Thursday, October 31, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "The Wheel in Space"

The fifth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen" and "Death to the Daleks."

Revisiting "The Wheel in Space," in preparation for this post, made me sad -- not the reaction I was expecting. "The Wheel in Space" is a largely ignored serial, one that I realized during my latest rewatch is even better than I'd remembered. But I was also reminded that a key reason it's under-appreciated is because four of its six parts are missing. And that is to say, the visuals are missing. But here's the thing: the audio is still there. And there are amazing reconstructions: Loose Cannon (obviously) did one, and I see, online, at least two others that I like. And Wendy Padbury narrated the audio book. So there are all kinds of ways to "watch" and appreciate "Wheel in Space" even though only two of the six episodes survive in their entirety, but I've come to realize that some fans -- even some diehard ones -- won't, because it calls for the kind of viewing effort we're not used to these days.

And I get it, truly I do. A half-century ago, when these serials first aired, TV viewing always involved effort: you changed the channel, then spent 15 minutes adjusting the rabbit ears. But these days, we expect instant results. This past week, as I rewatched "Wheel in Space," via a superb restoration at Daily Motion that combined telesnaps, surviving video, production photos and Wendy Padbury's narration (plus, obviously, the two surviving episodes from the Lost in Time set), I kept getting pop-up ads and commercials, and my iPad kept having buffering issues or taking me to the App Store (I don't know why) -- and it was a pain in the neck. But it was a pain in the neck that was so worth it, because "The Wheel in Space" is superb. It's the forgotten stepchild of both the superlative Classic Who Season 5, and of the whole Classic Cybermen canon. And watching it this past week, I realized that, in its own unusual way, it might just be the best of the Classic Cybermen stories, which I realize is heresy -- but I'm pretty confident in saying that it's as good as "The Tenth Planet" and "Earthshock" and superior to all the rest. It's certainly the best of the Troughton Cybermen serials, but as it's the only one not released on DVD, the only one without an easy way to view in its entirety, I grew disheartened recognizing that a lot of folks won't have the pleasure of that realization.

So: off my soapbox now. I encourage you to make the effort to watch it, and if you do, I envy you the experience of discovering one of the lost classics of the Who catalog. And if you don't care to watch, I hope I can do some justice to it here.

David Whitaker's writing career on Who was remarkable; I know most gravitate towards Robert Holmes as the best of the regular Classic Who scripters, but for me, it's Whitaker all the way. As the show's first story editor, he's the one who taught everyone how to write Doctor Who, and then, when he left his post and began scripting, showed that he could do it better. So many of my favorites are Whitaker's: my favorite historical ("The Crusade"), my favorite Dalek serial ("Evil of the Daleks"). And he's there, paving the way at so many critical junctures: at the earliest redefining of the TARDIS dynamic ("The Edge of Destruction," which made the rest of the series possible), at the addition of the first new companion ("The Rescue"), at the introduction of the first new Doctor ("Power of the Daleks"). He gives Troughton arguably the greatest tour-de-force in Classic Who history in "Enemy of the World," and gifts him both his female companions, Victoria and Zoe. Whitaker's intelligence, creativity and warmth are evident in all those scripts, as is his canny understanding of how Doctor Who audiences watch the show -- and often he would use that knowledge to undermine our expectations and double our pleasure.

"The Wheel in Space" is a serial he was asked to write (to bring back the Cybermen for the end of Season 5) and not one that he himself proposed. And because of that, the legend has grown around it that it was a story his heart wasn't in, and that it's not up to his best work. And the truth is that, often, when very good Who writers are handed assignments, and pen something without genuine inspiration, the results can come off like... well, like Robert Holmes' "The Power of Kroll."

But trust Whitaker. However he came to write the serial, he found a way in that clearly interested him. He wrote a character study. Not a character study of the Cybermen: that had pretty much been taken care of in their initial story, and part of the problem with the two follow-ups, "The Moonbase" and "Tomb of the Cybermen," is that once you'd "explained" the Cybermen, their make-up and their motives, there wasn't much else to do with them. So Whitaker writes a character study about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future: a serial with clearly defined characters who evolve through the course of six episodes. They're put to the test in ways they never expected: some rise to the occasion, others crash and burn, and several use the experience to reevaluate their future. "The Wheel in Space" is as much slice-of-life drama as sci-fi, fantasy or thriller. It would be much the same serial without the Cybermen; most any monster or sizable threat would have worked, and the serial would have played out in the same way.

But because Whitaker is saddled with the Cybermen, he uses them in counterpoint to his own characters. The Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- allows him to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. And the Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which he measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Script editor Derrick Sherwin envisioned Zoe as a scientific prodigy, but as always when he designed new characters, Whitaker dug deeper: he conceives Zoe in Cybermen terms. Here's the Doctor, in Episode 3, describing the Cybermen to the ship's controller:

The Doctor: They were once men, human beings like yourself, from the planet Mondas, but now they're more robot then man.
Bennett: You mean half and half?
The Doctor: Oh no, more than that. Their entire bodies are mechanical, and their brains have been treated neuro-surgically to remove all human emotions.

And here's Zoe and Doctor Corwyn in the following episode:

Corwyn: Do you ever feel anything emotional, Zoe?
Zoe: Emotional? Do you know, that's the second time I've been asked that in the last few hours. Leo said I was like a robot, a machine. I think he's right. My head's been pumped full of facts and figures which I reel out automatically when needed, but, well, I want to feel things as well.
Corwyn: Good. Unfortunately, the parapsychology unit at the City tends to ignore this aspect in its pupils. Some of them never fully develop their human emotions.
Zoe: You don't think I'll be like that, do you?
Corwyn: No, you seem to have survived their brainwashing techniques remarkably well.
Zoe: Oh, good.

"Their brains have been treated neuro-surgically." "You seem to have survived their brainwashing techniques remarkably well." "They're more robot than man." "Leo said I was like a robot, a machine." The parallels are clear. It's a remarkable portrait of someone who's about to become the next member of the TARDIS crew, because it's someone who sees herself, in her own words, as "a freak."

Zoe: There's too much I don't know. I was trained to believe logic and calculation would provide me with all the answers. Well, I'm just beginning to realise there are questions which I can't answer.
Jamie: You're just not trained for an emergency like this.
Zoe: Well, that's the whole point. What good am I? I've been created for some false kind of existence where only known kinds of emergencies are accounted for. Well, what good is that to me now?
Jamie: Hey, we're not done yet, you know.
Zoe: And if we survive? What then, Jamie? Suppose we do get ourselves out of this mess. What have I got left?

It's beautiful dialogue, and brilliant character building. Zoe can spit out facts for days, but when it comes to facing the unknown, and responding to events intuitively, she's out of her element. And the experiences of "Wheel in Space" make it clear to her that that's not a life she wants for herself. ("What have I got left?") But wanting something and getting it aren't the same thing, as she learns when she sneaks aboard the TARDIS at the end and stows away in a trunk. The Second Doctor, never the fool, knows she's there, and knocks on the trunk -- and she sheepishly appears and admits that she longs to travel with the Doctor and Jamie. But it's not that easy. Because the Second Doctor has his issues with Zoe, as he expressed in their very first conversation in "Wheel in Space," when Zoe proffered figures as fact:

The Doctor: Well, it's an interesting theory.
Zoe: Oh, it isn't a theory. You can't disprove the facts. It's pure logic.
The Doctor: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.

The Doctor has learned, over a long lifetime, to balance reason and emotion -- even when it means being cutthroat (as he was in Whitaker's "Evil of the Daleks," and as he is again in "Wheel in Space," when he sends Jamie and Zoe on a mission that might prove deadly to them, because he knows it's the only way to save humanity). That's how he's survived. But can Zoe learn that? Can she be an effective crew-member? It's a novel notion: the Doctor inviting someone aboard who may well be ill-equipped to handle the perils at hand -- and if I'm less fond of Zoe than other fans are, it's because this aspect of her personality was rarely touched upon again. Once she boards the TARDIS, and a new season gets underway, she's mostly chipper and quick-witted, becoming a sounding-board for the Doctor, and a brainy little sister for Jamie. And arguably, she's used "well," but is she used best? Because there's something inherently sad, and even tragic, about Zoe, as Whitaker envisioned her, that's largely overlooked or ignored in the serials to come. But that's a blog entry for another day; my point is that "Wheel in Space" gives her a sensational introduction.

Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, is fundamentally (but not fatally) damaged, and so is the ship's controller, Jarvis Bennett, who's undergoing a nervous breakdown. A lot of commanders in Who are stricken with "why-won't-they-listen-to-reason" sickness -- it's how the writers sustain the story-line, by having those in authority refuse to heed the Doctor "until it's too late." But Bennett's stubbornness in ignoring the Doctor's warnings isn't used for plot purposes; it simply serves as another example of the tug-of-war between logic and emotion that humans and Time Lords (unlike Cybermen) have to endure:

The Doctor: Tell me about the controller.
Corwyn: Tell you what?
The Doctor: He's a strange man to be in a position like this.
Corwyn: In ordinary circumstances, no.
The Doctor: Are there any ordinary circumstances in space?
Corwyn: Normally he's more than capable of commanding this station. It's a continuous and merciless responsibility.
The Doctor: Exactly. One does wonder what a man like that will do when faced with a problem for which he has no solution.
Corwyn: I must confess I've been concerned. Jarvis shows signs of blocking off his mind. He just can't face the truth.

Like Zoe, Jarvis Bennett has an analytical mind that can't process anything outside the realm of experience -- but whereas Zoe cries out for help, Bennett shuts down. Whitaker eschews melodrama: Bennett doesn't "go off the deep end and damage key components, sending everyone plummeting towards certain death." "The Wheel in Space" is about how people of different backgrounds and varying aptitudes respond to stress and crisis, and Whitaker is careful not to editorialize his characters. His style is refreshingly dispassionate. He simply captures the cadences of everyday speech -- the joking, bickering, flirting and fussing -- and allows us to draw our own conclusions. The Doctor, early on, suffers a blow to the head, and in Episode 4, Dr. Corwyn examines his X-rays and assures him that he'll be fine:

The Doctor: Oh, I'm so glad there is no damage, Miss Corwyn.
Corwyn: Mrs.
The Doctor: Oh, forgive me.
Corwyn: My husband died in the asteroid belt three years ago.
The Doctor: Oh. I'm so sorry.
Corwyn: My name's Gemma.
The Doctor: Gemma. How nice.

The characters in "Wheel in Space" take the time to interact, and sometimes you feel they're so rich that details of their lives simply have to spill out. One of the pitfalls of Who scripts, particularly in the "monster" episodes, is that once the creatures attack, the dialogue becomes bland and reactive. It's "what do we do?" and "what do they want?" "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable. If "Wheel in Space" is a "base under siege" story, then it's the best of the bunch, because it's not about the monsters at all -- it's about the humans defending themselves. And it's careful to avoid the end-game cliches of the genre. The commander falls apart, and it costs him his life; we expect that once Bennett shuts down, Dr. Corwyn, who's proven level-headed, will rise to the occasion -- but she too falls victim to the Cybermen. Death is random in "Wheel in Space," as it so often is in life. Whitaker refuses to stoop to the theatrics of cheap story-telling, where there's a "reason" people die. In the end, the ones who survive do so not because they're braver, or craftier, or more cowardly, or even better billed. They survive because they're luckier.

