The Invisible Enemy
It’s a common and understandable refrain that, barring The Horror of Fang Rock, Season 15 is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers have their defenders, but the rest are frequently labelled failures or disastrously unfulfilled in their ambitions. Certainly, particularly antipathy is reserved for the pair of Bob Baker and Dave Martin-scripted contributions, The Invisible Enemy and Underworld.
In the case of the latter, I get it. I mean, Underworld commits the worst of sins, in that it’s unconscionably dull (after the first episode, which is quite good). The Invisible Enemy, though, could hardly be considered boring. The brickbats tend to come from other – and every – directions, such as its scant regard for scientific verisimilitude and internal logic, and most cardinal of all, its shoddy production values. None of which ultimately mar the story for me; I even genuinely think the giant prawn is a masterpiece of freaky mofo, OMFG design work. He’s the screen’s absolute best over-sized prawn until District 9 came along.
In The Television Companion David J Howe and Mark Stammers summarised, “Reviewers over the years have struggled to find a good word to say about it”. The Discontinuity Guide called it “An ambitious project which has the look of grand folly…” Wherever you glance at a series survey, be it Doctor Who Bulletin in 1985 (123rd out of 123 placed stories); DWAS in 2003 (145th out of 163), or Doctor Who Magazine (164th out of 200 in 2009) The Invisible Enemy is to be found languishing, unloved. I’m not intending to celebrate the story unconditionally here, but I do feel the balance deserves redressing slightly.
Leela: Never mind Doctor. I’ve found the answer. Knife them in the neck.
If there’s a true stumbling block for The Invisible Enemy, rather than perennial problems with the show’s effects or failings with coherence, it’s the Doctor-companion relationship. Leela had pretty much exhausted her potential by the conclusion of her trio of Philip Hinchcliffe-produced stories, and unlike the more generic companions, the combination of her fraught relationship with the Doctor and Louise Jameson’s highly mannered delivery make for a mostly unpleasant rapport between the mainstays, one that permeates the story.
It doesn’t help that – and Bob Holmes was still script editor, so there isn’t much excuse – she continually drifts in and out of over-enunciated primitivism and more modern colloquialisms (“Doctor, what was all that?”) depending on the needs of the scene. Her harping on about her instincts has already become an annoying crutch, although it’s at least noteworthy that she’s knifing people left, right and centre here, as you tend to forget she’s still so kill-happy during the “softened” Williams tenure.
This presumably came at the height of Baker being a bit of an arse to Jameson, before they sorted things out during Fang Rock, and you get that sense of unvarnished frostiness throughout, underlined by a more detached than usual role for the Doctor, being as he’s either possessed or comatose for much of the first two episodes. He’s manoeuvred into more serious mode, which isn’t the most assured ground for a series unable to manufacture the necessary atmosphere to go with it. The result is a season that’s easily the most detached and remote of Baker’s era; there probably are some people who like the fifteenth the best of his seven, but I’d wager they’re few and far between.
Professor Marius: Yes, perhaps it is a matter of intelligence.
One thing about The Invisible Enemy, though, it includes several decent gags about Leela being thick. That the virus can’t take her over because she’s too dumb for it (although, later Baker and Martin – or Holmes – switch this around, revealing she’s carrying antibodies, which is convenient for the Doctor; I prefer her just being dumb). Except, as with the inconsistency of her dialogue, she’s also required to be smart for the sake of plot convenience (She takes cloning very much in her stride; “What will happen to me? The real me?”) Occasionally, a witty exchange will stand out, but there’s little of the vibrancy that can be found in the best Baker-companion relationships here; Leela notes literally of the mind-brain interface, that it is different like the land and the sea, and that “It’s very deep”, to which the Doctor responds “Yes, sometimes I don’t quite understand it myself”.
I can’t argue with accusations of logical failures here, be they why the virus doesn’t just take over the Titan crew off the bat, or infest the computer systems of Bi-Al and then open all the doors. Or the bizarre workings of cloning/the Kilbracken technique (and its moral ramifications) and miniaturisation. Or why the Nucleus wants to go supersize, where it will surely be less effective (who/how’s it going to infest at that size?) Or the Doctor’s arbitrary argument for putting a stop to the Nucleus (“But you want to dominate both worlds, micro and macro”). And maybe it’s just nu-Who fatigue, but the centrality of the Time Lords to everything is one over-sampled by the Bristol Boys; the Nucleus continually addresses the Doctor as “Time Lord”, and instantly seizes upon the prospect of dominion over space and time.
But, and it’s an excuse I wouldn’t be letting off, say, The Moonbase with, so it isn’t just that, I find it quite easy to suspend disbelief in the The Invisible Enemy because it rattles along so purposefully; there’s a snowball rolling down a hill effect to the cumulative weight of wild ideas, such that you’ll either go with them or reject them totally. I can quite happily go with them.
