Doctor Who: U.N.I.T Files Review
This review contains plot spoilers for both stories.
The British wing of the United Nationals Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) made its debut when the Doctor looked like Patrick Troughton, in The Invasion. It was headed up by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who had featured in The Web of Fear as a Colonel. When the show was redesigned for the Doctor's exile on Earth, UNIT was an integral part of it, the Doctor (now in his Jon Pertwee incarnation) becoming the scientific advisor. Although incoming producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to send the Doctor away from Earth and back into space again, the UNIT “family” formed a major part of the Third Doctor era. Along with the Brigadier, they included Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), originally intended as a possible love interest for the Doctor's companion Jo Grant, though in practice nothing came of that. (Though they did have an offscreen date once, but what characters do outside the stories they appear in is their own business.) Another regular was Sergeant Benton (John Levene), who had debuted in The Invasion and later medical officer Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), who had, along with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), acted as a companion in Fourth Doctor Tom Baker's opening season.
But now we go back to 12 January 1974, and the start of a new story. 11 million viewers are watching. On the screen comes the title - Invasion. Your correspondent, aged nine, completes the title under his breath – of the Dinosaurs. The shortened title – for Part One only – was designed to hide the surprise that there were dinosaurs. But I, like many others I suspect, had purchased the BBC's Doctor Who Special, produced for the series' tenth anniversary the previous November and yours for the princely sum of 30p, and the forthcoming season was previewed there, including the full title of this story. And that week's RadioTimes has an illustration that's less than discreet too.
Long-time Who writer Malcolm Hulke was not happy. His title had been Timescoop, which is more pertinent if maybe less attention-getting than the one the production office gave his story. But the dinosaurs – and we'll return to them in a moment – were essentially a sideshow, a device to have London evacuated. The real plan is Project Golden Age, a high-level conspiracy to renew the Earth to a pre-polluted Eden, with the unfortunate side-effect of eliminating most of the population in the process. Sarah gets kidnapped and finds herself on a spaceship sent to colonise another world...or so it seems. And – gasp! - there's a traitor in UNIT's ranks.
Sideshow or not, those dinosaurs have given this story a bad press. They aren't convincing at all – and the use of CSO makes them worse, which is a particular problem when three of the serial's five cliffhangers rely on them. This is unfortunate as otherwise, this is an admittedly overlong and sometimes padded (the chase in Part Five especially) that still has a lot to recommend it. There's nothing wrong with the acting of the regulars and a strong guest cast, nor with Paddy Russell's direction. Russell, birth name Patricia, was a former actress and assistant to Rudolph Cartier, Nigel Kneale's regular producer/director. She worked with them on the Quatermass serials and the legendary 1954 production of Nineteen Eighty-Four before becoming one of the first two women directors at the BBC, first working for Who in that capacity in the now-lost Hartnell serial The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve. Her preference as a director was actors over special effects – she accepted this job on the grounds that she didn't have to work with any “tin cans” or Daleks, but it's not her fault that the effects in this story aren't up to snuff. She went on to direct for Who twice more, Pyramids of Mars, one of the show's very best stories and a personal favourite, and Horror of Fang Rock. Malcoim Hulke did not write for the show again and died in 1979, aged just fifty-four.
If I suggest that Invasion of the Dinosaurs is now an underrated if flawed story, it seems that someone in authority at the time must have thought it subpar. The six episodes were ordered to be wiped fewer than six months after the story had been shown, but as it happened only Part One met this fate. (It's a popular myth that this episode, with its shortened title, was confused with The Invasion, as that serial's tapes were wiped two year's before the present serial was broadcast.) From the beginning of the show, almost all of the show's episodes, broadcast from two-inch quad videotapes (405-line and then later 625-line) with the occasional episode shot with video cameras but captured on, edited and broadcast from 35mm film. (Spearhead from Space is the one exception, shot on and broadcast from 16mm colour film.) Almost all these episodes were converted into 16mm film telerecordings which were used for sales to overseas countries. When Who began to be produced in colour in 1970, black and white 16mm telerecordings were still made for those countries which had not yet started broadcasting in colour. Those which had, and which were buying Doctor Who for its own television service, were supplied with colour videotapes, wither 625-line PAL or standards-converted to 525-line NTSC. (As many of the Third Doctor's stories had many or all of their episodes wiped, those black and white telerecordings and NTSC videotapes are the reason that we can still watch them.) As more and more countries converted to colour television, telerecordings ceased to be made. The present story's immediate predecessor The Time Warrior was the last to be fully telerecorded but at least the first three parts of Invasion of the Dinosaurs were as well. For a while, Part 1 was a lost episode but a 16mm black and white film copy was returned to the BBC.
Many people were of course still owners of black and white television sets (as indeed there are still holders of monochrome licences to this day). My own family bought a colour television sometime in early 1974. I certainly saw the later stories in this Who season in colour, but don't remember if I did see Part 1 in colour or not at the time. This episode remained in black and white on the story's VHS release. I'll discuss the form it appears in on this DVD in more detail further below.
