Thursday, October 11, 2012

Knots Landing season 3

I had occasion to rewatch Knots Landing Season 3 over the summer, and when I was done, I thought of the film The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Not of the actual film, but of Pauline Kael's original review in The New Yorker, where she referred to it as "a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port." I don't think I could imagine a better description of Knots Landing Season 3. It's a fascinating season: the only one that I enjoy much more today than I did when it originally aired. In 1981-82, its unusual device of using standalone episodes to advance serialized story-lines felt disorienting and at times frustrating; now, knowing what to expect, I can look beyond it and see that Knots Landing both began and ended with that season. It's the season where the show finds its voice and its pacing; it's also the last season of the original format, a series powered by the claustrophobic energy of a cul-de-sac.

Knots Landing's first two seasons are shaky ones, as the show struggles with consistency and tone. Season 1 is mostly episodic, and although there are some strong standalones, it's only in the final four episodes that the show manages to solidify its approach. Season 2 is a mess. With its sister soap Dallas enjoying a tidal wave of publicity (in the wake of J.R.'s shooting), the Knots showrunners go serialized, but it's like they'd never seen a soap before: the pacing is so fast that there's no time to respond to anything, to root for anyone, to root against anyone. The world established in Season 1 -- a land of looser morals, where betrayal is common and often forgiven -- doesn't necessarily lend itself to drama; it lends itself to incident. The top of Season 2 is busy, but uninvolving -- and when the lagging ratings midway through prompt a sudden return to standalones, the writers pull out all the punches with "special episodes": cancer scares, hostage crises. At the end of the season, one of the core characters (Sid Fairgate, pillar of the community) is targeted by criminals, who tamper with his brakes, and he goes over a cliff (that's the "cliffhanger"). Creator David Jacobs noted at the time that a good part of their audience went over that cliff, too -- i.e., they bailed on the series -- and I don't think he's wrong.

After two seasons in which Knots feels rudderless, you're forgiven for fearing that it might never find its way -- but Season 3 comes along and makes swift, clever repairs that transform the series. It features eight solid episodes up front, a bit of a muddle in the middle, and a late-season arc that stacks up with the series' best. After the uncertainties of Season 1 and the wrong-headedness of Season 2, that's far more than anyone could have predicted.

In case you're just joining us, here's all you need to know to appreciate a look back at Season 3. Knots began with four married couples living in a Southern California cul-de-sac: there were the stable ones (Sid and Karen Fairgate), the troubled ones (Richard and Laura Avery), the new arrivals from Texas (Gary and Valene Ewing), and the twentysomethings (Kenny and Ginger Ward). In Season 2, Sid's divorced kid sister Abby was added to the neighborhood: the requisite vixen and troublemaker. Season 2 ends with Sid going over that cliff, and Abby's ex-husband kidnapping their kids -- it's an easy place to pick up the story-line. There are essentially three longterm plots in Season 3. There's Karen (played by Michele Lee) mourning the loss of her husband. (Spoiler: he dies.) There's Laura (Constance McCashin), who's been stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship, summoning up the strength to leave. And best of all, there's Abby (Donna Mills) inserting herself into Gary and Val's marriage.

The Val-Gary-Abby triangle is what most folks remember about Knots Landing, and for good reason. Gary and Val, played by Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark, were brought over from Dallas (which Jacobs had also masterminded), with a backstory about finding each other again after decades spent apart. Their marriage seemed unshakable; during the first few seasons, you figured only a force of nature could drive them apart -- but when Gary and Abby teamed up in Season 3 on a business venture that appealed to his ambition and his altruism, all bets were off. Val offered Gary safety and security; Abby offered risk and thrills -- and for Gary, the alcoholic who lived life on the edge, it was an impossible choice. It was the sturdiest of soap triangles because both sides were well-supported: you could argue that Gary was his most stable with Val, but you could also argue, equally persuasively, that he was his most dynamic with Abby. Which Gary Ewing do you prize most? In the season's most memorable confrontation, in the series' best episode, "China Dolls," Abby and Val square off; Val needs to know what kind of hold Abby has on her husband. When they go at it, they fight for Gary in terms of how they see him and what they can offer him -- and by the time they're done, the viewer is just as torn as Gary.

Those are the three key plots -- Karen mourning Sid, Laura wrestling with her marriage to Richard, and Abby coming between Gary and Val -- and by season's end, they've all been spectacularly successful. Getting there, though, has been agony at times. Ann and Ellis Marcus were brought on as headwriters in Season 3 -- they were seasoned pros, with nearly a half-century of TV credits between them. Ellis had scripted everything from Lassie to Leave It to Beaver, from Mannix to Mission: Impossible; he was a master of the one-hour format. But it was Ann Marcus who was the season's ace-in-the-hole. She had overseen the daytime dramas Days of Our Lives and Search for Tomorrow, and won a Primetime Emmy in 1976 for headwriting the great soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Because of her background in soaps, Marcus understood -- as the writers didn't in Season 2 -- that on shows like this, the pacing shouldn't be furious. The waiting is part of the fun: the simmering tensions, the delayed gratification. And clear-cut motivations are key: we need to understand why the characters behave the way they do, and -- even when their actions aren't admirable -- we need to empathize. Season 3 has all that, but parts of it also feel cautious and confused. Marcus is renowned as one of the great plotters of the soap world (it's why when your show is a shambles, as Knots was in Season 2, and again in Season 13, you bring her in to save it, because she'll turn dross into gold), but notably, the first half of Season 3 doesn't feel much like an Ann Marcus series at all. Every time a good plotline gets going, and you tune in the following week, awaiting a follow-up, it's nowhere in sight; sometimes promising plotlines disappear for three or four episodes at a time.

The reason? Well, Ann Marcus reveals in her autobiography that when she and her husband were approached to take over Knots, they were told it was "more an anthology than a soap" -- meaning, the Executive Producers didn't want to repeat the mistakes of Season 2 by turning Knots, once more, into a continuing drama. But of course, why bring soap giant Ann Marcus on board if you don't want to go serialized? Why not trust that she -- far more than the inexperienced story editors in Season 2 -- might be exactly the one to do it, and do it right? Nonetheless, the Marcuses accepted the assignment they were given, and adhered to the format of Season 1 and the latter half of Season 2: standalones with A- and B-plots, and even the occasional C-plot. But this much seems clear: they didn't want to do a static season where the characters basically tread water for 22 episodes. So they jigger with the format. They keep the episodes self-contained, but see to it that most include at least one plot thread that's dynamic, and part of a larger seasonal arc. In episode 5, for example, which wraps up Abby's hunt for her missing children, the two subplots are Richard being asked to supply "entertainment" for a party his brokerage firm is hosting, and Karen -- eager to try her skills on the floor at Knots Landing Motors -- selling a fleet of cars to a man distilling methanol as a cheaper substitute for gasoline; both subplots (Richard pimping for his bosses and a business opportunity involving alternative fuels) will resurface as A-plots in two and six episodes, respectively. (Those story-lines will then disappear for a spell, while others get their time in the spotlight, and reemerge when the episodic format permits.) The season never goes fully serialized, but at the end of 22 episodes, the characters -- as in the best soaps -- are in far different places from where they started.

The practice of telling serialized stories through standalone episodes has since become commonplace (Gilmore Girls practically honed it to an art form), but in 1981-82, it was a novel approach, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there's clumsiness and uncertainty in its execution. On first viewing, it's hard to know which story-lines are ongoing, and which are designed as one-offs -- and if a promising plot gets underway, there's no telling when (or if) it'll return. (As the season progresses, the writers grow more adept at dropping the occasional line of dialogue to convey that even if a plotline isn't focal, it's still advancing offscreen.) Once you accept the idiosyncrasies of the story-telling, though, the episodes themselves are rarely less than engaging, and a dramatic improvement over those of Season 2; they range from a touching Christmas tale to a haunting ghost story to a splendid showcase for famed film actor Lew Ayres, then a sprightly 73. You have only one dud in 22 episodes ("The Rose and the Briar," which goes beyond the improbable to the outlandish, as Val's mama takes Vegas by storm, to cheering crowds) -- how many Knots seasons can you say that about? And even that one is partially redeemed by its subplot, as Abby starts to make her move on Gary, and although he doesn't see it, Valene does.

And all that said, if the first half of Season 3 seems choppy from a plotting perspective, it does wonders for the characters. In addition to her story-telling gifts, Marcus had a knack for showcasing actors and displaying their characters' most intriguing traits, and that talent is everywhere on display in Season 3. In the previous season, too many of the characters had seemed driven by plot: lacking clear-cut motivations that might make their actions rootable or, at the very least, sympathetic. And the stories too often played to their least attractive qualities. In Season 3, the characters once again feel estimable and inviting; you look forward to time spent in their company. A continuing theme in Season 3 is self-empowerment: the characters' determination to take control of their lives, set goals and make positive choices. It's Karen coming to terms with sudden widowhood, opening herself up to new experiences and reinventing herself as a businesswoman; it's Abby and Gary launching into an enterprise that might not only prove lucrative but consequential; it's Val finding fulfillment as a writer, and Ginger as a singer -- and both of them discovering that creativity and self-expression trump their innate desire to please their spouses; and it's Laura asking the hard question that she's been skirting for years -- namely, can her marriage be saved? All the characters seems rich and full-blooded in Season 3; we can't help but admire them, even when their actions bring them into conflict with each other. And when their actions do bring them into conflict with each other, whom do we root for?

