Friday, January 10, 2020

Doctor Who: the companions' best and worst performances (part 2)

Continuing my alphabetical look back at the actors who’ve played companions on Doctor Who. This latest set turned out to be a bit of a love-letter to writer David Whitaker; it wasn’t intentional, but it was inescapable. Anyway, to start from the first chapter of this three-part essay, click here; to take a look at the Doctors’ best and worst performances, click here. And as you scroll through, remember: although I bold the actors’ best and worst performances, for easy viewing, I vary the order in which I list them — so presume nothing. Occasionally, some of the best-loved stories contain some of my least favorite performances.

Louise Jameson (Leela): Jameson commands the screen in "Face of Evil" like no companion before or since. Watching her, you can't decide what's more spellbinding: the conception of her character, or how far she runs with it. Yet as much as I love her in her introductory story, I find Jameson even more entrancing in Terrance Dicks’ “Horror of Fang Rock.” In the typical Leela tale, she grows less prominent as the serial progresses, because the expanding apparatus of the plot means there's less room for the complexities of her character. Due to the effective bare-bones nature of "Fang Rock," Leela remains focal and useful throughout. And director Paddy Russell gives Jameson the space and freedom to run through a gamut of emotions; in particular, she's often the one providing this grim tale with its sense of humor: gently mocking the Doctor as he deifies the Time Lords; rolling her eyes as the one female traveler faints in fright; bluffing that she understands the Doctor's technobabble. Her gloating at the sight of the dying Rutan feels empowering rather than objectionable; her urging the Doctor to kill her (when she’s momentarily struck blind) seems somehow endearing rather than horrifying. And her being the one to realize that the beacon itself could be the key to Earth's salvation seems utterly right: Jameson reminds us that despite Leela's limited worldview, she's able to extrapolate her knowledge and adapt to new situations. In no serial does Jameson seem more adept at spotlighting 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. Sadly, aside from Dicks and (of course) Chris Boucher, no one on the creative team “got” Leela. But Jameson persevered. If Robert Holmes condescended to her (in “Talons”), she just devoured the role (and the roast) with that much more gusto; if Baker and Martin created a device to “cure” her (in “Underworld”), she recast it as a violating experience, and gave the proceedings a gravity that put the authors to shame. There’s only one time that I find Leela makes little impression, and ironically it’s in Jameson’s favorite serial, “The Sun Makers.” Jameson loved the director, Pennant Roberts, and perhaps due to her high comfort level, she doesn’t quite go the distance. It’s certainly not a script that flatters or understands Leela; writer Holmes remains stuck in a mindset that diminishes her at the expense of the Doctor. For much of "Sun Makers," Leela is reduced to doing Jo Grant bits from Season 8: succumbing to hypnotism, busying herself by asking "What is this?" and "What are you doing?" and worst of all, when the Doctor is cracking a safe, "Is there something behind this door?" (When isn't there something behind a door?) But even in the parts that suit Leela better — as when she becomes a champion for the oppressed — I find Jameson's performance a little too straightforward. “Sun Makers” is the one Jameson performance where I feel the complexities of character are often missing; scene by scene, she seems to set on one objective and run with it. Perhaps the satiric impulses of the script (the one style to which Leela isn’t suited) hamper her, and force her to give a more monochromatic performance than we've seen. I find her lively and commanding; I just don’t find her all that interesting.

Caroline John (Liz Shaw): John pretty much is Liz Shaw from the first moment she walks into the Brigadier’s office in “Spearhead From Space.” The only thing I find frustrating about John’s time on Who (other than its brevity) is that three of her four serials force her to work within tight parameters. Her debut story gives her a clear objective: Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Her acting goals are well-defined, and John essays them well. (If I have reservations about any John performance, it’s this one, and only because I feel her line-readings are so strong — and therefore her attitudes and beliefs so ingrained — that her metamorphosis into the Doctor’s ally feels a bit swift. It works, because we’re hardwired to like the Doctor, and to presume that others will as well. But it’s this one caveat that prompts me to label this her weakest performance.) Then “The Silurians” makes its own set of demands. As this is a “Doctor vs. Brigadier” story, Liz is forced to intermediate, to be the quiet voice of reason: a role all the more vital because it’s not just the Doctor and Brigadier who are at odds; pretty much every male character is a schemer or a screamer, and every female a hysteric. John delivers a marvelous performance, but tasked with grounding the proceedings, she has no time for humor, and no room for passion. And in her final serial, “Inferno,” she’s charged with playing a dual role — our Liz Shaw, and another on a parallel world. Her work as Section Leader Liz Shaw is dazzling (and sadly ineligible for consideration here), but again, she’s fulfilling a function, and in order to delineate our Liz from her severe and sadistic doppelg√§nger, she keeps her on a tight leash: sincere, straightforward, even a bit doe-eyed in spots. This is all preamble to my saying that, for me, John’s best performance as Liz Shaw is in the one serial that — rather than restricting her — liberates her. In “The Ambassadors of Death,” David Whitaker imagines a scenario where the three leads — instead of being reduced to adversaries — team up to solve a crisis, and no one benefits more from the expansion of the UNIT unit than John. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. (Even when being pursued by car and on foot, you see Liz working feverishly to strategize every move.) She's freer than we've seen her, but she's also willing to chew the scenery a bit. At one point, she’s kidnapped, thrown into an underground laboratory and given instructions. “And what if I don’t?” she demands — and she’s not kidding around. They’ll have to threaten to kill her before she’ll come around. They do (threaten, that is), and she redirects her anger to a colleague she recognizes: “Are you a prisoner?” His wishy-washy response infuriates her: “Are you or aren't you?” And when he again hems and haws, she goes for a jugular: “You were a respected scientist once” — and as John intones it, it’s the most brutal of cuts. Liz Shaw never feels as fully formed as in “Ambassadors,” the one serial that permits the actress to show the wit of her first appearance, the warmth of her second, and the authority of her last.

