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The Beatle Invasion of Earth
1964: Doctor Who & The Beatles
The first in an occasional series looking at Doctor Who, a peculiarly British kind of TV hero, and the cultural contexts that have influenced the ever changing character and stories.
The first Doctor was played by William Hartnell. His best adventure (at least according to the IMDb rankings) was ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ from 1964, the same year that the Beatles film ‘A Hard Day's Night’ was released. What can the Fab Four and a renegade Time Lord tell us about the Britain that created them?
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
6 episodes, black and white, November to December 1964
William Hartnell as the Doctor, with companions: Susan, the Doctor's grand-daughter, and two of her young school teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright
The Doctor and his companions arrive in a post-apocalyptic London. The Daleks have taken over, using sci-fi helmets to remote control human ‘Robo-men’, who in turn have enslaved the rest of humanity into the puzzling task of digging to the centre of the Earth via Bedfordshire
A Hard Day's Night
87 mins, black and white. Directed by Richard Lester
John, Paul, George and Ringo, Wilfred Bramble, Victor Spinetti, hordes of screaming teenagers
The Beatles are the Beatles, charmingly, for about 90 minutes
There is a common pattern to Doctor Who stories. The Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, which appears to have a mind of its own, arrives somewhere new in time and space. The Doctor and his companions will then have to figure out where they are and, more importantly, what is wrong.
There is always something terribly – often secretly – wrong.
Something they will have to fight.
Something they will have to fix.
In The Dalek Invasion of Earth what is wrong, as you might have surmised from the title, is that the Earth has been invaded by Daleks. This has not gone well for the Earth. The Daleks are not great fans of human architecture, it turns out. Or, indeed, humans.
What’s noticeable is that when they arrive in this bombed and defeated London, the TARDIS gang are pretty sure they’ve arrived back in the ’60s. Maybe a quiet Sunday afternoon, but they don’t notice anything different. The decayed river side and ruined warehouses they investigate: it could all be 1964.
Twenty years since it was flattened by human authoritarians rather than alien cyborg ones, London is still a bombsite. You can see it in the backgrounds of A Hard Day’s Night too, as a station full of policemen pursue the moptops past the rubble of a church. (The shell of a church also serves as the hiding place of the eponymous Children of the Damned, a low-budget sci-fi shocker also from 1964, filmed entirely in a deserted and dilapidated London).
Religion has been bombed out. The capital is godforsaken. Dispirited. London has been crushed and so have the people. Most of the humans are dead, the remainder enslaved. Even the last few freedom fighters are tired and cynical. “There is nothing heroic about dying,” says one of them, a woman called Jenny, “There’s no point in throwing lives away just to prove a principle.”
At one point, Jenny the freedom fighter and the Doctor’s companion Barbara seek shelter with two women who survive by making clothes for concentration camp prisoners. The women then betray them to the Daleks in return for a tin of cling peaches.
The British are cowed and paralysed, doing what they’re told, just getting by.
The Beatles’ London of the ’60s is just as stultified and crushed, but in this case by toffs rather than Daleks. As Richard Vernon’s stuffy City gent tells the Beatles on a train:
I fought the war for your sort.
Bet you’re sorry you won!
He didn’t fight for freedom just so these mouthy yobs could have it.
The victors of the Second World War have retreated to a nice quiet suburbia and don’t want any more fuss. Even tidying up all the bombsites seems to be too much effort, and any actual trouble is dealt with ruthlessly. The titular Children of the Damned - a multicultural gaggle of telepathic, super-intelligent and deeply unnerving moppets - turn out to be a flash forward, a glimpse of further human evolution; the children who are our future. Naturally the grimly patrician scientists and sergeants immediately decide they must be destroyed. No point in further evolution when the British professional classes are already perfected.
No one suggests slaughtering The Beatles in In A Hard Day’s Night, but they're still a threat to good order, especially Lennon. It is in the interests of the establishment to keep everything as it is established, after all. John, Paul, George and Ringo are constantly reminded of their working-class place at the bottom of the bill; chased by policemen, patronised by directors, bullied by Norm their manager into demeaning eyes-and-teeth light-ent turns in between Lionel Blair’s lashing legs and Derek Nimmo’s disappearing doves.
