Friday, July 14, 2017

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

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

30. The Pirate Planet (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by Douglas Adams
directed by Pennant Roberts
After a season where the writers flounder so with the character of Leela, it's gratifying to see how clearly and convincingly her follow-up, Romana, is defined. And the characterization is cunning. For over a season, Tom Baker had been disengaging from the material; in Romana, the creative team invent a character whose own aloofness forces Baker to pick up the slack. But even if they realized how useful Romana would be, they couldn't have envisioned how gloriously funny Mary Tamm would be in the role -- as she is, frequently, in "The Pirate Planet," whether she's rattling the Doctor (referring to his TARDIS as a "capsule"), barking orders to K-9, or deferring to guards who are determined to arrest her. Forced into a squad car -- "Get in!" -- her politely imperious response is "I shall take that as an invitation"; Romana makes everything work on her terms. And speaking of everything working, "The Pirate Planet" is like an overstuffed goodie bag. It's not the first Who with a "throw it against the wall" mentality, it's merely the first one where everything sticks: air cars, linear-induction corridors, planets within planets -- plus the ultimate in dog vs. bird smack-downs. In an in-joke best seen in hindsight, Adams, then completing his first set of scripts for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has Romana and the Doctor do their own version of the famed hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night. The serial may be called "The Pirate Planet," but it's Adams who's the real pirate, willing to plunder anything in the interest of self-amusement, and he keeps the surprises coming until about twelve minutes to the end, at which point the serial falls apart in a lengthy coda of explosions and exposition. But until that point, it's sublime. It's remembered for the heavy doses of Adams humor -- and indeed, the bright lines and visual gags, underscored by a production design steeped in primary colors, are memorable. But underpinning all that is one of the darkest concepts in the classic catalog: a monarch who will literally crush whole galaxies to extend her longevity. And the fury that inspires in the Doctor grounds the serial. ("You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets?") All the usual caveats about Pennant Roberts' direction apply -- some mealy acting among the supporting cast, some shoddy effects -- but perhaps his brand of well-meaning scrappiness is just what's called for. With a more smooth technician at the helm, "Pirate Planet" would have been more polished, but would it have been more fun? You don't reach into a box of crackerjacks hoping to find a real diamond.

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

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

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

If there must be monster stories (and, of course, there must), could they all be directed as well as "Ice Warriors"? In anyone else's hands, the serial might have melted into a puddle of goo, but Martinus holds it together in his nerviest style. He sets the opening credits against stills of snowy and icy vistas, stalactites to the fore, with a theremin wailing -- like a siren singing an octave higher than she should. Is it designed to set the mood? No, it's designed to disarm you. We cut to two guest stars and a dozen extras rushing around a circular set of computer banks, as a different kind of siren blares so loudly it obscures half their lines. A minute or two later, we sneak outside to eavesdrop on an expedition, but the wind keeps drowning out their conversation -- and suddenly, there's the TARDIS, materializing on its side, sliding down a snow bank until it lands with a thump -- on its head. Martinus's visual approach is bold and relentless; if "Evil of the Daleks" showed he could weave disparate plot strands into something cohesive, "Warriors" proves he can take a potentially stagnant story and dazzle. He never lets up, and neither does the weather: the wind keeps whipping, the snow is forever blowing and drifting, and every eight seconds, the sound of the snow siren anticipates another avalanche. When the Ice Warriors finally appear, his camera inspects every inch of them: their faces, their torsos, their claws. The director's fascination ensures our own -- and to Hayles' credit, although his assignment was "give us a new monster," he understands that the true monsters are those in human form: here, the ones who destroy each other in the name of science. At the heart of "The Ice Warriors" is a frosty relationship desperately in need of thawing: between the imperious Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth, a triumph of method-acting mannerisms) and his canny but erratic chief scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, all avuncular scruffiness). "The Ice Warriors" feeds off those characters; at its core, it's not about a crisis that pits humans against Ice Warriors -- it's about a crisis that allows two men to resolve their differences. Like another free-lancer, Ian Stuart Black, Hayles intuitively understood the strengths of the principal cast and how best to highlight them, and the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are all well-served. (While Deborah Watling wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, she's ideally cast in the role David Whitaker designed for her: someone to bring out the Doctor's softer side and Jamie's protective and occasionally flirtatious nature. They both become more dynamic characters because of her.) Best-remembered as the "monster" season, Season 5 isn't most memorable for the monsters at all, but for the people fighting them -- and "The Ice Warriors" is the purest example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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