Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the William Hartnell 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-5 First Doctor serials.

As you'll see (and as you'll probably expect if you've read any of my other blog entries), my top Hartnells don't necessarily include the most acclaimed or seminal serials. Certainly one celebrated story is conspicuously absent: "The Aztecs." I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for it that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, it's more worthy for what it represents (the first surviving historical) than for what it actually achieves. But as I noted when I began counting down my favorite Hartnells, there are very few First Doctor serials I actively loathe; even the ones of which I'm not especially fond have premises I respect (e.g., "The Space Museum") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Daleks"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Reign of Terror." But most of the Hartnell era I consider a joy: sometimes just for the aspiration, but often for the execution as well.

One more thing, before I get to my top five. Once I'd completed these reviews, I realized that, of my top five Hartnells, four were partially or completely missing serials. I've watched them (multiple times) via reconstructions that wed the surviving audio tracks to production photographs and telesnaps, plus any extant video footage. (I synched up the audio-book narration as well, so that I gain a clearer idea of what's happening during silent passages.) But I did have to reflect: if these missing serials were found, might my estimation drop? Was I possibly overrating them, because I couldn't, quite literally, "see" their flaws? I don't think so. Since I started writing about Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me think less of a serial I admired. I would have given "The Web of Fear" a C+ before it was rediscovered; Doug Camfield's direction elevated it to a solid B. "Galaxy 4" went from a promising B- to a pleasing B+. "Enemy of the World" ticked up from an A to an A+. If the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or if the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting that the director had a good grip on the material), if the audio is engrossing in its own right, then the reconstructions tell you an awful lot of what you need to know. (The only missing Who serial I've never been able to get a handle on is Troughton's "Fury From the Deep." I can't tell if the Pinteresque pauses are well-filled by Hugh David, or if they're a sign of directorial slackness.) So I stand by these choices. My top five Hartnells, as follows:

#5. Marco Polo
written by John Lucarotti
directed by Warin Hussein
It operates on so many levels that its failings don't much matter. "Marco Polo" is about a journey: three of them, in fact. On the surface, it's about the journey that Marco Polo made to the Imperial Court in Peking in 1289: a journey that, however embellished, we're led to believe is historically accurate. Layered over that is the journey that the TARDIS crew makes with him -- turning fact into fiction. And finally, and crucially, it's about the weekly journey we make with the Doctor and his companions. Polo's expedition takes roughly three months, and when the serial first aired, over seven episodes, it seemed almost to take place in "real" time -- viewers were meant to feel the weight of the adventure as much as its participants. But imposing as its scope is, it's the tone that sets it apart. There's a marvelous synergy between Lucarotti's deliberately dispassionate recounting of events and Hussein's oblique framing of them. (Hussein is lent intoxicating support by Tristram Cary's musical score.) "Marco Polo" unfolds like a genuine journey, where there are planned stops and unexpected detours; as with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned. As events unfold, you're frequently left off guard, uncertain whether moments are coming to a head, or whether they'll pass, unremarked upon and undeveloped. As destinations are reached, you're unsure whether choice encounters await, or whether the atmosphere -- and perhaps a ladle of water -- will be the only things to drink in. So you find yourself paying attention to the small gestures as much as the grand ones -- just as you would on any journey. (Notably, the only underwhelming episode is the fourth, guest-directed by John Crockett, where the set pieces build to more traditional climaxes. It takes Hussein nearly half the following episode to recover the quietly hypnotic tone.) "Marco Polo" celebrates the wonders and the dangers of traveling, and recognizes that the two aren't always distinguishable. Barbara is sidelined a bit, but Ian, the Doctor and Susan are all given strong characters to play opposite, and enjoy superior outings. It's a particularly good story for Susan, who has someone her own age to gossip with and fret about; it's one of the few times that she doesn't seem like the fifth wheel of the original TARDIS foursome, and Carole Ann Ford responds with a radiant performance.

