Doctor Who: The Invasion Review
Although not as remembered these days as much as he should be, Kevin Stoney, who died in January, had the distinction of playing two of Doctor Who’s greatest ever villains. His roles, as Mavic Chen in The Daleks’ Masterplan in 1965/6, and Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion three years later, were not dissimilar: both men were human quislings determined to betray Earth to one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, thinking that they could successfully manipulate said enemies to their own ends and both suffer sticky ends when they discover that this a somewhat optimistic belief. The two stories were both epics (to this day The Daleks’ Masterplan remains, with the questionable exception of The Trial of a Time Lord, the longest serial in Who's history with twelve episodes, while The Invasion is the third longest with eight) and both marked something of a turning point for their respective monsters - never again in the classic series would the Daleks’ aim be a straightforward conquering of the galaxy, while The Invasion, despite this year celebrating its fortieth anniversary, is the last time the Cybermen appeared in a story even half decent.
Sadly only three episodes still remain of TDM so Mavic Chen does not make as much of an impression as he must have done at the time. The Invasion too, is missing two of its instalments, Episodes One and Four, but fortunately their absence does not diminish the power of Stoney’s performance. Vaughn, despite the fact he spends the large majority of his screen time in one office, is a truly memorable villain. Quiet and controlled, he is a man who at times appears as emotionless as the creatures he is working for, but underneath his cool exterior is a raging sociopath, a man who enjoys a cruelly sadistic temperament and isn’t shy about expressing it on those unfortunates who fall into his hands. Having a complete belief in his own superiority over both the Cybermen and his underlings, he makes a hugely satisfying adversary for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, as the two men dance around each other, playing games as much psychological as practical in their battle for supremacy.
As such Vaughn is one of the undoubted highlights of Derrick Sherwin and Kit Pedler’s story, one which would have a profound effect on the future course of the programme. Made during Patrick Troughton’s last season as the Doctor, it’s an atypical story for his era, foregoing as it does the base-under-siege scenario that had cropped up time and again during the previous couple of years for something far more ambitious. The serial sees the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe (Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury) investigating the mysterious Vaughn in London in what was then the near future. Vaughn, a proto Bill Gates, is the head of International Electromatics, a company which virtually overnight has become the world’s main supplier of electrical goods. Teaming up with his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), now at the head of the newly formed United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the Doctor discovers that IE's swift ascension to the cutting edge of electronics is all down to the aid of the Cybermen, who are sowing the seeds with the technology for a rapidly approaching invasion. Vaughn, while helping them, is also making his own plans so that when the invasion is complete he can turn the tables and take sole control of the planet. Unfortunately, he has somewhat underestimated the strength and abilities of the metallic monsters...
In its use of a contemporary setting, extended action sequences and extensive use of military hardware, The Invasion feels far more like an episode from Jon Pertwee’s time in the programme than of his predecessor’s. This is not surprising as Sherwin and his producer Peter Bryant envisaged it as essentially a pilot for reformatting the series following Troughton’s departure. There had been some concerns that the programme was becoming stale and formulaic, with some muttering that perhaps it was time to put the good Doctor out to pasture - after all, six years was a superb innings for something most hadn’t expected to last past its original thirteen episodes. While the series thankfully escaped cancellation, Sherwin believed it did need retooling and so decided to try and widen its appeal beyond its initial young audience by toughening things up a bit, in the hope of widening its appeal beyond its target audience to their mums and dads too. The Invasion is the first real sign of that and established much of what would become standard the following year. It re-introduced Courtney’s Lethbridge-Stewart, soon to become a regular, and created UNIT, an organisation who would effectively replace the TARDIS, at least temporarily, as the means by which the Doctor begins his adventures. By establishing a realistic military set-up it made the show more grounded in reality and was, just as importantly, also far more cost-effective - as RTD observed nearly four decades later, it is far less expensive to have a story set around your local council estate rather than on a far and distant planet. The end result, felt in full the following season but very much started here, was to contemporise Doctor Who. The serial’s most celebrated sequence, the actual invasion of the Cybermen, was nothing less than a statement of intent. As they emerged from the sewers and walked down the steps of St Paul’s, the monsters were suddenly scary again, existing in the same world that their viewers lived in and no longer safely removed on some distant planet. This was now the world of Quatermass rather than Star Trek, with everything about the story geared towards emphasising how up-to-date it was, from the character of Isobel (Sally Faulkner), a swinging Sixties chick if ever there was one, right through to IE itself, the very symbol of new, and potentially dangerous technology.
