Thursday, October 11, 2012

Knots Landing season 3

A friend who knows of my obsession with Knots Landing told me recently he was thinking of checking it out, after all these years, to learn why it's kept me watching and re-watching for over three decades. Should he start at the top, he wondered, or is there a better place to begin?

It was a tricky question.

Only the first two seasons of Knots have been released on DVD, and neither shows off the series at its best. The first season is mostly episodic, and although there are some strong standalones, it's not till the final few episodes that the show manages to solidify its tone and approach. Season 2 is a mess. With its sister soap Dallas enjoying a tidal wave of publicity (in the wake of J.R.'s shooting), the Knots showrunners go serialized, but it's like they'd never seen a soap before: the pacing is so fast that there's no time to respond to anything, to root for anyone, to root against anyone. The world established in Season 1 -- a land of looser morals, where betrayal is common and often forgiven -- doesn't necessarily lend itself to drama; it lends itself to incident. The top of Season 2 is busy, but uninvolving -- and when the lagging ratings midway through prompt a sudden return to standalones, the writers pull out all the punches with "special episodes": cancer scares, hostage crises. At the end of the season, one of the core characters (Sid Fairgate, pillar of the community) is targeted by criminals, who tamper with his brakes, and he goes over a cliff (that's the "cliffhanger"); creator David Jacobs noted at the time that a good part of their audience went over that cliff, too -- i.e., they bailed on the series -- and I don't think he's wrong.

Season 1 and Season 2: that's all the Knots currently available on DVD, and if -- like my friend -- you're looking to watch just one season, to see if Knots is for you, I can't recommend purchasing either. But if Season 3 ever comes out, don't miss it.

I had occasion to re-watch Knots Landing Season 3 over the summer, and when I was done, I thought of the film The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Not of the actual film, but of Pauline Kael's original review in The New Yorker, where she referred to it as "a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port." I don't think I could imagine a better description of Knots Landing Season 3. It's a fascinating season: the only one that I enjoy much more today than I did when it originally aired. In 1981-82, its odd mix of standalones and serialized episodes felt unsatisfying; now, thirty years later, knowing what to expect, I can look beyond it and see that Knots Landing both began and ended with that season. It's the season where the show finds its voice and its pacing; it's also the last season of the original format, a series powered by the claustrophobic energy of a cul-de-sac. It's a key season: the one that best understands – and illustrates, generally without melodrama -– how complex yet fragile marriages and families and friendships can be, and in that respect, it's a television rarity.

In case you're able to locate Knots Season 3, here's all you need to know to get you started. Knots began with four married couples living in a Southern California cul-de-sac: there was the stable couple (Sid and Karen Fairgate), the new arrivals from Texas (Gary and Valene Ewing), the troubled couple (Richard and Laura Avery) and the young hipsters (Kenny and Ginger Ward). In Season 2, Sid's divorced kid sister Abby was added to the neighborhood: the requisite vixen and troublemaker. Season 2 ends with Sid going over that cliff, and Abby's ex-husband kidnapping their kids -- it's an easy place to pick up the story-line. There are essentially three longterm plots in Season 3. There's Karen (played by Michele Lee) mourning the loss of her husband. (Spoiler: he dies.) There's Laura (Constance McCashin) and her painful decision to leave her jerk of a husband -- and her even more painful decision to return. And best of all, there's Abby (Donna Mills) inserting herself into Gary and Val's marriage -- and truly, that's where this promising show gets great.

The Val-Gary-Abby triangle is what most folks remember when they think of Knots Landing, and for good reason. Gary and Val, played by Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark, were brought over from Dallas (which Jacobs had also masterminded), with a backstory about finding each other again after decades spent apart. Their marriage seemed unshakable; during the first few seasons, you figured only a force of nature could drive them apart -- but when Abby blew into town and set her sights on Gary, all bets were off. Val offered him safety and security; Abby offered risk and thrills -- and for Gary, the alcoholic who lived life on the edge, it was an impossible choice. It was the sturdiest of soap triangles because both sides were well-supported: you could argue that Gary was his most stable with Val, but you could also argue, equally persuasively, that he was his most dynamic with Abby. Which Gary Ewing do you prize most? In the season's most memorable confrontation, in the series' best episode, "China Dolls," Abby and Val square off; Val needs to know what kind of hold Abby has on her husband. When they go at it, they fight for Gary in terms of how they see him and what they can offer him -- and by the time they're done, the viewer is just as torn as Gary.

Those are the three key plots -- Karen mourning Sid, Laura wrestling with her marriage to Richard, and Abby coming between Gary and Val -- and by season's end, they've all been spectacularly successful. Getting there, though, has been agony at times. Ann and Ellis Marcus were brought on as headwriters in Season 3 -- they were among the best in the business (she had been headwriter of the Emmy-winning Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the 1970's). Because of the Marcus's background in daytime soaps, they get -- as the writers didn't in Season 2 -- that on shows like this, the pacing doesn't need to be furious. The waiting is part of the fun: the simmering tensions, the delayed gratification. Season 3 has all that, but parts of it also feel cautious and confused. The Marcuses clearly have no idea how far they can take the show in terms of making it a full-fledged soap; you see them careful not to repeat the mistakes of Season 2 -- but that carefulness is also a bit of a pain. Ann Marcus is renowned as one of the great plotters of the soap world (it's why when your show is a shambles, as Knots was in Season 2, and again in Season 13, you bring her in to save it, because she'll turn dross into gold), but strangely, the first half of Season 3 doesn't feel like an Ann Marcus soap at all. Every time a good plotline gets going, and you tune in the following week, awaiting a follow-up, it's nowhere in sight. Sometimes promising plotlines disappear for three or four episodes at a time; the Marcuses try to keep the show from getting too serialized too fast, so that casual viewers can still tune in. (The show was, after all, still building its audience.)

On initial viewing, the first half of Season 3 seems aimless; once you accept the idiosyncrasies of the story-telling, though, the episodes themselves are rarely less than engaging. (They range from a heartwarming Christmas episode to a haunting ghost story.) And throughout we get glimpses of Karen adjusting to life without Sid: often she's focal; sometimes she's only captured in subplots, or in scattered scenes -- but whenever the show seems to be drifting, Karen is there to anchor it. Ironically, the departure of Don Murray (who played Sid, and requested off the show) turns out to be a blessing, because it gives the creative team a template for doing slow-burner stories in a fast-paced world; it becomes a vivid reminder -- one that the headwriters will hold to -- that even in a cozy cul-de-sac at the tail end of the sexual revolution, where sometimes it feels that everything can be made better by a quick dip in the hot tub, there's potential for stories of real consequence. The saga of Karen's instant widowhood is an unqualified triumph. The stages of denial, anger and acceptance are played out without being spelled out; they seem calculated to give both Karen and the audience proper time to grieve, and indeed, by the time Karen is at Sid's grave, months after his death, telling him she's ready to move on, the viewer is finally ready too. (Karen's journey is handled so smoothly that you don't fully realize how effective it's been until it's over.)

As an aside, I think I've always underestimated Michele Lee's Emmy-nominated performance that season. I knew she was good; now I find her startlingly so. She carefully navigates all the potential acting traps: her weeping after Sid's death could be too theatrical, but it's not; her final farewell at his gravesite could come off as self-aware, but it doesn't. They're splendidly played. And in all the "small" moments, she consistently brings fresh details and shadings. Murray's exit liberates Lee. The two made a convincing pair, but his soft-spoken manner meant she had to continually moderate her responses, to keep from seeming too abrasive. The story of Sid's death unleashes her, allowing her a story-line that excuses and even encourages the fits of rage, self-involvement and self-righteousness that sometimes tripped up her character in the first two seasons. The reinvention of Karen proves so successful that the writers ensure -- when it's time for her to meet someone new the following season -- that they create a character who doesn't diminish the "new" Lee: who plays to her strengths, as she had to play to Murray's.

Karen coming to terms with her loss is at the heart of the first two-thirds of Season 3, and the showrunners mine every moment skillfully -- and wisely, just as Karen's arc comes to a close, the other two plots take center stage. Up to that point, the Val-Gary-Abby triangle and Laura and Richard's turbulent marriage have been turning up in fits and starts; at times, it's been difficult to judge where things stand. They've seemed like promising but elusive plotlines. But once the final third of the season hits, the headwriters' best soap instincts kick in, and it's bracing.

In the season's fifteenth episode (of 22), "Best Intentions," Laura has discovered she's pregnant; she was ready to leave Richard, and now she's carrying his child. It's as common a soap dilemma as any, but the treatment is decidedly uncommon. It's delicate -- and detailed. Laura has decided not to tell Richard about the baby, to simply say that the marriage is over and go. She confides in Karen, who promises support, but as Laura leaves Karen's house, Karen can't resist playing devil's advocate, and the two of them end up in the alleyway between their homes, shivering in the night air. Karen knows she's being intrusive, but doesn't care: "You have to tell Richard. You can't just have an abortion without letting him know." Laura resists, and Karen pushes, "I'm not saying you have to ask his permission, but you have to talk to him. I mean, like it or not, you're in this thing together." Laura quips, "Oh there is nothing together about this," and Karen one-ups her: "Hey, how'd you get pregnant, playing solitaire?" Laura keeps making light: "Well, when you put a couple in the same bed night after night, the law of averages" -- but Karen refuses to let her off the hook: "If you have the abortion without discussing it with Richard, you're going to regret it. I mean, even if he never finds out about it -- you're going to feel guilty and bitter -- and if he ever finds about it... well, either way, it's just going to lead to bitterness." And that's the last thing Laura wants to hear: the truth. "So? The marriage is over," and she tries to escape, but Karen persists, "If the marriage is over, who's to say divorce can't be civil? Try -- try to save something." Leave it to Karen, her best friend, to be principled and reasonable and stubborn; aren't best friends just supposed to tell you what you want to hear? "I hate you," Laura tells Karen, with a mix of sarcasm and sincerity, and Karen responds, with guilt and relief, "I know."