Jackie Lane (Dodo Chaplet): The serial that gives her an ignominious send-off also features her finest work. She only gets to be in half of “The War Machines,” but while she’s there, she’s the best thing on the screen. The past few serials had done wonderful things for Lane. “The Gunfighters” had allowed her to display her comic chops; “The Savages” had permitted her to demonstrate how Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature sprang from her upbringing and background. (You were reminded how nice it was to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS.) But “The War Machines” gives her her most striking showcase, by revealing some of the darkness lurking beneath Dodo's sunny exterior. There’s a memorable scene in episode 2 when Dodo, Polly and the Doctor have joined Sir Charles in his office; Dodo — who is under WOTAN’s control — has arranged for the Doctor to receive a phone call that will make him, too, a willing slave of the machine. But the Doctor proves immune to hypnosis, and Dodo is left defeated and confused. Hartnell and William Mervyn (as Sir Charles) are imposing figures, and Anneke Wills is vivacious as ever. Lane, on the other hand, is petite and still — but you can’t take your eyes off her. Under WOTAN's hypnotic control, all humor and humanity seem drained from her face, and the effect is haunting. Lane pulls you in, and it’s very clearly an acting choice — and a bold one at that. (When Polly falls under WOTAN’s spell, Anneke Wills goes the opposite route — the standard way, if you will: all bug-eyed and zombified.) Sure, Lane doesn’t get the requisite teary-eyed TARDIS farewell, but the image of Dodo so decimated by WOTAN isn’t an easy image to shake; it makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t be eager to resume her travels. Lane remains an underrated companion. She’s good on arrival, and, as noted, she’s great when she goes. The only time she suffers — and can we really blame her? — is in “The Celestial Toymaker.” And even there, you see her trying. It’s the serial, of course, where Steven and Dodo are engaged in four episodes of children’s games, including the action-packed "choose the right chair" and the tension-filled "find the key in the kitchen." How do you make that interesting? To her credit, Lane makes a choice early on; I just don’t think it’s the right one. She starts the serial inexplicably chipper, with an attitude of dumb delight that seems to be saying, "Oh look, Steven! We're going to get to do something dreary!" She decides to act as if the games Steven and Dodo are required to play are enormous fun: hoping perhaps that her enthusiasm will prove infectious. But her method backfires. It forces Lane to perform in an even more declamatory style than necessary — and it makes Dodo seem impossibly dense. But fortunately for Lane (and for “The Celestial Toymaker”), the series at that point was still being filmed episode by episode, on consecutive Friday nights, and as the weeks go by, you see her get her bearings. She starts to figure out — as Peter Purves understood intuitively — how to modulate her delivery, to make the presentational style more palatable, and to suggest a sense of urgency and danger.

