In January of 1967, a new TV show debuted called “The Invaders.” It was “a Quinn Martin production” and it was “In color” as the announcer would boldly proclaim. Color TV was new in those days, and it was a big deal (like HD and 4K in recent years). While prolific crime drama producer Quinn Martin (“The Streets Of San Francisco”) was the muscle behind the show, the creator was was the recently deceased Larry Cohen (1936-2019). Cohen created this nightmarish exercise in paranoia that ran for two entertaining, if not exactly groundbreaking seasons.
It all begins when successful but sleepy architect David Vincent (a stalwart Roy Thinnes) takes a wrong turn looking for a shortcut home one night, only to see a flying saucer land right in front of his car. Returning the next day with the authorities, he learns there is a conspiracy afoot to cover the landing up, and that the saucer’s occupants may have already established a “beachhead” (the pilot episode’s title) within the United States. Thus begins a David-and-Goliath struggle of one man against a near-invisible army of alien invaders who sought to make the Earth theirs.
In many ways, “The Invaders” is essentially “Mannix” meets “My Favorite Martian” (minus the latter’s sense of humor), or “The Untouchables” with aliens instead of the Chicago mob. A crime-drama sci-fi show. Each episode saw David arriving in some town/city somewhere in the United States, following a lead on an alien conspiracy tip or rumor. Typically, David would end up stopping a small group of localized aliens within a single stronghold or agency, but the larger invasion effort would always return to bedevil him another day.
These alien invaders from outer space were clear metaphors for 1950s-1960s communist boogiemen hysteria, as they always looked “just like us” and had infiltrators carefully placed within the government, military, media, police, industry, you name it. There were even aliens posing as preachers, exotic dancers, farmers and schoolteachers (the aliens even had their own academy in one episode).
Despite their ability to blend in with humans (thanks to ‘regeneration tubes’ that allowed them to maintain our form), there were some telltale giveaways; they lack empathy, they don’t bleed when cut, they have no heartbeat, and some of them have a mutated pinky finger that juts outward at an odd angle. Most telling of all is that they disappear in a bright, hot crimson glow as they die.
The aliens also use tiny round communicators to keep in touch (pretty advanced compared to Star Trek’s flip-top jobs). They also have colorful, crystalline hypnotic/mind-control devices as well as two types of main weapons; classic ‘ray guns’ and a more subtle device that kills by giving its victims sudden ‘cerebral hemorrhages’ (one of the means that David knows a death was caused by ‘one of them’).
These were the ‘rules’ that allowed David a minute advantage over the aliens. Over the course of the show’s two year run, David became expert at spotting their physical abnormalities, as well as sniffing them out with his blend of distrust and paranoia (though even he was still capable of being fooled by a pretty alien face every now and then…).
One of the alien’s main goals (besides displacing humans as a dominant life form) was to lower our planet’s oxygen content, to make Earth’s atmosphere more like their own so won’t have to periodically use their ‘regeneration tubes’ to maintain our form. If they fail to regenerate periodically, they die and burn up.
“Tonight’s Guest Stars..”
Handsome, athletic Roy Thinnes makes for a terrific lead…a steely eyed hero who is the antithesis of the cliched “UFO crackpot.” The opening narration makes a point to refer to him as “architect David Vincent”, as if to remind us that he is a successful member of the establishment, and not some poor raving lunatic printing leaflets in his basement. Usually by the midway point of an episode, he’d make a few others ‘believers’ as well… almost by sheer force of his cool and steadfast bearing.
Thinnes held the lead effortlessly (much like the late Bill Bixby on “The Incredible Hulk”) with the help of many solid and colorful guest stars, including Ted Knight, Ed Asner (“Mary Tyler Moore”), Roddy McDowall (“Planet of the Apes”), Gene Hackman (“French Connection” “Superman”), Barbara Hershey (“Beaches”), Karen Black (“Easy Rider”), Ralph Bellamy (“The Wolf Man”), Michael Rennie (“The Day The Earth Stood Still”), Roscoe Lee Browne (“Logan’s Run”), Louis Gossett Jr. (“An Officer And A Gentleman”), Burgess Meredith (“Rocky” the Batman TV series), Murray Hamilton (“JAWS”), Richard Anderson (“Six Million Dollar Man”) and many others. The list goes on…
Like many other shows of its time, “The Invaders” has a tendency towards whitebread casting, with very few supporting roles for anyone of color (season 2’s “Vise” being a rare exception). Though, in fairness, at least the aliens weren’t portrayed as ethnic stereotypes either (I’m looking at you, “24”), which could’ve been an easy trap for the series to fall into at that time. Usually the “invaders” on the show were seen as business-suited white guys, which at least avoided the Bond trope of bad guys being West Indies blacks, Arabs, inscrutable Asians or some other ‘untrustworthy’ stereotype. Creator Larry Cohen and producer Quinn Martin were wise in their decision to make the ‘bad guys’ look like they could be a local postal carrier from Anytown, USA.
