Sunday, January 31, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 5)

Part 2 of a three-part series: capsule reviews of all twenty-one Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials. To read from the start, click here.

The Tomb of the Cybermen
written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
directed by Morris Barry

A serial as ugly in attitude as it is in appearance. Their power waning, the Cybermen freeze themselves in a tomb and wait for someone to come along and thaw them; it's a premise light on logic, but so is the rest of "Tomb." It's the kind of serial where the Doctor warns Victoria to stay away from a dormant Cybermat, so she irrationally dumps it in her purse, just so it can come back to life and terrorize everyone later. (It's the kind of serial where Victoria conveniently carries a purse big enough to hold a Cybermat.) Where a woman doesn't believe a Cybermat is sneaking up behind her, even though it's beeping like a smoke detector, and later, where a madman is too busy ranting to notice a Cyberman moving in for the kill. And as generations have discovered to their horror, it's the kind of serial that insists you beware of anyone who's not Caucasian, because they'll all be villains or threats. Morris Barry has no grasp on the narrative; it's like he was handed the script the day shooting began. The Episode 1 cliffhanger is clearly designed to suggest a Cyberman has killed someone, but as Barry shoots it, he makes it clear the blast came from a machine on the opposite end of the room -- so that when the Doctor, in Episode 2, uncovers the "real" explanation, there's no surprise. And Barry films the key scene -- the Cybermen's emergence from their multi-level tomb -- with no idea how to show scale. He shoots it all in a wide shot, then cuts to the humans staring up at a 30-degree angle, suggesting the tomb is about eight feet high. As shot, it looks like a lot of mini-Cybers are coming out of the fridge. By the end, pretty much everyone has been slaughtered, except the lead scientist and the American pilot who speaks like a cowboy -- and although stories where the victims pile up one by one can be great fun (e.g., "Robots of Death," "Horror of Fang Rock"), "Tomb" trips up too much on its implausible plotting, indifferent direction, unsubtle racism and drab design.

The Abominable Snowmen
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Gerald Blake

Troughton's second season is either revered or reviled for being an "all-monsters, base-under-siege" season. It's not only an over-simplification, it's inaccurate. Other Classic Who seasons -- 11, 12 and 21 come to mind -- boast more monsters per square acre, and few of the Season 5 serials feature the one-set "base" that typify such stories. "Abominable Snowmen" is almost the opposite of what folks think of when they imagine Season 5. As it explores the hills and caves of Tibet, and the religious chambers, dungeons and forbidden rooms of a monastery, it feels in some ways more a First Doctor story than a Second. It's evocative and ethereal, as much mood piece as adventure, which makes the inevitable scares all the more impactful. Cast with care and sensitively played, "Abominable Snowmen" boasts ambience, novelty and a director so confident in his talent and his material that, in an inspired combination of ingenuity and trust, he dispenses with a musical score (that crutch too often used to bind together Who's disparate elements and gloss over its weaker moments), allowing the monastery to provide its own natural accompaniment. There's one contrivance to set the story in motion -- the usual "Doctor accused of a crime he didn't commit" -- but beyond that, the plot unfolds naturally and logically, at its own pace, and it's captivating. In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another story where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force. but the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust, worship and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories -- and gives a complexity and depth to the serial that's rare. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we follow our leaders, our gods or our hearts? -- and it explores its themes gently, without overstating or offering pat solutions. Despite the presence of those cuddly little Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, "Abominable Snowmen" is one of the most adult, thought-provoking stories in the Who canon.

The Ice Warriors
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Derek Martinus

If there must be monster stories (and, of course, there must), could they all be directed as well as "Ice Warriors"? In anyone else's hands, the serial might have dissolved into a puddle of goo, but Martinus holds it together in his nerviest style. His visual approach is so bold, he almost dares you not to watch -- right from the start, as he sets the creative credits against an icy backdrop while sirens sing. If "Evil of the Daleks" showed he could weave disparate plot strands into something cohesive, "Warriors" proves he can take a potentially stagnant story and dazzle. (It's the show's greatest directorial tour-de-force until David Maloney on "Deadly Assassin.") And to Hayles' great credit, although his assignment was "give us a new monster," he understands that the true monsters are those in human form: here, the ones who destroy each other in the name of science. At the heart of "The Ice Warriors" is a frosty relationship desperately in need of thawing: between the imperious Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth, a triumph of method-acting mannerisms) and his canny but erratic chief scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, all avuncular scuffiness). "The Ice Warriors" feeds off those characters; at its core, it's not a story about a crisis that pits humans against Ice Warriors -- it's about a crisis that allows two men to resolve their differences, and all the subplots (most of them in Episodes 2 & 3, and most, ironically, deleted in the DVD's telesnap "reduction") revolve around that conflict. Like another free-lancer, Ian Stuart Black, Hayles invariably understood the strengths of the regular cast, and how best to use them. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria were a tremendous team, and never more so than here. While Deborah Watling wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, she serves exactly the role David Whitaker designed for her. She brings out a side of Jamie that's strong, protective, confident and occasionally flirtatious; he becomes a more dynamic character because of her. Best-remembered as the "monster" season, Season 5 isn't most memorable for the monsters at all, but for the people fighting them -- and "The Ice Warriors" is the purest example.

