“The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” (season 2, episodes 4-9. Originally aired Nov. 21-Dec. 26, 1964)
When it comes to its importance to Doctor Who, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is way up there among the most influential serials in its history. Commissioned almost immediately after the surprise smash hit of the Daleks’ debut the year before, “Dalek Invasion” put Who in the ratings top 10 for the first time, and helped stoke the fires of 1960s Dalekmania into a full-fledged craze. (Seriously, it was a big thing—not as big as Beatlemania, but a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.) It’s also hugely important to the show’s ongoing narrative—in their first story, the Daleks were implacably evil but still small-time, not even able to travel outside their home city. “Dalek Invasion” repositioned them as Doctor Who’s first and greatest intergalactic threat—and prompted a response in kind from its title character. With a bigger budget than ever before, “Dalek Invasion” boasted the series’ first extensive use of on-location filming, allowing real London landmarks to give the Daleks’ takeover an uncanny realism and an epic feel. And it marked another milestone first: The departure of a companion. The original companion, in fact—the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, which set a precedent for how the series would work cast changes into the storyline.
Having said all that: “Dalek Invasion” has not aged well at all. In fact, it’s often a drag. Terry Nation’s script is frequently slow-paced and suffers badly from his penchant for deliberately running out the clock by throwing in long, meandering subplots. In “The Daleks,” he padded out the story by sending the characters on a long quest to get into the Dalek city by surprise. In this one, he splits the TARDIS crew up and sends them on three separate quests to get to Bedfordshire, the central nexus point of the villains’ master plan. There’s constant activity, but even though the characters are always moving, the story too often just spins its wheels.
Having said all that: It has an excellent beginning, opening on a shot of a creepily Orwellian sign reading “It Is Forbidden To Dump Bodies In The River.” Shuffling zombie-like past the sign is a distraught man in a bulky helmet—a Roboman, one of the Daleks’ enslaved and mind-controlled humans. He disobeys the sign by dumping himself in the river, committing a shocking and mysterious suicide by drowning. Then the TARDIS lands on the same spot, too late to save him or even know he was there.
Even though it’s set 200 years in the future, “Dalek Invasion” doesn’t really try to show a futuristic society—the humans drive ordinary vehicles, wear 20th-century clothing, and fight the Daleks with firearms instead of laser pistols. What it’s really trying to evoke is not the future but the past, or at least a possible past, imagining what it might have been like if England had lost World War Two and been annexed by Germany, with the Daleks sliding easily into the role of the Nazi occupiers. What happens to the humans is not a pretty picture: They either become collaborators (the Robomen), pathetically outmatched Resistance fighters, or opportunistic survivalists ready to sell anyone out for a bag of sugar. What the Daleks didn’t destroy outright, they corrupted. They’re creatures of the post-apocalypse, who learned to thrive in their devastated world on Skaro and recreated it for their convenience on Earth.
The first episode is mostly atmosphere and set-staging, as the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan explore what’s happened to the London of the 2160s, meet the human resistance fighters, and see the effects of the invasion before they know who’s responsible for it. This is very similar to the opening episode of “The Daleks,” which also took its time setting the scene before raising the stakes with the first appearance of the title monsters at the cliffhanger. The main difference here is that everybody watching knew what they were going to see—the Daleks were very much known quantities to viewers, and unlike the Cybermen in the Second Doctor’s “The Invasion,” their presence in the story wasn’t being kept back as a surprise. It’s right there in the title of the episode, after all. This cliffhanger is about anticipation, not surprise. You know a Dalek is going to show up, and the curveball Nation throws is how it shows up: Rising from the murky waters of the Thames, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
Whatever you might have expected, it wasn’t that. (Although it does cleverly mirror the opening scene: First something sinks into the river, and now something nasty comes out.) It’s part of a larger strategy to beef up the Daleks’ threat level and give them an on-screen gravity that matched their outsized presence in wider pop culture. If you want to give their return a real sense of shock and menace, it’s a bold move to make them the new masters of Earth. And conceptually, it works—they’re mean, jumped-up bullies and this is perfectly in character for them. But it doesn’t work so well on a practical level. Earth has too many stairs for a conquering race with no legs. The Daleks’ tanklike shape is iconic and evocative of their brutal nature, but it only really works in the flat-surfaced environment it was designed for—their city on the planet Skaro, and the TV studio where it was built. Putting them on location in the London streets made their limitations hard to ignore.
With better special effects, the Daleks easily levitate or fly on new-series Who. But that wasn’t an option in 1964, and “Dalek Invasion” tries to jump that hurdle in two different ways. The first is by simply asserting forcefully that despite the evidence of your eyes, the Daleks are formidably mobile—that’s what the first cliffhanger is all about. If the Daleks can move around under rivers now, who knows what else they can do? And it works well enough that you do believe it—besides, you kind of have to accept it as a necessary premise of the story. But it still doesn’t overcome the storytelling problems of a faceless, armless, legless villain, and so the Daleks also were given human assistance in their Robomen, so they’d have someone who could do their dirty work.
Worse than the physical problems, though, is that Nation barely seems interested in the Daleks as characters, mostly using them as little more than generic thugs and oppressors. They don’t even say “Exterminate!” until the fifth episode. They’re gone from the story for long stretches, and in six episodes there are, if I’m counting correctly, zero scenes with any new insights into how Daleks think or what motivates them that we didn’t pick up from their first appearance. Sure, there’s superficial elements like the addition of a leader Dalek with a black shell—but a paint job is not the same thing as a characterization. Toward the end, we do get that delightfully crazy ultimate motivation of hollowing out the the Earth so they can drive it around the universe, but why they want to do that is left unexplored.
