After being available in France (where the series apparently has a huge following) as a pricey two season, three-volume set, and in the UK as a standalone Season 1 set, Larry Cohen's cult sci-fi series finally makes its Region 1 debut via CBS Video/Paramount.
Produced by the iconic and enterprising Quinn Martin, The Invaders was basically The Fugitive (at the time, one of Martin's top-rated shows) with aliens, although Cohen's original premise, of a man trying to prove the existence of alien invaders on Earth, was a metaphor for Communist moles and spies slowly destroying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the continental U.S. of A.
Producer Martin chose to focus on broadly insipient paranoia, and according to Cohen, he basically patted the show's creator on the head, repositioned Cohen's official credit in the end credits of each episode, and used a team of in-house staff writers to flesh out the 20-odd story outlines Cohen had sold Martin, leaving the show's creator pretty much out of the picture.
Cohen, who was the official showrunner of Branded (1965-1966), wasn't too happy about handing over the reigns of his latest series, but The Invaders managed to live for two seasons before ABC pulled the plug and cancelled the show.
The series enjoyed a second life in syndication (ideally suited for late night screenings, with cookies and milk), and was somewhat revived for a 1995 two-part TV miniseries by Fox, who never developed the revised concept for a new series. (With the X-Files then in its fourth season , the network perhaps felt one series about mega-paranoia was more than enough.)
Part Fugitive and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (in terms of the paranoia element spreading through from Smalltown , U.S.A. to Metropolis), Invaders starred Roy (Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) Thinnes as stalwart crusader David Vincent, a man ruthlessly determined to rout out aliens, and expose their massive plan to colonize and take over the Earth.
Cohen (It's Alive, God Told Me To, Phone Booth) has always been able to come up with a great hook, and while tongue-in-cheek (the aliens are mostly identifiable by a pinky finger that never bends, plus no heartbeat, and no blood), his concept of a man trying to save humanity works, but the series has a few serious flaws:
If the aliens are so technologically advanced, why rely on singular schemes to ruin humanity (weather gizmo from hell, swarms of bugs) when they could set up satellite programs to improve the odds of success?
How does Vincent support himself if his career as an emerging architect evaporated once he abandoned a promising career?
And more importantly, if David Vincent is such a thorn, why don't the aliens just kill the sonofabitch?
Vincent is occasionally put in harm's way, but the aliens generally let him live because by discrediting him in public, they hope to ensure anyone who steps forward with a claim of an active alien invasion is branded a loon.
Fair enough, but one would suspect that, as more humans get wise to the aliens' planetary takeover, maybe it's better for the pinky-challenged monsters to kill Vincent, since he's the best-organized and coordinated.
Besides the existence of aliens, there's also a few more ground-level suspensions of disbelief we have to swallow:
Oddball newspaper reports, like a girl seeing a man turn red and disappear (the alien's form of death), are always picked up by Vincent, no matter where he's traveling.
When confronted with claims of alien invaders, people kind of shrug, argue a bit, or walk away instead of ridiculing Vincent the way the aliens want them to do.
Those who ultimately side with Vincent do so with far less reluctance than expected, and often the issue of aliens and doubles and imposters comes off like a debate on preferred political candidates.
The Ford Motor Company, who sponsored the series, makes sure EVERYONE drives a pristine Ford Galaxy 500, and over the season Vincent eventually upgrades from a convertible to a hardtop sedan to a fancy schmancy coupe. Not since Chevrolet littered Live and Let Die (1973) with Caprice Classics in every shot has there been so much blatant, laughable product placement; every angle always reveals a new Ford, all cabs are Fords, all delivery trucks are Fords (with fresh pain and washed tired in spite of being driven in the desert), and old pickup trucks are still Fords, with a decent pain job.
(The cars are SO clean that there are many, many moments when the camera crew is glimpsed in car windows, doors, passing vehicles, and other goofs no one seemed to care about during filming!)
By the end of the season, you too will be yearning for a Galaxy 500 – which was, in all fairness, not a bad looking sedan – but the obvious positioning of Ford cards in exterior shots makes the series seem far more artificial than its makers intended, unless part of the alien invasion includes the actual control of Ford, and use that dominion to destroy Chrysler and GM, and have Ford provide transportation to the world to fund the alien infrastructure.
But these flaws end up adding to the show's charm, along with rushed plot points and cliffhangers timed for every ad break. Just as novel then – and standardized in all of Quinn Martin's shows – was the division and branding of Chapters and Epilogues (with accompanying Naked City narration), giving each episode added dramatic flair and formalism.
Martin, a former editor, knew how to structure a tight show, and as illogical as some stories progressed, every episode has its set of beats that keep the 50 minute running times (yes, TV once was far meatier than the laughable running time allotted to current shows) quite brisk, and engaging.
