The Invasion of TimeBookmark and Share

Monday, 14 July 2003 - Reviewed by Alex Wilcock

“At last, the future of Gallifrey is assured.”

I have a confession to make. The Deadly Assassin has been my favourite story from the moment it was broadcast, and when I was younger, the Sontarans were my favourite monsters. I thought The Invasion of Time was fantastic, and played the big gun battles at school. I’d been waiting for such a long time for a decent copy on tape, and was terribly excited when they finally released it. 

Hurrah…?

Watching it recently episode by episode, I realised the gulf from how I loved it as a kid to it scraping about five out of ten for me now. It seems to have suddenly fallen in my Who story ‘likes’ from about number 50 to, ooh, past number 100. Why? The story is much more traditional than The Deadly Assassin, and blatantly trying both to pull back from it and to be an epic to outmatch it. It ends up as a glittery and hollow pile of padding which doesn't have the force to carry off the 'Doctor turning bad' plot with which it begins, alternately entertaining and infuriating, then at the end dull – except for the Doctor *really* turning bad in a lazy way they don’t even notice. In short, it suffers from the curse of the sequel, and helps make Gallifrey dull for ever after.

OK, so that’s the short review. Now come with me, and I’ll take you through each episode, the highs and the lows, and spoilers abound… To start with the context, Season 15 is perhaps the most disappointing year Doctor Who ever produced, with nosediving production values not yet being salvaged by the Williams wit finding its feet. Almost every story ends with something being blown up; almost every set and costume looks cheap. You might call it ‘Boom and Bust’, or ‘The Year They Got Lazy’. There are worse seasons, certainly, but never have expectations built up by steadily rising standards of brilliance over the preceding three years been so cruelly dashed. Scripts and acting are falling back into familiar, obvious patterns; Leela is going downhill faster than any other companion. It just looks so flat, so dull, so slipshod – and Tom has gone off the rails in a way that he will avoid for most of the following, far superior year. 

Unfortunately, in many more ways than being the climax of the steadily increasing mentions of the Time Lords in every story, The Invasion of Time is an appropriate summation of Season 15. From the beginning of episode One, you can see the problems. K9 has now settled into his forever-after mix of C3PO and R2D2 (bitchy pedant meets cute little robot), with a big gun added on, and the Doctor is now relying on him to shoot things altogether too much. Added to this laziness, he gains every fan’s undying hatred when he demands the TARDIS speak, then retorts, “You are a very stupid machine.” Die, tin can, die! ;-)

The Vardans start well, with cool high-backed chairs and froody multi-squared computer screens. Unusually, it’s very clear that a fair while has gone by between Underworld and this story, for the Doctor to have laid all his Vardan plans. Oh, and for Leela to have got herself a giant frog to play with in the exploitation shots in the pool. Landing on Gallifrey is an immense relief – for the first time in the entire season, we have a set that looks grand and impressive, the more so when the Panopticon has clearly been redesigned (a bit) rather than broken out of storage. The ghastly plastic floor level blue and green chairs are a let-down, but generally it’s interesting and believable again.

Tom Baker is arrestingly abrupt as the Doctor declares himself – and rather worryingly, Andred immediately sides with him and starts ordering around the most senior Time Lords at gunpoint! I mean, it seems a rather gun-ready society, doesn’t it? Shame that Borusa’s best comeback line now is “Then let him rot in a black star,” or trying to lock him up – John Arnatt gives a great performance to disguise it, but, really, Borusa’s character is already suffering from poorer scripting and much poorer lines.

The ceremony at the end isn’t badly done, but suffers from having far fewer Time Lords milling around than last time… At least Borusa doesn’t put on his frock until it’s playtime, even if he does then utter the grisly error “Their *elected* President.” Call me a Deadly Assassin pedant, but the whole point of that story is that Goth, who would blatantly have won an election, wasn’t going to get the job because the President makes the choice instead of a popular vote – hence the need for a *deadly assassin* to trigger the unprecedented step of an election. Sigh. With this, the ‘Rod’ blatantly being the ‘Great Key’ from last time, albeit presented on a hideous inflatable cushion, the Supreme Council rather than the High Council, and the Great Key business with the Chancellor’s secret (so why did everyone think Goth would be President, if it’s an alternate career summit and they can’t become President? Admittedly, the ‘balance of power’ is quite nice, and perhaps the Matrix wipes the knowledge from Chancellors-turned-President, but couldn’t they write it down?) you wonder if only the designers watched Assassin, and the authors didn’t listen at all. Still, episode one has considerable style, and blessed relief in the production values department. Gomer and Savar even have a nice bit of banter in much the same way as the two old coves in the Assassin dressing room.

