Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look back at the First Doctor era, as I begin a countdown of my top ten serials (with a quick shout-out to "Edge of Destruction," "Galaxy 4" and "Tenth Planet" -- all of which just barely missed the cut). 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 clich├ęs 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.

4 comments:

  1. Good piece. As ever! If memory serves, The Moonbase reduced Polly to screaming and making coffee, too, but Tenth Planet does have one of my favourite Polly moments, when she shouts at the Cyberleader (Krang?) - rather giving the lie to Anneke Wills 'weedy, frightened lady' (although perhaps that was something she developed from Power onward).

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    1. That is so funny: I actually had a parenthetical clause in my "Tenth Planet" section about how Polly again winds up serving coffee in "Moonbase." And "Moonbase" is worse, because not only does Ben again start acting like a scientist, but so does Polly; they start mixing a formula like they're chemists, and you find yourself thinking, "Who ARE these people?" Kit Pedler certainly knew how to write scientists; he just didn't seem to find average people very useful or interesting.

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  2. I love the experimentation of the Hartnell years, not knowing what you'd get next and while I don't like some on this list (I dislike Galaxy 4 and The Gunfighters), I love that there is such variety. The show was always fixing problems creatively, from Edge of Destruction having to be made to fulfil the initial 13 episode order but with no real extra cash to the rewriting done to give Hartnell more recovery time. I don't think Doctor Who has ever felt so freewheeling since, even when it came back in 2005.

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    1. I so agree. After I finished my Hartnell rewatch, and started penning hyperbolic things like "one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who," I really had to analyze WHY. Because I couldn't claim it was the best written, or best designed, or best directed. But it's got that giddy sense of experimentation that's everything I love about Doctor Who. Not settling on a formula, but on the contrary, seeing just how different the next serial can be from the last. And in some ways, that daring aspect only gets more pronounced when Wiles and Tosh take over.

      By the way, "The Gunfighters" really had to grow on me. The first two times, I was very distracted by the things I DIDN'T like. The most recent viewings, I was able to focus merely on script and performances, and found much to love.

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