Monday, October 16, 2017

Knots Landing season 6

Knots Landing Season 6 asks: can you build a successful primetime-soap season atop just one great storyline? -- and surprisingly, the answer is "yes."

Season 6 is the one where Val's newborn twins are stolen, an event that impacts most of the core characters, but none, heaven knows, more than Valene Clements Ewing herself. And although there's a lot more than just "Val's babies" to the season -- it juggles at least as many characters and plotlines as Season 5, and probably a few more -- nothing else really and truly pays off. Some of the story-lines, in fact, go off the rails so badly, they're jettisoned early in Season 7.

But through it all, there's Joan Van Ark, in an acting showcase unmatched in the series' fourteen seasons. Oh, other actors have seasons that play to their strengths, as well as to their characters' (Michele Lee and Ted Shackelford in Season 3, Kevin Dobson and Donna Mills in Season 5, Teri Austin in Season 10, Kathleen Noone in Season 14), but there's nothing quite like the tour-de-force that Van Ark offers up in Season 6, as Valene -- struggling to accept an explanation she knows in her heart is false -- develops a dissociative disorder, becomes convinced that she's Verna Ellers (the lead character in her latest novel) and takes off for Tennessee.

She turns into a "fictional character" that she herself created? If you described that plot to anyone who hadn't actually seen it unfold as it did in 1984 (particularly someone familiar with the tropes of soap opera), they'd presume it was played as camp, or at least with a wink to the audience. Typically on soaps, if a character develops a split personality, or discovers they have a twin, it's designed to let the actor spread their wings: to gift them a character somehow wilder and weirder than the one they're already playing. (Standard '80s soap examples: Jeanne Cooper on The Young and the Restless, Morgan Fairchild on Falcon Crest. Or, of course, a few years later on Knots, Van Ark's own maniacal turn as the victim of a "brain virus.") But on Knots Landing, once Valene slips into Verna's shoes, she's not amplified; she's simplified. Gone are the neuroses and fears brought on by two decades of battling the Ewings, the disillusion of being abandoned by her own mother, the fury at her husband's betrayal. The years stripped away, Valene emerges calmer, happier, seemingly younger. She calls herself Verna, but you sense you're being given a glimpse into the past, when Valene herself was still full of hope and promise. It's exhilarating, and it's heartbreaking -- and it's the furthest thing from camp. What gives the middle block of Season 6 such complexity is that Verna Ellers is more content than any version of Valene we've seen in six seasons -- yet she needs to come home, doesn't she? She needs to be "cured."

Doesn't she?

Season 5 had been one of those miraculous seasons where pretty much everything went right. Amusingly, when I reached out to headwriter Richard Gollance to speak with him about Season 6, his first words to me were "Why aren't you writing up Season 5?" (I explained that I was, in fact, writing up all the Knots seasons, and saving the best -- Season 5 -- for last.) He knew that Season 5 was a triumph, and that Season 6 didn't measure up. But if it doesn't measure up, it still benefits from all the groundwork laid a year earlier. Season 5 begins with two couples with enormous chemistry and story potential -- Gary Ewing and Abby Cunningham, and Mack and Karen MacKenzie -- and through the course of the season, adds two more: Greg Sumner and Laura Avery, and Valene Ewing and Ben Gibson. It's the rare season where the story-lines seem almost self-generating; the characters are so rich, and their interactions so vivid, they create their own drama: Abby through her desire for advancement and self-fulfillment; Mack with his obsession with justice at any cost; Greg, so hungry for power that he lets his ambition get the better of him; and Val, desperate to move on but unable to let go of the past. Going into Season 6, you've got these eight people perfectly positioned, and you want to keep them in place for at least one more year. So where do you mine the drama? The story-lines that worked in Season 5 can't be easily duplicated. So the writers settle on one great idea and run with it: what if Abby steals Val's babies?

It's almost pointless to discuss the other Season 6 story-lines, because everything is positioned around the saga of Valene's twins. In fact, some of the oddities and inadequacies of the season occur because everything is timed around their delivery, and there's an awful lot of apparatus that needs to be put in place before they arrive. Abby, who'd been kidnapped at the end of Season 5, has to be rescued and reunited with her husband Gary. (He'd thrown her off his ranch the previous season, and threatened divorce.) Once they're reconciled, he has to hand her control of Ben Gibson's cable station so that she can, in time, read his private correspondence, discover that Gary is the father of Val's twins, and then see to it (deliberately, as originally planned, or unwittingly, as ultimately filmed) that those babies never come home to Seaview Circle. (And what's more, Abby's D.C. lobbyist -- who's taking care of all the details -- has to arrange for his doctor colleague to sub for Valene's obstetrician, then get involved in something so nefarious that it costs him his life, so that he's not around to shield Abby once everything goes down.)

And that's going to take a while. Eight episodes, to be precise. And while there are some key events that need to happen during those weeks (Sumner's election to the U.S. Senate, Lotus Point's grand opening), that's still a lot of time to kill, and several characters are going to have to tread water until Val goes into labor. The Season 5 cliffhanger, as Gollance notes, "had torn apart the world that we had created" -- and that included three of the four couples. And although the writers had every intention of reuniting them, one of the ways they stretch the early portion of Season 6 is by keeping them apart as long as possible. Not Gary and Abby, because their reconciliation is required to further Val's story-line. But Mack and Karen, and Val and Ben -- they can wait a little longer. So the writers stall a bit. They give Ben a fellow newshound, P.K. Kelly, whose sole assignment seems to be to get Ben into bed. (She's so relentless in her pursuit of him, you can't tell if she's trying to seduce him or just wear him down.) And they pair Mack with Sumner's estranged wife Jane. The scenes between Ben and P.K. are filler; the ones between Mack and Jane are more than that -- they're awful. Millie Perkins was ideally cast in Season 5; she was the woman fighting for Greg that you didn't root for. The writers were forging a romance between Greg and Laura, so they needed someone who paled next to Constance McCashin, and mousy Millie Perkins fit the bill. She was a character we were primed to dislike, so pairing Perkins with Kevin Dobson, however briefly, feels misjudged. There's no chemistry between them, and the writers undo one of the most appealing aspects of Mack's backstory: that Karen was the first woman he truly loved -- because now we're told that Mack was once secretly in love with Jane (back when she was dating Greg). Their scenes together are awkward and uncomfortable, as Jane giggles that, after all these years, "we find ourselves acting like lovers," and admits that, when they're on the phone together, she's as jittery as a schoolgirl with a crush -- and all this from a character who was designed to be disposable.

That's not to say there are no good scenes early on. In the first episode, Karen awakens in the hospital after surgery (she was shot in the Season 5 cliffhanger), and although it's the sort of situation you've seen a thousand times before, her acting choices are so sharp and specific -- as she navigates Karen's confusion, pain and terror -- that it feels fresh. And there's a great exchange when Sumner comes to visit her, knowing how much he's to blame for what's happened, but adopting, as always, the platitudes of a politician; he explains his presence, "I don't want to see anyone else get hurt," and Karen, who's dying and has no more patience for bullshit, answers, "Is there anyone left?" (For once, Greg can't seem to keep the politician's mask in place.) The introduction of Alec Baldwin -- as Lilimae's never-before-mentioned son Joshua -- is handled well, and aside from the scenes between him and Julie Harris (flawless), there's good chemistry between him and Lisa Hartman, with whom it's clear he's being paired. The reunion of Gary and Abby -- and the script's justification for him giving their marriage another chance, after he'd been so hellbent on ending it a few months earlier -- is dealt with effectively, laying their relationship bare in a few sentences. (Gary: "I love you. I don't trust you." Abby: "What a love affair. But I do love you." Gary: "God help me.") And there's a funny moment when Joshua meets Abby at the Lotus Point opening, and Abby -- always on her best behavior around a good-looking man -- plays the gracious host, and as she walks away, Joshua murmurs approvingly to Cathy, "She seems nice" -- and Hartman deadpans disbelief to the imaginary studio audience.

But still, the first five episodes feel scrappier than just about anything in the previous season. They're written by free-lancers, and they feel like episodes written by free-lancers. The next four, the remainder of the first block, are written in turn by story editor Joyce Keener, producer Peter Dunne, executive story editor Joel Feigenbaum and headwriter Gollance -- and they're splendid. In part, it's because they contain all the meaty material. It's at the end of episode 5 that Abby stumbles upon Ben's letter and realizes Gary is the father of Val's twins. And then the season truly gets underway: everything up to that point has been preamble. From there it's one great scene after another: Joshua serving as the catalyst for reuniting Val and Ben; Abby (of all people) serving as the catalyst for reuniting Karen and Mack. Valene, her labor induced early, heading to the delivery room and, soon after hearing her newborns cry, being told that they were stillborn. And Abby's mysterious phone call about "the babies in question." Soon it's Thanksgiving, and Valene, home from the hospital, is reluctant to join everyone at the MacKenzies. Gary goes to fetch her, and when they make their entrance, she clings to Gary's arm as if they're still a couple, and apologizes: "I'm sorry, Gary and I are a little late again, as usual." And the camera jumps from one reaction shot to the next, as each character wonders, "Has she lost her mind?"

The next episode, the start of the second block, begins on a sandy dune, and in runs Valene, in a white top, empire-waist orange skirt and matching suspenders. She's flying a blue kite, and seems as blissful as she did that day five years earlier when she first waded into the Pacific Ocean. We hear Gary's voice: "Let it go." She drops the kite, and he appears, his pastel polo shirt matching her skirt; they converse in shorthand, a couple in perfect tandem. "What?" "Let it go." "Why?" "I want to kiss you." She melts into his arms, and they drop to a blanket on the sand, kissing -- until a familiar voice calls out: "Val! Hi!" Abby appears, a mirror image of Val (minus the suspenders -- of course). "I think you've got something that's mine." Abby's unusually pleasant, but isn't Abby always at her most pleasant when she's getting what she wants? Gary asks her, "Is it time?" And Abby nods, leaving Gary, stolid and spineless, to offers his apologies to Val: "I'm sorry, I guess I got a little carried away." Valene watches in confusion as Gary and Abby scamper off. And then she awakens in her bed on Seaview Circle, crying. It's been three years, but it always comes back to that moment, doesn't it? The moment Abby showed up and took Gary from her. The moment something precious was stolen. The loss of Gary and the loss of their babies are seemingly unrelated, but to Val, they've already become inseparable.

