Monday, January 16, 2017

Knots Landing season 4

Knots Landing Season 4 is like a clever puppy you've just brought home from the pound, and criticizing it is a bit like disciplining that puppy: you know there are things you should be taking it to task for, but you're far too interested in seeing what it'll do next.

Years after its original run, Knots Co-Executive Producer Michael Filerman recalled that soap giant Ann Marcus mapped out Season 4 before departing the series at the end of Season 3. No one has ever corroborated that, not even Marcus in her autobiography, so it's likely he was misremembering; nonetheless, in the way it effortlessly juggles half a dozen down-to-earth story-lines, yet manages to remain character- rather than plot-driven (particularly impressive in light of the conceit at its core), it feels very much like a Marcus season.

The conceit at its core? Well, it's a murder mystery. Knots Season 4 makes good use of its regulars, tosses in two of its most memorable supporting players, and near the season's end, embroils them all in a whodunnit, where a good chunk of the cast seems to have motive. But the murder (of rising singer Ciji Dunne, played by Lisa Hartman) isn't telegraphed -- in 1983, believe me, it came as quite a shock -- and the fact that so many of the principals are suspects doesn't feel contrived. The final episodes are less about an investigation than about the way we respond to tragedy: in particular, the blame games we direct both at others and at ourselves.

What's striking about Season 4 is that the structure is so solid that you forgive its failings -- and its failings aren't the usual ones. In other Knots seasons, the writers flail around in search of good ideas; in Season 4, it's consistency of tone that proves elusive. Knots Season 4 doesn't feel much like the show you've been watching for three years. In a TV Guide interview that ran shortly after Season 4 wrapped, producer Peter Dunne explained that his goal had been to "enlarge the situations." The writer of the article elaborated:

Knots Landing had always been what TV people like to call a “what if?” show: of all the Dallas clones, it alone was set not in an exotic landscape peopled by oil barons or wine magnates, but in a suburban setting not too different from the world inhabited by its viewers. “What if this happened to us?” the audience could say. So the conflicts were intimate and familiar. Small scale. There were rules of behavior, as in the old soap operas. It was "how does Richard’s wife cope with his nervous breakdown during her pregnancy," not "how does she deal with the fact he’s just been rubbed out by gangsters on orders from her brother, who wants to inherit his yacht?"

Last season, this changed.

Except it didn't.

It's not the situations that get enlarged in Season 4 -- it's the characters' responses to them. Most of the plots (and they're good ones) -- Val and Gary finalizing their divorce, and him falling off the wagon; Karen opening her heart to a man and marrying him; Richard opening a restaurant, but shielding his business dealings from Laura; Ginger jealous of a new singer commanding Kenny's time -- would fit snugly into Season 3. But in Season 3, the characters would have greeted them with a measure of restraint; in Season 4, restraint isn't in anyone's repertoire.

Dunne came aboard as producer in Season 4, and part of his goal was to take advantage of the series' links to Dallas. With Jock Ewing's will due to be read a few episodes into the new season of Dallas, and Gary an obvious beneficiary, it was an opportunity to tie Knots to its far more popular predecessor. (The network even pushed the sixth episode off Thursday, to the slot following Dallas on Friday night, to goose Knots's ratings.) Up to that point, Knots had mostly avoided piggybacking off Dallas -- in fact, part of what's so satisfying about Season 3 is that there are no crossovers, because the tones of the shows were so different that every time one occurred, Knots would instantly have to adopt Dallas's self-mocking humor. (There's no way you were going to have J.R. guest star, but tell Larry Hagman, "Just take it down a notch, OK?") And as it turns out, Dunne embracing Dallas is less about Gary coming into money (although he comes away with a million a year, he doesn't really use much of it) than it is about entertaining Dallas's cheekier tone, unabashed melodrama and more aggressive storytelling: trying it on for size, keeping what fits -- and seeing if it helps Knots build its audience.

From the series opener, when Val checks into the "Bates Motel" (unsubtle nod to Psycho), to a few episodes later, when -- following an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show to promote her new book -- she signs an autograph for a fan named "Eve" (unsubtle nod to All About Eve), the show seems to have fallen prey to a certain jokiness, as it struggles to find its voice. The publishing angle -- a centerpiece of the early episodes, as Val's tell-all book about the Ewings, Capricorn Crude, becomes a swift best-seller -- seems to want to play as satire; when her press rep suggests a shot of Val staring at a photo of her estranged husband Gary while writing her next book, what else are we to make of it? But while the script is sending up the ruthless side of the publishing industry, Joan Van Ark is playing it straight: asking you to invest in Val's hurt and discomfort. And meanwhile, there's J.R., in a guest shot, undermining her pain by mangling the name of her book for an easy laugh ("What is it again? Crude Porn?"). We're getting mixed messages, and the other ongoing plotline (Karen's determination to bring her late husband's killers to justice) is equally schizophrenic. We get constant reminders that the dangers facing Karen are real -- that the men responsible for Sid's death won't think twice about claiming another victim. But once they're taken into custody, we learn that Karen has been playing everyone like a violin; she managed to get warring criminal elements to turn on each other, and the assistant district attorney and police department to intervene at precisely the right time. The show takes the darkest point in its history -- the death of Sid -- and in bringing his killers to justice, ties it up not just with a neat bow, but with a wink. It's undeniably entertaining, but it's also -- in relationship to the previous three seasons -- a bit odd. How seriously are we to take the new Knots?

Season 3 had ended with Val discovering Gary and Abby in bed together, then packing a suitcase and driving off into the night. Season 4 opens on "A Brand New Day," and the title is apt: it signals a tonal shift. There's a stunning scene in the first episode when Valene, having hired movers to collect Gary's furniture, sends her mama Lilimae off to bed and waits by the living-room window that faces the cul-de-sac, the curtains open, to hear if Gary comes home to Abby, two houses away. She knows that her grand gesture of reclaiming her house is either going to bring him to his senses or prove that he's gone for good. And so she listens; it's a moment that neatly mirrors Gary waiting in that same living room just two episodes earlier, in "China Dolls," to see if Abby came home alone -- while Val watched him slowly slipping away. It's a moment of almost unbearable tension, where words aren't required and action is kept to a minimum. And it's a moment unlike pretty much anything else in Season 4.

