In the Year 5000, This Was Cutting Edge (The Invisible Enemy)
It’s October 1, 1977. The late Elvis Presley remains at number one with “Way Down.” One week later he is unseated by David Soul with “Silver Lady,” which holds number one for the remaining three weeks. Yes, Rod Stewart, The Stranglers, and Meco also chart, the latter with a recording of the Star Wars theme, although that movie won’t premiere in the UK for another two months.
In real news, four Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa flight to Somalia to demand the release of members of the Red Army Faction. Five days later an unusually large number of Red Army Faction members commit suicide in prison in a manner that is not in the least bit suspicious and does not lead anyone to conclude that they were actually murdered. Pele retires from professional soccer, Queen Elizabeth II opens the Canadian Parliament, Anita Bryant is hit in the face with a pie by gay rights activists, and the Atari 2600 is released.
While on television we have The Invisible Enemy. There are some stories that nobody, ever, has identified as their favorite Doctor Who story, and The Invisible Enemy is a prime example of that species. It would be nice to insert a sentence beginning “It’s not that the story is bad, but” at this point, but there’s a major barrier to that – the story is bad. It’s bad in a way Doctor Who hasn’t really been in a long time. Really it hasn’t been since The Time Monster that we’ve had a story was bad in this specific fashion. Most of the same ingredients, in fact, are on display: a script from writers known to have some specific and severe weaknesses, a particularly egregious set of failures on the part of the design departments, and a handful of acting performances that make you wish they were merely forgettable.
But because the series has kept the basic quality level so high for so long – only The Monster of Peladon and The Android Invasion have really been full-out turkeys over the five seasons between The Time Monster and this – there’s something jarring about hitting The Invisible Enemy. Part of it is, perhaps, the fan’s knowledge that, far from being the freakish anomaly it appears to be when you reach it chronologically, this is the first of many stories over the next few years that are turkeys like this. 60% of the bottom ten stories and about 50% of the bottom quarter of stories in the Doctor Who Magazine Mihty 200 poll come from the Williams or Nathan-Turner eras of the classic series, whereas only eight of the top quarter do. Apres Croc Roches, le deluge. (Assuming Google Translate didn’t just screw me.) But more of it, I think, is just the sheer size of the gulf in quality between this and Talons of Weng-Chiang, which was the story made before it, or, for that matter, between this and Horror of Fang Rock. It’s difficult to believe that it’s the same people making it.
Which, of course, they aren’t. But there’s a risky slippage that goes on here. Yes, this is the first bad story of the Graham Williams era. But it’s also, in production era, the first story of the Graham Williams era outright. As tempting as it is to look at this story as characteristic of the entire era’s supposed faults, we ought be careful simply because it is profoundly unlikely that its flaws are explicable in terms of the general faults of the new regime.
Because let’s be fair – for the most part, this is still the old regime. The cast is the same, Holmes is still in place, Baker and Martin are old pros of writers. Only Graham Williams is actually new blood, and having just inherited the job, it’s not like he’s had time to put his stamp on the program yet. In fact, most of this story comes off as standard “safe pair of hands” sort of story. Baker and Martin, at this point seven-season veterans of the program, are, along with Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes (both of whom also get scripts this season) the longest-standing writers in the pool. They’re people you hire because you expect to get a reasonably well-executed standard issue Doctor Who script. All of which makes the stark drop in quality between this story and the previous one even harder to explain.
The only area one can point at and say “there is a predictable and understandable decline in quality” are the effects. There is a cheap shoddiness to The Invisible Enemy that just wasn’t really seen in the Hinchcliffe era. Sure, the Hinchcliffe era had its howlers of bad effects – the Skarasen or the giant rat, for instance. But both of those were lone howlers in the middle of stories that for the most part were quite visually distinctive. Terror of the Zygons had the fantastic Zygon designs, for instance, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang had the fantastic everything-that-wasn’t-a-giant-rat. The Hinchcliffe era did a masterful job of believing its bubble wrap, with only a handful of big slip-ups.