The Android Invasion was first shown two seasons later, in November to December 1975. By this time, Jon Pertwee's Doctor Three had made way for Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, though still with Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith at his side. They land in Devesham, a sleepy English village...just a little too sleepy. Telephones don't work, the calendars are stuck on the same date, and who are the white figures in spacesuits?
The story was written by Terry Nation, his first non-Dalek story since The Keys of Marinus way back in 1964. Returning to the director's chair after standing down as producer was Barry Letts. Considering that it followed Pyramids of Mars and was then followed by The Brain of Morbius and The Seeds of Doom, you can see immediately why The Android Invasion has tended to suffer in comparison. It doesn't help that the premise, a plot by an alien race, the Kraals, to take over the Earth is so convoluted it lacks credibility – and that's without asking us to accept that one character can believe has only one eye because he has an eyepatch over the other one. He clearly doesn't wash his face very often...But it does have its moments, notably a creepy atmosphere in the village early on, and the classic “face off” cliffhanger to Part Two.
Harry Sullivan had been written out as a regular character in Terror of the Zygons but he and Benton (now promoted to RSM) appear here for the last time in their roles, though more often as their android doubles. Nicholas Courtney was not available to play the Brigadier, so his part was reallocated to a new character, Colonel Faraday (Patrick Newell). UNIT would appear one more time, in The Seeds of Doom, with none of the regular characters present, and that would be the last we saw of them for several years.
U.N.I.T Files is a two-story boxset. Both serials come on dual-layered discs encoded for Region 2 only. Being a six-parter, Invasion of the Dinosaurs has a second, single-layered disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Audio-navigation menus are available on all three discs.
All the episodes are transferred into DVD in a ratio of 1.33:1 without anamorphic enhancement, as you would expect from 1970s television. However, as mentioned above, Part 1 of Invasion exists in the archive not on its original VTR but as a black-and-white 16mm telerecording, the most recent of all Who episodes where that is the case. Given the newly-developed possibilities of restoring colour via chroma dot recovery (see my review of Planet of the Daleks in the Dalek War Boxset for more details), all the Pertwee episodes that survived as monochrome telerecordings were examined. All but one (The Mind of Evil Episode 1, which begs the question as to how it will be presented when it eventually comes out on DVD) had chroma dots embedded in the film recordings. However, in the case of Invasion Part 1, the dots were incomplete: they had red and green, but not blue. Therefore there are two versions of the episode on this disc. The default is the restored and VidFIREd black and white version. However, selectable via the menu, and using seamless branching (and with all the subtitles intact) to attach it to the remaining five parts, is a “best-endeavours” colour version, partly colourised to add the blue to the TARDIS. No-one is pretending that the result is broadcast-quality, or DVD quality, but it does give us an approximation of how the episode would have looked originally, for the minority of the population who had colour televisions in 1974. Comparison screengrabs for this episode follow.
The remaining parts of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and all four of The Android Invasion survive on their two-inch broadcast master videotapes, and the results are as good as you have come to expect. Inevitably, the 16mm-originated location footage – and there's a substantial amount of it in both stories – is softer, and the transition between studio-shot video and exterior film, which was always noticeable then, is probably even more jarring now, given that our viewing devices are much more unforgiving – and larger – than 70s television sets.
The soundtracks are the original mono, clear and well restored. Subtitles are available for the episodes and all the extras apart from the commentaries. The ever-useful information subtitles are this time the work of David Brunt (Invasion of the Dinosaurs) and Nicholas Pegg (The Android Invasion), which tell you probably more than you ever needed to know about each serial, including playing spot-the-military-jeep-number-plate in Invasion.
The commentary for Invasion is in two sections, both moderated by Toby Hadoke. For Parts One, Four and Five he interviews Paddy Russell. This is a little slow to start, as Hadoke seems a little daunted by Russell, clearly a formidable old lady, but she eventually warms up and provides a very useful commentary. As most of Part 5 is taken up by a chase sequence, Hadoke takes time out from the story to talk to Russell about her career in television. Russell had a featurette to herself on the Horror of Fang Rock DVD, but this complements it nicely. The remainder of the commentary features Terrance Dicks, Richard Franklin, Peter Miles (who plays Professor Whitaker), designer Richard Morris, Terence Wilton (who played Mark, one of the Golden Age colonists). Dicks and Franklin comment on Parts Two and Three, Miles on Two, Three and Six, Morris on Two and Six and Wilton on Three and Six. This is the usual mix of banter, anecdotes and
first-hand information on the story's production. A poignant note is struck when Hadoke mentions that the commentary is recorded the day after Nicholas Courtney's funeral. He wasn't to know that Elisabeth Sladen would pass away not much more than a month later.
