Monday, July 3, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#140 - #131)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) Two of the next ten are helmed by Morris Barry, two by Chris Clough and one by Paul Bernard, among the dreariest directors to ever darken the Doctor Who soundstages. It's probably not a coincidence that I rate these serials so low. But lest you fear that I'll be trashing the classic series for pages to come, I see that just below, somewhere around #134, there's a perceptible shift in the tone of my reviews, as we move from serials for which I have little affection to ones that, despite their flaws, have an element or two that keep drawing me in, every time.

140. The Tomb of the Cybermen (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis
directed by Morris Barry

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

139. The Happiness Patrol (Seventh Doctor, 1988)
written by Graeme Curry
directed by Chris Clough

It's the rare misfire by the great art director John Asbridge. Ace complains early on that the place is "too happy," but there's nothing happy about it. It's dark, gloomy and grimy; there's a disconnect between what she's describing and what you're seeing. And although Terra Alpha is meant to be a society in turmoil, there's never a sense of a "civilization"; when you hear lines like "The rebels have taken over the factories," you have no idea what they're talking about. The set design is so cramped and claustrophobic, the streets look like hallways, and the underground tunnels like air vents; it's as if Helen A. rules over a very unhappy hotel. Classic Who had its successes creating alien planets in studio-bound serials (e.g., "The Ribos Operation," "Kinda," "Snakedance"), but this is not one of them. But even if the budget had allowed for location footage, would "Happiness Patrol" be any better? It fixes a satirical target almost instantly, then spins its wheels for three episodes. You keep waiting for one event that seems meaningful, one confrontation that seems consequential, but you're left with brief, disconnected scenes. There's no flow, momentum, or build, and things that should be highlights -- like the dissolution of the Candy Man -- become non-events. And as with much of later McCoy, it becomes wearying when the Doctor has so many of the answers up front; we long so to explore alongside him, but we're denied that chance. Five minutes in, the Doctor announces, "I've been hearing disturbing rumors about Terra Alpha, so I decided to look in. Something very nasty is happening here, and we have to put a stop to it." And Ace is right behind him, "I want to nail those scumbags." You begin to long for the days of the Randomizer. You yearn for the Seventh Doctor to turn up somewhere and say, "I have no idea where we are or who's here, but let's go find out, shall we?" But this Doctor knows pretty much everything ahead of time, and huge parts of the serial play on an endless loop of exposition. (Earl: "What's wrong with these little guys?" Doctor: "They're on the edge of starvation. No sugar in the pipes." Earl: "Why can't they live on the surface?" Doctor: "They used to, but they were driven down here by human settlers.") Instead of the Professor taking us on a fabulous adventure, we're stuck getting the lecture afterwards.

138. Planet of the Daleks (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Terry Nation
directed by David Maloney

Jo looks smashing in brown bell-bottom slacks and a checked jacket with off-center zipper and padded shoulders; that alone sustains you for a while. (The Doctor, amusingly, on the brink of death, manages to change his outfit between scenes.) "Planet of the Daleks" has one of Who's finest directors, not to mention the production designer who'd go on to do "Caves of Androzani." But it's also got a Nation script that regurgitates prior efforts, ad nauseam -- in particular, the Daleks' first appearance and their "Master Plan." In the first ten minutes alone, you feel like you've seen it all before -- because you have: the injured TARDIS member, left behind while his companion goes in search of medical aid; the dense jungle looking out on a big city; dangerous alien plants capable of destroying human intruders; invisible pursuers; and of course, the requisite appearance of the Daleks at the end of Part 1. (There's also Nation's obsession with using "space" as an adjective: here the doctor qualified in "space medicine.") And this is before we get the showdown between the Thals and the Daleks that's supposed to be a follow-up to "The Daleks," but plays more like a remake. It seems to be a serial that David Maloney took on with a defeatist attitude; it's easy to forget, because of his miraculous accomplishments early in the Tom Baker era, that for most of his time with Doctor Who, he was an on-again, off-again director -- and this marks his most indifferent work since "The Krotons." It's a professional job, and sometimes even a stylish one, but there's no personal signature, no emotional connection to the material. In Part 2, Jo has a lengthy conversation with an invisible native, and the way Maloney indicates his presence is by having him hold up a bowl of goop. And so Maloney keeps intercutting between shots of Jo and a bowl suspended in midair -- never realizing, apparently, that it might be more effective to just hold the camera on Jo, who at least could respond to what's being said, than to continually return to a bowl of goop, which -- even with the best bowls -- is fairly inexpressive. This from the man whose last serial was "War Games" and whose next serial will be "Genesis of the Daleks." Maloney phoning it in is still better than most of the Pertwee-era directors, but it's not nearly as good as him actually being there.

