Doctor Who Project: The Invisible Enemy

Contact has been made.

Early seasons of Doctor Who suffer from the TARDIS problem—with the ability to get the Doctor out of any trouble, through its inviolable walls and inter-dimensional time and space travel capabilities, the TARDIS requires writers to deploy all sorts of legerdemain to take its plot-skewing powers away from him. Only a change in the Doctor’s attitude, from risk-averse observer to inquisitive hero, solves the otherwise intractable dilemma, with the Doctor finally wanting to stay rather than to flee. Veteran writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin introduce another such problem in “The Invisible Enemy” (Story Production Code 4T) through their invention of K-9, an indestructible robot dog with formidable offensive capabilities and a databank rivaling that of the TARDIS itself. As will become all too common over the next four seasons, the solution here is to have K-9’s batteries run out right when its firepower is needed most. Luckily K-9 has a tow-hook welded on front.

Taking K-9 for a walk.

Which is not to say that this four-part story, focusing on an invasion not from without but from within, lacks for action. Leela racks up her highest body-count to date, K-9 zaps quite a few more, and the Doctor himself even blows up a giant base, all to stop the predations of a long-dormant, sentient virus disturbed from its slumber in deep space by a passing Earth shuttlecraft en route to Titan. Before it lands, all three members of the crew have been “contacted” by the Swarm, and they set about converting the refueling installation on Saturn’s largest moon into a hive that will serve as breeding grounds for future generations of the virus.

Disturbing the Swarm

The TARDIS also stumbles through the viral cloud, and somehow the core intelligence of the virus, the Nucleus, penetrates the shields, interfaces with the TARDIS itself, then passes into the Doctor, who promptly collapses. The virus then attempts to convert with Leela, but for some reason she is immune. With the TARDIS coordinates already set for Titan after the Doctor and Leela received a mayday from the base’s unconverted crew, Leela manages to materialize the ship and awaken the Doctor, who assures her that nothing is wrong. But contact has been made…

Contact has been made.

The Doctor’s mental struggle against the Nucleus’ attempt to control him serves as a key source of tension in the first half of the story. Quite often the Doctor merely sloughs off such attempts, occasionally pretending to be assimilated in order to figure out the villain’s plans; being actually possessed is a job for a companion. Seasoned viewers just know that the first episode cliffhanger, with the Doctor holding a gun on Leela, will resolve itself by his telling her about how clever he is, but instead, as the second episode opens, he proclaims, “Leela. I can’t stop it,” and fires.

The Doctor shoots

The shot goes wide, a combination of Leela’s reflexes and the Doctor’s continued struggle against the Nucleus’ imperatives, but it still serves as the most jarring cliffhanger resolution that the series has seen in some time. To stanch the progress of the Nucleus, the Doctor puts himself in a catatonic state, leading Leela to take him to the Centre for Alien Biomorphology at the Bi-Al Foundation in the asteroid belt, at the urging of Lowe (Michael Sheard), a “contacted” member of the base who has disguised his infected state in order to ensure the Doctor—or Host, as the Swarm sees him—comes to no harm. Notably, to get there, Leela secures the coordinates from the comatose Doctor and then ostensibly inputs them into the TARDIS herself.

At the medical facility, the Doctor is attended to by Professor Marius (Frederick Jaeger), who just so happens to have built himself a robotic dog as a companion: K-9 (voiced by John Leeson). After a rocky start, K-9 and Leela hit it off, fortunate because even their combined efforts can only hold off the Swarm for so long. Lowe, having tagged along, manages to spread the infection to a good portion of the Bi-Al Foundation’s staff, and they become irate at Marius’ attempts to cure the rapidly deteriorating Doctor.

Good dog?

Because the Nucleus has situated itself at the barrier between the Doctor’s mind and his brain, the Doctor, in one of his last moments of lucidity, decides that the only way to evict the synaptic squatter is to, um, shrink clones of himself and Leela down to microscopic size using the TARDIS’ relative dimensional stabilizer and then inject the clones into his brain. Comparisons may, at this point, be fairly made to Fantastic Voyage, down to the white blood cells that attempt to eat Leela once inside and time pressure to complete the mission, here predicated on the clones’ limited lifespan of ten or so minutes. The cloning technology has been around for over a thousand years at this point, so the process is simple, just not used often for lack of any therapeutic value, to say nothing of any ethical considerations involved in creating sentient beings that last for less than a quarter of an hour.

Inside the Doctor's brain!

After much desultory rambling around the Doctor’s cerebral apparatus, the Doctor and Leela find the Nucleus, a hideous, water bug-like creature with multiple pincers and antennae. With time dwindling, the Doctor enters into leisurely discussion with this intruder. Baker and Martin set the story in the year 5000, the start of humanity’s Great Breakout into the stars beyond the Sun. They use this incipient colonization by humans as the central moral point of their story, with the Nucleus of the Swarm declaring to the Doctor that it has as much right to propagate, survive, and colonize as humanity does. The Doctor accedes the point, but also insists that he equally has a “perfect right to dispose” of the Nucleus—especially once he discovers that they intend to use his status as a Time Lord to spread not just through space but also through time.

