|The Daleks, like most creatures in the universe,
simply cannot abide plaid pants.
It is November 23rd, 1963. The Supremes “Baby Love” is at the top of the charts. Next up, the Rolling Stones take the charts for a week before that strangely perfect match for Doctor Who wanders through and The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” rounds out the year.
During these six weeks, Wonderful Radio London, one of the offshore radio stations memorialized in Richard Curtis’s more or less execrable film The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio, debuted – a station that would have a huge role to play in the rising New Britain over the next few years.
And on television, Doctor Who premieres with its eleventh story. Hang on tight. Everything is going to change. Again.
See, there’s something about Doctor Who we haven’t talked much about yet. And that’s the Daleks. Who debuted about a year ago now, and are frighteningly popular. In June, way back when The Aztecs was airing, The Dalek Book was published. Concurrently with this story airing the Go-Gos (No, not those Go-Gos – the other ones) release the novelty single “I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With a Dalek.” In other words, the Daleks were the show’s best claim to pop culture relevance.
And so of course they return, in what is basically the most important Doctor Who story to air yet with the possible exception of the first episode. I have not done an extensive study of primary source material here – there are plenty of overviews of Doctor Who that have, and I don’t have access to the archives that would be necessary to do it well – but my understanding is that the return of the Daleks was a known and promoted factor before the first episode of this story aired.
Which makes the pacing of the first episode somewhat odd. The entire episode is structured around its final scene – a Dalek emerging from the Thames to menace the Doctor and Ian. And rightly so – it’s an absolutely phenomenal cliffhanger. But to work, it has to be the first appearance of the Daleks in the story. The cliffhanger hinges on being a spectacular reveal and a culmination of deferred desire. It’s exciting not because you suspect the Doctor and Ian are in real danger – if you’ve watched the show before you know they’re not going out on a cliffhanger like this. It’s exciting because the Daleks are finally here, and this is the moment that pays off that desire.
Unfortunately, it means that the 22.5 minutes prior to that scene are horrifically dragged out attempts to hold off starting the story. Which requires such unfortunate setpieces as Ian being surprised to find out that a man who tumbled out of a cardboard box is dead. (Yep. I still hate Ian.)
But there are some key things in the first episode to look at. The first is the starkness of the setting – ruined landmarks and a silent London. For the second story in a row, the story hinges on making the familiar seem foreign and scary. In this context, its opening shot – a helmeted man staggering down towards the river with a sign reading “It is forbidden to dump bodies in the river” visible in the backdrop, then screaming and throwing himself in the river to drown – is absolutely stunning. (Interestingly, the story also ends away from the TARDIS, making this the first Doctor Who story that is portrayed from the world’s perspective through and through instead of from the Doctor’s.)
Much of the effect of this horror-London is historically dependent – the Daleks are visibly invading a ruined 1960s London. The iconic shot that shows that London is ruined is the Battersea Power Station. Which was abandoned within 20 years of the episode airing. But the end effect of this – bolstered by the handful of location sequences a few episodes in – is that the familiar images of London become scenes of potential horror. When you see Daleks milling around Trafalgar Square, the effect is not to have Daleks become scarier because they seem more real. It’s to make Trafalgar Square scarier because it seems less real.
Also interesting in the first episode is the use of the Robomen, who are basically a placeholder monster so that there can be some good running around before the Daleks show up. This is not a hugely sophisticated narrative technique, but it is sufficiently sophisticated to tell us something important about the show, namely that it has, by this point, established monsters as part of its paradigm. You can only have a fake-out placeholder monster if the expectation is that there will be a monster. In other words, you need to have a sufficiently developed sense of what the monster should be that you can create an imitation of that role. Which is, again, a case of the show being somewhat better at knowing what it’s doing than it is at actually doing it.
