Many years ago I wrote a review of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and commented on the silliness of the idea of tricking people into believing they are on a spaceship. People would never be fooled by that, surely? I am glad to admit that I was completely wrong. In 2005, Channel 4 ran a series called Space Cadets, in which they attempted to convince a group of ordinary people into believing that they were the first civilians to go into space. The stunning results of that series made me realise that the plot here is not actually silly at all, just miles ahead of its time.
The conspiracy side of things would work a whole lot better if there were actually some guest characters who weren’t involved in it. This has a knock-on effect of making our new companion look a bit foolish because she falls for the same trick twice, being conned first by Grover and then by Finch. But unlike a lot of previous companions, Sarah doesn’t need to be rescued. She manages to escape by herself.
The most exciting aspect of this story is the treachery of Mike Yates, one of a very select group of original Doctor Who companions (pseudo-companions, if you prefer) to get some proper character development. This sort of idea really packs a punch, and it is amazing how rarely a rogue companion was ever even considered. The sight of Mike holding the Brigadier at gunpoint is shocking and exciting, because he is doing it of his own free will. This is not one of the Doctor’s friends acting out of character because they are under the influence of the Master’s hypnosis or something like that. This is one of his friends that genuinely believes the bad guys are the good guys, and thinks it is worth betraying the Doctor and the Brigadier for those beliefs. The only disappointment is that the only resolution to this is that Mike gets disarmed by Benton, and then we get this:
BENTON: Excuse me, sir? What about Captain Yates?
BRIGADIER: Extended sick leave and a chance to resign quietly. Best I could do.
…which wraps things up, I suppose. But surely in a six-episode story there would have been room for some more exploration of the aftermath of this. A scene of confrontation or reconciliation or some sort between Mike and the Brig, or Mike and the Doctor, would have been fascinating, even if “a chance to resign” was still the end result. Mike will be back, but it would have been good to see the idea followed through more thoroughly here.
I have avoided mentioning the dinosaurs so far, because failed special effects are commonplace in the classic series and not a particularly interesting thing to discuss. Once you’ve said “it’s a shame that’s rubbish”, there isn’t generally much else to say. The blame here tends to get placed on the model makers, and yes, they are extraordinarily sluggish dinosaurs, but why anyone thought this could ever be made to work in 1974 is a bit of a mystery to say the least. Even if the models had been stunningly good, they still had to be shot on video and then CSOd into location film, which was always going to make them magic floating dinosaurs. Everyone knew the limitations of CSO by now surely, and using it for long shots causes the fringing to reduce people’s faces at times to featureless blobs.
I know we are spoilt by amazing computer effects nowadays, but this was trying to capture viewers who were familiar with convincing stop-motion animation (the latest example at the time being The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but Jason and the Argonauts had been around for a decade at this point). It shares the same problem Doctor Who would later run up against with Star Wars. Try to exist in that same space and you look silly. So just like the best approach post-Star Wars was to avoid space opera, the best approach post-Harryhausen would have been to avoid these kinds of monster effects shots and just stick to what could be accomplished physically with props in studio or on location.
None of this would be a massive problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the dinosaurs are the selling point of the story, in the way that the t-rex wasn’t in The Silurians, and even the Drashigs weren’t really in Carnival of Monsters. They were just features of broader stories. Carnival of Monsters wasn’t Invasion of the Drashigs, and that’s an important distinction. Because when you write two near-identical cliffhangers with a t-rex confronting the Doctor, and make the whole story about dinosaurs invading London, then you kind of need to be able to sell that to the viewers. That was never going to be possible, so we get a frustrating wealth of potential here but ultimately something that was doomed to failure. This is why it was such a shame that clean location footage didn’t exist without the effects laid on, because while nearly every DVD that has new bonus effects is a completely pointless exercise, this would have been amazing to see with competently realised CGI dinosaurs, and it never happened. Maybe, just maybe, it would have allowed people to appreciate the story for what it really is, free from the distraction of the slowest t-rex who ever lived attacking a diminutive brontosaurus. When the dinosaurs are not on screen, what we get is probably the most interesting story of the eleventh season. RP
The view from across the pond:
Dinosaurs! As far back as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, to King Kong playing dentist with a T. Rex to Jurassic Park, dinosaurs are fun to watch. For a show about time travel, it is truly amazing we’ve never been in prehistoric times with dinosaurs roaming the earth. Instead, we take those poor, short-armed giants and bring them to our time! Jon Pertwee’s era was pretty dino-friendly too. The Silurians kept one around as a pet, as one does. But it was during Jon’s final season that we had the truly stunning Invasion of the Dinosaurs. I say stunning in the same way that Napoleon Dynamite was an academy award winning movie. Like Napoleon, you can’t stop watching the train wreck even though every second that passes blows our minds with that stunning array of visual effects. Let me be as clear as possible: we’ve never watched Doctor Who for special effects – the budget simply wasn’t there – but when the effects work is so shoddy as to look like someone is probably holding the model toy by the tail, well… wow! It’s hard to get past that. Especially as most of our prehistoric friends barely move. They find themselves pulled through time and stand around, undoubtedly thinking “what’s that smell?” So they remain immobile and completely non-threatening. The only one that does look like he’s going to do anything is the T Rex intent on removing Sarah Jane from her Paparazzi career before it gets started.
