Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doctor Who At 50: The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)

Dalek Invasion of Earth DVD cover

Doctor Who survived because of the Daleks. True, it reinvented itself many times over and insinuated itself as a British institution, but before any of that, the only reason the show made it past year one is that audiences went crazy over a bunch of genocidal salt shakers. When the show's second season began, a sequel to "The Daleks" was inevitable, but Terry Nation commendably improves on his own work to deliver one of the best stories of William Hartnell's run, a postapocalyptic epic which cements the Daleks as classic villains.

It seems at first as though the Doctor (Hartnell) has succeeded in his quest to return Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) to their proper time and place, when the TARDIS materializes on the banks of the River Thames. But something's not quite right- it's deathly quiet, Battersea Power Station is shut down, and there are signs warning against dumping bodies into the river. It turns out they've landed nearly two hundred years into the future, and the Daleks have successfully invaded the Earth, making mankind into slave laborers and steadily wiping out pockets of resistance. Barbara and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) fall in with a group of freedom fighters, including the handsome David (Peter Fraser) whom the Doctor's granddaughter takes a liking to. The Doctor and Ian, meanwhile, end up prisoners of the Daleks, slated to join the legions of Robomen the Daleks have created to be slavedrivers. In attempting to free the Earth, the Doctor must find out why the Daleks are here in the first place, and what they're doing in a mining complex at Bedfordshire.

In their first outing, the Daleks were tied to their time and place in a most literal fashion- as mutated survivors of an atomic war, they literally could not leave their metal city, dependent both on its levels of radiation and the static electricity conducted through its floors. They were the last remnants of their kind, almost pathetic in their desire to finish the war that destroyed their humanity. In order for them to make a return appearance, Terry Nation not only had to add in some business about broadcast power to explain their mobility on Earth, but effectively recast them as expansionist conquerors capable of hurling meteorites and germ bombs onto a planet to subdue it. These are really the Daleks the Doctor would fight from then on, and the Nazi allegory that lurks unsubtly in the background of the genocidal monsters is emphasized here by visual echoes of the Battle of Britain. (There's even a faint touch of the Holocaust in the Robomen, who are literally worked to death by their masters.)

The story's evocation of a brutal war-torn England is both shocking and strangely convincing, considering how much of it features obvious photo backdrops and flying saucers suspended from strings. Everyone looks appropriately unwashed and grizzled, everyone's at least slightly on edge, and there's excellent use of what London location shooting they were able to do, putting the Daleks and signs of their destruction right on the viewers' doorstep.

Perhaps the most effective thing about the story is that it's as much about how the humans handle the invasion as about the Daleks themselves. Kids were given more than enough scenes of the pepperpot monsters to tide them over, but we also get a wide sample of mankind's response to being conquered. We have the resistance fighters, who are brave but know they're in a desperate struggle; we have one greedy bastard who trades what resources he can scrounge up for gold and jewelry (though why is not entirely clear, there being no markets to trade precious metals on), and a pair of women in the forest who gladly rat out refugees to the Daleks. There's a real sense of desperation which helps the story stand out despite a number of familiar serial conventions.

The story is also significant as the source of the series' first major cast change, with Carole Ann Ford's Susan leaving the TARDIS crew. While many of the show's companion departures were rushed or last minute, Susan's farewell is given an appropriate build up and a touching finale. One advantage of a six part story is that everyone is given something to do, and the regular ensemble gets some splendid moments, especially when Barbara stalls for time with the Daleks by conflating details of an impending revolt with references to the Boston Tea Party, Hannibal, and the American Civil War. There's some inevitable pointless milling around in sewers and backwoods, but it never quite loses momentum.

So "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" is an important story in the show's history for a number of reasons. It makes the first major change to the show's cast and does so very well, it sets up the Daleks to easily return to menace the TARDIS crew again and again, and it provides some iconic imagery of the classic monsters dominating London just as they dominated the imagination of so many schoolchildren. It's still a compelling watch, no matter how dated the effects are, an example of Doctor Who's unique and often undefinable power.

Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Verity Lambert
Directed by Richard Martin

Grade: A

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