Friday, 9 August 2013
Invasion of the Dinosaurs written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Paddy Russell
This story in a nutshell: Londoners flee! Dinos loose in St James' Park!
Sassy Sarah: I adore Sarah Jane Smith; I feel the need to get that off my chest because you will never hear me say a bad word about her no matter how daft she acts. She could sometimes be written as a total dunce and a wimpering screamer to serve a plot point but thanks to Elisabeth Sladen's commited performance and the general feeling of the production team that this character is something worth treasuring Sarah manages to transcend any faults she might have to become something a bit special. The ultimate Doctor Who companion. I remember having a total crush on her when I was eight which played havoc with my burgeoning sexuality. Looking back it was because I wanted to be like her; brave in the face of danger, travelling through time and space and having a wail of a time with the Doctor. Watching Sarah develop in this season is a fascinating experience because she manages to go full circle; starting out as a career woman who investigates unusual phenomena (such as she does in this adventure featuring time travel and dinosaurs), becoming something of an intergalactic hippie who adopts the lifestyle of travelling with the Doctor as her own before being ceremoniously dumped back on Earth and picking up the pieces, once again investigation unusual activity as a side bar to her career in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Hulke characterises Sarah as a razor sharp career girl, independent enough from the Doctor to ignore him and follow her own hunches regardless of how much he dismisses her. Sarah tries to rationalize everything, making sense of the story in her own way and in doing so she manages to figure out who is behind everything and why (in doing so she leaves herself in their clutches but nobody's perfect). Sarah is the one who figures out where the experiments are and how they are being powered and it is Sarah who sniffs out the villains. That is sharp contrast with Jo who often needed everything spelt out for her. Always thinking of her career, Sarah wants to take some snaps of a T-Rex to sell to the papers once the crisis is over. She talks about contacts and makes her own allies, she feels far more grounded in the real world than any of the previous companions. She’s brave too, jumping on the back of a knife wielding maniac and is willing to open an airlock and risk being spat out into space to prove her theory that the spaceship set up is a sham. Sarah is the story’s conscience, pointing out how cruel it is to delude the environmentalists and pointing out that rolling back time is worse than murder. Sarah rocks, always has and always will.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So much for honour amongst thieves!’
‘Doctor, you’re under arrest!’
‘If we don’t get down there there won’t be a London Transport to explain to!’
The Good Stuff: The deserted London scenes are fantastically eerie. Decades before 28 Days Later, Paddy Russell takes to London in the early hours of Sunday morning without permission and takes some staggering material of a thriving city before it has stirred. I always loved the fact that the first episode only existed in black and white, like Planet of the Daleks episode three and The Mind of Evil it felt grittier for it. Regardless of whether it is viewed in monochrome or colour, the first episode is still the most atmospheric for many a season with a chilling central mystery of why London is deserted, strong roles for both the Doctor and Sarah trying figure this thing out and some terrifying moments such as the looters in the jewelers store. Suddenly it feels as though we are back in season seven territory. The mashed up car and bloodied corpse really help to sell the idea that some terrible danger has befallen the capital city. In this emergency UNIT are suddenly a powerful military force again, evacuating London, and serving a much more important purpose (protection) than the muscle behind the Doctor's adventures. I really like the idea of UNIT setting up shop in a school as it makes a refreshing change from the usual laboratory sets and it adds to the feeling that this state of emergency has been staged in a hurry. After forgetting about the character for some time it seems that Letts and Dicks have decided to give Mike Yates a memorable send off. This kind of dark character development is almost unheard of in Doctor Who (where the heroes remain heroes and the villains remain villains) and it is very refreshing that the events that shook up Mike in The Green Death are built upon so effectively. Not since the Brigadier blew up the Silurians has there been a suggestion that anybody in UNIT could be working against the greater good. For all their love of weaponry and explosions, the organisation has always been characterised (via the Brig, Yates and Benton) as doing what they do for the best of intentions. Yates' sabotage of the Doctor's experiments gives Invasion of the Dinosaurs a real edge and Richard Franklin really seems to appreciate the chance to play something other than the usual whiter than white Mike. Despite the fact that they are underwritten, Peter Miles and Martin Jarvis make a terrific villainous duo and if I were going to cast a pair of bad guys their names would be at the top of my list. Hulke never sets out to write a story with an outright moral compass, nobody is truly good or truly evil as he paints his characters in shades of grey. Grover's aims might be extreme but he is reacting to a situation that he considers has spiraled out of control and wants to give the Earth another chance. His moralistic and played subtly so he never comes across as anything but a normal guy who cares about the way the world has been abused. (I love his ‘I do hope in the future we can be friends’ to Sarah despite her attempts to expose him). This is a part that could so easily be written an played in a melodramatic fashion and it pleases me that Hulke and Russell ensure that he maintains his integrity even in the wake of such a lunatic scheme. The blue pulsing lights that freak out Sarah