It's deliberate and it's fitting that we begin the episode inside Valene's head; that's where we'll spend most of the second block. The previous episode had left us with the possibility that Val had reverted back to the days when she and Gary were married. But the writers instantly course-correct. That would be too pat, too neat; they have something bolder in mind. Ben offers to take her for a drive, and they wind up on a cliff overlooking the ocean. He feels awful that he wasn't there in the delivery room: things might have gone differently. But she knows better: "Nothing would have stopped them from taking my babies from me. Just like it was with Lucy -- took her away from me too." There's a cold wind blowing, but the real chill is in Van Ark's voice. For Val, it's no different from J.R. and his boys stealing Lucy away all those years ago: "I wasn't fit to be her mother. I was just poor white trash from Tennessee." Ben tries to separate the two incidents; he reminds her that what happened with the twins was no one's fault: it was a premature birth -- there were complications. But she's unyielding: "That's what they say."

Gollance remarked to me that one of the challenges of writing Val was that she was always "the victim" -- and how do you keep that fresh? (He's partially wrong, of course, because Val only becomes a perpetual victim in the soft reboot of her character midway through Season 4.) But the brilliance of this particular story-line is that it uses Val's knowledge of how she's been victimized. Unlike most soap characters, who forget the last crisis once they're caught up in the next (because otherwise it would seem absurd that so much drama keeps happening to one person), victimization becomes part of Val's make-up -- and she knows it. (You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.) Valene sees herself -- accepts herself -- as someone who's consistently persecuted. And thus, whereas another woman -- upon being told her babies were stillborn, even if she heard them cry -- might presume she was mistaken, and accept the doctor's diagnosis, Val has come to expect duplicity and deceit: to have everything she loves stolen from her. Not merely to lose everything, but to have it actively taken. If you're Val and you lose your twins in childbirth, the most likely scenario is "they took my babies away." And once you realize that, but can't verbalize it to your friends and family without inviting skepticism and resistance, how do you handle it? How do you accept it and process it?

It's enough to drive you crazy. Val's breakdown doesn't seem arbitrary or fanciful: the sort of thing that happens to soap characters when the writers are straining for story-line. It seems tied to her backstory; it's part of her make-up. Since she and Gary remarried, it's felt like one cruel, intentional blow after another -- yet she's quick to remember that it wasn't always like that. She opens up to Karen about how she and Gary met, when she was 15 and working as a waitress just outside Fort Worth. and we understand intuitively that what she's feeling is that that's the last time she was genuinely happy: meeting Gary and hoping to share a life with him, before Lucy was stolen. As played by Van Ark, Val's breakdown eschews the histrionics common to TV drama. She's paranoid, embittered, delusional, suspicious -- but there are no fits of rage or hysteria. She's just shutting down, and shutting people out. And that night, overwhelmed by her isolation, Val packs a suitcase, sneaks out of the house and boards a bus bound for Nevada.

The following evening, alone in her hotel room, Valene stands before the mirror. She's done blaming the Ewings, or questioning the doctor's diagnosis: she turns her rage inwards, verbalizing her self-loathing, assaulting her own physicality: "How could anybody love you? How could anybody want you? Flat as a board. Arms skinny and scrawny." And in the next scene she decides to fix herself, so she applies lipstick -- too much -- and rouges her cheeks and perms her hair and stuffs her bra with tissues -- and transforms herself into Abby. Abby, for whom everything comes so easy. ("I think you've got something that's mine, Val.") Abby, whom no man can resist. ("I'm not saying we're having an affair, and I'm not saying we're not. I am saying I can have him anytime I want him.") Abby, who's no one's victim. It's a scene everyone remembers -- "Valene Ewing, you're gonna get yourself a man" -- and Van Ark is so marvelous in her uninhibited role-playing (even echoing Abby's most famous line, when she taunts a women at a bar, "I could have your husband anytime I want") that you don't fully register that if that's where the writers are heading, towards a raunchier, more garish Valene, it's a horrible mistake. (It will be just that -- a horrible mistake -- when Lechowick and Latham go there in Season 12.) But it's not where they're going at all; it's a marvelous misdirect -- it's the best possible bluff.

Gollance himself wrote this particular episode, "Distant Locations." I have long laid claim to Richard Gollance being the single best writer on the series, and after talking with him, I would double down on that opinion. Everything with him sprang from character. (Tellingly, he says he was always the one in meetings asking, "But what is the scene about?" -- meaning, there always had to be something subtextual that the actors could play.) "I though it was very important that the characters had dimensions that were recognizably human," he notes. "My philosophy was that you start with bigger-than-life stories, and then you write them for the most part naturalistically." No one had quite the flair for language and the gift for making everything character-driven that Gollance did, and he's the rare writer whose work on the series got stronger the longer he hung around: once he'd lived with the characters a while, he could dig even deeper, and take more risks. (His final four scripts are the Season 5 cliffhanger, "Negotiations"; the Season 6 Thanksgiving episode, "We Gather Together; "Distant Locations"; and the final chapter in Val's recovery, which I'll address in detail later, "Rough Edges." He penned ten episodes in just over two years, but those four alone would secure his status as the series' finest scribe.) Because his stories all stemmed from character, it's fitting that when the writers were breaking down Val's breakdown, he booked a session with a therapist to make sure he was doing it justice. "I asked him: what's the process when someone goes through a dissociative personality disorder? What are the steps along the way? And I remember one of the things he said was, 'It's usually not a clean journey from Point A to Point B -- they'll try different things along the way.' And from that came 'she becomes Abby' -- at least on some level. She tries out Abby -- not consciously, of course -- to gain mastery over her life, and over what's happened."

But of course, Val isn't Abby -- she can assume her swagger, but she lacks Abby's finesse, and the evening ends with a thrashing from the women she taunted. "She's humiliated," Gollance notes, "so her mind goes, 'OK, Abby doesn't work.'" So Valene reinvents herself anew. And thus, in a classic Knots ploy, the writers briefly go where soaps traditionally go -- here, the leading lady develop a split personality, and in no time flat, the lady is a tramp -- and then they go somewhere else entirely. The next morning, in one of Van Ark's favorite scenes, she wipes off the rouge and the lipstick and the eyeliner: she realizes that's not the life that's going to make her happy, or shield her from the pain. What is? We're not told. But as the make-up comes off, so do the years fall away. The worry lines vanish. The neuroses dissolve. And it's as Verna Ellers -- fresh, unspoiled Verna Ellers -- that she boards the next bus bound for Shula, Tennessee, where she takes a waitress job: one, we suspect, not unlike the kind Val was working when she was 15.

It's tempting to focus solely on Valene's time in Shula, because it's the most assured and daring part of the season. But there's plenty else happening back in Knots Landing. Left unresolved from the first block is a bullet fragment lodged in Karen's spine. Karen had been told, in the first few episodes of the season, that if she left the hospital without having additional surgery, her chances of survival would basically drop to zero. She leaves nonetheless, and when paralysis starts to set in a half-dozen episodes later, the writers remain firm in their diagnosis, one we know is unrealistic. We don't believe for a second that Karen is going to die midseason; Gary already "died" the previous season, and we fell for that one. Fool us once, right? So what is the point of Karen's story-line? Gollance's initial impulse was -- like all his Knots stories -- a character-based one: not merely someone dealing with a bullet fragment in their spine, but someone dealing with the fact that their time is limited, and asking, what do I want to do with that time? How do I want to be remembered? Gollance's inspiration was the 1952 Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru, about a terminally-ill bureaucrat and his quest to find meaning in his life. Gollance recalls, "That what I wanted to do with Karen. I thought it was a rich idea, and since she had the bullet in her, I thought it could be a very moving story-line." But although something of Gollance's original plan survives in Karen's commitment to completing Lotus Point, and leaving it as her legacy, the idea was ultimately discarded, as the powers-that-be "didn't want to have [something that dark] hover over her for too long." But without the emotional underpinnings that Gollance hoped to bring to it, Karen's story-line ends up flirting with that soap cliché: the life-threatening condition that you know won't be life-threatening.

And given that, the great thing about the episode devoted to Karen's second round of surgery (written by Peter Dunne) is that even as the doctors continue to wail that Karen might not make it, Dunne admits -- almost from the start -- that he's giving us precisely what we want: a tidy resolution, so we can move on. Karen is facing death, but the mood of the episode isn't grim: on the contrary, there's playfulness (Joshua and Cathy chasing each other around the house with a can of shaving cream), suspense (Abby spotting Sumner and Galveston in Sumner's limo, and trying to glean the connection), romance (Verna and her beau Parker taking things to the next level), action (Mack in a high-speed car chase), and dirty dealings (Abby's private investigator threatening blackmail). Karen's surgery is pretty much the least of it, and in fact, a lot of her beats are played for comedy, as when Mack sets her wheelchair careening down the hospital hallway, or when Karen tries to steer it herself and keeps bumping into walls. (There are only a few scenes that feel overbaked: when Karen comes to Lotus Point to say goodbye to her colleagues, and delivers one of those "I think I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow" speeches to Gary -- and later, when she arrives at the hospital in a gaudy blue dress with matching cape, a real Travilla travesty, and she might as well be Norma Desmond announcing, "I'm ready for my surgery.") But otherwise, it's an exquisite episode that shouldn't be. (Hospital episodes are typically static and dire.) It's exactly what happened the last time Dunne scripted an episode (the arrival of Joshua's father, which also could have gotten downbeat and dour, but didn't), and you realize how valuable his voice and his guiding hand have been. It's his final Knots script.

