Monday, November 20, 2017

Knots Landing season 2

Previously, on Knots Landing:

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of the season, the challenges are clear. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the cheating, 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 you be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on a 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?

Well, they survive, but the patient spends most of the season in a coma. With its parent show Dallas enjoying record-high ratings in the wake of J.R.'s shooting, the Knots writers decide to embrace a similar format: juggling three or four salacious story-lines at a time. But the plots lack credibility and variety, and worse, they make most of the characters look dense or deplorable.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss

The TV landscape felt unusually barren this past summer, as opposed to just a few years ago, when it was bursting with good programming. None of the new summer series won me over, and old favorites -- from high-end dramas (Ray Donovan) to low-rent pot-boilers (Zoo), from sci-fi reliables (Dark Matter) to soapy historicals (Poldark) -- were no longer holding my interest. Little by little, my husband and I found ourselves gravitating towards foreign TV series, particularly when we discovered that we could access the streaming service Walter Presents (which imports some of the best in international programming) through Amazon Instant Video. Below are five foreign dramas unlikely to have crossed your path, but well worth seeking out. I haven't included the more popular, long-running series; you've probably heard of those: Denmark's Norskov and the Netherlands' Black Widow, to name two of the best. These are series that came and went in a season or two, but that gave me as much pleasure as just about anything I watched in 2017. (U.S. audiences can access them via Amazon Instant Video, with a subscription to Walter Presents; in the U.K., they're available On Demand through Channel 4.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Knots Landing season 13

By the late '80s, my passion for Knots Landing had become more like an obsession. I wasn't just watching it live and taping it to VCR in case I wanted to have another look (which I invariably did); I was watching it live and taping it to two VCR's, in case one broke down. I couldn't imagine a fate worse than missing an episode of Knots.

Then Season 13 rolled around, and within a few weeks, I stopped taping it to two VCR's. Was it even necessary to tape it to one? I remember being rather shocked at how quickly my devotion faded into disinterest. It's not like Knots hadn't gone through rough spells; I mean, even then, as I looked back at the history of the show, I was able to spot a half-dozen dry patches -- some of them bone dry. But there had never been anything like the first fifteen episodes of Season 13: a perfect storm of mediocrity. New writers, none with soap experience, let alone an understanding of these particular characters -- and an outgoing team who had left them with nothing to work from, merely a set of unpromising cliffhangers and compromised characters.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Classic Doctor Who countdown: the index

In sixteen entries this past summer, I ranked and reviewed all 158 serials from the classic era of Doctor Who, from my least-liked to my most-loved. In case you want to know where a particular serial falls in my countdown, and jump to that review, I offer the following alphabetical index. The links on the numbers will take you right to the reviews.

Abominable Snowmen, The: #10
Ambassadors of Death, The: #9

Monday, October 16, 2017

Knots Landing season 6

Knots Landing Season 6 asks: can you build a successful primetime-soap season atop just one great storyline? -- and surprisingly, the answer is "yes."

Season 6 is the one where Val's newborn twins are stolen, an event that impacts most of the core characters, but none, heaven knows, more than Valene Clements Ewing herself. And although there's a lot more than just "Val's babies" to the season -- it juggles at least as many characters and plotlines as Season 5, and probably a few more -- nothing else really and truly pays off. Some of the story-lines, in fact, go off the rails so badly, they're jettisoned early in Season 7.

But through it all, there's Joan Van Ark, in an acting showcase unmatched in the series' fourteen seasons. Oh, other actors have seasons that play to their strengths, as well as to their characters' (Michele Lee and Ted Shackelford in Season 3, Kevin Dobson and Donna Mills in Season 5, Teri Austin in Season 10, Kathleen Noone in Season 14), but there's nothing quite like the tour-de-force that Van Ark offers up in Season 6, as Valene -- struggling to accept an explanation she knows in her heart is false -- develops a dissociative disorder, becomes convinced that she's Verna Ellers (the lead character in her latest novel) and takes off for Tennessee.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#10 - #1)

Completing my Classic Who countdown. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, all the way back at #158, with the serials I find most resistible, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) The serials below are my ten favorites. They include the best performances by the two greatest actors to play the Doctor in the classic series. Coincidence? Certainly not. Four of the ten are written by original script editor David Whitaker, who taught everyone else how to write Doctor Who, then showed them that he could do it better. Classic Who's best writer? Certainly. The serials below have moved me and inspired me; they're miraculous creations, and I have returned to each a dozen times or more. I suspect if Classic Who had turned out only these ten serials, I'd be no less a fan.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#20 - #11)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) Remarkably, as we enter my top 20, and once we pass the first one (the ultimate "love it or hate it" serial, and the last of the five unfairly maligned serials I wrote about in 2013), these next ten are probably the serials where my opinions most match popular consensus. They're some of the most beloved classic serials, and I love them too -- although, as I've discovered, not always for the reasons others do.

20. Terminus (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Mary Ridge
Typically dismissed as "the bad one" in The Black Guardian Trilogy, and indeed "Terminus" is dire: but not dire in quality, dire in tone. Dire in terms of what it says about human beings, and the way we treat one another -- and exploit one another. "Terminus" is a story best-suited to those with a little life-experience. It's for anyone who's ever worked under a miserable employer, or had to fight for decent medical treatment, or felt disenfranchised from friends, family or colleagues; it's for anyone who's found themselves on a treadmill from which there is no escape. It's also not without its flaws. Sarah Sutton is pallid, and the juvenile cast opposite her is even worse; at one point, they have a contest to see who can show less emotion in the face of impending doom. The costumes are atrocious, the sets are undernourished, and the Garm, who guarded the gates of hell in Norse mythology, is realized as a giant patchwork dog with claws. But all that is easily overlooked, because the tale being spun -- a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse -- is pure gold, not to mention astonishingly prescient. "Terminus" is about a health-care system that's broken, the product of an economic and political climate that preys on the weak and the poor and the sick, that invites mistrust and fear, aggression and violence. (Nyssa: "What are they going to do with us?" Inga: "Supposedly cure us, but I rather think they're going to let us die.") Mary Ridge shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, and indeed, in Gallagher's bleak universe, everyone feels trapped: not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the guards supplied with just enough drugs to keep going, the raiders left to fend for themselves, the Garm killing as many as he's curing because of his lack of free will. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) "Terminus" is a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end, and an indictment of the ones in charge. And too, it's a cautionary tale for those who don't yet know what they're in for. In a way, it's a perfect script for this age of instant celebrity, where success is measured by YouTube hits and Twitter follows, and folks appear indestructible in their insular communities. Because "Terminus" is the rude awakening that always comes. (I offer up full review of "Terminus" here.)

