Doctor Who The Invasion of Time

Season15@40. Up until the startlingly realised revelation near the end of `Utopia`, the most thrilling `live` moment of Doctor Who I can remember is when at the end of part 4 of `Invasion of Time` the Sontarans suddenly turn up. Just like that 2007 reveal I had absolutely no idea it was going to happen and even though I’ve seen it many times since it is still quite a moment.  Then again this is anything but a conventional story, even for this season. It takes risks, plays with the expected format and while far from perfect and rather too long, I prefer it to something more ordinary.

Essentially the story was penned by Anthony Read, with Graham Williams acting as script editor and the results are Holmesian if not Robert Holmes himself. The dialogue is often oblique with an intellectual polish that sometimes sits uneasily with the lumbering monsters and spangly effects. On first showing these conversations seemed difficult to grasp but on repeated viewings you appreciate the script’s clever, unusual approach. The script also scores with Kelner whose convenient acquiescing to every authority figure he’s faced with is fun to watch. 

This Gallifrey is clearly in the midst of an economic down turn (where do the Time Lords get money from anyway?) though you have to smile at the team’s attempts to be futuristic with the different coloured alert `golf balls` and wafer thin stasers. As for the wholly impractical plastic chairs – just who would sit comfortably on these except the Time Lord’s pet dogs? The story continues Robert Holmes’ repositioning of the planet so that audience could more easily identify with it so Rodan’s description of her job for example sounds like anyone moaning about a routine work day. On the one hand there’s all the protocol and pomp of the now decaying Gallifrey (established in `The Deadly Assassin`) yet this is counterpointed by a frivolous air. At least two actors address the camera directly, the story is edited to repeatedly undercut or contradict a statement a character has made at the end of the previous scene. Most of the cast are treading a very narrow line between treating the material with earnest seriousness yet also being amused by what is going on.
Most unusually of all we enter the story after its already started for the Doctor which almost never happened in original Doctor Who. Normally, you’d have a scene setter (nowadays called a cold open) then the Doctor would arrive so although the wheels were already turning when we join the story we witness all of the Doctor’s actions. In this story, episode 1 starts with the Doctor already deep in discussion with unknown aliens, Leela locked in the Tardis wondering where he is. There is a stray line as the Doctor converses with these sibilantly voiced beings in which he mentions they’ve promised him complete power over the Time Lords which does undercut the mystery but as I’d never noticed it before perhaps viewers at the time never did either. Otherwise we’re left in the dark as to what the Doctor is up to.

Tom Baker is at the height of his powers, such a height in fact that he has been accused of going over the top. The actor revels in being able to give a very large, loud performance which presents this charismatic Doctor in a new light. I remember when it was broadcast this was a cause of much discussion as to what was going on. However the Doctor has to win the Vardans’ trust to convince them of his loyalty so the shouting and strange requests merely fit that. There’s little doubt though that the actor is having a great time. Perhaps in his head he saw this approach as the way to progress the Doctor? The wild behaviour is a perfect fit for this story though people complained when it became his default setting for the following season.

We’re also introduced to a fantastic array of Time Lords. John Arnatt is my favourite Borusa (come on, I’m sure you’ve had arguments in the pub about the best Borusa?) giving a performance so arch and dry he makes every word a delight. His verbal sparring with the Doctor takes place on two levels and the viewer is left to guess where they’re at. For all the flak Graham Williams gets about dumbing down the programme his era is actually home to some of the most intelligent, interesting dialogue and these Doctor / Borusa conversations rank up there with anything Robert Holmes wrote.

If you required an obsequious toadying authority figure then Milton Johns was your go-to actor in the 70s and Castellan Kelner is a perfect distillation of that. You can see the actor squirming as his allegiances and plans change and his face is all false smiles and reassurance. Interestingly both Arnatt and Johns are giving performances that would also fit a sitcom yet they’re convincing and occasionally come close to winking at the camera. A word to for the often overlooked Andred, destined to be remembered as the guy Leela was rather speedily married of to. Chris Tranchell’s approach is slightly different to old stagers like Arnatt and Johns but he is operating on the same level and up to the mark in interpreting the often semi comedic dialogue. Plus he provides the Doctor with an interesting foil in later episodes. Finally there’s Rodan who has long been suggested as being a prototype Romana though there was never any confirmation that she was seen this way by Graham Williams. In any case, Rodan is less haughty than Romana would be and far less suited for adventuring though Hilary Ryan gives a rare kind of performance in the old series where the character ends up looking truly frightened by the turn of events. Later though there is a Romanaesque scene where Rodan assists the Doctor and after he’s just outlined his ambitious idea she says cool as you like “Have you got a screwdriver!” Don’t tell me when Williams saw that it didn’t set the cogs turning.

