Monday, January 25, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 4)

When I began watching Classic Who in 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, and no knowledge or preconceptions of any of the Doctors or companions, one of my first take-aways was how brilliant I thought Patrick Troughton was. (Ironically, the Troughton serial my friend had recommended was "War Games," his final serial, but it was actually the perfect way to experience the full range and power of his interpretation.) But so little Troughton was readily available at that time, I didn't explore him further; I continued to peruse the other Doctors instead. But my affection for the Second Doctor never waned; during the summer of 2012, when I penned my four-part Fifth Doctor essay, I noted that although Peter Davison's acting impressed me most, Patrick Troughton's was a damn close second. And that fall I began binging the Troughton serials. So perhaps this latest blog post -- capsule reviews of the twenty-one Second Doctor serials -- is five years in the making: the delay simply being that the Troughtons are (by virtue of so many being "missing") more challenging to watch repeatedly and therefore harder to analyze. As with the Davison serials, there are only eight or nine that I consider truly great, but Troughton at his best -- which is most of the time -- is a marvel.

The Power of the Daleks
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

Troughton comes out swinging, simultaneously more foolish and more fearsome than his predecessor, traits that would serve him well in the serials to come. Unfortunately, at this point, no one quite knows what to do with those traits -- they get defined without cohering into anything useful -- and the new Doctor is left in a reactive mode for much of the serial. Where Whitaker succeeds most is in his reimagining of the Daleks; he manages both a deconstruction and an upgrade. "Power" nods to the basic absurdity of their design: the Daleks use it to fool the colonists into thinking them harmless and subservient -- because logically, who'd be threatened by a verbally-challenged pepperpot? But it also gives them a long con that transforms them from mere mass murderers into master tacticians: able to analyze, manipulate and exploit human behavior. (In a way, the ruse that the Daleks execute in "Power" is precisely the one that will come to define the Second Doctor: using his appearance and demeanor to ensure that his enemies underestimate him.) The problem with "Power" is that Whitaker was unable to do the necessary rewrites; the script ran long, and Dennis Spooner was called in to do what was clearly a chop-fest: a key subplot is discarded with one line of dialogue. ("We've won! The revolution's over!" the chief scientist's assistant announces at the top of Episode 6. We didn't even know it was underway.) It's a moment as unlike Whitaker as in any of his Who scripts -- Whitaker always liked to work tidy -- and could only have been a script doctor/script editor truncation. The rare six-parter that feels like it would have made a stunning eight-parter, "Power of the Daleks" has a few bracing cliff-hangers, a great bloodbath at the end, and some effective performances, but it gets the era off to a solid rather than sensational start. Not the masterpiece some claim it to be, but merely a confident, capable first serial.

The Highlanders
written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis
directed by Hugh David

With "Power" having served well as a springboard, the creative team needed the second serial to truly launch the new Doctor; unfortunately, Gerry Davis -- the rare Who story editor who pretty much mucked up everything he touched -- takes a historical leap and lands in a belly-flop. Subbing last-minute for writer Elwyn Jones, who'd barely submitted an outline before being summoned back to Z Cars, Davis did enough research to get by, but no more; the result reads like a high-school term paper, not like a narrative -- and one that eschews the initial setting, the Jacobite Rebellion, in favor of a lurching plot-line heavily borrowed from Robert Lewis Stevenson's Kidnapped. And the key question required of any Doctor's second serial, once the introductions are over -- "What is he like?" -- is disastrously answered. Davis tries to emulate Donald Cotton in tone, but it's like he forgot to let the Second Doctor in on the joke. The Doctor comes off like a sitcom stooge dropped into a historical: donning disguise after disguise, each more absurd than the last, none particularly effectual. At one point, Polly gushes to the Doctor, "You're wonderful," and later, "You're fantastic," but it reeks of scriptwriter desperation, because it's far removed from the reality of what we're seeing. Most of the heroics in "The Highlanders" fall to Ben and Polly, but ironically, as a result of their increased exposure, the serial pretty much marks their death-knell. They were originally engaged (and engaging) as swinging contrasts to the old-school First Doctor; now, absorbing more of the urgency of the plot, with a lead who's already manic and outrageous, their high-pitched performances wear thin. Jamie has almost nothing to do in his introductory story, but you understand instantly why his calmness, warmth and innocence seemed a better fit with the Second Doctor. The best thing to be said about "The Highlanders": if it's ever found, it'll probably look gorgeous. As a listening experience, it's a headache of historic proportions.