Later that night, Laura and Richard have their own heart-to-heart about mutual respect, betrayal, self-delusion and trust. It seems to go well. And the following evening, Richard comes home from work to start a new life with his wife -- and she's moved out. They bared their souls; Richard, uncharacteristically, was responsible and willing to compromise -- but for Laura, it didn't change anything. He thought talking things out would make a difference -- so did we: the writers set us up.

The writers play with us constantly in the final third of Season 3; they keep our expectations and even our loyalties forever shifting. Running parallel to the Richard-Laura drama in "Best Intentions" is the germ of a plot that will propel the Val-Gary-Abby triangle to its conclusion, as Val -- who's been taking a course in creative writing -- pens a tell-all book about Gary's family. It's the start of the "Val as author" story-line that will sustain many a season, but it never again generates plot as nimbly as it does here. After months of watching her husband flirt with Abby Cunningham, Val desperately needs some positive reinforcement, a little ego-stroking -- and she gets that with the initial response to her manuscript. But the book is clearly going to drive a wedge between her and Gary -- who, understandably, doesn't want a thinly disguised exposé in which his family is portrayed as (in his words) "liars and fools" to ever see the light of day. We can see that as Val pursues publishing her book, she's risking her marriage. But do we want to deny Val the self-fulfillment she so desperately craves? All three parties in the Val-Gary-Abby triangle share culpability for its outcome (the show is careful not to strip the story-line down to a fight between "good Val" and "evil Abby"), yet we never resent them for the choices they make. That's its genius.

The best Knots story-lines -- like the three that dominate Season 3 -- veer in unexpected directions; you delight at how often the writers pull the rug out from under you. As the season approaches its final spate of episodes, that happens so often, you're left breathless. The insights grow more startling, the pacing more fluid. The writers, daringly, interrupt the flow briefly with a standalone called "Night," in which Richard, pushed to a nervous breakdown, holds Laura hostage. Every time I watch "Night," I feel like they were determined to do a hostage drama that would make you forget the earlier, feeble effort in Season 2 (when criminals break into Val's house during Ginger's baby shower and hold the women at gunpoint) -- and indeed they do. "Night" works because the conflict comes from within -- and that's the hallmark of all of Season 3: the crises that befall Karen, and Laura and Richard, and Val and Gary and Abby, are self-generated. The characters create their own drama. And that's truly where Season 3 gets it right.

The season reaches its climax in its penultimate episode, "China Dolls"; watching it again recently, I realized the series reaches its climax there, too -- or at least the series as David Jacobs conceived it. Nothing up to that point has prepared you for the cunning of "China Dolls" (written and directed by departing producer Joseph Wallenstein), which fast-tracks Gary and Abby's affair by delving more deeply into the desires, the failings and the frailties that draw them together. (In essence, Wallenstein accelerates the story-line by slowing down the pace; it's like no conjuring trick I've seen before or since.) It's character drama at its most convincing, yet the result is plotting at its most unpredictable; every time you think you have a handle on where the episode is heading, it gallops away like a race-horse. At the Knots Landing Forum, a poster named James From London started in-depth reviews of each of Knots' 344 episodes, and although he never completed more than a few dozen, it was easily one of the most substantive reflections on popular culture I've read. Here's a snippet of what he had to say about "China Dolls":

Fear of losing control permeates this episode. It is the exploration of this fear, and of the characters’ all too human frailty, that sets Knots apart from its contemporaries. Affairs, adultery, marital and mental breakdowns -- the events that dominate Knots Landing in its third season -- are the staples of any prime time serial, but the residents of Seaview Circle aren’t just two-dimensional soap caricatures jumping in and out of bed or marriage with one another without any messy consequences -- however much they might like to be. In this episode, Gary wants to be able to enjoy a guilt free extra-marital affair. Equally, Laura wants to put her life with Richard behind her, insisting that “It’s over, I don’t love him, I moved out, it was clean.” However, it is the characters’ messy emotions that betray them. As strong and in control as they would like to appear, they are fragile creatures secretly plagued by doubt, fear and -- in spite of Gary and Laura’s protests to the contrary -- lots and lots of guilt. For all of Donna Mills’ naughtiness, this is still a show about the institution of marriage, and the powerful hold that institution has over its members. Gary, Val, Abby, Laura, Richard: these are the china dolls of the episode’s title, and it is their individual struggles, between where they are and where they would like to be, that makes for such a compelling episode.

Midway through the episode, Gary's conscience gets the better of him; he breaks things off with Abby, but he can't handle the consequences of that decision either. His frustration and longing are somehow worse than his guilt, and as night falls, he paces his living room like a caged animal, eyeing Abby's empty home across the cul-de-sac, while Valene anxiously studies him from across the room. The next morning, after Val attempts to wrestle an explanation or admission from Gary, she determines to confront Abby, and her furious walk across the cul-de-sac, from her house to Abby's, is the series' most iconic image. There's a youtube clip, from a French telecast of all things, but you don't need to speak French to appreciate that shot; it's what the early years of Knots Landing were all about -- the tensions that emerge and erupt in a small, closed community -- and it's a series high point.

And it's followed by the "most memorable confrontation" that I referred to earlier, in which Val demands, "Are you or are you not having an affair with my husband," and Abby, bluffing in her coolest, cruelest manner, admits nothing: "I'm not saying we're having an affair, and I'm not saying we're not. I am saying I can have him anytime I want." Val slaps her across the face, and it hurts: Abby didn't see that one coming. This is no Dynasty-style catfight; there's not an ounce of camp in the writing or playing. This is two admirable women so proud and so scared that they're reduced to inflicting pain on each other. It's brutal, and it's brilliant. And it's the clearest indication that if the writers didn't know exactly where they were going when they first plotted Season 3, they figured it out mighty fast, because when the moment comes, you feel like the show has been building up to it for an entire season.

As indeed it has.

With "China Dolls" and the season closer, "Living Dangerously," the third season of Knots Landing -- after a rocky start -- comes snugly into port. And the Knots Landing that David Jacobs envisioned starts to re-invent itself; incoming showrunner Peter Dunne (a very fine producer in his own right) "enlarges the situations," as he put it at the time, and in Season 4, characters start moving out of Seaview Circle. Early that fourth season, Gary Ewing inherits a million dollars, and by year's end, all the characters are embroiled in a murder mystery -- and we are a far cry from where we started. We don't really get back to Knots at its purest until the final season. That season, in which Ann Marcus is brought back for one last, great hurrah, is a splendid one, but you'd need an encyclopedia of Knots knowledge to fully appreciate it. The best Knots season, Season 5, has an operatic sweep unmatched by any other season, or any of its fellow primetime soaps, but starting there would be equally tough.  But Season 3 -- the true start of the series -- is a great place to begin. Not available on DVD, but if you're in the mood for a tasty slice of early '80s television, by writers who knew how to tell a story and actors to knew how to sell it, then beg, borrow or steal a copy...

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus returns for one last glorious hurrah.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lois Nettleton

SyFy is airing one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes tomorrow, "The Midnight Sun," so a quick shout-out to its star, the late Lois Nettleton.

One of the last contract players at MGM in the 1950's, Nettleton's full and rich career included understudying (and going on for) Barbara Bel Geddes in the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a radical rethinking of Blanche DuBois in the 1973 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (The New York Times raved, "This is a Blanche who has been to hell and back and yet retains her innocence," while Rex Reed called her “shatteringly brilliant”), and a Tony nomination for the 1976 revival of They Knew What They Wanted. She also scored numerous Emmy nods, including wins for her role as Susan B. Anthony in the 1977 telefilm The American Woman: Profiles in Courage and for a 1983 episode of the anthology series Insight -- as well as two Daytime Emmy Awards for her work on General Hospital.

So given her impressive resumé, I hope she'll forgive my remembering her mostly for guest roles on three half-hour TV series: The Twilight Zone in the '60s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s, and Golden Girls in the '80s. In all three, Nettleton projects an easy blend of warmth and intelligence that seems to mask an underlying fragility: a look ideally suited to the small screen.

In the now-classic Twilight Zone episode, the Earth has fallen out of orbit and is moving ever closer to the sun; it's a great doomsday scenario, but it's also a limiting one. (Once writer Rod Serling establishes the premise, he doesn't really have anywhere to go.) But Nettleton runs with it: as she succumbs to the heat, you see resolve give way to reverie, and ultimately, to terror. Midway through, she unselfconsciously strips down to a slip, and you feel her abandoning pretense as well as hope, exposing herself not only to the elements, but to us. Critics have long heralded Serling's end-of-the-world vision as a metaphor for the anxiety that gripped viewers at the height of the Cold War; it's a strong idea supported by a couple great visuals (including melting oil paints streaking down a canvas as the temperature soars), but it's Nettleton's tremulous performance (opposite the very fine Betty Garde) that seers it in the memory.

In "Isn't It Romantic?", her Emmy-nominated turn on Golden Girls, she's Dorothy's friend Jean, who falls in love with Rose. On a show that too often veered into caricature for an easy laugh, Nettleton brings such dimensionality to her role that everyone seems on their best behavior. (The episode itself won an Emmy for Best Direction.) Her guest shot came at the perfect time: the start of the second season, just as the writers had learned how best to mine the characters for humor, but before they'd come to rely on cheap gags -- and Nettleton grounds it all, playing "straight man" to four crazy women, yet scoring just as many laughs. And when she's charged with all the reflective, poignant scenes at the end (opposite a thoughtfully modulated Betty White), she's careful never to let the serious moments devolve into "special" moments. The episode dates from 1986; it remains one of the best portrayals we've had of a gay or lesbian character on television. It also remains a series highlight.

