Sunday, 3 January 2016

Doctor Who: The. Invasion

New year and I feel like some Doctor Who. I will return to finishing my series of posts on apartheid in The Prisoner, but since this is supposed to be a blog, it had better primarily cover what TV I’m actually watching! That said, I was very chuffed by the reception of my recent post comparing The Avengers with Batman, which started off as a stray thought in my grasshopper mind, but has had an incredible number of hits since being published.
Another comparison which isn’t often made is of Doctor Who with Sapphire and Steel. I don’t think this one can be drawn out too far, but it is this Doctor Who adventure which has made me think of it. The parallels are obvious when you think about it – the protagonists appear in a random place and time, not always under their own volition, and there is usually some crisis. The protagonists are the ‘experts’ come about the spot of trouble, and while the time theme is the undergirding of everything in Doctor Who it becomes literally everything in Sapphire and Steel. Sapphire and Steel are clearly not human, yet certainly appear to be, and appear in our world, to everyone’s great mystification.
And that is the point at which this Doctor Who adventure really takes off for me. I wrote last years about how disappointed I was by the boxed set of remaining fragments of Who episodes which have not been made up into whole shows. I have recently watched The Web of Fear with great appreciation, The Five Doctors is a Who serial which remains permanently in my collection… You’ve spotted the connection, haven’t you? It’s taken me forever to put two and two together but what really does it for me is the eruption of alien forces, whether Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel, into our world, with the effect of adding an extra layer of meaning to our world. Certainly in terms of The Invasion, I find it much more atmospheric before the cybermen make an appearance. I am the sort of TV viewer who is the bane of writers and everyone involved, since I’m almost determined to understand TV on my own terms.
These terms as far as The Invasion are concerned, are that this alien force breaks into the late-1960s milieu that I love so much. The Britain depicted in this series is very much the swinging Britain of the time, yet this Britain merges seamlessly into the time distortion of Doctor Who (and even Sapphire and Steel). The scene with the wind-up gramophone with the horn, picked up in the Portobello Road, is iconic of 1960s style. Think of the penny farthing in The Prisoner, and the collection of vintage telephones in Tara King’s flat, both further examples of the way periods were mixed in the style of the time. The clothes of the time drew heavily on art nouveau themes and vintage military dress – the past was everywhere plundered, and with hindsight, this tendency could be interpreted as the way in which time gets broken into and disrupted. It is not commented on, but the gramophone represents a disruption of time, as a suggestion of why Doctor Who is there.
This 1960s tendency to draw on the visuals of the past comes face to face with the contemporary and opposite 1960s tendency towards modernity, which is yet viewed very ambivalently. This Doctor Who adventure brings to a head the fear so often expressed around technology in the TV of the time – that it can be misused, and that it can get out of control. The scene in which Doctor Who and Jamie escape via a lift uses the lift as interesting image of the way modern technology controls us. With his greater scientific knowledge, the Doctor can break this control and use it to break free of restraint. The International Electromatics building is of course an image of the ultimate modernity of the time, where the machine becomes all and humans become unnecessary. Ironically it now appears very old-fashioned indeed and unfortunately the humans selected for employment there can hardly be described as competent. The old-fashioned message is that you cannot ignore the human element.
A further 1960s preoccupation, parodied in The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE, yet played completely straight in so many series, also occurs here, that of the evil megalomaniac who wants to take over the world. The potting shed is not nearly enough – only the world will do, in this case also using extra-terrestrial beings in the attempt to take over. Again I wouldn’t like to draw out this comparison too far, but I feel that probably the viewer of the time, seeing this adventure through Cold War-trained eyes, may have been able to see in the cybermen’s mooted invasion a clear reference to the situation in Europe at the time.
I have also realised one of the things which may make me slightly uncomfortable with Doctor Who. I am very keen on dividing TV into real and unreal, and Doctor Who rather destroys my constructed division by moving about between the two divisions. The stock trick of 1960s television, playing the unreal completely straight so that it can be taken as real, seen in Batman and The Avengers, is turned around into Doctor Who. The whole point of the doctor is that in him the unreal becomes real, and the reaction of our own reality is always going to be incredulous.
Fear of modernity is embodied in the International Electromatics building, and peaceful old blighty in need of defence is embodied in the cow which looks into the Tardis at the beginning of the first episode. Once again, this show uses the classic TV visual language to train us how to interpret what is happening and what we are seeing. And once again, it subverts the language used in The Avengers slightly, by making the point of security the alien and modern nature of the doctor, rather then the Establishment figures embodied by leather armchairs and public school educations. The Establishment is, however, represented by the dome of St Paul’s in the scene of the emergence of the daleks from the sewers, yet interestingly this is also shown in such a way that it appears from behind a modern building.
I don’t mind at all that the first and fourth episode have been reproduced using animation. I actually prefer it to the approach of screen captures used to illustrate the recorded sound used in The Web of Fear. Other than that, the picture is clear, the sound is certain, the cast are assured, it is exactly what you would expect of a quality BBC production of the time.

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