19. The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969)
written by Terrance Dicks & Malcolm Hulke
directed by David Maloney
If all the serials in Season 6 had lived up to their promise, it would have been one of the most sensational seasons in Classic Who history. The variety of settings and story-lines and styles is staggering -- it's Doctor Who working without a net. Where Season 6 trips up is in the execution. If you read any behind-the-scenes stories, you keep seeing the troubles they were having getting decent scripts commissioned and in shape for filming -- but you don't need to read the backstage chatter: the scrappiness is evident on the screen. Serials constantly seem in need of a final rewrite, or feel padded and stretched beyond their proper length. Not until season's end are you fully and completely blown away. One can't pretend that, at ten episodes, "The War Games" doesn't feel long; it's full of the sort of capture-and-escape plotting that Malcolm Hulke would practically hone to an art form in "Frontier in Space." But here the redundancies of the story-line seem shrewdly tied to the subject matter: the futility of war, where battles are fought and re-fought but victories rarely won. Hulke, Dicks and Maloney make one smart move after another. The tone teeters artfully between grim drama and ferocious comedy, permitting them to switch gears anytime the story-line starts to sag. The revelations are carefully spaced and cleverly placed. The setting allows Jamie to shine in battle, and Zoe to play with technology -- and it gives the Doctor a backstory that inspires one of Troughton's most tense and tremulous performances. And contrary to the way the ending is often remembered, it's in fact strangely uplifting. The Time Lords wipe most of Zoe and Jamie's memories, but let them recall their first adventure with the Doctor -- and as we see Jamie return home, newly primed for battle after the events of "The Highlanders," and Zoe return to the wheel in space, noticeably softer around the edges than the "robot" we first met, we're reminded of the impact the Doctor can have in just one short serial. We think of the thousands of characters who've shared only one story with the Doctor, and how their worlds became different -- and perhaps we reflect on how our own lives were altered, too, after just one adventure in space and time. And although the Doctor, about to be exiled to Earth, rages that he doesn't want his face changed, we know -- as audiences knew in 1968, because they'd seen it happen before, and been rewarded with the marvel that is Patrick Troughton -- that change can be a good thing. The end of "War Games" glows with promise. It makes you eager for the next great adventure.

18. The Rescue (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry
A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so disarming (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

17. Genesis of the Daleks (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Terry Nation
directed by David Maloney
It's got a villain so well-conceived and vividly played that he instantly became iconic; it's got scope and urgency and enough incident to successfully fill six episodes. If there are some underfed supporting players and a few ropy cliffhangers, that's all best swept under the rug -- because it's not the Daleks that are the secret weapon being developed in "Genesis": it's the pairing of Tom Baker and Ian Marter, that great underutilized Doctor Who double act. While Sarah Jane is off carrying her own story-line, the Doctor and Harry start to gel as a team, and you think, "What a relief!" Some have claimed that the notion of conflict within the TARDIS began with John Nathan-Turner, because he found edgier companions like Tegan and Turlough more interesting than useful ones like Nyssa. But in fact, the relationship between the Doctor and his companions starts to go south with the introduction of Harry Sullivan, whom the Doctor -- no doubt as script editor Robert Holmes's response to the coziness of Pertwee's UNIT family -- makes a point of ridiculing every chance he gets. (It's not just Harry; Holmes will keep harping on the notion of the "unwanted companion" with his scripts for Leela and Romana.) But how lovely the two are in "Genesis." In an interrogation scene, the Doctor is stalling for time by being flip ("Any chance of a cup of tea?"), and you see Harry acclimating himself: growing increasingly comfortable with the Doctor's methodology. His body language opens, along with his blazer, and his hands move to his hips: Harry is ready to play. "My friend and I have had a very trying experience," the Doctor continues. "Haven't we had a trying experience, Harry?" And Harry is quick on the draw: "Very trying, Doctor." When the inquisitor threatens them with torture, Harry momentarily looks to the Doctor for guidance -- but once he gets reassurance ("No tea, Harry"), he relaxes again. He's a quick study; later, when the Kaleds confiscate the Doctor's Time Ring, and the Doctor starts to lose his cool, Harry wises him up: "I know it's vital, but we don't want them to know that, do we?" There's still the requisite joke at Harry's expense (he gets his foot stuck in a giant clam), but here he's the one making the joke. And once the Doctor frees Sarah Jane, he charges Harry with leading them back to the Kaled dome. Doctor Who had so rarely let two men run the show. The First Doctor had a few serials traveling solo with Steven, and the Second Doctor, in the transitions between companions, always had Jamie -- but they were the brainy doctors with strongmen sidekicks. The Fourth Doctor and Harry are something else entirely. The Doctor and the doctor: one who learns patience, one who gains assurance. The irony of "Genesis" is that the Doctor-Harry pairing, which brought something fresh to the series, was short-lived, but the Daleks, that satanic spawn of static electricity, go on and on and on...