This cannot be said of this story. Most of its design work is merely utterly dull – a grotesque expanse of generic white corridors. A few are downright wretched, though it seems churlish to complain too much about the bad CSO work in this story when Underworld looms on the horizon. And then there’s the giant sex pervert shrimp, about which, having described it thusly, I honestly can’t think of anything else to say regarding. The only piece of design that’s even remotely decent in this story is K-9, and even there they had to amortize the cost out across the entire season by making him a regular (on the advise of John Nathan-Turner, according to About Time, or Williams and Holmes, according to Shannon O’Sullivan), and they still had to replace the prop at the end of the season because of how poorly it worked.
There are two big reasons for this downturn in quality. The first is that Hinchcliffe, upon being sacked, directed the designers on the show not to worry about the budgets in the final two stories of his tenure. This resulted in punitive budget cuts for Season Fifteen. But even ignoring that, the UK was in the midst of an economic disaster and staring down massive inflation. We more or less bypassed the moment in September of 1976 when the UK had to take out a loan from the IMF, mostly because I missed it on the list of events I was looking at to write the relevant entry, but it happened, and gives a pretty good idea of how rough things were. Accordingly, there was just plain less money, and the money there is was worth less than it had been a year earlier. And in a lot of ways this is just the point where Doctor Who, after fourteen years of beating the odds, finally succumbs to the inevitable and starts missing more often than it hits on design.
But even there, most of The Invisible Enemy’s design work is just unimpressive as opposed to overtly bad. And we’re watching the show nearly 35 years after it was produced. Frankly, to a modern viewer all of Doctor Who looks cheap. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to identify the stories that look cheaper than all the others, but bad effects just aren’t as visible a problem watching these episodes now. Sure, The Invisible Enemy marked a sharp decline in the effects quality, and that was visible at the time, but whatever renders this story such a massive turkey is something more enduringly bad.
There is, of course, also the matter of Baker and Martin. Most Doctor Who writers decline eventually, as we’ve said before, and Baker and Martin are in the latter half of their time on the show – they have eight credits to their names, plus a ninth for Baker on his own, and this is their sixth story. On top of that, they’ve always been a pair of writers with known problems. They are a classic case, in fact, of writers whose biggest strength and biggest weakness are identical. The major advantage they bring to the table is that they are replete with ideas. The major disadvantage is that this makes them more likely to simply come up with a new idea instead of exploring the ones they have adequately.
And here they’re thrown into a situation that is almost a perfect storm of things that are not good for them. In the midst of the fallout from the bewildering “taking Mary Whitehouse seriously” debacle, Williams was instructed to dial back on the scariness of the show and to get it to be family entertainment again. Never mind that this profoundly misunderstands the nature of the Hinchcliffe era (which was, in fact, more perfectly child-targeted than any other era of the classic series save perhaps Season Five), this is the exact wrong brief to give to Baker and Martin.
I mean, it’s an easy enough mistake to make. A tour of their previous five scripts reveals little fondness for the overt horror or violence that the BBC was trying to move away from with the program and a reasonable number of kid-friendly concepts. In terms of making Doctor Who that wasn’t going to look much like The Deadly Assassin they were unquestionably safe bets. The problem is that the absolute last thing Baker and Martin should be told is to keep things kid-friendly. They’re already prone to skip out on complex exploration of a concept in favor of moving on to another idea. When told to write to children they become unbearable.
Which also captures the basic problem with The Invisible Enemy – a problem that, crucially, it doesn’t share with large swaths of the Williams era. There is a school of thought that says that the biggest problem with the Williams era is that there are too many jokes in it. The new series should have put a final nail in the casket of the idea that humor comes at the expense of other elements (as Moffat himself has pointed out, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances may be one of the scariest stories of the new series, but every other line in it is a joke), but watching The Invisible Enemy at least gives a pretty good understanding of what their point is.
The problem, though, isn’t the excess of jokes so much as the dearth of actual humor. Jokes about whether K-9 is TARDIS trained, Marius being played as a comedy German, and all of the Fantastic Voyage-style jokes were, for lack of a better word, juvenile. It’s the basest sort of humor imaginable – the story goes out on a poop joke, for God’s sake. Simply put, the jokes in this episode are the sorts of jokes you write for eight year olds that you don’t expect to get anything other than the broadest of humor.
