Ian and Barbara are overjoyed that this time the TARDIS landed near a pier on the Thames in modern London – or so it appears. Their glee turns to trepidation when they find that even though they’re clearly in London there’s no one around, the city is quiet, and their surroundings are decrepit. Susan climbs a wall to look at the street above, causing the decaying structure to collapse, twisting Susan’s ankle and burying the TARDIS under debris just as Barbara and Ian realize they’re actually not at the right London. A furious (and frightened) Doctor and Ian go to a nearby warehouse to look for tools to dig up the TARDIS. While tending to Susan’s ankle, Barbara notices a poster on a wall that reads, “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO DUMP BODIES IN THE RIVER” while at the warehouse Ian sees a calendar marking the year as 2164. A young man, who turns out to be named Tyler, comes across Barbara and Susan. Apparently shocked to see them, he demands that they come with him, going so far as grabbing Susan and carrying her. Barbara reluctantly follows. Back at the warehouse the Doctor and Ian stumble across the corpse of a man wearing an elaborate metallic helmet. The Doctor is curious about what kind of catastrophe befell London, while Ian, naturally, just wants to get back in the TARDIS. As they leave, they spot a flying saucer descending into London.
Susan and Barbara are forced to join with other people who are hiding out in an Underground station and acting as a resistance. After learning about Ian and the Doctor, another young member of the resistance, David, heads back to the pier to fetch them. Unfortunately, he’s a bit late, as the Doctor and Ian have found themselves surrounded by men wearing the same metallic helmets as the corpse, “Robomen.” Their attempt to escape by running into the Thames is thwarted by the emergence of something totally unexpected – a Dalek. The Doctor defiantly mocks the Dalek, who coldly (of course) replies that his people have conquered the Earth and wiped out all the world leaders. As David watches, the Dalek orders the Robomen to take Ian and the Doctor to the ship to be converted into Robomen. In the meantime, Barbara and Susan find themselves drafted into the human resistance. David brings back the bad news and reluctantly informs Barbara and Susan that Robomen are humans who have been taken prisoner, brought to the Daleks’ ships, and forcibly given implants and turned into slaves. Jenny, an embittered survivor, adds that the process is permanent and it is impossible to remove the helmet without killing the victim.
On the Daleks’ ship, Ian wonders why there are any Daleks left. The Doctor tells him that the time they saw all the Daleks wiped out was “a million years in the future” and currently they’re witnessing the “middle period” of Dalek history. Ian happens to observe that the Daleks are now wearing radio dishes on their armor, which he deduces helps them move without need of static electricity. Their cell mate, Craddock, quickly finds out they’re time travelers and explains that about a decade ago the Daleks sent fake meteorites to Earth that carried a plague that wiped out roughly ninety percent of the human race. Afterward the Daleks invaded the planet, converting some into Robomen and enslaving the rest. Most of the English slaves were sent to work in a massive mining operation in Bradfordshire, but nobody knows what the Daleks want from there. The Doctor figures out a way to escape by manipulating a device inside the cell; unfortunately, it was only a test of intelligence set up by the Daleks, who suspected that the Doctor had a higher intelligence than the humans they’ve encountered, making him a prime candidate to be turned into a Roboman. The operation is interrupted when the London resistance, along with Barbara, attack the ship, armed with bombs devised by the resistance’s leader, Dortmun, who thinks the bombs can pierce the Daleks’ armor. The bombs don’t work, sealing the fate of the resistance and causing the Daleks’ leader on Earth, the Black Dalek, to order the bombing of London to wipe out any remaining humans who aren’t under the Daleks’ control. However, the Doctor is rescued by David; Ian remains trapped on the ship but manages to hide himself; and Barbara, Jenny, and Dortmun escape to the London Transport Museum, which has been turned into another safehouse for the resistance.
Ian is discovered by Craddock, who has been turned into a Robotman. In the struggle, which ends with Craddock knocked into some machinery and killed, Ian is helped by Larry, who tells him that the Daleks’ ship is headed toward Bradfordshire. Larry stowed away on the ship to try to save his brother, who was taken as a slave to the Bradfordshire mines and who told him that he thinks the Daleks are after the Earth’s magnetic core for some reason. Meanwhile at the museum Dortmun hopes he can perfect his bomb in time to save the remnants of the human race from the Daleks. After believing he perfected the bomb, Dortmun sacrifices himself to both test the bomb and give Barbara and Jenny enough time to escape. Unfortunately, Dortmun’s bomb is still a clinker. Somewhere else in London, Susan and David look after the Doctor, who is still recovering from the Daleks’ operation. Susan talks David about the TARDIS and invites him to join them, but David refuses to abandon his homeworld. Susan admits she envies David since she’s never really had a home; in fact, Susan admits, “I never had any real identity.” Their conversation is interrupted when the Robomen drop a bomb nearby. David manages to defuse the bomb using acid from one of Dorthum’s devices, but realizes that they have to escape from London ASAP. David and Susan are reunited with Tyler as they explore the sewers for a way out of London without risking an encounter with Robomen. Barbara and Jenny find their own way to escape the city, via a truck from the museum, and Barbara, finding out that Ian is probably at Bedfordshire, drives in that direction. When they run into a small squad of Daleks, Barbara simply and successfully runs them over.