While Val is serving customers in Shula, and Karen is dealing with her bullet fragment, Abby is trying to ensure that whatever happened to Val's babies, she's in no way implicated. You admire Abby: you admire her determination to track down answers, and you admire her resolve to cover her tracks once she realizes that that's not going to happen. The danger with Abby in Season 6 is that events are spiraling out of control, but she can't seem at the mercy of them. (That was never a good look on Donna Mills, and in fact, Gollance recalls that that was one of Mills' directives: "It was very important to her that Abby never be a victim.") But the scripting is shrewd: as much as she has to fret about -- the disappearance of Valene's babies, her inability to find Scott Easton, the needling and the threats from Paul Galveston -- Abby sees to it that she always lands on her feet. Paul Galveston, the most formidable combatant Abby's faced in five years (the only one who'd dare call her "cookie"), doesn't diminish her; he gives her a bigger obstacle to overcome. And overcome she does, in a scene that I mentioned to Gollance was straight out of The Little Foxes. ("An homage to The Little Foxes," Gollance was quick to correct me, laughing.) Abby and Galveston are alone at his ranch when he gets one of his headaches that have been plaguing him for months. He begs her to call his doctor, but she laughs: "Are you kidding?" And when he pleads with her to bring him his medicine, she scoffs, "Get it yourself, cookie" -- and leaves. (She doesn't know it at the time, but just like Regina Hubbard Giddens, she's left him to die.)

"There was a line of dialogue in the Season 5 cliffhanger," Gollance recalls, "and when Donna Mills saw it, she told me it was very much the key to her character. It was during the fight with Ted in the hotel room, where he's blasting her for everything she's done that season, and she says, 'I didn't think of it as lying. I never thought of it that way.' And for Donna, that was the core of the character." But Gollance had his own ideas. "I said to her, 'I think of Abby as a control freak who, in her need to control, inadvertently causes things to fall apart around her -- which ultimately keeps her from getting what she wants.' That's how I came to see the character over time. I didn't walk into the show with that, but as I continued with it, that's how I came to view her. And Donna liked that: it fit with her own take on the character, and it gave her something to play." And indeed, that's just what you see Mills playing, brilliantly, in Season 6. Early in the second block, the writers -- anxious to establish why Abby, once she finds Val in Shula, would choose to leave her there, and keep her whereabouts a secret -- have Paul Galveston taunt her about how close Gary is to his ex-wife, and the threat that Val poses to her marriage. But it's unnecessary motivation. Later that night, when she instructs her private eye to close the case on Verna Ellers, Mills tells us everything we need to know with just one look: Abby leaves Val in Shula because Abby likes being in control. But her decision to keep that information to herself -- and to use it to her advantage -- just makes it that much harder for her when the truth comes out.

Season 5 was about Abby building an empire; Season 6 is about ensuring that it doesn't collapse. In Season 5, Abby dismissed the people she deceived as necessary collateral damage; there was no resolve to hurt them, and if it happened, she "never thought of it that way." But in Season 6, she's doing damage control, and although each step of the way, she could make her life easier by being honest and coming clean, that would mean ceding power -- and Abby can't do that.

That said, although Paul Galveston proves an effective foil for Abby, he's a problematic character. He works his flattery on Gary a bit too easily. "You've got vision and power, that's all it takes," he tells him, and later, "You've got brains and guts." Although we understand that Gary sees Galveston as the mentor he never had, and that Galveston is taking shrewd advantage of Gary's obsessive need to prove himself, the fact that everyone can see through his "community of the future" except Gary feels a little plot-driven. Gary's gullible, but is he dense? Karen realizes early on that "there's got to be something wrong," given the low price that Galveston is offering for his land. She sees it, Abby sees it; even Ben, who's only peripherally involved, comes to recognize that Empire Valley is being used as a cover for something bigger. Why doesn't Gary see it? (Answer: because there'd be no story if he did.) But was there ever a season quite so aware of its failings, and how to overcome them -- or so astute at reading its audience? Just as Karen's surgery was scripted without the usual "life-or-death" theatrics, our potential resistance to Paul Galveston -- and his easy manipulation of Gary -- is assuaged three episodes into his run, when we're let onto the fact that he's living on borrowed time. So we don't fret about his running roughshod over the core characters; we know he'll be gone soon. We don't even fret when Mack's investigation into Galveston Industries, which consumes him for nearly twenty episodes, hits a dead end because the head of the company dies before Mack can bring him to justice. The writers told us Galveston's days were numbered, so we don't follow the investigation expecting Galveston to be tried and convicted; we settle for enjoying how many of the core characters -- Gary, Abby, Karen, Ben, Greg, Laura -- are caught up in it. And ultimately, of course, Galveston's function isn't to build a community of the future, or to provide a new target for Mack; it's to keep William Devane on the show, and in that sense, it's shrewd and successful.

The story of "Karen's final days" never really gets told; the Paul Galveston plotline has its excesses and its failings. But through it all, there's Val in Shula, single-handedly elevating the middle block of the season. Stop to think, for a moment, what a radical plotline this is. Typically on soaps, the goal is to devise plots that embrace as many of the core characters as possible; Val's story-line effectively isolates her from the rest of the principal cast. And it sets her on what's as much an internal journey as a surface journey, secure that the actress will pour her soul into the story-line -- which she does. Van Ark, in wiping away the last twenty years of Valene's life, doesn't play Verna as an adolescent, but she infuses her with qualities common to teenage girls: she's both shy and flirtatious, quick to pass judgment and quicker still to forgive. Even though she's committed to Parker, she'll still make eyes at every handsome guy who passes by -- including Gary, when he makes his way to Shula. (He's stunned that she doesn't remember him, and she teases, "I wouldn't forget a face like yours, sweetie.") Her Southern accent as thick as the gravy she's ladling out, Verna is irrepressible and irresistible. As she bonds with her boss and his wife, and charms and chides her customers, and finds herself falling for a new beau, she seems fully realized in just a few episodes. (And although Shula is a small Southern town, it never becomes Smalltown USA; the writers are careful not to satirize it or sanitize it. It's simply a world where life hasn't yet gotten complicated, where laws may be broken but traditions are upheld, and where people still take the time to get to know each other, as you imagine they have for centuries: archetypal rather than stereotypical.)

But when Gary turns up, and Verna gets a momentary glimpse of the life she left behind, all of Val's terror resurfaces. (Verna instantly ages twenty years; it's an astounding piece of acting.) Gary's presence in Shula unnerves her. On the eve of her wedding, as she dons her gown and admires herself in the mirror, she has a vision of Gary appearing behind her. Gently, they waltz -- her in her wedding dress, him in tails -- to a music-box accompaniment. (Even in Shula, Val can't get out of her own head.) Ultimately, she comes to realize that, as painful as that part of her past might be, she needs to return to it, to figure out what went wrong. Valene may not be strong enough to face her problems, but Verna is. And once she returns, it's Abby, of all people, who proves the voice of reason. As ever, the writers understand these characters so well, they're able to utilize them in unexpected ways: here, by having Abby, the only character who doesn't care about Val, see her most clearly, and realize that as long as Gary keeps rescuing her, she'll never learn to rely on others -- or on herself. And even as Gary struggles with Abby's diagnosis, he empathizes with Val's confusion: "Our trouble," he confesses to Val, "is that we always lived in our past, when you were 15 and I was 17. It was so good then that we tried to recapture it, and we couldn't." And once Val is able to stop romanticizing the past, she can begin to heal.

But first, one last marvelous misdirect. The final episode of the second block, "Rough Edges," begins back in Verna's apartment in Shula. Verna enters, puts away the groceries, arranges some flowers and calls her boss to tell her she'll be late for her shift. We fear that Val is regressing: perhaps her dreams are drawing her back to Shula. But no: we hear Val start to narrate the scene as it plays out, and we realize she's reliving her time in Shula for her therapist, to help jumpstart her memory. The first image of the second block (Val on the dunes, with that kite soaring behind her) had been a dream masquerading as a memory; this one turns out to be a memory masquerading as a dream. The bookending is inspired. It's as if the whole middle set of episodes has taken place inside Val's head -- which of course, in a way, it has.

"Rough Edges," Richard Gollance's last Knots script, is one of the great ones. Valene discovers that regaining her memories is, in some ways, as painful as the events that led to her breakdown; she's forced to relive parts of her life that she's happily buried, and it's as if she's experiencing them for the first time. Val's mental collapse had been largely free from histrionics; it's here, as the memories start to return, that she lashes out in pain. "How do you think I like having a mother who's a tramp?" she screams at Lilimae, as incidents from her childhood resurface. But she realizes the only way to make peace with her memories is to talk them out, and focusing first on her relationship with her mother, she relates one of Gollance's most charming creations: a story of Val, as a girl, being put on a bus by her Aunt Edna, so she could go see her mama working as an assistant to a magician, Alfonso the Great. "I remember the theatre smelled old and dirty, and it was mostly empty. When I went backstage to see her, she was in this terrible flurry. She had to run across town and audition an act of her own. She didn't invite me along -- she didn't even ask me to stick around so that we could talk later. I was just in the way. So I took the next bus back to Aunt Edna, and I lied about the wonderful time I'd had."

