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Many years ago (around 1994), there was a drama series on BBC1 called Cardiac Arrest. This was pretty much universally acknowledged by anybody who saw it (and who wasn't a nurse, or the Health Secretary) to be one of the finest medical dramas ever. It was a glorious mixture of black humour, unexpected warmth, bitterness, and basically everything else that a series set in a hospital should be. Consequently the BBC asked the writer, Jed Mercurio, if there was anything else that he'd like to write. He said that he quite fancied writing a science fiction series, if they wouldn't mind - and since The X-Files was about the biggest thing on TV at the time, they pretty much handed him the keys to the toy cupboard. The result was Invasion: Earth, six episodes of a high budget, high concept, bleak science fiction drama, intended to be adult and challenging, just like Cardiac Arrest had been. So far, so good. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, everything. The end result was so bad that it killed off science fiction on the BBC. With the exception of one or two dalliances with the genre in the children's department, British science fiction was to be largely dead until RTD came along nearly a decade later, waving a TARDIS, and refusing to give up and go away.

So, all these years on, is Invasion: Earth really as bad as it seemed in 1997? Basically... yes. It really is - in fact it may even be worse. Some stuff does blow up though, so it's not entirely bad.

I'm lying. It is.

Episode one, then. In which history repeats itself, and we meet our cast.

Episode one is cunning. It lulls us into a false sense of security with a lovely beginning, in a flashback to wartime London. During an air raid, a spaceship crashes, and its two crew members meet with fear and hostility from the soldiers at the scene. Despite the best efforts of an English officer named Terrell, one of the aliens is killed, although Terrell is subsequently able to save the other. Sadly that's all that we're getting from the forties for now - and, indeed, from the endearingly sympathetic Terrell - for suddenly it's the 'Present Day', and we're being introduced to our star. And here's where things start to go wrong, as it's clearly established right from the word go that our star is a jerk. He's not a likeable jerk, and he's not a redeemable jerk. He's just a jerk; furthermore, he's a jerk being played by a piece of wood. Within a very few moments he's been sent up on a sortie to investigate a UFO, presumed to be some sort of aircraft. Of course it's a spaceship, the twin of the one that we saw in 1944, and Our Hero, despite strict orders not to engage it, decides that he doesn't like the look of it, or its colour, or possibly he just thinks that it's looked at him a bit funny. We're never really given much clue as to his motivation. He just blasts it out of the sky, and crashes his plane in the process, killing his navigator. So a good start all round, then. Bravo.

Elsewhere, a scientist and her extraordinarily wooden colleague have also seen the UFO, in their case thanks to monitoring equipment set up to search for alien life. They resolve to find the downed spacecraft, just as, elsewhere again, the entire British military, with obligatory American support, begin looking for what they suspect is a crashed enemy aeroplane. They catch a glimpse of the escaping pilot, and shoot him. Twice. Because... not sure. Because he failed to stop trying to avoid being shot, most probably. In all fairness they did ask him to surrender, but from so far away that he'd have to have been Superman to have heard them. Turning himself invisible in order to escape, he stumbles off dripping blood, becoming visible again in order to reveal to the audience that he's Terrell, our rather nice army officer from 1944, unaged and unchanged. Hurrah! This is good news, mostly because he's the only person in the cast who's making any attempt to act.

This brings us to Invasion: Earth's most infamous failings. The extraordinarily bad acting of the vast majority of the cast has been mocked for years. People stand around stiffly, they deliver their lines stiffly. Even worse, in many cases they deliver them with a complete lack of emotion or interest, as though they just couldn't be bothered in the slightest. Not that the dialogue helps at all, nor the total lack of atmosphere. The next issue is the characters. The cast is led by our unlikeable jerk of an RAF officer, along with the scientist, a sorry mixture of cliché and just general irritatingness. Which isn't a word, I'll grant you, but for now it'll have to be. Anyway, new words are good.

The end result of all of this is that we have unlikeable characters played by wooden actors. Characters don't have to be likeable of course - and in a show that has set out to be adult and challenging there's no reason for the characters to be nice. They certainly weren't quite a lot of the time in Cardiac Arrest. They have to have something, though. How far can an audience be expected to want to travel with a charmless cast? Perhaps good performances - a subtle approach - might have helped. I guess we'll never know.

Back in 'present day' Britain meanwhile, our 1944 soldier is in a bad way, as a result of having been shot twice. Delirious, he stumbles out in front of a car, and is soon delivered to a hospital, where our two leads, catching word of this on the grapevine, convene to find out what's going on. They're followed by the entire British armed forces, and a giant swirly special effect that our space-voyaging friend Terrell is clearly terrified by. As he whimpers and panics in his beautiful whimpery and panicky way, the rest of the cast stand around and spit out their dialogue like infant school children in a Nativity play. It's like watching a professor giving a masterclass to a group of students who couldn't be bothered to listen.

And there ends episode one. Two alien ships, in two different decades, are brought down, and their pilots shot. Meanwhile, a giant swirly special effect menaces all and sundry. What all of this means, we so far have no idea, but there's time for explanations in episode two. Delivered in a wooden monotone, perhaps, but explanations nonetheless.

