Even if you open your window to the sounds of birds tweeting or a gentle breeze rustling through the leaves of trees outside, you know it’s a temporary lull because the world out there is beyond crazy. We have unqualified and incapable leaders pushing agendas of isolationism and fear of the other, and for the first time in over two decades, the spectre of mutually assured annihilation is an actual thing again. Our ability to debate and compromise has all but disappeared as such notions now consist of shouting our firmly held opinions, regardless of evidence to support them, across the void we’re teetering on the brink of as if they are immutable fact. The forces that influence and control us, the desire for power and wealth and status, and a warped misunderstanding of love and recognition all compel us to squabble amongst the scraps those forces deign to leave us. All the while they gut the resources of a planet that does not deserve to suffer us as we hurtle unblinking and unthinking to our ignominious end as a species, before the monkeys rightfully rise to overthrow us. For many of us we know all this but we’re paralyzed by the drive to conform, the desire to be comfortable, into doing nothing besides raising an occasionally protesting voice and then going back to disagreeing about individual taste in films. Decades ago, Gene Roddenberry speculated we would have to survive a third world war to get our collective shit together but it might be too late even for that. It’s not surprising if you (yes, you) feel some of this way yourself and find that voice you can frequently hear screaming at the stupidity coming from our leaders and cultural anchors is chillingly your own, nagging you to wake up (or woke up, whatever).
It’s worth remembering that every generation has suffered through wars, social upheaval and change, thinking their lot was the worst yet, and has weathered it, so maybe we can too. Despite all the negativity and division, there is some hope. Those disparaged millennials for instance are seemingly growing tired now of being used as an excuse for the bitter rage-soaked nostalgia of some of the older generations that helped put them in jobs that pay too little and homes that cost too much and are demanding a world they can inherit that they can repair before it’s too late. Others have used recent events like the movements against institutionally-sanctioned sexual abuse and racism to demonstrate they will think about their actions and adhere to a simple life philosophy: Be cool, don’t be a douche. Try and leave the places and people in your life better for you being in it. And so, you (yes, you again) are not alone in thinking the world out there is crazy and if other people could only get that too we could change things for the better, to reset the course of the planet and our human race. Larry Cohen has always known this, and at various points in his incredible career has sought to use entertainment to put such ideas forward. Here is a singular talent who has been able to thoroughly entertain and at the same time give you more to consider and ponder should you choose to. Through westerns, crime stories, horror, science fiction and more, Cohen has made a huge number of very entertaining films and shows that are straightforwardly exciting, scary and funny. And at the same time these films and shows comment on us as people, on institutions, consumerism, race and the absurdity of our most strongly-held beliefs. As one of the best, it demonstrates how Cohen’s work has a timeless quality that invites reappraisal and reassessment.
At the time of The Invaders (1967-1968) Cohen had been working in TV for nearly a decade. He had worked as writer-for-hire on a few series like The Defenders (1961-1965) and had some short-term success with the western show Branded (1965-1966) starring Chuck Connors as a man roaming the west seeking to prove he is not the coward he has been labelled as. There’s a very entertaining anecdote about the right-leaning Connors discovering what Cohen thought Branded was actually about (the anti-Communist Hollywood trials of the second Red Scare of the ’40s and ’50s) and then trying to run him down with his horse on set. In addition, shortly before The Invaders aired, Cohen worked on two shows he created, Blue Light (1966) and Coronet Blue (1967), both of which trade in themes of hidden agendas, duality and things being not what they first appear. Cohen also worked on two episodes of The Fugitive (1963-1967), and when a replacement for that show was needed Larry found himself pitching to legendary producer Quinn Martin the set-up for The Invaders.
