Ever since I stumbled upon my first Doctor Who episode on the local PBS station in the 1970's, I've been a fan. Sure I knew that the special effects were below par and that the stories often left something to be desired, but more often than not the adventures were great fun and the enthusiasm of the actors made up for any defects in the script. Not story exemplifies that fact nearly as well as The Invasion of Time, recently released on DVD for the first time. The script itself, an eleventh hour affair written in two weeks when the previously commissioned story was deemed too expensive to shoot, has a lot of problems and plot holes but these are more than overcome by Tom Baker's wonderfully energetic performance. At the time I first saw it soared to the top of my all-time favorite adventures, and while it no longer holds that top spot, it is more of the more fun and enjoyable stories.
Okay, most of you probably already know this, but for those who aren't familiar with the long running SF show, here's a bit of history. Doctor Who started in 1963 with William Hartnell creating the role of The Doctor, a mysterious and crotchety old man who traveled through time and space with his granddaughter Susan, and two of her teachers. They traveled in the TARDIS, a device that looked like a small London Police Call Box on the outside, but on the inside was an immense and spacious time machine.
The show was a hit but in 1966 there was a problem. Hartnell became ill and had to leave the show (though some say it was the new production team rather than illness that caused the departure.) In order to keep the show going the producers and writers came up with an ingenious idea: Since there wasn't much known about the Doctor (aside from the fact that he was an alien) why not have him die and then regenerate his entire body in the form of a new actor. This turned out to be not only a good gimmick to keep the show going, but also made the main character more interesting and mysterious. As the show went on, more details of exactly who and what the Doctor was slowly emerged. It turned out that he was a 700+ year old Time Lord (or over 1000 depending on which Doctor you're talking to) from the planet Gallifrey who stole the TARDIS from a repair bay, which explains why it doesn't always work as well as it should, and was on the lam. He did this because he didn't see eye-to-eye with the rest of his race. He much preferred to get involved and help people out when he could rather than just sit back and watch things happen like the rest of the Time Lords.
As the years went on the show continued to be popular and the BBC went through several actors playing the Doctor and even more traveling companions. This story features one of the most popular actors to portray the Time Lord, Tom Baker.
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) land on Gallifrey, the home of the Time Lords, where the Doctor makes an unexpected proclamation: he's come to claim the title of President of the Council of Time Lords. (He is referencing events that occurred in the story "The Deadly Assassin." Alas, this story hasn't made its way to DVD yet making things pretty confusing for those who haven't seen it. Those two would have made a great double-story set, and it's was a blunder on the BBCs part not to have released them together.)
His claim is legal, and though The Doctor is acting very strangely he is sworn in as president and given access to The Matrix, the depository of all of the knowledge of the Time Lords. His first act as president is to have his companion Leela banished to the wastelands outside of the Citadel where the Time Lords dwell, and then he sets about dismantling the defensive barrier around Gallifrey. When this is accomplished, a group of aliens, the Vardans, partial materialize. They've come to conquer Gallifrey and take control of time. Has the Doctor really betrayed his people?
I loved this story as a kid, and I was happy to see that it's just as fun and exciting now as it was back then. Make no mistake, it is a flawed and uneven adventure, but for sheer sense of goofy fun, few stories are its equal.
Tom Baker, at the top of his form in this adventure, really propels the story along and makes it easy to overlook the flaws. He's great at throwing out hilarious lines in passing under his breath. One such instance comes when a guard remarks that, after being granted access to The Matrix, The Doctor has access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe. He replies "Well yes, sometimes I do talk to myself..." Then there's the time that The Doctor can't open a locked door with is trusty screwdriver. Baker looks straight in the camera and proclaims "Even the sonic screwdriver won't get me out of this one."
Those brief comical gags keep the show light and lively, and it's needed because the heart of the story is pretty serious. With Time Lords being expelled into the waste lands and invaders controlling Gallifrey because of The Doctor's betrayal, there are enough dramatic sections to keep viewers interest.
The first four episodes are pretty standard for a Who adventure, but the show really shines in the last two episodes, where a twist occurs that throws a wrench in The Doctor's plans. (The cliff hanger to episode four is very effective, especially if you're a long-time fan.) The drama and tension are ratcheted up a couple of notches in these last two installments. This story also includes one of my all time favorite sequences from the original Doctor Who run where the Time Lord and his friends have to retreat into to the Tardis and are pursued by aliens. Even casual viewers know that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, but just how much bigger is it? This DVD is worth getting just for the answer to that question.
