Friday, December 19, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the Jon Pertwee years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top five Pertwees. Just a few words up front: things that struck me after I'd completed my list. As I've noted elsewhere, I'm not the biggest champion of writer Robert Holmes; I admire him, but I don't revere him the way many Whovians do. (Two of his best-loved serials, "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Caves of Androzani," leave me cold.) So it was a pleasant surprise to see that I'd included three Holmes scripts in my Pertwee top five. I quite like his Third Doctor contributions -- particularly his last two -- and doing this series of posts has caused me to reevaluate Holmes's output. And here's my most interesting revelation. When I published my top 25 Classic Who serials last November, only one Pertwee made the list, for which I was lightly mocked by friends and colleagues. It was "Carnival of Monsters," at #14. I'd still include it, but I've come to love one other serial more, as you'll see below. As I look back at that top 25, I'd now place my (new) top Pertwee at #10 in my list of all-time favorite Classic Whos. "Carnival" would remain where it is, and my third-place Pertwee would probably fall around #20, perhaps between "War Games" and "Image of the Fendahl." So the most illuminating thing about this latest rewatch -- which was designed to view the Third Doctor era with fresh eyes, to better understand what my friends see in it -- is how much my estimation of the era has truly grown. That's been lovely. Anyway, on to my top five:

#5. The Time Warrior
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Alan Bromly
There's some hearty laughter that goes on a beat or two too long; the scene where Sarah Jane first enters the TARDIS is oddly filmed and edited; the nods to women's lib are tiresome and misguided; and the final part feels padded. Those flaws are noticeable, but prove minor. "Time Warrior" is a pseudo-historical romp that's devilishly designed and cunningly sustained, neatly establishing a world in which a Medieval plunderer and an alien warrior would become frenemies -- and playing out that odd-couple relationship against the new, burgeoning partnership between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Holmes had to lead off Doctor Who's eleventh season by introducing its eleventh new companion; he seizes on a novel approach that energizes the serial, letting her discover the show's time-traveling premise -- which had long since become second-nature to us -- without the Doctor present. Sarah Jane snoops around a police box and finds herself in the Middle Ages, and is left to her own devices: the character there to "ask the questions" has no one to offer the answers, so she's forced -- while her life hangs in the balance -- to fill both roles. ("Now, it's not a village pageant, it's too elaborate for that... A film set! No, no lights, no cameras.") It lets Holmes establish her quick wits and intelligence, and also allows him to gently comment -- as he so often would -- on the sweet absurdity of the show's conceit. Alan Bromly keeps the tone cheeky without letting it slip into camp; the period dialogue is priceless, and performed full-on by a strong cast headed by the commanding David Daker. And Pertwee and Sladen have instant chemistry. An irony of the Pertwee era: the companion he's most remembered with is Katy Manning, but the ones who inspired his most consistent performances were Caroline John and Lis Sladen. Pertwee was at his best when he was challenged, not coddled, and the conceptions of Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith -- two no-nonsense companions who match him beat for beat -- did wonders for him.

#4. Frontier in Space
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paul Bernard

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" (Hulke had already given her new assurance, in "The Sea Devils"; now he gives her an assertiveness that will serve her well in the serials to come.) Later, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape. Her monologue has to be winning enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a tour-de-force performance. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since their first joint appearance, as she shows how far she's come: now able to beat him (twice) at his own game -- and relishing it. Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

#3. Spearhead From Space
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era (it turns up next during Liz's chase scene in "The Ambassadors of Death"), but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

#2. Carnival of Monsters
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a lovely rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

#1. The Ambassadors of Death
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then fall off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- ambushes and shoot-outs and chases -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too wonderful for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the eponymous trio to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying but mesmerizing. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke; Hulke may have crafted the dialogue, but the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the early Third Doctor era can work: for how the three leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from companion to heroine -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do.


Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years; and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

5 comments:

  1. Great rundown. I'm off to work now but will pop back to comment more later!

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  2. Glad to read that you've loved the big guy a little more! I agree with the majority of your list. Spearhead was so good that Russell T Davies used it as a template to launch the revived show and it being shot on film was an added bonus (through necessity, not choice). It would be interested to muse on how Who would have endured had this template been adhered to but Letts disliked it from the off and soon wore it away. The Time Monster and Carnival are both great, fun Doctor Who tales and feel very modern and NuWho watched now. Holmes also knew how to give his leading man his requested 'moments of charm' as Pertwee is adorable in both of these. Ambassadors I'm less keen on and I might have to give this one a watch again. It felt like a four parter stretched to 7 though I agree that the action scenes feel more expansive here (a helicopter!). As for Frontier, it's not one of my favourites though Jon's backward roll out of his chair to escape is one of my fav Third Doc moments!

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    1. You're so right, and it hadn't occurred to me: "Carnival" and "Time Warrior" do feel very New Who -- maybe that's part of my affection for them. I don't find "Ambassadors" long at all, whereas the seven-parters on either side do feel padded to me. But "Ambassadors" keeps enough surprises in reserve -- in particular, the way it saves the spaceship scene for so late in the game, in Episode 6 -- that it keeps me steadily engaged. And part of it, too, is how well Pertwee and John and Courtney work together in that serial. Certainly, as I look at my top 5, a lot of it is based on the simple pleasure I get from watching the actors at work -- it's especially true of "Frontier." I can list all the things wrong with that serial, but my reservations fade away while I'm viewing it: I feel like I could watch those actors -- Manning in particular -- forever.

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    2. Season 7 is a very good one and the trio of Doc, Liz and the Brig excellent. If Liz has continued I'm sure she'd have been watered down so its best she went and we all love Jo. What this era has is that stability of cast and production team which allows Jo's development and the great work with Mike Yates, the kind of character work that many assume classic Who never did. You've convinced me to give Frontier and Ambassadors another go!

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    3. Omigosh, that would be scariest fan-fiction ever: "If Caroline John had stayed on, but Barry Letts had dumbed down her character." I guess when you look at it like that, yes, it's good she went when she did! :)

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