137. The King's Demons (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Terence Dudley
directed by Tony Virgo

Anthony Ainley's Master was well hidden in "Castrovalva" and (whatever one may think of the characterization) pretty much unrecognizable in "Time-Flight." But how much longer could you pull off the feat of having the Master in disguise for half the serial, only to cut to cliff-hanger on his unmasking? Not much longer at all, as it turns out. From a few moments into "The King's Demons," it's pretty clear that that guy with the scruffy red beard and the on-again off-again French accent is Anthony Ainley; the camera doesn't shoot him from behind, or resort to other tricks to shield his identity. So when it comes time for the Big Reveal, there isn't one, and worse, Dudley doesn't even offer up a reason that the Doctor and Tegan didn't recognize him; we're left to believe that they just weren't paying attention. But then, "The King's Demons" gives the impression of being created by people who thought details would only get in the way. It's a period piece where Dudley was asked to include the Master and a new companion, a robot who could mouth to pre-recorded speech (but couldn't yet walk), so you're willing to forgive certain failings that stem from their inclusion, as there was obviously a lot of heavy rewriting to accommodate them. But how about story-telling basics? How about when the Doctor and his companions are led up castle stairs to a chamber where they'll make themselves at home, and you want to separate one from the group, you do more than have him pause to stare out a window? How about, if you're the director, you actually put something in that window: an image suggesting why he lingers or even a quick POV shot? And how about, if you're the writer, when you have the Doctor ask, in the next scene, what happened to their missing companion, you have the remaining one offer up something more specific than "He stopped to look at something"? The detail that does exist in "The King's Demons," which partially redeems it, is provided by the BBC, which -- as ever -- is able to dress a period piece in sumptuous style. And to his credit, Virgo pulls off a great joust in the opening scenes. What a shame he can't figure out how to stage a mental duel in Part 2. The showdown between the Doctor and the Master is lame, as they stare at each other forever, while the camera -- in strobe-like fashion -- alternates between them. What could have been a tremendous climax -- dredging up a dozen years of onscreen history and rivalry -- is reduced to the pair standing silently frozen. It's like Davison is being asked not to act -- and rare for him, you can sense his discouragement, through to episode's end. By the time the Doctor's inviting the robot to join the TARDIS crew and indulging Tegan in a puerile game of "either he goes or I go," Davison looks like he's abandoned hope.

136. Dragonfire (Seventh Doctor, 1987)
written by Ian Briggs
directed by Chris Clough

The Doctor announces near the top, "I've been picking up a faint tracking signal for some time. I think there's something interesting going on there, Mel" -- but it turns out he's wrong. There's not much of interest at all. "Dragonfire" is busy, to be sure: it's got treasure maps and dragons and zombie soldiers, and lots of other things we've seen or feel like we've seen -- but there's nothing energizing it, or holding it together, and ultimately, it commits the cardinal sin of being mediocre. McCoy has one nice scene with a guard, where he tries to distract him with talk of existentialism, but instead finds a kindred spirit -- but for much of it, McCoy is unusually disengaged. And occasionally Clough gets a pleasing rhythm going, or pulls off a surprise -- the treasure reveal is effective -- but mostly his work feels half-hearted. And it's not helped along by the introduction of Ace; she comes off as angry and sullen, and Aldred seems out of her depth. (She doesn't do Bonnie Langford any favors, who's stuck by her side for most of the serial; as unfortunate companion farewells go, this one might even trump Dodo and "The War Machines.") Ace has a big monologue halfway through, after she's quit her waitress job (because a woman complains that her ice-cream soda is lumpy), about her childhood fantasies of seeing the universe, and how they've all been dashed -- and how her real name is Dorothy, but she's christened herself Ace because her "real" Mom and Dad never would have given her a "naff" name like Dorothy. It's supposed to make us go, "Ooh, and now she'll get to fulfill those dreams by traveling with the Doctor," but it's so simple-minded and self-pitying, you just want to reach through the small screen, grab her by the T-shirt, and say, "Get a name, get a job, get a life."

