Thursday, September 6, 2012

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.

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