This, however, is characteristic of the rest of The Invisible Enemy. Baker and Martin have ideas here that are wholly consistent with the Hinchcliffe era, but they do absolutely nothing with them. The virus that serves as the enemy in this story is a great idea – a virus that preys on thoughts and seems to literally be an idea. Except then, when it comes time for the fourth episode, they turn it into a giant shrimp and have it be susceptible to basic explosions. The idea is actually almost identical to that of the Weeping Angels in The Time of Angels – a possession-based creature that attacks you by looking at you and slowly takes you over from inside your mind. But they do nothing with it.
Similarly bad is the idea of sending clones of the Doctor and Leela into the Doctor’s body to chase out the nucleus. On paper it’s a brilliant idea – short-lived clones with all the personalities and memories of the original? You could write an entire 90 minutes about the ethical implications of that. Or you could ignore them entirely, have the clones conveniently drop dead, and do nothing with the idea besides use it to join up episode two with episode four. It’s not only pathetic, it’s offensively so – a case of the show seemingly assuming that nobody watching cares enough to want to see the ideas worked through.
But as much of a problem as this is – and in terms of this story it’s a huge problem that accounts for most of why the story doesn’t work – it’s not exactly an error that’s hard to understand. Past their prime writers working panickedly to new standards, under a new producer, and trying not to offend anybody were never going to work out for Doctor Who. Expecting better than this for the first story out of the gate for anyone picking up after the Mary Whitehouse debacle would have been a stretch. I’d speculate that things would improve, but in fact we know they did – the next story made was Fang Rock, which was superlative. Even when the series next goes off the rails – and it does so alarmingly soon – it makes a different set of mistakes than this. Far from being a harbinger of bad things to come, this is a one-off misfire that sprung from a particularly ill-advised pairing of writer and brief.
All of which said, it’s not as though there aren’t larger issues in play as well. The faults of this story are understandable as an idiosyncratic mess. But this is one of three stories this season with production faults that can be described as “cataclysmic” without particular exaggeration beyond the idea that the low quality of a 1970s sci-fi show can ever qualify as a cataclysm. The mistakes of this story are unique to this story. But the climate that led to them, namely a show that is more interested in making sure nobody yells at it than it is in being good, is a larger problem.
December 1, 2011 @ 1:49 am
"Simply put, the jokes in this episode are the sorts of jokes you write for eight year olds that you don't expect to get anything other than the broadest of humor."
There's much truth in this: I watched this on it's first BBC transmission at that age, and thought it superb. From an eight year olds perspective, the story works brilliantly precisely because it is a succession of great ideas. And an eight year old probably has the length of patience identical to the length of time each of those idea are explored in. In that respect Baker and Martin succeed admirably with their brief.
I will agree that the story fails to live up to my childhood memories (whereas Horror of Fang Rock does). And that is because of the flaws in design and acting. But even this can be explained by an event from the Curse of the Williams Era you left out: this was another victim of the cancellation of The Witch Lords, and was sped up in pre-production because it was the only script in any form close to being filmable after Dick's original story was cancelled.
Not that I imagine that would have changed much, though.
And K9 is fantastic: a sarcastic robotic dog. Whereas other sci-fi would have gone for cute, K9 went for something far more amusing. And benefitted accordingly, as K9 joined the rather short list of "things people always think of when Doctor Who is mentioned (along with Police Box; Bigger On The Inside; Dalek; Very Long Scarf and Sarah Jane). Indeed, for the original run, it was the last thing to join that list. Well, at least in a positive way. From here on out, the list becomes that of negatives directed toward the show, beginning with Wobbly Sets, and coming to it's peak in a few years with the sixth Doctor's "Clown Suit."
Enjoyable entry as ever.
December 1, 2011 @ 2:14 am
One of the things that struck me about this story is that the spacecraft model work is surprisingly good, and the first episode does promise some pretty good quality space-opera action. Pity it's all downhill from there.