The Marcuses understand from decades in the business that you can't ask viewers to invest in characters they don't care about. In Season 2, Richard had been trashed almost from the get-go: screwing up Sid's court case, sabotaging his own career, then pursuing an affair with Abby, which he flaunted in his wife's face. Richard had always been the cul-de-sac's resident sleazeball, but Season 2 still managed to decimate him. Season 3 is careful to reestablish Richard's good points. We see him look after Karen while Sid is in the hospital, and after he dies; we see him use his legal skills to help Val rescue her mother, Abby recover her children, and Gary get his new business off the ground. We even get a half-dozen episodes of him as devoted husband and father. And then when his mood sours (as it always does), the writers ensure that we understand why, as we watch his new law firm cut him off at the knees, relegating him to the role of social director and company pimp. Richard is given a huge character upgrade in Season 3: no longer (merely) a rotten husband, but a man who -- as we glimpsed briefly in Season 1 -- feels trapped by his surroundings, denied both advancement and validation. And his season trajectory makes him not merely relatable, but worthy of our compassion, as everything that he feels defines him is stripped away, bit by bit, until he's forced to reassess and rebuild. "Are you with me, or are you with them?" he begs Laura late in the season, as he's drowning in isolation and perceived persecution. Who could imagine, at the beginning of the season, that it's Richard -- the self-appointed "most unpopular guy in Knots Landing" -- who'd emerge as its most tragic figure?

Val, too, gets a marvelous make-over in Season 3. In Season 2, she'd been a gullible fool, letting Gary walk all over her as she stood by, helpless and oblivious. Knowing Gary is going to get caught up in another business venture in Season 3 (although this time a noble one rather than a shady one, which makes all the difference for his character), the writers give Val her own set of challenges to meet -- starting with making peace with her mother. The reintroduction of Julie Harris as Val's mama Lilimae Clements is inspired (even if her integration into the cast is a bit shaky at first). As Valene is forced to hear her mother romanticize a past that never existed, and cling to hopes of a career that will never happen, Van Ark shows us how Val's upbringing has left its scars, but left her stronger for it. Valene, who seemingly had no backbone in Season 2, develops a sturdy one in Season 3, taking on any challenge head-on, whether it's the pain of her past, or Gary's absenteeism and dismissiveness, or Abby's unsubtle pursuit of her husband. (Van Ark is so vibrant, she even salvages a subpar Val-centric episode like "Cricket" -- she makes Val's single-minded need to save a troubled girl such an outgrowth of her own childhood disappointments that you can't help but cheer her on.) And by season's end, it's Valene -- of all people -- who's become the poster girl for the series' season-long theme of empowerment, and female empowerment in particular. At one point, late in the season, she stresses to Ginger and Laura that their careers are important to them, as they should be, but that she's different -– she can't see putting anything ahead of her marriage. And then she makes a decision, that very same episode, that does just that. For Val, it doesn't come down to marriage vs. career. It comes down to "what makes her feel good about herself?" What gives her a sense of self-worth? Valene doesn't think in terms of the tenets of feminism; she just naturally, intuitively embraces them.

And then there's Karen Cooper Fairgate, who's reborn in Season 3, and who basically gives the show its model for moving forward. TV Guide, in a cover story on Michele Lee in 1982, noted that before the season began, as the writers were planning out the story of Karen's sudden widowhood, Lee sat down with Jacobs and Ann Marcus and shared the details of her recent divorce from James Farentino, describing her stages of grief and the process of adapting and rebuilding. "Everything she said was incorporated into the scripts," TV Guide reported. Whether indeed "everything" was incorporated is hard to say -- it may be so much showbiz hyperbole -- but it marks a newfound effort in Season 3 to infuse the story-lines with greater depth and detail, and let them unfold at a pace that seems fueled by the characters, and not by the demands of the story-telling. The season makes the most of every event in Karen's life -- her reunion with an old boyfriend, her first (and only) visit to grief therapy, her first date, and her first kiss -- culminating in the moment she's finally prepared to take off her wedding ring and stop defining herself as "Sid Fairgate's wife." Throughout the season we get glimpses of Karen adjusting to life without Sid: often she's focal; sometimes she's only captured in subplots, or in scattered scenes -- but whenever the show seems to be drifting, Karen is there to anchor it. Ironically, the departure of Don Murray (who played Sid, and requested off the show) turns out to be a blessing, because it gives the creative team a template for doing slow-burner stories in a fast-paced world; it becomes a vivid reminder -- one that future headwriters will hold to -- that even in a cozy cul-de-sac at the tail end of the sexual revolution, where sometimes it feels that everything can be made better by a quick dip in the hot tub, there's potential for stories of real consequence. The saga of Karen's instant widowhood is an unqualified triumph. The stages of denial, anger and acceptance are played out without being spelled out; they seem calculated to give both Karen and the audience proper time to grieve, and indeed, by the time Karen is at Sid's grave, months after his death, telling him she's ready to move on, the viewer is finally ready too. (Karen's journey is handled so smoothly that you don't fully realize how effective it's been until it's over.)

As an aside, I think I've always undervalued Michele Lee's Emmy-nominated performance that season. I knew she was impressive; now I find her extraordinary. She carefully navigates all the potential acting traps: her weeping after Sid's death could be too theatrical, but it's not; her final farewell at his gravesite (when she gives herself permission to move on) could come off as self-aware, but it doesn't. They're splendidly played. And in all the "small" moments, she consistently brings fresh shadings. When her old boyfriend Teddy comes to town and -- after a night spent talking with Karen, newly widowed -- brushes aside her hair and kisses her on the cheek, she winces ever so slightly, as if just the thought of being comforted is painful. You're disarmed and impressed by the acting choice, and marvel at how subtly yet persuasively she pulls it off. (Her performances in Season 3 are full of moments like that: delicate, yet precise.) Murray's exit liberates Lee. The two made a convincing pair, but his soft-spoken manner meant she had to continually moderate her responses, to keep from seeming too abrasive. The story of Sid's death unleashes her, allowing her a story-line that excuses and even encourages the fits of rage, self-involvement and self-righteousness that sometimes tripped up her character in the first two seasons. And at the same time, because she's no longer forced to contrast a more measured partner by being "the louder one," she's allowed moments of fragility and warmth that we'd rarely glimpsed before. The reinvention of Karen proves so successful that the writers ensure -- when it's time for her to meet someone new the following season -- that they create a character who doesn't diminish the "new" Lee: who plays to her strengths, as she had to play to Murray's.

Karen coming to terms with her loss is at the heart of the first two-thirds of Season 3, and the showrunners mine every moment skillfully -- and wisely, just as Karen's arc comes to a close, the other two plots take center stage. Up to that point, the Val-Gary-Abby triangle and Laura and Richard's turbulent marriage have been turning up in fits and starts; at times, it's been difficult to judge where things stand. They've seemed like promising but elusive plotlines. (The drawback of serializing story-lines through standalones is that we keep missing key steps along the way. Laura and Richard reach an impasse in episode 7; two weeks later, the next time we hear from them, they've decided to give their marriage another try. What happened in the week between? Well, other characters took precedence. Episode 8's A-plot found Karen bonding with a widower; the B-plot showed Kenny and Ginger, dealing with the stress of a newborn, reverting to old, bad habits. There had been no time to check in on the Avery's, so when we return to them in episode 9, we receive an update via exposition. It's this sort of fractured story-telling that feels unsettling in Season 3; the story-lines are always in motion, but the episodic format means that the characters aren't always around to play them out.) But once the final third of the season hits, the headwriters have the characters where they want them, and are ready to inch Knots ever closer to serialized drama. Their best soap instincts kick in, and the results are bracing.

In the season's fifteenth episode, "Best Intentions," Laura has discovered she's pregnant; she was ready to leave Richard, and now she's carrying his child. It's as common a soap dilemma as any, but the series takes a hard, honest look at her options. Laura has decided not to tell Richard about the baby, to simply say that the marriage is over and go. She confides in Karen, who promises support, but as Laura leaves Karen's house, Karen can't resist playing devil's advocate, and the two of them end up in the alleyway between their homes, shivering in the night air. Karen knows she's being intrusive, but doesn't care: "You have to tell Richard. You can't just have an abortion without letting him know." Laura resists, and Karen pushes, "I'm not saying you have to ask his permission, but you have to talk to him. I mean, like it or not, you're in this thing together." Laura quips, "Oh there is nothing together about this," and Karen one-ups her: "Hey, how'd you get pregnant, playing solitaire?" Laura keeps making light: "Well, when you put a couple in the same bed night after night, the law of averages" -- but Karen refuses to let her off the hook: "If you have the abortion without discussing it with Richard, you're going to regret it. I mean, even if he never finds out about it -- you're going to feel guilty and bitter -- and if he ever finds about it... well, either way, it's just going to lead to bitterness." And that's the last thing Laura wants to hear: the truth. "So? The marriage is over," and she tries to escape, but Karen persists, "If the marriage is over, who's to say divorce can't be civil? Try -- try to save something." Leave it to Karen, her best friend, to be principled and reasonable and stubborn; aren't best friends just supposed to tell you what you want to hear? "I hate you," Laura tells Karen, with a mix of sarcasm and sincerity, and Karen responds, with guilt and relief, "I know."

Later that night, and into the following morning, Laura and Richard have their own heart-to-heart about communication and expectations -- and about whether, on a basic level, their marriage can be saved. For Richard, the arrival of a new baby promises a fresh start, and momentarily, Laura finds herself swept up in his dream. But through the course of the second day, she comes to realize that it's his dream, not hers, and that the fundamental issues that had scuttled their marriage still remain. She pulls away, reasserting her original plan: to terminate the pregnancy. But just hearing the word "abortion" hits a nerve, and Richard strikes Laura -- a swift and heavy blow. Even at his worst, Richard has never resorted to violence; he and Laura are left so stunned that they feel obligated to make sense out of his response. And when Richard talks about their son Jason, and what a gift he's been, and how rushing too quickly into an abortion might deny them the chance to raise someone equally wonderful, Laura is prompted to reconsider her choice: not for Richard's sake, but for her own. She'll have the baby.