There's also the huge diversity of actors popping up in episodes: veteran character actors (Ralph Bellamy, Burgess Meredith, Ed Begley), newcomers (Diane Baker, Ed Asner, Robert Walker, Jr., Jack Lord, Peggy Lipton, Suzanne Pleshette, William Windom, and Dabney Coleman, with hair!), and Lynn Loring, at the time Thinnes' wife and manager.
Many directors worked on the show, including prolific newcomer Paul Wendkos (The Possession of Joel Delaney) and veteran Joseph Sargent (Taking of Pelham 1-2-3). Wendkos' work is the most interesting for the director's rather obsessive use of huge close-ups; when viewed on a big tube or bigscreen TV, actor's heads balloon to massive scale, along with their emoting torment and seething paranoia.
It's also fun to hear Quinn Martin's name used as a herald in conjunction with the title card, as well as most shows beginning with the exciting proclamation “The In-va-ders… in COLOUR!”
Colour, as a matter of fact, is a supporting player in each episode, because the show's cinematographer, set designer, and set decorator hyper-focused on clean geometric lines, designs, and rich pastel shades while rarely taking away from the show's quasi-docu style. Most episodes were shot on location at large industrial factories, small towns, rural roads, farms, and novel communities like the Rossmore Leisure World, and the show is very much a snapshot of contemporary sixties style.
That may have been tied to Vincent being an architect, but with the exception of two episodes – one shot at Rossmore, and another which has Vincent hired to design a factory – his vocation is completely irrelevant to the show. When the main title narrator barks “and Roy Thinnes as ARCHITECT David Vincent,” it's the show's best gag: at no time does his engineering background foil the aliens!
A major plus in the production team is Dominic Frontiere's outstanding music, which incorporates the show's triplet motif, heard over the titles, as well at the beginning of each ‘chapter.' The composer only scored a handful of full episodes, and by the mid-season it gets pretty grating when every scene is tracked with looped and chopped up cues.
A veteran of science-fiction scoring (The Outer Limits), Frontiere offers the right balance of chilling suspense cues, a great theme motif, bouncy jazz source cues, and solid dramatic underscore that's screaming for a CD release.
Thinnes appears in a lengthy (and sometimes meandering) interview on Disc 5. In indexed segments, he goes through his early career and movement from TV's The Long, Hot Summer (1965-1966) to The Invaders; becoming a UFO convert when he witnessed some aerial weirdness prior to filming the first episode; and bonding with series cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, who told tales of seeing alien bogeys during his Air Force years.
Thinnes also discusses his fellow actors, his ARCHITECT character, early effects tests for the aliens' deaths, and the tight schedules of the series. There's also personal thoughts on the show's popularity, and his brief appearance in the 1995 miniseries.
Each episode is preceded by an optional intro from Thinnes, who provides cast highlights as well as tongue-in-cheek plot recaps, and creator Larry Cohen provides a steady commentary track for “The Innocent,” the episode (on Disc 3) partially shot at Rossmore.
A good raconteur and a writer with a fascinating career that spanned live TV to present-day feature films, Cohen gives a succinct background to his own busy career during the sixties, writing and showrunning series such as Branded, Blue Coronet (itself in dire need of a DVD release), and writing two episodes of The Fugitive, which helped firm up a relationship with producer Martin.
There's also some thoughts on Martin, as well as Thinnes and the show's ongoing popularity. At the end of the episode, one really wishes Cohen would sit down and write a memoir on his years in TV; there's so much history, insight, and anecdotes that could fill a memorable tome.
In addition to a mix of Season 1 trailers and teasers, there's also a longer 60 min. version of the pilot episode, “Beachhead,” which should be watched in place of the 50 min. broadcast version . The colours are more subdued, but the pilot is in good shape, and includes many scene extensions and additional scenes with his ARCHITECT partner (veteran actor James Daly) that present some important background, plus an alternate edit of the final scene and a different set of end credits.
It's a fine pilot, and shows how one can make a strong impact with a great hook, solid execution, and dramatic scenes with vital character bits – the latter often hacked out of current pilots because of the increase in adverts.
Housed in a standard alpha case, all 17 original broadcast episodes from Season 1 are spread over 5 discs, and the picture and sound quality, by and large, is good, with compression perceptible on several episodes; on Disc 5, it's quite prominent, and unlike the extended pilot, the broadcast version, in spite of better colours, is ringy and fuzzy.
There's also a strange aberration in the episode “Vikor” on Disc 2, where a few shots within a scene seem to have been taken from grainy, faded 16mm sources and edited into the DVD version, taken from a surviving 35mm master. The episodes, however, are uncut, but they're not as pristine as some older TV series currently on DVD, like the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).
CBS's under $30 price is ideal for this set, and makes this a must-have for fans and the curious, and one hopes Season 2 will not only come out soon, but will contain more extras (Larry Cohen featurette? Composer featurette? Bonus CD? Fan featurette? A free Ford Galaxy 500? Architectural toolkit?), adding further background info on this cult show.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan