A third Doctor Who movie almost happened, and a script was written. But what, exactly, would Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure have been?
This month the classic 1960s movie Dr. Who and the Daleks got a prestige 4K release, with its sequel Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. following next month. To help launch the release, a special event was held at the British Film Institute, consisting of a big screen double bill of both films and a question and answer session. Among those on stage discussing the films was Sergei Subotsky, son of the original Doctor Who movie screen writer Milton Subotsky. And he had some jaw dropping news to casually drop into the conversation – a third Doctor Who movie did almost happen! And more than that, he has the script for it!
The two 1960s films from AARU Productions starred Peter Cushing as the human inventor Dr. Who who goes on jaunts in his homemade time machine the TARDIS, along with his granddaughters Susan and Barbara, niece Louise, and friends Ian and Tom. The two movies were quickly rushed to cinemas to exploit the white heat of runaway Dalekmania and loosely adapt the Daleks‘ first two television appearances in colourful, child-friendly adventure stories. Despite existing outside of the continuity of the TV show, they retain a lot of affection from fans even today.
It had long been assumed that if there were plans for a third Doctor Who movie, it would have been based on third Daleks serial ‘The Chase,’ featuring the mutant menaces pursuing Dr. Who and friends across time and space in their own time machine. And it turns out there were some thoughts in that direction, but by 1967 Dalekmania was already on the wane. The Daleks were still a highlight whenever they appeared on Doctor Who, of course. But they were no longer an all-consuming obsession for British kids and rights to a third Doctor Who movie were allowed to lapse.
But what’s brand new information is that another attempt was made to bring a Doctor Who movie back to cinemas in the 1970s. A script was written, again by Milton Subotsky, for a third Doctor Who movie dubbed Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure. This wasn’t based on Terry Nation’s Dalek serials at all, meaning that there’s no idea what the plot would have been.
What is Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure? Well, we actually have a pretty good idea…
Perhaps still with an eye to a fast and profitable turnaround town, the script for this 70s Doctor Who movie was seemingly an adaptation of a script already sitting in the development pile, adding the character of Dr. Who to it. At the BFI, Subotsky revealed that the Doctor Who movie script that became Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure was previously called King Crab and, before that, Night of the Crabs. Which is very informative, since that seems to have been an adaptation of the novel Night of the Crabs by horror writer Guy N Smith. And that means we actually do have a good idea of the storyline, and how Dr. Who may have been added to it.
The first thing that becomes clear once you make the connection is that just as the 60s Dr. Who movies used Dalekmania as their inspiration, this 70s Doctor Who movie would have looked to more contemporary Doctor Who. In 1977 Tom Baker was the Doctor, Philip Hinchcliffe was the producer, Robert Holmes was script editor and the show’s ‘gothic’ phase was in full swing. Stories like ‘Terror of the Zygons,’ ‘The Seeds of Doom’ and ‘The Brain of Morbius’ often seemed like riffs on the output of the Hammer Horror studio, kept tame enough for a younger audience. The show was hitting new highs of popularity, so perhaps it was no wonder that the big screen possibilities were re-explored.
Certainly, it seems like Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure would have been more at home among stories like ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ than ‘The Chase.’ Appropriately enough, Smith’s novel was itself capitalising on recent big hits, blurring together the elements of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with James Herbert’s bestselling novel The Rats.
The 1970s Doctor Who movie would have placed Cushing’s Dr. Who in the plot of novel Night of the Crabs
The story begins when young couple Ian and Jan go for a swim off the shore of Shell Island and are dragged beneath the waters by… something. Ian’s scientist uncle Professor Cliff Davenport comes to investigate and quickly discovers the entire community of the sleepy tourist town is in deadly danger… from giant crabs! Presumably, Professor Davenport becomes Dr. Who in the unmade script, but does that mean Ian and Jan become Ian and Barbara? Starting your Doctor Who movie with Roy Castle being bitten in half would certainly have made a statement of intent!
From there, Cliff meets up with a plucky young woman called Pat who helps him investigate the increasing number of mysterious deaths. They’re both helped and hindered by Colonel Goode, commanding officer of the British Army base also situated on the island. Goode’s first instinct is to arrest Cliff as a troublemaker trying to start a panic. But Cliff has friends in high places who order Goode to place himself and his men at the professor’s disposal. The colonel, however, is understandably sceptical about the whole ‘army of giant mutant crabs’ thing and is reluctant to join the fight until it’s almost too late.
As the crabs, led by their even more gigantic leader King Crab, storm the island in force and kill everyone in sight, bullets and bombs prove no match for their thick shells. It’s up to the heroic professor to use science to find a solution and save the human race so that they live to paddle another day.
Another detail teased at the BFI screening was that the Doctor Who movie script featured two doctors. But with this Dr. Who being firmly human, this doesn’t mean any ‘Three Doctors’ style crossover. It’s more likely that Cushing would have been joined by a younger member of the family in the Doctor Who movie. Perhaps in the adapted script his nephew is also a ‘Dr. Who’ and survives the first attack in a slightly less gruesome take on the novel.
A major part of The Night of the Crabs is the passionate, and frankly pretty explicit, romance between Cliff and Pat. And so splitting the professor’s role between a senior and junior Dr. Who might have enabled them to keep the romance subplot while separating it from Peter Cushing’s twinkly old granddad.
Night of the Crabs features elements surprisingly familiar for Doctor Who fans
Other elements of the novel seem like a good fit for the Doctor Who movie formula; indeed, the ‘base under siege’ trope had become standard by the mid 1970s. Could Colonel Goode have become some version of the familiar Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart? And could UNIT have invaded Shell Island at the eleventh hour to help save the day?
The plan would presumably have been to recruit Peter Cushing to return for the new Doctor Who movie. And he certainly had experience in the horror genre, being a giant of Hammer and other horror movie studios, starring in everything from Dracula and Frankenstein to films like Island of the Burning Damned and Horror Express. But Cushing also reportedly loved his role as Dr. Who precisely because it was so different from the work he was best known for. Whether he would have returned in the 1970s for a darker and scarier Doctor Who movie is far from certain.
Of course, though it seems inevitable that a third Doctor Who movie based on Night of the Crabs would have been more horror in tone than the colourful sci-fi of the first two, it likely would have jettisoned a lot of the gore and violence. A middle ground closer to Tom Baker’s era seems more likely, with fewer and largely bloodless deaths, but with a definite sense of dread and danger. Even the adaptation’s title – Dr. Who’s Greatest Adventure – suggests a lighter touch, aware of the silliness of having giant crabs as the main antagonists.
Whatever changes had been made, and whomever had played the Doctor, a third Doctor Who movie based on Night of the Crabs would probably not have been what anyone expected. Now, like Tom Baker’s own attempted Who movie, Scratchman, it’s a curious anecdote of a path not taken. Though with a complete script in existence, and Big Finish already hinting on social media that they’d be interested in adapting it, perhaps it’s a path that we might get to explore one day, even if only on audio.
Would you like the chance to get a hold of a book or an audio based on the Doctor Who movie that never happened? Or do you think it sounds like a terrible misstep best forgotten? And who would you have fantasy-cast as Ian, Jan, Pat and Goode in the 1970s? Let us know in the comments!
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