In between those two guest spots, Nettleton offered up maybe my favorite of the three. In "What Do You Do When the Boss Says 'I Love You'?", she's Barbara Coleman, WJM's new program director, who falls for Lou Grant. It's one of the great episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's third (and best) season; as with Golden Girls, she arrived at an opportune time -- in this case, just when its creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, had been emboldened to uproot the series from its more traditional trappings (it had begun as sort of a That Girl 2.0), to deepen the core characters and back away from conventional sitcom humor. Quite aside from her wonderful work with Ed Asner, there's a memorable scene with Nettleton, Moore and Valerie Harper -- jokes rooted in character, the series' hallmark -- that I will always cherish. The three women have just returned from dinner, and as they enter Mary's apartment, they engage in the kind of slice-of-life banter that The Mary Tyler Moore Show did better than any show before or since:

Rhoda: I don't know, Barbara. I don't understand how you could be so settled in just three weeks. I've been in my place three years now -- still haven't taken the newspaper out of the glasses. Which explains why my orange juice tastes funny...
Mary: Hey, would anyone like coffee?
Barbara: Oh, no thanks, I'm fine.
Mary: Brandy?
Barbara: Terrific.
Rhoda: Yeah.
Barbara: You know, that French restaurant was really great.
Rhoda: Yah, it was a thrill for me just eating at a place where I didn't have to give my order by speaking into a clown's mouth.
Mary: Do you know that there was a time when I'd rather die than go out with the girls on a Saturday night?
Barbara: Yah, I can remember when I'd prefer even a rotten date.
Rhoda: Had one last Friday. A real zero. I mean, this guy could walk through an electric eye door, it wouldn't open.

And on it goes. Moore and Harper were a perfect duo; Nettleton makes it a terrific trio -- she settles in as if the three had been working together for years. I never saw Nettleton on the stage, and have yet to see her film performances, but on the small screen, I look forward to every (re)appearance.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 4)

Part 4 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

What follows are some thoughts about Davison's twenty Doctor Who serials (arranged chronologically): serials, to my mind, worth watching whether you're a fan of the genre or not, because at their heart, they boast a spectacularly fine actor doing spectacularly fine work. As you'll see, there are only seven or eight serials that I consider truly great, but Davison is rarely less than impressive, and frequently he's stirring. It's been nearly forty years since Davison made his TV debut, a full thirty years since he assumed the title role in Doctor Who. A year ago, I'd never heard of the guy; now I'd be hard-pressed to think of a television actor I admire more.

Castrovalva
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Fiona Cumming
Beguiling and exhilarating. Bidmead's scripts could be too clever by half, the results more science lesson than science fiction. Cumming lifts "Castrovalva" out of the lecture hall and infuses it with pace, style and warmth; she takes Bidmead's showy conceits (hydrogen inrush! recursive occlusion!) and paints a human face on them. Cumming was an accomplished technician, but she was above all an actor's director: just what "Castrovalva" needs. Fielding and Sutton don't seem to be spouting technical jargon; they seem to be processing it, sharing it. They have a few scenes where Cumming brings the volume down and draws the camera in close, and the two actresses are charmingly convincing. (It's the best work they'd do together till Cumming's next serial.) And Davison is, from the start, a revelation. It was his fourth serial filmed; John Nathan-Turner made a lot of questionable moves during his tenure on Doctor Who, but deciding to hold off filming Davison's debut until he'd inhabited the role for a while was not one of them. The Doctor is in a weakened state for much of "Castrovalva," but Davison is in command of every gesture and effect: he's riveting. A few blemishes in Part Four, mostly some action shots that were never Cumming's strong suit, but otherwise a triumph of script, direction, design and musical composition.

Four to Doomsday
written by Terence Dudley
directed by John Black

Exposition masquerading as plot, but so blithe and civilized, it doesn't much matter. For two episodes, characters meet, chat, posture, scheme, and trade secrets; nothing happens, but it's full of felicities (there's even a choreographed divertissement), and the set-design and direction are top-notch. (The sets are lit to match the costumes; even if you can't get into writer Terence Dudley's gentlemanly exchanges, you can bliss out staring at the pretty colors.) Sometime after the halfway mark, Dudley tries for more traditional suspense, but few of the set-pieces -- Tegan's frantic efforts to fly the TARDIS, Nyssa's aborted reprogramming -- truly come off. And two sequences near the end -- a pantomime fight in an airlock and the disposal of the villain against a sea of chaos -- are an embarrassment. Still, for much of its length, the low-key "Four to Doomsday" is unexpectedly appealing.

Kinda
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Peter Grimwade

"Our madness is the Mara's meat and drink," the Wise Woman intones in "Kinda," and in Christopher Bailey's hallucinatory universe, the Mara -- the evil lurking in the deep recesses of the soul -- is feasting on us all. On Deva Loka, the line between sanity and madness is perilously thin. It's not just fear and isolation that can sully the mind; insight and empathy wreak their own havoc. Bailey's characters -- and the nightmares that consume them -- seem to spring from the dark corners of his imagination: in "Kinda," story and story-teller are inseparable. Bailey doesn't connect all the dots, but he doesn't need to; our limited understanding of life's mysteries becomes part of the "Kinda" narrative. Yet despite its philosophic overtones, "Kinda" is not a static piece -- the cast and director attack the work with such ferocity that the narrative becomes, for the most part, as stirring as it is stimulating. (Only a few of the younger actors are, sadly, not up to the task at hand, the chief offender being Waterhouse. In Part Three, trapped with two madmen, he's meant to project mounting desperation to escape, but mostly he conveys the bland boredom of a teenager anxious to ditch his parents on a Saturday night.) Davison's own growth as an actor further fuels the story. "Kinda" was his third serial filmed, and as the scenes progress, you see him getting inside the Doctor's skin. While the Doctor gains knowledge, Davison gains insight; by the time the Mara is banished (magnificently), the journey of the Fifth Doctor, and that of the actor playing him, have become intertwined, and the synergy is powerful.

The Visitation
written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Moffatt
The dullest of the Davison serials: the only one that's a chore to sit through. The Doctor keeps telling his companions to hurry up, but no one seems to hurry in "The Visitation" -- scenes seem to go on forever. When they're good -- as in most of the first episode -- "The Visitation" is very good, but when they're bad, it's deadly. The Doctor, Adric and Tegan keep escaping from one room only to get trapped in another, while Nyssa -- well, poor Nyssa: during Part Two, the Doctor dispatches her to the TARDIS to build a machine, and when Part Four rolls around, she's still building it. She rearranges the furniture, she drags a contraption across two rooms, she kicks it and says "stupid machine" -- anything to delay her actually activating and testing it. "The Visitation" is like that; things that could be wrapped up in two minutes are stretched across two episodes. Moffatt directs like a disinterested bystander. The fight scenes are unfocused, the pacing tepid, and all four principals, at key moments, seem to lose track of the plot. Davison has a fine, energetic scene with the alien antagonist, then spends the next little while staring at the ground. (Is he trying to divine the alien's secret? -- killing time till his next line? -- awaiting some direction from the booth? It's hard to say.) There's a fun twist waiting at the end, but it's too little, far too late.

Black Orchid
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. In Part Two, writer Terence Dudley tries to weave them into something substantial, 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 family, but when the moment comes for her to turn on the Doctor, 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.

Earthshock
written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Grimwade
The first half -- and the last ten minutes -- are unusually taut and effective. The Cybermen's two-pronged plan doesn't really bear scrutiny, but the action sequences are well conceived and executed, and the revelations are well-spaced. And even when the second half gets a little flabby, Grimwade does his darndest to keep it engrossing. As the ship's commander, Beryl Reed proves a godsend. Saward gets a lot right in this script, but he still can't devise distinctive characters; 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. The scenes with Davison and Reed have some crackle, 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?

Time-Flight
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Ron Jones
Nyssa screams 17 minutes into Part One; maybe she saw what's coming. Up till then, there's not much to complain about. The TARDIS crew needed a present-day, down-to-Earth romp, and this one, at first, seems just what the Doctor ordered. From 18 minutes on, though, it all goes to pot: low-rent special effects, a hideous painted backdrop, and a plot with so many holes you could fly a Concorde through it. The first time you watch, your mind may go numb. The second time through, it gets better, because you stop asking "Why?" every few minutes. There are no reasons, but there are notable diversions: a chipper crew of pilots, a novel alien backstory, and a really nice scene between the Doctor and his foe-of-the-moment, Kalid, where you sense Davison enjoying the battle of wits. (Davison rarely seemed to enjoy besting his opponents; it was consistent with his take on the character, but sometimes you wish he weren't so damned noble and earnest so that he could bask in his victory for a moment.) Occasionally things snap back into focus; because of that -- and the first seventeen minutes -- you keep cutting "Time-Flight" some slack, but after a while you realize that for every good moment, there will be an equally bad one to follow. It's another awful story for Tegan, who's either snippy or sappy -- Grimwade can't find any middle ground, and Fielding doesn't have the instincts or the guidance to help her fill in the blanks. Near the start, she's mouthing off to the Doctor for about the fifth time, and he has a rolled up newspaper in his hand that he's just been reading; for a second, you actually think he's going to smack her with it, the way you'd discipline an unruly pet. It's a very unsettling moment.

Arc of Infinity
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Ron Jones
Would you sacrifice a friend to save a million strangers? It's the High Council of Gallifrey's turn to debate that age-old chestnut, but surprise! -- there's no debate. There's not much drama either. Writer Johnny Byrne has some good ideas, and a tough assignment, but the way he shapes "Arc of Infinity," the key events all happen offstage. We keep hearing about conversations held and decisions reached -- we arrive everywhere after the fact. Byrne's no dummy: he's aware of all the issues he's skirting (his characters keep saying things like "we considered that already" -- just to make us aware that he's considered them as well), but referencing conversations isn't the same as dramatizing them. The most wasted moment comes in Part Two when, sentenced to death, the Doctor turns to the Lord President, seething, "I have a great deal to say" -- and then he's promptly carted off. Every opportunity for verbal fireworks is squandered, and director Ron Jones hardly escapes blame: the scenes are slack, the special effects variable and the casting questionable. Yet to its credit, "Arc of Infinity" is bad, but rarely boring, and some of the absurdities make it almost pleasurable. Near the end, Davison doubles as the antagonist, and his performance has a gravitas that elevates the entire piece. And the final chase through the Amsterdam streets is surprisingly effective. "Act of Infinity" is a mess, but when it's done, you may hate yourself for having enjoyed it.

