Monday, August 24, 2009

Foiled Again

Doctor Who fans tend to think of the Master as the perfect foil for the Doctor. But really it's the Vardans. Cheap gag, yes, but surely not as cheap as the production values on the six-part Invasion Of Time.

It is a tad unfair to pick on any Doctor Who story for a failing in the fx department and, nine times - well, eight, or maybe seven times out of ten I can generally look past budget constraints and watch as the merits of the story outweigh the petty visual flaws. But ultimately too much of this story relies on the aliens being a convincing foe and they are, to put it in the simplest terms possible, not.

If it wasn't bad enough that they are, for the most part of their screen time, floaty bits of bacofoil, poorly CSO'd and brought to 'life' by voice-acting so leaden it could be used as radiation shielding, when they finally materialise in their true form, I found myself longing for their return to their floaty bacofoil existence. Because these fearsome enemies turn out to be goons in ill-fitting space uniforms commanded by a guy whose special power is to invest his facial expressions with a fraction of the emotion he put into his voice acting.

Now, on DVD, we do have the option of activating new CGI effects to cover for some of Who's old deficiencies. I'm not normally a fan of them, because I generally prefer to rewatch these - at least in the first instance - in their original form - and because in the main, the CGI effects have been A Bit Rubbish (TM). (Also, I discovered, if you're watching these stories an episode at a time, as I like to do, you end up having to reset the DVD options every time, which is a bit of a pain - take note, 2 Entertain.) However, it has to be said, the CGI people did a great job on the Vardans in their energistic form and, even if you can still see a little bit of the bacofoil poking out, they are much more effective. But even then, it only works until they speak and nothing could be done to remedy the trudging goon form.

Ah well, at least they are all (yes, all three of them) replaced in a dramatic plot twist by Sontarans at the end of Part Four. Unfortunately, I remembered them as being A Bit Rubbish(TM) in this one and it turns out I was not deceiving myself. There's a reason they keep their helmets on for the most part. Although not as sub-Spitting Image as they appear in the later Two Doctors, it seems the production team on this one only had money for one cartoonish mask, while the junior grade Sontaran troops get to traipse (and sometimes stumble) uselessly about in full armour. The actor here eschews Kevin Lindsay's previous decent stabs at portraying a credible militaristic potato-headed alien in favour of a poor man's Ray Winstone with a lisp.

But to hear me go on, you'd think this was one of the worst Doctor Whos ever. And it's not. It's really not.

There is, in the midst of the more disappointing aspects, a great story struggling to get out. And occasionally it even manages to pop up for a wave.

Tom Baker gives a surly, commanding performance and clearly revels in the role of a Doctor possibly gone bad - although his laughing up the invasion at the end of episode two smacks of over-egging it a bit. Louise Jameson is, of course, fab as Leela - although she is cruelly wasted. (There's oodles of potential in the whole primitive savage vs. advanced soldiery angle, but beyond the odd knife in the probic vent it's not properly explored.) And then she's married off in a way so lame I was still cringeing after all these years in anticipation of having to see it again. (It's one of those 'moments' in Who history you'd prefer to deny.) That's no disrespect to Chris Tranchell (another of the Survivors) who puts in a good turn as Andred, captain of the guard. Special mentions in the acting stakes also to John Arnatt as an exquisitely aristocratic Borusa and Milton Johns as Castellan Quisling, who's so obsequious you can only imagine if there had been more aliens queuing up to invade Gallifrey he'd be ready to change allegiances a few more times. And Rodan, the young Time Lady, is almost a precursor to Mary Tamm's Romana - which can be no bad thing.

The dialogue is frequently witty and on the whole - when the Vardans aren't around - the adventure's rarely anything less than entertaining and enough fun to keep you watching through the six episodes. But, much as a Sontaran is prone to falling over a plastic chair, this trips up over a few too many obstacles. And the great story struggling to get out ultimately spirals away down the plug hole of a hastily written script and some potential cleverness poorly realised.

At times, Gallifrey is granted some measure of the scale afforded it in The Deadly Assassin, but at other times the endless passages of this technologically advanced citadel of the Time Lords resemble the boiler room of an old hospital. Equally unfortunately, similar can be said of the TARDIS interior. And while there can be some justification for the TARDIS interior resembling anything it likes, the 'we've been here before' gag as the Doctor & Co parade through the same basements and corridors is overplayed and backfires. And no wonder the Shobogans dropped out of Time Lord society - they serve very little purpose.

These are minor issues though next to the manner in which the story itself disintegrates, with the hunt through the TARDIS taking place in entirely the wrong episode (Part 5 would have been a better choice) and it all culminating in one of the Doctor's flimsiest plans (build a big gun) versus one of the all-time stupidest plans by an alien (I'm fed up with chasing after the Doctor and control over Time, I think I'll just head off to the Panopticon and blow myself, the world, my own battlefleet and the rest of the universe up with this handy grenade).

It's this that ultimately lets down what could have been the (whimsical) epic it clearly wants to be. Suspension of disbelief is tough to achieve on a length of substandard bungee cord and you really need a meatier resolution at the end of a six parter. Here, the main enduring memory we're left with to sink our teeth into is the tinfoil and I don't know about you, but just the thought of that makes me cringe.


Stuart Douglas said...

I didn't mind the Vardans as much as some, but got *really* bored in the running roudn the TARDIS sections. Great review as ever though Simon.

SAF said...

Cheers, Stuart. Yeah, I think a better endgame might have redeemed it since, by the time you get to the end, you're in danger of forgetting all the great bits at the beginning. :-)