Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Doctor in the Dell

In 1965, less than two years after Doctor Who aired its first episode, the good Doctor made his big screen debut in Dr. Who and the Daleks. The film starred Peter Cushing as eccentric scientist Doctor Who, who lived in a cozy little nondescript house in London with his granddaughters Susan and Barbara. Doctor Who built "Tardis", a time and space machine, and kept it in his back garden. While showing his new invention off to Barbara's boyfriend Ian, the quartet were accidentally whisked off to the planet Skaro to have an exciting technicolor adventure with the Daleks.

Dr. Who and the Daleks is based on the second television story, The Daleks, which introduced the titular monsters. I hated this movie as a kid - it wasn't the REAL Doctor, after all. For one thing, he wasn't called "The Doctor" in it; people actually addressed him as "Doctor Who" (making his granddaughters Susan Who and Barbara Who, presumably).  He was human, he lived in a house, he had two annoying granddaughters instead of just the twelve-year-old me, these differences made the movie just plain wrong, which meant it couldn't possibly be worth my time. But watching the movie again as an adult with a slightly broader perspective on what counts as "real" Doctor Who, I was surprised to find that, taking it for what it is - a children's adventure story - it's actually quite good. 

In 1966, tying in with the film's release in America, Dell Comics released an adaptation. While the movie moves at a breakneck pace, condensing seven television episodes into about eighty minutes, the comic moves at a shatter-every-bone-in-your-body pace, condensing those eighty minutes into just one issue. Let's fasten our seatbelts and take a look!

"Everywhere! Watching and waiting...the incredible robots, the Daleks!!" If you read that and found yourself thinking, "The Daleks aren't robots! They're living creatures inside armored travel machines!", then you are a colossal nerd and I like you very, very much. 

The movie throws a whole five minutes away on introductions, but the comic cuts right to the chase, telling us pretty much everything we need to know about the characters and the situation on the very first page. And yes, that's the TARDIS - sorry, just TARDIS, no definite article. (Or maybe it's Tardis? Hard to tell, lower case letters aren't allowed in comics.) It's still a police box in the movie, but the comic glosses that over - it was intended for American readers, who presumably wouldn't know what a police box was. (I've been watching Doctor Who for thirty years and I still only have a vague idea what they were actually used for.)

Here is the first of many full-panel close-ups of Doctor Who's face. The artist is Dick Giordano, a comics legend, and he seems to be justifiably proud of how well he's captured the likeness of actor Peter Cushing. The three other characters bear a passing resemblance to the original actors, but I doubt many American readers were too distressed by an off-model Roberta Tovey.

Sorry, Grandpa Who, I interrupted you. Do go on...

Oh, I see. It's dissolves everyone in it. So, you've not so much built a time machine as you have a disintegration chamber. This is a pretty standard explanation for teleportation in science-fiction, and it's always bothered me. Isn't that just killing somebody and then making a double of them in another location? I don't care if that other person is identical to me and has all my memories, the original me is still a pile of ash in Doctor Who's back garden.

Having your time-space machine operated by a giant red "start" button is just asking for trouble, and sure enough, clumsy but lovable Ian trips and smashes his head on it. Since Doctor Who didn't have a chance to set the controls, he announces that they could be anywhere in time and space! Given how much of space is an empty void you'd think they'd just be floating aimlessly, but no, they manage to find themselves on an inhabited planet capable of supporting their kind of life. What luck! But Ian doesn't think they've moved at all, and tries to open the doors, with no success.

I'm not really sure about the point of these panels. The doors are stuck, which Ian inexplicably finds inexplicable, so he uses a screwdriver to pry them open. This doesn't happen in the movie - Ian opens the doors just fine. Given how much story is crammed into every panel in this comic, I'm having a hard time figuring out why the uncredited writer decided to add in this seemingly meaningless bit of business. I don't have a joke. I'm honestly hoping someone can tell me the point of this.

And here's an even more off-model representation of our cast, based on the publicity shot used on the cover. Yes, TARDIS is green throughout the comic. No, it's blue in the movie, just like on the show. The St. John's Ambulance sticker is a nice touch, though, don't you think?

Doctor Who discovers that everything in the jungle is petrified, and there's no sign of life - except possibly for...

Whee! Must be a low gravity planet with the way they all seem to be bouncing and floating above the surface of the planet! Oh, it's not? Normal gravity? Ok then. Everybody is down for investigating the city except killjoy Ian, but it's the 1960s and he's the young white male so they all listen to him and head back. Except for Susan, who wanders off on her own.

