|Sod captions! I’m just going to|
say K-KLAK! from now on!
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.