The following night, Richard goes out to dinner with Karen and reveals that the moment he hit Laura, he had an epiphany: for the first time, he's able to step back and see himself as others see him. He recognizes, at last, how abusive he's been to his wife, and vows to continue to self-analyze and self-correct. Karen, who's always been his biggest champion, assures him, "You're a nice guy," but he insists: "I'm not, but I'm trying" -- and it's the first time in the series that we believe him, and believe in him. After three seasons, Richard seems to have gained a measure of self-awareness that had always been beyond his grasp -- and although we should know better, we find ourselves willing to reinvest in his marriage. And later that night, Richard comes home to start a new life with his wife -- and she's moved out. Richard could have said pretty much anything in the world to Laura, and it wouldn't have made a difference; for her, the love was gone -- what was there to say or acknowledge beyond that? Richard believed his newfound clarity would salvage his marriage; we'd begun to hope it would -- the writers set us up.

The writers play with us constantly in the final third of Season 3; they keep our expectations and even our loyalties forever shifting. Running parallel to the Richard-Laura drama in "Best Intentions" is the germ of a plot that will propel the Val-Gary-Abby triangle to its conclusion, as Val -- who's been taking a course in creative writing -- pens a tell-all book about Gary's family. It's the start of the "Val as author" story-line that will sustain many a season, but it never again generates plot as nimbly as it does here. After months of watching Abby flirt with her husband, Val desperately needs some positive reinforcement, a little ego-stroking -- and she gets that with the initial response to her manuscript. But the book is clearly going to drive a wedge between her and Gary -- who, understandably, doesn't want a thinly disguised exposé in which his family is portrayed as (in his words) "villains and fools" to ever see the light of day. We can see that as Val pursues publishing her book, she's risking her marriage. But do we want to deny Val the self-fulfillment she so desperately craves? Abby and Gary, meanwhile (in the show's most marvelous MacGuffin), have forged a business partnership to power automobiles with methanol, which could prove not only lucrative, but valuable in combating the energy crisis; are we really gonna root against that? All three parties in the Val-Gary-Abby triangle share culpability for its outcome (the show is careful not to strip the story-line down to a fight between "good Val" and "evil Abby"), yet we never resent them for the choices they make. That's its genius.

The best Knots story-lines -- like the three that dominate Season 3 -- veer in unexpected directions; you delight at how often the writers pull the rug out from under you. As the season heads into its final stretch, that happens so often, you're left breathless. The insights grow more startling, the pacing more fluid. Val's novel is accepted for publication in a knockout episode called "Exposé," in which -- in classic soap opera fashion -- Gary and Val reach a detente about the future of her book, then Abby, to serve her own ends, undermines it. And in the following episode, Richard and Laura's story-line comes to a head in a semi-standalone called "Night." (John Pleshette wrote it for himself, as he did so many of the Richard-centric episodes.) Having lost his job, his wife and his dignity all in the space of a few weeks -- all while his neighbors have seemingly flourished in their quest for identity -- Richard has lost all sense of self. ("It's like a death, isn't it?" Karen commiserates, searching for common ground.) He invites Laura and their son Jason for dinner, then won't let them leave: banishing Jason to his room and threatening to hurt Laura unless she opens up to him. Pushed to the brink of a breakdown, he's still convinced the marriage can be saved if Laura can just answer the unanswerable questions: when did she stop loving him? And why? And when neighbors intervene, he threatens them at gunpoint, igniting a hostage situation, as police officers, a crisis negotiator and a SWAT team set up at the Fairgate home, intent on rescuing Laura and Jason. Every time I watch "Night," I feel like the Marcuses were determined to do a hostage drama that would make you forget the earlier, feeble effort in Season 2 (when criminals break into Val's house during Ginger's baby shower and hold the women at gunpoint) -- and indeed they do. A bravura piece of writing and acting, "Night" works because the conflict comes from within -- and that's the hallmark of all of Season 3: the crises that befall Karen, and Laura and Richard, and Val and Gary and Abby, are self-generated. The characters create their own drama. And that's truly where Season 3 gets it right.

The season reaches its climax in its penultimate episode, "China Dolls"; watching it again recently, I realized the series reaches its climax there, too -- or at least the series as David Jacobs conceived it. Nothing up to that point has prepared you for the cunning of "China Dolls" (written and directed by departing producer Joseph Wallenstein), which fast-tracks Gary and Abby's affair by delving into the desires, the failings and the frailties that draw them together. (In essence, Wallenstein accelerates the story-line by slowing down the pace; it's like no conjuring trick I've seen before or since.) As the episode begins, Gary feels confident in his ability to cope; if anything, he feels proud of -- even liberated by -- his ability to cheat without remorse: "Oh Abby, I'm handling it. Right now, I feel like I could handle anything." Across town, though, Laura is having a tougher time, second-guessing the events that led up to Richard's breakdown and wondering, could she have prevented it? Karen comes to visit, to ask her to look in on Richard at the sanitarium where he's recuperating, and Laura explodes in protest: "I'll get him a nurse. I'll help with the doctor payments. But I won't move back in with him. Damn it, Karen, this is so unfair." And Karen is quick to correct her: "Nobody said anything about you moving back in" -- but Laura is furiously fixating: "It's over. I don't love him. I moved out. It was clean. It's just that I feel so angry -- and what's worse, I feel guilty. I feel like somehow this was all my fault."

The institution of marriage weighs heavily on the characters in Season 3. It's not so easy to cheat on a spouse or end a marriage; at the end of the day, what good are all these new freedoms if we're hardwired for guilt? Midway through the episode, as Gary sees Val making an effort to salvage their marriage and realizes he's done nothing to meet her halfway, his conscience gets the better of him, and he breaks things off with Abby. (Wallenstein is careful to show Abby crushed by Gary's rejection; she's put her heart into this relationship, and is as vulnerable to hurt as everyone else.) But he can't handle the consequences of that decision either. He's seen Abby with too many men since she moved into the cul-de-sac, and he knows she'll be moving on sooner than he can bear. His frustration, longing and jealousy are even worse than his guilt, and as night falls, he paces his living room like a caged animal, eyeing Abby's empty house, as Valene studies him from across the room. And when Abby returns home, and he rushes to her to find out where she's been -- and with whom -- Valene realizes the time for pretense is over. She's been trying to handle the situation delicately -- but no more. The next morning, after she attempts to wrestle an explanation or admission from Gary, she determines to confront Abby, and her furious walk across the cul-de-sac, from her house to Abby's, is the series' most iconic image. If you care for a view, it occurs 43'30" into "China Dolls", or you can check out a clip of that particular scene from a French telecast, of all things -- as you don't need to speak French to appreciate the shot. It's what the early years of Knots Landing were all about -- the tensions that emerge and erupt in a small, closed community -- and it's a series high point.

And it's followed by the "most memorable confrontation" that I referred to earlier, in which Val demands, "Are you or are you not having an affair with my husband," and Abby, bluffing in her coolest, cruelest manner, admits nothing: "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." Val slaps her across the face, and it smarts: Abby didn't see that one coming. This is no Dynasty-style catfight; there's not an ounce of camp in the writing or playing. This is two admirable women so proud and so scared that they're reduced to inflicting pain on each other. (Abby reels from the slap, shocked that Val would go there, but Val's face betrays no regret; it's the only way she knows to share the hurt she's been feeling -- the hurt that Abby, as she sees it, has caused her.) The confrontation is brutal, and it's brilliant. And it's the clearest indication that if the writers didn't know exactly where they were going when they first plotted Season 3, they figured it out mighty fast, because when the moment comes, you feel like the show has been building up to it for an entire season.

As indeed it has.

With "China Dolls" and the season closer, "Living Dangerously," the third season of Knots Landing -- after a sometimes rocky journey -- comes snugly into port. And the show that David Jacobs created starts to reinvent itself; incoming showrunner Peter Dunne is charged with goosing the ratings by embracing the Dallas model of serialized drama and glitzier settings. Early in Season 4, Gary inherits a million dollars, and he and Abby move off the cul-de-sac and into a beach house; by year's end, all the characters are embroiled in a murder mystery -- and we are a far cry from where we started. (The reinvention of Knots ultimately solidifies in Season 5, the series' annus mirabilis, which has an operatic sweep unmatched by any other season, or any of its fellow primetime soaps -- but by then the series, marvelous as it is, bears little resemblance to the show that debuted.) Knots Landing Season 3 is lightning in a bottle. It fulfills the promise of Season 1 and avoids (and often corrects) the mistakes of Season 2. It validates David Jacobs' conviction that it's possible to transplant Scenes From a Marriage to Southern California, at the tail end of the sexual revolution, and create something with its own flavor, but that's equally eloquent, powerful and persuasive. Of all the Knots seasons, Season 3 is the one that best understands -- and illustrates, generally without melodrama -– how complex yet fragile marriages and families and friendships can be. Despite its story-telling gaffes, it's a marvel.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and its greatest acting showcase; 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 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus gives the series a glorious send-off.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 4)

Part 4 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

What follows are some thoughts about Davison's twenty Doctor Who serials (arranged chronologically): serials, to my mind, worth watching whether you're a fan of the genre or not, because at their heart, they boast a spectacularly fine actor doing spectacularly fine work. As you'll see, there are only seven or eight serials that I consider truly great, but Davison is rarely less than impressive, and frequently he's stirring. It's been nearly forty years since Davison made his TV debut, a full thirty years since he assumed the title role in Doctor Who. A year ago, I'd never heard of the guy; now I'd be hard-pressed to think of a television actor I admire more.

