Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Android Invasion

Happy Day

A van pulls up near a war memorial by a pub. It contains a dozen English villagers out of central casting: ladies with neat headscarves, red faced sons of toil, a vicar in a hat. They are completely silent and motionless; they walk like zombies into the village pub, take their positions and stand still and silent. A clock chimes, and they all start talking as if nothing has happened.

People of a certain age were collectively traumatized by the super-intelligent brain-washed inhabitants of Avebury in Children of the Stones. Devasham, the ostensible setting of Android Invasion, is obviously in the vicinity of Avebury: an English village which is not an English village.

The first episode of the story -- like the first episode of Terror of the Zygons -- is all about setting up a mystery. Sarah and the Doctor explore: wherever they turn, something strange is happening. The very first shot is of a UNIT soldier, staggering robotically towards the camera. He falls off a cliff, breaks his neck, and is subsequently seen in the pub as if nothing had happened. Figures in white protection suits have guns concealed in their forefingers. ("Is that finger loaded?" Tom Baker can't resist the temptation to say.) There is a UNIT run "space defense station" nearby, but the Brigadier's office is occupied by a "senior defense astronaut" called Crayford. We know he is a wrong'un because he has an eye-patch. He says things like "I'm asking the questions" and "I can very easily get the truth from you." Sarah has visited the village once before. She came here as a journalist before she knew the Doctor -- investigating Crayford's death... 

Twist and Shout

If one wanted to be cruel, one would say that the solution to the mystery is given away in the title of the story. Robotic soldiers; white suited creatures with guns in their fingers; mesmerized villagers; soldiers who die and come back to life. What could possibly explain this kind of thing? Could they conceivably be androids? Could they possibly be planning some kind of invasion?

But Terry Nation is cleverer than that. When we see the staggering soldier in the opening shot, of course we know he is an android. When the villagers act like zombies, we know they are androids too. But Nation still manages to spring a surprise on us in the final frame. Crayford locks the Doctor up in a cell. Sarah has come to rescue him. And we catch the briefest possible glimpse of a monstrous alien face looking in through the cell window.

We thought we had the story figured out. Doctor Who does Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Androids replacing the population of an English village. But just when we are not expecting it, Nation springs an actual alien on us. 

The story, like the village, is not what it seemS to be at first glance.

Let's Twist Again

There is another twist at the end of the second installment. It's a bit obvious. But this is a kid's show and it's better than the Knights and Knaves puzzle in Pyramids of Mars.

When the Doctor and Sarah were being chased by evil android soldiers with sniffer dogs, the Doctor took Sarah's scarf and used it to draw the dogs off. Sarah herself hides up a tree. Later in the episode, Sarah, having been captured by and escaped from the aliens, arranges to meet the Doctor in the village store.

In the first minute of episode 1 the Doctor had offered her a swig of ginger beer and she remarked, very much in passing, that she couldn't stand the stuff.

So when a still scarf-wearing Sarah-Jane tells the Doctor that his ginger ale is delicious we all immediately know that this is not the real Sarah. The Aliens have made an android in her image, but their technology is imperfect. The Doctor sees immediately what is going on.

The Doctor knocks Fake Sarah to the ground. Sarah's face falls off, revealing Android circuitry underneath. The special effect is very well done. Clearly, some quick editing has replaced Elizabeth Sladen with a dummy, and then allowed the face mask to fall off the dummy. But the cut is so quick we don't spot the substitution: it looks for all the world as if Lis Sladen's face has dropped off. Less a visual effect, more a piece of misdirection: a conjuring trick. A good example of the magic of Doctor Who.

So: the Aliens have created a fake, android Sarah to go with the fake, android soldiers and the fake, android landlord. But that isn't the twist. The twist is that everything is fake. The Aliens haven't taken over an English village with androids: they have made a replica of an English village on their own planet and populated it with androids. For some reason.

" This isn't Earth. This isn't real wood. It's some kind of artificial material like plastic. These are not real trees. And you're not the real Sarah."