have a similarly disorienting effect on the viewer. I have complaint against the cliffhanger to episode three but it is one of my favourites because it comes from nowhere and doesn't give you enough time to think through the implausibility of the reveal ('we left Earth three months ago!'). With no way of rewinding the tape when this was first broadcast and checking to see if Sarah really did still have the bump on the her head or not, viewers must have been left wondering what is going on. I am sometimes hard on Dudley Simpson's soundtracks but I do think he is a genuinely talented composer who conjured up some enthralling scores for the series. Nobody could work on a show for the span that he did and not possess some degree of skill. Check out his subtle whiplash underscore as the Doctor investigates the bunker, providing an atmosphere that wobbly sets are lacking. Even more awesome is his work when the Doctor is on the run for his life, Dudley employs every instrument at his disposal (I especially like the sax work when he is evading the guards in the woods) to make sure this critical sequence is given the appropriate fanfare. Carmen Silvera is a real acting coup and she works wonders with a role that is written in a very narrow minded way, making Ruth a real person rather than an obstruction to Sarah's escape. Being a Farscape fan hearing the name John Crichton made me squeal. The naivete of the greatest environmental minds thinking they are off to an unspoilt planet that will cared for with the utmost precision is astonishing but it is a very pleasant idea which assumes the best of the people they have selected so you can understand why it seduced them. Hulke isn't about to condemn the human race in it's entirety, allowing both sides to make their case (Sarah passionately states that Grover has a warped view of things) case in this very balanced argument. You have Ruth and Mark talking about cruelty and degradation on one hand and Sarah fighting back with love and beauty on the other. The script points out the things worth fighting for whilst also highlighting some of our ugliest mistakes, it is a very intelligent overview of the best and worst of humanity. With dinosaurs. UNIT hunting the Doctor is beautifully shot with sweeping helicopters, car chases through derelict hangars and woodland evasions, really selling the idea that this a desperate Time Lord that would be dragged back to his employers in chains. ‘Well Doctor you better overpower me’ says Benton and you can’t help but adore this lovable grunt. The Mexican standoff between the Brig and the General is filmed during a beautiful sunset, capturing the beauty of one of the Brig's finest moments. All the UNIT gang get great moments to shine but the best scene comes when Mike holds the gang at gunpoint. It is clear that he has gone too far now and once this emergency is over he will be relieved of his duty and forced out of service. As though Hulke (or Courtney) are bored of the principled tone of the series, the Doctor’s ‘moral of the day’ is undercut by the Brigadiers deadpan, ‘hmm.’ It makes me howl every time.
Dangerous Dinos: I don’t want to shove the discussion of the dinosaurs into either the good or bad sections but a special little category of their own. They deserve it. No they are not the most effective special effects that the show has ever produced and yes they do threaten to take you out of the action but there is an earnestness to their presentation that I really admire despite the shoddy workmanship. The way paddy Russell charges on, directing the hilt out of this story despite the cringe-worthy effects, shows you something about a woman who is willing to fight on through adversity. Some of the physical effects work more effectively, the Pterodactyl attack is edited so fast that you barely have time to register and its vicious jaws bursting through the car window actually makes for quite a decent shock. The T Rex does look gloriously like the Chewits monster…but he also has a similarity to Sram from Terrahawks (which I haven’t seen for many a year but I can still remember vividly). See if you can find Google Sram and you’ll see what I mean. Look at the care that has gone into creating the miniature sets for the dinosaurs wander about in - there are buildings, level crossings, subway stations, aircraft hangars and on the whole they all look pretty authentic. When Big Man T-Rex first appears his head explodes from a building with his little claws wobbling furiously in a very cute fashion - probably not the effect they were aiming for. He stomps off behind a building as if to say ‘I’ve had enough of this nonsense!’ as the squaddies keep tossing grenades at him! The Stegosaurus looks rather good and the model industrial estate he wanders about in is excellent. Under the spell of chromakey, the Brontosaurus wobbles precariously but again it is a fairly decent static model. Drunk T-Rex falls face first to the floor and we see him snoozing like a baby through the window, the result of chomping his way through one too many barrels of booze. Dozy Dino finally wakes up thanks to Sarah’s flash happy camera and whilst the attack on her shouldn’t work (because the thing looks ridiculous), Lis Sladen is so convincingly terrified when the tail smashes through the window I was almost seduced into believing this was actually happening. Terrifying T-Rex head butts the hangar girders and bursts through the wall as if to say ‘Surprise!’ Fighting off the Pterodactyl with a mop has to be seen to be believed, Jurrasic Park it aint. It’s nice to see a Dino with road safety and the Brontosaurus waits patiently beside traffic bollards. Celebrity Dino Death Match! Big Man T-Rex vs. Billy Bronto! How on Earth did they think they could ever do this justice? Driving through Bad Boy Bronto’s legs is something you know the Doctor will be bragging about for years to come. Perhaps one or two dinos stuck around at the end of this adventure, giving an explanation to the rampant spate of Jurassic attacks in the ITV series Primeval. I love the dinos in this story, it's the sardonic part of me that enjoys time in their company and they add a massive dollop of kitsch to an already hugely enjoyable story.