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. Fielding and Sutton don't seem to be spouting technical jargon; they seem to be processing it, sharing it. They have a few scenes where Cumming brings the volume down and draws the camera in close, and the two actresses are charmingly convincing. (It's the best work they'd do together till Cumming's next serial.) And Davison is, from the start, a revelation. It was his fourth serial filmed; 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.

Four to Doomsday
written by Terence Dudley
directed by John Black

Exposition masquerading as plot, but so blithe and civilized, it doesn't much matter. For two episodes, characters meet, chat, posture, scheme, and trade secrets; nothing happens, but it's full of felicities (there's even a choreographed divertissement), and the set-design and direction are top-notch. (The sets are lit to match the costumes; even if you can't get into writer Terence Dudley's gentlemanly exchanges, you can bliss out staring at the pretty colors.) Sometime after the halfway mark, Dudley tries for more traditional suspense, but few of the set-pieces -- Tegan's frantic efforts to fly the TARDIS, Nyssa's aborted reprogramming -- truly come off. And two sequences near the end -- a pantomime fight in an airlock and the disposal of the villain against a sea of chaos -- are an embarrassment. Still, for much of its length, the low-key "Four to Doomsday" is unexpectedly appealing.

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. Bailey doesn't connect all the dots, but he doesn't need to; our limited understanding of life's mysteries becomes part of the "Kinda" narrative. Yet despite its philosophic 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 Waterhouse. In Part Three, trapped 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.) Davison's own growth as an actor further fuels the story. "Kinda" was his third serial filmed, and as the scenes progress, you see him getting inside the Doctor's skin. While the Doctor gains knowledge, Davison gains insight; by the time the Mara is banished (magnificently), the journey of the Fifth Doctor, and that of the actor playing him, have become intertwined, and the synergy is powerful.

The Visitation
written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Moffatt
The dullest of the Davison serials: the only one that's a chore to sit through. The Doctor keeps telling his companions to hurry up, but no one seems to hurry in "The Visitation" -- scenes seem to go on forever. When they're good -- as in most of the first episode -- "The Visitation" is very good, but when they're bad, it's deadly. The Doctor, Adric and Tegan keep escaping from one room only to get trapped in another, while Nyssa -- well, poor Nyssa: during Part Two, the Doctor dispatches her to the TARDIS to build a machine, and when Part Four rolls around, she's still building it. She rearranges the furniture, she drags a contraption across two rooms, she kicks it and says "stupid machine" -- anything to delay her actually activating and testing it. "The Visitation" is like that; things that could be wrapped up in two minutes are stretched across two episodes. Moffatt directs like a disinterested bystander. The fight scenes are unfocused, the pacing tepid, and all four principals, at key moments, seem to lose track of the plot. Davison has a fine, energetic scene with the alien antagonist, then spends the next little while staring at the ground. (Is he trying to divine the alien's secret? -- killing time till his next line? -- awaiting some direction from the booth? It's hard to say.) There's a fun twist waiting at the end, but it's too little, far too late.

Black Orchid
written by Terence Dudley
directed by Ron Jones
Part One is all smart lines, high spirits and gorgeous production values. First-time Who director Ron Jones doesn't linger over anything; the scenes are brief, but his camera catches everything -- there isn't a missed moment or a missed beat. It's all plot threads, but the threads are golden. In Part Two, writer Terence Dudley tries to weave them into something substantial, and he flounders. Dudley understands well how to mill atmosphere for suspense, but give him a piece of plotting that he has to explore, justify or -- heaven forbid -- resolve, and he goes to pieces. He creates marvelous characters, then has no idea how to use them to generate story. (He establishes Lady Cranleigh's proud maternal instincts, suggesting that she would do anything to protect her family, but when the moment comes for her to turn on the Doctor, he can't make her actions convincing; she seems to be throwing him to the wolves just so Dudley can keep the plot in motion.) If you only watched Part Two of "Black Orchid," you might think this historical two-parter a disappointment; even Davison, that most dutiful of Doctors, has one scene where he seems to be holding his head in dismay. But if you watch the episodes in proper order, Part Two gets by on the good will built up in Part One; things come undone, but not disastrously so.

written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Grimwade
The first half -- and the last ten minutes -- are unusually taut and effective. The Cybermen's two-pronged plan doesn't really bear scrutiny, but the action sequences are well conceived and executed, and the revelations are well-spaced. And even when the second half gets a little flabby, Grimwade does his darndest to keep it engrossing. As the ship's commander, Beryl Reed proves a godsend. Saward gets a lot right in this script, but he still can't devise distinctive characters; Reed is the kind of actress who can do it even when the lines aren't there. By contrast, aside from Reed, no one in the guest cast makes any impression, and Saward has no idea how to write for Nyssa or Tegan either. The scenes with Davison and Reed have some crackle, but every time Saward does those requisite cuts to the other members of the TARDIS crew, you're reminded how generic his writing can be. Nyssa stays behind in the TARDIS with a cypher named Professor Kyle, and they have exchanges like "What was that?" "I don't know. A robot!" "They're huge!" Their lines don't even function as exposition; they know less about what's going on than anyone. Near the end, Professor Kyle is killed by a Cyberman, but no one reacts much. Basically, she was only there till the final reel so she could lend Tegan her overalls; how do you mourn a clothes rack?

written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Ron Jones
Nyssa screams 17 minutes into Part One; maybe she saw what's coming. Up till then, there's not much to complain about. The TARDIS crew needed a present-day, down-to-Earth romp, and this one, at first, seems just what the Doctor ordered. From 18 minutes on, though, it all goes to pot: low-rent special effects, a hideous painted backdrop, and a plot with so many holes you could fly a Concorde through it. The first time you watch, your mind may go numb. The second time through, it gets better, because you stop asking "Why?" every few minutes. There are no reasons, but there are notable diversions: a chipper crew of pilots, a novel alien backstory, and a really nice scene between the Doctor and his foe-of-the-moment, Kalid, where you sense Davison enjoying the battle of wits. (Davison rarely seemed to enjoy besting his opponents; it was consistent with his take on the character, but sometimes you wish he weren't so damned noble and earnest so that he could bask in his victory for a moment.) Occasionally things snap back into focus; because of that -- and the first seventeen minutes -- you keep cutting "Time-Flight" some slack, but after a while you realize that for every good moment, there will be an equally bad one to follow. It's another awful story for Tegan, who's either snippy or sappy -- Grimwade can't find any middle ground, and Fielding doesn't have the instincts or the guidance to help her fill in the blanks. Near the start, she's mouthing off to the Doctor for about the fifth time, and he has a rolled up newspaper in his hand that he's just been reading; for a second, you actually think he's going to smack her with it, the way you'd discipline an unruly pet. It's a very unsettling moment.

Arc of Infinity
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Ron Jones
Would you sacrifice a friend to save a million strangers? It's the High Council of Gallifrey's turn to debate that age-old chestnut, but surprise! -- there's no debate. There's not much drama either. Writer Johnny Byrne has some good ideas, and a tough assignment, but the way he shapes "Arc of Infinity," the key events all happen offstage. We keep hearing about conversations held and decisions reached -- we arrive everywhere after the fact. Byrne's no dummy: he's aware of all the issues he's skirting (his characters keep saying things like "we considered that already" -- just to make us aware that he's considered them as well), but referencing conversations isn't the same as dramatizing them. The most wasted moment comes in Part Two when, sentenced to death, the Doctor turns to the Lord President, seething, "I have a great deal to say" -- and then he's promptly carted off. Every opportunity for verbal fireworks is squandered, and director Ron Jones hardly escapes blame: the scenes are slack, the special effects variable and the casting questionable. Yet to its credit, "Arc of Infinity" is bad, but rarely boring, and some of the absurdities make it almost pleasurable. Near the end, Davison doubles as the antagonist, and his performance has a gravitas that elevates the entire piece. And the final chase through the Amsterdam streets is surprisingly effective. "Act of Infinity" is a mess, but when it's done, you may hate yourself for having enjoyed it.

written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Fiona Cumming
No Classic Who script is blessed with better dialogue; no serial since Davison's debut made better use of the Fifth Doctor and his companions. Bailey's follow-up to "Kinda" is tidier than its predecessor -- the themes go down easier -- but it's none the worse for that: it is, in fact, the defining Davison serial. Davison became a master, during his years on Who, of bringing energy and conviction to scenes even when the writer, or director, or guest cast, or supporting cast, were letting him down miserably; in "Snakedance," when everyone else is on their game, Davison unleashes his Doctor as in no other serial -- practically bounding across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility. It's 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 first, luminous exchange between mother and son doesn't appear to be scripted; it just seems to unfold, the way a scene would in the theatre. As it turns out, it's almost all exposition, but as you watch it, it seems a far cry from the Who norm, where you can hear the plot creaking during even the briefest of exchanges. The rare Classic Who that doesn't merely create an alien world, but luxuriates in it, "Snakedance" is sui generis: endlessly rewatchable and rewarding.