The Enemy of the World
written by David Whitaker
directed by Barry Letts

Even before the five missing episodes were located, it was one of the great Classic Who serials. Troughton's bravura dual performance (as the Doctor, and as Salamander, would-be dictator of the world) came through clearly in the surviving audio, starting with the glorious sequence near the end of Episode 1 in which the Doctor watches Salamander deliver a speech and then deconstructs, digests and assumes his accent. That said, now that it's been rediscovered and restored, and we can see that the visuals are beyond anything we'd dreamed (including a romp in the ocean that's pure bliss), it takes its place as Troughton's defining serial, as "The Deadly Assassin" is for Tom Baker and "Snakedance" is for Peter Davison. It's not merely a remarkable acting feat, cunningly sustained for six weeks -- it's a brilliant plot that keeps piling on surprises. The Holmes-Hinchcliffe years, finding many of the Pertwee six-parters problematic, aimed to make theirs palatable by dividing them into two parts, and abruptly switching gears after the first or second third: a 2+4, or a 4+2. They should have just looked a little further back, to Whitaker's approach: he simply develops a plot so layered that he doesn't need to change course; he can merely peel it back episode by episode. (The revelation that comes in Episode 4 -- and it's a doozy -- doesn't send the serial in a new direction; it's more the "missing piece" that enlarges its scope and propels it to its conclusion.) Flawlessly cast, fearlessly directed and splendidly performed, with a special nod to Mary Peach as Astrid, one of the great guest stars in all of Classic Who. She fights, she flirts, she flies -- and when she and Troughton are seated on a sofa, playfully interrogating each other (Astrid: "Oh, you're a doctor?" The Doctor: "Well, not of any medical significance." Astrid: "Doctor of law? Philosophy?" Doctor: "Which law? Whose philosophies?"), the halcyon days of '60s television are at their most heavenly.

The Web of Fear
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Douglas Camfield

The recovery of missing Doctor Who serials is an odd phenomenon. People greeted "Enemy of the World" with amazement -- "it was far better than I'd imagined" -- even though 90% of the serial's delights could be gleaned from the audio. "Web of Fear," on the other hand, prompted sighs of "oh, I guess it's not a masterpiece after all"; the response was one of bemused disappointment -- whereas it should have been ecstatic. It was easy to hear, from the audio alone, that it was a pretty standard action-adventure piece, without the depth or ambition of Haisman and Lincoln's previous Yeti yarn, and one that ran out of steam roughly two-thirds of the way through; what we couldn't have foreseen -- even knowing the genius that is Douglas Camfield -- is how he would transform it, how he would mine it for every bit of tension and excitement. Camfield probably never worked harder in his life, and thank goodness, because with the visuals restored, you still see the flaws (the repetitive nature of the plot, the letdown of the reveal, the fussiness at the end), but now you don't really care, because the serial grabs you by the throat and never lets go. And one other thing you couldn't quite glean from the audio: the magnificence of Nicholas Courtney's performance. In the audio, you could hear the actor's confidence; the video reveals that, even in his first appearance, he was already at his most charismatic and charming. You understand instantly why he was invited back. As with "Abominable Snowmen," the characters are well-drawn, and unlike that all-male serial, this one boasts a superb female character, with one of the best smackdowns of male chauvinism in Who history. When the smarmy TV reporter asks scientist Anne Travers, "What's a girl like you doing in a job like this?", she responds, "Well, when I was a little girl, I thought I'd like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist." Bravo, Season 5. Brava!

Fury From the Deep
written by Christopher Pemberton
directed by Hugh David

Sort of the quintessential Troughton story -- not because it's the best, but because it cobbles together elements used throughout the era. There's the mind-controlling monster, the scientific compound, the intractable leader, the multi-cultural cast. You've seen it all before, and you've probably seen it done better -- but "Fury From the Deep" is the hardest Troughton serial to judge. Other serials are fully missing too, but they contain clues as to what the finished product is like: video clips that provide a glimpse of the acting style or the production design or the directorial flair -- or at the very least, based on your familiarity with the creative team, you can evaluate the work effectively. Hugh David's only other Who credit is the missing "Highlanders," which boasts an irritatingly busy soundtrack; "Fury" is deafening only in its silences -- there are portentous pauses between lines -- and it's impossible to know if David filled them well, or if the pacing is indeed sluggish. And the key component we'd need to see to judge the serial properly -- the effectiveness of the foam-producing seaweed that's at the heart of the story -- is nowhere to be found in the video clips; it might look sensational, or it might look silly. Here's what's evident: it's a mean-spirited send-off for Victoria (using her penchant for screaming as a means to defeat the monsters: it mocks her character and undercuts her farewell -- oh, and it's a stupid idea, too), and it's a bit of a chore to listen to. The Doctor tries to warn the sea base that there's something growing in their pipes -- and that's really about it. Pemberton's script is mostly concerned with offering up a few good scares: there are no sturdy character arcs, no symmetrical or convergent story-lines, no social or moral issues raised. In that respect, it's closest to "Web of Fear," but there's no reason to think that Hugh David was able to transform the story the way Doug Camfield did that one. "Fury" doesn't appear to be slipshod, like "Tomb," or brilliant, like pretty much the rest of Season 5; it feels derivative because most everything had been done before, but quite apart from that, nothing about it feels particularly persuasive.

The Wheel in Space
written by David Whitaker
directed by Tristan deVere Cole

Superb: the forgotten stepchild of Season 5 -- and one of the best of the Classic Cybermen stories. The direction is striking, the set design imaginative, the costumes effective -- but it's the characters that linger. Whitaker plots the Cybermen's return as a slice-of-life drama, about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future, examining the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and exploring our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And he uses the Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. The Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which he measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, has never properly developed human emotions; a fellow crewmember refers to her as "a robot, a machine" -- not unlike how the Doctor describes the Cybermen. ("They were once human beings like yourself, but now they're more robot than man.") To herself, she's a freak, one without the intuitive tools to face the unknown. Whitaker has had his fill of folks getting "stranded" on the TARDIS; with Vicki, with Victoria, and now with Zoe, he gives us characters who need to travel with the Doctor, who'll benefit from the experience. "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable. It continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond, but here it's done with a lightness of touch that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. Fittingly for a serial that stresses character over carnage, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an English man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all. (I offer a full review of "Wheel in Space" here.)

