This is one of those Doctor Who stories that it is fashionable not to like. That has always baffled me because it is one of my favourites and the reasons given for not liking it have always struck me as odd. The only problem I can agree with is that it fizzles out towards the end, but it follows on from Pyramids of Mars which completely collapses in the final episode and yet people still consider that one of the all-time classics. All the other problems people have with it seem to be a symptom of one thing alone: knowing what the twist is before you start watching it. So in the unlikely event that you are reading this before you have actually watched The Android Invasion, I urge you to stop now! Don’t read anything about it. Just buy it and watch it with no preconceptions and I don’t think you will be disappointed.
That was my experience of The Android Invasion. I bought the VHS when it was first released, and watched it with no idea what it was going to be about, and it was brilliant. It is still my favourite story of the 13th Season, and up against a lot of big hitters that really says something. It starts off by carefully building a compelling mystery, the kind of thing that must have got people talking between episodes, trying to figure out what was going on. The classic image of a sleepy English village is distorted and wrong, and is incredibly creepy. That moment in the pub where everyone just stands motionless until it is time to start behaving like humans: wow that’s exciting and scary stuff.
On first viewing I had no idea what was going on, but I suspected it was going to be an Auton story, with duplicated humans, especially when people started firing guns from their fingers. It seemed like an upgrade to the Auton hand guns. In fact, this does very similar things to an Auton story, playing on the uncanny valley: the troubling nature of things that look like humans but aren’t quite right. That’s what makes the duplicates of the Doctor and Sarah so effective, but also both actors nail those roles magnificently. The look of anger the android Doctor gives Benton when he tries to shoot him is chilling. They both play their counterparts very close to the real thing, but with an emptiness and unnatural formality that is different enough to be disturbing without being too far removed from the real Doctor and Sarah. It’s pitched just right.
The difference between this and an Auton story is that the alien in control is much less of a silly special effects failure, again an interesting comparison when you compare the reputation of this story to something like Spearhead from Space. The Kraals might be pretty standard men in monster costumes, but they are a million times better than Jon Pertwee gurning while he wraps a tentacle around his neck, and they are actually a lot of fun as only the most incompetent villains can be. Their plot is clearly ridiculous, but like Styre in The Sontaran Experiment criticising that is kind of criticising the whole point of the story. Why would we expect villains to be ruthlessly efficient and get everything right? If villains consistently were completely sane and logical then the heroes really would be in trouble. Why would we assume a sensible personality would lead a person (or alien) to villainy, rather than what we actually see here: a bickering old married couple with hilariously convoluted plans for world domination.
I could take the complaints about The Android Invasion and dismantle them one by one quite easily, but to avoid dragging this on forever I will just take one good example. In just about every review I have ever read about this, people always mention the absurdity of copying everything to the extent that the taps in the pub actually dispense drinks, which is an absolutely nonsensical point of view. How is an alien who is copying an environment for testing purposes supposed to know what to copy and what not to copy? How are the Kraals supposed to know what might be significant? Why would they go to the effort of deciding that anyway, when the simplest option would obviously be just to duplicate everything as much as possible. It’s hardly any kind of a scientific test if you start tampering with it before you start.
A real world example: my father has worked in clothing retail since the late 50s, and he tells the story of a Chinese factory that was sent a sample of a garment to copy for a production run. The sample happened to have a small flaw in the fabric. When the order was delivered they had duplicated the fabric flaw in exactly the same place on every garment. An exact copy was specified, and an exact copy was delivered. And these were people who actually knew the purpose of an item of clothing. Imagine trying to make a judgement call about whether a strange liquid should be inside a strange system of metal pipes in a strange building, with no knowledge of what any of that means.
Once it is established that we have been seeing a copy of a village, that throws up interesting questions about the nature of existence, such is the effectiveness of the duplication. Mike has an interest in ontology so I expect he will enjoy this aspect of the story. Although it is underdeveloped, as inevitably happens when the Classic series tries to play with big ideas, we basically have The Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic, in which a group of people are imprisoned within a limited environment and can see only shadows of the real world. From their point of view the shadows are their whole reality, and they have no drive to escape their prison because they don’t know of the existence of anything else. Everyone within the fake village is like those prisoners, including the Doctor and Sarah until they discover the truth, unaware that they are existing within a constructed, artificial environment. Of course, the philosophical point that Plato was making is that the whole human race might be like those prisoners, and only philosophy will allow us to see beyond our prison. Were this a 21st Century episode of Doctor Who, we would probably get some mention of that. Were it a Capaldi episode, he would probably talk direct to the camera and tell us about the Cave, while playing his electric guitar. We don’t get any of that here, but we do get a major revelation about the Doctor instead. When he wakes up from being unconscious, there is a lovely little improvised scene (a lot of the dialogue is improvised, because Terry Nation tended to churn out fairly charmless stuff). Here’s what the Doctor blurts out at that moment:
Shush, shush, shush. Once upon a time, there were three sisters, and they lived at the bottom of a treacle well. Their names were Olga, Masha, and Elena. Are you listening, Tilly?