Mawdryn Undead
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Peter Moffatt
Two time streams unfold simultaneously, and the effect is giddy, foolish fun. Key scenes between Tegan and the Brigadier in 1977 play out as memories of the Brigadier in 1983; it's the kind of conjuring trick New Who does often, but rarely better. One of Grimwade's niftiest notions -- of two Brigadiers trapped on one ship but repeatedly missing each other -- calls for the kind of flair and precision that seems beyond Moffatt's grasp, but the story succeeds despite him. Moffatt had been the strongest director on All Creatures during its first season, and time and again, he'd drawn out Davison's best performances. But Davison admits that on Who, the sci-fi elements baffled Moffatt, and ultimately, they seem to have defeated him. (A hallmark of his work on Who is actors looking lost for a few seconds between lines; it happens to pretty much everyone at some point in "Mawdryn Undead" -- Sutton, in fact, seems at sea throughout.) The whole serial builds towards the proverbial "zap" when the two Brigadiers meet; Moffatt nails that moment, but the lead-up is leaden and the fall-out limp. Yet despite the director's limitations, and a final act that's equal parts padded and preposterous, "Mawdryn Undead" is still a heady trip.

written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Mary Ridge
The juvenile cast opposite Sarah Sutton is even worse than she is; at one point, they have a contest to see who can show less emotion in the face of impending doom. But if you can look past that -- oh, and the big patchwork dog -- "Terminus" has its rewards, starting with some remarkable setups by director Mary Ridge. Turlough and Tegan are trapped in an air vent for much of the story, but who cares when the camerawork is this handsome? Ridge shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, precisely the point of "Terminus": Gallagher envisions a bleak universe in which his inhabitants (not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the self-proclaimed "baggage handlers" dispatched to deal with them, the raiders deserted by their own party) are all trapped -- disenfranchised by unseen, uncaring forces. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) Less an adventure than an indictment dressed up as a cautionary tale, "Terminus" does have moments when it feels aimless, but it also has its moments of excitement, atmosphere and even pathos, and it comes by them honestly. (December 2015 update: I offer a full review of "Terminus" here.)

written by Barbara Clegg
directed by Fiona Cumming
Sailing ships in space: one of the iconic images of the Davison era, and the best Davison Who for the unenlightened. Others may be more thought-provoking ("Kinda"), more haunting ("Snakedance"), more gripping ("Earthshock"), or more pure fun ("The Awakening"), but "Enlightenment" manages a satisfying blend of all these qualities. Like Bailey before her, Clegg aims high without ever becoming high-brow, making 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?"). Saward's comment that the script went nowhere -- this from the man who gave us the lumbering "Visitation" -- is one of his most sadly revealing. Can we chalk it up to professional jealousy? Davison and Keith Barron have a brief exchange about human worth that's so vibrant, it puts Saward's paler version in "Earthshock" to shame. No other Who helmer of the era could balance the intimate and the panoramic quite like Cumming, but a few moments do seem to get away from her -- no doubt because an electricians' strike forced filming to be spread across three months. But if Cumming's direction isn't quite as smooth or sly as her work on "Snakedance," she still works so many wonders, particularly with Fielding, that chance complaints are best (and easily) forgotten.

The King's Demons
written by Terence Dudley
directed by Tony Virgo
A great title, and a great start. Get Terence Dudley to pen a period piece, get the BBC to outfit it, and you're off and running. "The King's Demons," set in 1215, clips along at a pleasing pace for all of Part One. Then the Master, the Doctor's arch-nemesis, does his Big Reveal, and it quickly goes to pieces. Promising characters are marginalized, the setting minimized, and what's left is dead-end plotting. The climax is a battle of wills between the Doctor and the Master, but so badly botched it barely registers. (Virgo stages a great joust, but apparently a mental duel is beyond him -- but then, Dudley doesn't do him any favors. The whole premise of a mental standoff between the Doctor and the Master -- or at least between this Doctor and this Master -- is rubbish: back in "Snakedance," Davison's Doctor saved an entire world by focusing his thoughts; are we really supposed to believe that his powers of concentration are suddenly no match for those of Anthony Ainley's Master, hamming it up horrendously in his worst Davison Who performance?) Rare for Davison, you can sense his discouragement, through to episode's end; by the time the Doctor's inviting a robot to join the TARDIS crew, and indulging Tegan in a puerile game of "either he goes or I go," Davison looks like he's abandoned hope.

The Five Doctors
written by Terrance Dicks
directed by Peter Moffatt
It's like the school reunion you were dreading that you came away from thinking, "Well, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared." "The Five Doctors" is not as bad as you feared, but large parts of it are also not very good. The kindest thing you can say about Terrance Dicks' script is that it's well-assembled; it relies on in-jokes and catch phrases, but Dicks had a herculean task, full of last-minute rewrites, and his understanding of what makes the characters work and tick buys him a passing grade. The failures fall largely to Moffatt. The middle section involves three sets of doctors and companions making their way to the Tomb of Rassilon; they cry out for a little variety and suspense, but as staged, they mostly seem to be killing time. Former Doctors Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee (and Richard Hurndall, for that matter, filling in for the deceased William Hartnell) can't be faulted; they do what's asked of them, and well, but because there's no real sense of danger, they never feel heroic. What saves the day is Davison who, from his first gasp of pain, makes the threat palpable. Once Davison arrives at the Tomb, Moffatt seems to climb out of his stupor, and the final payoffs are quite good. But "The Five Doctors" belongs to Davison. His role was originally due to be subordinated to Tom Baker's, until Baker abruptly pulled out of the project. Baker's erratic ego is the best thing that could have happened to "The Five Doctors."

Warriors of the Deep
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Pennant Roberts

The Myrka, one of the most derided creatures in Who history, impedes your enjoyment the first time through; by second viewing, you can latch on to better things: the strong score by newcomer Jonathan Gibbs, another striking set by Who staple Tony Burrough, and surprisingly, a script by Johnny Byrne that isn't half bad -- or perhaps more accurately, is only half bad. Byrne's last effort, "Arc of Infinity," was full of incident, but little sense or substance; "Warriors" has some heft. There are a few head-scratcher lines, but otherwise, it's a good story for Davison, who's particularly energetic. Fielding is also well-served (as in "Arc of Infinity," Byrne knows how to make Tegan brave and sympathetic while keeping her tetchy), and so is Strickson. It may sound odd to praise a script for serving the entire regular cast well, but how seldom that happens. On the flip side, there's a sea of amateur acting from the guest cast (Roberts has his virtues, but casting and coaching are not among them), and a surfeit of gratuitous deaths near the end, courtesy of Saward. And the props look like they were turned out by some fifth-grade papier-mâché class. But Davison slams through it all in fine fashion. His final line reading ("There should have been another way") is particularly splendid, and the last shot of the Doctor, shaken and singed, is memorable.

The Awakening
written by Eric Pringle
directed by Michael Owen Morris
Eric Pringle was reportedly displeased with Eric Saward's rewrites, branding the resulting script rushed and confusing. But "The Awakening" is neither -- in fact, it's one of the most delightful of all the Davison serials. Pringle has fifty minutes to tell a dense story, and a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but the tricks never seem obvious; director Morris bathes them in the sun. There's a childlike sense of wonder to "The Awakening." It's there in the giant crack in the wall, and in the ghoulish face hiding behind it. It's there in the young boy who flees the church in terror, but isn't too afraid to brandish a torch to save his new friend. And it's there, above all, in Davison's performance. At one point, the Doctor escapes captivity with a schoolboy prank; later he's in the TARDIS with the town schoolteacher, and he throws her looks that say "Why are you in my room?" and "Don't touch my things." He's both rebel and authoritarian, equal parts schoolboy and headmaster, and he's marvelous. There's only one moment in "The Awakening" that feels rushed and confusing, and it's pure Saward: the sci-fi explanation for the creature taking over the town. The schoolteacher characterizes him as "the devil," but never a fan of the mystical, Saward explains it with reconnaissance missions and alien invasions and rocks "mined by the Terileptils on the planet Raaga for the almost exclusive use of the people of Hakol," all of which Davison shrewdly recites so fast that he renders it unintelligible. Saward had no idea how people think; did he not understand that the moment we hear "the devil," we tune out any other explanation? It's the only moment in "The Awakening" that feels false: demystifying the devil.

written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Ron Jones
The kind of monster-of-the-week serial that suits Christopher Bidmead least. He tries to compensate with hyper-intelligent dialogue ("when deep ancestral memory pictures break through the conscious mind like this, dangerous instabilities are created"), but the results are static and self-conscious. And the attempts at humor are forced. Bidmead can write a good joke, but here, nothing rings true. We start with the Doctor offstage, making a madman's ruckus; Tegan explains, "He gets like this sometimes." Well, no, he doesn't -- at least not in a while. Bidmead writes the Doctor as eccentric, absent-minded, pompous, obtuse: equal parts Baker, Pertwee and Hartnell. Had Bidmead seen an episode since he left two years earlier? This may be where Bidmead had intended the Fifth Doctor to go, but it's not where others had taken him; the impulsive idealist, the Doctor who wears his heart on his sleeve, is largely missing from "Frontios." Nor does Bidmead do well by Strickson, who gets a protracted mad scene that encourages his worst excesses. (At one point, Turlough literally foams at the mouth; at another, as two characters carry him to safety, his legs go limp, and they have to drag him off. That's our Strickson; if he can't upstage everyone with his face, he'll make sure his legs get the parting shot.) There are a few genuinely eerie moments in Part Two, but precious little else, and the martial motif that plays throughout is murder on the ears.

