Sunday, July 16, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#10 - #1)

Completing my Classic Who countdown. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, all the way back at #158, with the serials I find most resistible, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) The serials below are my ten favorites. They include the best performances by the two greatest actors to play the Doctor in the classic series. Coincidence? Certainly not. Four of the ten are written by original script editor David Whitaker, who taught everyone else how to write Doctor Who, then showed them that he could do it better. Classic Who's best writer? Certainly. The serials below have moved me and inspired me; they're miraculous creations, and I have returned to each a dozen times or more. I suspect if Classic Who had turned out only these ten serials, I'd be no less a fan.

10. The Abominable Snowmen (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
directed by Gerald Blake
Given that their follow-up stories are, in turn, a repetitive runaround and a mean-spirited mess, it's astounding that Haisman and Lincoln manage, for their first Classic Who assignment, a serial as respectful and thematically rich as "The Abominable Snowmen." Neither was a disciple of Buddhism (although, by all accounts, they tried to familiarize themselves with the teachings and terminology), but in its depiction of monks disentangling from the ways of the world in search of something deeper, and in its underlying conflict between personal responsibility and interdependence, the serial's view of cloistered life seems vivid and accurate. And when Victoria tries to explain to Thomni about the Doctor's ability to travel in time and space, and he understands instantly, noting that his master, Padmasambhava, "can free himself from his earthly body and travel great distances," which "can only be obtained after many years of strict discipline," the scene seems steeped in the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra. Even when the details feel fanciful -- the monks view the captive Yeti as the devil, who "in his guile, wears his armor beneath the skin to protect his evil heart" -- you appreciate that the monks are permitted an interpretation that's never contradicted or condescended to. Crucially, this isn't a Tibetan monastery spruced up as the setting for a Doctor Who adventure; it's a Doctor Who adventure scaled down to suit the tenets and tone of a Tibetan monastery -- and Blake's work is ever mindful of that. There's no musical soundtrack; instead, the monastery provides its own, natural accompaniment -- and sometimes the only light in the cloisters is a burning torch carried by one of the monks. At one point, the Doctor and Professor Travers get into an argument, and Blake stages it with the warrior leader Khrisong center, and the Doctor and Travers behind him on either side. The Eastern warrior is still and immutable; the Western scientists are bickering like children. The monastery is a world of order and harmony where chaos is unleashed -- not just the Great Intelligence, but the Professor, the Doctor and his companions. Troughton gets a greater showcase in "Enemy of the World," but this is his best performance in the title role, his patented indignation and flustered horror tempered by enormous warmth: as he consoles Padmasambhava, who's been kept alive for centuries by the Great Intelligence, or coaxes the truth out of the spellbound Abbot, or eases Victoria out of her trance. And Victoria, touching down in a time period not too far removed from her own, gains cunning and initiative -- and Deborah Watling proves just how good she can be when she's not consigned to simpering and screaming. In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another Classic Who serial where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force, but the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories -- and gives it a complexity and depth that's rare. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we obey our gods, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? Despite the presence of those cuddly Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, it's one of the most adult stories in the classic canon.

9. The Ambassadors of Death (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then somersault backwards off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- and there are a lot of them: warehouse shoot-outs, helicopter hijackings, car chases and foot pursuits, not to mention a rocket launch where the G-force practically flattens the Doctor back into his seat -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too awesome for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the space-suited ambassadors to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying, but mesmerizing: not just a resolution, but an event. Ferguson shoots their arrival at the Space Center contre-jour, the sun behind them, as if they were angels descending from a better, finer world -- and when they finally enter the complex, the soldiers who had been firing at them stop and stare: stilled not by fear, but by the majesty and mystery of it all. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke, from Whitaker's story outline and his drafts of the first three episodes; whatever Hulke's contributions (and several of the plot devices -- an aborted escape, an interrupted confession -- seem like Hulke hallmarks), the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the Third Doctor era can work: for how the leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from assistant to associate -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do. And the fact that the story not only requires our intelligence, but presumes it, makes it all the more invigorating.

