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14 January 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 379: Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Episode One

Dear diary,

And here I am – full circle. You see, Invasion of the Dinosaurs was my very first exposure to proper, telly, Doctor Who. I’d seen Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD once before when I was younger, and despite growing up (mostly) during the ‘Wilderness Years’, I had a vague idea of the programme - it’s a part of British cultural heritage. These days, I think you’re almost born with knowledge of what a TARDIS and a Dalek is, but back then it was a combination of older family members making jokes about the series, or episodes of Blue Peter produced by Richard Marson which made reference to it. Through general osmosis, I had a vague idea that it was about an alien who travelled through time and to alien planets fighting monsters.

So, let me set the scene. I’m in the local library, trying to choose a VHS to rent (remember those days?). I’m picky when it comes to watching things. I don’t really like films, you see. Unless it’s something that I’m really invested in, I just don’t have the patience for them. I much prefer a TV series, where you can watch the story unfold over a number of episodes, and see the evolution of the characters and the situation over time. I’d always choose series over film, and it’s telling that my collection of titles (on DVD and Blu-Ray, now, as opposed to tape) is somewhere around 85-90% television.

Anyway. Having spent an age trying to pick something, I finally noticed a Doctor Who tape in the ‘new releases’ section. Knowing vaguely that it was a TV show, and checking the number of episodes, I picked it up and took it home. Now, as many of my readers are likely to know, Episode One of this story only survives in the BBC’s archive as a black-and-white print. The other five are in full colour, but this first instalment is presented monochrome. The back cover to the tape even makes note of this: Episode One is in black and white. Due to the archive nature of this material, the sound and quality may vary occasionally..

That night, I took the tape next door to my grandparents to watch it with them. I was keen to see it in the company of someone who would remember the programme. Confidently, I told them that this was the very first Doctor Who story to be shot in colour – but that they’d only started with the second episode. I’m not sure how I’d managed to interpret that blurb text in this way, but for the next few years, I seriously believed that the series had been black and white until Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Episode Two.

I can’t actually remember when I realised that this wasn’t the case. It was probably sometime around the programme’s return to TV in 2005, when I started to take a greater interest in all things Doctor Who. I remember thinking that it was an odd decision. Why not just start a week earlier and do this whole story in colour? Still, I didn’t really care, because the episode looks great in black and white – it really suits the story. For the DVD release a couple of years back, they were able to partially recover colour for this episode, though it wasn’t presented as the default as there wasn’t the time nor resources available to recolour it in the same way as we’ve seen for The Mind of Evil or Planet of the Daleks.

I gave that version a watch when I first picked up the DVD and - while it’s not perfect - it’s watchable. It’s nice to see the episode presented in a format closer to the original transmission, but for me the black-and-white remains the default for these 23-and-a-half minutes. The episode just looks so good presented in this way. The best examples come during the pterodactyl attack in the warehouse, where a great use of shadow is really given depth by the lack of colour, and it’s almost as though you’re supposed to watch it this way.

This first episode aside, I’ve not actually seen this story again in full since that initial viewing, though I can recall enjoying it a lot at the time. It’s not hard to see why based on this beginning. Things hit the ground running, with some beautiful shots of a deserted London. It’s often noted that director Paddy Russell took out a small skeleton crew some weeks (or months) before shooting officially began, because she knew that this wads the only way to get the required shots. It’s completely worth it, though, because in the space of the opening 60-seconds, we’re brought right up to speed that all of London is deserted.

We move from shots of recognisable tourist spots - the Embankment and Trafalgar Square - to more suburban areas, where the shot of a lone dog scavenging for food could almost be direct from a zombie film. The shots are hugely evocative, and it’s the first time in a while that the Pertwee era has felt so real. When we’re running around with UNIT sometimes, it can still feel somewhat devoid of reality, because they’re investigating strange going-ons in a high tech scientific establishment, or a prison, or a fair ground. It’s good to get some link to very well known places to remind us that all of this is taking place against a back drop of the real world.

And from then, it doesn’t let up! As with The Tomb of the Cybermen being my favourite story, this episode being my first means that I’m probably being a little bit more lenient with it than I perhaps should be, but I really do love it. The Doctor and Sarah searching the empty streets is great. The comeuppance to the first looter we meet (and the shot of the ruined car!) is great. The Brigadier having to stand up to his superiors to make sure that UNIT can handle the situation the way he intends to is great. Basically, it’s all great.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane are up and running, now, too. I worried that this time around it would feel odd for them to simply continue on into another adventure, but I can’t actually imagine them being separated. They work too well together, and the scenes they share after being captured are great.

One thing I don’t really get, though, is the ‘surprise’ of the dinosaurs. They leave the latter half of the title off this episode (presumably to keep it a surprise), and the cliffhanger, in which the Doctor and Sarah peek out the back of the jeep to see a T-Rex towering over them is written and shot as if we’re supposed to be shocked to see a dinosaur… but we’ve already seen that same one smashing its way through a house earlier in the episode! Equally, the Brig and UNIT refer to ‘creatures’ and ‘incidents’, they all distinctly avoid saying the word ‘dinosaur’, but by that point we’ve seen the Doctor under attack from the pterodactyls! It’s an odd decision, and I’m not entirely sure what they were hoping to achieve…


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