#4. The Myth Makers
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Michael Leeston-Smith

A delight. Doctor Who, already adept at turning history into stories, now flips the script, as the Doctor turns a story into history. In Episode 1, the TARDIS sets down during the Trojan War; the Doctor is mistaken for Zeus and brought before Agamemnon and Menelaus. It's novel and entertaining, but you feel like it's not quite enough to build a script on. It's not: it's all preamble. In Episode 2, Cotton shifts his attentions to Troy and introduces King Priam, his daughter Cassandra and his son Paris, and this dysfunctional family both grounds and ignites the story. It's Doctor Who as ethnic sitcom, at that spot where insult humor and character comedy intersect. High Priestess Cassandra, with a voice pitched to the mezzanine, warns Paris, "The augeries were bad this morning. I woke full of foreboding," and Paris deadpans to the studio audience, "Never knew her when she didn't." Cotton weaves wicked variations around The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Cassandra has had a vision of the fabled Trojan Horse: "I dreamed that out on the plain the Greeks had left a gift, and although what it was remained unclear, we brought it into Troy. Then at night, from out its belly, soldiers came and fell upon us as we slept." Except that Paris has found the TARDIS on the plains and brought it into Troy, and everyone presume that's the gift of which she's dreamed. (And indeed there is someone inside: Vicki, who emerges sheepishly.) Back at the Grecian camp, Odysseus has charged the Doctor with helping the Greeks sack Troy; eager to avoid turning the legend of the Trojan Horse into fact, the Doctor improvises madly (Hartnell at his funniest), suggesting a fleet of flying machines that could be catapulted, one man at a time, over the Trojan walls. But when told he'll be making the test run himself, he changes his tune ("I'm afraid we must face up to it, Odysseus: man was never meant to fly") and defaults to a hollow wooden horse. The brilliance of Cotton's conceit is that he doesn't tell the story of the Greeks invading Troy; he tells the story of Troy being invaded. One by one, everyone heads to Troy -- of course they do: that's where all the fun is. And only then, once everyone we care about has arrived, does the slaughter commence.

#3. The Rescue
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so winning (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

#2. The Massacre
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell

Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived, as some maintain; it feels in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

#1. The Crusade
written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield

The TARDIS touches down in 12th-century Palestine; within minutes, Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor, Ian and Vicki set out to save her. The "chase" aspect of the plot allows Whitaker and Camfield to paint a particularly broad canvas (from the courts of King Richard and Muslim leader Saladin to the bustling marketplaces and barren deserts) and to serve up compassionate yet clear-eyed looks at both monarchs. It also provides a tour-de-force for all four principals -- their characters filled with resolve and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work, and he's already acquired the gift for turning character beats into cliffhangers: the end of Part 1, as Ian is about to unleash his fury on the King, and the Doctor holds him back with a warning look and a firm gesture, may be the actors' finest exchange -- and not a word is required. But at the end of the day, it's the lines that linger. Whitaker channels Shakespeare with the poetry of his dialogue -- some of it in iambic pentameter -- and Doctor Who would hear no finer dialogue for decades. (Richard, to his sister Joanna: "Saladin sends me presents of fruit and snow when I am sick, and now his brother decorates you with his jewels. Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.") Early on, Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk -- it helps me to consider what I have to do with you," and her natural response is to describe three recent adventures. ("Well, I could say that I'm from another world, a world ruled by insects. And before that we were in Rome at the time of Nero. Before that we were in England, far, far into the future...") As Saladin interprets it ("Now I understand: you and your friends, you are players, entertainers"), the scene glows with gentle irony and self-awareness: Doctor Who interpreting history, history interpreting Doctor Who. And the showdown between Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) is as explosive as any exchange in Classic Who. There's really only one thing wrong with "The Crusade": the fact that two of four episodes are missing, and it's particularly unfortunate here. There are some Classic Who writers (Ian Stuart Black, Brian Hayles) and directors (Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus) where missing episodes don't matter as much; they worked in broad strokes, and once you've been able to ascertain the tone and style of a partially extant serial, you can intuit the rest. But Whitaker and Camfield were artists who found the drama in nuance and detail; when you watch a scene that begins in telesnaps and then continues in surviving footage (e.g., Barbara being chased through the streets of Lydda), you realize just how much you've missed. But even the two lost episodes don't prevent "The Crusade" from being the crowning achievement of the Hartnell era.


Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years; and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the First Doctor era, beginning a countdown of my top ten serials. It's worth my noting that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#10. The Gunfighters
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

It's not "Doctor Who does a Western." It's "Doctor Who does a B-Western" -- that one letter makes all the difference. "The Gunfighters" embraces the giddiest clichés of the genre: not the open spaces of a Red River, High Noon or Shane, but the studio look of a Republic programmer from the '30s, like Doomed at Sundown, The Purple Vigilantes, or Wyoming Outlaw, where you knew that if you walked 200 feet in any direction, you wouldn't be on the road out of town; you'd be on the next soundstage. It owes more than a passing nod to 20th Century Fox's Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday, and a bloody good showdown at the O.K. Corral. (It was later remade by John Ford as the classic My Darling Clementine.) With "Myth Makers," Cotton went for character comedy; here the humor stems from a fish-out-of-water premise: the Doctor, who abhors violence, touching down in a town where all feuds are settled by gunfire. It's one of Hartnell's best performances: an amusing tug-of-war between the Doctor, who clearly doesn't want to be in Tombstone, and Hartnell, who so clearly does. It also provides terrific showcases for Jackie Lane (who shows unexpected comic chops in her scenes with Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday) and for Peter Purves, who serves up the best double-take in all of Doctor Who. Where "Gunfighters" fails is in the new production team not trusting the material; it was commissioned by producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh, but their successors -- Lloyd Innes and Gerry Davis -- had no affection for historicals, and little interest in stretching the boundaries of the series. And Rex Tucker, the assigned director, admitted to misgivings. When he opens with a shot of tumbleweed rolling down the streets of Tombstone, then pans up to show the town itself, you think he's sending up that hoary film tradition of masking constrictive settings with unusual camera angles. But by about the thirtieth oddball shot, you realize he's doing it because he thinks the script needs salvaging. (He's busy saving something that's not in need of rescue.) The same could be said for the ballad he commissions, which is charming at first, but ends up feeling random and relentless. And is it the famed tug-of-war between Tucker and Lloyd for control of the final edit that results in the serial seeming so scrappily assembled? "The Gunflighters" boasts a pleasurable script and performances to cherish. But the surgery the production team attempts is about as subtle as the extraction the Doctor undergoes in Doc Holliday's dental chair.

#9. The Web Planet
written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who -- a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space -- and proves the ideal story for Martin. One of Who's earliest directors, he suffered from a lack of technical proficiency that tripped up many a first-season episode, but even at his most static and unfocused, you saw his eagerness to experiment: to stretch the production design and maneuver the camera beyond what Doctor Who could easily handle. The planet Vortis proves his perfect playground; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but as he shuttles between the ant-like Zarbi and the butterfly-winged Menoptra and the grubby Optera (each with its own verbal and visual style of communicating), he's able to keep the images fresh, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: William Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by story editor Dennis Spooner (it refers back to the previous serial, "The Romans," which he himself had written); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have devised Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

#8. The Romans
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and stare at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, but Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. And because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero (part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer), a duality that only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2017, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

#7. The Time Meddler
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Douglas Camfield