In addition, the modern setting allowed a much greater than usual amount of location filming, with the result that the scale of the story feels far less claustrophobic than many of Troughton’s time, far more open and thus epic. There are helicopter escapes and kayaking down rivers and chases through sewers and across rooftops and, as already mentioned, the iconic scenes of the Cybermen invading London (which get away – just – with disguising the fact that there are only ever six Cybermen on screen at once!) Inevitably for a story this long there is a fair bit of padding of the old capture-escape-recapture stakes, but even these feel less studio-bound than usual, with the sequence in which the Doctor and Jamie escape down a lift shaft being a good case in point. At times feeling far more filmic than the two official Who films from the Sixties, this scope adds up to make an exciting thriller, helped along by Douglas Camfield's energetic direction and Don Harper's evocative, unusual score.
However, it is not this broadening that makes The Invasion the classic that it is, but rather the quality of the script. Vaughn has already been alluded to but, rarely for the series, all the main protagonists are fleshed out, with the possible exception of Isobel who never escapes her stereotype. Watching Vaughn’s hardman Packer (Peter Halliday) slowly falling apart from his repeated failures to keep the Doctor in check is one of the story’s many incidental pleasures, but even a character as functional as Professor Watkins (Edward Burnham) is brought to life – in one of the most gripping scenes, his utter spinelessness is chillingly exposed when Vaughn hands him a gun and invites him to shoot at point blank range. There’s even room for a tragic Cyberman, one who is driven mad and lurches down the sewers screaming in distress, a sequence which no doubt sent many viewers at the time scurrying behind their sofas and, again, emphasised the fact that the series was heading in a far tougher direction. It's also a good story for the three regulars. By this point, Troughton and Hines’s double act is so strong that one could watch them just having a cup of tea and be greatly amused, and their exploits in the first four or so episodes when they are happily investigating Vaughn’s operations and getting into all sorts of trouble is joyous, not least for some of the lines they are given (“Look, Jamie, sandwiches!”) Zoe, meanwhile, gets to use her apparently incredibly high IQ in a useful way, helping bring down the Cyber fleet at the end, a fact only temporised by some of the sexist incredulity on the part of the soldiers that she should be able to do such a thing. (Indeed, there is an amusingly dated sexist strain running right the through the story, with the line “Can’t we keep her, sir, she’s far prettier than a computer” just about summing it up).
Coupled with this is the fact that, again unusually for the time, Sherwin's script is actually about something. At the start of this review I said that The Invasion is the last decent story starring the Cyberman, and thus it's ironic that so little of its success is down to their presence - they don't appear until the start of episode five, and even then their presence never comes close to dominating proceedings. But despite this, this is a story built entirely around the concept of what they are, far more so than any other in which they appear. At its heart The Invasion is about the conflict between the cold, logical, seemingly implacable rise of the microchip and everything that makes us the warm, flesh and blood beings that we are, and the paranoia that, unchecked, the former would eventually destroy us. This battle is embodied by Vaughn, a man whose outward reserve every so often breaks down in moments of intense fury, someone who is half-man half-machine and whose soul has been destroyed as a result. The Doctor makes it plain whose side we should be on when he declares that he hates computers, and the following eight episodes give ample reason why in a literate script is very much a product of its Cold War era.
