Thursday, November 20, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years (part 2)

The second chapter of my latest Doctor Who three-parter, beginning a countdown of my top ten Pertwee serials. (You can check out the first chapter, an overview of the Pertwee years, here.) As I noted in Part 1, my enthusiasm for the Third Doctor era is tempered by some very real reservations, so I suspect my top-10 list won't resemble anyone else's. I gravitate towards the serials that aren't quite as emblematic of the Letts-Dicks approach, but that strive for a little more novelty, even if they're rougher around the edges. And I definitely respond most to the serials that are best directed. One of the first Who reviewers I read, Finn Clark, argued that strong directors were particularly needed during the Troughton years, as a way of differentiating the numerous base-under-siege stories. I see it differently. I think solid directors were needed much more in the Pertwee era. The similarity of settings -- particularly during the earlier, Earthbound years -- cried out for directors with singular style and creative vision. I find parts of the Pertwee era visually flat (the early '70s, after all, were not a particularly flattering time, design-wise); of the serials below (#10 through #6 on my list), I see that all are anchored by directors whose work bears evidence of a deeply personal aesthetic. For me, that often made the difference between a good Pertwee and a great one. Here goes:

#10. Death to the Daleks
written by Terry Nation
directed by Michael E. Briant
The closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" six years earlier. A lot of "Death" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era; it's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best the Pertwee era had to offer, and perhaps because -- by his own admission -- he disliked the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green (whose only other Who contribution was the sumptuous "Enlightenment"); Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (e.g., "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually arresting. And Carey Blyton upends all expectations of what Who should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition. And if that's not enough to engage you, "Death" comes with a secret weapon: Bellal. This native of the planet Exxilon, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: a triumph of conception and casting. Actor Arnold Yarrow manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. At a mere 5'3", he's nearly a foot shorter than Pertwee, and he proves a delightfully meek foil, showing Pertwee off at his most protective and endearing. "Death to the Daleks" is the quietest Third Doctor serial, and for an era steeped in squabbling, that's cause for celebration. (I discuss "Death to the Daleks" in detail here.)

#9. Inferno
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the full potential for catastrophe. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade the chief scientist, upon his return, to shut down operations, but that's not where Houghton goes. He doesn't go anywhere. By the time Episode 5 hits, and the parallel Earth starts to crumble, Houghton (after a sensational start) runs out of ideas, so he resorts to the cliches of the horror genre to see him through, as werewolf-like beasts burst through doors and break through windows -- all while characters shout, over the crude hum of machinery, unfortunate lines like "it's about time you learned that some problems just can't be solved by brute force and terror." Eventually, the Doctor returns home, but no one believes his predictions of doom, until the chief scientist himself is changed into a werewolf -- and then everyone goes, "Omigod, he's a werewolf: we must stop the drilling," as if that's a logical conclusion to draw. What sustains "Inferno" through the late stretches are the three leads; it's only their fourth time working as a team, and you can't imagine how they could be better. (It's their last time working as a team, and you're left with longing for "what might have been.") Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney are remarkable, but Caroline John is more than that: she's radiant. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. All smart retorts and sideways glances. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two. It's a masterful performance. Right up there with the dimwitted decision to axe Ian Marter after his first season of Who is Barry Letts's decision to can Caroline John after hers. Not to denigrate Katy Manning, who grows wonderful as Jo, but John hits the ground running and only grows more assured -- and she inspires Pertwee to heights he only sporadically hits again in the serials to come. Fittingly, Pertwee's first season ends not with the Doctor, not with the Brigadier, but with a close-up of Liz: a strong woman who made the Doctor even stronger. And then, in a feat of chauvinism that will come to haunt the era, she's gone.

