The Invaders: Season One Review
"The Invaders - alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: the Earth. Their purpose: to make it their world. David Vincent has seen them. For him, it began one lost night on a lonely country road looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed deserted diner, and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun."
- Opening Narration
What would you do if you saw an alien? No, seriously, stop and think about it for a moment: what would you actually do? Of course, if you were with other people then matters would be relatively straightforward - the world could be told and if derision was forthcoming at least it would be spread around a bit - but what if you were on your own when ET popped by to say hello? It's a bit of a Catch-22 because whatever course of action you took, things could get decidedly uncomfortable. Even if you were able to capture some visual or audio evidence no one would believe you, and once the local news had had some fun at your expense (the reporter would inevitably hire someone in a Martian costume for the background on his report) the whole affair would be filed away under the heading “Crackpot.” Ostracism would soon follow and you would end your days hugging your knees in a little flat, rocking back and forth while muttering “I did see it, I did see it,” no longer quite sure you had done, while outside the window ET would hover, taunting you and blowing raspberries. On the other hand, saying nothing might just condemn the entire planet to a hostile takeover and you and your nearest and dearest to instant annihilation or - maybe even worse - a lifetime in some sort of slave camp, where you'd be surrounded by people glaring at you and demanding to know why you didn’t say something when you had the chance, all the time accompanied by ET hovering around, taunting you and blowing raspberries. Either way you’re in big trouble.
This no-win scenario is precisely the dilemma facing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) in The Invaders. During the first episode he stumbles upon a UFO landing behind "a deserted diner" and learns that not only do its occupants already walk among us but also that their plans to wipe out mankind and set up shop on the planet themselves are well advanced. As he has no proof the local police force are quick to dismiss his claims, telling him to be off about his business, and things go from bad to worse when his business partner, who does believe him, becomes among the first victims of the alien menace. Denied this one possible ally but still determined to take the unearthly interlopers on, David takes to the road on a lonely quest, travelling around the country to tackle them wherever and whenever he can and all the time trying to gather enough evidence to convince those around him that the threat is real.
Dating from 1967 the show, a mid-season replacement on ABC for a couple of sitcoms, was, as the opening titles make abundantly clear, a “Quinn Martin” production. Quinn Martin was a prolific television producer who over a career spanning nearly forty years produced many TV shows which, while perhaps not in the premier league of titles, were certainly successful enough. By far the most influential of these was The Fugitive (1963-7), the format of which endured long after its title character had finally cleared his name. The idea of a solitary character on a quest, travelling to a different locality ever week and becoming embroiled in the locals’ affairs has been revisited time and time again, from shows as varied as Alias Smith and Jones to The A-Team The template has proved particularly fruitful in the science-fiction genre: while the most obvious is unquestionably The Incredible Hulk it’s been seen many other times as well, with Supernatural being the most recent example. It was The Invaders however which was the very first to borrow the idea for otherworldly purposes, with David Vincent essentially a Dr Richard Kimble clone and the aliens his version of the One-Armed Man. Although the show's creator is credited as Larry Cohen (who, of course, has gone on to have a highly successful career), it doesn't take much to see where the inspiration came from.
As such, and because they shared the same executive producer, there are very many similarities between the two shows, even down to the stentorian announcer’s voice introducing each Act. Most episodes, no matter what the invaders’ scheme, essentially revolves around Vincent’s interactions with a fairly typical, soap-operaish domestic drama, in the same way that most of Kimble’s escapades were more concerned with Problems of the Week rather than finding his adversary. Our hero might find himself at the centre of a love triangle, for example, or a local dispute of some sort, and it just so happens that the characters are also somehow tied up in the alien's Evil Scheme of the Week. Melodrama is the name of the game here, and to a modern audience this side of the tales could appear trite and little naïve, with no more surprises in how things pan out than in any serial drama. One could never accuse the show of pushing any boundaries in the storytelling department (or in its depiction of society as a whole - despite the fact the show aired in 1967, you’ll hardly ever see a black character) but fortunately the writing is of a sufficient, workmanlike standard. Although simplistic by today’s standards, and almost totally lacking in humour, it's all well-constructed enough that one can become engaged in what one is watching, most episodes having a decent pace and enjoyable enough stereotypes. There's even the odd surprises in tone, such as in Storm, a standout episode which presents an unusually three-dimensional characterisation of a priest who has been hoodwinked by the aliens, and even when there isn't it's fun enough.
Which is just as well, for the focus of the show is almost entirely on its characters rather than the baddies. As science-fiction The Invaders is, not to put too fine a point on it, second-rate. At the time the series was airing there had already been nearly two decades’ worth of film and TV regarding aliens trying to take over the world, so the format was, if not hackneyed, then certainly extremely familiar to most viewers. As such, any new take on the theme had to have a sufficiently different spin on the idea to merit attention, and The Invaders just doesn't. Indeed, it's fair to say the portrayal of the aliens is resolutely uninspired and half-hearted, notably in their appearance: with only two exceptions they are identical to humans, the differences being that they can’t bend their little finger and they glow red and vanish when they die (not a major problem as going round shooting everyone you suspect of being one just to check might be a bit extreme). Of course to a certain extent this approach was down to budgetary concerns or simple convenience but the total lack of imagination is undeniable (we never once get to see them in their true forum), symbolised by the bog-standard flying saucer ET flies around in. In addition, while the usual metaphor of ET-as-Communist is present it’s also somewhat cursory: the baddies often masquerade as figures as authority such as cops or politicians, but there’s no extension of the idea or commentary, and one gets the impression that the writers had little to no interest in such parallels. To them the aliens are just that: aliens and nothing more.