16. Planet of Fire (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Fiona Cumming
Cumming, when invited back to the series after "Castrovalva," asked producer John Nathan-Turner for the more character-oriented stories; she had a gift for working with actors, as well as a lightness of touch and attention to detail that served Peter Davison well. Davison, upon joining the show, had flipped the traditional perspective: during the Fifth Doctor era, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it through ours. Cumming imbued the show with grace, subtlety and a sense of wonder that heightened everything Davison was doing with the role; it was a match of star and director unique in the classic canon. "Planet of Fire" is the least of their collaborations, but parts remain magical. The shots of Lanzarote -- its cliffs ripe for climbing, its valleys swirling in mist -- are majestic, and they're set to a percussive score (by Peter Howell) that's one of the most hypnotic in the Classic Who catalog. Part Two feels like it's almost entirely shot outdoors, and Cumming milks the scenery for all it's worth. "Planet of Fire" suffers from some scrappy editing, and a few missteps, but by and large, this atmospheric tale is brimming with good ideas, well-executed. Grimwade was handed a laundry list of script requirements, but there's no kitchen-sink clutter: the introduction of Peri, the send-off (and backstory) devised for Turlough, the return of the Master, the final fate of Kamelion -- it all coalesces into a brisk, satisfying story about faith and resistance, abandonment and deliverance. And it uses guest star Peter Wyngarde, in a stirring performance that remains a miracle of restraint, to neatly blur the line between orthodoxy and heresy, revealing how even true believers will reinterpret doctrine to further their agenda. As ever, Cumming takes care of her actors, particularly the younger ones, coaxing an understated performance out of Mark Strickson and an appealing one out of Nicola Bryant. (It could be argued that it's Strickson's most understated performance on Who, and Bryant's most appealing.) She even manages to tame Anthony Ainley, who -- after hamming it up horrendously in "The King's Demons" -- returns as renewed as the Master after a whiff of numismaton gas. Grimwade foregoes the tired trope of the Master subduing his subjects with mind control; instead, in a timely bit of social commentary, he has him engage them with the heated rhetoric of '80s televangelists (and Ainley skillfully adopts their physicality), demonstrating how easily religion can be brandished as a weapon, bamboozling both zealots and unbelievers alike. You watch "Planet of Fire" thinking you'll carp about the small things it's getting wrong, but instead you're swept up in the formidable things it gets right.

15. Carnival of Monsters (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a winning rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

14. The Massacre (First Doctor, 1966)
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell
Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen stories designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the bloodiest periods in French history, just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to spirit him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested -- but neither are they meant to be. They're designed to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much for Steven to take in, which makes his plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves -- the rare companion who never had an "off" episode -- commands the spotlight with ease, imbuing the narrative with both the necessary humility and authority. And his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals to "Massacre" remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived at all; it feels utterly in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

13. Terror of the Zygons (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Robert Banks Stewart
directed by Douglas Camfield
One of the great Classic Who ironies is that Doug Camfield -- after helming "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldening the producers into mounting an Earthbound reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. And as a double irony, the serial for which he returns, "Terror of the Zygons," is the one in which the show bids farewell to -- and flips off -- the Pertwee era. (The shape-shifting Zygons, in human form, seem like the stock characters from every Third Doctor serial: the high-handed bureaucrat, the cold-hearted orderly; once the real characters emerge from their Zygon tombs, it turns out they're all lovely -- it's only the actual monsters who are monsters.) Although other directors could deliver juicier payoffs, no one had Camfield's command of a narrative: his ability to manage each camera shot and each acting beat for maximum effect. (He rarely loses control of a scene, let alone a story; only in "The Invasion" does his steady hand falter.) "Zygons" is densely plotted, but Camfield makes the most of every moment: each scene becomes a set-piece. In Part Two alone, we have the Doctor and Sarah Jane suffering oxygen deprivation; Harry kidnapped by the Zygons; the Brigadier and his men plied with knockout gas; Sarah Jane nearly staked by a Harry lookalike; and the Doctor chased across the Scottish moors -- any of which, as staged and pitched, could have served as the episode's cliffhanger. "Terror of the Zygons" soars from one breathless high to another; it's intoxicating. And as with most Camfield serials, it's filled with memorable images. The Zygons' squish-and-squeeze lair is shades of red and orange against a pale-green backdrop; in theory, it should be awful (it should look like a Christmas pageant), but Camfield works miracles. There's not a lot "Zygons" gets wrong, except for its disposal of Ian Marter at the end, which story editor Robert Holmes knew was a mistake and producer Philip Hinchcliffe later conceded was one. The Doctor and Sarah Jane needed Harry. In the show's gothic period, which begins in full force just after Harry's departure, characters are too often subordinated to plot, and although Lis Sladen grows as an actress, the Doctor and Sarah Jane grow too much alike, and the series suffers for it. Marter's dizzying spontaneity -- his ability to show Harry unexpectedly rising to any challenge, and then being stunned and impressed by his own abilities -- would have come in terribly handy.

12. The Deadly Assassin (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney
Tom Baker wanted to do without a companion, so for one serial, he gets his wish. It exposes how badly the Doctor needs a sounding-board, as key plot points, left unexplained, need to be intuited, imagined or ignored. And flying solo proves a mixed bag for Baker. He's as charismatic and commanding as ever, and his eager efforts to prove that he can be both narrator and participant are oddly endearing. But during Part 3, trapped alone in the Matrix on Gallifrey, you realize he's stretching as far as he can -- and that it's not quite far enough: that Baker is better -- more expressive -- with an audience, that internal monologue is not where his strengths lie. Instead, "The Deadly Assassin," the story that was supposed to be about the Doctor, is really about the director: it's a dizzying display by David Maloney, and as you watch it, you can't help but feel it's the Doctor Who story he's been building up to for years. Holmes envisions a black-tinged political satire, but Maloney plays against that, shooting Gallifrey as a foreboding land eternally shrouded in mist and fog, with towers ascending majestically to unseen skies, and processions teeming with impressive pageantry. The design itself is rarely more than rudimentary, and on occasion, decidedly low-rent, but Maloney keeps his camera so busy, and the editing so aggressive, that the setting practically gives off sparks. (A couple of the costumes, which look so extravagant in "Deadly Assassin," turn up again in "Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity," looking drab and ill-fitting.) And once we enter the Matrix, it's as if the whole gothic era (which, for all intents and purposes, ends here) were replaying in the Doctor's head -- the giant insects from "Ark in Space" and the jungle from "Planet of Evil"; the moorland chase from "Zygons" and the deathtraps from "Pyramids"; the surgery from "Morbius" and the soldiers from "Genesis" -- and as it unfolds, you see that easy marriage of vision, instinct and technique that Maloney was straining to learn in "Mind Robber," his first Who assignment. "Deadly Assassin" is the most virtuosic directorial display in the Classic Who canon; unfortunately, it meant multiple returns to Gallifrey that, in lesser hands, resulted in some of the series' most tedious, unsightly serials. "Deadly Assassin" was lightning in a bottle.

