Timey Wimey

58 Years Ago, Doctor Who Got So Weird It Actually Became A Different Series

We barely remember when Doctor Who became Dr. Who. But we should.

Originally Published: 
Dr Who, Day of the Daleks
Director Gordon Flemyng
Peter Cushing. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal I...
Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Doctor Who Week

Peter Cushing was one of the great character actors of the 20th century, famous for his roles as Sherlock Holmes, Victor Frankenstein, and Grand Moff Tarkin. He also played the titular role of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Except he didn’t.

In 1965 and 1966, in a pair of curious motion pictures, Cushing played an eccentric human time traveler named “Dr. Who,” who was 100 percent not a Time Lord, didn’t regenerate into other forms, and, most shockingly, was polite and friendly to the point of feeling like a kooky granddad in a forgotten Disney movie. While William Hartnell’s First Doctor was still being cranky AF on TV, Peter Cushing played a sweet version of the sci-fi hero in the cinemas.

For longtime Doctor Who fans, the existence of the Cushing movies is often a punchline, and for people who aren’t well-versed in the wibbly-wobbly Who continuity, the idea of a non-canon version of the Doctor seems preposterous. Isn’t this series convoluted enough? But, here’s the thing about the only two Who theatrical feature films ever made: they are both so deeply weird that they basically turned Doctor Who into an entirely different series —and the impacts of these movies are still felt in modern Who today.

A tale of two Whos

The poster for the first “Dr. Who” movie.

LMPC/LMPC/Getty Images

In 1965, making a theatrical feature film out of a TV show was very rare. In fact, even in 1979, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted, the idea that a movie would use the same actors from a television show was considered risky. So, if you’re wondering why Peter Cushing was cast in the role of “Dr. Who” in a theatrical movie based on the show Doctor Who, all while Hartnell was still in the role, the answer is: It made sense at the time. There was no Doctor Who franchise at this point, meaning, prior to William Hartnell transforming into Patrick Troughton, the idea of another actor taking on the role of the Doctor didn’t have an in-universe explanation. So, Peter Cushing playing The Doctor in a film is a little like Ezra Miller playing The Flash in Justice League in 2017, even though Grant Gustin has already been playing The Flash on TV at that point since 2014. It was a movie business decision.

And yet, chronologically, Peter Cushing is the second person to play the lead role in Doctor Who, ever. But is this even the same character? Literally and figuratively the answer to that question is no. In Doctor Who, the character’s name is not literally “Dr. Who,” but rather, the enigmatic title of “The Doctor.” In the series, the Doctor is a Time Lord, which we later learn, hails from the planet Gallifrey. Whereas, in the two Dr. Who movies, he’s a quirky human inventor who creates the TARDIS, rather than having stolen it from the other Time Lords. The Daleks are more or less the same, but instead of firing energy weapons, they shoot smoke, and some of them (blasphemy!) don’t have toilet plungers for arms.

However, these superficial differences aren’t actually what make these two Peter Cushing Dr. Who movies so weird. If you’re a sci-fi fan, when you think of Cushing, there’s a good chance you think of him as the ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars. This edginess might make you assume he brought that same kind of danger and darkness to the role of the Doctor — just as so many other Who actors have. But you’d be wrong. The absolutely weirdest thing about Peter Cushing’s Doctor is that he is really, really nice.


Peter Cushing as Dr. Who and Jill Curzon AS Louise in Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

Evening Standard/Moviepix/Getty Images

Arguably making the Doctor a super-friendly person is the number one mistake in doing any Doctor Who thing, ever. The Doctor should be kind in his actions, but the character also should always have some sort of an edge. In 1963, the 1st Doctor was irascible, arrogant, and argumentative, a kind of Sherlock Holmes fused with your most annoying uncle. In 1966, Patrick Troughton’s 2nd Doctor was a bedraggled hobo, who bamboozled his enemies into thinking he was a buffoon. And so on. The larger point is, what makes the character of the Doctor in Doctor Who so compelling, is often the layering of contradictions. Each Doctor has some outward persona, which is at odds with various internal motivations. The Doctor is altruistic and good, but, their personality is complex, and, crucially, volatile.

