I’ve seen The Dalek Invasion of Earth at least half a dozen times over the years but never find myself holding the same opinion twice. I first saw it as an omnibus at a Doctor Who convention in Manhattan in July 1985; I was barely 12, had not seen any First Doctor stories on TV yet (my PBS outlet wouldn’t start showing them until two months later), and was quite surprised at how high-pitched William Russell’s voice was (I had pictured him sound much deeper and more resonant as I read the novelizations). I sat there for the whole two-plus hours in the hotel screening room and was pretty well mesmerized, largely because I already knew the story was historically important in the show’s development rather than because I had any fine appreciation of its nuances.
But I never enjoyed the story quite so much again after that, and for most of the ’90s settled into the generally-held view that it was well-meaning but a bit overlong, dull, and stilted. Except for Susan’s departure scene, which always got to me. With very few exceptions, there was never anything wonderful about the way Susan was written, until the moment in which she left the series…
When the DVD came out in 2003, I enjoyed the story, but more in the context of the DVD bonus features as they supplemented and enhanced the viewing experience. The novelization was never one of my favorites, either. My original copy literally fell apart, due to a weak binding job, and for years I had to keep the loose pages stapled together into a 6 sections loosely approximating the episode format. When your best memory of a book involves the binding glue… that’s not much of a book.
What struck me during last month’s re-watch is how intense it is, how much it plays with expectations, how much it both telegraphs and hides its big twists, and what it says about both the nobility and horror of human nature. This may be a string of B-movie cliches (the irony being that, two years later, this would be remade as a B-movie, starring Peter Cushing)… but the script is also both Terry Nation and David Whitaker at the height of their respective powers. I’ve been uncharitable about Nation’s 1970s output in the past, but his fame had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is this story. It’s dark, unflinching, optimistic, trite, cliched, and inventive all at the same time, and watched in 25-minute installments one night at a time, this story is about as gripping a sci-fi tale as Doctor Who was capable of putting out in those days.
Episode 1, World’s End, is Who‘s first foray into the apocalypse. London has been laid waste in the mid 22nd century. For the first time, a story opens not on the regulars and/or inside the TARDIS, but with the suicide of a Robo-Man, in front of an enormous poster marked IT IS FORBIDDEN TO DUMP BODIES IN THE RIVER. Susan soon remarks “Things have to stay as they are, don’t they? Can’t change,” and that’s David Whitaker hiding the news of her imminent departure in plain sight. There’s the series’ first corporate logo, a Shell oil can inside a deserted warehouse – product placement at world’s end. The score is again percussion-heavy, as it was in The Aztecs, this time composed by Francis Chagrin, quite possibly the most accomplished person the show had ever hired up to that point. This percussion builds up over a series of disturbing images: Robomen corpses that shockingly pop up in the river or in the warehouse, and that flying saucer (pictured above), the first of the iconic spaceship-over-London shots that the series would recycle quite a bit going forward. We get our first wheelchair-bound hero, Dortmun from the human resistance party, who makes a huge impression in his single scene, and who is surely destined to play the big hero for the rest of the serial. And, even when William Hartnell is fluffing his lines, he’s still delivering found poetry:
A dead human body? In the river?
I should say that’s near murder, isn’t it?
The Episode 1 cliffhanger is the game-changing return of The Daleks, as Episode 2 will be called. The “surprise” reveal would have been spoiled in advance for Radio Times readers, and no plot explanation is ever given for the Dalek’s presence under the Thames – perhaps he was waiting underwater on the off chance that the Doctor would try to swim to safety from that particular embankment. But it sets up the lovely moment where the Doctor promises to defeat them – rising to the sort of heroism that Hartnell simply wasn’t doing for most of Season 1. The Dalek then joins the growing list of villains who stare into the camera and monologue away, saying something that approximates We are the masters of Earth!, only sounding a little more rude than that. Later, there’s a stunningly complex flashback centered around the Dalek saucer; director Richard Martin gets criticized a bit for his work, but I find little fault here. Nation hits his peak with supporting characters, with Dortmun being a convincing disabled-but-charismatic rebel leader, and with Jenny being a complete hard case. Now, try to predict how their characters will wind up, just based on Episode 2 alone; you’d probably be dead wrong. In terms of tertiary characters, Nation sets up one great joke with Craddock, a dim-witted thug who plays temporary companion to Ian and the Doctor on board the Dalek saucer, and gives us another iconically creepy death in Thompson, whose attempt to escape from the saucer is foiled by a circle of Daleks, and whose protracted death mirrors that of Temmosus in the Daleks’ previous outing.
