CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: 'The Invasion Of Time'

The Invasion Of Time

February 1978

‘You have access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe’
‘Well, I do talk to myself sometimes’

Looking back on the Williams era, I do recall that this was a time when my viewing of the series was getting very sporadic. I would see the odd episode but not entire stories. With ‘The Invasion Of Time’ I remember clearly the moment when the Sontarans appeared at the climax of episode four but I never saw the concluding episodes until many years later. My commitment as a viewer was gone and would only return in 1980. Now why was that? I had a sense that somehow I hadn't got the joke. Read on, dear reader. And, to many of us, that opting out may have been a blessing in disguise.

These six episodes of Doctor Who are clearly the point where the foundations on which the programme itself rested and the way it was received and perceived by an audience were turned on their head. Sometimes very crudely and sometimes with great subtlety. I have been rather negative about this story in the past but a recent viewing of the DVD has allowed me to soften my approach.

...what should have been a design tour-de-force, the inside of the TARDIS, is reduced to location filmed hospital corridors and a swimming pool
In terms of the production, it does look rushed and hastily put together which is very symptomatic of Season 15 as a whole. The production design is really quite dreadful. Apart from the re-decorated President’s office with its cog motif lead lined walls, a crude visual symbol of time, like a broken clock, the rest of the production makes Gallifrey look like a strangely cramped and deserted airport lounge. Wincingly awful plastic loungers litter the sets, the Panopticon resembles a game show set, despite the pleasing multi-level aspects of it, and what should have been a design tour-de-force, the inside of the TARDIS, is reduced to location filmed hospital corridors and a swimming pool with the odd setting used glibly to pad out the last two episodes.

It’s also become The Tom Baker Show. It’s here that you really do recognise that the leading man has been elevated in importance and the narrative drive of the series has switched from the motives of the protagonists as a whole to the desires of the main character/actor. He gets all the best lines, the story is firmly framed from the Doctor’s perspective and the Doctor as the hero figure has been transformed into a nonchalant man about galaxy who only cares about the balance between good and evil if it’s something he can do between meals without running his appetite. And surely, if the Doctor is so nonchalant about the events around him then the audience will become equally complicit in this?
The scenes between John Arnatt, as Borusa, and Baker are the best things in the whole story.
The Doctor is central to the narrative and everyone else becomes a cipher, including Leela. It’s so alarming to see Leela reduced in this way and the writers don’t care if she doesn’t get a good exit or why else would they marry her off to a drip like Andred with whom she’s had but a single conversation. It’s sloppy and thoughtless. And Rodan is the Romana 1 character out for a test drive. And they forget about her half way through the story. The only actors who seem to come out of this with good marks are Milton Johns and John Arnatt. Johns is great as the slimy Kelner who switches allegiances at the drop of a hat and is a vibrant symbol of corrupt Time Lord society where survival is the name of the game. The scenes between John Arnatt, as Borusa, and Baker are the best things in the whole story. They are played as reflective drama where two powerful individuals evoke a grudging respect for each other despite their past history. It adds depth to a Doctor that spends most of the story saying ‘ Look at me, aren’t I clever, fooling you all with my madness and trapping the Vardans.’

This could have been an exceptional story. It’s essentially about an apparently insane, god-like Doctor who sells out the Time Lords to the Vardans after ensconcing himself as Lord President. This had the potential to be 'Caligula In Space' or 'Madness Of Lord President Doctor' but it falls so very far from that because it’s too easy to spot the bluff in Baker’s performance and the Vardans are really so crudely drawn as villains, not just as bits of tin foil flummery but also in their rather dull human forms. We never know the motivation behind the Vardans and the Doctor’s plot to trap them on Gallifrey apart from it being a trap within a trap laid by the Sontarans. Is he unpicking the Gallifreyan defences just because he can? The Vardans are just….there…and they don’t do anything despite bragging that they can travel along any wavelength. The feigning of the Doctor's madness just isn't used to its full potential here and there are too many nods and winks to the audience along the way to give it any dramatic punch.

