(SPOILERS) I don’t think I was aware of Invasion’s credentials as a (Doctor Who luminary) Robert Holmes storyline when I first saw it, and one adapted by Roger Marshall (Public Eye, The Avengers) at that. If this low-budget offering only occasionally evidences its writers’ frequent flair, it’s a more unconditional thumbs up for director Alan Bridges, a ’60s BBC mainstay – literary classics adaptations, The Wednesday Play, Play for Today – and Palm d’Or winner for The Hireling (1973); his final feature would be James Mason starrer The Shooting Party (1985), after funding fell through mid-shoot on a 1987 adaptation of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil.
Mike: Wandering around the road in the middle of the night in a rubber suit. What does it mean?
Holmes had previously worked with Marshall on Emergency Ward 10 – he’d later contribute to the latter’s Public Eye – and had collaborated with its medical advisor Dr Phyllis Gibbons on the storyline. As Marshall tells it (reported in Richard Molesworth’s Robert Holmes: A Life in Words), Merton Park Studios’ Jack Greenwood liked the idea but was nervous of Holmes having no film experience. Marshall was reluctant to write the screenplay, but Holmes “was very sweet, saying he was glad it was me, rather than somebody else”. Holmes advised Marshall, however, to involve Gibbons and “we did the script virtually together. In its way it was a great success. It cost very little and still pops up on BBC TV occasionally”.
Marshall couldn’t recall changes he made to Holmes’ version, or what was his and what was Holmes in the final film. Certain features have been seized on, however, as tropes the Doctor Who writer-cum-script editor would reuse. Third Doctor debut Spearhead from Space would also feature an alien hospitalised in a rural area, one whose charts mystify the medical staff. And it also included a military presence struggling to deal with the alien force in its midst (Invasion is, however, an entirely erroneous title). The forcefield that seals off the hospital would be a key ingredient in the Fourth Doctor’s Pyramids of Mars, where it was applied to an old priory. Fortunately, though, Holmes didn’t attempt anything as potentially clumsy as Invasion’s gender play in Who (for such things regressions, look no further than Ben Steed’s scripts for Blake’s 7).
While the running time is slender (under eighty minutes), Invasion takes time to establish its characters, opening on a couple conducting an illicit affair. When their car hits the rubber-clad alien on a country road, Barbara (Jean Lodge), fearful for her reputation, wants to leave him lying there, but Blackburn (Anthony Sharp, of A Clockwork Orange, To the Manor Born and The Young Ones’ Demolition) shows the hoped-for compassion. However, he agrees to drop her off home on the way to delivering their victim to the hospital. Later, we see Blackburn digging a hole for himself as the police sergeant (Glyn Houston, later the Holmes’ script-edited The Hand of Fear) probes the inconsistencies in his account.
Once we arrive at the hospital, the characters are given broader strokes. If Edward Judd’s smoking doctor Mike Vernon is undistinguished in his stalwart heroism, his superior Carter (Lyndon Brook) is a slave to denial, insistent there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation to what’s going on. At one point, Nurse Valerie (Claire Harland) gives a colleague a good slap when she starts losing it (“We’re all going to die!”) Accordingly, composed, reliable Mike and Valerie are the ones who quickly hit on the only reasonable explanation for a patient whose blood matches no human and who has a large metal disc inside his brain (“He looks perfectly human to me” scoffs Carter). The military aren’t complete idiots either; suspicious Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) is quick to doubt the patient’s initial story (that two prisoners escaped from him), although his men are less reliable (one opens fire on a rabbit).
Alien: You tell her what to do?
Alien: And she obeys you?
Alien: Good, I approve.
The Lystrian is a “foreign-looking bloke”, but Chinese nurse Lim (Tsai Chin) vetoes the idea that their visitor is either Chinese or Japanese. Rightly so, as Ric Young (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Last Emperor) is Malaysian. Although, fellow Lystrian Yôko Tani is Japanese. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear – toxic masculinity, no doubt – the male Lystrian is a fugitive from justice wielded by female Lystrians (he escaped a ship taking him to a penal settlement, he says without trial). Thus, the patient is terrified of women. Which seems reasonable. For her part, the Lystrian leader claims “We are peace-loving people”; any deaths were collateral damage and strictly unintentional. Additionally, the male Lystrian suffers “the fantasy of an immature mind”. She further notes that, regrettably, their society can “still produce destructive people”.
The picture’s science, which includes atomic-powered rockets and Geiger counters to imbue a ring of authenticity, isn’t perhaps quite plumbing Kid Pedler depths, but it’s hardly boasting The Andromeda Strain style verisimilitude either. Bridges must take up the slack, and he ensures the proceedings are atmospheric and askew, although he’s unable to overcome the budget limitations at times. Judd bypassing the aforementioned forcefield is somewhat laborious, but the earlier car wreck caused by the same (doing for Carter) is effectively brutal.
Judd seems less persuaded by the material than in his earlier, more respectable/ high-profile SF outings (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, First Men in the Moon). But then, he only has so much to work with. The picture is nominally – by replacing ’50s bug-eyed monsters with (Asian) humanoids – looking towards more systematised themes of difference. In contrast to Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Quatermass II, there’s no suggestion the visitors will replace us or convert us, in the way Commies might; we’ll simply have to rely on their word that they mean us no harm, since it’s established that their technological advancement is no guarantee of social evolution. Hence the parting line, emphasising shared attributes, both physical and behavioural: “I think I preferred the idea of a three-eyed monster. Now we’ve got them killing each other just like us”.
Some have dismissed the movie’s rudiments, and Invasion is admittedly at less than its best when Edward Judd labours through sewers in order to retrieve a space belt. It does have its fans, however. Time Out’s Tom Milne called it a “Strikingly imaginative little sci-fi thriller” and suggested “the sense of threat from the unknown becomes almost tangible as Bridges weave his Losey-influenced camera through shadowy landscapes, or lets it linger broodingly on innocent objects until they begin to acquire an air of alien malevolence”. While there’s no danger of labelling Invasion a neglected classic, it’s a diverting tale nevertheless.