One of the raps on Terry Nation is that his individual episode titles usually bear little relation to the plot, but the title of Episode 3, Day of Reckoning, pays off, as A) the Daleks firebomb what’s left of London to punish the resistance, and B) most of the supporting cast are brutally killed off! Who will do this from time to time in the future, usually in an Episode 4, as we’ll eventually see with The Daleks’ Masterplan, The Web of Fear, and The Caves of Androzani. But this is the first time it’s done, and even though I’d seen the episode several times before, only this time did I become fully cognizant of the carnage. Craddock, last week’s pseudo-companion, suffers a hideous fate, first being Robotized and then electrocuted (he’s quickly replaced by another pseudo-companion, Larry, to whom you shouldn’t get too attached). A minor rebel named Baker is executed moments after revealing his too-detailed escape plan; a nameless character, heard only in voice-over, is exterminated while reciting a litany of the horrible things that have happened to him since the invasion (a scene which is the catalyst for David, Susan’s love interest, lecturing her that “Things aren’t made better by running away!” – surely a David Whitaker line to set up the ending). Dortmun… well, what can I say. Knowing that he buys it in this one, but trying to watch the episode as if I’d never seen it before… I can’t think the audience would ever have seen this death coming, not with the buildup he got as rebel leader the previous two weeks. His death is tragically useless, even as an intentional self-sacrifice to help Barbara and Jenny escape the Daleks; his anti-Dalek bombs utterly fail to work. In a very rare mis-step, Terrance Dicks chose to rewrite this scene in the novelization so that Dortmun gets to take some Daleks with him as he dies; this might go over better with the kiddies, but it was more uncompromising, more frustrating, and thus better, as Nation did it. And if all this isn’t bleak enough, there’s the wordless 3-and-a-half-minute sequence of Daleks gliding past the most iconic London monuments, many of which have been tagged with Dalek graffiti. A gorgeous character moment in which David flatters the Doctor (the moment which really seals Susan’s fate), and the Dalek interrogation of a mannequin, are the only moments in the episode that won’t leave you in need of a stiff drink.
The title of Episode 4, The End of Tomorrow, is meaningful only in retrospect. This is the first chink in William Hartnell’s armor, the first step towards his ignominious termination from the series just two years later. Hartnell was injured during rehearsals for Episode 3, and had to be scratched from this episode on short notice, with David inheriting some of his heroic actions (Dicks reinstates Hartnell into the novelization, which is fine dramatically but goes against the point I’m trying to make here). Was this the first indication that Hartnell was too old and too frail to anchor a series that was in production 46 weeks a year? Meanwhile, back in the 22nd century, Nation and Martin continue to pour on the dystopian menace. There’s a ridiculously large number of extras as the action foresakes London in favor of the Dalek mine in Bedfordshire: we’ve never seen so many people on the screen at once before, not on this show. Dortmun’s corpse haunts the foreground of one scene – Martin can’t be a talentless hack, not pulling off a shot like that. And neither can Nation, not when he has David remind us that “Not all human beings are automatically allies,” which A) sets up a key subplot the following week, and B) prefigures later post-apocalyptic classics like The Stand or Walking Dead. A black marketeer named Ashton (Patrick O’Connell) is only in one scene, before dying a Vasor-like death (only with less of the raping), but the actor nails the part while he’s there. The only two weaknesses this week are the stock footage of the alligator in the sewer, and the Slyther – classic Nation-by-numbers, a monster represented by a man in an ill-fitting rubber suit, named after its defining monster-y trait.
Hartnell returns with a vengeance in Episode 5, The Waking Ally (an episode about which the Doctor is the only thing waking). He brains a Roboman with a club (he’ll have so many notches in his walking stick now that the thing should fall apart), and delivers an important character-defining mission statement: “I never take life – only when my own is immediately threatened.” But things are starting to heat up between Susan and David, and all the Doctor can do at this point is make a feeble pun about knowing that “something’s cooking.” Elsewhere, in a devastating sequence, Barbara and Jenny (hiking from London to Bedfordshire) take refuge with a mother and daughter… who promptly sell them out to the Daleks for a sack of oranges; as they’re led off, the mother (a creepily ghoulish presence) wistfully sighs, “Oh well. They’d have been caught anyway.” Larry Madison’s murder/suicide with his Robotised brother – who recognizes Larry only in extremis – is one of the saddest things Doctor Who has done until now, with the other competition coming from elsewhere in this story. The only weak note this week is the Daleks’ mining plan being given the truly horrible name OPERATION DEGRAVITATE.
… and then, just like that, the plot is wrapped up pretty easily in the first 15 minutes of Episode 6, Flashpoint. What had been an exhilarating journey, with an incredible scope of devastation, seems to end too easily, with a single explosion in Bedfordshire standing in for the destruction of every Dalek worldwide. Ian’s slide down a bomb shaft is portrayed by a plastic doll; maybe this looked better on a blurry 12-inch screen in 1964. The script had been fetishizing Dortmun’s bomb-making notes since Episode 3 but they just prove to be a red herring in the end, and the Doctor and rebel Carl Tyler hide from the Daleks in plain sight, which is either a sign that Martin was too exhausted to worry about proper blocking this week, or that the studio space was just too darned small. The best things about the resolution are Hartnell’s gripping his lapels and standing up to a Dalek in POV shot, and his impatiently interrupting Barbara’s G-d-awful Dalek impersonation. Oh, and Barbara’s mish-mash of a history lesson for the Daleks.
But none of that’s why we care about Episode 6. It’s all about Susan’s departure, really. This just does not get easier to watch with time. Everyone sees it coming except for Susan, and for Ian, who hilariously and obtusely tries to make small talk with David in the middle of a marriage proposal. Then Hartnell goes in the TARDIS and locks the doors. And leaves Susan behind, via a voice-over. And Susan drops her key into the grass, while David says “He knew… he knew you could never leave him.” The show’s first cast change is brought about by the Doctor abandoning his own granddaughter to a life on a war-ravaged Earth. And the writer of this scene, almost certainly Whitaker, works hard to make the Doctor’s decision seem defensible, and to make Susan’s reaction devoid of devastation or betrayal. One day…