Saturday, January 14, 2012

Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs DVD review

In recent times, there seems to be a vague movement of sorts to reappraise “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” by not judging it on its technical merits, but rather on everything else. Fair enough, and this should be the case with many a classic Doctor Who story. But there’s also something about having the word “dinosaurs” in the title of anything that leads to preconceived notions of what you’re in for, and the dinosaurs is this story are quite possibly some of, if not the worst prehistoric beasties ever barely created for television. Never mind adults of today, it is in fact difficult to imagine the British children of ’74, weaned on a steady diet of bad CSO and maggots made from condoms, being at all convinced that what they were viewing on their screens was anything other than shoddy puppetry.

While there are loads of other aspects of this serial to admire, it’s tough to watch it without frequently feeling let down. A different title might’ve helped; “Operation Golden Age”? Or maybe just “Timescoop,” which was its original title. Either of those might have alleviated the heavy expectation that comes along with the title as is. Obviously, CGI didn’t exist in 1974, so it’s not a matter of the effects not looking as good as they would today, but it is a matter of them paling in comparison to something like Land of the Lost, which just so happened to have kicked off its freshman season the same year this Doctor Who serial was unveiled.

The Rubber T-Rex
So the dinosaurs suck, and unlike numerous other classic Who DVDs, this edition has not been afforded an alternate CGI upgrade, so we must make do with what we’re given. What else is there? Well, the apologists aren’t just whistling Dixie. “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is – tiny giant lizards notwithstanding – a tight, imaginative sci-fi pseudo mystery/sociopolitical commentary that unfolds wonderfully from one episode to the next. It had been well over 20 years since I’d last viewed it, so my memories going in were fuzzy to say the least. It almost felt like I was viewing it for the first time, and in the case of Episode One, I was. More on that later...

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) have returned from the Middle Ages only to find London deserted, save for the occasional looter, the military, and all manner of prehistoric creatures. It’s surmised by the Doctor that the dinosaurs are merely an excuse to force people to flee London (which, appropriately, is sort of what has happened over the years with viewers and this story) so that a greater evil can be carried out. It’s a bold, whacked plan called Operation Golden Age, rooted in some of the worst current sensibilities of both the Republican and Democratic parties here in the States, and perpetrated by scientists, politicians and the military.

One of these things is not like the others
Only the Doctor and his trusty colleagues at UNIT can save the day…wait a minute! Not so fast. Maybe his friends at UNIT aren’t so trustworthy after all? Yes, it’s true – one of our heroes has turned, and there’s a traitor in the midst, as is revealed in Part Two. (I won’t name the character, but anyone who checked out “Planet of the Spiders” last year will go, “Ahhhhh…now I see!”) If I had any major criticism of the story itself, it’d be that the reveal should’ve been held for later on in the tale, making the betrayal all the more heinous.

Another interesting tidbit: the final solution to the story’s predicament is some serious Russell T Davies 101. The bad guy shenanigans are halted due to some weird Time Lord power the Doctor possesses, which goes completely unexplained. Pertwee stops just short of saying “I’ll explain later.” Now if this was in a Davies or a Moffat script, I’d admittedly be all up in arms and crying foul, yet it’s just such a thoroughly unusual moment for this period that it must be given some due. Though it wasn’t the first time the series used a bit of Time Lord hocus pocus, it was certainly one of the most obvious instances up to this point.

The mysterious Malcolm Hulke turns in another fine script, mired in his strong political feelings, as he’d done numerous times before (i.e. “The Silurians,” “Frontier in Space,” and “Colony in Space”). I say mysterious because I think I’ve only ever seen that one photo of him, and since he passed away so long ago, all we really have to judge the man on is his work and the words of Terrance Dicks, who often seems to have an amusing “Mac” anecdote handy. Here, Dicks talks about some of the dissatisfaction Hulke felt over titling the first episode simply “Invasion,” which was decided upon at rather the last minute, in order to preserve the surprise of the dinosaurs, even though the Radio Times spoiled it anyway. This was not only Hulke’s final contribution to Doctor Who, it was very nearly the last thing he wrote for television, ever (IMDB gives him a co-writing credit on one episode of Crossroads later on in the same year).

