“Things are not always what they seem.” – The Doctor
This story has long been a big favorite of mine based just on the novelization which I read many times over. When I finally found the existing episodes and audio, they didn’t disappoint because they reflected the same pacing and atmosphere that make it an exciting story. With a setting of international travel, suave villains, and secret kidnapping plots, it almost feels like a high-tech spy story. (Complete with a stereotypical “bad guy leaves the good guys to be killed in a slow and overly complicated way from which they are able to escape in the nick of time” scene in the fourth episode!) One could easily believe that it is in fact a story of international intrigue and spies, right up until the ending of the first episode when an otherworldly hand suddenly comes out of storage and we catch sight of one of the “faceless” aliens that give the story its name.
This body snatchers type story has a lot of great elements from a solid and engaging plot and great setting to strong acting performances and rounded characters, even the aliens have decent costumes. Some of the touches are subtle—the calmness of the airplane personnel in dealing with the seemingly mad Doctor; having the copied alien be able to correct the personnel file on himself; the Doctor’s little digs at the underling aliens to put them off guard (“Haven’t I med you somewhere before?…You must have a double.”); the Doctor’s ‘aw nuts!’ reaction at being tricked into the room.
The setting for the story is very modern since stewardesses and travel on airplanes (or as Jamie puts it “flying beasties”) were quite trendy and “in” at this point. The “Chameleons” (the actual name of their race is never mentioned) are well-thought out and written. Not only the story behind their invasion and the grand scale of their space station, but also how they are given varied personalities (some very confident, some more nervous, some loyal, some self-serving) and that there are little bits of in-fighting and suspicion amongst them that the Doctor is able to exploit. The arch Captain Blade-Chameleon gets some great withering lines too. ( One underling on his failure to kill the Doctor: “His intelligence is far above normal beings.” Blade cooly replies: “Above yours, perhaps.”; Inspector Crossland: “I must warn you of the long arm of the British law.” Blade: “I don’t think it’ll reach where you’re going.”)
The Doctor is great in this story in following hunches and pursuing clues. It’s funny to see a bit of his seeming naivety in indignantly expecting them to accept his unbelievable story, but then again his constant insistence in spite of their refusals wins in the end. Though he masterfully corners the villains into defeat, I was worried that he seemed to be consigning their entire race to possible extinction by simply telling them they have to go back and have their scientists figure out another way to survive. But once they agree to this, he suddenly adds with a twinkle in his eye: “I may be able to give them one or two ideas of my own.” Ah, there’s the Doctor we know with his unerring sense of right and compassion.
Jamie and the Doctor’s famous double act begins here, particularly in the scene when they are talking to the Commandant and Jamie keeps interjecting with what he thinks his helpful information such that the Doctor keeps comically stamping on his foot. Of course, it’s also goodbye to Polly and Ben which is kind of sad. (At least Polly’s signature long locks are back—they must have been travelling with the Doctor and Jamie for quite some time between this and the last story.) Funnily enough, I never realized how much of the story they don’t appear in; they are absent for several episodes after being kidnapped. They do get a nice, sentimental leaving scene. Excited to be back in their own time, Ben nevertheless loyally says they will stay with the Doctor if needed, even though it’s obvious he doesn’t want to. Polly goes on to admit, “The thing is, it… it is our world.” The Doctor replies “Yes, I know. You’re lucky, I never got back to mine…” before giving his blessing on them to go lead their lives.
A lot of the other cast for this show are very strong as well with personalities that stand out and involvement in the action that moves the story along. The Commandant’s arc from thinking the Doctor to be mad to taking the lead in helping his plan to defeat the enemy is gradually paced and thus believable. There are also several strong female characters like the assistant Jean (who takes a lot of initiative and makes a lot of connections), Nurse Pinto, and most especially the plucky Samantha Brigg who is constantly cited as a “should’ve been” companion. (She was apparently offered but refused). She leaps of the screen from her first appearance, even more so than I had imagined reading her character in the book. (I only recently learned that she is the actress that played the equally memorable Queen Victoria in the revived series of the show. I guess Samantha has a bit of royal blood in her!)
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
On watching this time, I found the downing of the RAF fighter jet to be very disheartening somehow. Perhaps because it felt like it was such a clever tactic by the Commandant that was going to discover what was going on and yet it, and the life of the innocent pilot, are tragically cut short.
- Body snatcher type aliens
- Scenes at an airport
- Companions who are able to return to the same time they left
Oh how I wish that we could see all the actual episodes—especially the special effects of the plane folding its wings into a rocket shape and going to the space station. Of course, don’t dig too deeply into the intricacies of the plot: To get 50,000 young people at 8 flights a day on even the biggest planes of the time (about 200 passengers) would take a full month. Nobody missed that many kids during that whole time? Not to mention that all the foreign airports should have been sounding alarm bells at all the expected flights that never came.