Monday, February 28, 2011

Aliens of London/World War III

[2005, Season 27/Series 1, Episodes 4 & 5]

Aliens of London begins by exploring territory Doctor Who has never really explored before: what travelling with the Doctor does to a companion.  The Doctor brings Rose back home, but accidentally brings her one year after she left.  Her mother and boyfriend Mickey thought she was kidnapped, and her mother thought it was Mickey, causing all sorts of trauma.

The deeply human drama of the opening dramatic scenes is wonderful.  It adds a layer of reality to the wild fantasies of this show.  It’s genuinely thoughtful and even moving.  It's made even better when the Doctor begins to open up a little bit, making a wonderful bit of acting from Eccleston and Piper.  Further, the awkwardness the Doctor feels in a domestic situation is perfect.  His insensitivity is exactly what you'd expect, and it's done very nicely.

Although the CSO sucks (and is pointless).

It’s too bad that stuff is dumped in the midst of a story about farting aliens.  I mean, seriously, nobody realized what a dumb idea that was?  The villains aren’t helped by the fact that, without their masks, they look pretty lousy, both in costume and CGI form.

To be fair, the plot starts well, with a spaceship crashing into Big Ben and some nice mysteries set up.  The Doctor’s stuff with UNIT is good.  And, to be fair, when the farting aliens show up, there is at least a lot of energy, a couple clever bits from the Doctor (I love his bluff about blowing up the alcohol), and a good character in Harriet Jones.  It's enough to make it watchable.  But it’s a silly, forgettable plot with lame aliens (wasting good performances as those aliens), climaxed with an uninspiring and ordinary finale, pointlessly stretched over two episodes.  Seriously, there's no reason on earth for this to go on more than 45 minutes.  The first half is just marking time to get to its meh cliffhanger, and far too much of the action in the second half is shot like a Benny Hill chase.  Even at one episode, it wouldn't exactly be a classic, but across two?  I'm totally going to complain about the whole 45 minute compression sometimes (and already have), but that's about good stories.  This didn't really deserve one episode.

But that human drama at the beginning?  Terrific.

* * ½

  • Mickey wasn't that likable a character in Rose - not unlikable, exactly, just not terribly likable.  Here, he's clearly grown up quite a bit.  It's really nice that RTD acknowledges that these people have changed in believable ways after Rose disappears for a year.
  • For all its faults, the story is very watchable, and a lot of that has to do with RTD's talent for character dialogue.  Several of the exchanges between the Doctor, Rose, and Harriet Jones are priceless.

    DOCTOR: [to the Slitheen] What are you, exactly?
    HARRIET: They're aliens.
    : Yeah, I got that, thanks.

  • Farting aliens?  Seriously? 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Unquiet Dead

[2005 - Season 27/Series 1 - Episode 3]

The Unquiet Dead starts a tradition the new series has done many, many times: dump us into a historical period as often as possible, but always give it a sci-fi twist.  I'd really like to see more otherworldly settings or even some straight-up historicals, but if all the semi-historicals were this good, I doubt I'd complain.  The period detail and production are sweeping, with enrapturing sets, costumes, and atmosphere.  Mark Gatiss' story is good -- complex, thoughtful, and surprising.  It packs a lot into the 45 minute timeframe, and is a real joy to watch.  The characters are intriguing and have some depth, and are perfectly played by the actors.

Having gone to the far future, the Doctor takes Rose to her past -- 1860s Cardiff, to be precise.  They soon stumble across a series of strange events -- dead bodies coming to life, apparent ghosts, and a clairvoyant young woman working for the very funeral parlour where all this mysteriousness is coming from... and while they're at it, they run into Charles Dickens himself, who soon finds himself involved in all sorts of "phatasmagoria" that he would never have believed.