11. Kinda (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Peter Grimwade
"Our madness is the Mara's meat and drink," the Wise Woman intones in "Kinda," and in Christopher Bailey's hallucinatory universe, the Mara -- the evil lurking in the deep recesses of the soul -- is feasting on us all. On Deva Loka, the line between sanity and madness is perilously thin. It's not just fear and isolation that can sully the mind; insight and empathy wreak their own havoc. Bailey's characters -- and the nightmares that consume them -- seem to spring from the dark corners of his imagination: in "Kinda," story and story-teller are inseparable. A student of Buddhism, Bailey laces his narrative with elements of Eastern mysticism, and crucially, by framing it as a tale of British colonialism, encourages us to embrace an unfamiliar philosophy. By highlighting the worst attitudes and practices of the oppressors ("If the Kinda are so clever," insists Commander Sanders, after taking two of them hostage, "how is it they didn't build their own interplanetary vehicle and come and colonize us?"), he makes us determined not to take after our Earthly ancestors and descendants, but rather to accept the Kinda world without hesitation. Our appreciation of life's mysteries becomes part of the "Kinda" narrative, and Bailey is able to ease us into aspects of the plot that, under any other circumstance, might seem arbitrary or convenient. Yet despite its religious overtones, "Kinda" is not a static piece; the cast and director attack the work with such ferocity that the narrative becomes, for the most part, as stirring as it is stimulating. Only a few of the younger actors are, sadly, not up to the task at hand, the chief offender being Matthew Waterhouse. (In Part Three, trapped in a dome with two madmen, he's meant to project mounting desperation to escape, but mostly he conveys the bland boredom of a teenager anxious to ditch his parents on a Saturday night.) But Waterhouse's limitations are offset by Peter Davison, whose increasing comfort fuels the story. "Kinda" was Davison's third serial filmed, and as the scenes progress, he "finds" his Doctor. Bailey has the Doctor acquire wisdom through his encounters on Deva Loka -- and as that's happening, you see Davison gaining insight. Although the denouement is clumsy ("Evil can't look at itself," the Doctor announces, as he hatches a plan to surround the Mara in circle of mirrors), it's less about what the plot calls for and more about what this new Doctor needs: a scene where he can unleash his youthful energies, harnessing the Kinda tribe seemingly within seconds. By the time the Mara has been banished, the journeys of the Fifth Doctor and the actor playing him have become intertwined, and the synergy is powerful.

Next: concluding the countdown, with my ten favorite classic serials.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#30 - #21)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) As we enter my top 30, maybe this is a good time to discuss "lost serials," as some of my favorite stories remain missing. Recently, I heard a Whovian dismiss the lost serials by insisting, "There's no way of knowing what they're really like." Of course there is. If the surviving audio is engrossing, if the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting he had a good grip on the material), then the reconstructions tell you most of what you need to know. Since I started watching Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me radically rethink my impression of a serial. My favorite Cybermen story, my two favorite Dalek stories, and my four favorite historicals are partially or fully missing. Let's pray they're someday recovered, but in the meantime, the lack of video footage doesn't impair my enjoyment.

30. 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 -- as she is, frequently, 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, and he keeps the surprises coming until about twelve minutes to the end, at which point the serial falls apart in a lengthy coda of explosions and exposition. But until that point, it's sublime. It's remembered for the heavy doses of Adams humor -- and indeed, the bright lines and visual gags, underscored by a production design steeped in primary colors, are memorable. But underpinning all that is one of the darkest concepts in the classic catalog: a monarch who will literally crush whole galaxies to extend her longevity. And the fury that inspires in the Doctor grounds the serial. ("You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets?") 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.

29. Mawdryn Undead (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Peter Moffatt
A schoolboy, an immortal, and the Brigadier go into a transmat capsule. No, it's not some off-world joke, but an astonishingly facile piece of work by Peter Grimwade. Three story-lines that each could've carried a serial – three story-lines that, on the face of it, you can't imagine wedded into one -- are woven together in spectacular fashion. In the best of these, two time streams unfold simultaneously, as key scenes between Tegan and the Brigadier in 1977 play out as memories of the Brigadier in 1983; it's the kind of conjuring trick NuWho does often, but rarely better. One of Grimwade's niftiest notions -- of two Brigadiers trapped on one spaceship but repeatedly missing each other -- calls for the kind of flair and precision that exceeds Moffatt's grasp, but the story succeeds despite him -- and occasionally because of him. "Mawdryn Undead" is the rare serial -- like "Ambassadors of Death" and "Deadly Assassin" -- that's enhanced by having a writer and a director whose styles are a bit of a mismatch. Grimwade takes his cue from the Fifth Doctor's demeanor, writing brief scenes in bold strokes, but Moffatt, by then comfortably into his 60's, liked to luxuriate, and here, for the most part, his methodical pace gives weight to all the themes Grimwade is juggling. It lets them breathe, and makes the character beats more meaningful, as in the reunion between the Doctor and the Brigadier, which takes place over a civilized cup of tea. As in "Time-Flight," Grimwade captures a Doctor forever thinking fast on his feet: always the first one in and out of every room, leaving his companions in his dust. (Climbing a hill to the transmat capsule, the Doctor implores the Brigadier, "Come on!" -- although the poor man looks a good twenty years his senior.) "Mawdryn Undead" really only suffers in two departments: one minor, the other not so much. Sarah Sutton seems at sea throughout, caught between the girlish responses that were so lovely in her first full season and her attempts to mature her character gracefully in her second. Fiona Cumming, a more communicative director, had helped Sutton hone in on artful ways of doing so in "Snakedance," but here, left to her own devices, you see her struggling. Tegan says something dry, and Nyssa's normal response would have been to suppress a giggle, but here Sutton strains to find something suitably "adult," and is left nursing a blank stare. That's an issue, but it's a minor one. Not so minor is that Grimwade doesn't have enough material for four episodes -- or rather, he tells too much of his story too quickly -- and once Mawdryn and his cohorts confront the Doctor at the end of Part Three, it's all time-killing devices until the final "zap" that resolves the story-line. Yet despite the limitations of the director and one of the supporting players, and a final act that winds up being equal parts padded and preposterous, "Mawdryn Undead" remains a heady trip.