What can’t be destroyed can be co-opted. When the Daleks realise quite how intelligent Doctor Who is, the first thing they think is that they could zombify him into one of the radio controlled Robo-men. He might be a nuisance, but his brain might be useful.
Likewise with the Beatles - maybe their popularity can be put to good use. At one point in A Hard Day’s Night, a TV producer tries to recruit George Harrison to advertise shirts. But he’s appalled when Harrison describes them as ‘grotty’: “You don’t think he’s a new phenomenon, do you?” wonders the producer. He checks his calendar on which he has planned all the future teen crazes:
No, he’s just a troublemaker.
The change isn’t due for three weeks.
The joke is on Simon, of course: Beatlemania is exactly the kind of trend he’s trying to use to sell to the kids, and he’s just missed it entirely. In fact, it’s about to turn around and completely upend the culture on which he depends, just the way that Dalekmania took the BBC by surprise the previous year.
The Daleks weren’t even supposed to exist. Doctor Who was intended to be a lightly educational jaunt through history, co-opting science-fiction to cram some dates into the kiddies heads. Producer Stanley Newman had been very definite, he didn’t want any what he called BEMs: Bug-eyed Monsters. And then they found themselves with only Terry Nation’s first Dalek script1 ready to film and discovered that’s all the kids really wanted.
Trying to co-opt the revolutionaries can have unexpected side effects. In an age of anti-colonial independence movements there are plenty of examples to learn from about turning the tools of oppression back on the oppressors. Indeed, some of those independence movements are referenced by the Doctor’s companion Barbara when she starts a revolution by seizing control of the Dalek’s own broadcasting station2. The Children of the Damned repurpose the church organ as a sonic weapon to drive soldiers mad. The Beatles take music-hall tunes and blues riffs and make them into a sound that will change the world.
And it's not just the sounds that are in revolution; the visuals are being reinvented too. In A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester pulls out all the nouvelle vague stops, jump-cutting and whip-panning away to try and contain the sheer energy of the Beatles within the film. Even in Doctor Who, Barbara and Jenny dash across a sharply edited London to a frenetic jazz drum, for all the world as if Anna Karina were fleeing the Daleks across the Paris of Bande à Part (also 1964, of course). The medium itself is in turmoil, the old structures cannot hold.
This is the real danger that the establishment haven’t reckoned with, that a seemingly harmless craze - for modish visuals, rackety music, strange hair-styles - might turn out to be the beginnings of something genuinely world-changing.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth ends with Susan, the Doctor’s grand-daughter, remaining behind to help rebuild civilisation. The actress who played her, Carole Ann Ford, was in fact sick and tired of being yet another sexist sci-fi damsel in distress reduced to merely screaming and running (just like the heroine of Children of the Damned, in fact). That kind of hoary old trope just won’t wash anymore.
Things can’t go on as they have been. The world is still beaten down, twenty years after the end of the war, London is still in ruins, and really, shouldn’t somebody be thinking about rebuilding civilisation? Properly, this time.
That Doctor Who story pattern? It’s a generational one. Each generation finds itself stranded in a strange world and must discover where they are, and what dreadful secret it hides. At least the Doctor knows this, entrusting as he does the future of Earth to his grand-daughter.
There’s a lot of running and screaming girls in A Hard Day’s Night, too. Usually running and screaming after the Beatles. But this running and screaming isn’t just teen hysteria. It is the sound and action that is vibrating and straining against the stultifying bounds of middle-class propriety and middle-aged establishment. The sound and action of a generation that is about to show that maybe the young and energetic can save the world from the inaction of their parents.
Looked at one way, they might look like a bunch of teenagers caught up in a craze; looked at another, they might be a generation about to discover that there is something terribly wrong with this world they have landed on.
Something they will have to fight.
Something they will have to fix.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth can be found on BritBox
A Hard Day’s Night can be found on Amazon Prime
Children of the Damned can be found on Chili
Next week: The children of The Female Eunuch
In an unlikely moment of Metropolitan serendipity, Tony Hancock apparently claimed Terry Nation got the idea for the Daleks from him.
Thus thwarting their magnificent scheme to hollow out the Earth and use it as a spaceship: a great cosmic Kinder egg full of a surprise helping of EXTERMINATE!