From Doctor Who to Star Trek: great TV alien invasions of Earth

With BBC's War Of The Worlds hitting screens, Juliette looks back at other classic alien invasions of our home planet on TV...

Think of alien invasions, and the chances are it’s films that come to mind first – Independence Day, Avengers Assemble, Edge Of Tomorrow, perhaps even Mars Attacks! However, with the new adaptation of HG Wells seminal alien invasion story The War Of The Worlds coming to television now, it’s worth remembering that there are some great stories about alien invasions of our little blue-green planet told on the small screen too.

There are a few classic tropes that recur over and over again in alien invasion stories. There are their spaceships, usually roughly saucer-shaped; alien infiltrators disguised as humans; humans who have been taken over by, or in extreme cases turned into, aliens; aliens who have landed briefly before, usually at Roswell in 1947, and depending how how successful the invasion is, post-apocalyptic wastelands where a few scattered survivors struggle to scrape a living and fight off attacks. We’ve highlighted just a few of our favourites, including a pretty wide variety of different types of alien invasion in which the aliens have met with varying degrees of success – let us know your favourites below!

Doctor Who (Classic), ‘The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’

Choosing just one of Classic Who’s many, many alien invasions seemed like it might be quite a challenge, but in the end it was a surprisingly easy choice, for several reasons. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth was a watershed moment for the series, as it saw the very first departure of a series regular actor – the Doctor’s grand-daughter, Susan (played by Carol Ann Ford) left, as a number of early female companions did, to get married. And what better reason than to help rebuild Earth following a devastating invasion by the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest enemy, the Daleks?

This serial was beautifully filmed with genuinely impressive production values. By filming in the early hours of Sunday mornings (back in the days when that meant no traffic and few people around) the show was able to give us the spectacle of Daleks rampaging the streets of London, trundling around Trafalgar Square and chasing our heroes in front of Big Ben without any need for greenscreen. Barbara desperately pushing a wheelchair-bound companion up the streets with Daleks in hot pursuit is genuinely thrilling, only matched by the slow rise of the first Dalek from out of the waters of the Thames. The Dalek invasion offers a suitably horrifying view of Earth under the control of the Daleks, while also offering modern viewers a fascinating glimpse of now-historical 1960s London.

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Falling Skies

What if Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith hadn’t saved the world in the wake of the alien invasion in Independence Day? That’s more or less the core concept for this series, which ran for five seasons before concluding in 2015. At the beginning of the series, a violent alien invasion kills off much of Earth’s population, complete with huge spaceships that are more or less a straight cross between the enormous hovering UFOs of Independence Day and the Martian tripods (though here they have four legs instead of three) from War Of The Worlds.

The show follows a group of survivors and their attempts to resist the now-ensconced alien invaders. This includes tackling classic problems including humans who have been taken over by the aliens alongside more complex plot developments involving rebel forces within the aliens’ attack force. The series is led by Noah Wyle (him off The Librarians and ER) and has a pretty decent special effects budget for TV. Thanks to advances in CGI, it’s a lot easier to do a convincing alien invasion with convincingly rendered non-humanoid aliens these days, and this show takes full advantage of that, to impressive visual effect.

Stargate SG-1, ‘2010’

There were several alien attacks on Earth and attempted invasions over the course of Stargate SG-1’s 10-year run, some more spectacular (Nemesis), some quieter, in more fun and low-key episodes (Foothold). This episode stands out largely because the method of invasion is quite unexpected, and the invasion itself is almost entirely successful, and only defeated using time travel (which is cheating, really!).

2010 was made in the long-ago year 2000, when anything looking forward into the new millennium seemed exciting in itself. However, it came with a warning, as all was not well in this Earth’s future. It turns out that the apparently friendly and helpful – and, importantly, long-lived – alien group the Aschen are very slowly killing off the human race by making almost all humans infertile, and then simply waiting until all the humans die and the planet is theirs. It’s a fiendishly clever and very effective plan, and it takes a moving sacrifice from all our heroes to correct it.

Threshold

Threshold was a sadly short-lived 2005-6 series – only thirteen episodes, four of them unaired. It was produced by Star Trek’s Brannon Braga but what really stands out is its impressive cast. Headed up by The Haunting Of Hill House’s Carla Gugino, the regulars include Brent Spiner, Peter Dinklage and Rob Benedict.

Threshold views alien invasion through the perspective of Gugino’s government consultant in contingency plans for worst case scenarios. Having expected to be called in due to an epidemic or nuclear war, Gugino’s Dr Caffrey is rather surprised when it’s her plan for dealing with alien first contact that has her called to Washington in the middle of the night and briefed even before the President. The series starts to develop some the usual plot developments, such as humans being assimilated and becoming aliens, before it was sadly cut short. Spiner’s microbiologist owes a clear debt to his similarly employed character from Independence Day, Benedict’s engineer has a lot in common with the early days of his Chuck Shurley from Supernatural, and Dinklage’s mathematician is Tyrion Lannister with an American accent. In other words, it may not have been a hit with audiences but it’s great fun.

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The Twilight Zone, ‘Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?’

In terms of quality, The Invaders might seem a clear pick for a great Twilight Zone episode about alien invasion. Most of the episode plays out without dialogue, as Agnes Moorehead fights off tiny invaders in a classic (but tiny) saucer-style spaceship. However, the twist ending (spoiler ahead!) reveals that the invaders are not aliens, but a US Air Force team from the future. How they travelled back in time or got shrunk is never explained, but they are neither aliens nor invaders, and for this list, we’ve tended to stick to invasions by actual non-human space aliens who attack Earth with malicious intent.

Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? is much cheesier than The Invaders, with its focus on aliens identifiable by their three arms or three eyes and thoroughly tongue-in-cheek tone. However, it’s a fun little story. It also comes with a twist – in this case, the twist doesn’t have the classic gut-punch of The Invaders’ much-imitated conclusion, but it is an entertaining flip of the story and brings up a good point. Thanks to HG Wells and whoever named the Red Planet after the Roman god of war, we all tend to worry about Martians invading, but there are other unexplored planets in our solar system…

Doctor Who (New), ‘Doomsday’

Oddly enough, one of New Who’s most memorable Earth invasion stories also saw the departure of the rebooted series’ first female companion, which may have been a deliberate homage to The Dalek Invasion Of Earth on the part of Russell T Davis. It even features the Daleks again, though in this case they are not the only alien invaders; both Daleks and Cybermen attack the Earth at the same time, before turning on each other.

Now it’s fair to say that the Cybermen should, in theory, be discounted as these Cybermen are “upgraded” humans from another dimension, not space aliens. But the Daleks are most definitely aliens and they are the far more successful invaders. The face-off between Daleks and Cybermen may be a bit silly and feel a bit like enthusiastic fan fiction, but it is no less joyous for that, as four Daleks tell an army of Cybermen that destroying them is not war, but pest control. The main aim of invading Earth is almost forgotten as we watch them deal with each other – but unfortunately for Rose and the Doctor, the Earth still needed saving, and these days companions are most likely to sacrifice themselves in some way than run off and get married…

Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘The Best Of Both Worlds’

Technically, the Borg don’t get as far as Earth in this invasion attempt (they would have to wait until the film Star Trek: First Contact for that) but they are clearly invading Earth’s area of space with the intention of invading Earth and assimilating its inhabitants, so it seems fair to include this attempt. This two-parter is also one of the top contenders for the best episode of The Next Generation all together, so it’s always worth watching.

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While this space-battle-based invasion may look different to the more common spaceships-landing or alien infiltrators, this two-parter does feature one classic trope of alien invasion stories. Locutus of Borg does not infiltrate Starfleet – he stands out a bit too much for that – but he does represent the classic alien invaders’ method of turning an Earthling into one of their own. It’s easy to forget that in their first appearance (in ‘Q Who?’), the Borg do not assimilate anyone, nor do they ever suggest they intend to do so (they threaten “punishment”, but no assimilation). The development of the Borg’s entire modus operandi in later Star Trek instalments across the franchise is partly thanks to the use of that particular invasion trope in their attempted invasion of Earth(‘s star system) in this two-parter, and to that fantastically chilling cliff-hanger in which we see Picard transformed into Locutus and fired on by his own First Officer.

The Simpsons, ‘Treehouse Of Horror VII’

Green many-tentacled alien duo Kodos and Kang have appeared in several Simpsons episodes over the years, but this one was probably their sharpest and most memorable appearance, as well as their most successful invasion. This was the third story in Treehouse Of Horror VII, the seventh collection of short horror stories for Halloween (following a story about Bart’s evil twin and one about Lisa becoming the goddess of a miniature civilization).

During the Presidential election race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996, Kang and Kodos take them over. Eventually, the alien intruders are revealed, but by then they have already been chosen as the Republican and Democrat nominees for the Presidential election and the public are forced to choose between them, leaving one of them President no matter what. When someone suggests voting for someone else this is greeted with the usual suggestion that it would be throwing your vote away, and the pair end up running the United States. The political satire is still sharp, though the individual politicians may have faded into the background now, and it’s Kodos and Kang’s most entertaining invasion attempt, as well as their most successful.

Agents Of Shield, Season 5

As alien invasion storylines go, it’s fair to say this one is unusual. It only just qualifies as an invasion of Earth, since Earth has been mostly destroyed and it’s the remnants of the planet that have been conquered by the blue-skinned Kree. Because the story is also about time travel, although our heroes do start a rebellion in the conquered future, they actually end up focusing on preventing the invasion rather than fighting it off, and taking certain actions in the show’s present that will change the timeline in such a way that the invasion never happens.

The episodes set in the dystopian future in which the remains of Earth are under the rule of the Kree are very well done and offer a nice change of pace. With Avengers: Infinity War on the horizon it’s surprising that the series didn’t stay there all season to avoid clashing with it, but returning to the present allows them to play with some classic timey-wimey tropes as well, and do it well. There are deaths of varying degrees of permanence, a wedding, a unique family connection, and the moment when poor Yoyo’s bad future starts to catch up to her is genuinely shocking. This may look a bit different from other alien invasions, but it’s just as much worth your time.

Arrowverse crossover: ‘Invasion!’

Supergirl, ‘Medusa’; The Flash, ‘Invasion!’; Arrow, ‘Invasion!’; Legends Of Tomorrow, ‘Invasion!’

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The Arrowverse has done several crossover events, but for the first to cross over four series, and an event that incorporated Arrow’s 100th episode, they went all out with an alien-invasion-of-Earth storyline. Between bringing an impressive team of characters together and bringing back some Arrow characters for their 100th episode celebrations, this was the big DC team-up we’ve all been waiting for (and a lot more fun than the big-screen effort in Justice League).

The actual alien invasion is a fairly standard plot – spaceship lands, aliens (the Dominators) emerge, they’ve already visited in the 1950s and now they’re back to wreak havoc, and so on. The inclusion of Supergirl is a nice touch though (who better to help fight aliens than a different alien?) and the whole thing was generally better received than some of the earlier crossovers. Alien invasion is the perfect storyline to bring together a large group of super-powered characters, and there’s even an Avengers-like team hero shot to enjoy as well.

Read our spoiler-filled review of The War Of The Worlds episode one here.