Part Two is much less interesting, and with so much padding on view, it’s clear that this story has nothing like the ideas of Assassin. Rather entertainingly, a very similar cliffhanger (white-clad President collapses on Panopticon dais) is followed by a similar resolution, with guards milling around and escorting the Doctor away, though this time it’s the cruder Borusa who’s trying to have him locked up, while the clever one complained about the crude Chancellor. Mind you, it’s still just about working as a character piece for the Doctor, and Tom is still remembering to act just enough to pull it off. It’s a nice touch that Leela is ordered to the enquiry by Borusa – having failed with the Doctor, he’s still looking for public scapegoats, and the alien’s a prime target (though he blatantly knows she didn’t do it, having switched his story from “The Matrix rejects the candidate!” to “She attacked him”). 

When the Doctor comes round and startles us by turning on Leela, the story is still firing on all cylinders (which is more than the guards’ stasers do. Half the time they have no effect at all, but occasionally they have a white ‘diamond’, as last time. It’s, er, almost as if they did it in a hurry and didn’t finish putting all the effects). However, the lead is already becoming erratic. “This is rather more than a student prank,” says Borusa, calling our attention to Tom’s increasingly studenty performance of late. He ranges from the sudden roars (“Get out! Get out! Get out!” he cries near the end) to the hammy overplayed scene where he’s trying to find Borusa’s voice print, and he’s no longer entirely convincing. The episode ending has a considerable power, though, despite the Vardans already looking like a bit of scrunched-up plastic…

Episode Three is full of political intrigue and the threat of the Vardans – but unfortunately it doesn’t come off. Kelner is too silly, Andred is too callow, and the Vardans simply don’t work. They move very badly and are too blatant a matte, even ignoring their unspectacular appearance. Kelner plots with his pet guard to take over as President *later*, but protect the Doctor until then; so when did the Castellan bump up, illegally and unratified by a president, to become a High – er, Supreme – Councillor? And a really high-ranking one at that? While Kelner plots risibly, last week’s instant fascist Andred now goes for instant, insipid resistance, and unfortunately enthuses no-one. 

Leela deciding to banish herself because the Doctor wanted her banished, and he always has a plan, is rather a nice touch – the faithless one from her first story has found a faith she can believe in. At least she’s given a bit more to do than her comedy part in the last episode, where lines like the stage-whispered “I’m with him,” or the ‘posh’ echo “One does,” made it almost impossible to believe she’s not an average Twentieth Century woman. “I can survive anywhere,” she declares, and runs smack into Nesbin and the Outsiders, a last chance for her character to reassert itself.

Meanwhile, Tom gets very smug (K9 suggested lots of people call him that an episode ago – but this is the first time he’s really looked it) when Borusa learns from him. For this alone, you could forgive Andred for planning his assassination, but as for appointing Kelner ‘acting Vice President’ (since when did the Time Lords have them? It’s a different structure entirely, surely, with the Chancellor as deputy)… Borusa is locked up (for the next episode!) after rather a great scene where he faces down the Vardans and is zapped by one. Again, you’re almost persuaded that this story could be great. Unfortunately, Andred’s assassination plot is a bit crap. His plotters are unconvincing, and seem more human than Time Lord - Gomer is an old Time Lord (claiming his 10th regeneration makes him less vigorous), played by an old man; Andred’s callow youths are played by young men. Old actors playing ‘young’ Time Lords would have shown more thought. Then Andred’s rallying cry of ‘In the name of liberty and honour’ is just so limply delivered that you want to scream.

Into the fourth episode, and as with all undramatic ‘Doctor about to be shot’ cliffhangers, we’re amazed that, um, he isn’t. The excuse this time is especially weedy - the Doctor has apparently set up K9’s Earth blaster so it fires inside TARDISes, while Gallifreyan stasers don’t. Convinced? The Doctor has some relatively good barbs to Andred about his ineffectual palace revolution (“What can you pull off?” indeed), but it’s getting more and more stretched, and constant balancing acts of Gallifrey’s ‘crown jewels’ on K9 were probably funny in the studio. Andred using a calculator so K9 can show off and do the sums faster looks, ah, rather dated now. And probably then.

