Monday, May 22, 2017

Knots Landing season 1

Knots Landing premiered on CBS in 1979 and remained there till May of 1993; by the time it went off the air, it had become the second longest-running drama series in network history. Creator David Jacobs conceived of four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. CBS countered, "If we're going to do domestic drama in primetime, let's try something a little more high-stakes, with a bit more sweep," so Jacobs set aside Knots Landing for a spell. Instead, he gave CBS the saga they wanted, the oil-driven Dallas (that paean to American greed and grit) -- and once Dallas blossomed into a hit, CBS suggested he revisit Knots Landing, remodeling it as a spin-off. Jacobs complied with relative ease, taking two of the characters featured at the top of Dallas's second season, Lucy Ewing's parents, and -- with just a few appearances in Season 3 -- advancing their story enough that they could resettle in Southern California, becoming one of the four couples in the cul-de-sac. The pilot fell quickly into place.

Knots Landing was given a midseason launch in December of 1979 and a 13-episode order. (Back when shows ran uninterrupted from September to March, without reruns, December was considered mid-season.) Dallas had begun as a five-part miniseries -- standalone episodes that established the core characters and their relationships -- then slowly, once it was picked up for a second season, went serialized, and Jacobs adopted that approach once more: conceiving the first season as self-contained episodes with the occasional continuing thread. By the end of Season 1, the eight principals would hopefully be well defined and developed.

But what was the tone of the show to be? Dallas, by the time Knots premiered, was in the midst of one of its best seasons (the one that culminated in J.R.'s shooting) and had established a larger-than-life world where insults were hurled with as much glee as malice, and threats were never empty. Jacobs' inspiration for Knots was something else entirely: it was Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, the Swedish filmmaker's groundbreaking look at the dissolution of a relationship over a 10-year period. A six-part miniseries that aired in the spring of 1973 (and was later condensed for theatrical release), Scenes took an unflinching look at issues ranging from adultery to assault. It was such a sensation that the streets of Sweden were empty on Wednesday nights: everyone was at home watching TV. (It was the kind of cultural phenomenon that was duplicated here when the fourth season of Dallas got underway in the fall of 1980.) Social historians speculated that the series was a contributing factor to Sweden's rising divorce rate, as it had taught couples how to face their marital troubles and articulate their grievances.

And so, a few years after Scenes From a Marriage took Sweden by storm, American audiences were treated to a show that approached its level of intimacy and insight. In the pilot episode, a daughter returns home and proceeds to wreak havoc on the family unit -- in particular, the parents' marriage. The script is careful not to overflow into melodrama, or tread the tropes of soap opera; there are no excesses in the writing or the playing. And the exposition -- this is a pilot, after all, introducing a host of characters -- is beautifully disguised, much of it delivered during an argument between the two parents, who offer the sort of conflicting memories and pronouncements typical of a lifetime spent together. A simple recitation of the dialogue doesn't begin to do the episode justice, but I can't not recount a portion of it. The wife has urged the husband not to be drawn into the daughter's drama. She tries to reason with him, firmly but without fury: "She's not helpless. For her sake, you must not allow her to manipulate you like this." And only when he's unmoved does a discussion about their daughter turn into a fight: a fight in which, notably, neither party raises their voice. The husband begins by digging in:

-- Why do you have to be so tough on her?
-- Because you never are. You think she's just perfection. Well, believe me, she does have just a few little faults. One of them is she wants everything.
-- What does that mean: everything?
-- Well, four years ago, she's just dying to be Mrs. Jeff Maitland III. She threw over everything, quit school, grabbed him up --
-- She grabbed him up?
-- and married him. Then she wanted a baby. Now she parks the baby for a week at a time. Then she wanted to go back to school. Now she's playing hooky from school. She thinks she can reverse field anytime she wants. Well, she can't.
-- How can you possibly condone what he did? Fooling around with one of her friends? What kind of humiliation do you expect her to take from him, and still go on with the marriage?
(a pause)
-- Exactly the kind I took from you.
(another pause)
-- That was twenty years ago. Don't you ever let it go? Don't you ever forget?
-- Oh, I forget most of the time. When I remember -- when sometimes I do remember about you and Margaret, it hurts just as much as it did then. And I hate you for it just as much as I did then.
-- Well, that's stupid -- and destructive --
-- That's right. I don't see that Jeff's behavior is that much different from yours. And I wonder if Nancy hasn't given him more reason. I married a man. She married a boy. If he's still a boy after four years of marriage, maybe it's partly her fault.
-- Kate, what about the baby? She doesn't want the baby.
-- If I got rid of a baby every time I thought I didn't want it, we wouldn't have much of a family.
-- You don't mean that.
-- Don't presume to tell me what I mean! I'm 46 years old, I've born three children. Some of the time in those pregnancies, I wanted out. It's the body that makes the baby and hangs onto it for nine months. Why don't men understand that sometimes women just want out?

The episode takes on infidelity, incompatibility, abortion and abuse without breaking a sweat. It was probably the best one-hour pilot that network TV had seen up to that point.

Unfortunately, that wasn't Knots Landing. That was ABC's Family, which premiered to a 40 share in the spring of 1976. That was Family, which (like Dallas) began as a miniseries, and which -- in its first crop of episodes alone -- had taken on teen pregnancy, the plight of the elderly, and the rise in suburban crime: using those issues to focus in on the family unit, revealing resentments simmering beneath the surface. That was Family, on which David Jacobs had served as story editor from the middle of the second season through the end of the third.

Because Knots Landing had a near record-breaking run, because it continues to turn up in syndication cycles around the globe, and because its fan base has remained passionate, it's nice to imagine it was somehow "significant" or "groundbreaking." It's nice to imagine that Jacobs -- at a time when most hour-long series were cop shows, murder mysteries, or period pieces -- pioneered the first contemporary domestic drama, one that was candid and uncompromising in its look at the challenges facing the American family (without, à la Eight Is Enough, coddling the audience into submission). But actually, he'd already schooled on a series that did just that.

And thus, the most surprising thing about the first season of Knots Landing isn't so much what it achieves as how long it takes to get there -- how long it takes Jacobs to find the proper tone, given that he'd come from a show that had established that very tone in episode 1: where characters are self-aware enough to resist talking in circles, as they do on soap operas, and where they're rounded enough to avoid falling into the traps of melodrama. A show that refrains from characters who are cloying or conclusions that are too convenient.

Is it a coincidence that the pilot for Knots Landing also features a daughter returning home to wreak havoc on a family, with the mother begging the father to see her for what she is? Probably. But more notable is the fact that the pilot is not very good. Neither is the second episode. Knots Landing requires patience. (And admittedly, lots of great shows don't hit their stride for several episodes, sometimes until the second or third season -- but those shows aren't aspiring to be another Scenes From a Marriage, from a writer coming off the next best thing.) And it's not just that the Season 1 episodes vary wildly in quality; they vary wildly in style and substance. Small wonder, as the writers chosen to contribute scripts are a mystifying lot. When Dallas premiered with its five-part miniseries, Jacobs penned two episodes, and two of the others were by writers -- Art Lewis and Camille Marchetta -- who'd continue with the show when it was picked up for a second season. But Knots Landing Season 1 is littered with free-lancers who'll never return to the series, most of them with few or no credits to their name. And the few seasoned pros -- Clyde Ware and Jack Turley -- had nothing in their resumés to suggest they'd be suitable. (When the season first aired, I recognized Turley's name from Lost in Space; I guess you could classify Lost in Space as a domestic drama, but it would be a stretch.) Obviously, all the episodes went through Jacobs' typewriter before reaching the set, but wouldn't it have been better to have a few writers with experience on staff, and what's more, a few with some understanding of the format and tone? Because oh, how that tone teeters from episode to episode.

Every time a Dallas character turns up for a ratings-driven cameo (J.R. in episode 2, Lucy in episode 6), Knots broadens its acting style to accommodate them. Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton were crossing over from a top-10 series; you weren't going to ask them to rethink their roles. (It's doubtful Tilton would know how.) But you're aware of a mismatch in tone that throws Knots off its game. Hagman's episode sets up a battle between the Knots residents and J.R., who's engaged in off-shore drilling; it's the kind of hokum that Dallas thrived on, and sometimes, the Ewings of Texas aren't required for Knots to engage in an Old West showdown. In episode 7, a biker gang targets and terrorizes the cul-de-sac: tossing garbage onto their lawns, egging their houses, pouring oil in the street. The episode culminates in a full-scale brawl where Knots Landing's model citizen Sid Fairgate -- elsewhere a reservoir of reason -- beats up one of the gang members, then declares, in a sort of epiphany, "I feel great! I feel terrific!" In domestic drama, apparently, there's nothing so awful that a little violence can't solve it.

Some episodes are pure soap opera, as when Sid's ex appears, after twenty years, to win him back. As if serving up the sudsiest cliches of the genre, "Civil Wives" ends with two women -- Sid's wife and his ex -- going at each other across the kitchen table, with lines that stoop to the banalities of daytime drama: "I want you to know, you didn't win. I lost. I moved too fast. Next time you may not be so lucky." You practically expect an organ to punctuate each line: "You versus me -- that was a fair fight -- you didn't have to make it dirty." (The episode sets back the women's movement about twenty years.) The following episode succumbs to all the same cliches and conventions, as the cul-de-sac's youngest wife, Ginger, is being sent anonymous gifts that remind her of an incident from her past. (Cue organ music.) She's surrounded by a freak show (the fellow teacher who lives with his mother, the school janitor auditioning for an early draft of Sling Blade) and suspects them all -- but ultimately, she discovers it's the mother of the boy who got her pregnant when she was in her teens, who's sending her reminders of the child she aborted. (The child's father died shortly after, in Vietnam.) And although an effort is made to speak to the lingering pain of abortion (and the women's shared sense of loss), the stench of soap opera runs roughshod over it, as the mother lashes out at Ginger, "You killed my grandchild, and you killed my son!"

Even the best episodes occasionally fall prey to cheap theatrics. In episode 5, Val Ewing's mother Lilimae turns up, played by Julie Harris. It's a good Jacobs script (far superior to his pilot) that keep pointing to the direction he wants to take Knots, as Lilimae's return prompts each of the women in the cul-de-sac to reflect on -- and in some cases, re-examine -- their relationships with their own mothers. (A couple of those plot snippets turn into full episodes over the following seasons. You start to feel Jacobs painting a broader canvas than you'd expected, and you're encouraged.) And when Valene's animosity towards her mother resurfaces, Joan Van Ark and Julie Harris tear into each other, in as virtuosic an acting display as Knots Landing will see in its first few years. But once we launch into flashbacks of their backstory from Dallas -- replete with a teenaged Valene running through the dark woods, baby in tow, trying to stave off J.R.'s henchmen -- it all feels a bit overdone and foolish. And at the end, when Val tells her mother "I love you" as she drives off, it feels like a tacked-on happy ending; is it really that easy to get beyond decades of hurt? (The third season's fourth episode will answer the question: no.) Through most of its first season, Knots is a show practically thirsting for identity.

In fact, for an idea that had been percolating for years before it made its way to the small screen, the first season of Knots is strangely skeletal. Of the eight characters, only five of them seem well-formed when we meet them, and two of those -- Val, the country girl, and Gary, the surly middle Ewing -- had already been introduced on Dallas. The men fare far better than the women. Car dealer Sid Fairgate, the calm center of every storm: the husband, father and friend who doesn't have all the answers, but will always be there with a solution. Lawyer Richard Avery, the upwardly-mobile wannabe, always looking for an angle: the kind of weasel who'll take you to a three-martini lunch, then bill you for it. And hotshot record producer Kenny Ward, with his perfectly coiffed hair and shirt buttoned just north of the navel: the guy who loves his wife, but hasn't decided how he feels about being married. They're types, but they're good ones, consistently drawn, and even the worst of the free-lancer writers have no trouble nailing them.

But these women -- who are they? It's staggering how ill-defined Karen, Laura and Ginger are in the early episodes. Constance McCashin, who played Laura Avery, has admitted in interviews that there was basically no conception of her character when the show went into production (surprising given the role was written for her). She's the lucky one. Jacobs' pilot introduces Karen Fairgate (played by Michele Lee) as a shrew, resentful of the arrival of her husband's daughter Annie and barking orders at him: "Either she goes tomorrow or I do -- with the kids!" In interviews, Jacobs, asked to account for Karen's shrieking through most of the pilot, postured that since the show was a spin-off of Dallas, everyone would wonder who "the J.R." was, so he designed the pilot to suggest that Knots' villain-you-love-to-hate might be Karen. It's a lovely story for those who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Tidal Energy. There's no reason to think this wasn't exactly how Jacobs imagined Karen, and she's screechy-awful. If I were Valene and Gary Ewing, moving in next door to this harridan, I'd book the next flight back to Dallas. (Val and Gary consider it.) Small wonder that Variety labeled the pilot "trashy domestic drama" that retains "the raunchy behavior patterns and bad taste of the original," probably not the response that the man who imagined himself paying homage to Ingmar Bergman was looking for. (Unlike Scenes From a Marriage, the pilot episode of Knots Landing did not ignite cultural changes in American society, but it's said the purchase of ear-plugs increased dramatically during the first commercial break.) And yes, there's a glorious scene where Valene, who's never seen the ocean, gets her first look and, removing her shoes, runs joyously through the water. It will become one of the show's iconic moments, but it's not what lingers by the end of the first episode. What lingers is a land where people yell a lot.

