Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

This is one of the big ones.  A sweeping, incredibly ambitious epic centering around the first return of a previous villain - and the villains who put the show on the map.  It takes everything the show learned across the first season and change and then shoots for the moon.  And it comes close enough to hitting it that it deserves to have the word "Classic" thrown at it.  There are a lot of little things wrong with The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but it gets all the big things right - and one above all that makes this the first episode of Doctor Who that truly feels fully like Who.

The first and most obvious element of greatness is the world-building.  Right from the beginning, Terry Nation and Richard Martin create a sense of dread, as a deeply anguished man with a metal helmet throws himself suicidally into the Thames in front of a chilling sign saying, "It is forbidden to dump bodies into the river."  The usual scenes of the TARDIS crew exploring the world are unusually eerie.  The empty London, the few mysterious people staying in the shadows, and the appearances of the helmeted Robomen all build an increasing suspense.  All leading, of course, to the iconic cliffhanger of the Dalek emerging from the river.

It only increases from there.  Between Nation's constantly moving script and Martin's fantastic location shooting (the first really extensive use of locations), the story has an epic scope none of the previous stories managed, and none really manage again until The Daleks Masterplan in the third season.  

Seeing Barbara running through the eerily empty streets of London followed by the Daleks rolling along those otherwise deserted streets burns deeply into your mind - this invasion isn't on a bunch of sets.  They're really invading home.  Seeing aliens invading and destroying real places is pretty common today in the still-flowing wake of Independence Day, but it rarely happened in older sci-fi invasions.  And even when it has been done, even recently, it rarely feels real and personal.  Even George Pal's War of the Worlds didn't pull off that trick.

Terry Nation, as usual, writes an old-fashioned adventure serial, but his willingness to engage with the dark, grim side of his world makes it feel so much more vivid and the stakes so much higher than they otherwise would. The opening scene of the Roboman throwing himself in the river is only a prelude.

The Doctor's brilliantly clever solving of the Dalek lock to break them out of their cell not only gets them immediately caught, but results in him being immediately brought to be transformed into a Roboman, which he only escapes by sheer luck.

The resistance is a grubby, cobbled together group of a small handful of hungry, tired humans.  Their daring assault on the Dalek spacecraft at the beginning of episode two using their scientist leader Dortmun's bombs and Barbara's clever strategy seems as thought it will be a rousing minor victory, but it turns instead into a slaughter, as the humans are split up and their numbers reduced even further for no apparent gain.  And the Daleks, of course, can sustain such minor losses.  

Dortmun (Alan Judd) is a compelling character, the leader of the London resistance despite being confined to a wheelchair.   His intelligence and resolve make him easy to cheer for, making his death deeply affecting.  Martin underplays his dying heroics in true British style, giving it an effective edge.

Later, Barbara and her companion for much of the story, Ann Davies' Jenny, find shelter with two women who turn out to be collaborators with the Daleks and turn them in.  Ian's companion, Larry, finds that his brother has been turned into one of the Robomen and has forgotten everything about himself, even his wife.  Larry strangles his brother to put him out of his misery, and is shot to death by the other Robomen for it.

Until the final episode, the nearest thing to a genuine victory anyone gets is successfully escaping the Daleks alive.  Barbara's fantastic scene of heroism driving over Daleks in an old truck before the truck is blown up by a Dalek saucer is exhilarating mostly because of the otherwise grim happenings.

And it all makes the finale genuinely awesome in spite of the cobbled-together production values, as Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor all contribute in their own ways to the Dalek defeat.  Barbara and the Doctor in particular get some of their greatest moments here.  Barbara's attempt to mimic Dalek speech and give the Robomen orders by waving her hand over her mouth while the Daleks are right there aiming their death rays at her is both hilarious and cool, but it's overshadowed by the moment before, one of her crowning moments of greatness.  She gets into the Dalek control room by telling them she knows all the rebel plans and will tell them, but only to the commander.  Then, the history teacher strings together a series of wonderfully ridiculous plans spun from every period of history she can come up with, getting the Daleks to panic about what sounds like a worldwide rebellion.

The Daleks themselves are raised to a mythic level, not only by returning, but by actually conquering the Earth.  Not attempting - succeeding.  And their ultimate plan is a whole other kind of brilliant - they want to hollow out the Earth's core and replace it with an interstellar engine so they can drive their own planet around to conquer the Universe.  What's truly awesome about this isn't just that it's whimsically ridiculous and utterly insane.  It's that the Daleks can actually pull it off.

All that is enough to make this Doctor Who's first great epic.  But there's something greater here that raises this to one of the genuine classics.

The real payoff of the slow-burn first episode isn't the cliffhanger - it's what follows.  As the second episode starts, the Doctor and Ian are faced with a Dalek and its Robomen.  It's a hopeless situation.  And it's here, faced with the return of the Daleks, the creatures of hatred who seem to represent nothing other than evil and death, that the Doctor truly becomes the Doctor.  Because rather than meekly back down like he did the first time, he stands up to them.  The Doctor mocks the Dalek.  Gleefully, wittily, and passionately, and with no regard for the death ray gun right in his face.  And with the full force of Hartnell's presence and charisma, it's awesome.

