Planet? Spaceship? What are you talking about?
Doctor Who has never been accused of subtlety, but Malcolm Hulke’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (Story Production Code WWW) manages the closest thing: misdirection. From all the evidence on display, one expects the six episode story to be what it says on the tin, a tale of dinosaurs rampaging across London. Taking a page from Robert Sloman’s book, though, Hulke brings us an extended diatribe on pollution, zealotry, and nostalgia. Plus, yes, dinosaurs. So many dinosaurs.
At the start of the story, the scenes of deserted London streets summon some of the series’ most striking visual moments to date: Daleks crossing the Thames with Big Ben in the background, Cybermen marching in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and Autons smashing forth from a high street window. Here, director Paddy Russell paints an eerie, desolate setting with a few deft strokes. But then, she has to add the prehistoric stars to the mix.
For a variety of reasons, the dinosaurs never actually appear threatening. In part, the combination of puppetry and green screen/CSO effects, though executed with great audacity, doesn’t work to great effect. Soldiers fire their weapons away from the beasties superimposed behind them, and the puppets jerk back and forth, particularly the Tyrannosaurs Rex model. Even when the seams aren’t showing, the Doctor insists to all who listen that they are (mostly) pea-brained vegetarians anyway and not to be feared. By the final episode, where the Doctor and the Brigadier drive a jeep under a Brontosaurus, the effects begin to come together, but at that point, the saurians have been relegated to plot nuisances.
Rare amongst Doctor Who stories, the true villains in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” take up most of the character list, such that everyone seems in on the conspiracy: a Minister of Parliament, a British Army general, a mad scientist, and…Captain Mike Yates?
The impact of seeing Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) betray the Doctor and pull a gun on the Brigadier resonates most strongly with those who have seen Yates stand side-by-side with them to fight any number of threats to the Earth over the years. It’s the biggest plot payoff of the entire UNIT era, with Yates’ long-established idealism—reinforced here by his explicit reference to the pollution-related events of “The Green Death“—leading him to sabotage the Doctor’s efforts to uncover the source of the dinosaurs.
Even when Yates is seen with the conspirators, one recalls his earlier turns as a double agent, working undercover for the Brigadier; to have that assumption undercut demonstrates the success of the UNIT formula, at least in terms of establishing a baseline that can be broken for dramatic effect. A guest character undermining the Doctor’s work carries no such weight or significance, whereas to have a companion do so would be a step too far at this point in the series; someone like Yates, known but not entirely essential to the set-up of the series, strikes the right balance for such a narrative shock.
This cabal that Yates assists seeks nothing less than a return to a Golden Age—indeed, such is the name given to their plan to revert the Earth to a pristine, prehistoric state, Operation Golden Age. Using a nuclear reactor built into a secret underground shelter for the British government and royalty in the event of a war, Professor Whitaker’s machine can shift the flow of time, bringing creatures from the past to the present and, with enough power, reversing the flow of time to undo millions of years of history, “erasing” all the people who have ever lived on the planet. Hulke takes his time getting to this revelation, however, keeping the focus on the dinosaurs for almost half the story.
The Doctor and Sarah return from the Middle Ages to find London evacuated and rife with looters, and they are caught up in the dragnet for these scofflaws. When a medieval peasant appears before them and then disappears in a “time eddy,” an unexplained side effect of Whitaker’s machine, neither of them comments on the fact that they just left that very time period, investigating a Sontaran who was able to draw people through time. The peasant even calls the Doctor a “wizard,” much as the nobles in “The Time Warrior” did. But no attention is drawn to this incredible coincidence, which, as it turns out, is just that.
As the Doctor quickly surmises, the dinosaurs serve as “terror weapons” to clear out central London. The dinosaurs vanish back into the past after a few hours in the present, far less an “invasion” than a random danger to be fled. The key is the evacuation of central London, where the conspirators have sequestered several hundred people who will help them rebuild Earth after it is returned to a fresh, unpolluted, de-civilized state. Only those in the central London area will be spared this retroversion.
The whole scheme strikes one as unwieldy and overcomplicated—in the grandest tradition of Doctor Who, to be sure, but still, a stretch even then. The conspirators act from a position of intense, zealous belief that the planet cannot be saved, only purified, humanity having proven itself unworthy of redemption in its current form. But just to be sure people keep watching, in case several episodes of philosophical banter about the ends justifying the means lack sufficient verve, Hulke has Sarah Jane wake up, after being captured by the conspirators, inside a spaceship, one of seven bound for New Earth.