The direction from Paddy Russell is a step or two above efficient (it’s not her fault the dinos look ridiculous; those effects were farmed out), and most impressive are the performances she pulls from the guest cast, which are of a higher standard than the norm. Most noteworthy are: John Bennett as General Finch, who would return to the series a few seasons later in a role for which he’d end up far more notoriously known, Li H’Sen Chang in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”; Noel Johnson as Charles Grover, who apparently played some famous radio character in the UK decades ago, but I know him best as the mad pub landlord of the Crow and Crown in Withnail and I; and Peter Miles, who would in the next season play Nyder, the majordomo for Davros in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Returning to the matter of the aforementioned Episode One, which up until this DVD, has been available to the public only in black and white for the last 30 some odd years, and that’s assuming it was available at all. (When I saw “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” back in the ‘80s on PBS, it was in the movie-length omnibus edition that omitted the first episode entirely!) Like all those missing Hartnell and Troughton episodes, “Invasion” (as the episode is simply titled) was wiped. For years the reason given for the wiping was that it was thought to be an episode of the Troughton story “The Invasion,” but here the extras reveal that wasn’t the case, and in fact orders were inexplicably given to wipe all six episodes of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (maybe after viewing the puppets, it was thought to be an issue of quality control?), but for some unexplained reason only the first episode suffered this fate. However, like most of the wiped Pertwee episodes, a black and white 16mm film print existed.

Screen Grab from the "color" Episode One
A couple years ago the process of color recovery was unveiled to the world of Doctor Who DVD with outstanding results via “Planet of the Daleks” Episode Three. This process was attempted once again on “Invasion,” however the results were decidedly lacking, and so both the attempted version (with what I guess is some extra colorization) and the black and white episode are presented here, with the disc defaulting to the black and white version. And that last point is unfortunate, too, because I really didn’t find the color version to be all that offensive. It’s by no means as good as the Dalek entry, but to me it looks like a colorized film, from back when the process was unveiled in the ‘80s - splotchy and imperfect, but not unwatchable. Oh, it would be if this material was shot to be presented in black and white, but that isn’t the case. That said, having viewed both black and white and imperfect color, I'll be watching the color version on future viewings. Given that much of the episode features empty London exteriors, it just comes off looking like a drab English afternoon. So it’s a minor shame that the viewer must activate the color episode from the Special Features menu, given that it comes much closer to giving a rounded viewing experience than the black and white version can ever hope to.

Useless Trivia: “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” features the debut of the Whomobile in Episode Four.

DVD Extras: In addition to the option to watch the first episode in color, Disc One features a lively rotating commentary track, moderated by Toby Hadoke, who in turns (and different combinations) gabs with Richard Franklin (Capt. Mike Yates), Peter Miles, Terence Wilton (Mark), designer Richard Morris, Terrance Dicks and Paddy Russell. Also on the first disc is a trailer for “The Sensorites,” which will be released next month, as well as the usual Production Notes Subtitle option, which has gotten quite a bit of press, as via this feature on this disc, it’s for the first time been revealed the name of the actress originally cast as Sarah Jane Smith.

Disc Two features a great half hour making of entitled “People, Power, and Puppetry,” a “Now and Then” featurette on the locations, a vintage clip of Jon Pertwee in the Whomobile on something called Billy Smart’s Circus, four minutes of deleted/extended scenes, and a featurette entitled “Doctor Who Stories: Elisabeth Sladen Part One,” in which Lis talks about each of her five stories from the Pertwee era. (I’m guessing that Part Two will appear on the eventual “Terror of the Zygons” DVD, since it’s the only Sarah Jane story from the Baker era that hasn’t been released…but that’s mere supposition.) Also present is an extra 10 minutes of John Levene (Sgt. Benton) commentary over Episode Five, and the usual photo gallery and Radio Times listings in PDF form.