Who Reviews: The Invasion
Written by Derrick Sherwin,
From a Kit Pedlar story
Reviewed by Tony J Fyler
In the fifty-one years of Doctor Who history, there is no shortage of iconic imagery and scenes:
The Dalek emerges from the river Thames; the Cybermen emerge from their gigantic tombs on Telos; the giant maggots writhe; the Sea Devils rise out of the water; ‘Do I have the right?’; the suave aristocrat pulls his own face off to reveal a hideous tentacle-covered face beneath; the Cybermen burst out of their tubes and start to march; the Dalek floats effortlessly upstairs in pursuit of the Doctor – and so on. There are plenty more, but the one that comes first to mind for fans and non-fans alike is the monstrous, unstoppable march of a Cyber-army down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a very palpable shudder in that imagery that catches the viewer so viscerally – the alien, here at home – that it has lived in the pop culture memory almost up there with the other handful of things non-fans have always known about the show – Tardis, police box, Daleks, exterminate. It’s a scene so iconic it was always ripe for a re-do, as was proven in the Series 8 finale.
But so famous is the scene, it’s in danger of being the only thing people remember about The Invasion.
So given its recent head-nod in the post-millennial show, let’s take another look at The Invasion, and see whether its whole extends much beyond that single landmark scene.
First, let’s make one sad admission: when viewed with a cold, objective eye, The Invasion is at least a couple of episodes too long. Cyber-creator Kit Pedler had originally submitted an idea for a four-part story, but Production Team concerns about the generally late delivery of scripts at the time mandated that it be stretched to a mammoth eight episodes. And viewed as a whole story, the hyper-inflation shows. There’s a lot of semi-farcical toing and froing with the Doctor and Jamie looking for Zoe and Isobel Watkins, and vice versa. There’s a fairly pointless journey from the factory setting of the beginning to the central London location so crucial for delivering the St Paul’s scene. And there are a lot of almost-captures and cunning escapes. It all amounts to little more than a rather more grown-up, and crucially therefore rather more believable take on the ‘running down corridors’ that habitually used to pad out the middles of stories which made only tangential sense at best.
But before all that, we’re already drawn in by a couple of elements – arriving in the countryside and with a mind to visit Professor Travers of Yeti-fiddling fame, the Tardis crew are given a lift by a lorry driver, who tells them about the nefarious activities of International Electromatics (or IE), the world’s leading technology supplier. Practically on screen, though once the Tardis travellers have left him, the lorry driver is then shot dead by black-suited IE security staff. It all makes for a claustrophobic, Orwellian hook, and we feel ourselves almost in unfamiliar territory for Doctor Who – traditionally, all the bad things happen out in space and time, or back in our own more barbarous history. The War Machines and the Web of Fear were at the time relatively lonely examples of bad things happening in our contemporary world, and something of a betrayal of the point – the show’s unique selling point was that it could go anywhere; to have the monsters be here on Earth was flouting the point of having a Tardis. It also had a harder, more potentially disturbing edge for an audience of children, some of whom would be playing on the streets of London. The idea wasn’t to actually traumatise them – was it?
The Invasion takes us immediately into that territory where nothing is certain about the cosy world beyond our sofa. Derek Sherwin and Peter Bryant had an idea to turn the show on its head – to re-format it as a principally Earth-based serial, like the Quatermass shows, and The Invasion was eight weeks of trial for the concept. With Patrick Troughton already scheduled to leave at the end of the season, it was hoped The Invasion could put the building blocks in place to bring Doctor Who down to Earth.
The building blocks largely consisted of UNIT, which appears here in its first fully-fledged adventure, with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart firmly in place at its head and Sergeant Benton credited for the first time, but right in the first episode, that assassination of the lorry driver pushes home the new tone – realistic threat, here and now, and how it could possibly be dealt with are the hallmarks of The Invasion.
It’s important to remember that this is not ‘Invasion of the Cybermen’ – the Cybermen were due to be a mid-serial reveal in the days when such things were still possible. If, however, you’re going to make that work, you need a solid secondary threat to get you invested in the drama.
Step forward Kevin Stoney and Peter Halliday (both of whom would go on to be Who stalwarts), as Tobias Vaughan, the megalomaniac genius who owns IE, and Packer, his brutally sadistic – but thankfully hapless – henchman. Stoney had already turned in an epic performance as arch-traitor Mavic Chen in The Daleks’ Masterplan, but here he delivers something more weighty and menacing. He’s avuncular, suave, and even charming – as long as everybody does exactly what he tells them to. But Stoney’s performance bristles with an intensity that makes you not only believe he could have a world-spanning business empire, but also that he’d have the planet-sized cojones to make contact with the Cybermen in space, and offer them the planet, so long as he gets to rule it. This is the crucial point about Vaughan – he’s more equal to the Cybermen than any stooge before or since (until, possibly, the arrival of Missy). He hasn’t been elevated above his capacities by Cyber-technology, he is the prime mover of their invasion plan. And as you might expect from someone with that sort of chutzpah, he’s working on a way of controlling them if and when they decide he’s expendable – he’s getting Professor Watkins, Isobel’s uncle and friend of Professor Travers, to build him a machine that can, under the right circumstances, induce emotions in the Cybermen. It can ‘blow them up with love’ in fact – or at least, send them screaming mad with fear.
Stoney’s performance is such that he could be quite frightening, were he not undercut – and so he is, here, by Halliday’s Packer, who seems to have been hired through the same Incompetent-Henchmen R Us agency to which most 60s Bond-villains resorted. He’s clearly a degenerate sadist, but the fact that he’s so utterly useless in terms of actually running security turns the fear of him into a kind of playground game, the bully rendered almost-sobbing coward when his plans go awry.
As the Doctor and his friends faff about, challenging Vaughan, evading Packer, and giving nervous breakdowns to robot receptionists (be honest, you would if you could), they encounter the Brig and the Boys, who are already watching IE’s activities, but have no cause to storm the gates of the place. Meanwhile, Vaughan is laying down the law to the as-yet unnamed invaders, in perhaps the biggest game of ‘I’ll take my ball and go home’ ever played in Doctor Who history.
But it’s when the first Cyberman is ‘born’ on Earth that the story stops being about Vaughan, and starts being properly about the invasion. Incidentally, of all the Cyber-emergences over the years, this one is easily the creepiest – they’re born out of flexible, pulsating, very organic-looking ‘wombs’ (Womb of the Cybermen?) rather than the more clinical tubes of the 80s. It’s also likely to have been as much of a shock in context as the revelation of Cyber-involvement at the end of Episode 1 of Earthshock was. Once they’re in the story, it’s as though the big green ‘Go’ button that everyone has been avoiding for the past few episodes is well and truly pushed and the storytelling becomes far simpler – there are Cybermen in the sewers, and an enormous Cyber-fleet in orbit. Game on!
Once the Cybermen are revealed, defeating them becomes the business of the day and things get high-octane – the St Paul’s march beginning a full-on street battle with UNIT troops. And when they find themselves hopelessly outgunned and out-bombed against the invasion fleet, all the UNIT expertise in the world is no match for Zoe’s brain – she instantly calculates a way to set off a chain reaction of explosions in the fleet, and they are wiped out of the sky with little ceremony, the outer space threat never quite mustering the same oomph as the street-battle (proving Sherwin’s theory that bringing the danger onto our streets was an effective way for the show to go). For a story that spends several episodes in languor, The Invasion then comes to an end of unseemly haste – no sooner has the fleet exploded than the Tardis crew are being escorted to their vehicle and leaving.