Books! The Best Weapons in the World! (Invasion of the Dinosaurs)

(17 comments)

Sod captions! I'm just going to
say K-KLAK! from now on!
K-KLAK!
It's January 12, 1974. Improbably, despite the fact that it has been two weeks since Christmas, Slade continues to hold the number one single, though after only one more week of this they give way to The New Seekers' "You Won't Find Another Fool Like Me," which in turn gives way to Mud's "Tiger Feet," which has a four week run and is the number one single of the year. Andy Williams, The Sweet, Lulu, Diana Ross, David Bowie, and The Wombles all also chart.

While in real news, Patty Hearst is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn is exiled from the USSR. Really, that's about what I can scrape together here. Oh. On US television, both The Six Million Dollar Man and Happy Days debut. There. That's truly major world events there.

While on good television... oh, wait, never mind, it's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. A story that is not so much in the territory of "good" as it is "infamous," with (likely spurious) rumors even existing that Barry Letts requested its destruction because he was embarrassed by the effects. I've usually foregone criticizing the effects of Doctor Who, generally stressing when they are adequate instead of when they're not. But here we finally have to actually talk about special effects.

Let's start with a brief typology of special effects. There are essentially two types, which we can call visible and invisible effects. An invisible effect is one that is meant to work in the background. When we see it, we are not meant to gawk at the effect, we're meant to sail right over it, accepting it within the narrative. Invisible effects merely have to be good enough to not announce themselves. The sets are usually an example of invisible effects in Doctor Who. Very rarely is the point of a story or scene in Doctor Who up to 1974 to gawk at the studio scenery. So as long as nothing crashes into the scenery and makes the wall wobble, the scenery is usually more or less acceptable in Doctor Who. The horrible scene in The Green Death in which the Doctor sits in an unmoving Bessie while a CSO landscape scrolls by is jarring because it's supposed to be a scene where we're not thinking about the effects, but because they're so obvious, we think about them anyway. (We'll talk more about invisible effects when we get to The Ark in Space, which provides a fabulous limit case.)

Visible effects, on the other hand, are showpieces. The greatest visible effect in the history of cinema is, for my money, the scene in The Muppet Movie in which Kermit rides a bicycle. Nothing about this scene is meant to be realistic or believable. The audience is not meant to believe that Kermit is a real frog who happens to also be a cyclist. The only reason that effect is interesting is because the audience is consciously aware that Kermit is a piece of felt that cannot possibly ride a bicycle, and thus stare at the scene trying to figure out how the effect was done. Visible effects, in other words, have to be more than merely not awful. But they don't have to be realistic as such either - The Web Planet hinges entirely on visible effects that are not remotely realistic, but that are still interesting to look at.

On the other hand, a lot of visible effects do try to work in a more or less realist mode - that is, to look like whatever is happening would really look like. And the problem with visible effects arises when a visible effect that is supposed to work in a realist mode doesn't.

Which brings us to the scene of a Tyrannosaurus Rex making out with a Brontosaurus. It is not the worst effect Doctor Who has had to date. But it is the most frustrating, because it's a visible effect. You can tell, because it's in a story called Invasion of the Dinosaurs. That pretty much explicitly says that the dinosaurs are the focus of the story. You don't have to have realistic dinosaurs - plenty of past Pertwee stories have had rubbish dinosaurs in them. But those stories were generally about something else. This is a story about dinosaurs. When you commit to that, you are pretty much committing to delivering decent dinosaurs. Especially when you decide to use the Yeti-in-the-Loo approach and put the dinosaurs in central London. Because you're putting dinosaurs in a real place, as opposed to an imaginary place, and then selling the story on the basis of the dinosaurs, the show fundamentally commits itself to high quality realist dinosaurs. Instead, it's got more puppet snogging than Meet the Feebles.