For her final story Leela revives her warrior ways stirring up the outcasts into a rather unlikely sounding attack on the Citadel. These scenes are largely superfluous to the overall plot padding out the middle episodes. If the hinterlands of Gallifrey were lush and verdant you could understand why some would drop out of life in the Citadel but all we see is harsh semi desert that frankly most people would take one look at and turn back. Presumably somewhere too is a nifty cloak making machine! These outsiders could have held the key to defeating the comparative technological sophistication of the invaders but they are only there to serve some awkward corridor chases later on.  Leela’s attitude towards them is very reminiscent too of her approach to the rebels in `The Sunmakers`. There’s a sense that her character has run out of steam though how much of this is because we know she’s leaving I’m not sure. By any stretch her `romance` with Andred is, as both actors have attested, never acknowledged along the way and it is difficult to imagine Leela fitting into Citadel life easily. Why not have her fall for one of the outsiders? And surely Andred and Rodan would be a more fitting coupling?

Oddly the Vardans have three distinct looks- firstly we see what we assume to be their backs and they resembled upright sausages. OK so these were meant to be thier chairs but the view we get makes them seem otherwise. If they are then the Vardans must be the first race whose seating is more interesting than they are! Then they’re shimmering tin foil, an effect that visually falls short but aurally sounds really different with that rustling noise and their slightly urgent voices. Having watched the alternative CGI options I still prefer the tin foil! When we see their true form the Doctor voices both the Time Lords’ and our disappointment at the metal rucksack wearing humanoids. Maybe though that’s no more their true form than the bacofoil look? Maybe, being creatures that transmit themselves along wavelengths they have no proper physical form?

I do wonder about the recklessness of the Doctor’s plan. He pretends to help the Vardans in order to trap them but opening up Gallifrey in the way he does seems a rather over the top method to use. While it does elevate the story to something more unusual than a standard invasion, I’m not sure it’s a believable risk for him to take. He doesn't know if there are other races hanging around and thinking "Oh, here's our chance to attack Gallifrey"We see the Doctor at his most confidentially cavalier in this story, convinced he will prevail, almost `the Time Lord Victorious`.

The story itself is a tad laboured; the Vardans have to wait till part 4 before they’re feeling safe enough to reveal themselves yet are almost wholly in control by part 2 so there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to be done mostly around astonishingly narrow corridors. Presumably there was never a rush hour in the Citadel or people would just get stuck in the passageways! After the brief thrill of the end of part 4, the last two episodes struggle to muster as much entertainment as the previous four despite some comedy regarding the Tardis interior. There’s plenty of time that would have been available for Leela and Andred’s relationship to be given at least some focus but it’s ignored in favour of the Sontaran’s progress through the ship with Kelner in tow. Perhaps betraying the speed with which it had to be penned, the script here is uneven; one minute Kelner is busy doing what is clearly engineering work for Stor, the next he declares “I’m no engineer”. And if Stor’s plan is to explode a grenade at the heart of the citadel, why does he bother chasing through the Tardis. The Sontarans’ decline starts here though it’s not as marked as it would later be. Yet it’s difficult to see them having the ability or even the need to invade Gallifrey when they live for war. They must have known they wouldn’t get much of a fight from this lot! Had the Vardans been more interesting I’m sure they could have sustained the six episodes. “They…had…their…uses…” says Stor very slowly but we never really found out enough about them.

For all its ramshackle look there are some glorious visuals- the beautifully designed lead lining that rather speedily is put into the Presidential office (perhaps the decorators travelled back in time to install it?), the still grand Panopticon set and some nifty model work on the spaceships. I have absolutely no problems with brick walls and decaying swimming pools inside the Tardis because you imagine this is absolutely the sort of messy interior the fourth Doctor would keep. In fact I find it much more convincing and original (even though it was brought about by production problems) than when we explored the environs of the ship more recently in `Journey to the Centre of the Tardis` and it looked like a standard tv sci-fi spaceship. 

Anthony Read clearly had bold ideas for the programme and had this been a four parter (even if it meant not having that end of part 4 shock) `Invasion of Time` might be more fondly remembered. At times it has the heft of any Robert Holmes script and there are some huge performances but in the end it’s a story that’s not too sure what it’s about. Is it a depiction of “a simple palace revolution”, an invasion, a study of the corruption inherent in a fading society? Or just an extended runaround? You do have to admire though the way it plays with the series’ established rules often to its advantage and the results are always interesting. 
You Wot?
John Arnatt was born in Russia and in the 1950s spent a period as a sports reporter for ITV using the pseudonym Howard Peters. 
Milton Johns was a regular on Coronation Street from 1991-3 playing Brendan Scott. 
Derek Deadman appeared in 33 episodes of Never The Twain playing a character called Ringo. 
Chris Tranchell's real name is Christopher Small and he’s best known for being a regular in Terry Nation’s post apocalyptic series Survivors. He’s also appeared at the Globe Theatre. 
Hilary Ryan made her television debut in `Invasion of Time`. 
Anthony Read wrote a number of non fiction historical books in addition to his long TV career and was also chair of the Writers Guild from 1981-82. 
Graham Williams later left the tv industry to run a hotel. 
So what did fans think of `The Invasion of Time` back in 1978.....?

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