Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Doctor Who: The Dalek Invasion of Earth

One of the Doctor's companions gets an epic swan song.

The second full serial of Doctor Who's first season introduced viewers to The Daleks, nuclear mutants that rolled around in machines that for some reason had plunger arms... and despite looking like they were robots that wanted to fix your toilet, the Daleks became hugely popular. So popular that they were brought back to menace the Doctor and his travelling companions - his teenage granddaughter Susan and 1960s London schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright - again in the second serial of the show's second season.

For the first time in the series, the Doctor's time-and-space-travelling machine the TARDIS materializes in basically the same place it left from - the previous serial, Planet of Giants, was set in 1960s England, and the only reason Ian and Barbara couldn't end their adventure there and return to their lives is because they were shrunken to a size smaller than ants. This serial begins with the TARDIS appearing in London, which Ian and Barbara are happy to realize, although the Doctor isn't yet sure what year they're in. Ian and Barbara are fine with it if they're just a year or two off from when they left. But as it turns out, they're two hundred years in the future from when they left. It gets worse than that.

It's sometime after 2164, and ten years earlier a large portion of the world's population was wiped out by a disease that was brought to the Earth by a shower of meteorites. Those meteorites were actually germ bombs launched by the Daleks, who revealed themselves when their flying saucers landed on our planet six months later. The Dalek invasion force occupied some cities, razed others, killed many people who opposed them while capturing some of them to serve as slaves at their large mine operations the Daleks started up. There weren't enough Daleks to keep everyone in line, so they also started turning some of their captives into mindless automatons who carry out their orders. These servants are called Robomen. The process that turns people into Robomen has its issues, the Robomen tend to short circuit and become suicidal, but they're effective muscle up to that point. The Daleks also brought some monstrous guard creatures called Slythers with them, but it seems pretty rare to run into one of those.

At first, the idea that the Daleks could invade the Earth seems to go against what we saw in the season one serial. The creatures seemed contained on their planet Skaro, they didn't appear to be going anywhere and their machines could only roll around on metal surfaces. Plus, they were destroyed at the end of that serial, so how could they possibly return in this serial? Well, when a show involves time travel, you can explain away a lot of things. When Ian expresses confusion over the Daleks' presence on Earth, the Doctor puts forth the idea that their experience on Skaro actually occurred years ahead of 2164 - and not just a few years, but a million years. The Daleks in that previous serial really didn't seem like a race that had been around for a million years, but we'll go along with it. A million years is quite a gap for writers to fill with future Dalek serials.

As for how the Daleks are able to get around on Earth, these ones are equipped with discs on their backs that somehow allow for increased mobility.

The logical thing for our characters to do when faced with a world conquered by Daleks would be to get back into the TARDIS and jump off to a different time and space, but as tends to happen they get stuck here. This time they're trapped because a bridge collapses on top of the TARDIS. That's just the first of the misfortunes they suffer over the course of this serial, which ran for six episodes: World's End, The Daleks, Day of Reckoning, The End of Tomorrow, The Walking Ally, and Flashpoint.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth isn't the longest serial to date, but it's certainly the most epic, with action and suspense sequences playing out on the streets of London as the Doctor and his companions join forces with the local resistance fighters to thwart the Daleks' ultimate scheme, which involves a plan to send the Earth out of orbit. Bombs are detonated both by Daleks and Robomen and by resistance fighters, there's a Slyther attack, physical confrontations with Robomen, and part of an episode even involves alligators that have escaped from a zoo and taken up residence in the London sewers. There's even a really cool moment in one episode that involves Barbara having to bail out of a moving truck before it's blasted by a flying saucer hovering overhead.

You also have terrific "serial tension" bits like resistance fighters telling characters that people never return as themselves when they're taken to a Dalek flying saucer to be turned into Robomen - and then you cut away to the captured Doctor and Ian being taken to a flying saucer.

I've never been a huge fan of the Daleks, I don't think these clunky things with their computerized voices are all that interesting or threatening, but The Dalek Invasion of Earth is a great serial that nearly elevates Doctor Who up to blockbuster adventure level for these six episodes. A feature film adaptation of this serial was made, which seems completely pointless because there's no way a 90 minute feature would have lived up to the 150 minute version of the story viewers got to watch on TV.

Not only does this epic serial bring back what many consider to be the Doctor's greatest villains, fueling the case of Dalekmania viewers of the show had at the time, this is also a milestone serial because it marks the first time a companion leaves the Doctor - and it's not Ian or Barbara. Shockingly, the first companion to end their travels with the Doctor is Susan, who falls in love with a resistance fighter named David. The Doctor starts the serial by telling Susan she needs a "jolly good smacked bottom" for twisting her ankle while exploring the place they arrive in, but by the end of it he's giving her a heartfelt speech about her needing to find roots and live normally, and that her future lies with David.

The Daleks are defeated with ten minutes of the final episode still left, allowing for both the viewer and the Doctor to come to terms with the idea that Susan is leaving. The speech he gives her is very touching. He tells her that someday he'll return to visit her, but 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."

I was not prepared for Susan to leave at all. I know that a lot of companions have come and gone over the decades, but this was his granddaughter. I thought she would stick around for a lot longer than this. I was disappointed to see her go.

Of course, it wasn't truly the character who wanted to leave at this point, it was actress Carole Ann Ford, who was disappointed with the way Susan was written. She had been promised that she would be playing a much stronger character than Susan ever was, more capable, with more powerful telekinetic abilities. Annoyed with her character's lack of substance, she left Doctor Who... but found that she was never able to move on from it, because people always only saw her as Susan. Her association with Doctor Who brought her success, and then killed her screen career.

I don't think there is much, if anything, that involves the character of Susan from this point on in the series. I wonder how things turned out for her, because she didn't exactly pick an ideal time or place to stay in, moving into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

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