On the other hand, the Vardans have a much better episode, even though they suddenly laugh unconvincingly and tell Kelner they’ve suspected the Doctor all along (just as their voiceovers at the beginning – er – disprove). The life-size Vardan talking to Kelner, with a minimum of movement, doesn’t look too bad – and the one sitting at Kelner’s chair is mildly entertaining. Of course, once they appear in their little soldier suits, they make the cardinal dramatic error of having the leader being by far the smallest and slightest of the three, and not much of an actor to boot, which rather undermines his authority as he stands there shouting. As the Doctor observes, “Disappointing, aren’t they?” At least one of the others is fairly cute…

The Doctor enters the Matrix to get some ideas on dismantling the Quantum Forcefield (doesn’t sound as cool as the Transduction Barriers, so we never hear of that again from anyone, huh?). He gets some nice shots on location with lots of mechanics and a Vardan, which is different padding from usual. The Outsiders run through the sandpit several times to build up tension for their approach, rather less successfully. Oh well, Leela had fun hamming it up with her target practice before her band of six go off to conquer New York (at least, we assume it’s a city of similar density, and a similarly implausible idea). Shame that she just gets to be the butt of the stupid “What does proficient mean?” joke instead, and that K9 is also reduced to ‘nodding dog’ comic relief. At this point, the episode seems to have been a bit of a letdown, without even an appearance from Borusa to cheer it.

But then there’s the gorgeously blobby electronic music underscoring *that* cliffhanger…

Yes, Episode Five starts with fantastic oomph, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it keeps moves along at a fair old lick, largely helped by the mix of waspish Chancellor Borusa and some cool fx gunfights for the kids. Yes, it’s more running around, but it’s less tedious with it. Borusa is certainly a big pull this time, talking to himself as he listens to the Doctor, then forming a great double act that pulls some acting out of Tom (and even Tom’s ‘alliteration’ quip to Stor is done with his old grimness). His placing of the Great Key *not* in a forest of them, but in his desk drawer, is fabulous – even if the whole Chancellor / Key thing is a bit silly. For some reason never specified we get the idea that the Sontarans cannot ‘conquer time’ “Not while I -“ – er, why? What does the Chancellor do with the Key that would stop them? And if it’s not been used for 10 million years…? At least we don’t get Terrance Dicks’ ‘a lesser Key was stolen by the Master’ line (yeah, right, like the Eye of Harmony’s not important). Perhaps the Chancellor must use it to ‘switch all the TARDISes on’ as part of his duties, but it’s not something the script bothers to justify.

OK, Stor’s asthmatic East End sound is a bit peculiar, and the eye-holes don’t look vacuum-safe, but the Sontarans are generally fairly effective (still constantly helmeted so far; strange we didn’t get that as the cliffhanger!). They also have three fingers again - and their gun effects, with blast fields shifting and wobbling around, definitely look much better than K9’s thin red line (which at one stage shoots a Sontarans in the groin, only to see it carry on. It’s difficult not to jump to the conclusion that they have no nadgers). Is this the first ‘K9’s magic blaster has no effect’ scene? Kelner oils over the Sontarans to a ludicrous extent immediately, but when required to do some technical work (largely on film!) for the Sontarans, suddenly becomes more confidently evil and an impressive expert, rather than a weaselly cipher. He says that taking over the defence systems is only possible using the TARDIS – “and the Doctor’s capsule is the only one operational,” oddly (unless the Great Key has switched them all off). Still, Part Five has been something of a success.

Oh dear.

In Episode Six, the wheels come off so fast they fly out of the screen at you.

Like Episode Five, this involves lots of running around and blatant padding, but it stands much less well as an episode on its own, and ends up even worse as a climax. The plot doesn’t have enough to go on for a third of the time, and it makes very little use of what there is. For a start, Part Five was largely enlivened by the Chancellor, but this time it’s ten minutes in before Borusa appears, and he has precious little screen time. Other characters fare worse. Leela is roundly humiliated. It’s really only the last couple of stories that her character has really collapsed, but collapsed it suddenly has. It starts with the “You got lost” / “How do you know?” comedy routine, then her kissing K9 (demob happy), and closes with her staying with Captain Dull of the Guard. Strewth. Kelner is back to cipher again, claiming “I’m not an engineer, sir,” which is a blatant lie considering his accomplishments in these last two episodes, and poor Rodan spends most of her time hypnotised!