And from there, the memories come flooding back. (Van Ark has hit a lot of breathless highs in the last ten episodes, but this montage of her recounting story after story, as she comes to terms with her past, might boast her most virtuosic performance.) And when her session is over, she leaves her therapist's office, and Ben is waiting for her. At the start of the second block, as Ben and Val sat on a blanket overlooking the ocean, she had stared off, and he was terrified for her, because he couldn't reach her. Now she lets him know, obliquely, that her memories of him have returned ("Is it still the red food and the green food?" she asks, referring to the proper feeding of his beach-house orchids), and it feels like an event: one every bit as momentous as Karen being shot, or Abby kidnapped, or Gary "murdered." In great part because of Gollance's guiding hand, no season has been more adept at making character beats feel like events.

Sadly, Valene returns to us just as others depart. Peter Dunne had left the show near the end of the second block (he was offered the chance to run Dallas the following season); Richard Gollance leaves after "Rough Edges." And although Joel Feigenbaum and Joyce Keener stay till the end of the season, there's a noticeable shift in the style of the story-telling. "Rough Edges" had ended with Val's realization that a part of her life was being returned to her. The following episode begins with Ben driving Val to a stretch of Empire Valley that interests him. As they look around, Val cuts her hand on a chain-link fence, and they rush her to the local hospital for stitches. And there Ben gets an earful about how Galveston Industries has poisoned the town's water supply. And we get an earful of plot.

In the final block, characters are too often subordinated to story-line, and plot points that had been deliberately vague or agreeably ambiguous become heavy-handed. Joshua, who'd been growing darker, turns loathsome: bullying Cathy, undermining Ben, preying on Val. (He even starts to deliberately sabotage Val's recovery.) The writers keep telling us, via Lilimae, that "deep down Joshua is still the same sweet boy," but we see no evidence. Cathy, too, keeps excusing the worst of his behavior, much of it directed towards her, by insisting, "He's not really like that." She talks about how he used to be, a mere twenty episodes earlier, and says those good qualities are still there somewhere, but we don't have any reason to think that, and realistically, neither does she.

And the Empire Valley story becomes ludicrous: both the scale of the project itself and Gary's unwavering obliviousness. It turns out Galveston's planned community is indeed a front -- for an underground communications center "that will have the ability to process and manipulate electronic information on a global scale." (Amusingly, when I mentioned the underground Empire Valley complex to Gollance, who didn't keep up with the show once he left, he responded with surprise, "Wait! You mean underground [as in secret] or underground [as in below ground]?" I replied, "Both," and described what the "planned community" ultimately became, and he had only three words: "Oh, my God.") And even though Karen latches onto the truth in episode 21, and Abby figures it out in episode 22, it takes Gary another twenty episodes to come to his senses. In fact, he's led even further astray than he was in the middle block. Madison Mason joins the cast as a foreign diplomat prone to impressing people with his vocabulary ("superciliousness does not become you"), who gains Gary's trust by revealing exactly what Empire Valley is, but insisting that the men running it are working outside the boundaries of the government -- and that he needs Gary to go undercover and report back. And so Gary, for the final block of the season, basically believes he's a spy. (The name is Ewing -- Gary Ewing.) By the end of the season, he's become so paranoid, he's convinced he's being followed and that his phone has been tapped. (A sign of how bad this particular aspect of the Empire Valley story is: it's not just abandoned after Season 6, it's undone; once Season 7 begins, Gary is back to believing he's creating "a community of the future.")

Other misguided plot points? Well, we're informed that Paul Galveston bought Sumner the election; it's not a character observation, it's stated as fact, and it's misjudged: after we spent an entire season immersed in Sumner's campaign, what a letdown to learn the whole thing was rigged. Sumner is suddenly making decisions -- big decisions -- without consulting Laura, including the one to relinquish his Senate seat. In the first two-thirds of the season, he'd discussed everything with Laura (she felt well cared for, story-wise, because his decisions became theirs). Now, when the stakes are highest, he shuts Laura out; she doesn't hear from him for days, and when she comes to his hotel room, she finds security guards packing up her stuff. (And then he wonders why she's upset.) It's drama for drama's sake, as is his mother Ruth taking an instant dislike to Laura; it feels manufactured to ensure the couple break up by season's end (as they do). And after a trio of episodes showing Val regaining her memory and her strength, we discover she's falling apart again. Why have Val regress? It seems a betrayal of all the time we've invested in her recovery. Did the writers think that unless the twins were needed to help Val regain her sanity, they wouldn't be worth searching for? That somehow, a hunt for stolen babies wouldn't seem as "important" if they weren't crucial to a character's well-being?

And despite all the publicity her appearance brings the show, Ava Gardner doesn't do it any favors. Paul Galveston had seemed more of a plot device than a character, but Howard Duff essayed his role with modesty. You never felt a Hollywood star was gracing the set with his presence. The same can't be said for Gardner. And, it should be noted, it doesn't seem to be as much her fault as it is the reverence with which she's treated. Her first appearance, when she literally steps out of the shadows, is a bit much, and by the time a row of dark-suited businessmen is lined up to welcome her into a scene, like some MGM production number, it's become much too much. (She, of course, is in white, and bejeweled.) Ruth is prone to suggesting they attend parties because "we'll make a great entrance," and her attitude seems to prompt Travilla, who up to that point had costumed the women with a modicum of restraint, to kick it into high gear, as he blinds us with one monstrosity after another. There's a dinner party at the Galveston ranch, with Laura, Karen and Ruth riotously overdressed (including Karen in gold lamé), and as your eyes take in the wide brim hats and full-length mink stoles and footlong shoulder pads, you're aware that any point to the scene has been lost, and that all it seems to be about is a celebration of wealth and ostentatiousness. Squint and you have no idea which nighttime soap you're watching; is it Dynasty? Knots is losing its identity, an issue that will be compounded the following season.

These are flaws that hobble the final third of the season, and they're not insignificant. And it's difficult to say why the style of story-telling changes. (I mentioned the issue to Gollance, and he didn't have any clues, not having kept up with the series after he left.) The loss of Peter Dunne and Richard Gollance only explains so much; Joel Feigenbaum and Joyce Keener were still there, and they were both fine writers, schooled in the Dunne-Gollance aesthetic. It's hard to imagine that incoming producer Lawrence Kasha came in with strong ideas in terms of a new "direction" for the show, and creator David Jacobs was mostly off doing Berrenger's that season. But co-executive producer Michael Filerman, who'd been absent during Season 5 (launching Emerald Point N.A.S.) was most assuredly around, and it's always worth remembering that Ann Marcus, never one to mince words (and a reliable witness), characterized him as someone "whose main talent was to tear apart a story once it was written." Is the final block of Season 6 a mark of where Filerman might have taken the show, left unchecked? (He certainly doesn't do Falcon Crest any favors when he takes as active showrunner in Season 8.)

The final block of Season 6 is a disappointment, but by no means a disgrace. It's buoyed -- as is the whole season -- by the continuing saga of Val's twins, and ultimately, by the ongoing hunt for them, which becomes a fine story for Karen: exactly the kind of moral mission at which the character excels. (And it yields a particularly good scene where Karen inadvertently belittles her son Eric -- as she'll do often during the show's run -- by being so wrapped up in her own issues, she ignores his.) And even when the characters are subordinated to the plot, they remain vivid. There are any number of underwhelming story-lines in Season 6, but you don't find yourself focusing on them, because even when the story arcs disappoint, the character beats -- from moment to moment -- are never less than inviting, and often engrossing. And even as the plotting starts to overwhelm the characters in the final third of the season, you'll have marvelous scenes like the one in Val's kitchen in Keener's "The Deluge," where Val is brainstorming her next book for Ben, as Lilimae busies herself at the stove -- and in walk Joshua and Cathy with Chinese take-out. And as Joshua and Cathy squabble about the kind of material she should sing on his show, Lilimae -- recalling that her mama's favorite hymn was "Rock of Ages" -- launches into an impromptu refrain, which Ben, full-throated, then takes up. And suddenly the kitchen is awash in a cacophony of sound that seems, like so many of the best Knots moments, carefully sculpted yet utterly spontaneous. And although you can't make out the individual voices, you recognize that the scene is less about that than it is the warm feeling of family, and the embracing sense of community. Knots' welcoming spirit will be lost early in the following season, but Season 6 fairly bursts with it. Despite its issues, it's a hard season to resist.


Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show ultimately masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#10 - #1)

Completing my Classic Who countdown. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, all the way back at #158, with the serials I find most resistible, click here.) The serials below are my ten favorites. They include the best performances by the two greatest actors to play the Doctor in the classic series. Coincidence? Certainly not. Four of the ten are written by original script editor David Whitaker, who taught everyone else how to write Doctor Who, then showed them that he could do it better. Classic Who's best writer? Certainly. The serials below have moved me and inspired me; they're miraculous creations, and I have returned to each a dozen times or more. I suspect if Classic Who had turned out only these ten serials, I'd be no less a fan.