Up next: Season 6.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 4)

When I began watching Classic Who in 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, and no knowledge or preconceptions of any of the Doctors or companions, one of my first take-aways was how brilliant I thought Patrick Troughton was. (Ironically, the Troughton serial my friend had recommended was "War Games," his final serial, but it was actually the perfect way to experience the full range and power of his interpretation.) But so little Troughton was readily available at that time, I didn't explore him further; I continued to peruse the other Doctors instead. But my affection for the Second Doctor never waned; during the summer of 2012, when I penned my four-part Fifth Doctor essay, I noted that although Peter Davison's acting impressed me most, Patrick Troughton's was a damn close second. And that fall I began binging the Troughton serials. So perhaps this latest blog post -- capsule reviews of the twenty-one Second Doctor serials -- is five years in the making: the delay simply being that the Troughtons are (by virtue of so many being "missing") more challenging to watch repeatedly and therefore harder to analyze. As with the Davison serials, there are only eight or nine that I consider truly great, but Troughton at his best -- which is most of the time -- is a marvel.

The Power of the Daleks
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

Troughton comes out swinging, simultaneously more foolish and more fearsome than his predecessor, traits that would serve him well in the serials to come. Unfortunately, at this point, no one quite knows what to do with those traits -- they get defined without cohering into anything useful -- and the new Doctor is left in a reactive mode for much of the serial. Where Whitaker succeeds most is in his reimagining of the Daleks; he manages both a deconstruction and an upgrade. "Power" nods to the basic absurdity of their design: the Daleks use it to fool the colonists into thinking them harmless and subservient -- because logically, who'd be threatened by a verbally-challenged pepperpot? But it also gives them a long con that transforms them from mere mass murderers into master tacticians: able to analyze, manipulate and exploit human behavior. (In a way, the ruse that the Daleks execute in "Power" is precisely the one that will come to define the Second Doctor: using his appearance and demeanor to ensure that his enemies underestimate him.) The problem with "Power" is that Whitaker was unable to do the necessary rewrites; the script ran long, and Dennis Spooner was called in to do what was clearly a chop-fest: a key subplot is discarded with one line of dialogue. ("We've won! The revolution's over!" the chief scientist's assistant announces at the top of Episode 6. We didn't even know it was underway.) It's a moment as unlike Whitaker as in any of his Who scripts -- Whitaker always liked to work tidy -- and could only have been a script doctor/script editor truncation. The rare six-parter that feels like it would have made a stunning eight-parter, "Power of the Daleks" has a few bracing cliff-hangers, a great bloodbath at the end, and some effective performances, but it gets the era off to a solid rather than sensational start. Not the masterpiece some claim it to be, but merely a confident, capable first serial.

The Highlanders
written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis
directed by Hugh David

With "Power" having served well as a springboard, the creative team needed the second serial to truly launch the new Doctor; unfortunately, Gerry Davis -- the rare Who story editor who pretty much mucked up everything he touched -- takes a historical leap and lands in a belly-flop. Subbing last-minute for writer Elwyn Jones, who'd barely submitted an outline before being summoned back to Z Cars, Davis did enough research to get by, but no more; the result reads like a high-school term paper, not like a narrative -- and one that eschews the initial setting, the Jacobite Rebellion, in favor of a lurching plot-line heavily borrowed from Robert Lewis Stevenson's Kidnapped. And the key question required of any Doctor's second serial, once the introductions are over -- "What is he like?" -- is disastrously answered. Davis tries to emulate Donald Cotton in tone, but it's like he forgot to let the Second Doctor in on the joke. The Doctor comes off like a sitcom stooge dropped into a historical: donning disguise after disguise, each more absurd than the last, none particularly effectual. At one point, Polly gushes to the Doctor, "You're wonderful," and later, "You're fantastic," but it reeks of scriptwriter desperation, because it's far removed from the reality of what we're seeing. Most of the heroics in "The Highlanders" fall to Ben and Polly, but ironically, as a result of their increased exposure, the serial pretty much marks their death-knell. They were originally engaged (and engaging) as swinging contrasts to the old-school First Doctor; now, absorbing more of the urgency of the plot, with a lead who's already manic and outrageous, their high-pitched performances wear thin. Jamie has almost nothing to do in his introductory story, but you understand instantly why his calmness, warmth and innocence seemed a better fit with the Second Doctor. The best thing to be said about "The Highlanders": if it's ever found, it'll probably look gorgeous. As a listening experience, it's a headache of historic proportions.

The Underwater Menace
written by Geoffrey Orme
directed by Julia Smith

It's the Second Doctor team trying to replicate a First Doctor story -- and getting everything wrong. It's like a bad "Web Planet" with people, where everything exotic becomes garish instead. Writer Geoffrey Orme was nearly four decades into his career; by this point, he'd apparently forgotten how people speak. Straightforward lines are awkwardly inverted, as if they'd been translated from a lost language, and director Julia Smith can't seem to impose any consistency of style in the playing. Redemptive readings suggest that Joseph Furst's mad scientist is a deliberate (and somehow delicious) piece of camp; it's a piece of something, that's for sure. (It's the kind of criminal over-playing that would briefly dominate the series in Season 17.) Only one member of the guest cast does anything resembling credible acting: Tom Watson as Andon, the Chief Priest. A decade into an extraordinary career that would ultimately span nearly half a century, he manages to be quiet and affecting in a serial that's anything but. Troughton is still polishing his character, but he's two steps ahead of the writer and script editor, while Michael Craze and Frazer Hines actually have fairly good outings. Hines's comes as the expense of Anneke Wills, reduced here to damsel in distress; the diminishment of Polly allows Hines to show the dashing assertiveness that would distinguish his later work -- and a couple of his line-readings near the end, when he and Polly fear their companions may have perished, inject a wistfulness into the proceedings that's unexpected. Hines's line readings alone might inspire a redemptive reading of "Underwater Menace," if they weren't immediately followed by the Atlantean chief surgeon, in what's intended as a stirring speech, vowing to move on, "to build a new Atlantis, without gods and without fish people" -- and at that point, you're forgiven for thinking that the fabled city of Atlantis was submerged simply because it was too appalling to leave where anyone could see it.