8. The Androids of Tara (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by David Fisher
directed by Michael Hayes
From the start, Doctor Who strove to keep it fresh. One week, it was a sci-fi adventure; the next, a historical drama. Later on, a Plautine comedy, or perhaps an espionage caper. But it wasn't until Season 16 that it took on one of the most endearing and enduring of film genres: the screwball comedy. That Hollywood phenomenon, which reached its zenith in the mid- to late-'30s, was a frothy blend of sophistication and slapstick, buoyed by dialogue both diabolically clever and effortlessly improvised. Screwball comedies were battles of the sexes where love masqueraded as hostility, and where the woman inevitably had the upper hand. One of the films that ushered in this new era of screen comedy was The Thin Man, with its witty, urbane couple, Nick and Nora Charles, who traded barbs as they solved crimes. Nick would rather be drinking, or napping, or shooting ornaments off the Christmas tree, but Nora was there to prod him and inspire him. It's difficult to watch Season 16 of Classic Who -- in which a stylish Time Lady arrives to keep the Doctor in check, and in which their ensuing bickering betrays a burgeoning affection -- without recalling the screwballs, and it's impossible to watch "Androids of Tara" without seeing the Doctor and Romana as Nick and Nora Charles, with K9 as their beloved Asta. For a couple of seasons, Tom Baker had looked like he'd rather be fishing; Fisher turns that into a character trait, and hands off the detective work to Romana. And she shows up the Doctor, securing the Key to Time in the first five minutes, but before they can depart, the two are ensnared in a mistaken identities caper complete with knockout drugs, an aborted coronation, an aborted wedding, and various moments of mayhem. Fisher might have taken his cue from Prisoner of Zenda, but "Androids of Tara" is pure screwball, and although Fisher keeps it light, Hayes (a romanticist in the style of the great director Mitchell Leisen) refuses to sacrifice atmosphere for speed, inviting us to bask: in the gleeful malevolence of its villains and the handsome hardiness of its heroes; in lush scenery that devours half of Part One and a sword fight that dominates Part Four; and in a guest cast whose comedy stylings are irresistible. But above all, there's Mary Tamm and Tom Baker: her with her smarts, glamour and withering irony; him, irreverent, undisciplined and unbowed. The single best moment in "Androids" might be a throwaway line near the top, when Romana has followed the Doctor to a stream where he's determined to spend the day fishing. "But what about the fourth segment?," she reminds him. "You get it," he insists, and she accepts the dare, making plans to meet him there in an hour's time. Satisfied, he asks, "Would you mind standing aside, please? You're casting a shadow. It frightens the fish," and she mutters to herself, in a verbal eye-roll, "Frightens the fish," before continuing her instructions. That one aside -- "frightens the fish" -- might be the best thing about "Androids of Tara," because you have no idea if it was scripted or improvised, but it's hilarious. Baker and Tamm give the illusion, as did all the great screwball couples, of being so comedically in tune that they've achieved a spontaneity, an unrestraint and a zest for life that most of us can only aspire to. It's a glorious gift, as is "Androids of Tara."