The writers take a while to get a handle on Karen, and Lee does too; often her reactions seem shrill and strident: too much for the moment. She and Don Murray have chemistry, but when they go at it, it's always her thrusting and him parrying -- and he's so laid back, and so secure in his beliefs, that Karen just raising her voice makes her seem overly aggressive. Her best episode is the tenth, staff writer Rob Gilmer's "Small Surprises," in which Karen learns she's pregnant. Much of it is carefully modulated, and some of it genuinely bracing, as when Sid, early on, negates Karen's ability to consider an abortion by outing her pregnancy to their daughter Diana. In moments like this, Knots understands (as Family did) that we're often cruelest to the ones we love most; we know how to push their buttons, to get what we want, and occasionally, we all need a "win." But the episode, good as it is, is still undercut by outbursts in which both Karen and Michele Lee overact in their worst manner. "I don't feel like being judged right now," she growls, but there's no judgment coming from Don Murray; it's just another case of Karen going off on Sid because that's how the writers manufacture discord in the Fairgate household. Karen is at her best being supportive, or gently intrusive, or passionate about causes that matter -- not just to her, but to us -- and through the first season, the writers start to figure her out.

At least Karen, from the start, has fire -- and a brain; Ginger, in the pilot, is a dumb bunny. We learn she teaches kindergarten, and it feels like a joke; is this really who's shaping young minds in Southern California? Ginger isn't even included in some of the early episodes -- she and Kenny are basically set up to be expendable, and that's how they'll continue to be till Season 4, when they're well-used and then discarded -- and when she appears, she's mostly defined in response to her husband. But as a foil for Kenny, she's well-defined, the young wife longing for a stable marriage and a family, but wedded to a player. In the season's sixth episode, the A-plot, like several in the first season, is bland (this one addresses why Lucy doesn't come live with her parents in Knots Landing -- Tilton answers the question the moment she opens her mouth and can't gel with the rest of the cast), but the B-plot is excellent, as Kenny throws a party for the band he's producing, and expects Ginger to accept all the ogling and advances that come with being a young wife in the music industry. She objects to the "managers and musicians with their hands all over me" and storms out, but Kenny doesn't go after her; he's got a party to host, and busies himself at the mirror: undoing a shirt button to see if he likes it, and then, when he decides he does, undoing another. Ginger gives the series its first whiff of feminism in her bid for self-respect, but notably, as much as the show admires Ginger, it doesn't judge Kenny for decrying sexual conformity: for feeling it's the product of another era, a bygone from when sex was for procreation and not for pleasure.

Jacobs reveals that an early plot called for Kenny to pimp out Ginger to his boss, for his own advancement, but he couldn't get it past the network. But that sort of plotline, a husband egging on his wife to make nice with a colleague, becomes a B-plot for Richard and Laura in episode 2. Once again, the A-plot, this one guest-starring J.R., is weak, full of the kind of hyperbolic dialogue that would have been right at home on Dallas (J.R. to Gary: "I'll break ya -- again"), but the B-plot has some power, as Laura runs into a one-night stand, and passes him off to Richard as an old friend. When Richard encourages her to rekindle their friendship to land him some business, we're left wondering just how far Laura is willing to go to help her husband, and just how far Richard expects her to go. The story-line allows for ambiguity, and invokes some of the salaciousness of Dallas without sensationalizing it. The ending is a bit pat, and diminishes Laura by having her dotingly declare, "Oh Richard, I love you so much," as if she's Nora in the doll's house -- but it's the first time you start to glimpse what the show could be.

You get another glimmer, via Laura, two episodes later. When one of her dalliances leaves her visibly shaken, and Richard notices, she covers by declaring she was attacked: the victim of a serial rapist who's been targeting the women of Knots Landing. Laura has a wonderful monologue about her mother's death when she was 12, and how she's been struggling since then to find affection and affirmation from others -- in particular, other men. "The Lie" is very much a product of its time, and as a result, it's a hazier episode now than it was in 1980. From a modern perspective, it's clear that even if Laura lied about the identity of her attacker, she was in fact assaulted by the man she hooked up with. But law enforcement didn't view it that way then, nor did the writers, and neither does Laura herself. She was simply promiscuous, things got a little rough, and she paid the price. But as with her B-plot in episode 2, it raises questions about the boundaries of the new sexual freedom. (This aspect of Laura's personality will quickly be toned down, and by the second half of the season, her penchant for infidelity will be transferred onto Richard. Was the network more comfortable seeing a man with a roving eye?)

One of the fascinating aspects of Season 1 is that the lead couples are clearly Sid and Karen, and Gary and Val, but it's mostly through the other characters that Knots starts to fall into place. And it's not just the other couples: it's also Sid and Karen's oldest kids, Diana and Eric. Claudia Lonow and Steve Shaw are Season 1's secret weapon. They're not adorable, precocious, or even well-groomed; they're about the most believable teenagers we'd seen on American television. (Jacobs based his next show, Secrets of Midland Heights, around a group of equally awkward adolescents.) Lonow is a marvel: her hair a rumpled, curly mess; her face naturally settling into a pout. And Shaw -- in his infatuation with Ginger in episode 6, and his tentative romance of her younger sister a few episodes later -- is shy and sweet, endearing without being precious. Jacobs hits all the right notes with these two. Both are dealing with the standard teen issues -- trust, peer pressure, "the first time" -- and often, they're doing it on their own, because their parents are trying so hard to be trusting and enlightened that they're not giving them the guidance they need. And worse, they're coming of age while seemingly everyone in the neighborhood looks on. (Karen and Ginger, two characters who rarely interact one-on-one, have a nice exchange late in the season, where they gossip -- and Karen frets -- about Diana and her new boyfriend.)

As the season progresses, the cul-de-sac itself takes on a real presence. At the end of "Small Surprises," Karen comes home from the hospital, having miscarried, and as she and Sid pull into the driveway, their neighbors are outside, either awaiting her return or simply on hand to witness it. Seaview Circle isn't just a community where neighbors are always there to lend a shoulder; it's a community where they're always there, period. Ultimately, you come to see what distinguishes Knots Landing from Dallas and from Family. Season 1 is about the awkwardness of human interaction at a time when the restraints are looser, in a setting where the confines are closer. It touches down at the tail end of the sexual revolution, in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac, and asks, how does the institution of marriage survive? In some ways, it presages the internet age, with its easy access to infidelity that's both titillating and terrifying. "Good fences make good neighbors," the expression goes, but what happens when the fences come down?

Throughout the season, you see how sexual liberation has altered attitudes, mores and even behavior. In the pilot, it feels like everyone in the cul-de-sac is coming on to everyone else. In episode 3, a teacher with an unorthodox manner of engaging his students proves a point by kissing Karen at a PTA meeting; later, he joins a couple of the parents at a diner, where he and Karen flirt in front of Val. (Although Valene looks uncomfortable, the script makes it clear that she'd better get used to it: in Southern California, flirting is the new "hello.") When Laura goes out of town in episode 8, Richard wastes no time cozying up to Sid's ex; while Kenny's away in the following episode, the policeman investigating Ginger's stalker case decides to hit on her. And in the episode after that, Karen and Sid let Diana and her boyfriend make out in the bedroom upstairs while they're downstairs playing poker with the adults. And make no mistake: Karen and Sid are meant to be seen as good, responsible parents -- but they remember what it was like to be young, and don't expect their kids to abstain till marriage, or even hold out for "the right one," as TV parents would have done five years earlier (and will do again in five years' time, once Reagan conservativism has permeated the airwaves).

This sense of sexual freedom is the best thing about the first season of Knots Landing. It's not there to generate "buzz" or goose the ratings; it's simply, for better or worse, what the world has become. And the new code of conduct extends beyond sex. In episode 11, Diana discovers that her boyfriend has stolen money from her father to get his motorcycle repaired. And she's ready to ditch him, but Sid intervenes. In a speech that turns the traditional-father role on its ear, he argues she should give the guy another chance: "Betrayal is a terrible thing, but I want to tell you something -- and I hate to say this, but it's true: betrayal's not all that rare. I mean, it happens to everybody -- sometimes, even people that love each other very much. Husbands and wives are unfaithful sometimes, businessmen cheat their partners, and friends betray secrets. When you find out, it always hurts, but it doesn't mean it's the end of a marriage or the end of a partnership or the end of a friendship. Sometimes people forgive." In Knots Landing, people expect to be cheated on; if you're going to embrace a looser morality, you have to expect and accept the consequences.

Episode 11, entitled "Courageous Convictions," is the season's high point. It's written by Rogers Turrentine, a disciple of Larry Gelbart and veteran screenwriter Howard Browne (and exactly the sort of person who should be writing Knots Landing), yet it's a largely unheralded episode: the splashier ones -- Laura's date-rape, Karen's pregnancy, Gary hitting the bottle at season's end -- get more attention. But "Courageous Convictions" is the episode that gets to the heart of life in Southern California. On the surface, Knots Landing celebrates its setting, a coastal community in Greater Los Angeles. (It's there in the sunshine, the fashions, the food they consume and the drinks they order, the excursions to the beach and the backyard BBQ's.) But so did half the 1979 primetime line-up; most shows then filmed in (and were set in and around) Los Angeles, and they understood well both the look and the lifestyle. Most TV shows "got" Southern California; hell, Barnaby Jones "got" Southern California. But Knots understood that nowhere else does the gulf between the rich and the poor seem wider: that it's possible to presume, as you stare at the million-dollar mansions in the Hollywood Hills, that you're the only person in the city who hasn't made it big -- and so you keep pressing your way into the upper classes before you're absorbed into the lower ones. Everyone on Knots is struggling to better their station, hustling to improve their standing (everyone, of course, except Sid, because he's Sid). Because in Southern California, it sometimes feels like the most miserable place to be is stuck in the middle.

And so in "Courageous Convictions," Richard has made some lousy investments and owes money to all the wrong people. He holds a barbecue to hit up his neighbors, and begs Laura to ask her father to bail them out (and not for the first time). As Richard is drowning in debt, Laura reminds him how they got there: "We've got a house we can't afford, we've got furniture that we don't own, closets full of junk we don't need -- we're always stretching." And when he tries to correct her -- "striving for something better" -- she gets in the last word: "Richard, you're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." Laura ultimately does borrow from her father, and writes Richard a check, but it comes with strings: from now on, she'll manage the money, and what's more, she's going to look for a job. The writers use Richard's financial woes to embrace the part of the sexual revolution they'd been overlooking: the rising tide of female equality and empowerment, the re-entry of women into the workforce, in a way the country hadn't seen in a generation. And Richard concedes to Laura's demands, but not before admitting, "I hate being ordinary," exquisitely capturing a malaise endemic to Southern California. "Courageous Convictions" isn't just about what people will do to get out of trouble; it's about what people will do to get out of the middle. It takes on both class and sexual warfare, ultimately pitting them against each other, in a way that American audiences hadn't seen.

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. And it explores them with an acting style that's naturalistic and theatre-based, as Family did so well. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of Season 1 (the final four episodes are among its best), you recognize the challenges that lie ahead. In an age and an arena where people are allowed to flirt and even cheat without guilt, and where even betrayal will be forgiven, where do you mine the drama? At the end of Season 1, Ginger is convinced, rightly, that Kenny is having an affair. The episode stresses, it's not going to go the traditional route, where Ginger "learns of her husband's deception." Ginger is no longer the airhead we met in the pilot. She gets that Kenny is a player; it's not something she likes about him, but it's something she accepts. The question the script asks isn't "when will Ginger find out?" -- it's "when will she have had enough?" When will she decide that her needs -- for constancy, security, a family -- trump his? But that's a tougher question to dramatize, unless the writers are prepared to show months of daily indignities (hardly possible in a one-hour drama splitting its focus among eight people). So the show goes where shows have always gone: she catches her husband in flagrante delicto -- and then she decides she's "had enough." And you're left thinking: what's the point of creating contemporary characters if you're just going to fall back on the same old contrivances?

And that's the dilemma that Knots faces as it reaches the end of Season 1. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, how do you update the story beats as well? Once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the promiscuity, where do you turn for conflict and suspense? And if seemingly nothing is taboo, what's going to stop the characters from acting on every impulse -- and if they do, will the writers be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on an exciting yet dangerous precipice. What's most remarkable is that they don't seem to notice; as they head into Season 2, they seem unaware that -- in a perfect metaphor for a domestic drama about to go serialized -- they are figuratively hanging from a cliff. Will they survive?

To be continued, in Season 2...