The Moonbase
written by Kit Pedler
directed by Morris Barry

Episode 1 brings the promise of an intelligent script, something that's been lacking the last few months. By Episode 2, it's clear that intelligence only gets you so far: that personality, pacing and plot would be nice, too. Episode 2 feels like it lasts a year; at one point, six scientists gather around their commander, and you realize they're indistinguishable from each other -- that not one has been given a defining, recognizable characteristic. And when these ciphers start mouthing jibber-jabber ("Check the gravitation units." "Field stabilising at 48, Mister Hobson." "Prepare to move probe. Check coordinates." "Twenty degree tilt complete." "The field's not correcting. We'll have to increase the reactor power." "You can't do that. The torus will burn out."), "The Moonbase" becomes anathema. (It's the kind of generic scripting Derek Martinus could address with ease, because he'd cast for variety and propel the pacing along, but Morris Barry directs with the instincts of a metronome.) In Episode 3, even Polly and Ben turn into scientists -- all Kit Pedler can envision apparently -- as they devise a cocktail to toss at the Cybermen. Jamie fares better. His contract hadn't been picked up past "The Highlanders" when Pedler wrote his initial outline, so he copes with his addition by knocking him unconscious five minutes in and keeping him bedridden as long as possible. But ironically, Jamie's storyline is the only element that feels remotely human. Jamie lying injured, groggy and alone -- as Cybermen emerge to steal people away -- plays into some of our most basic childhood fears: of overnight hospital stays; of being in bed, paralyzed with fear, while things go bump in the night. "Moonbase" is the serial where you see the Second Doctor finally start to take shape and take charge. (Troughton -- growing ever more comfortable in the role -- does it against all odds. In Episode 2, the Doctor is forced to do a comic bit with scissors reminiscent of Harpo Marx in Duck Soup; in Episode 3, apparently still channeling Harpo, he barely has any lines.) But mostly it's a lumbering affair with leaden direction. Is the Troughton era ever gonna get good?

The Macra Terror
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by John Davies

It begins, and you breathe a sigh of relief: Doctor Who is back. The surviving clips look remarkably good, but more than that, director John Davies lets the dialogue breathe, find its own pace and dynamic level. He shapes the serial, in a way that no Troughton director had to that point. But Ian Stuart Black is the true hero of "The Macra Terror," and in fact, he's one of the forgotten heroes of Doctor Who: forgotten because, as with others, most of his serials are missing. And ironically, the one that survives, "The War Machines," is the least of his efforts; it sets Hartnell in present-day London, and surrounds him with hipsters, and feels "novel," but it's essentially a straight-forward adventure. But "The Savages" and, in particular, "Macra Terror" are something more: glimpses into a dystopian future masquerading as an idyllic one, where people are treated as commodities, where individuality is sacrificed to conformity, creativity to obedience. In some ways, in its depiction of a fascist society, yet one eerily like our own, it's even more relevant today than it was when originally aired. Black was, like Chris Boucher a decade later, the rare free-lance writer who seemed to have a better idea of where the show should be headed than the production team. He knew how to create well-defined characters with short, bold strokes -- and then how to further develop them across four episodes -- and he always had a good grasp of how to use the regulars. The change in Troughton when he's given a good script and an empathetic director is astounding; his performance in "Macra Terror" is the first time all the traits he'd been playing with since "Power of the Daleks" coalesce; at times, his line readings take your breath away. It takes a while, but in "Macra Terror," the Second Doctor becomes the Doctor. Black uses Michael Craze's edgy intensity to cast him in a villainous light, and he's never been better; with Ben's sanity temporarily derailed, Jamie is then able to assume more of a leading man role, and it suits Frazer Hines splendidly. Only poor Anneke Wills, once again, is reduced to shrieking in terror for much of the serial; it's almost as if producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis, once they'd decided to let her go, were determined to give her material that suited her least, so they wouldn't get second thoughts.

The Faceless Ones
written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke
directed by Gerry Mill

Early Malcolm Hulke isn't much different from later Malcolm Hulke: earnest, slow and occasionally maddening. Subtlety wasn't a strong suit of Hulke's, even in his more notable Who contributions, and it isn't here either: his villains are dripping with malice and foreign accents; the airport officials are there only to doubt the Doctor's veracity and impede the investigation. At one point in Episode 2, a secretary is about to impart key information that could crack the case wide open, but the commandant cuts her off -- thus allowing the plot to continue for another four episodes. (It's the kind of "stall" tactic I lament here.) And it feels like every five minutes, the villains pull out their ray gun; it's peril-by-the-numbers. Like Morris Barry before him, first- and last-time Who director Gerry Mill imposes a stately rhythm that's annoying and exhausting. Several of his long shots are disorienting -- you have no idea what you're supposed to be following -- and the excess of establishing shots is a visual snoozefest. (He keeps cutting to planes taking off and landing, and you wonder if you're supposed to glean something from it, but then you realize it's just his way of saying, "We're still at the airport.") By the end of Episode 3, you're ready to call it quits -- but then things get noticeably better at the halfway mark. The supporting roles expand, to good effect, and the villains reveal their out-of-this-world agenda, and "Faceless Ones" moves nicely to its conclusion, with some strong women working alongside the men, which is almost a miracle for the Gerry Davis era. The last act is essentially the Doctor bluffing as he brokers a peace treaty, and remarkably, all the people he's converted to his plan are bright enough to anticipate and accommodate his moves. For everything it gets wrong, "Faceless Ones" is the rare Who where the plot resolves itself by people acting reasonably and responsibly. It's one of the sanest of the Troughton serials.