(As an aside, speaking of Gemma Corwyn, one of the most striking things about rewatching Season 5 is noting how well the female guest characters are drawn. In three of the serials set in the future, the presumption is that there will be parity between the sexes, parity of responsibility and authority, and two of those serials, both Whitaker's, "Enemy of the World" and "Wheel in Space," offer up women that are among the strongest and most admirable in the Who canon. In addition, the single Season 5 serial set in the present, "Web of Fear," has the best smackdown of male chauvinism in Who history, when Captain Knight asks scientist Anne Travers, "What's a girl like you doing in a job like this?", and she responds, "Well, when I was a little girl I thought I'd like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist." Season 5, which aired in 1967-68, understands the tenets of feminism in a way that escaped the Letts-Dicks regime six years later, when their heavy-handed shoutouts ultimately diminished and ridiculed the movement even as they attempted to pacify it.)

"Wheel in Space" continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond. (The script credit here is "by David Whitaker, from a story by Kit Pedler." Pedler was a scientist turned writer, so some of the technical jargon is no doubt his, and his field, like Zoe's, was parapsychology, but the script -- in structure, characterization and tone -- is clearly a Whitaker effort.) One of the things that makes "Tomb of the Cybermen" tough to sit through is that the stereotypes are so heavy-handed, in the scripting and in the playing. "Wheel in Space" keeps the multi-culturalism, but it's done with finesse: there's a lightness of touch -- a consistency of style -- that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. The subtlety of the playing is something you sadly don't get in the telesnaps; one of the dangers of watching reconstructions, I'll fully admit, is that when you see the same photos over and over, you start to think the line readings might suffer from a certain sameness. But the two extant episodes of "Wheel in Space" happily put that fear to rest: in the surviving video, the interactions between cast members are graceful, varied and convincing. And as somewhat of an antidote to "Tomb," which was rife with the sort of xenophobia that taught you to distrust any characters who weren't Caucasian, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an English man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. (It's a flirtation that's played out through the serial, one that only turns into something more, we imagine, because of the crisis they faced.) Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all.

There's virtually nothing wrong with "Wheel in Space," except it being missing. (OK, there's one wonky moment as the Cybermen flap their arms while entering the ship -- but it follows a majestic shot of them walking through space, so you let it pass.) It's not as flashy as its best Season 5 stablemates: it doesn't have the Troughton doppelgangers of "Enemy of the World," or the introduction of a new villain and slam-bang direction of "The Ice Warriors," or the hypnotic atmosphere of "Abominable Snowmen." But it's solid throughout, and often superb. The direction is striking, the set design imaginative, the costumes effective. (Happily, there's none of the psychedelic '60s patterns used to suggest "future garb" in both "Ice Warriors" and "Enemy of the World" -- and that now date the serials so badly.) And the use of sound effects instead of a score is quite novel. It's a Cybermen serial without musical underscoring -- in particular, without that thumping piece of Wilfred Josephs stock music that had been used and reused in all their earlier appearances. Instead, Who sound designer Brian Hodgson gets the composer credit, and fills "Wheel in Space" with the sounds that might be heard as background noise on a spaceship: the hums and beeps and pulses that create their own tension. (Because really, when we're home alone, aren't the scariest sounds the ones that emanate from our own house, that might be something else?)

Subtlety rules in "Wheel in Space," because again, the emphasis is on character, not carnage. And because of that emphasis, the chaos caused by the Cybermen carries some weight, as they toss Whitaker's full-blooded creations through the air, or strangle them, or blast them into oblivion. And tellingly (and this a tribute to director Tristan de Vere Cole, and how much he understood the themes being explored), often when the Cybermen go on a rampage, we see it through the eyes of a bystander; we don't merely see the Cybermen kill someone -- we see others, on a monitor or nearby, watching the Cybermen kill someone, and we view the impact that it has on them.

Because in the end, "The Wheel in Space," the most human of Cybermen stories, isn't about violence; it's about trauma. It's not about counting the fatalities; it's about tending to the survivors. It's about the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and about our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And in the serial's final, unexpectedly uplifting moments, as Zoe, broken and uncertain, is welcomed aboard the TARDIS, it's about one Doctor's ability to heal.

Next up, the Sixth Doctor's "Attack of the Cybermen." And if you want even 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 take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Death to the Daleks"

The fourth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark" and "Delta and the Bannermen."

"Death to the Daleks" is the Dalek story for those who hate the Daleks. It's the Pertwee serial for those who hate the Pertwee era. It's the Terry Nation script for those who hate Terry Nation. By my rough calculations, that's approximately one in every seven billion people, which I guess would be me. For the other folks on the planet, most of whom love the Daleks, many of whom like the Pertwee era, and from what I can gather, at least six of whom think Terry Nation was a great writer, "Death to the Daleks" is one of the nadirs of the entire Doctor Who run.

I kind of like it.

First, a couple of clarifications. I don't hate the Daleks. I suspect my opinion of the them is influenced by the fact that I didn't start watching Doctor Who until Season 2 of the new series, which meant my first exposure to them was in "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" and, more disastrously, "Daleks in Manhattan"/"Evolution of the Daleks." It was not an auspicious introduction. There are certainly Dalek stories I like: "Evil of the Daleks" is one of my favorite Who stories ever, "Genesis of the Daleks" is up there in the top 30, and I'm also fond of "Power of the Daleks," "Resurrection of the Daleks," "Dalek," "Into the Dalek," "Stolen Earth" and at least half of "The Chase" and "Remembrance of the Daleks." (Ironically, in 1963, I was probably the perfect age to be properly engaged and terrified by the little pepperpots, but I didn't get around to them for nearly a half-century.) That said, my favorite Dalek stories are not Nation's, but Whitaker's, where they're master manipulators, tacticians with such a keen understanding of human behavior, and how to exploit it, that you really do believe they're the most deadly killing machine in the universe. In the Nation scripts, they tend to shout single phrases a lot. Here is a sample line from "Death to the Daleks," uttered by a Dalek: "You will obey! You will obey! You will obey! You will obey! You will obey!" (Well, I guess we'll obey...)

Second clarification: I don't hate the Pertwee era. Far from it. But a lot of people like it far more than I do; I see why they do (and respect it), and I know why I don't. For me, the "Doctor stranded on Earth" premise, no matter how engaging the supporting cast, no matter how well-crafted the stories, simply isn't the Who that I most love. But I readily concede that given the choice between Troughton's last season and Pertwee's first, I'd pick the latter in a heartbeat, so while I'm, to this day, unconvinced that the "Earthbound Doctor" scenario was necessary, I fully believe it was handled flawlessly. And I certainly don't hate Pertwee at all; I simply find myself drawn to the less imposing Doctors, and Pertwee's particular brand of withering authority isn't my favorite characterization. When I take to Pertwee (and I do, often), it's mostly the glints of warmth and affection, or the times when he's thrown off his guard, alarmed at his own miscalculations or lack of information, and thinking madly on his feet -- I like the cracks in the armor, and I like the softer edges. What I find trickiest about Pertwee is that since, by his own admission, he based his Doctor on his own character, when he's not enjoying a story, or he's tired or fed up (as the first five Doctors all were, at one point or another), there's no place to run, no character behind which to hide. You see his unhappiness on the screen. Not willfully, not as Tom Baker would let you know, deliberately and almost boastfully, just how much he disliked his co-star, the supporting cast or the scripts; with Pertwee, he simply had no easy way to disguise it. The Doctor was Pertwee; if Pertwee was unhappy, inevitably so was the Doctor.

Third clarification: my feelings about Terry Nation. It's not that I dislike him -- it's, um, well -- oh screw it, I think I do. For me, his reuse -- in successive Doctor Who serials -- of the same situations, settings and tropes devolves into self-parody. It's not only in the Dalek stories that the lack of creativity chains him; the Dalek-free "Keys of Marinus" has the same journey to a city, complete with traps along the way and indistinguishable supporting players. There always seems to be a jungle, pages of moralizing, and use of "Space" as an adjective to make the pedestrian sound exotic. For me, the Nation scripts hit rock-bottom in "Planet of the Daleks," the Dalek story right before "Death to the Daleks," a painfully slow, portentous remake of their very first adventure. (It's the one in which Jo tells an astronaut that her friend is sick, and he assures her, "I'm qualified in Space Medicine." It's also the one where poor Pertwee has to intone so many uplifting speeches along the way that he actually ad-libs an apology.)

So all that said, why do I find "Death to the Daleks" a superior serial? Let's start with Terry Nation's script. There's less of it than usual; that's a good thing. It's not just that he'd written 6- and 7-parters before, and this one's only 4; there's simply less dialogue -- more silent action -- than in perhaps any other Classic Who script. (I suspect it has about as many lines as the typical Hartnell or Davison two-parter.) "Death to the Daleks" is, for much of its length, the closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" a good six years earlier. And it's hard to judge the cause. We know Nation wanted to set the serial in one of his standard jungles, and producer Barry Letts nixed the idea with a "you just did that" dictum. Perhaps Letts wielded the scalpel so firmly that Nation, at a loss for fresh ideas, simply underwrote. Or perhaps Michael E. Briant, who could be a powerful director and has admitted not caring for the script, simply excised all the bits he thought were awful, replacing words with stage directions. But regardless of the cause, less Terry Nation is better Terry Nation: there's no moralizing, there's no extraneous love story. There are the standard "traps," but they're over swiftly. And having a smaller cast means it's one of the few Nation scripts where the guest stars make a solid, favorable impression. When I finished "Planet of the Daleks," I couldn't remember one featured player; here I remembered them all.

And the fact that Nation actually takes a little more time with his guest cast means he can relegate his Daleks to more of a supporting role, and that's not a bad thing either. Nation opts for the approach he'd tried before in "The Chase" -- lightly sending up the Daleks: playing on the fun, not the fearsomeness, of the creatures -- in effect, a wink to the audience acknowledging that their popularity had grown way beyond anything rational. "Death to the Daleks" is an appropriate title, as they suffer one ignominy after another. They're treated as creatures worthy of gentle mockery, whose defeats are cause for celebration. They make their first appearance (as always) at the end of Part 1, rolling out of their spaceship; they take aim at the Doctor and his human colleagues -- and fire blanks. (The planet, as it turns out, is draining energy: from the TARDIS, from the Earth ship collecting chemicals to cure a galactic plague, and from the Daleks themselves.) It's a comic cliffhanger. In Part 2, one of the Dalek burns: a fiery little death. In Part 3, another burns, then --- adding insult to injury -- falls over a cliff and drowns. (It's similar in tone to the Dalek going off the edge of the Mary Celeste in "The Chase.") In Part 4, one of them has a mental breakdown and winds down like a broken gramophone. Nation plays them as stock villains, the kind whose death you cheer, and you can practically hear the kiddies in their living rooms yipping it up at each Dalek demise.

