Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Android Invasion

The Android Invasion has problems.  Serious, gigantic problems.  Plot problems.  Character problems.  Structural problems.  It wastes good recurring characters and gives beloved performers lousy exits.  Above all, in a season of astounding ambition, it's the one story that isn't even trying to be interesting.  It's a by-the-numbers Terry Nation yarn that only looks all the worse for coming in between Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius.  By any objective standard, it kinda sucks.

I like this one. 

Oh, I know it's rubbish.  Styggron, the central villain, and his fellow villains are as generic and boring on the page as the Zygons, without the benefit of brilliant direction and awesome design to redeem them.

His accomplice, Guy Crawford, is ridiculous, and his character arc builds to a laughably silly solution.  The plotting is less a story than a disorganized series of random incidents.  The clever central conceit regarding robot duplicates is basically restricted to the final scenes of the second episode and the second half of the last episode, leaving the other seventy minutes as a very loose structure to hang the twenty minutes of doppleganger fun on.

And even Terry Nation's usual collection of cool, mysterious ideas don't entirely succeed, feeling more like the stuff that's expected in Who rather than something particularly interesting.  In particular, there's an appearance of the androids at the beginning of episode two where they shoot out of their fingertips in a far-too-Auton-ish way and are dressed exactly like the astronauts from Ambassadors of Death.  It just feels like a lazy rehash, which is true about so many of Nation's ideas here.

And as the final story for Sergeant Benton and Harry Sullivan, it's a disgrace.  Neither is given particularly good material, though Benton at least gets a couple good moments with his duplicate.  John Levene makes the most of every line he gets, and his too-brief android performance is riveting.  It's too bad he wasn't brought back for Seeds of Doom to get one last good appearance in.  As it is, he goes out with good acting but nothing terribly interesting to do.

Ian Marter is left even less, just a handful of random lines tossed his way.  Zygons was a fairly disappointing companion farewell for Harry, and the show blows its one chance to rectify this.  I don't think this was intended to be the last story for Benton and Harry - that's probably just how the cards fell - but even so, it's a waste of two good characters and two terrific actors.

And following Pyramids, which raised the show to a fantastic epic, and preceeding Morbius, which does the same thing even better, only makes Android Invasion seem less effective.  It's not that having a light-hearted story in between the dark epics is a bad idea; it's that even for a lighthearted romp, it aims pretty low, and then doesn't quite succeed where it aims.

So why do I like it?

I suppose, more than anything, it just has a combination of just about all the things I love most about Doctor Who in enough quantities that I can sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of silly fun.

Nation begins with his usual Episode One style -- the Doctor and Sarah wander around a quiet, mysterious world, albeit a somewhat unusual one.  The atmosphere of an Earth that isn't quite right makes for an eerie and intriguing first episode, and the Doctor's meeting with Guy Crawford is terrific.  The cliffhanger reveal of Styggron is weak, but otherwise, it's a strong first episode.  What's surprising, though, is that even on a second viewing, it's an involving yarn.  Much of this is director Barry Letts' skill at making the not-quite-right Earth village just a little bit off.

While Guy Crawford may not work on paper, Milton Johns throws himself so completely in the role that he makes the character work through sheer force of will.  The twist regarding Crawford should be laughable, but Johns makes it genuinely compelling.

But mostly, it's the chemistry between Tom Baker and Lis Sladen.  The two are so perfect as their characters and together have such a wonderful sense of breezy fun that an entire episode that's pretty much just the two of them alone makes for great entertainment.  And that element, more than anything, elevates the story far above its objective qualities.

Individually, they shine as well.  Sladen again makes Sarah Jane appealing, brave, and funny, and makes her android double eerie and fascinating.

And you know what I said in Zygons about Baker being better than Pertwee at the action stuff?  It goes double for this one.  Diving out windows, jumping off roofs, all manner of derring-do.

The second, third, and early parts of the fourth episodes are mostly just the Doctor and Sarah running, escaping, and getting captured, with only the most minimal of plot carrying it, but Nation and Letts pace these random action scenes with so much energy and Baker and Sladen play them so well that they're far more entertaining than they have any right to be.

But it's when it finally gets around to the doppelganger parts that the serial becomes a blast.  The last fifteen minutes, as the Doctor runs around, avoiding and getting confused with his android version and has to figure out who is and isn't an android, makes for a thrilling climax, building to a mano-a-mano fight between the Doctor and himself.  Baker is fantastic as his evil robot other; the scene where Android-Benton is tricked into shooting him is a knockout. (sure, it's weird that the androids can't recognize each other, but who cares?) When we finally do get the showdown between Doctors, it's absolutely satisfying.  Barry Letts pulls off what must have been an incredibly difficult scene beautifully. (watch the similar Doctor vs. Doctor fight in The Chase to see how it could have flopped)

Granted, Nation's flaws show through afterwards.  Once the androids are defeated and the Doctor has taken out his evil other, it's annoyingly anticlimactic for the other villains to still be around.  It's one final reminder that this really isn't one of the more solidly written Who stories out there.

I know that Planet of Evil is not only the more intelligent story, but the more dramatically sound, the more interesting, the more compelling.  But I honestly like this one more.  Heaven help me, I like this more than Terror of the Zygons, even though there's not a single element I can argue is superior or even equal, possibly excepting Baker and Sladen.

Only Sladen could make the patented Nation Ankle Twist actually work.
So I'm returning to the problem of ratings with a vengeance.  Even more so than the reviews, ratings are insanely subjective.  A review can at least attempt objectivity to a certain extent given the level of thought and detail it can display, whatever its conclusions.  But a rating is just a conclusion with no support in itself, and says so little about the episode itself.

I wonder sometimes why I insist on keeping the ratings - they seem to oversimplify and undermine the actual review.  I suppose that's why I put them at the end.  And somehow, the reviews just seem incomplete without them.

So, in conclusion, this is a stupid, senseless, lazy story, wasting good characters and elements and ending anticlimactically. 

I give it a solid three stars.


* * *

"Keep your hands where I can see them!"
"Those are the first friendly words I've heard all day."


  • Letts also directed The Enemy of the World, where Patrick Troughton played both the Doctor and the villain.  It's one of the highlights of the Second Doctor's era, and an incredible shame that it's missing.  Enemy also ended with a Doctor vs. Doctor fight (or, well, Troughton vs. Troughton, anyway), and I imagine that's a lot of the reason Hinchcliffe assigned this episode to him.
  • As much fun as the Baker vs. Baker stuff is, though, Nation doesn't really do anything interesting with the concept, or anything at all besides "they fight".  However, Four goes up against himself again a season later, and that one's fantastic.
  • Sarah Jane is wearing Crocs.  In a 1976 TV show about time travel.

    Now would be an appropriate time for an Inception-esque BWAAAMP!

(yes, I'm aware that Clogs in general have been around longer than that.  I prefer things my way.)

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