December 1, 2011 @ 5:31 am
This is a key story for me, for a rather sad reason: it's the story after which I stopped watching Doctor Who regularly. Technically it's the second story to fit that description, since Fury from the Deep scared me so much I missed the rest of the Troughton era; but that was only a bit over a year. This time, while I casually watched the odd episode afterwards, I didn't eagerly sit down to watch it until the McGann movie, and then not again until The Christmas Invasion (we didn't have a TV in our house in 2005 so I missed the Eccleston series, which I probably would have watched otherwise).
Seeing The Invisible Enemy again as an adult I was sort of relieved to see that it actually was that bad. As a 14-year-old with an unpredictable, sick parent I was struggling with TV and movie SF at the time – I had no interest in Star Wars either – and it was only the quality of the stories leading up to this that had kept me watching Who. I was unaware of the reasons for what happened with this story (in fact, I've just learned some of them from your well-written entry) and was in any case unwilling to cut the production team any slack.
From now on, almost all of your entries will be about stories I've only seen as a fortysomething adult, or not seen at all. And that saddens me.
But I'll continue to enjoy the blog anyway…
December 1, 2011 @ 9:09 am
Titan Base is an impressive piece of modelwork for the period and a lot of thought went into the phonetic signage. But as a 14 year old, I thought Dr. Who was getting silly and twee. I didn't think it recovered until it was all Block Transfer Computation and Bidmead. (Now of course I love City of Death and Horms of Nimon, etc.)
December 1, 2011 @ 9:32 am
Contra elvwood, this was actually the first Doctor Who story I ever saw, on the Chicago PBS affiliate back in July 1981, and it hooked me as thoroughly as something could. I just rewatched it the other day, and yes, it's not what you would call good, but I still had fun with it, because it's just so crazy: the way the virus transmission was shown on-screen, the miniaturized clones, the talking robot dog, all of it. I was 12 at the time, and what 12 year old doesn't like things that are crazy? I wonder what might have happened had a tuned in one week earlier and seen Fang Rock as my first episode?
December 1, 2011 @ 10:06 am
as Moffat himself has pointed out, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances may be one of the scariest stories of the new series, but every other line in it is a joke
I can remember being surprised, in the RTD era, when I started hearing those descriptions of Moffat as a "master of horror." I mean, obviously he is a master of horror, but I tended to think of him as the master of funny dialogue and clever plots.
December 1, 2011 @ 11:36 am
For the first time in a number of stories, philip has written a blog post that I can't disagree with on any level. He singles out Baker and Martin for exactly all the right reasons. I saw this when I was about 15 and thought that it was complete shit then, and I still do now. I knew when i was being fed stories that didn't make even the least amount of sense.
So making K9 a long term companion was the fault of JNT? Perfect, yet another in a long list of things that i can blame him for. gack.
Moffat understand, as all the best horror movie writers, that you leaven the horror with humor and you control the level of tension within the episode. That is why the best horror has always treaded closely to being so OTT.
December 1, 2011 @ 11:39 am
In Don Siegel's autobiography, he complains that the studio chiefs stripped the humor out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They argued that humor didn't belong in a horror movie. He concluded that they were pod people.
December 1, 2011 @ 9:07 pm
I have a sneaking affection for this, which even seeing it at older than 9 can't entirely squash. Without claiming it's good, let me have a shot at listing the things that are good about it:
* Michael Sheard
* Michael Sheard getting possessed in the first episode as a sign that things are serious.
* The Doctor getting possessed! This is the first time anything has actually got to the Doctor since the Hartnell years, and more extreme than anything there. The episode 1 cliffhanger in particular is a doozy. In an ideal world this would be Leela's chance to fully shine, instead she gets duped into taking Michael Sheard to Space Holby City.
* Pitched battles in corridors with laser beams! We haven't seen those in a long time — Planet of Evil had an army of humanoid monsters but they didn't shoot, so the last pitched battle in a corridor was when? Monster of Peladon?
* The atmosphere on Titan base before the infected crew arrive.
* … and all the other stuff they could have made more of but, as you note, didn't.
I have a hard time thinking of this as bad, rather than simply not as good as it should be, right up until episode 3. And even in episode 4 the film work on the hatching tanks is effective.
