Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here.) Remarkably, as we enter my top 20, and once we pass the first one (the ultimate "love it or hate it" serial, and the last of the five unfairly maligned serials I wrote about in 2015), these next ten are probably the serials where my opinions most match popular consensus. They're some of the most beloved classic serials, and I love them too -- although, as I've discovered, not always for the reasons others do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. The Massacre (First Doctor, 1966)
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell
Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived at all; it feels utterly in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

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

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

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

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

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