Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Mr Cushing and the Daleks

Peter Cushing was born 100 years ago last Sunday. To celebrate, I watched two of his lesser-known but still rather good films - the ones in which he played a (very human) Doctor Who. And yes, he is called Doctor Who in the films, as in surname Who. You just have to roll with it.

Anyway, these two movies were made on low budgets in the mid-Sixties as an attempt by Terry Nation and producer Milton Subotsky to cash in on the Daleks as a toy franchise. The idea was not merely to boost sales of plastic Daleks in the UK, but to launch the genocidal mutants from Skaro on the unsuspecting American consumer. The latter part of the plan didn't really work, but the first film - cunning entitled Doctor Who and the Daleks - was so successful that a second was made, rather plonkingly entitled Daleks: Invasion Earth, 2150 AD.

The films are great fun. In fact, I should watch them both at least once a year, simply for the pleasure of seeing an iconic Sixties image - Ray Cusick's Dalek design  - on the same screen as the great Peter Cushing. But it's only fair to point out that Terry Nation's scripts, while a bit padded and a little naff in places, are decently entertaining, and have more to offer than the usual B-movie thrills and spills.

The first film is a not-too-subtly disguised commentary on contemporary affairs. Bearing in mind the original story was penned by Nation for the first series of DW in autumn 1963, it clearly reflected contemporary concerns about the Bomb and CND. The difference - and, to me, quite a clever one - is that in this story the pacifists, a tribe called the Thals, have every reason to eschew violence, because their planet was devastated by a nuclear war in the remote past. Violence only begets annihilation was the message of the Aldermaston marchers, of Lord Russell and the young Michael Foot. They anticipated a final war, but thanks to the freedom offered by sci-fi, Nation situates his anti-war movement in the long, glow-in-the-dark aftermath.

A rather different lesson was learned by the Daleks, whose ancestors suffered such drastic mutation from the fallout that they ended up as monstrous mutants trundling around in armoured battle machines, confined to a high-tech city that seems to consist partly of shower curtains, and hosts a permanent exhibition of lava lamps and modernist sculpture. Paranoid and treacherous, the Daleks view the peaceful Thals as the enemy simply because they are different. The other must be destroyed. To this end - having established that they can't use the Thals' anti-radiation drug - the Daleks decide to increase the already horrific levels of background radiation by exploding a neutron bomb. Problem solved.

Into this mix come the Doctor and his companions, getting into scrapes and along the way uncovering the grim history of Skaro. For a studio-bound British family film on a low budget, Doctor Who and the Daleks manages to pile on some serious debate, not least on the issue of when it is right to fight, and what people should be prepared to fight for? The film's few weaknesses - the Thals seem to have extensive supplies of eyeshadow for a simple agrarian people, never mind their advanced pharmaceutical knowhow - are more than outweighed by Cushing's performance. And the central message? I suppose it's that we should live in peace if we possibly can, but sometimes you must fight simply to survive.

Given the Daleks' rampant militarism and general tendency to shout at everyone, it's not hard to see Nation's creations as pseudo-Nazis. The pacifism of the Thals might well be intended to convey the appeasement of Britain's pre-war Establishment as well as the more idealistic opposition to nuclear arms that emerged in the Fifties. If the Nazi parallel is hinted at in the first film, it's right in your face in the second.

While the Dalek invasion of Earth may be dated at 2150 AD, the feel of the film is very much Britain in the Forties. When the TARDIS gang disembark by the Thames to find an eerily silent London, the skyline looks very much as if the Luftwaffe had had a few more years to flatten it. As the background to the Dalek occupation is mapped out we see more WW2 imagery - shelters in the Tube, people in threadbare cardigans, old valve radios. There's even an advert for Sugar Puffs, apparently thanks to a sponsorship deal.

The only futuristic paraphernalia in this supposed far future Britain is the retro-Space Age gear the Daleks brought with in their classy flying saucer. The humans are essentially the folk of Europe under the jackboot, complete with collaborators, black marketeers, resistance fighters and - most telling of all - slave workers. The Daleks' master plan (ahem) to mine the metallic core of the Earth may make no real sense, but it has a Wagnerian lunacy about it, recalling the Nazis' strategic blunders that were based, at least in part, on Hitler's crackpot theorising. (It's arguable that the Dalek fixation on the Earth's core might even echo a widely-touted Nazi 'theory' that an Aryan super-civilization could be found in vast caverns, somewhere or other.)

It's an enjoyable film that moves along nicely, thanks in part to Terry Nation's standard DW trick of splitting up his central characters so they can go off and have two or three parallel, plot-developing adventures. A big supporting cast makes up for the obvious lack of a significant effects budget, with Andrew Keir (gruff old campaigner hiding a heart of gold) and Philip Madoc (cunning opportunist of the lowest sort) turning in especially good performances. Both would have made rather good Doctors on the telly, come to think of it; though perhaps Philip Madoc would have been a bit much for the kiddies, as he was the sort of actor who could make dunking a Ginger nut seem infinitely menacing.

Anyway, the Daleks get their comeuppance thanks to Cushing's cleverness and Bernard Cribbins' ability to hastily block a large hole with some bits of wood - a very British response to a crisis, when you think about. Between arrival and denouement we are treated to a lot of authentic wartime action, not least the heroic but disastrous resistance attack on the Daleks and their conditioned Quislings, the Robomen. But to get the genuine wartime feel you have to hear it, too - the Dalek broadcasts are the genuine article:

'Rebels of London. This is our final warning. Leave your hiding places. Show yourselves, in the streets. Work is needed from you, but the Daleks offer you life. Soon we will destroy London completely and you will all die. This is your last chance to come out of your hiding places.'

Scripts can be found here. A Blu-Ray release of the two films is, apparently, on the cards...

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