The TARDIS gets stuck over the dark side of the moon where its crew spy a UFO. Before they can investigate, the UFO fires a missile at the TARDIS, but it teleports away to a farm in the English countryside at the last second. Because of a circuit damaged by the explosion, the TARDIS becomes invisible. The Doctor decides to go to London and look up their friend Professor Travers for help repairing the TARDIS’s circuit, concerned only that they might be in a time when Travers is an infant. Jamie, Zoe, and the Doctor hitch a lift with a truck driver, who is trying to get away from an industrial compound run by International Electrometics, the world’s largest electronics company which holds almost a global monopoly. After clearing a guard post, the truck driver forces the Doctor and his companions off at a field, and they end up having to hitch another ride. Unknown to them, the driver is pursued and detained by two IE guards on motorcycles, and shot to death. At Professor Travers’s townhouse, they find out that Travers and his daughter Anne are in the United States. The house is being watched by a former teacher of Anne’s, Professor Watkins, an electronics expert who happens to work for IE, and his niece Isobel, a photographer. The Doctor tries to call Watkins at IE’s London headquarters, but he has apparently disappeared. The Doctor and Jamie decide to go to IE’s office in person, only to find to his frustration that there’s no human staff, only computers. Eventually Jamie and the Doctor are brought to Tobias Vaughn, IE’s Managing Director. Vaughn assures the Doctor and Jamie that Watkins is working on an experiment and has demanded total isolation while promising to have his top engineers repair the damaged circuit. However, the Doctor is suspicious, noticing that Vaughn did not blink normally for a human.
After the visit, the Doctor and Jamie are taken to a landed jet where they meet the former Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, now a Brigadier. He explains that he’s been put in charge of a new organization, UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task Force), which has been investigating mysterious disappearances at IE. Jamie recognizes the truck driver from before among the Brigadier’s photographs of UNIT agents who have been investigating IE. Vaughn gets into contact with some alien beings through a device, which warns him that the Doctor is “hostile” and, while they have never been on Earth before, they encountered him previously on “Planet 14.” Then Vaughn is instructed to watch out for anything that might interfere with the planned invasion. Just at that moment, Zoe and Isobel show up looking for the Doctor and Jamie, but are ultimately taken by Vaughn’s goons, who use them as bait for a trap to capture the Doctor and Jamie, who have volunteered to go back to investigate for UNIT.
All of them are taken to IE’s compound, where the Doctor and Jamie are introduced to Watkins, who is being extorted into compliance with the life of his niece. Vaughn hopes to learn more about the TARDIS by spying on the Doctor and Watkins’s conversation, but the Doctor sabotages the surveillance camera with a magnet. Vaughn threatens to kill Zoe if the Doctor doesn’t give him information about the TARDIS, but Jamie and the Doctor escape. When his security chief and co-conspirator Packer admits he is worried that he is taking a huge risk by refusing to follow orders to kill the Doctor in order to get the TARDIS, Vaughn confides that he’s having Watkins work on a machine that can broadcast emotions, which he hopes to use to control his allies after the invasion. Finding Zoe and Isobel, the Doctor and the others finally get out of the compound with the help of a UNIT helicopter. However, the Doctor doesn’t take long to sneak back into the compound when the Brigadier tells him that UNIT has been getting reports of UFOs for the past year. At the compound, the Doctor finds his suspicions confirmed: Vaughn is working with the Cybermen.
Vaughn urges the Cybermen to rush forward their plans for the invasion. But at the same time he tests Watkins’ device on one of the Cybermen, driving it mad. Back at UNIT headquarters, the Brigadier wants to warn his higher-ups at Geneva about the oncoming Cybermen invasion, but realizes he needs photographic evidence. Isobel offers to help, but the Brigadier refuses, infuriating her and Zoe. Meanwhile Vaughn is disgusted when the Cybermen announce that they will convert all able-bodied humans into Cybermen and dispose of the “unsuitable” and vows he will no longer cooperate with the invasion unless they go with the initial plan of allowing him to rule Earth in exchange for giving the Cybermen the raw materials they need. The Cybermen appear to acquiesce and Vaughn knows they’re lying, but is confident that his technology will protect him from the Cybermen’s mind control.
Isobel and Zoe goad Jamie into joining them on an adventure to the IE compound to gather photographic evidence of the Cybermen. In the sewers beneath the compound, they run into the mad Cyberman, but they are saved by UNIT soldiers sent to retrieve them. At Vaughn’s office, Watkins presents Vaughn with an upgraded version of his device and arranges to have them immediately mass produced, but not before testing it on Watkins. Enraged, Watkins threatens Vaughn, who mocks him by giving him a loaded gun…only for Watkins to find out the hard way that Vaughn has been given a cybernetic body by the Cybermen. With the help of Watkins, who UNIT rescued from IE, the Doctor pieces together that the Cybermen will use chips secreted into all devices manufactured by IE to amplify a mind-control signal broadcast from their ship on the moon. Also the Doctor thinks he’s invented a circuit that can block the signal. Unfortunately, it’s too late. The signal brings human life to a standstill across the globe while Cybermen emerge from London’s sewers with more on the way from outer space.