Bonnie Langford (Mel): The apocryphal story about Part 1 of “Terror of the Vervoids” is that Langford, at John Nathan-Turner’s request, screams at a pitch that segues neatly into the closing credit sequence; it’s a lovely story, except, well, she doesn’t. She actually screams a full note above the tonic, then descends to a half note above, and then the closing music begins — with no harmonic correlation to what she’s been screaming. But it’s a nice story. And fittingly, since “Terror of the Vervoids” is a mystery, it serves as a misdirect from the real story: how good Langford is in that installment — and in fact, throughout the serial. She’s a breath of fresh air. What a relief, after watching Peri quiver at fear at just about every adventure, to watch someone who embraces the unknown; what a delight to see a new dynamic aboard the TARDIS — one with not just greater parity, but with levity and camaraderie. And for an actress who’s never given a true introductory story, and whose backstory will need to be filled in a line at a time (the Doctor, here: “Far cry from the carefree life of Pease Pottage, eh, Mel?”), Langford manages to make it seem like she’s been traveling with the Doctor for a while — and that they’ve achieved a certain shorthand. Although you can see the potential for Mel to come on too strong, Langford’s responses are unexpectedly soft — delicate even — and her face betrays warmth and affection. At the top, she’s forcing the Doctor to ride an exercise bike and pauses to hand him a health drink. “Carrot juice?” he whines, and she advises him, “It’ll do you good.” Her voice softly cracks near the end of the sentence, and it’s charming. The Doctor worries that his ears are growing longer, and she eases his concerns, then instructs him, “Drink up,” clinking their glasses together in a toast, then exiting on a brief humming sound that seems to convey faith, assurance and joie de vivre. After two years of gloom, Mel lets the sun back in. No story showcases Langford so well, or gives her so much breathing room. And to see how much is lost, so quickly, you have only to advance to the next story, “The Ultimate Foe.” Where “Vervoids” was leisurely, “Foe” is frantic. It's a runaround that's random and dimwitted, set to dialogue alternately overwritten in Pip and Jane Baker's worst style ("You really are the archetypal philistine") or so adrift in technobabble as to be incomprehensible. ("Eureka! And you said it couldn't be immobilized." "What have you done?" "Induced an anti-phase signal into the telemetry unit.”) — and this is not where Langford works best. Langford can do animated for days; her best stories ("Vervoids," plus "Paradise Towers" and "Delta and the Bannermen") let her relax. Her charm and natural empathy never get a chance to surface here; instead, here she’s reduced to spitting out rejoinders like "How utterly evil," "You're despicable" and "You beast!" — and doing pretty much what you’d expect with them — or, when she enters the Matrix, adopting Colin Baker’s presentational style of playing, in which even the simplest lines becomes declarations. No one gets to come up for air in the overwrought “Ultimate Foe,” but it’s Langford who suffers most.

Matt Lucas (Nardole): Matt Lucas bursts out of the TARDIS at the top of “The Eaters of Light” in a striped orange bathrobe, blue checked pajamas and a knitted cap with pompom — and the screen instantly gets brighter, literally and figuratively. “Eaters of Light” is ostensibly a story about Bill, and her desire to show off her knowledge of the Roman Ninth Legion. But writer Rona Munro uses that premise to allow Bill to wander off into her own adventure, and leaves Nardole to pair with the Doctor. And as the Doctor’s primary sidekick, Lucas (finally) gets a chance to show just how funny, appealing and useful Nardole can be. Right from the top, we’re reminded that Nardole is a man with a mission (to the Doctor: “So why is Scotland suddenly more important than guarding the vault and keeping your sacred oath?”), but he’s also quite capable of being easily, delightfully distracted. All the comic bits that had been poking through Series 10 emerge in full force here: the nervous non sequiturs; an uncommon blend of compassion and self-preservation; and best of all, a wonderful way with a dry quip. But he’s also capable of being an attentive pupil, as when a crow speaks, and he reacts with surprise; the Doctor insists that crows have always been able to talk, but that humans stopped having intelligent conversations with them, and the crows “took a bit of a huff” — and Nardole seems both intrigued and persuaded. Those crows prove pivotal to the success of “Eaters of Light.” Later, there’s a charming scene in which Nardole tries to get a crow to speak his name — and near the end, when the travelers have returned home, he stares fondly at a crow memorializing the Picts’ keeper of the gate, Kar. (“The crows aren’t sulking,” he informs the Doctor: “The crows are remembering.”) Lucas gives the episode its heart by creating a character who can bond with a crow. Bill wouldn’t bond with a crow; the Doctor wouldn’t. Hell, no previous Doctor or companion would, except probably McCoy — and perhaps that’s the key to the success of “Eaters of Light,” and to its winning conception of Nardole. Munro’s previous (and sole) Doctor Who script had been “Survival,” during the McCoy era, and she keeps writing the show she knows best. In “Eaters of Light,” Ace becomes Bill, and the Seventh Doctor is split between Twelve and Nardole. And not a simple split, mind you — not “Twelve gets the dramatic bits, and Nardole the funny bits.” The Doctor gets the fierce side, the stubborn side, but also the ability to be wrong. And Nardole is the gentle misfit, the nutter with the soulful spirit. After ten episodes, Lucas has his shot at being the Doctor’s principal companion — and nails it. Which is ironic, because the one time he’d been billed as the Doctor’s sole companion, in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” he’d made little impression. In “Mysterio,” he trots out all the bits he’ll refine later, but he seems half-voiced and dazed — as if he doesn’t quite know why he’s there. His panic routine feels forced, and the visual gags — as when he pilots the TARDIS through Constantinople (unseen) and emerges in a Turkish robe and headdress — seem random and unmotivated. “Doctor Mysterio” feels like Steven Moffat is asking a comic actor to “be funny,” without giving him any ground rules or backstory. And in terms of developing and polishing Nardole, Lucas worked better with a blueprint.