It’s a dark, scary, compelling story, but unfortunately, it’s been softened and lightened too much.  RTD apparently didn't want the ghost story to be scary, and had Gatiss scale it back.  Gabriel Sneed is set up as a great Dickensian villain in the grand tradition of Sykes and Miss Havisham, what with his threatening Gwenyth and chloroforming Rose and dumping her in a room with zombies and such... and then nothing comes of it.  He’s just weirdly threatening but apparently not evil, I guess, which isn’t terribly interesting.  

Though I can't fault the casting for a second.

 Dickens’ angst and depression should be deep and powerful, but it doesn't really seem like more than someone on a bad day, just your average funk.  The ending should be much more moving.  Simon Callow is magnificent as Dickens; it's too bad his material isn't quite as good as he is.

Speaking of which, the climax almost End of the World for fizzling out after great buildup.  The ghosts look spectacular, their story is good, the hints about the Time War are fascinating, and the intensity goes sky-high... and what does the Doctor, our great hero do?  Well, nothing.  The Time Lord does nothing to stop what happens.  Someone else figures things out, there's a sacrifice (which, to be fair, is far, far more affecting than the previous episodes', since it actually seems to come out of the story and character), the Doctor does a little monologuing, and that's it.  It's not near as unsatisfying as End of the World, but the Doctor is starting to seem like an incidental character in his own show.

I don't want to tear into this episode too much.  It really is a good, solid episode, well written, well directed, extremely well acted.  It just could have been a great episode, and the things that make it miss greatness are so frustrating.  But it does a great job at balancing the historical, character, and sci-fi elements, and it fits them all into 45 minutes very effectively.  It's good stuff.


* * * 

  • Okay, Billie Piper is a gorgeous woman, but man, her widest smiles show just a few too many teeth.  I mean, it's not an inhuman amount of teeth like Tom Baker, but still...
  • Murray Gold's scores are improving through this series.  I guess I might as well put my feelings about his music down now: with the exception of some clumsy early episodes, I generally like his stuff.  Except for his obnoxious comedy music (and to be fair, I just generally find comedy music obnoxious in general), it's good music, and occasionally spectacular music.  He fills the soundscape with drama and excitement, and comes up with wonderful themes and ideas.  The only problem is that sometimes he scores scenes that would be far more effective without music.  But, to be honest, that's more the fault of the director or producer than him; they should know when to underplay things, and it's their job to get rid of unnecessary music.
  • The visual effects guys have definitely seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seriously, the ghosts move exactly like the angels at the end of Raiders.

         That's not a complaint, mind you.  Just a note.

  •  One thing that mostly disappeared after Romana left was the fun costuming for the companions.  This show corrects that oversight already: they've already got Rose in an awesome period dress.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The End of the World

            Rose: You think you’re so impressive.

            Doctor: I am so impressive.

            Rose: You wish.

            Doctor: All right, then, you asked for it.  I know exactly where to go…

Now this is more like it.

The first and most obvious plus about this episode is the magnificent visual effects.  The production team spent 70% of their season’s F/X budget on this one episode to start the season proper off with a bang, and it pays off spectacularly.

The creatures are also pretty spectacular.

End of the World sets up an entire universe for us to fall into.  Doctor Who has rarely felt so cool.

Furthermore, RTD’s script does a very good job with the 45-minute format, creating a simple but effective story, and then placing it in a spectacular location and filling it out with great characters.

For her first trip in the TARDIS, the Doctor takes literally to the end of the Earth, as the sun explodes and wipes out the planet in the year 5,000,000,000.  In this future, the destruction of planets is a tourist attraction for the wealthy.  As they wait to watch the Earth burn, something goes wrong, and the supposedly safe spacecraft is suddenly only moments away from annihilation.

The Ninth Doctor is at his most joyous in the early scenes, as he watches Rose’s wonder and confusion with great glee.  Then Rose freaks out a little, understandably, and their scene alone is very effective at getting across just how shocking a first trip in the TARDIS would be – especially when you’re dumped in the middle of your own planet’s destruction.  Her reaction is totally believable and makes her a perfect audience surrogate.

