It’s 2150. In the ruins of a destroyed London, the last members of the human resistance plan and scheme, surviving in the shadows, living like rats in the walls of the world. All of Bedfordshire is a concentration camp, thousands dying, worked to death by the invaders and those forced into their service. Nothing remains of civilisation, the invaders rule from the air like gods, picking off any mortal they choose from high in the clouds. The survivors stay quiet, hunger ruling the fields and forests; hanging like a mist over the buildings turned to rubble. Time stopped in the 1960s, nothing new has come into being, reduced to a never-ending struggle for survival the human race survives, picking through roots and scavenging, a mere irritation to the expressionless beings remaking the world in their own image…
In an introduction to his 1971 collection of short stories ‘Vermillion Sands’, J.G. Ballard makes the statement:
“It is a curious paradox that almost all science fiction, however far removed in time and space, is really about the present day. Very few attempts have been made to visualize a unique and self-contained future that offers no warnings to us.”
Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150AD is a film that is often interpreted as a science fiction treatment of British anxieties about the Second World War, with the Daleks cast as the Nazis, the Dalek mine as a forced labour camp and the resistance movement of the film modelled upon the various partisan groups that audiences were used to seeing on screen. Released in 1966, Daleks’ Invasion Earth is a film for children who weren’t even born during the Second World War, a war that finished over twenty years earlier. It strikes Archeology of the Future that it is more correct to view Daleks’ Invasion Earth as a film almost nostalgic for the war and the strange certainty of terror it conferred upon Britain, at a time when upheavals of other, more nebulous kinds were occurring in the country and the world at large.
The film itself, the second Milton Subotsky produced featuring Terry Nation’s creations The Daleks and the second featuring Peter Cushing as a character called Doctor Who, is a children’s romp with a grim undertone. Released during the school holidays at the height of Dalekmania, it begins with Bernard Cribbins as an affable copper Tom Campbell stumbling into the TARDIS after trying to stop a jewellery heist. As the TARDIS, because of a broken Chameleon Circuit, is stuck in the form of a Blue Police Box this is not an impossible mistake to make. Finding a similarly affable old man with white hair and a nice line in corduroy jackets (Peter Cushing as ‘Doctor Who’), his niece Louise (Jill Curzon), and his granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey), Tom is unsurprisingly puzzled. After a little bit of business about the TARDIS being bigger on the inside than on the outside and establishing that it travels in time and space, we are whisked to future Earth, only to find London in ruins.
Following the classic Doctor Who structure of separating the Doctor from his companions, the film wastes no time splitting Doctor Who and Tom from Louise and Susan, pitching the lot of latter in with the resistance and getting the former quickly into a bit of bother with The Daleks, who glide menacingly around the bombed out city with their human slaves, the Robomen.
Susan and Louise are taken down into the underground, literally, via Embankment tube station, meeting the three major figures of the resistance. David is a young, serious fighter, played with conviction by Ray Brooks. Wyler is a tough scot, played very straight by Andrew Keir. Dortmun (Godfrey Quigley) is a kind of Douglas Bader, in both the sense that he believes the resistance must take the fight to the Daleks and the fact he survives and thrives despite injuries or disabilities that leave him in a wheelchair. The resistance is working on bombs to battle the Daleks, drawing around the radio when the Daleks make broadcasts ordering them to surrender.
The film quickly establishes that humanity has been more or less vanquished by the Daleks, who bombarded the earth with meteors, arriving in their spaceship(s) to mop up. They take prisoners, ‘robotising’ the most resourceful and sending the rest to an immense work camp in Bedfordshire. These Robomen, dressed in black PVC jumpsuits and radio helmets with mirrored visors are the Daleks main troops. Patrolling the city in almost mechanical fashion and armed with whips and guns of Dalek origin, they are literally brainwashed into collaboration. Doctor Who and Tom narrowly miss being ‘robotised’ when they are captured and taken to the Dalek ship, the process interrupted by a resistance attack which ends in failure.
After this first act, setting up as it does the ruined city and showing just how much the Daleks have destroyed, the second act concerns the country under the Daleks, with the various characters weaving their way to an eventual rendezvous in Bedfordshire, the centre of the Daleks activities.