135. The Daemons (Third Doctor, 1971)
written by Robert Sloman & Barry Letts (as Guy Leopold)
directed by Christopher Barry
Producer Barry Letts wanted to try his hand at writing a serial. The result isn't the worst script Doctor Who had produced to that point, but there's no shame in coming in second. The Master conjures up a demon he himself can't control, one hellbent on destroying mankind, but in the final moments, the demon finds himself so baffled by human logic that he self-destructs. That's not merely the bare bones of the plot; that's the plot. But as ineffectual as the story-line is, the use of the cast is worse. Letts wanted to focus in on the UNIT family he himself had helped forge -- in particular, Jo Grant, Mike Yates and Sergeant Benton. Which is lovely if you actually do that. But the three are so subordinated to the Doctor, who had achieved superstar status in the soft reboot that ushered in Season 8, that no one can make a move without him. "The Daemons" is a serial best summed up by two quick exchanges: "I'm scared." "Don't worry: the Doctor will be here soon." And "I'm going to go see what's happening." "The Doctor told us to stay here." "Oh, all right." The Doctor keeps instructing everyone to "keep away" -- that is, when he's not insulting them. The Brigadier, rendered useless by being stranded on the outskirts of town until the final chapter, takes the most abuse. He makes a recommendation to the Doctor, who retorts, "You'll do no such thing, what an idiotic suggestion": dismissing the Brigadier's observations as "a hasty and inaccurate assessment" made by someone with "the mind of an accountant." The Doctor is foul-tempered and impatient; the Brigadier is obliging and ineffectual. The Master is given dodgy motivation, ham-fisted tactics and rotten dialogue. (When the Daemon appears, he begs him, "No, no, stop! Go back! Go back! You will destroy me! No! No!" The serial inspires Roger Delgado's only bad Who performance, a nostril-flaring, eye-bulging bit of hammery that make you yearn for Anthony Ainley.) And Jo, Mike and Benton are stranded with little to do, except beware the Doctor's wrath. At one point, after the Doctor mocks the Brigadier's military instincts, Jo sides with the Doctor, expressing her own pacifist beliefs -- and the Doctor condemns her for contradicting her superior. You can't win if you're Jo Grant in "The Daemons." Mike refers to her as a "little idiot," and then, as if channeling the Doctor, calls her that to her face. And at the end, the Doctor explains the denouement to his intellectual inferiors: "By a ridiculous and foolhardy act of self-sacrifice, Jo here has managed to save us." Jo: "I did?" Doctor: "You did. You see, Azal couldn't face an act as irrational and as illogical as her being prepared to give up her life for me." It's a rare and cunning serial that can make Jo the hero and still manage to demean her.

134. The Moonbase (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Kit Pedler
directed by Morris Barry

Episode 1 brings the promise of an intelligent script, something that's been lacking in the last few serials ("The Highlanders," "Underwater Menace"). By the following episode, it's clear that intelligence only gets you so far: that personality and pacing would be nice, too. Episode 2 feels like it lasts a year; at one point, six scientists gather around their commander, and you realize they're indistinguishable from each other -- that not one has been given a defining, recognizable characteristic. And when these ciphers start mouthing jibber-jabber ("Check the gravitation units." "Field stabilising at 48, Mister Hobson." "Prepare to move probe. Check coordinates." "Twenty degree tilt complete." "The field's not correcting. We'll have to increase the reactor power." "You can't do that. The torus will burn out."), "The Moonbase" becomes anathema. In Episode 3, even Polly and Ben turn into scientists -- all Kit Pedler can envision apparently -- as they devise a cocktail to toss at the Cybermen. Jamie fares better. Frazer Hines' contract hadn't been picked up when Pedler wrote his initial outline, so he copes with his addition by knocking him unconscious five minutes in and keeping him bedridden as long as possible. But ironically, Jamie's story-line is the only one that feels remotely relatable. Jamie lying injured, groggy and alone -- as Cybermen emerge to steal people away -- plays into some of our most basic childhood fears: of hospital stays; of being abandoned; of what the First Doctor called "all the things that go bumpety bumpety in the night." "Moonbase" is the serial where you see the Second Doctor finally start to take shape and take charge, and Troughton -- growing ever more comfortable in the role, four serials into his run -- does it against all odds: in Episode 2, the Doctor is forced to do a comic bit with scissors reminiscent of Harpo Marx in Duck Soup; in Episode 3, apparently still channeling Harpo, he barely has any lines. But despite Troughton and Hines' best efforts, much of "Moonbase" remains resolutely earthbound.

