Monday, May 06, 2013

Gunfight At The Less Than OK Kraal

Watching Journey ToThe Centre Of The TARDIS the other weekend, promoted The Android Invasion to next in my 50th-Anniversary-year journey through some classic Doctor Who episodes on DVD. Both stories feature a masterclass in unconvincing con artistry. One has a man who convinces his brother he’s an android, the other has an alien who convinces a man he has only one good eye. And you wouldn’t even need one good eye to spot the problems with either of those ideas.

In Android Invasion, the horror of realisation as Guy Crayford lifts up his eyepatch and opens his left eye for what we have to presume is the first time is just one final weak link in a series that would leave Anne Robinson not knowing which way to point first. The fact that this is a Terry Nation script – his last for the show – and a swan song for UNIT makes it that little bit sadder.

It begins well. The deserted English village that only becomes populated when the clock strikes a certain hour, the jerky soldier toppling off a cliff only to be seen later mingling with regulars at the pub, strange white-suited astronaut figures; it’s another of those Who adventures with all the magical makings of an episode of TheAvengers. Heck, with faceless astronauts and Max Faulkner as a UNIT soldier we might as well be back watching AmbassadorsOf Death. The astronauts even take pot shots at our heroes with finger-guns like those Auton chaps of old.

It promises to be great.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep, I was always taught, and it’s a lesson this story would have done well to bear in mind. Instead, it steadily sets out to pull the threads of its early promise apart. All the intriguing strangeness surrounding the village and the villagers is undone by the central strategy underpinning the aliens’ plans and the general rubbishness of the androids. After all, the androids are intended to infiltrate rural Earth society (as part of a scheme to take over the nearby space centre) and yet when the Doctor and Sarah show up their social interaction skills are on a par with most washing machines. Even more incredible is that the Doctor assesses this setup – basically a rehearsal ground for an invasion – as perfect except for a few telltale details like freshly minted coins.

Worse, when the story has a real chance to pull a switcheroo, replacing Sarah with an android copy, it clumsily gives the game away with scenes of her capture and processing in the alien base. The second-episode cliffhanger is an all-time great in spite of this, with Sarah toppling over and her face falling off, but how much greater could it have been if the audience had been kept in the dark up to that point?

The moment also sheds serious doubt on claims by one of the aliens that the androids are ‘indestructible’. Leaving us to assume the Sarah Jane droid was turned out late on a Friday by workers keen to get home for the weekend.

Still, the motive her deployment is questionable and Kraal scientist Styggron justifies a number of similarly dubious decisions by casting it as an interesting ‘experiment’. His shabby reasoning may explain the overall shakiness of this invasion strategy. Rubbery thinking is in many respects less forgivable than rubbery faces.

Rewatching this confirms the Kraals’ comedy status. There had to be a reason I chose one to run the Central Perk-style cafe in a short story of mine and it’s simply that they must be the laughing stock of the galaxy. The mask design isn’t that bad – if you want ugly, they have it nailed – but there’s zero flexibility, no expression and the lower jaw wobbles lamely when the actor speaks. And much as I like Roy Skelton’s voice work on Who, it doesn’t help that Chedaki sounds like Zippy and/or George off Rainbow.

Later, during the actual invasion, some of the androids discover a measure of emotional range in hopes of fooling the audience with some mistaken identity shenanigans, but by and large it’s a comedy of errors without the comedy.

To be fair, Tom Baker does throw in plenty of wit throughout and it’s a given that Lis Sladen is the perfect foil. They’re clearly having fun in what must have seemed like a romp and between them they make the mess watchable. It’s just a tremendous shame that there’s next to no engaging exchanges between them and the UNIT representatives.

Then again, it’s far from a full reunion. The Brigadier is away in Geneva. Benton’s a doorpost and Harry is little more than set-dressing. So on top of make no promises you can’t keep, we are reminded that it’s better to go out on a high. Terry Nation never wrote for the UNIT family before and it shows, even with the reduced attendance. There’s no affection present. UNIT’s swan song is a flightless bird.

On one level it’s fantastic to see Patrick Newell (as Colonel Faraday) in what started as a quintessentially Avengers escapade, but on another he’s sadly wasted. Milton Johns lends the faintly ridiculous character of Guy Crayford a degree of empathy, but he’s almost as comedic a figure as the Kraals, with weak and vacillating motivations and – as mentioned – that major ‘D’oh!’ moment when he lifts that eyepatch. Never mind, Styggron outdoes him with a dash of slapstick when he drops the deadly virus he happens to be carrying around in a flask and falls face down in a puddle of rubber-dissolving goo. What larks.

Let’s be honest, a great deal of the enjoyment to be had from many a Doctor Who story amounts to how far you can forgive its flaws. Sometimes they’re little more than skin deep. Sometimes the whole thing falls over at the slightest nudge and their face falls off to expose all the dodgy wiring underneath.

The Android Invasion has its memorable moments but those are the rare occasions when the cheap imitation manages to pass muster. It’s never long before it returns to form, lurching jerkily along and toppling over a cliff.


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