28. The Leisure Hive (Fourth Doctor, 1980)
written by David Fisher
directed by Lovett Bickford
What's the expression: "I woke up one day, and realized I was old"? Age sneaks up on you, and so does Bickford's camera. He alternates between swiftly-edited images and languorous pans that keep you off-balance, starting with the famed 92-second tracking shot of Brighton Beach that opens the serial. Fisher's script is full of good ideas, chief among them a race of people who've been decimated and displaced by war, opening their doors to the universe to encourage harmony and discourse. But mostly, it's a serial that asks: how would you prefer to die? Would you like to live a long life but deteriorate slowly over time? Or would you rather go suddenly, and sooner? It's a grim topic, and Bickford amplifies your unease, playing with angles and perspective, building suspense at the unlikeliest times. At one point, Romana and the Doctor have been tethered to opposite ends of the Doctor's scarf, and when she reaches the TARDIS, she pulls on it slowly, thinking she's reeling in the Doctor -- but is she? Later, the scarf comes into play again when the Doctor is instructed to follow it through a crowd, and we have no idea what he'll discover on the other end. (Fittingly, it's a dead body.) A man rushes into the recreation room, fearing he's been followed; is he alone or being hunted? Will the uncertainty kill him slowly, or will his pursuer kill him quickly? Even the establishing shots are disorienting; is Bickford simply pausing a moment between scenes, or is there something out there watching? "The Leisure Hive" is extraordinary unnerving, and why not? It's a serial about aging, and isn't that the most unnerving topic of all? No one listens to the old; the old are invisible -- as the Doctor discovers when he himself is aged by several centuries. And just as Pangol, the young revolutionary, won't heed the advice of the elderly matriarch Mena (Adrienne Corri, in a moving performance that eschews vanity and camp), no one pays any mind to the declining Doctor; Romana usurps his traditional role in the story-line, adopting the scientist Hardin as her assistant and companion -- and the Doctor is promptly put out to pasture. These days it's become commonplace for NuWho to tip its hat to the classic series; occasionally a whole episode seems a throwback to the Pertwee or Baker or McCoy era. "The Leisure Hive," conversely, is one of the few classic serials that anticipates NuWho. The direction, production design and camerawork are cutting-edge, the themes are adult and provocative, and the results are wholly disquieting. Only the final scene wraps up much too quickly -- as if the crew were about to go into overtime, and the creative team was forced to stop filming and edit what they had. You're left feeling deflated -- but perhaps that's appropriate: in life, as in art, things do just "end." Death isn't tidy. "The Leisure Hive" is exquisite entertainment; it's a serial that, fittingly, has aged very well.

27. 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 melted into a puddle of goo, but Martinus holds it together in his nerviest style. He sets the opening credits against stills of snowy and icy vistas, stalactites to the fore, with a theremin wailing -- like a siren singing an octave higher than she should. Is it designed to set the mood? No, it's designed to disarm you. We cut to two guest stars and a dozen extras rushing around a circular set of computer banks, as a different kind of siren blares so loudly it obscures half their lines. A minute or two later, we sneak outside to eavesdrop on an expedition, but the wind keeps drowning out their conversation -- and suddenly, there's the TARDIS, materializing on its side, sliding down a snow bank until it lands with a thump -- on its head. Martinus's visual approach is bold and relentless; 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. He never lets up, and neither does the weather: the wind keeps whipping, the snow is forever blowing and drifting, and every eight seconds, the sound of the snow siren anticipates another avalanche. When the Ice Warriors finally appear, his camera inspects every inch of them: their faces, their torsos, their claws. The director's fascination ensures our own -- and to Hayles' 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 scruffiness). "The Ice Warriors" feeds off those characters; at its core, it's not about a crisis that pits humans against Ice Warriors -- it's about a crisis that allows two men to resolve their differences. Like another free-lancer, Ian Stuart Black, Hayles intuitively understood the strengths of the principal cast and how best to highlight them, and the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are all well-served. (While Deborah Watling wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, she's ideally cast in the role David Whitaker designed for her: someone to bring out the Doctor's softer side and Jamie's protective and occasionally flirtatious nature. They both become more dynamic characters because of her.) Best-remembered as the "monster" season, Season 5 isn't most memorable for the monsters at all, but for the people fighting them -- and "The Ice Warriors" is the purest example.

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

The story from the final two seasons that best 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" never feels frantic. On the contrary: it takes its sweet time, savoring every absurdity. The Doctor and Ace 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?

25. Image of the Fendahl (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by George Spenton-Foster
Giddy, foolish fun. The rare Who serial that's no more than the sum of its parts, and perhaps just a bit less, but my, those parts are marvelous. In its resurrection of an ancient evil thought to have been destroyed by the Time Lords, it mixes religion, science, myth and mysticism into a brew so heady that it's intoxicating. On the surface, there's nothing remarkable about it – but that's by design. For the final serial of the Fourth Doctor's gothic period, Boucher serves up stock ingredients of the genre -- the pentagrams and cults and creatures feeding on the life force -- with characters that are staples of fiction: the clairvoyant old lady and her shotgun-wielding grandson; an evil mastermind who proves merely an innocent dupe; his officious colleague who turns out to be the evil mastermind. They're types, all of them, but Boucher's robust approach reminds you why they're enduring (and the actors pitch them perfectly). And Boucher comes armed with two secret weapons -- two opposing perspectives -- whose push and pull on the viewer is relentless and exhilarating. On one side, there's Leela, Boucher's own creation, as only he can script her: overflowing with insight the Doctor mistakes for intuition -- at times, her knife raised and primed for battle, ready to respond to any threat, real or perceived; elsewhere, comforting and almost nurturing, at one point consoling the Doctor as if cradling a lost child. On the other side, Adam Colby (an irrepressible turn by Edward Arthur), equal parts scientist and sexpot: a dapper cynic, dripping with sarcasm, who responds to each crisis, wittingly or not, by undoing another shirt button: suffering captivity like a stripper in a cage. Leela, warrior of the Sevateem tribe, is a passionate defender of powers beyond our comprehension -- albeit with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge; Colby comes down firmly on the side of logic and reason, suspicious of anything he can't see, hear or touch -- until the Doctor makes him a convert. (One moment, he's tied to a post, staring at disbelief at the manifestation of the Fendahl core; the next, he's assisting the Doctor in his info-dump, not merely accepting but fascinated.) They're fully-formed creations, and through them, "Image" manages to both honor and mock the horror genre, often in quick counterpoint. "Image" is the rare serial that gets wilder and more wonderful as it goes along, and by the end, as images of the Fendahl are appearing and vanishing throughout the priory, and as the Doctor is offering up not one, not two, but three possible explanations for the mayhem at hand, you find yourself almost in a state of bedazzled delirium. (When it's done, you can imagine fanfic where Adam Colby joins the TARDIS team for a few adventures, before the Doctor and Leela deposit him back on Earth on their way to Pluto.)

