London Threatened

Not that many Doctor Who stories are set mainly in London, and in fewer still is the city directly menaced. Okay, yes, in one story an embarrassing Loch Ness Monster waves its head around near some Bankside office blocks, but generally the milieu of the series is sleepy villages, out-of-town business complexes and the perennial ‘experimental research centre’ which you imagine to be somewhere in Hertfordshire. In “The Invasion” a fully-populated metropolis is attacked by aliens (Cybermen in the sewers, eek!) and robots controlled from the Post Office Tower run amok in “The War Machines”, but more interesting and resonant to me are the stories where London is de-populated or entirely deserted.

“The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” (pictured) starts off in a delapidated, eerily quiet and run-down London – the money shots of Daleks in Westminster are just dressing on this evocative premise. For much of the first episode the Doctor and his friends don’t know when they’ve arrived – is this ‘modern’ (i.e. 1965) docklands London, its post-Blitz ruin slumped finally into decay and rot? “It Is Forbidden To Dump Bodies Into The River” reads a sign near where the TARDIS lands. In 1973’s “Invasion Of The Dinosaurs” the city is contemporary, but completely empty: a creepy first episode finds the Doctor trying to work out what’s happened, unfortunately interrupted by truly awful dinosaur effects.

The trope of an empty London seems to me more common than that of a destroyed one* – maybe the city’s landmarks are too small-scale for such spectaculars, and the vision of time overtaking their seeming antiquity is more compelling. The trope goes back at least to Day Of The Triffids and recurred recently in 28 Days Later. In a way it’s an oddly comforting, as well as scary, idea: it stresses after all that what makes London itself is its people in their multiplicity, rather than its skyline or history or buildings.

*(I can’t remember exactly what happens to London in War Of The Worlds – destroyed AND deserted AND overrun by the Red Weed no doubt – but that was the capital of a world-empire and as such ripe for annihilation. Brian Aldiss has written about the post-Imperial turn for British SF towards ‘cosy catastrophe’, where individual lives are affected (and win through), the SF equivalent of the English Murder: 28 Days is a textbook example)