02 March 2014

TV: The Invisible Enemy

Unexpectedly, for me at least, I actually enjoyed The Invisible Enemy more than Horror of Fang Rock. I had thought the reverse would be true, by quite some margin before revisiting each for this 'Leelathon'. There are a lot of the features I'd normally say let the story down present here - white corridors, poor supporting artists, a frankly appallingly designed 'monster' - but it still holds together some how. 

I've found myself saying this a lot recently, but there's a really strong script at the heart of this story. Of the ones I've seen, Bob Baker and Dave Martin's stories have never really set me alight; in my opinion, they're a pretty average bunch (except The Sontaran Experiment, which is fantastic). This is a very imaginative script, with a highly creative concept at its core. It's quite amazing that Doctor Who hadn't done a malicious virus story before, as it seems obvious in retrospect. Although perhaps the Invisible Enemy should've stayed invisible.

The story starts quite slowly with a relief ship heading for Titan and getting caught in the haze of the Swarm, which is hanging in space. The initial shots of the ship aren't great, it has to be said. They're on the same level as the yacht from the previous story; they just exactly like models and aren't animated particularly well either. This is partially the case when it comes into contact with the Swarm. I love the flares of electricity that pulse across the ship as the crew are infected, but what I don't like is the way the ship has suddenly come to a halt. Even if they just had a rotating-drum starfield slowly turning behind it, it would look better. This is again the case when the TARDIS passes through it, although at least that's moving.

The ship arrives on Titan, to relieve three members of the crew from the refueling station, but of course the crew, lead by Brian Grellis as Safran, now serve 'the Purpose' instead and so just infect them. I was disappointed we didn't get longer in the ship, to be honest, as it's so rare to have multi-level sets. We spent a great deal of time in the Panopticon in The Deadly Assassin, and there were stairs in the various rooms of the Sandminer in The Robots of Death but it still feels fresh and exciting to have the shots from the controls down to the armchairs below. It makes me think of Planet of Evil, but it's been a while since I've seen that, so I may just be imagining the similarities. Despite the white, sterile, clinical look to this (and indeed the Bi-Al Foundation when we get there), I actually quite like it. I suspect, it's just the multi-level business. It's a shame this is only in two scenes - here and once in Part Four.

Anyway, in the TARDIS, the Doctor is infected with the Nucleus of the Swarm after commenting on how little he likes the old control room ("number two," as he puts it) that they've just moved back into. If he prefers the other one so much, why doesn't he just stay there? I know the actual reason of course, but it feels a bit odd to have him diss it (yes, that's a thing, the Eleventh Doctor said it) and then set up shop in it, even having Leela carry the hatstand in. They respond to a mayday call from Supervisor Lowe on Titan - the last survivor - but arrive half an hour after he sent it. I don't know what the point of including that particular detail was, as it just makes the Doctor look inefficient and the story slow, given that in 30 minutes nothing has happened

There's then a bit of a traditional runaround with various crewmembers getting infected, Leela wandering off and the Doctor aiming a gun at her to fill the rest of Part One. It's an oddly unengaging first episode; it doesn't really inspire the audience to come back the next week, and that's exactly what 1.3 million didn't do. 

Part Two is where this story really hits its stride, and is arguably the pinnacle of the four episodes. The pace picks up dramatically at the exact moment that the TARDIS arrives at the Bi-Al Foundation, in terms of events and what we actually see onscreen. Creeping around slowly's all well and good, but it does grow a bit tedious after a while. I think Frederick Jaeger as the frankly pretty brilliant Professor Marius should take much of the credit for the upturn in interest. Right from his first scene, he's engaging , with little mannerisms and quirks - and a tin dog. It's almost like he could be a real person!