In Season 4, the sort of understatement that had been a hallmark of Season 3 (in standalones like "One of a Kind" and serialized episodes like "Expose" and "China Dolls") is no longer the order of the day. The acting beats get huge, the direction frenzied. When Karen's daughter Diana is told her kidneys are failing, she doesn't just react badly; she rips her dialysis tube out of her arm. When Laura has to face the possibility that Richard skipped town after committing murder, she doesn't just throw things; she overturns shelves. Big shelves. When Gary discovers Abby's been scheming behind his back, and takes to drinking to drown his self-pity, he doesn't just confront her at Ciji's recording session; he practically hurls himself against the glass between the studio and the booth, wailing. Fistfights break out in the very first episode (Val's old friend Rusty threatens Gary, "I'm gonna kill you" -- that's the kind of ripped-from-the-heart dialogue the season thrives on, and it's set to edgy music that seems less Knots Landing and more Rebel Without a Cause), and they continue throughout the season; after a while, it feels like an episode isn't complete if Gary hasn't been verbally attacked or sucker-punched. There are slaps and shoving matches and an awful lot of shouting on staircases.

In a late-season scene that's emblematic of the new house style, Ciji is berating Val for a tell-all book she's drafted about the dissolution of her marriage; she backs her across a room and practically pins her against the door. And then Val, her hands fluttering wildly around her head (like a madwoman swatting imaginary flies, or perhaps driving away invisible demons), somehow connects with Ciji, knocking her clear across the room, where she hits her head on a strategically-placed coffee table. The scene is there because it's that blow to Ciji's head that will incriminate Val in her murder. In previous seasons, a shouting match and a shove would have sufficed (they don't really have the verbal ammunition for more), but in the animated world of Season 4, the actresses are forced to traverse the length of the set and back. (The only thing more awkward than that scene is the one three episodes later, when Val has to reenact the fight for authorities. It takes a lot, in the early years of Knots, to make Van Ark look bad -- she's typically incandescent -- but as she wanders about the room, stuttering in a manner both halting and manic, you can't tell if it's a character in turmoil at reliving a painful memory or an actress in disbelief at having to justify the looney-tunes staging.)

But that's Season 4 in a nutshell. The basic confrontations are sound. The way they're pitched and staged is a complete break from the style of the first three seasons. But it is a style you recognize, from the histrionics of daytime dramas and the excesses of Dallas and Falcon Crest (and in fact, it's not nearly as outrageous as those). Season 4 is when Knots Landing fully morphs from nighttime drama into primetime soap; not coincidentally, it's the first time the show goes completely serialized. Knots is changing before your eyes, straying far from its Scenes From a Marriage-inspired roots -- but the characters remain so beguiling, and the Season 4 story-lines are so engrossing, that you willingly succumb. Although it takes a good fifteen episodes for the creative team to solidify the tone -- to weed out the self-referentialism, campiness and melodrama that were staples of other soaps and forge the kind of heightened realism that would come to define Knots in the mid-'80s -- the structure of the season is so solid that your impatience never outweighs your interest.

Amusingly, the least likely character benefits most from the new approach: Ginger. Kim Lankford walks off with every scene she's in. Everyone else kicks it up a notch for Season 4; Lankford kicks it up ten. The youngest and always the blandest of the four Knots housewives, Ginger -- from the minute Ciji comes into her life -- turns into the cul-de-sac's grande dame. Every time she watches her husband fawn over his new protégé, or has to endure Ciji's unintentional digs (informed that Ginger too is a singer, Ciji suggests, with misplaced enthusiasm, "You should sing back-up for me"), she sucks in her cheeks further than anyone since Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Many fans find Diana's medical "Emergency" to be the season's low point, but its smackdown between Ginger and Ciji goes a long way towards redeeming it. When Ciji inadvertently debuts a song Ginger had intended for herself, Ginger lets her have it: "You don't care who you use or who you hurt." And Ciji, who later in the season will be reduced to professional victim, isn't taking it: "If I like a song and it's good for me, I'm gonna sing it." Ginger warns her, "I'll get you for this" and with a violent flick of her wrist, tosses the music in Ciji's face, before striding off. The Season 3 solution to the annual question "what shall we do with Ginger" was "as little as possible." (It's actually a solution that worked nicely.) The Season 4 answer is "turn her into Margo Channing, with Ciji as Eve Harrington." At times (mostly when she's watching Ciji sing, and hating her), Lankford widens those Bette Davis eyes till she resembles nothing remotely human -- but even then, she's monstrously marvelous.

The reimagining of Ginger in Season 4 is sensational. Other characters prove more problematic. It's understandable: it's not just Dunne who was coming aboard for Season 4; with the exception of Executive Story Editor Diana Gould, who'd been there since Season 2, the entire writing staff was new. And although creator David Jacobs and Michael Filerman were still involved (as opposed to the start of Season 13, when a new team took over, unsupervised), it's still a significant shake-up. And there are some obvious growing pains.

Most of the characters -- including Karen, Kenny, Richard and Lilimae -- seem spot on. Abby, on the other hand, never comes into proper focus. In Season 3, when she went after Gary, it was tied to the show's best MacGuffin: a methanol business she and Gary were trying to start up. The two shared a love of risk and a desire for advancement; they were also bound not only by sexual attraction, but by genuine affection. Season 4 doesn't quite know what to do with Abby, other than "Gary inherits money, and Abby uses it to screw over their friends." What made Abby so compelling as a character was the joy she took in her own accomplishments; you forgave her transgressions, because she was a bright woman determined to succeed in a man's world -- and when things went her way, her delight in triumphing was contagious. (When she pulls off a brilliant bluff in Season 3's "Acts of Love" and secures financing for their methanol deal, she's so irresistible Gary sleeps with her.) Abby doesn't get that in Season 4. The season doesn't give her a project that fires her imagination; she's stuck with a couple investments Gary initiated, for which she has no real passion. (The problem will be remedied, big-time, in Season 5.)

There's not much joy in what Abby is doing. There's also not much love; she doesn't seem to give a rat's ass about Gary. She gets far too many close-ups where we're meant to go, "That wicked woman. So consumed with getting her hands on Gary's money." (When J.R., in yet another guest shot, sizes her up -- "You want to be Queen of the Ewings" -- she tells him she'll settle for Princess. Ugh.) There's a wonderful scene late in the season when Gary is starting to fall apart -- he sees that he and Abby are hurting the people he cares most about -- and he begs her to sit down and talk it out. (It's some of Ted Shackelford's best work in a season in which he's particularly brilliant.) She promises to do so the next day -- but the next morning, when he awakes, she's off to a meeting. And there's no follow-up. And the point is, of course, that Abby has no intention of talking things through with Gary, but it's a tactical error on the writers' part. We need to see her concern for what he's going through: at the very least, her willingness to listen. The writers use Abby's dismissal of Gary as the final straw that drives him back to the bottle, but it would have been better -- certainly more consistent with the way Abby was presented in Season 3 -- if they'd had that conversation, but it still wasn't enough to keep him from drinking. (By the way, I referred to some of the early-season underscoring as sounding like Leonard Rosenman's music to Rebel Without a Cause. When Gary finally takes his first gulp of liquor, and again when Val learns that Gary has been drinking and visibly crumbles, the music is straight out of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo. The jagged, unsettling and overblown music -- consistent, it must be noted, with the style of the playing -- is a great part of what sets Knots Landing Season 4 apart from its predecessors.)

Really only one thing redeems Abby in Season 4, and that's the addition of Clayton Landey as her lawyer James Westmont. Landey is one of the unspoken heroes of Knots Landing; as he gazes at Abby with those admiring eyes, impressed by her head for business and her gift for self-preservation, we can't help but be impressed too. He does wonders for her late in Season 4, and all through Season 5. Abby has a couple nice moments in Season 4: when she sees Ciji's manager Chip hustling for publicity, and recognizes a kindred spirit; when she fluffs her hair just before visiting Gary in the drunk tank, as if a carefully coiffed 'do will help get him back on his feet; and when, after giving Diana one of her kidneys, she lashes out at Karen, who's been bashing her all season: "If you want to show your gratitude, save a whale in my name." But by and large, the new writers -- in Season 4 at least -- can't quite get a handle on what makes Abby so fascinating.

The character of Valene suffers in a different way. At the start of Season 4, after a few episodes bemoaning the demands of being a published author, Val emerges with newfound assurance. She embarks on a cross-country book-signing tour, and upon her return, admits, "It made me feel stronger, gave me confidence." Three episodes later, she reconnects with an old friend, and he starts pursuing her: another ego boost. A few episodes after that, they jet off to New York, where she offers up a toast: "To a new life, starring Valene Ewing and a cast of thousands." The evolution of Val even impacts her wardrobe. Gone are the country-girl trappings: the barrettes and hair ribbons, the puff sleeves and flowery prints. She adopts a more sophisticated look -- so much so that when she and Karen sit down for their weekly coffee klatches, she starts to look like Karen's worldly friend. (She comes off a bit like Jessica Walter in Season 3's "Reunion," as an old college chum of Karen's turned high-end fashion designer.)

But the "new" Valene proves unsustainable -- or more to the point, she proves useless; she remains at arm's length from the rest of the season's plotlines. The writers (as Filerman notes in that same interview) soon wise up to the fact that the triangle -- Val, Gary and Abby -- has potential to be more than a one-season wonder. So Val devolves into the person she'll remain for the rest of the Peter Dunne era: the character who, however much she achieves, will always be vulnerable to Gary. Mack, who's barely been around the cul-de-sac a few months, hammers home the point for the viewer: "I think you're in love with this guy Gary Ewing, and you always will be," and she concedes, "He's a weakness. He is to me what alcohol is to him." It's a reversal of how she's been written (and played) in the first two-thirds of the season -- you never once believe that their plan was to give Valene all this independence, then show it was a sham. You recognize it as a course correction, but you instantly see the wisdom in it.

As noted, a common response to Season 4 is "I like it all except Diana's surgery." In truth, the show threatens to fall apart a few episodes before that, and all through its middle section -- it just doesn't. The first seven episodes -- encompassing Karen and Mack's burgeoning relationship, the dissolution of Gary and Val's marriage, and Gary's investment plans -- are rock-solid in concept, if not in execution. The eighth, "Man in the Middle," chooses to center on Chip, and as good as Michael Sabatino is (and that's very good, just about the only Knots "bad boy" to play slick and ruthless and still have you love him), it feels a bit early in the season to be throwing an episode to a new supporting player. In the next episode, the record executive Abby is wooing professionally turns out to be an old friend of Val's, and you cringe at the contrivance. And then we're on to the two-parter about Diana needing a new kidney, and Abby being the only suitable donor. In one sense, the kidney two-parter is awful: fairly bursting with cliché. On the other hand, it neatly addresses several problems that could've plagued the series. It allows for a quick reconciliation between Mack and Karen (who'd split in the previous episode) instead of putting us through a protracted one later in the season. And it shows Gary's devotion to Abby after earlier episodes had him waffling so much, begging Val for a second chance even as he was forging a new life with Abby and her kids. (If we can't see Abby's love for Gary, at least we can see his love for her.)

After Diana's kidney, we're right on to "Block Party," in which free-lancer Sara Ann Friedman, who'd written two lovely episodes in Season 3 (the Christmas episode, "One of a Kind," and Sid's home-movie farewell, "Letting Go") seems to think she's still writing for Season 3 and does a character study that stops the season dead in its tracks. "Block Party" gets a bad rap, and admittedly it feels like it lasts about three hours, but I'm not sure it's a bad episode. It's a chance to get to know Mack better through his strained relationship with his father, and it brings the full cast together in one story-line for about the first time all season. It's a reasonable pitch for an episode, and mostly it suffers because it turns up midway through a season that has built its reputation on not doing standalones like "Block Party." (In one sense, it feels just like Season 4: there's a fistfight in a bar that seems to go on forever.)

And shortly after that, we get a trio of episodes about Mack and Karen tying the knot. Because there's no real impediment to their happiness (we pretty much accepted them as a couple about twenty minutes into the season, and any lingering doubts were assuaged when Mack rushed to Karen's side in "Emergency"), the writers -- all of them free-lancers, and novices, and maybe that's part of the problem -- fall back on clumsy, artificial conflicts. Mack proposes to Karen -- except her old boy-friend Teddy turns up and distracts her. Mack and Karen plan a lavish wedding, but things get so out of hand that they elope to Vegas. (And some of the jokiness that had invaded the show early in the season seeps back in, as their witnesses turn out to be a cigar-chomping gambler and a red-headed Amazon with giant teeth, and Mack and Karen are left to giggle their way through the ceremony.) And when they return home, eager to start their new life together, Karen's eldest son Eric rebels against being stripped of the responsibilities he's adopted since his dad died, and Mack and Karen are too obtuse to understand what he's upset about.

