This is a significant moment in Doctor Who because it tends to get viewed as a cutoff point in terms of quality. I managed to stomach a quick trawl around the internet to basically confirm my suspicions in preparation for writing about The Invisible Enemy, and the opinions I found on this story were overwhelmingly negative. That’s fair enough, but a lot of the opinions are based on misconceptions, so I feel it is only fair to attempt to set the record straight and make the case for the defence. First of all, we need to look at a few key facts to set this story in context.
- This was the first story to be made this season, not the second. That is going to be important because the key to understanding the areas where this story does indeed go wrong (and why) will be a comparison with its immediate broadcast predecessor, Horror of Fang Rock. But for now let’s just throw out any opinions of Horror of Fang Rock being the last glorious gasp of the Hinchcliffe era and then The Invisible Enemy following along and being the moment the supposedly shoddy Williams era begins, because this is simply untrue and born of attempts to pigeonhole producers into good ones and bad ones. While we’re on the subject, Image of the Fendahl (another last gasp – there are a lot of those if you subscribe to that line of thought) was made later in the season than you might think as well.
- The money was appallingly tight for this whole series. The budget had been cut in retaliation for an I’m-off-so-I-don’t-care Hinchcliffe overspend, but that was not the worst of it because Britain at the time was suffering spiralling inflation, so when the budget was decided it was worth a lot more money than when it was being spent. Again we need to bear this in mind when we look at areas where the story gets criticised, and look at this in the context of Horror of Fang Rock.
- The BBC’s response to Mary Whitehouse was a knee-jerk one, and included instructing the team making Doctor Who to tone down the scariness. Whitehouse was both right and wrong at the same time. You could charitably view her as ahead of her time, seeing what television could become. In that respect she was right because many of her fears have come true. A lot of British television is now morally bankrupt. We have a dating show that is based on people choosing a date by judging each other’s body parts, shown uncensored. We have the most popular soap opera in the country which airs pre-watershed and normalizes a dysfunctional way of living life. It once showed a man being buried alive at a time of the evening when children would be still watching. There is a wealth of brilliant output, including Doctor Who of course, but we have that small minority of hideously nasty dross that Whitehouse sought to weed out, and she was right. In the targets she chose, she was wrong, and she took things too far. Her complaints about Doctor Who were based on ignorance of storytelling techniques, ironic for somebody who spent her days glued to a screen looking for things to be offended by, and the basic misunderstanding that it is actually a good part of childhood to be scared sometimes, as long as it is within a safe environment, and television and fiction are the perfect ways to provide that. Ultimately we have to face fears and phobias or we become damaged as adults, and childhood is the right time to develop in that way, as long as it is done within reason. Doctor Who was hitting exactly the right notes during Seasons 13 and 14. I cannot stress this enough and I speak from experience: if you are a parent whose child has watched something like Doctor Who and had a nightmare, than banning him or her from watching any more is completely the wrong response.
So Season 15 began (and began behind the scenes with The Invisible Enemy) with a new producer struggling with a remit to make Doctor Who but with no money and without it being scary. Keep that in mind, and you should actually be amazed how good the season is, with 50% of the stories falling into a category of quality that most people would consider above average for Doctor Who as a whole. By my count that’s exactly the same result as the previous season, and I don’t see much delineation in quality between The Invisible Enemy and The Face of Evil, for example. So bashing Graham Williams is an unreasonable interpretation of what is going on here. Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but here is what I think would have been the perfect response to the situation Williams was facing:
- Ignore Whitehouse. Give the appearance of following the instructions by keeping deaths visually mild, or even better, off-screen. This can be used to play to Doctor Who’s strengths anyway, because the unseen is nearly always more frightening. We didn’t need to see blood spurting out of Condo’s stomach in The Brain of Morbius – these kinds of things, which were mis-steps in any case, could be easily avoided to the detriment of nothing.
- Tell the writers to keep things contained. Go back to base under siege stories: a small cast in a claustrophobic location. Keep the monsters in the shadows and hold them back for as long as possible. Perhaps don’t even show them, or not fully. Let people’s imaginations do the trick. Basically, make Midnight. Take those financial limitations and turn them into a strength.
And this is where the comparison with Horror of Fang Rock comes in, because that clever chap Terrance Dicks got all that virtually spot-on, and produced a scary story that seemed like a continuation of what we were used to, but fulfilled the new remit almost to perfection. What ended up on screen was not perfect, mainly due to the star of Who sabotaging his own show by trying to direct himself, but the work Dicks turned out in response to the situation Doctor Who was facing was stellar.
Where Invisible Enemy falls down in comparison is that it (a) ignores the budget restraints and tries to do too much, and (b) gets rid of most of the scares rather than tailoring them toward the psychological and away from the violent. The reason this happens is that Bob Baker and Dave Martin were actually brilliant at coming up with concepts for stories and enthusiastically threw everything into the mix, despite the lack of money to bring it all to screen. Some of the ideas behind The Invisible Enemy are excellent, and they do actually manage to generate some fear by having the Doctor turn bad. This is such a rarity for Doctor Who that it has a strong impact, and the fact that Tom is clearly enjoying himself with the idea really helps.