Cassandra is a great creation – the “last” human, as she calls herself.  She’s been reduced to a mouth, eyes, and some skin stretched across some bars.  Creepy and funny, and a nicely-written character.

The other strong supporting character is Jabe, a walking tree, vividly fleshed out in a very short time by Yasmin Bannerman – and a knockout piece of makeup work.

As the plot thickens, the tension builds effectively.  This episode was directed by Euros Lyn, who turned out to be one of the best recurring directors Doctor Who has been blessed with, on the short list with Graeme Harper, Douglas Camfield, James Hawes, Joe Ahearne, Fiona Cumming, Peter Grimwade, David Maloney, and Paddy Russell.   It’s nicely paced and moves from lighthearted to thoughtful to tense very smoothly.  Sure, the villain's plan doesn't make any sense, but you don't know that until the end, and it's not like this is a particularly sane character we're dealing with.

And then it all goes to pieces in the climax.  All that build-up and excitement, and the solution is for the Doctor to walk past a couple of fans and flip a single switch.  That’s the big finale.  All the nicely-built tension fizzles completely.  Further, he gets somebody killed because he hesitates in a way that he wouldn’t have done even in his Fifth incarnation – so very, very unDoctorly.  It's just a contrived attempt at pathos.
Seriously, who builds a room in a spaceship like this?

It’s too bad that it falls apart at what should be the high point.  It recovers afterward with a great confrontation between the Doctor and the villain that very powerfully shows us the Doctor’s dark side (and the full force of Eccleston's intensity), but that weak climax still dampens the impact of an otherwise first-rate story.  Still, as the real start of the series, with the TARDIS taking us to brand new worlds and the Doctor meeting and fighting aliens, it’s a strong opening, a good introduction to the universe, and simply great fun.

* * *
·        I was overjoyed to hear RTD’s explanation for how the companions can always understand the language wherever they go.  It’s something that really threw me when I first got into the classic series and took a few episodes to get used to; here, explaining it from the beginning makes the whole thing much smoother.  Plus, it’s a good explanation that still leaves some mystery in the thing.
·        I was most definitely not overjoyed, however, with RTD’s pop culture bit with the “ipod” playing 20th century music.  It was trying to hard to be clever, and was just annoying.
·        Anyway, one more time, this is a beautiful-looking episode.

Thursday, February 24, 2011



[2005, Season 27/Series 1, Episode 1]

How do you begin the return of a low-budget sci-fi show that, other than an unsuccessful TV movie, has been off the air for 16 years?  With cool titles created with dazzling effects and topped by an amped-up version of the familiar theme.  And then a great F/X shot of the Earth and the Moon, slowly zooming in on London.  It’s back, and this time with effects worth of the title “special”!

The montage that follows introduces us to Rose Tyler, and writer Russell T. Davies shows why the return of a long-cancelled show could work so beautifully: it remembered that the most important element of Doctor Who – and almost all the best television shows of any kind – is character.  Rose is complex and well-written; she can be self-absorbed and even narcissistic to the point of unlikability, but she’s also funny, brave, good-hearted, and very sunny.  She can be totally appealing and usually is, and her character flaws aren’t about plot conveniences like so many character flaws, but simply because she’s a person.  Davies also gets one other crucial element: she’s lonely.  She has a loving (if overbearing) mother and a dedicated boyfriend, but she’s also somehow very alone in this world.  She’s the center of this story – and, indeed, the entire first season – and through her eyes we meet the Ninth Doctor, who, as it turns out, may in fact be the loneliest creature in the entire universe.  It’s this element above all that makes this one of the most intriguing and moving of all the Doctor/Companion relationships, and that isn’t to be taken lightly.

And the gorgeous Billie Piper nails the character right from her first moment.  The casting couldn’t be more perfect.

It isn’t five minutes in the episode before she’s being attacked by living manniquins… and saved by a mysterious, anachronistically-dressed man, who tells her just one word:


And with that, the Doctor has returned.

Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is an odd one: although it isn’t revealed for some time, it eventually turns out that this Doctor carries a terrible burden.  He ended the most horrific of wars in the most horrific of ways.  He had no other choice, but it’s a terrible burden nonetheless.  Eccleston does seem like a curious, adventurous alien, but he’s much darker than his predecessors, very intense, making his serious moments edgy and his silly moments somehow even edgier.  His silly faces have a strained look and a hidden tragedy.  It’s not how I’d want every Doctor, but one of them this way is fine, and it’s fantastic with an actor as good as Eccleston.

The characterizations are terrific, as is the relationship, even in this limited time.  It’s both funny and dramatic, and pulls both off very nicely.

            Doctor: What are you doing here?

           Rose: I live here!
            Doctor: Well, what do you do that for?

The scene when Rose first enters the TARDIS is excellent.  There’s the sense of wonder from the whole “bigger on the inside” aspect, and the inside of the ship is great.  Not quite as good as the original ’63 set or the stunning ’96 vision, but still very cool.  But better is the dialogue that follows.  Rose comments on the size, the Doctor acts all non-chalant while totally failing to hide his delight, and then Rose starts crying.  The Doctor assumes its part of the shock of entering such a wild place, but…

            Rose: Did they kill him?  Mickey, did they kill Mickey?  Is he dead?

            Doctor: Oh.  I didn’t think of that.
Rose: He’s my boyfriend.  You pulled off his head, they copied him, you didn’t even think… and now you’re just going to let him melt?

It’s a great little piece of characterization in just a few lines.  And this, above all, is why the new Doctor Who works as well as the Old.  After all, without any money to spend, the old had to rely on characterization and imagination to be compelling, and that’s what sustained it for so many decades.  Here, character is priority one, and it nails it.

Unfortunately, with only 45 minutes instead of the old 90+ for the story, the plot has to be left behind for the characters.  This would be perfectly fine if the plot that’s here wasn’t so lame.  RTD made a great decision emphasizing character, and in theory, the decision to use the Autons as the villains was a good one.  After all, they’re terrific bad guys, but they weren’t on the old show much, so there’s no globs of mythology to bog things down in exposition.  Unfortunately, they’re just not very scary, at least not in comparison to the old times.  In Spearhead From Space, they’re terrifying.  In Terror of the Autons, they’re not as effective, but they’re still eerie and threatening.  Here… they’re just plastic things going around.  Particularly lousy is the far-too-obvious plastic copy of Mickey.  It’s ridiculous that Rose doesn’t figure out the ruse sooner, even as self-absorbed as she is.

Nope, nothing obviously evil and inhuman here.

I mean, they're a little creepy, but not very much.

The storyline follows a series of minor mysteries, but they never really come together in any meaningful or interesting way.  To be honest, the plot is just a thread to hang the character stuff on and a way of spinning the wheels long enough to get to the climax.

The Doctor’s showdown with the Nestine Consciousness starts out well; it doesn’t let us hear what the Consciousness is saying, only the Doctor, and not only does Eccleston show the tremendous authority you’d espect, but what he says is wonderfully intriguing and mysterious.  The consciousness is represented by a CGI creature that looks imperfect and cartoonish but nonetheless imaginative and impressive.  In the end, though, the Doctor doesn’t really do much in the climax, just gets captured until Rose too easily rescues him.  I mean, it’s nice to flip the tables and have the companion rescue the Doctor, but not when the Doctor doesn’t actually do anything or it isn't really clever.

Everything is solved in a brief and unsatisfying matter after an interesting build-up.  It's a clumsy, anti-climactic way to end a potentially gripping showdown.

So the character stuff is good, the plot isn’t.  Still, it’s a pilot episode, which are always a struggle. This particular journey may not have been particularly impressive, but at the end, we’re off on brand new adventures with characters we’re already interested in. 

And the next episode does a vastly better job of showing us what Doctor Who is all about and why it’s awesome.

