In Defence of Dinosaurs [WHO-50—1974]January 29th, 2013 at 16:53
I love this story.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs joins The Time Warrior and Planet of the Spiders as the only really GOOD Third Doctor/Sarah Jane adventures, and serves very well to progress their relationship, which is still on shake ground at this point – Sarah was whisked back in time by accident in The Time Warrior and spent a large part of that story thinking the Doctor was the bad guy (fair cop) until he won her over with his suave charm and snippy sense of humour.
The Doctor returns her to London in this story, only for them to be alarmed at a mysteriously empty city. What would be so scary that it is worth evacuating London?
Is it unfannish of me to say I don’t care about the quality of the dinosaur animation? I don’t think it’s that bad at all. Why is it that Harryhausen is acclaimed as a master of the cult art of special effects for his wobbly skeletons and fake Krakens, but Doctor Who doesn’t get a free pass for a few dinosaur puppets?
The reach of this story is far beyond its ability, but that sums up Doctor Who and I much prefer a slightly wonky but ambitious story over one that merely achieves a comfortable mediocrity.
But, you know. The dinosaurs are shade more convincing than the Drashigs, which still terrify the pants off me despite being blatant glove puppets. It’s all in the wrist action…
In fact, many of the dinosaur shots are pretty good, at least by the standards of the day, and a few of them manage something close to Harryhausen-esque grandeur. There are some dodgy production choices, my favourite being the gratuitous use of CGI to put a live feed of a captured, unconscious and occasionally twitching dinosaur as the background shot of a basic office scene. But this sort of thing only makes the story more entertaining!
I will admit that the dinosaurs are not the best bit of this story, but would certainly argue that the wonderful, clever script makes up for them. With Jo Grant and her go-go boots having departed, UNIT has lost its cozy family feel and there’s a bleakness to this story that reminds me of the tone of Season 7 – hardly surprising as the writer, Malcolm Hulke, also wrote The Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death, (50% of that first Pertwee season!) as opposed to only one story for each of the years that followed.
It’s a shame that Hulke appears to have no longer been offered Doctor Who work once Letts and Dicks left in favour of Hinchcliffe and Holmes. I’d loved to have seen what Hulke might have written for the Fourth Doctor, and he writes Sarah very well.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs is also directed by Paddy Russell, the first female director on the show, who produces some great location work to really convey the scale of the story – the location shots in particular look great, especially the ones without dinosaurs getting in the way. Though I also thought a lot of the military scenes were done very well and gave the impression of UNIT being a bigger organisation than ever before – while the more intimate office scenes were a lot more dynamic than is often the case.
All of our regulars are out of their comfort zone – the Brigadier is trying to manage the situation with a superior officer breathing down his neck and making all the wrong decisions, the Doctor and Sarah get themselves arrested even before the action gets underway, poor old Benton is being his usual world-weary self, and Mike Yates… well, he’s the star of his own quiet tragedy, though this is not revealed until much later.
I had seen Planet of the Spiders about a billion times before I finally got to see all of this one, which means that the treachery of Yates came as no surprise at all – though I am very pleased that a lot of attention is given to this plot line, and to his ambiguous role in the ‘Golden Age’ plot. His genuine agonies at having to betray the Doctor and UNIT are well done, and I particularly like the scene in which everyone at UNIT has to turn against the Doctor and Yates plays his own betrayal off as his duty.
Sarah has a marvellous pile of story stuff to work with here. The fact that she doesn’t work for UNIT – the first of Pertwee’s “assistants” to be freelance – becomes very important in this story, where her role as journalist makes her a target of suspicion from both the army and the bad guys (many of whom, of course, are the same people). More to the point, despite her Sontaran adventure, she’s not officially the Doctor’s travelling companion yet and so is only helping him thanks to her a) general sense of justice b) desire to get the story and c) moxy.
Both Liz Shaw and Jo Grant were part of the system, and would have had a more active role in the UNIT system, but Sarah has to work around and outside it, which adds some nice tension to her story.
And what a story she has! One of the best plot twists in the history of Doctor Who has Sarah rendered unconscious (of course) when investigating something suspicious… only to wake up on a spaceship heading out to found a new Earth colony… six months later!
It’s the sort of thing that could only happen on this show, and the question of how on earth Sarah is going to get out of this fix and back to the Doctor is explored really nicely. Most importantly, she rescues HERSELF through general logic and smarts.
There’s a nice touch at the end where we see that Sarah is in fact still not sold on the idea of bombing around in time and space with the Doctor – but he gives her a honeyed speech about a particularly saucy planet and she laughingly accepts her fate. This one time.
I can see why the dinosaurs have been a bit of a sore point with fans over the years – and why the production team of the current show felt the need to restore Doctor Who’s honour with the marvellous creations of 2012’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – but really, if you’re letting the special effects turn you off this one, you’re missing out on one of the best political intrigue stories of the Third Doctor era.
However, I will admit that my ardent defence of Invasion of the Dinosaurs did not wash at all with young seven-year-old Oscar, one of the many children with whom I rewatched the show in recent weeks.
“Tyrannosaurus?” he said scornfully. “That’s not a tyrannosaurus. IT HAS THREE FINGERS. They’re getting it all wrong!”
I am humbled to know less about dinosaurs than a seven-year-old, but it would probably be against the natural world order for it to be otherwise.
ELSEWHERE ON 1974:
The Time Warrior [Wife in Space]
Invasion of the Dinosaurs [The Independent]
Death to the Daleks [Neowhovian]
Monster of Peladon [Radio Free Skaro]
RetroView 6: Planet of the Spiders [Neowhovian]