Among the fancy new releases and weird foreign films of the London Sci-Fi Festival, there were also some antique gems on offer. For someone used to the rebooted Doctor Who, Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD was certainly an eye-opener onto the cardboard-and-string world of yesteryears’ sci-fi. Before the showing, the festival director’s young daughters introduced the film and gave what I consider to be a very apt description of its merits: “cheese”.
Perhaps it’s worth expanding on that metaphor. There are two kinds of cheese: cheap, mild, ultimately forgettable stuff, but also more interesting, unusual vintage – maybe a little alien to the taste buds at first, but it grows on you. Invasion Earth is very much the latter of the two.
Watching retro Doctor Who can be quite a culture shock for the newcomer. Within five minutes, you’re presented with Peter Cushing as the Doctor (certainly not the bishonen we’ve come to expect from recent incumbents), his niece Louise with whom who he (thankfully) has no sexual tension whatsoever and his granddaughter. The TARDIS’ disguise as a police box actually works, and the multiculturalism that was part of the reboot’s winning formula is conspicuously absent (although there is a wheelchair-bound resistance leader!). The wackiness of Tenant’s Doctor is replaced by Cushing’s more grandfatherly eccentricity.
The plot itself is standard Who fare: aliens have invaded the Earth (it’s implied that they’ve overrun the entire planet, although for some reason Bedfordshire has become the focus of their war machine) and have a dastardly scheme; the Doctor and his companions go off on an adventure to stop them. What separates this from more recent Dalek escapades is the level of seriousness: whereas reboot Daleks are a cause for furious shouting, angry stares and tense drama, retro Daleks merit little more than mild frowning and old-fashioned British pluck. Whilst reboot Daleks are terrifying, invincible, laser-firing death machines, retro Daleks kill people with somewhat dubious poison gas and can be defeated with improvised explosives, being pushed off a ramp and, in one instance, by having a tarpaulin thrown over their heads.
That said, Invasion Earth is somewhat paradoxical: although the subject matter is treated in a more calm-headed, family-friendly manner than recent outings (see: the 2nd and 4th season finales), there are a great deal more on-screen deaths – and not just extras, but main characters are killed off like flies. The numerous battles with the Daleks are incredibly casualty-heavy (and there’s no happy end here – no-one’s coming back from the dead) and yet no-one really seems bothered. As with most post-apocalyptic stories, the ending isn’t particularly optimistic if one stops to think about it. If this had been handled like recent Who, I think that it might garner a 12-certificate.
Nevertheless, the moments of comedy (some intentional, such as the Doctor’s convoluted route into Watford; others not, such as any scene with Daleks or spaceships; some that even combine the two, such as the defeat of a magnetic prison door with the application of a comb) are what settles this film for me. Invasion Earth accepts that the Daleks are in fact a very silly design and it rolls with this (quite literally, sometimes). It’s good for kids – it’s got a reasonable amount of behind-the-sofa moments and a not-overly-complex storyline; it’s also great fun for adults, but in a more mature way than the current trend for “parent-friendly humour”. The 60s music (especially the James Bond-esque opening, which is frankly lovely) and visuals should appease fans who were around for the original series. The very indescribably English feel to the film certainly doesn’t hurt either.
It was interesting to see the mix of crowd in that theatre: a roughly equal split between diehard nerds and families. I feel that Invasion Earth appeals to both groups, and that’s an uncommon thing for sci-fi. The applause at the end was well deserved. It’s convinced me to investigate retro Who further, although I will of course continue to follow the 11th Doctor religiously. Any recommendations? 😉