Doctor Who complete reviews: The Android Invasion
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
There's trouble in the village, and even the Doc and Sarah aren't quite what they seem...
The Android Invasion is a classic place of Wrong Time, Wrong Place. Broadcast it in Season 23 or Season 24, and it’d easily be regarded as the best of the season, and would probably enjoy more of a higher standing in fans’ eyes. Lamentably, it got stuck in the middle of one of the greatest seasons of Who, and has since been consigned to the pile of Stories That No One Really Remembers.
Pity. Taken on its own, The Android Invasion is perfectly acceptable Who. It’s entertaining. It’s well produced and boasts some very good direction from Barry Letts. It’s got the usual marvellous double act from Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.
So what’s the big problem? Well, there’s a number of possibilities. For one thing, because it’s in the middle of a season big on gothic scares, The Android Invasion is lightweight by comparison. No one gets killed horribly, unless you count Styggron’s bogey head at the end, and even then, it’s only on the screen for a brief moment and shot from far away. That said, the first episode succeeds in conjuring up an atmosphere of eerie stillness. Having materialised on what they think is Earth, The Doctor and Sarah are bemused by the weird goings-on in the genteel village of Devesham. A UNIT soldier throws himself off a cliff – only to reappear minutes later without so much as a scratch. The local villagers are behaving in a very odd manner in the local pub, remaining motionless like statues for a minute. And the UNIT members have now turned against their two friends, even Harry and Benton.
Now that’s a great premise, and it translates very well to screen. I mentioned Barry Letts’ direction, and he totally gets the eerie scenario presented in Terry Nation’s script. The opening shots of the twitching UNIT soldier are done very well, as is the slow-motion fall off the cliff (props to stuntman Max Faulkner here for earning his pay in such a tricky manner). And then the rapid jump cuts of the close-up blank faces in the pub are just as well filmed by Letts, bringing home the oddball situation expertly. You definitely get the feeling that all is not what it seems in Devesham, and the mystery is well spun out over the first couple of episodes until the big reveal at the end of Part Two in the best cliffhanger out of the lot.
"In a season of gruesome deaths, scary monsters and psychologically near-the-knuckle scenarios, The Android Invasion sticks out like a sore thumb"
This is another example of how well the story is executed. It’s initially a slow-burner of a scene. The Doctor calmly explains his reasoning that this is not the real Earth, and as he explains that everything is a sham, he builds up to the fact that “Sarah” has been replaced by an android double. And then it builds up to a frenzied climax as The Doctor grabs the android Sarah, which collapses minus its face. The last shot of the bulgy-eyed Sarah robot is freakishly memorable, and very well done (shame about the less effective shot of the robot sitting up and shooting The Doctor in the next episode).
However, that’s about as gothic as it gets, and in a season of gruesome deaths, scary monsters and psychologically near-the-knuckle scenarios, The Android Invasion sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, it’s just that fans who like their Who on the darker side may not appreciate this.
A bigger problem is however, the rather moth-eaten script which contains more holes than a Swiss cheese. The head-scratching questions come thick and fast. Why does Styggron go to all the trouble of preparing a fake Earth in the first place? Why does he then go and blow it up? Why is the android Sarah such a dead giveaway? Why don’t the Kraals carry on invading Earth after Styggron’s death? How can Crayford not realise that he’s got 20:20 vision?
Now speaking as someone who’s as blind as a bat (cheers, contact lenses), I could at least tell if I couldn’t see. So quite why Crayford doesn’t even think to look underneath the eyepatch is a big mystery. Isn’t he even the slightest bit curious?
So what’s the difference between this story and Pyramids Of Mars, which was just as holey? Possibly because Android has even more plot problems than Pyramids, all of which are glaringly obvious throughout. And we’re back to the original argument again that Android just isn’t as spectacular as its predecessor. Whereas Pyramids Of Mars really succeeded in conveying a sense of terrifying threat, The Android Invasion doesn’t quite have the same punch.