So, to K9, probably the most famous thing about this whole story. I love the reason the Professor gives for creating K9, I can really imagine him with a nice little dog back on Earth going for country walks (or the fifty-first century equivalent). I didn't realise until The Invisible Enemy that the grey panel on K9's left side was a screen; this is the only story where it actually shows anything. He also spends most of his screen time with a bit of ticker tape sticking out his mouth, which actually makes him look quite cute. I appreciate the K9 prop was pretty cutting-edge for its time, but even so, it is so loud. It actually makes me laugh when you hear him whirring along a mile off, at about 0.4 picometres per second, and yet still manages to surprise some of the characters by 'sneaking up on them'. One of my favourite examples of this is when he's supposed to shoot Leela (whilst under the control of the Swarm) and trundles off, only to come back a second later facing the complete opposite direction, making it really obvious that some crew member has just lifted him up and turned him round to save time. And then he just rams straight into the wall! I don't know why, but that has me in hysterics every time I watch it. In fact, I even rewound it the last time. And while we're on that scene, I thought it was a shame K9 didn't say something a bit more computer-y when infected, like "communications have been established" for example.

And then the story innovates further, by having the Doctor and Leela cloned and transported into the Doctor's head. I say it like this because I was genuinely impressed by the ingenuity on the part of the writers. There's not some pseudo-science 'we can do this in the future' nonsense reason given for the miniaturisation of the Doctor and Leela. The Time Lord collects the Relative Dimensional Stabiliser from the TARDIS, which we've seen working before. This may not sound much, but I think it's brilliant. 

Once inside, they visit the brain, and then the mind. The way this is represented is beautiful, particularly the 'void' between the two sides of the Doctor's consciousness. The mind is presented as a chaotic realm with things flying around, quite a literal interpretation of the imagination. I love this, and it's an excellent idea from the production team, whether it was Baker, Martin, Goodwin, Barry Newbery (this story's designer, most famous for his TARDIS prop), Williams or Holmes. In fact, this is one of my favourite aspects of this story. Until we meet the prawn that is. I'm genuinely confused what it is that we're supposed to treat as the Nucleus in the scenes in the Doctor's mind. This was the poorest bit of direction from the whole story, in my opinion. And why, when the clones run out of time, are Leela's hair and knife left behind. Are they still rattling around inside Capaldi's head, even now? Could be another case of The Drums...

One point I want to discuss about this story is the Curse of the Clemett. Brian Clemett, who previously helmed the lighting for The Deadly Assassin returns to the fray for this story. Previously, he did his job superbly, lighting every scene with real atmosphere. Surveying parts of this story, you wouldn't know it was the same man. The Bi-Al Foundation is massively overlit - just think of the natural resources they're burning through if every room of every level is gleaming like that every day! I don't know whether Maloney told Clemett to keep it dark before, or if Goodwin told him to keep it light here, but whoever's fault it is, it's wrong. On the other hand, the sets inside the Doctor's head are gorgeously lit, with psychedelic yellows and pinks, and blues and greens. Having been a theatre lighting designer and operator for a number of years (five) I know how good it is to get something where you get to play a bit, rather than just having a 'wash' of block white/blue/orange. Clemett must've been in his element when The Invisible Enemy Part Three landed on his mat. You can tell he's having fun, just look at the chase sequences on that synapse! Phwoar!


To return to the narrative, the prawn Nucleus exits the Doctor's mind via the tear duct, and is subsequently returned to 'full size' by Marius, now serving The Purpose. But it's OK, because the Doctor's back to normal now the prawn Swarm has left his head. Hooray! The servants of the Swarm have left for Titan now, though, to reach the chambers that have been prepared for the Swarm's spawning. The scenes set in the shuttle really remind me of those scenes you've seen a hundred times where a pregnant woman's about to give birth and tells her husband / ambulance driver to go faster. I'm not entirely sure why this came to me, but consider the following exchanges with this in mind.
Nucleus: "Hurry, hurry! It is the time of spawning! I must get to the place prepared on Titan."
- - -
Nucleus: "Faster, faster!"
Lowe: "We can't! We'll burn out the motors!"
Nucleus: "Let them burn out. Once we reach Titan and the breeding tanks, our job is finished! Faster. Use all the fuel. Faster!"
- - -
Lowe: "Maximum speed. We have reached maximum speed!"
Nucleus: "Faster! We must go faster! Now the time for spawning is very close."

