The Invaders — In Color!

The past few evenings I’ve watched and rewatched several episodes of the mid-1960s TV series The Invaders. The show began in January 1967 – a mid-season replacement for some other show, presumably, in the same season as Star Trek’s first year – for 17 episodes, then ran a full season of 26 episodes from Fall 1967 to March 1968. It wasn’t a show I watched closely at the time, but I did see enough episodes for the show to make an impression on me, and to lead me to buy the DVD set of the show’s first season a while back.

The Invaders was a show about a Santa Barbara architect, played by Roy Thinnes — a fine actor, who apparently had a substantial career (see Imdb), but who never became any kind of star, past this brief 2-year TV series — who witnesses, late one night, the landing of an alien spacecraft. He becomes convinced that aliens our invading our world, and the series is about him trying to convince others, and always failing. The show is a descendant of 1950s movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, and books like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, that imagined various ways aliens would try to infiltrate human society and take over our planet. All of these, of course, can be understood as analogs for the American fears in the 1950s and 60s about communists taking over American society.

Be that as it may. The show is also a prototypical story, common in both SF and fantasy, about a person who witnesses an extraordinary event and then tries to convince others, and fails, again and again. (Until, in some of these stories, the person is validated at the end, sometimes indirectly, incidentally, after the characters have left the stage.)

So in the past few evenings I’ve watched several first season episodes at random, including the premiere episode, “Beachhead,” and several later ones, including one guest-starring Michael Rennie, famous for his roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the two-part Lost in Space episode “The Keeper.”

A couple comments about the series in general. It was produced by Quinn Martin, whose name was even more prominent in the opening credits than Gene Roddenberry’s was in Star Trek’s. “A Quinn Martin Production” it would be announced by the narrator. Quinn Martin also produced the more successful and long-running series “The F.B.I.,” starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that began in 1965 and ran for 9 years. Both that series and “The Invaders” had similar structures: each show opened with a pre-credits bit (a prolog, or teaser) before the show credits. Those credits had a narrator announcing the show’s principal guest stars (always four, it seems), and then announcing the title: “Tonight’s episode: ‘The Interrogator'” or whatever. And then as the show resumed after each commercial break, there was a title: “Act I,” then “Act II,” and so on. Finishing with an “Epilog.” (Most shows in the 1960s, including Star Trek, had similar structures, though Trek didn’t have a separate epilog following a commercial.)

I appreciate these opening credits, because they identified the guest actor names with their faces. In virtually all TV shows and movies over these past decades, the credits list actor names and somehow presume you the viewer will know what role they play in the show. Hollywood insiders do, but most of us casual watchers don’t. (Did you really keep track of which actors played which characters on Game of Thrones? Maybe the top three or four.)

So: The Invaders begins with the episode “Beachhead,” that depicts architect David Vincent, who lives in Santa Barbara, driving home from some conference, and trying to take a short cut through the mountains, late at night. He stops for sleep at a deserted diner, but is later awakened by the sound and eerie glow of… a spaceship landing in front of him. (A round flying saucer, of course, widest and flat at the bottom, as in the photo above.)

This initial episode has him driving immediately to the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office to report the incident. His architectural partner Alan Landers, played by James Daley (who would a couple years later star in a Star Trek episode), shows up. When they return to the scene of his sighting, the sign has changed — no longer “Bud’s Diner” but now “Kelly’s Diner”. (Why did the aliens bother with such small a detail? Presumably simply to discredit the witness.) Vincent meets a man and woman camping nearby, who say they are hunters, but react violently, leading to a fist-fight, and in this scene Vincent notices two key ways of identifying aliens posing as humans: their pinky fingers stick straight out, and when badly injured or dead, they glow red – and when killed, disappear leaving only a bit of ash.

Vincent’s investigations take him to a small town, Kinney, deserted except for this episode’s female guest star, Diane Baker, whose husband, he learns, died after seeing something… in a nearby hydro-electric plant, where Vincent finds an alien control room and vertical glass tubes the aliens use to regenerate their human bodies. Vincent’s partner shows up but is captured, put in one of those tubes, and dies. When police finally show up, all evidence has vanished, and Vincent simply leaves town. The ominously-toned narrator, Twilight Zone-style, provides concluding remarks.

Some general points apply to all these episodes.

