The outlandish Doctor Who movie that never was

1986. The cinema lights are low. You’ve just watched a trailer for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that ad where an old lady drops her pince-nez into a carton of Butterkist. Then the main feature begins. A battered police box makes landfall on a lonely beach. The Doctor strides out. He’s a young and unfamiliar incarnation never seen on television – though Hugh Grant won’t have to wait too long for stardom. He runs to help a screaming woman and finds her body reduced to bloody pieces. Another shock soon comes. A second Tardis materialises and out steps a dandyish figure with a shock of white hair. You recognise the actor instantly. It’s Jon Pertwee. The two Doctors stare at each other. “Who are you?” they chorus. The question is its own reply. Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure is underway.

The two 1960s Doctor Who feature films have been rainy Bank Holiday classics for decades. Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966) starred Peter Cushing as a variant on the familiar TV character – an eccentric English inventor, surname Who, who builds a time-and-space machine in his garden. The movies were produced by Milton Subotsky, a New York émigré who specialised in portmanteau horror pictures such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. Both films are in cinemas again this summer, gloriously restored. But at a preview screening at the British Film Institute a couple of Sundays ago, something more surprising was revealed. Sergei and Dmitri Subotsky, the sons of the late producer, took to the stage wielding a document that even the most informed fans thought lost forever: the script of their father’s unmade third Doctor Who feature.

“My father’s archives have been in storage for a number of years,” explains Sergei Subotsky, “and my mother has until recently been the main point of contact for all enquiries. But no one had thought to ask her about this particular project.” He dug out the Doctor Who files and brought them to the BFI. When he produced a script bearing the words Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure, the audience was astonished.

In Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure, the Daleks are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a pair of Doctors are pitted against a swarm of cow-sized flesh-eating crabs that emerge from the sea. When the crustacean attack reaches the local Army base, the Doctors offer their help. The crabs invade a farm, where the inhabitants fight back with burning bales of straw. They tear apart a submarine. They negotiate a minefield by detonating the explosives with boulders. While the older of the two Doctors – a role Subotsky intended for Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker – rides an army truck, blasting the creatures with ultrasonic beams, the younger descends to the creatures’ nest and dispatches the king with a harpoon.

For Young Doctor Who, Subotsky wanted to cast his own new star, partly because he feared the current incumbent might leave before the film came out. (“Putting it factually,” grumbled his associate producer, John Francis, quite unfactually, in a letter to the BBC, “Peter Davidson [sic] only lasted a few months”.)

Like the 1960s films, this script is slightly at odds with the TV series. Following their precedent, Who is actually the surname of its leading characters. But this is the least of its peculiarities. After the first 15 pages, the document changes font. From this point, when the Doctors are mentioned, their names sometimes sit oddly on the page. The cover reveals the secret. Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure is credited to Edward and Valerie Abraham, the married team who wrote Subotsky’s final portmanteau horror, The Monster Club (1981). But the Abrahams were not hired to write a Doctor Who movie.

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