The Doctor eventually resolves this situation by following Leela's advice and blowing up Titan by igniting the atmosphere. Marius (now Swarmless) tells the Doctor that he has to go back to Earth, and so must leave K9 behind. Leela begs the Doctor to let her bring the metal mutt with them, and he gives in. It's nice to see Leela so enthusiastic about him, as they do spend quite a bit of time together over the course of the story. The trio head off into the stars, and the Professor gives us a (probably ad-libbed, given K9's companion status was a late decision) "I only hope he's TARDIS trained," to wrap things up.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson again lead the performance standards, and only Frederick Jaeger comes close to matching them unfortunately. Leela veers between extremely stilted dialogue, and 'normal', '70s lingo, which can be a bit odd, but it's relatively infrequent. Louise Jameson's range again impresses, and her and Tom seem to be getting on a little better than in Series 14; there's more chemistry between them. Michael Sheard does quite well, but it's hard to take him seriously with all those sequins across his face.

To diverge from the positives for just a second, the Nucleus costume is bizzarely abysmal. The two crew even have to support its arms. I really pity John Scott Martin, and the humility he must have suffered under that costume. How did it all go so wrong?! While it's nice to have a scale to the tale, there really doesn't seem to be any reason whatsoever for including the Titan base. This could work a lot better as a base under siege about paranoia and infection. The scenes at the Foundation are the most interesting because they have the most potential - a virus spreading in a hospital, being carried out across the universe. That's a really exciting concept. Wouldn't there be sufficient equipment for spawning at Bi-Al, rather than trekking back to the moon when there's such a hurry? Maybe not.

For the sake of fairness, I must mention the good models. When they get it right, they get it right. The Titan Base and the Foundation are great. They're really detailed, and I love the little dishes that spin round. The whole sequence with the ship docking is brilliant too, it adds so much depth and realism what could have your standard 'we are docking'/enter base type arrival. Oddly, it reminded me most of Thunderbirds. I think it's the shot looking up at the gantries with the circular holes in as it moves under the surface of the moon. Anyway, thought I'd better say. Like Dudley Simpson's score, it's great in places but dire in others.

All in all, there's a lot of great ideas at work here. After running on the spot for the majority of the first episode, the story shifts up a gear with the introduction of the Bi-Al Foundation (though why does it already have spaceship damage when we first see it?). I was really impressed by Baker and Martin's script, one of their most innovative so far. The acting is decent (occasionally excellent), and the direction average at best. The model work is memorable (for both positive and negative reasons), and the Titan subplot is unnecessary. I don't usually agree with the school of thought that says you should look through the effects, to the story as you can't fully judge a serial without considering everything in it. In this way, The Invisible Enemy is a really, really enjoyable story, well told, with lots of humour and explosions. Shame about the visual effects (which look like they were done in the contemporary equivalent of Paint). Some lines are brilliant too, such as the "Shall we use our intelligence?" conversation between the Doctor and Leela, and I enjoyed how the latter is key to the resolution of the whole incident through something that's established in her first scene of the story.

I really look forward to see what Jonny "flawless" Morris can do with the Swarm when they return to fight the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex in his latest Big Finish story, Revenge of the Swarm, this August. And I mean that genuinely. Morris is perhaps my favourite regular writer for the company, and there's some great material here, so I look forward to seeing how he'll exploit them (in a good way). I also love that the Swarm was his first choice when asked to feature a returning enemy that was new to Big Finish. I never thought I'd say this, but there's genuinely exciting possibilities and potentials as a result of this story. [EDIT: the first two episodes of this story were recorded on the day this review was written (Thursday 20 February, history~o~trons), it transpires. Isn't that nice?]

In a Nutshell: Surprisingly good, and one I now look forward to revisiting.

You can buy The Invisible Enemy as part of the K9 Tales (I so wish they'd spelt it 'Tails') set here, and read Joe from Doc Oho's review of it here - he has the right opinion on it too.

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