The outlandish Doctor Who movie that never was

Insubordinate claws: an imagining of the poster for Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure - Andrew-Mark Thompson
Insubordinate claws: an imagining of the poster for Dr Who’s Greatest Adventure - Andrew-Mark Thompson

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.

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.

A scene from Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966) - Alamy
A scene from Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966) - Alamy

The Time Lords are Subotsky’s later addition to a project he started at the end of the 1970s: an adaptation of a lurid pulp horror novel that became notorious in the school playgrounds of Britain – Guy N Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976).

Smith was a monstrously productive paperback writer. who novelised Disney movies, produced reams of soft porn (Sexy Secrets of Swinging Wives, Sexy Confessions of a Gym Mistress, etc), and respectable non-fiction about country pursuits, notably Moles and their Control (1980). His series of Crabs books did for crustaceans what James Herbert did for rats. They were read for the gore – “his one leg [was] a bloody stump from which scarlet fluid pumped, glowing like best vintage claret in the moonlight” – but they were also read for the sex.

Crabs Moon (1984) begins with a woman leaving her kids sleeping in the holiday camp chalet for an assignation in the dunes with a lover called Keith. “The quivering length of solid male flesh took her breath away,” we’re told, before the crabs have it for a seaside snack.

Subotsky bought the rights in 1977, retitled it King Crab, and attracted a director, Michael Anderson – Oscar-nominated for Around the World in 80 Days (1956). The animation sculptor Alan Friswell, then a teenage art student, was employed to bring the monsters to life. “I got some crabs from the fishmonger and started experimenting,” he recalls. “I put bits of armatures into the shells to work out the logistics of the joints.”

The plan, he remembers, was to mix stop-motion models with large-scale props and footage of real crabs. “We’d have needed to keep them cool, though, because they’d have just gone to sleep under the lights.”

Roy Castle as Ian Chesterton, the Time Lord’s companion in Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) - Shutterstock
Roy Castle as Ian Chesterton, the Time Lord’s companion in Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) - Shutterstock

The experiments ended when Subotsky suffered a much bigger reversal – the collapse of Thongor, the first of a projected series of fantasy epics. His special effects team broke up. Recycling King Crab into Doctor Who was one of the many unrealised projects on which he toiled before his unexpected death in June 1991. It was pragmatic work. The protagonists of King Crab were a pair of romantically involved marine biologists, Cliff and Pat. Subotsky allocated Cliff’s lines to the younger Doctor and Pat’s to the older incarnation. (Sergei Subotsky has a one-word explanation of this technique. “Tippex.” ) Meanwhile, Guy N Smith was never told that his creations had been offered an appointment with the Time Lord. And this, perhaps, is the strongest reason to mourn the failure of the film. “He was quite eccentric,” says his daughter, Tara Paulsson.

“Sometimes I’d come home and he’d say: ‘Watch out, the North Koreans are up on the common!’ And Mum would roll her eyes, and I’d realise that it was a story he was working on. He lived through these stories. His heroes were Sherlock Holmes, Dick Barton, Doctor Who – and he never really grew out of these things.”

She has the proof in a family snapshot. Her father, in a fedora and poncho, posing outside the full-size police box that he acquired for his front garden. “It had a working blue flashing light on the top,” she recalls. “We live on a mountain. Even in the summer you can get gales. And it began to rot. So with great reluctance, we had to dismantle it.” The lamp, though, is still in her possession.

Smith died in December 2020, from Covid-related complications. If we could grant him one trip in his own Tardis, surely we would set the co-ordinates for the British Film Institute, London, Earth, 2022, to hear the news that would have made him the most delighted fan in the room.

'Dr Who and the Daleks' and 'Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD' are out on Blu-Ray (Studio Canal)