The Invaders: Cold War Central with the Vietnam Blues

What’s the show got besides all this nonsense? A real sense of paranoia, in spades and seven ways from Sunday. No matter how absurd, convenient, contrived, far-fetched, illogical or inconsistent the scripts, and they are all of these, one or two vivid scenes per episode show a seemingly normal, all-American situation or stereotypical character (a benevolent minister, an old biddy) suddenly revealing a crack in its reassuring surface, beneath which is the frisson of something not right.

Despite Vincent’s dogged faith in the authorities, the show’s sinister, pessimistic vibe tends to undermine him. There’s even one episode where the aliens use the local church to manipulate the weather. Their explanation about the “abandoned church” doesn’t make sense, since the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t assign new priests to abandoned churches, but again, what matters is the revelation of how the organ and congregation mask an evil purpose.

This episode, “Storm”, is also notable for having Latino aliens in its setting of a fishing village; African-Americans are virtually absent from the first season, though one or two are glimpsed. Most of the aliens are homely middle-aged white guys, as are most of the non-aliens, except for the aging matrons who can’t be trusted, and of course the pretty young women who cross Vincent’s path. Two of these, one alien and one human, have feelings for him and are thus doomed not to survive the episode.

The alien woman (Suzanne Pleshette in “The Mutant”) confesses with hesitation that she has “a difference” from the rest of her kind. She’s always known she had this difference, and the one we’d call her “father” had it too. Vincent characterizes this as “the ability to feel”, but one of the unspoken ironies of this series is that aliens are often more character-ful and at least capable of feigning more emotions than Vincent, who pursues his path like a humorless automaton.

Speaking of differences, Cohen’s work has an interesting relationship to homosexual characters and themes. These are overt in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover and his thrillers Special Effects and Perfect Strangers, which both feature the same gay private detective, surely a first in film history. Cohen doesn’t mention it here, but in a long article about The Invaders at Classic TV, The Invaders: The Nightmare Has Already Begun Stephen Bowie quotes him admitting that the whole “crooked pinky” gimmick was a nod towards gay subtext as a symbol of effeminacy. “When this show was done back in the sixties, the homosexual community was kind of a submerged, invisible community. People were living secret lives. I thought, here are these aliens living amongst society, keeping their true identities secret, their true selves secret, and this is funny because the pinky kind of symbolizes homosexuality in some way, and nobody will get the gag, but I’ll put it in there anyway.”

“The Ivy Curtain” attempts academic satire in its depiction of an exclusive school where the aliens are trained by a campily effete, orchid-sniffing Dr. Reynard (Murray Matheson), sipping tea with pinky extended. One scene has the young students doing the frug or similar youthful gyrations in front of a rock band and having a kind of subversive conversation hour as the master praises or corrects their techniques for “spreading hate”. One mod girl warns about the country turning into a police state and a shaggy boy declares that LSD is all right.

If this seems like a way to demonize youth culture for a conservative middle-class viewership, we should add that the first zinger in the scene is the assertion that “we should bomb Red China before they bomb us”, the kind of sentiment some of those viewers might have endorsed. The episode had earlier indulged in lectures about how humans are primarily motivated by fear, and how this emotion is the main tool for manipulating them. So certain details haven’t dated.

Compare this to the British UFO, which arrived a few years later. It too had bad aliens who look like us, but though its stories sometimes delved into the fractious politics of bureaucracy or the personal cost of devotion to the cause, it basically celebrated institutions rather than being afraid of them. It featured an organization of people working together as a well-oiled machine (as the aliens are often depicted in The Invaders), everyone pulling together toward a common goal. It’s a concept of people who remember the Blitz with a stiff upper lip and who feel no cause for shame or hysteria. Consider too the faith in military authorities and the men who do their jobs in Jack Webb’s Project U.F.O. from 1978, when Vietnam was a repressed memory.

The Invaders, on the other hand, is Cold War Central with the Vietnam blues. The complete pilot version of the premiere, which is included as a bonus, contains a few extra minutes of footage, including a conversation between Vincent and his soon-to-be-late partner (James Daley) in which the latter draws a parallel between Vincent’s story and a distant memory of when he ranted about “them” in a hospital in Korea. This underlines the Cold War metaphor and, most interestingly, tends to question Vincent’s reliability.

The show does mention the word “Vietnam” in one episode: “Moonshot”, about a heroic vet turned astronaut, who’s actually been replaced with an impostor a la Manchurian Candidate. Other episodes refer to Korea, the era’s displaced metaphor (see also M*A*S*H). Two episodes feature decorated veterans who, out of bitterness mixed with fear or ambition, have allied themselves with the aliens.

Cohen’s commentary is on “The Innocent”, one of the two or three best episodes. In a riff on his role in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie plays an urbane alien named Magnus who tries to explain that the aliens have learned from their mistakes and that a change in command has led to a new policy of helping the humans. This leads to a neat game with reality that wouldn’t disgrace The Prisoner, thanks to an elaborate sequence at Rossmore Leisure World, a retirement home in Laguna Hills.