24. Spearhead From Space (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era, but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

23. 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 wicked 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.

22. The Awakening (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Eric Pringle
directed by Michael Owen Morris
Eric Pringle was reportedly displeased with script editor Eric Saward's rewrites, branding the result rushed and confusing. But "The Awakening" is neither; on the contrary, it's one of the most buoyant of all the classic serials. On the surface, it's about a town turning history into pageant, and a man who's made a deal with the devil (it's "The Daemons" done right). But underneath, it's about a town that falls prey to autocratic rule: its four key players representing -- in turn -- authority, loyalty, obedience and dissent. Pringle has fifty minutes to tell a dense story, and a lot of tricks up his sleeve: the giant crack in the wall, and the ghoulish face that appears behind it; the ancient battle cries that engulf a church, and the boy who emerges from that battle, all the way from 1643; the apparition that crouches, still and silent, in a corner of the TARDIS -- then crooks its head to make sure you're still watching. But the tricks never feel obvious or oppressive; Morris lingers on them just long enough to make his point, then moves on. And occasionally he bathes them in the sun. Morris would go on to helm the best of Davison's Campion mysteries, "Flowers for the Judge"; here, in his first (and only) Who assignment, he finds a tone and tempo that seems sculpted to Davison's demeanor. Like many of the best Fifth Doctor serials, "The Awakening" has a beguiling sense of wonder, but there's also a precociousness that bleeds, beautifully, into Davison's performance. At one point, the Doctor escapes captivity with a schoolboy prank; later he's in the TARDIS with the town schoolteacher, and he throws her looks that say "Why are you in my room?" and "Don't touch my things." He's both rebel and lawman: equal parts schoolboy, instructor and headmaster -- and he's marvelous. There's only one moment in "The Awakening" that "rushed and confusing," and it's Saward's sci-fi explanation for the creature taking over the town. Pringle characterizes him as "the devil," but never a fan of the mystical, Saward explains it away with reconnaissance missions, alien invasions, psychic projections and rocks "mined by the Terileptils on the planet Raaga for the almost exclusive use of the people of Hakol" -- all of which Davison shrewdly recites so fast that he renders it unintelligible. And at the end, Morris does him one better: when the adventure is over, and the Doctor starts to wrap it up with even more of Saward's sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, the camera cuts away midway through his speech to the reunion of Tegan and her grandfather, refusing to let anything as dreary as "explanations" dampen the mood. Pringle might have feared Saward was ruining his script, but the star and the director don't give him the chance.

21. The Wheel in Space (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Tristan deVere Cole

The direction is striking, the set design imaginative, the costumes effective -- but it's the characters that linger. Whitaker plots the Cybermen's return as a slice-of-life drama, about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future, examining the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and exploring our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And he uses the Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. The Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which Whitaker measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, has never properly developed human emotions; a fellow crewmember refers to her as "a robot, a machine" -- not unlike how the Doctor describes the Cybermen. ("They were once human beings like yourself, but now they're more robot than man.") Zoe is fundamentally (but not fatally) damaged, and so is the ship's controller, Jarvis Bennett, who's undergoing a nervous breakdown. A lot of commanders in Doctor Who are stricken with "why-won't-they-listen-to-reason" sickness -- it's how the writers sustain the story-line, by having those in authority refuse to heed the Doctor "until it's too late." But Bennett's stubbornness in ignoring the Doctor's warnings isn't used for plot purposes; it simply serves as another example of the tug-of-war between logic and emotion that humans and Time Lords (unlike Cybermen) have to endure. "The Wheel in Space" is about how people of different backgrounds and varying aptitudes respond to stress and crisis, and Whitaker is careful not to editorialize his characters. His style is refreshingly dispassionate. He simply captures the cadences of everyday speech -- the joking, bickering, flirting and fussing -- and allows us to draw our own conclusions. "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable. It continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond, but here it's done with a lightness of touch that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. Fittingly for a serial that stresses character over carnage, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an English man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all. (I offer up a full review of "Wheel in Space" here.)

Next, continuing the countdown, #20-#11: moors, massacres and miniscopes.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#40 - #31)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) This next ten include the first serials filmed by Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison, the two finest actors to play Classic Doctors. When I first started watching Classic Who, their genius seemed obvious at once to me -- and to my husband as well: an actor himself, with a performer's insights and seriously high standards. I remember going online soon after and seeing a lot of Troughton love -- and seeing a fair bit of Davison anger: mostly by people who, I realized, were still upset, some thirty years later, that he'd replaced "their Doctor," Tom Baker. As if still clinging to a child's view that Davison had somehow "forced" Baker out. I still see this attitude occasionally from adults. Let's not beat around the bush: there's a lot you can be subjective about where Classic Who is concerned; as I've said here, I'm delighted, like most of fandom, to entertain all opinions -- but if you can't see what a gifted actor Davison is (I would say the strongest of the Classic Doctors), then seek help. Peter Davison inspired my first essay here, a four-part look at his career.

40. 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. (The planet is inhabited entirely by humanoids. No Daleks, Zarbi or Rills here.) Like Black's later "Macra Terror," "The Savages" imagines a dystopian society disguised as a utopian one; it lacks the intricacies that distinguish the later serial, and at heart (like the season opener "Galaxy 4") it's a little light on plot and heavy on message. But its straightforward story-telling is confident and occasionally clever (as when the gift that the Elders give Dodo in Episode 1 allows Steven to save the day in Episode 3), and it's a good match for Christopher Barry's lean, efficient style. Ian Stuart Black was one of those freelancers (like Chris Boucher a decade later) who invariably had a good handle on how best to use the Doctor and his companions -- sometimes better than the script editor himself. Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature seem to spring from her upbringing and background; you're reminded how nice it is to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS. Steven is ingenious, brave, sensible and authoritative; when the time comes for him to say goodbye to the Doctor and Dodo, you believe those qualities will serve him well on his new home. (Black creates the template for all the companions who leave the Doctor upon finding their true calling, from Jo Grant to Romana II to Nyssa.) And Black's handling of the Doctor is nothing short of cunning. Season 3 writers were challenged with devising scripts as original and entertaining as anything that came before them, but also minimizing Hartnell's role so that he could power through. Black solves the problem by having the Doctor drained by the life-force machine at the end of Episode 2, so that he's able to sit out much of Episode 3. But his energy -- and, unexpectedly, his personality -- are transferred to Jano, the leader of the Elders, and that allows Frederick Jaeger, in a bravura performance, to do a spot-on impression of Hartnell's Doctor. It keeps the Doctor's spirit alive while Hartnell gets time off to recharge, but more than that, it asserts that although Hartnell's screen time is dwindling, nothing can suppress the power of his personality. Just four serials away from Hartnell's swan-song, Black writes him an endearing tribute.