But laced through the underwhelming stories devoted to Mack and Karen's wedding are far better plotlines: the fallout from Val's new manuscript being leaked; the burgeoning friendship between Laura and Ciji; Gary's downward spiral; and the noose tightening around Ciji's neck -- all of them wonderfully entertaining. As noted, you could argue that all the episodes from "Man in the Middle" to "A New Family" are problematic, but Season 4 doesn't put you in the mood for an argument. It's too diverting. And once Ciji is murdered, the series becomes so bracing that you're left feeling the season has done everything right, even when it was getting so much wrong. It focuses so successfully on Val's efforts to save Gary from self-destructing, and Laura's suspicions about Richard, that it encourages you to overlook the obvious suspect. "Solving the mystery" remains secondary to the character dynamics, and so the reveal of the killer -- which we'll get early in Season 5, and which is pretty much what you'd expect -- doesn't feel like a letdown.

Season 4 shows Peter Dunne and company ramping up the acting choices, but the situations, by and large, are as penny-plain as they'd always been, and the mismatch, though not necessarily jarring, is noticeable. In Season 5, they'll solve it, magnificently, by truly "enlarging the situations" enough that the new layer of acting artifice seems at one with the story-lines.

They'll also figure out, more successfully, how to weave pretty much everyone into one tapestry. The general take on Season 4 -- what a lot of folks profess to love about it, and in fact, what both David Jacobs and Michael Filerman beam with pride about most -- is that it brings all the characters together in one storyline. But that's an illusion; in fact, they seem more compartmentalized than ever. There's a general "meeting place" -- Richard's restaurant -- which gives the deceptive impression of community, and at the end, all involved have a stake in the resolution of Ciji's murder. But the specifics of the plotting -- Gary's investments, which link folks to him, but not to each other; Gary and Val's breakup, which forces their friends to choose sides; Chip's machinations, which rely on the folks he's conning not sharing information; even the interrogations and suspicions that consume the final spate of episodes -- keep the characters splintered. In Richard's final episode, the season's penultimate, he and Karen share a lovely scene; she's come over to his house (where he's cleaning the gutters) to get some legal advice. As she's leaving, he calls out to her, "How does it feel being married again?", and she flashes a broad smile -- and you realize they haven't talked in ages. She asks about Laura, noting that she's been giving her space since Ciji died, and you realize, too, that Karen and Laura -- whose conversations in episodes like Season 3's "Best Intentions" had been among the series' highlights -- have barely had an interaction all season. And later in that same episode, there's a nice scene between Kenny and Richard, and again, you realize how the plotting has kept them apart.

That episode, "The Burden of Proof," written by Diana Gould, is arguably the only episode in Season 4 that feels like the "old" Knots; even the music reverts back to its gentler roots, including the theme most associated with Richard and Laura. Ironically, it takes the imminent departure of Richard -- the self-appointed "most unpopular guy in Knots Landing" -- to bring everyone together. But that's fitting. As Season 4 ushers in a more outrageous style of playing, Richard is the one character who steadfastly refuses to go there. He remains indelibly tied to an image of Knots that's fading. In Season 1's "Courageous Convictions," Laura had summarized the world of Richard Avery: "We've got a house we can't afford, we've got furniture that we don't own, closets full of junk we don't need -- we're always stretching," and when Richard corrected her ("striving for something better"), she was quick to counter: "You're always looking for the shortcut, and it's always getting us in trouble." He ultimately admitted, "I hate being ordinary." As the writers pave the way for Knots' upscale turn in Season 5, with cocktail parties and posh fundraisers replacing PTA meetings and backyard BBQ's, Richard remains the one character forever tied to the show's middle-class roots -- and, more to the point, to a certain middle-class mediocrity. He had to go -- but before he does, he gives us one last look at where it all began. And after that, the transformation of Knots Landing accelerates.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 3 and Season 14. Both seasons helmed by the great Ann Marcus, and both remarkable. Also Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; and Season 11, in which the series jumps the track -- and jumps back.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Till We Are Asked to Rise: the year in review

My annual year in review. 2013 found me enthralled by Elementary and The Killing, puzzling over some of CBS's scheduling moves, and taking a nostalgic tour of Vermont with a Newhart rewatch. In 2014, I savored Grantchester and Peter Capaldi's first season of Doctor Who, and binged the works of Stephen Poliakoff and Richard Armitage. Last year, I took on everything from The Mentalist to The Man in the High Castle, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Limitless to Gypsy. As in earlier posts, I do not purport to have watched every great show on television this past year; this is not a "best of 2016" list. These are simply the shows I watched, the trends I noted, the risks I respected, and the mistakes I lamented.

Looking over my 2016 blog entries, I see that I hardly wrote about any series that are currently airing. I wrote nostalgia pieces: three about Knots Landing, three about classic Doctor Who. Early in the year, I penned an appreciation of Mike & Molly, which was wrapping up its six-season run (splendidly), and a farewell to The Flash and Arrow, which weren't wrapping up their runs, but which had driven me away. Was my ignoring the current crop of shows a mark of how little they were firing my imagination, or was I so overwhelmed by all the solid series airing that I didn't want to take time away to write them up? Was 2016 a good year or a bad one?

I'm still not sure.

Disappointing Returns: Gilmore Girls, Indian Summers, Poldark, Zoo

But as I attempt to figure it out, let's start with the series that disappointed, because there were an awful lot of them. Indian Summers and Poldark had both managed brilliant first series in 2015, edging close to soap opera without ever succumbing: Indian Summers by embracing the politics of the era as much as the personal drama; Poldark by holding to a brisk, no-nonsense directorial style that seemed at one with Poldark's own demeanor. In Series 2, they re-emerged as soaps, and both were thrown off-balance: Indian Summers by introducing -- and focusing so heavily on -- Alice's sadistic husband Charlie (Blake Ritson); Poldark via a series of stultifying fights between Poldark and Demelza and by reigniting the show's love triangle in a way that reflected badly on all three characters. Poldark so missed the mark that Luke Norris's Dr. Dwight Enys wound up assuming the mantle of romantic leading man.