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Knots Landing season 8

If you've never watched Knots Landing Season 8, here's the season in a nutshell. Paige is dead! No, not really. Anne is dead! No, not really. Sylvia is dead! No, not really. Jill is dead! No, not really. Sumner's dead! No, not really. Ben is dead! No, not really. The headwriters trot out the same twist over and over, never recognizing that by the second or third time, it's like the proverbial boy crying wolf, and we cease to believe a word they say. But fortunately, beyond that one tired device, Season 8 is full of felicities: sturdy plots for the veterans, skilled acting turns by the newcomers, balanced plotting, and down-to-earth, character-driven story-lines.

No, not really.

Season 8 is a misfire of epic proportions, in which Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham, newly installed as headwriters, work so hard to be clever, they lose sight of everything else. Knots was being moved up an hour that season, to a 9 PM timeslot where it would square off against ABC's Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys, and NBC's formidable sitcoms Cheers and Night Court, so there was very much a sense that the show had something to prove. And indeed Season 8 is a show that tries very hard; it just tries all the wrong things, and so unsubtly that the effort shows. It underuses the characters that viewers care about most, shifts far too much emphasis to newer ones who lack the requisite empathy or acting chops, and worst of all, clings pridefully to all its bad choices. You keep expecting course corrections that never come; in fact, in some cases, the writers don't even allow for course corrections, boxing themselves in with reveals that can't be undone. There's no way you could argue that Season 8 is worse than the fifteen episodes John Romano massacres at the top of Season 13. But that's a new showrunner and new writers coming onto a series with which they had little familiarity. Knots Landing Season 8 still has its creator, co-executive producer and producer very much involved, and headwriters who'd been scripting for over a year. And yet it not only goes off on impossibly bad tangents, it refuses to cut its losses. It's the most tone-deaf season.

The odd thing is, if you were placing wagers, you'd swear ten minutes into the first episode that the show was righting itself. Season 7 had been a coarse and crass affair, masterminded by one of the Dallas writers, David Paulsen, who had little understanding of the characters and seemingly no regard for the affection between them that had always distinguished Knots from its sister soaps. As Season 8 starts, the characters you loved come back. The writers restore the warmth: stressing Mack's devotion to his wife Karen (whom he'd demeaned through much of the previous season) and re-establishing the bond between Val and Ben, which had unaccountably come undone. Val and Ben even get a chance to verbally shed their Season 7 personas. She insists in the first episode, "I don't know what happened to [the woman I used to be] -- I don't know where she is," admitting how badly she'd been mischaracterized, and he brushes off his recent, out-of-character affair by insisting, "I've been stupid." (As an obliteration of a year of bad story-lines, it's only a touch more subtle than Bobby Ewing, that same month, assuring Pam, "None of that ever happened.")

More to the point, you sense, as Season 8 commences, that even the characters who find themselves at odds -- like Abby and Gary Ewing, then in the midst of a messy divorce -- genuinely like one another. Season 8 asserts, as Knots always did, that people can have differences without being at each other's throats. There's a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that feels inviting and familiar. (It doesn't hurt that Travilla is no longer doing the costuming, after two seasons of overdressing the cast in Dynasty cast-offs. On Dynasty, the look was consistent with the camp tone; on Knots, which kept it real, it made the ladies look stiff, matronly and foolish.) In Season 7, Abby had been hunting for a way to dispose of her husband's mistress, Jill Bennett; in Season 8, as Gary decides to run for State Senate, Abby assumes the role of political wife, instantly gaining the upper hand. When she starts turning on the charm at the end of one of his campaign speeches -- schmoozing the crowd with "Hello!" and "I'm Mrs. Ewing" and "Thank you for coming," gleefully putting Jill in her place -- it beats any over-the-top catfight that Season 7, no doubt, would have put them through. And when Gary, filming a political ad, breaks into gales of laughter because he can't get the copy right, you think, "Oh my God, Ted Shackelford is so frigging charming." And you think, "I love these people." You think what you're supposed to think while watching Knots.

So after a season in which they seemed lost, the core characters instantly return home in Season 8. What a shame the new headwriters have no idea what to do with them. What a shame they apparently feel they're not interesting enough to carry their own show, so they subordinate them to a character of their own making. Her name is Paige Matheson, and she is played by a model turned actress named Nicollette Sheridan, who is handed the meatiest plots of the season, but has neither the instincts nor the skill to pull off a fraction of what's required of her. But somehow, that fact seems to go unnoticed by the powers-that-be, who keep expanding her role and praising her to the high heavens. They set her up with a cover story in TV Guide, where her role is described thusly: "It’s the kind of coy, wait-until-next-week role that can either expand or shrink, depending on how she’s doing and how the audience is responding. So far, so good." And producer Lawrence Kasha is quick to commend her: “Obviously, we’re writing her up, or else she’d be on the train to nowhere.” Somewhere, in some alternate universe, there is a far better version of Season 8 where the train to nowhere pulled into Knots Landing and there was a ticket with Sheridan's name on it.

Sheridan, it must be noted, will ultimately become a fine actress, able to hold her own against the show's most formidable veterans. But in Season 8, her first full season, she still can't say one line convincingly, or master even the most straightforward statements. "It must be awful for you," she tells her step-brother Michael, whose mother Karen has been kidnapped, but as delivered, the tone feels gently mocking. Referencing Mack's whirlwind romance with her mother Anne, she admits, "I think about it all the time," sounding mostly distracted. When Sheridan's meant to come off as vulnerable, she seems whiny; when she's written as a victim, she seems like she's playing the victim. Seven episodes in, Michael, who's growing infatuated, describes his relationship with Paige as "more than sexy" (trust me: it's much, much less), but you don't have a clue what she thinks about him, because Sheridan is still incapable of honing in on an emotion.

Horrifyingly, The Nicollette Sheridan Hour doesn't just feature her in the role of Paige Matheson; she also plays her own mother Anne in flashbacks. Ponder on that: while breaking story for Season 8, at least five people of talent and discernment said, "Let's take an unproven ingenue, whose first and only prior acting credit was ABC's short-lived Paper Dolls (which basically brought that network to its knees in 1984), and give her a dual role." One would like to believe that there was something in the drinking water at Lorimar in the summer of 1986, but the Dallas and Falcon Crest writers both turned out sensational story-lines that season, so Knots has no excuse -- particularly since Sheridan had already appeared in a few episodes at the end of Season 7, so the Knots scripters knew exactly how limited her talents were. But the creative team, ignoring all evidence, decides to further enlarge Sheridan's role by telling a chunk of their season in flashback (because really, there's nothing more riveting than twenty-year-old exposition), traveling back in time to when Mack and Greg Sumner were college chums, and Mack had his great romance with society deb Anne Matheson. Who? Well, to understand fully who Anne Matheson is, you need to engage in your own flashback, to a scene from Season 4, when Mack -- who's stepped out on Karen when she thought they were building a committed relationship -- admits to her that he got scared, because he's never been in love with anyone before. It's a wonderful -- and memorable -- scene, and it helps answer the question of who Anne Matheson is.

She's a retcon.

So in plotting out Season 8, you give Mack a daughter he never knew he had, from a woman that viewers have been assured never existed -- both roles played by the same no-talent. And then you flash back to Mack's summer of love a few times each episode, and show us how the romance began, happened and fell apart. The flashbacks are in a baffling order, and they intrude at the strangest times. Mack will be agonizing over Karen's disappearance, and suddenly he'll have a flashback about Anne. Or Karen will hand him something, and instead of taking it, he'll go into a reverie. Some of the flashbacks don't seem to be anyone's in particular; they're just thrown up on the screen, filtered in brown, like newsreel footage, and they keep stopping the story dead in its tracks. The first flashback we're shown is Mack and Anne's break-up, so after that one, you feel you're pretty much up-to-speed -- but they continue throughout the season, and they're stultifying. They don't reveal aspects of Mack and Greg's friendship, or how their personalities were forged: things that viewers might actually care about. They're solely concerned with Mack's romance with a woman who, until the season began, didn't exist. And they weigh down a season that -- due to its new timeslot and competition -- needs to be light on its feet, at its most involving and invigorating. The flashbacks were actually promoted at the time as one of the season's big hooks, but it's a hook with no bait on it.

While Mack is engaging in retconned memories, his wife Karen has been kidnapped. In 2017, as I write this, it probably doesn't sound like such an awful idea: giving the show's leading lady a plotline where she's abducted, and can really show her acting chops. But this was 1986, a year after Dynasty did much the same thing, to critical mockery, audience apathy, and sliding ratings. If you want to know why Knots Landing's ratings fell 30% at the start of Season 8, don't blame the new timeslot. Don't blame the Colbys competition. Blame the kidnapping of Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie, because I was there watching in 1986, as were my friends, and we were aghast. "Let's take a story that was the ruin of a higher-rated serial, and do it up right!" Except they don't. Because with Karen's disappearance, Lechowick and Latham are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can't have all the characters stop what they're doing, as they should, to fret about and hunt for Karen, because that would grind the show to a halt. But at the same time, they can't have the characters not talk about her. So they give her cursory mentions that seem odd and insincere, and Karen's kidnapping -- which should be focal -- ends up seeming strangely disconnected and a little surreal. It's been weeks our time since Karen disappeared -- really more like months, since the story-line's been going on since the previous spring, and now it's October -- but Abby's still posturing to Gary that Karen is off somewhere "licking her wounds" over a business setback, as if that's remotely consistent with her character. Meanwhile, Laura, one of her closest friends, offers up this nugget, in terms of Karen's disappearance: "I just try not to think about it." Fair-weather friend much?

As it turns out, Karen's kidnapper -- an old friend of Mack and Greg's who, again, never existed until this season -- has peculiar reasons for kidnapping her, which Lechowick and Latham strain to make convincing, and once he's grabbed her, he's so sloppy about covering his tracks, he might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm With Karen." In a move the writing team will resort to often during their tenure on Knots, they have a character comment on the absurdity of a story-line, as an effort to preempt the audience from doing so. (It's Val in Season 11, thrust into a hurried marriage with Danny for plot purposes, telling Karen repeatedly, "I can't believe how fast this is happening.") We'll make note of them as the season goes along, but here's the first instance: Greg tells the kidnapper, "You're more stupid than I thought, and that's pretty stupid." He's written stupid so that he'll bungle things up and reveal his identity; it's sloppy writing, but Lechowick and Latham hope that by having a character reflect on it, we'll forgive it. Ultimately, Sumner is dragged into the Karen kidnapping story when he learns who the culprit is, but says nothing. Why doesn't he just turn him in? So that Lechowick and Latham can keep the story in play for another five episodes: so Greg can get in deeper and deeper, until Mack is convinced he masterminded the kidnapping. (Why would he have Karen abducted? It's never made clear, because there's no reason he would.) Greg's involvement in Karen's kidnapping, which is nonexistent but comes under suspicion, is pretty much how Joshua's death was handled in Season 7: a straightforward scenario stretched into an imagined whodunnit. You watch, and you're aghast that the writers are making the same mistake again.

Back to Paige for a minute, because I've already spent more time on Karen, Mack and Greg than the entire season does. As Kasha notes, they keep "writing her up," and by the second block, they move past developing her and create a mystery around her: cutting to a shot of her grave and leaving the viewer to wonder if this young woman is truly Paige Matheson. It's an awful idea, because what the writers don't seem to understand is that if this woman is an impostor, then the storyline is even less compelling. It wasn't all that interesting that Mack had a daughter, but someone pretending to be the daughter Mack never knew he had? -- then really, who cares? (Falcon Crest, that same season, could get away with roughly the same idea -- someone impersonating a key character's daughter -- but that someone was played by Kim Novak.) And when Paige, confronted with the evidence of her death, counters that she faked it, the writers still won't let it go, raising the question of whether she went on the lam after a car accident, as she insists, or a boating accident, as reported in the newspapers -- as if the more questions that swirl around Paige, the more fascinating she becomes.

Mostly, you keep wondering what the veterans must be thinking, confronted with this novice -- but the way the season is set up, the rest of the cast (all infinitely more talented and experienced) have to continually praise her or treat her with kid gloves. Until Karen takes the gloves off, and then we get one of the season's few good scenes. Lechowick and Latham by now are up to their second "dead, but not really" moment, as it turns out that Anne, who Paige assured us had passed away, is really alive. And Karen gets wind, and tears into Paige, saying pretty much everything you yourself have wanted to say all season. Paige arrives at the MacKenzie house, and Karen comes down the staircase, cornering her like a trapped animal: "You had to know we'd find out. About you. You had to know we'd find out about your mother. Didn't you think it was gonna happen? What were you doing? Were you just waiting for all hell to break loose?" And with no pause between sentences, Karen picks up the ugliest red tchotchke ever, and plows on: "What color is this? Because if you say it's red, it must be blue. Was the sun shining today? -- 'cause if you say the sun was shining, it must've rained." And finally, slowing down the pace, zeroing in on her target: "I don't know who you are. I only know I don't believe one word you say."

Great acting: that's how it's done.

And Sheridan stands there with virtually no expression on her face.