The Evil of the Daleks
written by David Whitaker
directed by Derek Martinus

Whitaker returns to the series, looks around, asks with bemusement, "What have you been doing since I left?" -- and sets things right. He envisions a darker Doctor, one who'll sacrifice a few to save the lives of many; he turns Jamie from a boy into a man, imbuing him with resolve, tenacity and loyalty; and creates a new companion who's there mostly to simper and scream, to bring out the best in Jamie so that he in turn can bring out the best in the Doctor. It's a format that will serve the show well for the following six serials, most of them brilliant. In a strange way, "Evil of the Daleks" is regarded as one of the great Who serials and yet still remains underrated, partly because the structure is so novel, some find it unnerving: every time you feel you have a handle on where it's heading, it deceives you. "Power of the Daleks" was a sturdy but traditional narrative, with stock characters and a steady build. Here, Whitaker juggles time periods and tropes and images like a master magician: just setting the stage takes nearly three episodes, but there are so many sleights of hand (the first episode confidently crosscuts between a hunt for the missing TARDIS and a Victorian antique store that's not what it seems to be), so many graceful juxtapositions (Victoria, imprisoned by Daleks, feeding birds like an animated Disney princess) and so many pay-offs (the first Dalek reveal, for the viewer, is outdone by the second reveal, to showcase Troughton's reaction) that by the time the "real" adventure gets underway -- the Daleks' quest for the "Human Factor," which turns out to be bogus -- you're already in a sort of bedazzled delirium. And once that plot is in motion, there are still unexpected detours and delights and reckonings to come. It's one of Troughton's three best performances (the others being "Enemy of the World" and "War Games"), but equally important to the success of "Evil" is how Jamie comes into his own; freed from being the third wheel in the double-act lovefest that was Ben and Polly, Frazer Hines both relaxes and grows more assured. The great Doctor-Jamie bromance that would sustain the series for another two seasons isn't the mutual admiration society that we nostalgically remember. Jamie and the Doctor are given permission to love each other and still lose it with each other, like real best friends -- and it all begins here.

Up next: Season 5.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Madam, I'm Adam: the year in review

My annual year in review. You can check out 2013 here, and 2014 here. As always, I do not purport to have watched every great show on television this past year; this is not a "best of 2015" list. These are simply the shows I watched, the trends I noted, the risks I saw taken, and the mistakes (plenty of 'em this year) I saw made.


The good got better, and the bad got worse -- but only the bad got rewarded. That's what I got from my TV viewing in 2015: the saddest life-lesson ever.

frustrations: The Americans, Two and a Half Men, The Flash

The first half of the year was mostly an exercise in futility. After a splendid second season, The Americans fell from grace in Season 3, with unconvincing plotlines and ill-served characters; I grew so discouraged, I devoted a whole column to its decline. Two and a Half Men tried to go out on a high by restoring a little warmth and purpose to the show, with a season-long story about adoption (we were warned, and feared, it was going to be a season-long story about a sham gay marriage, but our fears were unfounded) -- but then Chuck Lorre upended it all with a finale so ill-advised that you wondered if he was determined to outdo the How I Met Your Mother creators, in taking a long-running show and making you regret every moment you'd invested in it. Constantine and Forever, two worthy series, continued to impress and improve, the former with no shot at renewal, the latter with virtually no shot -- but then Forever suffered the greater humiliation come cancellation time when two lower-rated shows at the same network were picked up, just because they were in-house productions.

And speaking of in-house productions, Matthew Perry returned to TV with his worst series, The Odd Couple, seemingly unable to give a single convincing line reading (and this from the actor who, in Friends episodes like "The One With the Girl Who Hits Joey," made it seem like language had been created just for him to play with), but then, because CBS remains determined to steamroll an in-house sitcom into syndication, was rewarded with a renewal. Whereas one of the network's sturdiest sitcoms (both in quality and ratings), Mike & Molly, following its best season yet, was again held for midseason when the upfronts were announced; then its episode count was reduced from 22 to 13; and finally, in December, before it had even returned to the schedule, it was canceled -- to the surprise of its stars and its viewers. "I was shocked and heart-broken," Melissa McCarthy tweeted: "I would have shot this show for 50 more years" -- and I believe her. A few months ago, I praised CBS for starting to turn themselves around, with some smart pick-ups and scheduling moves. Now they pull out the rug from under one of their biggest stars when she's flying highest, headlining the funniest movie of 2015. Network TV: a set-up for disappointment, a recipe for heartbreak.

Two new comic book adaptations hit the network airwaves this past year: iZombie, quirky and quick-witted, and Supergirl, more mainstream but no less delightful -- and both struggled in the ratings. (Supergirl, designed as a stronger lead-in to Scorpion than 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly had managed the previous season, plummeted in the timeslot to only about 75% of what the two sitcoms had managed, despite a huge PR push.) The comic book adaptation that continued to dominate in the demo: The Flash, which devolved during the spring months into the kind of lazy shorthand that required characters to act stupid in order to generate plot ("Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?"), then saw its story-telling abilities decline even further over the fall. And the winning Teddy Sears, a strong Season 2 addition, was shunted aside after just a few episodes so that the showrunners could try yet again to find a character that Tom Cavanagh could play convincingly -- and once again, they failed. Showrunners Berlanti and Kreisberg: you're on the set with Cavanagh 24/7; could you not get a clue as to what the guy can do (I hear he was good on Ed) and write him a suitable part?

But then, this is the show that allowed Mark Hamill to give what might be the worst performance I saw in 2015, as the returning Trickster in the sadly aptly-titled episode "Running to Stand Still," hamming it up like Cesar Romero crossed with Frank Gorshin -- so why should I expect anything of The Flash at this point, except an uncanny ability to attract forgiving viewers? I did a whole column this year called The Sorry State of TV Villains, mostly about performers overacting to the point of absurdity (as if they were still on the old Batman TV series, while everyone else in the cast was acting in a grittier, more naturalistic style), and dammit, I wrote the column two months too soon: Hamill would have topped the list. One of the best performances I saw by a villain this year was in the same Flash episode: Liam McIntyre as Weather Wizard. He was so restrained, I almost wept in gratitude. He didn't "play the villain"; he just played a villain. He was content to sink his teeth into a good role without feeling a need to chew the scenery as well. Could everyone else please take note? Neil McDonough of Arrow, take note. Steven Weber of iZombie, take note. And oh dear Lord, John Noble, take note, because one more performance like you gave in Elementary's final episode of 2015 and you're gonna sink that extraordinary show, and I don't think I could bear it.

