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Peter Cushing’s Dr Who movies regenerated for a new audience

A new cinema double-bill will restore the 1960s cinematic adventures of the Doctor to their rightful place in the sci-fi canon

Are current Doctor Who fans aware of how lucky they are? The show is gearing up for its 60th birthday next year under the returning stewardship of Russell T Davies, the perfect diamond geezer for such a significant anniversary. It seems like there is an exciting new announcement almost every day, from the confirmation of the charismatic Ncuti Gatwa as the 14th Doctor to the unexpected return of beloved Who alumni like David Tennant, Catherine Tate and more.

It is all a far cry from the 1990s when the BBC’s quaintly DIY sci-fi franchise was in the doldrums. If you did not have ready access to VHS or DVDs – let alone BBC iPlayer – you took your Who fix wherever you could get it.

Channel-hopping on a rainy afternoon you might sometimes stumble across Peter Cushing in film spin-offs Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) or Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966). But in the best tradition of Who stories that explore seemingly utopian societies with a hidden secret, something about the movies always felt just a little off.

Perhaps it was because Cushing’s Who was an absent-minded human inventor rather than an alien Time Lord with two hearts. While his Tardis may have been the familiar police box the rickety interior looked like it had been knocked up in the Blue Peter studio.

The off-brand ‘Dr Who’ title and notable absence of the classic theme from Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire also fed into the lingering suspicion that these movies stood apart from the larger saga. When later Doctor Who celebrated its impressive relay-race of lead actors in specials like The Five Doctors, poor Cushing never seemed to get a look-in.

Returning to these films in 2022 – with a family-friendly cinema double-bill looming and both movies also getting a full 4K bells-and-whistles Blu-ray release – it is easier to appreciate their achievements. When they were first released, there had only ever been one Doctor in black and white on cramped home TV screens. To go from blurry monochrome images of William Hartnell in late 1963 to blazing Technicolor and lavish sets on a giant cinema screen in 1965 must have been a mind-blowing thrill.

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Dr Who and the Daleks is an accidental road trip to the irradiated, petrified planet of Skaro, home to both aggro killer machines and the more peaceful – if rather pasty – humanoid Thals. It is into this centuries-long civil war that Who (Cushing) stumbles, along with his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) plus Barbara’s affable but clumsy boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle).

If it takes a while for the Daleks to make their haughty presence known, things are soon rattling along like a classic sci-fi serial with ambushes, jailbreaks and a daring commando raid all staged against a studio backdrop of impressively exotic scenery.

Dr Who and the Daleks trailer

The sequel Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD abandons the interiors for lots of ambitious exterior work in a bombed-out future London, albeit one where Sugar Puffs posters are pasted on brick walls and the GPO Tower is visible on the skyline.

Bernard Cribbins co-stars as dazed London bobby Tom, unwittingly hitching a ride with the still rather bumbling Who, his resourceful young granddaughter Susan and another extended family member Louise (Jill Curzon). Soon they are caught up in a desperate fight against the vengeful Daleks and their human army of brainwashed robo-police in shiny bin-bag uniforms. The rather frail Who must help the resistance prevail and thwart an evil Dalek plan to frack their way to the Earth’s core via a mine in Bedford.

As a kid who grew up with the prickly Colin Baker, I was always slightly bemused by Cushing’s dotty grandfather routine; as an adult, his performances and everything surrounding them seem quite magical.

Will Cushing’s sidelined Doctor ever get his due? When showrunner Davies was preparing The Day of the Doctor special for the 50th anniversary in 2013, he apparently wanted to bring the movies into official canon by revealing they were semi-authorised biopics about the actual Doctor Who (and that the “real” Doctor may have consulted with Cushing on how to be portrayed).

It was a typically clever workaround, but even if these films never get written into the larger story they are still incredible time capsules: pop-art snapshots of retro futures to be admired and cherished.

The retro Dr Who double bill is in cinemas from July 10; The 4K restoration of Dr Who and the Daleks is available on Blu-ray now; the 4K restoration of Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD will be released on Blu-ray on July 18

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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