Resurrection of the Daleks
written by Eric Saward
directed by Matthew Robinson
A stylish-looking, well-directed action-adventure that wears its machismo like a medal. Calling it Eric Saward's best Who script may be damning it with faint praise, but it's praise nonetheless. Saward writes the principals true to form; he scatters some distinct character traits among the ample supporting cast; and he clears most of the plotting hurdles he sets for himself -- i.e., he gets by on the barest of minimums, but he gets by. Only near the end -- in the shoot-it-out, blow-'em-up finale -- does a sort of willful incoherence take over, but by then you take heart in the fact that incoherence still trumps blandness. There's a good visual gag involving a cat, and only one scene that's a complete bust. (The Doctor is being tortured, but seems to be getting through to his captor; we cut away to another scene, and when we return, the Doctor has stopped strategizing -- he's just busy screaming. But then his captor has a change of heart and frees him anyway. You're left wondering if the Doctor had any role in his own escape; he's emasculated by his own editing.) At the end, Tegan bids the Doctor goodbye, telling him, "It's stopped being fun." She's wrong, of course: despite its flaws, "Resurrection" is more fun than four of the five previous serials; that said, if this slaughter-fest was a portent of things to come (and it was), she was right to get gone.

Planet of Fire
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Fiona Cumming
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 canon. 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 dwarfing even Byrne's on "Arc of Infinity," but there's no kitchen-sink clutter: it all coalesces into a brisk, satisfying story about faith and resistance, abandonment and deliverance. As ever, Cumming takes care of her actors, particularly the younger ones, coaxing a restrained performance out of Strickson and an appealing one out of Nicola Bryant. (It could be argued that it's Strickson's most restrained performance on Who, and Bryant's most appealing. Cumming even manages to tame Anthony Ainley.) 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. A late Davison sleeper; in many ways, it's the highlight of his final season.

The Caves of Androzani
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Graeme Harper
Early on, the Doctor and his new companion Peri are arrested and brought before a general, who insists on being addressed as "sir"; scripter Robert Holmes turns it into a quick comedy routine. Of course he does: those kind of hoary gags were a staple of the previous Doctor, for whom Holmes served as script editor. They were well-suited to Tom Baker's galumphing swagger, which could be commanding and detached at the same time; on Davison, whose line readings were honest to a fault, whose responses were visceral in the extreme, they seem all wrong. But the Fifth Doctor doesn't seem to interest Holmes much; his fancies lie elsewhere. He creates a cunning world, but the Doctor is pretty much an ancillary player: a prop, passed from one character to another like a bag of chips. Holmes structures the plot so that each of his characters has a reason for wanting the Doctor out of the picture. This isn't telling a story; it's stacking a deck. Near the end of Part Three, sanity and balance are briefly restored. His life slipping away, but determined to save Peri, the Doctor escapes captivity, seizes control of a ship and pilots it towards a crash landing; Davison lets loose with an adrenaline-fueled speech that gives you a glimmer of what "Caves" could have been. But the sequence is interrupted by three other scenes you couldn't care less about. Peter Davison makes a fine action hero in "Caves," but he has to do it in quick takes -- the camera rarely seems to be pointing his way.

Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 3)

Part 3 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

The Third and Fourth Doctors typically traveled with one or two companions, but Davison was often saddled with three; as a result, the Fifth Doctor's TARDIS has long been labeled "crowded." But the notion of a "crowded TARDIS" misses the point. Doctor Who began, after all, with four aboard the TARDIS, and certainly, if you watch First Doctor William Hartnell, sparring and conspiring with the marvelous William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Maureen O'Brien in a good adventure like "The Rescue," "The Romans" or "The Web Planet" (or a great one like "The Crusade"), you're unlikely to view the TARDIS as "crowded." In Davison's case, it's not the amount of baggage that's the problem -- it's the contents. His companions were a scrappy lot; not that they were, overall, an untalented bunch -- but each came with his or her issues.

Davison was adamant that Sutton's character had the most potential to be a suitable companion for the Fifth Doctor, and he was right: Nyssa's fairytale-princess-with-a-brain worked well opposite Davison. She was precocious but never cloying -- and her schoolgirl crush on the Doctor is endearing. But Sutton herself was uneven. (In an odd way, it made her a fitting successor to Lalla Ward, who departed the show just before Sutton arrived; Ward's performances also varied wildly from serial to serial.) Surround her by great actors and a communicative director, as in "Snakedance," and she'll pleasantly surprise you with her handling of even the most basic exposition. But put her opposite someone bland (Clare Clifford in "Earthshock," Neil Daglish in "Arc of Infinity," Dominic Guard in "Terminus"), and she instantly sinks to their level. Her face goes blank, her body language grows stiff. Sutton's clearly at her best when Davison's around; she seems to thrive under his tutelage, as Nyssa does under the Doctor's.

Fanboy-turned-actor Waterhouse was a limited talent -- that's probably putting it kindly. But as math genius Adric, he has a charming presence in "Black Orchid" and does creditable work in "Castrovalva" and "Earthshock"; his rawness, his real-life desperation to please, is used to good effect. If he's better with Davison than with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker (and he is, by far), that seems to be about him slowly learning his craft. There are some Baker serials like "Warriors Gate" where Waterhouse doesn't give one convincing line reading: even something as basic as pointing and going "look!" seems beyond him. On the other hand, Adric and the Fifth Doctor have one scene in "Earthshock" -- in which they come to an understanding after a fight -- that's warm and surprisingly well-played by Waterhouse: his reactions seem sharp, and he holds his own. I watch that scene, and my sanity takes a backseat; I start to think that Waterhouse, of all people, was Davison's best companion. (I soon come to my senses: he wasn't.) Regardless, of the Davison serials, it's really only in "Kinda" that Waterhouse's limited acting skills drag the show down; mostly he suffers because the writers don't have a clue what to do with him. He could be an energetic, capable, attentive pupil -- as in the bomb-defusing scene in "Earthshock" -- but too often, he's simply there to sulk.

Matthew Waterhouse is a mop-headed mess who, at his best, seems grateful for the opportunity he's given; Mark Strickson, on the other hand, is a talented juvenile who seems forever frustrated with the limitations of his role. He's wonderful in his introductory story, when he's fighting for his soul, and he can let loose with fits of rage and hysteria. But once he's invited to join the TARDIS crew, he can't seem to settle in or settle back, or adapt to the honestly emotive style of Davison's era; at times, his delivery of the simplest lines is so overwrought (e.g., the end of "Warriors of the Deep"), his syllable snarling and pupil popping so disturbing, his jockeying for the attention of the camera so needy and outrageous, he seems to be on some other series altogether.

As the best actor on the Davison crew, Strickson had the most potential, but it was potential that feels squandered -- and his reflections about his time on Who are sadly revealing. Although Turlough was consistently portrayed as the most proficient of the TARDIS companions (a role he inherits from Nyssa), Strickson felt he was stricken with "terminal stupidity." Although he recognizes that Davison was the "first three-dimensional Doctor," he categorizes his own assignment as "two-dimensional acting" ("like a cartoon"). There's a disconnect between the role he was handed and the way he viewed it; after a while, you come to realize that it's not that he couldn't find a way to weave Turlough's strong personality into the texture of the Davison Who -- it's that he didn't care to. It's not like it was an impossible assignment: Janet Fielding found a place for Tegan's equally forceful character.

Although it took her long enough.

Fielding's first season is a decidedly mixed bag. She's a gangly gamine in "Castrovalva," an earthy flapper in "Black Orchid," a lost waif for most of "Kinda": those are the good performances. The rest are amateur and awful. Fielding's acting skills -- when she joined the series -- were admittedly modest, but you can't lay all the blame on her. Designed as a "spunky" foil for Davison, Tegan was more often written as loud-mouthed and spoiled. (The writers manage so much in Davison's first season, could they really not distinguish spunky from sour?) In retrospect, even her most annoying lines could have been tempered with playfulness or irony (when she refers to herself, memorably, as "a mouth with legs," you pray for more of that self-awareness), but someone -- Nathan-Turner or script editor Eric Saward -- should have seen that Fielding had no idea how to put a smart spin on her lines. You gave her a rude remark, you'd get a rude delivery. (She could even take a neutral line like "where are we now?" and make it sound both accusatory and bored.) At Davison's insistence, Tegan is softened somewhat near the end of her second season; it times nicely with Fielding finally learning to vary her delivery, and to suggest a little zest for life, some thirst for adventure. She's particularly good in "Warriors of the Deep" and "The Awakening" -- and then, just as she seems to be finding her footing, she's gone.

Davison had better luck behind the scenes. John Nathan-Turner had been Production Unit Manager on All Creatures and Doctor Who in the late '70s; he took the sole reins of Who at the start of Davison's first season. It's arguable that JNT's only truly great decision during his first few years on Who was to cast Davison, but that's probably the only great decision he needed to make. Yet Nathan-Turner also did one other very good thing: he cleaned house.

The old writers and directors were getting stale; the show needed an infusion of fresh blood, and a lot of JNT's first-time Who writers (Bidmead, Christopher Bailey, Barbara Clegg, Eric Pringle) and directors (Peter Grimwade, John Black, Fiona Cumming, Michael Owen Morris, Graeme Harper) turned out top-notch work. I'll trash Terence Dudley later, but let me put in a good word for him here -- since no one else probably will. Dudley was a second-rate writer, forever derided by Davison in the DVD commentaries, but he had one thing going for him: from his years spent directing All Creatures Great and Small, he knew Davison's rhythms and inflections. (He couldn't tell a plot to save his life, and in two of his three Who serials, his solution when the Doctor finds himself in a jam is to make him ineffectual, so he won't resolve things too soon. No wonder Davison detested him.) Dudley's first script, "Four to Doomsday," was Davison's first serial filmed; he had to set the tone for what follows and, armed with precious little information about Davison's take on the role, he does. (Parts of it read like a Tom Baker script, but it doesn't undermine the Fifth Doctor the way, say, "Frontios" and parts of "Caves of Androzani" do. Quite the contrary: he nails that "reckless innocence" of which Davison spoke.) And Dudley's "Black Orchid," later that season, is unimaginable with anyone but Davison.

