6.2: Invasion of the Earthmen
Some have labelled this one of the show’s nadirs, but I really can’t see it. Sure, the episode has many obligatory, patented Terry Nation SF teleplay clichés, including some quite ridiculous logic, it’s fair share of visual clunkers and a patchy quality betraying its troubled production even to those unaware. But for good stretches, Invasion of the Earthmen is also a quite serviceable more serious-minded episode, even if that’s in direct contrast to the absurdity of its diabolical mastermind’s scheme.
The disarray of the early sixth season was a direct consequence of Thames sticking its oar in, deeming that the curve towards “heightened” material under Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell needed to be slammed into reverse (Clemens suggests it was about internal politics, since outside boys had been responsible for the company’s greatest hit). The result was – briefly – their exit, and the installation of Blackman era story editor and producer John Bryce; a healthy dose of reality would work wonders for the series’ staying power, was the gist of the theory.
When Bryce went south, and back came Clemens and Fennell, there was extensive reworking of material shot under his aegis, and of Tara King’s character; like Macnee, the incoming producers thought Thorson was wrong for the part and show (Clemens claimed she hand no sense of humour, which was why Mother was needed; one suspects, in part, his view was quite so unforgiving because she was an element he had no control over). As a consequence, Tara’s capable ingenue, who makes short work of the villain during the meat of the episode, is reduced to someone requiring judo training from Steed in the bookends (and who doffs her blonde “wig” – a “disguise” – to become a brunette when not investigating the space school).
Brett: You may run anywhere you wish, Miss King. Do try to give them a good chase.
It’s not all positive during the Alpha Academy scenes, though. While Tara is remarkably resourceful at eluding her captors, and overcomes threats involving very fake-looking boa constrictors, scorpions (it looks more convincing in that photo), spiders and boulders, she contrastingly reacts in markedly terrified fashion when faced with a few sewer rats and screams when she falls down a slide your average child at a playground would have no problem with. That said, while one might point to the obviously fake threats as black marks, they’re really no greater impediments to enjoyment than the now customary recourse to obvious studio stand-ins for outdoor sequences and Macnee’s undisguised stunt doubles.
Besides which, the manner in which Brigadier Brett (William Lucas, Range in Frontios, 5.17: Death’s Door) sets his students on Tara could be seen as a prelude to later murderous delights such as A Clockwork Orange and Battle Royale. In terms of the show itself, it echoes both 4.25: A Sense of History (young upstarts) and 5.12: The Superlative Seven (a hunt to the death), with a hint of The Prisoner’s Dance of the Dead as Tara flees the mob.
Brett: Everyone you meet is an enemy and so must be destroyed.
In those terms, the mustard-yellow tops of the Alphas could be seen as a swipe at the “virtuous” fascism of Gene Roddenberry’s bright and aspirant future (as long as it’s the Federation way, it’s acceptable for the universe). Their numbers include future Dim Warren Clarke and future Survivor Lucy Fleming (showing a particularly sadistic streak) as well as Christian Roberts (To Sir With Love, Dr Renor in Blake’s 7’s Breakdown, UFO’s The Long Sleep) and Chris Chittell (The Tomorrow People).
The subplot in which Huxton (Roberts) and Bassin (Chittell) are sent out on night survival (a “seek and destroy” assignment – “Only one of you must return”) is a baffling piece of Nation plotting. It essentially means a minimum of half of all trainees won’t survive the Academy (and such culling of candidates would inevitably attract unwanted attention). It’s nevertheless also effectively grim in sensibility. There’s no sudden admission of gratitude or glimmer of humanity when Tara warns Huxton of an attempt on his life; he proceeds to let fly an arrow at her. And her being carried off aloft by her captors is suggestive of a sacrificial rite, rather than a precision-trained military unit.
Brett: This is the future, Miss King. The new worlds of space hanging like ripe plums in the sky waiting for the first men who have the courage to snatch them.
The more overtly SF elements may not stand up to much scrutiny, but the “humpty dumpty” spaceman suit is a suitably bizarre inclusion that strikes just the right blend of silly and surreal. Brett’s scheme, though… He plans to allow the East and West to strike out and explore new worlds and then, taking advantage of their technological development, “I shall lead my army into these new worlds and colonise them. My army of astronauts”. To do this, he needs to wage war on other space explorers, “To wipe them out, Miss King. I will invade the new territories out there while the world makes formal protests and looks to the rule books”.
If this doesn’t exhibit a slender enough grip on feasibility, when Tara comments that it will take fifty years to reach that point (secret space programmes allowing), he shows her his advances in cryobiology, whereby eighty students (presumably all victors of night survival training) have been frozen at their physical peak. Hopefully they’ll be successfully thawed out.
Steed: I’m afraid I’m in the Civil Service now.
Brett: Yes, it does happen.
As mentioned, there aren’t a great number of laughs here. Steed’s introduction to Brett has its moments, noting he was once in the military but is now a civil servant, and introducing Tara as his wife… his second, that is, explaining the seventeen-year-old son prospectively joining the Academy. Avoiding a mantrap, Steed observes, “That’s no way to catch rabbits”. Brett remarks on the deficiencies of boa constrictors, which are “incurably lazy after a meal. The boa constrictor Mr Grant encountered will sleep for at least another three weeks” (Grant, an old colleague of Steed set upon in the teaser, is played by George Roubicek, Hopper in The Tomb of the Cybermen, as well an Imperial Officer in Star Wars and Luke in 2.21: The White Dwarf).
As far as Steed is concerned, this is really more of a Tara showcase (appropriately enough, being Thorson’s first filmed episode). They (unwisely) split up as soon as they arrive on the grounds, after which the lion’s share of the action goes to her, before they converge once more in the tunnel. Which offers a series of – unconvincing – tests to find the student’s greatest fear; in that respect, it’s not dissimilar to Vengeance on Varos’ rather underwhelming televised ordeals.
Tara: What will it be? A quite tête-à-tête? Dinner in the country? A ride in the park?
Macnee’s doing everything required, and looking very trim (he lost two stone between seasons), but there’s a pervading sense this just isn’t right; Tara’s more like a Doctor Who assistant to Steed’s mentor, ironic given Thorson’s insistence it should be obvious she and Steed were having a sexual relationship. Of which, the cues are just that bit too unsubtle, including Miss King – the only episode Steed addresses her this way – coming to the bedroom door in a hyper-short dressing gown. Her being all eyes for Steed is faintly embarrassing, and the sight of him showing up, sans tie, reeks of past-it old guy trying to get down with the kids. There was never a hint of such desperation with Mrs Peel.
Which rather means the episodes in the final season are altogether more successful when they aren’t trying to kindle something for which there’s no real spark (usually taking place in the bookends). When the Avengers are doing their avenging, the season is an oft-underrated one, but I don’t really want to know what kind of practice Steed had in mind with Tara in the coda. Certainly not brushing up on her judo.