* * ½


  • After that awesome remix of the title theme, Murray Gold’s score unfortunately degenerates into little more than irrelevant and distracting techno and rock beats.  There are times when Gold’s music for the series is terrific; this, unfortunately, is far from one of those.  It seems more concerned with sounding “modern” and “big” than “dramatic” or “having anything to do with what’s going on onscreen.” 
  • I like the subplot about Clive.  He's a guy who, through vast amounts of research, actually has a pretty good idea of who the Doctor is.  You'd expect the two of them to meet up, but that doesn't happen.  His beliefs are rewarded in a tragic way, and he never meets the man he studied for so long.  It's one part of the finale that does have a real impact.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

RIP Nicholas Courtney

Nicholas Courtney, the man who made Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart such a wonderful character and who always brought so much to ever moment, passed away yesterday at the age of 81.

I'd like to dedicate this post to a great actor and by all accounts a wonderful human being.

I salute you, sir, along with all my fellow Whovians.

Even the Daleks salute his death.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons
[1971 – Season 8, Serial 1]

We begin in a circus.  Luigi Rossini, the owner, is stopped in his tracks by an astonishing event.  A sound familiar to us occurs: the whine of a TARDIS – but not the Doctor’s.  A van appears directly in front of Rossini.  Out of the trailer steps a man dressed in black.  He introduces himself, saying he is usually referred to as The Master.  Rossini, assuming this guy is a conjurer looking for a job, tries to throw him out.  The Master turns towards him an hypnotizes him with a single look.  Rossini is his to command.

And with that, we are introduced to the man who would become the Doctor’s arch-nemesis: fellow Time Lord, childhood best friend, now lost to evil.  Roger Delgado could not have been more perfectly cast; his Master is magnetic and fascinating.  While the Master would eventually lose some of his effectiveness through overuse, he makes a knockout impression here.

In his first story, he is working with the Nestine Consciousness, head of the Autons, those horrific plastic creatures from Spearhead In Space.  He aids their attempt to conquer the earth for reasons known only to him.

Terror of the Autons is, in many ways, a milestone Doctor Who story.  It completes the UNIT family by introducing Captain Mike Yates.  It introduces Jo Grant, who would be the Third Doctor’s companion for three years.  And above all, it introduces the Doctor’s archenemy.  The Master comes off very well; writer Robert Holmes makes the mix of friendship and mortal rivalry between him and the Doctor compelling and fun.

Ms. Grant’s debut is a bit more controversial.  Jo is often regarded as a big step back for feminism, with her meek personality, clumsiness, and apparent uselessness.  I think people who see only that side of her are totally missing the point (or only watching her lousy episodes).  She’s very much like a good version of Harley Quinn: a relentlessly cheerful, bubbly girl on the surface, and as a consequence constantly underestimated by everyone.  But when pushed to it, she shows incredible resourcefulness and bravery, and outwits her apparent betters.  I think it’s a joy to watch her, and it’s only helped by the perfect casting.

Katy Manning is so perfectly cast as Jo that it’s easy to forgive her occa… for… I… I… I can’t do it.  I can’t say anything even kindly or slightly negative.  She’s just so cute, so nice, so sweet.  It’d be like kicking a puppy.   She’s perfectly wonderful.  What’s more, her chemistry with  Pertwee is evident right from the beginning; it’s a joy to see these two together.

The other introduction, that of Captain Mike Yates, isn’t so effective.  Eventually, the writers would get around to giving him some interesting stuff to do, but here, he evidences no semblance of personality or character.  But he’s kept in the background, so it’s no real loss.  Otherwise, UNIT is used pretty well.  It’s of course wonderful to see the Brig, and UNIT gets in on the action in some good action scenes late in the story.

The Autons have to share the villain light with the Master, which unfortunately means one of them is going to get the short end of the stick, and it’s the otherworldly plastic abominations.  They barely appear in the story, and their appearance is lessened by the bigheaded masks they wear, making them far less terrifying.

Surely, the face of evil itself.