Over at Elementary, John Noble, in a season-long stint as Sherlock's father, indulged in line readings that got slower and more slurred over time. After a while, it became painful to see Jonny Lee Miller start a scene with him -- nervy energy intact -- and within about four lines, watch Noble suck the life out of him. The series then teased the return of Natalie Dormer without delivering, and ushered in Season 5 with little of its customary vigor or momentum. Penny Dreadful, coming off a glorious second season, did one of those "let's split up the team" story-lines of which I've never been fond (including a lifeless excursion to the Wild West), barely reassembled the regulars in time for a battle, then basically threw in the towel. I had always thought of Penny Dreadful as an ensemble show, but articles I read after the finale revealed that creator John Logan had come to see it as a story about Eva Green's character, so the question apparently became "how many times can you put her through the wringer," and the answer, I suppose, was "three." And my guiltiest pleasure of 2015, Zoo, lost track of what made it so damned entertaining. It had featured five of the most ordinary people on the planet, rising to the challenge of combatting an animal population in revolt; because the characters were so penny-plain, they (and we) could be mesmerized by the simplest of attacks: a bear overturning a Parisian apartment; bats shutting down a research lab in Antarctica. In Season 2, the team became all but super-powered: cruising the planet in a stadium-sized plane, each member equally versed in combat, medicine and computer hacking. The CBS ads even started to refer to the team as "five scientists," disregarding backstory, misunderstanding the show's appeal.

As for Gilmore Girls, it was a four-part reunion -- and a return to the series for its creators, Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino -- that left me so dispirited that I penned a whole piece about it: where it went wrong, and why, and its eerie similarity to the current political climate.

DOA from the UK: Victoria, Class

Two new shows, both from the UK, stood out as "what not to do" primers. ITV's Victoria cast Jenna Coleman, fresh off Doctor Who, as the 19th-century British queen, in the years immediately following her ascendancy to the throne. Too bad so little of it had to do with the real life of Queen Victoria. 2016 was the year when politicians were no longer held accountable for the lies they told, as long as they said them with authority, and repeatedly, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when Victoria writer and creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that ITV had charged her with doing something to please the Downton Abbey crowd, and so, under the guise of a biography of Queen Victoria, she had created her own set of upstairs/downstairs story-lines. As interviewers pressed her about the actual plots, she confessed that while they weren't necessarily true, while the details surrounding the characters weren't entirely (or sometimes even remotely) accurate, she had in fact read a lot of the history of the period. The implication was that since she knew what was fictional, the audience shouldn't worry much about it. In real life, the young queen saw her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as a father figure; in Victoria, it was a schoolgirl crush verging on womanly adoration, but the script nailed the key details -- you know, like that they knew other each -- so any further efforts at historical accuracy would probably have just gotten in the way. What's remarkable is that, basically starting with a clean slate, Goodwin still couldn't make the characters interesting; the rulers were just as dull as the servants. It was the bland leading the bland.

And over at BBC, with no Doctor Who this year (except a leaden Christmas special that served up showrunner Steven Moffat's worst script), we got YA author Patrick Ness's Class as compensation. It was set in the same school where the Doctor's granddaughter had briefly studied, and to which Doctor Who itself returns on occasion. Current Doctor Peter Capaldi was gracious enough to make an appearance in the first episode; beyond that, there were few similarities, and little to get excited about. Class was a tedious affair with actors who looked 30 playing teenagers: most of the characters so ill-defined that, after a while, they felt interchangeable. The girl who, in the pilot, was such a wallflower that she was doing the decorations for the school dance ended up, a few episodes later, shagging the school jock; the youngest, brainiest member of the troupe became a trained warrior in about six minutes, merely by asking one of her elders, "Teach me how to fight." Plotlines were insanely stagnant: in one episode, brainy warrior's dead father appeared and said "Take my hand," and thirty minutes later, she was still debating whether to take it. In the next episode, wallflower slut spent about twenty minutes not killing her errant father. The relationships boiled down to basics like "I love you more than you love me" and (the ever-popular one on superhero-type shows) "I love you, but I'm afraid of you." I haven't read any of Ness's novels, but surely he has more to say than that. Class was made available for streaming every Saturday morning on BBC Three; by week three, I found I was awaiting it with as much enthusiasm as I would a high-school homework assignment.

Strong Returns: Agent Carter, NCIS: Los Angeles, Legends of Tomorrow

So what shows returned strong?

Sophomore series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fully found its footing, with an uncanny knack for reading its audience. The split between besties Rebecca and Paula (the ever-brilliant Rachel Bloom and Donna Lynne Champlin, currently the best double-act on TV) got resolved just before it overstayed its welcome (and with a moving reconciliation to boot), and just as we started to lament the loss of Santino Fontana, and his usefulness to the narrative, the appealing Scott Michael Foster arrived with the promise of shaking things up. Season 2 has already treated us to two endlessly rewatchable musical numbers: the season opener's spoof of abstract symbolism, "Love Kernels," and the third episode's delirious send-up of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," with a gowned and bejeweled Bloom invoking a dozen tuxedoed professors to explain "The Math of Love Triangles." (Even if you're not a viewer, seek out those two numbers on YouTube.) NCIS: Los Angeles adjusted for Daniela Ruah's real-life pregnancy far better than last time: sidelining her in a way that still permitted interactions with the rest of the cast, and taking advantage of her absence to shuffle the team dynamics; with an eager Bar Paly returning for a few episodes, and both Eric and Nell getting their turns in the field, the series felt reinvigorated. Not bad for a show in its eighth season. And Ray Donovan showed that all it needed to return to form was to get rid of that God-awful Finney family; once they were eased off the canvas at the end of Season 3, the series snapped back to life, and head honcho David Hollander showed a flair for story-telling that had eluded him during his first season in charge.

Marvel's Agent Carter transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, and proved a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could the villainess successfully hide a six-inch scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) Season 2, with its trio of charismatic leads (Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj, the latter finally stepping out of his sad-sack seclusion), was amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. And so of course it was cancelled. But taking its place as a solid superhero series was the much-improved Legends of Tomorrow, which came off an enervating first season (in which the ragtag team sailed through time in search of one dreary villain, who defeated them week after week) only to see its showrunners right every error in judgment during the summer hiatus. Some shrewd casting shake-ups tightened the dynamics (with the charismatic Caity Lotz repositioned as team leader), while a new, broader mission nicely varied the story-lines. I gave up on Arrow after Felicity's miracle cure (hot on the heels of its Holocaust homage); Flash lost me through one too many contrivances and world-saving pep talks. So it was a pleasant surprise when Legends returned, renewed and refurbished, to fill the comic-book void. Daredevil, too, was arguably stronger in Season 2; it didn't boast the bravura writing staff that enlivened Season 1, but the merciful absence of Vincent D'Onofrio (for most of the season anyway) made for less cringe-worthy moments. And Jon Bernthal was sensational; I was reminded why, during the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, I kept rooting for Shane.

The Year's Best

So let's dive right into my favorites of 2016, with completely random categories that mean something only to me.