Doctor: I think you'd better let us go.
Dalek: We do not release prisoners.  We are the masters of the Earth.
Doctor: Not for long.
Dalek: Obey us or die!
Doctor: Die?  And just who are you to condemn us to death, hmm? ...
Dalek: I have heard many similar words from leaders of your different races.  All of them were destroyed.  I warn you, resistance is useless.
Doctor: Resistance is useless?  Surely you don't expect all the people to welcome you with open arms.
Dalek: We have already conquered Earth!
Doctor: [smiling] Conquered the Earth?  You poor, pathetic creatures.  Don't  you realize before you attempt to conquer the Earth, you will have to destroy all living matter!

Of course, the Dalek has his minions take the Doctor and Ian away as he chants, "We are masters of earth!"  But it's not a triumphant claim.  That monotone Dalek voice is clearly terrified.  This little old man suddenly became a force of nature, an epic hero.

The moment the Doctor sees the Daleks, rather than quiver or try to escape, he immediately turns to Ian and says (in full hearing of the Daleks), "I think we'd better pit our wits against them and defeat them!"  For the first time, he doesn't need to be convinced to fight.  He truly just wants to defeat them.

But not an ordinary hero - this is still the wily manipulator from before.  Which is one of the most fascinating traits of the Doctor: he's a hero, but built from the Trickster archetype of Loki, Coyote, or the Pied Piper.  He's a hero who defeats the villains by mocking them, manipulating them, and outwitting them.  And having fun doing it.

And that's the secret Dalek Invasion of Earth uncovers: the Doctor becomes a hero seemingly because it's more fun to be heroic.  It's a fantastic, transformative moment.  And the story ultimately leads to one great climactic moment, as the various threads the heroes are sent on come together and they defeat the Daleks.  That climactic moment is a Dalek's eye-view as it barrels down on the Doctor to exterminate him at "zero range".  But as the others hide, waiting for the explosives Susan and David set up to blow, the Doctor simply stands there, defiantly.  He knows the plan will work.  It's just the Dalek that doesn't know he's already defeated.  It's a magnificent finale.

For all the great things about this story, there are a lot of things to nitpick.  Richard Martin's direction is wildly uneven.  The location footage is great, and the scene of Barbara, Jenny, and Dortmun running from the Daleks through the empty London is superb.  It almost feels then like we're watching a documentary about the Dalek invasion rather than a silly old TV show.

His intercutting in the exposition scenes of episode 2 and the farewell at the end are very effective.  But other scenes are clumsily put together.  The battle at the beginning of episode three is particularly poorly staged and edited.  We can figure out what's going on from various contextual clues, and it does have a great moment when Barbara and Ian briefly see each other before being separated, but on the whole, the scene doesn't come off as well as it should.

(by the way, I love Barbara running right into the fray of the battle, totally ignoring Susan's desperate attempts to keep her hiding in safety)

What's impressive is how well the scene works regardless.  The emotional impact the scene goes for - an assault that goes utterly wrong and winds up breaking the resistance - comes across.  And that's true throughout - numerous individual scenes and moments don't work well in themselves, but somehow work in the overall effect of the story. (the Cushing film version, which I'll review one of these days, is largely the opposite: virtually every scene that doesn't work here is done well, and the production values and set pieces are consistently excellent.  But the story on the whole lacks the impact of the TV version - the heart and soul aren't there.  It's still fun, though, and it's great to see Nation's set-pieces done properly.)

The last piece of the story to talk about, of course, is Susan's departure.  It's the first time a companion has left, and its handling is a mixed bag.  She leaves because she falls in love with one of the resistance fighters, David.  David only sort of works, being brave enough that we should at least like him, but a flat performance by Peter Fraser muffles a lot of that.  And Nation isn't particularly great at making even his best characters well-rounded - they tend to be really good ideas for characters that good actors can make something out of rather than great ones on paper.

However, the romance is cobbled together just well enough and is relegated far enough in the background that the story basically gets away with it.  And that's crucial, because Susan's farewell has to work.

Thankfully, Nation (or, more likely, script editor David Whitaker) relies on the performances of Carole Ann Ford and especially William Hartnell to sell the last scene.  And they're wonderful.  Hartnell gets one of his best speeches, a lovely goodbye to his granddaughter that Hartnell knocks out of the ballpark.  It's such a moving scene that it redeems everything that went wrong with Susan enough to make us sad that she had to go.

And she did have to go for the series to work.  Nobody could figure out how to make the Doctor's granddaughter work emotionally at the time, and probably wouldn't have been able to until Cartmel came along.  It's too bad they didn't figure out how to pull her off properly as a character as she really did show great potential in An Unearthly Child and The Sensorites.  But that really just disguises the great problem with Susan - with her around, the Doctor forced to make his priority protecting her rather than adventuring and heroism.  Her goodbye is one of the few moments where she does work emotionally; her conflict between staying with her love and leaving again with her grandfather feels real.  Ultimately, he makes the decision for her.  It's heartwrenching, and a beautifully bittersweet ending to Doctor Who's first classic to live up to the promise of its pilot.  The final image of Susan's key fading into a starry background is perfect.

And it's only the beginning of one of the golden ages of the show - Season 2 remains one of the crown jewels of Who, and this is where it all came together.


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  • I love the expression on Barbara's face at the beginning of episode 3 when she realizes Ian is alive.  Jacquiline Hill was a truly wonderful actress, and really is the heart of the show.  In fact, that's largely what the Peter Cushing film version is missing - it's missing Hill's Barbara.

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