  • The opening credits emphasize that the show is IN COLOR! This was 1967, when broadcast shows were just transitioning from black and white to color. Star Trek debuted in color in 1966, but Lost in Space, beginning a year earlier in 1965, had one season of black and white before switching to color in the second season. Both Trek and especially LIS in that 2nd season use vivid colors the show the advantage of having a color TV; thus the bright red, blue, and tan shirts in Trek.
  • Smoking is common and routine. Presumably to be an actor in those days, you had to have learned to smoke.
  • Every episode (it seems) features at least one fist fight, generally between David Vincent and some bad guy. I’ve noted that the original Star Trek also featured routine physical violence, in a way that Next Generation did not; and in general, my impression is that kind of violence, routine in Westerns and Detective shows in the 1950s and ’60s, faded over the following couple decades. (These days I gather cop shows include lots of gun violence, but not milquetoast fist fights.) Again, to be an actor in a certain type of show in the ’60s meant you had to be able to handle yourself in a fight, even if a stunt double stepped in for the difficult shots. Recall also that NBC bought Star Trek when the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” ended with a big fistfight, according to sources. (See my comments about the episode here, along with a reference to Steven Pinker about declining violence.)
  • All, or almost all, the cars seen are Fords, or Ford-related: Mercurys and Lincolns. The same was true in “The F.B.I.”; apparently Quinn Martin had a marketing deal with the company. (A few exceptions include the hearse at the end of “Beachhead,” which is a Cadillac.)
  • Each episode has a prominent female costar, sometimes an actual or potential love-interest for David Vincent, other times the wife or girlfriend of one of the male guest stars.
  • As in all ‘60s TV shows, each episode is independent and cannot depend on any others; there is not any kind of story arc. Thus David’s brother in “Wall of Crystal” or Peter Graves in “Moonshot,” though each convinced of Vincent’s cause, cannot join the fight. The episodes were written to be shown in any order.
  • The music is by Dominic Frontiere, famous at the time for The Outer Limits a couple years before. While having no way to study individual tracks in each episode (as I’ve done with Trek), my impression from these few episodes is that Frontiere composed one set of themes for the show that were used over and over again in every episode. There seem to be no individual episode scores. The music consisted of an ominous trio of descending two-notes and a repeating set of rising three-notes (at 4:00). A compilation is here on YouTube.
  • As with most TV shows in the 1960s, it was shot at various locations in Southern California, in rural areas north and west of Los Angeles, with actual locations standing in for fictitious towns in the stories. Yet while set in Santa Barbara, some of the location shooting does seem to have been in Santa Barbara, judging from the ridge of mountains seen in some scenes, e.g. when David Vincent meets Burgess Meredith’s character at the bank parking lot.

Other episodes just watched:

In “Wall of Crystal” a carousing newly-wed couple – the bride played by the late Peggy Lipton, of Mod Squad fame—accidentally runs a truck off the road, whose cargo is a bunch of crystals that suffocate them. David Vincent, following news stories for any strange incidents that might indicate alien presence, shows up to collect a sample of the crystals. [How is David Vincent making a living while obviously not attending to his job as an architect? How can he afford to jet across the country following these leads?] The story involves David’s brother Bob and his wife Grace, and a TV commentator played by Burgess Meredith who becomes convinced of Vincent’s claims when the scientist testing the sample is mysteriously killed. In this episode we learn that the aliens actually can’t live in Earth’s oxygen atmosphere, and plan to replace it, via the crystals. The story has this episode’s alien baddy, played by Edward Asner (pre-Mary Tyler Moore Show), kidnapping Bob to force Vincent and the TV commentator to renounce their stories. The final confrontation occurs at a deserted winery, where the Asner and Meredith characters, and an entire building of the winery, vanish in alien glow before the police can arrive.

In “The Innocent” Vincent follows a lead to a coastal Maine village where a fisherman has encountered the aliens and has captured one of their disc weapons. But Vincent is captured by the aliens, led here by the imposing Michael Rennie, who claims the aliens have decided on a peaceful approach. He invites Vincent onto an alien ship, which seems to take off and quickly lands in the valley of Santa Margaretta, where Vincent’s architectural dreams have been realized, and where his old girlfriend Helen is there to drive him around. This turns out to have been an illusion; Vincent is forcefully made drunk and forced to drive a car on a mountain road [obviously above Malibu, despite the story’s Maine setting], which of course he survives.

In “The Ivy Curtain” a charter pilot, played by Jack Warden, is forced to land his plane in a storm. He notices that one of his passengers, despite severe injuries, doesn’t bleed. The pilot is taken to his passengers’ destination, Midlands Academy, where he’s paid off (by the administrator, played by Murray Matheson) to forget what he’s seen. Meanwhile David Vincent has learned of this place and investigates: he finds classrooms of aliens being instructed on how to act plausibly human. The female lead here is Susan Oliver (of Trek fame), who plays the pilot’s wife, and who betrays him. Vincent’s attempts to summon authorities results in the usual vanishing of evidence.

And in “Moonshot” David Vincent comes to the Florida Keys, where two of the astronauts scheduled for the first Moon landing have been killed by a helicopter dropping red fog over their fishing boat. Vincent meets the head of security, played by Peter Graves (who would become the star of Mission: Impossible later in 1967), and one of the replacement astronauts, Hardy Smith, whom Vincent suspects is an alien imposter. The story involves Hardy Smith’s wife, played by this episode’s female lead Joanne Linville (seen a year and half later in Trek’s “The Enterprise Incident”), who eventually is forced to admit her husband is an imposter, and the Moon mission’s secret agenda to investigate structures on the Moon that might be alien artifacts. The story ends as the alien Hardy Smith imposter launches the rocket and explodes it.

I’ve ordered a newer DVD set that includes the series’ entire run. I’m curious if the concept advanced in the second season.

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