And because the Daleks aren't so relentlessly present or oppressive in "Death to the Daleks," the leads get more of a chance to shine, and Pertwee and Lis Sladen are extraordinarily good. First off, it's one of my favorite kinds of Pertwees, one where the bellowing is kept to a minimum. Part of the danger of the Pertwee era is because his character was so strong, and so assured, everyone had to pitch themselves to Pertwee's playing. (Pertwee would get stronger to make a point, and everyone had to match him; Baker would get terrifyingly quiet, and the others would bring it down as well.) "Death to the Daleks' has to be the quietest Pertwee serial; there are whole scenes between Pertwee and Sladen where they're whispering -- not because they're in danger of being overheard, but simply because the terror of their situation (being stranded, powerless, on a treacherous terrain) inspires a certain intimacy. It's only their third serial together, but it's remarkable how attuned each is to the nuances of the other's performance. Sladen will say a line in terror, then let out an awkward laugh that signifies her attempts to be brave, as well as her acknowledgment that she hates feeling terrified -- plus her utter trust in the Doctor. She packs so much into her lines, and Pertwee understands, brilliantly and intuitively, just how long to give her -- and then how to offer a response that addresses everything spoken and unspoken. Sladen shows a range of colors and emotions in "Death to the Daleks" that she simply hadn't been allowed yet. She comes on very strong in her first two serials; here she has to fight to stay strong. But that tremulousness doesn't make the character weak; it humanizes her -- and I think it's Sladen's best performance until "The Android Invasion."

It's no secret that Pertwee hated the Daleks, and in "Planet of the Daleks," that displeasure bled through occasionally onto the screen. In "Death," perhaps because of the trivialization and compartmentalization of the Daleks (he barely shares any screen-time with them), he seems invigorated: fresh and spontaneous, quite remarkable for a man who was, by his own admission, tiring of Doctor Who. (For me, it's his best Season 11 showing aside from "Invasion of the Dinosaurs.") The Third Doctor is quite dear in "Death to the Daleks," not the first adjective you'd think of to describe him. At one point when he and Sarah Jane are separating to carry out individual missions, he cups her face in his palm. Later on, he actually takes the hand of the woman from the Earth expedition, to comfort her, and they saunter together across the bleak terrain. And then there's his bromance with Bellal.

Bellal is the secret weapon of "Death to the Daleks." If the limited use of the Daleks, and the very real warmth between the Doctor and Sarah Jane, serves to humanize the serial, in a way few Nation scripts manage, then Bellal takes it three steps further. This native of the planet, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: it's a triumph of conception and casting. At a mere 5'3", actor Arnold Yarrow was nearly a foot shorter than Jon Pertwee, and his features are pretty much obscured head to toe, with only the slightest crack between his lips (presumably so the actor could breathe) -- yet he manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. He's a delightfully meek foil for Pertwee -- they get a real hero-sidekick rhythm going; at one point, Pertwee places his arm around his shoulder to console and embolden his new little buddy. They're the Skipper and Gilligan; it's a particularly protective and endearing side of both Pertwee and the Third Doctor.

There'd be plenty to like about "Death to the Daleks" if its sole accomplishments were the deconstruction of the Daleks, and the intimacy and generosity of the performances. But you can't discuss "Death to the Daleks" without talking about the direction and design. In my review of "The Ark," I argued that director Michael Imison wins top prize for upgrading a potentially mediocre serial into something memorable, but that if there were runners-up, one would surely be Michael E. Briant on "Death to the Daleks." Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best Who had to offer, and perhaps as a result of his disliking the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green, whose only other Who contribution was "Enlightenment," which, being one of the most sumptuous designs in all of Who history, is reason enough to take him seriously. Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (hence, "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually entrancing.

The opening: a long shot of a man climbing, then stumbling his way across a bleak, barren, foggy landscape. He comes to rest for a moment, when suddenly an arrow pierces his gut; we cut to a close-up of his pained face, then to his hands clutching the arrow, then back to his face again -- all quick cuts, before the man staggers and falls into a ravine. And in a neat bit of cruel irony, over the lingering image of the man lying dead in the water, we hear the familiar voice of Jon Pertwee, singing, "Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside" -- and we cut to the TARDIS interior, a close-up of a multi-colored umbrella that the Doctor twirls, then closes. The Doctor and Sarah Jane are taking a holiday. But not for long, of course: the two do that typical "is that red light supposed to be flashing?" bit, before the TARDIS console explodes (and quite a nice explosion it is, too), and the two of them are plunged into darkness. The TARDIS is so dark that at times the actors seem lit only by the reflection of the flotation rafts they'd brought aboard for their day by the sea. And as they explore the planet's terrain (at the start of a near-silent sequence lasting almost 12 minutes), sometimes they're just silhouettes against a sea of green fog: it's Doctor Who told with a nod to German expressionism.

The Doctor dispatches Sarah Jane back to the TARDIS for her own safely, and promptly gets attacked by one of the natives, the Exxilons, who eerily and effectively blend into the planet's terrain. Their skirmish is conducted without dialogue, with a limited color palette -- it's a bit like watching a late silent film in two-strip Technicolor. And then the Earth party arrives, and the color scheme expands to what we expect of a Pertwee serial. Throughout, the color choices are brilliantly considered. The split-pea-soup fog of the planet sits in contrast to the costumes and shelter of the Earth expedition, which are in pale and powder blues, and rust reds. (The rust red matches the Doctor's vest, as well as the Exxilon sacrificial ritual that comes to a boil in Part 2; the pale blues match Sarah Jane's scarf, and the Daleks' casings.) The use of color harkens back to some early milestones in film history, like Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp, which utilized color not just decoratively, but emotionally and dramatically. One of the most-slagged cliffhangers in all of Who history comes at the end of Part 3, when the Doctor and Bellal, making their way deeper into the heart of the city through a series of traps, come across a red-and-white checkerboard floor. The Doctor calls out, "Stop! Don't move!", and we cut to the credits -- because, well, who wouldn't be terrified by a checkerboard floor? But it's actually an arresting image, because we've only seen bright red once before in three episodes, and that was Sarah Jane touching a pool of blood on the ground, then rushing away in panic. The presence of a bright red checkerboard, after an hour of pastel blues and greens, is using the color itself -- the contrast and the connotations -- to suggest danger. As a narrative, it makes no sense; as film-making, it's marvelous.

And no critique of "Death to the Daleks" would be complete without a discussion of Carey Blyton's score, because it's like nothing heard on Who before or since, and it's one of the serial's most controversial elements. Blyton upends all expectations of what a Who score should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) Each time the Daleks appear, Blyton plays them on not with foreboding music, but with a series of staccato minor triads that sounds a lot like that old standard of melodramas, which schoolchildren remember as "Got to catch the villain." There are folks who hate that Blyton's odd musical stings take the piss out of the Daleks, but that's right in line with Nation's plan, and it's part-and-parcel with what Briant and Green are doing with the visual design. This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition.

In a particularly stunning sequence, the Earthlings are telling the Doctor of the planet's forbidden city; they bring out photographs to illustrate, and as we stare at the photos, Briant overlays a shot of Sarah Jane getting her first glimpse of the city. And as the photographs fade, and we focus in on Sarah Jane, the rich chromaticism of the scoring gives way to pentatonic chords, and the dark green fog opens up to reveal a paler green palace. She touches a slab of the building, and it lights up in fluorescent white, as the chordal harmonies dissolve into something that sounds like a giant heartbeat (which we'll later learn is, in fact, exactly what it is). It's all in pantomime; it's Nation suggesting a scene, and Briant, Green and Blyton going to town, with a confidence that transcends the familiar tropes of the story-telling.

A lot of "Death to the Daleks" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era. It's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. It's no masterpiece, not by a long shot, but it's Nation working with a tighter focus, and Briant, Green and Blyton searching for new ways of story-telling, often by evoking some of the oldest. It's a trio of talented people very mindful that the last Nation-Dalek serial, filmed "traditionally," had stumped the combined, formidable talents of David Maloney, John Hurst (best remembered for "The Caves of Androzani") and Dudley Simpson -- so they throw out the rule book, and create their own. Some of it works wonderfully; some of it is just odd. But it's never boring. In my 56 years, I have rarely seen an experimental work -- on TV, film or in the theatre -- that didn't have its flaws; it's hard to do something novel and get all the details right the first time. But experimentation of this caliber -- by some daunting talents -- is something to be prized, and the impressionistic "Death to the Daleks" very much worth a revisit.

Next up: the Second Doctor's "The Wheel in Space".

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Delta and the Bannermen"

The third of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark."

"In the end it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you. You have to be exactly who and what you want to be. Most everyone is floating along on phony public relations... and for what?! Appearances. Appearances don't count for diddly. In the end, all that really matter is what was true, and truly felt -- and how we treated one another. And that's it."
-- Julia Sugarbaker, Designing Women


Once upon a time, at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, at a holiday camp in South Wales, a boy named Billy spied a woman named Delta -- and it was love at first sight. And that evening, before they'd even had a chance to speak, he serenaded her from the dining-hall stage with a suitable new standard, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" And later that night, he stood outside her door, a bouquet of flowers in one hand and slicking back his hair with the other, and opened it, only to discover --

-- she was an alien. With a scaly green baby. Just hatched from an egg.

And he didn't care.

It didn't matter that they came from different backgrounds. It didn't matter that she had a child. It didn't matter that she had a troubled past, or that merely being with her put his life in jeopardy. She was his chance at happiness.

So he grabbed it --

-- and they lived happily ever after.

"Delta and the Bannermen" is from Season 24: you know, the one everyone hates. The one that's too silly, that's the worst Who season ever, that's an embarrassment to mankind -- blah blah blah blah blah. The following season, script editor Andrew Cartmel implements the eponymous Cartmel Masterplan, and the show gets darker, and fans get happier, and my affection for Classic Who starts to wane. I find Season 25 a mixed bag, and am most assuredly not a fan of Season 26: I don't think the darker Doctor plays to McCoy's particular strengths (at least, not at that time), and for me, a Doctor who knows most of the answers going in, but keeps them from companions and viewers alike, makes for a set of unsatisfying stories. Only one of the stories in McCoy's final two seasons cracks the top 50 in my Classic Who Countdown, and for that I am a pop-culture pariah and laughing-stock -- but I grew up gay in the 1960's, so I have learned to embrace my outsider status. On the other hand, I unabashedly adore the much-maligned "Delta and the Bannermen," which I find one of the headiest and most romantic of interstellar love stories.

"Delta and the Bannermen" is set in a fairytale Fifties, one that never existed: where humans are intrigued, not spooked, by the weird and the unknown. It's a world without famine, without pestilence, and without pastels -- where everything swirls in primary colors: fire-engine reds and royal blues and lemon yellows. It's an imagined era when rock 'n' roll blared over every PA system, where there was a Vincent motorcycle in every garage, and where anything -- no matter how improbable -- seemed possible. It was, in our world (the "real" world), a time when gritty comic book heroes like Batman were suddenly fighting monsters in outer space, where films like Forbidden Planet were firing our imaginations and spawning a host of galactic B-movies with self-explanatory titles, from Devil Girl From Mars to I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Outer space had become commonplace, and "Delta" understands that. It imagines a world where people don't expect alien visitors, but aren't surprised by them either. In writer Malcolm Kohll's version of the '50s, that tour bus that broke down nearby might well be a form of alien transport; the new girl in town could be a queen from another galaxy; and that funny man with the umbrella might just be a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

No one's nonplussed by the presence of alien intruders in "Delta." When Billy offers to help fix the alien tour bus, thinking it's just an average vehicle, here's how it goes down:

Billy: I've never seen an engine like that.
Murray: Yes, it's a Helstrom Fireball. Capable of warp five in a good tail wind.
Billy: What exactly is it you want me to do?
The Doctor: Well, you see that navi-pod? It needs to be unbolted so we can replace the broken crystal.
Billy: Right.

