Monday, March 21, 2016

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow:
When Shows Jump the (King) Shark

How bad does a show have to get before you bail? I'm 56 now. My earliest television memory is an episode of Lost in Space called "The Keeper" from January of 1966 (the day after it aired, all the kids in the neighborhood took turns walking around as if hypnotized, repeating "I'm being summoned," as Dr. Smith had the night before) -- so I guess I've been a devoted TV viewer for half a century now. In the old days, if a show you loved got rotten, you kept watching; there were only three channels, and unless there was something compelling on one of the other two, you stuck with your show through even the dreariest lows. But today, chances are, there are more shows that interest you than hours in the day: not just those airing weekly on network television, but streaming series with dozens of episodes instantly available. How do you stick with a show through the dry patches when you know your viewing time could be put to better use: when there's that show on iPlayer or On Demand that's going to be disappearing soon, or that series from thirty years ago that you'd always heard about, that someone just uploaded to YouTube and might vanish any day due to copyright infringement?

The Flash and Arrow return to the air this week, after a four-week hiatus, and I'll no longer be watching. I made up my mind after their last airings that it was time to let go: over time, they'd managed to both bore me and offend me. (You'd think indifference would numb you to feeling actively insulted, but no.) And watching another comic-book adaptation, Agent Carter, which aired from January through March and basically got everything right, only further reminded me how much The Flash and Arrow were suffering creatively.

But letting go of The Flash and Arrow fills me with mixed emotions. They're the kind of shows I should love; I'm one of their target audiences. I was raised on DC Comics, and read them faithfully from the '60s to the mid-'80s, and resumed when they launched the New 52 in 2011. So in some ways, those shows are dearer to me than others I've dropped. I dumped Dallas and Falcon Crest in the same week in 1988, but that was easy: I had no real attachment. More recently, I let go of a slew of series: Survivor after twenty-seven seasons; Criminal Minds after nine. The former had simply worn me down; I couldn't regain the enthusiasm I'd once had -- I found myself more eager to go to Hulu and revisit Parvati and Cirie in Micronesia. And Criminal Minds -- well, I felt betrayed. It had added the marvelous Jeanne Tripplehorn to its principal cast, and then disposed of her after two seasons, with no explanation for her departure. Did the actress want out? Or did the network want her out, so they could bring in a younger actress to shore up the almighty 18-49 demo (which is just what they did)? Since no press release went out, even the curt, standard one you don't even believe, but accept with some degree of grace ("Ms. Tripplehorn only signed for two years, and has decided to move on to other ventures"), one can only presume CBS dumped her -- the likeliest scenario, since her airtime had been shrinking dramatically during her final months on the show. For me, the axing of Tripplehorn was a terrible move, dreadfully handled, and it drove me away.

In this day and age, when there's so much to watch, shows make me angry in ways they never used to: "You're trying my patience," I think -- or worse, "You're wasting my time." There are hundreds of shows vying for my attention: do better. The Good Wife inspired those feelings repeatedly after its first three seasons. Early in Season 5, when Alicia left Lockhart-Gardner to start her own law firm, and the show was garnering the most acclaim it had ever enjoyed, I jumped ship. I found the story-lines contrived and repetitive. (How many ways could the writers manage to put the two firms on opposing sides of the same case?) And juvenile! My God: there was the charismatic Jason O'Mara, added to the cast so he could -- steal furniture? But would I have quit watching if creators Robert and Michelle King hadn't already squandered the audience's trust? In season 4, they penned an awful storyline in which Kalinda's (smarmy) estranged husband Nick appeared on the scene. It was dismally conceived and abominably written -- and when the Kings pulled the plug on the storyline, well before they had intended to, they blamed the viewers. "Some characters you actually don't want to see that much backstory," they said in interviews. "People just don't want Kalinda to go there. This was not a place where the audience wanted to go.” No, the place we didn't want to go was into the bowels of a bad story-line, with paper-thin characterizations and gratuitous sex and violence. Deflecting blame anywhere they could, the Kings even went so far as to blame the actor playing Nick (Marc Warren, a brilliant actor who was handed such drivel, it was impossible to tell he was a brilliant actor) for being so dynamic that he drove the audience away. Michelle King: "Everyone is agreeing that he's doing a fantastic job portraying the character: in fact, maybe so fantastic that people are upset that Kalinda would be connected to that." That is the most novel excuse I've ever heard for why a story-line isn't working: the actor is too good.