Much like his post-regenerative trauma when he recalls battling dinosaurs, the Doctor is flashing back to the past in his confused state, and he is clearly telling a bedtime story to a little girl called Tilly. I have had a pet theory about this for years, and have never seen it mentioned anyway else, which has always amazed me. The most obvious conclusion here is that Tilly is the name of the Doctor’s daughter, filling in that mysterious generation gap between Susan and her grandfather, in name if nothing else. So come on, Big Finish, let’s have The Adventures of Tilly. It’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. RP
The view from the Birthday Boy across the pond:
Astute readers are probably wondering why we’d review The Android Invasion today of all days after a week of Troughton stories?
Blame Tom Baker; it’s his fault. He was the one exploring a pub when he encountered a calendar upon which was a date. A date that repeats every day for the entire calendar year. Every day is July 6th! And this is something I would be very happy with since it’s my birthday! Do you know how many Doctor Who gifts I could get in a year?? I could complete at least one range of Big Finish audios! Of course the downside is that every bad event that happens that year also happens on my birthday, so maybe that’s not so good. But that Big Finish range…
Needless to say, that gave this story a very special place in my heart! But it goes beyond that. The story is very much a rehash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but if I’m honest, it’s far better. It still capitalizes on the same fears, but adds the Kraals, a replica village and of course the Doctor. And with that last one, there’s always humor. It is a fact that humor can enhance anything. Even a horror story can be made better with a bit of humor. I’m not talking about making it silly! There’s a big distinction to making it silly versus adding a tension-relieving laugh. I’m talking about a brief line that makes us chuckle despite the danger of the situation. For instance, as the Doctor is being shot at by what appear to be lab techs in white hazmat suits with guns for index fingers, he asks “is that finger loaded?” It’s a great line, makes us laugh, but doesn’t take away from the danger. Personally my favorite moments like that are: when Styggron is about to blow up the replica village and the Doctor is tied to the column, he says “Don’t go! Stay! Then we can all go together!” The other is the request for “another pint” when the Doctor wants some more ginger beer! There’s a subtle annoyance Baker conveys exceptionally well that comes across very humorously. And none of that takes away from the menace. Like The Web of Fear, we have the subversion of what is expected: a pub should not be an empty place. It’s meant to be a bustling hive of activity. In fact, we have the whole town suffering from the same affliction – it’s devoid of people until they are trucked in, then suddenly spring to life. The image of a UNIT soldier hurling himself over a cliff to his death is terrifying in its intensity, but when that same soldier turns up again later, it’s even more alarming. The whole story is a mystery that unfolds magnificently over four episodes.
There is so much to enjoy in this story, the only complaint is Colonel Faraday taking Lethbridge-Stewart’s place. Behind the scenes, there’s a reason: Nick Courtney was elsewhere. Within the series, he’s similarly called away and Faraday is in command in the interim. If the Brig were there, it would have improved the story if for no other reason than it was the final appearances of Sergeant Benton and Harry Sullivan; having the Brig there would have been a nice perk.
Guy Crayford is a great semi-villain, but one wonders how he ever showered if he never took his eyepatch off… I mean, phantom limb alone, I’d think he’d be convinced he had an eye, would lift the eyepatch to see the horror that was left… and find he still had an eye after all. Besides, why would the Kraals make him think he lost his eye? What benefit could there be to that? “Hey, let’s tell him he lost his eye, but leave it there anyway, so he’ll know we are liars when he sees his eye!” Why not just take the eye then, if that’s what it took to keep the mystery alive? Let’s call an android an android here: they are willing to wipe out a whole planet but won’t cut out the man’s eye? It seems unbelievable to me! But then I’ve never had a rhino for a friend, and maybe that’s their thing.
Meanwhile the main cast is fantastic, even if Tom has a raspy voice! Frankly it was distinctive and it suited him. The light grey coat is one of my favorites. I liked Sarah’s outfit too, but the scarf has got to go. Oh, wait, it did. And didn’t. What? Nevermind. I also have to laugh at the stunt double action with Tom because it is so clearly not him, you have to laugh. But then, like I’ve said many times before, this series was about solid storytelling and selling an idea. The Android Invasion does that in spades!
The Android Invasion is easily one of my favorites of the classic series. I’m really happy to share my birthday with the day the Kraals invaded! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Brain of Morbius