Stranger danger! The quartet flee from the terrifying hand to the safety of TARDIS. Doctor Who is skeptical about the possibility of human life existing on this planet, but then there's an unexpected knock at TARDIS' door!

But the mysterious granddaughter groper has ding-dong-ditched, and the scanner shows nothing. We're on page 7 now, and Barbara finally gets a full line of dialogue, asking her grandfather to please take them home. All she's said up until now was "Ian!" when her boyfriend tripped and hit his head on the controls. Barbara is not exactly showcased in this comic, is what I'm saying, and she didn't have all that much more to do in the movie. In the TV series Barbara is one of the greatest companions the show has ever had. In the film, she's mostly a plot device to get Ian into the story, and probably could have been written out entirely if the producers didn't think they needed a pretty girl in there somewhere.

Doctor Who agrees to set the controls for home, but there's a problem...

Oh no, the fluid link is empty and all the mercury has run out! Now they have no choice but to explore the city in the hope of finding more mercury. 

THAT'S what the knock was - a drug delivery! Because Doctor Who is not me cautious, he does not immediately sample some of the drugs to see if they do anything cool, but instead places them inside TARDIS for later analysis. On to the alien city!

A mysterious ailment has struck our crew! My first guess would be mercury poisoning from the fluid link that spilled all over the floor, but no, they probably won't see the effects of that for several years. (Barbara and Ian aren't in the sequel - coincidence?) It could also be vertigo induced by the psychedelic architecture they're wandering through. Dizzying heights and pointless places to climb - did cats build this city?

The travelers decide to split up to speed things along, because what this comic really needs to do is move faster.

Barbara is caught in a mysterious metal grip! The artist takes this opportunity to show that modern comics did not invent this pose - even in the sixties, comic book heroines would stand so that you could see their rack and their ass at the same time.

Doctor Who, Susan and Ian hear Barbara scream and try to find her, but come across a Geiger counter instead, revealing that the atmosphere of the planet is highly radioactive, which is what's been causing them all to feel so wonky. Ian bemoans the fact that they can't leave without mercury, but Doctor Who reveals a little secret.

"I'm not angry, Dr. Who. I'm just disappointed." Dr. Who's kindly old grandfather shtick is belied by this colossal dick move. He made the decision to lie about the fluid link after Susan had her encounter with the mysterious groper, and he continues to lie after they all start to feel sick but press on because they're convinced they can't get home without finding mercury. Seriously, fuck him. William Hartnell pulled the same move on the TV show, but at least you knew from the start that he was a jerk.

The first of these two panels is the first full appearance of the Daleks in the comic. The movie gives them a grand entrance as they glide in from all sides and surround our heroes; the comic just plops them into the action so abruptly you're flipping back a page to see if you missed something.

I've kept these two panels together to highlight another difference between the comic and the movie, this one not due to the demands of pace. In the film, Ian runs towards the Daleks - what he thinks this will achieve is uncertain, but he's clearly trying to do something that will help Doctor Who and Susan. In the comic, he's just hauling ass as fast as he can. "Sorry, little girl, and fuck you, old man, I'm out."

The Daleks stun Ian and toss the trio in the same cell they put Barbara. The metal monsters spy on their prisoners and learn about the mysterious drugs left behind - they theorize that they are anti-radiation drugs left by the Thals, the other indigenous life form. The Daleks want to reproduce this drug so they can venture out of their city and wipe out all the Thals - no reason, haters gotta hate - so they send Susan to retrieve it. Once she's back in TARDIS she encounters the figure who frightened her earlier.

Giordano had to draw this comic without seeing it, he only had the script and some reference photos. I'm guessing those photos did not include any Thals, because poor Alydon here has been de-fabulous-ized in a most upsetting way. Here's how he looks in the movie:

Alydon, Queen of the Desert! I'm assuming this face-washing was unintentional; if a reference picture was in fact sent to Giordano maybe he saw it and thought a still from Barbarella got mixed in by mistake.

Alydon and Susan make nice-nice, and Alydon is surprised to learn of the existence of the Daleks - he thought they were all wiped out in their nuclear war millennia ago. Susan prepares to return to the city, but is worried the Daleks won't let her use the radiation drugs to help her companions.

"Don't thank me yet. The first sample was free. This one's gonna cost you." That's how they reel you in, Susan. He's gonna turn you out! It's hard out here for a Thal!

Yeah, that's right! Bipeds rule, quadrupeds drool! God made Adam and Eve, not Cyclops and Lefty!

