The Dalek Invasion of Earth [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  Lately though I have been making my way through a lot of the classic stories–either ones I already owned or ones I bought for my birthday or Christmas–enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions: William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Carole Ann Ford as Susan.
Written by Terry Nation.  Directed by Richard Martin. Produced by Verity Lambert. Script Edited by David Whitaker.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long (Individually named World’s End, The Daleks, Day of Reckoning, The End of Tomorrow, The Waking Ally and Flashpoint).
Originally Aired:  November – December 1964 (Episodes 4-9 of Season 2)

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is one of the stories I’ve actually owned for some time, so it wasn’t a new one for Christmas or my birthday, and I actually watched it on my own, and not with my girls. But it is a classic bit of Doctor Who which has got a lot to recommend it. It’s actually the first First Doctor story had ever seen (at a convention many years ago, before my local stations were playing the earliest years of the show). So from very early days in my Doctor Who fandom, it’s had a soft spot in my heart.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is a special story in the history of Doctor Who. It represents the first time the Daleks returned, of course, which is also the first time the show had ever brought the Doctor and his friends around to face a returning menace. In a lot of ways, this story, more than The Daleks, is the one that really establishes the potential of what the creatures could be. In The Daleks, the titular exterminators are desperate–they are on their last legs, frantically looking for a way to survive against threats both real and imagined.

When we get to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, we see them for the first time as conquerors–unstoppable invaders who hold the earth in their cruel grip, heartlessly using humanity for their own purposes. These Daleks are genuinely frightening, both in what they can do to people, and what they cause people to do to each other.

One of the most interesting things about The Dalek Invasion of Earth is the setting–the story is hundreds of years in the future, but for all intents and purposes what we are seeing here is a present day London, if it had been occupied by Nazi Germany rather than having successfully held firm during World War II.

The world is full of labor camps, extermination squads, collaborators and opportunistic traitors around every corner–all set in a story laced through with familiar landmarks.

This story was produced less than 20 years after World War II ended, and scene after scene paint a picture made up of all of the latent fears that people must have had about the war ending differently than it did.

This sense of familiar setting was a first for Doctor Who. Sure, An Unearthly Child had been modern day, but that was just the opening chapter of the series. And the serial just before this one, Planet of the Giants, had also been set in present-day earth, but with the TARDIS crew being shrunk down. This story is the first time the show had legitimately taken us outside to recognizable places.

The location footage in the deserted London, with Barbara, Jenny and Dortmun hoofing it across Westminster Bridge or the Daleks gliding about Trafalgar Square are amongst the story’s most exciting bits. I especially love the scene where Barbara and Jenny drive through a roadblock of Daleks, shortly before their lorry is destroyed.

The real-life locations also give the story a grand sense of scope. We know that it takes place in and around London, and in the Daleks’ mining operations around Bedfordshire, but all the out-of-the-studio filming makes us believe that we’ve really gone that far. Indeed, the story might be the most epic-feeling tale of all the surviving First Doctor adventures. It’s also wonderfully paced, with the action nicely divided up amongst all the regulars and everyone’s activities contributing strongly to the plot.

I’m a big fan of the original cast of the show, especially William Russell and Jacqueline Hill as Ian and Barbara. Both show their characteristic courage, resourcefulness and good sense all the way through the adventure.

I also like the way guest characters are mixed in. Peter Fraser’s David Campbell is a charming presence and a believable romantic interest for Susan. Both Jenny (Ann Davies) and Dortmun (Alan Judd) got a little annoying at times, but I loved the way Carl Tyler interacts with everyone. Bernard Kay’s grizzled resistance fighter is a strong contender for my favorite guest star of the First Doctor’s whole era.

Carole Ann Ford’s Susan always struggles a bit more to not come across helpless and even inept at moments, but here she gets to play her growing affection with young David Campbell (Peter Fraser), as well as her internal conflict about the idea of leaving the Doctor. It’s a nice bit of development for her which of course leads to the significant events at the end of the story.

But as well as Carole Ann Ford plays the departure Susan’s departure sequence, that scene is owned wholly by William Hartnell as the Doctor.

The Doctor gets plenty of good moments throughout the serial (even if he is unceremoniously written out of the fourth episode due to a back injury (it’s amazing the show was so vulnerable to things like that, but also that it could accommodate such changes relatively easily.) But his goodbye to Susan at the end of the whole story is possibly Hartnell’s most iconic moment in the role, with the sequence being reused in both the 20th anniversary tale, The Five Doctors, and the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time.

Of course, there are some logical problems with Susan’s departure.

When looked at without sentiment, the Doctor simply abandons Susan on a pretty messed-up world with a guy she’s fallen for on their travels but whom in reality she does not know all that well.

But if we can suspend our disbelief with the Slyther (a pretty unsatisfying looking monster) than surely we can look past whatever problems Susan’s exit has and appreciate the emotional beauty of scene. This was the first time a regular character ever left the show, and it remained one of the best of the classic era. The scene is written by Script Editor David Whitaker, who himself finished with the series with this story, and well directed by Richard Martin. It is simply a lovely and touching moment.

The story does have other weaknesses, of course. In addition to the unconvincing look of the Slyther and some dodgy looking spaceships, there’s the simple fact that the Daleks’ plan to drill out the magnetic core of the earth so they can replace it with a big propulsion system which will allow them to fly the earth around the galaxy…it’s just as daft as it sounds. Along with some other elements like the look of the Robomen, it feels like very dated science fiction. It’s also convenient beyond words that all of the Daleks on earth are destroyed by the Doctor’s actions at the mine, and of course that nobody is really worried about more Daleks just showing up and getting right back into things.

But, on the whole, The Dalek Invasion of Earth remains one of the most ambitious and successful productions from the early days of the show. The script delivers a solid plot, and the direction helps to bring the characters to life in the midst of all the events going on.

The near-modern setting and significance of Susan’s departure elevate what was already strong material and make it into something special.

3 thoughts on “The Dalek Invasion of Earth [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. Even despite it’s slow parts and silliness, this is still one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes. I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, and seeing the scenes where they filmed early in the morning with no people in numerous tourist centers was something else.

  2. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth to this day remains very hard to match by all other Dalek stories that followed, with the only exception of course being Genesis Of The Daleks.

  3. My first Doctor Who serial. I love it. Extra points because when Barbara’s bluffing the Daleks about the resistance plans, she’s referencing where I grew up.
    Rewatching a few years ago I realized the Daleks obviously have no problem negotiating steps and staircases to get across London.

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