The Bad Stuff: More of a complaint actually, the Doctor states ‘Great Britain always closes on Sundays.’ I wish. The Scots soldier accent slips from scene to scene. We've had to cope with the idea of crap looking dinosaurs invading London and Mike Yates as a traitor, did we really need the shock of the Whomobile as well? It is possibly the most glorious expression of Pertwee’s midlife crisis yet. Look at all that litter on the streets of London, not a very subtle visual clue of how much we are polluting the planet. A big raspberry for episode four where the Dinos disappear for the length of a bible and the plot runs on the spot whilst the Doctor makes his way down to the underground base…only to make his way back up again! Invasion of the Dinosaurs probably suffers the most from the Howe, Stammers Walker handbooks (and television companion), they rip this story to shreds whilst failing to see any of its merits. Just as my reviews are entirely subjective, that was absolutley the case with the handbooks too and everybody is entitled to their opinion. The difference is that there really wasn't many other professionally written books at the time or anybody making much of a counter argument for these panned adventures. Which is not a fault of the authors, perhaps.
The Shallow Bit: I love how Sarah's dress sense changes as she adopts the time travelling lifestyle. At first it was all feminist trouser suits and leather jackets (admittedly a look that Lis Sladen can pull off) and before long it's Victorian dresses, denim dungarees and 'just like Andy Pandy.' Pertwee's bouffant is extraordinary in this adventure, looking for all the world as though he has stuck his finger in a power socket and it gave him more volume than he bargained for. John Crichton (did I mention how much I love that name?) fills out his tight T-shirt and even tighter trousers very nicely indeed.
Result: I will defend the many strengths of Invasion of the Dinosaurs until my dying breath. It is a story that has been slated on the strength of its (admittedly defunct) special effects which seems to blind the critical audience to its manifest of treats. Episode one is an atmospheric chiller with an claustrophobic feel despite the wealth of dazzling location work and it leads into an adventure that remembers many of the strengths of season seven (the darker tone, the well written guest cast, moral ambiguity that throws open interesting debate) and even some of weaknesses (padding, naff monsters) and conjures up a time before the UNIT adventures got too cosy. Malcolm Hulke's ridiculously ambitious premise is sold completely on the strength of the performances and the entire cast acquit themselves perfectly. Sladen's presence as Sarah is already opening up fresh storytelling possibilities and it is so refreshing to have a companion cutting loose from the Doctor and indulging in their own investigations. I was surprised when the DVD came out that the Dinos weren't given a CGI replacement option (I guess it was too expensive) but I'm actually rather pleased because I secretly worship them, it's like Jason and the Argonauts meets the Chewits monster adverts and it might just be the ultimate expression of b-movie kitsch (a genre I am mad for) in Doctor Who. If you can't see past shaky special effects then you are watching the wrong show. Paddy Russell directed for the show four times and proved (as Fiona Cumming did during the fifth Doctor's era) that it is a shame that more female directors didn't get to cut their teeth on the show (her other gems include The Massacre, Pyramids of Mars and Horror of Fang Rock). Dodgy Dinos aside, she has total control over this production ensuring that the performances and location work compensate for any failings elsewhere. Some mark it as padding but I really enjoy the scenes of the Doctor on the run from UNIT and truth be told this is easily the organisations last truly interesting exploration (although it is starting to feel like Star Trek's Federation where every Admiral is corrupt). Pertwee gives his finest performance of the last season here (the last episode of Planet of the Spiders excepted) and seems genuinely energized by this love letter to his first season in the role. Despite a few minor complaints I have always found this story extremely engaging and re-visiting it today I haven’t changed my opinion at all. Big Man T-Rex is still on top: 9/10