Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cult-TV Flashback: The Invaders (1967-1968)




For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; one of the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are among us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.

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 (and possibly global...) infrastructure.

The Invaders
commences with a brilliantly-wrought pilot. The episode is titled "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, basically, that's he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both enticing and a little entitled. 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 of white male virility to win and, shockingly, he doesn't. Or at least not usually. .

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, and we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross his 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-y figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the sub-culture 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, the wealthy, 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 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).



Notice the pinky finger...

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 nut-case 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. This particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the remade Battlestar Galactica, particularly the notion of an "inhuman" being feeling, well, human.

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 always: 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 feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes is often 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 and tumultuous year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts.

In time, and over the course of the series, 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. These segments 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. 

Despite the touches that date it, this cult-TV program is still a powerhouse of paranoia.

2 comments:

  1. John,
    Thank You for profiling "The Invaders!" My Dad used to tell me about this show, about how the aliens would disintegrate and leave no evidence behind. I didn't see the show until years later, and even then it was pulled off the air almost as quickly as it started.
    I was so happy when CBS Home Video released The Invaders on dvd; all the episodes, both Seasons 1 and 2. It's mentioned in the special features and elsewhere that the show actually became more popular when its cancellation was announced. The ratings improved drastically, but to no avail.
    But that last episode...I've never seen anything quite like it. I can only imagine what people watching in the 60's must have thought. Probably tame by today's standards, but it left a mark on my psyche.
    The show looks tremendous, as you said. The music by Dominic Frontiere (in Year One) is memorable. However, the sense of hopelessness which pervades the series can be overwhelming. Poor David Vincent can't seem to catch a break.
    The attempt to revive the series in the 90's was ill-conceived, but I think this concept would really work today. Sometimes when I watch CNN, I think that The Invaders may have already succeeded in taking over the Earth!
    Steve

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I do think your premise is a bit flawed. What I see is even more subversive (for the 60's). The Invaders represent not the counterculture, but the establishment. In many of the episodes, it's clear that the invaders have penetrated some pretty high levels of human society, and are attempting to manipulate it. The message is clear. The establishment is doing evil, and you can't prove it.

    This series also fell prey to changing significantly in the second season. It went from one-man-against-the-world to team-against-the-world. It was, in my opinion, a less than successful rework.

    ReplyDelete