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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Invasion” (Episodes 1-4)

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"The Invasion" (season 6, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Nov. 2-Dec. 21, 1968)

Doctor Who in the 1960s often made wild swings in tone from one serial to the next, but there's few transitions quite as drastic as the one between the whimsical, surreal fantasyland of "The Mind Robber" and the stylish, modern action thriller of "The Invasion." And the two shows were opposites in another way too: "The Mind Robber" was a side trip into a cul-de-sac, a fascinating but ultimately abandoned celebration of Doctor Who as pure childrens'-literature fantasy, which its creative staff knew was on the way out even while they were making it. But "The Invasion" was the future, in a very consciously planned way. Teaming the Doctor with the no-nonsense Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his anti-alien military taskforce UNIT, and taking place in (more-or-less) contemporary London, "The Invasion" was essentially a proof-of-concept trial run for the grittier, more grounded Earthbound stories that dominated Third Doctor Jon Pertwee's era. It's therefore both fitting and ironic that the villains here are the Cybermen, Doctor Who's most potent symbol of modern technology run amok, since they never actually faced off against the Third Doctor when the UNIT era became official.


Clocking in at eight parts, "The Invasion" is one of the longest stories in Who history. (And because of that, I'm splitting my writeup into two columns, with the second part coming next week.) The sheer length is undoubtedly the story's biggest flaw, because there's no real reason why it requires the equivalent running time of two feature films. I can't say I was ever bored watching these first four episodes, which counts in their favor, but there's an awful lot of contrivance, drawn-out scenes, and running back and forth between locations with one group of characters just missing the other group. A more ruthless script could have done the same thing in half the time.

Watching this story in two halves also throws into sharp relief just how long the story drags out the climactic shock of the Cybermen's first appearance. There are plenty of hints and breadcrumbs scattered beforehand—for one thing, the Doctor is especially irritated by technology, becoming more vocally frustrated than usual when the TARDIS breaks down, and yelling "Shut up, you stupid machine!" at an automated answering service with a surprisingly large role in the first episode. In fact, it's not until the last five seconds of Episode Four that the story's nominal major villains actually show up. The Cybermen were at their peak popularity in the late '60s, with this story marking their fifth appearance in three years, so keeping them such a secret here to generate buzz makes sense—it's problematic only because four episodes is an absurdly long time to keep them under wraps. They'll be a considerably larger presence in the second half.


This early section is dominated instead by a human villain, Tobias Vaughn—the ruthless, mysterious head of a corporation called International Electromatics, who's playing a double game of his own, working with his still-unseen allies to prepare an invasion but making little secret of the fact that he plans to betray them. Actor Kevin Stoney had played a similarly traitorous character, Mavic Chen, in the earlier "The Daleks' Master Plan," and here he again picks up the crucial role of the bad guy who gives his team something more charismatic than the expressionless aliens possibly can, and putting a human face on the danger that the Cybermen represent. With a lesser actor in place, the over-stretched plot would have been a lot less interesting, but Stoney creates one of the great villains of the black-and-white era. Vaughn's hissable, overbearing arrogance and unexpectedly intense rages would have made him a decent James Bond foe—and I don't doubt that the producers wanted to make their audience think of Ernst Stavro Blofeld with Vaughn's megalomania and penchant for employing gun-toting goons to defend his secret base, where he keeps a crisply modernist office furnished with the kind of sliding wall panel where Blofeld would have kept his scotch and his poison blowdarts. Vaughn also has some traits that seem weirdly mechanical—he doesn't blink often enough, and he has a penchant for giving orders with ruthlessly precise deadlines. But his office itself provides the biggest hint of what he really is—he's duplicated his London office down to the last detail in his secret HQ, calling it  "the very essence of business efficiency." Of course, it's also an excuse for the producers to re-use the same set and save money on production. But it's a slightly unnerving hint at Vaughn's cold, almost robotic eccentricity. Instead of blowdarts, Vaughn keeps a large crystalline computer behind the secret panel—it's the "Cyber-Director," providing Vaughn with a direct line to the Cybermen, but, again, it's actual identity is kept deliberately obscure. All we know so far is that it seems to think it's Vaughn's superior, an idea the human disdainfully rejects by closing the secret panel on it while it's still talking, and later arguing about whether the Doctor should be killed less because he objects to the idea than because arguing about it is an assertion of his own authority.