39. 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.

38. The Time Meddler (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Douglas Camfield

The Hartnell era is full of sweet, unforced conversations that aren't so much consumed with pushing the plot forward as with stressing the sense of family forged from traveling together in the TARDIS. "The Time Meddler" continues in that tradition, opening with one of the most charming exchanges in all of Classic Who, as the Doctor quizzes Vicki if she'd be happier returning to her own time, as Ian and Barbara just did. It parallels a scene at the start of David Whitaker's "The Rescue," when the Doctor reflects on Susan's departure, and part of the success of Season 2 is that Spooner, Whitaker's successor, honors his model while adding his own touches (and in this case, "his own touches" means pioneering the first pseudo-historical). Like Whitaker, Spooner takes pleasure in subverting our expectations: fiendishly so in the first episode, as Steven displays all the customary doubts about the TARDIS's ability to traverse through time, and Spooner devises a scenario that actually serves to reinforce those doubts. Hartnell instantly enjoys as strong a rapport with Peter Purves as he formed with Maureen O'Brien in "The Rescue," but this is a new sort of relationship for the Doctor, one that can be as much playfully combative as convivial -- and by God, Hartnell is on form here, clearly relishing and rising to the challenge. Nearing the end of a very long season of filming, he doesn't miss a beat. And Spooner uses Hartnell's vacation week during Episode 2 to strengthen the bond between Purves and O'Brien, and Steven and Vicki prove a terrific team with a fresh dynamic: quick to acknowledge -- and bow to -- each other's strengths, even as they squabble like siblings. Doug Camfield maintains his typically tight grip on the narrative, and manages some of the most ingenious uses of stock footage the series will ever see, including a shipload of vikings making their way to shore. But as with so much of the Hartnell era, it's the relationships that make or break a serial, and here they enliven it with an ebullience last seen shortly after Vicki joined the crew. The series could have gone limp with the departures of William Russell and Jacqueline Hill; instead, Doctor Who has re-energized itself, when it needed to most.

37. 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.

36. 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.

35. 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.

34. Marco Polo (First Doctor, 1964)
written by John Lucarotti
directed by Waris 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 imposing 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.) "Marco Polo" unfolds like a genuine journey, where there are planned stops and unexpected detours; as with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned. 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. As destinations are reached, you're unsure whether choice encounters await, or whether the atmosphere -- and perhaps a ladle of water -- will be the only things to drink in. 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 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 radiant performance.

33. The Robots of Death (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by Michael E. Briant
When a serial looks as good as "Robots of Death," it's tempting to ignore its flaws. As much as we've come to understand the budgetary restraints of the classic series, we're only human, and we like pretty things. And so it is with "Robots of Death," a serial with such a gorgeous art-deco sheen, you'd love to pretend it's perfect. But it's not. It tries to play like a murder mystery, but it's a mystery with so few clues that the solution the Doctor arrives at is apparently heaven-sent. There are some personality traits scattered among the ample guest cast, but they never seem characters as much as suspects -- particularly since Briant refuses to relax the pace long enough for us to get to know them. But the look is bewitching, the dialogue never less than intelligent, and as Boucher's follow-up to "Face of Evil," it's part two in The Adventures of Leela. Right from the start, as the Doctor tries to explain the "bigger on the inside" concept to someone seeing it from an uncommon perspective, it's apparent how much Leela is freshening the ways the stories are now being told. As Boucher conceives her, coming from a "primitive" society means her senses are more acute, more attuned to the subtleties of body language and inflection, conduct and deportment. She often has insights the Doctor lacks. And because of her keen understanding of human behavior, she fits in anywhere, skimpy outfit and all -- and reading people well means Boucher's Leela is nobody's fool. (Uvanov: "You have cost me and the company a great deal of money and you have killed three people. Can you think of any good reason why I should not have you executed on the spot?" Leela: "No, but you can, otherwise you'd have done it.") Unflinching in the face of horror, unapologetic about her idiosyncrasies, an eager pupil and a quick study, she instantly becomes Who's second feminist icon (after Liz Shaw). The tragedy of Leela that, outside of Boucher and the ever-adaptable Terrance Dicks (on "Horror of Fang Rock"), no one understood how to write for her, so that means of her nine serials, only four capture her well. In the following serial, Robert Holmes reinvents her as his original conception, an Eliza Doolittle type: as a creature to be taught, to be condescended to, to be ridiculed. Writers Martin & Baker further diminish her in their two efforts the following season: in "Invisible Enemy," repeatedly referencing her lack of intelligence -- confusing intelligence with knowledge; and in "Underworld," as if she somehow needs "fixing," inventing a weapon to tame her. And it's then that the scantily-clad huntress morphs from a feminist icon into a chauvinist's wet dream.

32. 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. And ironically, the one that survives, "The War Machines," is the least of his efforts; it sets Hartnell in present-day London, and surrounds him with hipsters, and feels "novel," but it's essentially a straightforward adventure. But "The Savages" and, in particular, "Macra Terror" are something more: a glimpse into a future 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 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 decent 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 it's his best Who performance since his debut (also penned by Black); 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.

31. 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, when she and the Doctor are held captive on a spaceship, she paces furiously, hands spinning around her head as she brainstorms escape plans ("We'll give it a few minutes, then I'll start groaning and pretending I'm ill") -- no sooner rejecting one scheme than envisioning another: "I saw this film once, and there were these two big gangsters, big fellows they were..." Later still, 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 charming enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a two-minute tour-de-force. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since "Terror of the Autons," as she shows how far she's come in two years, resisting his mind-control with a string of nursery rhymes, then through an act of will-power. 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.

