Sunday, December 20, 2015

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

The last of five neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here; the second, "The Ark," here; the third, "Delta and the Bannermen," here; and the fourth, "Death to the Daleks," here. A couple of friends have asked if this series of blog entries had a Pollyanna-ish intent: to show that there's always something good to say about even the worst Doctor Who stories. On the contrary, that's not in my nature: there are definitely some Whos, even a few of the most highly regarded, about which I couldn't think of anything nice to say at all. This was simply about taking five serials that I truly love -- that fan consensus says are awful and/or inferior -- and explaining my unwavering devotion to them.

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 four times (yes, indeed, it is always four times). 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.

Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

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

The fourth of five maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here; the second, "The Ark," here; and the third, "Delta and the Bannermen," here.

"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, or baffled (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, or 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. I find him a painfully limited talent, reusing the same situations, settings and characters until his work devolves into self-parody. It's not only in the Dalek stories that the lack of imagination chains him; the Dalek-free "Keys of Marinus" has the same journey to a city, complete with traps along the way and dull, indistinguishable supporting players. There always seems to be a jungle, pages of pedantic moralizing, and some moronic 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" -- in what? 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 "Seeds of Doom."

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 to the Daleks," perhaps because of the trivialization and compartmentalization of the Daleks (he barely shares any screen-time with them), he seems invigorated: fresh and in-the-moment 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 "Planet of the Spiders.") 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. It's the gentlest of gestures. 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 Belal.

Belal 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 Belal 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 Belal, 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 Wheel in Space".

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

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

The third of five maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here; the second, "The Ark," here.

"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.

Up next: "Death to the Daleks".

Monday, December 14, 2015

Blake Hunter, of WKRP in Cincinnati

Decades after his heyday, Blake Hunter remains one of my favorite sitcom writers, and like so many of my favorites (e.g., Bernard Slade on Bewitched, Charlotte Brown on Rhoda, David Pollock and Elias Davis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bud Wiser on One Day at a Time, Bob Bendetson on Newhart, Tucker Cawley on Everybody Loves Raymond), I love him for the scripts he wrote for a single show, in this case WKRP in Cincinnati. Hugh Wilson created WKRP, but Hunter was there all four seasons, and his scripts are the ones I still marvel at.

Hunter doesn't get a fraction of the recognition that he deserves; his Wikipedia entry, particularly compared to some of his lesser KRP colleagues, is distressingly short. And sadly, he's best-known as co-creator of the Tony Danza vehicle Who's the Boss?, and I say "sadly" because it's remembered for being worse than it was. I didn't watch a whole lot of it, as none of the cast members were particular favorites, but it was a solid, deserving sitcom success. (Co-creator Martin Cohan is also trapped being remembered for Who's the Boss?, although he had a long career, and occasionally an inspired one. During the first two seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, before the shake-up that transformed it into the groundbreaking show we love and remember, it was essentially a traditional late-'60s-type sitcom: That Girl 2.0. But during those first two seasons, every time Cohan steps to the plate, he pens an episode that anticipates exactly where the characters are headed in Season 3; it's like he understood how it could be transformed into a great show even before its creators did.) So as noted, not being a regular Who's the Boss? viewer, I can only comment on Hunter's work on WKRP, but it's a pleasure to do so.

He has a couple of nice "firsts" to his credit: his first WKRP scripts written, the two-parter "Goodbye, Johnny" and "Johnny Comes Back," were the first to embrace the notion of the show as an ensemble comedy (as it would, in time, become); his first script aired, "Tornado," was the show's first episode to hit #1 in the weekly ratings. He specialized in stories about station manager Arthur Carlson (series regular Gordon Jump), his wife Carmen (the winning Allyn Ann McLerie) and his mother Lillian (the formidable Carol Bruce). Most of the key Carlson family moments come via Hunter. He charts the moment when Carmen learns she's pregnant ("Patter of Little Feet," which includes a frank discussion about abortion, which most shows had avoided since the controversy that swirled around "Maude's Dilemma" seven years earlier); he's there when Mother Carlson makes an unexpected early-morning visit to the station ("Baby, It's Cold Inside"), which leads to some reminiscences that draw upon Bruce's own stage background; and he sows the seeds for a season-long arc when Mother Carlson pulls in her son and her program director to sway an upcoming "Union" vote.