While the showrunners are giving Sheridan a welcome second only to Cleopatra's arrival in Rome, we get introduced to another character, Jean Hackney, who I guess -- if we're keeping the Egyptian similes going for a second -- would be Knots' equivalent of the Ten Plagues. As with Mack's retconned romance, Ben Gibson gets his own rewrite. The freewheeling journalist turned dedicated family man has a secret past: he used to dabble in espionage. And he's blackmailed into returning to the fold by one Jean Hackney, who runs a lingerie shop as a cover, and has a penchant for leopard-print kerchiefs: two reasons -- quite apart from the implausibility of her story-line -- not to take her seriously. "I don't do this spy stuff anymore -- I never really did," Ben informs her early on, in a writer's Freudian slip that gives lie to the whole story-line. But from episode 1, Ben is dragged back into espionage work, something as foreign to Knots Landing's roots and strengths as -- well, as most of the previous season's story-lines.

And ironically, it's a plotline for Doug Sheehan that does nothing for Doug Sheehan. Sheehan was one of the most successful bits of casting in Knots history. Having established in Season 4 that Val would always be in love with Gary, the writers needed someone to take her mind off him in Season 5 -- and Sheehan fit the bill perfectly. He had charm, and they had chemistry. (You want to see what the wrong choice would have been like in the role, check out Jon Cypher in Season 4: a solid actor who does nothing for Joan Van Ark, except give her one of her worst moments on the show, when she cries out that she loves him, and you don't believe it for a second.) Ben was always there, with his self-deprecating "aw shucks" manner, ready to tickle the ivories or blow on a bagpipe: whatever it took to bring a little joy into Valene's life. (His sense of decency and sense of humor had been among Season 7's few saving graces.) So in Season 8, you give him a plotline that calls for none of those qualities: that reduces him to an automaton taking orders: mostly angry, sometimes edgy, and always fearful. And because it's a "secret mission," Sheehan is pretty much cut off from the rest of the cast, with no opportunities to show his aforementioned charm and humor.

In fact, Ben's story-line isn't ultimately about Ben at all. It's about Jean Hackney, mystery woman. In any other season, her character would have been fleshed out a little; evil characters on Knots typically had at least one scene where their motives became clear, if not sympathetic. But as with so much of Season 8, Jean is designed as a "mystery" -- her plans aren't to be revealed until it's time, late in the season: after Lechowick and Latham have milked her story-line for as many surprises as they can. Till then, she's there simply to give Ben marching orders, by making threats against his wife and children. (If this were sci-fi, she could just as easily have been played by a computer bank: you know, like the kind Gary stumbled upon in Empire Valley. Or a robot. Somewhere, in yet another alternate universe, there's a far better version of Season 8 where Jean Hackney is played by a robot.) So how do they make her into a more intriguing character? Since they won't reveal her motivations, they increase her airtime. She turns up at Val's home, posing as a kooky old friend of Ben's from college. A few episodes later, assuming yet another persona, she fakes an auto accident that she blames on Sumner, and tries to flirt her way into his bed. Some of this might be palatable if Hackney were played by an actress of both command and comic prowess, who could seem at once menacing and mercurial: whose machinations you found, despite yourself, quite enjoying. But Wendy Fulton is a competent actress who has neither fire nor flair. I'm not saying the role of Jean Hackney is a good one -- I believe it's an ill-conceived mess -- but if they're going to throw so much story-line to her, Fulton was exactly the wrong actress to cast.

At the end of the first story block, Hackney reveals, to a colleague and to the viewer, her ultimate plan: she's going to force Ben to kill Greg Sumner. It's supposed to be a Big Reveal -- the whole season is designed as a series of Big Reveals -- but what it does is lock the writers into a lousy story. And the ripple effects of that story-line are unforgivable, because Ben stuck in scenes with Jean Hackney all season means that Joan Van Ark and Julie Harris are rendered plotless. Two-thirds of the way through the season, their characters will be needed to go on the lam with Ben, so they're left to tread water till then. Harris is reduced to baby-sitting -- her character is basically retconned back to Season 3. Van Ark has it worse: she gets a token story-line designed to be inconsequential enough that it can be completely abandoned once she's absorbed into Ben's plot. A studio wants to do a made-for-TV movie based on her first novel. The studio is called Ramilar, an in-joke for viewers who know that Knots is produced by Lorimar, and it's Lechowick and Latham engaging in the sort of juvenile self-referentialism that will come to stain their time on the show. It's a throwaway plot, indulging in every showbiz cliche, including the big Hollywood star who loves the part but wants it entirely rewritten -- and it's a giant waste of Joan Van Ark's talents. Van Ark soldiers through, but it's humiliating to think about and painful to watch. We're sorry: we've given your onscreen husband his own awful plotline; we don't have one left for you.

Two of the season's main story-lines are The Mystery of Paige Matheson and The Deception of Jean Hackney. The third: The Trials of Peter Hollister, the man masquerading as Greg's half-brother, who learns, over the course of Season 8, that it's hard to juggle seventeen story-lines. Peter, played by Hunt Block, was introduced in Season 7 as a man eager for revenge on Galveston Industries, for poisoning the water where his family lived and killing his parents. He has some charismatic moments that season -- in fact, he's one of the best things about it -- because he's used sparingly, and when he does appear (and this is one good thing you can say about Paulsen, who loved his alpha males) he's used strongly. In one scene in a pool, seducing Abby Ewing, he looks and seems like a power player.

In Season 8, they writers decide, as with Paige, to make him focal. But as with Ben, they lose track of what made the character appealing. When he's focused on payback, Block is dynamic. But in Season 8, Greg insists Peter run for State Senate, a job he doesn't want, with responsibilities that aren't interesting. (There's one episode where Abby and Greg fight about what committee he should sit on. And we care why?) He has no passion for politics, and meanwhile, he's having to indulge the whims of his phony mother, kowtow to his half-brother, and sexually satisfy his patron. (And the chemistry between Block and Donna Mills, as Abby, too often seems forced. There's a horrible scene early in the season that's supposed to be sensual and just looks silly, with close-ups of Abby and Peter's eyes and lips and bare shoulders and feet, as they're undressing for lovemaking. If you need to work at it that hard, it's not working.) He spends the final third of the season forced to court Abby's sixteen-year-old daughter Olivia, because she has incriminating evidence on him.

In Season 8, Peter spends his time trying to endure or extricate himself from situations that annoy him; he's never in command of his own story-lines. Some Knots actors were extremely good at making discomfort, even powerlessness, compelling. Michele Lee excelled at that: in fact, she spends most of Seasons 8 and 11 effectively reacting to events out of her control. (Her single best moment in Season 8 might be when she's disparaging the changes Abby has made at Lotus Point and inadvertently insults her son Eric, who notes defensively that one of those changes was his. As he walks away, Lee flashes a look that's at once shaken, sorrowful and self-righteous.) Other actors, like Donna Mills and Hunt Block, were at their least impressive being purely reactive. In Season 8, Lechowick and Latham turn Peter into a character who isn't even invested in his own plotlines: a disconnect that -- like every other miscalculation -- never gets addressed or corrected.

And worse, while Block is visibly suffering through his stories, he takes precious airtime away from everyone else. Ted Shackelford told TV Guide at the time, "For anyone as relatively inexperienced to come on a continuing series and shoulder as much of the plot as Hunt has this year is really unusual. Come to think of it, the guy’s been on more than I have.” Funny, but not so funny. All roads eventually lead to Peter in Season 8; Ben even decides to write an exposé on him. And Laura (who's pretty much wasted throughout the season) gets to be the one to question this particular story-line (and hopefully beat us to the punch), when she interrupts Greg pruning a bonsai tree to inquire, "Why Peter Hollister?" (Sadly, Greg can't give her much of an answer.)

In Peter's worst plot, he's decided to kill the woman posing as his mother. Unfortunately, while he's busy giving her an overdose, she disappears. (It's the season's third "Dead? No, not really" moment.) He begs his sister Jill for some face time, and she agrees, instructing him to meet her on a deserted mountain road. "Why did we have to meet all the way out here?" Peter asks: his turn to go meta, as Lechowick and Latham comment on -- in order to justify -- the absurd setting, chosen solely because it will provide a literal cliffhanger for Jill at episode's end. (For the record, her response is that she doesn't want anyone to see them. I lived in Southern California myself for many years and can safely say that when you're looking for privacy, there are plenty of options besides "deserted mountain road.") So Jill goes over a cliff, clinging to a branch halfway down the mountain before it snaps and she plunges even further, eventually hitting the ground lifeless. (For those keeping count, it's the season's fourth "Dead? No, not really" moment.)

And the next episode begins with fifteen minutes of Peter deciding whether or not to go for help. How does he make that decision? Through flashbacks, of course. As if Mack's reminiscences have somehow been elevating the series, lifting it to new Emmy-worthy heights, we now get Peter reliving seemingly every moment he and his sister have shared in the past two years, in hyper-speed. The sum of these memories, it's suggested, will help Peter decide whether his sister is worth saving. We don't just flash back weeks and months: we revisit things we just saw. We even get two more reruns of Jill holding onto that branch before it snaps. (It starts to grow comic after a while: Teri Austin as Wile E. Coyote.) But of course, nothing in these flashbacks helps Peter decide -- there's no "new information" provided; they're just a time-killer. Ultimately, he makes the phone call that saves her -- and because she's the one person who knows his true identity, that just gives him one more thing to fret about.

There's only one thing that interests Peter in Season 8, and that's spending more time with Paige. Halfway through the season, the writers pair them. It reaps instant rewards: first, because putting those two together halves the number of scenes you have to fast-forward through. And second, because it frees up time for a few other characters to get in a story-line or two.

And so, just after the season's midpoint, we get its one great episode: one that, tellingly, doesn't revolve around Paige or Peter. Instead, three of the veterans -- including the youngest and the oldest -- show how it's done, as the ongoing story of Olivia's drug dependence comes to a head. The episodes leading up to it had promised something special -- Abby showing up at Gary's hotel room to ask for advice, then quietly bursting into tears, had been some of Mills' best work to date -- but still, nothing prepares you for the power of the pay-off, "No Miracle Worker." It's a series high point (one of Lechowick's best efforts), much of it a two-hander between Donna Mills and Tonya Crowe. So many memorable scenes. Abby hammering in the bathroom door to get to Olivia, who's locked her out -- and then, when she discovers her daughter flushing her drugs down the john, flinging them furiously in her face. Olivia, wired on cocaine, trying to coax her mother into giving her the car keys -- then, when that approach doesn't pan out, unleashing her fury: smashing her fist against a painting, hurling bric-a-brac to the floor. (As you watch Crowe, utterly convincing as a coked-up teenager aching for a fix, denying her addiction but eager to lay the blame at everyone else's feet, it seems even more criminal that so much of the season has been thrown to Sheridan.) It even finds a stunning moment for Julie Harris, when Abby and Lilimae learn that Olivia has put her brother in harm's way, and Lilimae grabs the phone and demands Olivia call 911. (She's arguably more powerful in that scene than in all the over-the-top thesping she's forced to do, relentlessly, in Season 7. Her fury here is unexpected; it's not where her entire season is pitched.)

"No Miracle Worker" is riveting television, Knots at its best, and then the next episode is back to awful plots that flatter no one, as Ben is coerced into planting a bug in Sumner's office, while Val has her first day on a Hollywood set. Soon it's the end of the second block, and Jean Hackney finally informs Ben that her plan all along has been for him to kill Sumner: something we've known for ten episodes. Consider what this says about Season 8. On the surface, the idea of having Jean Hackney tell us something Ben won't learn for months simply turns one Big Reveal into two. (Lechowick and Latham must have been in heaven when they came up with that idea.) But it's a move that ultimately undercuts the story-line itself, because everything Ben does after we find out his real mission, but before he himself learns it, becomes inconsequential, since we know it's filler. There are two possible takeaways. Either Lechowick and Latham didn't think the middle spate of episodes would stand on their own if we didn't know what was coming next, or they were willing to sacrifice their impact just to double the surprises. Which is worse?

What's inexcusable about the Jean Hackney story isn't how bad it is -- there are plenty of bad Knots Landing stories over its fourteen seasons, and some even stem from noble impulses: it's that the headwriters conceive a plot that's risky at best, that runs counter to the relationship-based drama at which Knots excelled, then leave themselves no way out if it doesn't work. On the contrary: as they plot the season, these are their two roadmarks: we'll learn about Hackney's plan in the final moments of the first block; Ben will find out in the final moments of the second. The entire season is structured around those two reveals, and once they hit them, there's no turning back. There's no opportunity to ask, "Is this working?" -- but then, it doesn't seem that that question ever occurs to Lechowick and Latham during Season 8. They chart their course, mapping out exactly how they're going to beat The Colbys -- and nothing will deter them from that plan. Nothing will go wrong because nothing can go wrong. In that same article about Hunt Block, the actor has one telling anecdote: “Peter’s done some pretty stupid things, like giving an inscribed locket to Olivia. When I raise questions with the producers and writers and ask, 'Why would he do this?’, there’s not much they can tell me. They’re wedded to the plot and where that’ll take the characters.” That pretty much sums up everything that goes wrong in Season 8.