Just as the Doctor and Leela (or their clones, at any rate) expire, the Doctor chants, over and over, “Tear duct. Tear duct. Tear duct,” and the Nucleus uses the pre-planned eye escape route to leave the Doctor’s brain. It’s debatable whether the Doctor intended it as a trap, or whether the Nucleus desired to be freed, but regardless, when the now-converted Marius retrieves the Nucleus, he up-sizes the leader of the Swarm, another cliffhanger that works to excellent effect, if only for its shock value—one holds out hope that perhaps, the Doctor and Leela’s clones survive somehow. Nope.

The Nucleus of the Swarm

The final episode fails to pay off the narrative work done thus far. Once the Nucleus is “life” size, it—and the story—loses all sense of subtlety, urging its converted humans to rush it back to Titan to begin the breeding process, which apparently now must be done before some biological—and narrative—deadline. Their haste allows Leela to rescue the Doctor, now returned to normal with the Nucleus gone. A quick bit of biochemistry later, and the Doctor has developed an antidote from antibodies in his and Leela’s blood. Marius, once cured, helps the Doctor develop a lethal version to destroy the Nucleus and the Swarm for good. He promptly loses it once he confronts the Nucleus, however, so he falls back on Leela’s original suggestion of just blowing up the refueling base on Titan, which he does by venting in methane from the moon’s atmosphere, then mixing it with pure oxygen. Once ignited, the explosion destroys the base, the Nucleus, and all remnants of the Swarm.

Goodbye, Swarm

As with “Horror of Fang Rock,” it’s all too tidy of an ending, glossing over the lives not saved through the cure, to say nothing of the destruction of a species. After being confronted on this point by Leela, he claims:

“The virus has a perfect right to exist as a virus. Not as a giant storm threatening the entire solar system. Everything has its place. Otherwise the delicate balance of the cosmos is destroyed.”

This same Doctor refused to eliminate the Dalek threat in its (literal) infancy, considering that some good might come out of their continued existence, yet here he displays little in the way of hesitation. One might note that the virus only reached “giant” size through his machinations, but the matter is dropped, Leela being all too happy to eradicate the virus and the Doctor quibbling with her only on method.

The Fourth Doctor, peering from the TARDIS doors

Indeed, there’s a level of callousness here in Baker and Martin’s portrayal of the Doctor, certainly ascribing to him a sharper tongue and meaner outlook than in their last outing with the Fourth Doctor, “The Hand of Fear.” There, he was dismissive and inattentive of Sarah Jane; here, he puts Leela down outright, ignoring her spot-on premonitions and directly insulting her. As for Tom Baker himself, he seems to relish the scenes where he’s in mental combat with the Nucleus, and his robust catalog of facial expressions receives a wide usage.

A Blue Eyed Leela

Leela’s status as a “reject” of the Swarm runs through the story, with the premise that she’s too much of a “savage,” as the Doctor calls her at one point, for the Swarm to be able to utilize her intelligence. Later her reliance on instinct and intuition is bandied about as the source of her immunity factor. Several moments play up her lack of understanding of the world she’s in, from the Doctor teaching her how to write her name at the start of the story to Marius belittling her when she cannot understand the concepts of immunity and inoculations. Louise Jameson gamely plays the fool, and it must be admitted that Leela acts with more sensibility and cunning than most of the characters in the story, even going so far as to disguise herself as a converted human to rescue the Doctor. That her blood bestows her immunity to the Swarm rather than her intelligence (or supposed lack thereof) comes as cold comfort at the end of a tale that diminishes Leela from the get-go despite relying on her for much of the plot’s successful resolution. She certainly proved smart enough to pilot the TARDIS—twice.

Imurjinsee Egsit

K-9 stands out as one of many strong effects and sets in “The Invisible Enemy.” The scale models in particular work a treat, with the shuttlecraft and the asteroid base of the Bi-Al Foundation well realized. The Nucleus puppet, though awkward in motion, summons up genuine feelings of unease. The use of linguistic drift in the signage both at the Centre for Alien Biomorphology and the Titan base suggest a far futurity that the set dressing alone might not have been able to accomplish. It seems a bit hokey now, perhaps, but substituting “Imurjinsee Egsit” for “Emergency Exit” and “Isolayshun” for “Isolation” allows the viewer to feel clever at deciphering it and creates the distancing effect key to enhancing a suspension of disbelief.

Killer K-9

“The Invisible Enemy” provides an acceptable diversion, both as visual spectacle and as three-quarters of a solid, if slightly derivative, story, but its lasting contribution to Doctor Who comes from the introduction of K-9. It joins the crew of the TARDIS at the end of the story, as Marius must return to Earth (likely to explain all the death and destruction) and cannot, for some reason, bring K-9 along. Not that this crowd-pleasing metallic mutt could possibly have been a one-off character. With the addition of K-9, the Doctor has more than one companion for the first time since Patrick Troughton’s era, itself an interesting change after more than eight years of only one companion. But for better or worse (and, as shall be seen, mostly worse), K-9 will require that writers find ways to prevent its powers from derailing moments of tension, anxiety, and excitement, story after story. So, Leela’s frequent exclamations to the contrary, no, not a good dog, K-9.

(Previous Story: Horror of Fang Rock)

(Next Story: Image of the Fendahl)

Post 96 of the Doctor Who Project

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