Doctor Who #460: The Invisible Enemy Part 1

"That's the trouble with computers. Always think in black and white. No aquamarines, no blues, no imagination." (The computer I shared with my brother back in the 90s had an edited .wav of this file that went "That's the trouble with computers... no imagination" when it shut down, so the line is very dear to me beyond its obvious wit. (If you must know, emptying the trashcan had it going "EXTERMINATE!". We were nothing if not consistent.)
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Oct.1 1977.

IN THIS ONE... Something infects a shuttle crew bound to Titan, and then the Doctor.

REVIEW: It's a return to the classic console room look (give or take a bigger TV), just in time for a return to space opera, which the show hasn't done in a good while. It's really too bad about the Victorian-style room. Apparently, the sets warped in storage. Still, it gives this serial a more coherent look. Unfortunately, that look is wobbly models and wobbly sets (just look at Michael Sheard's Lowe hitting the distress button)! Oh, it's not quite that bad, I quite like the vistas outside the windows, the use of a special futuristic font, the intriguing smoke effect used for the virus' home, and the approach to Titan looks nice. See Versions for the CGI effects available on the DVD as an alternate viewing experience, but what's there is fine for the time. You sometimes wonder whether people are shooting or just gesticulating, since there's only ever an effect on the receiving end, and the shuttle (based on real shuttle designs, thank you very much) are obviously directed by strings, but they're a product of their time... of course, they time was the year Star Wars was released, but Doctor Who's on a very different budget.

Baker and Martin return to the program with their usual high concepts and tenuous grasp on science fact with the story of a space virus that can infect machines and people alike, but not Leela apparently. It does crank her intuitive powers a notch and its mere presence, out there, causes her to suck on the Doctor's scarf in apprehension. This is quite a cute episode for Leela - wearing the Doctor's hat, learning to write her name, etc. - but they almost overdo it with the parroting of every word she doesn't understand. At least the Doctor points it out, so it's a knowing gag, not a script problem per se. She's still proactive though, and tries to stop the Doctor from leaving the TARDIS. I AM annoyed they don't show how the conflict was resolved, and I almost expected the infected Doctor to get the better of her violently. He plays a dual role here, creepy when he's taken over, and pleading with the voice in his head when he isn't. Host to a viral nucleus he may be, but he's a resistant one. It's not an instant takeover. Even after he's zapped, we still get a lot of the Doctor we love, trying to get attention with a duck call, and telling Leela not to wander off just seconds too late.

The guest characters are simply and quickly drawn before being turned into a butterfly-eyed death squad, so you do feel for them, if briefly. I like the irony of Meeker rebelling against the auto-pilot, frustrated by his boring career, just before he's taken over and PUT on auto-pilot. A similar foreshadowing occurs in the TARDIS when the Doctor talks about humanity spreading out among the stars like a virus. Soon, HE'S turned into a furry-handed piece of the monster's reproductive cycle. So with all these people going monotone, it's nice to have steady old Michael Sheard to identify with, scared and brave and suffering and making friends with Leela, which is all the more horrible when the virus takes him over. Alas.

THEORIES: So it's 5000 A.D., the year of the great breakout when man skipped off to the stars? What about Magnus Greel's Ice Age and 6th Word War in the same time frame? Maybe people elsewhere in the system were taking it as their cue to leave Sol already and good riddance. But more importantly, what about the all those stories that took place in the second and third millennium? The base on Titan looks no more advanced, say, than Zoe's starbase in 2090. And for sure, Frontier in Space showed an Earth Empire that was having trouble with its neighbors in 2450. It's not a clean timeline, but it's one that can be resolved from onscreen evidence. Some colonies were obviously founded over the next couple thousand years, but in The Mutants (30th century), the Empire was collapsing, recalling those colonies. By The Daleks Master Plan (4000), we have a Solar System that's a world onto itself, in danger of falling prey to various powers coordinated by the Daleks. 1000 years later, is seems earth isn't so hospitable anymore (Greel and such), and the solar system's probably been exploited a great deal. We're ready to move on, and all those factors make it so a lot of people do it at the same time, ergo a "great break out".

VERSIONS: For the best possible experience, watch it with the CGI effects on (purists need not apply, of course). First off, they remove a lot of problematic model work while still respecting the originals' look and intent. The flight through the asteroid field has more dynamic camera shots, and the field doesn't look as cut and paste. The approach to Titan has been redone (too bad, I like the original), to get Saturn appropriately closer to its moon, and it beautifully dominates the sky on the landing, which has been further enhanced with retrorockets and a definite lack of wobbliness. The attack by the space smoke, interesting though it was, is turned into a better looking, if a bit unoriginal, Mutara Nebula-type cloud, but the electrics and camera angles are much better. What the CGI effects also do is make the gun battle scenes much more visceral by adding a continuous (and frankly violent) beam from each gun. Now you can see who's shooting who, and when Lowe's gun is shot out of his hand, there's even some nasty debris flying around. (This will become especially important in later episodes, where the action scenes as shot are incredibly limp, like a big game of laser tag.) Finally, are some glowy touch-ups to the infection zap, to make it seem more organic and less like a video effect. Overall, the effects take the episode up a notch.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High
- We spend some quality time aboard the TARDIS, but it doesn't detract from setting up the time, location and threat, which are all pretty well realized.

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