It's not surprising. Lechowick and Latham had schooled under David Paulsen, who -- like his mentor, Leonard Katzman -- mapped out his seasons meticulously. And although they have an understanding of the characters that Paulsen lacked, they haven't yet cultivated the ability to be spontaneous, to check in from time to time on what's working and what isn't. (Hell, even John Romano knew enough to gut Tidal Energy after a dozen episodes.) They set up a maze of a plot to take you through Season 8 -- replete with misdirects and traps and reveals -- and they just run with it, sadly unaware that intrigue doesn't necessarily translate into interest. A little healthy self-reflection would've gone a long way toward salvaging Season 8, but the writers don't seem to second-guess their ideas, before or after they hit the screen.

In the third and final block, Mack saves Ben from having to shoot Sumner. It's the season's climactic set piece, and -- you can't make this stuff up -- it's told in flashbacks. Lechowick and Latham can't even deliver the climax they've been building to for two dozen episodes, because that would deprive them of two more misdirects. So the big confrontation between Ben and Sumner happens off-screen, so we can go through the motions of "Sumner's dead! No, not really" and "Ben's dead! No, not really." (By that point, Lechowick and Latham are like failed magicians, pulling dead rabbits out of hats.) And then the entire Jean Hackney story-line, insanely convoluted by this point, and such a sad departure from what Knots does best, is recounted by Mack to Karen, as he forces us to relive scenes that we're busy trying to forget. Mack begins his story long ago, when nefarious plans were laid by "this gang of financial wizards and thugs," because, of course, that's how any good Knots Landing story begins. Here it's Karen's chance to engage in the running meta-commentary, punctuating Mack's story with observations like "that's insane" and "I just don't believe this -- it's crazy." (Michele Lee thought Karen became "the voice of the people" in Season 12. No, it's here.) When it's all over, Ben is haunted by the experience. He's not the only one. Season 8 has felt like one long nightmare.

There's not much more to say about Season 8. Michelle Phillips turns up as present-day Anne Matheson, and although there's not a sincere, unaffected bone in her body, Mack insists to Karen that she's really "down-to-earth." That notion is borne out by nothing we're seeing, so obviously Mack is drinking the same Kool-Aid that's telling the Lorimar honchos that Sheridan can act, that Block is at his best emasculated, and that Jean Hackney is the greatest literary creation since Falstaff. Mack being played by Anne isn't the least bit convincing, and the best that can be said for it is that it's the only time in the season Lechowick and Latham actually seem to have rethought a story-line, as the intent was for the two to sleep together, but Michele Lee, rightfully, put her foot down. But because we get episodes of build-up, as Mack is sucked into Anne's orbit, and then there's no pay-off, the writers compensate by leaving us with one last Paige Matheson mystery: is Mack really her father? It's the final, riotous miscalculation in a season that thrives on them. If Mack's isn't Paige's father, then what was the point of the whole season? Why did it deserve our time and attention? Why did we have to suffer through seven hundred flashbacks, and an ingenue who seemed to recite her lines phonetically? The ignorance and arrogance of Lechowick and Latham in Season 8 is staggering; they seem to have no idea how their stories impact the audience. They see fooling the viewer as an "win," no matter the cost. They leave Season 8 by exclaiming to the viewer, "Isn't that marvelous? We just wasted your time!"

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Cold Case season 4

Flashback #1: I was on the phone with my grandmother Sophie, whom I adored, sometime in the late 1980's; it was a Sunday night, and suddenly she said she needed to go. Her detective was on. It took me a few moments to realize that "her detective" was Jessica Fletcher, and that she never missed an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I got off the phone quickly, because we had learned never to interfere with my grandmother's TV time.

Twenty years later, from 2003 to 2010, Lilly Rush of Cold Case was my Sunday night detective. As creator Meredith Stiehm conceived her, and as star Kathryn Morris (brilliantly) played her, Lilly Rush -- the Philly homicide detective so immersed in the cold cases she's investigating that she keeps photos of the victims on her nightstand -- was an original, and she headed up a show that was, at its best, far more affecting than the other Jerry Bruckheimer procedurals.

Flashback #2: In my early twenties, I devoured the works of Agatha Christie; the train ride home from college was three hours, and I could get through a Christie novel in just that time. I loved the puzzles -- still do -- but soon came to realize that my favorite Christies weren't the ones with the cleverest cluing; they were the ones with the most emotional weight. The ones that left me not only satisfied, but shaken. One of the Christies I took to most, Five Little Pigs, was in fact a cold case. Hercule Poirot is approached by the daughter of a woman who, decades earlier, had been convicted of murder. The daughter believes her mother was innocent; will Poirot take the case? Poirot objects: it was a long time ago. But the daughter persists. The physical clues are gone -- the footprints in the blades of grass, the cigarette dangling from the ashtray -- but the psychology remains. The people are still alive. Poirot will interview them, and then he'll know the truth...

Cold Case operated like Christie's famed "murders in retrospect." It couldn't dazzle us with forensics, like its CSI sisters; most of the forensic evidence was gone. The detectives -- Rush and her team: Scotty Valens, Nick Vera and Will Jeffries -- had to follow the psychology of the crime, and that meant immersing themselves in the lives of the victims, the suspects and the survivors. Like Five Little Pigs, which I came to discover was widely considered one of Christie's classics, it dug deep into character, and that's what gave it resonance.

I was a casual viewer at the start, but writer Veena Sud's first-season "The Letter" turned me into a fan. Each Cold Case episode began in flashback, with a scene from the victim's life; it then skipped ahead to the crime scene -- then leapt forward to the present, when the case came to the attention of one of the detectives. As "The Letter" began, as it set down in 1939 in a boarding house for "colored women," I was struck by how vibrant the characters felt. The format of the Bruckheimer procedurals (the three CSI's, Without a Trace) rarely allowed the guest cast to make much of an impression; their personalities were typically stripped down to one or two useful traits. As Sud's characters chattered away like old friends, their speech seemed nuanced, their relationships complex. Forget the murder mystery to come; I would have been happy just watching these women interact. Even during the half-dozen interrogations that consumed a good chunk of the episode, the characters retained their quirks; they never seemed to exist just for the purposes of plot. And the case itself did more than just humanize its victim and survivors. It immersed us in an era far removed from our own, and used the attitudes, mores and prejudices of that era to explain how and why the crime had been perpetrated -- and why it lay unsolved. "The Letter" operated -- and succeeded -- on so many levels, it took my breath away.

I didn't know Sud's name at the time, but after "The Letter," I made note of it, and over the next few years, I continued to marvel at her work. If I had to list my top-10 Cold Case episodes, they would be "The Letter" from Season 1; "Daniela" and "The Woods" from Season 2; "The Promise," "A Perfect Day" and "One Night" from Season 3; "Forever Blue" and "A Good Death" from Season 4; and "Two Weddings" and "Free Love" from Season 7. Sud penned the first six. There were some fine writers in those early years (Jan Oxenberg and Sean Whitesell among them), but Sud's scripts were in a class of their own.

Cold Case hit its stride halfway through its first season: "The Letter," which aired in January of 2004, was followed by Stiehm's "Boy in the Box," easily one of her two best scripts. The show was on a roll, and it got tougher and tighter as it headed into Season 2; the writers had mastered the rules, and now they knew how to exploit them -- and when to break them. I used to think Season 2 was Cold Case at its best, but on re-viewing, I was struck by how much a key subplot -- an affair between Scotty and Lilly's barmaid sister -- drags it down, pitting the two detectives against each other in a way that reflects badly on both. (It derails the show the way Watson's pairing with Sherlock's brother did in the second season of Elementary.) And it's filled with laughable, sudsy dialogue like Lilly's "Whoring it up with a cocktail waitress won't bring back your dead girlfriend," a line that so reeked of camp in 2005, I had it emblazoned on a T-shirt. Season 3 isn't saddled with that story-line, but you can feel a bit of writers' malaise setting in. For every great episode, there's a dismal one to follow, and although the pitches themselves aren't bad -- e.g., "an insecure girl gets conned into helping two bank robbers" -- there doesn't seem to be much going on beyond the pitches. The show feels a little limp, like a series in need of a shake-up. And it gets one, when Sud is promoted to showrunner for Cold Case's fourth season.

The Season 4 premiere, Sud's "Rampage," aired on September 24, 2006. It depicted a mass shooting at a mall, and tackled issues of teen violence, gun control and bullying. As it examined the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, exploring our capacity to cope and carry on, it asked the questions we all ask after a tragedy of this sort. When two teenagers open fire in a crowd, killing thirteen before taking their own lives, who shares responsibility? The popular kids who antagonized them? The self-proclaimed misfits who encouraged them? The adults who cast a blind eye to what was happening? "Rampage" was set in 1995, but it felt wildly relevant in 2006 -- as it does now.

Flashback #3: About four weeks after Season 4 got underway, I was struck down by an auto-immune illness, and was off my feet for nearly six months. I watched a lot of TV during that time, but I can't say that I appreciated a lot of TV during that time; probably as a result, I've always remembered Sud's first season as showrunner being underwhelming. But as Cold Case reminds us, sometimes you need to take a second look. I engaged in a Season 4 rewatch recently, and realized my initial impressions were wrong: it's a splendid season.

In the early years, the cases are paramount; we learn about the detectives mostly by watching them navigate the investigations. Once Sud takes over, she decides to delve further into the detectives' private lives, scattering subplots throughout the season. But she sees to it that the personal stories complement and even inform the cases, so they're never a distraction. And happily, and crucially, the subplots are all good ones: the disposal of Lilly's drippy, clingy boyfriend, with whom she'd been saddled at the end of Season 3; Scotty helping his brother come to terms with his childhood abuse; Vera's budding romance with the nurse next door; the integration of a fifth detective, Kat Miller, who'd joined in Season 3, but been left pretty much undefined. And best of all, the return of Lilly's ex-boyfriend (a rugged Brennan Elliott) in the fall, and the return of her mother (a wonderfully haggard Meredith Baxter) in the spring, both of whom shake up Lilly's life for the better.

The arrival of Lilly's mother is neatly foreshadowed, as several of the cases Lilly works in Season 4 prompt her to reflect on the abuse she suffered as a child. Fittingly, one of the season's recurring themes is parental neglect: in particular, mothers who mistreated their daughters, and who now regret the choices they made. (It inspires a string of memorable guest turns, from Jenny O'Hara in "Fireflies" to Patricia Place in "The Good-Bye Room" to Paula Malcomson in "A Dollar, A Dream.") But seeing all those mournful mothers doesn't exorcise Lilly's demons; if anything, it fuels them -- and when her alcoholic mother ultimately turns up, suffering from late-stage cirrhosis, the two have a lot to hash out. The ensuing story-line is a striking showcase for Morris and Baxter, but tellingly, it reaches its climax off-screen, and Lilly's left to recount the details to her partner Scotty; however much Sud delves into the detectives' lives in Season 4, she insists that Lilly's primary focus be her job, and that Cold Case remain a case-driven show. It's not everything Lilly's dealing with in her personal life that makes her so fascinating; it's that she puts her work -- and the victims she's fighting for -- ahead of everything she's dealing with.

As for the Season 4 cases themselves, they're mostly solid, and often strong. Twenty-four episodes, and only two that are stinkers. The stinkers are both by Liz Garcia, the show's most uneven staff writer; she gets off to a good start in Season 2, but soon runs out of steam. (A few of her pitches alone make me cringe: "an overweight woman looks for love," "a teenaged boy dreams of becoming a dancer.") But aside from Garcia, and the reliable Tyler Bensinger, Sud brings in a new writing staff, and the infusion of fresh blood proves key to the season's success. Sud loved her hot-button issues, and her writers reward her with episodes about institutional racism, women's rights, child abuse and forced prostitution -- but none of it's heavy-handed. The season doesn't get bogged down in messages; it doesn't get bogged down in anything. Sud demands her writers stay alert, keep their eyes on multiple targets. Her instructions aren't "tighten the mysteries" or "develop the characters" or "strive for relevance" -- she tells them, "Do it all." And make sure you address the question any good episode has to answer: why couldn't the case be solved then? Why now? What's changed? The best Season 4 episodes seem richly textured, taking on numerous and varied challenges and meeting them -- in a way we'd pretty much only seen, up to that point, in Sud's own scripts.

A few entries take on causes that Sud herself had already championed (e.g, Greg Plageman's "Sandhogs," with its plea for racial tolerance), and occasionally, the new writers seem a little too eager to please the boss. But mostly, it feels like Sud is encouraging them to find their own voices. And just as, by Season 3, you could recognize a Sud script just a few lines into any of her episodes, by the end of Season 4 you come to distinguish, say, an Erica Shelton script from a Gavin Harris script. The writers' styles become identifiable, highly unusual for a network procedural. (As a sidenote, that trend continues into Season 5, Sud's second and final season as showrunner, which shows promise of being as compelling a season as its predecessor. But it's ultimately done in by the dreaded Writers' Strike of 2007-08. The Season 4 cliffhanger leaves the show in a dark place; they start to lighten the mood just as the show is going on its strike-mandated hiatus, but with only six episodes left after the strike ends, they never have time to let the sun back in.)

