One grows tired of jelly babies.
For better or worse, they finally made one for the fans. Very little of David Agnew’s Season Fifteen finale “The Invasion of Time” (Story Production Code 4Z) makes immediate sense without having previously seen—and remembered—”The Deadly Assassin,” which aired over a year earlier. A working knowledge of the Sontarans wouldn’t hurt, either. While prior Doctor Who stories built upon bits of previously established lore, particularly in reference to the Daleks, Cybermen, and the Master, there have, to date, been no stories that so actively require knowledge of an earlier adventure for basic plot comprehension, until now.
Here, Agnew (in actuality a pseudonym for producer Graham Williams and story editor Anthony Read, working with ideas from an abandoned script by David Weir) start the Doctor off in the middle of his own story, facing a tribunal of unseen alien overlords on their spaceship. He then promptly scoots off to Gallifrey and demands to be invested as President of the Council of Time Lords, a far-fetched claim that nonetheless holds validity because of the events in “The Deadly Assassin.” In that story, he runs for President to gain immunity from prosecution in order to investigate the murder of the prior President, a crime for which the Master framed him. None of this backstory is explained, despite there being a full six episodes for exposition. He simply shows up and all the other Time Lords agree, somewhat sheepishly, that yes, he should be invested as President, and pronto.
The Fourth Doctor’s manner throughout the start of this story veers to the peremptory and the haughty. It’s so out of keeping with what we know of the Doctor’s behavior that no extended fandom is required to realize he’s up to something. Nevertheless, for two full episodes, Tom Baker keeps up the facade; he portrays a side of the Doctor never seen before, which as an actor playing a longstanding character must have been rather refreshing. Certainly this story gives the Doctor enough moments in the limelight to please even an inveterate ham such as Baker. But when the Doctor yells at Chancellor Borusa (John Arnatt), his old teacher and a returning (albeit regenerated) character from “The Deadly Assassin,” one recoils at the venom and sheer anger of the expression. Trick or not, it’s the most shocking scene on Doctor Who in years. Well, at least right up until a carnivorous plant in the TARDIS solarium eats a Sontaran…
Williams and Read split the story into thirds, with the first two episodes focused on the Doctor’s manic machinations to become President and gain access to the trappings of the office: the Sash of Rassilon, the Rod of Rassilon, and the Great Key. Borusa, elevated from Cardinal to Chancellor here, resists giving the Doctor the power he seeks, while the new Castellan, Kelner (Milton Johns), seeks to curry favor at every turn. After the Doctor is made President, he orders Leela banished from Gallifrey, but she inevitably escapes, this time with the help of the first female Gallifreyan to appear on screen, Rodan (Hilary Ryan). Rodan distinguishes herself from the Time Lords, giving credence to the continued suggestion from “The Deadly Assassin” that the Time Lords per se form a sub-set of the Gallifreyan population, a nobility of some sort.
The third and fourth episodes focus on the Vardans, powerful aliens who can travel along any electro-magnetic wavelength, including brain waves, giving them the power to read minds, which is impressive for sheets of tin foil shot slightly out of focus and superimposed on screen.
In fairness, the effect works well enough when the shot doesn’t linger on them too long, but director Gerald Blake insists on keeping them, and the annoying sound effect of shaken tin foil that unwisely accompanies their presence, on screen for extended periods. Their ability to read minds explains why the Doctor has kept everyone, including Leela, away from him through his attitude; only in the President’s quarters, which he eclectically demanded be decorated floor to ceiling with lead gears, can he let down his mental guard.
The Doctor has been attempting to fool the Vardans into revealing their true forms, so that he might discover their home planet and “time loop” it out of existence, as the Time Lords did to the Fendahl homeworld in “Image of the Fendahl,” a rather drastic means of dealing with the threat. He’s convinced, however, that they must be stopped, though the story does not dwell at any length on the nature of the Vardan threat or why the Vardans seek to conquer Gallifrey. When the Doctor creates a gap in the force field around Gallifrey to convince the Vardans that he is trustworthy, they finally appear in their true forms as ordinary humanoids, prompting him to speak for the audience at large by noting, “Disappointing, aren’t they?”
Indeed, no sooner have the Vardans shown up than they are promptly dispatched, with Leela and Rodan leading a band of “outsider” Time Lords who live in the wastes beyond the citadel (which is also called Gallifrey, apparently) to help the Doctor take back control. K-9 manages to use the knowledge found in the Matrix (again, a callback to “The Deadly Assassin“) to isolate the Vardans’ “frequency” and expel them from the planet. If it all seems a bit cut and dry, that’s because the final two episodes host the real villains, the Sontarans, whose surprise appearance at the end of the fourth episode works to great effect. Especially when watching contemporaneously and not knowing that the story stretches for six episodes instead of the usual four, seeing the Doctor, Leela, and the outsider Time Lords celebrating their victory over the Vardans only to be confronted by four squat Sontarans who have entered Gallifrey through the hole in the force field must have come as a shock.