10. The Abominable Snowmen (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
directed by Gerald Blake
Given that their follow-up stories are, in turn, a repetitive runaround and a mean-spirited mess, it's astounding that Haisman and Lincoln manage, for their first Classic Who assignment, a serial as respectful and thematically rich as "The Abominable Snowmen." Neither was a disciple of Buddhism (although, by all accounts, they tried to familiarize themselves with the teachings and terminology), but in its depiction of monks disentangling from the ways of the world in search of something deeper, and in its underlying conflict between personal responsibility and interdependence, the serial's view of cloistered life seems vivid and accurate. And when Victoria tries to explain to Thomni about the Doctor's ability to travel in time and space, and he understands instantly, noting that his master, Padmasambhava, "can free himself from his earthly body and travel great distances," which "can only be obtained after many years of strict discipline," the scene seems steeped in the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra. Even when the details feel fanciful -- the monks view the captive Yeti as the devil, who "in his guile, wears his armor beneath the skin to protect his evil heart" -- you appreciate that the monks are permitted an interpretation that's never contradicted or condescended to. Crucially, this isn't a Tibetan monastery spruced up as the setting for a Doctor Who adventure; it's a Doctor Who adventure scaled down to suit the tenets and tone of a Tibetan monastery -- and Blake's work is ever mindful of that. There's no musical soundtrack; instead, the monastery provides its own, natural accompaniment -- and sometimes the only light in the cloisters is a burning torch carried by one of the monks. At one point, the Doctor and Professor Travers get into an argument, and Blake stages it with the warrior leader Khrisong center, and the Doctor and Travers behind him on either side. The Eastern warrior is still and immutable; the Western scientists are bickering like children. The monastery is a world of order and harmony where chaos is unleashed -- not just the Great Intelligence, but the Professor, the Doctor and his companions. Troughton gets a greater showcase in "Enemy of the World," but this is his best performance in the title role, his patented indignation and flustered horror tempered by enormous warmth: as he consoles Padmasambhava, who's been kept alive for centuries by the Great Intelligence, or coaxes the truth out of the spellbound Abbot, or eases Victoria out of her trance. And Victoria, touching down in a time period not too far removed from her own, gains cunning and initiative -- and Deborah Watling proves just how good she can be when she's not consigned to simpering and screaming. In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another Classic Who serial where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force, but the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories -- and gives it a complexity and depth that's rare. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we obey our gods, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? Despite the presence of those cuddly Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, it's one of the most adult stories in the classic canon.

9. The Ambassadors of Death (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then somersault backwards off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- and there are a lot of them: warehouse shoot-outs, helicopter hijackings, car chases and foot pursuits, not to mention a rocket launch where the G-force practically flattens the Doctor back into his seat -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too awesome for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the space-suited ambassadors to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying, but mesmerizing: not just a resolution, but an event. Ferguson shoots their arrival at the Space Center contre-jour, the sun behind them, as if they were angels descending from a better, finer world -- and when they finally enter the complex, the soldiers who had been firing at them stop and stare: stilled not by fear, but by the majesty and mystery of it all. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke, from Whitaker's story outline and his drafts of the first three episodes; whatever Hulke's contributions (and several of the plot devices -- an aborted escape, an interrupted confession -- seem like Hulke hallmarks), the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the Third Doctor era can work: for how the leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from assistant to associate -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do. And the fact that the story not only requires our intelligence, but presumes it, makes it all the more invigorating.

8. The Androids of Tara (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by David Fisher
directed by Michael Hayes
From the start, Doctor Who strove to keep it fresh. One week, it was a sci-fi adventure; the next, a historical drama. Later on, a Plautine comedy, or perhaps an espionage caper. But it wasn't until Season 16 that it took on one of the most endearing and enduring of film genres: the screwball comedy. That Hollywood phenomenon, which reached its zenith in the mid- to late-'30s, was a frothy blend of sophistication and slapstick, buoyed by dialogue both diabolically clever and effortlessly improvised. Screwball comedies were battles of the sexes where love masqueraded as hostility, and where the woman inevitably had the upper hand. One of the films that ushered in this new era of screen comedy was The Thin Man, with its witty, urbane couple, Nick and Nora Charles, who traded barbs as they solved crimes. Nick would rather be drinking, or napping, or shooting ornaments off the Christmas tree, but Nora was there to prod him and inspire him. It's difficult to watch Season 16 of Classic Who -- in which a stylish Time Lady arrives to keep the Doctor in check, and in which their ensuing bickering betrays a burgeoning affection -- without recalling the screwballs, and it's impossible to watch "Androids of Tara" without seeing the Doctor and Romana as Nick and Nora Charles, with K9 as their beloved Asta. For a couple of seasons, Tom Baker had looked like he'd rather be fishing; Fisher turns that into a character trait, and hands off the detective work to Romana. And she shows up the Doctor, securing the Key to Time in the first five minutes, but before they can depart, the two are ensnared in a mistaken identities caper complete with knockout drugs, an aborted coronation, an aborted wedding, and various moments of mayhem. Fisher might have taken his cue from Prisoner of Zenda, but "Androids of Tara" is pure screwball, and although Fisher keeps it light, Hayes (a romanticist in the style of the great director Mitchell Leisen) refuses to sacrifice atmosphere for speed, inviting us to bask: in the gleeful malevolence of its villains and the handsome hardiness of its heroes; in lush scenery that devours half of Part One and a sword fight that dominates Part Four; and in a guest cast whose comedy stylings are irresistible. But above all, there's Mary Tamm and Tom Baker: her with her smarts, glamour and withering irony; him, irreverent, undisciplined and unbowed. The single best moment in "Androids" might be a throwaway line near the top, when Romana has followed the Doctor to a stream where he's determined to spend the day fishing. "But what about the fourth segment?," she reminds him. "You get it," he insists, and she accepts the dare, making plans to meet him there in an hour's time. Satisfied, he asks, "Would you mind standing aside, please? You're casting a shadow. It frightens the fish," and she mutters to herself, in a verbal eye-roll, "Frightens the fish," before continuing her instructions. That one aside -- "frightens the fish" -- might be the best thing about "Androids of Tara," because you have no idea if it was scripted or improvised, but it's hilarious. Baker and Tamm give the illusion, as did all the great screwball couples, of being so comedically in tune that they've achieved a spontaneity, an unrestraint and a zest for life that most of us can only aspire to. It's a glorious gift, as is "Androids of Tara."

7. The Evil of the Daleks (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Derek Martinus
Designed as, literally, the Dalek story to end all Dalek stories -- i.e., the final battle -- so how fitting is it that it's also their finest hour? Every time you feel you have a handle on where Whitaker is heading, he throws you a curveball. At the top, scientist Edward Waterfield is playing cat-and-mouse with the Doctor and Jamie -- but then you learn that he himself is at the mercy of more malevolent forces: not merely the Daleks, but his own friend and collaborator. Eventually, the Daleks blackmail the Doctor into carrying out an experiment in exchange for the return of his TARDIS -- a plot to increase their power by isolating the "human factor" -- and the Doctor and Waterfield must lay a trap to ensnare an unwitting Jamie. "Evil of the Daleks" is a story where everyone has an agenda (though not necessarily a transparent one) and is willing to manipulate both allies and enemies to achieve it -- and through it all you wonder, who is pulling whose strings? The Doctor's motivations are unclear, but never unconvincing; we believe he's teaming with the Daleks to get his TARDIS back, which is not unreasonable – but as the bodies start to pile up, we think: how far is he willing to go? How precious to him is that little blue box? Or is something else motivating his new alliance with his oldest foes? The experiment itself -- which hinges on Jamie's quest to save Victoria -- is the centerpiece of the story; it could feel like padding, but it's perfect. After a season as the third wheel in Ben and Polly's double-act, it's exactly what Frazer Hines needs -- and by showing Jamie's willingness to risk his life to save a stranger, by pitting him against the manservant Kemel and having the sheer strength and decency of his character win him over, Whitaker transforms him from a boy into a man. And laced throughout are unexpected detours, including one of Whitaker's masterstrokes: the Arthur Terrall reveal. Here, as ever, Whitaker lets us make presumptions because it's customary to do so. We meet Terrall and dismiss his odd behavior as the result of his wartime trauma. Molly, the serving girl who's provided us with his backstory, has been a reliable witness, and Whitaker is careful to make his symptoms consistent with what we know of shell-shock. He seems an incidental character, mere local color -- but is anything ever incidental where Whitaker's concerned? It's a marvelous misdirect, and more crucially, it's a clue to the Dalek's ultimate plan -- one that, if we're clever, Whitaker will allow us to decipher ahead of the Doctor. For their final story, Whitaker lets the Daleks be all things: ruthless killers, master manipulators, precocious children, and ultimately, the source of their own destruction, as they force the Doctor to engage in an experiment that sows the seeds of their doom. And although Whitaker never allows them to be seen as heroic, he honors their contribution to the early success of Doctor Who by permitting them to die as tragic figures, whose own character flaw -- in this case, their hubris -- leads to their downfall. The Daleks will go on to many more stories following their "demise"; several will be quite fine, and a few will even be great -- but they'll never again have it so good.

6. The Crusade (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield
The TARDIS touches down in 12th-century Palestine; within minutes, Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor, Ian and Vicki set out to save her. The "chase" aspect of the plot allows Whitaker and Camfield to paint a particularly broad canvas (from the courts of King Richard and Muslim leader Saladin to the bustling marketplaces and barren deserts) and to serve up compassionate yet clear-eyed looks at both monarchs. It also provides a tour-de-force for all four principals -- their characters filled with resolve and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work, and he's already acquired the gift for turning character beats into cliffhangers: the end of Part 1, as Ian is about to unleash his fury on the King, and the Doctor holds him back with a warning look and a firm gesture, may be the actors' finest exchange -- and not a word is required. But at the end of the day, it's the lines that linger. Whitaker channels Shakespeare with the poetry of his dialogue -- some of it in iambic pentameter -- and Doctor Who would hear no finer dialogue for decades. (Richard, to his sister Joanna: "Saladin sends me presents of fruit and snow when I am sick, and now his brother decorates you with his jewels. Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.") Early on, Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk -- it helps me to consider what I have to do with you," and her natural response is to describe three recent adventures. ("Well, I could say that I'm from another world, a world ruled by insects. And before that we were in Rome at the time of Nero. Before that we were in England, far, far into the future...") As Saladin interprets it ("Now I understand: you and your friends, you are players, entertainers"), the scene glows with gentle irony and self-awareness: Doctor Who interpreting history, history interpreting Doctor Who. And the showdown between Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) is as explosive as any exchange in Classic Who. There's really only one thing wrong with "The Crusade": the fact that two of four episodes are missing, and it's particularly unfortunate here. There are some Classic Who writers (Ian Stuart Black, Brian Hayles) and directors (Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus) where missing episodes don't matter as much; they worked in broad strokes, and once you've been able to ascertain the tone and style of a partially extant serial, you can intuit the rest. But Whitaker and Camfield were artists who found the drama in nuance and detail; when you watch a scene that begins in telesnaps and then continues in surviving footage (e.g., Barbara being chased through the streets of Lydda), you realize just how much you've missed. But even the two lost episodes don't prevent "The Crusade" from being the crowning achievement of the Hartnell era.

