Incredibly Bad Film Show: Dr Who and the Daleks

Dir: Gordon Flemyng
Star: Peter Cushing, Roberta Tovey, Roy Castle, Jenny Linden

The revival of Dr. Who by the BBC, beginning in 2005, has been one of the most spectacular successes of recent years. It resurrected a series which had, for all practical purposes, been dead and buried since 1989 – the previous reboot, in 1996 with Paul McGann, having been a one-shot TV movie flop. But McGann wasn’t the only person to play the Doctor outside the well-known regulars from the series. Indeed, if you add in Comic Relief spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death, and the list includes Richard E. Grant, Joanna Lumley, Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Grant – all of whom would have been interesting choices as the permanent incumbent.

Back in the 1960’s, Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two spin-off movies. The potential here was huge: after all, Cushing had already become the canonical Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing, as well as, arguably, Winston Smith and Sherlock Holmes. The concept of him playing a stern, Frankenstein-styled Doctor appealed enormously. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got: rather, the words “disastrous misfire” come to mind, particularly for the first movie.

I can’t categorically state this is not due to my expectations having been radically revamped by the new series. Much as I loved Tom Baker growing up, I haven’t dared watch any of the earlier series since we fell in love with the reboot – it could be a disaster, in line with the re-viewing of Blake’s 7, which only succeeded in shattering forever, my fondly-held teenage illusion that it was a good programme. Certainly, it seems likely the sixties Who was aimed more directly at kids, not the general audience for the new version. But even so… Sheesh, this is pretty bad.

And it’s bad, right from the opening credits. Excuse me, where is the Dr. Who theme? Y’know – OOO-weeee-ooo… Instead, we get some smooth jazz, over which it was just about possible to fit the “real” theme, if you hummed it loudly. And, trust me, we did. When we get to the Doctor, things get even worse, for he is simply a doddery old human, reading a comic in his arm-chair. Hello! Alien? Two hearts? Gallifrey? Time-lord? Not here. Cushing was only in his early fifties, but plays the part about twenty years older. And “Who”? Here, it’s his family name. I’ll repeat that: it’s his family name. Pause to roll eyes. Though unfortunately, his grand-daughters are named Barbara (Linden) and Susan (Tovey), rather than Cindy-Lou.

There is still the Tardis, here invented by the Doctor, and it whizzes the three of them, along with Barbara’s boyfriend, Ian (Castle), off to a distant planet, after Ian sits on the lever which operates it. That’s basically his role: to be a clumsy, inept and generally useless sidekick, and this may be the way in which the film differs furthest from the current series. The planet has largely been destroyed by a nuclear war, with the two races then diverging. One has retreated inside a city, donning metal suits to avoid the radiation and rolling around as the Daleks. The others, the Thals (above right), appear to have reverted to a culture based on a Las Vegas floor-show. They have a medicine allowing them to withstand the radiation; the Daleks want that, and when they discover it doesn’t work on them, prepare to explode another nuclear bomb that will jack the radiation up to lethal levels.

The Daleks are, frankly, a bit crap, and I speak as someone terrified of them as a child.  A major plot point is that they get their power through the floor, like dodgem cars, so have all the mobility of Scalextric models and can be stopped by pushing them onto anything insulated. When the humans works this out, it leads to Ian climbing into one, though the Doctor and Barbara then have to drag him around by the exterminating nozzle. It still proves capable of fooling the other Daleks. One wonders how they ever conquered the universe, since slopes and open lift shafts also prove… troublesome.

They… speak… very… very… slowly… and don’t even redeem themselves by yelling “Exterminate!” Their taste in interior design is interesting, with the decor including flanges made out of gold tin-foil and, of all things, lava lamps. Yes, lava lamps. As the screenshot above shows, we’re not kidding. We wondered if, perhaps, they also had one of those swing chairs and a few Roger Dean posters elsewhere in the complex.

Of course, this Doctor and his companions are a match as far as sharpness goes. After they escape, they head back to the Tardis to leave, everyone completely forgetting – teehee! – that a key component was still in the possession of the Daleks, having been taken when they “searched” the Doctor following his capture. Quotes used advisedly there, since it doesn’t even qualify as a cursory patdown from a bored night-club bouncer at the end of his shift. In their defense, you can’t do much, when you have a sink plunger and a pincer instead of opposable thumbs.

They team up with the Thals, who need to be convinced they must fight the Daleks. Again, this runs absolutely counter to the modern Doctor, to whom violence is abhorrent, to be avoided at all costs. Here, not so much: Cushing basically calls them a bunch of fags and makes clucking sounds until they agree to attack. Just in time, too, as the Daleks have started their 100-second countdown to exploding their nuclear weapon.

