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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Android Invasion originally aired in 1975.

Is that finger loaded?

– the Doctor

We’re in the middle of one hell of a season here, aren’t we? Indeed, The Android Invasion is sandwiched between two stories that could legitimately vie for the title of “best Doctor Who story ever.” Perhaps that’s why it feels like such a let-down. The Android Invasion isn’t the worst Doctor Who story ever. Indeed, it isn’t the worst Tom Baker Doctor Who story ever, nor is it the worst Philip Hinchcliffe Doctor Who story ever. It is just sort of… there. It’s a very dull and mundane piece of television, one that feels all the more dull and mundane for the fact that it’s positioned in one of the strongest seasons that the show ever produced.

He needs a Doctor...

He needs a Doctor…

There’s a sense that The Android Invasion is here simply to fill four weeks of airtime between Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius. After all, it seems like the regular production team have almost checked out, leaving this story to two established veterans. Terry Nation is providing the script here, while former producer Barry Letts is directing. Those are two people who know a lot about Doctor Who, even if they aren’t exactly going to revolutionise the programme or produce a show in keeping with the tone of the year so far.

However, you get a sense that this exactly the point. If you ask a couple of friends to house-sit for you, to keep the place warm until you get back, you don’t pick the mad and creative ones. You give the task the old reliables, the ones you can trust enough to leave them unattended. Script editor Robert Holmes and produce Philip Hinchcliffe clearly put a lot of effort into the rest of the season, but The Android Invasion seems designed as the story that they could leave unattended while they worried about pulling everything else together.

Talk about a cliffhanger...

Talk about a cliffhanger…

And, to be fair, that works. The rest of the season is phenomenally strong, and I suspect that being able to trust Nation and Letts to produce a solid four-episode serial in the middle of the season gave Hinchcliffe and Holmes enough breathing room. Of course, given the quality of the episodes surrounding it, “solid” isn’t quite good enough. But, let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a very mediocre story like Robot, rather than an ungodly mess like Revenge of the Cybermen.

This feels like a Terry Nation story. There might not be Daleks, which is probably a good thing. After all, his next Dalek script would be Destiny of the Daleks. However, there is a fixation on duplicates and on radiation, and a whole bunch of Nation-esque high concepts like the freshly-recycled currency to help mitigate the risk of radiation poisoning. The aliens are suitably generic, like pretty much all of Nation’s non-Dalek monsters.

It's rude to point...

It’s rude to point…

Similarly, the episode also feels like a Barry Letts production, and there’s a sense that the director was really left to his own devices when working it. And quite right, too. Why hire a former show-runner if you can’t trust him to put together a piece of television, and if you’re going to overwrite his artistic vision? This means some decent action sequences, but also mean gratuitous CSO and unfortunate stock footage. At one point, it appears like the aliens’ rocket changes from a CSO model to Apollo 11 between shots.

There is a very weird fixation on Britain’s fictitious space programme. It’s the kind of thing that we’d expect in the Pertwee era of the show, which seemed to present an alternate science-fiction depiction of the present day where Britain was a world leader in various scientific fields, if only so the Doctor would have something new to investigate every adventure. Hinchcliffe moved away from that, with the Doctor interacting (much less, it must be said) with a version of Britain not too distinct from the one inhabited by the viewers.

Sarah Jane just needs a moment to put her face on...

Sarah Jane just needs a moment to put her face on…

The entire drama unfolds in the area around a “Space Defence Station” in rural Britain – or a planet similar to the area around a “Space Defence Station” in rural Britain. It feels very much like the kind of thing you’d see in an episode produced a year or two earlier. It now seems quite conspicuous against the gothic horror backdrop of the Philip Hinchcliffe era.

There’s also a very conscious attempt to draw in the U.N.I.T. characters, after Terror of the Zygons served as an effective (and fond) farewell to that large supporting cast from the show’s past. Indeed, even though the Brigadier himself is not present, the episode is careful to provide a suspiciously similar U.N.I.T. officer in Colonel Farraday, right down the the moustache and the tendency to say things like “that’ll nail ’em, eh, Doctor?”

Hey, he's actually using the sonic screwdriver as a screwdriver!

Hey, he’s actually using the sonic screwdriver as a screwdriver!