133. The Time Monster (Third Doctor, 1972)
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Paul Bernard

"It was fun while it lasted," the Doctor announces midway through, when some homemade electronic gizmo short-circuits. But Pertwee doesn't look like he's having any fun at all. (The lead scientist -- who, when she's not going on Sloman's ill-conceived notion of a feminist rant, has an admirably self-effacing sense of humor -- seems fascinated by the experiment: Pertwee, not so much.) He delivers most of "Time Monster" in a monotone, whether it's handing out instructions, delivering exposition, or mangling throwaway lines. At one point, he warns of the "utter annihilation" of the human race with what appears to be bland disinterest; in Part 6, when Jo is being threatened by a minotaur, he rushes into the room and calls out "Jo, where are you?" without urgency, sounding more irritated than anything else. (He creates a template that Colin Baker will later make use of. Lucky us.) Pertwee only comes to life in Part 4, in the duel of the twin TARDISes, when the Master's circuitry forces him to speak backwards, and -- as with his couple of disguises in "The Green Death" -- the challenge unleashes his comic chops, briefly energizing him. "Time Monster" features the absolute stupidest version of Jo Grant, and perhaps because of that, Katy Manning seems strangely off her game, alternately mugging and mannered. And director Bernard, who never made a decision he couldn't dodge, occasionally manages a clever angle, juxtaposition or dissolve, but there's hardly a moment that brims with assurance; mostly, he seems like he's propping himself up, trying to get through it as best he can. (It's like witnessing a jittery bridegroom at the altar; you know it'll be over soon, but that doesn't mean you want to watch.) Only Roger Delgado does himself proud: doubly animated without seeming in any way cartoonish. He's clearly aware of the script and production design's absurdities, but he nonetheless slams his way through them in his most brazen style, making them seem -- as you're watching -- entirely palatable, and on occasion, unforgivably festive.

132. The Space Museum (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Glyn Jones
directed by Mervyn Pinfield

The opening chapter is reminiscent of Pinfield's "The Sensorites," a mystery for the four travelers to solve: in this case, a glimpse at a future in which they're frozen and imprisoned, specimens in the eponymous museum. And although the principals aren't at their best (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, in particular, seem tired), it's still one of the great ones. But once it moves past its prologue, "Space Museum" becomes something much more commonplace: a generational clash populated with third-rate actors. (The older ones are so awful, you take perverse delight in watching the youngsters beat them up.) Pinfield's pacing is glacial, and his manner half-hearted; he litters the final three chapters with stiff fight scenes, static interrogations and unconvincing chases. (At one point, Ian hides behind the TARDIS, five feet away from where guards are searching for him, and they do not see him). It's Maureen O'Brien who, once the serial establishes itself as a showcase for her, gives it whatever power it has. We've had four serials demonstrating Vicki's youthful exuberance, and referencing her training and education; now we get to see them put to good use, as she bonds with a band of brothers who desperately need her skill set and experience, and who are -- not incidentally -- close to her own age. The girl given to exclaiming "I am redundant around here" finds her calling as a young rebel. (And the prologue, which at first seemed disconnected from the rest of the piece, gives Vicki a reason for wanting in. Changing their future will mean changing her own.) In some ways, "Space Museum" is as much of a character piece for Vicki as "The Rescue" was -- you just have to dig past the dreary spots to uncover the good ones, and few other First Doctor serials requires you to dig quite so deep.

131. The Power of Kroll (Fourth Doctor, 1978-79)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Norman Stewart
After her best serial yet, "The Androids of Tara," where Mary Tamm proved as incandescent as any Thirties screwball heroine, Romana is reduced to peril monkey and useless companion: strung up for sacrifice, then losing the Key to Time tracer, and ultimately relegated to looking over the Doctor's shoulder and asking questions like "what is it?" and (when he disappears to do something important, leaving her behind) "where are you going?" and (when he returns from doing something important, having left her behind) "are you all right?" Holmes obviously had no idea how she'd grown over her first four serials, and hadn't developed any further affection for her since the last time he scripted her, as he once again subordinates her to the Doctor and has her indulge in the psychological profiling ("Emotional insulation is usually indicative of psychofugal trauma") that was her least attractive attribute in "Ribos Operation." Like several Classic Who serials, "The Power of Kroll" is about the oppression of an indigenous population by off-worlders -- and here the bigotry is clearly tied to the color of their skin. Holmes isn't subtle about the racism; the head of the refinery insists, "Would you let a small band of semi-savages stand in the way of progress?" and when warned that his plans will render their civilization extinct, his justification is "I don't count the Swampies as being civilized." But Holmes's sympathies hardly lie with the swamp dwellers either, who sentence Romana to death not once, but twice, and are given to explaining any and all events -- even contradictory ones that occur moments apart -- by inventing increasingly absurd rationales about "what Kroll wants." (At one point, after listening to their nonsense, the Doctor bangs his fist against his head repeatedly, as if to say, "What a bunch of idiots.") The resulting serial is serviceable and uninspired: occasionally diverting and rarely embarrassing -- but ultimately, a real "who cares" story, featuring irredeemable people engaged in unsavory activities, and no one worth siding with. Philip Madoc, wildly miscast, keeps bringing his lines down to a sinister diminuendo, stealing focus as if to say, "I normally do larger parts." Of the principal actors, only John Leeson (taking a few weeks off from voicing K9) acquits himself admirably. He not only offers up, easily, the best performance, but over time, comes to serve as the serial's moral compass. His reward is to be shot in the back.

Next: continuing the countdown, #130-#121: hands, horns and Hancock.

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