At the Bedfordshire mines, Ian, thinking the others are still in London, tries to convince a black marketeer to arrange for him to be transported back to London, but he refuses unless Ian coughs ups some precious metals. The exchange is interrupted by the Black Dalek’s alien pet, Slyther, who kills the black marketeer. Ian defeats Slyther by knocking it into a pit with a well-thrown rock, but not before he and Larry accidentally find themselves in the mines. Larry finds his brother, but to his horror discovers that he’s been turned into a Robotman assigned to oversee the miners. Larry tries to “awaken” his brother, an effort that only results in them killing each other. Near the mines, Barbara and Jenny are betrayed into the Daleks’ custody by two locals in exchange for food. The two are enlisted into working at the mine, but while Jenny despairs Barbara insists that they find a way into the Daleks’ control room because “that’s what the Doctor would do.” After Ian discovers Barbara and alerts her to his presence, she tells the Daleks that she has information about a human conspiracy. While being escorted to the control room Barbara and Jenny overhear that the Daleks plan to remove Earth’s magnetic core as part of a plan to convert the planet into a giant ship. During their interrogation Barbara distracts the Black Dalek by telling him about a massive human conspiracy that involves details from the Boston Tea Party, Hannibal’s march on Italy, Native American raids, and Robert E. Lee. Taking advantage of the Daleks’ excitement and confusion, Barbara grabs the communication device that the Daleks use to give orders to the Robomen and tries to have them rebel, but the Daleks stop her and imprison her along with Jenny, leaving them to die in an explosion they plan to activate in order to wipe out all the humans in the mines.
Ian accidentally hides in the device the Daleks plan to use to penetrate the magnetic core. Realizing what’s happening, Ian succeeds in sabotaging the device. Unknown to each other, the Doctor, Susan, and David outside the mines and a recovered Ian inside all work concurrently to sabotage the Daleks’ equipment, stopping both the mining operation and the Daleks’ explosives. David and Susan use Dortmun’s bombs to destroy the device that made all the Daleks mobile while Barbara, freed by Tyler, follows up on her original plan by ordering the Robomen to destroy all the Daleks. The group’s sabotage efforts have left the Daleks’ mining complex on the verge of an explosion. Escaping to safe ground, they watch as the explosion also takes out the escaping Dalek ship containing the Black Dalek.
After returning to London and recovering the TARDIS, Susan has a hard time saying goodbye to David, something the Doctor notices. Susan wants to stay, but tells David she feels an obligation to take care of her grandfather, even though she also admits that she’s in love with him. Before Susan can enter the TARDIS, however, the Doctor bolts the door and tells Susan, “I want you to belong somewhere, to have roots of your own”, and promises he’ll return to visit someday. After the TARDIS dematerializes, Susan takes David’s hand and drops her key to the TARDIS on the ground.
This is where the original cast breaks up with Susan’s departure, leaving in its wake various unanswered questions, at least as far the TV series is concerned. There was a recent Eighth Doctor audio play that does serve as a direct sequel to this serial, “An Earthly Child”, where the Doctor visits Susan, David, and their young son Alex several years after the events here, but as every fan-site and Wikipedia entry will tell you “it is uncertain if the audio plays are canon.” As far as the actual show is concerned, Susan does reappear in “The Five Doctors” and “Dimensions in Time”, the “Doctor Who”/”Eastenders” crossover (no, really*), which also may or may not be canon.
Susan being stranded in the year 2164 raises a couple of deliciously nerdy continuity questions, which will hopefully one day be resolved in the 2005 series. The main question is, of course, what ever happens to Susan? The 2005 series has so far maintained that all the Time Lords were wiped out except the Doctor and the Master while episodes like “Father’s Day” and “The Age of Steel” more or less spell out that the Doctor is certain that his entire biological family, including presumably Susan, has died. However, even before the 2005 series an offhand comment by the Doctor in “The Curse of Fenric” suggests that he doesn’t know if Susan is alive or where she is. This leads into the second question about Susan: what happens to a time traveler who is left in a specific era and that timeline changes? Do they continue to exist in a timeline that “branches” off, does their present reality change around them (and if so do they remember the way it was?), or something much worse? It’s possible that this possibility would involve the actual final fate of Susan since it’s vaguely hinted at in “Day of the Daleks” that the Daleks have been mucking around with their own history, specifically the events of this serial, but I’m getting into “fan theory” territory here.
