Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 51: The Invaders (Season One; 1967)

Available on DVD at last is the first season of the 1967-1969 Quinn Martin genre classic, The Invaders (in gorgeous, vibrant color). For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; amongst the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are amongst us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.

Pre-dating The X-Files by 25 years and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica by 35 years (to to mention other similarly-themed series such as Invasion and Threshold...), these alien invaders in human bodies "have a plan" - to coin a phrase - to occupy and dominate the Earth. Accordingly, much of The Invaders' suffocating aura of paranoia arises from the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between human beings and extra-terrestrials. And worse, the aliens have already infiltrated every level of American (possibly global...) infrastructure. Yes, it's pretty much the path Ron Moore has tread with the Cylons on the new Battlestar Galactica; more evidence that everything old gets plundered to be new again.

The Invaders
commences with one of the finest, most exquisitely-directed pilots I've ever seen. The episode is entitled "Beachhead" and in this inaugural program, audiences are introduced to dashing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes). Thinnes is a perfect leading man for this venture and this era -- the late 1960s -- and this Alpha Male shares the belligerent but virile yin/yang of that era's other leading men like Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, William Shatner and Charlton Heston. Which means he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both entitled and enticing. It's a master-stroke to put the beautiful but bellicose Thinnes into this particular situation (facing an alien invasion alone), because audiences expect this American paragon to win and, shockingly - he doesn't; or at least not usually. Remember, only Nixon could go to China...

But let's not jump the gun. In "Beachhead," David Vincent is out on a road trip alone, driving by blackest night when takes a wrong turn (literally and figuratively). We see his car run roughshod over a sign reading "road closed" but it might as well have read "dead end." Vincent navigates his car through a thick mist and then parks near an abandoned roadside eatery, Bud's Diner. As a voice-over narrator asks viewers the question "how does a nightmare begin?" we see the answer for ourselves: Vincent awakens from his late-night highway-hypnosis to see an impressive alien saucer land in the field just feet beyond his car. Vincent's face lit in pulsating hues of alien crimson, we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross Vincent's face (in extreme close-up). This moment is a watershed: an awakening for the character in more ways than one.

After Vincent's encounter with the alien saucer, things are never the same for this man, and since Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame) is the creator of the series, that means we're in for something clever and even a bit subversive just beneath The Fugitive-like tableau of the series. In this case, the series depicts a WASP-ish figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the subculture or emerging counter-culture. Through his "radical" belief in an alien invasion, Vincent finds himself shunned by figures of the American ruling class (co-workers, government officials and so forth) and even hunted by them (particularly the police force). These individuals now view Vincent with disdain because he has forsaken his safe "role" in white, middle-class American society for that of a prophet...a doomsayer warning of planetary emergency.

In one episode, "Nightmare," a group of white rednecks in rural Kansas beat-up David at a diner called "The Lunch Counter" and it is impossible not to be reminded of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and how - literally - there was no seat at the table (or lunch counter) for those outside Nixon's "silent" and (mostly white) majority. David is pulled off a lunch stool while minding his own business, beat up, dragged away by the police and jailed...with no charges leveled. The Invaders, in depicting an outcast member of the silent majority searching desperately for legitimacy, says much about the America of the day and the fears of that time about speaking out; about dissent.

Making David Vincent's claims of alien invasion that much harder to prove, some Invaders have "evolved" and no longer bear the telltale finger anomaly (which is oddly similar to a corrupted "peace" gesture from the 1960s). Even more dramatically, when destroyed in battle, the Invaders disintegrate in red flame, leaving behind no evidence of their presence. The end result is that Vincent just looks like a kook again and again, unable to co-opt others into his paranoid fantasy.

The Invaders begins as a superb paranoia trip, and the second episode "The Experiment" ratchets up the fear-factor to an incredible degree for the 1960s. Here, the Invaders appear as archetypal men-in-black. These menacing figures in black fedoras and trench coats systematically kill enemies who have witnessed their plots. They do so with small black disks which - when applied to the nape of the human neck - cause cerebral hemorrhage and mimic a natural death. The Invaders also arrange for a plane crash in this episode, hoping to murder a prominent scientist who is about to reveal the alien plan to a conference in New York. The scientist is ultimately killed, betrayed by his son, (played by a young Roddy McDowall). This war of the generations (then known as "the generation gap"), with young Roddy decrying his father as an "enemy," is, not coincidentally, controlled by the Invaders. They keep the son in line with brainwashing drugs; another commentary on the 1960s, only this time the drug culture of the day.

