Doctor Who and The Invasion of Time
Written by Graham Williams and Anthony Read
Transmitted 4 February – 11 March, 1978
1978 was a turbulent time for Doctor Who. After three years of success under the team of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, it was time for a change. Incoming producer Graham Williams was charged with reducing the violence and horror that had pervaded the program during the Hinchcliffe era. As a young father, he was sensitive to the reception that the images presented in Genesis of the Daleks and Deadly Assassin would give a young child. With a concept that would explore the fantastic elements of science fiction, Williams set out on his mission to craft a more other-worldly version of the program than had been seen. This is evident in programs such as The Invisible Enemy and Underworld. The last minute addition of Horror of Fang Rock by Terrance Dicks, the genius of Chris Boucher’s Image of the Fendahl and the un-subtle satire of the Sunmakers rounded out season 15… but what about the final adventure of the year?
For the finale, a return to Gallifrey was planned, one that would marry the decrepit civilization of Deadly Assassin with the God-like beings of The War Games. An exploration of a ‘drop out’ society was planned and Williams contacted an old associate David Weir to pen a gripping 6-parter. When Weir’s planned script ‘Killers in the Dark’ (often mis-remembered as ‘The Killer Cats of Gin Sengh’) proved un-film-able, Williams and script editor Anthony Read threw together a story that faced the challenges of not only wrapping up the season but doing it cheaply.
Add to these problems the fact that Tom Baker had become so egocentric that he demanded a say in the selection of writers and directors and you have a recipe for disaster (of course Williams took Baker before the Head of Serials who talked Baker off the ledge, so to speak). This is a time when Doctor Who was attracting viewing figures over 10 million per episode, a crucial period for a program struggling to stay together.
All of this back story is necessary to understand that The Invasion of Time had many challenges to overcome both financial and creative (the production of Killers in the Dark had already begun and script editor Robert Holmes had just departed). As a fan, the six episode format is something that I dearly miss as it usually involved one plot that seemingly resolved and then transformed into another. Both Seeds of Doom and Invasion of Time are great examples of this. This is of course back when Doctor Who was essentially a serial drama transmitted weekly and frankly there’s no comparison today.
The story opens with a very Star Wars-esque scene in which a space craft zooms past the camera. The Doctor signs an agreement with a trio mysterious figures rather flippantly. When he returns to the TARDIS, he commands K-9 to silence Leela and sulks by his scarf rather pensively, staring off in a maddened way. It is clear that something important and dangerous is afoot.
Arriving on Gallifrey (where painted wooden balls are used as technology), the Doctor somehow bamboozles the lackadaisical Time Lord society into accepting him as a candidate for the Presidency and turns their culture upside down. Of course given that there are about twenty people actually living on Gallifrey, that’s an easy accomplishment. It’s always very amusing to me when Doctor Who attempts to depict an entire planet’s population with a shoestring budget and it ends up looking like the population of a college dormitory on a holiday weekend.
The production value fluctuates madly throughout this six part adventure with any scene filmed in the TARDIS looking like it was lit from a bare bulb left on the floor. Make-up, costumes and set construction suffered from the lack of ever-dwindling money and it shows that the production team was struggling just to get this thing in the can. Even so, the drama is rather gripping at times and there are some excellent cliff-hangers. I cannot say that The Invasion of Time is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories or even one of my favorite Tom Baker stories of 1978, but it does achieve a lot for its limitations. Finally utilizing the mad-cap persona of Tom Baker, it makes the viewer question the sanity of the Doctor and also delivers quite a few moments that leave the viewer anxious to see what happens next.
The script, hastily assembled as it was by Williams and Read, is actually very clever and has some of the finest cliffhangers in the program’s history. Arrested as a renegade then declaring himself President, and finally a traitor to his own people, the Doctor is painted as having finally gone over the deep end. After played up the eccentricities of the Doctor throughout the series, it is entirely believable that he would gleefully betray his own people to an alien invasion force.
The problem arises when the mysterious alien invaders, the Vardans, are revealed to be first shimmery sheets of tin foil and then three young actors dressed as Captain Video. In many ways that is the biggest detriment that Invasion of Time has, a failure to realize the ambitions of the script. Apparently the original idea involved a race of cate people outside of Gallifrey, a scene set in a vast amphitheatre and a civil war between the ruling and under class of the city… but all were cast aside as unfilmably expensive. However, what we get is a very poor man’s rendition of much the same.
The ambition to more fully develop Gallifrey and return the Time Lords to their place of god-like power falls somewhat flat. In the William Hartnell era, the Doctor’s home was a fantastical place with picaresque landscapes. The Time Lords of The War Games are ethereal beings with the ability to manipulate time and space at will. The Time Lords are seen throughout the Pertwee era as members of a technocratic society, but hardly all-powerful, often using the Doctor’s expertise to solve problems for them, such as the moment when one of the mightiest Time Lords, Omega, threatened all of creation from beyond a black hole. Unable to halt Omega’s attack, the High Council recruited the Doctor, but thinking that multiple iterations of him would solve the issue more easily, brought together three versions of the renegade Time Lord for the first time.
It has been pointed out that crossing the Doctor’s time streams in The Three Doctors is far more important to the mythology of the program than was first thought and makes the time lines more mutable and fragile (witness Genesis of the Daleks, for instance).
The major change in the depiction of Gallifrey was in Deadly Assassin where the Doctor’s society was shown to be a decrepit ailing race of senile beings living in the wake of a legacy so great that it harnessed the power of cosmic forces. Williams hoped to find some middle ground between Holmes’ vision and the more cosmically powerful Time Lords in Invasion of Time and it’s a mixed result.
