(Invasion) of the Dinosaurs
London is deserted. Stray dogs roam the streets looking for scraps. Cars and toy dolls litter the pavement. Sounds great, doesn't it? This is Doctor Who, for the first time in a long time, being Doctor Who. Something new, something bold. If retconning is to be believed, then the Doctor and Sarah have just come back from a giant bat/s & m alien excursion (The appalling '93 audio Paradise of Death) which does at least explain her haircut I suppose. Though all the references to The Time Warrior scotch this theory a little.
There's something so delightfully, old-fashionedly English about this one. The Doctor even refers to the place as "Great Britain", and uses one of those old telephone boxes. (Okay, he could hardly have used a 21st century one, could he?) But watching this after the garish vulgarity of the 1996 TV Movie, it's really charming. The whole thing is shrouded in mystery, developing slowly.
There are little wonderful touches, like the more compassionate, less arrogant third Doctor, or the serious attitude taken towards the representation of UNIT. About midway into the episode, we get our first dinosaur, a pterodactyl. Do you see the way its attack wittily homages Hitchcock's The Birds? That's damn clever that is, a cheeky intertextual flourish, though the chances are you'll probably just want to say you can see the wires like a girl.
That's what the slating this story gets really comes down to, of course: dinosaurs. They actually appear for less than ten minutes (I'll be counting, except for reprises) yet are such a big issue for fans. So what if it got released on DVD and they redid the dinosaurs with decent effects? What would fan opinion say then? The black and white does again help here, because the Allosaurus is, admittedly, straight out of that advert for Chewits. Though I was more offended by the Doctor doing his "Vulcan nerve grip" shtick than I was about any stiff-legged dino. Make no mistake, though - Jon is thoroughly likeable throughout.
What's really so brilliant about this first episode is that the story has already started without Sarah and the Doctor, and consequently, us. Yes, so General Finch might as well have "I'm the baddie" tattooed on his forehead, but this is, rubber dinos aside, almost faultless.
* * * * ˝
"Right," says Jon, in one of the most-telegraphed scenes of exposition I've ever witnessed, "let's review the situation." Suddenly they're interrupted by a man from the middle ages, obviously on his way from treading the boards at the RSC. We meet the Brigadier again, and, almost as if he knew he was back in colour, he's back to knockabout comic relief. Though I must admit, I did crack up at Benton and his colour-coded pins.
But as bad as this second episode is - and it is pretty bad, though still a strong story - I'm going to say something that a lot of you may find ridiculous: I reckon it's better than Jurassic Park. Bear with me. Quite clearly, Jurassic Park has better dinosaurs, but that's all. Both actually feature less than twelve minutes of dinosaurs. The thing is, if you throw away the dino content of Jurassic Park you're left with stock characters, a dull plot and a film with nothing to say. Invasion of the Dinosaurs is far more intelligent (albeit almost as patronising as the Spielberg movie) and has plenty to say about the human condition. Even if you don't agree with such a notion, then I guess you can at least get a cheap laugh from Jon having to say "It's a ssssstegossssssaurssssssss. What a sssssssplendid sssssssspeccccccimin."
* * *
There's still good stuff in this one, though, like the Doctor's mention of a future scientist called Chung Sen. Little details like that add flavour to a story, even if Sarah checking the side of the Doctor's head after he claims to be "all ears" is the sort of self-consciously quirky thing she does that makes you want to slap her.
Actually, there's a question I've never thought of before: how would an Allosaurus get up from a lying position? Presumably it wouldn't wiggle around and rise up magically like a bendy rubber toy, as here? The episode's reliance on effects at the expense of plot intensifies its weaknesses. That bit with the Allosaurus breaking through the wall is straight out of The Goodies.
"Why didn't you do that in the first place?" says the Brigadier after the Doctor tells him he can build a portable detector device. You half expect Jon to say "because it wouldn't fill six parts if I had" but he resists the temptation. However, as good as the story is, what a six-parter like this really needs is a subplot. Thankfully, it gets one, with Sarah Jane first learning of the secret underground caverns under London and the spacecraft. The dinosaurs, where they are on screen, instantly take down the appeal of this story. But in every sense they're just one small part of the greater whole. Pretty naff episode though.
* * ˝
Let's do the clever one first: Sarah Jane in the spacecraft. Yes, it's an offshoot of the plot, not really necessary, and there to fill out the runtime. But think about it for a minute - it's a fake spaceship set that turns out to be a fake spaceship set. How postmodern is that? (You might even argue that the Doctor travelling in the elevator - a small cupboard with blue doors - is also an ironic commentary on the series itself).