Tom and Louise, trapped on the Dalek spaceship, escape when it lands, only to discover they have escaped into a giant forced labour camp, where teams of prisoners, Robomen armed with whips guarding and running them, are worked to death. Susan escapes London with Wyler, leaving a message written in chalk at Embankment for the Doctor to meet her in Watford. Escaping in a van, Dortmun is killed by Daleks in the process, a fate that Susan and Wyler narrowly avoid when the Dalek spaceship targets them from the air as they drive down cold deserted country lanes, forcing them to continue by foot. The Doctor, saved by David from being robotised, is chased through the streets by Daleks. David saves him again leading him through a manhole down into the sewers, end then back to the resistance base. Reading through Dortmun’s notes, he decides that they must make their way to Bedfordshire, pronounced in a lovely eccentric fashion by Cushing as ‘Bedford-Shire’, to get to the bottom of the Daleks plan.
When Doctor Who and David are travelling across country to Bedford, the well-dressed and raincoated Brockley captures them, taking them to the Dalek camp, despite his puzzlement at their enthusiasm to go there. A fascinating character, Brockley, played by Philip Madoc, is a kind of spiv or quisling, a pantomime profiteer, selling information to the Daleks and food to the camp inmates. In one scene, after Doctor Who and David have been sleeping, we see Brockley cooking something in a tin over a small fire. When David says that it smells good, Brockley gestures for David to take some. When David bends to pick it up, Brockley gives the can a petulant kick and spills the contents.
There is pure malice in Brockley with no redeeming features, a kind of self-serving spoilt brat, lacking the backbone and moral fibre that, with the rosy glow of nostalgia, all Britons displayed in the face of threat. He is the nostalgic vision of those who made profit from the conditions of war, a ruthless, immoral turncoat, suspiciously flash and well groomed, a code for everything that the earthy, clean cut Britons of the propagandised national image were not supposed to be. There is no hint of the moral complexity of the situation that occupation actually forces upon people, Brockley is a bad ‘un, a ‘flash Harry’ who eventually gets his comeuppance when he is disposed of by his masters as he informs on the rebellion. In some ways, he represents the view that those who ‘go over to the other side’ do so out of a kind of spite towards the country that raised them.
Wyler and Susan have a similar experience. Deciding to make for Bedford on foot, the burly man and the bubbly schoolgirl in her red dress come across a house by a bridge, hidden amongst the misty trees. Stopping for food, they find an old women and her daughter. They are invited to stay the night and fed from the meagre rations the Daleks give the women for cleaning the clothes of people at the camp. Wyler wakes in the night to find the daughter sneaking in with a bag full of food. When he tries to wake Susan silently so that they can make their escape, after hearing the women cackling at their good fortune having, in himself and Susan such a prize to trade, he draws back the curtain to discover a Dalek waiting for them outside.
This episode has a paradoxical feel of both dream and grim reality. The women, dressed like medieval peasants in their house over the misty bridge feel like characters from fable or fairytale. Indeed, when Archeology of the Future saw this film as a child, we believed that the purpose of the women was to catch unwary travellers and turn them over to the Daleks, so much did they seem rooted in the logic of myth, like the witch in her gingerbread house, waiting intently forever for innocents to arrive and fulfil her function. The reality of the situation, the hunger, the ill health, the selfishness necessary for survival, the facts of most collaboration only really hit us as adults. Britain in this film is a country that has been, to borrow a phrase, almost bombed into the Stone Age.
The third act reunites all of our chrononauts, along with David and Wyler, inside of the Daleks forced labour camp. Here Doctor Who devises a way of disrupting the Dalek plan to detonate a bomb inside of the Earth’s core, part of a hazy plan to ‘pilot the Earth like a spaceship’ back to the area of their planet. Redirecting the bomb, it increases the Earth’s magnetic field and destroys the Daleks, freeing humanity and allowing just enough time for Doctor Who to return Tom Campbell to the present in time to foil the jewel thieves, before the jaunty, jazzy theme tune that plays over the cast list tells us it’s time to pick up our things and head out of the cinema into the bright, new world of mid-sixties Britain.
