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Review and competition: Doctor Who - The UNIT Files on DVD

Posted on March 19, 2012 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The UNIT Files

BBC Shop BadgeStarring: Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen
Writers: Malcolm Hulke, Terry Nation
Director: Paddy Russell, Barry Letts
Price: £30.63 (Amazon price: £12.99; BBC Shop price: £22.25)
Released: January 9th 2012

It's competition time again, you lucky people, courtesy of the BBC Shop throwing me a load of DVDs that I don't really want. This time round, it's your chance to win an entire box set: Doctor Who - The UNIT Files. Now this contains one Jon Pertwee six-parter featuring UNIT and that has the word 'Invasion' in the title, as well as one four-part Tom Baker story featuring UNIT and that has the word 'Invasion' in the title. Can you guess what the stories are?

Yes, it's Invasion (of the Dinosaurs) and The Android Invasion, written by two of Doctor Who's old reliables: Malcolm Hulke and Terry Nation. And for once, I've actually sat down and watched them. Well, not the DVD extras, of course - don't be silly.

Find out what I thought of them and how you could win them on DVD after this shiny trailer:

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Invasion (of the Dinosaurs)
Why am I bracketing "of the Dinosaurs"? Well, for years, episode one of this story was missing, believed wiped, until it turned out that since the producers had called the first episode Invasion so as to preserve the surprise of there being dinosaurs in the story, the company that had a copy of it thought it was actually episode one of the Patrick Troughton story The Invasion. The fact it only had a black and white copy of the story was all part of the confusion.

Anyway, here in black and white, colour and glorious re-coloured 'prints' - not so much coloured in but recovered using an exciting new process that used hidden information in the print to find out what the actual colours were - are all six parts of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, a late Jon Pertwee story that featured Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, as well as the standard UNIT ensemble (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton), Martin Jarvis, Peter Miles and some really quite terrifyingly bad dinosaurs.

The Doctor and Lis return to London and discover the city is more or less deserted. They soon find out that dinosaurs have started appearing all over the place, so the government has evacuated the capital for people's safety. Together with the help of UNIT, they have to find out who's behind the 'invasion', how they can be stopped and which of their many supposed allies are actually working against them - and there's a surprising name in the list of traitors.

The story itself is actually pretty good: surprisingly complex and nuanced, with the usual agitprop you might have come to expect from Hulke coming to the fore but being both backed and subverted by the story. We have, as with Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death, for example, no true villains, just both sides trying to do their best for the world, although one side is obviously more ruthless than the other. Hulke, one of the show's best writers, is able to fill six episodes with enough variations on the investigate-separate-capture-escape-reunite cycle of standard old Who plotting to give us an action-packed script with remarkably little padding and with real twists and revelations, giving characterisation and development to regular characters at a time when plot was largely all that counted.

The surprise ending to episode three - (spoiler) Sarah Jane wakes up to find she's on a 'spaceship' - isn't one that stands up to much rational thought, but it is a clever misdirect that works for an episode or two if you turn your brain off.

Coupled with Hulke's writing, we have an all-out budget explosion, with helicopters, Jon Pertwee's Whomobile, explosions, weaponry and more. Pertwee appears to have got over the ennui he displayed in The Time Warrior; his character is far less irritating than normal; Lethbridge-Stewart is almost ridiculously laid back; and Sladen is just fab.

All in all, it's a very good story… apart from the dinosaurs. These are basically the story's Achilles' heel. There is not one convincingly done scene involving them, whether done as miniatures or in-camera. They look fake, they have very little freedom of movement, so can't actually do much - they're rubbish. What's worse is that a lot of them just look quite cute rather than threatening. When the Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks, it's like being mauled by Posh Paws off Multi-Coloured Swap Shop.

But if you can get over the rubbish effects (usually a pre-requisite for watching any old Who, this is a very enjoyable, sophisticated six-parter. And by the looks of it, some good extras as well.