Speaking of casting, there was also a tendency for repeat casting on the show, with many actors who were killed off or otherwise left behind coming back as new characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the guest actors were usually quite good, but it could also be a bit distracting to the show’s internal believability. For example, the late Suzanne Pleshette played a doomed alien with human emotions in two seperate episodes (“The Mutant” and “The Pursued”). We also saw returns of previous guest stars Ed Asner (“Lou Grant”), Dabney Coleman (“9 to 5”), Susan Oliver, Alfred Ryder, Joanne Linville, William Windom (all from “Star Trek” guest fame) and many others. At times, the show almost feels like it drew its guest talent from an acting troupe.
Lights and Sounds…
The eerie opening music, as well as the disturbing electric guitar-twang cues for the aliens, were supplied by “The Outer Limits” season one musical genius Dominic Frontiere. The visual effects, particularly the aliens’ red ‘death glow’ incinerations, were very well done for their time. The series’ color cinematography was bright and crisp as well, with many southern California locations adequately disguised to pass for rural midwestern towns or busy cities. The clear, colorful cinematography almost makes one nostalgic for the days when television shows were filmed with generous quantities of light.
Of course, there are some downsides to the show as well. The plots were sometimes maddeningly formulaic; a problem that also cursed Johnson’s otherwise excellent “The Incredible Hulk” series. We almost never see David hard up for cash (despite his no doubt considerable travel expenses), and we rarely see him doing much architectural work, despite his reputation (he does a little here and there, but he also has a LOT of free time to chase down alien conspiracies). The title of ‘architect’ is given more as a shield for social credibility than any innate skills that actually help David in his battle with the aliens.
Season One Personal Favorites:
The pilot that started it all. A tired David Vincent looks for a shortcut home one lonely night, sees the saucer land, tries to prove it, learns of the alien conspiracy, is undermined, and begins his lonely mission to stop ‘the invaders’. “Beachhead” is the template for all that followed. The S1 DVD set also features an extended version as well.
— “The Mutant.”
First and best of Suzanne Pleshette’s two guest appearances (as separate alien characters). She plays an exotic dancer who develops human empathy and emotions, and becomes a fugitive from her own people. The first of several episodes that attempted to show the aliens in a less monochromatic light.
— “The Innocent.”
Michael Rennie (“The Day The Earth Stood Still”) plays an alien who offer David a Faustian bargain, taking him into their saucer and whisking him off to a beautifully developed California business park that David helped design before he was sidetracked by his alien quest. David reconnects with old friends and an old flame, who all assure him that the aliens are “here to help.” Of course, it doesn’t work as David soon realizes the whole thing is a drugged hallucination. An interesting glimpse of David’s life as he wished it could be…
— “The Betrayed.”
David does some architecting for an oil industrialist while engaging in a rare relationship with the tycoon’s sheltered daughter, Susan. The aliens are using the tycoon for their own nefarious purposes. Ugly family secrets surface as the tycoon is blackmailed by the aliens in exchange for his cooperation. An ally of David (Norman Fell) loses a kid brother, and ultimately David loses Susan at the hands of the aliens, turning his quest into a vendetta.
— “Wall of Crystal.”
The aliens, led by Ed Asner, play hardball with David Vincent; kidnapping his brother (Linden Chiles) and threatening his pregnant sister-in-law, in exchange for a full retraction of the story he’s given to a TV journalist (Burgess Meredith). Nice to see David having a bit of a normal family life, however initially dysfunctional. By the way, the ‘old abandoned winery’ where the aliens were holed up was filmed was about a block from where I used to work (!). The old vineyard was a movie theater and shopping center last I checked.
Season Two’s Shift.
Season two also saw a move that divided fans of the show (and earned ire from star Roy Thinnes as well) as David eventually teamed up with a handful of other “Believers” who became his de facto resistance movement. Members of this tiny cell were periodically recruited and then died as needed. He also found a very helpful ally in moneybags industrialist and successful government contractor Edgar Scoville (Kent Smith), who looks like a poster boy for the 1968 Republican party.