But more than the plots themselves, it's Hunter's sensibility that sets him apart. In a 1974 essay that I've always admired, Carol Traynor Williams, professor of humanities at Roosevelt University, took a look at The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then early into its fourth season, and defined the MTM style as "a continuing comic-drama about a group of human beings who are connected to and care about each other, and with whom we are made to feel a connection and concern." The best MTM scripts, she noted, "make that dull virtue, companionship, a value of power and promise ... They affirm the complexity of every human being; they parade their every butt and foil...and insist (no less stubbornly for their subtlety) that we see their dignity." This essay, written during MTM Enterprises' formative years, was astonishingly prescient, anticipating two decades of programming, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Newhart, from The White Shadow to Hill Street Blues. And to my mind, there was no greater practitioner of the MTM "house style" than Blake Hunter.

Hunter had written only one script, for the MTM-produced Tony Randall Show, before moving over to the studio's WKRP, so it doesn't seem so much about him learning the house style as simply intuiting it. During his years on WKRP, he imbued every character with dignity, defying all temptation to mock or ridicule for an easy laugh. His writing avoided histrionics -- it never strained for effect; he simply offered up the cadences of everyday speech, and the interactions of everyday people, as its own aesthetic -- and perhaps never more so than in his best WKRP script, the classic "Jennifer and the Will," a quiet tour-de-force for Loni Anderson, and probably her best work on the show. Anderson's Jennifer Marlowe, as I've noted elsewhere, was WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves: as blonde and as beautiful as her TV counterparts, but also (gasp!) bright, capable, articulate and perceptive. (Occasionally she seemed to be running the station single-handedly.) "Jennifer and the Will" dares to ask: what can't Jennifer handle? What's too much?

It begins with one of the show's most confident cold openings: with Jennifer and an elderly gentleman friend, the Colonel, out to dinner at an elegant French restaurant. The Colonel falls asleep before the check arrives, but according to Jennifer, "He often takes a little snooze between dessert and coffee. Helps build up his strength for the long walk to the car." She assures the Maitre D', "The mere presence of an overly inflated bill always arouses him." But when the check comes, the Colonel doesn't wake. And when Jennifer nudges it playfully in his direction, still no response. And when she puts her hand on his, and he remains still, her shock and sudden grief reduce this most literate of ladies to just two words: "Oh, dear."

Cue the opening music.

And when we return, Jennifer is arriving at the station the following morning, and everyone wants to know: has the Colonel left her anything? She presumes not ("I asked him not to. And if he does, it'll make him look like an old coot with the hots for a younger woman -- which is of course what he was, but in an utterly charming way. Oh, I'm going to miss the old coot..."), but what he has done is appoint her executrix of his estate. (He doesn't trust his family.) And from there the plot follows two convergent paths. The first is the efforts of the WKRP staff to console Jennifer, something with which no one's had experience. (Jennifer is always the one consoling others.) The bits are beautifully in character, with Andy blustering and Mr. Carlson bumbling:

Mr. Carlson: Oh, Jennifer, I don't know what to say.
Jennifer: Neither do I.
Andy: Well, do what I do: put your first through the wall. [and Jennifer stares at him, incredulously] Wrong thing, I said the wrong thing...
Jennifer: The Colonel always called me a good little soldier, and that is exactly what I am going to be.
Andy: Sure: hey, look at the positive side of things -- he was a nice man.
Jennifer: He was a wonderful man, who lived 80 very full years. But his last years were his happiest...
Mr. Carlson: Why was that? [and Jennifer stares at him, incredulously]

Venus, typically a smooth talker, stumbles and stammers; Johnny proposes taking her mind off things with a diversion drawn from experience ("You ever been to night court? Last week they caught this guy with 106 television sets"); while even her closest friend Bailey is reduced to platitudes. But of course, there is no such thing as a "suitable" expression of sympathy, so perhaps the only good condolence is an awful one, one that substitutes frankness for feeling -- and that can only come by way of Herb:

Herb: Hey, Jenny, I didn't get a chance to tell you how sorry I am that that Colonel guy bought the farm. Hey, he had a long life, a lot of dough, he got to go out with you -- caught the big bus while he was eating in the best joint in town. Not bad, if you ask me.
Jennifer [Smiling]: Sometimes I really like you, Herb. You really have a way with words.
Herb: Hey, I'm in sales!