Note to villains: if the plot depends on the hero not guessing your evil intent, then please dial back the wickedness to just this side of cauldron-stirring -- because otherwise, the hero looks like a fool for trusting you. Which is what happened on the last episode this year of Elementary, when Sherlock spent the day with his father -- John Noble in a performance just barely more subtle than he managed on Season 2 of Sleepy Hollow -- then gushed to Joan about his renewed faith in his father's decency and integrity. C'mon, Mr. Noble, I've seen you do superb work; if the script calls for friggin' Sherlock Holmes, who misses nothing, not to see your dastardly demeanor, then you can't spend the whole episode with a smirk plastered on your face, lacing your lines with irony. I don't know when this tendency of the bad guys to ignore the logic of the story-line became an affliction, but it sank Season 2 of Arrow and Season 1 of The Flash, and sapped much of the fun out of Daredevil for me. Again, shameless plug: I talk about it here, but who knew a few months later, I'd have enough ammunition for a follow-up? (Admission: everyone else seems to love these hammy villains much more than I do; sometimes I'm so at odds with popular opinion that it delights me.)

better news: The Big Bang Theory, The Mentalist, Elementary

Was there any good news in 2015? A bit. The Big Bang Theory shocked the hell out of me by managing yet another resuscitation, using Sheldon and Amy's break-up in May to force Sheldon to new levels of self-awareness. "Amy, I excel at many things, but getting over you wasn't one of them," Sheldon told Amy when she suggested they get back together, a sign of how far Sheldon has come in just a few seasons, and maybe the single best line of dialogue I heard all year. His on-camera breakdown as colleagues were shooting a documentary, and then the couple's reconciliation -- which played out over two episodes, the second being (in a scheduling move clearly arranged by the gods of television) on the night of the new Star Wars premiere, which featured heavily in the plot -- were the most exuberant and affecting the show has been in over two years. Likewise, Arrow improved immeasurably in its new season, as returning showrunner Marc Guggenheim made note of every misstep in Season 3 and corrected course, restoring the camaraderie, common sense, and sense of fun. Well, until -- yup, just like Elementary -- its final show of the year, a ghastly error in judgment that played up Felicity's Jewish heritage, only to stick her in a gas chamber while the villain canonized the Holocaust. From what I saw on Twitter, only about four of us viewers minded, because the episode also saw Ollie propose to Felicity; it was as if the showrunners said, "Let's see if we can do something really offensive and have no one notice, because we'll also do something really big for the shippers." Thank you for shaming humanity, Mssrs. Berlanti and Guggenheim; did you not see that you were shaming yourselves as well?

And speaking of felicities (apologies: terrible segue), the summer months were full of them: Poldark, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Robot, Humans, Ray Donovan (despite it having a shaky season, under new showrunner David Hollander) -- not to mention the guiltier pleasures like Zoo (my favorite summer series), Dark Matter and Wayward Pines. The year's best programming was saved for the months with the lowest viewership: sure, why not? But a few of the summer successes came with a price. The rapidly declining ratings for Jonathan Strange on BBC One make it less likely that novel, ambitious projects like that will be undertaken anytime soon, and less easy for its writer, Peter Harness (one of my favorite story-tellers), to pitch them. And sometimes this past year, I set myself up for disappointment: following Poldark, I had such high hopes for director Ed Bazalgette in his upcoming two-episode stint on Doctor Who that I waxed on about it in print -- and then they turned out to be my least-favorite directed episodes of the season. Ah, 2015: dashing my dreams and expectations like clockwork...

Best farewell: The Mentalist. Some weeks, I sat stunned at how good the show had become again. Creator Bruno Heller and his longstanding writing team nailed every moment: every character introduction and re-introduction, every development and departure. And as I noted in an earlier blog, the pairing of Jane and Lisbon -- which I never expected to work (forgetting, I see now in syndication, the flirtatious chemistry that was apparent in Season 1 episodes like Ashley Gable's "Flame Red") -- was handled with such charm and ease that you bought into it completely. The Mentalist went out on a high not only artistically, but emotionally. I'm not a fan of series getting contrived "happy endings" (I still cringe thinking about how some of the "realistic" Lear sitcoms -- e.g., One Day at a Time, Good Times -- wrapped things up in the '70s and '80s -- and don't get me started on this year's Downton Abbey Christmas finale), but The Mentalist was never a story about Patrick Jane getting his revenge on Red John -- it was about Patrick Jane getting his life back, and in the show's final season, and particularly in its final moments, he did just that. It was the series finale that got everything right. The one that gave us everything we wanted, even the things we don't know we wanted -- and let's face it: how often does that happen?

Best comeback: Elementary, which, after a lackluster ending to Season 2, got back in gear with the addition of Sherlock's new protege Kitty -- whom, shrewdly, we got to know not through Sherlock's eyes, but through Joan's. The introduction of Kitty went off without a hitch, and the miracle of Season 3 is that once she left, and we feared the show no longer had a serialized hook to hang itself on, the plotting remained strong, and more important, the characters continue to evolve all the way through the end of Season 3 and into Season 4. Rob Doherty's writing team was very much on its game in 2015, with pretty much everyone contributing at least two sterling scripts, and I'm reasonably certain that the Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series in 2015 was Jonny Lee Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman during the period he was using -- but heaven forbid anyone connected with a series that's still seen by many as "just another CBS procedural" should get any Emmy or SAG-AFTRA love. As we head into 2016, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with, as noted, only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble a cause for concern. (Last month, watching Syfy's exceptional Childhood's End adaptation and BBC One's solid And Then There Were None three-parter, I kept thinking of all the fans, when it was announced that Sherlock's father would be added to the Elementary cast, who posted, "Charles Dance would be perfect in the role." Ah, if only...)

best news: Unforgotten, Limitless, Madam Secretary, Doctor Who

ITV followed up its ground-breaking detective drama Grantchester with a more traditional murder mystery, Unforgotten, but it was highly engaging: a cold case solved over six weeks, where we delved into the suspects' lives in depth, watching as secrets were revealed and dreams came undone. If the various wrap-ups were a little too pat for my tastes, the drama was anchored by another splendid performance by Nicola Walker, and her no-nonsense approach more than made up for any deficiencies in story-telling. Sky Atlantic and Showtime's Penny Dreadful had a deliciously subdued second season: less a new set of adventures than an elegant reshuffling of the deck, in which characters switched partners and luxuriated in conversation, in verse that could have been fashioned by Trollope or Tennyson. And CBS, on a downward creative spiral for several years, managed two must-see series in 2015: Madam Secretary in its (superb) second season, and Limitless in its (splendid) first.

