Saturday, 23 November 2013

My Doctor Who memory: the Daleks in Trafalgar Square

5 December 1964. The Doctor was William Hartnell, and this was only the second ever Dalek story, the one in which the Daleks invade a near-future Earth. I was five, nearly six, and I was just discovering Doctor Who and experiencing that peculiar ambivalence familiar to subsequent generations of children: that of it's being terrifying, beyond anything else in our televisual experience - but also entirely compelling. The story is notable in the overall Who narrative, because it's the one in which his grand-daughter Susan stays behind to marry her nice resistance fighter and work for the post-war reconstruction of Earth. But for me it was memorable, in fact burned itself into my memory, because it showed the Daleks in a place which I knew intimately.

We didn't live in London, but we often drove there, and my father taught me the names of the landmarks: Hammersmith Bridge, Piccadilly Circus with its neon lights and statue of Eros, and Trafalgar Square with its stone lions and Nelson's Column. Practising my geography, I used them to mark the stages of our journeys, counting them off and naming them as we passed. They were not only part of London, they were part of my life.

So I'm watching Doctor Who, and there's this bit where Barbara, who's fallen in with a group of resistance fighters, is helping this old and wheelchair-bound hero of the conflict escape, because the Daleks are closing in on their location. In a long filmed sequence, with another woman of the resistance, they race along the Victoria Embankment, and then have to hide as a Dalek convey passes over Westminster Bridge. When the coast is clear, they move on quickly to Trafalgar Square - but the Daleks have got there first. The camera view starts at the top of Nelson's Column, then pans down to the stone lions, revealing the Daleks gathering there. The effect was breath-taking and astonishing for me; the Daleks were no longer just on television: they had invaded my life.<1>

(The Victorian Embankment / Trafalgar Square sequence begins at timecode 5:03)

Many years later, watching the episode on DVD, I had a flash of association with an image which I only got to know as an adult: the famous newsreel footage of the Nazi army marching into Paris past the Arc de Triomphe. The sense of violation, of a deeply familiar landmark being desecrated by something which should absolutely not be there, was just the same. I was also aware of how many associations there must quite deliberately have been in that episode when originally shown, for grown-ups who remembered the Second World War and knew about Nazi-occupied Europe: the intimidation, the resistance, the labour camps, and the occupied people pressed into service as collaborators: the humans who had been turned into Robomen.<2> The Doctor himself most obviously resembled an Eastern European refugee: cultured yet poor, wandering far from his native land, the generation between himself and his grand-daughter conspicuous by its absence, presumably due to war or armed conflict.

But back in 1964, my dear mother indulged my obsession. She always decorated our (home-made) Christmas cake with style and imagination, and so that year our Christmas cake featured the Daleks in Trafalgar Square. Nelson's Column was a stick of rock, with the plastic lions from my Noah's Ark around its base and Noah himself standing in for Nelson. The Daleks themselves were made of round chocolate biscuits in layers, with smarties on their outsides. It was a good end to a fantastic story. The Daleks might have conquered the Earth, but we ate them for Christmas.


<1> This story was the first in Dr Who to use extensive location filming - to great effect. The image of the Daleks on Westminster Bridge is well-known because of a publicity still (not reflecting the shots used in the actual episode), which was later imitated on a Radio Times cover in 2005 (image 14) and the 50th anniversary programmes.
<2> The World War 2 and Nazi occupation references are discussed in the commentary on the BBC Dr Who website, and in the Wikipedia entry.

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