Pearl Mackie (Bill Potts): The recap at the top of “The Pyramid at the End of the World” is a marvel, alternating between scenes from “Extremis” and Bill, in the present, recounting the adventure to her date Penny. Bill flirts her way through the exposition, and when Penny suggests she’s mad, Bill thinks for a second before answering, “Is it working?” (It’s not thought through; it’s just thought over — which will later prove to be Bill’s undoing.) Every moment from there is carefully considered, both by Mackie and by writer Peter Harness, collaborating with Moffat: the way, when the Doctor grills Bill about the pyramid, she answers like a student determined to ace a test; her dismayed tone when the Doctor orders the generals to coordinate an attack, and she responds, “Yeah, I get it” — although she doesn’t; her starry-eyed stanning when the American, Chinese and Russian soldiers shake hands and agree not to fight; her hangdog hesitation when the Doctor objects to their plan to concede, and her gritty decision to stand up to him. Everything paints a singular portrait of a companion simultaneously tougher yet more impressionable than her predecessor. But it’s the final scene where Mackie comes into her own. Thinking the Doctor has reversed the doomsday clock, Mackie’s voice soars with excitement, but when the Doctor informs her of his inability to read the code, and why, her voice drops into that low, gruff delivery that she effects whenever he’s rattled: “What do you mean, blind? What are you talking about?” And when the Doctor confesses all, she explodes in an childish outburst (“You are the stupidest idiot ever!”) that folds into an adult promise (“But I'm not going to let you die”). She determines to grant consent to the monks to save the Doctor, but is that the right move? We have no idea, and neither does she. Bill’s upbringing has hardened her, but somehow she’s maintained a sweet innocence. Those qualities battle and rage within her, and at times, it’s hard for her to know which to trust. When the monks scan her to judge if her intent is pure, her face doesn’t betray conviction or love or single-mindedness — the qualities you’d have seen in previous companions. It conveys terror — Bill has no idea what she’s done. “Pyramid” is the first script to reach a conclusion that feels specific to Bill’s character and the conflicting qualities that make her so dynamic (“Eaters of Light” and “The Doctor Falls” will follow), and as the first, Mackie feels freshest. The sad part about Series 10 is how few scripts manage that — and “Knock Knock” is the clearest example. Nothing in Mike Bartlett’s script springs from an emotional place; all Bill’s reactions seem joke- or plot-driven. Learning that the Doctor is a Time Lord, Bill inquires, “What's that, your job?”, and when the Doctor describes it as more of a species, she mocks him: “Doesn't sound like a species. Sounds posh: like, yes, my lord. Doff my cap.” It seems flip and offensive — not the way you’d speak to a friend or a teacher, but the way a writer would try to nail a laugh. And when she uses the Doctor’s TARDIS to help her move into her new home, but then — despite the strange occurrences that have already come to light — tries to get rid of him, insisting, “This is the bit of my life that you're not in,” she seems callous and dense. Almost every bad moment in “Knock Knock” could have been salvaged by reaching into Bill’s character and tapping into that inner battle between toughness and terror, but like so many scripts in Series 10, “Knock Knock” seems to have no idea it exists — and Mackie, as a result, responds with her most one-note performance.

Katy Manning (Jo Grant): It's ostensibly writer Malcolm Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, but "Frontier in Space" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Manning was never as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As Jo 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, like some sort of screwball heroine ("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 to escape the Master’s notice — 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. Manning was never better. The growth of Jo Grant — in intellect, bravery, wit and self-worth — is one of the glories of the Pertwee era; no previous Who companion had been allowed to develop in that way. (Jamie came close, but then his IQ takes a bit of a hit in his final season, with Zoe’s arrival.) And the stronger Jo gets, the more colors Manning manages to infuse into her performances — which is probably why a late serial that undermines Jo’s growth stymies her. That’s “The Time Monster.” It’s a serial that arrives two thirds of the way through her run, yet it features the absolute stupidest version of Jo Grant. It starts with her waking the Doctor out of a nightmare, and when he references the Master, noting that he’s working on something that will help them “in case he turns up,” she dimly asks, “In case who turns up?” — as if she hasn’t been around for the last seven out of ten serials. That pretty much sets up the function Jo will serve as she and the Doctor make their way to Wootton: she’ll be the village idiot. Three of her every five lines are questions, and not just about details she’d have no way of knowing. Some are things she’s forgotten; others are basic vocabulary. At one point, when Jo has bruised her tailbone, the Doctor commiserates, “Sorry about your coccyx,” and she blankly inquires, “My what?” The Doctor is left to explain that a coccyx is a tailbone — it’s just that he uses big words and she doesn’t know any — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the Master then chimes in about her coccyx, making it clear that it’s only Jo who’s functionally illiterate. And when she’s not asking ignorant questions, Jo’s reduced to observations like “It's a doomy old day. I mean, just look at that sky. Just look at it.” After ten serials, Jo is no longer this unevolved, and perhaps because of the incongruity, Manning seems strangely off her game: alternately mugging and mannered, with a lot of wide-eyed stares, pursed-lip smiles, kooky head tilts and forced giggles.

Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan): Marter is so wonderful, let’s just admit that he’s not terribly well-defined or showcased in “Robot” (he has the occasional odd gesture or facial expression in response to the unfolding events— as if he’s struggling to remain “present” even when the script has forgotten he’s there) and label it his “worst performance.” That way we can move along to the good stuff. Marter was such a consistent delight during his time on Who that it would tempting to declare everything after “Robot” his best work. But acting feats are defined as much by the challenges faced as by the results, so I suspect the prize has to go to “Revenge of the Cybermen,” because it is not a good story, but Marter is wonderful. He’s wonderful against so many odds. A few minutes in, he saves the Doctor from a sliding door that’s about to amputate his arm, and the Doctor shows his gratitude by sneering at him. “What have I done now?" Harry asks, and we share his despair. Story editor Robert Holmes had a strict view of the companion’s role — they were either an adoring, adorable woman, or they were unwanted. As Holmes scripts it, the Doctor doesn’t want Leela around unless she changes; he doesn’t want Romana I around, period; and throughout Season 12, which Holmes story edits, the Doctor has a chip on his shoulder where Harry is concerned — even though Harry is never less than charming, and frequently brave, bright and resourceful. It’s a tribute to Ian Marter’s talents that even though the Doctor frequently shows disdain for Harry, we adore him. And the mistreatment of Harry is particular unfortunate in “Revenge of the Cybermen” since Marter is giving pretty much the only good performance in the serial. Lis Sladen is unusually bland; the guest cast — several of them Who semi-regulars — makes little impression; and Tom Baker does his worst work from his first two seasons. "Revenge of the Cybermen" is an empty-headed enterprise full of endless gunfights and interminable exposition, and visually it’s a washed-out washout: a nightmare in gold. The only thing that redeems it is Ian Marter. Harry is beginning to enjoy his travels in the TARDIS — for the first time, he has a twinkle in his eye — but Marter ensures that his character is modest in making suggestions, and delicate in devising solutions and encouraging his colleagues. When Harry and Sarah Jane are shackled in Part 2, he observes all the gold around them, and Sarah Jane berates him for his observations. (Everyone berates or underestimates Harry in “Revenge of the Cybermen.”) But it turns out he’s devising a method of escape: “Gold's a very soft metal, isn't it, Sarah? So if we can find a decent bit of rock, we might be able to file through.” And by Part 3, he’s turning into a natural born leader, rallying the troops with the gentlest of war cries: “Look, all this recrimination's pretty pointless, isn't it? What we've got to do is get down into that central shaft and stop the bombs being planted.” Yet as much as Harry’s confidence is growing, Marter understands, as an actor, that he can't ever overshadow the leading man; he’s remarkable not only in his talent, but in his generosity and restraint.

Maureen O'Brien (Vicki): A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's “The Rescue": the first — and still one of the best — of the new-companion stories. Writer David Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naivet√©. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend — and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The serial could have used more visual finesse, but the story does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so disarming (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. O’Brien never got a better showcase, and she makes the most of it. Her worst: oh, it's got to be "The Chase," because it feels throughout as if Terry Nation was still writing for Susan, and O’Brien seems uncertain how to respond. At the top, Vicki is wandering around the TARDIS, bored and restless, searching for something to do — and manages to annoy all of her crew mates. She’s awash in self-pity. (“I am redundant around here,” she announces, and later, “I am a useless person.”) But Vicki never had trouble fitting in, or finding ways of entertaining herself: he did quite nicely stranded for months on Dido. Self-pity was Susan’s issue, not Vicki’s. And again, at the end, Vicki’s terror as the TARDIS team prepares to lower her off the prison rooftop seems much more like Susan than Vicki. (As O’Brien is forced to yell “No! No!” over and over, with no justification, it proves the only time during her tenure on Who that her acting is, frankly, horrible.) Vicki was designed as a survivor: is she really going to beg to be left to die atop a burning building? It feels much more like Susan in “The Reign of Terror,” shrieking at the sight of rats, and too immobilized to break out of prison. Susan wrestled with her Grandfather’s thirst for adventure, but Vicki was specifically designed to share it. In “The Chase,” O’Brien struggles with a (mis)characterization that betrays the very qualities that had helped define her.

