Sunday, July 9, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#80 - #71)

Midway through 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.) Two of the serials below, #77 and #78, were included in a set of essays I wrote in December of 2015, in defense of five Classic Who serials that I felt were unfairly maligned. Most of fandom, from what I've seen, would place them much lower. I see the issues folks have with them, but I find their flaws outweighed by elements that are imaginative, invigorating and audacious -- everything I love about the classic series.

80. The Five Doctors (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Terrance Dicks
directed by Peter Moffatt
Robert Holmes was set to script, but when he stumbled, Dicks stepped in. The availability of former companions shifted almost daily -- calling for a steady stream of rewrites -- and Tom Baker, who had promised his services, pulled out at the last minute. By that point, it was reasonable to expect the worst. But "The Five Doctors" is not the worst: not by a longshot. It's like the class reunion you're dreading, but come away from thinking, "Wow, that wasn't as bad as I'd feared." Sure, your friends -- since you last saw them -- are less vivid and rounded than you remembered, but spending time with them reminds you why you loved them in the first place. "The Five Doctors" has the celebratory feel of the last anniversary special, "The Three Doctors," and does it one better. "Three Doctors" suffered from reuniting the Doctors too soon, then giving the supporting cast almost nothing to do. Dicks, wisely, keeps the Doctors separated till the final reel, giving each set of Doctors and companions a chance to shine. Moffatt serves up his usual lackluster direction, offering little in the way of variety or suspense -- but the directing pool was abysmally shallow during the Davison years, so it could have been worse. (Nathan-Turner tried to engage Waris Hussein, Who's first director, to helm; then he turned to its greatest director Doug Camfield, but Camfield was still steaming over Nathan-Turner's rejection of his offer to return to the show a few years earlier. What the serial might have been under Hussein or Camfield has to be one of the great "what if?" moments in Who history.) And happily, "The Five Doctors" has one other thing that buoys and grounds it: Davison, who -- from his first gasp of pain -- makes the threat palpable, and the serial more than just a nostalgia trip. Davison, when he assumed the role of the Doctor, had eschewed the theatrical flourishes of his predecessors, crafting a Doctor who was as close to being "one of us" as a Time Lord with two hearts could be. And because of Davison's interpretation, the reduction of the other Doctors works here in a way it didn't quite in "The Three Doctors." They come to represent facets -- the best ones -- of the current Doctor: the predecessors whose command, impish humor, bravery and anarchic spirit made him what he is. By the script's design, Davison is offering up the only full-blooded performance in "The Five Doctors," but that seems unwittingly right. Just as Davison's interpretation would ultimately pave the way for NuWho, "The Five Doctors" reminds us how these Doctors paved the way for Davison -- and as a result, there's something unexpectedly moving about the adventure. It's not merely a reunion that lets you revisit old friends; it's a reminder of how the people from your past shape you into the person you become.

79. The Brain of Morbius (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Robert Holmes, from a script by Terrance Dicks (as "Robin Bland")
directed by Christopher Barry

"We're not going through all that again," the Doctor insists in Part Three, speaking for the viewers at home, mindful of how repetitive the plotting is becoming. After an extraordinarily confident start, the constant shuttling between two points has grown wearying. The Doctor, drugged by Solon and prepped for surgery, is abducted by the Sisterhood; he makes his escape back to Solon's, only to be directed back to the Sisterhood -- who, in turn, return him to Solon. Sarah Jane mostly alternates between Solon's parlor and his laboratory, but when allowed, also makes her way onto the planet's surface, in search of the Sisterhood's shrine. (The Morbius Monster later makes the same trek.) There's a whirlwind of plotting potential (the Sisterhood's flame is dying, a story-line with -- you'd imagine -- enormous promise, but the Doctor fixes it in about ten seconds), but Holmes keeps abandoning mystery and intrigue in favor of frights: the three cliffhangers are, in turn, Sarah Jane coming face-to-face with a body without a head, then a head without a body, and finally, a body with a head. And the plotting turns arbitrary and convenient: the Morbius Monster is insane when Holmes needs him to go on a destructive rampage, but regains his wits the moment he's required to engage the Doctor in a famed Gallifreyan mental duel that no one's ever mentioned before. It's another Holmes-Hinchcliffe affair so focused on frights that it can't sustain its early promise, but it's fortunate to have two dynamic performers at its core – although neither is Tom Baker or Lis Sladen. In fact, their characters -- at a point, mind you, when both actors are doing their finest work -- are ill-served, sacrificed to the story-line. Holmes can't reconcile Sarah Jane and the Doctor with the characters he needs them to be: the stock figures of countless B-movies, the weary and unwitting travelers who stumble upon -- and take refuge in -- a house of horrors. The Doctor is reduced to being ingenuous; at one point, he trusts Solon to dismantle Morbius, and you groan at his newfound naïveté – but then you realize if he weren't so trusting, there would be no plot. Sarah Jane, on the other hand, becomes a superwoman: deprived of sight, but shuffling through Solon's lair and across the rocky landscape -- arms outstretched -- as fast as the rest of us walk. It's Philip Madoc, as Solon, and Cynthia Grenville, as Maran, who elevate the serial, with bravura performances that instantly become iconic. And they're aided immeasurably by Barry, a smooth technician who rarely does more than a serial demands -- but here, the Hammer homage clearly fascinates him, and he produces his most personal work in over a decade, since "The Romans." The second half of "Morbius" is a letdown; happily, the giddy highs of the first half easily sustain you.

78. Death to the Daleks (Third Doctor, 1974)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Michael E. Briant
The closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" six years earlier. A lot of "Death" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era; it's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best the Pertwee era had to offer, and perhaps because -- by his own admission -- he disliked the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green (whose only other Who contribution was the sumptuous "Enlightenment"); Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (e.g., "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually arresting. And Carey Blyton upends all expectations of what Who should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition. And if that's not enough to engage you, "Death" comes with a secret weapon: Bellal. This native of the planet Exxilon, a miniature man seemingly covered in gray, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: a triumph of conception and casting. Actor Arnold Yarrow manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. At a mere 5'3", he's nearly a foot shorter than Pertwee, and he proves a delightfully meek foil, showing Pertwee off at his most protective and endearing. "Death to the Daleks" is the quietest Third Doctor serial, and for an era steeped in squabbling, that's cause for celebration. (I discuss "Death to the Daleks" in detail here.)

77. The Ark (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Paul Erickson
directed by Michael Imison
The design of the Monoids is atrocious, with their Beatles mop-tops, ill-draping rubber suits, beauty-pageant sashes, flipper feet and ping-pong eyes. But if you can look past the Monoids, there are riches in "The Ark" -- starting with the setting: a spaceship so large it resembles a domed planet, manned by all of mankind, shooting toward a new, inhabitable home. The premise is equally fine (the Doctor and his companions carrying the common cold to a strange world and inadvertently reducing it to ruin), and best of all is a visual leitmotif: a giant statue representing the humans' seven-hundred-year journey to their new home. It comes into play several times during the course of the plot and, at one point, turns the serial on its ear. And Michael Imison's direction triumphs over the many inadequacies in performance, script and design. The legend of the Hartnell Who is that it's slow; Imison makes "The Ark" run like a racehorse. But most of all, it's another chance to watch Peter Purves in action, and given that he's one of the forgotten heroes of Classic Who (of the nine serials he filmed with Hartnell, only three survive in their entirety), that is never a bad thing. When he was hired to play astronaut Steven Taylor in "The Chase," taking over for the departing Ian and Barbara, no one could have imagined all that he'd ultimately be called upon to do, but it was an astonishingly prescient piece of casting. As companions came and went, as Hartnell disappeared from more and more episodes, as his memory faltered and his lines started getting reassigned (e.g., the last two episodes of "The Daleks' Master Plan"), if Purves hadn't turned out to be such a charismatic chameleon -- equally adept at making heroics look convincing and exposition sound interesting, at managing both the high comedy of "The Myth Makers" and the tense drama of "The Massacre," at alternating (seemingly without ego) between sidekick and co-star, all while mastering the technobabble that was increasingly handed him -- would the show have survived? Purves is marvelous in "The Ark," and the story-line is a great change of pace for him. Poor Steven had been doing battle since he first boarded the TARDIS: being injured in Troy; butting heads with all the wannabe companions in "Master Plan"; left stranded by the Doctor in 16th-century France. "The Ark" lets him relax and take charge, and he's clever and resourceful. There's seemingly nothing he can't do, and in "The Ark" he gets to do it all. (I discuss the serial in detail here.)

76. The Seeds of Death (Second Doctor, 1969)
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Michael Ferguson
Another moon base, but thank heavens, not another "Moonbase." In penning his Ice Warriors follow-up, Hayles tries hard not to duplicate his earlier effort: this time, spreading his narrative across multiple locations, making the antagonists proactive rather than reactive. And he gives it an end-of-an-era feel that, in hindsight, seems inescapably moving. What nearly trips up "Seeds of Death" is, ironically, the Ice Warrior design itself. Set against the snow and ice of their origin story, the monsters stood out nicely; here, in a more traditional spaceship setting, they start to bleed into the background, and at first, you fear "Seeds of Death" is going to prove visually bland. But Michael Ferguson, as he would later do in "Claws of Axos," uses every trick at his disposal to sustain visual interest, and at times, the tricks come at a whirlwind pace, even when he has to upend the tone of the narrative to do so. (There's one Keystone Cops-style chase through an interplanetary house of mirrors that's delightful, however incongruous.) Jamie is pretty much wasted throughout (he was originally to have departed the series in the previous adventure, and most of his late-addition lines are of the "now what do we do?" variety), but it's one of Zoe's best Season 6 serials. It's one of the few times, post "Wheel in Space," where we get to see the Zoe we first met: brilliant, yes, but also lacking in empathy and tact. (When she instructs Jamie, "Now you watch this dial, and when it reads full, switch it off," and then adds curtly, "Now do you think you can remember that?," you just want to bitch-slap her.) Yet throughout, you see Zoe struggling to be a more rounded individual -- and Wendy Padbury is wonderful. And there's a remarkable performance by the weaselly Terry Scully, as the human who aids the Ice Warriors, that asks: how low would you sink in the interests of self-preservation? What's your breaking point? Does heroism, at some point, become instinctual? Troughton looks tired for the first three episodes -- he'd take the fourth off -- but that weariness works to the serial's advantage; its futuristic setting is imbued with nostalgia for "simpler" times, and Troughton's muted performance seems somehow sympathetic to that notion: that the world is spinning too fast, and that good ideas -- and good men -- are being forgotten in the process.

75. The Invasion (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Derrick Sherwin
directed by Douglas Camfield
What's captivating about "The Invasion" is the chance to see what the Pertwee era would have been like with Troughton: where the Doctor doesn't force his way into situations, but wheedles and cajoles. And what's unsettling is that you see some of the nastier traits of the Pertwee era already emerge: the unchecked chauvinism, the sermonizing and the speeches, the weak-willed bureaucrats and corrupt businessmen, and the propensity for mind-control plots. In a funny-sad paradox, the first four episodes -- where nothing happens -- are riveting; it's the final four -- where everything happens -- that grow tedious. Sherwin knew that Camfield would be directing, so he knew he could underwrite the first half, leading up to the Cyberman reveal, and that Camfield, with his gift for sustaining tension through detail, could make the slow pace work to his advantage. It features the Doctor and Jamie playing spy and rescue games by land, by air and by sea, and it's very much their last hurrah: when, trapped in an elevator shaft, the Doctor proposes a solution for escape, and Jamie tells him, "You know something? You're a clever wee chappie," and the Doctor blushes, it seems infused with the love between two longtime friends: both the actors and the characters. Once the Cybermen are revealed, Sherwin's plot goes to pieces. It only needed a two-episode wrap-up, but with four more to go, he throws in a lot of technobabble masquerading as science: a cerebraton mentor machine (that can induce fear in the Cybermen: sure, why not?), micro-monolithic circuits (so the Cybermen can activate their "Cyber-hypnotic force"), implanted audio-rejection capsules and depolerisers (to neutralize the Cyber-hypnotic force) -- and finally, not one, not two, but three Cyber attacks, the last a "Cyber-megatron bomb" that will "destroy life on Earth completely." Every time you think the plot is winding down -- no, the Cybermen have an even bigger back-up plan; after a while, when they've thrown everything at us but the kitchen sink, you start to fear that Sherwin is going to kill another fifteen minutes by having them throw a giant kitchen sink at us. Rare for Camfield, he loses his grip in the final episodes. Shooting fell behind, so some key scenes were abandoned and hastily rewritten, and the choppiness is noticeable. But beyond that, Camfield litters the final third with odd setups (Zoe's photographer pal, dressed in what looks like a waitress uniform, keeps stealing focus even in scenes where she's unused), strangely disconnected line readings, and a peppy patriotic theme that emerges at the oddest times.

74. Silver Nemesis (Seventh Doctor, 1988)
written by Kevin Clarke
directed by Chris Clough
Doctor Who celebrates its 25th anniversary by reinventing itself as a sketch comedy, and the faster it spins, the funnier it becomes. It riffs on the traditional "premise, set-up, punchline" style of joke-telling, and its best payoffs are visual. (Lady Peinforte and her manservant Richard are menaced by two skinheads; we cut to the Cyber Leader dismissing Peinforte as "a simple savage accompanied by a terrified peasant" -- then cut back to the skinheads, now stripped and bound and hanging upside-down from a tree.) "Silver Nemesis" is a scattershot serial, but it's full of ancillary pleasures, clever juxtapositions and neat bits of symmetry that keep poking through the narrative. The Doctor and Ace start the story at a jazz concert in the present, and conclude it being serenaded by flute and lute some 350 years in the past. Early on, Ace snares the Doctor with his umbrella to save him from embarrassment; later, he returns the favor to save her life. Near the end, Ace awkwardly converses with a Gallifreyan statue come to life, while the Peinforte pair, displaced from 1638, bridge the communication gap with an American heiress who's offered them a lift. (When she tells Richard, through her half-open car window, "Jump right in," the camera lingers hilariously on his face while he tries to decide if that's a command or an idiom in need of translation. Peinforte has no such trouble acclimating; the heiress tells her she's descended from the Remingtons of Remington Grange, and Peinforte interrupts, "I know them. Thieves and swindlers all. Dorothea Remington did bribe away my cook" -- and when the heiress remarks on Dorothea's untimely death, Peinforte admits with pride: "Twas a slow poison.") Fiona Walker and Gerard Murphy, as a gender-reversed Doctor and companion, are well cast and well matched; the serial occasionally gets outrageous, but they never do. And McCoy retains the sportiveness that was so beguiling in Season 24 (him diving into a stream to avoid gunfire and emerging with a mouthful of water is the sort of thing no Doctor could do better); even when stuck indoors and relegated to exposition, he enlivens the scenes by caressing the most mundane of objects, as if itching to turn them into props. The serial falters midway through, and recovers only sporadically after that -- and if you've come looking for a traditional Cyberman adventure, you won't find it here. But it's not often that Doctor Who has laughter on the menu -- are you really gonna turn it down?

73. Vengeance on Varos (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Philip Martin
directed by Ron Jones
The supporting players range from serviceable to strong, but the three top-billed guest stars -- Martin Jarvis as the Governor, Forbes Collins as the Chief Officer, and Nabil Shaban as Sil -- are tremendous. In fact, Jarvis pretty much walks off with the serial, grounding it with one of the finest guest shots in all of Classic Who. The other two have the showier roles, but Jarvis gives it a touch of authenticity and quiet authority rare for the Sixth Doctor era. Unfortunately, his talent and restraint make Baker look wet behind the ears. After a promising step forward in "Attack of the Cybermen," Baker is back to constantly pursing his lips, barking his lines, and annoyingly over-enunciating -- all, it seems, in an effort to appear commanding. The Governor, meanwhile, is delivering his edicts at a normal decibel level, tempering them with flashes of insecurity and warmth, and seems easily more authoritative than the Doctor. The script doesn't mean to compare and contrast the two, but it's hard not to. Early in Part 1, the TARDIS has stopped functioning, and the Doctor responds with self-pity and defeat: a "dead behind the eyes" look that doesn't flatter the character or the actor (hell, it wasn't good on Pertwee either). Meanwhile, the Governor has been subjected to an electrocution, and when he comes out of it, beaten and exhausted, he pushes through the pain, radiating determination. (As the camera closes in on Jarvis, you can see the sides of his mouth softly shake. You can't help but admire the subtlety and artistry -- particularly when Baker, later in the serial, is also subjected to a torture device, and signals his returning strength with full-on facial spasms.) The serial is ostensibly about how the Doctor comes to Varos and frees the masses from authoritarian rule, but as shot and played, it's the story of the Governor's evolution from politician to leader, and it reaches its climax midway through Part 2 when, once again on the verge of execution, the Governor turns to one of his soldiers and -- appealing to his compassion and his reason -- persuades him to reject corporate corruption and military rule. It's everything you expect the Doctor to be doing – it's everything you hope to see the Doctor doing. But there's a lot you want to see from Baker in "Varos" that you don't, either because the director didn't film it or Baker couldn't deliver the goods. At one point, Peri -- in a horribly misjudged scene -- has been captured and subjected to a transmutation device that's turning her into a bird; the Doctor, in another room, is directed to a monitor to witness it. He looks -- and has no reaction. (The revolutionary fighting beside him responds with horror and outrage, but the Doctor seems mostly interested in the experiment himself.) It's a pattern that will continue throughout the Sixth Doctor era: the Doctor seems to have no compassion for Peri, to take no responsibility for the perils that befall her. It doesn't undermine "Varos" much, as it's got a solid premise, prescient satire, some well-drawn characters, one of Nicola Bryant's best performances, and a star turn in Jarvis. But it'll come to a head – disastrously – when Sil appears next.