And he gets to work. No questions asked. Later, the owner of the holiday camp, told by the Doctor that he has to clear the site before Bannermen warriors move in, has a moment of skepticism, but a ready, reasonable response: if your fantastical story is true, show me your spacecraft. And once he sees the TARDIS, the notion of clearing the camp becomes secondary to the more pressing question: "Couldn't we take it for a bit of a spin?" Humans from all over are drawn into the "Delta" drama -- a pair of aging American agents, a batty beekeeper, a girl with a leather jacket and a boy with a bike -- and they all take it in stride.

And because the humans take everything in stride, the thornier events in "Delta and the Bannermen" carry weight. Folks misremember the serial as purely lightweight, but there are an awful lot of fatalities: two executions in Part 1, the bombing of a busload of tourists in Part 2. The death-toll is just below that of a standard Saward -- say, "Resurrection of the Daleks" -- but it's precisely because the surrounding events are so benign, and the people so trusting, that the violence has impact. The Saward slaughter-fests inured you to violence; it was so persistent, and the worldview so bleak, that you grew numb. You expected violence on Varos; in "Delta," the deaths are shocking because they don't belong there. "I don't just kill for money -- it's something I enjoy," the Saward-esque bounty hunter informs the Doctor, just before he attempts an assassination -- but he's at a freaking holiday camp. He's spouting fanatical dogma in a storage locker that houses the sheets and pillowcases; the contrast is what makes it effective. We expect a certain degree of slaughter in most late Classic Whos, but not at a Welsh holiday camp.

"Delta" is about worlds colliding, just like the setting itself, where families of all walks of life come together. On the surface, it's about a Chimeron Queen and her Bannermen pursuers bringing their battle to Planet Earth. But there's also a wonderful visual clash: between the gaudy holiday camps and the pastoral post-war landscapes they were overrunning. And the duality is there in the soundtrack, too: at one point, Delta describes the music emanating from her daughter as "part song, part war-cry," which of course is how adults in the 1950's viewed rock 'n' roll.

But it's the love story that counts, and here "Delta" short-circuits all "clash of culture" conventions. When Billy discovers that Delta is from outer space, he doesn't question it. At no point does he express regret, concern or disbelief. Billy fell for Delta at first sight; what she is doesn't matter to him. There's no fear, no uncertainty, no second thoughts. When he enters the room, and sees her with her alien child, he doesn't bolt or flip out; on the contrary, she's the first to speak, and calmly: "My life is at risk. I'm going to trust you, and I think you deserve a full explanation." Those are their first words to each other, and Billy dutifully sits and listens. "I'm the last Chimeron queen," she continues. "My planet is right now in the grip of the invaders. My people are dead." And Billy has no questions: that explanation works. Delta suggests they take a walk, and they go on their first date.

Every revelation Delta comes up with is met by the most untroubled of responses. When Billy notices that the child is aging quickly into adulthood, he teases, "Oh, you're a bit of a heavyweight, aren't you?," the way you'd talk to a baby who's just learned to grip your thumb, not a toddler aging twenty years in twenty minutes. As he hunts for the perfect spot for a picnic, Delta explains, "The most rapid growth occurs in the lymphoid state. She'll double her size and her weight in the next few hours" -- and Billy nods and lays down the blanket. Nothing fazes him, so all of Delta's exposition -- which should be deadly -- is turned on its ear. His responses, as if the details were commonplace, is what makes the love story magical.

Delta: If I can get the hatchling safely to the Brood planet, then I can take my case to judgment. They will then send an expeditionary force to get rid of Gavrok and his Bannermen.
Billy: Well, I'll do whatever I can to help, Delta. if he's offering to fix a flat.

It's daffy in concept, and its ebullience infuses everything. "Delta" is light on its feet, and so is McCoy. He maneuvers his trademark umbrella like a third arm: piloting the TARDIS with the tip, snaring a scarf with the hook. The buoyancy of the story unleashes McCoy, but unlike the nuttier bits in "Time and the Rani," these seem wholly in character: this Doctor is master magician, mime and gymnast rolled into one, and he has to be, to stay one step ahead of the Bannermen. (At one point, he vaults onto a moving motorcycle with the ease of an Olympic gold medalist.) "Delta" is full of chases, across beautiful Welsh countryside overlooking the sea, down dirt paths as cows and goats scramble out of the way -- all to the tune of Keff McCulloch's mock-rockabilly score -- and McCoy always seems to be leading the charge, effortlessly.

McCoy's lightness of touch is infectious; even director Chris Clough's work, typically heavy-handed, is buoyant and bubbly, and he's aided indelibly by the great art director John Asbridge, in one of his first assignments. There's something magical about a Who shot entirely on location, and "Delta" is gorgeous: the settings lovingly chosen, adorned and shot. The holiday camp, as noted, is all in primary colors: yellow buildings with blue doors. (The manager wears a bright red blazer; his employees are in yellow dresses, and yellow jackets with vertical red stripes. The shiny blue box has never looked more at home.) But once we hit the Welsh countryside, it's vast expanses of greenery, backed by an ocean and a lighthouse -- it's heavenly. And as we flip from one setting to the other with dizzying delight, from the artificial happiness of the holiday camp to the airy reaches of its surroundings, it's a visual treat that brings fresh rewards with each re-viewing.

And underscoring it all are the intoxicating sounds of rock 'n' roll in its infancy. "Delta" is not merely a feast for the eyes, but for the ears. If Mark Gatiss's "Sleep No More," with its grating overuse (and misuse) of "Mr. Sandman," has made you want to avoid '50s music forever, then "Delta and the Bannerman" will woo you back, because the sound, and all that comes with it -- the fashion, the attitudes, the language ("see you later, alligator") -- are spot on. The campers are awakened to the chirpiness of "When the Red, Red Robin" and soothed to sleep with -- yes -- "Mr. Sandman." The Bannermen fall prey to a literal honey trap to the sweet strains of "Lollipop." In the end, in a cunning piece of plotting, the camp's PA system (and wax from the beekeepers' bees: you have to be there) proves pivotal in defeating the enemy. And in the closing moments, as a celestial girl-group intones McCulloch's "Here's to the future/Love is the answer," to a thumping 6/8 beat, Billy and Delta's dream of a new life seems tied to that baby-boomer sense of belonging from which rock 'n' roll sprang.

I won't pretend "Delta and the Bannermen" is perfect. There's one line of dialogue that's awful ("A poignant reminder that violence always rebounds on itself" -- poor McCoy looks pained having to say it), and one camera shot that's confusing (a sudden cut to a real police box that's meant to set up the era, but proves disorienting). Sara Griffiths as Ray, the girl with the unrequited crush on Billy, was a last minute replacement (she's very early in her career), and she's perky-strange; her inflections are so extreme, it's like she worked with a bad vocal coach. ("First you go high, then you go low.") The two American agents aren't well-woven into the action till the end, so they feel mostly extraneous, although one is played by the great Stubby Kaye, of Guys and Dolls fame (he introduced "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in the original Broadway production), so I'm unlikely to complain. And although I like Don Henderson as the leader of the Bannermen, his raw-meat-eating antics seem totally at odds with the tone and tenor of the serial.

But the rest of cast is splendid, and Belinda Mayne as Delta (she had been considered for Romana 1, and you can see it) is more than that: she's spectacular. She has the bearing of a queen, the warmth of a mother, and the stoicism of a soldier. And even at age 33, she doesn't seem a mismatch with David Kinder, who plays Billy and seems a good ten years her junior. David Kinder has the bronze hair and tanned skin of a '50s teen idol, with James Dean's brand of sensitive masculinity thrown in for good measure. Billy starts as a lovesick puppy, the grease monkey with the heart of gold; by the serial's end, he's matured, accepting responsibility for Delta, her child, and the life they'll share together. He makes a move that's both reckless and wise, infusing himself with Chimeron DNA. ("I'm not a Chimeron, but if I'm to come with you, then I have to become one," he tells her, again incredibly sensibly.) In any sane serial, you'd expect Delta to continue out into the galaxy, on her quest for survival, and Billy and Ray, the childhood friends, to find love. But "Delta" is that one wonderful pseudo-historical fluke with its head firmly in the clouds. The homespun couple turns out to be the mismatched one; the real love story is between the human mechanic and the alien queen. At the end, Delta and Billy, dressed in white, take off in their battle-cruiser for the Brood planet, and everyone -- the Doctor and Mel and Ray, the beekeeper and the American agents -- waves them goodbye, as if they're just typical newlyweds pulling away in their car. It's a fairy-tale romance for the space-age set, and it's enchanting.

In my essay on "The Ark," I noted that a lot of the best Who stories are allegories. I won't lay claim to "Delta and the Bannermen" being allegorical, but as to its having a "message": oh, yes -- and I've always been surprised that it doesn't register more with the Who community. Because the Whovians -- who are constantly called upon to defend their utter devotion to a show about folks traveling through time and space in a blue box -- understand, better than pretty much any other fanbase, that you don't choose what you love; it chooses you. You shouldn't have to make excuses for your passions. Things are what they are. Things happen as they happen. Billy thinks he's found the perfect girlfriend, except it turns out she's an alien queen on the run. And that's fine. It doesn't change anything. Ultimately, we're defined by two things: who we are, and who we love. And "Delta and the Bannermen" says, you don't have to apologize for either.

Next up: the Third Doctor's "Death to the Daleks".

Monday, October 21, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "The Ark"

The second of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences here, with "Terminus."

It's easy to tell a fellow Whovian that you like "The Ark": they think you're talking about "The Ark in Space." They nod, say "me too" and go on their way. But occasionally, one of them stops, as if to ask, "Did I hear you right?", and warily doubles back: "Not the one with the Monoids?" And you gulp, "Um, yah," and they add, shaking their heads as if they're questioning your sanity, "The ones with the ping-pong balls in their mouths?"

And then you realize you have to provide a coherent, reasoned justification for liking a TV serial that features creatures holding ping-pong balls in their mouths.

So here it is. Let's jump right in and discuss the elephant in the room. Not the elephant in the jungle -- that'll come later. The one in the room. The Monoids. With some poorly constructed Who creatures, it's easy to look the other way, because their airtime is (mercifully) limited. (Despite what folks now tend to remember, the Myrka really isn't in that much of "Warriors of the Deep.") But the Monoids are everywhere in "The Ark" -- in fact, they dominate Episodes 3 and 4. And the design is atrocious: with their Beatles mop-tops, ill-draping rubbery fabric covering body and face, beauty-pageant sashes, flipper feet and ping-pong ball mouths. (The ping-pong balls are meant to be their eyes, but the actors hold them in their mouths and -- oh, dear God, just Google Image it.) And you may be tempted to ask: who possibly thought creatures like this might make a good and (as we learn in the DVD extras) potentially recurring villain? But this is a show after all that owed much of its early success to pepperpots with plungers. The Daleks are creatures that come to mind every time you unstop your toilet, so ping-pong ball eyes: why not? But unfortunately, the Monoids are not only preposterous looking, but dopes: easily duped and eventually exterminated not through any grand machinations on the part of the humans, but through their own internal discord. And as for the actors inhabiting them: well, it's a little hard to judge the effectiveness of performers speaking through fabric. So the actors make no impression; the Monoids a painful one. The script has the Doctor's companion Steven, on first encounter, describing them as "terrifying," but they're not; they're really, really not.