The same four or five sets are recycled to represent an entire city, supporting actors range from exemplary (the stunning John Arnatt as Borusa plays theatrical tennis with Baker and Milton John is extraordinary as the toad-ish Kelnar) to laughable (everyone else).
Tom Baker delivers one of his most impressive performances here and yet he takes the mickey on more than one occasion making it his most uneven story ever. At times he is sparkling with madness and intensity and other times he is just hamming it up for the camera (‘Not even my sonic screwdriver can get me out of this!’ he mugs at the camera). This is of course a clear sign that the actor was growing too big for his britches and worse was still to come in the next two years, but this could be the first sign of Baker’s egomania pervading the program.
The Vardans invade Gallifrey thanks to the Doctor usurping power from the frankly gullible High Council of Time Lords. After exiling Leela to the exterior of the city, it appears that the Doctor has turned into a villain somehow which frankly is one of the most interesting moments of the entirety of Doctor Who. Of course, it’s all a cunning plan and involves some jiggery-pokery with K-9 and a magic button to resolve the threat. The build up is so impressive that the resolution cannot help but be a let down, yet even so the manner in which the Doctor subdues the Vardans is so bad that one would expect it from the new BBC Wales series (circa Davies/Tennnant). The ideas itself of the Invasion of Time is inspired and brilliant, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
In the wake of apparent victory over the Vardans comes the unexpected realization that Gallifrey has been invaded while its defenses were down by a power-hungry alien race. The options initially intended involved the Daleks or Cybermen which were vetoed as too uninteresting but for a moment just think of a trio of Daleks arriving for the cliffhanger of part four and you can imagine how much more amazing this story could have been.
But… maybe that would just mean an Ogron would have tripped over a deck chair.
Even so, after four rather gripping episodes strung together by remarkably sharp scripting, the entire affair falls apart and its at the expense of one of my favorite ‘monsters,’ the Sontarans.
To be fair, one could arrange the amount of quality stories featuring the Sontarans on the head of a pin, but even so it is disappointing to see the warrior race reduced to a run around through a hospital basement posing as the interior of the TARDIS and nearly stumbling over a deck chair into the pool (imagine if that had actually happened!). At this point, the Sontarans had featured in two other stories, each time utilizing a single Sontaran operating alone from its battle group. This was quartet staging a landing party on Gallifrey… and it was very disappointing. Not nearly as poor as ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ many years later, but bad.
Whereas in ‘The Time Warrior,’ they were shown to be a deadly, cunning and noble race, and in ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ displayed as sadistic monsters, they are sad faded versions of their former glory here. Goofy, slow-moving and with the reflexes of a box turtle, it’s a wonder the Sontarans ever got around to accomplishing anything.
Of course this story marks the departure of both Louise Jamison as Leela and K-9 (mk I). Neither makes any real sense as Leela is hardly the marrying kind and her out of the blow love affair with the cardboard Andred is laughable (the actors vainly attempted to signpost the affection with the odd moment of touching on screen, but it’s just a bad idea). Of course Leela would have better been suited to a warrior’s death at the hands of the Sontarans, but given that the program was reaching out to a younger audience, that was not to be.
Jamison is quite good in Invasion of Time, but it must be said that she is given some dreadful material to deal with and is nearly upstaged by the prototype for Romana, Rodan (no relation to the Godzilla monster of the same name). Rodan is a socialite living a sheltered life of protected solitude only to become exposed to conflict and aggression. It only stands to reason that Rodan should have left with the Doctor if Leela was to remain behind, but no dice. The character ends up making little sense.
Additionally, the departure of K-9 is a non-event as he is merely replaced by another (identical) version begging the question why leave K-9 on Gallifrey at all?
In the face of any character development in the first part of ‘The Invasion of Time,’ the Doctor is chased throughout the corridors of Gallifrey and then the corridors of the TARDIS itself with the Key of Rassilon the much sought after prize. He gets a lot of grief for his regionally accented Sontaran Stoor, but I rather enjoy Derek Deadman as the over-zealous/over the-top power-mad alien soldier. If he had been any more reserved, the latter part of this adventure would have sagged. As it is, Deadman injects a much-needed element of megalomania that the damp Vardans failed to deliver.
The resolution to the entire affair revolves around a legendary weapon that no Time Lord could possibly assemble, let alone use… the D-Mat gun.
A magic button by any other name…
The Invasion of Time was a story with massive roadblocks in its way. The budget, script and actors were all problematic to varying degrees. In the end, what we get is a somewhat fractured adventure that is equal parts genius and embarrassment (the multiple shots of the hospital basement, the scenes in the TARDIS apparently lit by a bare bulb on the floor) and fans are left wondering what happened. The reality is that Doctor Who constantly batters against the same problems at the best of times and 9 out of 10 times comes out on top. In this case, it was a fifty/fifty.
The character of the Doctor is developed in leaps and bounds, perhaps signposting the madness that he would exhibit in subsequent years. The notion that our hero could have turned against his people is a stunning one and explored in great detail here. However, the lack of material, money and talent to realize this adventure leaves it lopsided. I can’t completely discard ‘The Invasion of Time’ as a dud for its many successes, but at the same time I cannot forgive its staggering lack of quality control.
One may argue that’s Doctor Who in a nut shell.
Released by Character Options, a special action figure set commemorates this story with a new variant of Leela, the D-Mat gun and Commander Storr, the third Sontaran to be released from the classic series alongside the Time Warrior and Sontaran Experiment (I’m not holding my breath for a Two Doctors set).
Doctor Who 'Invasion of Time' Action Figure Set
The Invasion of Time action figure set is available in the US from Mike’s Comics and in the UK from Forbidden Planet.
Available from Amazon.com:
Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time