TV: The Invaders

Has anyone heard of The Invaders? I sure hadn’t, until the DVD box set somehow found its way into my hands. It was an impulse purchase, made out of sheer curiosity, a series so off my radar it might have fallen out of an alternate dimension. But I have a soft spot for old shows of this ilk, retro serials perfect for keeping you company as you decompress from day-job tension, which was precisely what I needed when I slotted in disc one. And while by no means a masterpiece, The Invaders is a pleasant diversion with plenty of quirky assets for those of us with an old-school bent—an intriguing relic of TV SF and an interesting link in the chain of the genre’s evolution in the medium.

The Invaders is one of the many, many series produced by Quinn Martin, whose fingerprints were all over TV in the sixties and seventies. The majority of QM shows were mystery procedurals, one of which was the extremely popular drama The Fugitive, starring David Janssen as a doctor who, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, goes on the run. The Invaders is atypical for Martin’s production house, but one can easily imagine him rolling right over for an elevator pitch as convincing as “The Fugitive meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roy Thinnes stars as David Vincent, an architect who witnesses a UFO landing and, during a subsequent investigation, learns that aliens are invading, insinuating themselves into human society to prepare for a takeover of Earth. Vincent gradually becomes a one-man army on a mission of persuasion, journeying from town to town to track down evidence of the alien scourge, attempting (as the portentous, basso profundo narration puts it) “to convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.”

Every week, Vincent ventures to the site of unexplained phenomena in search of evidence supporting his mission. A UFO sighting, a mysterious scientific anomaly, a person combusting and vanishing into thin air—with the ardor of an obsessive, Vincent investigates each incident, leaving no stone unturned in his quest for the truth. Indeed, he develops a reputation with the authorities as a crackpot; a nuisance at best, a madman at worst. Dauntless, he seeks allies to convince, which he occasionally finds, often to their regret—or his, when they turn out to be aliens in disguise, manipulating him toward some devious purpose.

The Invaders has a delicious pitch, and its best episodes even deliver on it, in the modest, charming way of yesteryear’s episodic TV. Still, it struggles to find consistent footing throughout its two-season run; the high-concept premise is dynamite, but the weekly execution can be half-baked. Season one especially feels like the network TV of the old days, resetting like clockwork at the hour’s end, each self-contained adventure sustaining a status quo that ensures another episode. This damages its credibility during a binge watch, as its recurring tricks and tropes often tip the plot’s hand, while the variations on those tropes either prove inconsistent with previously established lore, or simply don’t build toward anything narratively substantive. A visionary showrunner and a better-thought-out foundation might have gone a long way toward mitigating this, but TV was different back then; in the assembly-line environment of mid-sixties television, the results are decidedly more erratic.

Even so, The Invaders is charming, earnest fun. The best asset is Thinnes, a convincingly rugged, resourceful hero who approaches the role with a mix of understated charisma and churlish snarl. There is absolutely no rationale for making Vincent an architect; that detail, hilariously emphasized in the narration every week, has almost no bearing on the series and may have been a relic of The Fugitive inspiration. (“What’s a sexy sixties job that isn’t doctor? Maybe architect?”) Then again, Vincent is such an intense, inscrutable protagonist that his background in architecture weirdly feeds his mystique—i.e., despite a sedentary, office-life profession, he devotes all his free time and money obsessively pursuing a quixotic quest, putting his life in jeopardy to save the world. All while not even remotely giving a shit that everyone thinks he’s a lunatic! Thinnes’ super-power is his ability to project Vincent’s utter conviction; no matter how outlandish the dialogue, he sells it. The Invaders feels humorless, at times, but its strategy of always taking itself seriously pays off, encouraging the viewer to go along for the ride. That strategy never wavers thanks to Thinnes’ focused, unconventional approach to Vincent, whose truth-seeking fervor makes him a worthy antecedent to the Carl Kolchaks and Fox Mulders who would follow in his wake.

Another early asset of The Invaders, which continues throughout the run, is its high production value. By that I do not mean the special effects, which are primitive by modern standards, but the overall look, which is colorful and cinematic, with extensive location work. Indeed, part of the draw of The Invaders for me was a craving for something that looked and felt like Mission: Impossible. (The same itch set me off on an eight-season Mannix binge a while back, so yeah, I know myself…) The Invaders fits that bill, and with the exception of a cheap season-two episode that was obviously written to take advantage of an abandoned western set, The Invaders actually looks more geographically convincing and diverse than Mission ever did. More Mission: Impossible appeal includes the legion of Mission actors, directors, and writers who also contributed to The Invaders, and it even shares Mission’s anthology feel and some of its espionage-like structure, since the plots require a revolving door of guest stars to support, hinder, or oppose Vincent’s actions, sometimes deploying schemes and trickery to do so.

