“THE ANDROID INVASION” – Season 13, Serial 4, Story 83 – Written by Terry Nation; Directed by Barry Letts – We’ve got lots of returning all-timers this serial: Terry Nation, Barry Letts, Sergeant Benton, and Harry Sullivan are all back to help the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith for a good ol’ invasion of Earth story that isn’t actually on Earth, until then later is. Confused? That’s kinda the point. Because THE ANDROID INVASION Takes Delight In Making Everyone Question What They See.
Even if THE ANDROID INVASION stunk, it would be worth a watch just for the opportunity to see Sergeant Benton and Harry Sullivan one last time, and just for the opportunity to watch a Terry Nation script edited by Robert Holmes, and directed by Barry Letts in a Philip Hinchcliffe produced serial. It’s a sign of the stunningly high quality of the Baker/Hinchliffe/Holmes that ANDROID is seen as the weak link of this season, but this is a good four-episode serial that proves once again that when Terry Nation was on his game, he wrote DOCTOR WHO as well as anyone.
ANDROID proves how subtle manipulations of the narrative can affect the overall experience in a very positive manner. The Doctor and Sarah land the TARDIS on what they think is the Earth. It certainly looks like the Earth and while they’re wandering around in the woods trying to figure out where they are, they see a UNIT soldier. Said soldier eventually falls off a cliff and dies … and then reappears a few minutes later, looking none the worse for wear. While clearly on Earth (the Doctor makes the point that they’re standing near oak trees and oak trees only grown on Earth), there’s obviously something wrong.
And part of that something is that they’re not actually on Earth, after all.
They’re on a replicated Earth, where the Kraals are preparing to launch an invasion of Earth. This simple twist works because we’ve been watching the Doctor and Sarah walking around a deserted Devesham. During their investigation, a group of residents return but they’re actually very strangely. Nothing seems to make sense, and the central mystery is built around the question of what’s more important: that this town looks like Devesham, or that this town doesn’t act like Devesham.
If there is nothing else one learns from DOCTOR WHO it should be that good, smart writing never goes out of style. Nation has really delivered the ultimate “average episode” script here, too, because it’s smart, it’s cheap, and it’s referential.
I’ve talked several times during my DOCTOR WHO reviews about the importance of the “average episode,” the mid-level episode that’s needed to build momentum through a season. From the production team’s point-of-view, the average episode needs to tell a good story without breaking the bank. Anything dime they can save here is a dime they can spend later on. THE ANDROID INVASION is the perfect example of an average episode: the sets are simple and the monsters are minimal. (The Kraals sort of look like what would happen if you told kindergarten kids to make a Sontaran costume.) Much of the drama and mystery are set up by …
The first episode spends a huge amount of time with the Doctor and Sarah simply walking around the empty town of Devesham. Nation and Letts do an excellent job setting this up, by introducing that UNIT soldier and some dudes in what looks like white space suits that fire bullets out of their hands. So maybe this is the Autons, again?
The Doctor and Sarah escape into Devesham and no one’s around. They pop into the local pub, which Sarah says she visited when she was here on a story a couple years ago. Inside, there’s still no one around, but the Doctor finds nothing but freshly minted coins in the cash register. Then the townsfolk return on the back of a truck and walk in like mind-controlled zombies. The soldier that the Doctor and Sarah saw die is walking among them.
Then the clock chimes and everything snaps back to normal. And because the abnormal has been presented as the episode’s normal, the actual normal now looks abnormal.
Simple, smart, cost-effective storytelling.
And it gets better. There’s a Space Defense Station just up the road, and enters Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s office, but unfortunately (for him and us), the Brig isn’t involved in this serial. Instead, the Doctor finds Guy Crayford, an astronaut who Sarah swears is dead, which is where things start coming together mystery-wise. The Doctor realizes that the Earth they’re on isn’t really Earth but a simulacrum, and that people really aren’t people, but robots whose faces fall off.
When the robot faces fall off, it’s pure Old School Doctor Who awesomeness because the technology involved in creating such an entity is so far ahead of the Beeb’s ability to even fake it that when it happens you either have to embrace it or run away from it. (And since I’m closing in on 170 DOCTOR WHO posts here at the Anxiety, you can guess on which side I’m on.) We get a Sarah robot double, a Doctor robot double, a Sergeant Benton robot double, and a Harry Sullivan robot double. There are others, but these are the ones we care about.
It’s great to see Benton and Harry back again, but I’m always struck by how the return of these characters doesn’t seem to mean all that much to the Doctor or even Sarah Jane. It’s moments like this when you want them to be thoroughly glad to see one another that the formula of the serialized format rears its ugly head. One could make the case, of course, that the Doctor not making a big deal out of seeing Benton and Harry again is keeping in character, that it’s his way of not getting too emotionally attached to people he’ll have to eventually never see again. Or you could argue that neither one of them has really been gone all that long from the Doctor’s life so it’s not a big deal that they all bump into each other again, but I’d still like to see a bit more because my guess is the fans (or, at least, me) is pretty psyched to see old faces in new places.
The Doctor and Sarah eventually stop the Kraal threat, of course, when they get to the real Earth, but not before a bit of fun confusion over who the real version of everyone is. It’s a solid end to a solid serial, and because everything is done so well, THE ANDROID INVASION becomes elevated to something more than it might have been in lesser hands. The most fun is in seeing Benton and Harry, of course, but if you’re a fan of the show, seeing Terry Nation and Barry Letts’ names attached is a thrill, too. Both men deliver solid work. Sure, you can pick apart Nation’s script for some plot holes (why would the Kraal’s need to build an exact replica of Devesham?) but for me, ANDROID INVASION is low-key, enjoyable stuff. Whatever deficiencies exist in the plot are overcome by Tom Baker and Lis Sladen, and in an era that has already started down a very dark road, THE ANDROID INVASION is a nice diversion.