I’m coming to the conclusion that Doctor Who isn’t very good at endings. This is easily the weakest episode of the story, with far too much wandering about, the Doctor solving everything with a massive gun, and then forgetting all about it. It’s very “that’ll do”. And it’s bizarre that the De-Mat gun should be the solution to the Sontaran threat, when constructing it relies so much on secret presidential knowledge. If there had to be a particularly boring and secret super weapon, it might have been a better pay off to the long game with the Vardans rather than improvised off the cuff.
Derek Deadman is no Kevin Lindsay. He whispers like an Ice Warrior and sounds like Ian Dury (cue laboured Ian Stor-y and the Potato Heads’ Hit Me With Your Swagger Stick joke). The Sontarans are generally a good choice for this though, having assessed Gallifrey’s military potential as far back as The Time Warrior and, with their endless clone army, being a more credibly formidable threat than the Cybermen, and a more thuggish contrast to the genteel Time Lords than the Daleks. This lot look suitably robust and solid as they march through the Capitol.
‘Disappointing, aren’t they?’ Like The Invisible Enemy, this makes a joke of its rubbish “monsters”, although unlike The Invisible Enemy there are better monsters waiting until the end of the episode to make an appearance. I really like this: if the Vardans had just been rubbish it would feel a bit contemptuous to the audience, but it’s all part of the build to that rug-pulling climax and the return of the Sontarans.
Looking past some of the design deficiencies (the green plastic furniture on Gallifrey is horrid, and makes this look like Bi-Al’s Kasterborous branch) this is pretty good. I really like the location filming, which – intentionally or otherwise – has the burned orange sky Susan mentions in The Sensorites, and has become the template of Gallifrey for the new series in a way that the blasted heath of The Five Doctors hasn’t.
Some of the jokes in this are very broad indeed. ‘Even the sonic screwdriver can’t get me out of this one,’ sounds like it was written explicitly for clip compilations, and the Doctor’s bit of jelly baby business with Andred is cute, as is his playing hopscotch through the Capitol and talking to Borusa’s empty chair. Elsewhere the script has a pleasingly dry wit, like the Castellan’s comment that the old-looking Gomer is ‘young yet, and impetuous’. Tom Baker even consents to deliver some bafflegab in a nice back-and-forth exchange with a (very noisy) K9.
It can’t be a coincidence that The Invasion of Time is one of the first Doctor Who stories to be made in the wake of Star Wars. The opening model shot – of a small ship dwarfed by a much larger one flying overhead – is a visual reference. But more than that, like Star Wars this begins in medias res: the story is already underway, with none of the familiar scene setting we’ve been used to for the last 15 years. The grammar of SF storytelling is changing, and this is one of the first beneficiaries.
Even as they face imminent destruction, the Seers sound about as interested by this as I feel. Transposing myths to sci-fi settings is going to be a recurring and unloved genre in the Graham Williams seasons in serials by Baker and Martin, and Anthony Read. Possibly the producer thought they could do better than this.
This rumbles on without much energy or conviction, with endless scenes of people wandering about, or K9 apparently floating across the rocky cave floor. The cliffhanger reprise features a shot of the Doctor fiddling with the sonic screwdriver that seems to go on forever and sets the scene for a sluggishly-paced episode where Alan Lake’s gurning, Welsh fury and Louise Jameson are the only people that look like they’re trying (the scene where Idas asks if he can travel with the Doctor and Leela is so stumblingly done it looks like improv). By all accounts this was a fairly unhappy serial to record. It’s barely much happier to watch.
‘Welcome to the underworld.’ It’s a thankless task having to follow Robert Holmes with another script about a downtrodden slave class rising up against their masters. The difference with The Sun Makers is that we’ve been led to care about Cordo, whereas the ‘Trogs’ here are introduced in a scene that’s worse than the villagers in Planet of the Spiders, as the rebel leader implores, with no conviction, ‘May the sky fall on your families.’ Plus we also meet a lot of guards who dress like Darth Vader if they’d kept Dave Prowse’s voice, waffling on about sacrifices to the Oracle. It’s a lot to take in when we’ve barely got to know the R1C crew (who sort of fade into the background now), and the result is an episode that doesn’t seem to have much of a through line, just a bunch of stuff that’s thrown at us.
Something that I’d never really noticed until this pilgrimage was the gradual snowballing of Time Lord continuity well before the 1980s. They didn’t exist before 1969 and were largely noises off during the Pertwee years (barring the reveal of Omega’s feat of stellar engineering). But under Robert Holmes their planet got a name, we’ve learned more about their grubby history and moribund society. Underworld, fittingly, positions itself as another important reveal of Time Lord mythology: the reason why they’re strict non-interventionists (except where Earth, Uxaerius, Peladon, Solos, Skaro or Karn are concerned).