The shamelessness of showrunners -- blaming audiences and actors for the failings of their own storylines -- is a new development (and ironically, they're doing it at a time when they can least afford to alienate their audiences). In the old days, if the headwriters screwed up, they did a mea culpa. After Bobby Ewing was killed off Dallas, and Patrick Duffy was persuaded to return a season later, Leonard Katzman devised the whole "Bobby in the shower" dream scenario -- effectively wiping out an entire bad season with an apology -- and viewers were quick to succumb. (The move has become a punchline now, but it's worth remembering that it restored both ratings and quality. "The storylines last season were awful, and we know it," it assured us. "Let's pretend they never happened. Forgiven?" And we forgave.) For Season 13 of Knots Landing, creator David Jacobs hired a new writing/producing team, and after fifteen dreadful episodes, he canned them and shut down production. He went public, apologizing for the fiasco, and smartly hired one of the best writers in the business to salvage the show (which she did). Now when a show goes off the rails, it's our fault. So I quit The Good Wife for a spell, ultimately fast-forwarding through a half-dozen episodes until it regained my interest. I was there when they killed off Josh Charles's Will Gardner, and I was there through the remainder of Season 5. And then Season 6 started, and within a few episodes, I was ready to call a halt once more, and did -- this time for good. The storylines again felt static, but more important, a new show had come along that quenched my thirst for adult character drama: Madam Secretary. You lose my trust and confidence these days, it's perilously easy for me to bail; there's probably another show nearby that fills my viewing needs.

As a footnote, the Kings continued their reign of viewer terror; their ongoing duplicity and arrogance made me glad I'd left. Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi hadn't shared a scene together in almost three years -- clearly due to some unresolvable personal issue -- when Panjabi departed the show at the end of Season 6. Viewers were promised that the two would appear together in her final episode, to properly button their relationship. And when the scene aired, it was evident that the actresses had taped their lines separately, and it had been spliced together in the editing room. In an interview with the creators, columnist Michael Ausiello noted that he wasn't digging for dirt -- whatever the reason for the friction wasn't his concern -- he simply wanted to know if keeping the actresses apart all those years had impacted stories. And instead of saying something simple like, "There were obviously personal issues, but we tried not to let it affect the writing," the Kings went on the offensive, as if shooting actors separately, then splicing them together, were standard practice: "We’re making the show every day using tricks, like if you’re in a car and there’s green screen and it looks like Chicago out the window but that’s not exactly where we are." (That's an actual quote.) And if the tone of condescension wasn't clear enough, Michelle King chose to deflect the question back to Josh Charles's departure the previous season, to hammer home that the show was fiction, and we shouldn't question anything about it: "Just so we’re clear, Josh wasn’t really killed [when his character Will Gardner died]. We faked those gunshots. We fake everything in the show, so I can address this on a storytelling level that there was no intent ever to dupe the viewers." And readers were rightfully outraged: "Treating your viewers like sheep or downright idiots ('we didn’t kill the actor') is the worst thing to do, and only proves that whatever humility was there in the beginning is now gone." And "the snarkiness was uncalled for and inappropriate, and insults the fan base they rely on for their show’s success. Shame on them." And my favorite: "I am done with the show, and I will demonstrate my disappointment by no longer being involved. I know my changing the channel won’t influence the ratings an iota; however, it will make a big difference for me."

"It will make a big difference for me."

These days, there are too many viewing options: don't try my patience. Don't come out swinging in defense of a bad story-line; I'm here armed, remote in hand. It won't make one bit of difference to the ratings of The Flash and Arrow that I am not watching this week, but it'll make a big difference to me.

So why Flash and Arrow? Why now?

When did Flash stop being good? In truth, I'm not sure it ever was good. Oh sure, I found the pilot amiable. But right from the start, the metahuman-of-the-week format started to feel limiting, and as the season progressed, logic seemed to take a back seat to action. I wrote last August that the show had already "devolved into the kind of lazy shorthand that requires characters to act stupid in order to generate story," as in "Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?" But so much else rankled. The torn-between-two-men contrivances of the Iris West storyline made her unsympathetic; the sight of a drunken Caitlin coming on to Barry made her pitiful and pathetic. Greg Berlanti's hit factory doesn't have a great track record for writing strong women -- they're better at writing strong, shirtless men -- but these two were in a disaster class all their own. And for me, the Season 1 finale exposed an indolence at the show's core. The set-up: the Flash is going to go back in time, to prevent his mother's death. And he's warned that by changing the time stream, any and all events could be altered, probably dramatically, possibly calamitously. His colleagues, huddled around him, are told that their own rebooted lives could play out totally differently: possibly for the (far) worse. So should he do it, knowing he's putting all their lives in some sort of jeopardy? Sure, they tell him in unison: go for it. Save your mother. You're the hero. It was the kind of lazy writing I find most irritating: everyone agrees, because that's the easiest way to script it. Could one person have expressed disdain for the plan? Caitlin was about to wed the man she loved -- but sure, Barry, if you want to rewrite my history, it's fine; the show is named after you, after all. So they all nodded their heads and went along with him, like he was Maria teaching the dutiful Von Trapp children to sing.

