A Dalek is (now) a many-splendored thing


Keith M. Johnston


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Accompanying text

This audiovisual essay arises out of the AHRC-funded project ‘The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-85’, which aims to explore the impact of the Eastman Colour 35mm monopack film stock on British cinema as colour became a mainstream technology and aesthetic device. The project is interested in how colour affected different aspects of the film industry, not least the changes introduced at the level of aesthetic, industrial, and intermedial elements.

The aims of this specific essay arose from an exploration of those elements in the colour film Dr Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng, 1965). As an adaptation of a much-loved and popular television programme, the film fits within existing industrial strategies: Hammer had already produced two film adaptations based on the BBC’s Quatermass television serials; the BBC soap opera The Grove Family (1954-57) gave rise to the film It’s A Great Day (John Warrington, 1955), while Hammer (again) cast Richard Greene (the star of the television programme The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITC, 1955-60) as Robin in their colour film Sword of Sherwood Forest (Terence Fisher, 1960). Dr Who and the Daleks, then, can be understood in that broader context, but it also seems to hold a unique place in being the first direct adaptation from black-and-white television to Eastman Colour film (at least in the British context). While Greene’s presence in Sword of Sherwood Forest offered a link to the TV programme, Sword is another take on the Robin Hood story rather than a direct adaptation. Sword also has no claim to being an early colour take on the legend, given Errol Flynn’s classic appearance in The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz / William Keighley, 1938), and an earlier British Eastman Colour version in Men of Sherwood Forest (Val Guest, 1954).

Dr Who and the Daleks seems to offer something different to those existing industrial strategies. This was also a film attempting to capture the zeitgeist of a cultural intermedial phenomenon that had quickly extended far beyond the television screen. The 1964-66 “Dalek-mania” saw the sinister aliens move out from the black-and-white television screen into a wide range of merchandise (Dalek badges, battery-operated Dalek toys, Dalek bagatelle, Dalek paint-by-numbers, Dalek  jigsaws, etc.), and stand-alone comic strips in TV21. These endeavours into non-audio-visual formats had already made the Dalek a more colourful creature (though many stuck to a grey-and-blue, or black, colour scheme); yet on the television screen that had given them popularity (and continued to foreground them in sequel adventures), they remained monochrome monsters.

Exploring the aesthetics of that intermedial chromatic change is the central aim of this video essay, specifically the adaptation from the original BBC production to the 1965 Aaru adaptation. Beyond simple notions of adding cinematic visual spectacle, or even concerns about narrative fidelity and compression in the process of adaptation, I wanted the essay to explore the aesthetic echoes that took place across these different texts — and within those echoes, to think how colour was the mechanism by which aesthetic and narrative difference and similarity was being stressed.

The piece went through several drafts in order to find the best way to represent that different/similar quality. From an approach that was too didactic and title-heavy, to one that developed the aesthetic comparison sequentially, the preference for a side-by-side comparison (for the bulk of the essay) seemed the best fit. While intermedial fidelity was not a central concern, the pacing of the television versus film material resulted in my making a more direct intervention, shaping (arguably distorting) the black-and-white material to match the pace and focus of the colour film scenes.

Through that process, the essay now features another level of adaptation, where the televisual original has been reconfigured into a facsimile of the cinematic. The process of shaping the material, then, allowed the essay to explore how a display and appreciation of the colour footage might usefully challenge the perceived dominance of the black-and-white original over the colour feature.

This developing interest in distortion and adaptation augmented the original conceit around the debt that the colour film might owe to the original television programme. Beyond notions of plot and character (which aren’t quite carried over, beat for beat), the side-by-side comparison in the essay aims to stress design features that move across media. The interior of the TARDIS may be drastically different, but the appearance of the police box in the petrified forest of Skaro remains iconic; the colour film may offer a range of psychedelic colours in the forest, but it is an unnerving location with expressionistic lighting in both versions; equally, the Dalek city, with its moving lenses and automatically closing doors, is an unsafe space in both.

Yet the key to the whole essay is the Daleks themselves. The film producer’s plans, the 1965 critical reception, and the original intention of their TV creator all revolve around the ‘many splendored’ aspect of the colourful film Daleks – and that, ultimately, is what this essay celebrates as the key element in this adaptation. At once the same, and different, the adaptation of the Daleks functions as a visual metaphor for the ideas at the heart of the essay.