Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening (http://sdvsf.org/) consisted of four episodes from a surprisingly interesting TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 (and therefore overlapped with the first two seasons of the original Star Trek): The Invaders, which was produced by Quinn Martin coming off the success of his hit show The Fugitive. The Invaders was basically an attempt to extend the basic concept of The Fugitive into science fiction: architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes, who seems to have played the series’ only recurring character) is driving on a deserted country road one night when he sees an alien spacecraft land on a field in front of him. He immediately realizes that the occupants of the craft are not only from another planet, they have malevolent intentions. They can assume human form — though only by going through a machine that looks like a cross between a fluoroscope and a Star Trek transporter that not only makes them look like Homo sapiens but also allows them to breathe an atmosphere containing oxygen, which is ordinarily poisonous to them. This process gives some — but not all — of the aliens a slight deformity in one or more of their fingers, which is about the only reliable way you have of telling them from real people — until they die, when their bodies briefly turn into a red glow before vaporizing completely. Also anything the dying alien is touching when it expires similarly glows red and then totally disappears. One thing Quinn Martin did right on this show is get a lot of highly talented guest stars, both actors on their way down (William Talman, the hapless prosecutor on Perry Mason and also so good as a psychopath in Ida Lupino’s marvelous film noir The Hitch-Hiker that when we watched that together Charles joked, “No wonder he was such a bad D.A.! Now we know what side of the law he was really on!”, and Burgess Meredith — though Meredith would make a comeback as The Penguin on the Batman TV series and as the coach in the first Rocky) and ones on their way up (Jack Lord, William Windom, Ed Asner, Peggy Lipton).
The first episode, “Vikor” (aired February 14, 2018), was, I thought, the best of the four we watched, and given when it was made, when people were just starting to turn against the Viet Nam war, it has a refreshingly cynical attitude towards militarism and the people it proclaims as “heroes.” George Vikor (Jack Lord, surprisingly effective cast against type as a villain), is an industrialist who in 1952 got the Presidential medal for valor in the Korean War. He still has a recording (on an Audiodisc blank acetate) of the medal ceremony, including the applause that greeted him, but he remembers that when he tried to find work after his discharge he couldn’t find any. Bitter about this, he nonetheless somehow was able to start a small business refining steel out of scrap metal and he’s built this into a major operation. As the episode opens he’s working with a mysterious man named Mr. Nexus, who’s ordered a large quantity of something without being too clear about what it is or why he wants it. Of course, Mr. Nexus is one of the invading aliens, and he’s “outed” when a telephone lineman doing some rewiring at Vikor’s plant accidentally looks from his crane through one of the windows at the factory and spots the alien transformation machine in action. The aliens on Vikor’s security force, planted there by Nexus, kill the lineman, but his death makes the local paper and is spotted by David Vincent, who shows up, applies for work at the company, and gets hired by Vikor personally as chauffeur for his wife Sherri (Diana Hyland, who was cast as John Travolta’s mother in the TV-movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and started an affair with him, then got terminal cancer; on her deathbed her last words to him were, “John, do that disco movie they’ve offered you”).
Vikor wants a chauffeur for his wife because she’s responded to almost never seeing him because he’s working all the time by drinking a lot and driving her car (a Thunderbird — Quinn Martin had one of the then-common deals with an auto company to supply all the vehicles for the film, so every car or truck we see is a Ford product) very fast. The local cops have just popped her for driving under the influence and doing 90 miles an hour, and Vikor warns her that even his pull with the local police can’t keep her from the consequences of her actions much longer. Together Vincent and Sherri find out the secret of the aliens’ involvement in Vikor’s business, and the fact that they’ve promised him more than just money: they’re going to make her a sort of local collabò leader of their occupation, giving him the status he’s long craved from his fellow 1-percenters. (Why didn’t he just run for President?) Eventually Vikor realizes his mistake in getting in bed (figuratively) with the aliens instead of (literally) with his wife, but he dies, the alien operation disappears and once again Vincent, who begs off when Sherri expresses her romantic interest in him now that she’s a widow, walks away facing the dilemma that confronted him throughout the series: he claimed there was an alien invasion and the alien invaders were working with Earth people on various schemes to take power, occupy the earth and render it uninhabitable for humans, but with no physical evidence to back up his story people just think he’s a nut and at best don’t believe him, and at worst try to lock him up as mentally ill.
The next episode of The Invaders on our program was originally shown February 28, 1967, two weeks after “Vikor,” and called “Doomsday Minus One.” This time the aliens try to plant a matter-antimatter bomb in the Utah desert which will kill a million people, and they hit on the idea of using a normal underground nuclear test as cover for their bomb. David Vincent gets called in by Major Rick Graves (a surprisingly young-looking William Windom), who’d had inklings that there were alien invaders afoot on Earth and assigned a security person to tail them — only they got wind of him and killed him in a bar (the aliens have a round object with five points on it that, if they apply it to a human’s neck, can depending on how it’s set either stun him or kill him). Vincent discovers that the base’s commander, General Theodore Beaumont (Andrew Duggan), is the earth collabò in league with the aliens this time; he’s so bitter against the U.S. government, the military and the human race over the death of his son in combat that he’s ready to work with the aliens and knock off a million people just for revenge. Eventually, however, he sees the error of his ways and hijacks the truck containing the aliens’ bomb, driving it straight towards their redoubt in the desert and blowing at least some of them up.