#8. Invasion of the Dinosaurs
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paddy Russell
Oh, of course: if you're going to do a six-parter about dinosaurs, it would be nice if the dinosaurs weren't so dismal. But after the first puppet makes its appearance, you know what you're in for, so you make the mental adjustment. "Dinosaurs" is the oddball Hulke serial where you don't root for the meek to inherit the Earth; here, the peacemakers are the nutjobs. Hulke tries to hammer home that the quest to preserve the planet remains a noble one, and that only these particular antagonists are misguided -- but still, most of the famed Hulke moralizing is happily buried beneath layers of fruitcake. You almost sense that once Robert Sloman picked up Hulke's penchant for polemics, it liberated Hulke: he could be livelier and sloppier. But other forces drive "Dinosaurs" as well. Sarah Jane is still settling in, but Lis Sladen has already proven a force to be reckoned with. You see her mind going a mile a minute, and keeping Pertwee engaged; you can tell that he's adapting to her rhythms, not vice versa. (There's a scene early on where the Doctor, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane are seated at a table, strategizing, and each is using their particular insights to solve the puzzle; it's a dynamic we haven't seen since Liz Shaw left, and it's invigorating.) Legend has it that Pertwee was fighting back pain and boredom during Season 11, and so the story has been passed down that he's muted and off his game. On the contrary: Season 11 offers some of his most ingratiating performances. The new dynamics keep him from resorting to old habits. And one other thing challenges him in "Dinosaurs" -- in a good way: the maddeningly hands-on Paddy Russell. She was a director who loved to rehearse. (Sladen would say she wrung every ounce of spontaneity out of a scene.) But her serials never seem over-rehearsed. They seem confident. They seem full of details and ambiguities too often overlooked in Classic Who. Russell feels in command of every moment of "Dinosaurs": there's not a scene in which the intent is unclear, in which the execution is muddy. And Pertwee -- with a control-freak director and an able new acting partner -- seems renewed, forced to think on his feet. Even driving through the streets silently, his face seems fairly bursting with thought. It's a look that suits him.

#7. The Claws of Axos
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Ferguson
It's like Doctor Who on LSD: a trip you don't soon forget. There's a hallucinogenic aspect to all of Ferguson's Who serials: here he goes full throttle. "Axos" has long been dismissed as a walking-joke serial, and like most of Baker and Martin's efforts, it tosses around way more ideas than it knows what to do with. But it's visually arresting in a season that often looks flat and forgettable; the gaffes are easily forgiven, because the images stay with you, The interior of the ship is a psychedelic synthesis of textures and colors and shapes. (In its own way, it's as other-worldly as Hartnell's "Web Planet.") And "Axos" itself is full of memorable moments: the aliens materializing out of walls, then merging back into them; the Doctor and Jo escaping an exploding ship while golden faces block their path; Jo being hyper-aged, as the Doctor stares, horrified and helpless. "Axos" features one of Pertwee's best performances -- his reactions sharp, his timing impeccable, and his character deliciously ambiguous; it also has one of the era's best bureaucrats. The Pertwee years are strewn with self-serving businessmen and fatuous government officials -- after a while, it's hard to remember one from another -- and they constantly prompt Pertwee to go on the attack, a dynamic that quickly grows stale. But "Axos," to its credit, manages to eat its cake and have it too. It offers up a government official who's so loathsome that he provokes not merely testiness in the Third Doctor, but genuine rage (he lights a fire under Pertwee, rare for Season 8). And at the same time, the script takes the piss out of him by giving him a commanding officer who sees right through him. When the unctuous government official calls in his report, asking the head of the Ministry if they should scramble the call, and the Minister responds, "Just your report. I'm sure that will be scrambled enough," it's a welcome relief. Someone else can take care of cutting the bureaucrats down to size; Pertwee can just get on with the plot.

#6. The Green Death
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Michael E. Briant

The principal players are well-served (ironically, it's not until Jo's farewell that Sloman and producer Barry Letts manage to successfully showcase the UNIT family, as they'd first attempted two years earlier in "The Daemons"), and Katy Manning's departure inspires Pertwee's best performance. He's decisive without being abrasive (his "stop winding" at the end of Episode 1 is reminiscent of his "cut it open" cliffhanger in "Ambassadors of Death"), and he's permitted not only to exercise his fighting skills, but to flex his comic muscles: on a wild visit to Metebelis III in Episode 1, and posing as a milkman and a cleaning lady later on. The script has all the Pertwee-era staples: its topical concerns; its reliance on mind control as a plot device; some distractingly low-rent CSO; and, of course, its pervasive chauvinism. (In Part 4, when Jo takes off in search of a specimen needed for an experiment, the serial thinks it's showing her initiative and pluck, but it's really about Jo feeling the need to prove herself, and doing so by being foolhardy.) But its flaws are swept away by Briant's work, which is a fascinating hybrid. In its footage of factories and quarries, and its use of Welsh extras who are determinedly rough around the edges, it's got that familiar "masculine" look that the Pertwee era fed on. But it's offset by a gentility in pacing and tone; it's one of the most civilized of serials. It's a world where the principals dine out -- and dress for dinner -- while the villains, engaged in polite conversation about destroying mankind, hum Chopin and Beethoven. Where even the altercations are well-mannered: "Are you threatening me?" "Yes, I believe I am." It's admirably low-key -- and that delicacy and restraint, set against a backdrop of miners and picketers and industrial waste, gives it a duality that's almost hypnotic. And because Briant has been so even-handed, when the time comes (in the concluding chapter) for the corporate mogul to turn on his mechanical master, and for the computer to go haywire, Briant's able to pull out all the visual stops and make a familiar story-beat seem fresh -- as he's been doing throughout. Despite so many standard and potentially stale elements, "The Green Death" doesn't feel like any other work in the classic canon. Briant lulls you -- as BOSS does his victims -- into a sense of complacency; he whispers, "Watch this," and you're helpless to resist.

