The Invaders: Cold War Central with the Vietnam Blues

The aliens carry silver dollars with lights which function both as cell phones and as gadgets that can make anyone drop dead from an instantly diagnosable "brain hemorrhage".

The Invaders, a Quinn Martin production (as the announcer intones at the top of the show), can be handily described as the missing link between The Fugitive and The X Files. Now let's anatomize it more thoroughly.

American TV in the 1960s had developed the "loner" premise of the western, with its wandering paladins of justice, into a more contemporary and paranoid form with Quinn Martin's enormously popular The Fugitive, about a man on the run by force rather than choice, a man who can trust no one, who can't settle down in one place, who's driven by an endless mission that seems eternally out of reach.

Meanwhile, there was a man named Larry Cohen. He's best known for writing, directing and producing some fine trashy genre pics of the 1970s, such as Bone, Black Caesar, It's Alive, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover and God Told Me To, and he's still on the scene with screenplays such as Phone Booth and Cellular. He's a fine writer with a knack for paranoia and a head for political subtext whose formative creative years were spent in TV. He made an early splash writing for anthologies and respected series like The Untouchables (also for Quinn Martin), The Defenders and that same The Fugitive ("probably one of the best episodes they ever did", he declares without false modesty in his commentary here).

He'd already created two series: Branded was one of the loner-westerns, with Chuck Connors as a driven hero who tries to clear his reputation. Cohen says he made the mistake of explaining to Connors that it was a parable of the Hollywood blacklist. Then came the aborted summer series Coronet Blue, whose secret was never explained to the audience. The hero was an amnesiac who tried to find out his own identity -- a premise that's all over the place today, when amnesia seems essential to the American character in films and TV. In fact, as the show never got around to revealing before it ended, he was a Russian spy who'd tried to defect to the US and been left for dead. Cohen's partial inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock's film of The 39 Steps, and we can see how it ties in with such shows as The Prisoner and Alias, not to mention near-forgotten tidbits like VR5 and Strange Luck.

Thus Cohen was hot, and so was Martin, when the former pitched to the latter this idea of Invasion of the Body Snatchers crossed with The Fugitive. Cohen says he also wrote about 20 plot outlines. That was the extent of his involvement, whereas he'd been more deeply involved in his other series. In exchange for a good profit share and credit as the creator, Cohen handed the ball to Martin and moved on to other projects. The show materialized in January 1967 as a midseason replacement, the 17 episodes of which are in this handy set, and then ran for one more season before exhausting itself.

Watching the show today, one's first wish is that Cohen had actually produced and written the episodes, because there's a clear tension between the viability of his plot ideas and the often clumsy, plodding execution, especially in the writing.

Roy Thinnes plays "architect David Vincent", as the announcer calls him at the start of every episode. There are two stentorian disembodied voices on this show; one is a typical announcer for the opening credits of QM shows and one is a gratuitously Serling-esque narrator to book-end the stories, perhaps because The Twilight Zone was seen as a template.

It's good to be told what his job is because we never see him architecting, although it's clearly a fine gig that allows him to wear tightly tailored suits and pursue his personal obsession by flying to far-flung corners of the US (all played by near-flung corners of California). But then he implies a couple of times that he's "given up his life", so maybe he's a trust-fund child -- the complete package with blond hair, athletic physique and baby-blue orbs. Anyway, he's never truly a fugitive in the David Janssen sense; he has a home somewhere and nobody's consistently trying to arrest or kill him, despite the superficial similarity to the other series.

One fine night, Vincent wakes from a nap in his car to witness a flying saucer projecting colored lights everywhere. We should mention that, as also announced at the top of every episode, this series is "in COLOR" and proud of it. It's from that transitional era in TV when the color shows indulged in all kinds of set designs and filter work to give us an eyeful, though occasionally the faces are too orange and I don't think that's the fault of digital remastering. I think it's part of the "proof" of color.

So anyway, there's orange and green and blue everywhere about the silver saucer, and it's flashing on Vincent's face (another recurring motif) and he knows the nightmare has begun and he must tell the world before it's too late. It never occurs to him for a moment that the visitors might be friendly and that we should establish contact, like those wimply scientists in certain '50s movies who got evaporated for their pointy-headed idealism, even though the aliens spend most of the first episode making no attempt to kill him when they easily could until he finally becomes a thorn in their side.

This problematic behavior of the aliens is one of the show's major flaws. They all carry around joy buzzers or silver dollars with lights, which function both as cell phones and as gadgets that can make anyone drop dead from an instantly diagnosable "brain hemorrhage", not to mention little crystals that apparently brainwash people, at least temporarily, and they employ these devices willy-nilly on anyone who crosses their path, but either they never try them on Vincent or only do so half-heartedly or half-assedly. Sometimes he theorizes that they "can't risk it" because it would "attract too much attention" now that he's been shooting his mouth off. Uh huh. It would also end the series prematurely.

The aliens have adopted human form and must be periodically rejuvenated at secret installations or else they start glowing and freaking out, surely leading to undesirable situations. They also have big brainwashing machines in underground papier-maché caves, not unfamiliar from Star Trek. Some but not all of them have a crooked pinky. When they die, they glow red and evaporate, leaving no bodies.

Vincent forever babbles about the need for "hard evidence" to show "the authorities". Mind you, it also never occurs to him even to carry a camera, except on one occasion where he gets some nice shots and instantly throws the camera down and forgets it. Never mind also that the aliens clearly have agents in all institutions, from small-town deputies to hospitals to industry to the military and government and even organized religion. Sometimes he carries a gun to get himself out of a jam, but usually he just resorts to those endless bouts of TV fisticuffs.

One interesting aspect of the premise is that he rapidly becomes a crackpot-celebrity who is well-known in certain circles. Sometimes people even summon him to discuss something they saw, but more often he follows the lead of newspaper stories about some bizarre incident that occurs in the pre-credits sequence. In the second season, he begins to receive support from a loose association of believers. Frankly, it seems remarkably easy for Vincent to convince strangers that he's not a crank.

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