Wendy Padbury (Zoe Heriot): Story editor Derrick Sherwin envisioned the TARDIS’s newest crewmember Zoe as a scientific prodigy, but the script assignment went to David Whitaker, who chose to dig deeper. Seeing as how he was saddled with the Cybermen for Zoe’s debut serial, he found a novel means of introducing her: he conceived her in Cybermen terms. As developed by Whitaker, 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 through the course of her introductory story, “The Wheel in Space,” she comes to realize it. At the start, she’s bubbling with bravado: “Oh, it isn't a theory,” she instructs the Doctor in one memorable scene: “You can't disprove the facts. It's pure logic.” But her ongoing interactions with the crew prompt self-doubt; as she confesses to Doctor Corwyn, “My head's been pumped full of facts and figures which I reel out automatically when needed, but... well... I want to feel things as well.” And when the Cybermen’s attack results in a scenario for which Zoe is quite unprepared, she panics: “What good am I? I've been created for some false kind of existence where only known kinds of emergencies are accounted for. Well, what good is that to me now?” (Jamie’s reassurances do nothing to assuage her, as she howls in protests: “And if we survive? What then, Jamie? Suppose we do get ourselves out of this mess. What have I got left?”) There's something inherently sad about Zoe, and Padbury navigates her fragile mental state beautifully. But we rarely again see that side of her; for Season 6, Sherwin focuses on Zoe’s high IQ and chipper personality. Padbury is lovely throughout, even when she’s given nothing to do (“The Dominators”) or stupid stuff to do (e.g., judo flips in “The Mind Robber”), but only in “Seeds of Death” do we once again see Zoe struggling with the complexities of human interaction. And my least favorite Padbury performance is the one where I feel the simplification of Zoe is most severe, ironically in a story I quite like, “The Invasion.” Barely an episode in, and she’s merrily modeling for a photographer. What does Zoe know about posing for a camera? Since when does she take pleasure in frilly accessories? (The solution to the parapsychology unit’s brainwashing program can’t be a feather boa.) It’s a reduction of her character that I find troubling, and although Padbury is charming, I don't find her all that convincing — at least, not as Zoe Heriot. (Offered the opportunity to snoop around International Electromatics with the Doctor and Jamie, Zoe uncharacteristically chooses to keep modeling: “No, thanks. I think I'll stay here. It's great fun.” But as Padbury plays it, Zoe doesn’t sound surprised at discovering there are pleasures to be had outside the laboratory; it simply seems that — you know — girls just want to have fun.) Later, when the photo shoot is over, she notes, “I didn’t know standing still could be so exhausting,” but again, there’s none of the fascination or astonishment you’d expect from an scientist from space; she sounds more like a privileged girl who’s never had to hold down a job. Somewhere Zoe Heriot, 21st-century astrophysicist, gets lost on 20th-century Earth; the script does her no favors, but Padbury rarely seems to be compensating for what’s missing.

Billie Piper (Rose Tyler): Well, of course, she breaks your heart at the end of “Doomsday,” but if inducing tears were my only criterion for judging best work, my choices would look a whole lot different. I actually don’t find her performances with David Tennant as interesting as those with Christopher Eccleston; in part, it’s the reduction of Rose and the Doctor, in stretches of Series 2, to self-absorbed brats — but in larger part, it’s because most of Billie Piper’s growth as an actress and Rose Tyler’s growth as a character come in Series 1, and that makes her performances doubly satisfying. And “The Parting of the Ways” is the culmination of those two journeys. It’s hard to say what Piper’s “big moment” is. Is it the look on her face when the Doctor encourages Rose to “have a fantastic life,” and she realizes that nothing will ever be this fantastic again? Is it the speech she gives her mum and Mickey at the cafe (“The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. .... You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away”), which Piper is careful to make seem spontaneous, so it feels inspirational rather than corny? Is it the way she understands how to underplay a potentially cruel comment to Mickey (“There’s nothing left for me here”), or the way she knows she can let it all out when confronting her mother about her father? Or is it her stillness when she realizes the Doctor — her Doctor — will soon be disappearing? “Parting of the Ways” is about the evolution of both Rose Tyler and Billie Piper, and Piper nails every acting beat. The performance of Piper’s I like least is a reduction of the two — and that’s “School Reunion.” Their latest assignment has stranded Rose playing lunch lady for two days, but when she confronts the Doctor in the school cafeteria, she doesn’t seem angry, or happy to unload: she just seems muffled. And when a vat of oil falls on one of her coworkers, who then — when carried into the next room — screams in terror, Rose doesn’t seem afraid or even alarmed: she just seems thoughtful. But the muted aspect of Piper’s performance early on is a relief compared to what happens next, when Sarah Jane arrives. Rose eyes her up and down, instantly disliking her because she’s another woman in the company of the Doctor. It’s nonverbal, so the choice of how to play it was Piper’s (or the director’s or Davies’, with her blessing), and it ain’t good. The Doctor, feeling guilty at having abandoned Sarah Jane 30 years earlier, insists that her name comes up often, and Rose replies, “Sorry, never” — but Piper doesn’t direct it at the Doctor, to get a rise out of him. She directs it at Sarah Jane, to hurt her. And from that point on, Piper plays Rose as monomaniacal. Nothing seems to matter except her hatred of Sarah Jane. (Bat-like creatures asleep on a classroom ceiling don’t even prompt a reaction.) And even after the Doctor explains to her about his companions and why he leaves them behind (a scene clearly designed to be transformative for Rose), Piper still chooses to maintain Rose’s feverish resentment of Sarah Jane. When the Doctor announces the two will be paired up on the next leg of the investigation, Rose rolls her eyes, and when we rejoin the two women in the following scene, Sarah Jane is busily working and Rose is sulking. And because Piper makes the decision to dislike Sarah Jane so intensely, and for so long, she then has to overplay the brief moment where the two women bond, by launching in gales of forced laughter. As I read “School Reunion,” the script allows Rose two epiphanies: one where she comes to understand Sarah Jane, and one where she comes to like her. Piper ignores the first, and therefore can’t manage the second.