Snakedance
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Fiona Cumming
No Classic Who script is blessed with better dialogue; no serial since Davison's debut made better use of the Fifth Doctor and his companions. Bailey's follow-up to "Kinda" is tidier than its predecessor -- the themes go down easier -- but it's none the worse for that: it is, in fact, the defining Davison serial. Davison became a master, during his years on Who, of bringing energy and conviction to scenes even when the writer, or director, or guest cast, or supporting cast, were letting him down miserably; in "Snakedance," when everyone else is on their game, Davison unleashes his Doctor as in no other serial -- practically bounding across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility. It's a dazzling tour-de-force. Equally dazzling: the detail and delicacy that Bailey and Cumming bring to the proceedings -- delicacy, in particular, not being a trait you associate with Classic Who. The first, luminous exchange between mother and son doesn't appear to be scripted; it just seems to unfold, the way a scene would in the theatre. As it turns out, it's almost all exposition, but as you watch it, it seems a far cry from the Who norm, where you can hear the plot creaking during even the briefest of exchanges. The rare Classic Who that doesn't merely create an alien world, but luxuriates in it, "Snakedance" is sui generis: endlessly rewatchable and rewarding.

Mawdryn Undead
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Peter Moffatt
Two time streams unfold simultaneously, and the effect is giddy, foolish fun. Key scenes between Tegan and the Brigadier in 1977 play out as memories of the Brigadier in 1983; it's the kind of conjuring trick New Who does often, but rarely better. One of Grimwade's niftiest notions -- of two Brigadiers trapped on one ship but repeatedly missing each other -- calls for the kind of flair and precision that seems beyond Moffatt's grasp, but the story succeeds despite him. Moffatt had been the strongest director on All Creatures during its first season, and time and again, he'd drawn out Davison's best performances. But Davison admits that on Who, the sci-fi elements baffled Moffatt, and ultimately, they seem to have defeated him. (A hallmark of his work on Who is actors looking lost for a few seconds between lines; it happens to pretty much everyone at some point in "Mawdryn Undead" -- Sutton, in fact, seems at sea throughout.) The whole serial builds towards the proverbial "zap" when the two Brigadiers meet; Moffatt nails that moment, but the lead-up is leaden and the fall-out limp. Yet despite the director's limitations, and a final act that's equal parts padded and preposterous, "Mawdryn Undead" is still a heady trip.

Terminus
written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Mary Ridge
The juvenile cast opposite Sarah Sutton is even worse than she is; at one point, they have a contest to see who can show less emotion in the face of impending doom. But if you can look past that -- oh, and the big patchwork dog -- "Terminus" has its rewards, starting with some remarkable setups by director Mary Ridge. Turlough and Tegan are trapped in an air vent for much of the story, but who cares when the camerawork is this handsome? Ridge shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, precisely the point of "Terminus": Gallagher envisions a bleak universe in which his inhabitants (not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the self-proclaimed "baggage handlers" dispatched to deal with them, the raiders deserted by their own party) are all trapped -- disenfranchised by unseen, uncaring forces. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) Less an adventure than an indictment dressed up as a cautionary tale, "Terminus" does have moments when it feels aimless, but it also has its moments of excitement, atmosphere and even pathos, and it comes by them honestly. (December 2015 update: I offer a full review of "Terminus" here.)

Enlightenment
written by Barbara Clegg
directed by Fiona Cumming
Sailing ships in space: one of the iconic images of the Davison era, and the best Davison Who for the unenlightened. Others may be more thought-provoking ("Kinda"), more haunting ("Snakedance"), more gripping ("Earthshock"), or more pure fun ("The Awakening"), but "Enlightenment" manages a satisfying blend of all these qualities. Like Bailey before her, Clegg aims high without ever becoming high-brow, making the prosaic sound poetic ("It's as though somebody's been rummaging around in my memories") and the poetic unexpectedly resonant ("You are a Time Lord, a Lord of Time. Are there lords in such a small domain?"). Saward's comment that the script went nowhere -- this from the man who gave us the lumbering "Visitation" -- is one of his most sadly revealing. Can we chalk it up to professional jealousy? Davison and Keith Barron have a brief exchange about human worth that's so vibrant, it puts Saward's paler version in "Earthshock" to shame. No other Who helmer of the era could balance the intimate and the panoramic quite like Cumming, but a few moments do seem to get away from her -- no doubt because an electricians' strike forced filming to be spread across three months. But if Cumming's direction isn't quite as smooth or sly as her work on "Snakedance," she still works so many wonders, particularly with Fielding, that chance complaints are best (and easily) forgotten.

The King's Demons
written by Terence Dudley
directed by Tony Virgo
A great title, and a great start. Get Terence Dudley to pen a period piece, get the BBC to outfit it, and you're off and running. "The King's Demons," set in 1215, clips along at a pleasing pace for all of Part One. Then the Master, the Doctor's arch-nemesis, does his Big Reveal, and it quickly goes to pieces. Promising characters are marginalized, the setting minimized, and what's left is dead-end plotting. The climax is a battle of wills between the Doctor and the Master, but so badly botched it barely registers. (Virgo stages a great joust, but apparently a mental duel is beyond him -- but then, Dudley doesn't do him any favors. The whole premise of a mental standoff between the Doctor and the Master -- or at least between this Doctor and this Master -- is rubbish: back in "Snakedance," Davison's Doctor saved an entire world by focusing his thoughts; are we really supposed to believe that his powers of concentration are suddenly no match for those of Anthony Ainley's Master, hamming it up horrendously in his worst Davison Who performance?) Rare for Davison, you can sense his discouragement, through to episode's end; by the time the Doctor's inviting a robot to join the TARDIS crew, and indulging Tegan in a puerile game of "either he goes or I go," Davison looks like he's abandoned hope.

The Five Doctors
written by Terrance Dicks
directed by Peter Moffatt
It's like the school reunion you were dreading that you came away from thinking, "Well, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared." "The Five Doctors" is not as bad as you feared, but large parts of it are also not very good. The kindest thing you can say about Terrance Dicks' script is that it's well-assembled; it relies on in-jokes and catch phrases, but Dicks had a herculean task, full of last-minute rewrites, and his understanding of what makes the characters work and tick buys him a passing grade. The failures fall largely to Moffatt. The middle section involves three sets of doctors and companions making their way to the Tomb of Rassilon; they cry out for a little variety and suspense, but as staged, they mostly seem to be killing time. Former Doctors Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee (and Richard Hurndall, for that matter, filling in for the deceased William Hartnell) can't be faulted; they do what's asked of them, and well, but because there's no real sense of danger, they never feel heroic. What saves the day is Davison who, from his first gasp of pain, makes the threat palpable. Once Davison arrives at the Tomb, Moffatt seems to climb out of his stupor, and the final payoffs are quite good. But "The Five Doctors" belongs to Davison. His role was originally due to be subordinated to Tom Baker's, until Baker abruptly pulled out of the project. Baker's erratic ego is the best thing that could have happened to "The Five Doctors."

Warriors of the Deep
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Pennant Roberts

The Myrka, one of the most derided creatures in Who history, impedes your enjoyment the first time through; by second viewing, you can latch on to better things: the strong score by newcomer Jonathan Gibbs, another striking set by Who staple Tony Burrough, and surprisingly, a script by Johnny Byrne that isn't half bad -- or perhaps more accurately, is only half bad. Byrne's last effort, "Arc of Infinity," was full of incident, but little sense or substance; "Warriors" has some heft. There are a few head-scratcher lines, but otherwise, it's a good story for Davison, who's particularly energetic. Fielding is also well-served (as in "Arc of Infinity," Byrne knows how to make Tegan brave and sympathetic while keeping her tetchy), and so is Strickson. It may sound odd to praise a script for serving the entire regular cast well, but how seldom that happens. On the flip side, there's a sea of amateur acting from the guest cast (Roberts has his virtues, but casting and coaching are not among them), and a surfeit of gratuitous deaths near the end, courtesy of Saward. And the props look like they were turned out by some fifth-grade papier-mâché class. But Davison slams through it all in fine fashion. His final line reading ("There should have been another way") is particularly splendid, and the last shot of the Doctor, shaken and singed, is memorable.

The Awakening
written by Eric Pringle
directed by Michael Owen Morris
Eric Pringle was reportedly displeased with Eric Saward's rewrites, branding the resulting script rushed and confusing. But "The Awakening" is neither -- in fact, it's one of the most delightful of all the Davison serials. Pringle has fifty minutes to tell a dense story, and a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but the tricks never seem obvious; director Morris bathes them in the sun. There's a childlike sense of wonder to "The Awakening." It's there in the giant crack in the wall, and in the ghoulish face hiding behind it. It's there in the young boy who flees the church in terror, but isn't too afraid to brandish a torch to save his new friend. And it's there, above all, in Davison's performance. At one point, the Doctor escapes captivity with a schoolboy prank; later he's in the TARDIS with the town schoolteacher, and he throws her looks that say "Why are you in my room?" and "Don't touch my things." He's both rebel and authoritarian, equal parts schoolboy and headmaster, and he's marvelous. There's only one moment in "The Awakening" that feels rushed and confusing, and it's pure Saward: the sci-fi explanation for the creature taking over the town. The schoolteacher characterizes him as "the devil," but never a fan of the mystical, Saward explains it with reconnaissance missions and alien invasions and rocks "mined by the Terileptils on the planet Raaga for the almost exclusive use of the people of Hakol," all of which Davison shrewdly recites so fast that he renders it unintelligible. Saward had no idea how people think; did he not understand that the moment we hear "the devil," we tune out any other explanation? It's the only moment in "The Awakening" that feels false: demystifying the devil.