The new writing team offers up stirring cases and engrossing story arcs. Their biggest challenge, though, is the rigidity of the show's format, which had already grown stale. Not the cold opens, which remained pretty much what I described above, nor the epilogues: musical montages that buttoned the cases, as the killers were taken into custody. Those were a given, and they bookended the episodes nicely. It's the interrogations that had become predictable. In the earliest seasons of Cold Case, not every interview grew confrontational, or dissolved into a flashback. By Season 3, however, the weekly formula had become the detectives grilling a suspect, announcing some new and incriminating evidence they'd just uncovered, then instantly turning up the heat with "And then you killed him/her!" To which the suspect would counter, "I wasn't the one who had a problem with him/her; that was [new suspect]" -- and then we'd cut to a flashback, pointing the finger at someone else. And then they'd go accuse that suspect, who'd deflect blame with their own recollection -- and it would all repeat. Six or seven times, and by then, it was about eight minutes to the hour, so you knew it was time for someone to confess.

That's what Cold Case devolved into fairly quickly, and the Season 4 writers don't entirely redress the issue; even a good episode like Garcia's "Baby Blues" still has the detectives pouncing on every suspect twenty seconds into questioning them. But the writers work to counter the show's predictable weeding of suspects by polishing their mysteries, and by dropping proper clues along the way, so that the reveals ultimately feel both satisfying and surprising. In Harris's "Blood on the Tracks," the 1981 murder of a married couple with ties to radical activists, a couple of throwaway lines early on provide a clue that ultimately flips the narrative. Shelton's "Fireflies," which tracks a girl abducted from her home in the mid-'70s, encourages the viewer, in the best Christie manner, to make an assumption merely because it's standard to do so -- then pulls the rug out from under them. And her "A Dollar, A Dream," which focuses on the plight of the homeless, hides its biggest clue in plain sight, letting a suspect indulge in a reverie that's so charming that you overlook how out-of-touch -- and potentially dangerous -- it is.

Throughout the season, you're struck by clever moves that don't feel calculated: the Sud touch is everywhere evident. Sometimes it's just a shift in focus, as in Jennifer Johnson's "The Key," which dredges up one of Jeffries' unsolved murders, or Sud's own "8:03 AM," which finds Miller reopening a case that's haunted her for years. Similarly, in Plageman's taut and tense "Offender," Scotty finds it hard to stay impartial when a case hits too close to home. And fittingly for a showrunner whose first great episode had stretched some sixty-five years into the past, the oldest cases prove among the most rewarding, notably Harris's "Static," which revisits the 1958 slaying of a radio DJ. (As with all Harris's scripts, it features immaculate period detail, here an understanding of how payola was changing the music industry, and how rock 'n' roll was forever changing American society.) Even when the show stretches itself too far, as in Bensinger's "Torn," which reopens the 1919 case of a murdered suffragette and attempts to solve a mystery where there are no suspects left to interview, you can't help but admire the aspiration.

In any other season, those would be the highlights, and they'd be enough. But Season 4 features three episodes that exceed even those, where the quality of the scripts is matched by sterling performances and stylish direction.

Harris's "The Good Death" casts Anthony Starke as Jay Dratton, an entrepreneur diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor: a smiling cobra who comes to realize the value of all that he's amassed. Starke is sensational as a corporate monster who finds his way back to the man he once was. Along the way, as Jay's mind keeps slipping into half-remembered images, director Paris Barclay manages some of the most graceful match shots in the show's run, the present bleeding into the past and back again with eerie elasticity, and Jay's hallucinations allow Harris to indulge in one delicious red herring. But Harris is careful not to let the writing get so self-consciously clever that it undercuts the grimness of the situation; when the character admits, in his final moments, "I've run out of ways not to think about the pain," it speaks to anyone who's ever suffered from debilitating illness. Ultimately, we learn that the killing was an act of kindness, and we're grateful for the intervention -- and doubly grateful when Lilly (whose own mother is facing her final days) decides, just this once, to look the other way. The closing montage is set to Paul Westerberg's "Good Day," and it's sublime.

Johnson's "The Good-Bye Room," directed by Holly Dale, offers up the season's most radiant guest turn: Johanna Braddy as Hilary West, a pregnant teenager in 1964, consigned to a church-run home for unwed mothers. She's surrounded by a particularly odious lot -- the weak-willed mother, the bad-seed juvie, the harridan nun -- but little by little, Hilary's unflagging optimism and unforced joie de vivre prove contagious. As the episode progresses, the other characters find themselves sympathetic to her plight and -- to the extent that they're able -- rally to her side. It's the rare procedural episode where the characters are not only defined, but dynamic. And there's one blissful scene midway through, in which Hilary and the other girls take a trip to a local record store, to sample the latest 45s. As they burst into a spontaneous sing-along of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," the light inside Hilary burns bright -- and even though you know it will soon be snuffed out, you're quite willing to forget that for the time being and just savor the moment. In its celebration of female camaraderie, it calls to mind the opening of Sud's "The Letter"; you watch it and think, "Johnson learned fast, and she learned well."

And finally, Tom Pettit's "Forever Blue," a GLAAD Media Award nominee and perhaps the series' most celebrated hour, touches down in 1968 and focuses on the relationship between two cops: Sean "Coop" Cooper, charismatic and cocksure, a Vietnam vet who can't give up the fight; and Jimmy Bruno, yearning for something better yet terrified what that might be -- the kind of guy who fits in anywhere, be it a loveless marriage or a corrupt police department. It features a trio of remarkable performers -- Shane Johnson (as Coop) and Brian Hallisay and Chad Everett (as Jimmy in 1968 and in 2006) -- and a director, Jeannot Szwarc, who puts a haunting spin on it all: filming the flashbacks in black and white, but accenting key objects in red (a police siren, a gunshot wound) and yellow (the candles at a christening). It's as if Jimmy and Coop shared something so ahead of its time, it's come to seem almost out of its time, and as Jimmy looks back from 2006, still deep in denial, only stray images linger: those, and a slew of emotions -- passionate, loving and loyal -- he can't seem to shake. At the end, after Coop's killers are brought to justice (with The Byrds' "My Back Pages" playing in the background), Jimmy "now" and Coop "then" have one final, imagined farewell. Szwarc shoots their reunion in black and white. And only after the love story at the heart of the episode has been truly acknowledged does the scene come alive with color.

Those three episodes go beyond mere brilliance; they're heartbreakers. They're classics. And they're surrounded by a dozen episodes that are quite splendid in their own right. Forget my initial, medicated response: the fourth season of Cold Case is an exceptionally fine one. I think the case could be made that it's the best season of any Bruckheimer procedural.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: My Top 50 Serials

I discovered the classic series of Doctor Who in late 2011; the following fall, it inspired my first blog entry: a four-part look at the Peter Davison era. Since then, I've written over a dozen Doctor Who posts, including essays on the Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee years. Having now viewed each serial at least twice, and some a dozen times (or more), I figured it was high time I published a list of my 50 favorite Classic Who serials, along with capsule reviews. The list, obviously, is purely subjective; I've made no effort to include a sampling from each era -- nor, heaven knows, to include certain stories simply because legions of fans before me have deemed them "the best." (In fact, some of the most widely-praised serials don't do much for me; if you're looking for another paean to Hinchcliffe and Holmes, you'll need to look elsewhere.) Even in the eras I particularly love, I readily concede there are a handful of turkeys; conversely, in eras I actively dislike, there's often a story or two I rather enjoy. So I think it's a nice assortment. Below, my top 50 Classic Who serials:

50. Attack of the Cybermen (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Eric Saward, Ian Levine & Paula Woolsey
directed by Matthew Robinson

Decried for its continuity porn and graphic violence, but the former is easily overlooked, and the latter -- though ill-advised -- lasts all of about a minute. "Attack" pinpoints that moment in time in which the Sixth Doctor era is at its most appealing: when the Doctor has recovered enough from his regeneration crisis that he's no longer homicidal, but still experiencing enough confusion to tame his bluster. Colin Baker is allowed moments of levity, empathy and introspection; it's his most charming performance. And Peri has recovered from the Doctor's attack in "Twin Dilemma" but not yet been beaten down by all the violence that will be perpetrated against her in the serials to come: she displays some of the pluck, compassion, thirst for adventure, and survival instincts that made her so winning in "Planet of Fire." There's a lovely parity between Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant here; from line to line, it's hard to say who'll have the upper hand, and surprisingly, often it's her. (Doctor: "I'm a Time Lord. A man of science, temperament and passion." Peri: "And a very loud voice." And, Doctor: "I suddenly feel conspicuous." Peri: "I'm not surprised, in that coat.") The reactivation of the TARDIS's chameleon circuit makes for a couple good sight gags, there are smashing guest turns by Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover, and although things start to drag noticeably in the second half, the conception of the Cryons feels a nice nod to the Hartnell era: the all-female race reminiscent of the Drahvins, their balletic gesturing evocative of the Menoptra. "Attack" is also one of the few times that the Sixth Doctor, in his technicolor bad-dream coat, and Peri, dolled up here in a hot pink leotard, don't look like fashion eyesores. Robinson keeps the settings muted -- the grisly grays of the London sewers, the off whites of the TARDIS and the Telos tombs -- so that the Doctor and Peri stand out naturally and effectively. Instead of aspiring to new levels of garishness, as if to match the Sixth Doctor's attire (as later serials like "Timelash" and "Mindwarp" will do), Robinson mutes everything except his stars. It serves them well.

49. Galaxy 4 (First Doctor, 1965)
written by William Emms
directed by Derek Martinus

An average Who elevated by instinct, luck and artistry. The instinct: outgoing producer Verity Lambert suggested that the antagonists, the Drahvins, be all female; the result was an icy blonde warrior race led by Stephanie Bidmead, in a chilling performance that at one point all but consumes the small screen. The stroke of luck, awful as it is to call it that, is that original director Mervyn Pinfield fell ill during initial filming at Ealing, and Derek Martinus -- in his first Who assignment -- was recruited to step in. And thus the artistry: Pinfield was a serviceable old-timer; Martinus, fresh out of the BBC internal directors' training course, was a gifted up-and-comer. Even working with sets and set-ups that initiated with another, Martinus gives the serial weight and shape. The Doctor describes the Drahvin ship as primitive and the Rill ship as impressive; the production design doesn't really support that, but no matter -- through Martinus's lens, the Drahvin ship becomes a claustrophobic sweatshop, the Rill ship eerily expansive. He manages to suggest the potential perils lurking in each. The script is nothing special -- a variation on the "never judge a book by its cover" plot that all sci-fi and fantasy series seem to dip into at some point -- but the three principals (the Doctor, Vicki and Steven) are all well-served. Much has been made about how Emms devised the script when Ian and Barbara were still on board, and then, upon learning of the companion shake-up, transferred Barbara's role to Steven. Peter Purves himself has gone on record as saying the lines felt unnatural. But they don't come off that way; on the contrary, they serve to broaden his range. It's nice to see Steven use his brains and his wiles (as Barbara would have), and his inability to defeat Maaga in hand-to-hand combat doesn't make him appear weak; it makes the Drahvins seem that much more formidable. There's excessive moralizing in "Galaxy 4," and it's paper-thin in spots, but that doesn't keep it from being charming -- or effective.

48. Earthshock (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Grimwade
An irony of Matthew Waterhouse's tenure on Doctor Who is that, during his first season, when his acting abilities are -- to put it kindly -- limited (when something as basic as pointing and going "look!" seems beyond him), he at least makes himself useful to the Doctor. The following year, when his talents have grown a bit (he gets a second chance at the "Look!" bit in "The Visitation," and does much better), the new writers and story editors don't have a clue what to do with him. Although Adric could be an energetic, capable, attentive pupil (as in the bomb-defusing scene here), too often he's simply called upon to sulk. And sulk he does in the first episode of "Earthshock," so much so that it undermines his death three episodes later. Making a character as petulant as possible shortly before you kill him off is an odd writing choice, but then, the success of "Earthshock" isn't due largely to Saward. To his credit, though, the first half is unusually taut and effective. The Cybermen's two-pronged plan doesn't really bear scrutiny, but the action sequences are well conceived, and the revelations are well-spaced. And even when the second half gets a little flabby, the reliable Grimwade does his darndest to keep it engrossing. As the ship's commander, Beryl Reed proves a godsend. Devising distinctive characters isn't one of Saward's strengths; Reed is the kind of actress who can do it even when the lines aren't there. By contrast, aside from Reed, no one in the guest cast makes any impression, and Saward has no idea how to write for Nyssa or Tegan either. Reed and Peter Davison get a nice rhythm going, but every time Saward does those requisite cuts to the other members of the TARDIS crew, you're reminded how generic his writing can be. Nyssa stays behind in the TARDIS with a cypher named Professor Kyle, and they have exchanges like "What was that?" "I don't know. A robot!" "They're huge!" Their lines don't even function as exposition; they know less about what's going on than anyone. Near the end, Professor Kyle is killed by a Cyberman, but no one reacts much. Basically, she was only there till the final reel so she could lend Tegan her overalls. How do you mourn a clothes rack?