So for the first time, we're really left with nothing to do but admit that the effects are getting in the way of the story. But this in and of itself is work remarking on. We got through a decade of Doctor Who where about the worst thing that needed to be said was that the visual choices of The Dominators were kind of rubbish. But there it's not so much a matter of quality as just a matter of the design team making poor choices. It's not until the glam era of the show, in which visual spectacle becomes one of its primary pleasures, that the question of inadequate effects really rears its head. But even still, it's not until this story that bad effects become a major problem for a story as opposed to a single bum note. Because here the bad effect means that one of the basic justifications for the story falls through.

Actually, several of the basic justifications for the story fall through. On one level, what's going on here is another conspiracy thriller. Aside from the wholly valid question of why another one of those is a good idea so soon after The Green Death, there's a larger problem here - every single character introduced within this story save for a few very minor UNIT personnel is in on the conspiracy. As is Mike Yates. There's not a single character in this story who isn't on the bad guys' side. Again, seemingly the entire production staff of Doctor Who fails to quite get what it is that makes conspiracy thrillers work, which is uncertainty. Once it becomes painfully obvious that anyone who is not a series regular is evil, this story switches to just running out the clock with car chases until it hits six episodes. So it's dull on top of the lousy effects.

That's not to say there aren't highlights. There are. Lis Sladen is fabulous, and is given a particularly meaty subplot that often leaves her with more to do than the Doctor. The supporting actors are mostly very well chosen, with both Martin Jarvis and Peter Miles showing up - as nice a double bill as the series manages in the 70s. And of course there's the first episode, in a deserted London, in which Hulke realizes that the return of the TARDIS allows new ways of starting off otherwise traditional UNIT stories. This gives us, for the first time in the Pertwee era, a story that's a credible redo of The Web of Fear, the story that, in fan lore, is the model for the entire Pertwee era. He even manages to have the Doctor and the Brigadier in the Underground - a nice nod in what is the beginning of the end for UNIT.

But by and large, the fact of the matter is that this is a slow and phoned in effort that feels like the production team putting together one last UNIT story for the sake of doing it. It's a bitterly disappointing way for Malcolm Hulke to end his time on Doctor Who.

Good thing, then, it's not actually the end. Because this is also the point where the Target line of novelizations begins, with the first two books - Hulke's adaptation of The Silurians and Dicks's of Spearhead From Space - coming out five days after the first episode airs. Hulke ends up deciding that he prefers writing the novels to writing for the actual series, and departs the series to write half a dozen more, including the novelization of this story.

We've talked before about the novelizations, but it's worth repeating a key fact: in many ways, these books were more influential in the fan consensus about the Pertwee era than the actual episodes. Years before VCRs, the novelized stories were the important stories, and a good novelization is enough to give a story a permanent legacy of being a classic. Which is what happened to this story, because the novel is great. We've also talked before about the prose stylings of Terrance Dicks, who remains the most prolific Target writer. But we should also stress the importance of Hulke, who, though he only wrote seven Target books, was every bit as influential because of how early and how good his efforts were.

Where Dicks is a master of ruthlessly functional prose, Hulke prefers a more tersely suspenseful style that at times evokes the noir thriller style of someone like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. And where Dicks, especially in his later books, shoots for faithfully capturing everything that happens on screen, Hulke cuts ruthlessly and, generally, in the story's favor. The tedious chases and action sequences that make up much of the last few episodes are cut entirely, with the fifth episode being reduced to a mere 10% of the book and a single chapter. The result is far tighter plotting and a story that doesn't overstay its welcome.

