After the oddball second season opener, the next story arc brought back the Daleks as a far more potent threat than their initial appearance. Where The Daleks was the story of the last remnants of two civilizations trying to revive their dead planet, one by destroying their erstwhile enemies, the other by reaching out to them, these episodes bring us to Earth, and to Great Britain.
A Great Britain more shattered by invasion than was Great Britain by the Luftwaffe, less than two decades before the filming of these episodes.
England--no, Great Britain--no, sorry, the whole Earth is occupied by the Daleks. Not all that many of them, seemingly. But that's all right; they've enslaved the locals, not by fear, or threat, but by stripping them of all humanity, reducing them to automatons with funky headgear, and hollow, sagging voices.
The Roboman is the specter that haunts these episodes, and if you've ever doubted Andrew Cartmel's description of the Daleks as "futuristic metal fascists," the Robomen, with their evocation of the broken spirits Victor Frankl encountered in the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned, cement the identification. The Robomen are our worst fear: that we ourselves could become obedient servants of an oppressor, all humanity lost. That we could all be Winston Smith--worse, even; Winston Smith with even the simulacrum of personality left him by Orwell's Ministry of Love destroyed.
That the visage of humanity could be all too easily shattered.
The TARDIS arrives on a deserted riverbank of the Thames. The TARDIS herself has never looked so beaten up before, her paint scaling, her side windows seemingly stove in--her exterior is almost as dilapidated as her surroundings. The iconic poster forbidding the dumping of bodies, the unexplained signs everywhere reading "VETOED,"--London is in ruins. And when the Dalek arises out of the river, and Ian and the Doctor are well and truly trapped--well, it's a strong ending for the first episode. Before that, we go through some interesting character beats--Susan merrily climbs a wall to see some indicator of when in London's history they are, and promptly sprains her ankle. On the other hand, when she and Barbara are the hands of the resistance (such as it is), and their usefulness is being assessed, she sasses her interrogator:
DORTMUN: Two more pairs of hands. Good, we need--Susan's quite charming in this moment, and it's a rare chance for her to be the flip, insouciant one of the party.
DAVID: She [Barbara] says she can cook.
DORTMUN: Oh, can you?
DAVID: And what do you do?
SUSAN: I eat.
The Doctor's happy cleverness in working out a scientific puzzle left in the cell occupied by himself, Ian and another captive named Craddock, convinces the Daleks of the Doctor's superior mental agility--and marks him for robotization.
As to the wheelchair-bound Dortmun, obsessively refining his bomb, and launching a doomed attack dependent on its efficacy, without testing it--well, Dortmun makes me wish I believed that Terry Nation had, in creating the Daleks, foreseen Davros. Because like the creator of the Daleks, Dortmun is all too willing to weaponize people and trust to his own genius, sometimes disastrously. Unlike Davros, Dortmun still has his soul, under the obsessiveness. He gives his life testing his bomb himself, but also giving Barbara and Jenny, another resistance fighter, a chance to escape.
Meanwhile, David Campbell and Susan have a good chat about belonging somewhere and needing a real identity--and David turns down the opportunity to escape with Susan and the Doctor from his ravaged planet. He comforts her as Daleks slaughter a resistance eight they had met on the way. A tentative bond has been formed.
But these episodes aren't, at heart, character episodes. Nor are they about the plot--although it moves briskly along. Rather, it's power comes from evoking a legitimate terror, recent enough at the time of initial airing to still chill the hearts of the original viewers.
If The Daleks was a mediation on, and a fable about, nuclear war, with overtones of the Second World War, then these three episodes are peeping through half-opened eyes screened by one's fingers at the great British primal fear--what if that war had gone the wrong way--if Britain had been conquered and it, not Germany, occupied?
That terror is dramatized here, in sci-fi-fi dress, to chill parents and children alike.