Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Who Reviews Invasion of the Dinosaurs by Tony J Fyler

The Invasion of the Dinosaurs

By Tony J Fyler

Tony Fyler walks with dinosaurs.

There are Classic Doctor Who stories that transcend some dodgy elements, and there are those that don’t. The Talons of Weng Chiang, let’s not forget, has a ludicrous pantomime giant rat in it, but it manages to become a shuffling, coughing afterthought when people talk about that story. Terror of the Zygons has a deeply unconvincing Loch Ness Monster in it, but it also has a cracking story and the Zygons, so it’s redeemed by imagination. Kinda does enough good work to make people ignore the inexecrable lameness of the Mara snake. Fans ignore the fact that The Invasion has zip-up and lace-up Cybermen in it (and not in a cool, Frankenstein’s Monster way. In the other way).

On the other hand, stories like Warriors of the Deep, with its pantomime Myrka and shabby-bodied Sea Devils, are cast into the pit of shame for its visual defects. The Web Planet, no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens, never really gets beyond the oddness of the Zarbi and the Menoptera costumes. And probably the least said about Mestor in The Twin Dilemma, or Erato in Creature from The Pit, or Kronos the Time Monster, or the Fish People from The Underwater Menace the better for all concerned.
Perhaps no story suffers more from this shame of visual defects though than Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Part of the reason for that suffering is the up-front way the story promises to deliver its premise. It’s the Invasion OF THE DINOSAURS, which rather supposes the Production Team will deliver proper, scary dinosaurs as the main event. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs and more dinosaurs! What could be better for children in the seventies? Dinosaurs bring with them an instant kick of kid-rush, like sugar and Disneyland, because they’re enormous and mysterious and frightening and loud. Witness, some forty years later, the fact that Steven Moffatt, when putting dinosaurs on screen, pulled the same trick and made sure they were right there in the title of DINOSAURS on a SPACESHIP.

Part of the reason though is the enormous failed-souffle gulf between the high-adventure potential of having an invasion of the dinosaurs and then…looking at how they were actually realised. There’s failure, after all, and then there’s epic, twitchy, ‘those are just models like you get in the shops’ failure. The point of which is that if you’d simply had a black screen and Jon Pertwee reading the script with some sound effects, your imagine would have peppered the story with amazing, drooling, enormous dinosaurs, the like of which would have made Invasion of the Dinosaurs an absolute classic – but actually having them there in all their plastic, almost immobile complete and utter naffness drops you out of the story and stops you enjoying it.

Or does it?

You see, this is a technique I’m employing. I’m copping to the unsaveable naffness of the monsters up front, because actually, if you watch Invasion of the Dinosaurs as a conspiracy story, it’s utterly brilliant. I’m urging you to do exactly that, and to do with the dinosaurs what you’d do if you just had Jon Pertwee reading the novelisation to you. Work, work your thoughts, and where you see a naff plastic toy being jerked about by an operator, imagine you see the giant reptile preparing to scoop you up and swallow you in just two bites. Imagine, when you see the T-Rex and the Stegosaurus go at it that you’re seeing the action from Jurassic World, rather than the two utterly disappointing models that are actually on screen. Do that – use your imagination, and what remains in Invasion of the Dinosaurs is actually highly compelling, witty, and tragic, while highlighting ecological issues that are a whole hell of a lot more relevant in 2016 than they were in 1974 when the story aired.

The first episode is, mostly thanks to the strength of the script by Malcolm Hulke and even more to the direction by Paddy Kingsland, an object lesson in suspense, and almost a forerunner to the ultra-bleak thrillers that would pepper the eighties, like Day of the Triffids, Threads and Survivors. The sense of growing jittery nervousness that builds through the lack of people on the streets, the introduction of looters armed with shotguns, the whisking of our heroes into the justice system as administered by martial law, it’s all quite bleak, and the use of UNIT’s finest to highlight the appearances of the ‘monsters’ shows quite how effective UNIT could be in moving a story along.

More than anything though, Invasion of the Dinosaurs is the story of a good cause undermined by bad people, good people betrayed by unscrupulous leaders, and the story of one man, Mike Yates, who is in need of a belief in something good, after having seen incredibly bad things happen. In terms of Doctor Who baddies, you can’t really do better than Invasion of the Dinosaurs, pairing up Peter ‘the man who would be Nyder’ Miles with John ‘Li H’sen Chang’ Bennett, and adding Menoptera and Varos Governor Martin Jarvis, here giving his all in the quiet menace department as Butler. That’s some powerful bad guy action, however you look at it. Coupled with the well-meaning but woolly-headed eco-evangelists who are taken in by the schemers – Brian Badcoe as Adam, and Carmen Silvera as Ruth, with Terence Wilton as Mark – and you have a high-concept eco-conspiracy in which, to be absolutely honest, the dinosaurs are always exactly what the Doctor suspects they are – a sideshow to the main event.

Malcolm Hulke was an unreconstructed socialist in the days before that was some kind of thought-crime, and his message in the story was as subtle as a Robert Holmes punch in the teeth: the problems the world faces are real and terrifying, but beware blind loyalty to leaders, because power corrupts, and under no circumstances will the problems be solved by simply running away, as the Operation Golden Age crew seek to do. It was a message used, a decade and a half later, by fellow socialist and comic writer Ben Elton as the theme for his novel, Stark, it was still relevant then. It’s clearly still relevant today, as is Dinosaurs’ other thread of the intertwining of ideas through power structures – to pull off their scheme, the Golden Agers have to raise vast amounts of capital, have a hidden hand in government, in the army, and in many other strata of society.

But let’s not forget Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the tragedy of Mike Yates. The man who had been one of Lethbridge-Stewart’s right-hand men, traumatised by the life that UNIT involved him in, is a man in search of meaning, in search of a bigger difference to make, without sacrificing the things he knows and feels are right. When he throws his lot in with Operation Golden Age, Mike genuinely feels like he’s saving the world, even though on the outskirts of his consciousness, he knows there’s something terroristic about the methods they use. He doesn’t understand the horrific consequences of the real plan he’s helping, but then, nobody does – not Ruth and Adam, not Mark – only the hardcore fanatics who take the good people sickened by the threat of overpopulation, ecological collapse and societal breakdown, and use them for their own ends know the cynical truth of that. When Yates faces a crisis of conscience, it is his undoing, and he falls from Lethbridge-Stewart’s grace, ultimately for the crime of having a more nuanced understanding of good and evil than Lethbridge-Stewart himself, and for being easily led and needing to make a bigger difference.

So when you look back on Invasion of the Dinosaurs, look to its strengths – its moral lessons of unscrupulous leaders being able to herd good people, its political message of the damage humanity does, and the perversity of danger that leaves them in, the emotional story of a man who loses everything he’s worked for, simply to believe in making a bigger difference, its delivery of a tense apocalyptic thriller that becomes a cat and mouse game of trusting no-one, and its shocking portrayal of just how cynical the powerful can be in the pursuit of their own goals.

Yes, the dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs are utterly unconvincing, and an epic fail. But if fans judged stories purely based on the visual threat of the monsters, Doctor Who would never have got past the Monoids, the Voord, or hell, even those weird plywood monsters covered in ballcocks, with a whisk for one hand and a sink plunger for the other. On all the levels that really matter, Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a tour de force of Pertwee Who. And for all the rest, there’s imagination. You have the power to make Invasion of the Dinosaurs feel like the terrifying reptilian epic it was written to be, right there in your imagination. That’s what makes you Doctor Who fans.

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