It's this exploration of ideas, coupled with just a superb script by Sherwin and the story's expansive production qualities, that all combine to make something a bit special. It's not perfect, of course; at eight episodes the story is far too long, and the padding at times somewhat obvious, while oddly the last two episodes, once the invasion has actually begun, lack momentum. However, I can’t help thinking that the reason the script is as generous to its characters as it is a direct consequence of the extra latitude the eight episodes gave Sherwin to expand his world, and as such we shouldn’t quibble too much. These days The Invasion is remembered more for the fact it laid the template for the Pertwee years rather than its intrinsic merits, but to do so does Sherwin, Camfield, Stoney and everyone else involved a great disservice for it is, easily, one of the finest stories of Troughton's, or indeed any era.
The release of The Invasion onto DVD heralded the first time an incomplete story had been released on its own. When the story was originally released onto VHS, Nicholas Courtney was drafted in to briefly fill in the blanks left by the two missing episodes, but this time around something far more ambitious was in order, with Cosgrove Hall, who had earlier collaborated with the BBC on the webcast Scream of the Shalka, being called in to produce animated versions of Episodes One and Four, using their still surviving soundtracks. I'll consider the success of this experiment in a minute, but other than that unique feature, it’s business as usual for this set, with the eight episodes split across two discs, a roughly equal number of extras being held on each DVD. The one criticism one has of the packaging is that the accompanying leaflet can’t slot into its usual home and is left to flap around the case loose. As ever, the episodes themselves and all extras bar the commentaries are subtitled.
The improvement in the AV presentation over the old VHS release is immeasurable. The only masters for the story still known to be in existence are 16mm prints, and not all of them were in a particularly healthy condition. A lot of cleanup work had to be done especially on some of the film inserts in the early episodes, but the hard work has paid off, as the result is a Video transfer that is infinitely clearer than the 1993 video – it’s almost as though one is watching a new story, with the VidFIRE process as always adding an extra sheen to things. Admittedly the exteriors are sometimes very grainy, and the quality of the transfer drops notably on occasion, but interiors especially are impressively clear (especially, for some reason, in Vaughn’s office) while nearly all of the print damage has been repaired so that there are very few artefacts to be seen. The look is not quite as crisp as on a couple of other Sixties Whos, but are as good as you are ever likely to see. The Audio likewise has been completely gone over by Mark Ayres (who divulges some of his tricks in a featurette below) and, while at times both the speech and (especially) music is a little muffled, the tracks are never less than very audible. Overall, a hugely impressive restorative effort from the ever-tireless Restoration Team and a pleasure to watch.
As said, the most notable part of the release is the animating of the two missing episodes. An idea which has been long discussed in Who circles, its first implementation on an official release can be considered a resounding success. While nothing can of course replace the original episodes, these are a far more satisfying way to consume these episodes than just listening to the audio soundtracks, especially for the action-packed fourth episode which doesn’t work at all well without the visuals. Admittedly, the Flash-based animation is rather basic, with many shots consisting of little more than a couple of characters looking at each other while their lips flap, and has a slight tendency to try to overcompensate for this by exaggerating facial expressions, especially Troughton’s. However, given the budget and time constraints these are easily understandable and as way of balance director Steve Maher injects into the two parts a genuinely striking visual style, enhanced by the moody black-and-white look, which would no doubt flatter the original versions. The fact that no telesnaps are known to exist for the story has given him and his team some no doubt welcome leeway to be creative, even a bit naughty at times (there’s a reference to Bad Wolf snuck in at one point) but fidelity to the original is always the priority, even going so far as to use blurred photographic backgrounds from the live action episodes and a rotoscoped version of Troughton from a later episode avoiding gunfire to make sure his movements are true to life. While it would be wrong to say that the animation manages to capture any of the atmosphere of the other episodes – the look is far too artificial – they do manage to do a good job of blending with them, and together the project is easily one of the highlights of the entire Who range to date. There are a handful of others stories which would benefit from a similar project - The Reign of Terror, The Ice Warriors and, perhaps, The Tenth Planet - and it would be a shame if, as appears to be the case at present, this experiment proved to be a one-off.