We should allow ourselves to experience, rather than merely analyze, these old stories. Mary Whitehouse was right in one respect: if you were watching Doctor Who in the 1970s, each cliffhanger stayed with us for a whole week. So let's pause and enjoy the weirdness of the first two installments; let's enjoy the shock of the second cliffhanger. Once we have done that, we can move on and see if the remaining two episodes can makes sense of what just happened.  (SPOILER: No.)

Acting, Darling 

Many people have spotted that the key to Tom Baker's characterization is that he says very serious things as if they were quite trivial, and very trivial things as if they were of earth shattering importance. But I don't think it has often been noticed that Elisabeth Sladen does a very similar trick.

At the beginning of the episode, when Sarah finds the Doctor in a cell, there is a very brief exchange:

"What are you doing?"

"Rescuing you, actually. For a change."

Elisabeth Sladen delivers this as a double pronged attack: the word "actually" is a put down, a reproach to the Doctor for being ungrateful. "For a change" is an afterthought: Sarah knows her role as the Assistant is mostly to be a damsel in distress and is pleased that the boot is on the other foot.

While they are running away, the Doctor says "So far so good..." and Sarah adds "...as the man said when he fell from the skyscraper." Sladen delivers it with menace; even horror. She uses her weak, scripted joke to express how scared Sarah really is. And a bit later, as every girl sidekick is contractually obliged to do in a chase, she stumbles and twists her ankle. "Are you all right?" says the Doctor. She elongates the word "yes" to turn it into an accusation, as if she were really saying "no of course I'm not, you silly man." 

For Mash Get Smash!

The Aliens who have been giving Crayford his orders are Kraals. They have silly masks, wear spray-painted bovver boots and one of them sounds like Zippy from Rainbow. They serve essentially the same function that the Zygons did in Terror of the. There is a quite good mysterious spooky adventure going on: curses on ye Moors in the former; pod-people taking over an English village in the latter. We enjoy the idea of punters being delivered to a pub like milk bottles. The monosyllabic landlord whose phone doesn't work is straight out of the Village. If this was Sapphire and Steel, things could just carry on being mysterious indefinitely, and no-one would expect an explanation. But this is Doctor Who, and the explanation is always "because Aliens." 

There is a flying saucer. There are Aliens. The Aliens want to conquer the earth because they are Aliens. And the mysterious village is somehow part of this plot. We are not supposed to be interested in the Kraal invasion plan, which is just as well. They are just a bit of plot machinery to give the spooky stuff a reason to exist. 

It Wasn't The Earth All Along...!

In "The Chimes of Big Ben" Number 6 believes that he has found his way back to London -- but suddenly realizes that he never really left The Village. In "V for Vendetta", V allows Evey to believe that she is going to be executed, and suddenly reveals that the concentration camp is a stage set and the guards are all waxworks. 

Moments like this, when you are not where you thought you were and everything you thought you knew is wrong are pretty hard to pull off. Terry Nation has a good go. We thought that we were in an English village and that the inhabitants had mysteriously been replaced by Android replicas. We discover that the entire village is a replica; that we are still on the Kraal's home planet. The whole set up of the first two episodes dissolves into air, thin air leaving not a rack behind. The Androids are even now being loaded into a space ship, and the invasion of earth is only now about to start.

It All Makes Sense Now!

Episode 3 of Android Invasion drifts away from the first two episodes spooky-kids-show aesthetic and becomes a very generic piece of Who. The Kraal seem to know that they are walking cliches, delivering lines like "RESISTANCE IS...inadvisable" and "I imagine it will be a most ...DISAGREEABLE...death". One should never forget that Terry Nation started life as a comedy writer; Blake's Seven was driven by its dialogue and its wit. It makes sense that the creator of the Daleks would create a different set of generic evil aliens and gently take the mickey out of them. 