Baker and Martin take the lack of scariness instruction and use it to tailor their story far more towards children than Doctor Who has ever been, which is why this can be such a frustrating viewing experience for adults with so many ideas thrown in without being properly explored. For younger children that’s not an issue: it’s a case of “wow, exciting” and then let’s move on to the next “wow, exciting”. And for Doctor Who to work on this level is absolutely fair enough. Yes, Doctor Who nowadays would take a completely different approach to the idea of short-lived clones of the Doctor and his companion being manufactured, and would fully explore the ethical issues this throws up, but there is nothing to say that is the only valid way to make Doctor Who.
And we mustn’t forget that this story gives us the debut of the very last great iconic “thing” for the whole Classic run of Doctor Who: K9. Before 2005, if you had a question on the game show Family Fortunes, for example, asking people to name the things they associated with Doctor Who, the list would probably go something like:
Police Box, Daleks, Cybermen, K9. Maybe a long scarf.
So I can’t condemn The Invisible Enemy and I certainly can’t condemn The Graham Williams era. We are at the beginning of a very different journey with this story, but it is still going to be an amazing ride… RP
The view from across the pond:
There was something wonderfully artistic about The Invisible Enemy when I first saw it. I think it was that episode 3 takes place in … wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. The Invisible Enemy first captured my imagination with the space shuttle and the crew of three. When I first saw this episode, I had already gotten my hands on the Doctor Who Technical Manual, so seeing this ship in action was an immediate lure. Then came something that, to this day, creeps viewers out – the voice of a hive mind. In Torchwood: Children of Earth, all the children speak the same words, simultaneously. Here, it’s just the same few words repeated by everyone infected: “Contact has been made”. It’s eerie. Simple as that; something has happened that can affect machine as well as organics… and it’s creepy! And in this case, “hive mind” is probably more precise than intended.
There’s something to be said about the Doctor that is consistent. Capaldi’s Doctor said that when a distress call is sent, that’s the true face of the universe and how they respond shows theirs. Good to his methodology, a distress call leads the Doctor and Leela to Professor Marius, the Swarm, a new friend and a trip down memory lane. So, in order:
- Professor Marius, played by Planet of Evil’s Frederick Jaeger, is such a likeable character. Every bit the absent minded genius, he’s fun to watch. His interest in the Doctor’s alien biology is in keeping with this quirky character. A vast difference between this man and Jaeger’s earlier appearance.
- The Swarm, more specifically, the Nucleus, looks ridiculous, but special effects aside, it does bring up a good question: why doesn’t it have the right to live? Is it because it’s a parasite? Is there no way to find a mutual existence? Maybe on a planet where the life forms are non-sentient? It’s a bit of an ethical debate, and I’m happy to hear what others think. In later episodes, the Doctor will offer enemies a chance to live on other worlds, including the spider-like Rachnos. So why is this little bug different?
- K-9: interestingly, we don’t meet him until part 2 of this story and at that point, there’s no reason to suspect he’ll continue on. We learn he was built by Marius to replace his dog on earth. He has power levels that don’t hold up well. And when he shoots walls, they look mysteriously like pre-cut Styrofoam, much to the viewers’ amusement. But what is interesting is that K-9 starts a trend of non-human companions. After him we have Romana, Nyssa, Turlough, Kamelion. This is a good thing and should not have taken so long to happen. With the new series, we really should have more alien companions. The Doctor is a bit “speciesist” in his decision on companions. I don’t think audience identification would suffer anywhere near as much as the writers/producers suspect it would!
- The trip down memory lane – this is what I found so amazing on my first viewing. Like Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage or the Doctor’s later trip Into the Dalek, we get a miniaturized clone of the Doctor and Leela wandering through the Doctor’s body. Again, regardless of other shows or movies with better special effects, this was something to behold. Very different from everything else on TV at the time. Traveling through the Doctor’s mind, literally, is strange and more alien than most worlds he finds himself on. It’s fun, unusual and, credit where due, brave!
I also enjoy those little nuances, like the notion that Gallifrey must be in Ireland! (Every year I go to Ireland and have yet to find Gallifrey…)
The story has got its share of weak elements, but what show doesn’t? The look of the silver fur on those infected is a bit silly. And poor Leela! The virus thrives on intellectual activity so she’s “immune”! I wonder how Louise Jameson felt about that? Clearly Leela has a brain so that seems like a very rudimentary explanation! She may not be a scientist, but she does think and she tries to understand things. And she was right about the threat on Titan that the Doctor ignored, so I think it unfair to say that she’s so instinctive that the virus doesn’t affect her. But that leads me to wonder if Susan or Dodo would have been infected. I have my suspicions…
Once again, Doctor Who gives us an interesting story, some brave visuals and a new companion. Best of the Tom Baker era, it is not! But far from the worst. This is still the era of chills and, while not as tense as The Horror of Fang Rock or most of this Doctor’s first couple seasons, it is a fun story. Even if the Nucleus does look like a reject from the Muppets.
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder, if the virus came to Earth, how many people would really be impacted? Could we already be infected! Typically I will avoid political humor as I really do not wish to offend anyone; I want this to be an insult-free zone and I will not judge his views or political actions. However based solely on appearance, as Sesame Street used to say, “one of these things is not like the other” and I think in this case, that unlike thing is Tom Baker.
Contact has been made… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Image of the Fendahl