But the absurdities didn't stop there. Barry wondered if he could really break through the time barrier -- "Do you think I'm fast enough," he asked his faux-father Joe -- and Joe responded, "Yes, I know you are." Based on what? Instinct? This isn't your kid racing in the high-school track meet, wondering if he has a shot at winning; in that scenario, worst case -- oh, I don't know: he loses. This is end-of-the-world stuff. But it was the start of an awful development on The Flash: the vapid pep talks. Because after Joe assured Barry that he could run fast enough, he admitted, "I don't think I can lose you," and it was Barry's turn: "You won't ever lose me. Ever, you hear me? Ever." Trust me when I say, the best empty assurances repeat the same word three times. (Three times. Three.) This, for me, was the beginning of the descent of The Flash -- and the abrupt, callous disposal of Barry's father in the following episode (his whole story-line, which had dominated Season 1, turned out to be a MacGuffin) was the next nail in the coffin. And then the tackiest tropes started dominating. Barry: "We need a machine that can do X-Y-Z." Cisco: "It'll take me 20 minutes." It became laughable how quickly boy genius Cisco could construct seemingly anything. And then, at one point last fall, the writers outdid themselves. Barry came in requesting some contraption, and Cisco announced that, "as some of you may well know," he'd already been working on it for months, and it was nearly ready. It was preposterous meta-story-telling: like Cisco had been in the writers' room while they were breaking story: "I know it's only episode 6, but I'm working on something you'll need in episode 9."

And then there's Tom Cavanagh. As I've noted before, I'm not a fan of his work on The Flash. I hear he excels at light comedy; someday, I'll take a look at Ed and (apparently) see how capable he is. But the Harrison Wells of Season 1 was a mismatch of actor and role: whatever Cavanagh does well, quiet malice is not it. Enigmatic is not his strong suit. I breathed a sigh of relief when he was killed off at the end of Season 1. But if at first you don't succeed, try, try the viewer's patience again. They revived him as a new character in Season 2, a father passionately fighting for his daughter's life -- and there were moments so melodramatic that I cringed. (And then he started to have ready-made inventions. "Cisco, having trouble controlling your visions? Wear this.") There were two great characters introduced in Season 2, right out of the comic books -- police detective Patty Spivot and Earth-2 Flash Jay Garrick. I could have watched them forever. But no, Patty had to written out, and Jay's role had to be diminished so that Tom Cavanagh could get more screentime. And it wasn't even done subtly -- everything was telegraphed. You knew Patty was leaving the show two episodes before she did; the minute Barry wrestled with whether to reveal his secret identity to her, it was clear she was being given the heave-ho. (And the "don't tell so-and-so you're the Flash" plotline had already proven irritating when it was foisted upon Iris in Season 1 -- it reeked of contrivance and chauvinism -- so why were they reviving it?) The Flash telegraphs everything; it's unbearable. If the heroes journey to Earth 2, and they're warned in advance that they shouldn't be surprised if they run into their doppelgangers, you can bet that they'll be surprised -- over and over -- when they do. When they return, if they're instructed not to reveal to the other characters that they saw their doppelgangers, you can bet that -- one by one -- they'll let that slip.

And by the middle of Season 2, the use of pep talks to resolve plots becomes unbearable. The nadir has to be the visit to Earth 2, when the Flash gets stuck in a cell and can't seem to vibrate his way out, and his Earth 2 doppelganger, a Barry Allen who is not the Flash, merely a geeky CSI (overplayed by Grant Gustin), assures him he can: "Today I did things that I never thought possible. Now, if I can do the impossible today, so can you. I'm just Barry Allen, but you're The Flash. If you tell yourself you can phase out of there, you'll do it." Logic of the A+B=3 variety. And by the way, what the hell did you do that day that was so impressive, Barry? You walked on ice -- that's pretty much it. But no matter the circumstances, no matter the logic, or lack thereof, everyone gets a pep talk on The Flash -- and then they find their inner strength, and succeed.