Two things stand out here. Firstly, it’s very accommodating of the Daleks to use Earth units – heck, they label their control panel in English, too. Secondly, what follows is the longest 100 seconds in cinematic history, the timer apparently only working when the camera is on it. The countdown runs for a full five and a half minutes before Ian causes the Daleks to turn all their weapons onto their own control panel, destroying both it and themselves. Oops. Like I said: how the hell did this lot ever become the terror of the universe?

Undaunted, much the same team created a sequel the following year, Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, whose main distinguishing feature is that it doesn’t entirely suck. The storyline is better thought out, some of the flying saucer special effects are surprisingly good (except for the crash at the end, which is clearly about eight inches high), and the supporting cast is helped by stalwarts such as Andrew Keir and Philip Madoc. There’s a nice resonance with the current series, in that one companion is Bernard Cribbins, who plays the grandfather of new companion Donna Noble for the reboot. Mind you, I could really have done without seeing him and Cushing in black PVC catsuits (left). That sort of thing needs to be strictly reserved for Honor Blackman.

Even by the low standards of mid-sixties science fiction, they are marginally tolerable at best, and the intervening near half-century has not been kind. Often reaching the jaw-droppingly bad level, it’s no wonder both films are treated with contempt bordering on loathing by Whovians, with the series canon denying their existence, due to the changes made to the beloved series. I’ll close with this exemplary example, from Invasion Earth, demonstrating how you can dispose of a massively-superior alien threat.


TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2010

It may be tied to the decline in our cinema-going, but we’re watching more TV at this point that any time I can remember. There have been occasions recently when our living-room Tivo has been unable to cope with the scheduling, as we try and record three programmes simultaneously – fortunately, there is also the bedroom DVR which can be used as a back-up. After jump, you’ll find the ten shows which have entertained us most reliably this year – unlike our 2008 listing, we’re just going in alphabetical order this time.

Note: there’s a couple of new shows in the fall season, Nikita and The Event, that have potential, but we haven’t seen enough episodes to be sure. They’ll qualify for next year’s listing (if I do one…).

Burn Notice (right). Now in its fourth season, it took a little while for the series to gain a hold – we might not have bothered, except for the presence of Bruce Campbell as a supporting character (we’ll cut anything with him in it some slack). Its tale of disenfranchised spy Michael Weston, stuck in Miami, didn’t initially seem to have much potential, and it wasn’t until the second season that the four central characters began to take hold. While largely a bunch of misfits, they are now gelling, and the stories are peppered with little nuggets of spycraft, explaining the tactics and procedures being used. The scripts do a good job of combining single-episode stories with the over-riding arc, but it’s the characters that make this addictive.

Caprica. I never watched Battlestar Galactica, so the prequel aspect of this show for that is entirely lost on me, yet that doesn’t impact my appreciation of the imagination on view. What I like is the all-encompassing nature of the universe it depicts, with some thought having gone into every aspect of the alien world from sports to gods – it’s recognizably humanoid, yet distinctly non-human. It does a good job of blending politics and religion, with the “terrorists” beliefs closer to those of Western civilization than those against whom they are fighting. Add in ruminations on what it means to be human, and this is more thought-provoking than I expected it to be. Of course, SyFy cancelled it this week. Bastards.

Dexter. Ok, we may not have liked Dexter’s wife Rita all that much, finding her increasingly whiny and controlling. That said, the end of season four packed an enormous wallop, and the ramifications of that shock are rumbling through the new series, with Dexter having to come to terms with several new roles as a father and mentor. Hall’s performance continues to help take a character who should, by all “normal” standards, be a villain and turn him into someone with whom the audience can sympathize, even as he does things far beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour. Inevitably, claims of copycat killers have already begun to surface

Doctor Who. The news of the departure of David Tennant from the show was greeted with dismay in TC Towers. Who could ever replace, arguably, the finest Doctor ever? And replacement, Matt Smith, was only 26, barely an adult. Tennant signed off at the very start of 2010, in a heartrending episode, as his Doctor had the chance to say farewell before bowing out; we caught Smith’s debut when we were in Scotland in April and… Well, initially he seemed a bit of a young clone of Tennant, but as the series developed, he brought more of himself to the role. The results proved acceptable, even to hardened sceptics like ourselves, and occasionally magnificent, as in Vincent and the Doctor. Smith? He’ll do.

Fringe. Now into its third series and developing nicely, alternating episodes between the two worlds, with FBI agent Olivia Dunham now trapped on the other side, “infected” with the memories of the self from there, while said other Olivia operates undercover on our side.  This duality gives most of the other cast members a similar chance to stretch out a bit, playing two versions of the same character; most notably, Walter Bishop (John Noble), whose alter ego is radically different from the gentle, confused genius we’ve grown to love. Quite some way from the X-Files clone it initially appeared to be.