But in the rosy world of the savant inventor Dr. Who, he’s simply a storybook version of the Doctor without any of the grouchiness. This means that for all the fascinating things about Dr. Who and the Daleks, and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., the movies essentially fail because the main character is boring. The second film compensates for this by bringing in modern-day policeman, Tom Campbell, played by none other than Bernard Cribbins, who, much later, would star as Wilf Mott, Donna’s grandfather in the David Tennant era, starting in 2008. (Cribbins sadly passed away in 2022, but he is set to appear posthumously for the new Who specials on Disney+, having filmed scenes with Tennant and Tate earlier that same year.)

Of the two films, Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is probably the more fun to watch, simply because Cribbins brings everyman heroism to his role as Tom, and for modern fans, it’s a trip seeing Donna’s grandad as such a young man. Plus, because Cushing’s Doctor is uninteresting and borderline unrealistic, the writing for Cribbins comes across as more vibrant. The marketing of the second film seemed to know that its Dr. Who movie had a main character problem, so much so that the title of the film doesn’t mention the Doctor, and in the official trailer for the film, Peter Cushing’s character is not named ever.

The legacy of Dr. Who in Doctor Who

Directed by Gordon Flemyng, these two films were based on two different serials for Doctor Who, both written by Terry Nation: “The Daleks” (1963) and “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964). Because both films are, in essence, adaptations of 1st Doctor adventures from the “real” canon, there are natural connections between the two universes of “Who.” In the 10th Doctor episode “Doomsday,” the Daleks use “rels” as a measurement of time, which has continued throughout the modern series. However, although originating in comic books, the Daleks saying “rels” for a countdown was established on screen in Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

Further, in the 1975 serial “Genesis of the Daleks” (also written by Terry Nation) the 4th Doctor (Tom Baker) seems to allude to the future-tense events of 2150 in the second Cushing film rather than the specific events of the corresponding 1st Doctor story from 1964. So, which Dalek invasion of the Earth was canon? Was Cushing’s Doctor simply a Doctor in deep cover, much like Jo Martin’s more recent Fugitive Doctor? Another Jodie Whittaker-era connection: the Dalek with the claw arm in “Resolution” seems to be vaguely inspired by the claw-armed Daleks from these two 1960s films.

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor in 2017; is his entire style just a darker version of Peter Cushing’s wardrobe?


In 2013, for “The Day of the Doctor,” Steven Moffat had hoped to put posters from both films into U.N.I.T’s secret “Black Archive,” but was prevented from doing so for copyright reasons. However, in the novelization of “The Day of the Doctor,” (also written by Moffat) it’s established that the two Cushing films exist in the primary Doctor Who universe, as fiction. Further, both the 10th (David Tennant) and 11th (Matt Smith) Doctors apparently knew Peter Cushing, and even loaned him a waistcoat for the second movie. This bit of corrective canon makes a certain amount of sense, and by the time you get to the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi), you could squint and imagine he borrowed some of his wardrobe from Peter Cushing.

As Doctor Who celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2023, there’s almost zero chance that Peter Cushing’s time traveler will be part of the nostalgic tributes. But, for a brief moment in time, he was the most mainstream version of the Doctor on the planet. And had he been allowed just a bit more fury, and perhaps been able to lose the mustache, who knows, this forgotten Dr. Who may have had several more moments of triumph.

A third film was planned but never completed, but if you revisit the recent 4K restorations of both these films today, you’ll find that despite their flaws, these sci-fi romps are charming to the last.

Dr. Who and the Daleks is streaming for rental on Amazon. Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is available for rental on YouTube and elsewhere.

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