There are those for whom the glare of the Monoids is blinding, and that's not an unreasonable response. But if you can look past them, there are riches awaiting you in "The Ark": some satisfying, some rather sensational.

So: "The Ark." Well, it's millions of years in the future, and the Earth is plummeting towards the sun. So they've sent an ark into space containing Earth's entire human population, most reduced to micro-cell size -- plus their servants (or as they call them, their "friends"), the Monoids. ("The origin of the Monoids is obscure. They came to Earth many years ago from their own planet, which was dying," we're told, in a piece of exposition that manages to be both vague and admirably compact.) A spaceship so large it resembles a domed planet, manned by all of mankind, shooting through space toward a new, inhabitable home, is the first of several good ideas in the script, and one that apparently came from outgoing producer John Wiles, in a freakishly short stint on Doctor Who. (By the time he started greenlighting new scripts, he'd pretty much decided to leave.)

Presumably, writer Paul Erickson (who asked that his wife Leslie be given co-credit) came up with the other good notions, and there are several. The first stems from a neat piece of dialogue early in Episode 1, as the Doctor and his companions meet the ship's Commander (who, as always in Who, presumes they might be hostile aliens). The Doctor reassures him:

Doctor: Oh, rubbish, rubbish. With all our imperfections, I can assure you, sir, if you were to cut my skin, I would bleed, the same as you would.
Steven: That's right.
(Dodo sneezes.)
Doctor: There you see, complete with chills.
Zentos: Chills?
Doctor: A virus fever which used to be quite common to the human being.
Commander: And cured so long ago we've forgotten what it was like. Fascinating! It's like history coming to life. Tell me, Doctor, if you cannot direct your spacecraft, your journeys must take you to some strange places...

A quick conversation about space travel neatly disguises key exposition -- in fact, the very germ (no pun intended, as you'll see) of the plot. Because Erickson's idea is that the Doctor and his companions could come to a new world, introduce a virus that was harmless to them (in this case, the common cold), but reduce an alien world (or here, humans in the future without antibodies) to ruin. And that's precisely what happens, set up neatly in the first, innocent exchange, and ultimately becoming The Sneeze That Changed the Course of Human History.

But perhaps the best idea of them all is a visual image: a giant statue (still being erected) representing the humans' seven-hundred-year journey to their new home. It comes into play several times during the course of the plot and, at one point, results in one of the best moments in all of Doctor Who, past and present: a visual surprise that turns the serial on its ear. And frankly, if that were the only good thing about "The Ark," it would still be worth watching, because it pours more anticipation, surprise, chills and lingering mystery into one fifteen-second camera shot than some whole episodes manage in twenty-three minutes.

The regulars are all in good form, and that too makes "The Ark" a serial to be cherished, because there is precious little of William Hartnell's third season surviving, which means there is precious little of Peter Purves surviving, which means there is precious little of the short-lived team of the Doctor, Steven and Dodo. And they're quite a good little trio. Perhaps no companion in all of Who-dom is as alternately overlooked and ridiculed as Dodo -- even the name is an unfortunate invitation for mockery. But Jackie Lane, in her first full serial, settles into her role with ease, even as her accent is refined over the course of a few episodes. She fills much the same role as Vicki did -- a faux-Susan for the Doctor, a buddy and occasional irritant for Steven -- but Jackie Lane has a nice plucky tomboy charm that adds some freshness to the mix. It's a good story for Hartnell -- the sci-fi adventures never suited him like the historicals, and particularly in the later years, the technobabble proved a challenge to his memory -- but for a third-season story, he's particularly spirited, confident and relaxed in "The Ark," in a way I'd argue he hadn't been since "The Time Meddler," at the end of the previous season.

And then there's Steven, the unluckiest of companions. Peter Purves filmed nine serials with the Doctor, one of them the twelve-part "Daleks' Master Plan." Of those nine, only three survive in their entirety. He's in many ways the forgotten hero of Doctor Who, the one who kept the show running as Hartnell's dwindling memory sapped his onscreen charisma. I remain a staunch Hartnell fan, but the sad truth is that as his recall went, and he had to hunt for lines by inserting his now-trademark vocal mannerisms (which folks now recall as a character trait rather than an acting trick), a good deal of his authority was lost, too. And that role fell to Peter Purves, who fortunately was a naturally commanding actor, a rugged rogue who could not only handle the heroics required of him, but also take over a lot of the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that was increasingly tripping up Hartnell. (Clearly making Steven an astronaut from the future was a calculated move by script editor Dennis Spooner to allow him to assume some of the Doctor's dialogue; it paid off in spades, as it does again here.) His timing was impeccable, the occasional bits of levity he was allowed superbly executed. With all respect to Ben and Polly, Peter Purves' Steven Taylor was the link that got us from Barbara and Ian's exit to the Second Doctor's arrival, and if he hadn't been able to pick up so much of the slack for so long, so winningly, it's hard to say whether Who would have survived. But what doesn't survive are most of his serials, and so he's become (particularly with so much of Deborah Watling's Victoria now recovered) the forgotten companion. Purves is marvelous in "The Ark," and it's a great showcase for him. Poor Steven had been doing battle since he first boarded the TARDIS: being injured in Troy; butting heads with all the wannabe-companions in "Daleks' Master Plan"; being stranded by the Doctor in 16th-century France. "The Ark" is a nice change of pace for him -- he's clever, resourceful and commanding. There's seemingly nothing he can't do, and in "The Ark" he does it all -- and of course, in three more stories, he's gone.

So, an engaging setting, and an inviting premise. The principals in fine form. But you can't properly discuss "The Ark" without talking about the things -- aside from the Monoids -- that go wrong. But before we do, let's put one big myth to rest. Lots of Doctor Who serials are allegories (one might argue, the best ones): like good sci-fantasy, much more than the bare-bones plot. And "The Ark" is very much about the fate that befalls a people who build a culture on oppression and ultimately become themselves oppressed. And further, it's about the even worse fate that befalls those who rise up in revolt, but prove even crueler overlords. The humans call the Monoids friends, but treat them as second-class citizens; the Monoids overthrow them, and make the humans their slaves. But the Doctor makes it clear that he blames the humans just as much as the Monoids: that no race should be subservient to any other. What muddies the waters steering "The Ark" is that all of the humans are white, and the Monoids are darker-skinned -- and I've seen theories put forth that the monotonous, muddle-headed Monoids stereotype people-of-color at their worst: that "The Ark" is essentially a racist parable. And that's rubbish. Yes, the humans are fair-skinned; welcome to Doctor Who, 1966. (Would you rather they be in black-face? -- because that's the alternative.) And yes, the Monoids have darker skin, because they're in costumes that cover their faces, and the fabric has to read on camera -- it couldn't very well be stark white. There was an awful lot of bigotry out there in 1965, there's quite a bit of it in Classic Who (even the most beloved: I still can't watch "Talons of Weng-Chiang" without tripping up on the xenophobia and misogyny), and heaven knows, there's a lot out there in 2015 -- but let's not look for it in "The Ark."

Besides, there's plenty else that trips it up. The young people in the first half are pretty awful (and the old man, the Commander, isn't all that much better: at his hardiest, he doesn't seem much healthier -- or more effective -- than when he's confined to his sickbed later, yelling vainly at a video monitor). There's bad acting in the air, and in the first two episodes, everyone but the regulars seems infected; the courtroom scenes -- and heaven help us, there are two of them -- are particularly dire. The costumes are atrocious; forget the Monoids, even the humans are fashion eyesores, dressed in sleeveless tunics that look like they've been put through a shredder. (It makes all the male actors look thin and gaunt; next to them, the strapping Purves seems like a giant.) And there's another alien creature besides the Monoids: more benign, but ultimately no less annoying. This one's on Refusian, the world the Earth ship is heading to -- and he's invisible. And although it's moderately entertaining the first couple of times watching chairs shift position by themselves, as if someone is taking a seat, and seeing space-shuttle hatchdoors seemingly open and close at will, the "invisible enemy" idea soon grows tedious. And finally, as tantalizing as the premise is, the dialogue itself is piss-poor, full of endless exposition with people huddled in corners discussing what they're going to do next. Erickson has a good story to tell, but not the mechanics with which to tell it well.

So on one side, a novel setting, an satisfying premise, a superb statue, and a solid TARDIS trio. On the other side, a hideous alien design, amateur acting in the first half, and a talky script. So what tips the scale in the serial's favor?

Director Michael Imison.

"The Ark" is actually one of the few Classic Who DVD's where I watched the full serial, then instantly went back and watched the whole thing again with the commentary. Faults and all, I was fascinated. And fascinated mostly because the direction was so imaginative that it triumphed over any inadequacies in performance, script and design. More than anything, "The Ark" is the the story of Michael Imison, the first-time Who director who did such a brilliant job, but went so overbudget that he was never asked back to the show again. Discarded so thoroughly, he never even directed for the BBC again. And when you watch the serial, that seems more than a little criminal.

Yes, he went overbudget, but he did what was necessary: he elevated even the mediocre bits into something memorable. You're still aware of everything that's wrong with "The Ark," but it's like sitting at the feet of a master magician, waiting to see what he'll pull out of his hat next. He manages beautiful shots and fun surprises and delightful sleights of hand throughout; he sustains the story-line even at its weakest: the kind of herculean feat matched in Classic Who history, to my mind, only by Michael Ferguson in "Claws of Axos" and, to a lesser extent, Michael E. Briant in "Death to the Daleks." In the DVD commentary, Imison says he was determined to show the Who bigwigs what he could do -- and he certainly did.

Right from the start. We open in a jungle setting, with a close-up of a reptile, held through the credits, until a bird swoops in to attack. We pull back, and see a Monoid watching it all, and we realize our point-of-view has been his. He turns slowly front, as if letting us bask in the alienness of it all, then retreats into the misty jungle. The camera follows, then passes him, tracking faster and faster to the right as a familiar sound is heard. The sound continues as Imison lets us peer through branches and leaves, through birds and beast, until he arrives at a small clearing just big enough for... a materialization. Imison eschews the usual "hold the camera on a spot until the TARDIS appears" approach: the TARDIS arrives just as Imison completes his tracking shot. It's astonishingly smooth and confident. And from there, as the Doctor, Steven and Dodo try to get their bearings (shot through trees and shrubs and shrouded in fog), reptiles and animals of all sorts appear to peer at them, when suddenly an elephant lumbers on from the left. And Imison shoots it cagily: at first showing just the elephant, then cutting to a reaction-shot of Dodo's face -- so we think the elephant is just stock footage cleverly inserted (the old Douglas Camfield ruse). But then they walk, slowly and suspensefully, towards it -- till they not only meet and greet the elephant, but stop to pet it! It's not just that Imison gets credit for going out and hiring an elephant; it's that he deliberately undermines our presumptions of what Who can and can't do. His first Who gig, and he's already using our own expectations against us.