However, I grant all your criticisms: it's jolly rather than funny, it throws away its best ideas (imagine what the new series would do with a short-lived clone of the Doctor… oh, they'd marry it off to Rose or dissolve it), the design isn't great (though it's the first time we've seen white corridors since Revenge of the Cybermen, so it seems unoriginal more in the context of what comes after than in the context of what went before).
At the same time… one of the best essays in About Time is Does Plot Matter? from volume 2. What is Doctor Who for? Is it important that it rigorously explores ideas, or is the plot a way of getting from one "bit" to another? And this story has lots of great bits, nicely placed at the beginnings and ends of episodes, and a noticeable structural similarity to The Deadly Assassin (part 1 cliffhanger = Doctor with a Gun, part 2 cliffhanger = descent into an entirely different environment); really, I think the big problem with this story, as has been illustrated by a lot of the comments above, is that it's a tremendously successful unthreatening children's story but it's not the same show as last season. It would have fitted in nicely in the after-Newsround slot on a Wednesday or Friday afternoon (out of Crackerjack season of course).
December 1, 2011 @ 9:09 pm
PS: technically, I believe it goes out on a pee joke rather than a poop joke. As the father of a five-year-old I can assure you this is an important difference. Pee jokes are relatively classy.
December 2, 2011 @ 12:26 am
"Invisible Enemy" is desperately disjointed. It's almost more like "The Keys of Marinus" than any other Doctor Who story.
Episode one, with its infections, possessions, and cold-blooded killing, is very, very scary, if you don't know what's coming next. As a child, I was so terrified by episode one that I opted not to watch the rest of the story. Thus putting "Invisible Enemy" in the same "too frightening" bracket as "Robots of Death" and "Seeds of Doom".
December 2, 2011 @ 1:27 am
I haven't seen this story. I don't like Tom Baker: I can't stand the way his Doctor is more of a stand-up comic's persona, an exaggerated version of himself which even he doesn't commit to entirely, keeping one foot outside it so that he can grin at the audience, than an actual character — and unlike some I don't think his sheer charisma carries him through (perhaps it's because I know the actor offscreen was so horrible — I used to love Frasier but have been unable to watch it since I saw an interview with Kelsey Grammer, and that's probably my fault for not disassociating actor and character).
So I'm prepared to believe everything you say, but there is one point I would like to pick up on:
'The idea is actually almost identical to that of the Weeping Angels in The Time of Angels – a possession-based creature that attacks you by looking at you and slowly takes you over from inside your mind. But they do nothing with it.'
Thing is, neither does The Time of Angels. Well, unless you count 'being really creepy' as 'doing something', and I admit that I think Amy's countdown is one of the best bits of the new series (though not quite as good as the 'trapped in the trailer' sequence in the previous episode). But it doesn't really go anywhere. The payoff for that whole plot strand is Amy having to go through a forest of trees and angels with her eyes closed. Oh, sure, there's all those lines in the previous episode about 'our thoughts thinking for themselves', but that ultimately doesn't actually play into the story at all: the threat from the angels to everyone but Amy is stubbornly physical (they'll break your neck), while to Amy it's much creepier because it's inside her head, but we never really get a sense of what that means (what would happen if she finished her countdown? Something bad, yes, but exactly what it is is never even hinted at, that I can recall). Really, the angels — for all the mythic atmosphere surrounding them — are, ultimately, standard 'they're coming for you and they'll kill you with their claws' monsters.
(Which is not to denigrate the atmosphere — it's the best part of the story — but simply to point out that developing an idea like this kind of conceptual threat within Doctor Who is really hard and even Moffat can't manage it, really, so perhaps it's not so surprising that Baker and Martin don't try.)
And how does it get resolved? The Doctor arranges for all the Angels to get sucked into a convenient hole in the plot, thus wiping the fact that Amy was ever infected from the timeline (I think, it's unclear) (in fact, he doesn't even really 'arrange' it, he just survives long enough that it happens anyway).
The reason being that it's a really hard idea to work out how to resolve, especially within the constraints of a TV programme that has to have the character come back next week.
You can have a conceptual threat… but you always end up having to resolve it in some way that doesn't really address the conceptual issue, whether that's giving it a physical form that's vulnerable to explosions or having a timey-wimey plot device to negate its effects.