Following that we watched “Quantity: Unknown,” originally aired the next week after “Doomsday Minus One” (March 7, 1967) and with a quite moving performance by James Whitmore as Harry Swain, a man who tells Vincent his wife and daughter were killed by the aliens. This time the MacGuffin is a cylinder the aliens lost track of and killed the driver who was delivering it to the Sperrick Laboratories. Though the cylinder is made of metal, it’s a metal unknown on earth and the analyst in charge of studying it, Diane Oberly (Susan Strasberg), can’t get it open no matter what she does to it, including firing a laser beam (still a novelty in 1967) dead center at it. Vincent persuades the authorities at Sperrick to make up a fake cylinder and ostensibly send it to a lab in New Orleans for further analysis, but Col. Frank Griffin (former Perry Mason prosecutor Hamilton Burger in the last role of his career — he died a year and a half after this show was filmed at the comparatively young age of 53), yet another human who’s working with the aliens, spots the surveillance at the airport and waves to his confederates, thus signaling him not to pick up the cylinder. Vincent is therefore once again persona non grata among the people he’s been trying to convince of the seriousness of the alien threat, and he hatches a plot to steal the cylinder from Sperrick and take it to New Orleans himself — only in a big reversal that, thanks to the relative restraint of writers in 1967 compared to the stuff they pull on us today (the writers of this episode are Clyde Ware, original story; and Donald Brinkley, script), is actually believable, Harry Swain isn’t a man who lost his wife and daughter to the aliens; he’s an alien himself, and the whole point of his pretense was to get Vincent to take the cylinder to New Orleans, whereupon the aliens would recover it, open it and find what it contained: the instructions from their home planet on how to effect the conquest of Earth. In the denouement, Vincent confronts Swain at a water treatment plant and they fight at the edge of an artificial waterfall; Vincent survives but Swain falls to his death, though just before he expires he spots the cylinder floating in the water and touches it, thereby making sure that the cylinder vaporizes when his body does.
The final show in our sequence, “Wall of Crystal” from May 2, 1967, was probably the spookiest of the four because this time the MacGuffin is a crystal the aliens have invented, using the earth mineral mica as well as a reagent from their own planet, and it sucks all the oxygen out of the earth’s atmosphere, thereby making our air more like theirs. The first people it works on are a young couple who’ve just got married, Bill (Jerry Ayers) and his new wife (Peggy Lipton), who are on their way to their honeymoon when a truck containing the alien crystals overturns, they spill onto the highway and asphyxiate both Bill and his missus when they get too close. The scene then shifts to San Francisco, where David Vincent has finally found a believer who has a high enough position of authority to help: journalist and TV commentator Theodore Booth (Burgess Meredith), who has promised to expose the aliens both on his TV show and his newspaper column if Vincent can get him any physical evidence at all. Vincent accordingly recovers one of the crystals, puts dirt around it and puts it in an air-tight bag because it only does its harm if exposed to air, then turns it over to a lab for analysis, with Booth promising to air the story if the analysis reveals it’s as toxic as Vincent says it is. Only the aliens get to the lab first, expose the crystal and kill the scientist who was supposed to analyze it.
The aliens this time are led by Taugus (Ed Asner, younger than we’re used to seeing him and quite good in an implacable, matter-of-fact characterization — he’s the sort of “heavy” who doesn’t seem either excited or revolted by villainy, but just thinks it’s part of his job), and in order to intimidate David Vincent into silence they kidnap his brother, Dr. Richard Vincent (Linden Chiles), and later grab his wife Grace (Julie Sommars) as well. Fortunately Richard is able to give David a clue as to his whereabouts — an old winery near a now dried-up lake bed where, when they were kids and it still had water, David once saved Richard from drowning. Grace calls the police but before they arrive David gets to the old winery and manages to rescue his brother, but the aliens are able to vaporize themselves, the entire winery and Theodore Booth in the shoot-out (the last particularly distressed me because not only was I a journalist but Booth was easily the most interesting character in the show and it would have been wise for the producers to let him live and make him a series regular). When the police come they see no winery, no aliens and nothing that remotely looks like crime, and they make a few comments about how they’ve been victimized by typical pranksters wasting the cops’ time and the government’s money — and in the last shot we get a closeup of the lead cop’s hand and realize he’s an alien.
The Invaders actually holds up surprisingly well — a friend of ours remembered it from its original air dates and said it was a combination of The Fugitive and John Carpenter’s more recent (1991) almost-masterpiece They Live, also about an alien invasion force who disguise themselves as humans and whose ultimate goal is to pollute the earth’s atmosphere until it resembles their home planet’s and they can take over. The show is reasonably impressive and the writers generally seemed to know just how far they could take the concept before it sailed off into total audience disbelief — and though Roy Thinnes isn’t as famous as the angst-ridden series lead as David Janssen became in the similarly plotted but non-sci-fi The Fugitive, he’s a capable actor even though ironically his most famous credit is probably for a film he wasn’t in: he was originally cast as the second lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, but midway through the shoot Hitch decided Thinnes wasn’t what he wanted and William Devane replaced him. The version of The Invaders we were seeing was a DVD boxed set released in 2008 and with each episode produced by an introduction with Roy Thinnes in 2008 explaining the story he’d filmed 40 years earlier — and at least one member of the audience at our screening was impressed at how well he weathered the years. (According to imdb.com, he’s still alive.)