Frontios
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Ron Jones
The kind of monster-of-the-week serial that suits Christopher Bidmead least. He tries to compensate with hyper-intelligent dialogue ("when deep ancestral memory pictures break through the conscious mind like this, dangerous instabilities are created"), but the results are static and self-conscious. And the attempts at humor are forced. Bidmead can write a good joke, but here, nothing rings true. We start with the Doctor offstage, making a madman's ruckus; Tegan explains, "He gets like this sometimes." Well, no, he doesn't -- at least not in a while. Bidmead writes the Doctor as eccentric, absent-minded, pompous, obtuse: equal parts Baker, Pertwee and Hartnell. Had Bidmead seen an episode since he left two years earlier? This may be where Bidmead had intended the Fifth Doctor to go, but it's not where others had taken him; the impulsive idealist, the Doctor who wears his heart on his sleeve, is largely missing from "Frontios." Nor does Bidmead do well by Strickson, who gets a protracted mad scene that encourages his worst excesses. (At one point, Turlough literally foams at the mouth; at another, as two characters carry him to safety, his legs go limp, and they have to drag him off. That's our Strickson; if he can't upstage everyone with his face, he'll make sure his legs get the parting shot.) There are a few genuinely eerie moments in Part Two, but precious little else, and the martial motif that plays throughout is murder on the ears.

Resurrection of the Daleks
written by Eric Saward
directed by Matthew Robinson
A stylish-looking, well-directed action-adventure that wears its machismo like a medal. Calling it Eric Saward's best Who script may be damning it with faint praise, but it's praise nonetheless. Saward writes the principals true to form; he scatters some distinct character traits among the ample supporting cast; and he clears most of the plotting hurdles he sets for himself -- i.e., he gets by on the barest of minimums, but he gets by. Only near the end -- in the shoot-it-out, blow-'em-up finale -- does a sort of willful incoherence take over, but by then you take heart in the fact that incoherence still trumps blandness. There's a good visual gag involving a cat, and only one scene that's a complete bust. (The Doctor is being tortured, but seems to be getting through to his captor; we cut away to another scene, and when we return, the Doctor has stopped strategizing -- he's just busy screaming. But then his captor has a change of heart and frees him anyway. You're left wondering if the Doctor had any role in his own escape; he's emasculated by his own editing.) At the end, Tegan bids the Doctor goodbye, telling him, "It's stopped being fun." She's wrong, of course: despite its flaws, "Resurrection" is more fun than four of the five previous serials; that said, if this slaughter-fest was a portent of things to come (and it was), she was right to get gone.

Planet of Fire
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Fiona Cumming
The shots of Lanzarote -- its cliffs ripe for climbing, its valleys swirling in mist -- are majestic, and they're set to a percussive score (by Peter Howell) that's one of the most hypnotic in the Classic Who canon. Part Two feels like it's almost entirely shot outdoors, and Cumming milks the scenery for all it's worth. "Planet of Fire" suffers from some scrappy editing, and a few missteps, but by and large, this atmospheric tale is brimming with good ideas, well-executed. Grimwade was handed a laundry list of script requirements dwarfing even Byrne's on "Arc of Infinity," but there's no kitchen-sink clutter: it all coalesces into a brisk, satisfying story about faith and resistance, abandonment and deliverance. As ever, Cumming takes care of her actors, particularly the younger ones, coaxing a restrained performance out of Strickson and an appealing one out of Nicola Bryant. (It could be argued that it's Strickson's most restrained performance on Who, and Bryant's most appealing. Cumming even manages to tame Anthony Ainley.) You watch "Planet of Fire" thinking you'll carp about the small things it's getting wrong, but instead you're swept up in the formidable things it gets right. A late Davison sleeper; in many ways, it's the highlight of his final season.

The Caves of Androzani
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Graeme Harper
Early on, the Doctor and his new companion Peri are arrested and brought before a general, who insists on being addressed as "sir"; scripter Robert Holmes turns it into a quick comedy routine. Of course he does: those kind of hoary gags were a staple of the previous Doctor, for whom Holmes served as script editor. They were well-suited to Tom Baker's galumphing swagger, which could be commanding and detached at the same time; on Davison, whose line readings were honest to a fault, whose responses were visceral in the extreme, they seem all wrong. But the Fifth Doctor doesn't seem to interest Holmes much; his fancies lie elsewhere. He creates a cunning world, but the Doctor is pretty much an ancillary player: a prop, passed from one character to another like a bag of chips. Holmes structures the plot so that each of his characters has a reason for wanting the Doctor out of the picture. This isn't telling a story; it's stacking a deck. Near the end of Part Three, sanity and balance are briefly restored. His life slipping away, but determined to save Peri, the Doctor escapes captivity, seizes control of a ship and pilots it towards a crash landing; Davison lets loose with an adrenaline-fueled speech that gives you a glimmer of what "Caves" could have been. But the sequence is interrupted by three other scenes you couldn't care less about. Peter Davison makes a fine action hero in "Caves," but he has to do it in quick takes -- the camera rarely seems to be pointing his way.


Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 3)

Part 3 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

The Third and Fourth Doctors typically traveled with one or two companions, but Davison was often saddled with three; as a result, the Fifth Doctor's TARDIS has long been labeled "crowded." But the notion of a "crowded TARDIS" misses the point: in Davison's case, it's not the amount of baggage that's the problem -- it's the contents. If you watch First Doctor William Hartnell, sparring and conspiring with the marvelous William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Maureen O'Brien in a good Who adventure like "The Rescue," "The Romans" or "The Web Planet" (or a great one like "The Crusade"), then flip over to see Davison being fed crumbs by the likes of Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson, you might well want to impale yourself. Davison's companions were substandard; his TARDIS felt crowded because his companions were mostly clutter. Yet ironically, given that producer John Nathan-Turner and his script editors couldn't devise and cast one truly great companion for the Fifth Doctor in three years, it's probably just as well that they had three of them running around at a time; at least it improved the odds that someone would throw Davison a decent line reading, give him something unexpected to respond to.

Davison was adamant that Sutton's character had the most potential to be a suitable companion for the Fifth Doctor, and he was right: Nyssa's fairytale-princess-with-a-brain worked well opposite Davison. She was precocious but never cloying -- and her schoolgirl crush on the Doctor is endearing. But Sutton herself was woefully uneven. (In an odd way, it made her a fitting successor to Lalla Ward, who departed the show just before Sutton arrived; Ward's performances also varied wildly from serial to serial.) Surround her by great actors and a communicative director, as in "Snakedance," and she'll pleasantly surprise you with her handling of even the most basic exposition. But put her opposite someone bland (Clare Clifford in "Earthshock," Neil Daglish in "Arc of Infinity," Dominic Guard in "Terminus"), and she instantly sinks to their level. Her face goes blank, her body language grows stiff. Sutton's clearly at her best when Davison's around; she seems to thrive under his tutelage, as Nyssa does under the Doctor's.

Fanboy-turned-actor Waterhouse was a limited talent -- that's probably putting it kindly. But as math genius Adric, he has a charming presence in "Black Orchid" and does creditable work in "Castrovalva" and "Earthshock"; his rawness, his real-life desperation to please, is used to good effect. If he's better with Davison than with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker (and he is, by far), that seems to be about him slowly learning his craft. There are some Baker serials like "Warriors Gate" where Waterhouse doesn't give one convincing line reading: even something as basic as pointing and going "look!" seems beyond him. On the other hand, Adric and the Fifth Doctor have one scene in "Earthshock" -- in which they come to an understanding after a fight -- that's warm and surprisingly well-played by Waterhouse: his reactions seem sharp, and he holds his own. I watch that scene, and my sanity takes a backseat; I start to think that Waterhouse, of all people, was Davison's best companion. (I soon come to my senses: he wasn't.) Regardless, of the Davison serials, it's really only in "Kinda" that Waterhouse's limited acting skills drag the show down; mostly he suffers because the writers don't have a clue what to do with him. He could be an energetic, capable, attentive pupil -- as in the bomb-defusing scene in "Earthshock" -- but too often, he's simply there to sulk.

Matthew Waterhouse is a mop-headed mess who, at his best, seems grateful for the opportunity he's given; Mark Strickson, on the other hand, is a talented juvenile who seems forever frustrated with the limitations of his role. He's wonderful in his introductory story, when he's fighting for his soul, and he can let loose with fits of rage and hysteria. But once he's invited to join the TARDIS crew, he can't seem to settle in or settle back, or adapt to the honestly emotive style of Davison's era; at times, his delivery of the simplest lines is so overwrought (e.g., the end of "Warriors of the Deep"), his syllable snarling and pupil popping so disturbing, his jockeying for the attention of the camera so needy and outrageous, he seems to be on some other series altogether.

As the best actor on the Davison crew, Strickson had the most potential, but it was potential that feels squandered -- and his reflections about his time on Who are sadly revealing. Although Turlough was consistently portrayed as the most proficient of the TARDIS companions (a role he inherits from Nyssa), Strickson felt he was stricken with "terminal stupidity." Although he recognizes that Davison was the "first three-dimensional Doctor," he categorizes his own assignment as "two-dimensional acting" ("like a cartoon"). There's a disconnect between the role he was handed and the way he viewed it; after a while, you come to realize that it's not that he couldn't find a way to weave Turlough's strong personality into the texture of the Davison Who -- it's that he didn't care to. It's not like it was an impossible assignment: Janet Fielding found a place for Tegan's equally forceful character.

Although it took her long enough.

