A Dalek is (now) a many-splendored thing

Creator's Statement

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.


Keith M. Johnston is Reader in Film and Television at the University of East Anglia. His research focuses on the interplay of technology, aesthetics and industry in British cinema, most notably around Ealing Studio’s use of colour between 1948 and 1957, and British stereoscopic 3-D in the 1950s. He is also the author of Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (McFarland & Co, 2009), Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg, 2011), and co-editor of Ealing Revisited (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). As Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded ‘Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-85’ project, he is researching the promotion of Eastman Colour to the British film industry and audiences, investigating the role film laboratories played in debates about colour filmmaking during the 1950s and 60s, and exploring the impact of Eastman Colour on genres such as fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

A Videographic ‘Recontextualisation of the Daleks’

Placing moments side by side from the black and white source-text Doctor Who serial and Dr. Who and the Daleks is an interesting decision – it certainly pays off in terms of decentring the supposedly ‘original’ text. Far lower resolution TV looks murky and diminished when its aspect ratio is set next to the filmic version, acting more like an echo or degraded copy than a point of origin. However, I do wonder whether the comparison between TV and film, and AV black and white and colour, marginalises the transmedial – or intermedial – array of Daleks which would have been in circulation in 1965.

Fans had the opportunity to encounter Daleks in colour comic strips on the back pages of TV Century 21, where black, red and blue variants had already been introduced ahead of the Subotsky movie, which was released on August 23rd, 1965. The ‘Duel of the Daleks’ (3rd April-15th May 1965) offered a curious origin story for a singular red Dalek, named Zeg, who had been transformed and newly empowered by an accident in the “inventions” lab. Provided accidentally with a coat of stronger armour, red Zeg was attacked, on the bulbous yellow Dalek Emperor’s orders, by his apparent hench-Dalek depicted in black (by contrast, standard worker Daleks were grey-ish blue; Zeg had been unwittingly transformed from this livery into vibrant red, as if becoming a kind of ‘superhero’ Dalek). The different colour scheme for Zeg, who then becomes embroiled in a duel with the Emperor over who should lead the Daleks, seems little more than a visual trick to allow this one Dalek to stand out distinctively in the comic’s frames. More problematically, perhaps, colour stands as a marker of supposedly inherent supremacy rather than mere hierarchy – red is stronger than black, and so a threat to the Emperor’s leadership (and Dalek social order tout court).

Promotion for Dr. Who and the Daleks in July 1965 would also see a colour still of Peter Cushing’s Doctor Who plus blue, red and black Daleks on the front cover of TV Century 21, whilst the colour ‘Daleks’ comic strip continued on the title’s full-colour back cover, making movie Daleks almost interchangeable with the brightly-depicted, stylised comic strip Daleks just as much as displacing their monochromatic TV forerunners.

Dr. Who and the Daleks has received relatively little scholarly attention, despite the mass of literature on Doctor Who as a whole, which is one reason to appreciate the focus of this specific videographic essay. However, fan-scholars (fans writing for an audience of fellow fans and drawing on broadly scholarly approaches) have dedicated analysis to the film, and to its use of colour. In About Time 6, Tat Wood observes – only perhaps somewhat facetiously – that the film’s Dalek City has a “predominant colour scheme” of “beige and salmon-pink. This reminds us of the fact that when this was made, prawn cocktail was considered the height of sophistication” (2007: 389). Adding colour to the world of the movie Daleks thus adds cultural-historical specificity in terms of colour’s connotations and associations – the Dalek City may be read not only as a matter of gaudiness, but also in relation to colour (and lifestyle) fashions of the time, possibly connoting a degree of ‘hip’ sophistication. Even the 1965 movie Daleks are “inordinately fond of lava-lamps” (ibid.), a point also made by fellow fan-scholar Philip Sandifer in TARDIS ERUDITORUM Volume 1: William Hartnell. Sandifer reads the movie’s use of colour as “not about realism, but about spectacle. Which is why Skaro is, in this film, a technicolour monument to retrofuturism, complete with lava lamps” (2011: 242)

Viewing full-colour Daleks as pop spectacle plays down the narrative and intertextual possibilities of their tonality, though. Wood argues that in Dr. Who and the Daleks, they are basically figured as “Bond villains… We’ve stepped into big-scale megalomaniacal technophilia. Whilst Skaro’s forests are rather 1950s mauve and lilac filigree, we’ve got chunky metallic doors that would be impressive in a model for Thunderbirds, but with real actors running up to them” (2007: 391). This suggests a further side-by-side comparison that it would be intriguing to explore, namely the imagery of Bond villains’ techno-coloured bases versus the 1965 Dalek City (by which point the first three Bond films had played at cinemas, with Thunderball to follow in late ‘65).

In summary, there is a tension between this essay’s statement – which rightly invokes the intermediality of merchandise and ‘Dalekmania’ – and its videographic presentation which remains fixed, textually, at the level of film and TV. Similarly, whilst fan-scholars have addressed a wider range of intertextualities, whether to food, fashion or the emergent James Bond franchise, this essay remains focused on Doctor Who in comparison with itself rather than with other British cinematic heroes of the moment (and beyond).

