Thursday, March 17, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 6)

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

The Dominators
written by "Norman Ashby" (pseudonym for Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln)
directed by Morris Barry

It's possible to envision a "Dominators" that isn't half bad. You'd have to get rid of the costumes and almost the entire guest cast, which means it's a serial best enjoyed by just reading the script. As you peruse the script, it's unlikely you'll envision the men in strapless party dresses with accordion bodices, or the titular characters in tortoise-shell shoulder pads. As you continue reading, and get to the young rebel who's paired with Zoe, all fired up in defiance of a sedentary society, it's doubtful you'll imagine him played by a pudgy, balding actor with the sex appeal of a squid. And when you come to the two elderly roles, Educator Balan and the Director of the Dulcians, you'll mentally picture an array of great, aging British actors who could play the parts, and probably won't settle on the dull duo cast here. So just read the script to "The Dominators" online, or if you're not really a fan of reading, then sure: watch the DVD. Just try to come in knowing nothing about the serial, so you won't realize that the Quarks were designed to be the next deadly, recurring monster; without that knowledge, you'll presume they were supposed to be cute and cuddly, like box-shaped Chumblies. And without knowing the odious intent behind Heisman and Lincoln's script -- to mock peaceful protesters, to make fun of the "make love, not war" movement -- you'll presume it's an examination of how a pacifist society defends itself against an act of aggression, and you'll accord it a degree of respect it doesn't deserve. And occasionally, you'll enjoy focusing on what's actually happening on the screen, because once you get past the costumes and the casting, there are quite a few things "The Dominators" gets right: some bright, clever exchanges; striking zoom shots and the kind of tilt shots that eluded Morris Barry in "Tomb of the Cybermen"; and one of Frazer Hines's finest Who performances, with a clever reference back to "The Highlanders" that lets you recall the boy Jamie was and admire the man he's become. Best of all: two block comedy scenes with Troughton and Hines -- one aboard an alien ship, where they feign idiocy, and one where they turn themselves upside down trying to rewire a space cruiser -- where they're in top form, nailing every gag like a couple of vaudeville troopers. I say, Jamie, I believe we were the most delectable pair in all of Classic Who. Positively, Mr. Troughton? Absolutely, Mr. Hines.

The Mind Robber
written by Peter Ling
directed by David Maloney

It starts brilliant and ends brilliant; it's sustained brilliance that eludes it. One of the dangers of a serial like "The Mind Robber" is that when you build a story on, as the Doctor describes them, "conjuring tricks," you'd better have an endless bag of them, because the plot isn't building in any traditional way. Ling's bag is three-fourths full. Make no mistake: "The Mind Robber" is remarkable -- it's the Troughton era stretching beyond its own technical capabilities, in a way the early Hartnell era did routinely. But there's also something static and uncertain at its core. By the time Episode 3 ends with basically the same cliffhanger as Episode 2, the repetitive nature of the plot starts to grow tiresome, and once Episode 4 dissolves into some shaky set-pieces (Zoe doing repeated judo flips on a 21st-century comic-strip character, and later setting off an alarm in panic, as if she's never faced danger before; the Doctor bluffing his way into a castle with a comic accent that brings to mind the worst parts of "The Highlanders"), you can feel Ling flailing for ideas. (And by the way, the antagonist, the man in the high castle, has monitors tracking activity throughout his kingdom, but none at his own front door?) Ling tries to suggest that the traps set for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are there to gauge the Doctor's resourcefulness, to see if he's a worthy successor, but that's not borne out in the final confrontation, when we learn that all that's required is "a man of boundless imagination." So ultimately, the conjuring tricks serve no real narrative function, and David Maloney -- in what imdb lists as his first professional directorial gig -- offers no solutions. Maloney would ultimately blossom into one of the best Who helmers; here he has good ideas and a "can do" spirit, but he can't yet dazzle like a Derek Martinus, or dig deep like a Doug Camfield. At times, he seems overwhelmed by the material. (At the end of Part 4, Zoe and Jamie are supposedly trapped between the pages of a giant book, even though, as staged, there's a clear escape route.) The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story never feel less than impressive. But still you're left with a nagging irritation that the serial deserved one final rewrite, and someone more experienced calling the shots.