JNT's best hire during the Davison years: director Fiona Cumming; in fact, it's hard to conceive of the Davison era without her. The scrappy crew of companions are at their best when she's around (they're so freakishly good in "Castrovalva," you're quite unprepared when they hit so many false notes -- or succumb to so many blank stares -- in the serials that follow), and her lightness of touch and attention to detail mirrored Davison's own. She was probably no more than a very good studio-trained director, but film and television history are full of studio directors who were at the right place at the right time, and whose work transcended their surroundings. Her pacing could be deliberate, but never leisurely; when the dialogue is strong, the written word gets its full due, and when it's not, there are always ancillary pleasures of casting and design. Her camera often stares down from above, seemingly struck by the wonder of it all. JNT not only knew enough to hire her, but he knew how best to use her; she asked for the more character-driven scripts, and he complied.

JNT's worst hire during the Davison years: Eric Saward -- not necessarily because he was untalented (he may well have been -- he's about the only key player of the Davison years whose work didn't inspire me to explore his output further), but because his dour outlook was so ill-suited to that of the Fifth Doctor. As a script editor, he has his successes during his time on Who -- The Black Guardian trilogy ("Mawdryn Undead," "Terminus" and "Enlightenment," in Davison's second season) is a particular triumph -- but from day one, he seems determined to offset the Doctor's breezy optimism with a withering snarkiness, and he doesn't rest until the Fifth Doctor is, in his own words, "obsessed and depressed." His impact on the Fifth Doctor is evident right away (his first script, "The Visitation," is the only time the Fifth Doctor seems like a pill); he doesn't deal a death blow to the series itself, though, till Davison's final season. Saward had a dreadful idea for the last third of Davison's run on Who: to show the upbeat Fifth Doctor decimated by a dark, unforgiving world. Fortunately, Saward's misguided mission is largely undone by the time it reaches the screen. The massacres that dominate Davison's final season -- in "Warriors of the Deep," "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "The Caves of Androzani" -- are so contrived and forced that Saward's goal is undermined: it never seems like the universe is beating up on the Doctor; it just seems like Saward is. You're always aware that someone's behind the scenes pulling the strings, like the humbug wizard in Oz -- and as a result, Saward's ham-fisted methods have the opposite effect of what he intended: he takes the sting out of slaughter. Only Saward could make genocide seem tidy.

Next: capsule reviews of Davison's Doctor Who serials.

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 2)

Part 2 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

Peter Davison rose to fame as Tristan Farnon on the British TV series All Creatures Great and Small. I confess I knew as little of All Creatures as I did of Doctor Who, but like millions before me, I warmed instantly to James Herriot's fictionalized accounts of his veterinary practice during the Great Depression. But although, based on my affection for Davison in Who, I expected him to be excellent, I was still unprepared for the effect that Tristan, that "debauched choirboy" (as his brother calls him), would have on the series once he arrived on the midday train in episode two. Until then, the series is charming and winning, but -- befitting both the setting of the original stories and the era in which the TV series was produced -- a little sedate. Davison quickens the pulse. In a town filled with do-gooders, Tristan is the devil on everyone's shoulder, and Davison's presence and physicality -- the way he smoothes back his hair, or the cigarette forever tucked between his fingertips -- feels at once modern and timeless. He ignites the series. (It's the way the anti-hero, usually John Garfield, used to arrive late in the game in Warner Bros. movies of the '30s and disrupt the happy domesticity -- and you were grateful; you hadn't realized how tame the film had been until it acquired a little of that much-needed, ne'er-do-well energy.)

Davison could bring none of Tristan's detached amusement or mischievous irreverence to bear on Doctor Who. His Doctor is both more commanding and more trusting than Tristan Farnon: wiser yet more impetuous. There's precious little of Tristan in the Fifth Doctor. And just as you'd never mistake Tristan for the Doctor, you'd never mistake either for Davison in Holding the Fort or A Very Peculiar Practice or Campion, or a decade or two later, in Ain't Misbehavin' or At Home With the Braithwaites or The Last Detective. Watching Davison on Doctor Who gives a fair estimation of his skill, but not of his range.

Davison's Dr. Stephen Daker, in Andrew Davies' A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88), is particularly gratifying: the idealist swimming in a sea of academic piranhas -- a naive, neurotic delight. The series itself -- a black-tinged comedy about a university medical staff fighting for its life amidst professional rivalries, gender politics and budgetary cutbacks -- may not be as subversive today as it must have seemed in the mid-'80s, but it's no less fun. Although the key relationship is ostensibly between Davison and the blithely oblivious old-schooler Graham Crowden, I was more taken with Davison's playing opposite David Troughton, as the self-possessed Thatcherite eager to see the practice transformed into private consultancy. Troughton guest-starred in the 1972 Who serial "Curse of Peladon," where he seemed like a character actor trapped in the body of a young leading man. By the time of Peculiar Practice, Troughton's features have caught up with the rest of him, and he's a gleeful devil in thick spectacles, while Davison -- during those same years -- has shed his own juvenile trappings and begun to embrace the new style of leading man that emerged as the '70s gave way to the '80s: the male prized as much for his sensitivities as his strengths. Troughton being the son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, whom Davison credits as the Doctor he most admired, watching the two of them go at each other is a visual brain-twister. I was sorry that I could only grab a few choice episodes of A Very Peculiar Practice on youtube and dailymotion; hopefully, the full series will be released on Region 1 DVD. But Campion and The Last Detective, both available in their entirety, gave me the opportunity to see Davison originate and develop some of his richest onscreen roles.

Campion (1989-90), from Margery Allingham's mystery novels, is an underrated set: better, to my mind, than most of the Agatha Christie adaptations that have crowded the small screen over the last few decades. Christie's novels, which prize puzzle over atmosphere, are too often done in by the stately pacing of the adaptations and the need to eliminate clues for reasons of time; the Allingham books, with their florid prose, practically beg for visuals. Davison only filmed eight Campion novels, and in the earliest ones (the more frivolous stories), the scriptwriters omit the "affable idiot" persona Campion adopts in his formative years to disarm his suspects. I can't fault them; it probably would have been annoying onscreen. But they don't give Davison anything to take its place, leaving Campion vaguely defined, and Davison opts for "enigmatic," a trait he does not wear well.

But once Davison settles in, once the plots get a little meatier and Campion a little more mature, he's as dashing and dynamic a hero as you'd hope. Of the eight adaptations, only the last one aired, "Mystery Mile," has little to recommend it: poorly cast, acted, adapted and directed. (As Allingham's first full-fledged Campion novel, and the only adaptation by series creator John Hawkesworth, you're left to wonder if it wasn't the first one filmed and the last aired, because the BBC realized how dreary it was.) But of the remaining seven, a good five do justice to Allingham's originals. Two of Jill Hyem's teleplays, one mystery ("The Case of the Late Pig") and one romp ("Sweet Danger"), are notably taut and spirited, and the best of the bunch, "Flowers for the Judge," adapted by Brian Thompson and vividly directed by Michael Owen Morris, who had helmed Davison's third-season Who adventure, "The Awakening," is as good a traditional mystery (in this case, of the locked-room variety) as any I've seen adapted to the small screen.

Campion is splendid, if at times slight. The Last Detective (2003-07), from the Leslie Thomas novels, is something more: the sort of role that more typically comes to a talented character actor late in his career, following years of ignominy, and catapults him to stardom -- and Davison makes the most of it. A detective instinctively juggling self-doubt, personal pain and keen deductive abilities, D.C. "Dangerous" Davies is one of Davison's most memorable portraits. There are a lot of Last Detective episodes I enjoy, and one scene in particular I haven't been able to shake. In Ed McCardie's "Dangerous' Liaisons," Davies is examining some 8 mm. film reels collected from a crime scene. They begin innocently enough (some home movies, barely worth his time), but in the final reel, the characters and setting change. A woman is bound and gagged, a man appears to be threatening her -- some sex-sadist flick, he presumes; he commits a few notes to paper, then his attention wanders. But something catches his eye: is the woman struggling to breathe? His posture changes, his eyes narrow, and he wonders: is he, in fact, witnessing a "real-life" snuff film? As the film grows more graphic, the director, the reliable David Tucker (who had helmed A Very Peculiar Practice) focuses in on Davison's face, and we experience the escalating violence solely through his reactions. At one point, Davison gives a start at something he sees on film -- and I jumped clear out of my chair.

Many of Davison's long-running roles operate like that -- they achieve startling results through subtle technique -- but I've also been impressed to see him unleashed in more traditionally bravura performances, including his well-remembered "mad conductor" scene in All Creatures Great and Small: "Out of Practice"; his drunk scene in the second part of Campion: "Death of a Ghost"; his welcoming speech to students in A Very Peculiar Practice: "We Love You, That's Why We're Here"; his departing speech to students in the pilot episode of Hope & Glory; and his gloriously moving breakdown in the first-season conclusion of Distant Shores, which had me weeping alongside him -- and then, when I rewound to watch it again, weeping once more.

(I'll refrain from lingering on At Home With the Braithwaites, the British comedy-drama in which Davison appeared from 2000 to 2003; it's terribly popular in some circles, but I couldn't get much past the first season. To me, creator Sally Wainwright seemed to be telling a very different story from the one she intended; she seemed to find her women admirable without ever showing us why, whereas the men, consistently given short shrift, seemed more sympathetic than she conceived, understood or acknowledged. Once I gave up on the series, I read a quick interview with Wainwright -- in which she admitted that she found women "braver and more complex than men" and noted, "I am just not as excited by men" -- that pretty much explained what I'd felt: she loved her women so much she forgot to give us any reason to love them too. But I will note that there's one blistering confrontation between Amanda Redman and Peter Davison near the end of the first season that's as good as anything I've seen Davison do.)

