Monday, 4 January 2010

"Good grief, it's a triceratops!"

Written by Malcolm Hulk, directed by Paddy Russell, 1974

Despite the perceived failings of its effects, Invasion of the Dinosaurs has none of the shoddiness, sense of laziness, lapses of internal logic, or lack of conviction among its extras which plague ‘mid-era’ Pertwees like, say, The Three Doctors. The Pertwee era, to my mind, is – god love it – particularly shoddy, and, worse than that, just a bit… dull, really. It’s great that this story, with its awful reputation, belies that.

It’s particularly great seeing the Third Doctor not simply in a contemporaneous setting – obviously there’s no great shortage of them in his stories – but one which is actually grounded in real life; much like seeing the First take taxis and so on in The War Machines, it is pleasingly novel to see the Third in Tube stations and urban parks and streets, rather than the usual cavalcade of laboratories and power stations. I have to admit feeling a little thrill at seeing the Doctor in the underground, which I’ve only just stopped going to work on. This is a really solid story, literally: even the Golden Agers’ ex-government underground base seems more realistic than, say, the Wenley Moor facility.

Visually, the story is, yes, let down by the dinosaurs themselves, but, come on, if we were that bothered about facile special effects, we wouldn’t be here! Paddy Russell’s atmospheric direction more than compensates, as far as I’m concerned. There are so many great visual touches here: the sweeping helicopter PoV shots; the crashed cars and litter in the abandoned London; even the kids’ drawings on the walls of UNIT’s impromptu HQ.

In fact, the models are actually brill; it’s the CSO they’re let down by. Yes, the T-rex is unfortunately the crappest model, but they look great – almost stylised – on their detailed miniature sets. Also, the decision to mainly CSO people onto these sets is much more effective than placing the creatures into real locations. Personally, I think the effects will look great simply cleaned up for the (probably far-off) DVD.

Story-wise, at first I was perfectly happy to let the atmospheric direction and lighting mask the absurdity of the plot – I mean, it is absurd, but I was pleased to be proved wrong when the plot addressed my major gripe (namely, why bother with the spaceship, beyond its effectiveness as a twist?).

Despite the plot’s absurdity, it’s pleasing to feel this story is something of a return to a ‘harder’ approach, more typical of season seven than the majority of Barry Letts’ producership. (Ie, the gory aftermath of the looter’s car crash; even some of the riot footage in the ‘Reminder Room’ is quite full-on.)

People always talk about Malcolm Hulke’s trademark ethical ambiguity, and it’s true that it adds to the slightly more adult tone than, say, The Time Warrior (much as I love it), or Planet of the Spiders. Whitaker, Grover, Finch and Butler (and even Mike) make an interesting and atypically large collection of villains, and therefore things seem much less straightforward than is usual – especially given the gradually revealed nature of their relationship to one another.

In fact, the sense of dishonesty pervading this story is hugely in its favour – it really does feel like no-one can be trusted, which is unusual for Doctor Who (which doesn’t really do conspiracy that much, or at least not subtly enough for it to really mean anything). There’s a feeling, in fact, that the normal status quo doesn’t apply here (which can only be a plus when dealing with the ‘cosy’ UNIT family); the Doctor is arrested by the Brigadier! Benton is threatened with court martial! Yates points a gun at Benton and the Brigadier – he actually is a traitor!

Enough of the boys though – Sarah is fab here! I mean, everyone knows Sarah is fab, but I’ve always been doubtful of the slightly tedious certainties within fandom (The Eighties Were Crap; Tom Baker Is The Best Doctor, Hands-Down; The Sixties Are Boring; gah, give me a break!), but it’s great to actually see how much of a star Lis Sladen always was. It really is in the little details with her, isn’t it? I much prefer efficient short-haired season eleven Sarah to the dippier non-Pertwee version though (“I’ll say whatever I like! There’s nothing wrong with MY mind!”). It’s particularly interesting now – given The Sarah Jane Adventures and her most recent substantial return, in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End – relating Sarah 1974 to the current version. I try to maintain a healthy cynicism about new Doctor Who, in the face of the unremitting hype, but it actually is a joy that Lis is still part of the family.

Actually, everyone gets to shine here: the Brigadier is a bit of shadow of his former self (and why doesn’t messing around in the underground make him recall The Web of Fear, hmmmmm??), but at least he confounds his perceived buffoonery. Even Benton, who I’ve always felt pretty apathetic to, gets some good lines (tussling with Finch whilst contritely apologising for insubordination and smacking his gun-hand against a desk).

As an aside though, what the hell is with the inexplicably horrible Fortieth Anniversary clip-show at the beginning of the video?! (Yes, yes, I’m a bit behind the times…)

Who chose these clips to represent the show?! Keith Barron sipping sherry! Anthony Ainley with sparkles! Wow, what a jamboree of a celebration. Even worse – the shots of Nicola Bryant’s tits from Planet of Fire, coupled with the abyssal ‘disco’ version of the theme tune is so obviously crying out, ‘Look, Doctor Who is cool!’. There’s nothing less cool than being so desperate.

Doctor Who will never be ‘cool,’ in a conventional sense – its popularity with kids at the moment notwithstanding. And thank God! I’d rather be in love with a show where a bouffanted 50-year-old dandy fights a rubber pterodactyl. In the underground. With a mop.

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