Considered in terms of the world that it is born into, Daleks Invasion Earth looks backwards rather than forwards for its inspiration. It arrived in a world where Pop Art, youth cult, rock ‘n’ roll, Tamla Motown and the Beatles and Stones were asserting the primacy of youth, where Harold Wilson and Tony Benn were exploring the possibilities of new markets and new technologies with MinTech, where the Telecom Tower would emerge glittering like a space craft landed at the heart of London, where everything was faster, shinier, newer, younger, more brash, less deferential, less respectful. It is a warning to the young, rather than a discussion for the old. It reduces fears and experiences of World War II to a fable told to damp the spirits of this world of uncertainty and possibility.
There are many explicit references to the lore of World War II, to the horrid litany of abuses carried out during its duration. When the chrononauts first arrive, Susan remarks that there are no people, and ‘no birds either’, bringing to mind the horror of death camps. At the Dalek mine in Bedfordshire, Brockley trades food for a handful of rings, again making reference to the horror of death camps, the implication that rings are not the only things of precious metal that are brought to Brockley. Near the beginning of the film, Doctor Who and Tom pass through a room that has a prominent framed picture of a Spitfire or a Hurricane. The use of the Underground as a refuge and a place were industry could continue is again an obvious reference, (see this article for more about the underground). The Dalek radio broadcasts, with their mocking tone, again speak to the lore of the War rather than an actual experience of it. The film is nostalgic for the War, in that it strips a complicated narrative down to its most evocative and emotive images, removing them from their context and making them emotional triggers only.
Like a fable, Daleks Invasion Earth reduces the characters and situations to ciphers and removes all notions of context or politics from the equation. With the characters of Brockley and the Mother and Daughter, we see that collaborators are resoundingly bad. With the Daleks, we are given an image of invasion that removes any of the difficult ambiguities that arise when examining history and the motivations of people. The Daleks are evil, because they are evil. There are no geopolitics, no history, no relationship before their invasion. In many ways, they are the reassuring bogeyman conjured up by wartime propaganda, an all destroying; unreasonable force that can only be beaten rather than accommodated or lived with. In a time of total war, there is a comforting certainty, and an escape from the anxiety of having to make responsible political choices, in having an implacable enemy to oppose.
One aspect of the film that is always pointed out is that it doesn’t look to be set in 2150 AD, but about five minutes from when it was filmed. Based on the underlying message of the film, this doesn’t pose as much of a problem as most reviewers suggest. Given the film’s deep hankering for the certainties of the War, the message to the present seems to be ‘don’t get too excited about relentless progress and forward motion, it could all just stop’. This is a very English response to the apocalypse, an anxiety about adversity stopping the march of progress and the advancement of civilization. American popular culture, overall, has a much more rosy view of the breakdown of civilisation, with many seeing it as kind of ‘back to nature’ return to the essentials of life where, at worst, you and your family will be enjoying the kind of life someone on the Frontier might have had. British popular culture, on the other hand, is usually concerned with what will be lost. If there was an invasion by immensely powerful alien beings tomorrow, the process of commodity capitalism as we know it now would stop. There wouldn’t be the time or resources to create new and exciting shiny things to signify that the future had arrived. Although it is a stretch to believe that the Britain of Daleks Invasion Earth is two hundred or so years hence of the date that the film was made, the cultural and technological entropy that it portrays does fit with its overall orientation.
On top of all this subtext, there is a fast moving children’s film, with excellent set pieces and some lovely, local references. When Tom and Doctor Who see the Dalek saucer, a brilliant bit of Dan Dare style design, landing in London, Doctor Who exclaims: “It appears to be landing in the vicinity of Sloane Square!”. The fact that Bedfordshire becomes a huge concentration camp adds a huge thrill to the proceedings; as does the fact that characters need to travel across country to get there, plunging into the chilly interior of the landscape. The use of the London Underground as a hiding place for the human underground adds a wonderful sparkle to Archeology of the Future’s enjoyment.
In many ways, the Daleks are amongst one of the most recognisable artefacts of the bright, brash, shiny, poppy mid-sixties. They achieved huge popularity and iconic status precisely because they were colourful, exciting and from a very low, mass-culture source, beginning with the kids then finding more and more fans amongst the grown-ups… Looking back at the film now, it almost seems to say, in a grumpy, reactionary way, that we should be careful, lest the new world of Pop and bright colours turn around and wreck our cities and enslave us…
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