The ship's control room is impressive, but Imison gives it even greater impact with swooping crane shots. He's astonishingly facile at disguising the expository nature of the script. He'll start with a two-shot, then cut away, as the dialogue continues, to other characters plotting in pantomime. Or he'll commence a scene with a close-up of a computer spitting out data, the dialogue in voiceover -- then pull back to a mid shot of the actors. At one point, he pulls off a complex tracking shot as Dodo is dispatched to the TARDIS to pick up medical supplies. We see her in the background, crossing the spaceship, right to left; as the camera tracks left with her, it picks up a row of shutters in the foreground, designed so we can still spy her through the spaces. As we reach the end of the row of shutters, two other characters begin a conversation in the foreground (as Dodo continues to exit behind them) about what animal compounds are needed for the cure. By the time they're finished, Dodo has exited, and we cut to a quick montage of the animals being collected -- before returning to the Doctor's laboratory. Imison doesn't just find the best place for his camera to rest: he finds three places. If he starts to get bored, he darts away -- sometimes in mid-sentence. The Doctor is laying out the ingredients needed for the cure: "Now this job.. This job is..." -- and we jump to the next scene. Typical Hartnell would have gone with a fade; Imison uses a quick cut.

In several shots of the statue, he pans up majestically, giving a sense of scale that's unusual for early Who. (Compare it to the scene in "Tomb of the Cybermen" where lifesize Cybermen emerge from their multi-level tomb, but as Morris Barry shoots it, with no idea how to suggest grandeur, it looks like a lot of mini-Cybers are coming out of a fridge.) He has a stunning eye for perspective: at one point, a hunt is underway for a bomb, and Steven and a female colleague are postulating its location. She walks away, and behind her the bomb is revealed, hidden in plain sight. It's in the giant statue (sorry: spoiler), but as shot, at a distance, the statue neatly fits behind her. Imison leaves no stone unturned. If he shoots a two-shot, there'll be a third person behind them spying, in deep focus. During the dreariest speeches, he holds the camera in a wide shot as the actors approach, or cuts away to items that catch his eye and inform our viewing. The legend of the Hartnell Who is that it's slow; Imison makes "The Ark" run like a racehorse. (He also broke with tradition by filming scenes out of story order, a sign of things to come.)

A lot of dialogue is exchanged through monitors and intercoms (this is a futuristic craft, after all), and it's done with precision. The special effects -- a miniaturization punishment, an exploding space shuttle, a shot of the Earth bursting into flames -- are solid and effective. And in a kitchen scene, as a lark, he has the staff toss pills into a bowl of liquid and -- presto! -- they're transformed into finished, edible goods. It's devilishly facile. In some ways, Imison combines the best qualities of two of Who's earliest directors (who collaborated on the show's second serial, "The Daleks"): Richard Martin, an imaginative elf who threw a wealth of ideas at the screen but struggled to sustain a narrative (which is why his best work is on "Web Planet," which depends on a barrage of fresh images), and Christopher Barry, who knew well how to build a episode, but rarely came armed with anything more than the basics. Imison could do it all -- and he went overbudget and was punished for it, joining the ranks of Tristan de Vere Cole, Ken Grieve, Michael Owen Morris, Mary Ridge and others, who did one Who, and impressively, and were never invited back.

Imison's BBC director's contract was not picked up after "The Ark." He went on to serve as story editor on "Out of the Unknown," BBC's adaptations of stories by famous sci-fi writers, then took up as a literary agent. And this next part is from Wikipedia, so it might be true: "Apart from chairing the Noël Coward Society, which he founded, and working for the British Humanist Association, his proudest achievement was founding and chairing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, known for its late-night revues which launched the careers of Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, among others." It's an impressive résumé, and it's nice to think that he's had a rich, full life. It's also worth noting that, Monoids and all, "The Ark" is a job and a serial he should be proud of. Doctor Who fan opinion has become so heavy-handed and relentless through the decades that you often see fine artists apologizing for their output, because they know the fans have been ragging on them for years. They grow embarrassed by solid work. Imison's DVD commentary is informative but a bit sheepish, as if he's been beaten down by low appraisals. Let the guy relax and be proud. "The Ark" has its issues, but he did more than he had to, and he did it beautifully, and with style. His one contribution to Doctor Who survives, and is well worth a revisit: for his work, for the premise and the promise, for the Doctor, Steven and Dodo -- and for that glorious statue.

Next up: the Seventh Doctor's "Delta and the Bannermen".

Monday, October 14, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Terminus"

In the few years since I began watching Classic Doctor Who, it's become apparent that there are quite a few serials I like more than others do -- I mean, way more. I thought I'd call attention to some of the serials that I see as unfairly maligned, and I'd choose one serial for each Classic Doctor. And I'd start with a neglected serial that I consider one of the top-25 Classic Who stories ever telecast. So let's start with two lines that pretty much sum up the "Terminus" experience:

Nyssa: What are they going to do with us?
Inga: Supposedly cure us, but I rather think they're going to let us die.

"Terminus," from the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison's second season, is sometimes remembered as the weak link in the Black Guardian Trilogy: the one that's quickly overshadowed by the final installment, "Enlightenment." And indeed "Terminus" is sandwiched between the giddy "Mawdryn Undead" and the magical "Enlightenment," and it's dire: but not dire in quality, dire in tone. Dire in terms of what it says about human beings, and the way we treat one another -- and exploit one another. "Terminus" is the Doctor Who serial that Tells the Truth, and as such, it's the story that few want to hear. I've often wondered if it takes a certain kind of person to fully appreciate "Terminus," but I've seen people in all walks of life fall in love with it. But it's very much a story best-suited to those with a little life-experience. It's the serial for anyone who's ever worked under a miserable employer, or been abandoned by the health care system, or felt disenfranchised from friends, family or colleagues. It's for anyone who's ever found themselves on a treadmill from which there is no escape.

As human beings, we tell ourselves, "You always have options." That's our coping mechanism. We convince ourselves that we have the potential for change, the capacity to fix things -- that if our situation is grim, we're never trapped in it.

But what if we were? What if we are? What if we're stuck in that soul-sucking job because we're living paycheck to paycheck? What if we're sick and can't get proper medical care, and no one cares? What if we're living with a physically or emotionally abusive spouse or partner or parent -- and stay there, because we have no place else to go? What if the world really is as bleak, our choices as limited and our outlook as terrifying as it seems on those darkest days?

Valgard: We can't just let him die.
Eirak: Valgard, we're all dying.

"Terminus" is not for the faint of heart. It's bitter, brutal and uncompromising. And as a result, it's brilliant. That some people can't get into "Terminus" lies partly in the fact that its flaws aren't niggling -- they're noteworthy.

It's an exit story for Nyssa, but Sarah Sutton is particularly pallid throughout, and she's partnered with a juvenile (Dominic Guard) who's too green for the role he's handed. (Sutton had been having an awful season, really only doing detailed work in "Snakedance"; she was clearly struggling with her efforts to age her character, growing too muted in an attempt to seem "mature.") At one point, she's carted off by a robot (a really puny robot: another flaw), and neither her cries for help nor the juvenile's fear of rescuing her is convincingly played.

The costumes are by Dee Robson, and atrocious. (Are they a step up from her previous serial, "Arc of Infinity"? Probably not.) The raiders wear space helmets triple the size of their heads, while the guards wear clanky armor with those drop-down visors that you keep thinking will fall mid-sentence and cut off their noses. And then there's this dog...

It's writer Stephen Gallagher's update of the dog in Norse mythology that guarded the gates of hell, the Garm. Gallagher reveals in the DVD extras that he imagined perhaps just his eyes would be seen, and the rest left to the imagination, but no imagination required (or utilized) here -- it's a giant, patchwork canine, as odd in execution as it sounds in concept. And as for the sets: as good as they seem early on -- foreboding passage-ways of bleak graffiti -- when they actually have to represent something specific (like an engine about to blow), they're so sparse and unconvincing that it's almost like watching black-box theatre. "Terminus" was a shoot mired in production hell, so it's hard to know what was designed but never built, what was built but lay unfinished, and what they simply didn't have time to load in. But what's there isn't enough.

But ironically, if ever you were inclined to go along with shoddy production values, it's in "Terminus," because it's part-and-parcel with the world writer Stephen Gallagher envisions. Terminus is a space-ship where lepers ("lazars," as they're called here) are housed but rarely cured, where the guards dispatched to deal with them see themselves as "baggage handlers," where raiders sent to plunder the ship are deserted by their own party. It's a world where no one is cared for and no one is content, where people are used and tossed aside. On Terminus, hostility and paranoia run rampant, and entropy is the order of the day. Power packs stop charging after one shot; armor fails to shield from deadly radiation; drugs distributed to the workers are often watery placebos. If you duck beneath a grate to escape an oncoming crowd, that grate will invariably stick shut; if you head for a doorway, that door will start to close just as you arrive -- forcing you to make a leap for it. Terminus is, in microcosm, a civilization in decay. It's a "worst-case" universe, where all the odds are stacked against you.

And because of that, the undernourished sets don't matter much; the giant dog and even larger space helmets are easily overlooked. The clunky acting by a few key players is unfortunate and damaging, but not deadly -- because the tale they're spinning is pure gold. "Terminus" is all about the script, and the script is great -- envisioning, as it does, a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse. It's also astonishingly prescient. In talking to friends overseas, I'm frequently asked why the U.S. -- this vast, powerful expanse -- can't get certain "fundamental" things right: why we can't get gun-control legislation passed; why racial fear and violence run rampant; why so many seem terrified at providing affordable health case for the masses. "Terminus" is about a health-care system that's broken, the product of an economic and political climate that preys on the weak and the poor and the sick, that invites mistrust and fear, aggression and violence. It's an indictment of those who create and perpetuate that climate, and a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end. And it's a cautionary tale for those who don't yet know what they're in for. In a way, it's a perfect script for this age of instant celebrity, where success is measured by YouTube hits and Twitter follows, and folks appear indestructible in their insular communities. Because "Terminus" says, "Just wait." We all, at some point, find ourselves on "Terminus," as we leave our safe havens and head out into the broader, barren stretches of the real world. "Terminus" is the rude awakening that always comes.

Valgard: This is Terminus. No one's happy here. Staying alive is all that counts.

It's a solid story for all four principals. Sutton, as noted, is muted throughout, but the character of Nyssa is pivotal: contracting the lazar disease and ultimately figuring out a way to regulate and improve the cure. She essentially takes charge of the operation by serial's end, and in doing so, makes a bold decision that marks her farewell to the TARDIS. Tegan and Turlough are stuck in an air vent for much of the action (a common complaint lobbed at "Terminus" is that Turlough has to be side-tracked, because otherwise he'd have to make good on the assignment he'd been handed in the previous serial, to kill the Doctor), but in truth, a double-act character study is something Tegan and Turlough both need at this point. As they're about to travel with the Doctor without Nyssa as a buffer, they're both due a little humanizing -- some self-awareness and self-reflection. They get it here, and the results show up instantly in "Enlightenment." Far from shunting Tegan and Turlough aside, "Terminus" is a pivotal story for them. It broadens their outlook and widens their range. (There's only one scene with Tegan that's weak, and ironically, it's when she's given a more traditional action sequence. In part 4, she rush to a control room and -- despite having no knowledge of space travel or alien technology -- miraculously aborts a launch; it feels like such an odd departure from the tone of the rest of the serial that it might well have been an addition by script editor Eric Saward. It seems more his style than Gallagher's.)