The Doctor is strapped to a table while the Kraal try to extract his memories—which makes us think of Davros and mind probes. He is tied to a war memorial with indestructible ivy—which makes us think of Daemons and Maypoles. Sarah cleverly uses her rations to electrocute a guard, which makes us think of every story in which the Doctor has been held captive from the Dead Planet onwards. Sarah remembers she has a limp when she escapes from the Kraal base but has forgotten it by the time she gets back to the Doctor. There are androids in the form of Benton and Harry, but this doesn't effect the plot in any way: it would be just the same if they had been generic guards. The Doctor and Sarah sneak on to the space ship just before it takes off—they are travelling back to earth along with the android invasion force... Maybe they will still be able to save the day. The space ship's launch is represented by stock footage of Apollo XI, even though the model is a completely different shape.

How enjoyable you find any of this depends on how little attention you are prepared to pay. It's jolly good fun. There's a bomb countdown, a rocket launch, a mind probe, two if not three daring escapes: all told it is much less boring than Planet of Evil. Ridiculous aliens in silly masks are planning to invade the earth using a rocket full of androids. What more to you need to know?  

It's only when you try to work out what is going on that it all starts to look decidedly dicey. Why have the aliens made an exact replica of an earth village on their planet? It's a lot of trouble to go to to practice a dry-run at conquering the world. Is it remotely believable that they can create a replica human which is perfect in every detail, and then foul up over trivial things like Sarah Jane's scarf and her taste in soft drinks? And isn't it a bit of a stretch that the Doctor, who has been failing to get back to UNIT base for three stories now, should happen to land on an alien planet which happens to be making robot replicas of two very close friends of his?

"It all makes sense now!" says Sarah, when she realizes that she is not on earth but on the planet Kraal. But it doesn't.

Such power would set me up above the gods!

In Terry Nations previous Doctor Who story, the Doctor presented Davros with a classic thought experiment. If you had created a virus that was capable of wiping out all life, would you allow it to be released? (Davros says that it would be worth destroying all life in order to prove that he could.)

Genesis of the Daleks episode four was first transmitted on March 29, 1975. Two weeks later, April 16, the BBC transmitted the first episode of a new Terry Nation series. Survivors depicted a contemporary earth in which Davros' thought-experiment had occurred in reality. The opening credits distinctly show a scientist dropping a phial and releasing a virus which wipes out nearly all human life. And six months after that (December 6 1975) we reached episode three of Android Invasion and found out what the Kraals's plan actually was.

"That phial contains a death sentence for the entire human race. Be careful! " explains Steggron. "The phial contains a virus so lethal the Earth will be rid of it's human population within three weeks" Exactly why they were fannying around building replicas of sweet shops when their biological warfare was so advanced isn't quite clear. What is clear is that Terry Nation has used the same metaphor three times in one year. In Genesis, the phial is merely a philosophical conjecture. Survivors is about its aftermath and consequences. And Android Invasion gives the Doctor the opportunity to thwart the catastrophe before it occurs.

Boom! Boom!

I do not think that sufficient attention is paid to the fact that Doctor Who was generally paired with Basil Brush in the BBC's Saturday evening schedules.

For anyone not fortunate enough to have been 12 years old during the 1970s: Basil was a British incarnation of Groucho Marx and W.C Fields—an endless fount of wise-crack and repartee. His stock in trade was corny, contrived puns; but his persona was full of sarcasm and self-deprecation and answering back. He said the kinds of things you'd get slapped for if you said them at school; but he got away with it, because he was posh and clever and charming. And a glove puppet.

Tom Baker's Doctor has some similar traits. That is why he appealed so much to a certain sort of priggish, self-opinionated proto-geek. He was witty and charming but he would have been insufferable in real life. His wit starts from the assumption that he is much cleverer than anyone else in the room. He is always, by definition, punching down. (When he meets an equal like Davros or Sutekh, he drops the one liners.) Of course he can't warn a functionary that there might be a dangerous robot double on the loose. He has to say " Now, if you do see me again today, I want you to report it to me immediately". Sounding clever is more important than actually letting the poor guy know what is going on. When Crayford orders him to be taken away to interrogation, he says "If you're calling the butler, I'm very partial to tea and muffins." We've all thought of saying that kind of thing to petty officials. Most of us will spend most of our lives being the petty official people want to say that to.