The Invasion
written by Derrick Sherwin
directed by Douglas Camfield

In a funny-sad paradox, the first four episodes -- where nothing happens -- are riveting; it's the final four -- where everything happens -- that grow tedious. Sherwin knew that Camfield would be directing, so he knew he could underwrite the first half, leading up to the Cyberman reveal, and that Camfield, with his gift for sustaining tension through detail, could make the slow pace work to his advantage. It features the Doctor and Jamie playing spy and rescue games by land, by air and by sea, and it's very much their last hurrah: when, trapped in an elevator shaft, the Doctor proposes a solution for escape, and Jamie tells him, "You know something? You're a clever wee chappie," and the Doctor blushes, it seems infused with the love between two longtime friends: both the actors and the characters. Once the Cybermen are revealed, Sherwin's plot goes to pieces. It only needed a two-episode wrap-up, but with four more to go, he throws in a lot of technobabble masquerading as science: a cerebraton mentor machine (that can induce fear in the Cybermen: sure, why not?), micro-monolithic circuits (so the Cybermen can activate their "Cyber-hypnotic force"), implanted audio-rejection capsules and depolerisers (to neutralize the Cyber-hypnotic force) -- and finally, not one, not two, but three Cyber attacks, the last a "Cyber-megatron bomb" that will "destroy life on Earth completely." Every time you think the plot is winding down -- no, the Cybermen have an even bigger back-up plan; after a while, when they've thrown everything at us but the kitchen sink, you start to fear that Sherwin is going to kill another fifteen minutes by having them throw a giant kitchen sink at us. Rare for Camfield, he loses his grip in the final episodes. Shooting fell behind, so some key scenes were abandoned and hastily rewritten, and the choppiness is noticeable. But beyond that, Camfield litters the final third with odd setups (Zoe's photographer pal, dressed in what looks like a waitress uniform, keeps stealing focus even in scenes where she's unused), strangely disconnected line readings, and a peppy patriotic theme that emerges at the oddest times.

The Krotons
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney

As David Whitaker conceived her, Zoe Heriot was a troubled soul, one who could spout facts for days, but had little empathy or imagination. But as the next set of stories were assigned, it seems clear that script editor Derrick Sherwin told the writers, "She's smart," and pretty much left it at that, because the side of Zoe with life-lessons to learn rarely re-emerges. (Tellingly, when she sees her home city on the TARDIS monitor in "Mind Robber," she refers to it as just that: "my home city" -- no name; it's like her backstory has been wiped clean.) And one of the dangers of defining Zoe purely by her intellect is that with two brilliant minds aboard the TARDIS, Jamie -- after two years of dutiful service-- now gets handed the most tedious of companion duties: he becomes the one who asks all the questions, so that the Doctor and Zoe will provide all the answers, so that we average-IQ viewers at home will understand what's going on. "The Krotons" doesn't just feature that two-geniuses-and-a-dimwit dynamic, it builds a plot around it. It highlights it and magnifies it. An irony of Doctor Who is that with so much of Seasons 4 and 5 missing for years, most viewers only saw this side of Jamie -- they didn't see what had been lost. But if you watch from "The Highlanders" on, and observe his growth -- in assurance, intellect and wit -- then Season 6, as it goes along, is more than mildly offensive. It's "Flowers for Jamie," as everything gets stripped away -- and "The Krotons" is its nadir. The devolution of Jamie -- who, newly-minted neanderthal that he is here, provokes a pointless fist-fight five minutes into the proceedings -- isn't the most notable thing about "The Krotons," but it's one of the few that sticks with you. The serial is unmemorable, with bland characters over-acting in wild, declamatory fashion, and a plot that seems both vague and messy. It's Troughton's worst Who performance; evidently aware of the tripe he was handed, he mugs incessantly, reducing his patented look of flustered horror from a character trait to a can't-miss gag. "The Krotons" was the first Troughton since "Underwater Menace" to see its ratings decline each week it aired -- and not a subtle decline, as with "Underwater": over 20% of its viewership bailed between the first episode and the last. Ratings are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but here, it's apt: the two worst Troughtons had the worst audience retention. Power to the people.