As an experiment, I decided to fast forward my way through the most recent episode, and only hit "play" when a scene looked like it would engage my attention. I only hit play twice. Two characters cross over from Arrow. Fast forward. Giant shark comes out of a pool. Fast forward. Mind-numbing idiocy with new character Wally West. Fast forward. Wait, what's that Cisco is telling Caitlin? Play: "You're being shut off. You're being detached. You're being cold." No, you moron, she's lost two men she loved in the space of six months -- have you ever heard of mourning, you stupid cretin? Fast forward. Oh, look, it's the end of the episode. What's happening? Guess they vanquished the giant shark (apparently he was called King Shark), and what's this? We're back on Earth 2, immediately after the end of the previous episode. A week earlier, we'd cut to credits on Jay Garrick being snatched back to Earth 2, and now, in this week's closing moments, we resume that scene at the exact second we left off. So in other words, this whole episode that I fast-forwarded through, this episode that was literally about trying to jump a shark, happened between two consecutive points in time. It was an episode of filler. I could have wasted an hour on it; fortunately, I only wasted eight minutes.

I know others enjoy The Flash tremendously. I know the show's contrivances, for them, are part of the fun. They see all the tropes I disparage as faithful to the spirit of the source material. But here's the thing. My favorite comic book writer, Cary Bates, wrote The Flash uninterrupted from 1972 to 1985. He tackled most of the characters seen on this show, and devised some of the very plots that the show is exploring. And he never settled for this sort of predictability. Cary's nickname in the business was "Mr. Surprise" -- he was best known for constantly springing fresh traps, unveiling new tricks. And he did so with a tone that was unmistakably warm, but that never stooped to easy sentimentality. The Flash is now a fun-house reflection -- or perhaps "reduction" is a better word -- of what folks suppose a comic book to be. But at its best, under Cary Bates, whose ebullience and imagination are very much the cornerstone of this new series, The Flash was easily more adventurous and less contrived than its TV adaptation. And I don't have time for a show that's content to be less than its best.

As for Arrow: oh well, in my year-end wrap-up, I argued that Season 4 was back on track, so I'm probably to blame for the dramatic decline in quality since then: I tempted fate. Season 3 had been a mess: a pairing to please the Olicity shippers that only made Felicity look needy and whiny; flashbacks that served no purpose, except "we do them every year"; and a host of errors in judgment. Season 4, from the start, restored the camaraderie, the sense of fun, and I had credited the return of Marc Guggenheim to active showrunning duties as the cause. I didn't much care for the villain-of-the-year, Damien Darhk; I prefer my TV villains on the subtler side. And the flashbacks seemed almost as lame as the previous season. But the cast was interacting so nicely, I didn't much care -- I didn't even mind when three presumed-dead characters were revived in three consecutive episodes. I found the new season such a relief from the previous one, I was willing to put up with anything.

But then the holidays hit. We started with oodles of subplot about fan-favorite Felicity Smoak's Jewish heritage. And then the villain abducted her, stuck her in a gas chamber and canonized the Holocaust as she lay gasping for breath -- and I sat there in disbelief. I went on Twitter, expecting an uproar -- and there was nothing. (Only one friend was as offended as I was.) The episode was shrewdly constructed; its cornerstone was our hero Oliver Queen proposing to Felicity, and Berlanti and Guggenheim knew that's all the fans would focus on. So they could be as outrageous, and ultimately offensive, as they wanted to be, and no one would notice or mind. And I dare say, I don't suspect a lot of Holocaust survivors are watching Arrow -- they are not the CW's target audience -- but that's hardly the point. The Holocaust was a horrific period in history where six million Jews were slaughtered, a mass incarceration and extermination that continues to impact its victims and their families -- and serves as a cautionary tale for what is currently a terrifying political climate. You don't trivialize it. (I grew just as angry two summers ago when The Strain suggested that there was some demonic creature killing Jews in the death camps. The Holocaust is not there so you can run your fun variations on it. It is, as the comedians say, "too soon.") The Holocaust plotline shattered my affection for Arrow, and there was clearly going to be a healing process. And as it turned out, there was going to be a healing process for Felicity, too, as she was gunned down in that same episode, with permanent damage to her spinal column, and we were advised, "She's never going to walk again."