The TARDIS interiors must be greeted with some sympathy, given their unfortunate background in industrial disputes, and don’t seem that bad, though occasionally poor (you sort of get used to it). Showing a ‘brick and pipes’ corridor leading straight out of the console room is a good touch, and the lounger area where Borusa relaxes with news of the Titanic and a blue drink through a curly straw with the potplants and giant roundels on the wall works surprisingly well. Going round and round the same large area is very tedious, however, as is Tom constantly ‘stumbling’ on the same point of the ramp in the corridor approaching it – and the jumps between film and video are very obvious. “I’m a Time Lord, not a painter and decorator,” cries the Doctor, “I’m preoccupied with Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen.” When Tom acts up, we know the script is falling down. At least the ancillary power station is quite pretty.

I feel obliged to note that Stor has his trooper drag in a large gun-like beamer to burn through the blocking bar across the TARDIS internal door… And, wouldn’t you know? It works! It seems Gallifreyans are the only race in the universe who can’t build guns that fire inside their own ships. Stor has much bigger vacuum-unsafe eye holes – all the better to fail to convince you with – and mostly just stalks up and down brick corridors, glowering, taking his helmet off and putting it back on again for want of anything else to do. 

Again, Borusa is cool and entertaining, and manages good acting even in scenes like the ‘Doctor’s lost his memory’ one, with a slight smile, but there’s too little of him to disguise the paucity of everything else. How does he instantly recognise the Demat Gun (or even know to look for it)? It’s just a great big gun! The ultimate weapon (again), eh? “I could rule the Universe with this gun, Chancellor.” Oh, please. “It’ll throw us back to the darkest age,” cries Borusa, desperately trying to make us believe. Some have theorised that, as it’s powered by the Great Key, it’s either a Time Destructor or it erases your timeline (which erases the Doctor’s memory, but people in the TARDIS are shielded from changes in reality). Unfortunately, nothing we see on screen gives us more than ‘It’s a bigger, clumsier Ogron disintegrator.’ It’s just dull, and why on earth has he built it? It doesn’t serve a more interesting plot function than a pistol. Or a club. Or even a net. The Doctor catches up with Stor awfully quickly, then Stor threatens to explode a grenade (very slowly) – “You’ll destroy this entire galaxy,” pleads the Doctor. Er, why? How? Yes, I know a fan might work it out that it's because he's stood on top of the Eye of Harmony, but for 'average' viewers, that was explained briefly 18 months ago! It’s a very confused, very rushed (inexcusable after all the padding) and very poor conclusion. It’s rather sad that the whole thing is, again, resolved by the Doctor and a big gun. Particularly a big gun whose rather nice whiteout effect has no explanation behind it, and which the Doctor has – uniquely for the series so far – designed and planned with lots of alternative equipment to hand, rather than just finding or cobbling together in desperation.

So, by the end of it, the Doctor has built the (albeit unconvincing) ultimate weapon. And he uses it, unhesitatingly. And he doesn’t even resist the temptation not to *keep* using it – that decision is made for him by a handy deus ex machina. Do we ever see the Doctor more out of character until he blows up Skaro? In retrospect, we can perhaps see the whole plot and resolution of the Key to Time as a remake of The Invasion of Time, but getting it right. Yes, the wheels still fall off a bit in the last two stories, but at least the Doctor is recognisably Doctorish and not Rambo at the end!

The Doctor, of course, then handily loses his memory. So how did he know which TARDIS room to look for his friends in? Oh, and we’re to presume that, when Borusa took the Sash off the Doctor and the Doctor let him, that was the Doctor’s resignation as President, too! At least Arnatt is good enough for us to infer Borusa’s wiles when the script fails to fill them in. Incidentally, although the Doctor may have had his own memory wiped, Rodan built the key under unconscious hypnosis and instruction from… K9. So, the dog knows how to build one! And it’s staying with Borusa. Hmm… Then all we’re left with is the worst exit for a companion since Dodo.

So, in the end, The Invasion of Time is a disappointment. There are much worse stories, but most of those have much less promise to go so wrong. I’ve really got back into watching Who stories episodically again rather than all in a lump, but cutting up some stories episode by episode (as they were intended to be watched but with the deadly ability to dwell on the dodgy bits) is clearly a killer. Worse, it’s the end that lets it down most badly, as the Doctor’s behaviour is actually more worrying than at the beginning, but it hasn’t occurred to the production team that he’s other than ‘heroic’. I liked big guns and this story when I was six. It’s difficult to be as enthusiastic about them these days, when I’m not convinced either make very good Doctor Who.