Still, they have three terrific moments in the story.  The fight in the quarry is scary and thrilling, and stands as one of the great moments of the early ‘70s.  Their attack on Jo with the flower is incredibly unsettling.  And their murder of an unfortunately victim with a hideous plastic doll is both creepy and darkly funny, which makes for quite an uneasy scene.

Given this is a Robert Holmes script, characterization and dialogue is great.  Besides the Master and Jo, he does a perfectly fine job with the Doctor and the Brig, and adds two more characters vividly sketched in a limited time: Rex Farrel and his father, Farrel Sr.  With just one scene between them, you learn everything about their relationship and the younger Farrel.  The father comes across as an overbearing patriarch, disappointed in his son, and obviously unsympathetic, though his strong-willed resistance to the Master gives him points.  But when he goes home to his wife, their dialogue totally fleshes him out into a sympathetic, three-dimensional character.  He only gets those three scenes, none of them very long, but he’s completely humanized in those brief moments.

The younger Farrel gets a bit more screentime, and does eventually become more than the Master’s hapless victim himself.  The portrayal by Michael Wisher is very strong, though fans know he has a much more unforgettable appearance in a later serial…

And the Doctor?  Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor was a man of action, who jumped right into the fray with the full force of his charm, wit, and intelligence.  He’s patronizing, egotistic, funny, and totally heroic.  He’s one of the most three-dimensional of the Doctors; his flaws aren’t limited to the obvious flaws of the Doctor, nor are his good points limited to his power and heroism.  Holmes, not surprisingly, gives him plenty to work with.

Rossini: I don't think my friend's going to like you.

Doctor: I'm sure of it.

Doctor: How much are they paying you?

Rossini: Come, come, Doctor, gentlemen don't discuss money.

Doctor: Nonsense.  Gentlemen never talk about anything else.
Jo: Doctor, stop being childish.

Doctor: What's wrong with being childish?  I like being childish.
I love the way the Doctor turns on the "pen-pusher" in Episode 3, and then pretty much turns him to his side in a few smooth lines of dialogue.  I also love the very knowing look Jo gives the Doctor when he calls the Master self-conceited.

For all its good point, Terror of the Autons doesn’t really amount to much.  It’s another invasion of Earth, foiled at the last minute.  Other than the Master’s last bit, the finale has little tension or meaning.  It’s done very well, of course, but it’s a pretty weak story to hang such wonderful execution on.  Still, great execution of a so-so story in almost every aspect is more than worth a look.  It may not be special or particularly compelling, but it’s very entertaining.

* * *

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Invasion

The Invasion
[1960 - Season 6, Serial 3]

So, if you watch the Patrick Troughton stories in order, there's a tendency to get a little burnt out.  Part of it is just how much of his first two seasons are missing, but this isn't the real problem.  The real problem is that from The Moonbase in the midst of season 4 until Wheel In Space at the end of 5, they're all exactly the same.  Except for David Whitaker's Evil of the Daleks and Enemy of the World, every episode is, literally, just The Moonbase: a small base is put under siege by a monstrous outside threat, but the stubborn leader of the base refuses, absolutely refuses, to listen to the Doctor about the threat, allowing the monsters to thrive.  Except in different locations, (sometimes) different monsters, and usually stretched to six episodes by making the base leader take even longer to listen.

It's not that these stories are bad.  All of them are at least moderately entertaining, and two of them - Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep - are superlative.  But they're so endlessly repetitive that by the time you get to Season 6, you're pretty burnt out.  And then you start 6, with the constant bases under siege behind you, and you get The Dominators.  Which isn't quite as bad as its reputation, but only because its reputation equates it with Time and the Rani and Fear HerThe Mind Robber is, incredibly, brilliant enough to redeem all this, but it's a long, hard road.