Best Family Drama: The A Word (BBC One/Sundance). Morven Christie took time away from Grantchester, and she was a revelation. In Grantchester, as 1950's socialite and art historian Amanda Kendall, Christie is never less than wonderful (and in Series 2, became an almost tragic figure, as a bad marriage replaced her natural ebullience with empty regret), but as a lady of upper-class upbringing, she keeps her character's feelings carefully in check. In The A Word, set in the present-day Lake District, she's Alison Hughes, the mother of an autistic child wrestling as much with her own demons as with the proper rearing of her son, and her emotions keep bubbling to the surface. They bubble till they overflow. A nervous jumble of neuroses, fears and unreasonable expectations, Alison Hughes is a well-meaning mother, but she's also the worst kind: the kind who makes her child's accomplishments, or lack thereof, all about her. And to Christie's great credit, she's not afraid to let her character be awful. She doesn't ask for your understanding, but she makes Alison so desperately devoted to helping her son lead a "normal" life, and wears every disappointment so nakedly on her face, that you can't help but sympathize with her. Christie was paired with Lee Ingleby, giving -- like her -- an eye-opening performance, neatly distinct from his best-known role as Sergeant John Bacchus in George Gently, here an insightful rather than inciteful presence. But then, there was stellar work all around, from a cast that also boasted Christopher Eccleston, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson, Molly Wright and Max Vento. I can think of no greater praise than to say they truly felt like a family: the most compelling one of 2016.

Best Sci-Fi Drama: Humans (Channel 4/AMC). It was a very good year for sci-fi. HBO's Westworld was toweringly brilliant, even when episodes felt needlessly super-sized. Stranger Things was spiky, scary fun, with a knockout neurotic turn by Wynona Ryder. 11.22.63 was an engrossing adaptation of the Stephen King novel, with strong performances by James Franco and Sarah Cadon, and a solid adaptation by Bridget Carpenter that suffered only from the (legitimate) need to deviate from its source. And Ashley Pharoah's The Living and the Dead (practically buried alive by the BBC) was an original blend of horror, fantasy and sci-fi starring the ubiquitous (in 2016, at least) Colin Morgan. But Humans had them all beat, and yet what distinguished it most in Season 2 weren't the sci-fi elements: its look at AI servants ("synths," as they're called here, short for synthetics) introduced into a futuristic society. Instead of going bigger in its second season, as so many series do, Humans dug deeper, using the half-dozen synths who had gained "consciousness" (i.e., emotions) to explore the very meaning of being human. It let us experience again, through fresh eyes, all our first times: our first kiss, our first love, and our first heartbreak. The rush of taking risks and the anguish of loss and betrayal. The way we mask our pain, and the strength we find to face it. And the beauty of being part of something bigger. Season 2 juggled seven or eight plotlines, deftly; there wasn't a character that didn't seem crucial, or a performance that didn't seem vivid. And the set-piece at the end of the season, which basically blew up the world as we know it, was both invigorating and terrifying. I adored writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent from their first MI-5 script; it's wonderful seeing them emerge as a creative force to be reckoned with.

Best Crime Drama: The Night Manager was taut and atmospheric, although Tom Hiddleston was more believable as a wiseguy than a thug. Marcella was tart and compulsively watchable, even when her medical issues seemed more convenient than convincing. The Fall, sadly, took a dive in Season 3; the first two episodes promised to bring the series's subtext to the fore (the lead detective's sexual appetite -- and the power she wielded to satiate it -- being, in their own way, as disturbing as those of the serial killer she was hunting), but the season soon dissolved into a desert of talk, due to star/producer Gillian Anderson and new regular Krister Henriksson. (Both their characters spoke in deliberately languorous, dispassionate tones; it came to seem criminal that Jamie Dornan -- who often single-handedly sustained our interest -- continued to receive under-the-title billing.) With Unforgotten on hiatus, the best crime drama I saw in 2016 ended up being a 2013 miniseries that ITV brought back briefly for a return run: its three-part murder mystery The Ice-Cream Girls (based on the novel by Dorothy Koomson), which I had missed the first time around. Lovingly adapted by Kate Brooke and deftly directed by Dan Zeff, it charted the troubled reunion between two women who, seventeen years earlier, had been accused of stabbing their schoolteacher. While the drama played out in the present, the events of that summer unfolded in flashback. Both the young actresses (Georgina Campbell and Holli Dempsey) and their older counterparts (Lorraine Burroughs and Jodhi May) were well-matched, and Burroughs and May -- the former so fragile she always seemed seconds away from shattering, the latter so defeated she seemingly had nothing left to lose -- fully conveyed the tragedy of lives spent marginalized and promise left unfulfilled.

Best Soap: NBC's This Is Us. It goes under "best soap" and not "best family drama" because, make no mistake: this isn't us -- this isn't anyone. No family ever turned so many disasters into memorable catchphrases, pithy life-lessons or holiday traditions; no primetime drama ever sprang so many secrets, surprises and medical emergencies between commercial breaks. This Is Us featured the whiniest set of triplets since The Band Wagon: wah wah, I'm adopted; wah wah, I'm fat; wah wah, no one takes me seriously -- but then, the entire extended family was filled with the most loathsome set of characters ever to populate a soap. Logic dictates that when you're devising a drama, at least a few of the people should be likable; it takes guts to dream up a multi-generational family where, of the two admirable men, one is dying and the other is dead. But that doesn't means This Is Us didn't work. It did, consistently. Its downbeat design is key to its success. Its canvas is so overstuffed with insecurity, hurt, fear and disillusion that creator Dan Fogelman is able to turn enough of it around -- once it's all simmered, stewed, and more often than not, boiled over -- to serve up the steady promise of hope, companionship and redemption. This Is Us pulls something positive out of every worst-case scenario; it's Murphy's Law with a smiley face. The first ten episodes were beautifully structured and admirably played (with Milo Ventimiglia particularly strong, grounding it from the grave) -- and the only question is: can they sustain it, or like most soaps these days, will the audience start to tire even before the writers do, once the format becomes predictable?

