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Doctor Who: The Dalek Invasion of Earth (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth originally aired in 1964.

We are the masters of Earth. We are the masters of Earth. We are the masters of Earth.

– who are the Daleks trying to convince?

Watching the early years of Doctor Who, I often find myself struggling to measure the quality of a show as against its importance to the series as a whole. Sixties Doctor Who has perhaps an unfair reputation when it comes to quality. In fact, as a rule, I’ve been pleasantly surprised on my trips back to the archives for these reviews. However, it’s often much more interesting to look at the context and the legacy of these classic episodes, as the show begins to define what it is and what it isn’t, what it can do and what it can’t do.

In that context, The Dalek Invasion of Earth is a massively important story. It features the first returning monsters of the series (go on, guess!), the first departure of a companion, the first invasion of Earth, the first aliens in London. The list goes on and on. There’s an incredibly vast influence that The Dalek Invasion of Earth has on the half-century of Doctor Who that follows. It’s nearly impossible to deny the shadow that this adventure casts.

However, it’s also a very flawed piece of television, for all its iconic status. Indeed, watching these six episodes I’m more often struck by what is important rather than what is good.

The Daleks of London...

The Daleks of London…

That’s not necessarily entirely fair. Terry Nation tends to draw a great deal of criticism when we discuss his contributions as a script writer. He certainly has his flaws when it comes to structure and storytelling. Indeed, the anthology style of Keys of Marinus seems to suit Nation better than a single extended serial, as there’s a bit more variety to it. Nation’s more conventional story arcs tend to feature a whole host of padding, whether it’s intense focus on extraneous details that don’t seem to matter past the following ten minutes, the classic “capture and escape” formula, or even an additional random monster.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth runs to six episodes, but it feels significantly longer. It seems like the Daleks just can’t keep custody of our leads, and our leads can’t individually escape particularly far. Okay, that’s not exactly fair, as it’s really just the Doctor, Ian and Barbara who each are captured and escape the Daleks’ custody. However, it seems like the story stops and starts, with short concentrated bursts of progress and then long strange tangents before the next bit of momentum.

On the waterfront...

On the waterfront…

For example, we get an entirely random bit where the Daleks capture the Doctor and decide to test his intelligence. They do so by placing a key inside a crystal container, which the Doctor has to retrieve using something approaching science. It’s something that exists just to eat up a bit of screen time. After all, the Daleks have already determined that the Doctor is unusually smart, so they’re going to separate anyway. The only affectionate way to look at that particular scene is to suggest that Nation is perhaps paying awkward homage to the roots of Doctor Who as an educational programme.

We also get two extra monsters to help stretch the adventure out to six episodes – with both monsters serving as fairly disappointing special effects creations, even by the standards of the time. There is, for example, the Slyther, a monster that the Dalek commandant apparently keeps as a pet to eat roving prisoners at the mines. It looks like a man in a sack. Susan is also briefly menacing by an alligator in the sewer, which turns out to be a close-up of a newt or a smaller lizard.

Keep calm and carry on...

Keep calm and carry on…

These attempts at padding feel especially weird because The Dalek Invasion of Earth is only really five episodes. In keeping with the later The Daleks’ Master Plan, we are effectively treated to a one-episode prelude to whet our appetites. The opening episode is delightfully effective, and works remarkably well at holding off the Dalek reveal until the closing credits without seeming like it is toying with us. There’s enough development there that it doesn’t seem like stalling. And the Robo-men make pretty effective temporary stand-ins to conceal the Dalek involvement.

Obviously, the episode was broadcast with its own title (World’s End) rather than with the headline The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Part I, but that first episode still does a great job raising the suspense, even when it’s the first adventure on a disk labelled The Dalek Invasion of Earth. So Nation really shouldn’t need to pad out the serial to get five more episodes out of it. Indeed, The Daleks ran one episode longer, but moved along at a more brisk pace.

Looks like the bubble burst...