Patrick Troughton himself was pretty burned out, and had already decided that Season 6 would be his last.  Producer Innes Lloyd had moved on, leaving Derrick Sherwin as producer; Sherwin, too, wanted to move on.  He was also presented a show with mediocre ratings, far below the heyday of the early Hartnell years, and an uncertain future.  The Invasion was created as an attempt to prove the viability of a new format idea: modern-day earth-set stories, which had been tried out already in The War Machines and (much more successfully) The Web of Fear.

This isn’t an idea I’m terribly fond of in theory: after all, part of the attraction of Doctor Who is that you have literally all of time and space at your disposal.  That said, it’s an understandable viewpoint that having literally everything, writers can easily fall into a rut of what they did last time.  It’s like one of my favorite movie quotes, from Legend of 1900: “On a piano with 88 keys, you can play an infinity of songs, but on a piano with infinite keys, there’s not a song you can play.”  So I suppose giving it such tight restrictions in theory would force the writers to be creative.

Granted, the writers ended up frustrated because there’s just only so much you can do with the Doctor on modern-day earth, all of which had been done by the end of their first season, and they kept trying desperately to come up with excuses to get him off-world.  But that’s in the future…

The Invasion has the Doctor land on Earth after barely surviving the events of The Mind Robber.  Also, having a rocket fired at them in orbit around the moon, which is a bit unusual, given that they’re in the ‘60s. (…or is it the ‘70s?) The Doctor, along with his companions, 18th century Scotsman teen Jamie and 24th century math genius teen Zoe, find that International Electromatics and its owner, Tobias Vaughan, are clearly up to no good whatsoever, but what, exactly, is going on?
You can tell he's evil because he can't open his eye all the way.

The Invasion is a well-structured, well-written action yarn, filled with vivid characters and exciting set-pieces.  It also benefits tremendously from one of Doctor Who's secret weapons, Douglas Camfield.  Camfield was, without question, one of the three greatest classic Who directors, and he drives The Invasion forward with an electrifying energy and atmosphere.

The TARDIS crew stumbles onto a vast conspiracy involving a secret alien invasion carried out by an electronics company.  They also meet a photographer,  Isobel, who is very well drawn and totally likable.  She’s one of those occasional supporting characters so likable you almost wish they would join and become a companion themselves.

It also helps that the second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe all work very well together, and the actors have wonderful chemistry.  These are all fun characters, both together and individually.  Even with all the conspiratorial plotting and shadowy figures, it's them (along with Isobel) that carry the early episodes.

And then, there's Tobias Vaughan, the central villain of the piece, and an absolutely fantastic one, thanks largely the Kevin Stoney's wonderfully oily performance. Vaughan has been planning and aiding a secret alien invasion for years, quietly biding his time to double-cross his allies and take over the world himself.  It’s the sort of motivation that can be dull, but Stoney gives him life and depth, while remaining creepily unnerving.  His dialogues with Troughton absolutely crackle.

And then, in episode four, when the story really gets rolling, it's a doozy.  The twist at the end of episode four was spoiled for me (and, in fact, everything in the world has gone out of its way to spoil it for everyone, but I have some integrity for spoiling 41-year-old low-budget TV programs), but it’s still very cool.


It’s Cybermen.  Totally Cybermen.  They’re even more threatening than usual and very well used, mostly because they barely appear.  Their few scenes onscreen are gripping, and their emergence from the sewers is one of the iconic Who scenes from the ‘60s for good reason.


What makes the surprise villains really work, oddly enough, is that they’re kept in the background.  The central villains are Vaughan and the beautifully designed computer controller. 
The awesome computer controller.

Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor is near his peak here.  Troughton had an occasional tendency to be too clownish or overdo the bluster and bumbling.  But he has the mixture perfect here: just enough of the bluster to give humor and even vulnerability to the Doctor, but plenty of his darker, more serious side.  It’s a blast.

And the gradual reveal of the plot is terrific.  Episode four is absolutely gripping, building to a great cliffhanger.  The next two episodes match it for suspense, leading to that classic cliffhanger in episode six.  Those three episodes are just brilliant.  I especially like the long period of silence just before the invasion begins.