Scoville has a tragic history with the aliens himself when he first meets David, so the two hit it off. While having allies for David may have been a good idea on paper, it also diminished the struggle for him as well. Towards the very end of the show, it seemed that half of David’s problems with credibility or resources were solved with a single phone call to ‘Daddy Warbucks’ Scoville, and we’d see a rescue helicopter or car full of G-men show up in minutes. Despite the shift in format, the second season still produced some very entertaining gems as well.
Season Two Personal Favorites:
— “The Saucer.”
Our first good look inside an alien ride as two bumbling would-be con artists fleeing to Mexico stumble across a stranded alien saucer, get mixed up with David’s quest, and try to do the right thing. Great production values and location shooting at the famed Californian desert locale known as Vasquez Rocks (“Star Trek” “The Outer Limits”).
— “Dark Outpost.”
Taken aboard an unwitting automated ride aboard an alien saucer, David awakens to find himself in a desert along with several stranded students. They are all captured and taken to an alien-occupied abandoned military base, where David has to win the trust of the cynical anti-war students to win all of their freedom. Some hard choices have to be made. Dawn Wells (“Gilligan’s Island”) guest stars.
— “The Enemy.”
A US army nurse Gale (Barbara Barrie), home after a tour in Vietnam, tends to a dying alien whom she protects from Vincent because she is tired of seeing cruelty. The alien, played by Six Million Dollar Man’s Richard Anderson, is somewhat confused by her mercy. A interesting glimpse of compassion in action, and even David learns a thing or two from Gale.
David and one of his newfound ‘Believers’ find themselves in possession of a valuable alien hostage (Alfred Ryder) who turns out to be the alien leader (!). Genuinely tense moments as David seems to (for once) have the upper hand on the invaders. Ryder is both creepy and authoritative as the alien leader, who returns later on in “Peacemaker.”
A rare episode with a mostly-black supporting cast, including Raymond St. Jacques as congressional investigator Baxter who is checking into the background of a black Senatorial candidate who might be one of the invaders. Baxter is convinced by David, but angers his wife, who sees her husband as actively working to discredit a black candidate. Roscoe Lee Browne (“Logan’s Run”) is suitably chilling as the alien imposter. Future Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr. plays a memorable bar owner who offers David sanctuary from aliens posing as cops.
— “The Inquisition.”
David and his Believers are on the ropes as they’re framed for a bomb blast within a Senator’s office; an alien attempt to frame and stop the group once and for all. An ambitious prosecutor seeks to make a name for himself with the high-profile arrest of industrialist Scoville and his team rather than protect the human race. On the lam, the Believers have a limited window of time to stop an imminent invasion. A genuine nail-biter, and the last episode of the series.
My introduction to “The Invaders.”
I first learned of this show after its original run, sometime in the late 1970s when I bought a book that became a bible of sorts growing up; it was called “Fantastic Television” by Gerry Gerani & Paul H. Schulman. It featured well-researched articles, episode guides and summaries of all sorts of sci-fi/fantasy series & TV-movies, including many British titles as well. This book served as my gateway to many television gems, including “Space: 1999” and “The Prisoner” (both of which I became a fan of on late night TV reruns) as well as many others.
Because of this book, I was always intrigued by “The Invaders” though I never actually saw it broadcast, as it was never shown again on US television during my ‘wonder years’… not even in late-night syndication. While I’ve been able to catch many of the interesting series and movies referenced in the book via reruns, home video or YouTube, “The Invaders” always remained maddeningly out of reach. It was only a decade ago that I finally got ahold of this near-mythical show on DVD (both seasons). While it’s not exactly “Star Trek” or “Twilight Zone” in overall quality, “The Invaders” was both interesting and very entertaining on its own merits.
In 1995, there was an Aron Spelling (“Dynasty” “Charlie’s Angels” “Love Boat”) produced sequel/reboot miniseries of “The Invaders” which I was eager to check out, as a quasi- fan of the original (thanks to Gerani’s book). “The Invaders” miniseries starred Scott Bakula, whom I’d loved in “Quantum Leap”, Richard Thomas (“The Waltons” “It”) and the late Elizabeth Pena (“La Bamba”). Even Roy Thinnes was returning as David Vincent. What could go wrong, I thought? Turns out, damn near everything…
I don’t even know where to begin with all the missteps the miniseries takes, but I’ll try to narrow it down a bit. First is the slight but unnecessary reimagining of the invaders themselves; they now have to periodically breathe in carbon monoxide fumes (they’re the ones behind climate change), and their natural form is finally, needlessly revealed to look like taller version of the ‘grays’ from “The X-Files.” Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was always best not to reveal the aliens’ true form…left a lot more to the imagination. The aliens now die in an explosive bright-white flash, inexplicably leaving swarms of flies in their wake (this new tidbit is never explained). Almost immediately, it’s obvious that the “Invaders” miniseries is trying much too hard to cash in on “X-Files” mojo, and it fails spectacularly. From the overly smoky, color-desaturated cinematography to the cheap video FX (which don’t hold up nearly as well a the original’s optical FX). Through most of it, I could barely see what was going on, and this was in 1995 when my vision was a solid 20/20.
