Sunday, January 31, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 5)

Part 2 of a three-part series: capsule reviews of all twenty-one Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials. To read from the start, click here.

The Tomb of the Cybermen
written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
directed by Morris Barry

A serial as ugly in attitude as it is in appearance. Their power waning, the Cybermen freeze themselves in a tomb and wait for someone to come along and thaw them; it's a premise light on logic, but so is the rest of "Tomb." It's the kind of serial where the Doctor warns Victoria to stay away from a dormant Cybermat, so she irrationally dumps it in her purse, just so it can come back to life and terrorize everyone later. (It's the kind of serial where Victoria conveniently carries a purse big enough to hold a Cybermat.) Where a woman doesn't believe a Cybermat is sneaking up behind her, even though it's beeping like a smoke detector, and later, where a madman is too busy ranting to notice a Cyberman moving in for the kill. And as generations have discovered to their horror, it's the kind of serial that insists you beware of anyone who's not Caucasian, because they'll all be villains or threats. Morris Barry has no grasp on the narrative; it's like he was handed the script the day shooting began. The Episode 1 cliffhanger is clearly designed to suggest a Cyberman has killed someone, but as Barry shoots it, he makes it clear the blast came from a machine on the opposite end of the room -- so that when the Doctor, in Episode 2, uncovers the "real" explanation, there's no surprise. And Barry films the key scene -- the Cybermen's emergence from their multi-level tomb -- with no idea how to show scale. He shoots it all in a wide shot, then cuts to the humans staring up at a 30-degree angle, suggesting the tomb is about eight feet high. As shot, it looks like a lot of mini-Cybers are coming out of the fridge. By the end, pretty much everyone has been slaughtered, except the lead scientist and the American pilot who speaks like a cowboy -- and although stories where the victims pile up one by one can be great fun (e.g., "Robots of Death," "Horror of Fang Rock"), "Tomb" trips up too much on its implausible plotting, indifferent direction, unsubtle racism and drab design.

The Abominable Snowmen
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Gerald Blake

Troughton's second season is either revered or reviled for being an "all-monsters, base-under-siege" season. It's not only an over-simplification, it's inaccurate. Other Classic Who seasons -- 11, 12 and 21 come to mind -- boast more monsters per square acre, and few of the Season 5 serials feature the one-set "base" that typify such stories. "Abominable Snowmen" is almost the opposite of what folks think of when they imagine Season 5. As it explores the hills and caves of Tibet, and the religious chambers, dungeons and forbidden rooms of a monastery, it feels in some ways more a First Doctor story than a Second. It's evocative and ethereal, as much mood piece as adventure, which makes the inevitable scares all the more impactful. Cast with care and sensitively played, "Abominable Snowmen" boasts ambience, novelty and a director so confident in his talent and his material that, in an inspired combination of ingenuity and trust, he dispenses with a musical score (that crutch too often used to bind together Who's disparate elements and gloss over its weaker moments), allowing the monastery to provide its own natural accompaniment. There's one contrivance to set the story in motion -- the usual "Doctor accused of a crime he didn't commit" -- but beyond that, the plot unfolds naturally and logically, at its own pace, and it's captivating. In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another story where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force. but the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust, worship and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories -- and gives a complexity and depth to the serial that's rare. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we follow our leaders, our gods or our hearts? -- and it explores its themes gently, without overstating or offering pat solutions. Despite the presence of those cuddly little Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, "Abominable Snowmen" is one of the most adult, thought-provoking stories in the Who canon.

The Ice Warriors
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Derek Martinus