To the visual aids, then.


A downed spacecraft in 1944.


Lieutenant Charles Terrell, sometime voyager through the stars, and lone beacon of hope for the audience.


A dead alien.


Terrell finds a still living alien, and tries to impress upon his colleagues firstly that shooting it would not be a nice thing to do, and secondly that no, it isn't a German. It really, really isn't.


Flight Lieutenant Chris Drake. Our hero. Lucky us.


The scientific department. An obligatory small child; Amanda Tucker, our deeply annoying leading lady; and a spectacularly wooden boffin. Formerly of EastEnders, wherein he once performed on a novelty record, circa 1987. I really wish I didn't remember some of this stuff.


A spaceship goes boom.


And again, thus doubling the entertainment value, and having the added bonus of knocking Our Hero out of the sky as well. Sadly the experience proves fatal for only one member of the air crew.


Technical talk. Or not. I'll admit that I was somewhat distracted by the poster behind them. At any rate, there's some mild urgency and excitement, and off goes Amanda in search of aliens.


A crashed spacecraft, and some rather unhappy trees.


Some more characters - in this case General Reece, obligatory American, and Squadron Leader Knox, slightly less obligatory Scot. Neither one of them is remotely capable of delivering their dialogue convincingly either.


A soldier with a very big gun. Sorry, he's not important to the plot especially, but very big guns require screencapping. It's tradition.


Ah yes. This is Jo Dow. Jo Dow was one of the standout cast members of Cardiac Arrest, playing James, the first bisexual character I'd ever seen on TV - and still probably the best written one. James was wonderful. All snarkiness and laddish misbehaviour; and his bisexuality was handled so well, and so believably. So I was really pleased when I heard that Jo Dow would be in this, another show by the same writer. I'm sure he's every bit as good here as he was in Cardiac Arrest, but we'll never know. He gets about six lines of dialogue, and spends the rest of the time standing in the background doing nothing. I've not seen him on television since.


A wing commander doctor feller, named Friday. Played by him out of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and constitutionally incapable of giving a bad performance. So that'll be why he's kept on the sidelines, then.


Rather nice moment where Terrell apparently uses an iPhone to try to contact his people. :)


This fellow here is Amanda Tucker's boss. He's played by Simon Slater, who was apparently contractually obliged to appear in every British production in the 1990s. I don't know why, he just was. He cropped up in everything at some point. Perfectly serviceable actor, if somewhat inclined to keep being cast in much the same role. Still, nothing wrong with his performance. So, that'll be why this is all that we see of him then.


Look out! Whirly special effect! Note very small Charles Terrell to the far left of shot, wisely fleeing the big swirly.


Various members of the cast gawp at an alien spaceship, and attempt to deliver their lines in a convincing manner. Actually, no they don't.


Drake and Tucker make contact with the hospitalised Terrell. Oh lucky, lucky Terrell.


Moments later, homing in on the signal from a beacon embedded in one of Terrell's teeth, comes...


...a giant, whirly special effect! Run! Run for your lives! Or alternatively stand there and wait around until episode two.

So basically then, episode one is a complete non-entity. Aside from a pacey first five to ten minutes, the rest of the running time is taken up entirely by people standing around talking about what's happening (or what isn't happening, as the case may be). Poor little Terrell does a fair bit of scampering about in the woods, post-crash, but that's about it. It's barely an episode at all. There's certainly no need for it to be nearly fifty minutes long.

As an aside, remarkably coincidentally, and quite out of the blue, Vincent Regan appeared in this week's episode of Spooks (he being I:E's alleged hero, Chris Drake). I haven't seen him in anything since Invasion: Earth, so I have no idea if he's been carving himself out a distinguished career in the years in between. At any rate it proved completely impossible to take him seriously. Admittedly he wasn't helped by some spectacularly bad dialogue, and it being one of the worst episodes ever, but it was as though the last thirteen years had just disappeared, and he was carrying on where he'd left off. I half expected aliens.

Actually, it really was a dire episode of Spooks this week. I don't know what Richard Armitage has done to piss off the scriptwriters, but this whole season has been like bad fanfic. Talk about character assassination! It's like watching a Ianto fan's Gwen-bashing played out for real on the screen. And I'm digressing again, aren't I. That's never happened before.

Ah well. Onwards and upwards (or more likely downwards). Where'd I put episode two?

Comments

( 2 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )
elenopa
Nov. 10th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
Oh gosh!

I remember sitting through all of this and hoping it would all make sense and get better. I seem to remember it was only in episode four or something that they actually had the idea to try and talk to the aliens.

The ending was such a complete non-entity let down, I actually screamed.
swordznsorcery
Nov. 11th, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
I'm impressed that you managed to hold off screaming until then! I'd love to know just how the BBC managed to get it so wrong. There are good bits - Anton Lesser is an absolute marvel as Lieutenant Terrell - but the rest is just deepening shades of awful. It's as though they starting filming the thing without anybody having stopped to read the script.
( 2 fierce growls — Growl fiercely )

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