, and makes you that child you may never have been (you’d have to be in your mid-sixties to have seen the film on its original release).
If you take away one headline from this review, that should be it – the 4k restoration is worth getting for the effect of the film alone.
Extras of the Daleks
There are of course a bunch of extras with this release. And, just to complicate matters, there are several levels of release, with more goodies if you buy the Collector’s Edition (including posters, art cards, a book of essays, and a special collector’s coin). If you go for the standard version, you get a couple of highly enjoyable commentary tracks – one with Roberta Tovey and Jennie Linden (Susan and Barbara in the movie) reminiscing about the actual experience of filming the movie, and one with a bunch of writers – Kim Newman, Robert Shearman (who wrote Dalek and reintroduced the Daleks to New Who), and Mark Gatiss (who, among other things, wrote Victory of the Daleks, reintroducing huge Daleks to the show in the Matt Smith era). Either of these commentary tracks would be worth listening to, and you get both, which might well involve you watching the same movie three times on the run – once to hear the actual dialogue, and once each for the different commentary tracks.
There are some chunky additional extras too, of the kind that really make this release stand on its own two feet. There’s a piece on the Dalek Legacy, focusing on the first ‘way’ we saw the Daleks, as aliens on their own planet, trapped but planning to escape. There’s a documentary on the making of the restoration, which it’s worth watching after you finish the movie, so your senses are primed with appreciation for the information that comes at you.
A piece on Dalekmania (the phenomenon that helped save Doctor Who from an early and ignominious death, and which was still raging when the movie was launched) helps put the film into historical (as well as financial) perspective. And an interview with Gareth Owen (author of The Shepperton Story – worth picking up separately, incidentally) adds more than you’d imagine, including revelations on who exactly played the 18 (count them – 18!) Daleks seen in the movie, and how the movie Dalek redesign came about.
All in all, there’s never been a better time to re-embrace your Inner Eight-Year-Old, grab some snacks, turn the lights down low and make believe you’re watching Doctor Who and the Daleks for the first time. And there’s never been a better way to watch it since 1965 than in this 4k restoration.
What are you waiting for? The Saturday treat of your childhood dreams is waiting for you. Tony Fyler