Except you knew she would. I mean, even at the age of seven, watching TV, I had a good bullshit detector, like all my friends. (We didn't watch Gilligan's Island expecting the castaways to be rescued.) Nothing surprises me anymore -- and on a show that had already had three people return from the dead in three consecutive episodes, you knew something as "minor" as permanent paralysis wasn't going to stick. But still I wasn't prepared for how badly the writers would handle it. We had to wade through the usual cliches. There was the surgery episode, where all the characters got to intone aphorisms like "She's stronger than all of us." (No, she's not, but it's what people say when writers are parroting what people always say on shows like this.) Next came the post-surgery wallow-in-self-pity episode, complete with a guest appearance by Felicity-of-days-past, with pretty much the same backstory and hair color they gave fellow hacker Penelope Garcia when they delved into her backstory on Criminal Minds. (Felicity. Penelope. Potato. Potahto.) But then we get the news that Curtis, this year's good-guy cast addition, has devised a possible cure for her: an "implantable biostimulant." He advises her, "In a perfect world, it will work in time for you to walk down the aisle" -- which is a huge comfort, because ask anyone who's suffered crippling injury, and they'll tell you that the worst part of it is not being able to walk down the aisle on your wedding day. But it's not like the show was sensitive to Holocaust survivors, so why should we expect a story that respects the dignity of the disabled?

So Felicity gets the miracle cure, but surprise: it doesn't work. But before we have a chance to digest that, there's a crisis: Ollie's bastard son has been kidnapped. That would be a plot in and of itself, but here's the clincher: Ollie never told Felicity that he had a son, so suddenly she makes the plot all about her -- and the writers let her. They encourage her to hijack the storyline. They love their Felicity so much that an episode about a kidnapping becomes all about Felicity feeling betrayed, but bravely rising above all that to help find that boy. (My God, she's wonderful. Those self-sacrificing screen heroines of the Thirties -- who gave up their children so they could have a better life -- were no less noble.) And at episode's end, even though the boy's mother has told Felicity that she had demanded of Ollie that he tell no one, that it was a condition of him getting to know his son, Felicity still blames Ollie for his duplicity. She gives him back his ring, with righteous fury, and then: omigod, her legs are moving. She can walk again -- and more important, she can make a big, dramatic exit. Yup, her ability to walk again is used as a plot device. It was because she had to walk out in a huff that her legs worked. The writers rewarded her for her self-absorption with the use of her limbs.

I walk with a cane. I've had mobility issues for ten years. I live with constant pain. I have many friends dealing with disability, and chronic illness, and none of us are expecting miracle cures any time soon. But by God, when a show goes out of its way to show that all you need to overcome a permanent condition is self-absorption -- well, that was the straw that broke my disabled camel's back. I can't watch a show that gives Felicity a miracle cure just so she can make a dramatic exit.

And so I'll be making my own dramatic exit, and bid farewell to The Flash and Arrow. (Despite the pun-ny title of this post, which was too good to pass up, I don't claim the shows have "jumped the shark": merely that they've grown tiresome and objectionable.) If friends write in a few months and say they've suddenly become must-watch TV, I'll catch them in reruns, or from a streaming service. But the trust is gone, and with that goes the dedicated viewing. Thirty years ago, I would have continued to watch out of habit; now I can't justify it. Indian Summers is back. Grantchester is back. Daredevil is back. I still have to finish binging Happy Valley or at least two close friends will seriously wound me. I have been meaning to finish Season 2 of The 100 for a year now, so I could start on Season 3, and I still have five unwatched episodes of Les Revenants. Not to mention unopened DVD's of George Gently and Vera. I don't have time for shows that aren't even trying, and that are only succeeding in annoying me.

So in the spirit of The Flash and Arrow, I leave you with this:

"My name is Tommy Krasker. After fifty years spent watching television, I have moved on to a new goal: to only watch programming I love. But to do so, I can't be the indiscriminate viewer I once was. I must be someone else. I must watch... something else."

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Doctor Who: The Patrick Troughton Serials (season 6)

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

The Dominators
written by "Norman Ashby" (pseudonym for Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln)
directed by Morris Barry