As a result, the titular characters end up becoming a somewhat bland threat, which as it turns out is somewhat apt as they face a somewhat bland foe in Vincent. As a lead Roy Thinnes is perfectly competent but totally unmemorable. He does what he has to do well, he develops a good rapport with both his fellow cast members and the viewers, but never once does the man do anything remarkable to make the viewer sit up and take notice. Vincent is literally an everyman and as unnotable as a random face in a crowd, with none of the little quirks of characterisation a truly memorable character needs. Indeed, at the risk of being over-condemnatory to an actor who is doing a perfectly decent job, I would suggest that this is the show’s main problem. Any series is defined by its main cast, even more so when there is only one regular, and if your leading man doesn’t have that extra something, then your show as a whole is going to struggle to recover. Thinnes has gone on to show that he does have what it takes in bringing charisma to the screen - his performance as Jeremiah Smith in The X Files is an obvious example - but here, early on in his career, one just doesn’t feel it. Again, I don’t want to make too much of this so I’ll repeat: he’s perfectly fine, it’s just that a week after you’ve finished watching this set you’ll be struggling to remember a single thing he said or did.
The other problem a modern viewer will struggle with is that absolutely no progress is made in the battle against the aliens over the course of the series. Each episode is entirely self-contained, and while occasionally Vincent makes a new friend who ends up as convinced as he is about the nature of the threat facing them, it never adds up to a hill of beans, as in the very next show he’s back to square one. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the style of the time - it’s only in the last decade that on-going plotlines have really come to the fore, but it still can’t help but be a little frustrating. Every episode Vincent wins his battle but still walks off into the sunset at the end simply looking for the next one, making his task seem endless. Although this is a criticism born of watching this in 2007 as opposed to 1967 an associated problem which one can pin on the makers is that there is no counterpoint to Vincent in the invaders’ camp: each week there’s a different alien chief, so that the lasting impression is of a lot of uncoordinated invasion units rather than one with a masterplan. This is a real flaw as it never gives the baddy a Face, a single point to aim at. While Kimble had his One-Armed Man (or Inspector Gerard), Dr David Banner had his cure, and so on Vincent just doesn't. In the second season he would meet up with The Believers, a group of resistance fighters who, like him, recognised and fought the threat, and that gave a little more focus to his travails: here, this is very much an anthology series.
But at least it’s an anthology series with positive production values, and is professionally made. Design-wise the show is very solid, if similarly uninspired. There’s much on-location shooting (all in the same hills, it would appear), while the alien bases are nicely created, and the standing UFO a fine piece of work. The writing is of a solid standard, and there’s enough excitement to keep interest moving when the substance goes missing. (You’re always guaranteed at least one alien glowy-red death and a couple of bouts of fisticuffs per week). There’s also a goodly collection of famous faces to be spotted among the guest stars, including a youthful appearance from Jack “Book ‘em Danno” Lord, Roddy McDowell, Peter Graves, James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith and more. And, as the season progresses, it notably gains in confidence, with the last half dozen episodes by far the best of the, meaning that viewer’s patience is rewarded.
I feel like I've spent a large portion of this review complaining, somewhat unfair on a series which on the whole I did enjoy. And yet, one comes back time and again to the problem: there’s nothing new here. To make a truly renowned series, you have to have that something extra. In the generation of The Invaders, for example, you also had Lost in Space which had memorable characters, Thunderbirds which was technically astounding, and Star Trek which was far more intelligent than your average show. The Invaders has none of these things, and as such it’s not surprising that the series has somewhat slipped out of the collective memory these days. It just doesn’t have that spark it needs to distinguish it from the crowds. On its own, it’s perfectly enjoyable, good quality pulp that diverts the viewer, but looked at dispassionately it never rises above the status of hard-working journeyman, competent in all areas but excelling in none. If you’ve never seen it I would recommend checking out these episodes - but only if you’ve already seen the crème de la crème of the era already for, next to them, this has little to recommend it.
All seventeen episodes of the first season are presented in this set, on five dual-layered single-sided discs, four episodes on the first two discs, three on each of the remaining three. The design is minimalist but functional: the Main Menu has an appropriate and suitably Invaders-y montage of pictures taken from that disc's episodes. The three options are Play All, Episode Selection and Subtitles. Each episode has eight chapter stops with one at the start of each Act which is highly sensible (and not always followed by other releases).
All episodes are subtitled. There's an odd quirk here which cropped up on both my players: a couple of times the subtitles appear without being asked, report a single sound effect, and then disappear again. It only happens two or three times however.
A quick word about the cover above. There hasn't been much publicity about this release, and I could only find one retailer with any cover art, that seen above. I find it hard to believe that is the final version though, as it is a rather shoddy piece, lacking the show's distinctive logo and totally failing to capture the atmosphere of the series. Poor show if it is!
For a series which is forty years old, these prints have come up very nicely. The colours are bright and only slightly exaggerated, the image is clear and surprisingly sharp (if not, obviously, to the standard of modern shows) and the prints themselves have very few artefacts, the odd blemish being small and unobtrusive. The transfer is solid too, with few of the problems one normally associates with material from this era, although perhaps a touch over bright, especially in the outdoor sections. Overall though, very good.
The audio track is clean and clear, with no muffling or interference, and is as good as you could expect it to be.
There’s one regret for this otherwise perfectly good release: not a sniff of any extras. This is particularly disappointing given that Thinnes is still very much alive and active - surely he could have been roped in to provide a couple of extras for his best-known role? Or Cohen for that matter? The absence of any additional material casts a slight pall on what is otherwise a very acceptable release of a vintage series.