Cohen says he conceived the series as a parody of Cold War concerns and that he enjoys it but recognizes a few problems. He says he would have made Vincent’s character more interesting and that he defeats the aliens too easily. He also thinks the show has “too many aliens” who are too much in control instead of making a mystery out of who’s an alien. Of course this choice increases the paranoia.

One thing Cohen doesn’t mention is the show’s failure sufficiently to exploit the ambiguity of whether the aliens might be good or bad, a point Rennie’s character raises in this episode and Pleshette’s character before him. There’s a later episode where, in a particularly senseless set-up about a fugitive alien who freezes folks while simultaneously fleeing from and seeking out his people, Vincent holds at bay the fresh-faced alien (Robert Walker Jr., channeling the creepitude of his father in Strangers on a Train) who says he’s just been drafted and doesn’t like what he’s doing, which leads Vincent to make glib remarks about Nazis just before the kid irrationally gives himself away by trying to run two people over.

In the 1980s series V, complexity was generated by the existence of factions within aliens and humans, so that there were wheels within wheels, balances and upsets, traitors and double-agents. This factional element hit critical mass in The X Files and was partly embodied by none other than Thinnes in a recurring role as an ambiguously helpful alien. That was a show that knew and respected its forebears.

The best episode is the season’s penultimate, “Wall of Crystal”, which out of the blue mentions that Vincent has a family and is thus susceptible to blackmail. Apparently this family is never brought up again either, but for the duration of this episode there’s his brother, Dr. Bob Vincent (Linden Chiles), and Bob’s pregnant wife Grace (Julie Sommars). This week’s coldly efficient alien apparatchik (Edward Asner) puts the relatives in jeopardy in a casually sadistic manner just when our hero finally has a handful of proof to show a prominent newspaper columnist and TV personality (Burgess Meredith). The character dynamics of this episode are intelligent and not always predictable, and the director makes several subtle moves along the way. The pre-credit scene with Peggy Lipton is especially good, too.

Clearly, that episode is a guest-star bonanza, which along with clumsy conventions and telling social details adds to the nostalgic charm of the series even for those who never saw it the first time. I also love the way the opening announcer gives a shout-out to tonight’s guests; that was a Quinn Martin staple, like dividing the segments between commercials into “acts” and an “epilogue”. Similarly, I loved the way MTM comedies gave everyone in the cast a window at the end of the show. Today, distinctive opening titles (and attendant theme music) are all but vanished while closing credits are reduced to a tiny scroll in the corner as we’re bombarded with scenes and sounds of junk we don’t care about. We may be in a new golden age of TV, but credits have gone to hell in a handbasket.

Returning to the point, other actors who show up include Lynn Loring (Mrs. Thinnes at the time), Roddy McDowall, Jack Lord, Diane Baker, J.D. Cannon, Ellen Corby, Laurence Naismith, Harold Gould, Arthur Hill, Louise Latham, Diana Hyland, Jeanette Nolan, William Windom, James Whitmore, Susan Strasberg, Peter Mark Richman, Dabney Coleman, Jack Warden, Susan Oliver, Norman Fell, John Larch, Frank Overton, Robert Emhardt, Ed Begley, Laura Devon, Dabbs Greer, William Talman, Joseph Campanella, Barbara Luna, R.G. Armstrong, Helen Kleeb, Peter Graves, William Smithers, Alfred Ryder, John Ericson, Anthony Eisley, Edward Andrews, Andrew Duggan, Strother Martin, Murray Hamilton and Ralph Bellamy. In other words, those who watched American TV in the ’70s will have a festival of “Hey, I know that face!”

The show’s sense of style derives from the colors (credit director of photography Andrew J. McIntyre), the special effects (Darrell Anderson), the actors sometimes posing away from each other and delivering with strident intensity, and such directorial choices as tilted angles and the economically staged, subtly paranoid manner of pivoting the camera across 90-degree arcs and peering at Vincent as he walks down corridors. Those directors are Paul Wendkos, Joseph Sargent, Richard Benedict, Sutton Roley, John Meredyth Lucas and Robert Butler.

The score is largely the work of Dominic Frontiere and is often unsubtle, action-heavy cues with spacy effects like stings that sometimes sound like a harpsichord. However, there is good music here, much of it recycled from his work on The Outer Limits, especially from the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown”, one of the great achievements of any TV anthology.

Viewers should avoid the option of watching the episodes with new, disposable, spoiler-ridden intros by Thinnes. He also does a bonus interview in which he discusses seeing a real UFO before the series debuted.

The back of the box has fine print declaring “Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions”, but in this case I doubt it. This is a standard disclaimer on CBS/Paramount packages. Occasionally it’s accompanied by this one, on the concurrent Season 2 Part 1 release of The Fugitive: “Some music has been changed for this home entertainment version.” That would seem to refer to clearance issues on source music that might have been replaced in certain scenes, but that warning doesn’t show up on The Invaders.