It should be noted that Davison remains a gifted actor who, like so many gifted actors, is not always the best judge of his own vehicles -- at least in terms of Doctor Who. His DVD commentaries -- his interviews, too -- are amusing, but his pronouncements are occasionally dubious. While everyone else is praising "Snakedance," he's fixating on the lights being too bright. (They aren't.) He thinks the second-season scripts were the weakest of the bunch. (They're not.) He finds his third season a great improvement over his second. (It isn't.) Most surprisingly, although he stated when he became the Doctor that he was determined not to play him as a superhero, several of the serials he favors most present him just that way: as a straight action-adventure hero, with a few of the subtleties or refinements Davison brought to the role. (He seems unaware how he redefined Doctor Who, leaving an indelible template for his 21st-century counterparts.) But none of that detracts from his work on Who, an accomplishment all the more tremendous when you consider how often he was basically acting alone.

Next: a look at the Fifth Doctor's companions, and a look behind the scenes.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years

"The hero is no braver than an ordinary person, but he or she is braver five minutes longer." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover story on the TV series Doctor Who, lauding it as one of the cult classics of all time. I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who -- never even heard of the show -- until Christmas Day, 2010. My husband and I were vacationing in South Florida; the house there had BBC America, and as we were channel surfing, there was a 2005 episode entitled "The Christmas Invasion." We decided to take a look, and entertained and intrigued -- and since the house also had streaming Netflix -- we decided to explore further.

"The Christmas Invasion" marks the beginning of the second season of the second run of Doctor Who, which began in 2005 and continues to this day; the original series ran from 1963 to 1989. (For our purposes, let's call the original series Classic Who and the latest version New Who.) Really all we picked up from that first episode was that there was a Doctor (a "Time Lord," played by David Tennant) and a companion (played by Billie Piper) and that they traveled the universe in a space ship that looked like a blue phone box (a "TARDIS") -- so now, in retrospect, it's alarming how much we didn't understand. (We were shocked when Piper left after our first season watching -- who knew the Doctor went through companions like the rest of us went through socks? We later learned that the Doctors themselves would change as well: the Doctor would "regenerate," and one actor would be replaced by another -- and that's how you sustain a series for nearly fifty years.) But there was enough that we did appreciate and enjoy to keep us coming back for more. Over the next three weeks, we devoured the following four seasons. By the time we were halfway through New Who Season 5, we realized we were no longer mere viewers: we were fans.

So the following winter, we found ourselves back in Florida on vacation, and it seemed fitting that we take a look at some Classic Who. I wrote to that erudite Who reviewer Paul Reed, asking if he'd steer me towards some episodes he particularly admired. (I was once again spoiler-free: I didn't know the Doctors; I didn't even know the actors' names -- or that the serials were going to go on for two, four, or even ten episodes at a time.) He cautioned me: not everyone who likes New Who likes Classic Who. The production values, he warned, can be cheesy; the acting variable. Undeterred, we bought a dozen serials and got started.

And it wasn't bad -- not bad at all. Initially, it was rarely as stimulating as New Who had been, but the best serials provided a fun evening's entertainment -- and as for the worst ones: well, at least we hadn't wasted more than an evening. We knew nothing of each Doctor's popularity -- or which companions were revered and which reviled; we formed our own opinions based solely on what we saw on the small screen. If a period started to bore us, we'd move on to another Doctor, or another companion: anything to vary the diet. For some reason I can't recall, we arrived at the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, late in the game, and the first episode of his we viewed was, in fact, his first episode, entitled "Castrovalva," from 1982.

And suddenly this was some other series altogether.

Classic Who no longer seemed merely inviting; it now seemed involving -- invigorating even. We broke our pattern of "random viewing" and elected to watch the Davison serials in order. Within about two weeks, we'd breezed through three years of the Fifth Doctor. Two months later, I revisited it all again.

A disclaimer: I'm not a sci-fi fan by nature. Never seen an episode of Star Trek. I've never seen any of the Star Wars movies, except the first one, which I don't remember very well. Never watched Space 1999 or Babylon 5 or Blake's 7 or any of those series with numbers in them. So what was my attraction to the Davison Who? Why did it get to me?

Watching Davison, I realized what I had found distancing about the show up to that point. The other Classic Doctors were eccentrics, born of a theatrical tradition that certainly suggested "other-worldly," but for me, it was an approach that sapped some of the suspense out of the series. As much as I enjoyed several of the other Doctors (and the Second Doctor was, I thought, especially good), the stylization undercut the sense of menace: you always trusted that these larger-than-life creations would swoop in and save the day. Davison eschewed the theatrical flourishes of his predecessors; his Doctor was as close to being "one of us" as a Time Lord with two hearts can be. He gave the material weight and resonance by flipping the perspective. With Davison, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it though ours. He shared our sense of wonder -- and our sense of dread. And the results gave off the same glow as the New Who we'd watched a year earlier. (The other morning, BBC America reran the New Who "Planet of the Ood," and when David Tennant told his latest companion Catherine Tate that he shares everything she's feeling -- "the fear, the joy, the wonder" -- I thought, that's precisely what I got from the Davison era.) Davison's take on the role was clearly the forerunner of his 21st-century namesakes.

Shortly before joining the series, Davison commented that, for him, "the suspense of 'now how's [the Doctor] going to get out of this tight corner' has been missing." (He was determined not to play him as a superhero.) Davison's recognizably "human" reactions recharged the series; they reinforced the sense of risk, the potential perils lurking in the shadows. Audiences in the early '80s had wondered how Davison, barely thirty, was going to essay a role previously played by actors a decade or two older, and Davison confronted the age issue head-on, bringing to the role, in his words, "a sort of reckless innocence." It was a brilliantly intuitive move. When Davison's Doctor flew down corridors, solution in sight, it was with equal parts inspiration and desperation; that manic intensity -- the Fifth Doctor was forever thinking on his feet, always strategizing the best way out of a tight spot -- made him instantly rootworthy, and his endless vigor seemed enviable. (As a side note, I later learned that writer Christopher Bidmead, who was scripting the Fourth Doctor's regeneration into the Fifth, had his own plan for the Fifth Doctor: he was conceiving him as "an old man in a young man's body." But as it turns out, Bidmead left the series before Davison even got warmed up, and thank goodness he did, because it freed Davison to go in a far better direction. Bidmead's blueprint survived fleetingly -- in the Doctor's steely outbursts at his companions, in his well-worn spectacles -- but in fact, it's those times when Davison is asked to play crotchety that he's at his least convincing, and the one time a serial trots out the "old man/young body" concept in full force, in Bidmead's "Frontios," Davison's Doctor becomes momentarily unrecognizable. And yet I was amused to see some fans point to "Frontios" as the one time the "real" Fifth Doctor emerges. I quickly learned there are as many opinions in the Who universe as there are viewers.)

The Fifth Doctor was a hero not because of any superpowers (he couldn't do Venusian karate, like the Third Doctor, or render a foe unconscious with one touch, like the Seventh), not because he shrugged off danger like the Third Doctor or laughed in its face like the Fourth, but because he was a fiercely compassionate soul who felt compelled to fight injustice wherever he found it. And Davison was precisely the actor to pull off a Doctor fueled by empathy; his young co-star Mark Strickson describes how Davison taught him "how not to act whilst still acting," and that ability -- that philosophy, really -- informs Davison's performances. Not merely a great actor, but a smart one, Davison seems to have an endless bag of tricks at his disposal -- but he employs them without chicanery; his performances are honest above all else. You're never aware of him "acting," but he always seems active, present, focused -- most of all, involved and engaged: what's often referred to as an "actor's actor."

What's startling about the Davison years is that he finds his Doctor fairly quickly, but the writers take a full season to catch up. His Doctor was such a departure, particularly from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade, that the early writers have no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they leave the character sketchy and call upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he does, handsomely. The Who adventure that best defines Davison's take on the Doctor is easily his second-season "Snakedance." The wild 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 -- writer Christopher Bailey captures it all, in a way he hadn't a year earlier in "Kinda," written before he'd seen Davison's Doctor in action. Of the three Davison years, his first season has the most varied set of scripts (a revolving door of script editors, it's one of the few Who seasons without clear direction in terms of style, content and tone -- and surprisingly, all the better for that). But the following year, drafted by writers who'd actually seen Davison in action, has the ones that best capture the Fifth Doctor, and for that all-important reason, Davison's second season is also his best. (His final season is done in by script editor Eric Saward: more on that later.)

Davison's reactions and responses were always relatable, but he was careful never to play the Doctor as an Everyman. But neither did he play him as "Tristan Farnon [his career-launching role in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small], but with bravery and intellect," one of those apocryphal stories that continues to make the rounds. There's a famed panel discussion from the British lunchtime magazine Pebble Mill at One, where Davison is set to assume the role of the Fifth Doctor and a young fan suggests that approach: "Tristan Farnon, but with bravery and intellect." Although Davison later claims that's basically what he did, I don't buy it. Of course Davison says that: it's a lovely fan-friendly gesture, and on some level, he might even believe it. But watching the early years of All Creatures Great and Small tells a different story, as I learned when I dug into some of Davison's other roles.

Next: a look at Davison's other long-running TV roles, before and after Who. Or click here to go directly to capsule reviews of all twenty of Davison's Who serials.