The main threat is that of the Kraals, a rather silly gaggle of rhinoceros-looking things. In fact, we only see three of the things – again, nothing new, since Terror Of The Zygons hardly boasted an army of Zygons. But in fact, the Kraal army is mainly limited to the bickering double act of Styggron and Chedaki, who spend their time arguing about the best plan of invading Earth. Chedaki is the worst offender, and it doesn’t help that Roy Skelton acts as if he has been told to go to the Rainbow studios. The Zippy-like intonations may raise a few happy memories for 30-something fans, but there’s no doubting that they sound deeply silly. “They could be – REPROGRAMMED!!” he bellows at one point, as if Styggron is just about to turn into George or Bungle. All we need is Rod, Jane and Freddy to perform at Morgan’s pub, and the picture is complete. Although that sounds more of an exciting way to pass the time than Darts Club Night.
UNIT fans may feel a bit swindled too by the rather poor turnout in The Android Invasion. The Brig’s absent, and is instead replaced by the OTT Colonel Faraday, who’s high on hammy delivery of his lines and low on originality. Patrick Newell is OK, but he’s evidently been watching too many Leslie Phillips films. “OOOOFFFF MEEEE?” he booms at one point, after being told of his android double. “Confounded cheek!” It’s just a stone’s throw away from a “Ding Dong!”
It’s also a sorry show for Benton and Harry. John Levene clearly isn’t having such a good time of things, with a rather subdued performance. It’s a shame, since Levene was an integral part of the show’s history in the early 70s, and made Benton into a character that was both refreshingly down-to-earth and likeable at the same time. Same goes for Ian Marter’s Harry, who doesn’t really get that much to do in Android apart from serve some Kraal grub and then get tied up in Styggron’s rocket. Not a deserving end for such a popular companion.
Despite these problems, there’s still much to commend The Android Invasion. Terry Nation’s script at least has a go at doing something different from his usual Dalek stories. There’s quite a few interesting ideas at work here, including the eerie, twitching androids and the memorable racing driver servants. It also moves along at a good pace, even if the story may be a bit too linear for some.
"This story is largely carried along by one of Doctor Who’s golden couples – Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, who really make this acting lark seem so easy"
And this story is largely carried along by one of Doctor Who’s golden couples – Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, who really make this acting lark seem so easy. There’s a great rapport between the two throughout, whether they’re theorising about what’s happened to the village, arguing over ginger pop or debating the merits of the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum rhyme. Luckily The Doctor’s in a better mood than in Pyramids Of Mars, mischievously suggesting that the pub’s a good first port of call to look for clues or taking Styggron down a peg or two. Poor old Tom’s got a bit of a sore throat (the apparent aftermath of the scene in which The Doctor hides in a deep lake), but this doesn’t detract from another superb performance – and both he and Sladen can do evil incredibly well. Just look at the performances both give as their nasty android twins. Carefully studied and convincingly acted.
The support acting’s generally good too. Martin Friend overcomes the limitations of his rather cumbersome mask and costume to deliver a fiendish performance as Styggron. Milton Johns steals the show though as the weak Crayford. You’ve got to feel sorry for Crayford, a man who’s been duped to the point of no return because he thinks that Styggron’s brought him back from the jaws of death. Like a one-man Kraal evangelist, Crayford is a rather pathetic soul, preaching to the unenthusiastic congregation of The Doctor and Sarah about the benefits of the warty one.
And the production is generally well up to the standards of the mid-70s. The location filming looks incredible, the bright summer of 1975 is perfectly in tune with the genteel town of Devesham, and paves the way for the equally unassuming Leadworth in the latest season of Doctor Who. Barry Letts’ final directing assignment also ranks among his best, with lots of well-judged shots and cool effects such as the video synthesised distortion of the disorientation machine.
The Android Invasion deserves to be remembered more fondly. The script may be flawed, and contain many annoying niggles, but at least it’s entertaining and fast paced. Fans of gothic horror may pass on this one, but maybe it’s not a bad idea to take a breather from relentless scares. Take it as a summery, escapist interlude, and it might be better than you first thought. Go on, give it another go.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.