7. The Evil of the Daleks (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Derek Martinus
Designed as, literally, the Dalek story to end all Dalek stories -- i.e., the final battle -- so how fitting is it that it's also their finest hour? Every time you feel you have a handle on where Whitaker is heading, he throws you a curveball. At the top, scientist Edward Waterfield is playing cat-and-mouse with the Doctor and Jamie -- but then you learn that he himself is at the mercy of more malevolent forces: not merely the Daleks, but his own friend and collaborator. Eventually, the Daleks blackmail the Doctor into carrying out an experiment in exchange for the return of his TARDIS -- a plot to increase their power by isolating the "human factor" -- and the Doctor and Waterfield must lay a trap to ensnare an unwitting Jamie. "Evil of the Daleks" is a story where everyone has an agenda (though not necessarily a transparent one) and is willing to manipulate both allies and enemies to achieve it -- and through it all you wonder, who is pulling whose strings? The Doctor's motivations are unclear, but never unconvincing; we believe he's teaming with the Daleks to get his TARDIS back, which is not unreasonable – but as the bodies start to pile up, we think: how far is he willing to go? How precious to him is that little blue box? Or is something else motivating his new alliance with his oldest foes? The experiment itself -- which hinges on Jamie's quest to save Victoria -- is the centerpiece of the story; it could feel like padding, but it's perfect. After a season as the third wheel in Ben and Polly's double-act, it's exactly what Frazer Hines needs -- and by showing Jamie's willingness to risk his life to save a stranger, by pitting him against the manservant Kemel and having the sheer strength and decency of his character win him over, Whitaker transforms him from a boy into a man. And laced throughout are unexpected detours, including one of Whitaker's masterstrokes: the Arthur Terrall reveal. Here, as ever, Whitaker lets us make presumptions because it's customary to do so. We meet Terrall and dismiss his odd behavior as the result of his wartime trauma. Molly, the serving girl who's provided us with his backstory, has been a reliable witness, and Whitaker is careful to make his symptoms consistent with what we know of shell-shock. He seems an incidental character, mere local color -- but is anything ever incidental where Whitaker's concerned? It's a marvelous misdirect, and more crucially, it's a clue to the Dalek's ultimate plan -- one that, if we're clever, Whitaker will allow us to decipher ahead of the Doctor. For their final story, Whitaker lets the Daleks be all things: ruthless killers, master manipulators, precocious children, and ultimately, the source of their own destruction, as they force the Doctor to engage in an experiment that sows the seeds of their doom. And although Whitaker never allows them to be seen as heroic, he honors their contribution to the early success of Doctor Who by permitting them to die as tragic figures, whose own character flaw -- in this case, their hubris -- leads to their downfall. The Daleks will go on to many more stories following their "demise"; several will be quite fine, and a few will even be great -- but they'll never again have it so good.

6. The Crusade (First Doctor, 1965)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield
The TARDIS touches down in 12th-century Palestine; within minutes, Barbara is kidnapped, and the Doctor, Ian and Vicki set out to save her. The "chase" aspect of the plot allows Whitaker and Camfield to paint a particularly broad canvas (from the courts of King Richard and Muslim leader Saladin to the bustling marketplaces and barren deserts) and to serve up compassionate yet clear-eyed looks at both monarchs. It also provides a tour-de-force for all four principals -- their characters filled with resolve and guile -- and the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. Douglas Camfield, in his first full Who directorial outing, does splendid work, and he's already acquired the gift for turning character beats into cliffhangers: the end of Part 1, as Ian is about to unleash his fury on the King, and the Doctor holds him back with a warning look and a firm gesture, may be the actors' finest exchange -- and not a word is required. But at the end of the day, it's the lines that linger. Whitaker channels Shakespeare with the poetry of his dialogue -- some of it in iambic pentameter -- and Doctor Who would hear no finer dialogue for decades. (Richard, to his sister Joanna: "Saladin sends me presents of fruit and snow when I am sick, and now his brother decorates you with his jewels. Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.") Early on, Saladin implores a captured Barbara, "Please talk -- it helps me to consider what I have to do with you," and her natural response is to describe three recent adventures. ("Well, I could say that I'm from another world, a world ruled by insects. And before that we were in Rome at the time of Nero. Before that we were in England, far, far into the future...") As Saladin interprets it ("Now I understand: you and your friends, you are players, entertainers"), the scene glows with gentle irony and self-awareness: Doctor Who interpreting history, history interpreting Doctor Who. And the showdown between Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) is as explosive as any exchange in Classic Who. There's really only one thing wrong with "The Crusade": the fact that two of four episodes are missing, and it's particularly unfortunate here. There are some Classic Who writers (Ian Stuart Black, Brian Hayles) and directors (Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus) where missing episodes don't matter as much; they worked in broad strokes, and once you've been able to ascertain the tone and style of a partially extant serial, you can intuit the rest. But Whitaker and Camfield were artists who found the drama in nuance and detail; when you watch a scene that begins in telesnaps and then continues in surviving footage (e.g., Barbara being chased through the streets of Lydda), you realize just how much you've missed. But even the two lost episodes don't prevent "The Crusade" from being the crowning achievement of the Hartnell era.

