Sunday, July 07, 2013

Dinosaurs Not On A Spaceship

(In a slight change of schedule for this week: after reviewing Dinosaurs On A Spaceship recently, it seemed like a good time to take a look at Doctor Who's previous dinosaur extravaganza, Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. So without further ado, let's wind the clock back to the Golden Age...)

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Sentiments that Joni M so ably expressed in song, the fanatics of Operation Golden Age set out to address using the medium of temporal manipulation. Their actions are extreme and the exact physics lie beyond the understanding of mere mortals, but you can appreciate where they’re coming from. In a similar way, I haven’t a clue how Joni wrote most of her songs – I’m guessing drugs – but that one in particular is a theme that still resonates today. And by the same token that’s true of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, a story as lyrical as any you might find in the history of Doctor Who and one that carries even greater resonance with the passage of time.

As the Doctor points out: progress isn’t the problem. The problem is greed. And when is that ever going to go away? Seems to me it’s more prevalent than ever. If not, it’s more blatant and we inhabit a world constantly reeling from its debilitating and damaging side-effects.

Writer Malcolm Hulke does a beautiful job of highlighting the issue by using time as a device for exaggeration, his extremist antagonists hell-bent on driving the world back to the extremes of prehistory. Not the extremes as in as far back as we can go, no – rather, to a period when the most dangerous predators roamed the Earth. The irony being, of course, that even a ferocious Tyrannosaur is not half as terrifying as the misery and harm a handful of money-grabbing, power-hungry politicians or corporate vultures can inflict on millions of lives.

God, it’s depressing. And there’s not really a lot we can do about it. Except write protest songs.

And protest stories.

Of course, the Tyrannosaur might have been a bit more terrifying had it and its fellow dinosaurs been better realised. They are rubbish. There’s no beating about the prehistoric bush, no chance of sugar-coating the pill here. While some old Doctor Who fx will make you cringe, these may well induce weeping. They also made me wish the production budget – not to mention the schedule – could have allowed for the late, great Ray Harryhausen to bring these creatures to life. But if wishes were horses the triceratops and stegosaurs would have been joined on screen by an eohippus like the one in The Valley Of Gwangi.

The show’s ambitions are often to be applauded but they really do bite off more than they can chew here. The dinos are disastrously rubbery and don’t have a fraction of the character that Harryhausen used to invest in his creations. And yet the story tries to include a scene in which a T Rex and brontosaur (as we used to call them back then) battle it out in a London street.

Ah, if only in this day and age of digital restorations on DVD the powers that be had poured some money into CGI dinos for this instead of extra Daleks for the Day Of The Daleks Special Edition.

It’s harder to look past the visual shortcomings of this one but at the same time it is the greater adventure by far. Director PaddyRussell works wonders where she can and shots of the evacuated capital are haunting and effective, a stark illustration of the kind of world that will be left after the misguided fanatics have had their way. And the actors throw themselves into the action with the fullest conviction. When Pertwee and LisSladen battle a less than believable puppet pterousaur or a CSO saurus of any breed, they believe it for us and do everything they can to sell such sequences despite the technical deficiencies.

They’re an engaging team and they do a great deal to draw us into the adventure as they become embroiled in the harsh realities of a London plagued by looters and by soldiers enforcing martial law. It’s a relief when they reunite with the friendly faces of UNIT, but while it’s something of a homecoming for the Doctor their troubles are far from over.

This is a welcome antidote to the pitiful UNIT swan-song that was The Android Invasion.

Ironically, nothing throws the UNIT family into sharper focus than when that family is falling apart. Captain Mike Yates is the black sheep of the family and this tale makes good use of his experiences in The Green Death as a foundation for his betrayal. The Brigadier’s and Benton’s reluctance to believe Mike’s involvement with the bad guys and the emotional fallout is nicely underplayed – as it should be. But you can feel the wrench without having it hammered home.

The Brigadier pulls strings to cushion Mike’s downfall as best he can, a nice balance to Mike’s underlying principles – his refusal to harm the Doctor, for instance, in the face of demands from his new employers. Naturally enough, those employers take matters into their own hands behind his back but you can appreciate that he tried.

They’re a nasty, unscrupulous bunch, these hippies.

They’re a decent mix of characters though, which just happens to include a terrific triumvirate of Doctor Who semi-regulars – JohnBennett, Martin Jarvis and Peter Miles as General Finch, Butler and Professor Whitaker respectively. Heading them up is Charles Grover, a well-mannered malefactor, played with charm by Noel Johnson. Senior civil servants are a frequently occurring feature of 70s Who and it’s only fitting that one of them crops up as the villainous mastermind behind the whole scheme.

Except, of course, he’s neither villain nor mastermind. Technically, Whitaker is the brains of Operation Golden Age and you get the impression he’s in this purely to see his dreams of creating a time machine reach fruition. The rest are idealists with dreams of a purer, cleaner Earth. A new beginning. A new Eden.

The dinosaurs are incidental, a ruse to clear London so that only true believers – safely hidden away on a fake spaceship under the capital – may be saved when the rest of the world is wiped clean. Much is made of how horrible the modern world has become (little argument there) and the film that Sarah is shown as part of her rehabilitation has echoes of a scene in Colony In Space when the Doctor is left to watch a similar movie on the (equally depressing) state of the world.

It’s clear that Hulke cares about the future. And he uses that to craft a story we care about.
Never mind that the idealists’ plans are a bit mental. And ‘far-fetched’ is not ‘where no TARDIS has gone before’ by any stretch of the imagination. While the notion that a bunch of intelligent people could be duped into believing they are on a spaceship bound for a new Earth does exactly that – stretches the imagination – it’s not a million light years from the kind of stunts Derren Brown pulls for the purposes of entertainment. So it’s my contention that Operation Golden Age likely employed someone like Derren. I’ve thought for some years that Derren would make a great Who villain anyway.

Indeed, those on the ‘spaceship’ – including Carmen Silvera as Ruth – are earnest want-to-believers of the sort that would be receptive and susceptible to the hypnotic techniques practiced by the likes of Mr Brown.

Overall, I find the runaround given the Doctor in the late middle section of the story to be the greater flaw. It’s mitigated by the fact that there’s plenty of other stuff going on elsewhere, but I do wish there could have been something weightier and more substantive to occupy the Doctor – and us – for that period.

But there we are – back to those wishes. And not a horse – or Eohippus – in sight.
There is, however, a little black cat in a shop window very near the end. As a giant T Rex roars nearby, the cat shows a feline fearlessness and merely seems curious as to what the Doctor and the Brigadier are doing outside its window. It’s a special moment.

This is an adventure that really begs you to forgive its production values and it’s no easy task – those dinosaurs are truly rubbish, as I may have mentioned – but if you can then the story will reward your patience and understanding.

Doctor Who’s ‘Golden Age’ is not nearly as shiny and polished as we sometimes like to remember it. When we turn back the clock by watching it on DVD things might not work out as we’d hoped. But when the stories are this good – with such a rich and compelling theme at its core – then it’s worth sealing off a corner of your imagination where the magic can be preserved.

The fx are poor, but the magic is no illusion.


1 comment:

iCowboy said...

I've never worked how the production crew thought they could get away with this story. Surely everyone was saying 'okay we just about got away with the maggots, and I think we can pull off the giant spiders - but an apatosaurus?' With the dinosaurs being quite so incidental to the overall plot, it's have been better if London hadn't been threatened by the Chewitts monster.

And I've never forgiven Jon Pertwee for blowing up a triceratops. Won't kill the Master who's just murdered thousands, but will do in a herbivore stuck on the Northern Line. Sense of priorities...