It's possible to envision a "Dominators" that isn't half bad. You'd have to get rid of the costumes and almost the entire guest cast, which means it's a serial best enjoyed by just reading the script. As you peruse the script, it's unlikely you'll envision the men in strapless party dresses with accordion bodices, or the titular characters in tortoise-shell shoulder pads. As you continue reading, and get to the young rebel who's paired with Zoe, all fired up in defiance of a sedentary society, it's doubtful you'll imagine him played by a pudgy, balding actor with the sex appeal of a squid. And when you come to the two elderly roles, Educator Balan and the Director of the Dulcians, you'll mentally picture an array of great, aging British actors who could play the parts, and probably won't settle on the dull duo cast here. So just read the script to "The Dominators" online, or if you're not really a fan of reading, then sure: watch the DVD. Just try to come in knowing nothing about the serial, so you won't realize that the Quarks were designed to be the next deadly, recurring monster; without that knowledge, you'll presume they were supposed to be cute and cuddly, like box-shaped Chumblies. And without knowing the odious intent behind Heisman and Lincoln's script -- to mock peaceful protesters, to make fun of the "make love, not war" movement -- you'll presume it's an examination of how a pacifist society defends itself against an act of aggression, and you'll accord it a degree of respect it doesn't deserve. And occasionally, you'll enjoy focusing on what's actually happening on the screen, because once you get past the costumes and the casting, there are quite a few things "The Dominators" gets right: some bright, clever exchanges; striking zoom shots and the kind of tilt shots that eluded Morris Barry in "Tomb of the Cybermen"; and one of Frazer Hines's finest Who performances, with a clever reference back to "The Highlanders" that lets you recall the boy Jamie was and admire the man he's become. Best of all: two block comedy scenes with Troughton and Hines -- one aboard an alien ship, where they feign idiocy, and one where they turn themselves upside down trying to rewire a space cruiser -- where they're in top form, nailing every gag like a couple of vaudeville troopers. I say, Jamie, I believe we were the most delectable pair in all of Classic Who. Positively, Mr. Troughton? Absolutely, Mr. Hines.

The Mind Robber
written by Peter Ling
directed by David Maloney

It starts brilliant and ends brilliant; it's sustained brilliance that eludes it. One of the dangers of a serial like "The Mind Robber" is that when you build a story on, as the Doctor describes them, "conjuring tricks," you'd better have an endless bag of them, because the plot isn't building in any traditional way. Ling's bag is three-fourths full. Make no mistake: "The Mind Robber" is remarkable -- it's the Troughton era stretching beyond its own technical capabilities, in a way the early Hartnell era did routinely. But there's also something static and uncertain at its core. By the time Episode 3 ends with basically the same cliffhanger as Episode 2, the repetitive nature of the plot starts to grow tiresome, and once Episode 4 dissolves into some shaky set-pieces (Zoe doing repeated judo flips on a 21st-century comic-strip character, and later setting off an alarm in panic, as if she's never faced danger before; the Doctor bluffing his way into a castle with a comic accent that brings to mind the worst parts of "The Highlanders"), you can feel Ling flailing for ideas. (And by the way, the antagonist, the man in the high castle, has monitors tracking activity throughout his kingdom, but none at his own front door?) Ling tries to suggest that the traps set for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are there to gauge the Doctor's resourcefulness, to see if he's a worthy successor, but that's not borne out in the final confrontation, when we learn that all that's required is "a man of boundless imagination." So ultimately, the conjuring tricks serve no real narrative function, and David Maloney -- in what imdb lists as his first professional directorial gig -- offers no solutions. Maloney would ultimately blossom into one of the best Who helmers; here he has good ideas and a "can do" spirit, but he can't yet dazzle like a Derek Martinus, or dig deep like a Doug Camfield. At times, he seems overwhelmed by the material. (At the end of Part 4, Zoe and Jamie are supposedly trapped between the pages of a giant book, even though, as staged, there's a clear escape route.) The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story never feel less than impressive. But still you're left with a nagging irritation that the serial deserved one final rewrite, and someone more experienced calling the shots.

The Invasion
written by Derrick Sherwin
directed by Douglas Camfield

In a funny-sad paradox, the first four episodes -- where nothing happens -- are riveting; it's the final four -- where everything happens -- that grow tedious. Sherwin knew that Camfield would be directing, so he knew he could underwrite the first half, leading up to the Cyberman reveal, and that Camfield, with his gift for sustaining tension through detail, could make the slow pace work to his advantage. It features the Doctor and Jamie playing spy and rescue games by land, by air and by sea, and it's very much their last hurrah: when, trapped in an elevator shaft, the Doctor proposes a solution for escape, and Jamie tells him, "You know something? You're a clever wee chappie," and the Doctor blushes, it seems infused with the love between two longtime friends: both the actors and the characters. Once the Cybermen are revealed, Sherwin's plot goes to pieces. It only needed a two-episode wrap-up, but with four more to go, he throws in a lot of technobabble masquerading as science: a cerebraton mentor machine (that can induce fear in the Cybermen: sure, why not?), micro-monolithic circuits (so the Cybermen can activate their "Cyber-hypnotic force"), implanted audio-rejection capsules and depolerisers (to neutralize the Cyber-hypnotic force) -- and finally, not one, not two, but three Cyber attacks, the last a "Cyber-megatron bomb" that will "destroy life on Earth completely." Every time you think the plot is winding down -- no, the Cybermen have an even bigger back-up plan; after a while, when they've thrown everything at us but the kitchen sink, you start to fear that Sherwin is going to kill another fifteen minutes by having them throw a giant kitchen sink at us. Rare for Camfield, he loses his grip in the final episodes. Shooting fell behind, so some key scenes were abandoned and hastily rewritten, and the choppiness is noticeable. But beyond that, Camfield litters the final third with odd setups (Zoe's photographer pal, dressed in what looks like a waitress uniform, keeps stealing focus even in scenes where she's unused), strangely disconnected line readings, and a peppy patriotic theme that emerges at the oddest times.