Actually, I note About Time did slate the story as dull, so maybe some people do find it that way. In counterpoint, Gareth Roberts charitably concluded in DWM 290, “But at least The Invisible Enemy is exciting” while comparing one Season 15 “effects-heavy run-around with no really memorable characters” to another, Underworld. Ah look, here’s Martin Rian-Tobias from In-Vision; “a rather run-of-the-mill threat to dominate the universe. But it’s fast, exciting and fun” (I’ll leave out his comments on K9; “one of the most juvenile elements ever seen in the series” was Craig Hinton’s summary of the story’s newcomer in DWB 83).
And I do really like the Mind-Body interface. It’s the kind of nutty leap that perversely meshes pseudo-science with the sheer nonsensical. I note that, while K9 treats this realm as a bona fide fact, Marius, clearly less smart than his pet, is less certain (“If it exists”).
There are appealing signs of Holmes’ jaded, used futurism too, in the dialogue (“A glorified garage attendant in some planetary filling station”, “Welcome to Titan, your welcome to it”, “He’s probably one of those good for nothing spaceniks”) but they fail to translate into the visuals. The greatest bugbear levelled at the story is fair; the design (and the lighting, of Bi-Al, not so much Titan and inner-Doctor, where it’s fine) mostly sucks, the creative use of phonetics aside (ISOLAYSHUN WARD), and it’s the clearest signifier of the shift between Hinchcliffe and Williams eras. From sub-2001 space suits to unadorned corridors, it’s cumulatively rather cheap and tatty, in contrast to the (mostly) pretty good model work. The possession make-up falls short too, lacking the necessary unsettling quality.
But there’s a good line in tension running through the first episode, which is largely devoted to Lowe (Michael Sheard) on the lam, until he’s taken over; the story begins inexorably and bleakly, and you could quite see the early stages spruced up and smartly turned out during the previous season. Indeed, structurally The Invisible Enemy bears some similarities with The Deadly Assassin, what with its out-there third episode, and positing the Doctor in a non-traditional position (he goes inside himself to save himself from a corrupting force that will override his sense of self). Like the later Underworld, The Armageddon Factor and Nightmare of Eden, and The Hand of Fear before it, the Bristol Boys are adept at shifting locations. Here we go from Titan, to Bi-Al, to the Doctor’s body…. and back to Titan again. As such, it’s Episode Four where the story falls apart.
Three, yeah it might have been more psychedelic. It would have benefited from some Michael Ferguson, Claws of Axos freakiness. But there’s enough strangeness on display to make up for the disappointment that “Into the land of dreams and fantasies, Leela” doesn’t lead to anywhere very fantastic at all (prior to this, the sight of “The mind, unsullied by a single thought” is the most outré the episode gets), aside from a clawed hand. And a winningly weird projected effects sequence with pillars and columns flying about.
The Nucleus of the Swarm: The age of man is over, Doctor. The age of the virus has begun.
I’m good with the caricatured, Germanic overplaying by Frederick Jaeger as Marius, although I know many (most?) aren’t. His final line is a stinker (“TARDIS trained” indeed), but the story needed a big performance. No one else makes any impression; Sheard is always good, but he has a nothing role once he is possessed. And, while the Nucleus has a very groovy, augmented vocal styling courtesy of John Leeson (something along the lines of a reverb “Boola goola boola”), and rocks like a daddy, he doesn’t actually show up until the finale, and then doesn’t get to do anything really impressive, aside from sitting on a tea tray (which is, actually, pretty impressive) and becoming worryingly aroused as he exclaims “The time for spawning is very close!”
Episode Four essentially comprises Leela imploring the Doctor to blow everything up, including some Quatermass IV test footage, him resisting, and then submitting. Douglas Adams went the last part of that route more satisfyingly in The Pirate Planet a season later. Then there’s the odd moment where the Doctor takes off in the TARDIS without Leela; it isn’t particularly funny, translating more as filler than anything to savour.
The parallel between humanity’s great breakout and the virus’ is unsubtle to say the least, but Baker and Martin were never ones to nurse delusions of substance; they’re just good at stringing ideas together. Of which, they most likely fancied sticking The Ark in Space in a blender with Fantastic Voyage. I do quite get the disaffection for The Invisible Enemy, but I find it largely irresistible, warts and all. K9 arrives fully-formed, achieving an instant rapport with the other leads, mainly thanks to Leeson’s plaintive tones. Derek Goodwin keeps up the pace (as Louise Jameson, insightful as only a pyramid scheme seller can be, observed of the director). And it has a fantastic freaky-assed prawn.