72. An Unearthly Child (First Doctor, 1963)
written by Anthony Coburn
directed by Waris Hussein
The first episode -- when schoolteachers Ian and Barbara try to track down a troubled pupil on Totter's Lane, and end up getting hijacked through time and space -- is highly praised, and rightly so, but the rest isn't too shabby either. In fact, for a show still solidifying its tone, and actors still finding their characters, it's rather splendid. This is Doctor Who with the danger in place, but still without a sense of wonder. It's not necessarily a show you'd want to visit week after week, or a format that would be sustainable, but for a one-off adventure, it has its very real pleasures. The TARDIS touches down in 100,000 B.C., among an ancient tribe ruled by superstition; it's full of the steady stream of captures and escapes that would come to define the series, but it successfully dramatizes the challenges of communicating with a people who don't grasp the very notions you take for granted. And ultimately, shrewdly, the script doesn't come down to the TARDIS crew befriending, or heaven forbid, "civilizing" the primitives; on the contrary, they make their final escape by preying on and exploiting the tribe's superstitions. And in the midst of this prehistoric horror show, there's still room for a healthy dose of humor, as when the savage who's chasing the travelers back to the TARDIS is injured and, rather than continue their escape, Barbara insists on nursing him to health, prompting Ian to deadpan, "Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs." The cast is still getting their bearings. The Doctor is, by design of course, more hostile than he'd become (although no less shrewd), but Hartnell himself is also more muted, more introspective and less dominant. Barbara, on the other hand, is terrified and defeatist and the most unlikely of travelers -- although Hill is utterly sensational when she succumbs to panic. And Ian seems, right out of the gate, like a ready-made adventurer, almost adapting too well. The cast is still learning how far they can take things -- emotions, reactions -- but under Hussein's sturdy hand, the scenes crackle. The tension is palpable throughout; the action never goes limp -- and Hussein (with an assist from Doug Camfield in Episode 4) goes for big close-ups that only intensify the drama.

71. Nightmare of Eden (Fourth Doctor, 1979)
written by Bob Baker
directed by Alan Bromly
It's the shoot so bad that, once it wrapped, crew members were given T-shirts that said, "I'm Relieved the Nightmare is Over." Visual Effects Designer Colin Mapson called it "without doubt, the most disastrous Doctor Who I've ever been involved in": the issues stemming from Bromly's inability to grasp the quicker pace of filming since he'd last directed, a half-decade ago, and his apparent disinterest in learning. But what's on screen isn't a train-wreck at all. Bromly was let go on the last day; what's up there is mostly him, and he was a true talent: his one prior story, "Time Warrior," wasn't a fluke. However he got there, he managed an agreeable and entertaining serial, and one that takes its subject matter -- drug trafficking and abuse -- as seriously as its author and story editor intended. Perhaps it's Tom Baker's foul mood bleeding over into the scenes, but whatever the cause, the Doctor suddenly regains some of the quiet intensity that made him so remarkable in Season 13. When he talks about the societal dangers of drug use, the toll it takes on its victims, and the people "profiting on human suffering" -- by God, you sit up and listen. He manages to go from moments of light comedy, even farce, to darker soliloquies without breaking a sweat; if a common axiom is that there's one Doctor in the Hinchcliffe era, and another in the Williams era, this is the one where the two meet, quite amiably. There are a couple inexplicably bad moments in Part 4 (the Doctor playing Pied Piper with the Mandrells, and the awful scene on Eden where he feigns being torn to shreds); it would nice, too, if Romana weren't wearing a prison gown throughout, and nicer still if Lewis Fiander didn't bleat so many of his lines. But otherwise there's little to embarrassed about, and a lot to be proud of, in a Fourth Doctor tale that's surprisingly contemporary and agreeably frank, careful not to absolve the traffickers (as was common at the time) by arguing that the users "had a choice." And at the end of Part Two, when the Doctor and Romana leap into the looking glass, your heart is likely to leap alongside them. "Nighmare of Eden" is one of the best examples of how behind-the-scenes stories can stain your impression of a serial. The shoot was torturous -- so what? It takes on an adult theme, refuses to dumb it down for children, and acquits itself nicely.

Next, continuing the countdown, #70-#61: webs, wood lice and WOTAN.

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