Next: continuing the countdown, #5 through #1.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years

When my husband and I started watching the classic era of Doctor Who in December of 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, we had no idea what to expect. We knew nothing of the show's history: which Doctors and companions were revered, and which reviled; which periods were most beloved, and which most belittled. All we knew was that we had binged on New Who Series 2 through 6 the previous year, and now looked forward to seeing the show in its earlier incarnation. We watched in fairly random order. I remember we started with "Genesis of the Daleks" and for some reason reached the Fifth Doctor last. Somewhere around the middle, we got to the Third Doctor, and the two stories of his my friend had recommended: his first two serials, "Spearhead From Space" and "The Silurians." "Spearhead" we found enjoyable, but "Silurians" felt endless, and although we'd been giving each other quizzical looks all the way through, it wasn't till it was done that we turned to each other and spoke, with essentially the same request: "Can we move on to another Doctor?" The Jon Pertwee era, or at least what promised to be a "Doctor stranded on Earth" set of stories, was not the Who we wanted to view. We had been weaned on Tennant and Smith, with big adventures through time and space; seeing the Doctor trapped in Earthbound settings wasn't what drew us to the series. It wasn't what fired our imaginations. And having already watched the Fourth, Second and First Doctors, Pertwee was our least favorite incarnation to date: we gravitated towards the less imposing Doctors -- and his air of withering authority and exasperated superiority wasn't much to our liking.

When I published my 25 favorite Classic Whos in November of 2013 (having by then seen all the serials all at least twice and some a dozen times), the comments I received were largely kind and gracious. My opinions were obviously my own, and (maybe) no one else's, but the Who community was big enough to permit all opinions. The only place I received much flak was in how little Pertwee I included: just one serial in my top 25. (One Twitter follower said it didn't make him respect my opinions any less, just doubt my sanity.) I've come to realize that although fan consensus will tell you that the Tom Baker era was the most beloved, it's the Pertwee era that has the most passionate defenders. It's an era -- unlike Tom Baker's, which divides neatly by producer: "the Hinchcliffe years," "the Williams years," etc., each with its own supporters and detractors -- with one team supervising it all: producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, whose consistency, confidence, and unwavering belief in "what works" and "what doesn't" inspires the most ardent fans. I have heard Whovians I respect say things like, "There's not one bad episode in the whole Pertwee era," and I personally can't say that about any season of Who, let alone a whole era. But the uniformity of intent is persuasive: if you buy into the premise, if you buy into Pertwee and the Third Doctor, and the Earthbound stories that gradually give way to more out-of-this-world adventures, there's nothing to deter you from your affection. There are no sudden shifts in style, no wild reinventions or wholesale reboots. There's one long, continuous flow.

But if you don't buy into the premise, if you don't find yourself cottoning to the Third Doctor, or the men behind the scenes, how do you make peace with Pertwee? An assignment for myself. Some of the Who fans and friends I cherish most are Pertwee devotees: where do we find some common ground? It's easier perhaps to see where we differ. Aside from my disinterest in largely Earthbound adventures (although I adore Nicholas Courtney, his warm, continued presence doesn't compensate for my thirst for other worlds and other times), my reservations stack up quickly. I find the overuse of CSO distracting. It doesn't seem to me as merely "evocative of the period": the sort of thing you simply have to overlook if you watch Classic Who. It seems arbitrary and mystifying, as when the outdoor scenes in "The Green Death" flip-flop from location shooting to CSO and back again. Other complaints: I don't like the frank moralizing that was a passion of Letts and his cohorts (I'd rather my Whos be subtly allegorical than overtly polemic), and I don't know which bothers me more: the chauvinism that permeates the era once Letts takes over fully in Season 8, or the flat-footed attempts to pay lip-service to the women's movement.