And Davison's Doctor is at his best: analytical, quick-thinking, compassionate -- with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a humanist. There's one moment of his I particularly love. He's entered the stockyard, on a catwalk overlooking the main level; he's just learned that Terminus in the center of the known universe, and he's pondering the reasons and the ramifications. And as camera lingers on his face, you can see him processing it all. You can see the intellect at work. Not all the Doctors could pull off silence: some needed an audience, action, lines, to realize their character -- but Davison could do it, and brilliantly, with just a wondering look.

And who but Davison could pull off these talk-to-the-animal scenes, briefly becoming a space-age Doctor Doolittle:

Garm: Have I served you well?
The Doctor: Indeed you have.
Garm: Do something for me. Destroy the box. Set me free.
(The Doctor picks up the signal box and smashes it on the floor.)
The Doctor: Rest. You've earned it.

And later, assuming charge in that quick-tempo Davison way, he passes along his knowledge and his understanding to those he's leaving behind:

The Doctor: Now it's important you inform the authorities about what's been going on here. Make it impossible for Terminus Incorporated to retaliate. For example, you must make contact with the pick-up ship.
Valgard: What ship?
The Doctor: The one that takes the cured Lazars away. Well, the Garm will know all about it.
Valgard: We no longer have any control over him.
The Doctor: Then speak to him. Win his confidence. You'll find him very agreeable.

The other actors are equally good. Liza Goddard, as the chief raider Kari, is wildly undervalued. She's charming, pairs well with Davison (she's a fine sounding-board, with a dry humor not unlike that of Nerys Hughes in Kinda, and a clipped style that matches Davison's own), and she adds a little luster and glamour to the proceedings. (First time I watched, I had no idea she was stunt casting: not merely a popular TV personality, but the wife of glam rock star Alvin Stardust. I bought into her completely, teased hair and all.) And the guards are well-characterized and well-played. Only Martin Potter overdoes the sneering a bit: the others -- Andrew Burt (who'd go on to play the Chief Inspector to Davison's amateur sleuth in Campion), Tim Munro, and Peter Benson as Bor -- make solid impressions, and in the case of Benson, quite a sympathetic one.

And Mary Ridge's direction, too often slated because of the fabled production headaches, is not merely solid, but often vivid. (A multi-level "elevator going down" scene, as Nyssa's led to the Lazar pit, is sensationally effective.) As noted, she fails to get a decent performance out of Sutton, something a (presumably) more communicative director like Fiona Cumming would have managed, but more to the point, her direction seems utterly in line with Gallagher's narrative. She shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship were holding them hostage, precisely the point of "Terminus." In Gallagher's bleak universe, everyone is trapped: not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the guards supplied with just enough drugs to keep going, the raiders left to fend for themselves, the Garm killing as many as he's curing because of his lack of free will. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) Everyone is at the mercy of unseen, uncaring forces -- and for those watching from home who've lived it, who've felt powerless to make a fresh start, who've felt at times at war with the world (and losing), it's a scenario that rings all too true.

Bor: Am I dead yet?
Sigurd: No.
Bor: Oh, funny, I could have sworn that. But still, it's a relief. I am hoping for something rather better on the other side.

Gallagher paints a relentlessly bleak picture, and not till the end -- when the Doctor, Nyssa, Kari, the guards and the Garm finally join forces -- does he offer the promise of hope we so desperately crave. But even then, he's careful not to tack on a "happy ending." Nyssa will remain on Terminus (and she will die there, Tegan reminds her), but that's her choice. Other characters haven't yet formulated their plans: they merely have "ideas" of what they'll do next. But they can move on. They have options. And sometimes, "Terminus" tells us, that's the best the universe can offer us. Sometimes, that glimmer of a better tomorrow is all we get -- and ultimately, it's all we need. On life's cruelest days, it's the most we can pray for.

And it's enough.

Next up, the First Doctor serial "The Ark".

Saturday, June 22, 2013

WKRP in Cincinnati season 4

We remember WKRP in Cincinnati, the sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982, as being better than it was. We remember "Turkeys Away," the ultimate in promotional-stunts-gone-wrong, as live turkeys are dropped from a helicopter, "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement"; we remember the show that (rightly) made stars of supporting players Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson; we remember its subversive tone and its striking characters -- we remember all that, and we think of it as an instant classic. But from the start, it was an erratic show, and among its 90 episodes are as many misfires as triumphs. It was a show CBS desperately needed, but never knew what to do with. It was a show designed for two actors that ended up being about two others. It had a control freak at the helm who, judging from the evidence, did his best work when he let others do their jobs. If it holds up after 35 years (and it does), it starts with the original casting director Bob Manahan: the characters themselves were well-conceived (and if they weren't, they grew into characters who were well-developed), but the actors made them memorable. It's one of the best matches of character and casting we've had on American television.

As a reminder, or a précis for the uninitiated: WKRP is a struggling 5000-watt radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio (1530 on the AM dial); they've engaged a new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) to shore up the ratings, and he's decided to change the format from Easy Listening to Rock and Roll -- much to the chagrin of the station's bumbling but well-meaning general manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), who'd rather be fishing; sales director Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), with the plaid, polyester suits and disregard for his marital vows; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), the nerd-of-a-news-director with a talent for mangling his on-air copy:

Les [on air, reading]: Monster lizard ravages East Coast. Mayors in five New England cities have issued emergency requests for federal disaster relief as a result of a giant lizard that descended on the East Coast last night. Officials say that this lizard, the worst since ’78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communication, and left many hundreds homeless.
Johnny: Monster lizard?
Les: The wire service never lies.
Johnny: Les, the “b” is out on the printer. It’s monster blizzard.

Embracing the format change are the early-morning DJ, drug-culture carryover Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman in an inspired bit of counterculture casting: Hesseman had worked as a DJ before he became an actor, and had been part of the San Francisco-based improv group The Committee in the '60s and '70s), and the nighttime DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), one of creator Hugh Wilson's two attempts at countering stereotypes. Venus, as first seen, has the flamboyant attire and manner that marked so many depictions of African-American men in the late '70s. (WKRP premiered in 1978, the same year Esther Rolle returned to Good Times to save it from Jimmie "Dy-no-mite" Walker.) But it turned out Venus's clothes and demeanor were part of his on-air act, and beneath lay someone ruminative, well-read, soulful and conservative.

The other character designed to upend expectations: the station's receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves. Jennifer was as blonde and as beautiful as any of her TV sisters, but she was also bright, articulate, perceptive, and occasionally seemed to be running the station single-handedly. (President Reagan, she tells us in a 1982 episode, offered her Secretary of the Treasury, but she declined; she may have been kidding.) Completing the ensemble was the retiring but determined and ambitious Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), who handled traffic and continuity. The characters of Andy, Johnny and Bailey are pretty much established at the start (although Andy doesn't really become interesting until Season 4, when he acquires a more ruthless side); Carlson, Herb and Les evolve through the course of the first season; and Jennifer and Venus take even a bit longer than that. (Critics initially tore into Anderson and Reid for how they looked, not how they acted; they presumed the roles were designed to reinforce stereotypes, not counter them -- so the writers had to work a little harder with those two.) Arguably, it's not until a third of the way into the second season that the characters all settle into the ones we remember today.

I was trying to figure out, if I had to recommend one season of WKRP, which season that would be, and oh Lord, it's tough. The first season is full of issues. Hugh Wilson wanted to do character-based comedy (it was, after all, an MTM production, where he had cut his teeth), while CBS wanted more light-hearted "radio station" episodes, particularly ones that targeted younger audiences. (This was just a few years after CBS had been supplanted in the ratings by ABC's aggressively kid-friendly programming.) And the show was ostensibly about Andy Travis (only Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump received top billing in the first season; everyone else was consigned to the closing credits), but Travis -- with his aw-shucks demeanor, his too-tight jeans and coiffed hair -- was arguably the least interesting character of the bunch. CBS premiered it in a kiss-of-death time-slot, Mondays at 8, opposite ABC's Welcome Back, Kotter and NBC's still formidable Little House on the Prairie, and it tanked. The network pulled it from the schedule in November, and "relaunched" it in January behind one of their top shows, M*A*S*H, where it soared. Airing after M*A*S*H allowed Wilson to complement that show's tone with lower-key ensemble comedy, which is what he'd wanted all along. But of the fourteen episodes completed before the show was yanked from the schedule, only eight had aired, which meant of the remaining fourteen episodes to air, six were pre-hiatus and eight post-. They were scattered seemingly randomly through the remainder of the season -- sometimes one old, one new -- and the result is distressingly schizophrenic: a season that keeps lurching between MTM character comedy and Garry Marshall screwball. There are some great episodes -- aside from the aforementioned "Turkeys Away," there's "I Want to Keep My Baby," "Tornado" and "Who Is Gordon Sims?" -- but ultimately, Season 1 is a show still finding itself.

Season 2 sees a host of new writers join the staff: some I took to instantly (Steve Marshall, Dan Gunzelman), some I grew to like (Peter Torokvei), others never won me over (Steve Kampmann). Torokvei and Kampmann came via Second City and SCTV; they pitched some story ideas to Wilson, and he bit. They were sketch-comedy writers, which is exactly where WKRP wasn't heading. (The quintessential Kampmann episode -- Season 3's "Hotel Oceanview," in which Herb, away on a business trip, carries on with a woman who turns out to be transgender -- is actually taken from a Second City sketch he wrote.) Torokvei and Kampmann's first script, "Sparky," guest-starring real-life baseball manager Sparky Anderson, was written because they wanted to meet Sparky Anderson; that was the episode's justification, the furthest thing from character comedy, and you can practically hear the MTM kitten purring in its grave. One of my favorite episodes comes from Season 2 -- "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" -- as do many of the episodes I hate most: "Baseball," "Bad Risk," "Sparky," "Les's Groupie," "The Doctor's Daughter." The cast gets more assured in Season 2 -- by midseason, they have their acts down pat -- but WKRP still seems like a show in search of direction: the sophisticated wit of "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" immediately followed by the juvenile antics of "Sparky" pretty much epitomizes the work-still-in-progress feel that plagues Season 2.

In Season 3, the writers seem to pull together, but Wilson starts to crumble. The season starts with "The Airplane Show," with Les doing traffic reports from a World War I biplane piloted by a crazy war veteran; it's a fitting start for a season that never quite feels grounded. You know you're not in good shape early in Season 3 when the series' creator pens an episode called "Jennifer Moves" (the season's second episode) and then can't think of a single way to make that scenario interesting. (And it's not like the "lead character moves" scenario can't be an entertaining one. When "Charlene Buys a House" on Designing Women, it's such a triumph of smart silliness that EP Pam Norris rightly chooses it as one of that season's Emmy submissions; when "Mary Moves Out" on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, David Lloyd gently mocks the repetitive nature of TV sitcoms, where conventions and catch-phrases are like comfort food, and turns it into a sad classic. When Hugh Wilson has Jennifer buy a house: well, she buys a house.) The first third of Season 3 seems aimless, the middle third gets back on track, and then, as the season end approaches, it becomes some other series altogether: a string of "special episodes." Wilson admits that, by that time, he was burned out, and drama simply came easier than laughs, so we get episodes about alcoholism and censorship and long-lost parents and domestic abuse. Some of it is well-done, but it makes for what WKRP fan and expert Jaime Weinman accurately called "a rather weird season (where the show's tone changed radically with every episode, and [much] of the humor became a little offbeat at times)." At its worst, Season 3 is off-putting; you watch and go, "Shouldn't they have ironed out the kinks by now?"