The story takes place in California, largely between arid Barstow and bustling Los Angeles, using locations in and around both. There’s even a climactic chase set aboard the then-new L.A subway system, just like “Lethal Weapon 3” and “Speed” (I think movie/TV use of the L.A subway system might’ve been mandatory in the mid-1990s). There may have been some sort of attempt at social commentary concerning undocumented migrants who unknowingly work for one of the alien invaders. I’m not sure if the writers were trying to make an ironic point, because it feels so muddled. The alien invader extras are mainly portrayed as creepy, sunglass-wearing Las Vegas tourists who smoke a lot, because they need those carcinogens. But they don’t seem nearly as subtle or threatening as they did in the 1960s original. In this sequel, they look more like exaggeratedly comic villains from a Tim Burton movie.
The talented Scott Bakula gives his all as a formerly autistic pilot turned convict named Nolan Wood (wrongfully convicted, of course) whose unique brain somehow makes him immune to alien brainwashing, thus he is an ideal force to resist them. Costar Pena plays lab technician Ellen Garza, whose fiancé is killed by the aliens. She eventually teams up with Nolan on his quest. Only Richard Thomas seems to have any kind of hammy fun as insidious Barstow diner owner Jerry Thayer (and new man for Bakula’s ex-wife), who is also “one of them.”
Throughout the three-plus hour running time there are periodically annoying comments from an AM radio conspiracy nut played by comedian Richard Belzer. His random, unfunny asides add zero the story and largely serve to slow it down.
Even Roy Thinnes’ much ballyhooed return as David Vincent is little more than a cameo and some diary narration. That’s about it.
Thinnes was far better used in “The X-Files” as recurring hybrid alien shapeshifter “Jeremiah Smith” in several episodes, beginning in season 4’s “Talitha Cumi.” It was an interesting bit of irony casting to feature former dogged alien hunter “David Vincent” as a benevolent extraterrestrial who is able to heal with his touch.
Thinnes also played another ‘extraterrestrial’ for 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica” in the memorable two-part episode, “Gun On Ice Planet Zero.” Thinnes played a disgraced former colonial warrior named “Croft” who was recruited from a prison ship to partake in a deadly raid on a dangerous Cylon outpost. The story was essentially “Dirty Dozen In Space” with Thinnes playing a character struggling for redemption. One of the better episodes of that series.
Summing it up.
Larry Cohen’s “The Invaders” (a Quinn Martin production!) isn’t exactly landmark television in the mode of “Star Trek” or “The Twilight Zone”, but it’s an entertaining enough alien conspiracy drama that hit the airwaves nearly 30 years before “The X-Files.” It boasted a solid, confident lead actor in Roy Thinnes, as well as a colorful collection of memorable guest stars. Despite a tendency towards repetitive and formulaic storytelling, there is a fairly stable mood of paranoia and adventure created throughout, even in its lesser segments. The show’s standalone anthology format, with new towns and characters every week, make it ideally accessible for new viewers. Sadly, it’s not as well remembered today, and only exists on DVD for the moment. Here’s hoping it finds itself on a popular streaming service like Netflix or Hulu soon.
Despite the disastrous reboot/revival of 1995, I also believe that this is a series whose time may have come again, especially in an age where America has become understandably concerned with ‘foreign meddling’ (nee: invasion) into our core democracy. I could very easily imagine a new generation of David Vincent’s aliens using social media or other such platforms to divvy up humanity for conquest. Maybe even current trends like the anti-vaxxers or flat-Earthers could be unveiled as alien plots to weaken our health and intellect?
The threats experienced today may not have the imminent deadly potential of Cold War Soviet nuclear strikes, but they’re no less palpable. Maybe it’s the reason that watching “The Invaders” now, over 50 years later, feels surprisingly relevant.