Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Android Invasion written by Terry Nation and directed by Barry Letts

This story in a nutshell: A creepy village, androids, doppelgangers and viruses…all par for the course in a Terry Nation script!

Teeth and Curls: Yay, the Doctor likes ginger pop. So do I, it’s really tasty stuff. For the most part there is something very subdued about Tom Baker’s performance in this story (it might have something to do with him swallowing copious amounts of pond water and getting a nasty throat infection for his trouble). It’s not a bad turn by any means and he still gets to be a man of action and wit but it does seem that the action content has been increased to spare his (clearly weak) voice. If it wasn’t bad enough that Styggron looks like walking mutilated mutton but the big showdown between him and the Doctor is further reduced because poor Tom Baker can hardly get his lines out. It’s certainly not up there with the other big confrontations in season thirteen (‘Loose thinking Broton’, ‘Then I abase you Sutekh…’, ‘Chop Suey the Galactic Emperor!’, ‘Careful I noticed a little green fly here and there…’). Watching the android Doctor firing a pistolgave me the shivers. It’s just wrong.

Investigative Journalist: Poor Sarah, it would seem that whenever there is an incline to fall down, she is earmarked for the privilege. At least this one looks steeper and more dangerous than the little hillock in The Five Doctors even if the actual falls looks just as daft. It’s nice to have the Doctor and Sarah materialise in a location that the latter has visited before and not the former. It’s a subtle reminder that Sarah had a life before she met the Doctor and she travelled about a lot with her work. Dialogue is not always Terry Nation’s strong point and this is one of those stories (like Revenge of the Cybermen) where Sarah is made to state the obvious and say stupid things all the time (‘we’ve been walking around in the middle of it like a couple of nanas!’). Elisabeth Sladen rises to the occasion as usual and imbues the script with more conviction than it is worth at times. If you want an example of how naturalistic Sladen could be in the role even in the most absurd of situations then check out how she handles the suspicious questions of the villagers when the Doctor leaves her in the pub (‘I’m sure you shouldn’t be drinking so soon after breaking your neck!’). Nation knows all the clichés – during a particularly fraught moment Sarah twists her ankle and has to be hoiked up a tree therefore splitting her and the Doctor up and setting up the cliffhanger.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let’s try the pub’ – Tom Baker’s personality slips into the story.
‘Is that finger loaded?’
‘Strange, a village without a future?’
‘I left you up a tree!’
‘I feel disorientated’ ‘This is the disorientation centre’ ‘That makes sense.’

The Good:

  • When Barry Letts talks about Terry Nation’s writing and admits that as a novelist he would be a page turner what he means is that he is the undisputed master of the set piece in Doctor Who. His scripts might not be the most intelligently written nor populated with the most multi-faceted characters but by golly can the man write action and mystery well. Nowhere is this more apparent in the first episode of The Android Invasion which is practically one long set piece as we are drawn into the mystery of this sleepy village, its bizarre occupants and the nearby Space Centre. The opening of the UNIT soldier committing suicide by jumping off a cliff in front of the Doctor and Sarah (awesomely shot in slow motion) immediately gets the audience asking questions whilst proving something very exciting, shocking and memorable to watch. The mysteries soon start piling up. Why does it smell like Earth after a thunderstorm when the ground is bone dry? Who are the masked individuals with weapons in their fingers? Why is the village deserted? Why is all the money freshly minted and all dated the same year? Why are the villages behaving in a pre-programmed fashion? Who is the UNIT soldier still alive? Why does the calendar only have one date? Let’s face it if this was a book you were reading you would be flicking through those pages at a rate of knots with this many intriguing mysteries to solve. What Terry Nation has struck upon is a fantastically creepy idea (the village that time forgot) which doesn’t cost a fortune to produce but still looks expensive and visually interesting on screen. The scene where the villagers all take their places in the pub and sit/stand stock still until the clock chimes and then go about their business like a normal social crowd is really unnerving. Scenes of the Doctor being shot across the roof of the Space Centre might feel like they have sprung out of the Pertwee era but that is no bad thing and it is very exciting all the same.
  • Dudley Simpson is having a field day with this story just as he did with the majority of the Hinchcliffe era, which offered him his juiciest material to score. The opening sequence sounds like the entire band is having a fit but it sure jolts you into the story with a start. He is having great fun writing music for the chase sequences in episode one and favours the piano which is marvellous because I think that is the instrument where he is at his best (The Seeds of Death, City of Death).
  • If there is one thing that classic Doctor Who does well it is leafy green location work. There are so many stunning parks and areas of woodland around the country and the show really took advantage of that over the years. Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendhal, Castrovalva, The Visitation, The Mysterious Planet…it would seem that whenever Doctor Who needed a break from a quarry it would head to the nearest forest for some fresh visuals. The location work in The Android Invasion is one of it’s most favourable features and the opening sequences really capture that feeling of exploring the woods on a lazy, sunny afternoon with friends. The filming in and around the village of East Hagbourne is even better and I don’t think the production team could have chosen a better location to capture that post-Avengers sinister village atmosphere. 
  • An evacuated village due to a radiation crisis is such a gripping idea that it’s a shame that what is actually going on (a duplicate village as a prelude to an alien invasion) is so disappointing.
  • Milton Johns is always good value (so much so that he would be back in a couple of seasons playing a very different sort of turncoat) but has his work cut out for him to make a character like Guy Crayford convince the audience. To his credit he succeeds but the way the Kraals are presented in this story (especially the way they bully and cajole him) it is hard to buy into why he ever believed them in the first place. Johns has a natural air of sympathy and tragedy about him (he reminds me of Leonard Rossiter in that respect…in fact he looks a bit like Rossiter too) which really comes into effect as he fights with his conscience throughout. It’s only when it comes to his missing eye when the story really lets him down and it would take an actor of rare distinction to pull that scene off with conviction.
  • The cliffhanger to episode two works so well because the Doctor knows from the off that he is walking into a trap (the telephone being connected and disconnected instantly, Sarah’s scarf) and so the pointers that this is a duplicitous sequence is for the audiences sake only. Kids must have been screaming at their televisions for the Doctor not to be so stupid (there are so many clues including the biggest of all - the ginger pop - that the script has to point out that their easy reunion has been deliberately planned to see how intelligent they are). I love the cheeky assertion that the entire village, including the gorgeous exteriors, is all one big stage set to practice out an alien invasion on. It’s another idea that suggests a massive budget when barely a penny has been spent. Those Kraal designers have done a fantastic job, they could go in for landscape design if they ever fancy a change of vocation from planetary invasion. If Hinchcliffe was looking to promote really strong cliffhangers then episode two does a smashing job. It must have been utterly destabilising to young kids to see Sarah Jane pull a gun on the Doctor, to watch them tussle and then for her face to drop away and reveal the bulging eyeballs and blank circuitry beneath. It’s in moments like this when The Android Invasion scores biggest hits. 
  • It is very unlike Doctor Who to introduce a spanking new location (especially one as impressive as the Space Centre control set) in the last episode. Usually all the money has been spent by this point.
  • The one scene that really worked in the last episode for me was the Doctor on Doctor fight sequence which was very nicely directed so for a moment it genuinely looks as if there are two Tom Baker’s grappling on screen.
 The Bad:

  • The sets for the interiors are actually very good but the transference from video to film somehow feels more obvious in this adventure than in many others. The location work is so sumptuous and glossy that the cut to the flat video look of the studio work really jars.
  • The location shooting around the Space Centre is as strong as it everywhere else in this story (did they allocate more OB work on this story...it seems to be packed full of the stuff?) but the effects shot of the giant ariel stuck on its side looks a bit shabby. Although I was pleased when the Sarah Jane Adventures offered an homage to its unwieldiness in The Last Sontaran. I just wish it could have been the same Centre. 
  • The Kraals. Yeah, not one of Doctor Who’s finest moments when it comes to monsters. Rubbery humanoid rhinos fronted by a scientist who sounds like he smokes 200 a day and a soldier that does a pretty good impression of George from Rainbow. Their incessant squabbling is reminiscent of similar disagreements in the ranks between the Dominators (and we all know how well that turned out) and their plan to take over the Earth is so riddled with holes and overly complicated that you have to wonder if this perhaps isn’t their ideal field after all. Humpbacked aliens are never a great idea (they look really comical lumbering about their spaceship) but it is the masks that really let them down because the actors are constantly fighting the rubber and glue to strain a performance through the immovable features. Only Big Finish in their great plundering of continuity would be desperate enough to bring this race of losers back.
  • I’m not sure what is the daftest scene. I’ll name them all and you decide. Sarah being trapped in the strangle dance, the cumbersome and unrealistic restraints she is placed in, her falling down a cliff and spraining her ankle, the waltz that the UNIT duplicate and Styggron indulge in before the former falls all over the set in an apoplectic fit, Styggron giving the Doctor a neck massage (he's obviously taken lessons from the Cyberleader), goggle eyed android Sarah sitting up and shooting at the Doctor, the horrific way Sarah pulls back her cheeks to suggest she is experiencing G-force at the end of episode three, the silvery rocket model suddenly becoming a much more convincing one as we leap to stock footage or Styggron’s face turning to snot in the final episode. It’s a hard one to call.
  • Why suggest that Brigadier is going to appear when that was never going to be the case? Surely that just invites disappointment?
  • It has been pointed out that this story has a great deal in common with Terror of the Zygons and despite having a very different tone when you boil them down to their constituent elements they are remarkably similar. Aliens staging a takeover of the Earth, using duplicates of human beings to take over key positions, a bug in the pub, a doppelganger of the one of the Doctor’s companions, an exploding spaceship, favouring a less subtle method when the first plan fails (the Skarasen/the plague), Whilst Barry Letts’ handling of this story is more than adequate for the most part (especially the excellent location work), he is no Douglas Camfield (who directs the hell out of Zygons, possibly the ultimate polish from script to screen) and so comparisons are definitely not in this story’s favour. The design work of the aliens and their spaceship were one of the major strengths of Zygons whereas it is one of the greatest weaknesses here.
  • Bizarrely Crayford goes from wanting the Doctor and Sarah kept alive to wanting them destroyed to wanting to convince them of Styggron’s benevolence all in one episode. It’s not the greatest of character consistency. Even Styggron points this out at one point.
  • Only in a Terry Nation script would anybody say ‘I’ve found out their whole plan!’ And ‘I will now activate the hostility circuits!’ I'm suprised Holmes let them slip through the net. 
  • Surely Crayford would wonder why Styggron needs to mastermind such a complicated scheme to make their presence known on the Earth? If they are as harmless as they claim to be why can’t they just turn up and say hello? Does he really think that they are only going to take over the Northern hemisphere and live in peace with the humans? Had Crayford been brainwashed as the Doctor suggests rather than falling for their not-so-convincing spiel then a lot of these questions could have been avoided.
  • If Styggron is such an accomplished scientist couldn’t he create a virus that only attacks humans but leaves his own race unaffected? Would Space Control really not make the connection between Crayford’s rocket returning and the sudden spate of meteorites that are falling to the Earth? It takes an administration of some density to see that as a happy co-incidence. 
  • The use of Harry and Benton here might have been fun had this not have been their final appearance in the series. As such it is a waste of both actors and proves to be a cruddy swansong for the pair of them. Especially dear Harry who had a much better departure in Terror of the Zygons already. And Benton without the Brigadier is just weird.
  • They might have been touted as spectacular replicants but ultimately all you need to do is flash a red light, wave a power cable in their direction and flick a switch to disable or destroy the androids. Hardly the most compelling invasion force the Earth has ever faced.
  • Colonel Faraday is probably the least convincing authority figure we have ever seen in Doctor Who. And that is up against some pretty stiff competition that includes Walker Parliamentary Under Secretary, Tryst and his CET machine and Bayeuss leader of the Lakertyans. A rotund, ruddy-cheeked military caricature without two brain cells to rub together. He’s just there to…actually I don’t know why he is there since he adds so little to the story. It shows you the sort of bird brained ingrate we could have ended up with as the Brigadier if Nicholas Courtney hadn’t taken such care with the role.
  • The rocket on top of mission control looks rather like Mr Spoon’s rocket once it has landed on Button Moon. Come on now kids, join in with that nice Peter Davison: ‘We’re off to Button Moon, we’ll follow Mr Spoon…Button Moooooon….’ Sorry about that.
  • I know it is an old anecdote of Barry Letts’ and I hate to be obvious but it doesn’t make any sense that all the androids are switched off and the Doctor duplicate still works. At least it gives some credence to Steven Moffat’s repetitive use of sending in a fake eleventh Doctor to face his foes (The Wedding of River Song, The Bells of Saint John) – even the fourth Doctor isn’t immune!
The Shallow Bit: Crayford’s jeans are so tight that it is no surprise that his voice gets a bit squeaky at times.

