Doctor Who is Great – 2 – The Dalek Invasion of Earth

This is the second in a (hopefully) series in which I choose one serial per season which is unusually well-made and/or innovative. It’s also intended to serve as a recommendation of where to start for people unfamiliar with the show in general or with the classic series in particular. Today I’m discussing the Daleks’ second appearance, this time as the masters of Earth.

A man wearing a metal helmet staggers through a desolate scene as though drunk before throwing himself into the Thames. A sign in the background reads “It is forbidden to dump bodies into the river”. The TARDIS materialises.

This is how we’re introduced to Episode 1, “World’s End”. For the next 25 minutes, we’re forced to wonder about the London in which the Doctor and his companions find themselves. There are no Londoners, “the chimes of old Big Ben” have fallen silent, and Battersea Power Station has lost its iconic chimneys. In a warehouse the Doctor and Ian find a calendar. The year: 2164.

Heading back to the river, they find themselves cornered by some of the men in metal helmets and decide to escape via the river. But as they turn around, a Dalek slowly emerges from the water.

This first episode is a good demonstration of effective pacing within the episodic format. An entire 25-minute slot is taken up with gradually deepening the mystery behind 22nd-century London, most of which isn’t explained until the subsequent episode, “The Daleks”.

The eponymous extraterrestrials have taken over our planet after softening up the population with a plague, and have set a large part of the population to work in mines whilst converting many others into Robomen, their robotic slaves. The Doctor et al. team up with the resistance movement, which includes the handsome young Scottish man David, the brilliant scientist Dortmun and the cynical Jenny and Tyler.

Even after the opening scene there are many occasions in which this serial is surprisingly dark: a large part of the Resistance is mown down by Daleks, another fighter is heard running and pleading for his life before being killed off-camera, yet another is murdered in cold blood just after leaving Susan and David, Jenny casually discusses the robotisation of her brother, Dortmun sacrifices himself to allow Barbara and Jenny to escape, and Larry kills his own (robotised) brother.

The Doctor is absent for a large part of episodes 2-5, allowing the companions to take centre stage. Barbara in particular is allowed two rather good scenes, first ploughing through a Dalek patrol in a truck, and then later concocting a phony ‘rebellion plan’ on the spot to fool their leader, using her knowledge as a history teacher to ‘reveal’ the machinations of Hannibal, General Lee, the Indian Mutiny and the Boston Tea Party.

If this serial is about anyone, however, it is Susan. She leaves the TARDIS at the end of the story (the series’ very first companion departure) and it’s nice that unlike, say, Leela’s eloping with Andred in The Invasion of Time, her relationship with David is built up over a few episodes, as is the Doctor’s awareness of it.

The Daleks are defeated 15 minutes into Episode 6 (“Flashpoint”), allowing a beautifully moving, 10-minute coda to finish off the story. The Doctor smiles and Tyler looks solemnly into the middle distance as Big Ben chimes for the first time in years. Susan and David are faced with a few awkward, clipped conversations before being allowed some time alone: her grandfather talks to her absent-mindedly as he ponders the decision he is about to make, and Ian questions David about his future before Barbara pulls him away to give the young couple some space.

Tyler curtly says goodbye to David, who then begs Susan to stay with him and rebuild the Earth. Carole Ann Ford is excellent here, showing us Susan’s genuine dilemma as she is torn between the two men she loves. And finally, William Hartnell also puts in a wonderful performance in a scene which has now become iconic.

The Doctor locks Susan out of the TARDIS and manages to hold back his emotion as he announces that now she has grown up, he feels she needs somewhere to belong:

“Believe me, my dear, your future lies with David, and not with a silly old buffer like me. 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 TARDIS dematerialises and Susan, in a daze, slowly walks into the space it has just vacated. The episode ends with a slow zoom onto her key to the ship, now abandoned on the ground: the teenage girl has grown up and is leaving her old life behind.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is an early example of a serial which contradicts all the myths about the classic series of Doctor Who. It’s not slow or boring, but paces itself well across its six episodes. It’s not silly; in fact it could well be considered too dark even today. It doesn’t look cheap, but disguises its low budget with tightly-designed sets and the use of location work. And it’s certainly far from emotionless.

Whilst the modern series (certainly the Russell T Davies era) often has to devote entire scripts to building up characters and relationships, forcing them to be light on action and plot, the length of this serial allows it to be both ‘action-y’ and ‘relationshippy’ at the same time. It’s a tribute to Terry Nation’s writing that he gives Susan in effect a 10-minute departure scene, with none of the self-indulgence such a length might force a new series writer into.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is 60s Doctor Who at its best, 150 minutes of television which are fully deserving of their 12 million viewers.

Next time: The Celestial Toymaker

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