Aired 21 November – 26 December 1964
Just as ‘The Daleks’ is arguably the most important post-premiere episode, introducing an incredibly popular foe while showcasing the scope of the programme, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ is likewise an unequivocally vital story that still has its footprints on the show all these years later. This is the first story to feature a recurring foe, the first story to send off a companion, and the first alien invasion of London itself.
Yet despite its iconic status, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ is also a flawed story, short bursts of progress in plot dampened by long stretches of padding that bear little relevance to the overall story. The Daleks’ testing of the Doctor’s intelligence is an intriguing concept, but they already know that he has an uncanny intelligence beforehand, taking away the dramatic impact that separating him from the others may have had otherwise. Similarly, the Slyther creature at the mines and the reptilian creature in the sewer both serve to heighten the danger but ultimately their appearance and implementation seem rather ineffective, simply another means of extending the story along with several chase and capture sequences.
However, using the individual episode tiling structure to the its advantage, the show is able to conceal the Daleks’ involvement until the very end of the first episode, creating an incredibly effective cliffhanger. While the impact is somewhat diminished by branding the entire six episodes as ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth,’ the effect at the time of broadcast was assuredly monumental. Even before that cliffhanger, however, the first episode is particularly effective in building the tension and developing the world in which the heroes find themselves, introducing the Robo-Men as a mysteriously ominous and opposing presence.
Once the Daleks do appear, though, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ rightfully earns its spot as a classic even despite its flaws, fantastic imagery that had never been attempted before trumping all else. To this day, the images of the Daleks rolling through London and emerging from the Thames are ingrained into the public consciousness. This sort of spectacle with monsters was a rather novel and pioneering concept for family television, and it is used to wonderful effect throughout this serial. The sheer audacity at having such a familiar location derelict and overrun by aliens as well as having a zombie-like Robo-Men subservient population well before that genre became commonplace truly adds a tremendous extra layer of effectiveness to the proceedings, and the brazenness of the Daleks’ plan to essentially control the Earth’s movements through space only adds to the bizarre charm.
Undoubtedly what makes the Daleks so effective here in London is their rather blunt comparison to the Nazis, especially at the original time of broadcast so close to the Second World War. The mines are eerily evocative of concentration camps; the Daleks target total destruction on predominantly non-Caucasian continents of Asia, Afria, and South America; and one of the Daleks in charge is even referred to as Commandant. Still, the Daleks prove to be a secondary force compared to the efforts that go into building this conquered version of the world. The threat of radiation of course looms large, unsurprising given the Daleks’ own history, but it’s the people themselves who truly sell the plight of the situation, each reacting realistically and differently to suit their own needs and to survive. Particularly telling is the woman and young girl who eagerly turn over Barbara simply in return for basic supplies.
Still, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ saves its biggest moment for last, surpassing the return to Earth and its extraordinary changes under Dalek dominion. The serial seems to be intimating that Ian and Barbara may leave, realizing how dangerous the universe is and having finally found some semblance of a London they recognize. Instead, it’s Susan that leaves, realizing with David’s help that things aren’t made better just by running away. It may seem a bit haphazard to have a sudden relationship develop and be the cause for departure, but the seeds for Susan’s departure had been laid much earlier. There are many small moments in earlier serials where it was clear that she was becoming her own woman and was ready to step out of her grandfather’s protective shadow, and this new world finally gives her a sense of purpose and direction. She has finally found an identity for herself, and the Doctor realizes that David and this world offer her a stability that he never can. Hartnell is wonderfully nuanced in the farewell scene, giving an iconic speech in which he tells her not to be afraid even as he confronts his own fears of leaving her behind and continuing on his way.
So despite its many examples of padding to fill the six episodes, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ got a lot right and clearly helped to firmly change the trajectory of Doctor Who forever. The Doctor finally steps into the foreground as a true hero, planning right from the start to overthrow the Daleks, and while the plot itself may seem a bit light, the overall experience is incredibly monumental.