Let's start with Limitless, which for CBS is sort of a miracle: the kind of younger-skewing, still older-adult-friendly show CBS has been searching for for half a decade, as well as the sort of popular, serialized drama it's been struggling to find since Desperate Housewives and Lost revitalized the form back in 2004. As Brian Finch, a regular bloke who gets his hands on a pill that magnifies his brain function, Jake McDorman is giving the kind of star turn that's star-making: it's not just a dynamic performance, it's an astoundingly ingratiating and empathetic one. Limitless eschews CBS's ailing procedural format in favor of something much less predictable, filled with ongoing threads, mysteries and revelations, and the result is more sheer fun than anything on TV right now: fleet-footed, brash and irresistible.

As Limitless reaches a younger audience that CBS has been thirsting for, Madam Secretary is playing to its more traditional base, but it's giving them the best character drama they've had since the early days of The Good Wife. Téa Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) stars as former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, brought back to Washington to serve as Secretary of State. The show utilizes the dual home/workplace format that's been around for generations, but it's upped its game on both fronts as it's headed into Season 2. The political stories have grown more sweeping and more nuanced, and the stakes ever higher, while home life has rarely rung so true -- which should come as no surprise to anyone aware of the background of series creator Barbara Hall (Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia), since no one better dramatizes the day-to-day drudgery and messy humor of American family life. The Secretary of State is well cared for on the home front and abroad.

Limitless and Madam Secretary: two shows so good that I devoted an entire column to them -- and as of this writing, I find Madam Secretary the best drama on television.

As noted, lots of series -- Arrow, Elementary -- started the new season strong, then ended with a sting in the tail. So, of course, leave it to the time-traveling Doctor to do it in reverse. The new Doctor Who season started with two of its most mediocre episodes in recent memory -- I managed to see them at a SAG-AFTRA screening in New York City, with a theatre full of rabid fans, and by the time the final credits rolled, there was no cheering or applause: just a lot of stony-faced viewers exiting in mystified disappointment. (So naturally, when the episodes finally aired on TV, they were hailed both here and in the UK as instant classics.) Series 9 clearly suffered from scripts having been assigned when it was presumed that Jenna Coleman would be leaving after Season 8; the early scripts reeked of rewrites, missed opportunities, and ill-fitting characterizations. ("The Magician's Apprentice" and "The Witch's Familiar," by their very titles alone, were clearly designed to introduce a new companion, and poor Coleman was stuck playing Clara in scripts that were never meant to feature her: forced to play a gullible novice, and doing the best she could with it.) But the season swiftly improved, and went out on a stunning triple-header high. A solo showcase for Peter Capaldi, an exhilarating farewell for Coleman, and a gloriously moving goodbye to Alex Kingston -- each successive episode unfathomably better than the last. Two years ago, I was one of a handful of Who fans silently hoping showrunner Steven Moffat would bow out gracefully, as his energies and imagination seemed to be wilting. But how the addition of Capaldi has recharged his batteries: we've now enjoyed the two best series of New Who to date.

best surprises: The Man in the High Castle, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Gypsy

2015 was the year, of course, when FX Networks CEO John Lundgraf declared, at the TCA press tour, "There is simply too much television," and if the shows that lie unfinished on my TiVo and DVR are any indication (not to mention the shows that were unfinished and deleted to make room for the shows that lie unfinished), then he's right. But just because there's "too much television," is there too much good television? Because typically I can find time for shows I'm passionate about, no matter how crowded my schedule. But I never got through Fear the Walking Dead -- but I mean, really, what was the point, except to see how stultifying a series about zombies can be when it's ill-conceived and badly cast? -- and so much on Netflix is awaiting completion: from Jessica Jones to Bloodline to season 4 of Longmire. Will I finish them? I have no idea. About these new series designed for streaming: I keep hearing friends say things like "I couldn't stop watching" (myself, I find it really easy to -- sometimes mid-episode) and, if I say I'm having trouble getting into a show, they tell me, "It's a slow burn." (I've learned that just means, "It's slow.") And I have no trouble with slow -- I mean, I loved Season 1 of The Killing -- but I also like involving, entertaining, varied, gripping, gratifying. "Slow" alone only gets me so far...

The streaming series I found most engrossing? The Man in the High Castle: brilliantly imagined, designed and performed. When I finished, on an exultant high, I Googled to see when Season 2 might be premiering, and was somehow led to The New York Times review, which bemoaned the "underwritten characters — including, unfortunately, central figures Juliana, Frank and Joe, who sap the life out of the show whenever they mope their way on." I can only imagine, in some scenario appropriate to the series itself, that the Times critic was sent some alternate-reality version of the show -- because for me, more than the production design, more than the political parallels and questions it raised, what distinguished Man in the High Castle was that every role, no matter how small, was cast and performed to perfection. After all the amateur acting from professionals this year, seeing a show that imbued even the tiniest roles with detail, delicacy and dignity was intensely gratifying. Shout-outs to the three so-not-underwritten leads, Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans and Luke Kleintank; to Rufus Sewell, who managed to make a villain complex and commanding without needless histrionics, and to his onscreen wife, Chelah Horsdal, who matched him beat for beat; to bravura yet restrained turns by two older pros, Carsten Norgaard and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa; and to some splendid supporting playing by DJ Qualls, Rick Worthy and Stefanie von Pfetten.

