Raymond Cusick, designer of the Daleks: 1928 – 2013

I wanted to take the time to remember Raymond Cusick, who passed away on February 21 at the age of 84.  Cusick was a long-time Designer working in the employ of the BBC.  It was in 1963 that Cusick made an indelible contribution to pop culture, when he designed the appearance of the Daleks for Doctor Who.

As many people are aware, the concept of the Daleks was originated by author Terry Nation, who wrote the original seven episode serial that marked their debut in late 1963, as well as many of the subsequent stories to feature the fascist mutant cyborgs.  But it was actually Raymond Cusick who conceived their iconic look.  The description that Nation provided in his original scripts was rather sparse:

“Hideous machine-like creatures, they are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips for hands.”

It was working from those few sentences that Cusick would create the now world-famous design for one of science fiction’s most enduring villains.  Obviously without Nation, there would have been no Daleks, period.  But without Cusick’s brilliant design, it is questionable that the monsters would ever have achieved anywhere near the fame and recognizability that they possess, in the process helping the entire Doctor Who series to achieve remarkable longevity.

Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks
Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks

I first became aware of Cusick and his work in 1986 when I read the non-fiction book Doctor Who: The Early Years, written by Jeremy Bentham.  In those pre-internet days, information about the show’s early seasons was pretty scarce, at least here in the United States.  Those few reference books that were imported here, such as Bentham’s, were an invaluable resource for young fans like myself.  The Early Years contained a wealth of in-depth behind-the-scenes information concerning the origins and development of Doctor Who in the early 1960s.  And a significant portion of the book was devoted to the contributions Cusick made to the series.

In addition to devising the look of the Daleks themselves, Cusick was the designer for their debut serial.  Among the other subsequent stories that he worked upon during the first three seasons of Doctor Who were “The Keys to Marinus,” “The Sensorites,” “The Romans,” “The Chase,” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”  His imaginative sets and props were extremely vital to the early innovative look of the series.

After departing from Doctor Who, Cusick went on to become a designer for a number of other productions filmed by the BBC.  He and his wife also opened a small hotel in South London which they decorated with many of the famous props and design illustrations he created during his time on Doctor Who.

I think that in the past Cusick’s contribution to the legacy of Doctor Who and the Daleks has often been overlooked or downplayed.  As a freelancer, Terry Nation retained ownership of the Daleks, and apparently made a fortune out of the vast licensing of them.  Cusick, in contrast, was a BBC employee, and so was only paid a regular salary.  At the urging of his supervisor, the BBC eventually gave Cusick a one-off “Special Merit” payment.  But for many years the majority of the recognition for the Daleks’ success, both in terms of money and publicity, clearly went to Nation.  I think it was due to the efforts of fans & historians such as Bentham that Cusick’s vital contributions were eventually recognized in subsequent decades.

The 2010 three disk DVD release of “The Space Museum” and “The Chase” contained a number of extras.  Among these was the 12 minute long “Cusick in Cardiff,” which documented the Dalek designer’s visit to the studios of the revived Doctor Who series.  I really enjoyed that one, because it was great to see the present-day creators of the show acknowledging Cusick’s contributions.

I’ve read that Cusick was not especially concerned with financial compensation, that it was more important to him to receive recognition for his role in the development of the Daleks.  His wishes were fortunately fulfilled in his later life, as fandom became more widespread & knowledgeable about the early days of Doctor Who.  Judging by the large number of obituaries that I have read over the last few days, all of which have credited him as “the designer of the Daleks,” it seems that the record has been clarified, and Cusick’s contributions to the Doctor Who mythos are now firmly established.

Doctor Who reviews: The Android Invasion

Last month my girlfriend got me the DVD of the Doctor Who story “The Android Invasion” as a birthday present.  This story actually has something of significance for me, as part two of it was the very first Doctor Who episode I ever saw.  Way back around 1981 or so, Doctor Who was briefly shown on one of the television networks here in the States on Saturday mornings.  I only ever caught that one episode, and I didn’t remember much about it, but the cliffhanger ending always stuck in my mind.  About two or three years later, when I discovered Doctor Who on my local PBS station, I immediately became a fan and, well, the rest is history.

Admittedly “The Android Invasion” is not an especially great Doctor Who story.  One of the main problems is that for the first two episodes writer Terry Nation struggles mightily to build up this sinister, creepy mystery as to what is taking place in the village of Devesham and the nearby Space Defense Station.  Unfortunately, most of the suspense is completely undone by the title of the story!  Why are the inhabitants of the village, including old friends of the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, acting so damn peculiar?  Well, it’s because they are android duplicates, obviously!

This serial had at least two working titles, namely “The Kraals” and “The Enemy Within.”  While neither of these is nearly as dramatic as “The Android Invasion,” at least either of them would have maintained one of the main mysteries of the story’s first half, instead of blowing it wide open in the opening credits.

That said, the first time I saw this serial in full, it came as a complete & total surprise when at the end of the second episode the Doctor deduced that not only was everyone in the village a robot doppelganger, but in fact they were not even on the planet Earth.  Instead, this was a carefully constructed replica built by the rhino-like Kraals on their homeworld Oseidon as a training ground for their duplicate agents, a mock run for their conquest of the actual Earth.

A much derided aspect of “The Android Invasion” revolves around the Kraals’ human agent, astronaut Guy Crayford, who spends the entire story wearing an eye-patch.  Crayford believes that the Kraals rescued him from certain death on a space mission gone horribly wrong, and that is why he is assisting their invasion plans.  He thinks he has to wear the eye-patch because when the Kraals saved his life, they were unable to restore his eye.  That is until the end of episode four, when the Doctor convinces him to take it off, and Crayford realizes he has a fully function eye underneath.