But what Hulke brings to the story in novelizing it is far more than just a tightening of the pace. He also brings a moral center to it. The biggest problem with the episodes as aired are that they make precious little effort to differentiate between the villains' motivations and their methods. Hulke is trying to write a story in which people do terrible things in pursuit of noble goals, but in the televised version ends up stymied by the fact that everyone just plays their part as a standard Doctor Who villain. The two lines in which the Doctor expresses any sympathy for what they're doing are swallowed up, in one case because Pertwee is visibly bored with the scene despite the fact that it's what, on paper, should be a corker - the Doctor and Mike's confrontation. Instead Pertwee delivers all the lines with no inflection beyond smug paternalism. (Of course, the larger problem here is the decision to have Mike be the traitor. Even a moment's thought and/or looking at how well John Levene does when he's given a scene would tell you which character should have a fall and redemption plot, and which one should just get conked on the head by the Doctor)  The result is that the story as aired repeatedly seems to suggest that the real danger is eco-terrorists. Especially because Hulke ends up writing a conspiracy story in which eco-terrorists manufacture a crisis to bring about their real goals. Compare to the Three-Day Week issue going on off-screen and you can see the basic problem with this.

(I should pause here and defend a claim I made that the Three Day Week was a manufactured crisis. I've seen conflicting reports on whether the on-hand stock of coal was said to be lower than it was to justify the Three Day Week. But that's irrelevant in the face of the larger issue - that Heath opted for measures that would impact the entire country to try to gin up support for union busting. Another option was always on the table - give the miners' their overtime pay. And, crucially, that was what they ended up doing, because it was a perfectly viable option. Thus the Three Day Week was a purely manufactured crisis - an energy shortage that was not merely allowed to happen but consciously caused to happen - in order to justify a political attack on the National Union of Mineworkers, leveraging it into a snap election that was hoped to further entrench the Conservative Party. It failed massively.)

In the novelization, Hulke takes advantage of the ability to describe character thoughts to reiterate more regularly the distinction between what the Operation Golden Age people are doing and why they're doing it. Sarah ends up being the major beneficiary of this, trotting out journalistic wisdom handed down to her by the pros, all of which is really just Hulke providing a running commentary on the story. But since otherwise you're left with a story in which the people warning of ecological disasters are bad guys creating a manufactured dinosaur crisis so they can forcibly reorder society - i.e. a story that adheres almost perfectly to the right wing talking points against environmentalism - it's tough to treat the more explicitly moralistic novel as a step down.

But what is most interesting about the novel is that it reveals the degree to which Hulke has become so cynical about the program by this point that even Robert Holmes looks like a sunny optimist. It's not just his casual cutting of entire scenes on the grounds that they'd be dull, or his dispensing of the Whomobile. No, the key clue comes when he describes the man from the Middle Ages as having "a strong Midlands accent," a swipe at bad Doctor Who acting worthy of Paul Magrs.

Once you begin to look for it, the number of points where Hulke appears to just be making fun of the story blossoms rapidly. First of all there's the one that shows through even in the televised version - the fact that the fake space ship is a clear jab at the naive and reflexive embrace of space stories, turning a space ship from something responsible for a jaw-dropping cliffhanger reveal, in which Sarah appears to be three months away from Earth and the story seems to have made a massive time jump into a cheap fake stored under London. But there's also the Reminder Room, an Orwellian terror seemingly consisting of a droning documentary and nothing else, which in the book gets an entire chapter named after it despite being completely rubbish.

The strong sense is that Hulke just doesn't care anymore, and has given up on the program. Certainly his decision not to write for it again suggests that. And it's not hard to see why. Hulke had always opposed the earthbound format even as he helped set it up. But Hulke was also one of the writers who laid down the basic challenge of the Pertwee era back in The War Games - involvement in more than just blowing up monsters. Instead he's been stuck writing for an era that prefers star turns, showboating, and visual spectacle to serious looks at society, even when it's doing earthbound stories. Even when the show does take on real political issues, it's generally been with ham-handed disastrousness, as with The Green Death, another story Hulke fixed in novelizing. One gets the sense that Hulke, on some level, knew that the story he wanted to do - one about the foolish danger of blind nostalgia and the fact that progress is still a good thing - was going to be sold down the river before it hit the scree.