Best Reality/Informational Programming: John Oliver, with his Last Week Tonight, became a force for good during a troubling election season. Adam Ruins Everything continued to expand its supporting cast and broaden its continuity without losing any of its impish humor or marvelous ability to educate as it entertains; its look at the criminal justice system managed to be as moving as it was deft and funny, and its examination of the myths of "going green" was a particular eye-opener. But nothing on TV this past year gave me, my husband, and our miniature schnauzer more pleasure than the series on Channel 4 with the most innocuously self-explanatory title: Coastal Walks With My Dog. It was a mere two episodes, cross-cutting between three sets of humans and their canine companions, each exploring a different section of England and Wales's rugged coastline. It could have been instantly forgettable, the most puerile of pitches, but it proved so refreshingly unpretentious that it offered up a three-pronged delight: an Animal Planet-style focus on some adorable pets and their loving relationships with their owners; a Travel Channel-worthy brochure of places that you might never visit in your lifetime, but could and should (and mixed in with the stunning vistas were histories of each area, and a look at its commerce, culture and more colorful inhabitants); and a Health & Lifestyle-type reminder of one of the simplest and most rewarding kinds of exercise: the perfect antidote for folks tiring of their treadmills, StairMasters and MaxiClimbers. It was entertainment at its purest -- and the perfect palate cleanser for a year rife with high-concept programming.

Best Comedy: CBS's Mike & Molly. Yes, of course, there were comedies in 2016 that were cheekier (Silicon Valley), brasher (Chewing Gum), savvier (Veep), more subversive (Lady Dynamite) and more down-to-earth (Mom). But how about funny? How about a show that didn't just impress you with a barrage of clever quips, but actually made you laugh. Out loud -- the way sitcoms used to. Mike & Molly returned for its final thirteen episodes in the spring of 2016, and thank heavens, Executive Producer Chuck Lorre didn't step in for the series finale to upend all that came before it (as he had done, disastrously, a year earlier on Two and a Half Men). Instead, its gifted showrunner, Al Higgins, simply took the show where it needed to go; Molly and Mike left the air as new parents, and Mike & Molly went out at the peak of its powers. Once Higgins assumed the reins at the top of Season 4, once they unleashed Melissa McCarthy (and broadening McCarthy's character allowed the supporting cast to deepen their own, as they no longer had to hit the laughs as hard), there wasn't a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse. And nine times out of ten, the laughter came in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. At its best, in those final years, Mike & Molly was funny and boisterous when it wanted to be, and warm and moving when it needed to be, with actors who could make those transitions seamless, who could go from raucous to reflective and back again -- and never more so than in the final story arc that took it to its touching conclusion. And the last episode? Hands down, best sitcom finale since Everybody Loves Raymond.

Best Drama (a three-way tie):

The year began and ended with two sumptuous period pieces -- BBC One's War and Peace and Netflix's The Crown -- but in terms of miniseries, nothing I saw came close to Stephen Poliakoff's Close to the Enemy (BBC Two, available in the U.S. via Amazon Prime/Acorn Media). There were times when I felt the story-telling a bit haphazard, when what I imagined as key relationships didn't seem to be having the intended impact; I should have trusted Poliakoff. Everything came together by the end; as a fan of his work, I found it exceeded even my high expectations. (I realized, after the fact, that any hesitations I had along the way stemmed from my expecting the characters, and the story-telling, to be more rigidly formulaic.) Close to the Enemy touched down in a well-trod period in British history -- the months following the end of World War II -- but touched it with fascinating political ambiguity, asking: when is it best to chase down war criminals, and when is it better to court them, for the information or expertise they might provide? Should the victors be seeking justice, retribution, or something else entirely? Everyone began the drama secure in their moral infallibility -- and no one more so than intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (a lean and lithe Jim Sturgess), charged with convincing a captured jet-engine scientist to come work for the British. By the end, everyone was second-guessing their own actions -- before, during and after the war -- as they wrestled with a society in which friends and colleagues had become rivals and in which enemies made for uneasy allies. The cast was flawless, with old pros Alfred Molina and Lindsay Duncan anchoring it with warmth and gravitas, but also, in performances no less winning, August Diehl, Freddie Highmore, Charity Wakefield, Phoebe Fox, Charlotte Riley, Lucy Ward and Angela Bassett.

CBS's Madam Secretary made good on all the promise it had shown in 2015, when I wrote half an essay about it; the end of Season 2, and the start of Season 3, scored on both the foreign and the domestic fronts. And that cast! A year ago, if I'd been asked to list the standouts, I would have made note of not just the stars -- Tea Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) and Tim Daly (a canny combination of strong, shrewd and soulful) -- but also Keith Carradine (POTUS) and Zeljko Ivanek (Chief of Staff). In 2016, all the featured players came into focus: the writers latched onto the traits that made them singular and special, and the actors seized every opportunity accorded them. The Secretary of State's staff -- Bebe Neuwirth, Sebastian Arcelus, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend and Erich Bergen -- were splendidly balanced by the trio of younger actors who played her children: Wallis Currie-Wood, Kathrine Herzer and Evan Roe. The kids were a particular revelation: defined so fully, with the variety of interests and temperaments typical of three-child families, that their story-lines felt almost self-generating. Extra mention to Roe, because he and the writers took a standard TV trope -- the rebellious teenage son -- and gave it new dimension. His defiance seemed not merely a result of his age, but his upbringing: awkwardly politicized by his parents' inability to leave their work at the office. If Madam Secretary felt a touch flatter than usual at the top of Season 3, it was through no fault of its own. It's simply that Barbara Hall and company had chosen (at the end of Season 2) to put the fall focus on a fictional U.S. Presidential election that -- as it turned out -- could never have been as outrageous or unnerving as the one that played out in the real world. (Hall wisely wrapped it up, neatly and efficiently, in the first episode of the New Year.) But it's still the best hour of drama that network TV has to offer.

Grantchester (ITV/PBS). I had some concerns at the top of Series 2; although it was wonderful having Reverend Sidney Chambers back on the screen, the first episode left me disoriented. But part of that disorientation, I soon realized, was that I didn't know the ground rules. Grantchester had arrived in 2014 as an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- in proportions I'd never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Series 1 had found Sidney still mired in memories of the Second World War: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. I had presumed his wartime experiences would continue to haunt him; I hadn't realized that Series 2 would leave them behind and develop its own six-episode arc. But once I made the adjustment, I settled in quickly, because the new story-line was sensational. It turned out to be, in some ways, even more traumatic, because it involved the bond between Sidney and Geordie: it took on the relationship at the heart of the show. Grantchester in Series 2 took a hard look at its own protagonists, at its very premise, and dared to ask: would, in fact, a priest and a police detective become best mates in 1950's Cambridge? Or would their dissimilar views -- above all, on whether there are moral laws that override man-made ones -- doom any potential friendship? Sidney and Geordie reached an impasse through the season-long story of Gary Bell (heart-wrenchingly played by Sam Frenchum), a young man at the wrong place at the wrong time, sentenced to death for trying to help a friend. As Sidney defended him, consoled him and ultimately mourned him, he was forced to confront a world where authority and decency seem at odds, where vengeance too often masquerades as justice. James Norton continued to dominate -- and devastate -- and his physical assault of Geordie and verbal laceration of Amanda in the penultimate episode were particularly powerful. And it's a hallmark of how assured the series had become that it could recover from both -- without ever feeling pat or rushed -- by season's end.