5. The Face of Evil (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Chris Boucher
directed by Pennant Roberts
It's the first script since "The Rescue" that's told from the new companion's perspective. The serial opens with Leela in profile, then pulls back to a scene in which she's banished from her tribe, the Sevateem. We recognize at once her bravery, her loyalty and (crucially, because it's the trait that will be forgotten during her time on the TARDIS) her intelligence. (She's defiant that the tribal god Xoanon doesn't exist, and we know she's right.) Leela has a limited worldview, but she's shrewd and curious and able to extrapolate her knowledge and adapt to new situations and unfamiliar surroundings (which will make her an ideal travel companion). She's a quick study. Some of us, if we're lucky, grow wiser with each passing year; Leela grows wiser with each passing minute. You see it on her face: her eyes light up with each new insight, or the slightest arch of her brow or curve of her lips tells you she's processing and storing information, for later use. Pennant Roberts clearly adores Louise Jameson (he cast her in the role), and so does his camera; he goes for frequent close-ups that pay off handsomely, understanding how much she can convey without saying a word. And the words Chris Boucher gifts her aren't too shabby either. His first Doctor Who script -- like his later ones -- is pretty much a marvel. Thank goodness, we've passed the Gothic Horror era, and sturdy characters are back in vogue: the kind with clear and compelling motivations, who don't exist merely for their scare value. Subtlety, too, is once again prized; the payoffs can come slowly, and hints be dropped delicately. (Boucher has a particularly good time unveiling the origins of the Sevateem and Tesh tribes and the identity of the Evil One. Some clues we discover and process alongside the Doctor; others, the Doctor spots instantly, while we struggle with their significance; and just a few Boucher reveals to us alone, as if we ourselves were companions, conducting our own investigation.) "Face of Evil" benefits too from a sound premise -- a primitive society whose traditions arise from the remnants of another, more advanced one ("Planet of Fire" is built on the same foundation) -- but to be fair, it is not without its flaws: two death sentences for the Doctor, neither as effective as it means to be; a bit too much skulking around corridors and one too many brainwashings; a star who's starting to spiral out of control, and some bit players who should have been banned from the BBC soundstages. But it's got Leela, so who cares? Jameson commands the screen in her first appearance like no companion before or since; in fact, watching her, you can't decide what's more spellbinding: the conception of her character, or how far she runs with it. Run, you clever girl -- and don't stop till you're safely aboard the TARDIS. Sadly, you won't be treated any better than you were back home, but the series will be enriched by your presence.

