Saturday, 14 July 2018

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Chapter The 93rd, is one that just might be from a golden age.

The Doctor, trying to get new companion Sarah Jane Smith back home, arrives in central London only a few weeks after they were last on Earth, but the city is deserted: Londoners have fled after some menace has spread, and the area's under the control of the military. The two time-travellers get arrested suspected of looting, which is the biggest problem in the evacuated area (with the exception of all the giant lizards that keep popping up only to disappear again). Eventually found and rescued by the Brigadier, the Doctor and Sarah help UNIT to investigate what's causing the dinosaur invasion. Unfortunately, seemingly everyone involved in the investigation except the Doctor, Sarah, the Brig and Benton are part of a conspiracy.

The Doctor goes on the run after being framed as the monster maker (despite there literally being zero evidence against him, except his being caught near a dinosaur, which - given they are popping up in London at random - doesn't amount to a hill of beans smoking gun-wise). Sarah ends up imprisoned in what appears to be a spaceship three month's out from Earth. Benton ends up having to arrest himself. The conspiracy is led by an MP, Sir Charles Grover, who plans to revert the whole of the planet and its population, reversing millions of years, so that he and a group of people (those he's duped into thinking they're on a spacecraft to a new world, when in actual fact they're in a bunker under London) can start humanity off again along a better path. The Doctor stops the plan, just in time, and reverses the polarity on the time manipulation equipment, so Grover and the mad professor helping him are sent back in time on their own.

The Better Half and I watched from the DVD an episode an evening every so often. For some reason, we kept getting interrupted by other priorities, and this stretched to a number of weeks all told. In the middle of the watch, I squeezed in 10 episodes of The War Games in one evening, before spending another week or so finishing eps. 4-6 of Dinosaurs. Although it was ages ago now, I can remember that we chose to watch the first episode in colour: the DVD uses the clever technique applied to a few other Pertwee episodes that only exist as black and white film of recovering the colour information somehow burnt into each frame. This was the least successful attempt at the process, so the colour version of episode 1 is presented on the disc as a non-default option. To my eye, though, it's perfectly serviceable and doesn't detract (although episode 1's bleak abandoned London lends itself well to a black and white presentation anyway, so one can't really lose).

First-time round:
I missed any showings of Invasion of the Dinosaurs on UK Gold, so it was left to home video to allow me to watch it for the first time. By the time of Doctor Who's 40th anniversary late in 2003, the VHS range was approaching its end. The next range, re-releasing everything on DVD, had already got underway a few years earlier, but the BBC had decided to reward / exploit the loyal fanbase by completing the run on tape nonetheless. Invasion of the Dinosaurs was the final full story released in October of that year, probably left until last just in case they found the first episode in colour, or found a way to colourise it. In the end, it was released with the first episode in black and white. Then, by the time that DVD range was starting to peter out in 2012, Dinosaurs came out in DVD with the aforementioned option to watch it all in colour, and that completed the experience for me. The first season box set of what may turn into a full-blown range of Who Blu Ray re-releases has just come out, but they're starting with season 12, Tom Baker's first, the year after Invasion of the Dinosaurs. This is undoubtedly because that's the first year that is trouble free in terms of missing episodes or missing colour. So, it may be that I've collected my last ever version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. What a thought!

There were many sniggering schoolyard criticisms one could level at the many different series of cartoon franchise Scooby Doo, but the thing that always got me more than anything was a frequent plot standby they used where the baddies invented a photo-realistic holographic technique, but instead of exploiting this for commercial gain, they just used it to scare people away from a minor league smuggling operation based in the abandoned funfair. In Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the villains don't just have bleeding edge time manipulation equipment, they also must have engaged some very good set designers and visual effects artists to mock up their pretend spacecraft fleet. And they presumably have invented some kind of workable suspended animation technology too. What a waste of effort just to use all that for a monumental misdirection, while they do an insane scheme to reboot life of Earth.

The first episode famously is titled merely 'Invasion', which was intended at the time to preserve the surprise; watching now, though, it's tempting to think it was just because they didn't want anyone to get their hopes up. The dinosaur models used in this story, and all the different methods of integrating them into the live action, produce results on a scale from 'risible' all the way up to 'laugh out loud funny', but crucially it doesn't harm the action as they are - literally - a side show. It may even enhance it: the dinosaurs are victims, after all, just minding their own business when wrenched out of time. It's quite apt that they are more cute than frightening.

