Friday, October 21, 2016

My Restless Hartnell (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 -- #13 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. Noticeably missing are two celebrated stories, "The Aztecs" and "The Time Meddler"; I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for them that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, they're more worthy for what they represent (the first surviving historical and the first pseudo-historical, respectively) than for what they actually achieve. 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., "Planet of Giants," "The Smugglers") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Space Museum"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Celestial Toymaker." (Although it's credited to Brian Hayles, it was heavily revised by Gerry Davis, and I pretty much dislike everything Davis ever touched.) 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 impressive 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.) As with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned as they fly by; 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. 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, scheme 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 suitably 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 story 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 wonderful 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 -- what makes it so devastating -- 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, wit, resourcefulness and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. (After mucking up seemingly half the lines in the previous adventure, "The Web Planet," Hartnell is spectacularly on form here.) 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.") Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work -- but it's the lines that linger. When Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk. It helps me to consider what I have to do with you," her response, without hesitation, is "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..." -- describing three recent adventures. 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 the reconstructions, and then flip to an extant episode, 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 offer up capsule reviews of the Patrick Troughton serials; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. Or if you prefer to relive an assortment of Classic Who stories, I serve up capsule reviews of my twenty-five favorite serials here. And finally, for fans of the current series, I did a Top-50 list in December of 2015 that merges both old and new Who.

7 comments:

  1. Yes, if I could have any two episodes returned I think it would be those missing Crusade eps. I think that argument between Richard and Joanna is the greatest piece of drama the series ever produced - more than once I've completely forgotten what programme I'm watching during that scene.

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    1. Agreed. And not just beautifully played and scripted, but so well directed. So many directors would have been tempted to just let the actors stand on one set and go at it, but Camfield has Richard and Joanna move between rooms of the palace during their confrontation, without losing any momentum or intensity. Astounding.

      This didn't make it into my capsule review, but I think one of my favorite moments in all of Doctor Who is the end of Episode 1 of "The Crusade," where Ian makes his pitch to be sent to save Barbara, Richard declines and strides off, Ian starts to go after him, but the Doctor holds him back. And we sit for a second in a frame with Ian, the Doctor and Vicki, with Ian seething and the Doctor impressively forceful, and it's just this amazingly tense moment. And you can't wait to see what happens next. Just a vivid reminder that Who didn't need monsters or world-ending threats to generate an effective cliffhanger: just a classic moment of "what will happen next" suspense.

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  2. Some interesting choices. The Crusade is brilliant and gives Ian a lot to do. I do have a real soft spot for The Aztecs, however, and love some of the Machiavellian scheming of the High Priest while the Doctor/Barbara debate is also spot on. I have never tried synching telesnaps to audio, as I find the process takes me out of the story, preferring to listen to them with my eyes shut. I do wonder, despite what you may believe, that the status of lost tales such as Marco Polo would go down were they discovered. I know Enemy of the World defied expectations and was better but I think ancient China in a small studio would disappoint.

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    1. I would, however, really love to see The Massacre and that is near to the top of the missing ones I'd want back, way ahead of Daleks, Seaweed and Macras!

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    2. It's funny: I stretched my Top 10 to 13, because there are so many Hartnells I like; I suspect if I'd taken it to 14, next in line would have been "The Aztecs." I think when it's good, it's brilliant, as with the exchanges you noted between The Doctor and Barbara: so sharp and true to character. But I do find it drags in spots, and I don't find it as uniformly compelling as most of the other historicals.

      You may be right about "Marco Polo," in terms of its luster fading if it were ever found -- but boy, the telesnaps make those sets look gorgeous. And for me, it's not the promise of spectacle that keeps reeling me in whenever I watch "Marco Polo"; it's the richness of the characterizations. It's the way characters from vastly dissimilar backgrounds describe and experience the simplest of occurrences: a sandstorm, or a starry night. The first time I watched "Marco," I was warned by a few people I admire that it was aimless and endless. I was entranced. And again recently, I thought, "Am I really going to sit through all seven episodes," and I couldn't stop. I find Lucarotti and Hussein a very potent combo.

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  3. Though my heart resides with the Troughton years - as well you know - I must confess a great affinity and fascination with Hartnell's tenure. The show in its early years seemed to me to be simultaneously so embryonic but also fairly assured in trying to accomplish what it wanted to do. It always seemed to me to be the platonic ideal of the original notion that powered the show -- an admixture of histories and science-fiction (with the twain not really meeting for a while) -- in some ways it's a formula I sort of miss, as it seemed to offer an immediate and easy way of creating new tones from story to story. Of course, I understand why things changed, but still, the days when everyone knew what they were doing but were nevertheless figuring it all out as they went have an interesting purity of intent really get to me. I think my fondness lies more in the histories, partially because they seemed to engage Hartnell (and the writers, honestly) more - at his top, he can make me laugh in delight and amazement as much as Troughton could - but also because they're so different from everything that followed, where "pure histories" were few and far between, and the lines between period and monsters were blurred -- in some ways, I think "The War Games" is really the apotheosis of that form, making the historical settings & characters an integral part of the science-fiction conceit, instead of vice versa. Anyway, it's almost a shame that Hammer never elected to adapt a "Doctor Who" historical, as I think Peter Cushing would have been smashing there.

    I've always enjoyed Hartnell's authoritative, sometimes autocratic Doctor -- in some ways I think Pertwee caught some of the more bullish qualities of Hartnell, but magnified through the prism of his own personality. There are moments where you really believe that Hartnell is an alien, so distant and contemptuous of human mores can he be -- but like the best Doctors, he was also capable of a wry warmth that makes him eminently watchable. Even if "The Tenth Planet" isn't a total triumph, I'm very fond of his final moments on the show (there's something so simple and universal about "Keep warm" that it breaks my heart in a very different way from Troughton's defiance).

    Also, I love how Dickensian that first episode is, setting up the idea of Susan as an errant child, and the Doctor looking rather like a fellow you'd espy around a smudge pot fire -- that first episode is a totally wonderful bit of fancy, with its wonderful 'mystery story' tone, and its gradual move from the mundane to the fantastic -- to me it's sort of come to feel like the entire show in microcosm.

    Also, I must confess a great love for the character of Susan -- to me it seems one of the great missed opportunities that more hasn't been done with the character in the intervening years. But, I suppose there's something charming about the fact that somewhere in the vasty fields of space and time, the Doctor's granddaughter is out there, ready to rejoin the fray.

    Anyway, I've gone on way too much - but thank you for inspiring me to find the time to go back and revisit Hartnell's Curmudgeonly-Professor-Doctor, and those magical early years of the show, when it could surprise simply by being true to itself.

    And I agree with your placing "The Crusades" at the top -- really, anything with Julian Glover, and Whitaker at his peak, writing wonderful lofty dialogue has to be given high consideration.

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    1. You never go on "way too much," Deniz -- I always love your observations. I see we're drawn to much the same aspect of the Hartnell era: the fact that, as you put it, the show "could surprise simply by being true to itself." The unpredictability and scope of the Hartnell years are so engaging; once Lloyd and Davis take over late in Season 3, and rein in the content, settling on a "format" seems to become the pattern for each new producer and new era. We really don't get another season that bursts with that sort of "anything goes" spirit until Season 19. Glad you took the time to comment. I look forward, sometime, to comparing Troughton notes -- I'll be fascinated to learn which serials are your favorites. (I'll be most fascinated, I think, given that you're such a Troughton devotee, to learn which serials are your LEAST favorites...)

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