5. The Face of Evil (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by Pennant Roberts
It's the first script since "The Rescue" that's told from the new companion's perspective. The serial opens with Leela in profile, then pulls back to a scene in which she's banished from her tribe, the Sevateem. We recognize at once her bravery, her loyalty and (crucially, because it's the trait that will be forgotten during her time on the TARDIS) her intelligence. (She's defiant that the tribal god Xoanon doesn't exist, and we know she's right.) Leela has a limited worldview, but she's shrewd and curious and able to extrapolate her knowledge and adapt to new situations and unfamiliar surroundings (which will make her an ideal travel companion). She's a quick study. Some of us, if we're lucky, grow wiser with each passing year; Leela grows wiser with each passing minute. You see it on her face: her eyes light up with each new insight, or the slightest arch of her brow or curve of her lips tells you she's processing and storing information, for later use. Pennant Roberts clearly adores Louise Jameson (he cast her in the role), and so does his camera; he goes for frequent close-ups that pay off handsomely, understanding how much she can convey without saying a word. And the words Chris Boucher gifts her aren't too shabby either. His first Doctor Who script -- like his later ones -- is pretty much a marvel. Thank goodness, we've passed the Gothic Horror era, and sturdy characters are back in vogue: the kind with clear and compelling motivations, who don't exist merely for their scare value. Subtlety, too, is once again prized; the payoffs can come slowly, and hints be dropped delicately. (Boucher has a particularly good time unveiling the origins of the Sevateem and Tesh tribes and the identity of the Evil One. Some clues we discover and process alongside the Doctor; others, the Doctor spots instantly, while we struggle with their significance; and just a few Boucher reveals to us alone, as if we ourselves were companions, conducting our own investigation.) "Face of Evil" benefits too from a sound premise -- a primitive society whose traditions arise from the remnants of another, more advanced one ("Planet of Fire" is built on the same foundation) -- but to be fair, it is not without its flaws: two death sentences for the Doctor, neither as effective as it means to be; a bit too much skulking around corridors and one too many brainwashings; a star who's starting to spiral out of control, and some bit players who should have been banned from the BBC soundstages. But it's got Leela, so who cares? Jameson commands the screen in her first appearance like no companion before or since; in fact, watching her, you can't decide what's more spellbinding: the conception of her character, or how far she runs with it. Run, you clever girl -- and don't stop till you're safely aboard the TARDIS. Sadly, you won't be treated any better than you were back home, but the series will be enriched by your presence.

4. Enlightenment (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Barbara Clegg
directed by Fiona Cumming
The TARDIS is losing power, its customary white lights now a burnished orange. The voice of the White Guardian is heard -- at first, an eerie echo; then, cryptic commands it will fall to the Doctor to decipher. It's fitting that the White Guardian can't get his message through, because nothing will be spelled out for us in "Enlightenment." No story in Classic Who history shows a greater regard for its audience. It refuses to stoop to easy exposition or attention-grabbing theatrics; from the start, it trusts the viewer to savor the details -- there'll be time for high concepts and big reveals later on. (There will be no monsters, and if there are, they might not be so easy to spot.) "Enlightenment" is the rare serial that serves as a character study of the Doctor and his companions, and it accomplishes it by pairing each with an Eternal, the immortal beings who depend on the thoughts of so-called "Ephemerals" for their existence, and showing them at their most exposed and conflicted. For Tegan, who's developed a tough hide to keep from being hurt (her TARDIS travels began, after all, with the death of her Aunt Vanessa, pointedly referenced here), the fawning Mariner's intrusion into her mind represents a troubling loss of control -- but you also see her letting down her guard long enough to dress for Wrack's banquet, courting compliments with a low-cut gown, tiara and train. For Turlough, the alien outsider who made a deal with the devil before realizing that there were other, genuinely rewarding options open to him, the sybaritic Wrack -- who alternately teases him, toys with him and tortures him, according to her whim -- offers a chance at redemption. And then there's the Doctor, who -- even as he wages war with Captain Striker, whose parasitic feeding on human emotion revolts him; even as he's immobilized and emasculated by an unblinking race of immortals whose motivations he can't begin to comprehend -- is busy observing, decoding, interceding and, with any luck, prevailing. Everyone is playing a long game in "Enlightenment": the Guardians, the Eternals -- but no one more than the Doctor, who's staked the future of all of time and space on his newest disciple. "Enlightenment" shows us everything Doctor Who can be; before and behind the camera, it's the culmination of two decades of experimentation and experience, and anything that follows is bound to seem anti-climactic. Because once a serial has prompted you to ponder notions as fanciful as the pangs and perils of immortality, and issues as down-to-earth as the exploitation (and perceived expendability) of the working classes; once it's done so with dialogue that makes the prosaic sound poetic ("It's as though somebody's been rummaging around in my memories") and the poetic unexpectedly resonant ("You are a Time Lord, a Lord of Time. Are there lords in such a small domain?"); and once it's resolved itself by assuring you, gently, that however dark the forces of the universe become, simple truths will still hold sway, and none more so than the persuasive power of human decency -- then really: what more is there to say? "Enlightenment" is not just the last great serial: it feels like the last great serial.

3. The Enemy of the World (Second Doctor, 1967-68)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Barry Letts
Let's list the things that are wrong with "Enemy of the World." The stock footage of earthquakes and eruptions in Episode 2 goes on a bit too long. There's a clumsy edit in Episode 3, following an assassination. The actors who play Colin and Mary are earnest, but callow, and the costumes worn by the subterranean dwellers are distracting. And that's it. There are four tiny problems with "Enemy of the World," and there are dozens upon dozens of glories, not the least of which is the greatest performance by a lead actor in Classic Who history. Even before the five missing episodes were found, Troughton's bravura turn (as the Doctor, and as Salamander, would-be ruler of the world) came through clearly in the surviving audio, starting with the early sequence in which the Doctor watches Salamander deliver a speech and then deconstructs, digests and assumes his accent. But with the visuals restored, we see a level of nuance and assurance that not even the most ardent Troughtonites could have foreseen: not from a show on this tight a schedule. Salamander, in one serial, seems as fully formed as the Doctor after ten; Troughton doesn't just rise to the occasion -- he towers over it. And yet "Enemy of the World" isn't merely about a remarkable acting feat, cunningly sustained; it's about a plot that keeps confounding expectations. In anyone's hands but Whitaker's, one suspects, Troughton's dual role would have been less a story than a stunt; the Doctor would have agreed to impersonate Salamander in Episode 1, with diminishing returns from there. But Whitaker, crucially, constructs a plot that would work even without the dual-role angle: if the mission were simply to expose a dangerous dictator. He creates a set of characters so vibrant -- and a story so rich in incident (and so cognizant of the tactics that evil men use to seize power, and of the kind of people most susceptible to those tactics) -- that after teasing the Doctor's impersonation at the end of Episode 1, he can postpone delivering on that promise till midway through Episode 5: making it the climax of the story, rather than its foundation. And the delay seems character- rather than plot-driven: stemming from the Second Doctor's sense of caution and unerring instincts, as he sizes up the two most mercurial characters -- and plays them perfectly -- in order to bring down Salamander on his own terms. (It's typical of Whitaker's tactics -- crafty but never cutthroat -- that after we're left thinking the plot will turn on the Doctor infiltrating Salamander's lair, it's Jamie and Victoria who first go undercover -- and, in a marvelous turnabout, when the Doctor finally does assume his disguise, it's Jamie and Victoria he first has to fool.) Splendidly cast, flawlessly directed and fearlessly performed, with a special nod to Mary Peach as Astrid, one of the great guest stars in all of Classic Who. She fights, she flirts, she flies -- and when she and Troughton are seated on a sofa, playfully interrogating each other (Astrid: "Oh, you're a doctor?" Doctor: "Well, not of any medical significance." Astrid: "Doctor of law? Philosophy?" Doctor: "Which law? Whose philosophies?"), the halcyon days of '60s TV -- when people had time to converse without the pressures of plot -- are at their most heavenly.

2. Castrovalva (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Fiona Cumming
Beguiling and exhilarating. Bidmead's scripts could be too clever by half, the results more science lesson than science fiction. Cumming lifts "Castrovalva" out of the lecture hall and infuses it with pace, style and warmth; she takes Bidmead's showy conceits (hydrogen inrush! recursive occlusion!) and paints a human face on them. Cumming was an accomplished technician, but she was above all an actor's director: just what "Castrovalva" needs. Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton both seemed rather woeful actresses when we last left them in "Logopolis"; here, they're vibrant and appealing, conquering scenes that could seem too calculated in their cunning, without ever losing their character quirks. (Tegan: "How do we find the index file? Of course, if we had an index file, we could look it up in the index file, under index file. What am I saying? I'm talking nonsense." Nyssa: "That's an example of recursion, when procedures fold back on themselves. If you had an index file, you could look it up in the index file." Tegan: "If. My Dad used to say that 'if' was the most powerful word in the English language. If... I...F... Stands for index file!") Tegan is volatile but never strident, with an unexpected wistfulness; Nyssa remains practical and reserved, but never remote. They have a few scenes (when they're scaling Castrovalva) where Cumming brings the volume down and draws the camera in close, and you see them at their most exposed -- and you like what you see. And with Matthew Waterhouse so ill-at-ease with his hands, Cumming straps them to his side, forcing him to project with his face -- and it works wonders. (The Doctor tells them what valuable assets they're going to be, and by God, for this one serial, you believe him.) And Peter Davison is, from the start, a revelation. It was his first serial aired, but his fourth filmed; producer John Nathan-Turner made a lot of questionable moves during his tenure on Doctor Who, but deciding to hold off filming Davison's debut until he'd inhabited the role for a while was not one of them. The Doctor is in a weakened state for much of "Castrovalva," but Davison is in command of every gesture and effect: he's riveting. A few blemishes in Part Four, mostly some action shots that were never Cumming's strong suit, but otherwise a triumph of script, direction, design and musical composition -- and one more thing, which lifts it into the Who stratosphere. Folks who dismiss "Castrovalva" as "just" a regeneration story -- some who even argue that such stories aren't necessary -- miss the point. Bidmead makes us feel that helping the Doctor through his regeneration is the most important thing in the universe -- which of course it is. (Russell T. Davies would take much the same approach in "The Christmas Invasion.") Three companions (two of whom hardly know him) risk their lives to save him, and although Sutton, Fielding and Waterhouse aren't an experienced or, in some cases, dependable bunch, they exceed our expectations -- and their own. "Castrovalva" is a serial about the joy of being a Who fan; it's about the bond we feel with the Doctor, and how we're better for it.