The Seeds of Death
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Michael Ferguson

Another moon base, but thank heavens, not another "Moonbase." It's a solid, if unspectacular work, with an end-of-an-era feel that, in hindsight, feels inescapably moving. What nearly trips up "Seeds of Death" is, ironically, the Ice Warrior design itself. Set against the snow and ice of their origin story, the grey monster costumes stood out nicely; here, in a more traditional spaceship setting, they start to blend into the background, and at first, you fear "Seeds of Death" is going to prove visually bland. But Michael Ferguson, as he would later do in "Claws of Axos," uses every trick at his disposal to sustain visual interest, and at times, the tricks come at a whirlwind pace, even when he has to upend the tone of the narrative to do so. (There's one Keystone Cops-style chase through an interplanetary house of mirrors that's delightful, however incongruous.) Jamie is pretty much wasted throughout (he was originally to have departed the series in the previous adventure, and most of his late-addition lines are of the "now what do we do?" variety: it's the dumbing-down of Jamie noted above), but it's one of Zoe's best Season 6 serials. It's one of the few times, post "Wheel in Space," where we get to see the Zoe we first met: not merely brilliant, but sometimes seriously lacking in empathy and tact (when she instructs Jamie, "Now you watch this dial, and when it reads full, switch it off," and then adds curtly, "Now do you think you can remember that?," you just want to bitch-slap her), yet clearly struggling to be a more rounded individual -- and Wendy Padbury is wonderful throughout. Troughton looks tired for the first three episodes -- he'd take the fourth off -- but that weariness works to the serial's advantage; its futuristic setting is imbued with nostalgia for "simpler" times, and Troughton's more muted performance seems somehow sympathetic to that notion: that the world is spinning too fast, and that good ideas -- and good men -- are being forgotten in the process.

The Space Pirates
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Michael Hart

Fan polls usually place this one at the bottom of the barrel -- maybe just above "Twin Dilemma" -- but it's not that bad. (It's bad, just not that bad.) It's a step up from "The Krotons" in terms of clarity and pacing, with characters you can actually tell apart. There's still plenty wrong: the three principals are underused and misused: we lose track of them for large chunks, and when they do appear, they barely interact with most of the supporting cast. And the character of prospector Milo Clancey is atrocious. Nearly every sci-fi show in the '60s was doing its "space western," typically with some geezer who seemed a relic from the California Gold Rush -- so why should Who be any different? At least when they did it on American television (Lost in Space started its second season with a "space miner" much like the one on Doctor Who), they knew the history, and mined the truth behind the fiction; as Robert Holmes writes it (dreadfully), and as Gordon Gostelow plays it (shakily), it's about five steps removed from any known reality. Gostelow, elsewhere a talented actor, is done in by the absurdity of Holmes's caricature, with no idea how to pitch or modulate it. What works particularly well in "The Space Pirates"? Here's the short list: Lisa Daniely, Lisa Daniely and Lisa Daniely. The actress offers up a charismatic performance in a serial that doesn't deserve it. (She ultimately enjoyed a career spanning half a century, but at that time, was best known for the TV adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.) "The Space Pirates" is a tough serial to make friends with. The one surviving episode is the worst of the six, and it's one of the few Whos without telesnaps, which means the reconstructions are static and repetitious. But in the surviving episode, and in the audio, you can make out the subtle effectiveness of Daniely's performance, and she's the one character that seems to really engage Holmes's creativity. Her character has made a deal with the devil, and over the course of the serial, we find out exactly the price she's had to pay. To its great credit, we get a lot of strong, commanding women during the Troughton era; here we get someone whose strength is a pretense -- she turns out to be just as fragile and flawed as the rest of us. And Daniely's graceful performance elevates "Space Pirates" from a serial worth avoiding to one worth a (quick) visit.

The War Games
written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
directed by David Maloney