Fielding's first season is a decidedly mixed bag. She's a gangly gamine in "Castrovalva," an earthy flapper in "Black Orchid," a lost waif for most of "Kinda": those are the good performances. The rest are amateur and awful. Fielding's acting skills were admittedly modest, but you can't lay all the blame on her. Designed as a "spunky" foil for Davison, Tegan was more often written as loud-mouthed and spoiled. (The writers manage so much in Davison's first season, could they really not distinguish spunky from sour?) In retrospect, even her most annoying lines could have been tempered with playfulness or irony (when she refers to herself, memorably, as "a mouth with legs," you pray for more of that self-awareness), but someone -- Nathan-Turner or script editor Eric Saward -- should have seen that Fielding had no idea how to put a smart spin on her lines. You gave her a rude remark, you'd get a rude delivery. (She could even take a neutral line like "where are we now?" and make it sound both accusatory and bored.) At Davison's insistence, Tegan is softened somewhat near the end of her second season; it times nicely with Fielding finally learning to vary her delivery, and to suggest a little zest for life, some thirst for adventure. She's particularly good in "Warriors of the Deep" and "The Awakening" -- and then, just as she seems to be finding her footing, she's gone.

Davison had better luck behind the scenes. John Nathan-Turner had been Production Unit Manager on All Creatures and Doctor Who in the late '70s; he took the sole reins of Who at the start of Davison's first season. It's arguable that JNT's only truly great decision during his first few years on Who was to cast Davison, but that's probably the only great decision he needed to make. Yet Nathan-Turner also did one other very good thing: he cleaned house.

The old writers and directors were getting stale; the show needed an infusion of fresh blood, and a lot of JNT's first-time Who writers (Bidmead, Christopher Bailey, Barbara Clegg, Eric Pringle) and directors (Peter Grimwade, John Black, Fiona Cumming, Michael Owen Morris, Graeme Harper) turned out top-notch work. I'll trash Terence Dudley later, but let me put in a good word for him here -- since no one else probably will. Dudley was a second-rate writer, forever derided by Davison in the DVD commentaries, but he had one thing going for him: from his years spent directing All Creatures Great and Small, he knew Davison's rhythms and inflections. (He couldn't tell a plot to save his life, and in two of his three Who serials, his solution when the Doctor finds himself in a jam is to make him ineffectual, so he won't resolve things too soon. No wonder Davison detested him.) Dudley's first script, "Four to Doomsday," was Davison's first serial filmed; he had to set the tone for what follows and, armed with precious little information about Davison's take on the role, he does. (Parts of it read like a Tom Baker script, but it doesn't undermine the Fifth Doctor the way, say, "Frontios" and parts of "Caves of Androzani" do. Quite the contrary: he nails that "reckless innocence" of which Davison spoke.) And Dudley's "Black Orchid," later that season, is unimaginable with anyone but Davison.

JNT's best hire during the Davison years: director Fiona Cumming; in fact, it's hard to conceive of the Davison era without her. The scrappy crew of companions are at their best when she's around (they're so freakishly good in "Castrovalva," you're quite unprepared when they hit so many false notes -- or succumb to so many blank stares -- in the serials that follow), and her lightness of touch and attention to detail mirrored Davison's own. She was probably no more than a very good studio-trained director, but film and television history are full of studio directors who were at the right place at the right time, and whose work transcended their surroundings. Her pacing could be deliberate, but never leisurely; when the dialogue is strong, the written word gets its full due, and when it's not, there are always ancillary pleasures of casting and design. Her camera often stares down from above, seemingly struck by the wonder of it all. JNT not only knew enough to hire her, but he knew how best to use her; she asked for the more character-driven scripts, and he complied.

JNT's worst hire during the Davison years: Eric Saward -- not necessarily because he was untalented (he may well have been -- he's about the only key player of the Davison years whose work didn't inspire me to explore his output further), but because his dour outlook was so ill-suited to that of the Fifth Doctor. As a script editor, he has his successes during his time on Who -- The Black Guardian trilogy ("Mawdryn Undead," "Terminus" and "Enlightenment," in Davison's second season) is a particular triumph -- but from day one, he seems determined to offset the Doctor's breezy optimism with a withering snarkiness, and he doesn't rest until the Fifth Doctor is, in his own words, "obsessed and depressed." His impact on the Fifth Doctor is evident right away (his first script, "The Visitation," is the only time the Fifth Doctor seems like a pill); he doesn't deal a death blow to the series itself, though, till Davison's final season. Saward had a dreadful idea for the last third of Davison's run on Who: to show the upbeat Fifth Doctor decimated by a dark, unforgiving world. Fortunately, Saward's misguided mission is largely undone by the time it reaches the screen. The massacres that dominate Davison's final season -- in "Warriors of the Deep," "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "The Caves of Androzani" -- are so contrived and forced that Saward's goal is undermined: it never seems like the universe is beating up on the Doctor; it just seems like Saward is. You're always aware that someone's behind the scenes pulling the strings, like the humbug wizard in Oz -- and as a result, Saward's ham-fisted methods have the opposite effect of what he intended: he takes the sting out of slaughter. Only Saward could make genocide seem tidy.

Next: capsule reviews of Davison's Doctor Who serials.

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years (part 2)

Part 2 of an expansive essay about Peter Davison's three seasons (1982-84) on the long-running TV series Doctor Who. To read the full essay from the beginning, click here.

Peter Davison rose to fame as Tristan Farnon on the British TV series All Creatures Great and Small. I confess I knew as little of All Creatures as I did of Doctor Who, but like millions before me, I warmed instantly to James Herriot's fictionalized accounts of his veterinary practice during the Great Depression. But although, based on my affection for Davison in Who, I expected him to be excellent, I was still unprepared for the effect that Tristan, that "debauched choirboy" (as his brother calls him), would have on the series once he arrived on the midday train in episode two. Until then, the series is charming and winning, but -- befitting both the setting of the original stories and the era in which the TV series was produced -- a little sedate. Davison quickens the pulse. In a town filled with do-gooders, Tristan is the devil on everyone's shoulder, and Davison's presence and physicality -- the way he smoothes back his hair, or the cigarette forever tucked between his fingertips -- feels at once modern and timeless. He ignites the series. (It's the way the anti-hero, usually John Garfield, used to arrive late in the game in Warner Bros. movies of the '30s and disrupt the happy domesticity -- and you were grateful; you hadn't realized how tame the film had been until it acquired a little of that much-needed, ne'er-do-well energy.)

Davison could bring none of Tristan's detached amusement or mischievous irreverence to bear on Doctor Who. His Doctor is both more commanding and more trusting than Tristan Farnon: wiser yet more impetuous. There's precious little of Tristan in the Fifth Doctor. And just as you'd never mistake Tristan for the Doctor, you'd never mistake either for Davison in Holding the Fort or A Very Peculiar Practice or Campion, or a decade or two later, in Ain't Misbehavin' or At Home With the Braithwaites or The Last Detective. Watching Davison on Doctor Who gives a fair estimation of his skill, but not of his range.

Davison's Dr. Stephen Daker, in Andrew Davies' A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88), is particularly gratifying: the idealist swimming in a sea of academic piranhas -- a naive, neurotic delight. The series itself -- a black-tinged comedy about a university medical staff fighting for its life amidst professional rivalries, gender politics and budgetary cutbacks -- may not be as subversive today as it must have seemed in the mid-'80s, but it's no less fun. Although the key relationship is ostensibly between Davison and the blithely oblivious old-schooler Graham Crowden, I was more taken with Davison's playing opposite David Troughton, as the self-possessed Thatcherite eager to see the practice transformed into private consultancy. Troughton starred in the 1972 Who serial "Curse of Peladon" (it's overrated; he's wonderful), where he seemed like a character actor trapped in the body of a young leading man. By the time of Peculiar Practice, Troughton's features have caught up with the rest of him, and he's a gleeful devil in thick spectacles, while Davison -- during those same years -- has shed his own juvenile trappings and begun to embrace the new style of leading man that emerged as the '70s gave way to the '80s: the male prized as much for his sensitivities as his strengths. Troughton being the son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, whom Davison credits as the Doctor he most admired, watching the two of them go at each other is a visual brain-twister. I was sorry that I could only grab a few choice episodes of A Very Peculiar Practice on youtube and dailymotion; hopefully, the full series will be released on Region 1 DVD. But Campion and The Last Detective, both available in their entirety, gave me the opportunity to see Davison originate and develop some of his richest onscreen roles.

Campion (1989-90), from Margery Allingham's mystery novels, is an underrated set: better, to my mind, than most of the Agatha Christie adaptations that have crowded the small screen over the last few decades. Christie's novels, which prize puzzle over atmosphere, are too often done in by the stately pacing of the adaptations and the need to eliminate clues for reasons of time; the Allingham books, with their florid prose, practically beg for visuals. Davison only filmed eight Campion novels, and in the earliest ones (the more frivolous stories), the scriptwriters omit the "affable idiot" persona Campion adopts in his formative years to disarm his suspects. I can't fault them; it probably would have been annoying onscreen. But they don't give Davison anything to take its place, leaving Campion vaguely defined, and Davison opts for "enigmatic," a trait he does not wear well.

But once Davison settles in, once the plots get a little meatier and Campion a little more mature, he's as dashing and dynamic a hero as you'd hope. Of the eight adaptations, only the last one aired, "Mystery Mile," has little to recommend it: poorly cast, acted, adapted and directed. (As Allingham's first full-fledged Campion novel, and the only adaptation by series creator John Hawkesworth, you're left to wonder if it wasn't the first one filmed and the last aired, because the BBC realized how dreary it was.) But of the remaining seven, a good five do justice to Allingham's originals. Two of Jill Hyem's teleplays, one mystery ("The Case of the Late Pig") and one romp ("Sweet Danger"), are notably taut and spirited, and the best of the bunch, "Flowers for the Judge," adapted by Brian Thompson and vividly directed by Michael Owen Morris, who had helmed Davison's third-season Who adventure, "The Awakening," is as good a traditional mystery (in this case, of the locked-room variety) as any I've seen adapted to the small screen.