After realizing Sarah Jane dropped the camera, the T-Rex comes bursting through a brick wall that explodes outward exactly the way bricks can’t and with the density of wood. But the dinosaur looks so much like a toy, it’s impossible to be taken seriously. It’s the puppet of doom! This is prime MST3K material here but the irony is that the story is actually not a terrible one. The idea that we’ve destroyed the environment, a recurring theme of Pertwee’s era, brings a group that want to return the earth to a golden age (cleverly titled, the Golden Age). I’d think this would be a time on my youth when every day was sunny and school recess was always outdoors. Now, with a spring that doesn’t get more than 1 day of sun between 6 days of rain, I’d have to agree, going back to the golden age is a great idea. But I don’t think that golden age would be before TV, video games and indoor plumbing. These geniuses that are trying to take us back to prehistoric times are forgetting that once they are back in the Cretaceous, they’ll have to forage for their meals. My God, even digital watches will become obsolete after the first battery dies! Then, as we all know, the debate will restart about why we ever came down from the trees!
Clearly Malcolm Hulke has some ideas about the environment. There’s a lot to be said for it and I think a good allegory is worth its weight in dinosaur bones, but I don’t think the series was ready to attempt such a story without a budget. Every time I watch that dino-showdown between Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus I think it has all the camera work of Doc Holiday facing down Johnny Ringo, but with the believability of two 5 years olds playing the roles. Then there’s the spaceship with its passengers who are among humanity’s Darwin Award winners since none of them notice the lack of movement in the ship. When Sarah opens the airlock to convince them they are not in space, it’s clearly a hallway outside the door – not even a pad with hydraulic motors to simulate movement like we saw at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. (I mean, I was convinced we were in an actual TARDIS!) And hey, if someone is trying to open an airlock in a ship I think is in space, I’m going to grab that person and go all HAL-9000 on them, not actually stand by and wait.
Like I’ve said, we’ve never watched Doctor Who for the visuals back in the classic series, so the question is: is it a good story? Yes! As a matter of fact it is. But it’s weighed down so heavily by those visuals and the idiocy of those involved in this harebrained scheme that it teeters on the edge of rubbish. What might be the nail in the coffin is the length. Yes, we’re back to those damned 6 part stories that drag on far longer than would be advisable to anyone not in a hospital room waiting to recover and having nothing else to do. But to be fair, there are some things that might bring it back the other way too. The Whomobile makes it first appearance and it’s a magnificent looking vehicle that never gets used enough. Benton gets a chance to prove his loyalty to the Doctor by suggesting the Doctor uses his Venusian Aikido on him to make a break for it, which is just the sort of marvelous thing one might expect of Benton. And we get an odd piece of UNIT downgrading as Yates goes off the deep end and is allowed to retire peacefully rather than face a more severe penalty for losing his mind and becoming an enemy to UNIT. And possibly a vegan that will only settle for prehistoric plants.
So all in all, it’s not without some merit, but it’s a hard story to sit through knowing just how bad it is in the visuals department. The story should be enough to win over those who can reset their mindset to a 1970s viewing experience, but by contrast to some of today’s dino-encounters, it’s never going to rank among the greats! Now if only they’d try again with dinosaurs in the new series… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Death to the Daleks