Because frankly, the entire plot of Invasion of the Dinosaurs seems like nothing so much as a rejection of Doctor Who. The central flaw of Operation Golden Age is that it just tries to blow up a problem instead of working to improve the world. That's what the Doctor half-heartedly tries to persuade Mike of, at least. And of course, at the end of things the Doctor blows up the problem and goes on to... run off to Florana with Sarah. He utterly fails to make a single move towards improving the world or presenting a more positive version of the agenda he's supposedly sympathetic to. And Hulke ends up exposing this hypocrisy directly - by confronting him with a situation in which he has no choice but to expressly praise the exact sort of person he isn't being in this story. This is staggeringly bitter of Hulke - an utterly cynical decision to cast the Doctor as no better than the villains. (Indeed, it's flagrantly Sarah, not the Doctor, who Hulke views as the primary hero of this story) And it's fitting that the Pertwee era's most moralistic writer finally turns the lens onto the Pertwee era in this regard. This isn't just Hulke quitting the show. It's him penning a demonstration of why, in his eyes, the show has failed.

Still, Hulke does leave us with one parting gift in the story - the final scene of the story is the first instance of something we now take for granted as a completely standard trope of the show. It's the first time the Doctor seduces a companion with descriptions of the wonders of the universe to get her to travel with him. Because even though we're ten episodes in, Sarah Jane has not actually joined up to travel with the Doctor yet - she accidentally got taken back in time in The Time Warrior, the Doctor returned her here, and there's no implication that they had intervening adventures. This is good - especially after how popular and (quite rightly) beloved Jo was, having her replacement earn her stripes before the Doctor invites her on board goes a long way towards softening the blow of the transition. But more importantly, we get that delightful scene of the Doctor praising the wonders of the universe to a reluctant companion to get her to travel with him. As final scenes go, it's a lovely farewell to Hulke's tenure writing for the television show.

K-KLAK!

Comments

John Callaghan 5 years, 9 months ago

As a chap with a Midlands accent myself, I'm not comfortable with the idea of "a strong Midlands accent" being synonymous with "bad acting". There's a school of thought which seems to maintain that having an RP accent confers legitimacy on the character, whereas talking like a normal person is scoffed at. It's a pet peeve of mine. Occasional reviews will mock Devonshire Vervoids or Cockney Sontarans, as if another accent would make any more sense.

It's perfectly possible I've misunderstood what you've written, though, in which case I'll just slope off with a sheepish K-KLAK.

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5tephe 5 years, 9 months ago

Oh, nuts. I was going to post "K-KLAK!" myself.

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Steve Hogan 5 years, 9 months ago

As a kid I used to have the American edition of this book, and I must sadly report that the cover was devoid of K-KLAKing.

Good point about there being too many characters tied into Operation Golden Age. One of the problems I have with a lot of conspiracy theories is that they're too big and unweildly. It isn't clear to me how the various people in this story would've come together on this. It seems like an awkward conversation, going from talking about pollution to proposing erasing the majority of the human race from history.

And that's my other big problem: the well meaning villains are incredibly thick about how awful what they're doing is. That Yates thinks that the Doctor might potentially endorse their efforts is ridiculous. When you consider that in 2011 we've just had an extremely depressing episode that deals with the horror of wiping out one person's alternate timeline, the Operation Golden Age guys have really underdeveloped moral imaginations.

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SK 5 years, 9 months ago

Actually I found the Operation Golden Age people quite convincing (in the novel): once you've decided that the problem with the planet is overpopulation, isn't it kinder to make the excess people never have existed than to kill them all?

It's like Darius Jedburgh said: 'People who put trees and flowers before people, they're beyond reasoning with. You can never appeal to their humanity, because they don't believe in humanity, except as a form of moral pollution. '

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

John - it was more that an 11th century character is not actually going to have a 20th century regional accent. On television we accept this as one of the myriad of differences between what Doctor Who looks like and what reality looks like. But there's no reason for that difference to exist in the book, so consciously giving a character who is also explicitly said to be speaking middle English a 20th century modern English accent is a deeply incongruous detail that appears to be a sly comment about the unreality of the story.