1. Snakedance (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Fiona Cumming
No Classic Who serial is blessed with better dialogue; no script better caught the essence and appeal of the Fifth Doctor. Peter Davison was such a departure from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade that the early writers had no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they left the character sketchy and called upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he did, handsomely. But during Davison's second season, Christopher Bailey pens a piece that captures the Fifth Doctor in full: the youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- and Davison responds with his crowning performance. Davison became a master, during his years on Who, of bringing energy and conviction to scenes even when the writer, director, guest cast or supporting cast were letting him down. In "Snakedance," when everyone else is at the peak of their powers, Davison unleashes his Doctor as in no other serial: in the first half, practically bounding across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility; in the final segment, in a feat of concentration so intense it looks torturous, demonstrating that focus, awareness and quiet resolve can often be the most effective weapons against evil. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding provide splendid support -- Sutton acting as the Doctor's confidante, his conscience and his occasional critic, and excelling at all three; Fielding alternately fighting and embracing the Mara's control, helping us understand (in her dreams and in her sometimes unsettling responses to the unfolding events) why the Mara found her the perfect instrument for his becoming -- and they're matched by sterling guest players: Colette O'Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes, Jonathon Morris, Brian Miller, Preston Lockwood -- not a blemish in the bunch. But it's Davison who grounds and ignites the serial, with a dazzling tour-de-force. Equally dazzling: the detail and delicacy that Bailey and Cumming bring to the proceedings -- delicacy, in particular, not being a trait you associate with Classic Who. The expansive opening exchange between the Federator's wife and son doesn't appear to be scripted; it just seems to unfold, the way a scene would in the theatre. Leisurely yet luminous, it tells us more about two guest characters -- their relationship to each other, to the featured players with whom they'll interact, and to the culture over which they preside -- than most serials manage over four or six parts. As it turns out, it's almost all exposition, but so beautifully disguised that as it's playing out, it seems a far cry from the Who norm, where you can hear the plot creaking during the briefest of exchanges. At once a cautionary tale about the perils of forgetting history, a social commentary on commercialism and corruption, and a recipe for facing life's challenges with grit and grace, "Snakedance" is the rare classic serial that doesn't merely create an alien world, but luxuriates in it. It's sui generis: endlessly rewatchable and rewarding.


Want more Doctor Who? I take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years; and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#20 - #11)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here.) Remarkably, as we enter my top 20, and once we pass the first one (the ultimate "love it or hate it" serial, and the last of the five unfairly maligned serials I wrote about in 2015), these next ten are probably the serials where my opinions most match popular consensus. They're some of the most beloved classic serials, and I love them too -- although, as I've discovered, not always for the reasons others do.

20. Terminus (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Mary Ridge
Typically dismissed as "the bad one" in The Black Guardian Trilogy, and indeed "Terminus" is dire: but not dire in quality, dire in tone. Dire in terms of what it says about human beings, and the way we treat one another -- and exploit one another. "Terminus" is a story best-suited to those with a little life-experience. It's for anyone who's ever worked under a miserable employer, or had to fight for decent medical treatment, or felt disenfranchised from friends, family or colleagues; it's for anyone who's found themselves on a treadmill from which there is no escape. It's also not without its flaws. Sarah Sutton is pallid, and the juvenile cast opposite her is even worse; at one point, they have a contest to see who can show less emotion in the face of impending doom. The costumes are atrocious, the sets are undernourished, and the Garm, who guarded the gates of hell in Norse mythology, is realized as a giant patchwork dog with claws. But all that is easily overlooked, because the tale being spun -- a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse -- is pure gold, not to mention astonishingly prescient. "Terminus" is about a health-care system that's broken, the product of an economic and political climate that preys on the weak and the poor and the sick, that invites mistrust and fear, aggression and violence. (Nyssa: "What are they going to do with us?" Inga: "Supposedly cure us, but I rather think they're going to let us die.") Mary Ridge shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, and indeed, in Gallagher's bleak universe, everyone feels trapped: not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the guards supplied with just enough drugs to keep going, the raiders left to fend for themselves, the Garm killing as many as he's curing because of his lack of free will. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) "Terminus" is a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end, and an indictment of the ones in charge. And too, it's a cautionary tale for those who don't yet know what they're in for. In a way, it's a perfect script for this age of instant celebrity, where success is measured by YouTube hits and Twitter follows, and folks appear indestructible in their insular communities. Because "Terminus" is the rude awakening that always comes. (I offer up full review of "Terminus" here.)

19. The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969)
written by Terrance Dicks & Malcolm Hulke
directed by David Maloney
If all the serials in Season 6 had lived up to their promise, it would have been one of the most sensational seasons in Classic Who history. The variety of settings and story-lines and styles is staggering -- it's Doctor Who working without a net. Where Season 6 trips up is in the execution. If you read any behind-the-scenes stories, you keep seeing the troubles they were having getting decent scripts commissioned and in shape for filming -- but you don't need to read the backstage chatter: the scrappiness is evident on the screen. Serials constantly seem in need of a final rewrite, or feel padded and stretched beyond their proper length. Not until season's end are you fully and completely blown away. One can't pretend that, at ten episodes, "The War Games" doesn't feel long; it's full of the sort of capture-and-escape plotting that Malcolm Hulke would practically hone to an art form in "Frontier in Space." But here the redundancies of the story-line seem shrewdly tied to the subject matter: the futility of war, where battles are fought and re-fought but victories rarely won. Hulke, Dicks and Maloney make one smart move after another. The tone teeters artfully between grim drama and ferocious comedy, permitting them to switch gears anytime the story-line starts to sag. The revelations are carefully spaced and cleverly placed. The setting allows Jamie to shine in battle, and Zoe to play with technology -- and it gives the Doctor a backstory that inspires one of Troughton's most tense and tremulous performances. And contrary to the way the ending is often remembered, it's in fact strangely uplifting. The Time Lords wipe most of Zoe and Jamie's memories, but let them recall their first adventure with the Doctor -- and as we see Jamie return home, newly primed for battle after the events of "The Highlanders," and Zoe return to the wheel in space, noticeably softer around the edges than the "robot" we first met, we're reminded of the impact the Doctor can have in just one short serial. We think of the thousands of characters who've shared only one story with the Doctor, and how their worlds became different -- and perhaps we reflect on how our own lives were altered, too, after just one adventure in space and time. And although the Doctor, about to be exiled to Earth, rages that he doesn't want his face changed, we know -- as audiences knew in 1968, because they'd seen it happen before, and been rewarded with the marvel that is Patrick Troughton -- that change can be a good thing. The end of "War Games" glows with promise. It makes you eager for the next great adventure.

18. The Rescue (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry
A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so disarming (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

17. Genesis of the Daleks (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Terry Nation
directed by David Maloney
It's got a villain so well-conceived and vividly played that he instantly became iconic; it's got scope and urgency and enough incident to successfully fill six episodes. If there are some underfed supporting players and a few ropy cliffhangers, that's all best swept under the rug -- because it's not the Daleks that are the secret weapon being developed in "Genesis": it's the pairing of Tom Baker and Ian Marter, that great underutilized Doctor Who double act. While Sarah Jane is off carrying her own story-line, the Doctor and Harry start to gel as a team, and you think, "What a relief!" Some have claimed that the notion of conflict within the TARDIS began with John Nathan-Turner, because he found edgier companions like Tegan and Turlough more interesting than useful ones like Nyssa. But in fact, the relationship between the Doctor and his companions starts to go south with the introduction of Harry Sullivan, whom the Doctor -- no doubt as script editor Robert Holmes's response to the coziness of Pertwee's UNIT family -- makes a point of ridiculing every chance he gets. (It's not just Harry; Holmes will keep harping on the notion of the "unwanted companion" with his scripts for Leela and Romana.) But how lovely the two are in "Genesis." In an interrogation scene, the Doctor is stalling for time by being flip ("Any chance of a cup of tea?"), and you see Harry acclimating himself: growing increasingly comfortable with the Doctor's methodology. His body language opens, along with his blazer, and his hands move to his hips: Harry is ready to play. "My friend and I have had a very trying experience," the Doctor continues. "Haven't we had a trying experience, Harry?" And Harry is quick on the draw: "Very trying, Doctor." When the inquisitor threatens them with torture, Harry momentarily looks to the Doctor for guidance -- but once he gets reassurance ("No tea, Harry"), he relaxes again. He's a quick study; later, when the Kaleds confiscate the Doctor's Time Ring, and the Doctor starts to lose his cool, Harry wises him up: "I know it's vital, but we don't want them to know that, do we?" There's still the requisite joke at Harry's expense (he gets his foot stuck in a giant clam), but here he's the one making the joke. And once the Doctor frees Sarah Jane, he charges Harry with leading them back to the Kaled dome. Doctor Who had so rarely let two men run the show. The First Doctor had a few serials traveling solo with Steven, and the Second Doctor, in the transitions between companions, always had Jamie -- but they were the brainy doctors with strongmen sidekicks. The Fourth Doctor and Harry are something else entirely. The Doctor and the doctor: one who learns patience, one who gains assurance. The irony of "Genesis" is that the Doctor-Harry pairing, which brought something fresh to the series, was short-lived, but the Daleks, that satanic spawn of static electricity, go on and on and on...