If there must be monster stories (and, of course, there must), could they all be directed as well as "Ice Warriors"? In anyone else's hands, the serial might have dissolved into a puddle of goo, but Martinus holds it together in his nerviest style. His visual approach is so bold, he almost dares you not to watch -- right from the start, as he sets the creative credits against an icy backdrop while sirens sing. If "Evil of the Daleks" showed he could weave disparate plot strands into something cohesive, "Warriors" proves he can take a potentially stagnant story and dazzle. (It's the show's greatest directorial tour-de-force until David Maloney on "Deadly Assassin.") And to Hayles' great credit, although his assignment was "give us a new monster," he understands that the true monsters are those in human form: here, the ones who destroy each other in the name of science. At the heart of "The Ice Warriors" is a frosty relationship desperately in need of thawing: between the imperious Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth, a triumph of method-acting mannerisms) and his canny but erratic chief scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, all avuncular scuffiness). "The Ice Warriors" feeds off those characters; at its core, it's not a story about a crisis that pits humans against Ice Warriors -- it's about a crisis that allows two men to resolve their differences, and all the subplots (most of them in Episodes 2 & 3, and most, ironically, deleted in the DVD's telesnap "reduction") revolve around that conflict. Like another free-lancer, Ian Stuart Black, Hayles invariably understood the strengths of the regular cast, and how best to use them. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria were a tremendous team, and never more so than here. While Deborah Watling wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, she serves exactly the role David Whitaker designed for her. She brings out a side of Jamie that's strong, protective, confident and occasionally flirtatious; he becomes a more dynamic character because of her. Best-remembered as the "monster" season, Season 5 isn't most memorable for the monsters at all, but for the people fighting them -- and "The Ice Warriors" is the purest example.

The Enemy of the World
written by David Whitaker
directed by Barry Letts

Even before the five missing episodes were located, it was one of the great Classic Who serials. Troughton's bravura dual performance (as the Doctor, and as Salamander, would-be dictator of the world) came through clearly in the surviving audio, starting with the glorious sequence near the end of Episode 1 in which the Doctor watches Salamander deliver a speech and then deconstructs, digests and assumes his accent. That said, now that it's been rediscovered and restored, and we can see that the visuals are beyond anything we'd dreamed (including a romp in the ocean that's pure bliss), it takes its place as Troughton's defining serial, as "The Deadly Assassin" is for Tom Baker and "Snakedance" is for Peter Davison. It's not merely a remarkable acting feat, cunningly sustained for six weeks -- it's a brilliant plot that keeps piling on surprises. The Holmes-Hinchcliffe years, finding many of the Pertwee six-parters problematic, aimed to make theirs palatable by dividing them into two parts, and abruptly switching gears after the first or second third: a 2+4, or a 4+2. They should have just looked a little further back, to Whitaker's approach: he simply develops a plot so layered that he doesn't need to change course; he can merely peel it back episode by episode. (The revelation that comes in Episode 4 -- and it's a doozy -- doesn't send the serial in a new direction; it's more the "missing piece" that enlarges its scope and propels it to its conclusion.) Flawlessly cast, fearlessly directed and splendidly performed, with a special nod to Mary Peach as Astrid, one of the great guest stars in all of Classic Who. She fights, she flirts, she flies -- and when she and Troughton are seated on a sofa, playfully interrogating each other (Astrid: "Oh, you're a doctor?" The Doctor: "Well, not of any medical significance." Astrid: "Doctor of law? Philosophy?" Doctor: "Which law? Whose philosophies?"), the halcyon days of '60s television are at their most heavenly.

The Web of Fear
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Douglas Camfield

The recovery of missing Doctor Who serials is an odd phenomenon. People greeted "Enemy of the World" with amazement -- "it was far better than I'd imagined" -- even though 90% of the serial's delights could be gleaned from the audio. "Web of Fear," on the other hand, prompted sighs of "oh, I guess it's not a masterpiece after all"; the response was one of bemused disappointment -- whereas it should have been ecstatic. It was easy to hear, from the audio alone, that it was a pretty standard action-adventure piece, without the depth or ambition of Haisman and Lincoln's previous Yeti yarn, and one that ran out of steam roughly two-thirds of the way through; what we couldn't have foreseen -- even knowing the genius that is Douglas Camfield -- is how he would transform it, how he would mine it for every bit of tension and excitement. Camfield probably never worked harder in his life, and thank goodness, because with the visuals restored, you still see the flaws (the repetitive nature of the plot, the letdown of the reveal, the fussiness at the end), but now you don't really care, because the serial grabs you by the throat and never lets go. And one other thing you couldn't quite glean from the audio: the magnificence of Nicholas Courtney's performance. In the audio, you could hear the actor's confidence; the video reveals that, even in his first appearance, he was already at his most charismatic and charming. You understand instantly why he was invited back. As with "Abominable Snowmen," the characters are well-drawn, and unlike that all-male serial, this one boasts a superb female character, with one of the best smackdowns of male chauvinism in Who history. When the smarmy TV reporter asks scientist Anne Travers, "What's a girl like you doing in a job like this?", she responds, "Well, when I was a little girl, I thought I'd like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist." Bravo, Season 5. Brava!