Of course, fans are perfectly happy to read Doctor Who intra-textually, as it’s their prime specialism, and Sandifer suggests that this “film is also where the dominant visual look of the Daleks comes from. If you’re wondering why the New Paradigm Daleks introduced in Victory of the Daleks [2010] look the way they do, go look at the poster for this movie” (2011: 242). Both the Daleks and the “gleaming blue TARDIS exterior” of the Steven Moffat era are noted as being “explicitly modelled on the movie” (Sandifer 2011: 243), with this feedback loop between 1960s colour film and 2010s TV being a spectacularly slow one, measured over the longue duree of a franchise’s self-mining. Setting the ‘Paradigm’ Daleks and Matt Smith TARDIS exterior against Dr. Who and the Daleks could also highlight the allure of the film for long-term fans – even whilst socially-organised fandom has bemoaned its changes to TV lore, and hence its non-canonicity, the colour and scale of the chunky movie Daleks appears to have exerted a hold on the fan imagination (and beyond – what with the 1960s Dalek movies being repeated on UK TV far more than any original TV stories, at least prior to the era of on-demand Who).

Expanding the videographic essay’s scope to become more diachronic in its Doctor Who intratextuality would thus open up some additional interesting possibilities, with Dalek shells from the movies moving back into the TV series at a certain moment, as well as the Daleks eventually being depicted in colour on TV, of course, albeit in ways that rendered them curiously grey and monochrome in iconic and militaristically Nazi-encoding instances such as 1975’s ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. There is a sense of bright fun to the colourful Daleks of the ‘65 film (even if Nazi symbolism remains hauntologically present), suggesting at least some of their ‘Dalekmania’ merchandising and commercial extra-textuality in comparison with the latter dourness and self-conscious seriousness of public service ‘Genesis’ (which is also arguably one reason why it has been so beloved by fans). Contrasting non-canonical Dr. Who and the Daleks with the hyper-canonical ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ would offer a further route, oddly, into the cultural-historical specificity of the 1965 movie Daleks as extra-textual kids’ playthings, sometimes implicitly rendered as textual objects of ‘play’, as for example in the film’s detailed focus on the TV story’s sequence where Ian gets inside a Dalek. But the playfulness of Johnston’s essay itself speaks to the Dalek as a cultural object which remains malleable and capable of sustaining new fan (and academic) thought experiments. Not necessarily aiming to be a ‘Resolution of the Daleks’, this essay nevertheless both examines and performs a thought-provoking ‘Recontextualisation of the Daleks’.


Sandifer, Philip (2011) TARDIS ERUDITORUM Volume 1: William Hartnell Amazon, Marston Gate 

Wood, Tat (2007) About Time 6 Mad Norwegian Press, Illinois.

One of the challenges of writing about color in film and television is analyzing its impact without being able to show it in motion. Stills are helpful aids, but they don’t capture the viewing experience—especially when it comes to the question of how color alters our perception of space and movement. This is why “A Dalik is (now) a Many Splendored Thing” is simultaneously pleasurable to view and successful in making a straightforward argument about color use and meaning in moving images. By placing the same/similar scenes side by side,  Johnston helps us see how color defines “the known and unknown spaces” of the storyworld: the TARDIS gains prominence while the petrified forest becomes more legible while also blossoms into sumptuousness. The music selected for the soundtrack perfect sets the mood and our relationship to the period.

As Johnston notes, this case is unique in that it is an example of a black and white television program directly adapted for color film, which provides us with an opportunity for a comparative exploration across media forms and with greater specificity. We can see how closely the film tracks with the original tv program, likely in an effort to please fans of the original, while also offering viewers a moment to both explore the storyworld in more heightened and sensual detail and, as Johnston points out in his discussion, help define objects existed outside or alongside the text, such as merchandising.

I think the side-by-side comparison is both effective and affecting. In viewing the video essay, it is striking to see just what color can do to moving images—how it generates sensation/emotion, crafts space, draws attention, brings a sense of style/art/modernity to the media text. I do wonder, however, if it is altogether fair comparison. Johnston notes that he reconfigured the televisual to match the cinematic, which I think is fine as long it’s acknowledged. However, I wonder about the quality of the televisual image—it seems washed out and degraded. Were these clips taken from an old kinescope or experienced generation loss from some other form of copying/storage? This seems like an important detail to take into account when considering how audiences at the time might have been viewing the show and comparing it to the film version and in considering the aesthetics of film vs. television during this period. In watching this video essay I was also reminded of how the moment of a networks full conversion to color (occurring in the late 1960s in the US) provides us with examples of particular shows being produced in black and white and then in color. In those cases, while the results of color conversion can be quite stunning and transformative, there is also a legibility, clarity—a crispness—to the black and white versions that put the two versions on more equal footing in terms of the quality and legibility of the image.

Overall, this piece is provocative and instructive on a number of levels and could be used in stimulating theoretical and historical connections for further research and be used in the classroom to generate much thinking and discussion about color use, spectatorship, genre, and comparing aesthetic strategies across and through media platforms.