The Underwater Menace
written by Geoffrey Orme
directed by Julia Smith

It's the Second Doctor team trying to replicate a First Doctor story -- and getting everything wrong. It's like a bad "Web Planet" with people, where everything exotic becomes garish instead. Writer Geoffrey Orme was nearly four decades into his career; by this point, he'd apparently forgotten how people speak. Straightforward lines are awkwardly inverted, as if they'd been translated from a lost language, and director Julia Smith can't seem to impose any consistency of style in the playing. Redemptive readings suggest that Joseph Furst's mad scientist is a deliberate (and somehow delicious) piece of camp; it's a piece of something, that's for sure. (It's the kind of criminal over-playing that would briefly dominate the series in Season 17.) Only one member of the guest cast does anything resembling credible acting: Tom Watson as Andon, the Chief Priest. A decade into an extraordinary career that would ultimately span nearly half a century, he manages to be quiet and affecting in a serial that's anything but. Troughton is still polishing his character, but he's two steps ahead of the writer and script editor, while Michael Craze and Frazer Hines actually have fairly good outings. Hines's comes as the expense of Anneke Wills, reduced here to damsel in distress; the diminishment of Polly allows Hines to show the dashing assertiveness that would distinguish his later work -- and a couple of his line-readings near the end, when he and Polly fear their companions may have perished, inject a wistfulness into the proceedings that's unexpected. Hines's line readings alone might inspire a redemptive reading of "Underwater Menace," if they weren't immediately followed by the Atlantean chief surgeon, in what's intended as a stirring speech, vowing to move on, "to build a new Atlantis, without gods and without fish people" -- and at that point, you're forgiven for thinking that the fabled city of Atlantis was submerged simply because it was too appalling to leave where anyone could see it.

The Moonbase
written by Kit Pedler
directed by Morris Barry

Episode 1 brings the promise of an intelligent script, something that's been lacking the last few months. By Episode 2, it's clear that intelligence only gets you so far: that personality, pacing and plot would be nice, too. Episode 2 feels like it lasts a year; at one point, six scientists gather around their commander, and you realize they're indistinguishable from each other -- that not one has been given a defining, recognizable characteristic. And when these ciphers start mouthing jibber-jabber ("Check the gravitation units." "Field stabilising at 48, Mister Hobson." "Prepare to move probe. Check coordinates." "Twenty degree tilt complete." "The field's not correcting. We'll have to increase the reactor power." "You can't do that. The torus will burn out."), "The Moonbase" becomes anathema. (It's the kind of generic scripting Derek Martinus could address with ease, because he'd cast for variety and propel the pacing along, but Morris Barry directs with the instincts of a metronome.) In Episode 3, even Polly and Ben turn into scientists -- all Kit Pedler can envision apparently -- as they devise a cocktail to toss at the Cybermen. Jamie fares better. His contract hadn't been picked up past "The Highlanders" when Pedler wrote his initial outline, so he copes with his addition by knocking him unconscious five minutes in and keeping him bedridden as long as possible. But ironically, Jamie's storyline is the only element that feels remotely human. Jamie lying injured, groggy and alone -- as Cybermen emerge to steal people away -- plays into some of our most basic childhood fears: of overnight hospital stays; of being in bed, paralyzed with fear, while things go bump in the night. "Moonbase" is the serial where you see the Second Doctor finally start to take shape and take charge. (Troughton -- growing ever more comfortable in the role -- does it against all odds. In Episode 2, the Doctor is forced to do a comic bit with scissors reminiscent of Harpo Marx in Duck Soup; in Episode 3, apparently still channeling Harpo, he barely has any lines.) But mostly it's a lumbering affair with leaden direction. Is the Troughton era ever gonna get good?

The Macra Terror
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by John Davies

It begins, and you breathe a sigh of relief: Doctor Who is back. The surviving clips look remarkably good, but more than that, director John Davies lets the dialogue breathe, find its own pace and dynamic level. He shapes the serial, in a way that no Troughton director had to that point. But Ian Stuart Black is the true hero of "The Macra Terror," and in fact, he's one of the forgotten heroes of Doctor Who: forgotten because, as with others, most of his serials are missing. And ironically, the one that survives, "The War Machines," is the least of his efforts; it sets Hartnell in present-day London, and surrounds him with hipsters, and feels "novel," but it's essentially a straight-forward adventure. But "The Savages" and, in particular, "Macra Terror" are something more: glimpses into a dystopian future masquerading as an idyllic one, where people are treated as commodities, where individuality is sacrificed to conformity, creativity to obedience. In some ways, in its depiction of a fascist society, yet one eerily like our own, it's even more relevant today than it was when originally aired. Black was, like Chris Boucher a decade later, the rare free-lance writer who seemed to have a better idea of where the show should be headed than the production team. He knew how to create well-defined characters with short, bold strokes -- and then how to further develop them across four episodes -- and he always had a good grasp of how to use the regulars. The change in Troughton when he's given a good script and an empathetic director is astounding; his performance in "Macra Terror" is the first time all the traits he'd been playing with since "Power of the Daleks" coalesce; at times, his line readings take your breath away. It takes a while, but in "Macra Terror," the Second Doctor becomes the Doctor. Black uses Michael Craze's edgy intensity to cast him in a villainous light, and he's never been better; with Ben's sanity temporarily derailed, Jamie is then able to assume more of a leading man role, and it suits Frazer Hines splendidly. Only poor Anneke Wills, once again, is reduced to shrieking in terror for much of the serial; it's almost as if producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis, once they'd decided to let her go, were determined to give her material that suited her least, so they wouldn't get second thoughts.

