Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Android Invasion

8/6/12 “The Android Invasion”
Styggron: “It will be a most unpleasant death.” 
The Doctor:  “We shall see.”

I keep going over this in my head, trying to reconcile what I think are quite interesting fake-out ideas with the feeling of being underwhelmed which is foremost in my mind.  As a non-Dalek Terry Nation story, it’s a lot better than many of his Dalek stories.  However, following a general trend of the 1970s Doctor Who, it’s obsessed with robots (which to me are usually quite boring) and is saturated in Nation’s motif of radiation poisoning.  It’s not Sarah’s best story, either; she has her moments, but these are obliterated by a ridiculous amount of falling over (“a twisted ankle can be excruciating,” as Lord Rupert says in The 10th Kingdom).  Cut down into a three-parter, I might well have recommended this more highly.

The strength of the story is surely the location filming in the village of “Devesham,” which looks quite a bit like Rushden in Hertfordshire (then I imagine it looks like villages in many counties of England).  However, this is also a double-edged sword.  Another 1970s motif is one recognizable in “The Daemons” and horror films of the era:  namely, exchanging urban and alien sites of doom for the eerie, isolated, claustrophobic and atmospheric English village.  In short, though it’s done well, it also feels like it’s been done a million times before.  In its defense, however, it hadn’t been done quite like this before, and as I said, the fake-out at the bottom of the story is a considerable one.  The Doctor drinking “ginger pop” as he and Sarah Jane exit the TARDIS into what appears to be Earth (after a thundershower!) is an Important Plot Point.  We learn that “acorn tress don’t grow anywhere else in the galaxy.”  Sarah is wearing a rather cute, mostly practical pink outfit with sailor collar, baggy flares, and patterned, textured, chunky heels and striped socks!  They are stopped in their frolic by helmeted Autons (well, they have guns in their hands like Autons) who surely must have inspired the Slabs in “Smith and Jones.” 

Running around the village and its environs, Sarah takes the opportunity to fall down a gentle incline in an even more wince-inducing moment than in “The Five Doctors.”  (Perhaps Terrance Dicks wrote that fall with this one in mind?)  This hitch causes the Doctor and Sarah to see a UNIT soldier apparently acting very strangely and then falling off a cliff.  He is “dead,” and rather unusually, they go through his pockets.  Currency doesn’t often take center stage in Doctor Who, but the Doctor and Sarah notice that the soldier’s pockets are full of freshly minted coins (though of what year, we do not know; UNIT dating continues to elude us).  “Let’s try the pub,” the Doctor says after they find the village deserted.  Thus follows probably the most effective sequence in this story, as they explore the empty pub, which the Doctor compares to the Mary Celeste.  (Though not as “stuck in time” as the Dennis Severs House.)  Sarah has recognized where they are because she previously did a journalistic stint at Devesham due to its proximity to the Space Defence Station.  The Doctor and Sarah end up hiding as people (who we know are androids copies) file into the pub with apparent detachment.  As the clock strikes noon, they come to “life.”  (Though, to be honest, why would this array of people be in the pub at noon?  Unless drinking habits were quite different in 1975!)

When they are discovered, the Doctor and Sarah escape.  “I’m sure you shouldn’t be drinking so soon after breaking your neck,” the Doctor quips to the soldier who is, despite all appearances, alive and well and has joined them in the pub.  When Sarah puts the key in the lock, the TARDIS dematerializes.  I felt sure this would be an episode ending.  However, it wasn’t, and this whole development was never successfully explained to me.  The android “pods,” one of which is next to where the TARDIS was, are terrible props.  The Doctor makes his way toward the Space Defence Station, which is again a terrible example of 1970s architecture.  A surprising number of action sequences follow as the Doctor is rescued by Sarah from a detention cell.  Odd things are definitely going on, given that soldiers are unresponsive, the Brigadier is missing (“in Geneva”), an anorexic guy in an eyepatch is shouting around, and an alien face peers at Sarah, without her noticing.