I miss the audacious directors of the Troughton era. For me, one of the sad ironies of the Pertwee era is that the director most responsible for establishing the "house style" -- the brilliant Doug Camfield, who directed "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldened the producers into mounting a reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, locked horns with the star, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. The three great regular directors of the series' first six years -- Camfield, David Maloney and Derek Martinus -- were mostly absent during the Pertwee era, helming just one serial apiece. And their replacements -- Lennie Mayne, Paul Bernard and Michael E. Briant -- were notably inferior, with Mayne and Bernard rarely able to offer anything in the way of visual distinctiveness or flair.

But my biggest problem with the era lies with Pertwee himself. I'm not a Pertwee detractor: far from it. I think he's quite talented; I simply find him less interesting in Doctor Who than in other roles. The decision for Pertwee to play the Third Doctor as "himself" is certainly a sound one; his dapper demeanor nicely balances the UNIT settings. But for me, it doesn't seem to unleash his imagination the way other vehicles do, from Will Any Gentlemen? to Carry On, Cowboy to Worzel Gummidge. I find Pertwee uneven throughout much of his run on Doctor Who. When I like him best, it's for his ability to balance the Doctor's decisiveness and warmth, without letting them slide into empty aggression or mawkishness. In addition, no one could slip in and out of disguises better than Pertwee, and few Doctors had his gift for conveying a lot of information silently, without the benefit of exposition. (The brief scene in Episode 3 of "Curse of Peladon" where he attaches a revolving mirror to his sonic screwdriver, nearly hypnotizing himself before beaming with pride at his accomplishment, seems to me a mini-masterpiece of mime.)

But at his worst, mostly in large swaths of Seasons 8 and 9, I see him settling into a distressing complacency. When I wrote my four-part essay on Peter Davison, I noted that he seemed to have "an endless bag of tricks at his disposal"; I feel that way about Troughton as well. Playing a role far removed from their own personality keeps them sharp and focused; you're aware of the wheels ever spinning, gracefully. On Who, I find Pertwee mostly gets fired up by outside forces: actors whose rhythms counter his own, story-lines that stretch his comfort zone. But he doesn't do as well on his own; because he doesn't have to "find" the role, he doesn't always look for the variations, the grace notes, the buttons. He hits his marks, but shortly after Season 8 starts, I can pinpoint where those marks are, and sometimes I get there ahead of him. Ironically, as Pertwee begins to dictate more of what he wants, and to make himself more dominant and more comfortable, he robs himself of what sparks him as an actor: the tension. Tension between actor and role. Tension between actor and co-stars. Tension between actor and script. The things that, from what I've seen (and heard, in his delightful, dextrous work in The Navy Lark), make Pertwee a more compelling actor. Pertwee needed challenges; by playing the Doctor so close to home ("this dashing Pied Piper image," as he put it), he denied himself those.

And as an aside, I'm never going to take to "The Silurians." I've watched three times now, to the same mounting sense of irritation. I understand what folks see in it, but for me, it's undermined by the familiar Malcolm Hulke tropes. The characters who are obstructive either due to attitude or agenda (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The moment someone rushes in, prepared to make a confession -- and therefore bring all the misunderstandings to an end -- and is cut off before they can do so (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The steady stream of captures and escapes. And in "Silurians," I never buy in to the intended moral ambiguity; the Doctor's umbrage at the end doesn't ring true to me, as the Silurians never seem how he describes them. Because the Silurian costume obscures their faces, they're forced to identify themselves by gesticulating wildly; the young Silurian is so animated, I have trouble taking him seriously. And once all the rational Silurians have been wiped out by the young rebels, the Doctor's peace-making arguments don't seem to hold water. They infect the citizens of Earth with a plague, but UNIT shouldn't retaliate? I find "The Silurians" terribly earnest, but crying out for variety, pacing and logic.

So what do I like about the Pertwee era? Quite a few things, as my latest rewatch reminded me.