Haven (left). And similarly, this show has come quite some way from the Fringe clone it initially appeared to be. FBI agent, with a black boss, investigating interconnected paranormal occurrences known as the Pattern, sorry, Troubles? Hmm. Fortunately, the series has found its own path, with Audrey Parker trying to penetrate a close-knit community, and discover the truth about her own past as well. To be honest, perhaps too similar to SciFi, sorry, SyFy shows Eureka and Warehouse 13, but we don’t watch those, so who cares? Certainly, the last scene in the final ep wins “Rug-puller of 2010”, leaving us going, “Whaaaaat?”

The IT Crowd. Creator Graham Linehan has brought much the same quirky, slightly surreal quality to this show about “freaks and geeks,” as he did to Father Ted. But as someone who works in tech support, I can particularly relate [“Have you tried turning it off and on again,” is genuinely how we start troubleshooting customer’s server issues, though we usually put it in terms like, “Have you executed a power cycle?”]. At its best, the show has the same sense of delirious, snowballing chaos as Fawlty Towers, where the best intentions spiral off into unintended consequence

Modern Family. It’ll be ten years come Thanksgiving I’ve been out here, and I finally found an American sitcom that is actually enjoyable. Seinfeld, Friends, Arrrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? All left me stone-cold. But the comedy here flows naturally from the characters, who are the disparate bunch of dysfunctional individuals that you find in any…well, modern family. If you can’t find someone in this show that’s a carbon-copy of someone you know, check your pulse. And no longer will Ty Burrell just be, “that jackass from the Dawn of the Dead remake.”

Spooks. PBS have been showing all the episodes (here known as Mi-5, presumably to avoid confusion with Ghost Hunters International), from its beginning, and we’ve grown totally hooked, to the point where “unofficial sources” have been used to obtain the latest series. It’s like 24 on crack, condensing an entire terrorist incident into a single hour, rather than over six months episodes. And having now also condensed so many series into a year, the high fatality rate for which the show is justly famous, makes it seem the average life-expectancy of an MI-5 operative is about four weeks. But who’d win if Adam Carter (below) and Jack Bauer had a fight?

24. And speaking of whom, we bid a fond farewell to Bauer, who finally exited our television screen approaching nine marvellous years after his first “Dammit!” We had our up and downs, didn’t we, Jack, and it’s probably right that the show departed, rather than lumbering on until Special Agent Bauer was pushing himself gamely about on a Zimmer frame. The final series was as solid as ever, with the usual mix of terrorists, slimy politicians, betrayals, Chloe’s furrowed brow and Jack’s not-so veiled threats. There’ll be a gap in our lives next winter that will be hard for any other show to fill.

Who’s the Boss


Like most people of my age, Doctor Who was one of my favourite shows while I was growing up. My earliest memories of it involve Jon Pertwee, the fourth doctor, and his car Bessie, but to me, the show’s golden era followed in the wake of Tom Baker, who reigned supreme over Saturday evening television in the late seventies and early eighties. [If you want to get specific, the peak was probably Season 17 in 1979-80, with Douglas Adams acting as script editor and Lalla Ward as Romana – the latter being an early schoolboy crush of mine, I vaguely recall]. Interest faded slowly thereafter, though I have some fond memories of Sylvester McCoy, the last before the series went on hiatus at the very end of the eighties.

While I watched the 1996 attempt to relaunch the series, starring Paul McGann, I was supremely underwhelmed, and so didn’t pay any attention to the revival of Doctor Who when it came back to the Beeb in March 2005. Some things are best left to be remembered solely through the rose-tinted glasses of childhood nostalgia, where the bravely limited – and that’s being kind – effects are not such a distraction. Yes, I’m looking at you, Blake’s 7. However, over the festive season, BBC America scheduled a marathon of all the Christmas specials; by chance I stumbled onto the 2007 Voyage of the Damned. I didn’t realize at the time that, when originally screened in Britain, the episode was the second most-watched program of the year, and gave the show its highest ratings in almost thirty years. Having nothing much better to do, I simply gave it a chance, not expecting much at all.

For once, I was wrong and popular culture was resoundingly right. The episode took the standard disaster movie – most obviously, The Poseidon Adventure – and twisted the clichés into strengths, located in a futureverse with imagination oozing from ever scene. The writing and performances were both superb, even Kylie Minogue managing to be more convincing than irritating, and the justly-maligned effects from the original show were gone, in favour of high-quality CGI. The body-count was surprisingly high, but what really mattered were that these were deaths that you cared about, even of characters we’d never seen before. Death is something rarely shown with such harshness on American TV (except as a desperate ratings ploy), but the poignancy of the final moments, where the Doctor thinks he can save someone, only to have the hope snatched away… Okay, I’m hooked. Can the regular series live up to this?