The guy in the eyepatch is Guy Crayford, whom Sarah recognizes as a missing, presumed dead astronaut on the XK5 space mission, and it seems he is contact with some aliens (who resemble pigs or rhinos, and their base is very similar to the dank one of the Zygons).  He recognized the Doctor and determined that he and Sarah “are externals.”  This doesn’t seem to worry Crayford et al very much.  As the Doctor and Sarah, in ignorance of all us, run around the village, Sarah has another fall.  I didn’t realize John Levene and Ian Marter had cameos in this story, playing themselves and their android doubles.  Androids with dogs (!) pursue Sarah (who is told to “climb into a tree” by the Doctor!) and the Doctor, who strips down and jumps in the river.  Sarah gets captured, however, and taken into the base of the Kraals.  Her mind gets grilled, and I say “enough” to the disco lights.  The Doctor is back in the pub, investigating while under the wary eye of the deadpan landlord (who keeps giving the Doctor pints of ginger beer).  Who knew the Doctor is good at darts?  He also notices that the calendar gives the same day, July 6, into eternity.  “A village without a future.”   The Doctor receives a phone call from Sarah, who says she has managed to escape and to meet her in the village store.  While there, the Sarah-android makes the mistake of accepting ginger beer from the Doctor, when earlier the real Sarah says she doesn’t like it.  However, even her android is good at falling over.  In one of the more memorable episode endings of the Fourth Doctor’s era (supposedly), the android’s face falls off.  Yet, all this looks incredibly stylized and not likely to scare or surprise anyone.

The Doctor learns in the next episode that Crayford was rescued and reconstructed by the Kraals, and that their home planet will soon be uninhabitable, hence this grand scheme.  Styggron, the Kraal scientist whose brilliance has impressed Crayford, is answerable to General Chedaki. Styggron has the cold intellect of a scientist, however, and wants to kill the Doctor and Sarah before they take the scheme to Earth.  “Why, Styggron, there is no need,” says Crayford.  “You are squeamish.”  Styggron grants Crayford his whim, though in a Shakespearean aside, Styggron says that he will kill Crayford once his usefulness runs out.  Crayford, feeling a mighty need to explain himself to Sarah and the Doctor, visits them in their cell.  “Why should a race with such skills be allowed to die?” The Doctor agrees up to a point, but notes that Crayford has been in denial about whether the Kraals are really going to let humans live and share resources.  Crayford could be an interesting case; like Steven Taylor, he’s an astronaut who’s been separated from his own species for years.  Psychologically speaking, he should have some real issues.  Perhaps his big exposition-fest is an element of that, though if I’m honest, it feels more like a plot necessity.

The Doctor has given Sarah quick tutelage in how to electrocute a robot, and in doing so, has helped save her life twice over.  Styggron has put a deadly virus (apparently only so to humans, and apparently only by ingestion) into the water of the prisoners’ rations, and Sarah was going to drink it, until the Doctor reminded her that “water is an excellent conductor.”  She was then able to rig up a wiring explosion that allowed her to escape—quite a heroic effort.  Styggron did not realize that she had escaped, however, and had the Doctor placed in the hot seat, so to speak, so that his mind could be troweled.  The Doctor relies upon Sarah to rescue him, which she did.  The two are able to stow away on the ship as it heads for Earth, following in the wake of Crayford’s XK5 returning as the conquering hero.  To survive the “g-force” of re-entry, the Doctor puts Sarah into a pod and himself gets pushed to the floor—no more.  “I hate sarcasm, especially when I’m dying,” says Sarah.

The two land on Earth, but unfortunately they are not alone, their doubles have followed them.  The next episode is a somewhat tedious one, where the tiny control room for the UNIT base is a pale imitation of the ones we’ve come to expect in films like Apollo 13.  Nevertheless, I expect the BBC was doing their best.  The Doctor’s double almost succeeds, but the Doctor neutralizes him.  Styggron falls on top of his own virus which somehow turns into green pesto and kills him (?).  Crayford dies in disillusionment, and at the end, the Doctor and Sarah go on their merry and carefree way.           

As I alluded to before, the grand fake-out of this piece is quite good.  It isn’t often we get dropped into the “test run” for an alien invasion of Earth, and it makes a unique starting point, whose ending is the test put into practice.  It is a bit sad, really, that the Kraals’ obvious designing/scientific brilliance is wasted on such an elaborate scheme which, as the Doctor says, is doomed to failure. 

1 comment:

Matthew Kilburn said...

I last made some comments about The Android Invasion here, just over a month ago (there might be some comments over at the LiveJournal mirror post). I warmed to it; the story seems to revel in the incompetence of the Kraals' plan, and yet the moment where Sarah meets the android Doctor by the TARDIS is genuinely chilling.

The locations are East Hagbourne, just south of Didcot in Oxfordshire, and a Health Protection Agency building on Harwell Campus, to the west. East Hagbourne is quiet but has a good pub (closed on afternoons, alas); Harwell is not and an unscheduled visit leaves one open to being pulled over by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.