Look at the first five minutes of Android Invasion episode 4. The lives of the Doctor and Sarah, and the lives of everyone else on earth, are in real and immediate danger. And so they banter: of course they do. But Sarah is honestly scared; and somehow the Doctor is acting as if it's all good fun. You want to punch him; except you don't, because you know he would sacrifice his life to save Sarah's in a heartbeat.

"So, providing we don't burn up on re-entry, and aren't suffocated on the way down, we'll probably be smashed to a pulp when we land" says Sarah: and she sounds properly scared, as if she thinks her number has finally come up

"Exactly. Sarah" says the Doctor "You've put your finger on the one tiny flaw in our plan." Tom Baker is all smiles, coming across the room and sitting by Sarah, like an academic who is pleased that his pupil is finally understanding things.

"Our plan? It's your plan." Now Sarah is outraged, angry—how dare the Doctor blame her for the situation?

"Well, I'm open to suggestions if you've got a better idea." The Doctor is matter-of-fact: facing Sarah with the reality of the situation. 

And Sarah immediately accepts it—accepts that she is probably going to die. "How long before we start?"

The script is quite witty. But the principals pour a deep understanding of the two characters into their reading of the lines. 

Not by HAVOC

In Pyramids of Mars, we saw the Doctor as a god among the gods, confronting and cursing and outwitting a being who he says had once taken the name Satan. There is none of that today. He is openly contemptuous of Steggron and the Kraals ("the best laid plans of mice and Kraals gang oft aglay") and fires off weak jokes when he is being put in a death trap. ("Don't go. Stay, just for a few minutes. Then we can all go together.") And he takes on the role of an action man; jumping through second floor plate glass windows; physically attacking and fighting and throwing bad guys -- none of that namby-pamby Venusian karate. Last time he was a god, this time he is a super hero. Tom Baker saw him always and simply as the benevolent alien.

Unit Dating Problem 

In Pyramids of Mars, Sarah claimed to come from 1980. In Android Invasion she says that, two years before she met the Doctor she investigated a story about the death of Crawford the one eyed astronaut who is running the base. Crawford was supposedly killed on a mission into "deep space" testing out the XK-5 space freighter.

This would be consistent with the older UNIT stories in which England has its own space program and is sending manned missions to Mars. So Sarah's time must be quite a bit later than the 1980s: there is hardly time between 1975 and 1978 for Britain to develop a programme of hauling freight in space. Perhaps "I'm from 1980" means "I was born in 1980"; which would allow Crayford's expedition to be as late as 2010.

To Be Continued...

Very disappointingly, the top brass officer at the base is not the Brigadier, but the Colonel. He says things like "confounded cheek!" and makes us all realize just how good Nicholas Courtney always was. Perhaps the Brig's absence explains why we don't to get to see the Doc saying goodbye to UNIT, for what will turn out to be the very last time. We get to see the real Harry and the real Benton alongside their robot doubles, but nothing very much follows from it. The Doctor fairs rather better: Tom Baker obviously enjoys being an evil copy of himself and relishes some of the confusion that two Doctors cause. The BBC make-up department evidently can't source the stunt man a wig that looks even remotely like Tom Baker's own hair. The day is saved through quite interesting tricks: turning the radio telescope back on itself to jam the robots; and reprogramming the Android doctor to attack Stegron. The Davros-phial is smashed, but it does nothing bad apart from dissolving Stegron. Is the idea that the virus is contained inside the rocket? At any rate the human race is not wiped out. Everyone lives happily ever after.