Even as an eight year old viewer, my first reaction was to think “What, in the two years he was a prisoner of the Kraals, Crayford never once took off that eye-patch to take a shower?!?”  If one wants to be charitable, on two separate occasions the Doctor refers to Crayford as having been “brainwashed” by the Kraals, so perhaps he was programmed not to remove the patch.  But if that was the case, why give it to him to begin with, other than to provide a dramatic, out of left field twist when actor Milton Johns yanks it off in the story’s final moments?

There are several other glaringly obvious holes in the plotting.  I could list them all, but we’d be here for a while.  That said, I think most of them only become obvious upon repeated viewings.  And, as producer Philip Hinchcliffe commented, when he was working on Doctor Who, it was never expected that these shows would be re-watched over and over years later.

I also felt that “The Android Invasion” was an unfortunate exit story for the characters of Benton and Harry Sullivan from UNIT.  This would be the last time that actors John Levine and Ian Marter would appear on Doctor Who, and it’s a shame that neither of their characters is given a substantive role.  Hinchcliffe admits in hindsight that if he had known that this was to turn out to be the last appearances of Benton and Harry, he might have given the pair more of a presence in the story.  As it is, it’s unfortunate that these two well-regarded characters have what amounts to little more than extended cameos.  It’s also painfully obvious that Patrick Newell as Colonel Blimp, um, Faraday is a last-minute replacement for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Although considering what a tiny role in the proceedings the Brigadier would have had if Nicholas Courtney had been available, it’s probably best that he did not show up, as he was given a much more dignified exit in the previous UNIT story, “Terror of the Zygons.”

Doctor Who: The Android Invasion DVD

Well, having gone on at length as to the faults of “The Android Invasion,” I will readily admit I actually quite like this story.  A major reason for this is the team of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah.  Baker and Sladen had this absolutely incredible chemistry and rapport, and they work extremely well off of each other in “The Android Invasion.”  Some of the serial’s best scenes are the ones between the Doctor and Sarah.  They really were one of the greatest Doctor/companion teams in the show’s history, and that is readily on display in this story.

“The Android Invasion” has a really cracking script.  I’m not sure what should be credited to Terry Nation, what goes to script editor Robert Holmes (who was known for performing extensive rewrites to make stories workable), and what was improvised by Baker and Sladen.  Whatever the case, the dialogue is intelligent and witty.  I especially enjoyed the exchange between the Doctor and the Kraals’ chief scientist Styggron in episode three.  Baker does his usual routine of being threatened with death by acting silly and nonchalant.  Left tied to a ticking time bomb by Styggron and his android henchmen who then shuffle off, the Doctor exuberantly calls after the exiting villains…

“Don’t go! Stay! Just for a few minutes, then we can all go together!”

The silly banter between the Doctor and Sarah later in the episode in the Kraals’ duplication laboratory also cracks me up…

The Doctor: I feel disorientated.

Sarah: This is the Disorientation Center.

The Doctor: That makes sense.

Martin Johns does a good job portraying gullible astronaut Guy Crayford.  It would have been easy to play the role as an sneering villain.  Instead, Johns imbues Crayford with both this boyish enthusiasm and a very pitiable quality.  It’s obvious to everyone but Crayford himself that he is a mere pawn of the Kraals, and when the character belatedly realizes how badly he’s been manipulated, you genuinely feel sorry for him.

The direction by Barry Letts is top-notch.  There are some marvelously effective, atmospheric shots.  When a list of the top Doctor Who directors is drawn up, Letts’ name is not typically included.  Understandably, most fans of the show focus on his considerable role as producer in shaping almost the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run alongside script editor Terrance Dicks.  It’s a shame.  I don’t know if I would rank Letts alongside such amazing directors as Douglas Camfield, David Maloney or Graeme Harper.  Nevertheless, Letts does some solid work on “The Android Invasion.”  I think his directing on this serial would be better regarded if he’d had a stronger story, but considering what he was handed, Letts makes the most of it.

The audio commentary on “The Android Invasion” was entertaining and informative.  The participants are Milton Johns (Guy Crayford), Martin Friend (Styggron), producer Philip Hinchcliffe and production assistant Marion McDougal.  I’ve observed in the past that for the older Doctor Who serials, it’s worthwhile to have a moderator to guide the discussion and help jog everyone’s understandably hazy decades-old memories.  Filling that role once again is Toby Hadoke, who does a superb job at leading the proceedings.

The extra feature “Life After Who” looks at Philip Hinchcliffe’s post-Doctor Who career.  Hinchcliffe went on to produce a wide variety of material, ranging from gritty crime series to period dramas.  Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with most of this material.  I’d have to check to see if any of it is even available on DVD here in the States.  That said, some of it looked very intriguing, and given the opportunity I’d like to be able to watch some of these projects.  Particularly of interest is Nancy Astor, the story of the controversial first female member of British Parliament.

So, despite its flaws, “The Android Invasion” is an entertaining serial, and the DVD contains some interesting extras.  As I said before, while it will never be considered one of the top Doctor Who stories ever made, it is a personal favorite of mine, in that, for all its silliness and gaping lapses of logic, it is a great deal of fun.  Actually, having written this review, I now feel like sitting down and watching it again.  That’s the hallmark of an entertaining story.