Henry R. Kujawa
April 15, 2012 @ 7:06 pm
Nice rundown on the problems.
"And an eight year old probably has the length of patience identical to the length of time each of those idea are explored in."
I was just saying earlier today that when I was a kid, I always preferred half-hour shows. Less attention-span. Hour shows always got boring!!! Notable exceptions: THE OUTER LIMITS (which was just scary as hell) LOST IN SPACE (I related to Will Robinson and wished I had a family like his), and STAR TREK (which got even better as I got older).
I developed my own crackpot theory about this. It has to do with how long it takes blood to circulate in your body, as far as how fast or slow time seems to pass to a person. Younger, shorter, smaller, faster circulation, time slows down, shorter attention span. See? Probably crazy… but what if it's not?
"another victim of the cancellation of The Witch Lords"
Thanks to the previous post, I noticed something… the way people keep being taken over, as the infection spreads, is like a latter-day vampire story. Beginning at least with COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, some vampire films had people become vampires INSTANTLY on being bitten, rather than going thru a warped parody of the Jesus thing about dying and rising from the dead on the 3rd day. Also, Dr. Marius' accent & personality is not that far removed from Frank Finlay's version of Van Helsing! the story begins and ends in a dark, dingy place (Castle Dracula?) while the middle section is at a medical facility (Dr. Seward's Sanitarium?). Coincidence? Hmm…
"K9 is fantastic: a sarcastic robotic dog."
I LOVE K-9. Crazy but true: the first "Doctor Who" convention I went to in Philly, before things really exploded, the 2 guests were Terrence Dicks and John Leeson!
"the spacecraft model work is surprisingly good"
Actual Gerry Anderson leftovers from "1999". Not bad. Until that one ship wobbles back-and-forth like in a kid's cartoon just before it crashes. (Can't be an accident. "HEY, KIDS! WATCH THIS!")
"I had no interest in Star Wars either"
Unless I'm mistaken– ah yes, October 1977– this debuted 5 MONTHS after STAR WARS opened. Sheesh. Which in some people's minds, probably made it look worse than it was.
"a noticeable structural similarity to The Deadly Assassin"
Fascinating. Hadn't noticed that before.
"Episode one, with its infections, possessions, and cold-blooded killing, is very, very scary, if you don't know what's coming next. As a child, I was so terrified by episode one that I opted not to watch the rest of the story."
Yes… which makes the look and tone of the rest of the story quite jarring, by comparison. I suppose what was needed here was a "hospital" that looked more like (dear God, dare I say it?) –"TERMINUS".
Henry R. Kujawa
April 15, 2012 @ 7:14 pm
Further… I can believe that Louise Jameson put her foot down when they did "HORROR OF FANG ROCK". Baker seemeed to treat her with a lot more respect in that. He treated her with virtually NO respect in this! In fact, he seemed, especially in part 3 (the "clone" Doctor) to be totally over-the-top when it came to rudeness. It hit me, watching it tonight– "My God– it's COLIN Baker!!" (Either that, or William Hartnell from "AN UNEARTHLY CHILD".)
There were jokes at Leela's expense all the way thru this. Like when Marius would like to figure out why she's immune… "Sorry?" "Yes, perhaps it is a matter of intelligence…" (Surprisingly, they DO find out it's something in her bloodstream– but never go into enough detail to even bother spelling out what it is.)
I almost found myself wishing she'd held onto that green jumpsuit for later "space" stories– but definitely, without the hat.
"Moffat understand, as all the best horror movie writers, that you leaven the horror with humor and you control the level of tension within the episode. That is why the best horror has always treaded closely to being so OTT."
You have no idea how GOOD this makes me feel. I recently (almost unintentionally) wrote my first novel– a horror story– and a good friend pointed out that the first 2 chapters felt like something out of Abbott & Costello or SCOOBY-DOO. I told him, I knew what terrible things were coming, and wanted it to have "balance".
July 26, 2015 @ 6:42 am
My goodness, that was really woeful. What scares me, though, as I move forward, is the claim that there is much more woe still to come in season 15…