Part Three: “The Faceless Ones”

By Jack Kibble-White

First published September 2000

Which are Doctor Who‘s most po-faced stories do you think? Some of the later stories featuring Jon Pertwee in the title role might come to mind. What about the last series of Tom Baker’s reign? Or the harsh works created by mid ’80s script editor, Eric Saward. Most fantastical television will chuck the viewer a humorous bone at some point, even if it is just to momentarily concede the essential silliness of at the heart of the conceit of their drama. It’s a high-risk strategy, but one equally risky to ignore completely. But let’s face it: telefantasy is high risk. The middle of the ’90s found us lost in a post-X Files televisual landscape. Its ripples could be tangibly seen in the US, (represented by such series as Nowhere Man and Millennium). Here – with the exception of ITV’s Bliss broadcast in 1995 – our TV had been slower to react. Sucking in the latest US import seemed more palatable then attempting to contribute something new. Yet Mulder and Scully’s paranormal investigations had heightened the British public’s curiosity in the supernatural. Pre-millennial angst was often used to explain away the popularity of The Fortean Times, crop circles and Bonnybridge. Yet it is difficult not to apportion almost the entirety of the blame onto the two American investigators.

Invasion: Earth‘s genesis certainly owes something to this lineage. Writer Jed Mercurio: “I was working in Scotland at the time and there was a lot of talk about a place called Bonnybridge … The success of The X Files meant all of a sudden there was a real market for [telefantasy] and there were lots of people in television talking about doing a science fiction show.” Mercurio’s mind began to wander as he tried to explore the logical consequences of a crashed UFO. The series went through a substantial gestation period as the writer struggled to decide exactly what his story should be about. Beginning life as Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, it took the contribution of a number of other writers to thrash out the drama that eventually appeared on our screens. In retrospect one can perhaps detect the presence of a “committee” within the production – there certainly seems to be a dislocation between Mercurio’s initial vision and the final product. Mercurio had described his previous, and more authorial work – Cardiac Arrest as a “socio-realistic revisionist drama of hospital life”, and whilst he may have brought similar pioneering thinking to the Invasion: Earth table, it is obvious that others were conspiring to ensure that regardless of the writer’s intentions, this would become “event television”. Extensively trailed prior to broadcast, Doctor Who fans were already suspicious. Although never explicitly packaged as such, it was easy for particularly sensitive Whovians to perceive this to be the BBC’s riposte to their favourite programme. Indeed, Invasion: Earth was to be the first in-house science fiction serial scheduled as post-watershed drama since Quatermass. The BBC was acting as if it had been hiding in its room until its ugly sci-fi acne had disappeared.

Roger Fulton aptly sums up Invasion: Earth describing it as never really catching fire. There is a machismo that undermines almost every aspect. All of the central characters are tiresome in their stoicism and dry black humour. Cast as Squadron Leader Helen Knox, Phyllis Logan has obviously been given mandate to play it as butch as she can. Whilst Mercurio strives to populate the story with moments of emotional light and shade, his characters appear only able to express their true feelings through coded, quasi-militaristic exchanges. In the end no one loves anyone, they all seem besotted with accruing personal honour and fighting “the cause”. These are aspirations more akin to the Klingons than either Agent Mulder or Scully. The plot too plays it butch: we have to tough it out as – in the end – Mercurio offers us no escape from the extra terrestrial threat. Whilst some may applaud his willingness not to provide the audience with a happy ending, it is equally easy to view the “realistic” ending as evidence of an underlying lack of confidence in the genre. There is much here to embitter the telefantasy fan who has previously held no issues with the BBC’s contribution to telefantasy.

There is little about Invasion: Earth that is immediately comparable with Doctor Who. The closest match is probably the 1988 story “Remembrance of the Daleks”. Like Invasion: Earth there is a certain fascination for military and machismo which as in Mercurio’s work, results in characters spewing forth an ongoing ironic commentary on their situation. Although revered at the time, “Remembrance of the Daleks” proved to be as much of “The Army Lark” as fans were willing to take. The following year’s “Battlefield” (by the same author) received a lukewarm reaction. Stripped of the quasi-realism of the Dalek story, it could not sustain the same wisecracking characterization and became very tiresome very quickly. Having played the Doctor as something of a clown for the first two years of his tenure, Sylvester McCoy had felt the wrath of fans embarrassed by his light-hearted stylings, and had set about altering his performance accordingly. Thus, an Invasion: Earth style Doctor Who might well have been the type of extreme credibility that McCoy would have relished. It is easy to visualize him assuming Dr Amanda Tucker’s explanatory role, acting on little more than scientific hunches. On second thoughts, there is much supportive evidence to build up a credible case: Invasion: Earth is a chilling representation of what Doctor Who might have become had its production team continued to perceive mainstream credibility as the programme’s Holy Grail.