4. Enlightenment (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Barbara Clegg
directed by Fiona Cumming
The TARDIS is losing power, its customary white lights now a burnished orange. The voice of the White Guardian is heard -- at first, an eerie echo; then, cryptic commands it will fall to the Doctor to decipher. It's fitting that the White Guardian can't get his message through, because nothing will be spelled out for us in "Enlightenment." No story in Classic Who history shows a greater regard for its audience. It refuses to stoop to easy exposition or attention-grabbing theatrics; from the start, it trusts the viewer to savor the details -- there'll be time for high concepts and big reveals later on. (There will be no monsters, and if there are, they might not be so easy to spot.) "Enlightenment" is the rare serial that serves as a character study of the Doctor and his companions, and it accomplishes it by pairing each with an Eternal, the immortal beings who depend on the thoughts of so-called "Ephemerals" for their existence, and showing them at their most exposed and conflicted. For Tegan, who's developed a tough hide to keep from being hurt (her TARDIS travels began, after all, with the death of her Aunt Vanessa, pointedly referenced here), the fawning Mariner's intrusion into her mind represents a troubling loss of control -- but you also see her letting down her guard long enough to dress for Wrack's banquet, courting compliments with a low-cut gown, tiara and train. For Turlough, the alien outsider who made a deal with the devil before realizing that there were other, genuinely rewarding options open to him, the sybaritic Wrack -- who alternately teases him, toys with him and tortures him, according to her whim -- offers a chance at redemption. And then there's the Doctor, who -- even as he wages war with Captain Striker, whose parasitic feeding on human emotion revolts him; even as he's immobilized and emasculated by an unblinking race of immortals whose motivations he can't begin to comprehend -- is busy observing, decoding, interceding and, with any luck, prevailing. Everyone is playing a long game in "Enlightenment": the Guardians, the Eternals -- but no one more than the Doctor, who's staked the future of all of time and space on his newest disciple. "Enlightenment" shows us everything Doctor Who can be; before and behind the camera, it's the culmination of two decades of experimentation and experience, and anything that follows is bound to seem anti-climactic. Because once a serial has prompted you to ponder notions as fanciful as the pangs and perils of immortality, and issues as down-to-earth as the exploitation (and perceived expendability) of the working classes; once it's done so with dialogue that makes the prosaic sound poetic ("It's as though somebody's been rummaging around in my memories") and the poetic unexpectedly resonant ("You are a Time Lord, a Lord of Time. Are there lords in such a small domain?"); and once it's resolved itself by assuring you, gently, that however dark the forces of the universe become, simple truths will still hold sway, and none more so than the persuasive power of human decency -- then really: what more is there to say? "Enlightenment" is not just the last great serial: it feels like the last great serial.

3. The Enemy of the World (Second Doctor, 1967-68)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Barry Letts
Let's list the things that are wrong with "Enemy of the World." The stock footage of earthquakes and eruptions in Episode 2 goes on a bit too long. There's a clumsy edit in Episode 3, following an assassination. The actors who play Colin and Mary are earnest, but callow, and the costumes worn by the subterranean dwellers are distracting. And that's it. There are four tiny problems with "Enemy of the World," and there are dozens upon dozens of glories, not the least of which is the greatest performance by a lead actor in Classic Who history. Even before the five missing episodes were found, Troughton's bravura turn (as the Doctor, and as Salamander, would-be ruler of the world) came through clearly in the surviving audio, starting with the early sequence in which the Doctor watches Salamander deliver a speech and then deconstructs, digests and assumes his accent. But with the visuals restored, we see a level of nuance and assurance that not even the most ardent Troughtonites could have foreseen: not from a show on this tight a schedule. Salamander, in one serial, seems as fully formed as the Doctor after ten; Troughton doesn't just rise to the occasion -- he towers over it. And yet "Enemy of the World" isn't merely about a remarkable acting feat, cunningly sustained; it's about a plot that keeps confounding expectations. In anyone's hands but Whitaker's, one suspects, Troughton's dual role would have been less a story than a stunt; the Doctor would have agreed to impersonate Salamander in Episode 1, with diminishing returns from there. But Whitaker, crucially, constructs a plot that would work even without the dual-role angle: if the mission were simply to expose a dangerous dictator. He creates a set of characters so vibrant -- and a story so rich in incident (and so cognizant of the tactics that evil men use to seize power, and of the kind of people most susceptible to those tactics) -- that after teasing the Doctor's impersonation at the end of Episode 1, he can postpone delivering on that promise till midway through Episode 5: making it the climax of the story, rather than its foundation. And the delay seems character- rather than plot-driven: stemming from the Second Doctor's sense of caution and unerring instincts, as he sizes up the two most mercurial characters -- and plays them perfectly -- in order to bring down Salamander on his own terms. (It's typical of Whitaker's tactics -- crafty but never cutthroat -- that after we're left thinking the plot will turn on the Doctor infiltrating Salamander's lair, it's Jamie and Victoria who first go undercover -- and, in a marvelous turnabout, when the Doctor finally does assume his disguise, it's Jamie and Victoria he first has to fool.) Splendidly cast, flawlessly directed and fearlessly performed, with a special nod to Mary Peach as Astrid, one of the great guest stars in all of Classic Who. She fights, she flirts, she flies -- and when she and Troughton are seated on a sofa, playfully interrogating each other (Astrid: "Oh, you're a doctor?" Doctor: "Well, not of any medical significance." Astrid: "Doctor of law? Philosophy?" Doctor: "Which law? Whose philosophies?"), the halcyon days of '60s TV -- when people had time to converse without the pressures of plot -- are at their most heavenly.