I've stated my affection for Nicholas Courtney, but someone else inspires even greater delight: Caroline John. I love Liz Shaw. I love how quickly the actress settles in; I love how sharp her reactions are. I love how she assumes the role not of an assistant, but a colleague: one whose scientific prowess and insights the Doctor respects and relishes. The dynamic feels fresh, and a natural extension of all the strong female guest characters who distinguish the Troughton era. And John does wonders for Pertwee: she keeps him on his toes. (Pertwee, tellingly: "In my opinion, Caroline John didn't fit into Doctor Who. I couldn't really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn't want a know-it-all by his side, he wanted someone who was busy learning about the world." What he means, of course, is that Pertwee himself didn't want "a know-it-all by his side": the Second Doctor had no trouble traveling with Zoe, the astrophysicist. But it was precisely because of that tension that Pertwee's scenes with John are so absorbing, and that he goes limp for a while after she leaves. Even the shrewdest actors don't always know what showcases them best.)

What else? I adore the chemistry that develops between Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. Although I find Katy Manning does everything asked of her brilliantly, I don't care for the way Jo is written in her earliest serials; after the novelty of Liz Shaw, I find it distressing to return to an assistant who's there mostly to be a sounding-board, and her bouts of timidity really annoy me (e.g., her terror at stepping outside the TARDIS in "Colony in Space" -- you can't help but feel Liz Shaw would have leapt out of the police box -- or her haunted-house jitters in "Day of the Daleks"). There's a chauvinism in the conception of Jo Grant that's unmistakable, and because the Third Doctor spends much of Seasons 8 and 9 talking at Jo rather than to her, it doesn't do anything for Pertwee either: a certain smug self-satisfaction starts to set into the role once Jo comes on board. But as Jo is allowed to blossom, the dynamic becomes more appealing, and by Season 10, I find the Third Doctor and Jo Grant equally matched, and it's my favorite Manning season.

I find Roger Delgado consistently entertaining, even in serials that make me shudder (e.g., "Mind of Evil," which I think might boast his most commanding performance). I've seen comments that he's at his best early in his run, that he eventually becomes too broad and hammy, but I don't see it; to me, he's eminently watchable throughout. I have no complaints with John Levene's charming Sergeant Benton, and although Richard Franklin's character proves more elusive, when the writers settle on a formula (e.g., the aforementioned "Mind of Evil," where Captain Yates is quick-witted and resourceful), Franklin responds beautifully -- and he makes his final-season arc, in which Yates's youthful idealism proves his undoing, extremely touching. (It's a nice touch that, for all the era's macho posturing, one of its most lasting images is of Mike Yates's fragility in the final serial, as he attempts to jumpstart his own regeneration.) And I'm a huge Lis Sladen fan; the writers have her initially come on too strong -- she was, after all, their "answer" to complaints of chauvinism -- but she's never less than winning, and often wonderful.

I like the gravity of Season 7, and even though I am not a Barry Letts fan, and find most of the tonal shifts that he initiates in "Terror of the Autons" not to my liking (they impede my enjoyment of Seasons 8 and 9), I like the celebratory feel of Season 10 and the go-for-broke feel of Season 11. As for writers, I'm not fond of Robert Sloman or Baker & Martin, but the Pertwee era has my favorite set of Robert Holmes scripts, and I enjoy Malcolm Hulke when he lightens up: when he stifles his penchant for didacticism and just lets rip with a good yarn, or a warm scene, or a hoary gag. And oddly, I admire many of the things about the era that we learn -- in the DVD extras -- made its creators cringe. Over the years, "Claws of Axos" has become a Doctor Who punchline,"Death to the Daleks" dismissed as one of the nadirs of the series. I like them both. I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. My overall feeling about the Pertwee era is that, in trying to avoid the woeful lows that plagued the final Troughton season, they aimed for something more stable and grounded. But in avoiding the lows, they also trimmed the highs. You don't get a lot of out-and-out turkeys in the Pertwee era, but to my mind, you also don't get many blissful flights of fancy. It's a confident era, not -- by and large -- a daring one. And "daring" is one of my favorite things about Doctor Who.

But that said, there are ten serials I like very much, that -- for various reasons -- I take delight in rewatching. And I'll go into them, in detail, next.

Next up: counting down my top ten Pertwees, #10 to #6.