Next up: completing the companions’ best and worst performances, from Peter Purves and William Russell to Deborah Watling and Anneke Wills. Catherine Tate’s in there, too.


Want more Doctor Who? My recent (loving) look back at the Second Doctor’s missing serial “The Abominable Snowmen” quickly rose to become one of my most popular essays ever. Elsewhere, I look at the eleven actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. In a 16-part series, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials, starting here. I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era; and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. And finally, I offer up reviews of seven Classic Who stories that I consider unfairly neglected or maligned, one for each Doctor: "Terminus," "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "The Wheel in Space," "Attack of the Cybermen," "Death to the Daleks and "The Leisure Hive."

12 comments:

  1. Agree with many of your choices this time (!) and once again, a great post! I love Bonnie Langford in TotV and wish she'd been with Colin longer as she makes him so much better to watch. Jameson and Marter were never really less than brilliant in my mind but I adore Harry in RotC as much as you do and that S12 team is my favourite of all of DW. I'm torn as to whether it is Piper's fault that she is so annoying in SR as her arc in that season is to be a petulant, jealous girlfriend, a shame after her S1 arc (for me, RTD's biggest misstep in an otherwise great run). So looking forward to you identifying Matthew Waterhouse's best story!!

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    1. Given all the possible choices (and the fact that, as I note in part 1, these sorts of essays are so highly subjective), I'm surprised and delighted we agree on so much this time around. As I mentioned on Twitter, it was the hardest set to write, in great part because -- like you -- I can't really find fault with Jameson or Marter (and I would add Caroline John to that list). It's funny: you mentioned on Twitter that not even Jameson can make her "love story" in "Invasion of Time" convincing. You and I have spoken before about how hard it is for longtime fans *not* to see certain stories through the prism of nostalgia. "Invasion of Time" was, strangely, one of the very first Classic Who stories that Philip and I saw, when we started watching in 2011. (I think we decided to start with four Tom Baker stories, and that was #3.) We knew the story was bad, and had no idea what the heck Baker was doing half the time, but as our first exposure to Leela, we were utterly entranced by Louise Jameson. Even knowing she was given next-to-nothing to do, we were so fully aware of her talent and creativity. So I think it's hard for me to judge her too harshly in "Invasion," just because of the impact she made on me in that story.

      In a similar vein, because Philip and I saw Series 2 of NuWho before Series 1, we mostly knew Rose *as* the petulant, jealous girlfriend. (It was a shocker to later see Series 1 and realize how beautifully and fully she'd been developed, with qualities that seemed to vanish in Series 2.) But even on my first watch, I felt she hit the jealous beats awfully hard in "School Reunion" -- too hard, and so hard that there was really no room left to soften in that tiny burst-into-laughter scene. That had stuck in my memory in the 9 or 10 years since I first viewed the episode -- and the feeling was confirmed by my recent rewatch.

      On to Waterhouse!!

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  2. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, Tommy. I found myself agreeing with you on pretty much all counts, so I'll just make a few random comments on stuff that caught my eye:

    * I had forgotten Knock Knock was a thing. I mean, it's not a *terrible* story. There's just little that makes it memorable for me. As you note, it's not great for anyone involved in the story, either.

    * One wonders what Ian Marter would have done had Letts cast an older Doctor in the role? Do you think Harry being more of the "muscle" in the group (like Steven before him) would have moved the character into different territory?

    * Thought you were spot-on with your comments on Leela. Given how little the writers gave her, it's a wonder that Louise was able to cobble together a character at all. If Holmes hadn't been so grouchy about taxes perhaps he could have made an effort to put Leela into the center of the action in The Sun Makers.

