Let’s try the pub!
Terry Nation writing a Doctor Who story about robots wanting to invade Earth isn’t entirely noteworthy, unless, as in “The Android Invasion,” (Story Production Code 4J), those robots are not Daleks. Here, an alien species known as the Krall seeks to take over the Earth as a replacement for their radiation-suffused homeworld. The Krall’s master plan (sorry) involves building a small number of android doppelgängers who will surreptitiously replace key personnel in a British space research center—and, for some reason, in a nearby pub.
Indeed, a good chunk of the four episode story focuses not on the execution (and subsequent foiling) of the planned conquest but rather on the androids learning to pour ginger beer, hop out of lorries, and count out shillings’ change in a replica of the research center and nearby town. For unexplained reasons, the TARDIS materializes near this Potemkin village on the Krall planet instead of on Earth, and while the Doctor is puzzled by anomalous energy readings, he and Sarah have no idea that they are countless light years from their intended destination. Wonky TARDIS circuits are a screenwriter’s best friend, it would seem. Almost immediately, they are set upon by white-clothed helmeted figures with finger guns, and as they rush to escape from these surprising foes, they see a UNIT soldier jump off a cliff to his death for no apparent reason.
Upon examining the body, the Doctor notices that the soldier’s billfold contains brand new money, all the coins scratch-free and minted in the same year. An odd coincidence, repeated once more when the Doctor and Sarah enter the deserted village and find similar fresh currency in the empty pub’s till. More ominously, the pub’s tables hold half-full mugs of beer. Peering through blinds, they see the missing drinkers return, hauled in a truck driven by the same mysterious helmeted figures. The people clamber out of the truck without emotion or sound, then resume their places in the pub. On cue, they all begin talking and drinking once more.
The Doctor and Sarah see the “dead” UNIT solider among them, increasing their bafflement. Our time travellers postulate various theories as to how these people are being controlled and/or re-animated, believing themselves to be on Earth in an actual British town, but they never once consider them to be androids. The viewer, however, has already been tipped off by the story’s title, as well as by establishing shots of the UNIT soldier walking alone in a jerking, halting, mechanical manner. These are robots, android copies of human beings, programmed, for some reason, to drink pints.
To be fair to Nation and director (and former series producer) Barry Letts, there’s an incredibly effective sense of tension and unease about the initial village scenes. Horror often manifests best in absences, and the empty town strikes a creepy note. Even though the audience knows that the people are almost certainly androids, the Doctor’s insistence that they are actual humans being manipulated somehow undercuts that certainty just enough to cause some doubt in the viewer.
It’s not until the Krall create an android replica of Sarah, who has been captured, that the Doctor realizes the truth of the situation. Her sudden fondness for ginger pop, as well as a wardrobe anomaly, leads him to deduce she has been replaced, and in the ensuing struggle, her/its face pops off.
Full credit to the effects department here for a well-executed scare to conclude the second episode. It’s a striking image, one sure to scare anyone peeking out from behind the couch.
The story moves with some pace, a good feature given that the underpinnings of the plot make zero sense. Even the Doctor admits as much, wondering why the Krall, with their all their advanced technology, including “time/space warp,” need to resort to the subterfuge of secreting a few androids on Earth in order to disseminate a powerful virus that will wipe out all life. It seems as though the story started with the “evil double” conceit and then backfilled four episodes worth of plot to fill in the gaps. The production staff must assume that the audience really likes this kind of plot, because they just aired a tale of aliens impersonating humans to take over the world three stories prior…
Even the plot thread about a missing British astronaut, Crawford (Milton Johns), helping the Krall because they “saved” him—when in fact they hijacked his ship and pretended to reconstruct his body by, um, putting an eye patch over a functioning eye—simply beggars belief. It’s shoddy narrative work at best, made less impressive still by the uninspired characterization and design for the Kralls, who seem a mash-up of the Sontarans and the Vogans (from “Revenge of the Cybermen“). They lack any sense of menace or effective villainy beyond the standard genocidal tendencies of any Terry Nation antagonist.
