Barry Letts, unsung talents and The Android Invasion (1975)

android invasion

You’ve got to hand it to those piggy rhinoey aliens the Kraals, they’re planners. Their invasion of Earth which involves using doppelgänger androids – an Android Invasion if you will – is not something they’ve rushed into.

First they capture an British spaceship, hanging about the outer solar system. Because Britain has a space program, you know. Then they brainwash the pilot. Then they built a replica of a small English town and its nearby space defence station, populate it with android replicas and use it as a training ground. Because you train androids, right? Not program them.

Only when they’re absolutely certain that they can pull this performance off convincingly, do they catch a lift back to Earth on the same space ship and start to infiltrate the defence station. And all this to do what? Release a deadly virus (copyright Terry Nation), which presumably could have been released some easier way, by say, firing plague laden missiles at the planet (also copyright Terry Nation).

Anyway. Let’s not make fun of the plot of The Android Invasion. It’s been done many times before and it’s too easy. Instead, let’s talk Letts. Barry Letts, of course. One of Doctor Who‘s longest serving and most highly regarded producers. But we shouldn’t forget, also one of its most reliable and unsung directors.

The Android Invasion is peppered with understated directorial flair. Letts is not one to allow a idiosyncratic style to show through in his direction, unlike say Douglas Camfield or Graeme Harper, but nonetheless his episodes have plenty of interesting moments. There are the lovely scenes in Part One where Sarah is discovered hiding in a pub full of androids; the vision mixer switches from close up to close up of unsettlingly impassive faces.  There’s the famous cliffhanger to Part Two, where Sarah’s android’s face falls off with startling ease; edited with less precision it could have been laughable. And the scenes inside the Kraals’ dungeon like HQ are textbook stuff. We see the torturing of the Doctor on chief rhino Styggron’s operating table through the unflinching downward stare of a raised camera. A tide of nasty swirling lights washes over him while an whining pulsing sound comes at him like a dentist’s drill. Nasty stuff.

But these are moments, not the whole show. Lots of the rest of the story is shot with the workaday style of someone with a producer’s eye on time and money. Letts doesn’t try to spice up a scene of two people talking in a office, or two space rhinos discussing risk management strategies. It seems that he knows when to flex his directorial muscles and when to concentrate on getting the show in the can.

(Still, there are a few wry asides to spot. When Guy Crayford (played with nervous gullibility by Milton Johns) is about to land back on Earth, our ersatz Brigadier Colonel Faraday says ‘He’s been further into space than any other human being.’ Standing behind him our old mates Harry Sullivan and Mr Benton share a knowing glance. Letts, I assume, had issued an instruction.)

Letts seemed a fairly unassuming fellow in his post Who interviews, rarely allowing any self praise. This modesty has hidden that he was arguably the best director the Pertwee years ever had. Two of the stories he directed – Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters are among the very best of that era, and while a third Planet of the Spiders becomes flabby and self indulgent, its opening episode is pleasingly creepy. Add to this that he also directed much of the studio work for Inferno, and it really does seem that Letts was behind most of that era’s high points.

And of course recently and miraculously, we’ve had Letts’ first go at directing Who, The Enemy of the World, returned to us. Again it’s a mix of outstanding direction (mainly on film) and run of the mill  (mainly in the studio), but when it’s good it’s brilliant. Those action sequences in Episode 1, complete with hovercraft and helicopter – hardware Letts would return to in Planet of the Spiders – are the series’ best location work up to that point. Then there’s the Doctor facing off with his evil lookalike in Episode 6 – an experimenting with camera trickery which Letts uses again in The Android Invasion.

Letts was a frequent contributor to the Doctor Who DVD range, in on camera interviews and on commentary tracks. His calm, pleasant, grandfatherly tones became familiar to regular watchers, modestly and accurately pointing out what he thought worked and what didn’t. He was a mainstay of any Pertwee release.

But then on one DVD (I forget which one) Letts was back again but shockingly different. Bald and drawn, he was clearly unwell. Over the next few releases, depending on when the interview had been recorded, he turned up in various stages of health or sickness. We watched as this man, who we’d come to know only through his willingness to talk about Doctor Who for us, get more and more ill. He’s not on the commentary track for The Android Invasion, released three years after his death in 2009.

And the saddest aspect of the otherwise glorious return of The Enemy of the World, is that he isn’t here to see it again. That’s a commentary track it would have been great to hear. It would have been a fitting tribute to the only man who could justifiably claim to be Doctor Who‘s greatest multi-tasker: writer, producer, executive producer, novelist and director, Barry Letts. If only he had indulged himself and taken an acting role in the series (a Hitchcockian cameo in The Android Invasion, poking his head out of a Kraal’s travelling seed pod, would have done nicely), his reputation as Doctor Who’s auteur would have been complete.

LINK to The Beast Below: Each features a UK built spaceship and each features mechanical goons.

NEXT TIME: Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. And there’s a bit of it about in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.

 

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