The Krotons
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney

As David Whitaker conceived her, Zoe Heriot was a troubled soul, one who could spout facts for days, but had little empathy or imagination. But as the next set of stories were assigned, it seems clear that script editor Derrick Sherwin told the writers, "She's smart," and pretty much left it at that, because the side of Zoe with life-lessons to learn rarely re-emerges. (Tellingly, when she sees her home city on the TARDIS monitor in "Mind Robber," she refers to it as just that: "my home city" -- no name; it's like her backstory has been wiped clean.) And one of the dangers of defining Zoe purely by her intellect is that with two brilliant minds aboard the TARDIS, Jamie -- after two years of dutiful service-- now gets handed the most tedious of companion duties: he becomes the one who asks all the questions, so that the Doctor and Zoe will provide all the answers, so that we average-IQ viewers at home will understand what's going on. "The Krotons" doesn't just feature that two-geniuses-and-a-dimwit dynamic, it builds a plot around it. It highlights it and magnifies it. An irony of Doctor Who is that with so much of Seasons 4 and 5 missing for years, most viewers only saw this side of Jamie -- they didn't see what had been lost. But if you watch from "The Highlanders" on, and observe his growth -- in assurance, intellect and wit -- then Season 6, as it goes along, is more than mildly offensive. It's "Flowers for Jamie," as everything gets stripped away -- and "The Krotons" is its nadir. The devolution of Jamie -- who, newly-minted neanderthal that he is here, provokes a pointless fist-fight five minutes into the proceedings -- isn't the most notable thing about "The Krotons," but it's one of the few that sticks with you. The serial is unmemorable, with bland characters over-acting in wild, declamatory fashion, and a plot that seems both vague and messy. It's Troughton's worst Who performance; evidently aware of the tripe he was handed, he mugs incessantly, reducing his patented look of flustered horror from a character trait to a can't-miss gag. "The Krotons" was the first Troughton since "Underwater Menace" to see its ratings decline each week it aired -- and not a subtle decline, as with "Underwater": over 20% of its viewership bailed between the first episode and the last. Ratings are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but here, it's apt: the two worst Troughtons had the worst audience retention. Power to the people.

The Seeds of Death
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Michael Ferguson

Another moon base, but thank heavens, not another "Moonbase." It's a solid, if unspectacular work, with an end-of-an-era feel that, in hindsight, feels inescapably moving. What nearly trips up "Seeds of Death" is, ironically, the Ice Warrior design itself. Set against the snow and ice of their origin story, the grey monster costumes stood out nicely; here, in a more traditional spaceship setting, they start to blend into the background, and at first, you fear "Seeds of Death" is going to prove visually bland. But Michael Ferguson, as he would later do in "Claws of Axos," uses every trick at his disposal to sustain visual interest, and at times, the tricks come at a whirlwind pace, even when he has to upend the tone of the narrative to do so. (There's one Keystone Cops-style chase through an interplanetary house of mirrors that's delightful, however incongruous.) Jamie is pretty much wasted throughout (he was originally to have departed the series in the previous adventure, and most of his late-addition lines are of the "now what do we do?" variety: it's the dumbing-down of Jamie noted above), but it's one of Zoe's best Season 6 serials. It's one of the few times, post "Wheel in Space," where we get to see the Zoe we first met: not merely brilliant, but sometimes seriously lacking in empathy and tact (when she instructs Jamie, "Now you watch this dial, and when it reads full, switch it off," and then adds curtly, "Now do you think you can remember that?," you just want to bitch-slap her), yet clearly struggling to be a more rounded individual -- and Wendy Padbury is wonderful throughout. Troughton looks tired for the first three episodes -- he'd take the fourth off -- but that weariness works to the serial's advantage; its futuristic setting is imbued with nostalgia for "simpler" times, and Troughton's more muted performance seems somehow sympathetic to that notion: that the world is spinning too fast, and that good ideas -- and good men -- are being forgotten in the process.