But it’s with episode 2 that the story really takes off. Because as soon as the Dalek emerges from the Thames, The Doctor is a completely different person. Many pixels have been illuminated on the subject of where the Doctor changes from a guy who would smash a man’s brain out because it’s convenient to the character we recognize as The Doctor. In truth it’s a gradual process – the Doctor is, after all, still prone to deciding to chuck Ian and Barbara out a mere two stories ago. But it seems to me that the final stage in that process clearly takes place here. Regardless of whether the Doctor suffers from future regressions in his personality, in this story he is without a doubt the Doctor.
And it appears that it is the image of a Dalek emerging from the Thames that accomplishes that. Once the Dalek shows up, all the Doctor really wants to do is have a proper chinwag with it, which is really the moment where you know the show you have is Doctor Who. If the Doctor and his companions escaped and fell out of the world in the first story, here is where we really see the infinite extensibility of the premise.
See, I’ve said that every story is a Doctor Who story. And I stand by that. But it’s not the TARDIS that makes the show what it is. The show is the fusion of four distinct elements that add up to make the greatest concept in television ever. The TARDIS is the first of these to be introduced – literally, with that first shot, it is the magic box that makes the world strange.
From there we have seen two more elements clearly emerge. First, monsters, of which the Daleks are the archetypes. There are better occasions to talk about monsters than this, so for now let’s simply note that they serve to make the world scary.
Next are the companions, introduced mostly in the stories from The Aztecs through Planet of Giants. Traditionally the companion is described as the audience identification figure. For a variety of reasons, this is stupid, although it’s such a key piece of received wisdom that even people who are frankly smarter than that – Steven Moffat, for instance – are forced to repeat it. In fact there are hardly any companions in the history of the show who are actually audience identification figures, and even they are only audience identification figures in a handful of stories. No – the role of the companions is to serve as a check on the Doctor. The companions are, both literally and metaphorically, what makes the Doctor confront the monsters. This is the major takeaway of all those exquisite Doctor/Barbara scenes – especially in Planet of Giants, and really in The Time Travellers. The Doctor fights because his companions want him to, and he loves his companions. And inasmuch as the companion is the audience identification figure, this is how – because they stand in for his broader love of humans, and thus stand in for the audience’s desire that he fight.
Which leaves us with the fourth part, which makes its appearance here in something approximating its full and final form. That, of course, is the Doctor himself. It’s not enough to have people in peril from scary things in a strange universe. You also need a man who genuinely loves exploring the universe and getting into trouble. You need, in other words, a sense of fun. And that’s what the Doctor injects. He takes the danger his companions are in and turns it into fun. And this is why he has to chinwag with the Daleks. For no other reason than that it is more fun. Every Doctor Who confrontation, in the end, is built around the expectation that the Doctor will enjoy it, and thus that it will be fun to watch. The Doctor talks his way out of trouble because it’s more exciting. You don’t want to see the Doctor just blow up the Daleks from afar. You want to see him mock them first, then go defeat them.
And you get that here. The Dalek emerge from the Thames, and within a few minutes, even though the Daleks do not recognize the Doctor as The Doctor and thus as their arch-nemesis, they’re terrified of him. As he’s led off to prison, the Dalek neurotically repeats “We are the masters of Earth,” making it sound less like a triumphant Dalek boast than like a small child rocking itself back and forth and trying to convince itself that it will all be OK. Paul Cornell’s great line that the Doctor is what monsters have nightmares about starts here. The Daleks take one look at the Doctor and are terrified of him. Meanwhile, the Doctor is having the time of his life – giggling like a schoolboy as he breaks out of prison, mocking Daleks, insisting that he is the Doctor, not simply “Doc,” etc. And it’s made him a better person – far from head-smashing Doctor, here the Doctor scolds other characters for being overly violent. All due, it seems, to the Daleks.
So let’s talk about the Daleks in their second appearance. In their first appearance, they were simply generic monsters. The story seems to know it has something special with them, but has no idea how special they are. In this story, because they’re the first monster ever to return, the story implicitly treats them as the Doctor’s arch-nemesis. So what gets formulated as the Doctor’s arch-nemesis?