Okay, the dumb. Jon gets a silly new car and spends nearly two minutes of runtime travelling around streets playing time-fill detective. Thrill! As Jon drives around deserted streets. Chill! As he stops the car to look at a clipboard. Spill! As he looks at some old bits of newspaper. To be honest, though, it ain't bad padding. There's a difference between something that's pointless and dull and pointless and diverting. Yes, narrative-wise, it adds little or nothing. But it's engaging, and we get to have the sense of "deserted London" restored.
Incidentally, I just showed a bit of part two to my house mate, who absolutely wet herself laughing. I must admit, I did too. I've said it before: context is everything. This is actually the episode that features dinosaurs the least, ("The monsters are a side issue, Brigadier") with the story taking precedence. Yes, it's a shame that story is being padded out until the final two episodes, but at least it tries. Okay, Nyder's raising up a piece of rubber on a string by using lollipop sticks, but give it some credit: Barry Letts must have had balls of steel to commission this.
What's weird about this one is that while Malcolm Hulke again uses his inspiration-free tool of putting the message on a TV screen, the villains here are those that support the message. The ones who rally against the pollution and "promiscuity" are those that are behind it all. Yes, you might say that they're just misguided, but their compunction for killing is notable.
* * * ˝
There are some problems of logic with the central plot of this one, the least of which is why does Sergeant Benton allow the Doctor to nerve pinch his neck? Why not just pretend to be knocked unconscious? Military pride?
Yet other plot elements bother me - having Captain Yates as the traitor is a stronger twist than if it was someone we'd never known. Though it rings about as true as him saying he fancied Jo Grant and never really gels. Top marks for effort though. The other is the central plot itself - yes, there have been sillier stories, but "rolling back time" so that present day becomes the prehistoric era again? Okay, I can buy that they've arranged it so that those in on the scheme can survive, but if everyone else ceased to ever exist then wouldn't that effect their own pasts? How would Whitaker have become bright enough to have invented the technology if he'd erased all his teachers from history? How would they have been born if they'd erased all their mothers? Wouldn't they worry if they'd erased all women? Wouldn't that mean that they'd all become virgins again? And why is Yates so worried about protecting the Doctor when (as far as he's aware) it means the Doctor would cease to be, also? I've given myself a headache...
Last things to mention? Well, I thought last week's was padded. This is possibly the most padded episode in the history of Doctor Who as the Doctor, on the run from the army, spends over 5'45m of screentime trying to evade capture and driving around in a jeep. What's worse, he's wearing so much mascara in these scenes that he looks like Joan Ferguson from Prisoner: Cell Block H. Did I mention the dinos? Lots more of 'em this time, though for less time: yet shot on video and placed over film stock, they're laugh-out-loud funny. A shame, and, despite my moans, still an entertaining episode.
* * *
What troubles the core of this story is that while the general plot is good, there's no firmly defined motivation behind it. What does a cold fish like Whitaker get from returning to his golden age anyway? Oh, and we do get a return to the (plank) ship with Sarah after all. It's pretty tedious, though is it significant that "depressurised" is written in the American spelling?
Okay, the bad bits. Far more galling to me than any plastic Plesiosaurus is Jon's soapbox moralising. "Take the world that you've got and try to make something of it. It's not too late." When the Brigadier proffers that Grover was mad, the message gets spelt out to us in ten foot high neon letters, served up with salad and chips by a topless rollerskating waitress covered in mud and tattoos. "Yes, well of course he was mad. But at least he realised the dangers that this planet of yours was in, Brigader." He's not finished, either: "It's not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the cause of pollution, Brigadier. It's simply greed." It takes a lot to get Nicholas Courtney to want to leave a scene, but this does the trick. "Hmmm. Well, I've got work to do…" All of a sudden the Doctor's become the boring old fart you can't wait to get away from at a cheese and wine party - and he saves the day by transducing the similarity.
At the end of each episode I've been charting exactly how many seconds the dinosaurs appear on screen, which may have seemed ruthlessly pedantic. Yet my intentions were actually honourable - the dinosaurs in this story appear for exactly 9'50m of screentime. Yes, they're immensely poor, yet the entire footage - without titles or reprises - runs to ??m*. I can understand people slating the dinos, but as their entire appearance accounts for less than ??%* of the runtime then surely critics should look elsewhere? (* Okay, I forgot to work out the final stats and my copy is on loan. Don't worry, it'll get done.) It's sometimes all too easy to laugh at the silly monsters and overlook what a good job the team did in recreating the London underground, or how good Paddy Russell's direction is. Even Dudley Simpson is having an okay day, and Jon gives one of the strongest of his later performances.
I struggled with an overall rating for this one to be honest. For all the characterisation and subtext - I love characterisation and subtext - this is a story that is clearly and deeply flawed. Yet what shifted my overall rating to four stars (and it was borderline, I admit) was that I enjoyed it even more than the previous story. Misguided and badly made? Probably, but a cracking story all the same.
* * * *