The Space Pirates
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Michael Hart

Fan polls usually place this one at the bottom of the barrel -- maybe just above "Twin Dilemma" -- but it's not that bad. (It's bad, just not that bad.) It's a step up from "The Krotons" in terms of clarity and pacing, with characters you can actually tell apart. There's still plenty wrong: the three principals are underused and misused: we lose track of them for large chunks, and when they do appear, they barely interact with most of the supporting cast. And the character of prospector Milo Clancey is atrocious. Nearly every sci-fi show in the '60s was doing its "space western," typically with some geezer who seemed a relic from the California Gold Rush -- so why should Who be any different? At least when they did it on American television (Lost in Space started its second season with a "space miner" much like the one on Doctor Who), they knew the history, and mined the truth behind the fiction; as Robert Holmes writes it (dreadfully), and as Gordon Gostelow plays it (shakily), it's about five steps removed from any known reality. Gostelow, elsewhere a talented actor, is done in by the absurdity of Holmes's caricature, with no idea how to pitch or modulate it. What works particularly well in "The Space Pirates"? Here's the short list: Lisa Daniely, Lisa Daniely and Lisa Daniely. The actress offers up a charismatic performance in a serial that doesn't deserve it. (She ultimately enjoyed a career spanning half a century, but at that time, was best known for the TV adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.) "The Space Pirates" is a tough serial to make friends with. The one surviving episode is the worst of the six, and it's one of the few Whos without telesnaps, which means the reconstructions are static and repetitious. But in the surviving episode, and in the audio, you can make out the subtle effectiveness of Daniely's performance, and she's the one character that seems to really engage Holmes's creativity. Her character has made a deal with the devil, and over the course of the serial, we find out exactly the price she's had to pay. To its great credit, we get a lot of strong, commanding women during the Troughton era; here we get someone whose strength is a pretense -- she turns out to be just as fragile and flawed as the rest of us. And Daniely's graceful performance elevates "Space Pirates" from a serial worth avoiding to one worth a (quick) visit.

The War Games
written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
directed by David Maloney

If all the serials in Season 6 had lived up to their promise, it would have been one of the most sensational seasons in Classic Who history. The variety of settings and story-lines and styles is staggering -- it's Doctor Who working without a net. Where Season 6 trips up is in the execution. If you read any behind-the-scenes stories, you keep seeing the troubles they were having getting decent scripts commissioned and in shape for filming -- but you don't need to read the backstage chatter: the scrappiness is evident on the screen. Serials constantly seem in need of a final rewrite, or feel padded and stretched beyond their proper length. Not until season's end are you fully and completely blown away. One can't pretend that, at ten episodes, "The War Games" doesn't feel long; it's full of the sort of capture-and-escape plotting that Malcolm Hulke would practically hone to an art form in "Frontier in Space." But here the redundancies of the story-line seem shrewdly tied to the subject matter: the futility of war, where battles are fought and re-fought but victories rarely won. Hulke, Dicks and Maloney make one smart move after another. The tone teeters artfully between grim drama and ferocious comedy, permitting them to switch gears anytime the story-line starts to sag. The revelations are carefully spaced and cleverly placed. The setting allows Jamie to shine in battle, and Zoe to play with technology -- and it gives the Doctor a backstory that inspires one of Troughton's most tense and tremulous performances. And contrary to the way the ending is often remembered, it's in fact strangely uplifting. The Time Lords wipe most of Zoe and Jamie's memories, but let them recall their first adventure with the Doctor -- and as we see Jamie return home, newly primed for battle after the events of "The Highlanders," and Zoe return to the wheel in space, noticeably softer around the edges than the "robot" we first met, we're reminded of the impact the Doctor can have in just one short serial. We think of the thousands of characters who've shared only one story with the Doctor, and how their worlds became different -- and perhaps we reflect on how our own lives were altered, too, after just one adventure in space and time. And although the Doctor, about to be exiled to Earth, rages that he doesn't want his face changed, we know -- as audiences knew in 1968, because they'd seen it happen before, and been rewarded with the marvel that is Patrick Troughton -- that change can be a good thing. The end of "War Games" glows with promise. It makes you eager for the next great adventure.


Want more Classic Who? I offer up a re-evaluation of the Third Doctor era -- plus capsule reviews -- here, and an overview of the Fifth Doctor era -- plus capsule reviews -- here.