Rating: 4.5/5

DVD Extras:

  • Commentary by Richard Franklin (Yates), Peter Miles (Whutaker), Terence Wilton (Mark), Richard Morris (designer), Terrance Dicks (script editor), Paddy Russell (director)
  • Additional commentary by John Levene (Benton) for 10 minutes on part five
  • People, Power and Puppetry: Cast and crew look back on the making of this story
  • Doctor Who Stories: Elisabeth Sladen Part 1 - Elisabeth Sladen interviewed in 2003
  • Billy Smart's Circus: Featuring Jon Pertwee
  • Deleted scenes
  • Now and Then: returning to the locations
  • Radio Times listings (DVD ROM)
  • Production information subtitles
  • Photo gallery
  • Coming soon trailer
  • Easter egg
  • Digitally remastered picture and sound quality

The Android Invasion

The Android Invasion
The Android Invasion, by contrast, is ridiculous at just about every level. Terry Nation is, of course, best known in Doctor Who circles for his Dalek scripts, since he was rarely asked to write anything but. However, he did contribute the somewhat interesting Keys of Marinus to the Hartnell years - in which the Doctor and companions travel from location to location on the planet Marinus, collecting 'keys', solving crimes, etc, so they can bring enforced justice to a planet before deciding that maybe that's not a good idea - and The Android Invasion during Tom Baker's tenure. In between those two stories, as well as the constant stream of Dalek scripts, he was also writing for ITC shows such as The Avengers and The Champions.

And that's essentially what The Android Invasion is, but reworked for Doctor Who: a script for the The Champions. The Doctor and Sarah Jane return to Earth but find themselves in the surprisingly quiet village of Evesham, which is near the UK Space Centre. Along the way, they see a UNIT solider hurl himself over a cliff, find a space pod, get chased by people in spacesuits and generally have a bad time of it. But Evesham itself is weird. The people are weird. The pub is empty. It has a brand new dartboard, coins all minted in the same year and a calendar where every day is the same day.

What can be going on?

Now a lot of Doctor Who stories don't make a whole lot of sense: often it's a case of watching the story and thinking afterwards, "Hang on - why did…?" But with The Android Invasion, you're sitting there thinking the story makes no sense whatsoever while you're still watching it.

Now, the idea of a training village for spies is something that had a real-life basis in the USSR. The idea of a weird deserted village full of spies was the basis of numerous episodes of The Champions and other ITC shows. But a training village for androids so they can infiltrate Earth? What?

On top of that silliness, we have some of the stupidest clever aliens in recorded Who history - a bunch of scientists, the Kraals, who have come up with this plan involving androids infiltrating the Earth (or at least the UK countryside) but purely so they can deploy a virus that will kill on life on Earth anyway (a virus that's lethal to them to but which they don't even store in a laboratory or so much as a fume cupboard, let alone a Level 4 containment facility). Only towards the end do they think they should test it on a human being rather than just hoping it'll work because it does in the laboratory. And to top all this off, they actually have a matter disintegration bomb, capable of destroying everything within a specific radius. So what's with the androids again?

Then there's a bad-guy human who's prepared to destroy the world because the Kraals helped him although they couldn't save his eye so he has to wear an eye-patch. Yet apparently, not once did he ever lift up his eyepatch to take a peek… and discover he still has his eye. Why the Kraals couldn't have removed it anyway, I don't know.

Basically, then, a very stupid story fuelled by a need for interesting images: robot versions of Sarah Jane, Benton, et al, and even the Doctor; UNIT soldiers firing machine guns; deserted villages; the incongruities; Sarah's face falling off; the matter disintegrator; the Doctor in action hero mode (not quite up with The Seeds of Doom levels but getting there); the spacesuit aliens with guns for fingers; and more. It all looks good, it's quite exciting, but it doesn't make a lick of sense. You can tell Tombo thinks so, too, because there's a very real season 17ish quality threatening to come out at points, but fortunately, director and producer alike keep him reined in. Thankfully.

Rating: 2/5

DVD Extras:

  • Commentary by Milton Johns (Crayford), Martin Friend (Styggron), Marion McDougal (production assistant) and Philip Hinchcliffe (producer)
  • The Village That Came To Life: cast, crew and local resident look back at the making of the story, presented by Nicholas Briggs
  • Life After Who - Philip Hinchcliffe: the producer recalls his career in British TV and film
  • Weetabix advert
  • PDF material: two Weetabix Doctor Who promotions plus Radio Times listings (DVD ROM)
  • Production information subtitles
  • Photo gallery
  • Coming soon trailer
  • Easter egg
  • Digitally remastered pictures and sound quality

So no Tombo on the commentary - although he'd have probably taken the piss - and Nicholas Briggs trying to do the Mythmakers series again (shudder). But the Philip Hinchcliffe thing looks good, so I might watch that at some point.

Competition time!
Anyway, in case you haven't guessed, I don't want this particular DVD box set, so I'm going to give it away in a competition. Aren't I generous?

To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment below or email me! Usual competition rules apply and you have to live in the UK. Closing date is Sunday 25th March 2012 at 11.59pm. Oh, and make it clear if you don't want to enter the competition and just want to talk about the stories so they I don't accidentally include you.


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