Grantchester's second series asked: how do we maintain some semblance of morality in an immoral world? If we "go high," how high can we aim without risking not just disappointment, but desolation? And if disappointment and desolation do come, how do we keep them from breaking us? The real world was a horrifying place in 2016. South Sudan's civil war intensified. Terrorists struck in Nice, Istanbul, Cairo, and Orlando. Natural disasters in Taiwan, Indonesia, Italy and Haiti claimed thousands of lives. Russia hacked our Presidential election, and our leadership announced plans to overturn affordable health care. At year's end, Aleppo became (in the words of the U.N. human rights chief) "a slaughterhouse." And through it all we kept asking ourselves: how can we do better? How can we not merely raise our voices, but make a difference? And how do we avoid getting so lost in the injustice and immorality, the chaos and corruption, that we lose the best part of ourselves? Some of the best series in 2016 -- Madam Secretary, Grantchester, Humans, Close to the Enemy -- asked these questions at a time when we most needed to hear them, and offered scenarios that, while in no way holding them up as "solutions," at least gave us examples of how to stand firm, stand tall and stand for something.

2016 was, on reflection, a very good year for TV.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: My Top 50 Serials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43. The Web of Fear (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Douglas Camfield

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

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

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

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

40. The Mind Robber (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Peter Ling
directed by David Maloney

It starts brilliant and ends brilliant; it's sustained brilliance that eludes it. One of the dangers of a serial like "The Mind Robber" is that when you build a story on, as the Doctor describes them, "conjuring tricks," you'd better have an endless bag of them, because the plot isn't building in any traditional way. Ling's bag is three-fourths full. Make no mistake: "The Mind Robber" is remarkable -- it's the Troughton era stretching beyond its own technical capabilities, in a way the early Hartnell era did routinely. But there's also something static and uncertain at its core. By the time Episode 3 ends with basically the same cliffhanger as Episode 2, the repetitive nature of the plot starts to grow tiresome, and once Episode 4 dissolves into some shaky set-pieces (Zoe doing repeated judo flips on a 21st-century comic-strip character, and later setting off an alarm in panic, as if she's never faced danger before; the Doctor bluffing his way into a castle with a comic accent that brings to mind the worst parts of "The Highlanders"), you can feel Ling flailing for ideas. Ling tries to suggest that the traps set for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are there to gauge the Doctor's resourcefulness, to see if he's a worthy successor, but that's not borne out in the final confrontation, when we learn that all that's required is "a man of boundless imagination." So ultimately, the conjuring tricks serve no real narrative function, and David Maloney -- in his first professional directorial gig -- offers no solutions. Maloney would ultimately blossom into one of the best Who helmers; here he has good ideas and a "can do" spirit, but at times, he seems overwhelmed by the material. The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story is never less than impressive. But you're left with a nagging irritation that the serial deserved one final rewrite, and someone more experienced calling the shots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. The Power of the Daleks (Second Doctor, 1966)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surviving clips look remarkably good, but the audio sounds even better. Davies lets the dialogue find its own pace and dynamic level. He shapes the serial, in a way that no Troughton director had to that point. But Black is the true hero of "The Macra Terror," and in fact, he's one of the forgotten heroes of Doctor Who: forgotten because, as with others, most of his serials are missing. "Macra Terror," like his earlier "Savages," offers a glimpse into a dystopian future masquerading as an idyllic one, where people are treated as commodities, where individuality is sacrificed to conformity, creativity to obedience. In some ways, in its depiction of a fascist society, yet one eerily like our own, it's even more relevant today than it was when originally aired. Black invariably knew how to create well-defined characters with short, bold strokes -- and then how to further develop them across four episodes -- and he always had a good grasp of how to use the regulars. The change in Troughton when he's given a good script and an empathetic director is astounding; his performance in "Macra Terror" is the first time all the traits he'd been playing with since "Power of the Daleks" coalesce; at times, his line readings take your breath away. It takes five serials, but in "Macra Terror," the Second Doctor finally becomes the Doctor. Black uses Michael Craze's edgy intensity to cast him in a villainous light, and he's never been better; with Ben's sanity temporarily derailed, Jamie is then able to assume more of a leading man role, and it suits Frazer Hines splendidly. Only poor Anneke Wills is reduced to shrieking in terror for much of the serial; it's almost as if producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis, once they'd decided to let her go, were determined to give her material that suited her least, so they wouldn't get second thoughts.

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

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

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

28. The Ice Warriors (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Derek Martinus

If there must be monster stories (and, of course, there must), could they all be directed as well as "Ice Warriors"? In anyone else's hands, the serial might have dissolved into a puddle of goo, but Martinus holds it together in his nerviest style. His visual approach is so bold, he almost dares you not to watch -- right from the start, as he sets the creative credits against an icy backdrop while sirens sing. If "Evil of the Daleks" showed he could weave disparate plot strands into something cohesive, "Warriors" proves he can take a potentially stagnant story and dazzle. (It's the show's greatest directorial tour-de-force until David Maloney on "Deadly Assassin.") And to Hayles' great credit, although his assignment was "give us a new monster," he understands that the true monsters are those in human form: here, the ones who destroy each other in the name of science. At the heart of "The Ice Warriors" is a frosty relationship desperately in need of thawing: between the imperious Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth, a triumph of method-acting mannerisms) and his canny but erratic chief scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, all avuncular scuffiness). "The Ice Warriors" feeds off those characters; it's also blessed with Troughton's best team. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria were the perfect trio -- in particular, because of what Victoria inspired in Jamie: someone brave, bold, protective, and occasionally flirtatious. (Because more of Season 6 existed until recently, more folks prized the Doctor-Jamie-Zoe combo. But Zoe diminished Jamie; the Highlander with the street smarts and the sex appeal was no match for the two geniuses piloting the TARDIS, and Jamie was too often reduced to the role of village idiot.) Deborah Watling certainly wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, but that's not what she was there for: right from the start, in David Whitaker's "Evil of the Daleks," she was there to bring out the best in Jamie, who in turn brought out the best in the Second Doctor.

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

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

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

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

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