Reviewed: Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth by Terrance Dicks

One of the best of all the Target novelisations, Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth was originally published in 1977. Target had re-issued the three Muller hardbacks from the 1960s:  Doctor Who*, Doctor Who and the Zarbi and Doctor Who and the Crusaders; this was the first of the original Target novels to feature Hartnell’s Doctor.

And it’s bloody good.

(*You did read the first paragraph right.  The first Doctor Who novel was called Doctor Who. Nothing else. The ‘In an exciting adventure with the Daleks’ bit is a by-line or a subtitle; the spine of the Muller hardback reads, plainly, Doctor Who. The 1965 Armada paperback has Dr. Who. Target called it Doctor Who and the Daleks. But it’s vanilla, without encumbrance. I need to get out more.)

Only two Doctor Who stories exist in three forms; this one, and the first Dalek series. For both, we have the original TV broadcast, the Peter Cushing film, and the novel. I’m going to commit a heresy here and say that in both cases, the novel is the best version.

The TV version of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, alas, looks very dated now. At the time, the production team were delighted with it and it presumably thrilled the original audience. Yet it’s considerably inferior to the marvellous televised version of the first Dalek story.

Why? Well, sadly, the Daleks are really badly done. The voices are dreadful. For some reason, director Richard Martin chose not to recreate those used a year earlier: instead, there’s very little modulation and they sound like Peter Hawkins is pinching his noise and doing a silly high-pitched voice. They charge at high speed around the studio and look as though they’re going to bash into each other at any moment; they wobble and rattle around when they’re on location; they rock back and forth when they’re talking, and they do silly Nazi salutes. They are almost a masterclass in how not to do the Daleks.

Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD Peter Cushing

The real problem, of course, is that the production team are trying to do an epic alien invasion story on a sixties’ TV budget – and it just can’t be done. 90 minutes’ studio time for each episode, with less than a handful of edits, can’t cope with the story’s demands. The DVD subtitles point out all the fluffs (the nice little baby alligator; the floor manager saying ‘cue’ on the soundtrack; the Dalek crashing into something off-camera)… It’s an enormous shame, because you want it to be good, but it just can’t manage it. The Cushing film – vastly superior to Dr Who and the Daleks – looks much better. For an example, compare the Dalek’s coming out of the Thames in both versions. And yet…

There’s still something about the TV version that gives it the edge over the film. It’s nasty. Essentially, and this has been said before, it’s a re-imagining of what would have happened had Britain lost the war: how we would have coped under Nazi occupation. The Dalek invasion isn’t just the background to a ripping yarn or an exciting adventure story; it’s a violation, an outrage. It is genuinely evil. The barbarism and savagery of the Nazis’ behaviour in occupied Poland seems to have been the source of Nation’s inspiration in creating the story’s world: this is very strong stuff for family viewing. The film sanitises all of this and makes it much more palatable: their rebels are well groomed and wear nice, clean sixties casuals; the originals wore rags and were filthy.

Terrance Dicks’ novel keeps the nastiness of the original but, of course, irons out its flaws. When he has the time and isn’t working to tight deadlines and short page counts, he’s a very good writer: the book’s genuinely well written. It grips from its superb opening sentence:

Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.

(One of Dicks’ own favourites, in fact. It hurls you straight into the story. It’s horrific. Which city? Why is the man, too, a ruin? And, if we go all English-litty on it, the repetition of ‘ruin’ is extremely effective, and shocking when it’s applied to a human being. Note, too, the rhythm:  tum te TUM te / tum te TUM te / tum te TUM te / tum te TUM. Good, innit?)

Dalek Invasion of Earth roboman

And Dicks goes on to describe the man’s suicide by drowning – another horrific moment – with another superb piece of writing: ‘There was something inhuman about the manner of his death – but then, he had not been truly human for a very long time.’ I defy anyone not to want to continue reading after those brilliant opening paragraphs.

And, of course, Dicks knows Doctor Who inside out. He’s particularly good with the Daleks (having already tackled them in Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks – another superb read). The 1964 TV version was still experimenting with the concept and depiction of Skaro’s finest: they didn’t really settle down until their fourth story, The Dalek’s Master Plan; the way they speak is much more human in their first outing than it later became, and they’re a bit silly and unconvincing in The Chase and Invasion of Earth. By contrast, the novel was written post-Genesis, by which time the concept was settled and established. The Daleks of this novel are the ones we’d encounter with Troughton’s Doctor and in the first half of the seventies. When the Doctor tells the Dalek, fresh out of the Thames, that he intends to defeat them, Dicks comments: ‘The Doctor’s words seemed to touch off one of those typical speeches, a mixture of threats and boasts, which seemed to be the Daleks’ only form of communication with other species.’ Yes!  This is the stuff!

So, it’s well written. Here’s Dicks introducing the Slyther:

It lay curled and asleep on one of the throbbing machines.  The machine was warm, and it didn’t care for the cold on this planet.  Suddenly it quivered and woke.  Its keen hearing had picked up voices… human voices. And humans meant food. It slithered from the machine and began sliding quietly through the darkness.

As a twelve-year-old, reading the novel when it first came out, I can remember being absolutely mesmerised by this. I’d seen the Cushing film but wasn’t born when the original was shown; the film had cut the Daleks’ pet and I thought it sounded brilliant – and assumed it was pronounced ‘sly – ther’ (as in ‘sly’). I didn’t see the TV version until many years later, only to realise that the monster’s name was a homophone for ‘slither’ (which is naff) and that it looked like a man with a dustbin liner over his head. And was about as frightening. And it was rooted to the spot. And it didn’t slither at all: it just wobbled and said ‘A-woo.’ So, if you want a scary Slyther, read the book: you get the Slyther, not the Wobbler. (Similar disappointment:  I assumed the robomen would look like Achilleos’ illustration of a thug in a gas mask. What we got were blokes with wastepaper baskets on their heads who spoke veeeeery slowwwwly, ruined the pace of every scene they were in, and sounded like the Gumbies from Monty Python.)

Dalek Invasion of Earth First Doctor William Hartnell 1st

This review’s getting too long. I’ll wind up. It’s a very, very good read: well-written, exciting, well-plotted, and a strong story. It’s not literature but it’s every bit as good as anything Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker came up with (and it’s probably better written, too). It’s easily available on eBay: first editions are around £7 each, and you can pick up the reprints for £4 or so.  You can sometimes find it for that on Amazon or Abebooks, but they tend to charge £20+.

Finally: the audiobook, read by William Russell, is superb. Stick it in the CD player and you won’t notice how boring your long car journey is. If you’re like me (you probably aren’t: you’re superior!), you tend to think of Russell solely as Ian Chesterton; audiobooks remind you that the readers are extremely good actors, with great versatility. Russell’s characterisation is superb. He slips easily between the cockney Jenny and the Yorkshire Tyler, he does Hartnell, Susan and Barbara really well, and he’s pretty good as Ian Chesterton too. It’s worth buying the CD just to hear his drawling, smarmy, sneering and spivvy Ashton, who’s even better than the sublime Philip Madoc in the film. (It’s up there with Russell’s performance as the thief in Doctor Who and the Crusaders.  And yes, I know Ashton’s renamed Brockley in the film, though I have no idea why.) Nick Briggs does the Dalek voices and does them brilliantly: this is what they should sound like – time for an over-dub of the TV soundtrack?

To conclude: Hundreds of Doctor Who novels have been published in the last 52 years. This one is in my top ten and I commend it to you. Read it. You will bless and adore me when you’ve finished. Yes, you will.