"We're all blond and beautiful, so if they call us monsters...why, they must be stunning!"

Susan re-enters the city alone. The Daleks discover her secret stash, but let her give it to her friends anyway. The Thals want to trade the radiation drug to the Daleks for food, but the Daleks just want to lure the Thals into the city so they can wipe them out. The come up with a cunning plan - they'll get the Thals' new bestie Susan to write a note. Susan has a LOT to do in this comic; it would probably be called Susan Who and the Daleks if that didn't sound like an Eastern European Nancy Drew knock-off.


The speed-of-light pace of this comic occasionally results in odd panel transitions like this, where it appears Susan teleports from the Dalek control room back to her cell and directly onto Ian's shoulders. Doctor Who, Ian and Barbara are nowhere near as quick, as it's taken them an entire day to notice the camera, which is the only feature on their otherwise completely bare walls.

Doctor Who comes up with an escape plan (finally). He hypothesizes that the Daleks draw their power from the metal floor, which is why the four humans have long since been electrocuted. He suggests that they lure their Dalek guard onto the cape Alydon gave to Susan, cutting it off from its power source. Ian points out that the Dalek will see them coming, but the old smart-ass has a solution.

A few things of interest here (to me, at least). This is not quite the plan from the movie - in the film, they use the gloppy food the Daleks provide them to blind their guard. It's in the TV serial The Daleks, which the movie was based on, that they use the mud from Susan's shoes. I don't know if the comic writer came up with this idea independently as a time-saver or whether he was, for some reason, given the television scripts as an additional resource. This is the kind of thing I spend time thinking about. You think I'd have this blog if I didn't obsess over Doctor Who minutia?

The other thing of interest is that, in both the TV show and the movie, it's Barbara who comes up with the idea to blind the Dalek with mud/food. And it's Susan, again in both media, who comes up with the idea to use Alydon's cloak to cut off the Dalek's power. The comic gives both ideas to Doctor Who. I hope this was just a way to save space on the part of our mystery writer, and that he didn't read the script and think, "Wait, the girls come up with the escape plan? The GIRLS?!? That must be a typo."

Whoever's idea it was, the plan works. The Dalek is rendered inert, and Doctor Who opens up the casing and scoops out the hideous mutant inside. (We don't get to see it, but Doctor Who assures that it is, indeed, hideous.) But what to do with the empty Dalek suit?

Roomy! It's almost like the Dalek shell was built to hold a full-grown man instead of a little green blobby thing. Ian's bluff gets them all the way to an elevator leading up and out, but the Daleks catch on.

Poor Ian! Sucks to be him, but "needs of the many" and all that. It's not like he's family. So leave him they do. Barbara's quite distraught about her boyfriend's certain death.

Maybe not so much "distraught" as "mildly interested". She's can't even muster up an exclamation point. Perhaps she's distracted by her grandfather slowly turning into Vincent Price. In any event, Ian escapes off-panel and takes the elevator up to join them, much to Barbara's delight not-total-displeasure. The quartet hurries to warn the Thals of the Daleks' treachery.

I may have altered this panel slightly for clarity and/or my own amusement. I like the one lone Thal wandering blithely ahead while the wiser, more suspicious (but still prepared for bushels for free food) Thals linger behind. He doesn't see the Daleks hiding in their cubbyholes - can YOU find the Daleks? Look closely!

Most of the Thals escape the city, but the space hippies are confused as to why the Daleks want to kill them,  and are reluctant to fight a war.

"We'll fight for you, Colonel Sanders!" The implication seems to be that Doctor Who would cheerfully abandon them to their doom if he didn't need their help to fix his own stupid mistake. Our hero! The Daleks discover that the Thal drug won't work on them, and using the sour grapes principle decide that if they can't live on the surface they'll set off a neutron bomb so the Thals can't either. Meanwhile, Doctor Who decides that a small party could get back into the city by sneaking 'round the back. Ian, Barbara and a trio of Thals set off through the swamp, mindful of the deadly mutations it contains...

Mutations with sexy, sexy eyes! Dunk your head, Ian, dunk it aaaallllll the way in! So Ian sees a monster in the water and literally three panels later Elyon the Thal has a bright idea.

Elyon is neither bright nor popular, because not a single one of his compatriots bothers to ask him if he plans on filling their water bags from the same pool that Ian saw a mutation in about thirty seconds ago.  He does, and he dies, winning that year's Skarosian Darwin Award. The remaining quartet spend a panel mourning and then move on - they see pipes leading from the pool into the city, and decide to see if they lead to a way in. Doctor Who, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to get into the city through the front undetected. The answer - it's all done with mirrors!