Despite these strengths, The Invaders develops and never quite shakes a premise-sustainability problem, one likely exacerbated by the demanding production schedules of the era. Two seasons doesn’t sound strenuous by today’s standards, but for The Invaders that amounted to forty-three episodes. The strain of coming up with new ideas, without a continuity roadmap, quickly starts to show. As a result, the early days rely on a fair number of skiffy thought-experiment episodes in the vein of The Twilight Zone, a show that may well have influenced its ominous tone. This leads to clumsy hours like “Nightmare” (where the aliens create a device that controls insect swarms) and “Storm” (where the aliens seek to deploy a weather-control device)—cheesy evil-plots-of-the-week for Vincent to thwart. The writers aren’t always up to snuff when it comes to wrangling science fiction tropes. Indeed, two of season one’s more interesting episodes feel more like spy shows: “The Innocent” (which runs Vincent through a surreal, alien-induced Big Store con) and “The Ivy Curtain” (which features a school for training aliens to act human, something Mission: Impossible did the previous year with enemy spies in “The Carriers”).

Meanwhile, the limited laundry list of “alien tells” that Vincent gradually discovers—that the aliens vaporize in a red glow when they die, leaving ash behind; their “mutated” pinky fingers; their lack of a pulse; their blinking walkie-talkies, cerebral hemorrhage-inducing disk weapons, and hypnotic fidget-spinners—are so ubiquitous that’s it hard to imagine the secret of the alien invasion lasting very long. The aliens’ formidability is also called into question by how easily they’re killed and their collective inability to put a stop to the actions of one random architect! The suspension of disbelief required to turn off these criticisms is occasionally hard to muster.

The longer second season is where The Invaders gets more inventive. For one thing, the writing staff finds clever new ways to deploy the set-up. One highlight is “The Trial,” a neat outing in which an old army buddy of Vincent’s (Don Gordon) is accused of murdering an invader, leading to a neat little courtroom guessing game involving guest stars Lynda Day, Harold Gould, and Russell Johnson, among others. I also enjoyed “Dark Outpost,” which situates Vincent in the midst of a student archaeology expedition, jazzing up its conventional group dynamics with devious alien mindfuckery. More episodes start in medias res, and the guest stars become less predictable—with more villainous humans and more sympathetic aliens. The Invaders never quite capitalizes on the vast potential for political allegory baked into its premise, but there are whiffs of Cold War paranoia in season two that resonate. Prolific Mission: Impossible scribe Laurence Heath contributes to this with solid, espionage-influenced hours like “The Captive” and especially “Counter-Attack,” which repurposes the concept of John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold into the world of The Invaders. A later episode capitalizing on the ethical compromises and tradeoffs of spy fiction is “The Organization,” which shotguns Vincent into collaboration with an unscrupulous mobster (slickly played by J.D. Cannon), who battles his craven self-interest when challenged to do the right thing.

Another improvement is a key showrunning decision that addresses the problem of the series’ sustainability. This strategy begins in the fourteenth episode, “The Believers,” wherein Vincent’s hard work pays off in the formation of a small network of allies, convinced either by Vincent’s warnings or the evidence of their own eyes, that the invasion is happening. Finally, Vincent has a cohort to collaborate with, a development enabling the writers to imply offscreen machinations, a nebulous connective tissue running between the episodes. This contributes significant momentum down the home stretch. The most frequently recurring ally is millionaire industrialist Edgar Scoville (Kent Smith), whose resources prove particularly useful and whose presence provides Vincent a consistent sounding board. Unfortunately, Scoville isn’t at all interesting, nor are many of the other believers who recur (usually in just an episode or two). What is interesting, though, is watching a mid-sixties writers room figure out—on the job—the hybrid-style genre storytelling techniques that wouldn’t become commonplace until the nineties, in shows like The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shows which it may well have influenced.

It’s interesting to imagine how The Invaders might have evolved further in this vein had it continued, and indeed the season-two closer, “Inquisiton,” hints at an expansion of the circle and potentially more week-to-week continuity. By then, however, the ratings had dwindled and the show was canceled—and, perhaps, largely forgotten, which is a shame, because in some ways it vibes nicely alongside longer-tail peers that it visually resembles such as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, and it surely shares DNA with many subsequent SF shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, V, The X-Files, and Fringe. In this age of undying franchises, it wouldn’t surprise me if some savvy Hollywood writer rediscovered The Invaders and spun up the concept into a new kind of gold with contemporary storytelling techniques, advanced special effects, and the more sophisticated modern subtexts of conspiracy narrative in a world full of mutable truths and reality bubbles. Until then, though, The Invaders can remain a hidden gem for its devotees, and for me, a satisfying curiosity, worth knowing about for the many ways it contributed to the evolution of science fiction television.

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