Each episode of The Invaders finds David Vincent moving from locale to locale in hopes of providing evidence of the alien menace. He finds an abandoned town whose economy has been destroyed by Big Business (again - aliens!) in "Beachhead." In "The Mutation" (January 24, 1967) he travels to Mexico and meets a female Invader (Suzanne Pleshette), one who is indistinguishable from humans because she has developed emotions (unlike the others). Again, this particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the new Galactica.

In "Genesis," (February 7, 1967) Vincent learns that the Invaders have taken over a sea lab in hopes of resurrecting a dead leader. In "Nightmare," (February 21, 1967) the American farmland is targeted by the Invaders as the aliens deploy a weapon that causes locusts to swarm and attack. The photography in this episode alone makes it a worthwhile entry to the canon: there are an abundance of beautiful shots of in a wide open cornfield, Vincent outrunning the locusts like he's Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1960).

Each episode of The Invaders is fifty minutes long. The series aired before commercials had eaten into the broadcast hour (which today is 42 minutes). As a result, these episodes do tend to move more slowly than modern audiences might prefer. In addition, Thinnes is asked to carry much of the series without much aid from the writers. What I mean by that is that the screenplays do not delve - at all - into Vincent's background or even his human psychology. How does he keep fighting? Is he tired? Angry? Remorseful? Lonely? In his singular focus, Thinnes is almost an immortal James Bondian figure here: facing down the enemy and consistently winning battles but losing the war (sounds like Vietnam, no?) There are no large story-arcs; no serialized stories on The Invaders and today that too feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes are stand-alones and you are left wanting to know more about Vincent.

Were the series to be remade today, I suspect we'd get much more information about this hero as a human being - as a fallible man -- and a lot less of his Invader-smashing. As it stands, one episode after the other features Vincent stopping the alien plan of the day, only to move on and do the same thing again. That does get tiring, and truth be told, a little boring, but The Invaders is photographed so beautifully, and the social subtext of the series (going into the transitional year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts. In time, the black trench coats and fedoras give way to streamlined blue jumpsuits (blue seems to be the color of the alien technology too), a format change that makes the aliens less scary, more like agents of SMERSH or something. But the first several episodes of The Invaders are hardcore horror. You almost can't believe how dark and sinister they are. They also remind me of The Prisoner with Vincent a scorned man alone facing conspiracies, corrupt authority and multiple brain-washing techniques (including, inevitably, alien leeches).


The best way to enjoy The Invaders, in my opinion, is to view it as a product of its time (the late 60s) -- and also, perhaps, as a product significantly ahead of its time (since there have been so many imitators). However in 2008 -- more than forty years after the premiere - the production values have aged and so - importantly - has the manner in which these tales are vetted on TV. So now The Invaders seems old, I suppose. But if it's old, it is also colorful, strange and remarkably intelligent. If that kind of thing floats your flying saucer, this series is a powerhouse of paranoia.

2 comments:

  1. "Bad wicked world
    Bad wicked world
    They are about, dressed to deceive
    Conquistadores that have been sent

    Bad wicked world
    Bad wicked world
    Some sell him out, some won't believe
    An architect named David Vincent

    A man too long without sleep
    He took a wrong turn and people just laughed
    A ship that is not there, but he knows that it was
    it made a light and a buzz
    He's really hurtin' because
    People don't care

    And people think he's a creep
    He won't stop, just keeps on talkin'
    Just a tie and a suit, he's a low-life persuader
    Fist-throwin' crusader
    Against invaders
    Won't be mute

    Bad wicked world
    Bad wicked world
    Some sell him out, some won't believe
    An architect named David Vincent

    Bad wicked world
    Bad wicked world
    They are about, dressed to deceive
    Conquistadores that have been sent

    About once a week, another story is leaked and he's on it
    Just a suit and a tie, will it ever end
    He hasn't got a friend
    Pinkies that won't bend
    He really must try

    Bad wicked world
    Bad wicked world
    Some sell him out, some won't believe
    Architect
    David Vincent"

    -Frank Black-

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  2. John:

    I enjoyed this series, too and should point out that Season 2 arrives in January, 2009!

    This series was sort of the SF version of The Fugitive. One thing I did find annoying (that you allude to in your review) is that nothing gained from one episode is brought forward to the next episode. I realize that's how TV was in the '60s, but a little more continuity between episodes would have been nice.

    It was nice seeing some rising TV stars in guest roles.

    There were several strong episodes in the series especially toward the end of the first season.

    ReplyDelete