Campion is splendid, if at times slight. The Last Detective (2003-07), from the Leslie Thomas novels, is something more: the sort of role that more typically comes to a talented character actor late in his career, following years of ignominy, and catapults him to stardom -- and Davison makes the most of it. A detective instinctively juggling self-doubt, personal pain and keen deductive abilities, D.C. "Dangerous" Davies is one of Davison's most memorable portraits. There are a lot of Last Detective episodes I enjoy, and one scene in particular I haven't been able to shake. In Ed McCardie's "Dangerous' Liaisons," Davies is examining some 8 mm. film reels collected from a crime scene. They begin innocently enough (some home movies, barely worth his time), but in the final reel, the characters and setting change. A woman is bound and gagged, a man appears to be threatening her -- some sex-sadist flick, he presumes; he commits a few notes to paper, then his attention wanders. But something catches his eye: is the woman struggling to breathe? His posture changes, his eyes narrow, and he wonders: is he, in fact, witnessing a "real-life" snuff film? As the film grows more graphic, the director, the reliable David Tucker (who had helmed A Very Peculiar Practice) focuses in on Davison's face, and we experience the escalating violence solely through his reactions. At one point, Davison gives a start at something he sees on film -- and I jumped clear out of my chair.

Many of Davison's long-running roles operate like that -- they achieve startling results through subtle technique -- but I've also been impressed to see him unleashed in more traditionally bravura performances, including his well-remembered "mad conductor" scene in All Creatures Great and Small: "Out of Practice"; his drunk scene in the second part of Campion: "Death of a Ghost"; his welcoming speech to students in A Very Peculiar Practice: "We Love You, That's Why We're Here"; his departing speech to students in the pilot episode of Hope & Glory; and his gloriously moving breakdown in the first-season conclusion of Distant Shores, which had me weeping alongside him -- and then, when I rewound to watch it again, weeping once more.

(I'll refrain from lingering on At Home With the Braithwaites, the British comedy-drama in which Davison appeared from 2000 to 2003; it's terribly popular in some circles, but I couldn't get much past the first season. To me, creator Sally Wainwright seemed to be telling a very different story from the one she intended; she seemed to find her women admirable without ever showing us why, whereas the men, consistently given short shrift, seemed more sympathetic than she conceived, understood or acknowledged. Once I gave up on the series, I read a quick interview with Wainwright -- in which she admitted that she found women "braver and more complex than men" and noted, "I am just not as excited by men" -- that pretty much explained what I'd felt: she loved her women so much she forgot to give us any reason to love them too. But I will note that there's one blistering confrontation between Amanda Redman and Peter Davison near the end of the first season that's as good as anything I've seen Davison do.)

It should be noted that Davison remains a gifted actor who, like so many gifted actors, is not always the best judge of his own vehicles -- at least in terms of Doctor Who. His DVD commentaries -- his interviews, too -- are amusing, but his pronouncements are occasionally dubious. While everyone else is praising "Snakedance," he's fixating on the lights being too bright. (They aren't.) He thinks the second-season scripts were the weakest of the bunch. (They're not.) He finds his third season a great improvement over his second. (It isn't.) Most surprisingly, although he stated when he became the Doctor that he was determined not to play him as a superhero, several of the serials he favors most present him just that way: as a straight action-adventure hero, with a few of the subtleties or refinements Davison brought to the role. (He seems unaware how he redefined Doctor Who, leaving an indelible template for his 21st-century counterparts.) But none of that detracts from his work on Who, an accomplishment all the more tremendous when you consider how often he was basically acting alone.

Next: a look at the Fifth Doctor's companions, and a look behind the scenes.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years

"The hero is no braver than an ordinary person, but he or she is braver five minutes longer." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover story on the TV series Doctor Who, lauding it as one of the cult classics of all time. I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who -- never even heard of the show -- until Christmas Day, 2010. My partner and I were vacationing in South Florida; the house there had BBC America, and as we were channel surfing, there was a 2005 episode entitled "The Christmas Invasion." We decided to take a look, and entertained and intrigued -- and since the house also had streaming Netflix -- we decided to explore further.

"The Christmas Invasion" marks the beginning of the second season of the second run of Doctor Who, which began in 2005 and continues to this day; the original series ran from 1963 to 1989. (For our purposes, let's call the original series Classic Who and the latest version New Who.) Really all we picked up from that first episode was that there was a Doctor (a "Time Lord," played by David Tennant) and a companion (played by Billie Piper) and that they traveled the universe in a space ship that looked like a blue phone box (a "TARDIS") -- so now, in retrospect, it's alarming how much we didn't understand. (We were shocked when Piper left after our first season watching -- who knew the Doctor went through companions like the rest of us went through socks? We later learned that the Doctors themselves would change as well: the Doctor would "regenerate," and one actor would be replaced by another -- and that's how you sustain a series for nearly fifty years.) But there was enough that we did appreciate and enjoy to keep us coming back for more. Over the next three weeks, we devoured the following four seasons. By the time we were halfway through New Who Season 5, we realized we were no longer mere viewers: we were fans.

So the following winter, we found ourselves back in Florida on vacation, and it seemed fitting that we take a look at some Classic Who. I wrote to that erudite Who reviewer Paul Kelly, asking if he'd steer me towards some episodes he particularly admired. (I was once again spoiler-free: I didn't know the Doctors; I didn't even know the actors' names -- or that the serials were going to go on for two, four, or even ten episodes at a time.) He cautioned me: not everyone who likes New Who likes Classic Who. The production values, he warned, can be cheesy; the acting variable. Undeterred, we bought a dozen serials and got started.

And it wasn't bad -- or at least a lot of it wasn't. It was rarely as stimulating as New Who had been, but the best serials provided a fun evening's entertainment -- and as for the worst ones: well, at least we hadn't wasted more than an evening. We knew nothing of each Doctor's popularity -- or which companions were revered and which reviled; we formed our own opinions based solely on what we saw on the small screen. If a period started to bore us, we'd move on to another Doctor, or another companion: anything to vary the diet. For some reason I can't recall, we arrived at the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, late in the game, and the first episode of his we viewed was, in fact, his first episode, entitled "Castrovalva," from 1982.

And suddenly this was some other series altogether.

Classic Who no longer seemed merely inviting; it now seemed involving -- invigorating even. We broke our pattern of "random viewing" and elected to watch the Davison serials in order. Within about two weeks, we'd breezed through three years of the Fifth Doctor. Two months later, I revisited it all again.

A disclaimer: I'm not a sci-fi fan by nature. Never seen an episode of Star Trek. I've never seen any of the Star Wars movies, except the first one, which I don't remember very well. Never watched Space 1999 or Babylon 5 or Blake's 7 or any of those series with numbers in them. So what was my attraction to the Davison Who? Why did it get to me?

Watching Davison, I realized what I had found distancing about the show up to that point. The other Classic Doctors were eccentrics, born of a theatrical tradition that certainly suggested "other-worldly," but for me, it was an approach that sapped some of the suspense out of the series. As much as I enjoyed several of the other Doctors (and the Second Doctor was, I thought, especially good), the stylization undercut the sense of menace: you always trusted that these larger-than-life creations would swoop in and save the day. Davison eschewed the theatrical flourishes of his predecessors; his Doctor was as close to being "one of us" as a Time Lord with two hearts can be. He gave the material weight and resonance by flipping the perspective. With Davison, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it though ours. He shared our sense of wonder -- and our sense of dread. And the results gave off the same glow as the New Who we'd watched a year earlier. (The other morning, BBC America reran the New Who "Planet of the Ood," and when David Tennant told his latest companion Catherine Tate that he shares everything she's feeling -- "the fear, the joy, the wonder" -- I thought, that's precisely what I got from the Davison era.) Davison's take on the role was clearly the forerunner of his 21st-century namesakes.

Shortly before joining the series, Davison commented that, for him, "the suspense of 'now how's [the Doctor] going to get out of this tight corner' has been missing." (He was determined not to play him as a superhero.) Davison's recognizably "human" reactions recharged the series; they reinforced the sense of risk, the potential perils lurking in the shadows. Audiences in the early '80s had wondered how Davison, barely thirty, was going to essay a role previously played by actors a decade or two older, and Davison confronted the age issue head-on, bringing to the role, in his words, "a sort of reckless innocence." It was a brilliantly intuitive move. When Davison's Doctor flew down corridors, solution in sight, it was with equal parts inspiration and desperation; that manic intensity -- the Fifth Doctor was forever thinking on his feet, always strategizing the best way out of a tight spot -- made him instantly rootworthy, and his endless vigor seemed enviable. (As a side note, I later learned that writer Christopher Bidmead, who was scripting the Fourth Doctor's regeneration into the Fifth, had his own plan for the Fifth Doctor: he was conceiving him as "an old man in a young man's body." But as it turns out, Bidmead left the series before Davison even got warmed up, and thank goodness he did, because it freed Davison to go in a far better direction. Bidmead's blueprint survived fleetingly -- in the Doctor's steely outbursts at his companions, in his well-worn spectacles -- but in fact, it's those times when Davison is asked to play crotchety that he's at his least convincing, and the one time a serial trots out the "old man/young body" concept in full force, in Bidmead's "Frontios," Davison's Doctor becomes momentarily unrecognizable. And yet I was amused to see some fans point to "Frontios" as the one time the "real" Fifth Doctor emerges. I quickly learned there are as many opinions in the Who universe as there are viewers.)

The Fifth Doctor was a hero not because of any superpowers (he couldn't do Venusian karate, like the Third Doctor, or render a foe unconscious with one touch, like the Seventh), not because he shrugged off danger like the Third Doctor or laughed in its face like the Fourth, but because he was a fiercely compassionate soul who felt compelled to fight injustice wherever he found it. And Davison was precisely the actor to pull off a Doctor fueled by empathy; his young co-star Mark Strickson describes how Davison taught him "how not to act whilst still acting," and that ability -- that philosophy, really -- informs Davison's performances. Not merely a great actor, but a smart one, Davison seems to have an endless bag of tricks at his disposal -- but he employs them without chicanery; his performances are honest above all else. You're never aware of him "acting," but he always seems active, present, focused -- most of all, involved and engaged: what's often referred to as an "actor's actor."

