Making Contact – Why I love The Invisible Enemy


Image Credit: Neil Thompson (CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: K9 at the Doctor Who Exhibition

By Matthew Kilburn 

Doctor Who puts the universe in a box; not to confine it but to turn the box inside out, and show to those who behold it myriad wonders and terrors.. The Invisible Enemy (1977) is a journey into outer space and the further future, but where the battlefield isn’t a distant world but the body itself. The shortcuts the production takes are invitations to the viewer to add more detail. While recognizably part of a cycle of stories about possession and transformation which had dominated the previous few series, it also points to the shape of Doctor Who under new producer Graham Williams, with more invitations to new worlds with relatable inhabitants. 

In the first half of The Invisible Enemy the viewer makes new friends, only to lose most of them almost immediately. The Titan relief crew of Safran, Meeker and Silvey are recognizable types. To children and parents watching, they might be dads going to work, almost numbed by routine, weary before their shift on Titan has even started. For a series which in the previous few years had a number of on-screen possessions begin with the moment when the alien element entered its human host, The Invisible Enemy introduces the infection of the shuttle crew surprisingly obliquely. The first voice to announce that “Contact has been made” – writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin seem to have enjoyed catchphrases – is the Nucleus of the Swarm itself. No superimposed lightning bolts illustrate the infection of the hapless crew. Instead we get one of the most lyrical model sequences in the series’ history. The Titan shuttlecraft lands as a character in its own right. It moves from space to the landing platform, being passed from chamber to chamber carved from rock before the crew can disembark. It marries film and video footage and techniques with aplomb. That’s just what Doctor Who did, when it was recognized for the best special effects on television. There’s a sinister edge to the sequence, though, in the absence of a human voice; we’ve got to know our grumbling crew in a few well-crafted strokes, and the three are unnaturally silent. Safran’s hands on the shuttle controls are mechanical in their precision; there’s neither lethargy nor flair. Their faces in shadow, the crew lower the visors on their helmets, a signal to the viewer to anticipate with dread the unmasking of something horrible. The outgoing Titan base staff are brutally murdered, their joy at going home stifled without any sign of empathy or compassion. Their successors reveal their faces – the areas around their eyes now covered in fish-like scales and sprouting white bristles. 

Louise Jameson’s Leela is plunged into the unfamiliar from the beginning, the warm, protective library-chapel of the Season Fourteen TARDIS control room replaced with something antiseptic and unwelcoming, where imaginative discussion about dimensional transcendentalism is superseded by dull and backward-seeming handwriting lessons. Play has become torture. The change prefigures the subversion of the TARDIS and the Doctor themselves. The 

Doctor’s infection first manifests as a flu-like disorientation, a visual signal of a break in narrative convention, that from now on the Doctor might not be reliable. The signs of cognitive dysfunction such as vocabulary confusion and poor co-ordination anticipate that once Safran and colleagues have – presumably – increased the Doctor’s viral load, Tom Baker can turn the Doctor into a dead-voiced husk. I admire this turn and the extra sibillance he brings to the Doctor as he tries to persuade Leela to reveal herself. 

Leela briefly gains a companion in Lowe. Lowe’s story is a development of that of the luckless relief crew. He’s initially a mild- mannered desk man with a suppressed enthusiasm for adventure; played by Michael Sheard in a manner reminiscent of his Laurence Scarman in Pyramids of Mars two years before. The audience is misled into expecting a story-long partnership. Instead, Lowe’s appealing humanity and his curiosity are his downfall. The end of Part One sees Lowe infected and Leela seemingly about to fall at the Doctor’s hand. It thrillingly extends the audience’s expectations of what Doctor Who might do, and makes Leela central to the recovery of the format. Before the Doctor of Hope, there was Leela as the last representative of humanity, armed with a knife against an unknowable entity which had taken the body and mind of her best friend and was preparing to shoot her down with a blaster. 

Part Two exchanges the sparse Titan base for the busier environment of a hospital, the Bi-Al Foundation. Leela’s unfamiliarity with bureaucracy is as discomfiting as the dehumanizing of the shuttle crew in the previous episode. In contrast with the rest of the station, the domesticity of Professor Marius’s consulting room is pleasing. Frederick Jaeger rapidly establishes Marius as brittle but essentially kindly, the centre of a surrogate family including a mobile computer shaped like a dog. His initial suspicion of the Doctor gives way to an easy rapport which emphasises their similarity as scientists and eccentrics and might arouse justified suspicions that the mobile computer might be around for longer than this serial alone. He even calls the Doctor “My boy,” a paternal beside manner which aligns the Doctor firmly with the younger wing of the audience. Like almost everyone we get to know at all well in this story, he is taken over by the virus, but is the only person other than the Doctor whom we see cured. 

Like Baker and Martin’s earlier serial The Three Doctors (1972/3), this is a multi-Doctor story; but in 1977 more than one Doctor could only mean more than one Tom Baker. The duplication of the Doctor and Leela never hides its gimmickry, but it’s more than a novelty. The quest for the Nucleus of the Swarm begins as Fantastic Voyage quasi-verisimilitude, but rapidly becomes abstraction. The word which kept coming to mind was stagecraft. Director Derrick Goodwin’s Wikipedia page emphasises his theatrical background and watching The Invisible Enemy this time, I found myself wondering at the hybridity of performance environments representing the Doctor’s brain, achieved by ambitious set design, careful colour separation overlay, and reliable split screen. The cumulative effect is to contextualize as figurative the realization of the Nucleus of the Swarm, embedded in a frame covered with black drapes, suggesting a necrotizing nodule. It’s a bravura statement by designer Barry Newbery. 

The climax of Part Three reveals the Nucleus in its physical monstrousness, albeit ready to be dismissed by the Doctor early in Part Four as an eminently beatable “pathetic crustacean”. The serial returns to a parallel between the virus’s infestation of the body, and humanity as a destructive force in the universe which should have stayed close to Earth. Human empires in 1970s Doctor Who tend to be commentaries on the British Empire. Script editor Robert Holmes’s work displays a baleful attitude towards imperialism. He is pessimistic about the benefits of colonialism even when superficially supportive of empire as a stage in a narrative of progress. The climax on Titan might arguably be shaped by a reluctance to allow imperialists redemption. A goodies-versus-baddies structure refuses Safran and Lowe the chance of a cure, as both are quickly dispatched. Prevented by Lowe from exposing the Nucleus and its Swarm to the antidote, the Doctor instead blows up Titan base. Perhaps this explosion sets back the human empire as another did the Daleks three series before, albeit presented as collateral damage. The Doctor almost leaves the companion who owes her existence to this instalment of human colonization behind. Instead, he, Leela and K9 form a new domestic unit. It’s a structure which will change Doctor Who, but for now it subtly reinforces both the series’ scepticism towards the imperial myths from which its speculative futures draw, and the inside-out cosy bohemianism of its wandering protagonists.These rebels against the regulators of the working and learning week are the heroes of weekends; contact was unmade for two precious days, and we were glad of it and them. 

The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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