The commentary for The Android Invasion is again moderated by Hadoke, and features Philip Hinchcliffe, Milton Johns (who played Guy Crayford) and Marion McDougall (production manager) and Martin Friend (who played Styggron). McDougall steps out for Part Two and Friend makes his first appearance then, but everyone is present for the last two episodes. The mixture of old commentary hands and newcomers, and actors and behind-the-scenes personnel makes for a good balance. Hinchcliffe tends to dominate things, but McDougall in particular gets to say her piece.
On to Disc Two, and the making-of featurette is “People, Power and Puppetry: Remembering 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs'” (32:44). Presented by Matthew Sweet, its tone is set from the outset by Terrance Dicks saying that the lousy dinosaurs overshadowed the rest of the serial, Malcolm Hulke's script especially. There's some examination of the political themes of the story, as the left-wing and former Communist Hulke displaying more than a little unease at the authoritarian side of utopian movements. Interviewees include Dicks, Paddy Russell, designer Richard Morris and, in archive footage, Barry Letts and even Jon Pertwee talking about the Doctor's new toy, the custom-made car known informally, though never on screen, as the Whomobile.
Next up are some deleted scenes (4:49) , starting off with a mute sequence (in grainy black and white) of a looter being despatched by something offscreen, and followed by sequences that still survive in an early edit of Part Three.
“Now and Then” (13:44) is the latest in the occasional series which compares the story's locations as they are today with the way they were at the time. As there is a lot of location work in this story, we get a rapid tour of Greater London, including the deserted West End (shot unofficially at 4am on a Sunday) that features at the beginning of Part 1.
“Doctor Who Stories: Elisabeth Sladen” (14:01) is a 2003 interview with the now-late actress, mainly a series of anecdotes. It says “Part 1” on the menu (though not on the featurette itself) and we only reach the end of her first series, and Jon Pertwee's departure, so Part 2 is no doubt on its way on a future DVD.
John Levene does not participate in the main commentary, but (recorded in 2005) he talks over selected scenes, totalling 10:16. As with his commentary on The Time Monster, it's smooth, slick and listenable but ever-so-slightly and oddly impersonal.
The extras on this disc are completed by the usual stills gallery, the Radio Times listings in PDF format, and a coming-soon trailer for the next Who DVD release, The Sensorites (1:00). There is also a clip (1:43) from Billy Smart's Circus featuring Jon Pertwee and the Whomobile. For an Easter egg, click left from “Now and Then” to reveal the countdown clock for Part Five (0:30).
The extras on The Android Invasion begin with “The Village That Came to Life” (30:58), the making-of documentary. Nicholas Briggs is the presenter this time, and he begins with a runthrough of Terry Nation's career, taking in his extra-Who work such as his script-editing stint on The Persuaders and his creation of Survivors, up to the point where then producer and script editor Hinchcliffe and Holmes invited him to write a non-Dalek story for Tom Baker's second season. Hinchcliffe also discusses his hiring of his predecessor Barry Letts as the director of this serial. We hear some well-known production stories, such as Tom Baker doing his own stunt and taking a ducking in a pond and making himself ill as a result. Briggs also talks to villagers from the location of East Hagbourne, Oxfordshire, about their memories of the production. They include one small boy called Colin Baker (no relation) who had his photo taken with his namesake. As with the Invasion featurette, there is some discussion of the serial's shortcomings as well.
Hinchcliffe gets a featurette to himself, “Life After Who: Philip Hinchcliffe” (29:38). It is presented by his daughter Celina (herself a television sports presenter), who was just born when her father stepped down as Who producer. Next up for him was Target, a tough cop show starring Patrick Mower, which was controversial – and allegedly had its first series curtailed – due to its violence. After that, he had a career as producer or executive producer for another two decades, including Private Schulz, Nancy Astor (for which he interviewed Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver for the title role, before British Equity vetoed bringing in an American actress) and the TV play Virtuoso, a biopic of the pianist John Ogdon, a breakthrough role for Alfred Molina. For ITV he made The Charmer, Bust and Taggart, and there were two excursions into big-screen producing, An Awfully Big Adventure and Total Eclipse. Given the personal connection that interviewer and interviewee have, there are some more personal anecdotes than you might otherwise find, such as Celina's memories of being tucked up in bed by Anthony Hopkins, who was acting in Strangers and Brothers at the time.
Also on the disc are the photo gallery (4:53), a Weetabix commercial featuring the Daleks (0:34), and the same Coming Soon trailer for The Sensorites. The PDF materials this time, as well as the usual Radio Times listings, include reproductions of the stand-up cardboard figures, games and coded Time Lord message that awaited for you in packets of Weetabix, a promotion which the commercial mentioned above is for.
There is one Easter Egg on this DVD. Click left from the Weetabix Advert and you will get location sound rushes (7:51), audio only, but backed with a BBC identification label. That, and the beginning of the tape, demonstrates that the serial was then called The Enemy Within.