16. Planet of Fire (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Fiona Cumming
Cumming, when invited back to the series after "Castrovalva," asked producer John Nathan-Turner for the more character-oriented stories; she had a gift for working with actors, as well as a lightness of touch and attention to detail that served Peter Davison well. Davison, upon joining the show, had flipped the traditional perspective: during the Fifth Doctor era, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it through ours. Cumming imbued the show with grace, subtlety and a sense of wonder that heightened everything Davison was doing with the role; it was a match of star and director unique in the classic canon. "Planet of Fire" is the least of their collaborations, but parts remain magical. The shots of Lanzarote -- its cliffs ripe for climbing, its valleys swirling in mist -- are majestic, and they're set to a percussive score (by Peter Howell) that's one of the most hypnotic in the Classic Who catalog. Part Two feels like it's almost entirely shot outdoors, and Cumming milks the scenery for all it's worth. "Planet of Fire" suffers from some scrappy editing, and a few missteps, but by and large, this atmospheric tale is brimming with good ideas, well-executed. Grimwade was handed a laundry list of script requirements, but there's no kitchen-sink clutter: the introduction of Peri, the send-off (and backstory) devised for Turlough, the return of the Master, the final fate of Kamelion -- it all coalesces into a brisk, satisfying story about faith and resistance, abandonment and deliverance. And it uses guest star Peter Wyngarde, in a stirring performance that remains a miracle of restraint, to neatly blur the line between orthodoxy and heresy, revealing how even true believers will reinterpret tradition to further their agenda. As ever, Cumming takes care of her actors, particularly the younger ones, coaxing an understated performance out of Mark Strickson and an appealing one out of Nicola Bryant. (It could be argued that it's Strickson's most understated performance on Who, and Bryant's most appealing.) She even manages to tame Anthony Ainley, who -- after hamming it up horrendously in "The King's Demons" -- returns as renewed as the Master after a whiff of numismaton gas. Grimwade foregoes the tired trope of the Master subduing his subjects with mind control; instead, in a timely bit of social commentary, he has him engage them with the heated rhetoric of '80s televangelists (and Ainley skillfully adopts their physicality), demonstrating how easily religion can be brandished as a weapon, bamboozling both zealots and unbelievers alike. You watch "Planet of Fire" thinking you'll carp about the small things it's getting wrong, but instead you're swept up in the formidable things it gets right.

15. Carnival of Monsters (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a winning rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

14. The Massacre (First Doctor, 1966)
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell
Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived at all; it feels utterly in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

13. Terror of the Zygons (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Robert Banks Stewart
directed by Douglas Camfield
One of the great Classic Who ironies is that Doug Camfield -- after helming "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldening the producers into mounting an Earthbound reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. And as a double irony, the serial for which he returns, "Terror of the Zygons," is the one in which the show bids farewell to -- and flips off -- the Pertwee era. (The shape-shifting Zygons, in human form, seem like the stock characters from every Third Doctor serial: the high-handed bureaucrat, the cold-hearted orderly; once the real characters emerge from their Zygon tombs, it turns out they're all lovely -- it's only the actual monsters who are monsters.) Although other directors could deliver juicier payoffs, no one had Camfield's command of a narrative: his ability to manage each camera shot and each acting beat for maximum effect. (He rarely loses control of a scene, let alone a story; only in "The Invasion" does his steady hand falter.) "Zygons" is densely plotted, but Camfield makes the most of every moment: each scene becomes a set-piece. In Part Two alone, we have the Doctor and Sarah Jane suffering oxygen deprivation; Harry kidnapped by the Zygons; the Brigadier and his men plied with knockout gas; Sarah Jane nearly staked by a Harry lookalike; and the Doctor chased across the Scottish moors -- any of which, as staged and pitched, could have served as the episode's cliffhanger. "Terror of the Zygons" soars from one breathless high to another; it's intoxicating. And as with most Camfield serials, it's filled with memorable images. The Zygons' squish-and-squeeze lair is shades of red and orange against a pale-green backdrop; in theory, it should be awful (it should look like a Christmas pageant), but Camfield works miracles. There's not a lot "Zygons" gets wrong, except for its disposal of Ian Marter at the end, which story editor Robert Holmes knew was a mistake and producer Philip Hinchcliffe later conceded was one. The Doctor and Sarah Jane needed Harry. In the show's gothic period, which begins in full force just after Harry's departure, characters are too often subordinated to plot, and although Lis Sladen grows as an actress, the Doctor and Sarah Jane grow too much alike, and the series suffers for it. Marter's dizzying spontaneity -- his ability to show Harry unexpectedly rising to any challenge, and then being stunned and impressed by his own abilities -- would have come in terribly handy.

12. The Deadly Assassin (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney
Tom Baker wanted to do without a companion, so for one serial, he gets his wish. It exposes how badly the Doctor needs a sounding-board, as key plot points, left unexplained, need to be intuited, imagined or ignored. And flying solo proves a mixed bag for Baker. He's as charismatic and commanding as ever, and his eager efforts to prove that he can be both narrator and participant are oddly endearing. But during Part 3, trapped alone in the Matrix on Gallifrey, you realize he's stretching as far as he can -- and that it's not quite far enough: that Baker is better -- more expressive -- with an audience, that internal monologue is not where his strengths lie. Instead, "The Deadly Assassin," the story that was supposed to be about the Doctor, is really about the director: it's a dizzying display by David Maloney, and as you watch it, you can't help but feel it's the Doctor Who story he's been building up to for years. Holmes envisions a black-tinged political satire, but Maloney plays against that, shooting Gallifrey as a foreboding land eternally shrouded in mist and fog, with towers ascending majestically to unseen skies, and processions teeming with impressive pageantry. The design itself is rarely more than rudimentary, and on occasion, decidedly low-rent, but Maloney keeps his camera so busy, and the editing so aggressive, that the setting practically gives off sparks. (A couple of the costumes, which look so extravagant in "Deadly Assassin," turn up again in "Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity," looking drab and ill-fitting.) And once we enter the Matrix, it's as if the whole gothic era (which, for all intents and purposes, ends here) were replaying in the Doctor's head -- the giant insects from "Ark in Space" and the jungle from "Planet of Evil"; the moorland chase from "Zygons" and the deathtraps from "Pyramids"; the surgery from "Morbius" and the soldiers from "Genesis" -- and as it unfolds, you see that easy marriage of vision, instinct and technique that Maloney was straining to learn in "Mind Robber," his first Who assignment. "Deadly Assassin" is the most virtuosic directorial display in the Classic Who canon; unfortunately, it meant multiple returns to Gallifrey that, in lesser hands, resulted in some of the series' most tedious, unsightly serials. "Deadly Assassin" was lightning in a bottle.

11. Kinda (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Peter Grimwade
"Our madness is the Mara's meat and drink," the Wise Woman intones in "Kinda," and in Christopher Bailey's hallucinatory universe, the Mara -- the evil lurking in the deep recesses of the soul -- is feasting on us all. On Deva Loka, the line between sanity and madness is perilously thin. It's not just fear and isolation that can sully the mind; insight and empathy wreak their own havoc. Bailey's characters -- and the nightmares that consume them -- seem to spring from the dark corners of his imagination: in "Kinda," story and story-teller are inseparable. A student of Buddhism, Bailey laces his narrative with elements of Eastern mysticism, and crucially, by framing it as a tale of British colonialism, encourages us to embrace an unfamiliar philosophy. By highlighting the worst attitudes and practices of the oppressors ("If the Kinda are so clever," insists Commander Sanders, after taking two of them hostage, "how is it they didn't build their own interplanetary vehicle and come and colonize us?"), he makes us determined not to take after our Earthly ancestors and descendants, but rather to accept the Kinda world without hesitation. Our appreciation of life's mysteries becomes part of the "Kinda" narrative, and Bailey is able to ease us into aspects of the plot that, under any other circumstance, might seem arbitrary or convenient. Yet despite its religious overtones, "Kinda" is not a static piece; the cast and director attack the work with such ferocity that the narrative becomes, for the most part, as stirring as it is stimulating. Only a few of the younger actors are, sadly, not up to the task at hand, the chief offender being Matthew Waterhouse. (In Part Three, trapped in a dome with two madmen, he's meant to project mounting desperation to escape, but mostly he conveys the bland boredom of a teenager anxious to ditch his parents on a Saturday night.) But Waterhouse's limitations are offset by Peter Davison, whose increasing comfort fuels the story. "Kinda" was Davison's third serial filmed, and as the scenes progress, he "finds" his Doctor. Bailey has the Doctor acquire wisdom through his encounters on Deva Loka -- and as that's happening, you see Davison gaining insight. Although the denouement is clumsy ("Evil can't look at itself," the Doctor announces, as he hatches a plan to surround the Mara in circle of mirrors), it's less about what the plot calls for and more about what this new Doctor needs: a scene where he can unleash his youthful energies, harnessing the Kinda tribe seemingly within seconds. By the time the Mara has been banished, the journeys of the Fifth Doctor and the actor playing him have become intertwined, and the synergy is powerful.

Next: concluding the countdown, with my ten favorite classic serials.