47. The Claws of Axos (Third Doctor, 1971)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Ferguson
It's like Doctor Who on LSD: a trip you don't soon forget. There's a hallucinogenic aspect to all of Ferguson's Who serials: here he goes full throttle. "Axos" has long been dismissed as a walking-joke serial, and like most of Baker and Martin's efforts, it tosses around way more ideas than it knows what to do with. But it's visually arresting in a season that often looks flat and forgettable; the gaffes are easily forgiven, because the images stay with you, The interior of the ship is a psychedelic synthesis of textures and colors and shapes. (In its own way, it's as other-worldly as Hartnell's "Web Planet.") And "Axos" itself is full of memorable moments: the aliens materializing out of walls, then merging back into them; the Doctor and Jo escaping an exploding ship while golden faces block their path; Jo being hyper-aged, while the Doctor stares, horrified and helpless. "Axos" features one of Pertwee's best performances -- his reactions sharp, his timing impeccable, and his character deliciously ambiguous; it also has one of the era's best bureaucrats. The Pertwee years are strewn with self-serving businessmen and fatuous government officials -- after a while, it's hard to remember one from another -- and they constantly prompt Pertwee to go on the attack, a dynamic that quickly grows stale. But "Axos," to its credit, manages to eat its cake and have it too. It offers up a government official who's so loathsome that he provokes not merely testiness in the Third Doctor, but genuine rage (he lights a fire under Pertwee, rare for Season 8). And at the same time, the script takes the piss out of him by giving him a commanding officer who sees right through him. When the unctuous government official calls in his report, asking the head of the Ministry if they should scramble the call, and the Minister responds, "Just your report. I'm sure that will be scrambled enough," it's a welcome relief. Someone else can take care of cutting the bureaucrats down to size; Pertwee can just get on with the plot.

46. Full Circle (Fourth Doctor, 1980)
written by Andrew Smith
directed by Peter Grimwade

It's the first time Tom Baker seems to fully engage with his material since "Androids of Tara" (he engages with the actors and atmosphere in "City of Death," but not so much the situations), and what a difference it makes. His performance has a dangerous edge reminiscent of his first season (back when he had something to prove, and one could argue that Season 18 finds him with something to prove again), and because you haven't seen that side of the Fourth Doctor in a while, you recall the jolt you felt in adventures like "Ark in Space" and "Genesis of the Daleks." Sadly, Baker recommits at a time when the creative team is deliberately minimizing him, to ensure the show's future isn't dependent upon his presence; during most of the first episode -- as character introductions are made and key events get underway -- the Doctor is under the TARDIS console, making repairs. But minimizing the Fourth Doctor means the writers can no longer rely on the power of his personality to get them through the rough patches; they're forced to return to solid story-telling and world-building, and you realize how much that's been missed. Andrew Smith was a newcomer to Doctor Who, but Peter Grimwade had been working his way up the ranks as Production Assistant. Smith, guided by script editor Christopher Bidmead, juggles so many concepts that huge chunks of dialogue are little more than scientific jargon -- but Grimwade, in his first helming job on Who, intuitively understands how to ease and disguise the exposition. He seems particularly at home with the panoramic settings (the lakes and forests of Alzarius, the multi-tiered Great Book Room aboard the Starliner), and although the more intimate moments are hit-or-miss, he seems to be learning as he goes; you sense ideas bubbling like the waters at Mistfall. (The death of the Decider, at the hands of the Marshmen, is unconvincing, but when he re-stages essentially the same scene three episodes later with Adric's brother, he nails it.) There are so many intriguing concepts in play in "Full Circle" that -- although it doesn't come together at the end as cohesively as it wants to -- you're quite willing to cut it some slack. You're grateful for the thought put into it, even when its creators seem to be thinking on their feet.

45. Resurrection of the Daleks (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Eric Saward
directed by Matthew Robinson
The scene in which the Fifth Doctor announces his intention to kill Davros -- "Once before I held back from destroying the Daleks. It was a mistake I do not intend to repeat" -- is one of Peter Davison's great moments. His voice shaking with both resolve and horror, it really does feel like the culmination of a decade of regret dating back to "Genesis of the Daleks." The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan are barely together for "Resurrection" -- they share some scenes at the top and reunite near the end -- but all three actors are at their most charismatic, and they go a long way towards keeping it watchable. As does first-time Who director Robinson, working closely with production designer John Anderson; the pair effectively delineate and diversify the settings, so that each time you jump to a new location, the serial instantly refreshes. The result is a stylish-looking action-adventure that wears its machismo like a medal. Calling it Eric Saward's best Who script may be damning it with faint praise, but it's praise nonetheless. Saward writes the principals true to form; he scatters some distinct character traits among the ample supporting cast; and he clears most of the plotting hurdles he sets for himself -- i.e., he gets by on the barest of minimums, but he gets by. Only near the end -- in the shoot-it-out, blow-'em-up finale -- does a sort of willful incoherence take over, but by then you take heart in the fact that incoherence trumps blandness. There's a good visual gag involving a cat, and only one scene that's a bust. The Doctor is being tortured, but seems to be getting through to his captor; we cut away to another scene, and when we return, the Doctor has stopped strategizing -- he's too busy screaming. But then his captor has a change of heart and frees him anyway. You're left wondering if the Doctor played any role in his escape; he's emasculated by his own editing. At the end, Tegan bids him goodbye, conceding, "It's stopped being fun." She's wrong, of course: "Resurrection" is more fun than four of the five previous serials. That said, if this slaughter-fest was a portent of things to come (and it was), she was right to get gone.

44. Delta and the Bannermen (Seventh Doctor, 1987)
written by Malcolm Kohll
directed by Chris Clough

Just like the setting itself -- a Welsh holiday camp in the 1950's, where families of all walks of life come together -- "Delta" is about worlds colliding. On the surface, it's about a Chimeron Queen and her Bannermen pursuers bringing their battle to Planet Earth. But there's also a wonderful visual clash: between the gaudy holiday camps and the pastoral post-war landscapes they were overrunning. And the duality is there in the soundtrack, too: at one point, Delta describes the music emanating from her newborn daughter as "part song, part war-cry," which of course is how adults at the time viewed rock 'n' roll. But it's the love story that counts most, and here "Delta" short-circuits all "clash of culture" conventions. When grease-monkey Billy discovers that Delta, the camp's newest guest, is from outer space, he takes it in stride. "I'm the last Chimeron queen," she informs him. "My planet is right now in the grip of the invaders. My people are dead." And Billy has no questions or concerns: that explanation works. Delta suggests they take a walk, and they go on their first date. Every revelation Delta comes up with is met by the most untroubled of responses, as if the details were commonplace; his unquestioning, unconditional devotion makes it magical. "Delta" is light on its feet, and so is Sylvester McCoy. He maneuvers his trademark umbrella like a third arm: piloting the TARDIS with the tip, snaring a scarf with the hook. He's illusionist, mime and gymnast rolled into one, and he has to be, to stay one step ahead of the Bannermen. (At one point, he vaults onto a moving motorcycle with the ease of an Olympic gold medalist.) "Delta" is full of chases, across beautiful Welsh countryside overlooking the sea, down dirt paths as cows and goats scramble out of the way -- all to the tune of Keff McCulloch's mock-rockabilly score -- and McCoy always seems to be leading the charge, effortlessly. Even Clough's typically heavy-handed work is buoyant and bubbly, and he's aided indelibly by the great art director John Asbridge, in one of his first assignments. At the end, Delta and Billy, dressed in white, take off in their battle-cruiser for the Brood planet, and everyone waves them goodbye, as if they're just typical newlyweds pulling away in their car. It's a fairy-tale romance for the space-age set, and it's enchanting. (I offer up full review of "Delta and the Bannermen" here.)

43. The Web of Fear (Second Doctor, 1968)
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, "The Abominable Snowmen," 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 contrivances 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 Heisman and Lincoln's earlier effort, 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 Captain Knight 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." Later Classic Who seasons wrestled with the tenets of feminism; Season 5 -- in "Web of Fear," "The Enemy of the World" and "The Wheel in Space" -- celebrates them. All three serials are set in the future, but they're blissfully ahead of their time.

42. The Web Planet (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who -- a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space -- and proves the ideal story for Martin, an imaginative sprite eager to experiment with camera and design. His serials are full of wonderful touches, but they often feel static, and typically, he runs out of tricks early on. The planet Vortis is his perfect playground; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but the images keep coming, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: William Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by story editor Dennis Spooner (it refers back to the previous serial, "The Romans," which he himself had written); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have devised Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

41. Black Orchid (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Terence Dudley
directed by Ron Jones
Part One is all smart lines, high spirits and gorgeous production values. First-time Who director Ron Jones doesn't linger over anything; the scenes are brief, but his camera catches everything -- there isn't a missed moment or a missed beat. It's all plot threads, but the threads are golden, and the interactions between Dudley's titled aristocracy and the TARDIS team are priceless. In Dudley's version of '20s high society, you don't need to disguise your alien roots; the self-absorbed wealthier classes will decide exactly how and where you fit in. (Nyssa, who turns out to be a dead ringer for pretty heiress Ann Talbot, confides that she's from Traken, and her hosts waste no time normalizing her: "Where's that?" "Near Esher, I think." "Could there be Talbots near Esher?" "Not possible. The hunt isn't good enough.") In Part Two, Dudley tries to weave his threads into something substantial (not a murder mystery, as some mischaracterize it, but a family drama), and he flounders. Dudley understands well how to mill atmosphere for suspense, but give him a piece of plotting that he has to explore, justify or -- heaven forbid -- resolve, and he goes to pieces. He creates marvelous characters, then has no idea how to use them to generate story. He establishes Lady Cranleigh's proud maternal instincts, suggesting that she would do anything to protect her children, but when the moment comes for her to turn on the Doctor to save her son, he can't make her actions convincing; she seems to be throwing him to the wolves just so Dudley can keep the plot in motion. If you only watched Part Two of "Black Orchid," you might think this historical two-parter a disappointment; even Davison, that most dutiful of Doctors, has one scene where he seems to be holding his head in dismay. But if you watch the episodes in proper order, Part Two gets by on the good will built up in Part One; things come undone, but not disastrously so.

40. The Mind Robber (Second Doctor, 1968)
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. 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 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 at times, he seems overwhelmed by the material. The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story is never less than impressive. But you're left with a nagging irritation that the serial deserved one final rewrite, and someone more experienced calling the shots.

39. The Romans (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and look at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, but Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. And because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero (part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer), a duality that only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2016, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings and serial philanderers can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

38. Four to Doomsday (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Terence Dudley
directed by John Black

The TARDIS companions are dismal (Janet Fielding actually gets worse as the serial goes along), but Peter Davison is already making some wonderful acting choices that will come to define the Fifth Doctor. Dudley was a second-rate writer, forever derided by Davison in the DVD commentaries, but he had one thing going for him: from his years spent directing All Creatures Great and Small, he knew Davison's rhythms and inflections. (He couldn't resolve a plot to save his life, and in two of his three Who serials, his solution when the Doctor finds himself in a jam is to make him ineffectual, so he won't wrap things up too quickly. No wonder Davison detested him.) "Four to Doomsday" was Davison's first serial filmed; Dudley had to set the tone for what follows and, armed with precious little information about Davison's take on the role, he does. Parts of it read like a Tom Baker script, but it doesn't undermine the Fifth Doctor the way, say, "Frontios" and parts of "Caves of Androzani" do. Quite the contrary: he nails the "reckless innocence" that Davison spoke of prior to assuming the role. Much of "Four to Doomsday" is exposition masquerading as plot, but it's so blithe and civilized, it doesn't much matter. For the first two episodes, characters meet, chat, posture, scheme, and trade secrets; nothing happens, but it's full of felicities (there's even a choreographed divertissement), and the set-design and direction are top-notch. (The sets are lit to match the costumes; even if you can't get into Dudley's gentlemanly exchanges, you can bliss out staring at the pretty colors.) Sometime after the halfway mark, Dudley tries for more traditional suspense, but few of the set-pieces -- Tegan's frantic efforts to fly the TARDIS, Nyssa's aborted reprogramming -- truly come off. And two sequences near the end -- a pantomime fight in an airlock and the disposal of the villain against a sea of chaos -- are an embarrassment. Still, for much of its length, the low-key "Four to Doomsday" is unexpectedly appealing.

37. The Savages (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

Hartnell always fared better in the historicals than in the futuristic serials, but the new production team wanted sci-fi, so Black does Hartnell the best turn possible: he writes a historical set in the future. Oh, "The Savages" has its out-of-this-world technology -- the plot turns on a machine that can absorb the life force from one human and plant it in another -- but at its heart, it's about the Doctor and his companions visiting a society whose methods and mores are familiar to the Doctor, and Hartnell doing the sort of deliberating and pontificating at which he excelled. Like Season 3's earlier "Galaxy 4," this one's a little light on plot and heavy on message. But its straightforward story-telling is confident and occasionally clever, and it's a good match for Christopher Barry's lean, efficient style. Ian Stuart Black invariably had a good handle on how best to use the Doctor and his companions -- sometimes better than the script editor himself. Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature seem to spring from her upbringing and background; you're reminded how nice it is to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS. Steven is ingenious, brave, sensible and authoritative; when the time comes for him to say goodbye to the Doctor and Dodo, you believe those qualities will serve him well on his new home. (Black creates the template for all the companions who leave the Doctor upon finding their true calling, from Jo Grant to Romana II to Nyssa.) And Black's handling of the Doctor is nothing short of cunning. Season 3 writers were challenged with devising scripts as original and entertaining as anything that came before them, but also minimizing Hartnell's role so that he could power through. Black solves the problem by having the Doctor drained by the life-force machine at the end of Episode 2, so that he's able to sit out much of Episode 3. But his energy -- and, unexpectedly, his personality -- are transferred to Jano, the leader of the Elders, and that allows Frederick Jaeger, in a bravura performance, to do a spot-on impression of Hartnell's Doctor. It keeps the Doctor's spirit alive while Hartnell gets time off to recharge, but more than that, it asserts that although Hartnell's screen time is dwindling, nothing can suppress the power of his personality.