Several of the Extras on the set are devoted to these two episodes. Flash Frames (11:30) is a good overview of their making, with Maher and others discussing how they went about creating them and some of the decisions they had to make along the way. He goes into slightly more detail in a Commentary on Episode One, in which Mark Ayres questions him and a largely silent James Goss, who coordinated the project, about some of the methods used. Well worth a listen, it's far better than the commentary on the other animated episode, which consists mainly of Courtney, Hines and Padbury either exclaiming how good the animation is, struggling to remember anything about the production or filling the silence with such informative utterances as “Mmmm” or “Oohhh.” As supplementary material, there’s also a slideshow included called Character Design (2:52) featuring a selection of the character faces and associated animations, including some top Troughton eye-brow waggling action as well as, for completeness sake, the two Animation Trailers (1:08) which publicised the DVD; these are notable for featuring some moody shots of the Cybermen emerging from the sewers which, of course, don’t feature in the two episodes themselves (Maher notes at least once his disappointment at the fact that the two episodes hardly feature the monsters at all!)
Love Off-Air (15:17) reveals why even though the two episodes themselves are missing we still have their soundtracks. This is thanks to the dedication of young fans back in the Sixties who would stick a microphone next to the TV and record the episodes as they aired, an act of devotion which means that we are in the fortunate position to have the audio for every one of the 108 episodes still missing. Over the past few years Mark Ayres has been painstakingly restoring these often poor-quality recordings for release onto CD and in the latter half of this featurette he demonstrates some of the techniques he uses to clean up the aged tracks. This is extremely informative and would have benefitted from being double the length; regrettably the rest of the running time is devoted to the admittedly amusing reminiscences of various Doctor Who alumni such as Gary Russell and novel writer Justin Richards about their own recording exploits which is fun, but not nearly as interesting.
Of course, the other six episodes are not forgotten; indeed, Evolution of The Invasion, with a running time of fifty minutes, is one of the longest Making Ofs the Classic Who range has seen. Built around the reminiscences of an impressive number of those involved (including Stoney) it’s a comprehensive overview of the story, and makes for an enjoyable, if long, feature. The Commentaries are long too, but not nearly as entertaining – unfortunately the majority of the tracks featuring Courtney, Hines and Padbury are little more than waffle, of the “Oh look, it’s Johnny Extra! Whatever happened to him?” kind. Chris D'Oyly-John, the story’s Production Assistant, joins them for some of the time, and his contributions are far more informative which help to alleviate the tedium a little, but overall this is one of the more dull commentaries in the range. If you do have to sit through them, I can only recommend turning on the Production Subtitles to help pass the time, which are far more absorbing and, despite having eight episodes to fill, never run out of trivia to impart.
In addition, there is a Photo Gallery (7:23) which benefits from having a higher degree of behind-the-scenes shots than usual as well as, in a nice touch, some photos from the recording session for the commentaries, and the VHS Links (3:00) from the 1993 release of the story, in which the Brigadier himself fills in what happens in the two missing episodes – just watch him at the end look to one side, pretending to be about to watch the next episode. The old pro. (Although why is he holding that big book?)
For reasons I've never been able to understand, the stories in which the Cybermen appear are more often than not utter dreck. Revenge of the Cybermen, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis are all dire, while the RTD era has continued this tradition with their very mediocre appearances in the second series. Hopefully The Next Doctor will restore at least some of their lustre, but for the moment here's perhaps the single perfect example of how to use them effectively. The two animated episodes help bring the story back to life, and if the rest of the extras are not quite as numerous as other recent two disc sets, remember that the majority of the budget was spent on the reconstructions. For anyone with even the slightest interest in the series, this is an unmissable release.
Last updated: 17/06/2018 05:38:56