Running counter to all that is what the Colonel's death -- and her new responsibilities -- are doing to Jennifer. Like so many of Hunter's scripts, and like much of WKRP Season 4, the episode is about someone having to cope outside their comfort zone, and Jennifer's response is a slow descent, from resolve --

Jennifer: I'm going to see that his wishes are carried out to the letter.
Mr. Carlson: What would you guess was involved here? Maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars?
Jennifer [laughs]: Millions for sure, perhaps even billions. There's so much to count.
Andy: Tough job.
Jennifer: I don't mind. The Colonel knew I was getting restless: I'd mastered seven languages, just about finished [redecorating] the lobby here. He knew I needed another project.
Mr. Carlson: He was a darn thoughtful man.

-- to stoicism, as the Colonel's family takes to the press, to discredit Jennifer (whom they paint as a gold-digger) and contest the will --

Bailey: What are you doing?
Jennifer: Thinking.
Bailey: About what?
Jennifer: Well, this morning it was the nature of existence. Around noon, I began to embrace the philosophy of Camus. Existentialism is perhaps the answer.
Bailey: Is this the evening paper?
Jennifer: Uh huh.
Bailey: May I see it?
Jennifer: Sure. Read what it says in the article there about the blonde floozie...

-- to despair in the hours leading up to the funeral, when the attacks in the press ("It is not known if the industrialist's woman companion is employed") have grown unrelenting: "I just want to be left alone. I'm tired, I'm really just tired." It's poignant and unsettling -- we're not used to seeing Jennifer rattled. Her self-confidence has always been her most dependable (and inspiring) trait.

But of course, at the lawyer's office the following day, when she sees the Colonel once again in his pre-recorded video will (a bravura performance by Pat O'Brien, and an insanely novel way to use a guest star, scoring most of his laughs after he's dead: "To my brother Cedric, I leave nothing -- because he's always been an all-or-nothing type of fellow, and since he can't have it all, he gets -- nothing"), when she realizes -- with his hostile, useless relatives seated beside her -- what's at stake and what she's fighting for, she rallies. The Colonel wants his fortune distributed among the veterans of his old unit, the Fighting 47th, including a parade in their honor. His sister objects: "A parade! I mean, really: it's insane, it's frivolous, it's --" "Going to start around 2," Jennifer interrupts, already working out the details: "Probably last till around 7. I'm going to pick a nice summer's day when all the kids are out of school." The family warns her, "I can see we're going to have a fight on our hands," and recharged, she counters, calmly, "Just as big as you'd like to make it." And of course Jennifer will prevail, because that's what she does.

WKRP staff writer Peter Torokvei once admitted that he preferred to write for "foible-laden characters" like Herb; his fear was that by delving too deeply into a "strong character" like Jennifer, you risked sacrificing the very elements that made her so admirable. It takes a great writer to take a strong character, one who prides themselves on being in control, plant them in a situation that saps their self-confidence, and not only find the humor, but find a way back. And that's Hunter's great accomplishment: Jennifer's crisis doesn't diminish her; it humanizes her. And, as with so many MTM series, she gets through it with a little help from her friends.

