Wednesday 22 April 2015

The Invaders, season one (1967)

The Invaders, which aired on the US ABC  network from January 1967 to March 1968, is one of the many TV series and movies to take its inspiration from the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie.

All these series and movies could be described as belonging to the secret alien invasion paranoia genre. The basic idea of course is that we are facing an invasion by aliens who look just like us. Anybody could be an alien. No-one can be trusted. There is always one person, or sometimes two, who knows the truth but no-one will believe them.

The opening episode, Beachhead, sets things up pretty effectively. It gives us enough information to get us interested but wisely it doesn’t attempt to fill in any details. We know as much as the hero knows. He is aware that he has stumbled onto something big and that it involves aliens here on Earth. At this stage neither Vincent nor the audience knows anything about the origins of the aliens, or their intentions, or their methods. He knows they can be ruthless. This first episode also adds an intriguing suggestion of ambiguity - perhaps not all the aliens are entirely hostile and perhaps there is some disagreement among them about their policy towards humanity.

At four o’clock in the morning architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes), returning in his car from a business meeting, loses his way and finds himself at a deserted diner. He sees a flying saucer land, and that’s all he remembers. He is, perhaps a little naïvely, determined to alert the authorities. Not surprisingly the police think he was over-tired and imagined the whole thing. But David Vincent knows what he saw and his life will never be the same again.

The second episode, The Experiment, gives us a bit more information. We learn something of the capabilities and the methods of the aliens and we get an inkling that they may be more well established on Earth than David Vincent originally thought. This episode also reinforces the all-pervading atmosphere of paranoia as Vincent discovers just how careful he has to be in deciding whether or not to trust anyone else with his knowledge.

The Mutation offers some more hints that the aliens may be divided against themselves and that some aliens may be potential allies. The Leeches picks up on ideas about brainwashing that were so popular in the late 50s and early 60s. The next couple of episodes are just treading water but things pick up in episode 7, Nightmare. Killer insects are always fun and this story definitely has the kind of vibe that the better episodes of The X-Files had.

The difficulty with a series with this kind of premise is to keep coming up with new and interesting conspiracies on the part of the aliens. The Innocent adds mind control to the mix, with a fairly well-done dream sequence.

The premise of the series is fairly dark to begin with but with episodes 10 (The Ivy Curtain) and 11 (The Betrayed) it takes a very dark turn indeed - surprisingly so for a 1967 American network TV series. This works well, emphasising just how high the stakes are in this contest and the personal price David Vincent will have to pay.

The Invaders first went to air as a mid-season replacement which is why the first season comprises only seventeen episodes. This was followed by a full second season, which sadly proved to be the last.

The special effects are quite adequate by the standards of 1960s television and there are some reasonably impressive (and effectively sinister) sets. The production values are quite respectable.

Roy Thinnes makes an effective hero. He comes across as a fairly ordinary kind of guy but with a strong streak of determination and stubbornness and just a hint of obsessiveness, but without overdoing things. He isn’t impossibly brave or impossibly clever - he just doesn’t give up.

It’s very important in a series like this not to make the aliens excessively omnipotent. They have to be capable of making mistakes, but they still have to be convincingly menacing. Both the hero and his alien adversaries have to suffer their share of setbacks. The mistake made much later in The X-Files was to make the odds against the hero just a little bit too high so that he never really seemed likely to win. The Invaders manages to avoid this pitfall - at times David Vincent seems like he is getting close to success. The X-Files did copy one important ingredient from the Invaders - just when David Vincent seems to have found the evidence he needs to convince the authorities that evidence always seems to vanish completely.

The parallels between The Invaders and The X-Files are quite close. In both cases the hero knows the truth but he can’t prove it and in both cases he finds himself labelled as a nut. In both cases the hero faces enemies who have infiltrated themselves into positions of power and influence, and apparent respectability. In both cases the hero is faced with the problem of not being able to trust anyone. The principal difference is that the aliens in The Invaders are the only enemy - the government is often unhelpful or even obstructive but it isn’t the enemy. This means that the paranoia level is not quite as overwhelming as in The X-Files but the advantage is that the conflict seems slightly more evenly balanced.

The Region 2 The Invaders Believers Box includes commentary tracks for a couple of episode, interviews with star Roy Thinnes plus the extended version of the pilot episode, Beachhead. The extended pilot includes a few extra scenes that are rather interesting. They could be seen as vaguely suggesting an alternative explanation for the events of this episode. On balance I think the episode works better in its shorter form. The Invaders is not a series like The X-Files where we start off not being sure if the protagonist is correct in his suspicions. It’s made clear right from the get-go that this is no delusion - this is all too real. The deleted scenes undermine this certainty just a little. That could have been interesting if they had wanted to go down that path but if they had it would have been a very different series. Given the way the series actually pans out that would have been a distraction. The tension in this series comes from the fact that we are as sure as David Vincent that what he has seen is real, even if he has extreme difficulty in persuading any of the other characters of this. 

The extra scenes also give us a little of the backstory on David Vincent’s past and this is also something that on balance is an unnecessary distraction. We already have a fair idea of the sort of man he is and that’s really all we need to know about him.

It’s interesting to compare The Invaders to the excellent and very underrated 1965 British science fiction TV series Undermind. Undermind’s basic premise is very similar and it also has large helpings of paranoia as the protagonists slowly come to realise they can only trust each other. Undermind suffers from that mid-60s filmed-live-on-videotape look characteristic of British television of that era. The Invaders looks a lot more impressive although Undermind perhaps has slightly more ambitious and interesting ideas.

The Invaders is classic paranoia science fiction and highly entertaining to boot. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the second season of this series.

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