The Faceless Ones
written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke
directed by Gerry Mill

Early Malcolm Hulke isn't much different from later Malcolm Hulke: earnest, slow and occasionally maddening. Subtlety wasn't a strong suit of Hulke's, even in his more notable Who contributions, and it isn't here either: his villains are dripping with malice and foreign accents; the airport officials are there only to doubt the Doctor's veracity and impede the investigation. At one point in Episode 2, a secretary is about to impart key information that could crack the case wide open, but the commandant cuts her off -- thus allowing the plot to continue for another four episodes. (It's the kind of "stall" tactic I lament here.) And it feels like every five minutes, the villains pull out their ray gun; it's peril-by-the-numbers. Like Morris Barry before him, first- and last-time Who director Gerry Mill imposes a stately rhythm that's annoying and exhausting. Several of his long shots are disorienting -- you have no idea what you're supposed to be following -- and the excess of establishing shots is a visual snoozefest. (He keeps cutting to planes taking off and landing, and you wonder if you're supposed to glean something from it, but then you realize it's just his way of saying, "We're still at the airport.") By the end of Episode 3, you're ready to call it quits -- but then things get noticeably better at the halfway mark. The supporting roles expand, to good effect, and the villains reveal their out-of-this-world agenda, and "Faceless Ones" moves nicely to its conclusion, with some strong women working alongside the men, which is almost a miracle for the Gerry Davis era. The last act is essentially the Doctor bluffing as he brokers a peace treaty, and remarkably, all the people he's converted to his plan are bright enough to anticipate and accommodate his moves. For everything it gets wrong, "Faceless Ones" is the rare Who where the plot resolves itself by people acting reasonably and responsibly. It's one of the sanest of the Troughton serials.

The Evil of the Daleks
written by David Whitaker
directed by Derek Martinus

Whitaker returns to the series, looks around, asks with bemusement, "What have you been doing since I left?" -- and sets things right. He envisions a darker Doctor, one who'll sacrifice a few to save the lives of many; he turns Jamie from a boy into a man, imbuing him with resolve, tenacity and loyalty; and creates a new companion who's there mostly to simper and scream, to bring out the best in Jamie so that he in turn can bring out the best in the Doctor. It's a format that will serve the show well for the following six serials, most of them brilliant. In a strange way, "Evil of the Daleks" is regarded as one of the great Who serials and yet still remains underrated, partly because the structure is so novel, some find it unnerving: every time you feel you have a handle on where it's heading, it deceives you. "Power of the Daleks" was a sturdy but traditional narrative, with stock characters and a steady build. Here, Whitaker juggles time periods and tropes and images like a master magician: just setting the stage takes nearly three episodes, but there are so many sleights of hand (the first episode confidently crosscuts between a hunt for the missing TARDIS and a Victorian antique store that's not what it seems to be), so many graceful juxtapositions (Victoria, imprisoned by Daleks, feeding birds like an animated Disney princess) and so many pay-offs (the first Dalek reveal, for the viewer, is outdone by the second reveal, to showcase Troughton's reaction) that by the time the "real" adventure gets underway -- the Daleks' quest for the "Human Factor," which turns out to be bogus -- you're already in a sort of bedazzled delirium. And once that plot is in motion, there are still unexpected detours and delights and reckonings to come. It's one of Troughton's three best performances (the others being "Enemy of the World" and "War Games"), but equally important to the success of "Evil" is how Jamie comes into his own; freed from being the third wheel in the double-act lovefest that was Ben and Polly, Frazer Hines both relaxes and grows more assured. The great Doctor-Jamie bromance that would sustain the series for another two seasons isn't the mutual admiration society that we nostalgically remember. Jamie and the Doctor are given permission to love each other and still lose it with each other, like real best friends -- and it all begins here.

Up next: Season 5.

2 comments:

  1. Another classic post! It does take Pat a while to find his feet - I feel he's there by The Moonbase but there are glimmers in The Underwater Menace. As for Menace, the recently recovered and released episode 2 could be the single worst episode of Dr Who ever!! It was dreadful!! A shame Evil is still missing presumed junked - I love the Jamie/Doctor row, it's a key moment.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I had forgotten -- until my recent rewatch -- that it takes Troughton (and the writers) a while to find his character: understandable since the whole concept had never been tried before. (It takes Davison a while too, because his character was such a departure from Pertwee and Baker's.) This was the first time I'd seen the newly recovered "Underwater" Episode 2, and (obviously) I'm with you: I had read some reviews suggesting that that new episode suddenly brought the whole serial info focus and forced a re-evaluation. I sure didn't see it: I found it as train-wreck awful as the rest!

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