While the show is very enjoyable, it is significantly flawed and only works if you don't think about it too carefully. There are more than a few gaping plot holes in the story (it is established that laser weapons can't fire in the TARDIS, except for K9 and the people chasing after The Doctor. Theirs still work.) and characters often do inexplicable things just to move the plot along. K9 also has become Super-Robot by this time and is incredibly annoying. Not only is he really, really loud when he moves, but he's The Doctor's muscle, shooting people left and right and basically being portrayed as a superior computer to anything of Gallifrey. At one point he even 'talks' to the TARDIS and says it's stupid!
Minor spoilers follow
With a few more rewrites this could have been a much better story, but as it is there are many head-scratching moments. Why does the Sontaran commander spend the lion's share of two episodes looking for the Great Key, and then decide to blow the planet up? And what about Leela's departure from the show? She says that she's staying because she's fallen in love, but there's no evidence of that before hand, and it would be a little hard to believe that a Time Lord would want to partner with a savage. What's Leela going to do on Gallifrey anyway? It would be like an inhabitant of the Amazon rain forest moving to NYC. Surely they wouldn't be happy.
The end is one huge Deus ex Machina mess too. The whole idea of one gun being so powerful that The Doctor could "control the whole galaxy" with it is ludicrous, and what happens to the gun, and The Doctor, is even more idiotic.
Even with those flaws, this is an very enjoyable story that I had a lot of fun watching yet again.
This story comes with the original mono soundtracks which sounds fine. While none of the episodes have much in the way of bass, their range is passable. There are a few sections in the first series where the dialog is just a little muddled, but it was undoubtedly recorded that way.
The Restoration Team has done another wonderful job on the video to this show. The full frame color transfer looks very good. The colors are bright and solid and the detail is very good. While the image is just a tad soft, it is much sharper than I remember it being when it was shown on PBS years ago. There is a bit of a mosquito noise in the sky shots outside of the citadel, but aside from that digital defects are nonexistent. A very nice looking disc.
This story comes with some nice extras, but overall I was slightly disappointed that there wasn't more, considering that this is a two-disc set. On the first discs there is a commentary track by Louise Jameson (Leela), John Leeson (the voice of K9,) script editor Anthony Read, and effects designer Mat Irvine. This is a good track where the group has a lot of fun (especially Leeson who pops into K9's voice at the drop of a hat and often cracks up the rest in the room) and relays some interesting information about the production.
Each episode also comes with an optional pop-up trivia track that's very good, as usual. While some of the information isn't that interesting (like the date some scenes were filmed) most of it is well worth watching. They relate behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the history and filmographies of supporting characters, and changes in the story from the original shooting script. Though I prefer to watch the episodes once through without the trivia track since it can be a bit distracting from the show, it's a great reason to spin the DVD a second time.
There is also the option of watching the adventure with updated special effects. The classic Who was never know for it's good effects, but this story was worse than most. The Vardans are sheets of tinfoil hanging from a string (literally) and some of the other effects (like the ray blast near the end) are embarrassingly bad. The new effects don't distract the viewer from the story as the original ones do and are a great improvement. While I'm glad they included the original version of the show, it was more fun to watch with the redone effects.
Top: The original SFX for the Vardans
Bottom: Newly created effects
Disc two starts off with a series of deleted scenes, some of which are just a sentence or two and none of which added much to the story. There's also a short (17 minute) making-of documentary that was very good where the director, producer, and actors get together once again and give their impressions of the story. Unfortunately Tom Baker himself is absent from this and all other bonus material. The Rise and Fall of Gallifrey (10 minutes) looks at how the home of the Time Lords has been portrayed through the years, and The Elusive David Agnew (5 minutes) is a pretty lame joke about who wrote the scripts. There is also a photo gallery and listing from the Radio Times accessible on a computer's DVD-ROM drive. Overall it's not an impressive second disc.
The critic in me wants to tear this episode apart for the sloppy writing and incomprehensible plot devices. The fan in me loves this story however. It's a lot of fun to watch, especially the last two episodes, and there are some great moments that are rarely topped elsewhere in the series (the cliff hanger to episode four for example.) Tom Baker is at the top of his game in this story and really manages to turn a mediocre script into a memorable and enjoyable adventure. Because of that, I'm giving this a very strong recommendation.