All they're doing is reflecting sunlight back at the Dalek's sensors, but the scene is drawn as if they're blasting the city to kingdom come. The Thals may live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but their mirror technology is very advanced.  Alas, Doctor Who's plan is worthless, as the Daleks track them through their vibrations. The metal monstrosities appear and order them into the city.

One Thal...maybe Alydon? Or did Alydon go with Ian and Barbara? I'm not really sure, the comic has stopped using their names and all Thals look alike to me. Sorry, is that racist? Anyway, one Thal dives for cover so hard his cowardly Thal fingers burst right through the panel. Sure, buddy, you hid so that you could help them later. Keep telling yourself that if it helps you sleep at night.

The other Thals who were captured along with Doctor Who and Susan are never mentioned again, so...I guess they were all killed? Smart move on Swifty McScaredyThal's part after all, I guess. The Daleks start the countdown at a hundred - you really want a nice long lead time when detonating a neutronic bomb, genocide isn't something you rush. Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara and the two Thals who didn't get eaten by a lake monster have finally arrived at the rear entrance to the city.

Don't ring the doorbell, Barbara, you're supposed to be sneaking in!

Told you. But wait!

Help has arrived!

It's Alydon! Unless Alydon is one of the Thals with you, in which case it's a different Thal. It's whichever Thal dived for cover when the Daleks broke up that whole pointless mirror attack. He rallied the surviving Thals, and they came back to the city to save Doctor Who and Susan. I'm not sure how he got the Daleks to burst into flames, but it's a trick he probably should have pulled out before now. The two groups join up, rendering Ian and Barbara's entire journey through the swamp of mutations completely pointless. It killed some time, I guess. It also killed Elyon, but no big loss there. No time to worry about that, though, there's only three pages left!

It takes some serious Thal balls (thaltecles?) to attack a squad of Daleks with your bare hands, I'll give them that. The Thals are doing surprisingly well, but the countdown to destruction has only seconds remaining!

The panel here has reminded me of one of my favorite parts of the movie - Ian's butt. Seriously, it's fantastic. I would recommend the movie on that alone. Actor Roy Castle was a dancer. Kudos to you, sir. But back to the comic, as Ian tries to stop the countdown while the Daleks take aim. Move that magnificent ass!

Ian dives for cover, and the Daleks hit...some other piece of equipment, nowhere near where Ian was in the previous panel. This comic is not overly worried about continuity. The change in background makes it look like Ian is trying to commit suicide by diving into the Dalek's line of fire. Maybe the pace of the comic finally got to him - he just wants a rest.

"Good! Fuck them!" Susan's ordeal has made her a bit bloodthirsty. Odd choice for the Daleks to have one panel control everything in the city; a panel that, if it's destroyed, causes their metal casings to melt for some reason. A little redundancy wouldn't have hurt; there is such a thing as being too efficient. Oh, well. Yay, genocide!

"You have saved our lives; indeed, you have saved our entire species from extinction. Here, have some capes."

Doctor Who replaces the reclaimed fluid link and the green, green, green Tardis rockets through the time-space vortex towards home.

In the movie they land in front of some stock footage of a Roman army, but the comic replaces that with a pissed-off club-wielding caveman. Perhaps in homage of the TV crew's real first adventure, in which they were threatened by a primitive tribe? Probably not.

I suppose the writer meant this panel to end the comic with the suggestion of more adventures to come (which Dell does not follow up on), but all I see is that kindly old Doctor Who looks absolutely furious that his granddaughter is daring to question his navigation skills, and Ian and Barbara are preparing to physically restrain him from beating Susan within an inch of her life. It's an odd artistic choice, but, like the rest of this comic, it's certainly an interesting take on Doctor Who!


  1. Delightful lunch time reading. SO many good lines, but, "TELL THEM THERE IS PUNCH AND PIE OR YOU WILL BE EXTERMINATED!" is now part of my personal lexicon.

    1. Glad you liked it! I doubt my sense of humor a lot, but I laughed at my own joke on that one, because I'm classy like that.

  2. Oh my god, your commentary was magic, dude. I don't think I'll ever be able to stomach the movies, especially that comic. But your summary and deciphering of of the shoddy pacing and art of the comic made it brilliant.

    1. Thanks! The movie can be fun as long as you treat it as an adventure movie for kids.