Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Once again, on viewing a story for the first time in years, I find that my opinion of it has changed drastically. Yes, the dinosaurs are poor, especially the tyrannosaurus, which goes beyond poor to downright awful. But to my surprise, the story itself is actually very good, far better than I’d remembered. I think my perception of the story had certainly been affected by my memory of the poorly-realized dinosaurs, and that’s unfortunate, because puppets aside, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is very good.

Episode one is thankfully the final Doctor Who episode to survive only in black and white rather than the original color. I seem to remember reading somewhere that episodes one and two of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” were the last two that were telerecorded, meaning we as fans just squeaked in under the wire for this one, and we’re lucky this particular episode exists at all. The episode itself hearkens back to the relaxed pace of some of the first episodes in the Hartnell or Troughton eras where the Doctor and companions land and explore their surroundings while the audience is slowly drawn into the mystery. “Invasion” episode one’s black and white status certainly helps create that association, as does the script. It really is quite strange to see a major city like London deserted. It’s very atmospheric, and a nice sense of tension is created by the presence of looters and by the sound effects, as we hear the dinosaurs but don’t see them until well into the episode. I wonder if it would be possible to film this episode in quite the same way today? Sadly, I doubt the Doctor’s comment that “Great Britain always closes down on a Sunday” is true these days.

One of the ways in which this first episode is interesting is because it’s clearly still early in the Doctor and Sarah’s relationship, and they aren’t as close as they will later become. They’ve just returned from Irongron’s castle and headed back to the present day, based on the Doctor and Sarah’s conversation. It’s never explicitly stated just why Sarah began working with the Doctor, but from the last story and this one, it’s easy to surmise that not only does she find the Doctor intriguing and a good source of stories for her journalism career, but she also seems to like him personally once she gets to know him, despite their early friction. And of course, the opportunity to get inside UNIT’s operations is a chance that she can’t miss out on. She rather quickly accepts the role of “Doctor’s assistant” despite her feminist bravado, since it gives her a chance to remain inside the evacuated zone and investigate the mystery surrounding the dinosaurs. It’s also interesting that the two of them spend most of the story separated as Sarah goes off on her own investigating and gets caught, and the Doctor works with UNIT on the dinosaur problem.

As an aside, it’s rather strange for me to watch Elisabeth Sladen acting alongside Jon Pertwee since I grew up watching Tom Baker’s episodes, and that’s who I associate her with. Sarah isn’t nearly as sweet and airheaded as Jo was when she first turned up, nor is she willing to just sit back and put up with being patronized. The feminist dogma is still a bit on the heavy side, but it is good to see the modern myths that “all girls were screamers” and “Doctor Who was sexist” turned on its head again. Rose isn’t the first well-developed, independent and useful female traveling companion in the show’s history, whatever some have said. Neither was Sarah Jane Smith for that matter.

On with the story. Episode one is pretty entertaining, with the Doctor mugging for the camera and generally seeming bemused by the military rather than put out. He rather naively tries to return the looted goods he and Sarah acquire, only to have them used against him by officers who have no interest in what he has to say. It’s a relief when the Brigadier turns up to get him out of the jam early on in episode two. The Doctor rather quickly figures out that the dinosaurs are a sideshow rather than the main event, and sets about forming a plan to track down whoever is bringing them to London. We’re introduced to several characters, including General Finch and the Minister with special powers Grover, both of whom ultimately play a part in the conspiracy. Rather surprisingly, so does Captain Mike Yates.

This was an unexpected plot development for me when I first saw this story. The idea does make sense after the brainwashing Mike was put through during the ordeal with Global Chemicals, after which, as he admits to Sarah, he needed a leave of absence to sort things out. Presumably confused and tired, he easily falls under the influence of the Operation Golden Age group. This character development really adds some punch to “Invasion”. It’s very rare in Doctor Who for one of the good characters to go over to the other side, and as well-intentioned as Mike is, he’s thrown his lot in with a group that will commit mass murder if they succeed in their goal. Ironically, Mike spends the whole story trying to sabotage UNIT and the Doctor’s efforts, all the while refusing to actually harm any of his friends, which leads me to wonder just how much he’s really thought things through. He seems blinded by idealism.