Unfortunately, the resolution isn’t nearly as strong.  The ideas are all good, but the desperate attempt to stop the invasion by the few conscious humans are far less riveting than they should be.  Camfield still fills it with exciting scenes, but the writing in the closing episodes just doesn't match that in the first six.  Still, the scenes of Troughton and Vaughan running through Cybermen-infested building complexes are great, and the stuff with the rockets is good.  It's not quite as thrilling or engaging as it should be, but it's still fun.
Especially this bit right here.

And its importance to the show is noteworthy: it was the dress rehersal for the early Perwee years, and it works pretty well.  It’s always a delight to see Lethbridge-Stewart (only a Colonel here), thanks to Nicholas Courtney’s always wonderful performances.  UNIT is fairly well-served in its first real appearance, and it’s obvious even here why Courtney became one of the regulars in the ‘70s.   
And look!  Sergeant, er... Corporal Benton!

A great yarn, all in all.

* * * ½

·        I like the scene where Zoe kills computer with uncalculatable problems.  It’s a good variation on an idea that’s become a joke.
·        The music is strange.  It was written by Don Harper instead of series regular Dudley Simpson.  For a while, it’s good if a bit bizarre, coming off as a clever, eclectic way of approaching the series.  Unfortunately, while Harper’s music is fine during quiet suspense scenes, it’s poor during action, and ruins several key moments.
·        There’s a great little moment foreshadowing the Seventh Doctor: the Doctor here seems to know (or at least strongly suspect) exactly what’s going on pretty early, but refuses to tell his companions.  Later, when he tells Zoe, she says, “That’s what you suspected, isn’t it?”  The Doctor sort of avoids her gaze, and the scene moves on.  Obviously, it isn’t to the same extreme, since Ace eventually started getting outright furious at Seven’s constant manipulations of everyone, including her.
·        I praised Stoney very highly up there, and I’d like to emphasize how much his skilled, intriguing, and nicely restrained performance adds to the story.  But there is a moment in Episode 5 when he goes way, way over the top, and it doesn’t work at all.
This may just be the funniest moment in the story.
 ·        Love this dialogue between Isobel and the Brig:
ISOBEL: All I need is my cameras from the house and I’m all set.
BRIGADIER: Well, now, wait a minute.  This is hardly a job for you.
ISOBEL: Whyever not?
BRIGADIER: Well, uh, you’re a young woman.  This is a job for my men.
ISOBEL: Of all the bigoted, antifeminist, cretinous remarks!
BRIGADIER: This is no job for a girl like you, that’s final!
ISOBEL: Why, you… you… you Man!
·        Many of the ‘60s episodes are missing due to the BBC’s policy of wiping tapes for re-use in the ‘70s, apparently never thinking that people might want to watch them again.  Fortunately, fans recorded the audio of every missing episode during the original transmissions, so we have the sound from every missing episode.  For The Invasion, the missing episodes (1 & 4) were recreated for the DVD with flash animation, and for the most part, it works pretty well.
The Doctor, Jamie, and Bad Guy in cartoon form.

They generally do a nice job of following the filming styles of the series while occasionally taking advantage of the medium to do shots they never could have had the time or money for in the actual filming.

It doesn’t work as well in the scene following the above, unfortunately; bad guys shooting machine guns at the roof the good guys are standing on should be exciting and dynamic, but it feels like they ran out of time before this scene.  Ah well; most of it works beautifully.
·        Amongst its other special features, the DVD has the filmed narrations from Nicholas Courtney covering the missing material in episodes 1 & 4 created for the 1993 VHS release.  This is a nice addition anyway, but I smiled when I saw in the credits that John Nathan-Turner wrote and produced the linking material.  It’s always nice to remember that for all the mistakes JNT made producing the show (and he made some doozies), he really, truly cared about Doctor Who and did many things right.  Here, even years after the show was cancelled, he was still pouring his time and effort into a show that had practically become his life for over a decade.