Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”

Original Airdate: May 8th, 1998 on BBC

Tonight’s offering is a six-episode miniseries about an alien invasion. It was a co-production between BBC Scotland and the network now regrettably rebranded as Syfy. Let’s see if you can predict how this is going to go—it’s the late 90s, you’re a producer at BBC, it’s been nearly a decade since there’s been any new Doctor Who outside of a terrible made-for-TV movie, and you’re making a sci-fi miniseries about alien invasion. Is it any surprise when it centers around two government employees, one of whom is a headstrong man determined to Believe and the other is a more circumspect lady scientist? Will you be surprised when there turns out to be smoldering sexual tension? Or when the lady gets abducted by aliens and interfered with in possibly compromising ways? Will you be surprised when it turns out that it’s not nearly as good as The X-Files? I submit that you will not, in fact, be surprised by any of this.

Strengths

  • An intrinsically interesting premise. Anyone with any inclination towards science fiction or astronomy has surely had their own fantasy about what it would look like if aliens made contact. People have been writing fiction about alien encounters since at least the 2nd century and even when we’re rehashing X-Files it’s still just as fun now as it was then. What will be the first sign? Will we know it when we see it? How will we respond? What will the aliens be like? How will they treat us? How will we treat them? Over the course of six episodes, Invasion proceeds to offer its own answer to each of these questions in a reasonably satisfying way, so that already checks a lot of boxes for any sci-fi fan tuning in.
  • Consistent thematics. One advantage a six episode miniseries has over a sprawling 208-episode-and-counting-with-no-resolution-or-ending-in-sight affair like X-Files is that you can have neatly planned and executed thematics that extend over the entire run of the show. The end result is something well-drawn if not particularly deep. The theme on offer here is in the same family as the one developed in Gundam: while Gundam explored the dangerous intersection of war and public science, Invasion deals with the dangerous intersection of the military and the cutting edge of science, or at least those sciences that pertain to First Contact, anyway. Invasion makes a pretty persuasive argument that if we put the armed forces in charge of dealing with any aliens we happen to meet it’s not going to end well for anyone involved. It also makes a persuasive case for the fact that it’s entirely likely and realistic that the responsibility will fall to the army nevertheless. After all, if a UFO enters the atmosphere, who’s going to be the first to notice? The people with radar, of course, and that’s exactly what happens here. Later episodes in the series explore this theme in more depth, but there’s plenty of groundwork being laid here. Most of the episode takes place in the present day, but we learn from the first scene that the aliens first made contact in 1944 during the Blitz, where a soldier with a quick trigger finger promptly guns one of them down. The fate of the second alien will be detailed later in the series, so we quickly move to the scenes of the episode that portray the radar discovery and introduce us to our hero, Flight Lt. Chris Drake (Vincent Regan, 300.) Drake and his navigator, Flight Lt. Gerry Llewelyn (Stuart McQuarrie, 28 Days Later) proceed to investigate the unknown craft from several miles up. Through means unknown, the alien craft disables the instruments in Drake’s plane, and despite orders to the contrary he shoots it down in retaliation. The blowback damages Drake’s own plane. He and Llewelyn have to eject. Llewelyn dies and the entire miserable chain of events the show chronicles begin to spiral out of control. This episode and the next involve the requisite tug of war between Drake and his superiors over whether or not this encounter was in fact unearthly, and of course the chain of command isn’t particularly inclined to listen. Eventually, the army tracks down the occupant of the downed craft and shoots him as well. Miraculously, they haven’t killed Earth’s third alien* visitor, but they have wounded him sufficiently so that he’s ripe for the picking when the other, evil alien race abducts him. Even the most relaxed alien race would probably be reaching for the gigantic ray gun about now, but the series ultimately adopts a less direct route. Explaining that, however, would push me outside of my jurisdiction, which leads me to my major complaint…

Weaknesses

  • Wasting time on paper-thin characters. The first episode of this show put me in the shoes of Milhouse van Houten, and that’s never a good thing. Usually when I summarize part of the plot of an episode in the service of making a point, I’m only scratching the surface. Well, that last paragraph is pretty much all the meat hanging off this particular bone. Sure, some other stuff happens. We’re introduced to other main characters. But the show is terrible at characterization. There’s nothing remotely interesting or three-dimensional about any of them. Now, I love a well-developed character study. I also think the stereotype about sci-fi/fantasy being all about plot and ideas with no time for well-drawn characters is a bunch of crap. Sadly, Invasion fits this stereotype to a tee. The Scully to Drake’s Mulder is Dr. Amanda Tucker (Maggie O’Neill, Shameless), who is technically an applied mathematics professor but who is for all intents and purposes a Swiss Army Scientist who can handle any problem that arises when presented with invading aliens using inconceivably advanced technology. (Mercifully, they have someone else on hand for biology-based problems.) Tucker’s chunk of this episode involves her discovering anomalous signals, going to Scotland to investigate, stumbling upon the military base, meeting Drake and showing up at the alien’s hospital room just in time for him to be abducted by the other aliens. I’ll grudgingly accept that Invasion as a whole is not too concerned with well-developed characters and that it can only excel in story and theme. I am not pleased about the fact that we get short-changed on story and theme in this hour so we can get introduced to Tucker and a handful of other supporting players. If you’re going to give character development short shrift, you might as well commit to it and truly play to your strengths.

*Despite having recently stumbled out of a UFO, the guy isn’t actually an alien, but we don’t learn this until later.

Motivation: What could be more tantalizing than the knowledge of a forthcoming alien invasion? Of course, pretty soon everyone’s priorities shift to survival.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Part of the problem here is pilot syndrome: the show’s still getting its feet under it and it has to lay groundwork to a certain extent. But it’s nearly 20% of the show’s entire runtime, so any amount of wasted time is going to put Invasion at a disadvantage.

Final Series Judgment: 6/10. The story does get deeper and more satisfying as things develop, but the characters don’t. There’s also the matter of an undercooked romantic subplot between Drake and Tucker. But if you want aliens and you’ve already seen every episode of X-Files and Who twice, you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: I continue my ongoing investigation on the theme of How Campy Is Too Campy by reviewing Manimal!

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Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”