The end of episode two is quite good, and makes Mike Yates look very heroic as he dives under the jaws of the T Rex to save the Doctor. If only the tyrannosaur didn’t look so bad! Can you imagine the cliffhanger with a Jurassic Park style Tyrannosaur? Imagine a CG Tyrannosaur chained in the hanger and peering through the office window as Sarah tries frantically to get out. As much as I’m enjoying this story, the awful T. Rex puppet hurts every scene it’s in, because it’s hard to take it seriously. It’s so horribly fake. The stegosaurus looks decent, and the brachiosaur looks good enough from a distance, though the close-up isn’t as convincing. The fight later on in episode six between the T. Rex and the brachiosaur is just awful.

The plot twist with the People on the spaceship is brilliant. I need to go back and re-read the novelization at some point, because I remember really buying Sarah’s despair when she believes that she’s in the future and has been aboard a spaceship for three months. It’s not sold quite as well on screen, but the new plot element of sleepers who are being taken to a new Earth to start over adds yet another layer to an already satisfyingly busy story. Kudos to Sarah for figuring out rather quickly that she can’t have been on the ship for three months, or her cut would have healed. She’s also gutsy enough to test her beliefs by opening the airlock door. I can’t see Jo Grant having done so well in this situation. It really is tailored for Sarah. The brainwashing film she’s forced to endure reminds me of the typical wildly-exaggerated leftist environmental propoganda that Al Gore and his ilk like to push. Some things haven’t changed since the seventies. I have no doubt that if time travel were actually possible, that people like Grove and Whitaker would actually exist and be perfectly willing to turn back the clock. They aren’t all that different from today’s environmental terrorists who bomb SUVs, spike trees, and commit other crimes in the name of “saving the environment”.

One thing that irritates me in reading other reviews are the constant complaints about “padding”. It often seems to me that some people want every narrative to be as economical as possible, with any scene that supposedly exists just to help the episode make its required length viewed as an automatic waste of time. That seems like a rather snobbish attitude. The bottom line is this: does the scene in question entertain? Does it add some facet to the characters? The chase in episode five fulfills both requirements, as does the Doctor and Sarah’s capture by the army in episode one. Both scenes help illustrate story points as well. We know that General Finch has given a “shoot to kill” order for the Doctor. How much danger would we feel that the Doctor is in if he went straight from UNIT headquarters to the underground station with no trouble along the way? How much more convincing is the idea that London has been evacuated due to the fact that most of the first episode sees the Doctor and Sarah wandering around empty shops and deserted streets? I would argue that the hostile army figures in both episodes also offer a nice contrast with the Doctor’s UNIT associates, who are comfortably reliable.

The resolution does seem a little rushed given all the buildup, but it makes good use of the Doctor’s status as a Time Lord, in much the same way that “The Time Monster” did. The Doctor is able to fight the effects of the time machine and deactivate it, thus saving the world. Mike tips his hand and is thankfully not treated as harshly as General Finch. I’m glad the character has a chance to redeem himself a few stories down the road. And Benton gets his best scene of the story as he punches out General Finch. “You’ll be court-martialled for this,” Finch says. “Yes sir,” Benton replies politely as he knocks him out. I love it.

“Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is a story for which I’ve developed quite a bit of enthusiasm. Yes, there’s no denying that the dinosaurs are poorly realized, and to be honest that does hurt the production. But the story is very sound and very interesting, with a number of compelling character twists and philosophical ideas expressed along the way. The poor reputation with which it’s been saddled is undeserved. It’s well worth watching.

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Posted in 3rd Doctor - Jon Pertwee

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