Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#50 - #41)

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.) I think it tickles me that, as I begin my top-50 countdown, these next ten might be my most iconoclastic: to some, my most objectionable. What many consider the most lightweight Fifth Doctor serial (#46), sitting just ahead of the one often labeled a classic (#49). A Seventh Doctor serial that many hate, from a season they hate even more (#45). A Third Doctor serial that, even among its cast and crew, has become a Doctor Who punchline (#48). And a couple of First Doctor marmites (#50, #44). I adore them all. When I wrote earlier about the Hartnell era, I hailed its unwillingness to settle on a formula; in Who's later years, when formulas have become standard, I gravitate towards the serials that surprise me -- that shake things up. I'm happiest when I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. When they do that, I'm more than willing to forgive the gaffes and misfires.

50. The Gunfighters (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker
It's not "Doctor Who does a Western." It's "Doctor Who does a B-Western" -- that one letter makes all the difference. "The Gunfighters" embraces the giddiest clich├ęs of the genre: not the open spaces of a Red River, High Noon or Shane, but the studio look of a Republic programmer from the '30s, like Doomed at Sundown, The Purple Vigilantes, or Wyoming Outlaw, where you knew that if you walked 200 feet in any direction, you wouldn't be on the road out of town; you'd be on the next soundstage. It owes more than a passing nod to 20th Century Fox's Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday, and a bloody good showdown at the O.K. Corral. (It was later remade by John Ford as the classic My Darling Clementine.) With "Myth Makers," Cotton went for character comedy; here the humor stems from a fish-out-of-water premise: the Doctor, who abhors violence, touching down in a town where all feuds are settled by gunfire. It's one of Hartnell's best performances: an amusing tug-of-war between the Doctor, who clearly doesn't want to be in Tombstone, and Hartnell, who so clearly does. It also provides terrific showcases for Jackie Lane (who shows unexpected comic chops in her scenes with Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday) and for Peter Purves, who serves up the best double-take in all of Doctor Who. Where "Gunfighters" fails is in the new production team not trusting the material; it was commissioned by producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh, but their successors -- Lloyd Innes and Gerry Davis -- had no affection for historicals, and little interest in stretching the boundaries of the series. And Rex Tucker, the assigned director, admitted to misgivings. When he opens with a shot of tumbleweed rolling down the streets of Tombstone, then pans up to show the town itself, you think he's sending up that hoary film tradition of masking constrictive settings with unusual camera angles. But by about the thirtieth oddball shot, you realize he's doing it because he thinks the script needs salvaging. (He's busy saving something that's not in need of rescue.) The same could be said for the ballad he commissions, which is charming at first, but ends up feeling random and relentless. And is it the famed tug-of-war between Tucker and Lloyd for control of the final edit that results in the serial seeming so scrappily assembled? "The Gunfighters" boasts a pleasurable script and performances to cherish. But the surgery the production team attempts is about as subtle as the extraction the Doctor undergoes in Doc Holliday's dental chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who -- a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space -- and proves the ideal story for Martin. One of Who's earliest directors, he suffered from a lack of technical proficiency that tripped up many a first-season episode, but even at his most static and unfocused, you saw his eagerness to experiment: to stretch the production design and maneuver the camera beyond what Doctor Who could easily handle. The planet Vortis proves his perfect playground; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but as he shuttles between the ant-like Zarbi and the butterfly-winged Menoptra and the grubby Optera (each with its own verbal and visual style of communicating), he's able to keep the images fresh, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: William Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by story editor Dennis Spooner (it refers back to the previous serial, "The Romans," which he himself had written); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have devised Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

43. The Green Death (Third Doctor, 1973)
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Michael E. Briant

The principal players are well-served (ironically, it's not until Jo's farewell that Sloman and producer Barry Letts manage to successfully showcase the UNIT family, as they'd first attempted two years earlier in "The Daemons"), and Katy Manning's departure inspires Pertwee's best performance. He's decisive without being abrasive (his "stop winding" at the end of Episode 1 is reminiscent of his "cut it open" cliffhanger in "Ambassadors of Death"), and he's permitted not only to exercise his fighting skills, but to flex his comic muscles: on a wild visit to Metebelis III in Episode 1, and posing as a milkman and a cleaning lady later on. The script has all the Pertwee-era staples: its topical concerns; its reliance on mind control as a plot device; some distractingly low-rent CSO; and, of course, its pervasive chauvinism. (In Part 4, when Jo takes off in search of a specimen needed for an experiment, the serial thinks it's showing her initiative and pluck, but it's really about Jo feeling the need to prove herself, and doing so by being foolhardy.) But its flaws are swept away by Briant's work, which is a fascinating hybrid. In its footage of factories and quarries, and its use of Welsh extras who are determinedly rough around the edges, it's got that familiar "masculine" look that the Pertwee era fed on. But it's offset by a gentility in pacing and tone; it's one of the most civilized of serials. It's a world where the principals dine out -- and dress for dinner -- while the villains, engaged in polite conversation about destroying mankind, hum Chopin and Beethoven. Where even the altercations are well-mannered: "Are you threatening me?" "Yes, I believe I am." It's admirably low-key -- and that delicacy and restraint, set against a backdrop of miners and picketers and industrial waste, gives it a duality that's almost hypnotic. And because Briant has been so even-handed, when the time comes (in the concluding chapter) for the corporate mogul to turn on his mechanical master, and for the computer to go haywire, Briant's able to pull out all the visual stops and make a familiar story-beat seem fresh -- as he's been doing throughout. Despite so many standard and potentially stale elements, "The Green Death" doesn't feel like any other work in the classic canon. Briant lulls you -- as BOSS does his victims -- into a sense of complacency; he whispers, "Watch this," and you're helpless to resist.

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

It starts brilliant and ends brilliant; it's sustained brilliance that eludes it. One of the dangers of a serial like "The Mind Robber" is that when you build a story on, as the Doctor describes them, "conjuring tricks," you'd better have an endless bag of them, because the plot isn't building in any traditional way. Ling's bag is three-fourths full. Make no mistake: "The Mind Robber" is remarkable -- it's the Troughton era stretching beyond its own technical capabilities, in a way the early Hartnell era did routinely. But there's also something static and uncertain at its core. By the time Episode 3 ends with basically the same cliffhanger as Episode 2, the repetitive nature of the plot starts to grow tiresome, and once Episode 4 dissolves into some shaky set-pieces (Zoe doing repeated judo flips on a 21st-century comic-strip character, and later setting off an alarm in panic, as if she's never faced danger before; the Doctor bluffing his way into a castle with a comic accent that brings to mind the worst parts of "The Highlanders"), you can feel Ling flailing for ideas. Ling tries to suggest that the traps set for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are there to gauge the Doctor's resourcefulness, to see if he's a worthy successor, but that's not borne out in the final confrontation, when we learn that all that's required is "a man of boundless imagination." So ultimately, the conjuring tricks serve no real narrative function, and David Maloney -- in his first professional directorial gig -- offers no solutions. Maloney would ultimately blossom into one of the best Who helmers; here he has good ideas and a "can do" spirit, but at times, he seems overwhelmed by the material. You're aware of odd choices and missed opportunities. (At the end of Episode 5, as Zoe and Jamie are surrounded by robots, she cries "look" and points, even though they're only three feet away. And seconds later, they're supposedly trapped between the pages of a giant book, even though -- as staged -- there's a clear escape route.) The last episode -- charged with imagination and filmed with precision -- compensates for a lot, and the scope and ambition of the story is never less than impressive. But you're left with a nagging irritation that the serial deserved one final rewrite, and someone more experienced calling the shots.

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

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and stare at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, but Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. And because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero (part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer), a duality that only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2017, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

Next, continuing the countdown, #40-#31: robots, roadtrips and Rutans.

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