Short answer: yes. Albeit with the caveat that this is based only on what we’ve seen, which is most of Season Four. Led by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, the creators have crafted a marvellous body of work, which takes the strengths of the original show, but doesn’t attempt to slavishly ape it, acknowledging that television and culture have both changed radically since the previous incarnation. Gone are the multi-part episodes with cliffhangers at the end of each segment, replaced by stories which generally stand alone, though with occasional over-riding arcs. There are occasionally ones which spread over two parts, but the flexibility this offers, in contrast to the previously-fixed format, allows the writers more scope. I would pit the two-part “Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead” up against any SF feature film of the past decade, and it would stand up well.


At the core is David Tennant, who is absolutely pitch-perfect, capturing the essential humanity of the Doctor and his absolute alien-ness, both of which are required for the role. Striking the balance is hard [even Tom Baker probably leaned towards the latter], but Tennant does it with effortless ease. You can see why his assistants would follow him, literally, to the ends of the universe, and his benign nature, along with his vastly superior intellect, are never in doubt. It’s a beguiling combination. The companions are a good deal less passive than they used to be too – I seem to recall them spending a lot of time being rescued in the original series, but the new breed are generally competent, self-reliant and smart. Let’s face it, if the show can turn the previously-irritating Catherine Tate into a sympathetic and likable character as Donna Noble, they’re clearly doing something right.

Yet neither Doctor nor companions are mandatory. Consecutive episodes in the fourth season had first one, then the other, all but removed – first, the Doctor went on a solo sightseeing expedition, which went horribly wrong after a presence possessed one of his fellow passengers. then Donna was diverted into an alternate universe, where she turned left instead of right at a junction, and never met the Doctor. That way led to disaster befalling the entire universe, for reasons which became clear in the season finale. It helps that backing up the main characters are just about every famous British actor you can think of, from Felicity Kendall through to Sir Derek Jacobi. I was particularly pleased to see Bernard Cribbins [once I got past the ‘Is he still alive?’ reaction], as I remember him playing an assistant to Peter Cushing in one of the two movies made in the sixties, more than 40 years previously. It’s another way in which the show is aware of its history, without being a slave to it.


However, I have to admit that some of the monsters and adversaries no longer have quite the chill which they created in my childhood. When I heard the phrase, “Ex-TER-min-ate!”, for the first time in forever, I immediately flashed back to a seven-year old kid, peering out from behind a cushion at the TV. I had to explain to Chris the sheer impact of the creatures on my fragile young psyche. However, it’s fair to say that they did not quite live up to my fevered rememberings, and Chris was notably unimpressed, describing them as being more like irritated vacuum-cleaners than anything. I can hardly argue with this as an assessment, despite the upgrades which meant that their plans to conquer the universe would no longer be defeated – as depicted in a famous cartoon – by a flight of stairs. While it’s hard to imagine Doctor Who without them, this is probably one aspect of the show that would perhaps have been best left concealed in the midsts of time. [The image, right, of former companion Katy Manning, suggests I wasn’t the only one for whom Daleks hold no terror…]

All told though, the finale of the series more than lived up to expectations – you have to admire an arch-villain whose plan involves not just the destruction of Earth, or even the entire universe, but also of all parallel universes as well. Think big, that’s what I always say. It’s probably not giving away much to say that the plan was eventually foiled, though with enough of a twist on it to prove largely satisfactory. We’re not just looking forward to season five, we’re already seriously contemplatin splashing out for the first three series on DVD. Though a dark cloud on the horizon is the departure of Tennant as the Doctor after the filming of four specials this season: it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking over the role. However, if the writing remains as consistently excellent as we’ve seen, then we’re confident the series will continue going from strength to strength. I certainly wouldn’t bet against the show enjoying its 50th anniversary, in 2013.

Mike L: Only *thinking* of getting the first three series on DVD? Rush! Rush to your nearest stockist! I say that as a confirmed hater of old style Who, but the revival has been magnificent. The first series really converted me, it was respectful to the old show but happy to modernise at the expense of the fanboys. Best episodes:

  • Dalek – Series 1.
  • The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – Series 1
  • The Girl in the Fireplace – Series 2
  • Human Nature/Family of Blood – Series 3.
  • Blink – Series 3

Most of those are Steven Moffat episodes, which bodes well for the future of the show. I think Eccleston was easily the match for Tennant – without spoiling things too much, there was a deep inner sadness to the Series 1 doctor and by the time you get to “Dalek”, you know why. Although Eccleston is a Serious Actor, he played it perfectly especially considering the pressure they were under bringing it back. He teams up perfectly with… ah, that would be spoiling the fun.

That series and series 2 really show off the Doctor/Rose relationship – plus the fact that Billie Piper is actually a decent actress rather than a teen pop flash in the pan.