Thursday, July 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surviving clips look remarkably good, but the audio sounds even better. Davies lets the dialogue find its own pace and dynamic level. He shapes the serial, in a way that no Troughton director had to that point. But Black is the true hero of "The Macra Terror," and in fact, he's one of the forgotten heroes of Doctor Who: forgotten because, as with others, most of his serials are missing. And ironically, the one that survives, "The War Machines," is the least of his efforts; it sets Hartnell in present-day London, and surrounds him with hipsters, and feels "novel," but it's essentially a straightforward adventure. But "The Savages" and, in particular, "Macra Terror" are something more: a glimpse into a future where people are treated as commodities, where individuality is sacrificed to conformity, creativity to obedience. In some ways, in its depiction of a fascist society, yet one eerily like our own, it's even more relevant today than it was when originally aired. Black invariably knew how to create well-defined characters with short, bold strokes -- and then how to develop them across four episodes -- and he always had a good grasp of how to use the regulars. The change in Troughton when he's given a decent script and an empathetic director is astounding; his performance in "Macra Terror" is the first time all the traits he'd been playing with since "Power of the Daleks" coalesce; at times, his line readings take your breath away. It takes five serials, but in "Macra Terror," the Second Doctor finally becomes the Doctor. Black uses Michael Craze's edgy intensity to cast him in a villainous light, and it's his best Who performance since his debut (also penned by Black); with Ben's sanity temporarily derailed, Jamie is then able to assume more of a leading man role, and it suits Frazer Hines splendidly. Only poor Anneke Wills is reduced to shrieking in terror for much of the serial; it's almost as if producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis, once they'd decided to let her go, were determined to give her material that suited her least, so they wouldn't get second thoughts.

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

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" Later, when she and the Doctor are held captive on a spaceship, she paces furiously, hands spinning around her head as she brainstorms escape plans ("We'll give it a few minutes, then I'll start groaning and pretending I'm ill") -- no sooner rejecting one scheme than envisioning another: "I saw this film once, and there were these two big gangsters, big fellows they were..." Later still, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape; her monologue has to be charming enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a two-minute tour-de-force. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since "Terror of the Autons," as she shows how far she's come in two years, resisting his mind-control with a string of nursery rhymes, then through an act of will-power. Jon Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Roger Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

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

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