Actually, something almost, but not quite, totally incoherent. The Daleks’ plan in this episode is easily one of the most insane in the series long and storied history. They want to, and I want to stress here that I am not making this up or exaggerating at all, remove the Earth’s magnetic core so they can install an engine and drive the planet around as a spaceship.
It is very much unclear why an unaerodynamic planet is the ideal place to do this, or why England is the perfect place to do the drilling here. Clearly, if the Daleks have a fully functional invasion fleet, there’s not a huge need for spaceships. They’re in pretty good shape on that front. So presumably the Earth is to be a sort of prestige vehicle. A sort of Porche for the mid-life crisis of a Dalek. I picture Daleks pulling along upside another planet and saying “Hey Babe. I drive a planet.”
But there’s actually something strangely brilliant about the arbitrariness of this plot. Because it makes it clear that the plot doesn’t matter. The plot is literally nothing more than an excuse to bring the Daleks around again. The Daleks don’t need a good reason to invade a planet or be evil. They’re just Daleks. They’re the bad guys. They are, at this point, designed to be the things that, when they show up, you go “Oh shit, it’s the Daleks!”
Adding to this sense of the Daleks being pure plot devices is the fact that Dalek history is completely insane. The Doctor claims that this must be the “middle period” of Dalek history, at an earlier point in their history. Except that the Daleks in this story are more advanced than the late-period Daleks, who were unable to move around except on their metal floors. Furthermore, the conceit in this story as to why they can do that – the circular dishes installed on their backs – vanish without comment after this story. And the last story was ostensibly the Daleks’ origin, making it an open question when, exactly, in the course of their hiding from the fallout of their war with the Thals they built an intergalactic empire.
Here’s where The Time Travellers comes in real handy with this story. Because thanks to that book, the Doctor knows the Daleks have time travel technology. Thus their chronology is not entirely at issue – as that book makes it clear that time can be rewritten. Why the Doctor declines to own up to this is the sort of unanswered question that is necessarily going to come up when you try to reconcile two stories written by two totally different people 41 years apart, but to The Time Travellers’s credit, it does file off some of the rough edges of this story.
But I want to be clear here – it files them off in a way that does not seem inconsistent with the episode. The episode knows full well that the Daleks are the Doctor’s arch-nemesis. It has the paradigm of Doctor vs. Daleks down. But right now, the phenomenon is purely a pop phenomenon. The reason this story exists is because it’s the Doctor vs. his most popular enemies in the capital of the country the show airs in. This could be dismissed as a pander to the fans, but that misunderstands what’s going on here. It’s not a pander to the fans – it’s Doctor Who as pop spectacle. (An idea heightened by the fact that the idea of Daleks in different colors appears here for the first time) That’s at the heart of the Doctor’s character – his contribution to the four tentpoles holding the series up. The Doctor has fun doing what he’s doing, and so of course he has a big pop spectacle of an adventure here and there.
Terry Nation is the writer who understood this first. The Daleks was an invitation to over the top spectacle. Keys of Marinus was based around the show’s ability to create madcap spectacle. In his next contribution for the show, he’ll take this to its logical end. But it’s worth noting just how much of the paradigm of the show has come together in Nation-scripted stories.
But if he understands here that the Daleks are a pop spectacle, he doesn’t quite get why. Hence the ridiculous plot and incoherent history on their second appearance. I mean, with nearly 50 years of Dalek stories, it’s no surprise that the repeated efforts to destroy them all have gotten a bit wonky, but screwing up Dalek history irretrievably in only two goes at it is a sort of rare art of ignoring continuity that most writers can only aspire to. It works here, but only because the pop spectacle is audacious enough to carry you through the nonsense.