Only the Doctor, his companions, and the Brigadier’s branch of UNIT are saved from the signal in time. The Brigadier works out a plan to convert a Russian spacefaring rocket into a missile that can be used to take out the Cybermen’s mothership, which is generating the signal, but it would take time. In the meantime, the Doctor decides, with a wire supplied by UNIT, to confront Vaughn. The Doctor tries to warn Vaughn that he can’t outsmart the Cybermen, but Vaughn is coolly confident, and guesses the Doctor is playing for time. Back with UNIT, Zoe manages to calculate the best way to use the missiles available to UNIT to create a chain reaction of explosions that take out most of the Cybermen invasion fleet. As the Doctor watches, the Cybermen blame Vaughn for this catastrophe and decide to use a bomb to wipe out all life on Earth in order to just strip mine it.
The Doctor enlists the help of a now half-deranged Vaughn to disrupt the homing signal the Cybermen are using to bring the bomb to Earth. Using the weapon Watkins developed against the Cybermen that have swarmed IE headquarters, the Doctor with Vaughn and some UNIT soldiers destroy the source of the signal, but not before Vaughn is unceremoniously killed by a Cyberman. Later the Russian missile is able to take out the mothership, since the ship was forced to get into the Earth’s orbit thanks to the destruction of the homing signal. With the Earth saved and the circuit finally repaired, the Doctor sets off again.
Sign of the Times
Isobel calls the Brigadier “anti-feminist” for refusing to let her go help photograph a Cyberman. Of course, Isobel is still the one to serve tea to everyone.
“Don’t look so worried. Fancy a cup of tea?”
-The Brigadier to Zoe, at the height of the Cybermen crisis
It’s the first time the Brigadier is, well, a Brigadier. It’s also the first appearance of his right-hand man, Corporal (later Sergeant) John Benton.
Trying to give the Cybermen a coherent continuity in the “classic” series may not be quite the hopeless task that doing so with Dalek continuity is, but…well, this series really makes a hash out of the Cybermen’s first appearance, The Tenth Planet. In that story, the Cybermen’s homeworld Mondas comes into contact with Earth again for the first time in millennia. Even if it’s the case that some Cybermen attacked Earth before Mondas returned to the solar system, which some of Tobias Vaughn’s dialogue seems to suggest, then why aren’t the Cybermen recognized? Or at least why do the Cybermen of that story look less advanced than their “Princess Leia hairbun” counterparts here? Of course, the answer is “They didn’t really care that much about continuity on TV shows in the Pre-Internet days!”
Still, this serial alone has given fuel to many a nerdy debate about continuity. One reason boils down to the Cybermen’s claim that they encountered the Doctor before on a mysterious “Planet 14,” which leads any fan into a collision course into the questions raised above. Probably the best “answer” came from famous comic book writer Grant Morrison, who out of the whole mystery spun a Sixth Doctor yarn in the comic book Doctor Who Adventures where Mondas is Marinus in the far future.
But the big one is that this adds to the big snaffu that is UNIT’s continuity. Basically dialogue from “The Web of Fear” suggested that story took place sometime around 1975 and it’s confirmed “The Invasion” unfolds four years after that. It’s pretty clear that UNIT stories take place at least a couple of years in the viewing audience’s future, but how far is unclear, to say the least (it’s infamous enough that it was made into a joke in the “new” series). I’m sure I’ll note it some more when it comes up, but for now let’s just say that the Cyberman invasion of the Earth took place sometime in the early-mid ’70s.
You can say the same for a lot of Second Doctor series, and I know I’ve said something very similar before, but this one really feels like a ’50s b-movie. A bunch of scientists (including the Doctor) and military leaders are in a room full of tech equipment and discuss a slowly unfolding invasion or crisis or whathaveyou? Classic! Also, in spite of the obvious budget limitations, this story does feel like an epic in the same vein as The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Like that one, it’s a cinematic serial, and the plot just feels like there’s more at stake than in most of the Doctor’s other adventures. This is another episode I’d peg as a big influence on Russell T. Davies and his oft-tapped alien invasion sagas during his era of the “new” show.
But it’s really the characters that make this serial work. The exception unfortunately is Isobel, who dates this story badly. As noted above, she calls the Brigadier out, but her plan, carried out to prove she is a Strong Independent Woman, does cause the deaths of a police officer and a couple of UNIT soldiers for the sake of photographs that don’t really help the Brigadier avert the invasion at all. The rest of the time she’s obsessing over fashion photography, flirting with John Benton, or serving tea. Ironically, it’s Zoe, who never feels compelled to assert her Strong Independent Woman-ness, that becomes the better feminist model, by being the one who actually does help UNIT defeat the Cybermen – with math, no less.
The characters who do make this work naturally include the Brigadier. In a show where authority figures are usually one monster invasion away from turning psychotic, the Brigadier is a welcome and complete inversion. He has a stern edge and dominates the room, but is also kind to a fault and willing to listen to good advice no matter the source. Then there’s the real villain, Tobias Vaughn, who is one of the best, if not the best, human villain the show has produced so far. He’s an oddly believable type of lunatic, who is the model of decorum and respect – until his desires are frustrated, in which case the raging psychopath underneath finally reveals himself. It’s really a shame he didn’t become a recurring antagonist, or at least was killed off so casually.
Finally, it’s worth nothing that fans have yet to speculate on the connections between the Doctor and the mysterious Kilroy…