2. Castrovalva (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Fiona Cumming
Beguiling and exhilarating. Bidmead's scripts could be too clever by half, the results more science lesson than science fiction. Cumming lifts "Castrovalva" out of the lecture hall and infuses it with pace, style and warmth; she takes Bidmead's showy conceits (hydrogen inrush! recursive occlusion!) and paints a human face on them. Cumming was an accomplished technician, but she was above all an actor's director: just what "Castrovalva" needs. Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton both seemed rather woeful actresses when we last left them in "Logopolis"; here, they're vibrant and appealing, conquering scenes that could seem too calculated in their cunning, without ever losing their character quirks. (Tegan: "How do we find the index file? Of course, if we had an index file, we could look it up in the index file, under index file. What am I saying? I'm talking nonsense." Nyssa: "That's an example of recursion, when procedures fold back on themselves. If you had an index file, you could look it up in the index file." Tegan: "If. My Dad used to say that 'if' was the most powerful word in the English language. If... I...F... Stands for index file!") Tegan is volatile but never strident, with an unexpected wistfulness; Nyssa remains practical and reserved, but never remote. They have a few scenes (when they're scaling Castrovalva) where Cumming brings the volume down and draws the camera in close, and you see them at their most exposed -- and you like what you see. And with Matthew Waterhouse so ill-at-ease with his hands, Cumming straps them to his side, forcing him to project with his face -- and it works wonders. (The Doctor tells them what valuable assets they're going to be, and by God, for this one serial, you believe him.) And Peter Davison is, from the start, a revelation. It was his first serial aired, but his fourth filmed; producer John Nathan-Turner made a lot of questionable moves during his tenure on Doctor Who, but deciding to hold off filming Davison's debut until he'd inhabited the role for a while was not one of them. The Doctor is in a weakened state for much of "Castrovalva," but Davison is in command of every gesture and effect: he's riveting. A few blemishes in Part Four, mostly some action shots that were never Cumming's strong suit, but otherwise a triumph of script, direction, design and musical composition -- and one more thing, which lifts it into the Who stratosphere. Folks who dismiss "Castrovalva" as "just" a regeneration story -- some who even argue that such stories aren't necessary -- miss the point. Bidmead makes us feel that helping the Doctor through his regeneration is the most important thing in the universe -- which of course it is. (Russell T. Davies would take much the same approach in "The Christmas Invasion.") Three companions (two of whom hardly know him) risk their lives to save him, and although Sutton, Fielding and Waterhouse aren't an experienced or, in some cases, dependable bunch, they exceed our expectations -- and their own. "Castrovalva" is a serial about the joy of being a Who fan; it's about the bond we feel with the Doctor, and how we're better for it.