But if you add in the Time Travellers, you get one key detail, which is that the Doctor has a reason to know that the Daleks are his arch-nemesis. He knows they travel in time. He knows that eventually he’ll have to face them down over what he did in Coal Hill School in 1963. When the Dalek rises from the Thames, in other words, the Doctor has a reason to recognize the Doctor-Dalek relationship. And in recognizing the Daleks as his arch-nemesis, he implicitly fixes them into their role in the binary.
With all four tentpoles clearly in place and the Doctor running around having the time of his life, the show can finally begin the frankly quite important process of what I would describe as making the Doctor an ontological force in the narrative. Here, I should admit, I’m staking a major position in Doctor Who fandom – one that is specifically and categorically opposed to that of Lawrence Miles, who, along with Tat Wood, wrote a six-volume set of books analyzing every Doctor Who story, and thus owns a frightening amount of the territory TARDIS Eruditorum is working in. Lawrence Miles is adamantly opposed
to treating the Doctor as a fetish object. Which, I’ll admit, is exactly the same thing I’m talking about.
See, in this episode, we start to get characters talking about how fundamentally special and wonderful the Doctor is. He’s treated, by the story, as the big hero of a character. Miles describes this sort of thing as “removing any possible dramatic tension.” I describe it as Doctor Who fully embracing its own potential. You say potato…
See, to my mind, there is no dramatic tension as such in Doctor Who, because you know exactly when in the story the Doctor is going to make it all work, namely about ten minutes from the end of the final episode. Cliffhangers are a bit of a joke, and when they work – as they do when the Daleks rise from the Thames – it’s not because you fear for the characters, but because you’re desperate to see what happens next. The tension of Doctor Who is not whether the characters are going to survive or win. It’s not even when they’re going to win. It’s how. And it’s specifically a writerly sort of how. That is, you tune into Doctor Who next week having spent a week trying to guess where the story is going to go so as to check your answer. It’s a game of whether you can come up with something as good as the writers to get the Doctor to the next part of the story. Which, crucially, the audience knows full well what is. What makes a Doctor Who episode great is when every episode is a better solution for what to do next than the audience can come up with.
And so reveling in the Doctor as a mythic figure and openly accepting that around fifteen minutes into episode 4 he’s going to save the day is not a matter of destroying dramatic tension. It’s a matter of actively engaging with your audience. Because anyone who sticks around for the long haul of Doctor Who is doing it because they want to see what’s next, not out of concern that it might be all the characters dying. Miles objects that this is pandering only to long-term viewers, but I think this mistakes an investment in the mythos with an investment in the continuity. Wanky stories that are all about making allusions to past stories are pandering to long-term viewers. But if your show positions the Doctor as a mythic character continually, then writing explicitly around that fact isn’t pandering to long-term viewers, it’s doing what you said you were going to do.
And that’s part of the genius of Doctor Who in this episode. Exactly a year on the air, and it’s figured out that if you just have William Hartnell walk around acting like he’s totally confident that he’s got everything under control and like he’s having the time of his life, the rest of the show will click into place behind it. You don’t need to spend years or decades establishing the Doctor as a mythic character. You can just have him go out there and be mythic, and the audience will go “Oh, he’s a mythic character, gotcha.” And to my mind, understanding how to use the mythic like that is one of the show’s primary geniuses, not a horrid wrong turn.
For why it’s great, one need look no further than the end of the episode, where the Daleks are defeated because Barbara tells the Robomen to attack them. This scene is beautiful. First, it’s a follow-up to an earlier scene where Barbara has her own glorious chinwag with the Daleks by spinning an extended story about the threats they face that is flagrantly just stitched together bits of American history. This is so she can get to the panel that controls the Robomen, but she’s stopped at the last second. So when the Doctor finally shows up and they try the plan again, it’s a lovely moment of vindication for Barbara, the useful companion.
But more to the point, Barbara orders the Robomen to attack the Daleks with an absolutely hilarious imitation of Dalek voices produced by moving her hand back and forth in front of her face to stutter her voice. Then the Robomen riot against the Daleks, including what is probably the single most barmily wonderful shot of Doctor Who thus far, a bunch of Robomen with a Dalek basically crowd-surfing on top of them. This entire sequence is pop spectacle payoff. The episode is ending not with a careful and logical sense of narrative teleology, but with the fact that the Dalek voices are fun to do and it’s funny to watch a Dalek crowdsurf. And that works here, on the Daleks’ second appearance. And it’s why you watch Doctor Who. Because Star Trek is never going to have a crowd-surfing Klingon.
But there’s another huge aspect of this story to deal with. The Doctor, at the end of it, is fully the Doctor for, really, the first time in the series. But that, in turn, means that it is necessary to return to the Problem of Susan. We can see the problem in starker relief now. If the role of the companion is to push the Doctor into having fun as a hero, then Susan is an abject failure, as the Doctor’s primary motivation with her is to run off and protect her.
This becomes somewhat clear in this episode. In a restaging of their feud in The Sensorites, the Doctor and Susan differ on whether they should head north or try to get back to the TARDIS. In this case, as before, it’s Susan who wants to go get into danger and the Doctor that wants to retreat. In other words, because the Doctor is the parent figure to child-Susan, he is unable to adventure. Susan, then, needs to grow up. Which is a sexualized process.
Accordingly, the Doctor hits on a very sensible solution – dump Susan off with the first man she’s attracted to and tell her to make babies. In fact, when the Doctor does lock her out of the TARDIS, his stated reason is that she’s a woman now. In other words, it’s because she’s had a sexual awakening – and earlier in the story she and David have, in the words of Amy Pond, a snog in the shrubbery.
What I want to stress, though, is that this remains enormously problematic. Not just in that the Doctor is basically forcing Susan to marry the first guy she kisses and have babies, but in the staggeringly creepy moment where David tells Susan that staying on Earth with him is finally her chance to have an identity. Yes, this is a callback to a scene a few episodes earlier, but still, it highlights how appallingly powerless Susan is made.
None of this is helped by the staging of the farewell scene. Carole Ann Ford hits it out of the park, showing the producers quite clearly how much they wasted her talents. But William Hartnell, doing his part of the scene on the TARDIS set, feels like he’s reading off a teleprompter (Or, as I have just discovered if one wants to be proper, a TelePrompTer brand cueing device). Which, to be fair, he probably was, since fusing two scenes together like this was actually a bit of a technical challenge, but it ends up looking like the Doctor really is eager to get rid of Susan. Which, to be fair, he has seemed to be much of the episode, but it does suck the drama out pretty hard.
The Doctor promises that some day he will return. He never does. One can try to fill in some missing story for this – a couple exist from the Eighth Doctor era – but the fact of the matter is, here Susan is treated like any other companion. Which is to say, she’s abandoned. Looking at the Doctor and Susan together, it’s tough to explain why. The Doctor so clearly cares deeply about Susan. And he has family reasons to be with her. But he abandons her forever.
The Problem of Susan, then, proves here to be more resilient than we might have hoped. Initially, it appeared to be the problem of sexual awakening. But the Doctor’s promise to return eliminates that – he clearly means years down the road, after she is more comfortable as an adult. So why does he lie? Why is an adult Susan so anathema to the Doctor that he abandons her? I mean, this is, in hindsight, a huge problem. Admittedly at the time we expect Susan will grow old and die normally, but later developments in the series make it clear that Susan, as a Time Lord, will regenerate and live for ages, stuck, apparently, on Earth with no TARDIS and a lover who grew old and died as she stayed young forever. This is really, really, intensely not nice of the Doctor.
The Problem of Susan – that something about her and her transition to adulthood renders the Doctor unable to return to her – is, I will go ahead and admit, still unresolved. Perhaps someday the Doctor will carry out his promise.
Do you own The Dalek Invasion of Earth on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. I’ll get some of the money if you do.