Aired 2 November – 21 December 1968
After the delightful surrealism of ‘The Mind Robber,’ Doctor Who returns firmly to the contemporary invasion story that had proven so popular with earlier stories such as ‘The Web of Fear.’ And while ‘The Web of Fear’ may have laid the groundwork for what would become a staple of the Third Doctor era, ‘The Invasion’ perfects it, bringing Nicholas Courtney’s now-promoted Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart back into the mix as the iconic Cybermen return.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that an eight-part story would take four episodes to reveal the villains’ true identities. Yet given how popular the Cybermen were at the time with this being their fifth appearance in only three years, it makes sense for the plot to take a slower approach to the revelation even as sporadic hints are dropped. While the first half may suffer from the occasional padded and repetitive scene, the focus on the very human Tobias Vaughn, leader of International Electromatics, is far from boring. Kevin Stoney had previously played Mavic Chen in ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan,’ and he again imbues his traitorous character with a combination of charisma, egotism, and temper that is fascinating, putting a kinder and more emotive face on the invasion force he plans to betray than a Cyberman ever could. His cold and calculating actions may hint at his alliance to the logical foe, but shrouding his direct connection to the Cybermen is a clever decision that keeps the secretive pretense up without feeling forced.
Without forcing comparisons to the Third Doctor UNIT stories, it is fascinating to see how Troughton’s Second Doctor acts in this situation, generally using UNIT as a resource but not necessarily relying on the organization as a true equal. The Second Doctor has always been a free spirit who defies expectations, able to turn on a dime from whimsy to earnestness, and that sense is especially powerful here, creating a distinct contrast between the very logical Cybermen and the very structured UNIT soldiers. It’s particularly amusing to find that the perceived illogical nature of the TARDIS gives Vaughn inspiration for a weapon that might defeat the Cybermen, showcasing how disruptive the Doctor’s presence is in every respect.
Of course, once the Cybermen do make their presence, they surprisingly do not dominate proceedings as in previous stories. They actually have very little time on screen and even fewer lines of dialogue, but every second they are on screen is used to perfection, creating some of the most iconic images in Cybermen history as they walk down St Paul Cathedral’s steps and burst forth from the underground. Instead, ‘The Invasion’ squarely remains about Vaughn and his alliance with a force he has no chance of controlling, and the Doctor certainly takes Vaughn much more seriously as a threat than the Cybermen with whom he knows there is no reasoning. Whereas ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ had showcased what an alien occupation of London might look like as the Doctor fought to take it down, ‘The Invasion’ focuses squarely on the Doctor and his companions struggling to prevent such an occupation for taking place, and the pacing surprisingly never wavers even as the Cybermen stay more in the background than ever before as they calculate each move.
Still, this is a story of Vaughn’s rise and fall, using the Cybermen as a tool in his plans of conquest and assuming he has won until it’s far too late. And though the budget might not allow for the grand spectacle to fully come to life, ‘The Invasion’ is definitely a highlight of the Troughton era that wisely manages to save the Cybermen from overexposure while also bringing the emotional aspect to the forefront. Troughton offers a definitive performance as the Doctor, Wendy Padbury’s Zoe finally steps into the spotlight as she gleefully uses her intellect to save the day, and Nicholas Courtney already has the character of the Brigadier perfected, all combining to make a genuinely excellent eight-part tale that sets the foundation for the era ahead.