Although Cohen wouldn’t have much to do with the series that aired (getting a ‘created by’ credit at the end of each episode) and Martin himself was not that interested in a show he felt was just a sci-fi riff on David Janssen’s classic man-on-the-run series, it’s the idea that is most Cohen-esque. He wasn’t alone in feeling the effects on his industry of the trials and blacklisting of a decade before and at the time the series first aired you could have easily argued if you wanted that the main character David Vincent (played by Roy Thinnes) was the McCarthy ‘hero’ of the piece, a man almost recklessly accusing nearly everyone of being a secret monster but being frequently proven correct. Indeed, the aliens in The Invaders glow red as they die, so it’s not hard to interpret it as a retrogressive hymn to how only a decade later men like Vincent were now considered the bad guys in a changing counter-culture. Vincent’s intervention would often save the life of some government or institutional figure, thereby preserving the status quo of society. Of course, as well as this, Cohen himself has acknowledged it was his intent that it be at least in part a subversive commentary on Cold War paranoia as well as mockery of the belief that society is being ‘infiltrated’ by outsiders who want to destroy us and, in that respect, Vincent is undoubtedly not the hero at all. But assessing The Invaders now separately from either interpretation, decades removed from then-current hysteria and anything relevant specifically to those times, it’s interesting to consider what it can tell us now about who we are and what is important.
Much of this is contained in the pilot episode ‘Beachhead’, which is available on the series’ complete release as an extended version. In it, David Vincent is an architect driving home from a business trip at the end of a long day. Tired and in need of a break, Vincent takes a turn down a dirt road and stops to catch a nap outside a deserted and closed up cafe. He is woken up by the sound and sights of an alien vessel landing nearby. When Vincent takes this information to the police he is not believed but considered a kook. They accompany him back to the cafe and find that not only does certain information David provided not match up, but a couple camping on honeymoon nearby can’t corroborate his story. Vincent is suspicious that something is not right about this couple and returns later to question them himself. A fight between Vincent and the husband ends with the man glowing red and disappearing into a patch of ash and David has those suspicions confirmed, that aliens are hiding among us. David is knocked unconscious and wakes up in hospital where everyone else, including business partner and close friend Alan, thinks he is suffering from mental and emotional exhaustion. When someone tries to kill Vincent by starting a fire at his home he survives and heads off to the hometown the honeymooning aliens mentioned and it is here that he begins to learn how deep the alien conspiracy runs. The remainder of the series tracks Vincent’s attempts to find proof of the covert invasion, to meet others who know what he knows, and to stop the plans of the aliens to kill us off and take our place.
What we find here is a man who has the truth revealed to him and once this has happened, he is compelled to do what he believes is right, even though this means abandoning his career and status. The aliens try to kill him, intimidate him, ruin his reputation, coerce and even charm him into giving up his fight. Their argument is they will leave him alone and they ask him why he even bothers when those he fights for don’t believe him and don’t care and they’re going to win anyway. But Vincent will not stop and despite further attempts in the show to literally brainwash him or kill him again and again, he continues. And so this is a lesson we can take if we hold Vincent to be the hero of this story. In a modern age where physical wars still continue but newer conflicts are being waged online to confuse us, to make us angry about ephemera, to sow division and hate and to keep us pliant to the whims and desires of those that control us, this is vitally important. Vincent knows what he believes is true because he has witnessed it, he has the facts, not because he is spinning out a narrative that supports his own world view or cherry-picking a philosophy that brings him comfort but because he is instead reacting to what he can be certain of.
The aliens we need to be wary of are today are insidious ideas about what makes us different from each other and not the same, not a shared species. It is the notion that we have no impact on the world around us and are not responsible for what we take from it. It is the belief that hating each other and turning inwards are the only protection we have against an uncertainty bred by those who benefit from our moral paralysis. These aliens are indeed everywhere but like David Vincent we have the facts at our disposal, we know this is not the truth or the way forward and it is up to us to act, both on a larger stage but also on an individual basis in how we treat each other. That is what we can take from a popular entertainment that is now over half a century old. The question for us is, are we like David Vincent and willing to do whatever it takes, because it’s the right thing to do? Time will tell, and hopefully the history books (if there’s still books and indeed, history) will reflect we learned well.