36. The Power of the Daleks (Second Doctor, 1966)
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. The particular genius of "Power" is that even though we've seen the First Doctor transform into the Second, Troughton and Whitaker are content to let the doubt linger as long as possible ("Is he really the Doctor?") -- and in a masterstroke, we're ultimately convinced only because a Dalek recognizes him. Even Ben and Polly can't be sure, but his greatest enemy can, and therefore we can as well. But then, 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 that feels unlike Whitaker, who always liked to work tidy, and was probably 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.

35. Horror of Fang Rock (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Terrance Dicks
directed by Paddy Russell

Dicks strips the horror story down to basics. It's the Doctor, Leela, and seven supporting players holed up in a lighthouse where an alien invader goes on a killing spree. Dicks wastes little time before the first murder; that frees him to separate the killings that follow by shrewd exposition and smart exchanges that ramp up the tension. But none of "Horror of Fang Rock" would count for anything without Louise Jameson. Dicks is the only writer other than Leela's creator, Chris Boucher, who envisions her without condescension: who marvels at the qualities that make her singular and weaves them into the fabric of the story-telling. The supporting players are fine -- there are some familiar types, well-drawn -- but there's not a standout performance, and sometimes they seem to be doing that slightly two-dimensional overplaying that was a hallmark of the Pertwee era. And Tom Baker is dripping with self-absorption. "Horror" is the serial during which Jameson took him to task for his poor treatment of her (he had been vocal from the start about not caring for the character of Leela, and his arrogance had bled through the screen in their first three adventures), and ultimately, he gained appreciation for her. That new-found respect is evident in "Horror," but now he's busy demonstrating his disdain for the director. (He and his previous co-star, Lis Sladen, were vocal about their dislike for Russell.) He seems to be going out of his way to be disruptive -- you almost sense him daring Russell to yell "cut." Truculent and undisciplined, he frequently stares into space while other characters are speaking, or upstages them with business; sometimes, he doesn't even seem to be putting much thought into his own lines, trusting his charisma to carry the day. Ironically, what sees him through is how much respect Louise Jameson is according him. She's giving the only flesh-and-blood performance, as she continues to develop Leela's ability to process information, trust her "savage" instincts, and reach smart conclusions -- all while balancing the womanly aggression and girlish innocence at the character's core. In a serial that boasts the most shameless performance by a Doctor in the classic series, Jameson serves up the single best performance by a companion.

34. The Time Warrior (Third Doctor, 1973-74)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Alan Bromly
There's some hearty laughter that goes on a beat or two too long; the scene where Sarah Jane first enters the TARDIS is oddly filmed and edited; the nods to women's lib are tiresome and misguided; and the final part feels padded. Those flaws are noticeable, but prove minor. "Time Warrior" is a pseudo-historical romp that's devilishly designed and slyly sustained, neatly establishing a world in which a Medieval plunderer and an alien warrior would become frenemies -- and playing out that odd-couple relationship against the new, burgeoning partnership between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Holmes had to lead off Doctor Who's eleventh season by introducing its eleventh new companion; he seizes on a novel approach that energizes the serial, letting her discover the show's time-traveling premise -- which had long since become second-nature to us -- without the Doctor present. Sarah Jane snoops around a police box and finds herself in the Middle Ages, and is left to her own devices: the character there to "ask the questions" has no one to offer the answers, so she's forced -- while her life hangs in the balance -- to fill both roles. ("Now, it's not a village pageant, it's too elaborate for that... A film set! No, no lights, no cameras.") It lets Holmes establish her quick wits and intelligence, and also allows him to gently comment -- as he so often would -- on the sweet absurdity of the show's conceit. Alan Bromly keeps the tone cheeky without letting it slip into camp, and Pertwee and Sladen enjoy instant chemistry. An irony of the Pertwee era: the companion he's most remembered with is Katy Manning, but the ones who inspired his most consistent performances were Caroline John and Lis Sladen. Pertwee was at his best when he was challenged, not coddled, and the conceptions of Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith -- two no-nonsense companions who match him beat for beat -- did wonders for him.

33. Marco Polo (First Doctor, 1964)
written by John Lucarotti
directed by Warin Hussein
It operates on so many levels that its failings don't much matter. "Marco Polo" is about a journey: three of them, in fact. On the surface, it's about the journey that Marco Polo made to the Imperial Court in Peking in 1289: a journey that, however embellished, we're led to believe is historically accurate. Layered over that is the journey that the TARDIS crew makes with him -- turning fact into fiction. And finally, and crucially, it's about the weekly journey we make with the Doctor and his companions. Polo's expedition takes roughly three months, and when the serial first aired, over seven episodes, it seemed almost to take place in "real" time -- viewers were meant to feel the weight of the adventure as much as its participants. But impressive as its scope is, it's the tone that sets it apart. There's a marvelous synergy between Lucarotti's deliberately dispassionate recounting of events and Hussein's oblique framing of them. (Hussein is lent intoxicating support by Tristram Cary's musical score.) As with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned as they fly by; as events unfold, you're frequently left off guard, uncertain whether moments are coming to a head, or whether they'll pass, unremarked upon and undeveloped. So you find yourself paying attention to the small gestures as much as the grand ones -- just as you would on any journey. (Notably, the only underwhelming episode is the fourth, guest-directed by John Crockett, where the set pieces build to more traditional climaxes. It takes Hussein nearly half the following episode to recover the quietly hypnotic tone.) "Marco Polo" celebrates the wonders and the dangers of traveling, and recognizes that the two aren't always distinguishable. Barbara is sidelined a bit, but Ian, the Doctor and Susan are all given strong characters to play opposite, and enjoy superior outings. It's a particularly good story for Susan, who has someone her own age to gossip with, scheme with, and fret about; it's one of the few times that she doesn't seem like the fifth wheel of the original TARDIS foursome, and Carole Ann Ford responds with a suitably radiant performance.

32. Image of the Fendahl (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by George Spenton-Foster
Chris Boucher does Gothic horror just as the program is laying it to rest -- and outdoes most of his predecessors. A team of scientists working out of a manor house unleashes an ancient evil thought to have been destroyed by the Time Lords. It's got all the stock ingredients of the genre: the evil mastermind who turns out to be an innocent dupe; the disagreeable colleague who turns out to be the evil mastermind. Add one clairvoyant old lady and her rube grandson, shake and stir. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but Boucher comes armed with two secret weapons, and their push and pull on the viewer is almost intoxicating: on one side, the intuitive Leela, with her passionate defense of powers beyond our understanding; on the other, Adam Colby (winningly played by Edward Arthur), the least likely of scientists -- a dapper cynic, dripping with sarcasm, who comes down firmly on the side of logic and reason. Through these two, "Image" manages to both honor and mock the genre, often in quick counterpoint -- and it has one other thing going for it. As horror, it's not about mummies or alien plants or patchwork monsters. "Image" is about the unknown: it's the nightmare when something evil approaches, and you're paralyzed with fright; it's the threat calling from across the room that you shouldn't approach, but do. "Image" is rooted in our primal fears and most disturbing dreams, and that's fortunate, because once the unknown gets a face, it all becomes rather limp and ridiculous, and by the time one of the Embodiment of Evil's minions makes its way down a hallway, a paper mâché snake dripping with streamers (sort of a reject from a Chinese New Year parade), you've already adopted a "oh hell, why not?" attitude that sees you through.

31. The Macra Terror (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by John Davies

The surviving clips look remarkably good, but the audio sounds even better. Davies lets the dialogue find its own pace and dynamic level. He shapes the serial, in a way that no Troughton director had to that point. But 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. "Macra Terror," like his earlier "Savages," offers a glimpse 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 invariably 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 five serials, but in "Macra Terror," the Second Doctor finally 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 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.

30. Frontier in Space (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paul Bernard

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" Later, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape. Her monologue has to be winning enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a tour-de-force performance. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since their first joint appearance, as she shows how far she's come: now able to beat him (twice) at his own game -- and relishing it. Jon Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Roger Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

29. The Pirate Planet (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by Douglas Adams
directed by Pennant Roberts
After a season where the writers flounder so with the character of Leela, it's gratifying to see how clearly and convincingly her follow-up, Romana, is defined. And the characterization is cunning. For over a season, Tom Baker had been disengaging from the material; in Romana, the creative team invent a character whose own aloofness forces Baker to pick up the slack. But even if they realized how useful Romana would be, they couldn't have envisioned how gloriously funny Mary Tamm would be in the role -- and never more so, perhaps, than in "The Pirate Planet," whether she's rattling the Doctor (referring to his TARDIS as a "capsule"), barking orders to K-9, or deferring to guards who are determined to arrest her. Forced into a squad car -- "Get in!" -- her politely imperious response is "I shall take that as an invitation"; Romana makes everything work on her terms. And speaking of everything working, "The Pirate Planet" is like an overstuffed goodie bag. It's not the first Who with a "throw it against the wall" mentality, it's merely the first one where everything sticks: air cars, linear-induction corridors, planets within planets -- plus the ultimate in dog vs. bird smack-downs. In an in-joke best seen in hindsight, Adams, then completing his first set of scripts for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has Romana and the Doctor do their own version of the famed hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night. The serial may be called "The Pirate Planet," but it's Adams who's the real pirate, willing to plunder anything in the interest of self-amusement. All the usual caveats about Pennant Roberts' direction apply -- some mealy acting among the supporting cast, some shoddy effects -- but perhaps his brand of well-meaning scrappiness is just what's called for. With a more smooth technician at the helm, "Pirate Planet" would have been more polished, but would it have been more fun? You don't reach into a box of crackerjacks hoping to find a real diamond.

28. The Ice Warriors (Second Doctor, 1967)
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; it's also blessed with Troughton's best team. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria were the perfect trio -- in particular, because of what Victoria inspired in Jamie: someone brave, bold, protective, and occasionally flirtatious. (Because more of Season 6 existed until recently, more folks prized the Doctor-Jamie-Zoe combo. But Zoe diminished Jamie; the Highlander with the street smarts and the sex appeal was no match for the two geniuses piloting the TARDIS, and Jamie was too often reduced to the role of village idiot.) Deborah Watling certainly wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, but that's not what she was there for: right from the start, in David Whitaker's "Evil of the Daleks," she was there to bring out the best in Jamie, who in turn brought out the best in the Second Doctor.

27. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Seventh Doctor, 1988)
written by Stephen Wyatt
directed by Alan Wareing

The one story from the final two seasons that truly showcases Sylvester McCoy, and not the Doctor that script editor Andrew Cartmel wishes he were. McCoy had shown enormous agility and charm throughout Season 24; at the top of Season 25, Cartmel reinvents the Doctor as a cunning mastermind -- not a bad idea, but one that does little for McCoy. He's forced to barrel his way through serials with ferocity and authority that don't come easy to him, and too often (most notably in "Ghostlight"), he turns to gurning as a substitute for rage. And from a pure plotting perspective, a Doctor who knows most of the answers going in, but has no time for explanations, frequently renders the supporting cast superfluous. (It happens to one of the series' best batch of featured players, in "Remembrance of the Daleks.") But "Greatest Show" is a marvelous vehicle for McCoy. It's not just the magic act that consumes most of the final episode, and that only McCoy could pull off; it's how the Doctor is caught off guard for much of the serial, and the nimble ways in which McCoy recovers. It's him stumbling out of the TARDIS at the start, and later tumbling into his seat under the big top. It's the thrill and embarrassment he conveys when told it's his turn to perform. And more than any specific moment, it's Wyatt's understanding that the Seventh Doctor triumphantly belongs among the misfits who frequent -- and work at -- the circus. Alan Wareing directs with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum; the fragmented story-telling of the late McCoy era seems particularly suited to its procession of circus acts, but "Greatest Show," unlike the serials on either side of it, never feels frantic. On the contrary: it takes its sweet time, savoring every absurdity. We don't even reach the circus until Part 2, but the first episode is filled with so many memorable moments, you don't mind a bit. Part 1 also has one of the great character-based cliffhangers, in which the Doctor asks Ace, "Well, are we going in or aren't we?" Ace, for a change, isn't being swept along by events beyond her control, forced to confront her demons. She's simply being given an opportunity, and the serial asks: will she seize it?

26. The Myth Makers (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Michael Leeston-Smith

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

Next: click here to continue the countdown with my top 25.