In fact, the decision to bring back Harry Sullivan seems especially weird, to the point where even Ian Marter couldn’t quite make sense of it all:

I didn’t care for my last story, The Android Invasion, one little bit. There was no real reason for Harry to be in it at all – I couldn’t see the point of it. My last scene was particularly frustrating as Harry just sort of fizzled out sitting tied up on the floor in the corner of a room. I don’t mean that as any disrespect to Patrick Newell, who made me laugh a lot and was wonderful to be with, or to Martin Friend who is an old mate anyway. They both did their best to cheer me up. My own unfulfilled wish was that Harry could have been blown up while trying to save Sarah Jane, or something on those lines – a genuinely heroic exit instead of what I actually got.

This is really the first time that the show has properly brought back a former companion, if one excludes the Brigadier.

There's something fishy going on, to coin a phrase...

There’s something fishy going on, to coin a phrase…

Even Jo Grant’s somewhat minor involvement in Planet of the Spiders didn’t involve bringing Katy Manning back to reprise the role. So it feels like a bit of wasted potential. There’s no reflection on what this means – what it’s like for either Harry or the Doctor to see one another again, after such time has passed. There’s no indication that Harry has really been changed that much by his time with the Doctor. It appears as if he sort of just settled back into his old life at U.N.I.T.

To be fair, that portrayal would be fairly in-character with what we know of Harry’s stoic upper-crust and slightly conservative attitude. The problem is that the episode never really comments on it or develops it. Harry might as well not be there, for all the importance of his character. I know that the show had yet to fully understand how long-term plotting works, but the fact that the episode brought Harry back at all suggests that it knows there is some story to be mined in reunited the Doctor with an old companion, but the script can’t quite carry that idea off.

Impossible astronauts...

Impossible astronauts…

Still, the episode feels like a throwback. That’s not a fatal flaw. There is, to be frank, nothing too offensive here. There’s a quaint charm to all this, as these are familiar ingredients from classic Doctor Who – and I’m talking about “classic” from the perspective of 1975, not even 2013. However, there is a sense that this episode very clearly doesn’t belong, especially when watched after a season’s-worth of Hinchcliffe and Holmes stories. It feels like a Pertwee-era story, in tone and execution, that just happens to star Tom Baker.

Of course, a lot has changed since the last time that happened. Robot was the last Doctor Who story produced by Letts, but the first starring Baker – it led to a weird fusion. Baker instantly put his mark on the role, but there was a sense that he had yet to sort of completely take over the show. In the time since Robot aired, that has changed. Tom Baker is now in complete control of Doctor Who, and has completely vanquished the memory of his predecessor. As such, the dynamic is slightly different. This isn’t Tom Baker starring in a Barry Letts’ episode of Doctor Who, this is Barry Letts directing a Tom Baker episode of Doctor Who.

Sorry, he has to dart...

Sorry, he has to dart…

The result is middling. None of it is terribly exciting. There’s no sense of fun in the story of robot duplicates. There’s just the familiar Nation plot device of escape-and-capture. None of the characters, including the recurring guest stars, ever feel like they have more than two dimensions. The threat never seems particularly palpable. Even the aliens seem fairly generic, calling to mind a far less creative and iconic version of the Zygons from earlier in the year – brown and short and round-ish.

It all feels very workman-like, very efficient. Which is a shame, because there’s a wealth of interesting ideas here, just waiting for a writer or a director more adventurous than Nation or Letts to tackle. The story harks back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the idea of duplicates would seem to invite a sense of paranoia. The village setting creates an ideal opportunity to fashion the story into a gothic horror about the homogeneity of small-town life, the isolated and insular atmosphere.

Ray of hope...

Ray of hope…

There’s a nice, creepy little scene where the Doctor asks one of the locals about the people up at the base. “Don’t come down here much,” the local explains. “Nothing for them in Devesham. Nothing for strangers here.” There’s something quite haunting about the idea of a community so isolated and remote that the population could be entirely replaced by alien androids without anybody noticing. Of course, the adventure never plays up that fear and it is undermined by the revelation that the village isn’t actually on Earth at all – a twist which undermines rather than enhances the story.

Still, The Android Invasion isn’t bad. It’s the weakest episode of the year, but it’s not an irredeemable piece of television. It’s crafted by two Doctor Who veterans who are arguably well past their peak, but have done the show an immeasurable service in the past. If you need two people to put together an episode of television so you can focus on the rest of the season, you could definitely have chosen worse.

Seeing double...

Seeing double…

The Android Invasion feels like the work of responsible workmen. That might not be the ideal qualification for crafting an iconic or memorable piece of Doctor Who, but it feels like a logic choice given the circumstances.

You might be interested in our reviews of the thirteenth season of the classic television show:

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