What's startling about the Davison years is that he finds his Doctor fairly quickly, but the writers take a full season to catch up. His Doctor was such a departure, particularly from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade, that the early writers have no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they leave the character sketchy and call upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he does, handsomely. The Who adventure that best defines Davison's take on the Doctor is easily his second-season "Snakedance." The wild youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- writer Christopher Bailey captures it all, in a way he hadn't a year earlier in "Kinda," written before he'd seen Davison's Doctor in action. Of the three Davison years, his first season has the most varied set of scripts (a revolving door of script editors, it's one of the few Who seasons without clear direction in terms of style, content and tone -- and surprisingly, all the better for that). But the following year, drafted by writers who'd actually seen Davison in action, has the ones that best capture the Fifth Doctor, and for that all-important reason, Davison's second season is also his best. (His final season is done in by script editor Eric Saward: more on that later.)

Davison's reactions and responses were always relatable, but he was careful never to play the Doctor as an Everyman. But neither did he play him as "Tristan Farnon [his career-launching role in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small], but with bravery and intellect," one of those apocryphal stories that continues to make the rounds. There's a famed panel discussion from the British lunchtime magazine Pebble Mill at One, where Davison is set to assume the role of the Fifth Doctor and a young fan suggests that approach: "Tristan Farnon, but with bravery and intellect." Although Davison later claims that's basically what he did, I don't buy it. Of course Davison says that: it's a lovely fan-friendly gesture, and on some level, he might even believe it. But watching the early years of All Creatures Great and Small tells a different story, as I learned when I dug into some of Davison's other roles.

Next: a look at Davison's other long-running TV roles, before and after Who. Or click here to go directly to capsule reviews of all twenty of Davison's Who serials.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bewitched season 2

There's a running joke at our home that for many of my favorite TV series, I have one season I particularly favor -- and that's the only season we watch in syndication. (At the very least, it keeps our daily TV viewing down to just above the national average.) So occasionally I'm going to focus in on a favorite season of a cherished old series -- although these posts come with a warning: although I'll try to provide some background, they are not for the uninitiated. (If you know nothing about the series, you can check out premise and characters and plot outlines at wikipedia, epguides, and tv.com.) But if you're a fan of a particular show, or if you've heard about it and you're curious which season is particularly worth picking up or checking out, and why, read on.

I'm starting with Bewitched because, for many of us who grew up in the '60s, it was a fascination bordering on an obsession. To this day, when I'm down with a cold or the flu, and getting out of bed is a struggle, I wave my arm to see if I can get the book across the room to fly over to me. I believe that was Einstein's definition of insanity.

Jaime J. Weinman, at his wonderful blog Something Old, Nothing New, makes a passionate case for writer-producer Danny Arnold, who (Sol Saks' onscreen credit to the contrary) pretty much created Bewitched and masterminded its first season. Arnold viewed Bewitched as a romantic comedy (its antecedents were clearly the screwballs of the '30s) about a man and a woman from different backgrounds: a "mixed marriage," as it were. He was Darrin Stephens, an up-and-coming advertising executive; she was Samantha -- and she was a witch. Fantasy sitcoms ruled the airwaves in the '60s, but Bewitched, as originally conceived, was no Mister Ed or My Mother, the Car or The Flying Nun kiddie show. The witchcraft was used sparingly; mostly it allowed Arnold to explore familiar themes -- here, the trials of a young married couple -- but with fresh details. (If Darrin was stuck working late at the office, and Samantha decided to go out to dinner with her mother Endora, the two of them flew off to Paris. Without a plane -- that was the fantasy element. But when Samantha returned home, the question that plagued Darrin was a decidedly down-to-earth one: "Does she miss her old life, the one she had before she married me?" -- a question that resonated with couples of all ages and backgrounds -- and the sort rarely voiced in a TV sitcom.)

Arnold's Bewitched was smart, sophisticated television -- and capable of surprising poignancy and punch. He left the show at the end of its first season (with ABC-TV pushing for more magic, more farce, more kid-friendly plots), but he left it, for one season at least, in the capable hands of producer Jerry Davis, who had overseen Season 1 with him, and writer-turned-script-editor Bernard Slade, who had penned many of the first season's most memorable episodes. I'd be hard-pressed to say that any later season comes close to the ambition and accomplishment of Season 1, but where Weinman and I differ is that I find that Arnold's seriousness of purpose, his solemnity, could also be a bit of a drag. Bewitched Season 1 at its best ("Help, Help, Don't Save Me," "Witch or Wife," "Samantha Meets the Folks," "Eat at Mario's," just to name a few) is unmatched; at its worst, though, when Samantha is fighting to get a traffic light installed on Morning Glory Circle, or campaigning to get a city councilman elected, or grappling with the overprotective mother next door, the emphasis on the suburban over the supernatural gets a little tiresome -- you pray for the occasional witch's twitch to enliven the action. So I have to say my favorite Bewitched season is Season 2; Arnold's themes are still in play, but the touch is lighter, and the constraints looser.

So a cheer for Bewitched Season 2, although let's start off with some things I don’t like. Elizabeth Montgomery’s pregnancy during the first half of the season (and yes, this is the season in which daughter Tabitha is born, to allow for Montgomery's expanding waistline) forces the writers to throw a lot of the early episodes to Dick York, and while the episodes themselves are engaging, you feel the absence of Montgomery on the screen. Early on, some of the editing feels choppy; later on, after the birth of Tabitha, the narrative energy dissipates for a while. And there seem to be a lot of horses running around the Stephens’ house, not to mention the occasional stray dog, cat, chimp and teddy bear.

But thirty-six new episodes aired during that 1965-66 season, and only three are duds: a pretty staggering achievement. Against so many odds (Montgomery’s pregnancy; the death of Alice Pearce, the original, irreplaceable Gladys Kravitz; Marion Lorne’s heart attack, which kept Aunt Clara off the screen after the first dozen episodes), Season 2 still seems to me the true miracle season, the one where slapstick and sentiment are best balanced.

That blend is never more apparent than in “And Then There Were Three”: Tabitha's birth, and writer Slade and director William Asher at their absolute best. Slade creates beautiful chaos out of one misunderstanding and one coincidence: Endora offers to turn Tabitha briefly into an adult, to show Darrin how much she'll come to resemble her mother; when Darrin encounters Samantha's lookalike cousin Serena (her first appearance), who's dropped in to offer congratulations, he thinks she's Tabitha, aged by witchcraft. That's all Slade needs to create a half-hour of inspired lunacy, line by line, scene by scene. (By episode's end, Darrin is in Samantha's hospital room, dressed as an Indian, in a straight jacket. You have to see it to believe it, but it's so cleverly plotted that believe it you do.) But laced throughout the mayhem -- and crucial to the episode's success -- are the tenderest of conversations: between Darrin and Samantha, between Samantha and Endora, between Darrin and Endora -- all of them reacting just as we would to the birth of a baby girl. And all of it told with the kind of literate, witty dialogue that was not, sadly, a staple of '60s television. (Arnold knew how to do it, so did Slade. The only other regular Bewitched scripter with a real ear for dialogue was James Henerson, who in his last Bewitched effort, in Season 4, provided probably my single favorite exchange in the show's eight-year run: an obnoxious, insistent client of Darrin's challenges Endora, "I'll bet you can't guess what I make," and she replies, "Enemies?")

Throughout Season 2, quiet episodes like “Aunt Clara’s Old Flame” are enlivened by narrative sleights-of-hand, and sillier episodes like “My Boss, the Teddy Bear” are grounded by smart exposition. Some episodes are downright spooky (“Trick or Treat,” “Disappearing Samantha”), others quite heartwarming (“A Bum Raps,” a throwback to Season 1). The characterizations remain sharp and complex, largely free of the one-note one-liners that marred later seasons.

As noted, the narrative energy starts to flag after Tabitha’s birth, in no small part because Slade, after penning a third of the first eighteen episodes, sits out the next ten. (Unlike Slade, who never penned a bad Bewitched episode, David V. Robison and John L. Greene establish themselves this season as the most erratic Bewitched scripters, with three marvelous episodes, three that are OK, and one out-and-out lemon.) But just as you’re despairing that the quality has started to falter, Slade returns to scripting duties with the terrific two-parter “Follow That Witch,” in which a hard-boiled private eye discovers Samantha's secret and threatens blackmail; one of Slade's typically sturdy mixes of the silly and the serious, it sets things right for the remainder of the season.

Season 2 is so full of goodies, I'll mention a few more favorite episodes: the surprisingly adult “Speak the Truth” (where a statue prompts those close to it to reveal their inner thoughts, including Darrin's secretary's admission that she wears dresses two sizes too small, in the hopes that he'll see her as a woman, and Darrin's confession that he already does), “Double Tate” (in which Darrin is turned into his boss, Larry Tate: arguably David White’s best performance), “Divided He Falls” (in which Darrin is split into his "fun side" and his "work side": arguably Dick York’s best performance) and the fanciful “What Every Young Man Should Know,” which answers the question "Would Darrin have married Samantha if he'd known she was a witch?" (It's a premise that no doubt would have delighted Danny Arnold, and the four principals, unassisted by guest stars, seem to be having a ball.)

All in all, a grand season, but only as seen in its original black-and-white. (There's a colorized version for sale, too: worth avoiding.) Those raised in the '70s and '80s, when only the color episodes of Bewitched (Seasons 3-8) were in syndication, saw the show mostly at its worst: the last three or four seasons, in particular, devolved into an endless recycling of "Endora casts a spell on Darrin" plots, with little warmth, affection or chemistry between the leads. But the first two seasons -- the black-and-white episodes -- were rich and multi-layered, and Montgomery and York harkened back to some great seriocomic screen pairings of the Great Depression -- Carole Lombard and Fredric March in Nothing Sacred, Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland in Arise, My Love, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night -- and seeing it in its original black-and-white only reinforces the comparisons and illuminates the results.