A much bigger problem is how many holes there are in the villains' plot: how did they get everyone, even those who weren't in suspended animation, into the pretend spacecraft without anyone twigging, for example? How were they planning on getting them out again without spoiling the illusion? That this doesn't matter either, really, is testament to the writer Malcolm Hulke's skill in creating character. Everyone has solid enough motivation to keep things on the right side of credible, just about. He pulls the rug out from even the long-term watchers of this era, by making the bad guys motivated by what previously had been the series' number one good guy priorities: the anti-pollution, anti-nuclear, anti-war characters are on the wrong side of the argument in this one. Is is too grand to compare this to Animal Farm? Hulke was none-more-lefty, but he could still write a parable where the world reshaped by those with good intentions rapidly deteriorates to include sinister 're-education' of the individual, and even the threat of execution to weed out the disruptive elements. Just like his work in The War Games and elsewhere in Doctor Who, Hulke is gleefully anti-establishment, whatever that establishment might be.

However one rationalises the holes in the spacecraft subplot, it does give the story its best cliffhanger (episode 3's) where Sarah has woken up and may be three months into deep space. And not just because it's the only cliffhanger that doesn't involve an entire suspension bridge of disbelief on the audience's part that the rubber toy dino on screen is real - it wrong-foots everyone, and comes out of nowhere, though it will be satisfactorily explained later. It doesn't matter either that footage of the Doctor and UNIT is intercut with the spacecraft scenes (a move that has been criticised in the past): we're supposed to see early on that it's all a con. Elizabeth Sladen's performance is very good in the second half of the story, doing her best to wake up the underground sleepers to the truth. In fact, all the performances are top notch: Peter Miles, Martin Jarvis, Noel Johnson; best of all for me is Carmen Silvera's icy turn as Ruth. Director Paddy Russell gets the best out of her cast, and also makes the most from some guerrilla filming in the early hours of the morning, providing episode one its remarkable deserted London scenes.

Like The War Games, this one has scripting duties contributed by Malcolm Hulke (writer of Invasion of the Dinosaurs) and Terrance Dicks (its script editor). Also, it's the third story on the trot (including Turn Left) to feature soldiers, an area visited by our heroes that's under martial law, and a plot involving the abuse of time travel.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind. In Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Sir Charles Grover, famous environmentalist, author of Last Chance for Man, admired even by the Doctor, let's everyone down. I've often wondered how I would feel if a famous person I really admired, like someone from TV's Doctor Who, was embroiled in some scandal, present or historical. There hasn't been a shortage of questionable Television Centre-based activities by certain persons reported as happening during my childhood in the 70s and 80s, but so far it hasn't involved anyone I really cared deeply about, certainly nobody from Who: mostly, it has to be said, the alleged perps were hardly surprising news at all to anyone who lived through TV of that era, a lot people on the box back then exuded a less than healthy vibe.

The day has now sadly come: it is not a hero of my childhood but of my older years who has besmirched his reputation, such as it was. That person is Steven Patrick Morrissey. His pronouncements have got more and more reactionary of late, but his latest crossed a line, defending as it did the indefensible, and supporting the insupportable. Heaven knows I've stood up for him in the past, like many an obsessive fan (as another hero of mine from that time, Sean Hughes - whose own  reputation took a hit when his obituaries came to be written - said: everyone gets over their Morrissey phase; except for Morrissey, of course). The Moz was misquoted, he was misunderstood, he's playing a persona, it's irony - I trotted out all those lines. Maybe he too always exuded a less than healthy vibe, and I just didn't see it back then.

So, what do I do now? Ignore it? The work is not the same as the creator, of course; but, Morrissey's modus operandi was always to include a lot of himself in his art. Should I get rid of all my albums as Stewart Lee advises? That seems unfair to the people who wrote the music, particularly Johnny Marr. All I can therefore do is feel foolish for my past; but maybe I shouldn't feel too bad. It's only empathy, after all, taken a little too far. Like any bad direction or decision, excessive hero worship starts with something natural, good... or at least understandable. This is why a plot like Malcolm Hulke's Dinosaurs story, despite its being OTT nutso sci-fi, still resonates - the bad guys don't know they're bad guys; they started with a desire to create a better world. Even nationalism, to pick one example, starts off from a desire to protect the ones we know or associate with most. The only way we can understand or counter these dangerous directions is by being open to empathy. If the price of that is that sometimes we feel foolish for singing the praises of a person or idea which turned out not to be as good as we first thought, that's probably a price worth paying.

In Summary:
All in all, it's something of a (temporal) paradox: a story with loads of big flaws, but it's still absolutely excellent. Final word on the matter: KKLAK!

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