The Robomen are also more interesting conceptually than in execution. Lobotomized, mind-controlled, and robotically enhanced, they’re almost like an early prototype of the Cybermen— twisted, broken zombie stormtroopers made from the bodies of humans’ friends and loved ones, and who are therefore disturbing precisely because they were once not disturbing. The story consciously plays with that idea, reaching its emotional crescendo when Ian’s friend Larry finally meets his long-lost brother, who’s been robotized—and so instead of a happy reunion, they’re forced to murder each other. But the Robomen’s potential to be truly frightening characters is squandered by the way they’re actually portrayed. If the Daleks are impractically designed, at least they’ve got visual flair. With their ill-fitting, dorky helmets, the Robomen just make you feel embarrassed for them. And… they… talk… so… slowly…
Let’s go back again to for a moment to the Dalek who rises out of the Thames, because the Doctor’s confrontation with it is a pretty big moment for him, and for the show. During Who’s first season, he was more focused on basic survival and escape—faced with hostile cavemen or Aztecs, he was more concerned with getting back to the TARDIS and leaving than sticking around to solve their problems. Here, faced with the return of his arch-nemeses, he immediately stands against them, contemptuously declaring that he’s going to close them down. It’s the first time, I think, that he’s drawn a line in the sand like that. He’s no longer the guy who comes to town and defeats evil because otherwise he can’t leave. He’s the guy who comes to town and defeats evil because it needs defeating, and only then does he leave. (Ian, meanwhile, has a more baffling reaction: incredulously spouting “That voice!” when he hears the Dalek, as if he hadn’t recognized it until it spoke, though he hasn’t forgotten what they are. I suspect that William Russell actually missed his cue, coming in slightly early, and that his line was meant to express astonishment at the flat, affectless voice of the Robomen, who are new to Ian.)
This change in characterization echoed down through the ages of Who. You don’t get the Eleventh Doctor scaring away battle fleets with a long grandstanding speech without the First’s acidic retort when the Dalek brags about being the master of Earth: “Not for long.” In fact, it’s an even ballsier statement to make here, because the First Doctor has no reputation to fall back on. These Daleks don’t even know who he is—he’s apparently meeting a different group at an earlier point in Dalek history. Why should they be worried that an old man, two schoolteachers and a young girl have turned up?
And you don’t also get Eleven angsting about all the friends he’s screwed up without One slamming the door on Susan.
The real reason Susan left is that Carole Ann Ford had grown tired of playing the role, feeling that Susan’s potential wasn’t being developed and that the character was less interesting than what she’d signed on for. I have to agree. I don’t think Susan ever lived up to the promise she showed as the title character of “An Unearthly Child.” With her combination of youthful naivete and uncanny knowledge, she was awkward and odd and emotional and didn’t seem like she fit in anywhere—and it could have been a really interesting character arc to show her growing out of that and discovering herself. Instead, though, after “Unearthly Child” she was usually overshadowed by her co-stars and came across as mostly passive and bland. Whatever the cause, the show wasn’t using her character well and moving on without her wasn’t a bad move. I’ve got mixed feelings about how that was handled, though.
“Dalek Invasion” sets the stage for Susan’s departure by giving her a dilemma: A reason to leave in young, handsome rebel David Campbell, who she falls in love with over the course of the story, and a reason to stay in her grandfather, who she worries can’t take care of himself without her. The idea is that she’s growing up, and will never have a real life of her own until she gets out from under her grandfather’s shadow. But the dramatic impact of her decision is wasted, because she doesn’t get to decide at all. Instead, the Doctor, who’s seen her dilemma developing, locks her out of the TARDIS and forces her to stay with David. It should have been her first grown-up decision, and instead it’s just her grandfather making decisions for her again. And doesn’t it seem weird to strand her on a ruined and devastated planet with a boy she just met instead of, I dunno, sending her to college or something?
The Doctor’s final speech to Susan—promising that “one day, I shall come back”—is one of this era’s most famous scenes, partly because it was also used to introduce the all-star episode “The Five Doctors.” It’s also a callback to the Doctor’s first big speech in “Unearthly Child,” where he talks wistfully about the home he and Susan ran away from, and vows that “one day, we shall get back.” That first line felt like a white lie, something he promises but knows may never happen. So does his promise to Susan here. And he never does come back for her, so this feels a bit like a betrayal. Susan becomes the first of a long string of abandoned friends and companions. The Doctor’s good with journeys, but he’s terrible at endings.
• Best companion moment: Barbara tries to fool the Daleks with a whopping lie about a worldwide revolt with details plucked from military history, including General Lee, Hannibal, and the Boston Tea Party. A close second: Barbara, in a stolen truck, smashes full-speed into four Daleks. She also nearly defeats the Daleks’ whole invasion on her own when she figures out how to give new orders to the Robomen, which turns out to be the key to the Daleks’ defeat, before the Doctor does.
• Worst companion moment: Ian saves the Earth from the core-exploding bomb, at the cost of what might be the most undignified camera angle in series history.
• Episode four features the TV debut of Nicholas Smith, who’d later co-star as Mr. Rumbold in the sitcom Are You Being Served?
• Another milestone: The Bedfordshire mine in “Dalek Invasion” is the first time Doctor Who ever filmed in a rock quarry. They’d be used over and over throughout the series as stand-ins for alien planets, but here, the quarry is actually a quarry. But then, it’s also a quarry dug out by an alien species—maybe they were homesick, and wanted to make something that reminded them of where they came from.
• Upcoming schedule: Doctor Who Classic will switch to a biweekly schedule starting with the next installment. It’s not going away, just slowing down for a while.
• Nov. 20: “The War Games,” episodes 1-5
• Dec. 4: “The War Games,” episodes 6-10
• And then: “The Silurians,” “City of Death,” and visits to the Fifth-, Sixth-, and Seventh Doctor-eras.