Wilson claims that up to that point, no matter whose name was on a given script, he himself had pretty much penned every word. That's what he says, but it's hard to imagine, since the credited writer's voice always seems to come through. (There's no mistaking a Steve Marshall script for a Steven Kampmann script.) But Wilson also notes that he was less hands-on in Season 4, and it shows -- for the better. Kampmann is gone by Season 4, but Torokvei, Marshall and Gunzelman remain -- as does Blake Hunter, the best of the bunch, and the only writer (aside from Wilson) who was on the show all four seasons. And Lissa Levin is there too, Hugh's former production secretary, who joined as a staff writer in Season 3. It's a good, solid team, who all seem to be writing the same show. It arguably takes WKRP three years to find its footing (not that unusual, especially for an MTM show: it took The Mary Tyler Moore Show two years and an overhaul; it took Newhart two years and two overhauls). And here's the caveat: I didn't enjoy the fourth season of WKRP originally nearly as much as I do now. But then I didn't enjoy Season 3 of Knots Landing nearly so much at the time either -- and they both aired during the 1981-82 season, so I have to imagine I was just having a bad year. (I was fresh out of college, and jobless.) Season 4 is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, but it's rarely less than entertaining. There are only two or three truly bad episodes, and for WKRP, that's sort of a miracle. Season 1 has a spotty premise, some undeveloped characters, and a tear in its fabric about halfway through; Season 2 has some new writers still getting a feel for the show; Season 3 is unfocused, with an uncomfortable shift towards the (melo)dramatic near the end. Season 4 has none of these problems. It's the most rewatchable season largely because it's issue-free. And being issue-free lets it soar.

So after eight paragraphs of preamble, let's discuss what's right about Season 4. It starts with a bang, a two-parter called "An Explosive Affair," that manages to be both funny and timely (and sadly, timeless), as a terrorist group called Black Monday calls in a bomb threat at the station. And from there, except for a midseason lull, you're never more than a couple weeks from a great episode: if it's not the next one, it's the one after that. (That's not damning with faint praise, either; I'd say much the same thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 6, which I like quite a lot.) But it's not just episode quality that defines Season 4. The characters grow fuller, richer, more rounded, without resorting to the "special episode" solution that marred Season 3. Each one gets, as with most ensemble shows, at least one spotlight episode, and those episodes manage to be among the series' funniest, but also among the character's most challenging, or revealing: whether it's Jennifer serving as the executrix for a departed gentleman friend ("Jennifer and the Will"); or Bailey committing an on-air breach of ethics while reporting on her experiences at a children's ward ("Dear Liar"); or Andy paying a price for the money he's secured from Carlson's mother for station improvements ("Love, Exciting and New"). Whether it's Herb facing his own mortality during a building "Fire," or Johnny pondering the ravages of time in a business dominated by youth ("Rumors"). Whether it's Mr. Carlson wrestling with how to respond to an upcoming "Union" vote; or the inflexible Les giving in to new experiences when Herb signs him up for the "I'll Take Romance" dating service (which, of course, turns out to be a front for prostitution); or Venus fretting that he's lost sight of his heritage when an urban magazine requests an interview ("Changes"). Splendid episodes, all.

That said, if you watch Season 4, you can skip "You Can't Go Out of Town Again" and "The Impossible Dream," and your life will be better for it. And you'll watch the severely undernourished "Circumstantial Evidence" with the knowledge that it was supposed to be a two-parter, but CBS got cold feet, and you'll forgive it. And you'll wonder why the season's one episode to feature both Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman (arguably the series' only episode to wed them in an A-plot), "Jennifer and Johnny's Charity," never reaches the heights it should, particularly since it's written by the series' best writer -- but you'll enjoy watching them share screen time so much that you'll let it pass. And mostly, you'll do your best to excuse the rampant homophobia, which is incessant and uncomfortable. WKRP had always mined people's discomfort with homosexuality for easy laughs; this was the era of Three's Company, after all: that's what shows did. You expect WKRP to be better, but it's not. (Its third episode aired, "Les on a Ledge," is all about Les's suicidal response to rumors that he's gay. I remember when it first aired, TV Guide extolled that it wasn't really about homosexuality, but more about the damage caused by rumor and innuendo, like Hellman's Children's Hour. No, it's really about homosexuality: to be specific, how being seen as gay would be the worst thing in the world.) Season 4 goes for the cheap gay laugh every chance it gets: at one point, three times in five episodes. The message is: we've restored the black man's dignity, and detonated the "dumb blonde" myth, but fags are still fair game. (Staff writer Peter Torokvei transitioned into PJ Torokvei in the 1990's; I do wonder if she ever looked back on her years on WKRP and regretted the steady stream of gay jokes -- but then, when WKRP aired, and for years after, there was no such thing as an LGBT community.)

But as you watch Season 4, you'll put up with -- and maybe forgive -- all that, as you revel in the barrage of memorable lines:

Johnny [on air, from "The Union"]: WKRP, with your generous help and support, has now climbed to 10th place in the Cincinnati market. If I sound emotional about this, it's because I can still hear my father saying: "Son, no matter what you decide to do in this life, always try to come in 10th."

Bailey [to Herb, from "Rumors"]: Continuity is so important. Thank you for always being a jerk.

Les [from "Jennifer and the Will"]: What is an executrix?
Herb: I don't know. High heels and a whole lot of leather, something like that.

Bailey [from "Changes"]: Have you noticed that you can't tell what color someone is over the phone?
Venus: I guess not.
Bailey: I mean, when I heard Black Life Magazine, I was expecting him to be like "Hey, little mama, you tell the dude I'll be here at fo'." But he didn't. He sounded just like you!
Venus: What does she mean "just like me?" I'm black, I'm from the street, I can say "fo'!"
Johnny: That's right, Kingfish. You is, and you does. But the problem is, you sound neutral.
Venus: Neutral. You mean "white."
Johnny: Well, don't worry, pal. I've heard you say "upside your head," things like that. You can pass for black.
Venus: I don't want to "pass for black," I want to be black! What the hell am I saying?

Jennifer [from "I'll Take Romance"]: Les, relationships don't happen every day. You have to wait for them. But just because you think you have a relationship that you really don't have, doesn't mean you're not worthy of having one -- if it's real.
Les: Are you trying to tell me that I'm not worthy of Lorraine?
Jennifer: No... I'm trying to tell you that Lorraine is not worthy of you.
Les: She cost $200.
Jennifer: No, she charges $200. [a pause] Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
Les: Lorraine's a farmer?

And one sturdy season arc holds it all together. Andy was hired in the pilot to save the station, which was languishing in last place. At the start of Season 4, they've shot up to tenth place in the Cincinnati market, and by the season's end, they're sixth. The station gets more successful, and it's a recurring motif that grounds the season. At the heart of Season 4 is the question of how these eight people deal with unexpected success: through talks of unions, through increased workloads and added pressures, through rumors of re-staffing and reshuffling. And even when it's not the station's status at the heart of an episode, there's often the broader theme of people finding themselves charged with responsibility they're simply not prepared for. The question that underlies the first three seasons is: how do you raise the ratings at a radio station? It's a nice idea, but aside from countless promotions and Andy poking his head in the DJ booth from time to time and yelling "Johnny, play the hits," there's no easy way to dramatize it. But the question underlying the fourth (and final season) is: how do you maintain a successful radio station, particularly when half the staff is incompetent? How do you embrace success without letting it change you, or worse, corrupt you? And that is something that can be dramatized, and is, over and over again, perhaps never more persuasively than in one of the series' most unassuming episodes, Season 4's "To Err Is Human." It's a Lissa Levin script, and the premise is simple: Herb was supposed to hire a photographer to shoot Venus, for a series of shampoo ads; instead, Herb decides to pocket the money and shoot the ad himself -- and accidentally substitutes a shot of himself at a family BBQ:

Mr. Carlson: Well, Herb, what do you think? What we have here is an ad for Soul Suds Shampoo, a shampoo that's exclusively marketed to the hip black customer. Am I right?
Herb: Yes, sir.
Mr. Carlson: Then why are we looking at a picture of this really idiotic-looking white man?

It's as standard a sitcom premise as you'll find -- the screw-up that must be made right. But underneath, there are complex (often unspoken) workplace issues. Because, you see, Mr. Carlson wants to fire Herb for his mistake, except that Mr. Carlson is frankly no better at his job than Herb. And ultimately the ones who have to make it right are Andy and Jennifer, simply because they can -- except because neither has the authority to do so, they end up working at cross-purposes and making it worse. The whole episode is ultimately about trying to save the job of a man who deserves to be fired, simply because -- in work language -- he's "family." And why not? Because just as Mr. Carlson shows, by his willingness to step it up and terminate Herb, that he himself can be responsible and even formidable when it's called for, the possibility exists that perhaps Herb can, too -- unless, of course, he can't. But you save someone because that possibility exists, and because they're "family" -- oh, and because of one more thing:

Jennifer: Mr. Sherman, WKRP is a very unusual radio station. We hire some people that otherwise couldn't get jobs at another radio station.
The Clientt: Like that Tarlek fellow, right?
Jennifer: Exactly like that Tarlek fellow. I don't think I would be spreading tales if I were to tell you that he probably couldn't get another job in the city, let alone the state. And, well... I like him. It's crazy, but I like him.

You save someone because you like them. You like them even if they've hounded you and harassed you and hit on you for four years. You like them because, in Season 4, as the writing get deeper, things like old hostilities seem trivial somehow.

But there's more to that scene; it continues:

Jennifer: I'm the one who sent him over here, and I don't want him to get fired.
The Client: So you took it upon yourself to come down here and change my mind?
Jennifer: Yes.
The Client: I can't help you.
Jennifer: You're very self-assured -- I like that.
The Client: Thank you.
Jennifer: I also like a little compassion.
The Client: I'm a perfectionist. When you're handicapped, you're always trying to show the world that you can be a little better.
Jennifer: I know all about that.
The Client: You do?
Jennifer: Mm-hmm. I'm a pretty blonde, so when people meet me, they naturally think I'm dumb.
The Client: Oh, I didn't think so.
Jennifer: Well, that's because you can see through all that. And I'm sure you can see through me. I came down here because I thought a pretty face could help you change your mind.

And of course, her candor does prompt the client to change his mind. And suddenly a screwball situation involving two characters (Herb and Venus) turns into a character study for another (Jennifer), which offhand I can't think of a precedent for in sitcom history. But more than that, the episode illustrates -- as so much of Season 4 does, confidently -- the growing pains of a newly successful radio station: where the strong have to look after the weak; where the weak will vow to change, and probably can't; where change is inevitable and gratifying and terrifying, and rumors rampant and indistinguishable from fact. Where everyone is suddenly in new, uncharted territory where even the best will fail -- but they'll fail together, and with any luck, they might just fail up. WKRP Season 4 is a lovely season, and well worth the three years it took the writers to get there. I recommend it highly.

Want more WKRP in Cincinnati? I delve more deeply into writer Blake Hunter's work here, with a detailed look at one of his best scripts, "Jennifer and the Will." And if you enjoy revisiting hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.