Just two months after the first episode of Invasion: Earth had been transmitted, Channel 4′s only significant foray in to telefantasy to date (apart from Max Headroom in April 1985 and Cold Lazarus in May 1996) was broadcast. Like its BBC cousin, Ultraviolet promised to be a slick and stylish exploration into the fantastic. It too was the brainchild of an enfant terrible with a track record for edgy, fashionable television. Writer/Director Joe Ahearne had contributed to the much talked about This Life; and although not as touted as the series’ principal script writer Amy Jenkins, he did appear to be “one to watch”. Talk then of the combination of writer Ahearne with This Life‘s Jack Davenport did much to imbue the production with a similar allure to the well-publicised Invasion: Earth. This drama seemed to have been borne using the same mental process as the BBC series. Although Ultraviolet concerned vampires, the line of thought Ahearne pursued was much the same as that which underpinned Invasion: Earth: what would be the logical consequence if this actually happened?

Although the obvious remarks about a “British X Files” abounded, the series’ pre-publicity was keen to draw comparisons with a more respected work: Ahearne’s quick-witted direction and desire to force the viewer to discern meaning from rapid, sparse dialogue recalled Martin Campbell’s tense direction of Edge of Darkness. The use of high-tech equipment and overtones of Government involvement at the highest level was also more Bob Peck than David Duchovny in execution. Yet it was not just in the surface details that Ultraviolet was to prove itself a credible piece of work. Unlike Invasion: Earth there was a coherence to Ultraviolet‘s complicated storyline. A contemporaneous review in science fiction magazine SFX drew attention to the series’ ability to layer double bluff on top of bluff: “Sounds straightforward? Well it isn’t. The hunters are a shady bunch whom the vampires allege are being funded by the Vatican. The vampires, meanwhile, claim they don’t vampirize anyone who doesn’t want to be; while the hunters deny this, there’s little proof to the contrary. Get the idea?”

Davenport’s involvement signalled his first significant post-This Life television role, thus ensuring there were two distinct constituents who would be drawn to Ultraviolet. It is in the series’ attempts to placate both sets of viewers that we are most clearly able to check for compromise. Channel 4 had no significant reputation for telefantasy and thus the programme was relatively unhindered by telefantasist’s desire to perceive some cynical sideswipe directed towards their favourite preoccupation. By the time of broadcast, Invasion: Earth was already proving to be something of a disappointment. Thus, circumstances ensured that the relative merits of Ultraviolet were likely to be accentuated by a disillusioned public. In truth, Ultraviolet is a distinctly better production than Invasion: Earth. Fatally, Mercurio’s hypothesizing produced little new dramatically, instead concentrating on the likely scientific developments that would accompany the capture of an extra terrestrial. Ahearne’s perception of how a vampiric race might coexist within humanity allowed him to force his characters into moments of moral uncertainty, and thus actual human drama. Admittedly, the inclusion of “personal grudges” for each of the “hunters” overcooked things somewhat, however such emotional involvement did allow for some good solid drama as each of the main protagonists was forced to consider the possibility that their “objects of hate” might not be as morally corrupt as they had first conveniently believed.

So, in many ways a similar prospect to Invasion: Earth, yet here the components of the drama seemed to gel much better. This too, is resolutely not Doctor Who. There is no place for eccentricity or frivolity within the confines of Ultraviolet. Whilst it contains the type of street-cred that Doctor Who‘s production team would have killed for, this is a “slick and hollow” (SFX again) piece of work that tells an engaging story without inhabiting it with anybody you are able to have empathetic feelings for. Doctor Who is not able to carve out a long-term future without likeable characters, and the absence of light to complement Ultraviolet‘s shade whilst perhaps – once again – suiting the darkening predisposition of McCoy’s incarnation, would inhibit the Time Lord’s famously “go anywhere, be anything” formula.

Up until now it has been a rather disappointing sojourn across a decade of telefantasy: characterized by those who did not try and those who tried too much. The final episode will take in a tour around the remaining prominent contributions and allow us to reflect upon the last 10 years. We will descend into the lower levels to complete our survey of all things televisually fantastical, and then rise again in to the bright lights of Saturday night tea time to consider how next our Time Lord friend might evolve.

<Part Two