WKRP was an odd series, one that lurched from spectacular highs to baffling lows. It often seemed like a wild beast out of control, but Hunter was the great tamer, the one whose gentle, quiet hand always restored order. I know nothing of Hunter as a person; I'd like to think he was as compassionate, wise and even-handed as his scripts, but for all I know, he might well have been like one of those guys Lou Grant once described who writes greeting cards by day, then "comes home and kicks his dog over a hedge." But as a writer, Hunter was remarkable: the torchbearer at the end of MTM Enterprises' first decade, whose humanistic approach elevated his characters even as he mined them for humor. Without Hunter's contributions, WKRP would be far less memorable than it is. His scripts were impeccable, his place in TV history indelible.

Now maybe someone can expand his Wikipedia entry?

Want more WKRP in Cincinnati? I delve more deeply into Season 4 here. And if you enjoy revisiting hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you prefer sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, serve up shorter takes on Bewitched Season 2 and Rhoda Season 3, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Doctor Who: in defense of "The Ark"

The second of five maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here.

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 Who, past and present: a visual surprise that turns the serial on its ear, and goddammit, I'm not going to spoil it for you. But the payoff is brilliant, 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 ultimately grows so tedious that thank goodness no one ever devoted a whole serial to the idea. (Oh, wait...) 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": 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 -- and will and won'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: "Delta and the Bannermen".

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Doctor Who: in defense of "Terminus"

When I recently published an essay with my top-20 Classic Who serials, comments were flattering and amazingly respectful -- and by "amazingly," I simply mean that every Who episode and serial has its passionate advocates and detractors, and I think I expected a little more controversy than I got. Only one entry inspired a hearty range of guffaws -- you know, of the "You like that?" variety -- and it was "Terminus." And yes, indeed, I do like "Terminus," very much, but since so many don't, I thought I'd go into a little more detail here. 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 best remembered as "the bad one" in the Black Guardian Trilogy: the one that (thank goodness, most would say) is 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 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 gives a f**k? What if we're living with a physically or emotionally abusive spouse, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, 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, 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 (most 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"; otherwise, she too often seemed to be running through emotions rather than acting.) 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 "Arc of Infinity"? Probably not.) The raiders wear space helmets triple the size of their heads (why?), 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 with claws, whose first appearance prompts a "you're kidding" response. (It's a step up from the Quarks, the Mire Beast, Erato and the Myrka, but what isn't?)

And as good as the sets seem early on -- foreboding: endless 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 built but unfinished, what was designed but never built, and what they simply didn't have time to load in. But what's there isn't good 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 refer to 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, a world where people are used and tossed aside. It's a world where hostility and paranoia run rampant, and where entropy is the order of the day. Power packs stop charging after one shot; armor fails to shield from deadly radiation; drugs distributed to keep workers in their place 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, one 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 -- a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse -- and one that's 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. Is our broad, sweeping country ultimately ungovernable? "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 a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end, and an indictment of the ones who create and perpetuate it. And too, it's a cautionary tale for the ones 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 expanses 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.

There's one scene with Tegan that's lame (in part 4, as if Gallagher runs out of things for her to do, he has her rush to the control room and miraculously abort a launch), but otherwise "Terminus" is 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 his mission 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.

And Davison's Doctor is superb. I've seen critiques that he has nothing to do in "Terminus." On the contrary, the Fifth 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 in "Terminus" where I think I love the Fifth Doctor more than ever. 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, and her dry, clipped style matches Davison's own), and she adds a little luster and glamour to the proceedings. (First time I watched, I had no idea who she was, or that she was stunt casting. I bought into her completely, teased hair and all.) If she weren't there, I guarantee she would be missed. And the guards are well-characterized and well-played. Only Martin Potter as Eirak 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. (As sympathetic seers go, I'll take Bor over Binro in "The Ribos Operation" anytime.)

And Mary Ridge's direction, too often slated because of the fabled production headaches, is consistent and strong. 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 otherwise, her work is not merely solid, but often vivid. (A multi-level "elevator going down" scene, as Nyssa's led to her presumed doom, is sensationally ambitious and effective.) And more to the point, Ridge's direction seems utterly in line with Gallagher's narrative. She shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is 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 work in tandem -- 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.

Note: after I posted this essay, I decided to turn it into a bit of a series, of five neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. Next up, "The Ark".