Looks like the bubble burst…

Terry Nation struggles a bit with this sort of nitty-gritty storytelling, the finer mechanics of structuring and plotting an arc like this. Indeed, you can even see some of these techniques in his best work, Genesis of the Daleks. There’s a lot of capture and escape there, and some strange unrelated monsters that also exist to eat up screen time, despite the serial’s status as a bona fides classic Doctor Who story.

I’m also hesitant to argue that Nation was that much stronger with high concepts. After all, The Dalek Invasion of Earth hinges on the Daleks drilling in England in order to reach the core of the planet so that they can fly Earth around like some gigantic intergalactic pimpmobile. Russell T. Davies would try his damnedest to redeem this crazy concept in The Stolen Earth, but let’s just acknowledge that this is some pretty crazy stuff from the Daleks. And that’s before we point out that the Daleks very clearly already have space flight, what with invading the planet in the first place. But, hey, that’s why we love those genocidal pepperpots, am I right?

Logic is the key...

Logic is the key…

However, nobody really cares about those things. Even when people bring up the whole “stick a steering wheel in the Earth” plan, it’s generally with a cheesy affection – as if to state that it takes some massive cajones to have an evil plot that absurd. Nope. Everybody remembers the Daleks in London. Everybody remembers the Daleks emerging from the Thames. Everybody remembers the idea that Doctor Who was a show where aliens could march on London despite the fact the series barely had a production budget large enough to afford a role of styrofoam.

That’s something that Nation understands as a writer that makes up for his significant flaws, and explains why he has had such a significant impact on the history of the show despite our tendency to malign his writing style. Terry Nation understands iconography and imagery, and knows how to pitch Doctor Who as spectacle. Indeed, his reliance on monsters is somewhat telling. In The Daleks, Nation introduced the concept of the monster to Doctor Who.

They just don't make 'em like they used to...

They just don’t make ’em like they used to…

In The Dalek Invasion of Earth, he’s shrewd enough to realise that the absence of the Daleks in the first episode creates a void, so he creates the Robo-men to fill a void that other writers may not have realised existed. Terry Nation can’t take sole credit for the pop culture impact of the Daleks. After all, he didn’t do all the design work on them. Richard Martin and Christopher Barry both directed  their first story, and it’s Richard Martin who returns to direct them here.

It’s worth acknowledging what a superb job Richard Martin does. In many ways, The Dalek Invasion of Earth looks like the spiritual successor to something like 28 Days Later, with its portrayal of an abandoned and derelict London. Indeed, the shuffling Robo-Men even recall zombies, a few years before the entire zombie subgenre would be created. The Dalek Invasion of Earth looks fantastic, even today, and is a testament to director Richard Martin and Verity Lambert.

Some assembly required...

Some assembly required…

However, it seems strange that so many of the important and definitive early stories should come from Terry Nation. The Daleks was the show that really cemented the series in public consciousness. The Keys of Marinus demonstrated that the show would be moving away from the realm of education. And then there’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which is arguably the most important serial to date for Doctor Who, early in its second season.

Evolution for a television show isn’t necessarily in a straight line, even if we might wish that it were. So when The Dalek Invasion of Earth arguably sets the tone for the future of Doctor Who, it’s important to note that it doesn’t immediately define the show. As Doctor Who entered its second season, the show had a number of avenues that it might develop. On one end of the scale, for example, you would find The Dalek Invasion of Earth, with monsters wandering through familiar locations. On the other end, however, was something completely disconnected from reality like The Web Planet.

It's the bomb...

It’s the bomb…

If you consider those as two logical extremes for Doctor Who in the show’s second year, it’s easy to see which had the greater impact over the decades that followed. Indeed, Dennis Spooner even acknowledges that The Dalek Invasion of Earth provided a better template for the series going forward:

The Web Planet got very good figures – the first episode was the highest placed of that season – but we all decided we would not do anything like that again. Not because of the story content, but because of the sheer cost and technical problems involved, plus the fact that in the end we ended up with something that wasn’t that sensational compared with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. That story looked a far more realistic show, because it was recognisable with Daleks going over London Bridge. It set a precedent that has been more or less followed ever since for the Daleks. With The Chase, because we were able to go through time, one was able to constantly do episodes in recognisable situations. Even when Terry, in subsequent years, went back and did the origin of the Daleks, he put them in a Nazi environment.