Ginger beer is a fizzy drink—a soda. It is possible to make it at home using yeast and sugar and root ginger, although I suppose the stuff you can buy in bottles and cans is flavoured and carbonated. People who are "on the wagon" sometimes drink it because the ginger gives it a bit of a kick. People who are not on the wagon add rum to make a Dark and Stormy. But it's mostly a children's drink. The kind of thing you'd have as a bit of a treat at a birthday party. The Famous Five take bottles of the stuff on their picnics, although the phrase "lashings of ginger beer!" is apocryphal.

In episode two, the Doctor is waiting for Sarah in an empty pub, and has to order a drink. It's an interesting moment: what does the Doctor drink? Most English pubs would supply a cup of tea, but that would be a bit obvious. Instead he asks for "a pint". A landlord would automatically take this to mean a pint of beer bitter in the south, mild in the north. At the end of the Daemons, the Brigadier and Benton went for "a pint" in preference to watching the Morris Dancing. But this landlord isn't going to let the Doctor—or the writer—off the hook. "A pint of what?". So the Doctor orders a children's drink: ginger pop. ("Pop" is definitely a children's word; slightly more in use in Northern England than in the South.) And the Doctor isn't joking, either: he was drinking ginger beer from a small earthenware bottle at the beginning of episode one. The landlord pours two ordinary glass bottles into a beer glass.

Patrick Troughton occasionally offered his companions sherbet lemons or gobstoppers. Tom Baker has twice proffered a bag of jelly babies. Jelly babies, sherbet lemons, gob stoppers and ginger beer are all signifiers of the olden days -- Victorian and Edwardian summers and school tuck-shops. And they also represent a type of harmless schoolboy childishness. Over the next season or so, "jelly babies" will just become a marker of conscious silliness: an accouterments of the Doctor, like the sonic screwdriver and the scarf. But today "ginger beer" marks the Doctor out as a child-man from a vanishing, but not quite vanished, world.

He meets the fake Sarah in a sweet shop, with adverts for British Cheese and Lyons Made Ice Lollies clearly visible. He consumes five bottles of ginger beer during the story. That's a lot of sugar and something like 1,000 calories.

Pop Goes The Weasel

To recap. At the beginning of episode, Sarah says that she doesn't like ginger pop. At the end of part 2, she finds it delicious. This is one of the things which clues us into the fact that Sarah has been replaced by an Android.

This small point could not reasonably have been picked up on by someone watching the story at the rate of one episode a week. This suggests that Terry Nation thinks of Android Invasion as a single, 100 minute movie.

But as a single, 100 minute movie, Android Invasion makes no sense at all. It actually feels like three different stories that have crashed together: a spooky two part horror show about androids taking over a pretty English village; a rather generic single part Doctor Who story about people being captured by aliens and escaping; and a James Bondish denouement about aliens taking over a government base, with much leaping through windows and jujitsu. 

We can entirely accept a Doctor Who story in which a space ship full of androids is coming to earth to infect everyone with a deadly virus. It is quite a cool idea. But the space-ship full of androids completely fails to follow on from the English village. 

It has been said that the ginger beer proves that Nation "wrote for the novelization". But everything else in the story suggests that he really didn't care if the eventual novelization or compilation made sense. All he wanted was for cool stuff to happen on a Saturday night. And those of us who remember the seventies can't quite bring ourselves to say that he was wrong.

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Richard Worth said...

I have not matched the dates of various episodes of Dr Who with The Avengers, or indeed Camperwick Green, or whichever detective shows involved Jane Marple having tea with Father Brown. However, rather like Tolkien's idea of magical stories like old furniture being relegated to the nursery, it is possible that 'something nasty in a quaint English village' started as moderately serious: the Old England promoted by wartime posters and National Trust tea towels conceals a secret that is actually quite shocking. Gradually, that sort of story moved into the realms of repertory theatre, parody, and family adventure serial. Sadly, my theory is scuppered by 'Dr Who and the Daemons' pre-dating 'The Wicker Man' by three years.

Andrew Rilstone said...


Mike Taylor said...

Well, now I want to watch this story. Rats. Better add it to the list.