The Hartnell era is full of sweet, unforced conversations that aren't so much consumed with pushing the plot forward as with stressing the sense of family forged from traveling together in the TARDIS. "The Time Meddler" continues in that tradition, opening with one of the most charming exchanges in all of Classic Who, as the Doctor quizzes Vicki if she'd be happier returning to her own time, as Ian and Barbara just did. It parallels a scene at the start of David Whitaker's "The Rescue," when the Doctor reflects on Susan's departure, and part of the success of Season 2 is that Spooner, Whitaker's successor, honors his model while adding his own touches (and in this case, "his own touches" means pioneering the first pseudo-historical). Like Whitaker, Spooner takes pleasure in subverting our expectations: fiendishly so in the first episode, as Steven displays all the customary doubts about the TARDIS's ability to traverse through time, and Spooner devises a scenario that actually serves to reinforce those doubts. Hartnell instantly enjoys as strong a rapport with Peter Purves as he formed with Maureen O'Brien in "The Rescue," but this is a new sort of relationship for the Doctor, one that can be as much playfully combative as convivial -- and by God, Hartnell is on form here, clearly relishing and rising to the challenge. Nearing the end of a very long season of filming, he doesn't miss a beat. And Spooner uses Hartnell's vacation week during Episode 2 to strengthen the bond between Purves and O'Brien, and Steven and Vicki prove a terrific team with a fresh dynamic: quick to acknowledge -- and bow to -- each other's strengths, even as they squabble like siblings. Doug Camfield maintains his typically tight grip on the narrative, and manages some of the most ingenious uses of stock footage the series will ever see, including a shipload of vikings making their way to shore. But as with so much of the Hartnell era, it's the relationships that make or break a serial, and here they enliven it with an ebullience last seen shortly after Vicki joined the crew. The series could have gone limp with the departures of William Russell and Jacqueline Hill; instead, Doctor Who has re-energized itself, when it needed to most.

#6. The Savages
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

Hartnell always fared better in the historicals than in the futuristic serials, but the new production team wanted sci-fi, so Black does Hartnell the best turn possible: he writes a historical set in the future. Oh, "The Savages" has its out-of-this-world technology -- the plot turns on a machine that can absorb the life force from one human and plant it in another -- but at its heart, it's about the Doctor and his companions visiting a society whose methods and mores are familiar to the Doctor, and Hartnell doing the sort of deliberating and pontificating at which he excelled. (The planet is inhabited entirely by humans. No Daleks, Monoids or Rills here.) Like Black's later "Macra Terror," "The Savages" imagines a dystopian society disguised as a utopian one; it lacks the intricacies that distinguish the later serial, and at heart (like "Galaxy 4") it's a little light on plot and heavy on message. But its straightforward story-telling is confident and occasionally clever (as when the gift that the Elders give Dodo in Episode 1 allows Steven to save the day in Episode 3), and it's a good match for Christopher Barry's lean, efficient style. Ian Stuart Black was one of those freelancers (like Chris Boucher a decade later) who invariably had a good handle on how best to use the Doctor and his companions -- sometimes better than the script editor himself. Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature seem to spring from her upbringing and background; you're reminded how nice it is to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS. Steven is ingenious, brave, sensible and authoritative; when the time comes for him to say goodbye to the Doctor and Dodo, you believe those qualities will serve him well on his new home. (Black creates the template for all the companions who leave the Doctor upon finding their true calling, from Jo Grant to Romana II to Nyssa.) And Black's handling of the Doctor is nothing short of cunning. Season 3 writers were challenged with devising scripts as original and entertaining as anything that came before them, but also minimizing Hartnell's role so that he could power through. Black solves the problem by having the Doctor drained by the life-force machine at the end of Episode 2, so that he's able to sit out much of Episode 3. But his energy -- and, unexpectedly, his personality -- are transferred to Jano, the leader of the Elders, and that allows Frederick Jaeger, in a bravura performance, to do a spot-on impression of Hartnell's Doctor. It keeps the Doctor's spirit alive while Hartnell gets time off to recharge, but more than that, it asserts that although Hartnell's screen time is dwindling, nothing can suppress the power of his personality. Just four serials away from Hartnell's swan-song, Black writes him an endearing tribute.

Next: my top five Hartnells.