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the Daleks didn’t wander around a deserted London, the Cybermen didn’t lay siege to the capital and the Yeti didn’t roam the underground. However, none of that was really imaginable before The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

The Reich stuff...

The Reich stuff…

It’s easy to argue that the basic idea – Daleks in London! – is very tough to get wrong, but that doesn’t really give Nation enough credit. I’d argue that The Dalek Invasion of Earth is so effective because it plays up to the spectre of the Second World War. The Nazis never set foot on Great Britain, but the conflict was still so fresh that it’s easy to imagine the population still having nightmares about the Reich marching on London.

Those nightmares about the threat of Nazi occupation might have looked a bit like The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It’s telling that the high-ranking Daleks are black, the colour of SS uniforms. The mining camp that the TARDIS crew visit recalls the horror of the concentration camps scattered around Europe. It might be absurd, but the Daleks never seem more likely to be offering a Nazi salute than when they are marching down familiar roads near familiar landmarks, an occupying army.

Et tu, strange forest women?

Et tu, strange forest women?

To be fair, Nation layers this on pretty thick, but it is effective. “Whole continents of people were wiped out,” we’re told of the initial Dalek invasion. “Asia, Africa, South America. They used to say the Earth had a smell of death about it.” It’s interesting that the continents targeted would have had predominantly non-white populations. I’m surprised we don’t discover the Daleks have cleared out Eastern Europe. The resistance in London is led by a physically disabled person. The labour camp is run by a “commandant.”

Indeed, the spectre of the atomic bomb haunts The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The first real sign that the travellers have not arrived home comes when Ian notices that an iconic power plant is now running on nuclear power. The Daleks are explicitly stated to plan to “tamper with the forces of creation”, giving the story a decidedly anti-nuclear subtext. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising. The Daleks are, after all, the survivors of a nuclear holocaust.

British pop culture in a screenshot...

British pop culture in a screenshot…

Nation actually does a great job texturing this world. While the plotting may leave a bit to be desired, the world-building is surprisingly effective. There are a wealth of nice guest characters that illustrate the moral quagmire of Dalek occupation. There is, for example, the smug and cynical smuggler Ashton, who hopes just to make a profit. No compassion for the suffering of his fellow man. There’s a nice sort bit with a girl and a woman living in the shack in the woods, so desperately in need of supplies that they’ll readily surrender Barbara to the Daleks. “I knew they’d give us food if we told them.”

Of course, all of this glosses over the fact that Nation really screws with his creations on their second appearance. I’d argue that any person arguing for rigid continuity in Doctor Who needs to try to mentally connect The Daleks to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. We’re told that apparently we’re watching the “middle history” of the Daleks, despite the fact that there was no evidence that they were conquerors in their first story. Indeed, their mobility disks here (which are never seen again) might have come in handy in the future when they are apparently exiled back to Skaro. Still, perhaps it’s not too implausible to imagine that an interstellar empire built on hijacking planets might eventually completely collapse.

Come quietly or there will be trouble...

Come quietly or there will be trouble…

Still, even beyond the Daleks, which now established as an intergalactic menace, the serial does a number of other important things. For example, it sees the team returning to London in something approaching the present day. London is recognisable, to the point where Ian and Barbara can’t explicitly rule out the possibility that they might be home. This is a big moment. It’s easy to forget that there have been long periods of time where Doctor Who has been firmly disconnected from the modern day world, and that it took the show a year to return to something resembling it.

“Back home,” the Doctor states. “Your planet.” Ian acknowledges, “You brought us a long way round, Doctor.” As a side note, I do like that Ian is savvy enough to know that it’s always a good idea to be able to get back into the TARDIS, even if you don’t immediately see danger. “I know one thing for sure, Doctor. We’d better make sure we can get back into the ship before we start looking around, just in case there’s trouble.” Clever guy. He’s getting it.

An underground movement...