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Steve Hogan 5 years, 9 months ago

Well, even if you don't like people very much, rolling back a million or so years of history is going to wipe out a lot of puppies and kittens too.

I think the hardest part is that Yates gets so radicalized so fast. Giant maggots are pretty awful, but sheesh. He's downright suicidal at this point.

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William Whyte 5 years, 9 months ago

Again, seemingly the entire production staff of Doctor Who fails to quite get what it is that makes conspiracy thrillers work, which is uncertainty.

As with your Inferno review, I think you underrate the grim pleasure of realising that we're all fucked.

In many ways, these books were more influential in the fan consensus about the Pertwee era than the actual episodes.

I think the Pertwee books benefited hugely from coming out during Tom Baker's era -- no matter how well you remembered the original, you couldn't help but imagine the joke lines delivered with Tom Baker's light charm rather than Pertwee's irritability. In almost every case that's a huge improvement.

The fake space ship is a clear jab at the naive and reflexive embrace of space stories

You think? I think of it more as Hulke yet again being the only person who can find a real twist on the earth-bound formula. It's a spaceship! is one of the great cliffhangers, and it's not a spaceship! is one of the great mid-episode twists. Why would Hulke be bothered about embracing space stories? He was the one who wrote two of them for Pertwee and one of the strongest advocates for doing them more.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

I probably should have been more specific. By "space stories" I did not merely mean stories set in space, but stories that were specifically about near-term advances in human spaceflight - a genre that in Doctor Who really begins with The Seeds of Death, peaked with The Ambassadors of Death, and has been in decline since. In this regard, Hulke only wrote one and a half of those - Ambassadors being the half, and Colony in Space, which was already beginning to get away from the basics of that sort of story and towards something else - being the full one. Notably, Frontier in Space is not - it's a return to a far future milieu in which space is a way of creating new and unusual settings, as opposed to a real thing that humans are working their way through.

So to my mind, the sort of space story being teased here was a brief subgenre of science fiction that provided, I think, much of the initial justification of the earthbound format ("We should refocus on realistic spaceflight anyway, look how popular it is") only to flame out along with the space race after Apollo 11. And part of what is going on here is that it's being exposed as the dead end that it turned out to be, and being used by implication as a comment on how silly the Pertwee era that was so indebted to it turned out to be.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 9 months ago

I know this is not a review blog. But your not-a-review felt strangely hollow, given that the purpose of the blog is to "track the story of Doctor Who" and that the Pertwee phase of your blog project is "a story about utopian ideology in the aftermath of the 1960s", it's as idiosyncratic as we should expect from this blog that you choose "Invasion of the Dinosaurs", a story about creating utopia, to moan about the special effects, and particularly because of hopes raised by the story title.

The full title, "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" is as misleading (though not so playful) a title as "Carnival of Monsters". The short title for part 1, "Invasion", is just a downright lie.

The effects, of course, are a disappointment - although Pertwee using a mop to fend off a pterodactyl-on-a-string is one of the defining images of his era.

And I think you are missing the picture about British politics in 1974. You've made the analogy of Carter/Reagan, but that misses the point in a big way.

In 1976 Carter was elected as president with a narrow national majority of votes, with clear Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.

In 1974, Britain twice proved itself incapable of electing a stable government. Not only were the Labour and Conservative parties virtually equal in terms of votes cast, but also third parties - the Liberals and the Welsh and Scots nationalists had a huge vote which was not reflected in seats won.

The previous five years had seen violence and the suspension of elected government in Northern Ireland. Martial law? "Looters will be shot"? There was a real possibility that the United Kingdom might break up, a not unfounded fear that civil government in Great Britain might cease to function; and some unrealistic scaremongering about the possibility of a military coup.