Next, continuing the countdown, #30-#21: walls, wheels and warriors.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#50 - #41)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) I think it tickles me that, as I begin my top-50 countdown, these next ten might be my most iconoclastic: to some, my most objectionable. What many consider the most lightweight Fifth Doctor serial (#46), sitting just ahead of the one often labeled a classic (#49). A Seventh Doctor serial that many hate, from a season they hate even more (#45). A Third Doctor serial that, even among its cast and crew, has become a Doctor Who punchline (#48). And a couple of First Doctor marmites (#50, #44). I adore them all. When I wrote earlier about the Hartnell era, I hailed its unwillingness to settle on a formula; in Who's later years, when formulas have become standard, I gravitate towards the serials that surprise me -- that shake things up. I'm happiest when I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. When they do that, I'm more than willing to forgive the gaffes and misfires.

50. The Gunfighters (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker
It's not "Doctor Who does a Western." It's "Doctor Who does a B-Western" -- that one letter makes all the difference. "The Gunfighters" embraces the giddiest clichés of the genre: not the open spaces of a Red River, High Noon or Shane, but the studio look of a Republic programmer from the '30s, like Doomed at Sundown, The Purple Vigilantes, or Wyoming Outlaw, where you knew that if you walked 200 feet in any direction, you wouldn't be on the road out of town; you'd be on the next soundstage. It owes more than a passing nod to 20th Century Fox's Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday, and a bloody good showdown at the O.K. Corral. (It was later remade by John Ford as the classic My Darling Clementine.) With "Myth Makers," Cotton went for character comedy; here the humor stems from a fish-out-of-water premise: the Doctor, who abhors violence, touching down in a town where all feuds are settled by gunfire. It's one of Hartnell's best performances: an amusing tug-of-war between the Doctor, who clearly doesn't want to be in Tombstone, and Hartnell, who so clearly does. It also provides terrific showcases for Jackie Lane (who shows unexpected comic chops in her scenes with Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday) and for Peter Purves, who serves up the best double-take in all of Doctor Who. Where "Gunfighters" fails is in the new production team not trusting the material; it was commissioned by producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh, but their successors -- Lloyd Innes and Gerry Davis -- had no affection for historicals, and little interest in stretching the boundaries of the series. And Rex Tucker, the assigned director, admitted to misgivings. When he opens with a shot of tumbleweed rolling down the streets of Tombstone, then pans up to show the town itself, you think he's sending up that hoary film tradition of masking constrictive settings with unusual camera angles. But by about the thirtieth oddball shot, you realize he's doing it because he thinks the script needs salvaging. (He's busy saving something that's not in need of rescue.) The same could be said for the ballad he commissions, which is charming at first, but ends up feeling random and relentless. And is it the famed tug-of-war between Tucker and Lloyd for control of the final edit that results in the serial seeming so scrappily assembled? "The Gunfighters" boasts a pleasurable script and performances to cherish. But the surgery the production team attempts is about as subtle as the extraction the Doctor undergoes in Doc Holliday's dental chair.

49. 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?

48. 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.

47. 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 two seasons (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 "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Pyramids of Mars." 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.

46. 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.

45. 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 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.)

44. 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. One of Who's earliest directors, he suffered from a lack of technical proficiency that tripped up many a first-season episode, but even at his most static and unfocused, you saw his eagerness to experiment: to stretch the production design and maneuver the camera beyond what Doctor Who could easily handle. The planet Vortis proves his perfect playground; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but as he shuttles between the ant-like Zarbi and the butterfly-winged Menoptra and the grubby Optera (each with its own verbal and visual style of communicating), he's able to keep the images fresh, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: William Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by story editor Dennis Spooner (it refers back to the previous serial, "The Romans," which he himself had written); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have devised Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

43. The Green Death (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Michael E. Briant

The principal players are well-served (ironically, it's not until Jo's farewell that Sloman and producer Barry Letts manage to successfully showcase the UNIT family, as they'd first attempted two years earlier in "The Daemons"), and Katy Manning's departure inspires Pertwee's best performance. He's decisive without being abrasive (his "stop winding" at the end of Episode 1 is reminiscent of his "cut it open" cliffhanger in "Ambassadors of Death"), and he's permitted not only to exercise his fighting skills, but to flex his comic muscles: on a wild visit to Metebelis III in Episode 1, and posing as a milkman and a cleaning lady later on. The script has all the Pertwee-era staples: its topical concerns; its reliance on mind control as a plot device; some distractingly low-rent CSO; and, of course, its pervasive chauvinism. (In Part 4, when Jo takes off in search of a specimen needed for an experiment, the serial thinks it's showing her initiative and pluck, but it's really about Jo feeling the need to prove herself, and doing so by being foolhardy.) But its flaws are swept away by Briant's work, which is a fascinating hybrid. In its footage of factories and quarries, and its use of Welsh extras who are determinedly rough around the edges, it's got that familiar "masculine" look that the Pertwee era fed on. But it's offset by a gentility in pacing and tone; it's one of the most civilized of serials. It's a world where the principals dine out -- and dress for dinner -- while the villains, engaged in polite conversation about destroying mankind, hum Chopin and Beethoven. Where even the altercations are well-mannered: "Are you threatening me?" "Yes, I believe I am." It's admirably low-key -- and that delicacy and restraint, set against a backdrop of miners and picketers and industrial waste, gives it a duality that's almost hypnotic. And because Briant has been so even-handed, when the time comes (in the concluding chapter) for the corporate mogul to turn on his mechanical master, and for the computer to go haywire, Briant's able to pull out all the visual stops and make a familiar story-beat seem fresh -- as he's been doing throughout. Despite so many standard and potentially stale elements, "The Green Death" doesn't feel like any other work in the classic canon. Briant lulls you -- as BOSS does his victims -- into a sense of complacency; he whispers, "Watch this," and you're helpless to resist.

42. 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. You're aware of odd choices and missed opportunities. (At the end of Episode 5, as Zoe and Jamie are surrounded by robots, she cries "look" and points, even though they're only three feet away. And seconds later, they're supposedly trapped between the pages of a giant book, even though -- as staged -- there's a clear escape route.) The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story 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.

41. 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 stare at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, but Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. And because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero (part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer), a duality that only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2017, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

Next, continuing the countdown, #40-#31: robots, roadtrips and Rutans.