    * My wife and I have some disagreement about the Ten/Rose dynamic. She thinks it's a great love story. I agree with you that they can be brats at best, and jerks at worst. I also found Rose more interesting with Nine. With Ten Rose's character seemed a bit too pat for my tastes.

    * Finally, I am always ready to read more good things about The Ambassadors of Death, which is arguably one of the best stories in the program's history in general, and definitely the best seven-part story in the program's history in particular. You have already nailed Caroline's performance above, so instead of repeating your words back to you I will leave you with an idea for your next series of essays: The Greatest Hats of Doctor Who.

    Liz's white hat in this story is obviously number one. First runner up, of course, is the Archimandrite's hat from The Androids of Tara. Can't wait to see how you rate numbers three through fifty!

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    1. Random responses to your random comments:

      * In part 1 of this set of essays, Terry (Child of the '70s) noted in the comments that there are some stories that, mysteriously, aren't good for anyone involved (I think we were discussing "Dragonfire"), and yes, agreed: "Knock Knock" is another of them.

      * It's hard for me -- finding Marter so perfect as Harry -- to imagine what he would have done had he been forced to be the "muscle" of the team, as originally planned. But I suspect he would have found a way of doing it perfectly. Like much of fandom, I suspect, I really don't get the decision to dump him; that decision had to have come sometime around "Genesis" or "Revenge," and those might well be his two best performances. While it's true that, with a younger Doctor than originally envisioned, he wasn't "necessary" -- man, he sure was good. And although I can't fault a thing Baker or Sladen do in Season 13, I do think the gothic horror format -- which, just by definition, has a certain sameness to it -- would have benefited from having Marter around.

      * I have a friend who describes every single female artist he loves as "a goddess." Philip and I giggle whenever he does that. But that said, Jameson is a goddess. Even when there's nothing on the page, she puts something on the stage.

      * As I mention in my comment above, Philip and I saw Series 2 of NuWho before Series 1. It shocked us, when we finally viewed the first season, to see how beautifully developed Rose's character was, because we had only known her as the less appealing creation in Series 2. I don't know that it undermines the love story, but I confess, in terms of her Series 2 development, I don't really understand to this day what RTD was doing.

      * The Greatest Hats of Doctor Who has potential to be my most popular essay ever. I'm on it. Yes, Liz's white hat in "Ambassadors" in clearly #1; if I'm ever chased by car and on foot by criminals, I want to be wearing that hat. We'll also have to include the Portreeve's hat-within-a-hat in "Castrovalva," and whatever the hell that thing is that Lon has on his head during the ceremony in "Snakedance."

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    2. I was going to mention the Portreeve's hat! You beat me to it! How about a book that has your views on the hats and also patterns for making them? Surely the best thing since the Doctor Who Cookbook?

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    3. Aw shoot, there's already a Doctor Who Cookbook? Philip and I could have crushed that. All right, we'll go with the hat book. I'll research the hats, and Philip can do the instructions for making them (since he can pretty much knit, crochet and construct anything). We'll be that married couple who runs a record label and does books on Doctor Who hats -- that sounds sufficiently quirky. I like it.

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    4. Oh dang The Hats of Doctor Who would certainly be the crowning glory of this blog! I would be bowl(er)ed over to read it. And it would certainly be a feather in your cap. As Stan Lee may have said: "Fez front, true believers!"

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    5. On a slightly more serious note, I am now imagining Ian giving Morbius a proper thrashing and thinking how wonderful that would have been to see on screen.

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    6. Even better, imagine an alternate version of the show where Harry stayed on after Sarah Jane. Harry and Leela - can you just imagine? TV heaven.

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  3. As a self-confessed Big Finish fan, I do think it's time you downloaded a few, especially as the range has expanded on Leela to more fulfil her potential. I think you can pick up the first series of Fourth Doctor Adventures fairly cheaply, a good place to start.

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    1. You know, when I first joined Twitter, I asked for Big Finish recommendations, and a very kind woman provided me with a dozen detailed suggestions (weighted towards the Fifth Doctor, as she knew I was a fan). And I never followed up. And then you yourself gave me suggestions, and I never followed up. And then one of the Big Finish writers themselves gave me suggestions, and -- well, you get the idea. I came to realize that, having spent the last thirty years producing albums, the last thing I want to do in my spare time is *listen* to something (it's why I never listen to music) -- but now that I am semi-retired, I suspect that resistance will crumble a bit, and I will finally start my foray into the Big Finish catalog.

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    2. I get that. I'm not much for sitting and listening tbh, I listen driving to and from work and doing the ironing! I also have wireless headphones so sometimes listen to one doing some rare exercise.

      The thing is, for such a fan of great performances, Big Finish has really provided some output that is better than most of the telly. If you do fancy dipping your toes (ears?), I can recommend you some solid gold listens.

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