Sadly, the script squanders that narrative goodwill by spending the final third of the story in a variety of languorous chases through the interior of the TARDIS, which now has a swimming pool for a bath, endless corridors and storage spaces, a sick bay, workshops, and even a back-up power generator disguised as a museum filled with many of Earth’s greatest artistic treasures. Castellan Kelner, who previously kowtowed to the Vardan invaders, gives the Sontarans his full cooperation, granting them access to the TARDIS with an “entrance probe” and generally helping them foil the Doctor’s attempts to keep Gallifrey and the Great Key safe.
Though not quite a MacGuffin, the Great Key, which has been the duty of all Time Lord Presidents after Rassilon to seek out, turns out to be a source of enormous power—and also just an old-fashioned iron key. Chancellor Borusa, like all Chancellors before him, kept the key hidden away, but the Doctor convinces him to give it up. With the knowledge he gains from the Matrix, the storehouse of all Time Lord information since Rassilon’s era, the Doctor instructs K-9 and Rodan to build a de-mat gun, capable of dematerializing anything and requiring the power of the Great Key to operate. The sight of this “ultimate weapon” horrifies Borusa, who claims its power to be sufficient to conquer the universe. Clearly, Rassilon did not intend for the President of the Time Lords to have complete power, hence the tradition of the Chancellor hiding the key.
In the end, the Doctor uses the de-mat gun to zap a grand total of two Sontarans out of existence, including the leader of the invasion force; ostensibly he fixes the force field in short order, with the remaining Sontarans held at bay via threat of dematerialization. Any pretense at pacifism or solutions that do not involve violence has completely vanished at this point in the series. When Leela confronts a Sontaran for the first time, she asks how to kill one, and the Doctor helpfully points out the little vent at the back of their necks; Leela promptly scores a bulls-eye and dispatches it. The body count in general in this story ranks amongst the highest since “The Masque of Mandragora,” with no one being stunned or knocked out who could instead be killed.
Somewhat unsatisfyingly, when the Doctor returns to Leela, Borusa, and the head of the Gallifreyan guard, Andred (Chris Tranchell), after defeating the Sontarans, he can’t remember a thing about the experience, neatly getting him off the hook for all the destruction and the proposed time looping of the Vardan homeworld. While not explained, this memory lapse seems to have been a failsafe, the Doctor conditioning himself to not remember the vast knowledge stored in the Matrix once he has fended off the invasion(s). He was, technically, invested as President, but such matters are elided at the end, with the Fourth Doctor simply heading off to places unknown, as usual. Except this time, he does so without Leela or K-9.
Louise Jameson departs the role of Leela at the end of this story, with the character having decided to stay with Andred. It’s a hurried courtship, to be sure, and not one spelled out in the script; Miles and Wood, in About Time 4, indicate Jameson’s did not finalizer her decision to leave until studio recording began, so a few scenes of their holding hands when Leela drags Andred out of danger (shades of her nursemaid turn in “Underworld“) have to suffice. While the sendoff, reminiscent as it is of Susan and Vicki staying behind for love, isn’t quite in keeping with the character of this fierce warrior of the Sevateem, Leela’s final story features plenty of opportunity for Jameson to shine.
Leela’s command of the “outsider” Time Lords stands as the pinnacle of her martial prowess; she is at once brave, fierce, and loyal. Her proclamation to Rodan, that “Discussion is for the wise or the helpless, and I am neither,” sums up the character somewhat neatly, but a quibble can certainly be made that Leela possesses a very particular wisdom indeed. Though the writers never quite treated the character of Leela with the dignity she deserved, often portraying her as ignorant for a cheap joke rather than using her “savage” background to explain concepts to the audience, Louise Jameson always carried the role with strength and pride, and the character—and actor—will be missed going forwards.
As for K-9 (John Leeson, voice), its departure serves merely as an opportunity for an upgraded model, K-9 Mark II, to be introduced at the start of the new season. And frankly just in time, too—close-ups of the metal marvel show an inordinate number of dings and dents and scuffs. Not that the Doctor can stand to be without his platinum pooch, either, since K-9 simply does it all, zapping and computing and engineering and plumbing the depths of the Matrix, all on a single power pack charge. A dog ex machina in the truest sense. Williams and Read turned to K-9 whenever they came upon a thorny plot problem, though with the amount packed into this tale, perhaps a bit of narrative hand-waving was in order.
Most of the flaws with “The Invasion of Time” only reveal themselves in retrospect; the experience of watching the story unfold, from the mystery of the Doctor’s hidden agenda on Gallifrey to the revelation of the Vardans and the manifestation of the Sontarans proves a romping good time. Throw in a return to the heraldic majesty of Gallifrey and a tour through the newly-expanded TARDIS, and a fan could want little more. Mild dismay settles in, however, as one realizes the story never explains or resolves anything, hurtling as it does from one set piece to another. As with many of Season Fifteen’s stories, quite a few fascinating narrative threads remain not just unresolved but unexplored, often in favor of more action or more atmosphere. It’s not a case of this season’s stories not being good (“Underworld” excepted)—it’s that they could have been just that little bit better.
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