As for the Daleks…oh, good God, do I really have to talk about what this serial means for their continuity too? Well, suffice it to say that the Doctor’s comment about the events of “The Daleks” taking place millions of years in the future has been thrown out. Also the idea that the Daleks could invade Earth doesn’t jibe with “The Daleks”, where it’s all but spelled out that the Daleks have been isolated in their city since they became the Daleks. Finally it hasn’t been established why the Daleks would so desperately want the Earth, although one spin-off novel, “GodEngine”, suggested that the Daleks needed the Earth since it was a rare type of planet that could be converted into a super-weapon. And that’s all I have to say about any of that, at least until the next serial starring the Daleks.
On a simpler note, it’s the first time the Daleks bark, “Exterminate!”
Not really a continuity note, but worth pointing out somewhere: the plot of this was recycled in the 1966 film, The Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, the sequel to Peter Cushing’s first film as Doctor Who, Dr. Who and the Daleks, which was released the previous year and was based loosely on “The Daleks.”
*Maybe people in Britain don’t find it surprising, but I have to keep reminding myself that it exists, solely because I keep thinking the exact American equivalent would be a “Star Trek”/”General Hospital” crossover.
Our Future History
The Daleks’ plague wipes out most of the global human population in the mid-2100s, including the entire population of South America, reducing what’s left of civilization to small isolated communities. Also London is largely destroyed in 2164 (although really it looks fine by the end of the serial).
If you can look past the unforgivably silly premise – the Daleks want to go through a lot of trouble to turn Earth into a giant ship, just ’cause – and all the conveniences that help the heroes defeat the Daleks in the end, you have a grim, action-packed serial that serves as the ultimate rebuke to people who assume that “Doctor Who” in the 1960s would be childish and slow-paced. In quite a few ways, this serial does resemble the 2005 series, especially in its handling of bleak subject matter with a sort of sincere optimism. I wouldn’t be surprised if this serial in particular was a chief inspiration for Russell T. Davies.
I’ve said it before, but for this serial it’s worth repeating that I’m stunned at the gap between the sort of children’s entertainment I grew up with, where all the guns fired colorful lasers that never even seemed to hit anyone instead of bullets and the deaths, if there were any at all, were merely vaguely suggested, and this show, which expects its young audience to be able to handle multiple violent deaths (that are admittedly largely bloodless but still take place entirely on screen), the idea that nearly the entire human race can be wiped out by a disease, fairly realistic glimpses of what a post-apocalyptic society would be like, and the sight of their own country’s capital being invaded and devastated. Placing this – or really most of the early “Doctor Who” episodes – alongside American 80s’ fare like “Inspector Gadget” or “He-Man” is downright staggering.
The Daleks were a sensation pretty much out of the gate, as the speed in which the Peter Cushing “Dr. Who” films were produced and released attests, and Terry Nation’s script really tries to drive his concept home – literally, with plenty of shots of the Daleks marching (well, wheeling) past London landmarks to frighten the kiddies, especially the ones unlucky enough to be living in London when this first aired. The sight of the Dalek slowly emerging from the Thames, even if it doesn’t make much sense, was a fun re-introduction, while the use of open sets for the first time in the show’s history gives all the proceedings a blockbuster feel. There’s still some obnoxious and obvious padding here and there – I’m thinking especially of Susan and David’s utterly pointless expedition into the sewer – but Terry Nation compensates by peppering the action with quite a few effective character moments, most of which are as depressing as hell, of course.
To Nation’s credit, he also handles the unenviable remit of writing off Susan fairly well. No doubt if the serial was released today a legion of bloggers would be screaming about Susan leaving the TARDIS because of a man, but at least the script does take time to also explain that Susan is and has been feeling the effects of her groundless upbringing (of course, it would have been nice if this had been built up more in previous serials, but what are ya gonna do?). In execution Susan’s sudden relationship with David comes across stronger than it sounds on paper. It still has all the fingerprints of a showrunner-mandated decision, and the idea of the Doctor leaving his granddaughter on a devastated Earth just because she’s fallen in love with a guy she’s known for a week tops really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny that well (unless you’re thinking he just wants to get rid of her!). On the other hand, the Susan in this serial is a character with depth, as shown in her first long conversation with David, and not the perpetually terrified woman-child of other episodes, so she carries the improbabilities quite well. Plus the scene of departure is handled very well by both William Hartnell and Carol Ann Ford, thanks in no small point to a genuinely well-crafted monologue.
So all in all a largely successful attempt to make an epic out of the TV show, if you can get past the odd contrast between the bizarre and the very dark aspects. At the least it deserves to be remembered as the first “blockbuster” episode of “Doctor Who.”