Unfortunately, the Sontarans don’t fare well, either. Yes, we see more of them this time but they end up spending episodes five and six simply chasing round the TARDIS gradually reduced to comedy monster/villains. The notion of them being a threat is all but a fleeting memory. And cockney accented Sontarans, at the time, must have sounded very strange. They still do. Dudley Simpson does have a better time with them, giving the score a signature Sontaran theme with some squashy bass synths that adds much to their impact.
...a spin on the nature of heroism and the notion of the Doctor as ‘hero’ and what it means to be a hero with an ego, with authority, pride and the notion of deceit
There is a lot thematically here that’s interesting but it’s really hampered by the crudeness of the settings and the ciphers that the other characters are reduced to. As well as a spin on the nature of heroism and the notion of the Doctor as ‘hero’ and what it means to be a hero with an ego, with authority, pride and the notion of deceit, there’s also a great deal about world politics and the demise of the UK to almost third world status in the late 70s. At the time there were attempted military coups to replace Wilson, and this is reflected in the way the Doctor seizes power as President. The story also has a number of things to say about revolutions, dictatorships, state control and political allegiances. The banished Time Lords are Russian dissidents sent out to Siberian labour camps, the Panopticon and its Time Lord ranks yet another representation of Cold War Russia.

For me, it is the very last scene of The Invasion Of Time that neatly sums up what the programme had become at that point. Its legacy rumbles on today. The Doctor is in the TARDIS, alone again, has said goodbye to Leela and K9 and what does he do? Pulls out a massive box labelled K9 Mark II and laughs his head off into camera. To me that, and the equally infamous ‘even the sonic screwdriver can’t get me out of this’ address to the camera aren’t clever ‘breaking the fourth wall of television’ notions. They are direct assaults on the audience’s perception of the show and the narrative. For fourth wall cleverness just watch Up Pompeii because it at least gives you the reason why they did it – Frankie Howerd. Tom isn’t Frankie and the show isn’t a sit-com with a live audience in the studio but Williams and Baker perhaps would like you to think so. They see the deconstruction of narrative production as a clever acknowledgement of a sophisticated viewer. There’s a sense of overweening hubris in that final scene. ‘We’re getting away with murder and having a good laugh at ourselves, the programme and even you, dear audience, and don’t you just love it?’ depends if you like your Doctor Who frivolous or whether you like it a bit more serious
It’s the last nail in the coffin of naturalism and the ushering in of meta-narrative structures and performance codes that on the one hand make the following seasons really very interesting but also on the other begin the ‘Doctor Who eats itself’ cycle that finds its apotheosis in the JNT years. At least at the end of 'School Reunion' when yet another version of K9 is constructed, we didn't see Tennant and Sladen laughing their heads off to camera. Unless they cut that bit out, thinking it was an in-joke too far. In the end it depends if you like your Doctor Who frivolous or whether you like it a bit more serious. As a teenager I found the frivolous version rather embarrassing but now I take it in my stride, understanding what Graham Williams was striving to do on an ever shrinking budget, beset by strikes and a Tom Baker who clearly wanted more say in the programme.

The DVD carries an interesting and lively commentary from Louise Jameson (Leela), John Leeson (K-9), Anthony Read (Writer) and Mat Irvine (Visual Effects Designer), a documentary
Out of Time: The cast and crew look back at the making of this story, featuring Chris Tranchell (Andred), Milton Johns (Castellan Kelner) and Colin Mapson (Visual Effects Designer), The Rise and Fall of Gallifrey: A look at how the portrayal of the Time Lords and their home planet has changed over the years; The Elusive David Agnew in which script editors Terrance Dicks and Anthony Read try to find out who really wrote The Invasion of Time; Deleted Scenes From the film sequences for Parts Five and Six and some optional CGI effects where the tin foil Vardans just about manage to look better. Anything's an improvement.


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