Result: A fantastic first episode leads into a disappointing Hinchcliffe tale that gets steadily worse with each episode and climaxes on what is probably the weakest installment of the period. Doctor Who has been known to climax on a bum note after a strong start but the nosedive in quality in The Android Invasion is second to none. It might be Barry Letts’ finest direction for the series with some stunning location photography, terrific action sequences, sophisticated use of the camera and trickery (high and low angles to create drama and menace, slow motion sequences) and a fantastic pace throughout. The trouble is he can only bring to life the story as written and so he has to realise all the horrendous flaws inherent in the script (including an atrociously plotted invasion of Earth, some blatantly sexist characterisation of Sarah and story full of twists that…well aren’t) and the resulting story is a baffling mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, often veering between the two in the same scene. The multiple mysteries from the first episode soon drop away and Uncle Terry starts falling back into bad habits, the second half of the story is one cliché after another (doppelgangers, viruses and meteorites all get their moment in the sun). By the final episode I was asking as many questions as I was about the mysteries of the initial episode…but this time at the gaps in logic, the absurdity of the plot turns and stupidity of the characters. The Android Invasion has some great scenes and stunning location work but ultimately it all falls to pieces in second half and becomes something of an unwatchable mess. Entertaining but flawed beyond belief: 5/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

Holmes can't save them all. ;)

Alex Wilcock said...

I’ve been gorging on your reviews for the last month – I chose August to do a massive catch-up on Big Finish (the whole of Jago & Litefoot, 26 Hex-Evelyns, and so on) and yours were the ones I kept coming back to to see what someone else thought after each one. So, now my rate of consumption’s calmed down and you’ve been doing the year where little me starting watching Who, aged 3, I thought I’d jump in with my first comment. Other than to say ‘Thank you’.

I realise The Android Invasion’s an odd place to pop in on, but it happened to be what you were on today, and I’m curiously fond of it. I did find myself agreeing with almost every word, though! I can’t think of a better one-line summary than your “Entertaining but flawed beyond belief”: all right, so I once composed a list of thirty separate plot holes in it, but the first part of that’s important, too. I suppose the only parts on which I mildly disagree are that I’d say Barry’s direction is much more variable, and that “all the androids are switched off and the Doctor duplicate still works” has never bothered me: it doesn’t “still” work, after all. We see it switched off, then the Doctor obviously switches it back on again. So it’s all the rest that falls to bits.

I did write an in-depth review of my own, which like yours is an interesting challenge for a story with almost no depth to it. It’s part of my review of the Doctor Who – UNIT Files Box Set, in which I’m afraid I’m also rather less generous to Invasion of the Dinosaurs than you are but do look at the gay subtext that I was surprised you didn’t (perhaps because it’s more blatant in the novel). Though it’s only in the comments that I discovered the ‘guest bit part’ they both have in common was a famous male stripper…

I do have my theories about why this story is ignored more of the two, and why it was probably ignored more by the production team at the time: in short, not only is there less that goes wrong or right with this than Dinosaurs, but it’s in a bigger run of quality than the previous year, so there’s less incentive to mine for the interesting bits – and I reckon Philip and Bob thought Barry and Terry were safe pairs of hands. I manage to find a fair bit to say about it too, though, from the terrific chemistry between the Doctor and Sarah Jane that makes it all worthwhile, to my own silly location shots, even to what little fixes Uncle Terrance applies in the book.

Anyway, thank you for the reviews – I’ll carry on reading, and I’m agog at your industry. I could never write so much, so coherently, so quickly! For me, one of the three has to give, and it’s always speed, so I’m a great admirer of your incredible – but very readable – turnover.

Joe Ford said...

Alex, thank you so much for your wonderful comment and analysis. You flatter me far above and beyond my ability but I just wanted to pop up and say thanks and that your comment came in the middle of a particularly busy day and really made me smile. I will write back in more depth about the points you have raised when I have some time to compose my thoughts. Thanks again, you're a charmer.

Alex Wilcock said...

Oh, my pleasure! And I didn't even say you were a cutie ;)

You've cheered me up in turn after an especially crapulent day. So let the love-in continue.

Liam Morrell said...

The first episode does start well but the story just falls off a cliff after that. Watching it a second time, I was actually annoyed at how terry nation sets up a good concept, adds layers of mystery which actually never makes any sense. Why are there android villagers? They aren't key figures. Why did they go to the trouble of printing a calander and then make them all read the same day? The Kraals didn't even test their plague on humans before invading. Aside from some good direction (there are some seriously dodgy bits too) and Tom and Elizabeth doing their best, I'd say this could be the worst 4th doctor story.