Fury From the Deep
written by Christopher Pemberton
directed by Hugh David

Sort of the quintessential Troughton story -- not because it's the best, but because it cobbles together elements used throughout the era. There's the mind-controlling monster, the scientific compound, the intractable leader, the multi-cultural cast. You've seen it all before, and you've probably seen it done better -- but "Fury From the Deep" is the hardest Troughton serial to judge. Other serials are fully missing too, but they contain clues as to what the finished product is like: video clips that provide a glimpse of the acting style or the production design or the directorial flair -- or at the very least, based on your familiarity with the creative team, you can evaluate the work effectively. Hugh David's only other Who credit is the missing "Highlanders," which boasts an irritatingly busy soundtrack; "Fury" is deafening only in its silences -- there are portentous pauses between lines -- and it's impossible to know if David filled them well, or if the pacing is indeed sluggish. And the key component we'd need to see to judge the serial properly -- the effectiveness of the foam-producing seaweed that's at the heart of the story -- is nowhere to be found in the video clips; it might look sensational, or it might look silly. Here's what's evident: it's a mean-spirited send-off for Victoria (using her penchant for screaming as a means to defeat the monsters: it mocks her character and undercuts her farewell -- oh, and it's a stupid idea, too), and it's a bit of a chore to listen to. The Doctor tries to warn the sea base that there's something growing in their pipes -- and that's really about it. Pemberton's script is mostly concerned with offering up a few good scares: there are no sturdy character arcs, no symmetrical or convergent story-lines, no social or moral issues raised. In that respect, it's closest to "Web of Fear," but there's no reason to think that Hugh David was able to transform the story the way Doug Camfield did that one. "Fury" doesn't appear to be slipshod, like "Tomb," or brilliant, like pretty much the rest of Season 5; it feels derivative because most everything had been done before, but quite apart from that, nothing about it feels particularly persuasive.

The Wheel in Space
written by David Whitaker
directed by Tristan deVere Cole

Superb: the forgotten stepchild of Season 5 -- and one of the best of the Classic Cybermen stories. The direction is striking, the set design imaginative, the costumes effective -- but it's the characters that linger. Whitaker plots the Cybermen's return as a slice-of-life drama, about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future, examining the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and exploring our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And he uses the Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. The Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which he measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, has never properly developed human emotions; a fellow crewmember refers to her as "a robot, a machine" -- not unlike how the Doctor describes the Cybermen. ("They were once human beings like yourself, but now they're more robot than man.") To herself, she's a freak, one without the intuitive tools to face the unknown. Whitaker has had his fill of folks getting "stranded" on the TARDIS; with Vicki, with Victoria, and now with Zoe, he gives us characters who need to travel with the Doctor, who'll benefit from the experience. "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable. It continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond, but here it's done with a lightness of touch that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. Fittingly for a serial that stresses character over carnage, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an English man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all. (I offer a full review of "Wheel in Space" here.)

Up next: Season 6.

2 comments:

  1. You really have strong views on your Who which I like! I differ in several ways, not least in quite liking Tomb (it's 1960s racism notwithstanding), especially that lovely scene with Jamie and the Doc charming Victoria into the tomb and the Doc's family speech. I also don't rate Whitaker quite as highly as you do (though I do rate him). I do like Enemy but I find it a little plodding and Troughton's Salamander a little too comedy voice like for my taste. As for Wheel - we'll have to agree to differ. Though I love Zoe, I find it convoluted to the point of nonsense. Aren't the Cybermen supposed to be logical?Not so fussed about the Ice Warriors but I do like Web which you rightly say is directed with real panache. Looking forward to Season 6!

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    1. I always enjoying "agreeing to disagree" with you! You know Classic Who so much better than I do, I'm just flattered you take the time to read and respond. Yah, I know I'm in the minority, but I don't think I'll ever make friends with "Tomb." As I think I note elsewhere, my first Troughton was "War Games," sometime in late 2011. I then took a break to focus on other Doctors; when I decided to do a Troughton binge in the fall of 2012, I looked at what was available, and picked up the first surviving serial: "Tomb." I hated it, for all the reasons noted above, and thought, I hope the next one's better -- but of course, at that time, the next one available was "Dominators"! Thank heavens for all the brilliant reconstructions out there, of missing Troughton serials. I will say, I absolutely adored "Enemy" from the first time I watched a reconstruction, and enjoyed it threefold when I finally saw the finished product. It's still the Troughton I return to most.

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