Most disconcertingly, the Krall doppelgänger system, itself a poor cousin of the very recent Zygon replicants, seems to require scanning the original in order to produce an android double. Both Sarah and the Doctor’s doubles only appear after they are scanned. But the Kralls have reproduced an entire village worth of people, down to the very landlord of the Fleur de Lis pub. Either Crawford knew all of these people very well indeed, or they can conduct memory scans from half a galaxy away, or they’ve already taken these people from Earth, or…. It’s all just very confusing, as is the Krall’s need to destroy the android trading ground on their own planet before they abandon their planet to take over the Earth.
The return of Sergeant Benton and Harry Sullivan does provide for a pleasant diversion, but there’s almost no interaction between the real versions of our UNIT chums and the Doctor and Sarah. Their presence certainly adds a specificity to the plot and grounds the story in the Doctor’s timeline, but without any repartee or banter, there’s scant reason to involve John Levene and Ian Marter here. As this story is traditionally considered the last of the “UNIT era,” it’s a sad send-off for some beloved characters. Perhaps producer Philip Hinchcliffe and story editor Robert Holmes intended to keep UNIT in the mix on occasion, but we don’t even get to see the Doctor and Sarah say goodbye to Benton and Sullivan, to say nothing of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, whose sole appearance in the story is as a nameplate on an office door.
Only in the fourth episode do the Krall get around to the whole invasion business. Using Crawford’s old spaceship to hide the launch of multiple android pods, the Krall deposit a number of duplicates in the vicinity of the British space research center—and, presumably, the pub. The Doctor and Sarah also fly to Earth in these pods, having dumped out the original pod people. Claiming to have been marooned for two years out near Jupiter, Crawford is welcomed back without question; when Sullivan and an army colonel go to his capsule to greet him, they are replaced with their doppelgängers.
The Doctor, too, has a double on the loose, and they come into conflict while a scared engineer has been busy trying to rewire a giant antenna to jam all android circuits. It’s too neat a bit of plotting, with the Doctor running in, drawing up a schematic, and asking the head engineer to completely alter the guts of an extraordinarily expensive bit of equipment, just on the word of a wiry haired gent in a trench coat.
The entire story effectively exists to present this fight between the Doctor and his double, and it’s not a struggle of wits or logic. It’s just fisticuffs and scarves-a-flyin’. During the Doctor vs. Doctor fight, the (real) Doctor is thrown against the wobbly console with the big red “Radar Power” switch, and he throws it, stopping the (fake) Doctor from smashing him with a chair—and, presumably, stopping the android pub keeper in mid-pour.
From there, the Doctor reprograms his opposite number to attack the Krall scientist who is threatening Sarah and Harry with a vial containing the virus, which is deadly to Kralls as well as humans. The hapless, would-be conquerer falls on the vial and dies in a mess of foaming green goo, but not before shooting the robot Doctor. The real Gallifreyan then appears with a quip, cutting short Sarah’s shock at seeing the Doctor killed. She exclaims, “Please, don’t do anything like that ever again!” One could make the case that she speaks for the audience as well regarding this story.
And then the story cuts to the Doctor convincing Sarah to keep travelling with him. One could find many other moments to cut in this story in order to provide even a few minutes of narrative resolution, so the lack of a proper denouement feels quite puzzling. After all, a massive Krall fleet awaits word that the initial android invasion has succeeded, but no thought is given to that particular problem.
Even the most dodgy of Doctor Who stories in the past has had some redeeming qualities, making up for narrative foibles by furthering the series’ lore, providing thrilling scenes of action or special effects, or even just letting the lead actor ham it up. “The Android Invasion” gives us a few moments of frisson in the empty village, a nice effects shot of Sarah’s face falling off, and very little else. It’s regrettably a low point, not merely for Tom Baker’s run but for the series as a whole. Just about anything would be an improvement, even a talking brain in a jar…
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Post 86 of the Doctor Who Project