❉ Is the 1978 six-parter, which began 40 years ago today, a classic or a self-indulgent mess?
Forty years ago, the fifteenth series of Doctor Who began its final story, six episodes of The Invasion of Time, a story which won the fledgling Doctor Who Appreciation Society poll for that year’s best story, but was not considered worthy of the full DVD treatment, bursting at the seams with any decent extras. Is it a classic, or a self-indulgent mess? An illegitimate frequency tracer, perhaps? Well, it is certainly different.
The Invasion of Time was at the time one of those rare Doctor Who stories which looked back on its recent past and used it to create a new story. It was a sequel to 1976’s The Deadly Assassin which took the Doctor back home for the first time since 1969. This story was controversial with both the fans for its representation of Gallifrey, and pressure groups who objected to the violence. Remarkably, the story had only recently been repeated, so if you had a decent memory, nothing had to be too confusing for you. Or you could just let anything too complicated and unexplained fly over you and watch the many, many scenes spent tramping up and down corridors. There is a lot of corridor action in this story, and when the recently introduced robot dog K9 is one of the trampers, you’re in for a noisy time, especially when Dudley Simpson gets out his tambourine to drown out the dog’s very noisy motors. If they are not walking down corridors, they are running across sand-pits. K9 doesn’t do that, of course, but Simpson still belts it out.
The form of the story is initially very different to anything we have seen before. Having fresh writers in the form of new script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams meant they could tell a Doctor Who story in their own way. Read’s predecessor, Robert Holmes, had enjoyed explaining and perhaps, demystifying things in Doctor Who, either naming the Doctor’s home world, giving him two hearts, the language translation, and giving the myth of the Time Lords some background. Williams and Read, both former script editors themselves, (and in Read’s case, a producer) looked into the mythos itself. The series seemed to be building up to The Invasion of Time. It began with Horror of Fang Rock which featured the Sontarans’ arch-enemy, the Rutans, then we learn of the Time Lord’s dodgy involvement with the Fendahl and the Minyans. The TARDIS is getting redecorated and we learn more of its secrets and The Invasion of Time dumps a load more for fan dissection and absorption.
The story appears to start in the thick of action, with the Doctor on board a spaceship, talking to the backs of chairs, which I assumed, as a six and a half year old, to be monsters in their own right. I was puzzled why they kept changing shape each week before they end up as what I later heard to be Sontarans. The Doctor then arrives back home and reverses the reception he received last time. He doesn’t want to be taken to their leader, he wants to be their leader! And quite right too. About time he held onto a responsible job. That they kept the Doctor’s strange behaviour for three weeks was a very nice move, but when the façade collapses, so does the story. Tom Baker is very imaginative in this story, but he does go too far at times, and even the BBC higher-ups took notice of his excess.
Amusing the children in the audience is one thing – that was one of Tom Baker’s priorities, but Doctor Who wasn’t watched by us kids for its comedy quotient. The story ends with his glancing into the camera and laughing. And it is not even Christmas.
The fifteenth series had been a transitional one, famous for moving the format away from the frights of the previous regime into new territory, less monster, more cerebral. Well, for kids, anyway. At the age of six and a half, I had experienced my last genuine fright when The Invisible Enemy became visible. I was somewhat taken aback by The Sun Makers and wondered why the atmosphere of Doctor Who had changed. It didn’t seem to be Doctor Who any more. Still watched it, although it was a struggle at times to maintain an interest when visually there wasn’t much to latch onto, but the character of the Doctor was magical and enticing enough to follow his adventures wherever he ends up. That was the point. What all the other characters got up to didn’t matter, unless the Doctor was involved.
The Invasion of Time is the end of the road for Louise Jameson’s Leela. If she was designed to be something for the Dads to look at, they were going to have to study their wives for the foreseeable future. I cannot be the first commentator to remark if they were looking for an ice queen Time Lady to follow the savage, why-oh-why-oh-why did they not simply employ Rodan as the new companion, as played by the exquisite Hilary Ryan, who makes the phrase ‘crystalline structure’ rather enduring. Instead they created her duplicate in Mary Tamm’s Romana. They are practically interchangeable, and Rodan’s brief tussle with the Vardans and the Sontarans would have made her ideally suitable for the forthcoming Key to Time. Perhaps the actor wasn’t interested, perhaps no one thought of it. Had the production team been less imaginative and wanted another savage to fill in for Leela, Presta could easily have nipped into the TARDIS at the end of the story or been put inside it by the Guardian next season. How apt, a savage who is also a Time Lord, the best of both stereotypes. It was a relief that there would be a second K9, perhaps one whose gun can fire in different directions, rather than shoot a fellow in the leg or wait until he crouches down until he can zap them.
This was the series where the special effects became more, well, special, and larger in quantity. Quite why the success of Star Wars, which opened mid-way through the series, panicked the production teams of both this and Blake’s 7 is a mystery. A movie has to be experienced in a cinema, and not at home on a small screen. Well, not until eight years has elapsed any way, which seemed to be the way things were done back then. But in this series we had decent spaceships, explosions and laser beams. It was nice to see some good old fashioned technological science fiction. I remember being disappointed when they went back into Victorian times. No decent buttons or switches to press. That was probably why I didn’t like The Ribos Operation when it made an alien world look like medieval Russia. As for passing off Leeds Castle as a planet, well really… Yet, that was my attitude. Ironically, as I got older, I became more willing to suspend my disbelief. I currently believe in Father Christmas.
Watching The Invasion of Time now as a grizzled adult, I am enamoured for half of it, then it is the waiting game for that fabulous cliff-hanger at the end of part four, and then the whole thing falls apart in the sixth and final episode. I enjoy Rodan, K9 having a significant part to play, Milton Johns as the duplicitous Kelner (he lived!) and the ancient Borusa played by John Arnatt. Dudley Simpson’s music is rollicking in places and Dick Mills makes some lovely noises on whatever machines he plays with. The return of the Sontarans are a highlight, although not for the reasons you might think. ‘It is fastened with some kind of locking device from the other side, sir,’ is a new way to say, ‘Door’s locked.’ Get an actor to pad it out for a bit and that’s thirty seconds of screen time sorted out. Derek Deadman’s Stor is a delicious, short and brutish shock trooper, with none of the wit and elegance of a Linx, or the sadism of a Styre. Short to temper and sounds like he has a permanent sore throat, it is a shame his time on the programme was so short. Reader, I married his sister.
It is still an entertaining romp, and if you are aware of its production history, a miracle it was ever finished. So happy anniversary The Invasion of Time. Bow to the Sash of Rassilon.
❉ Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017. Click here to order.