Sunday, January 22, 2012

Doctor Who: The Android Invasion

If you’ve followed my classic Doctor Who ramblings over the years, you’ll know that I make no secret of my intense feelings for the Philip Hinchcliffe-produced and Robert Holmes-script edited era, particularly the latter two seasons, which more or less amount to the greatest straight run of stories the series ever produced. But the time has finally come to address the “more or less” part, which basically adds up to the “The Android Invasion” – a fly in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes ointment.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive in a quiet English village, which Sarah recognizes as Devesham, as she’d been there for a story a couple years earlier, involving the nearby Space Defence Station and missing astronaut Guy Crayford (Milton Johns). But Devesham is too quiet. The town seems deserted, and when the time travelling duo finally spies a person – a UNIT soldier – he’s freaking out and committing suicide by jumping over the side of a cliff. Upon inspecting the body, they find his pockets full of freshly minted coins all from the same year, and clearly all is not what it seems. A race known as the Kraals has a devious, if not entirely original plan for an invasion of Earth.

For the uninitiated I won’t delve into story details much further, because the mid-story twist might sort of work for some people, even if I find it to be largely unengaging. No points will be awarded for guessing that the Kraal invasion involves androids, and the title of the serial is somewhat emblematic of its bigger problems: the whole thing just seems rather ordinary, or it descends into a sort of tedium as it moves along, anyway. Episode One is actually rather nice, being an exploration of the oft-talked about “spooky English village” concept, but things start quickly falling apart in the second episode, and it’s as if the more you find out, the less you care to know.

The Kraals
Part of the problem stems from the villains, the Kraals, who don’t look all that bad until they have to move around and/or talk, at which time it becomes a little too apparent that they are men in rubber masks. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t feel like such generic aliens otherwise – these guys are about as middle of the road as Doctor Who gets, leaving the viewer filled with neither wonder nor disgust. Much the same can be said for Milton Johns’ Crayford, the wayward astronaut - a character in dire need of character.

Perhaps most lackluster of all is the whole android doppelganger thing (“Who’s the real Doctor?” or “Who’s the real Sarah?”), which is a thoroughly played out and well worn sci-fi trope, even if it was used as recently as the latest series in the Ganger two-parter. I guess for some people this gimmick still works, but I can go the rest of my pop culture-imbibing life without seeing any more of these types of stories. It’s also the final story for both Sgt. Benton (John Levene) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) and neither character ever gets to even remotely shine. Granted, nobody really knew these guys wouldn’t be back, but it’s something of a shame that they didn’t have better moments to exit on.     

“The Android Invasion” was written by Terry Nation and directed by Barry Letts, and it’s difficult to not point fingers in their directions, although if we’re being honest, Hinchcliffe and Holmes surely deserve some scolding as well. Nation wrote some great Doctor Who stories over the years – all of which featured the Daleks. He could write the hell out of the Daleks, but I’m not sure he was necessarily a great Doctor Who writer, and there is a difference. He only ever wrote two non-Dalek stories for the show – this one, and “The Keys of Marinus” way back in the first season. The end result of both would seem to back up that notion. Barry Letts probably deserves the least amount of criticism, as he seems to do a fair job given the script he was working with, but there’s no denying the series had moved forward considerably since he left his post as producer, and the new vision of the show was considerably different from his era. This story, in fact, would have been very much at home in a later Pertwee season, and it probably would’ve come off feeling less intrusive and more of a success.

Tom Baker signs autographs on location
I’ve probably been too hard on “The Android Invasion.” It feels a little bit like kicking a puppy around. It is by no means bad Doctor Who, as much as it is very average for this series. It’s a story bookended by excellent fare like “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Brain of Morbius,” so it’s difficult to not take it to task for its failures when so much of what surrounds it was breaking down barriers and challenging and redefining what the show could be. There’s no question that regardless of these criticisms, the story still has that same great chemistry between Baker and Sladen – apparently nothing can dim that light – and if a story has that, it most definitely has something worth checking out.

DVD Extras: The commentary features Milton Johns, Martin Friend (Styggron, the lead Kraal), Hinchcliffe, and Marion McDougal, who was a production assistant on this story. There’s a somewhat apologetic making of doc entitled “The Village That Came to Life” that runs for 30 minutes. The piece goes back to the village that the story was shot in, and interviews some folks who were there back in the 70s, which is pretty cool. “Life After Who – Philip Hinchcliffe,” hosted by his daughter, is another 30-minute piece that’s title is pretty self-explanatory. There’s a Weetabix commercial, which may be the coolest extra on here. Also, there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitle option, and Radio Times listings in PDF form, as well as bunches of Weetabix promo stuff that’s more loads of fun. Finally, there’s a coming soon trailer for “The Sensorites,” which comes out next month.