It’s all an elaborate ruse played on the well-intentioned idealists who have been recruited to repopulate the planet, with the mastermind of the plot, Minister Graves, knowing that they would never go along with the elimination of every other human who has ever lived. (The cold-blooded willingness of Lady Ruth to kill Sarah Jane for her non-conformity to the beliefs of “The People” suggests he might have been a bit wrong about that.) Graves goes so far as to “visit” their ship from his own (actually, just the underground bunker), wearing a spacesuit, to keep them convinced that they’re actually in outer space, suggesting absurd degrees of subterfuge and/or a complete naiveté on the part of these would-be colonists.
So, to recap: dinosaurs in central London, a mad scientist with a time reversion machine capable of wiping out all human life and turning back history, a fake spaceship full of extremely gullible idealists, a nuclear reactor beneath an Underground station, and a beloved character turning out to be a traitor. Might as well give the Doctor a brand new car while we’re at it…
The story shouldn’t work, but for the most part it actually manages to cohere. There’s enough tension and uncertainty from episode to episode that the narrative retains momentum. Several scenes toward the end of the story reflect the need for padding—an over-long forest chase scene, replete with obligatory helicopter, comes to mind, with the Doctor on the run from UNIT, having been framed for the appearance of the dinosaurs by the corrupt General Finch and Yates—and the dinosaurs wear out their welcomes fairly early on. But until all of the conspirators are revealed, one keeps wondering just how far, and how deep, the plot runs. Hulke has thrown in enough curves that one expects more. Are the Elders on the “ship” in on the act? Will Yates finally reveal himself to be a double agent? Will the jeep fit beneath the Brontosaurus?
By the final episode, the plot has but to reach its inevitable conclusion, with the Doctor saving the day, but significantly, Sarah Jane, the reluctant companion, does yeoman’s work in bringing about the (somewhat unsatisfying) conclusion. For her second outing, she shows incredible initiative. Though tagged as the Doctor’s assistant, she remains a journalist, seeking out the truth, and this impetus makes her actions believable. She has a knack for trusting the wrong people—she reveals her findings about the conspiracy to the two main conspirators in turn—but she also refuses to give up; if captured, she escapes, and if re-captured (and re-re-captured), she escapes again. Her final escape manages to reveal to The People on the ship that they are being lied to, and when they storm the control room, they give the Doctor a chance to stop Whitaker’s time reversion process.
Somehow, the Doctor alone resists the time reversal energy—he is a Time Lord, he later explains—and is able to “reverse the polarity” on the device. When Graves and Whitaker realize what he’s done, they both lunge for the machine to try to fix it, but they, and the machine, vanish. Though not explicitly stated, the Doctor intentionally sent them, and the machine, back into the prehistoric past. A fitting end for the two zealots, perhaps, but one that signals a continued shift in tone for the series towards a harder line.
Indeed, the story features several rather violent sequences, including that rarest of sights on the show, a bloody human body. Director Paddy Russell stages the attacks by a Pterodactyl on the Doctor and Sarah in a similarly frenetic fashion, with shouts and quick cuts and breaking glass and screams; it’s rather unnerving stuff, certainly “hide-behind-the-couch” worthy.
But even still, Jon Pertwee manages to have some fun, and while the Doctor doesn’t receive any stirring speeches or even any interesting situations in this story, the chemistry between him and Elisabeth Sladen seems evident. They key off of each other quite well. Pertwee gets to gurn and fight and drive the “Whomobile” and chum around with the Brigadier and Benton. Nice work, if you can get it.
“Invasion of the Dinosaurs” succeeds insofar as it entertains for six weeks, but it’s a thin gruel indeed. As often happens in longer stories, multiple plot threads combine to form something that somehow results in less than the sum of the parts. Malcolm Hulke does his best to provide vibrant guest characters, but he, and the actors, never quite sell the audience on the sincerity of their idealism. Absent that fullness of reasoning, they are sound bites, saying much and signifying little. It’s a poor outcome on which to sacrifice a long-running character such as Mike Yates. At least we haven’t quite seen the last of him yet…
(Previous Story: The Time Warrior)
(Next Story: Death to the Daleks)
Post 73 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project