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.