An underground movement…

Returning to Earth feels like a big moment, and – in some small way – it also hints that the family might be splitting up. Of course, it’s Ian and Barbara that might be departing if the Doctor can get them home, but The Dalek Invasion of Earth ultimately says goodbye to Susan. It’s the first goodbye to a companion, and it is at least set up a little bit. I’ll spare you a rant about how sexist it is that the show felt the need to marry her off, or the nasty implications that are raised by later revelations about Time Lord physiology. This was, after all, years before we’d know what a Time Lord is, so the writers couldn’t imagine that Susan would significantly outlive David.

What’s interesting, though, is that her departure is actually better seeded than many later departures. It’s still not as significant as the departure of a companion in the revived series, but at least it is set up. More than that, David offers Susan something she can’t have with her grandfather. “Look, things aren’t made better by running away,” he advises her, and it becomes clear that maybe her life isn’t as idealised as it might seem.

So Sue me...

So Sue me…

“I never felt there was any time or place that I belonged to,” she explains. “I’ve never had any real identity.” This is important for her, of course, this being her final story. However, it’s also important for the Doctor, as he very clearly doesn’t have any of that either. It seems that we’re getting a more nuanced portrayal of our lead here, and a sense of tragedy about that explorer travelling through time and space in a box. Also, watching this years later, the goodbye scene is tainted by the fact the Doctor apparently never went back to visit her – the first indication that the Doctor is better at running than he is at anything else. Including managing a family.

Still, I can’t help but feel that marrying Susan off set an unfortunate precedent for the show. Obviously what you can and can’t show on a tea-time show limits how deeply you can explore sexuality, but it’s very clear that Susan’s departure from the TARDIS is related to her sexual awakening. I wonder if this fed into the nearly-religious “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS” attitude that continued long through the Davies era until Moffat had Amy and Rory explicitly break it on their wedding night.

Saucers for tea-time...

Saucers for tea-time…

I wonder if that assumption if rooted in Susan’s departure here. If the young female companion is effectively booted out as she reaches a sexual awakening, it creates the inference that the TARDIS must logically be a sexless environment. It also has some unfortunately sexist connotations. Much like Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden for a spiritual awakening, the female companion of the Doctor is cast out of the TARDIS on her sexual awakening. Note that it is fine for Steven to imply that he hooked up in The Massacre without being kicked out.

It’s a bit of an overly puritanical approach of which I am not too fond. I quite like, for example, the suggestion that the Fourth Doctor and Romana II were more than just platonic buddies, and the idea that Peter Davison couldn’t even touch his female companions is absurd. It also created an environment where the default “happy” ending for a female companion was to marry her off. It’s certainly one negative legacy of the story.

Talk about your awkward first dates...

Talk about your awkward first dates…

The Dalek Invasion of Earth also formally solidifies the Doctor as a hero, which seems to be a strange thing to say about the story where he strands his granddaughter on Earth. There have been flashes of development in the past – most notably, for example, in The Sensorites – but The Dalek Invasion of Earth cements it. The Doctor is now officially the hero of his own show. The crew are trapped outside the TARDIS by a convenient plot device, but it seems like the Doctor starts plotting to overthrow the Dalek invasion force the moment he meets them.

“We do not release prisoners,” the Daleks assure him. “We are the masters of the Earth.” The Doctor snidely replies, “Not for long.” It’s a response that wouldn’t seem out of place in an action movie, the kind of comeback that Bruce Willis might utter, puffing on a cigarette. This isn’t the cowardly run-away-or-smash-his-head-with-a-rock Doctor from An Unearthly Child. Instead, this is dynamic hero Doctor. Indeed, he even whispers to Ian, “I think we’d better pit our wits against them and defeat them.”

Lift off...

Lift off…

Still, there’s a sense that The Dalek Invasion of Earth is more important than it is enjoyable. It’s legacy and its iconography are incredibly influential, but the story rooting them feels little disappointing. It suffers a lot from Terry Nation’s weaknesses as a writer, but that’s not to discount his strengths. There is a lot to admire here, but – unfortunately – there’s a lot of extra stuff as well.

One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. Goodbye, Susan, goodbye, my dear.

– the Doctor

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