If all the serials in Season 6 had lived up to their promise, it would have been one of the most sensational seasons in Classic Who history. The variety of settings and story-lines and styles is staggering -- it's Doctor Who working without a net. Where Season 6 trips up is in the execution. If you read any behind-the-scenes stories, you keep seeing the troubles they were having getting decent scripts commissioned and in shape for filming -- but you don't need to read the backstage chatter: the scrappiness is evident on the screen. Serials constantly seem in need of a final rewrite, or feel padded and stretched beyond their proper length. Not until season's end are you fully and completely blown away. One can't pretend that, at ten episodes, "The War Games" doesn't feel long; it's full of the sort of capture-and-escape plotting that Malcolm Hulke would practically hone to an art form in "Frontier in Space." But here the redundancies of the story-line seem shrewdly tied to the subject matter: the futility of war, where battles are fought and re-fought but victories rarely won. Hulke, Dicks and Maloney make one smart move after another. The tone teeters artfully between grim drama and ferocious comedy, permitting them to switch gears anytime the story-line starts to sag. The revelations are carefully spaced and cleverly placed. The setting allows Jamie to shine in battle, and Zoe to play with technology -- and it gives the Doctor a backstory that inspires one of Troughton's most tense and tremulous performances. And contrary to the way the ending is often remembered, it's in fact strangely uplifting. The Time Lords wipe most of Zoe and Jamie's memories, but let them recall their first adventure with the Doctor -- and as we see Jamie return home, newly primed for battle after the events of "The Highlanders," and Zoe return to the wheel in space, noticeably softer around the edges than the "robot" we first met, we're reminded of the impact the Doctor can have in just one short serial. We think of the thousands of characters who've shared only one story with the Doctor, and how their worlds became different -- and perhaps we reflect on how our own lives were altered, too, after just one adventure in space and time. And although the Doctor, about to be exiled to Earth, rages that he doesn't want his face changed, we know -- as audiences knew in 1968, because they'd seen it happen before, and been rewarded with the marvel that is Patrick Troughton -- that change can be a good thing. The end of "War Games" glows with promise. It makes you eager for the next great adventure.


Want more Classic Who? I offer up a re-evaluation of the Third Doctor era -- plus capsule reviews -- here, and an overview of the Fifth Doctor era -- plus capsule reviews -- here.

7 comments:

  1. Another quality overview. Season 6 is a variable season but I'm glad we got away from endless 'base under siege' tales. The first ep of Mind Robber is a cracker (added at the eleventh hour with no cast and minimal money) but there are some duffers in there too. The Krotons is in the 'so bad it's good' bracket while the Dominators is 'so bad it's gone past good and is bad again'. I also like The War Games but it does go on (and on). On the plus side, I love Zoe - one of my favourite companions. In fact, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are one my favourite TARDIS teams.

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    1. I can't even put "The Krotons" in the "so bad, it's good" column -- I think I actively loathe it. It feels like most of it is just people screaming their lines; if they modulated the dialogue a bit, I think I could assess it more easily, but as it's played, it makes my ears ring... :) And I was much kinder to "Dominators" than I expected to be. The first episode is such a shocker, with those monstrous costumer and amateur guest-cast acting. But it does, in its strange way, get better as it goes along, and Troughton and Hines are marvelous. They, as always, compensate for a lot.

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  2. I don't know that I'd say the second half of The Invasion is tedious, exactly, but you're not completely wrong. It is notable that after the Cybermen invade London (and the world) you don't see them for the entirety of the next episode!

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    1. Perhaps "tedious" was the wrong word. But I do grow antsy during the last four episodes. I think "Invasion" would have made a spectacular six-parter -- but to me, there's simply not enough varied material to fill four episodes after the Cyber-reveal.

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  3. The thing is, how many Cybermen tales have really been that good? I love the metal meanies but they seem a better concept in principle than in actuality. They are probably better as henchmen, as in Dark Water, than villains in their own right. I do like Tomb but Attack, Nightmare and Closing Time are awful. Earthshock is better but they're simply monsters of the week there.

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    1. You're right: I'd never really thought about it! I wrote somewhere that the Daleks had endured some of the worst stories in the Who canon, but on reflection, maybe the Cybermen have had it worse. I too dislike Attack and Nightmare -- and I'm not crazy about Revenge either (or Moonbase and Tomb, for that matter!). Of the Classic stories, I think I only truly like Tenth Planet, Wheel in Space and Earthshock. I don't know if you've had a chance to rewatch Wheel since I wrote it up last fall. I watched part of it again recently, and really do feel it's seriously undervalued.

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    2. I will have to give Wheel another chance. At least Whitaker's Cybermen were clever - if ridiculously convoluted planners - unlike the robot cannon fodder they became. As for Revenge, it's a comedy delight: Cybermen with flares and a Canadian leader! "Harry Sullivan is an idiot!"

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