I've focused a lot on this year's dramas, because the second half of 2015 was noticeably shy on humor. With Mom held till late November, and Mike & Molly off the air till 2016 (returning tonight, as I post this: hallulejah!), I turned to the premium channels (HBO, Showtime) and streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu) for laughs; unfortunately, no one warned me that few of these off-network, single-camera sitcoms actually have laughs. Oh, it's not that they're not enjoyable -- well, Difficult People and Grace and Frankie aren't (Grace and Frankie is, I think, the worst Jane Fonda vehicle I've seen since the film 9 to 5); they're just not particularly funny. The Matt LeBlanc starrer Episodes is a moderately engaging series with, unfortunately, just one laugh-out-loud episode in four seasons (it's Season 3, Episode 6: since creators Crane and Klarik think it's clever not to name the Episodes episodes, I'm not going to bother describing it), and Transparent is an engrossing drama with, like any decent one, some amusing situations and lines. (But of course, now that the Emmys view any half-hour show as a comedy, Jeffrey Tambor takes home the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his shaded and subtle dramatic work on Transparent.) Of all the sitcoms I saw this year on anything other than the Big Four networks, only Silicon Valley made me consistently chuckle. Lost, I fear, among the series' showier performances is the one that kept me coming back: Zach Woods as Jared, one of the most nimble and endearing turns I saw in 2015.

Two of the best-reviewed fall sitcoms -- FOX's The Grinder and Grandfathered -- depended on an understanding and enjoyment of their stars' on-screen personae and off-screen antics; I found them tiresome. Of the new series, I got more laughs from two hour-longs than any of the thirty-minute sitcoms: the aforementioned Limitless, and the one-of-a-kind Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which boasted no less than four break-out performances. Part neurotic character comedy, part musical comedy pastiche, it's an original and a blessing in this day and age -- and one episode in particular, "I Hope Josh Come to My Party!" (all about a housewarming) was the funniest thing I saw in 2015, with a knockout vocal performance by Donna Lynne Champlin, who -- if I were doing the Emmy balloting -- would have the Supporting Actress Award sewn up. And of course, the show is languishing in the ratings, awaiting cancellation, because -- well, because that's just how the year has gone...

There was one other musical comedy treat in 2015: the BBC Four airing of Gypsy, and with deep respect to my friends in the business, half of whom I feel like I've seen in revivals of Gypsy, the West End production (starring Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver and Peter Davison) was probably the best I've seen since Lansbury's. Superbly directed for the stage by Jonathan Kent, and caught on camera by the peerless Lonny Price, this Gypsy nailed everything. Fine, they cut the Overture to shreds, and left out the "Small World" reprise, and the lamb was a stuffed animal -- and I will live. But they captured the era, the exuberance, the energy and the emotionalism. Gypsy is a long show, and this production, to its great credit, moved like a racehorse, without sacrificing humor, poignancy or impact. Ever since the Tyne Daly revival, the tendency has been to play Madame Rose's abusiveness as her dominant feature, to subordinate her most engaging traits to her more deplorable ones. At times, Staunton veered dangerously close to that interpretation, particularly in close-up, but mostly her Rose was a woman possessed by the sounds of Tin Pan Alley: her hands and arms and shoulders forever pulsing to an imagined beat, her face staring out at some distant dream. She was willing slave to the fantasy of showbiz fortune that Gypsy serves up so effectively. I would have thought it impossible to create a Rose that worked simultaneously for a live theatre audience and for the intimacy of the camera -- but I was proven wrong. Staunton was, simply put, revelatory.

As for Peter Davison, his Herbie may well be the crowning achievement of an already extraordinary career. He matched Staunton in intensity when he needed to, but he also had powerful warmth and charm that, in turn, humanized her. It was the best interpretation of Herbie I've seen -- and omigosh, they let him sing. Suddenly there was Herbie harmonizing along, more than in any production I've seen, and as a result, "You'll Never Get Away from Me" and "Together (Wherever We Go)" weren't just Rose pulling her long con: Herbie was a willing accomplice. His level of self-awareness made his character both more admirable and more dominant, and his departure all the more devastating. And then there's Lara Pulver, to whom I owe an apology. I have not particularly cared for her in the television appearances I've caught -- MI-5 and Fleming and Sherlock's "Scandal in Belgravia"; she was always asked to play sexy and self-assured, and I felt something lacking. I thought she simply wasn't up to the task. So I eat much crow to say that her performance as Louise in Gypsy was perhaps my favorite since Julienne Marie in 1960. My God, she was good -- and now I realize that the other roles I've seen her in have simply been too limiting; this is an actress who doesn't thrive when pigeon-holed. Maybe her performance in Gypsy will give industry folks a better idea of what she can do (which is apparently everything) other than merely "play sexy." In particular, the final scene between mother and daughter -- the crucial scene in Gypsy that so often feels anticlimactic -- was, hands down, the best I've see it performed.

a dose of reality: Adam Ruins Everything

And while I'm eating crow, I guess I should admit that one of the most unexpected pleasures in 2015 aired on a network that I have seen fit to mock on this blog, for its steady stream of World's Dumbest Competitions and World's Most Shocking Chases and other hyperbolic dodo-fests that send me fleeing the room every time we channel-surf by them. TruTV, that bastion of televised waste, gave us Adam Ruins Everything, and it might well be the year's most delightful surprise, as comedian Adam Conover -- with imagination, irreverence, and very bad hair -- skewers sacred cows and corrects misconceptions about one topic a week: from the automobile industy to forensic science to the electoral college. As illuminating as it is entertaining, it's the rare show -- like John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, which hit its stride in Season 2 -- where you laugh and learn at the same time: TV where you actually come away better for the viewing, but managed in such a cheeky, yet intelligent way that you never feel patronized.

In a year when ruination was the order of the day -- network executives engaged in suicidal programming practices, showrunners willfully alienating their audiences, actors indulging in what should be career-ending hammery -- it seems somehow fitting that one of the best shows of 2015 showed that sometimes, thank goodness, you can f**k things up for the better. Adam Conover managed the miraculous: to halt my incessant mockery of TruTV, which was one of my greatest pleasures.

He really does ruin everything.