Given that "The Invasion" sets up the Third Doctor era's alien-advisor-to-UNIT premise, it comes across as a little bit strange today—it's basically a Third Doctor story starring what I can't quite help thinking of as the "wrong" Doctor. In that, it's similar to the Fourth Doctor's debut in "Robot," but there's a major difference in intent. In "Robot," the switch from Pertwee to Tom Baker was deliberately thrown into sharp relief by sticking the new guy into the old guy's formula to see how he defied expectations. That helped ease the transition into the next series of shows, which changed things up much more drastically. But "The Invasion" wasn't consciously playing games like that—although this was the gateway into the UNIT era, I don't think anyone was thinking about this show as a way to set up a contrast between the Second and Third Doctors. That was a job for "Spearhead From Space." Instead, we get Troughton operating in his usual freewheeling, independent style—at least, for these first four episodes. We'll see how things might change in the second half, but so far, the Second Doctor seems to view Lethbridge-Stewart's military organization mainly as a useful source of information and resources, not as an actual partner. He's also far less antagonistic toward the Brigadier, which is a function both of the situation—unlike Pertwee's Doctor, he's not being forced to work with UNIT—and also of the Second Doctor's particularly whimsical form of rebellion. When he's cornered by UNIT soldiers who have orders to bring him in, he doesn't struggle or argue, he just sits on the curb and pulls out a pack of cards, playing solitaire rather than take them seriously. That's the perfect antithesis of a purely logical computer, of course, and I don't think I'm imagining it that the clownish traits of the Troughton Doctor are especially prevalent in "The Invasion." It's something like the way the Joker is Batman's opposite, chaos vs. order, and the gentlemanly, urbane Third Doctor would have been a far less comfortable fit in the role. Two's buffoonery (aided by Troughton's silly but endearing ad-lib request for a pattycake biscuit with his tea) work all the better to differentiate him from both the Cybermen and the orderly military mindset of the Brigadier. Of course, lines like "I hate computers and refuse to be bullied by them" are about as subtle as a Mack truck in stating that theme, but I love the idea that Vaughn finds what might be a secret weapon to use against the Cybermen in the illogically-designed TARDIS computer chips he steals from the Doctor. Even his ship is an agent of chaos.

Stray observations

• It was kind of nice to see the Doctor sabotage an elevator with an ordinary knife instead of the sonic screwdriver, which I don't think the writers had invented yet, let alone allowed it to become the overused pocket-sized plot device it is now.


• The first thing you notice about "The Invasion" is that for a good portion of the story—episodes one and four, to be precise—it's a cartoon. That's because this is one of the stories affected by the old BBC policy of erasing old videotapes that they thought had no further value, which was particularly devastating to the late-'60s era of Who—only about half a dozen of Patrick Troughton's serials survive in complete form. Although some were rediscovered later, like "Tomb of the Cybermen," it's unlikely any others will turn up in some lost archive of tapes. But since scripts, still photos, and audiotapes survive for almost every missing episode, bringing them back to life via computer re-animation is possible—"The Invasion" got the treatment in 2006, and the First Doctor's "The Reign of Terror" is slated for a recreation in 2012. They're fairly simple and bare-bones reconstructions, but it's hard to find fault with them considering the circumstances. I don't doubt that a lot of nuance from the original actors' live-action performances has been lost—Troughton was always great at throwing in little unexpected gestures here and there that brought the story to life. The re-animated episodes aren't able to dazzle like a Hayao Miyazaki production, but they make smart use of their limited resources and do the job of telling the story clearly and efficiently.


• "The Invasion" and its predecessor "The Web of Fear" are also at the heart of the so-called "UNIT dating controversy," a longrunning debate over when the stories featuring UNIT actually took place. For causal Who viewers, it's most easily explained this way: You don't really need to worry about it, and it's kind of irresolvable anyway. In a nutshell, the problem is that "Web of Fear," which introduced the Brig, was broadcast in 1968 but set in 1975 as a near-future sci-fi story. "The Invasion" is set four years later, making the date 1979. That would therefore mean that the entire Third Doctor era and a good portion of the shows afterwards also take place a few years ahead of the TV viewing audience's present. But the Who writers and production team were never very committed to that idea, supporting it half-heartedly at best and often contradicting it. The whole problem pretty much vanishes if you ignore the two or three offhand lines of dialogue in "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" that place the stories in their viewers' future. For the most part, it's much easier to treat any particular story featuring UNIT as taking place the same year it was produced—and the chronology never affects anything major in the overarching storyline, so it's not really very important unless you want to figure out how UNIT might sync up with the non-fictional reality outside the TV. Which I can't imagine is a big deal for any Who fan these days. I'm only writing about it now in case there's any new fans out there who might run across the phrase "UNIT dating controversy" elsewhere and wonder about it. Personally, I think the existence of Zoe, who comes from a year 2000 where people live on space stations orbiting the Moon, pretty much kills the idea that you can sync up Who history with reality in any meaningful way. And in any case, a slight confusion about chronology is nothing compared to the whole River-Song-and-all-that business in the current series, which I'm increasingly suspecting is less about creating a grand multi-year plot with an awesome payoff, and more about throwing mysteries at the viewers until we lose track of the details so that they never need to be explained. (I've seen Lost, I've seen The X-Files. I'd rather not get fooled again, thanks.)

• Around the time "The Invasion" was broadcast, Frazer Hines, who played the companion Jamie, made a stab at musical stardom with an album called Who's Doctor Who. Here are two tracks from it, presented (out of kindness to Hines) without critical commentary:

• Next time: We finish up "The Invasion" with episodes 5-8.
• Oct. 16: "Terror of the Autons"
• Oct. 23: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"
• Oct. 31: "Kinda"
• Nov. 6: "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"
• Nov. 13: "The War Games," episodes 1-5
• Nov. 20: "The War Games," episodes 6-10
• And coming up after that, "The Silurians," "City of Death," and visits to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctor eras in episodes to be named later.