Now On The Big Screen: The Unofficial And Unauthorised Guide To Doctor Who At The Movies by Charles Norton (book review).

July 18, 2013 | By | Reply More

You would think a book about the films of ‘Doctor Who’ would make for a very short volume. After all, there were only two made and well, strictly speaking, they weren’t really about a certain alien renegade doing good across the cosmos through time and space but an eccentric human and a time machine. However, there have also been attempts to do other ‘Doctor Who’ films and this is where this book suddenly becomes more interesting. One of them, ‘Doctor Who Meets Scratchman’ (that’s one of the devil’s other name for those who didn’t know) was being touted during Tom Baker’s reign and never came to anything. Tom Baker even mentioned it to me when I met him at a small convention at the time.

NowOnTheBigScreen

Even if you consider ‘Doctor Who And The Daleks’ and ‘Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD’ as not benign canon – which they aren’t anyway – I suspect all Who fans have seen them at least once as they get the occasional viewing on TV, the last time being last year.

What I like about these Telos books is how much detail is gleaned and compacted into one volume and this one is no exception. The information about producer Milton Subotsky is interesting as he thought directors were largely interchangeable and the real work came in the editing, which other than scriptwriting was his real expertise. Although I might agree with that up to a point, especially where the director ensures there’s enough coverage for the editing, there is still a matter of having the choice shots to work from in the first place and many directors do work hand-in-hand with the editors to ensure the best shots are used. Considering the Peter Cushing was ill for a considerable time in the second film and had his bits filmed later and added in later then yes, there is a demonstration of the editor’s skill. More remarkable, considering that Amicus/Aaru bought the film rights to ‘Doctor Who’, Subotsky never actually saw the TV series. I can see where this might have been seen to cloud any conceptions but considering the money spent at the time, it seems an odd not to see what the fuss was about on the box at least once when you’re investing so uch money.

The details of change to ensure ‘Doctor Who And The Daleks’ got a ‘U’ (for universal) certificate is fascinating as principally it was all to do with cutting back on screams and flame guns, which ultimately made the films a lot tamer than the TV series. I would have thought the gas guns, which according to the book were fire extinguisher spray, the Daleks employed made them look a less scarier and I saw them when they first came out. They still do today. The reverse negative effect of the Daleks guns on TV truly looked like a massive electrical shock and far more intimidating.

An interesting fact and comparison between the TV and film TARDIS exteriors is the latter is closer to how the police call boxes looked, including which way the door swings to the original. Thinking about it, the TV TARDIS is only suppose to be masquerading as a police box and it would have been a giveaway to the Doctor or his companions had the door opened differently to their own.

‘Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD’ had to be one of the earliest British product placement films as the Quaker Oats company put up some of the money for its production. I have to confess that I can’t recall the last time I saw this film, making a note for the next TV appearance, but do find it fascinating that the model spaceship was later used three years later in ‘The Body Stealers’ that I reviewed the DVD of earlier in the year. It was interesting to discover that Barry Gray composed some effects music for this film.

On page 91, there is a reference to water pills. Haven’t heard of them for years. Makes you wonder how they work. I mean what do you do with them, add them to water to dissolve them?? Then again, that might not be far from the truth, assuming they are water purifiers,

I should point out that all the attempts to make ‘Doctor Who’ films are covered in detail, especially covering rights and the problems of funding. When ‘Doctor Who Meets Scratchman’ was proposed, they barely had half the proposed funding when ‘Star Wars’ came out and realised they would need a lot more to have something that would look that good on screen. Reading the story synopsis, I’m pretty sure it would also have needed a massive re-write as well to raise it above kitchen sink level. I also got the impression that while this was all up in the air that it might have been a contributory factor for actor Tom Baker to stay in the role for so long. Even Douglas Adams put his towel in the ring for a film based off one of his stories, which he ultimately re-wrote plot elements into his book ‘Mostly Harmless’.

Saying that and seeing the changes that were proposed to the ‘Doctor Who’ mythology, the two Cushing films come off fairly lightly. I doubt if Who fans would have been enamoured to see more, especially when the Doctor loses his renegade status and merely be an agent of the Time Lords. I’m all for changes when they are for the better but altering background details rather than finding a way to make them work within a film context is clearly not the way to go. Oddly, most of these films depended more on a plot akin to ‘The Keys Of Marinus’ crossed with ‘The Keys To Time’ than something truly original plot-wise. Using notable villains like the Daleks and Cybermen would require buying permission from their original creators or estates, so probably limited the options for even a ninety minute film.

What is of particular interest is the activities of the BBC at that time, especially as ‘Doctor Who’ was not popular with the suits but plainly got starstruck where Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company expressed an interest and turned on Coast To Coast Productions who had been getting the necessary funding put together after spending over a million pounds on rights from them. The insight from this, incidentally, is fascinating as it shows how difficult it is to draw funds, especially in the UK and I doubt if this has changed much today. I can understand why the tax breaks the film companies abroad get make them film there or even here, compared to America. Yes, some films make big profits but you never see how much is paid back to the backers with profit/interest and probably explains why film companies say it takes so long to show an overall profit.

Considering that BBC Films themselves also held on to the rights for ‘Doctor Who’ from their parent company and despite getting media coverage every time those two words were mentioned, nothing was done with it there neither. Looking at this retrospectively, you would have thought even a TV movie would have at least been proposed but I suppose that would have infringed on BBC’s own territory. It’s also interesting to see that BBC Films own interest held back Russell T. Davies plans for a TV series a couple years by their actions.

Finally, just to make the numbers up, one of the appendixes briefly covers the nineteen films that were developed by fans but feature Who cast members as a sort of continuity in the wilderness years. Not seem the nineteenth yet? That’s due in November.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I had a lot to react to here. I suspect you Who fans out there will as well. You’ll certainly come away with a greater understanding of the film industry and all sorts of shenanigans that goes on. My overall reaction to the other possible films is that I’m really glad they weren’t made because none of them would be seen as canon, through lack of continuity and detail, and would still ultimately end up as just footnotes in any Who history. As writer Charles Norton himself points out in the conclusion, we get a film quality version in every episode of ‘Doctor Who’ now, so how could we expect better in any new proposed film?

GF Willmetts

(pub: Telos. 310 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £15.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84583-084-7)
check out websites: http://www.telos.co.uk/ and www.debra.co.uk

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Category: Books, Doctor Who

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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