In short, many people wanted to turn back the clock and go back to the days before Britain was ruined by "moral degradation, permissiveness, usury, cheating, lying and cruelty".

And, in passing, the Spaceship-in-the-basement is a fantastic idea, and handled very well. You liked it in "Enemy of the World". Here it is again, only with an extra twist.

Would write more but it's time for my tea.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

All of this is true. But to my mind, the most glaring point about Invasion of the Dinosaurs is that the tension between all of that and what the program that actually hits TV screens under Barry Letts's tenure are irrevocably forking. Where they used to be able to be kept in a fairly stable balance, there the two aspects of the program have begun actively sniping at one another.

Yes, Hulke is writing a blistering political parable about Britain in late 1973/early 1974, he's spot on, and he's thinking very seriously about the question of what privileging the maintenance of law and order over other concerns means for the people involved.

But equally crucially, Letts is slapping together a "last hurrah of UNIT" story and figuring that he can get viewers via dinosaurs. And the two modes of production are becoming openly antagonistic.

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John Callaghan 5 years, 9 months ago

Philip - amusingly, I have a 20th century Midlands accent, but I'm actually from the Middle Ages.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 9 months ago

But really, who isn't.

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harbqll 5 years, 8 months ago

To echo William Whyte's comment, above - I also read the American novelization as in kid, in 1979 or so, long before I ever actually saw the episode. But my version *explicitly stated* this was a 4th Doctor adventure, so I just assumed this was an early Tom Baker story that I missed somewhere along the way.

After having read the book multiple times growing up, with #4 in the starring role, you can imagine how jarring it was when I finally saw it in the late 80's, with Pertwee in the lead.

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breyerii 5 years, 5 months ago

We have a character named Whitaker. In one scene he's having a broken glass be made whole again. And other things I noticed as I was watching it.

I thought at the very least it was a shout out, but apparently I was seeing things, because no one so much as mentioned it...

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orfeo 3 years ago

The reason everyone in the story is in on the conspiracy is because the 8 million people who weren't in on the conspiracy have been evacuated from London. Whether you like the resulting structure or not, the script does at least account for it. The conspirators ensured that they would be in charge of responding to an emergency, and then created the emergency.

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Henry R. Kujawa 2 years, 8 months ago

Strange but true: this was my 1st Pertwee-Sladen story.... because I read the novel, way back when only Tom Baker's 1st 4 seasons had made it to America. And about 5 years before the story itself turned up on PBS.

All these years, I've put up with parts 2-6, and to this day still don't have part 1 in my collection.

But LAST WEEK, I finally watched part 1 online. What a strange sensation, to be watching what was, for me, a "brand new" Sarah Jane Smith story!

And Pertwee was so DELIGHTFUL in it! He reminded me even more of Troughton in that episode than he did in "SPEARHEAD". I like him so much better once he was able to use the TARDIS again. And of course, since getting that back, he seems better at it than we EVER saw him before. Witness his absolute on-target jaunt to 12th century England, within sight of the castle. (Of course, he had a tracking device to help set the coordinates.) Presumably, he had the coordinates for the return trip programmed in beforehand, which explains how he was able to get back... even if he appears to have deliberately missed the research center.

I couldn't help but think, though, the Aurora "Monster Scenes" model kits would have looked more convincing than the critters they used in this story.

And wouldn't it have been as better twist to learn that General Finch WASN'T one of the bad guys? He's such a bastard to begin with. It hit me that John Bennett's character in "THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD" got KILLED by Jon Pertwee's character. That film had so many "WHO" connections.

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Ross 1 year ago

I think the story works reasonably well as conspiracy thriller, but who are the conspirators supposed to be exactly? Enviromental extremists or the mad fringe of the Conservative Party and their mates in the army? The latter were probably a more genuine threat in 1974. Maybe Hulke, a member of the Communist Party, was trying to suggest that both were backward looking.

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