1. Snakedance (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Christopher Bailey
directed by Fiona Cumming
No Classic Who serial is blessed with better dialogue; no script better caught the essence and appeal of the Fifth Doctor. Peter Davison was such a departure from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade that the early writers had no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they left the character sketchy and called upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he did, handsomely. But during Davison's second season, Christopher Bailey pens a piece that captures the Fifth Doctor in full: the youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- and Davison responds with his crowning performance. Davison became a master, during his years on Who, of bringing energy and conviction to scenes even when the writer, director, guest cast or supporting cast were letting him down. In "Snakedance," when everyone else is at the peak of their powers, Davison unleashes his Doctor as in no other serial: in the first half, practically bounding across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility; in the final segment, in a feat of concentration so intense it looks torturous, demonstrating that focus, awareness and quiet resolve can often be the most effective weapons against evil. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding provide splendid support -- Sutton acting as the Doctor's confidante, his conscience and his occasional critic, and excelling at all three; Fielding alternately fighting and embracing the Mara's control, helping us understand (in her dreams and in her sometimes unsettling responses to the unfolding events) why the Mara found her the perfect instrument for his becoming -- and they're matched by sterling guest players: Colette O'Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes, Jonathon Morris, Brian Miller, Preston Lockwood -- not a blemish in the bunch. But it's Davison who grounds and ignites the serial, with a dazzling tour-de-force. Equally dazzling: the detail and delicacy that Bailey and Cumming bring to the proceedings -- delicacy, in particular, not being a trait you associate with Classic Who. The expansive opening exchange between the Federator's wife and son doesn't appear to be scripted; it just seems to unfold, the way a scene would in the theatre. Leisurely yet luminous, it tells us more about two guest characters -- their relationship to each other, to the featured players with whom they'll interact, and to the culture over which they preside -- than most serials manage over four or six parts. As it turns out, it's almost all exposition, but so beautifully disguised that as it's playing out, it seems a far cry from the Who norm, where you can hear the plot creaking during the briefest of exchanges. At once a cautionary tale about the perils of forgetting history, a social commentary on commercialism and corruption, and a recipe for facing life's challenges with grit and grace, "Snakedance" is the rare classic serial that doesn't merely create an alien world, but luxuriates in it. It's sui generis: endlessly rewatchable and rewarding.


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

5 comments:

  1. Congrats on this achievement akin to the building of the wall of China. Your potted reviews will from now on be my go-to resource for determining the quality of an episode. Also, your productivity makes me think that you may be raving mad. This is not a bad thing.

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    1. Paul, thanks so much. Part of me wishes I had had the chance to discover Classic Who as a kid, as so many of my friends did -- but there is something lovely, too, about coming to it "cold," as an adult. And yet, of course, I don't pretend that I have greater "objectivity" than the friends who've been watching it for 40 and 50 years. I know well that my own interests and preferences and passions inform my view of everything I watch: not just Doctor Who, heaven knows. This series of essays took me almost four months to write, and there were so many revelations along the way. I had very visceral responses to this latest rewatch. Serials that felt misogynistic bothered me more than ever -- I mean, they've always bothered me, but this time, I found them unforgivable. And I don't think I expected "Mindwarp" to descend all the way to the bottom, but I couldn't get past the basic "message" that it conveyed to me, which seemed so antithetical to everything I love about Doctor Who. On the other hand, several serials rose much higher in my rankings than I would have expected: in particular, "Leisure Hive" -- and maybe as I get older, a serial about aging just has greater resonance than ever -- and the last big surprise, "Abominable Snowmen," which crept into my top 10 during the final days I was writing this. I find myself so moved by it: spiritually, creatively -- I think it's now the serial I most long to see rediscovered.

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    2. I apologize: I rambled on, and didn't direct your comment that I "may be raving mad." I believe that is true. I'm pretty sure it runs in my family. (My mother is nuts.)

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  2. I love that none of your 10 make it onto mine! That's what happens when you discover something as an adult as opposed to a child. Good to see a spread of Doctors on there, although your two faves dominate! Are you going to do one for New Who now? The end of the Moffat era would make a good new stopping point... Just saying!!

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    1. My friend Neil asked the same question: would I be ranking & reviewing NuWho in the same way? I cannot imagine it! This set of 158 reviews totally did me in -- I can't imagine trying anything like this again for a long, long time. And I don't think my views about NuWho are all that different from a lot of folks, whereas I've always known that where Classic Who is concerned, my opinions are definitely not the "standard" ones. Thanks so much for reading, as always!

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