Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Death

"The whole journalism thing didn't really pan out the way I hoped." -- Rory Gilmore

If I hadn't already been hating Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, that one line alone (in the final episode) would have made me hate it. "The whole journalism thing" -- you remember that, right? The passion for reporting that had consumed Rory, as we understood it, even before the series began. Her resolve to become the next Christiane Amanpour. Her accepting menial assignments at the Yale Daily News just to get her foot in the door, and her eventually rising to Editor-in-Chief. Her job offer from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, which she turned down in hopes of a prestigious fellowship at The New York Times. Her despair when not only the Times rejected her, but a host of other newspapers, and then her triumphant rise from the ashes when an online magazine asked her to cover Senator Barack Obama's nascent Presidential campaign. You remember all that, right?

Well, joke's on you. It turns out Rory's lifelong desire to be a journalist wasn't a passion. It wasn't a calling. It was just a "thing."

My biggest fear going into Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was that creators Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino would try to undo Season 7. The Palladinos had left the series after Season 6, and the final season was supervised by their co-executive producer David S. Rosenthal. Season 6 was a train-wreck that boasted just three great episodes; the Palladinos had written two of them, and Rosenthal the third, so the powers-that-be elevating him to showrunner was a smart move. And although there was much grumbling in the press at the time that the Palladinos were departing a show that "only they could write," Rosenthal -- after a bit of a rocky start -- brought the series to an immensely satisfying conclusion. But it clearly wasn't the conclusion the Palladinos had intended -- Amy had long told us of "four little words" with which she'd planned to end the series, and we (obviously) hadn't gotten those, and who knows how much else would need revising to get us to that point. So my biggest fear was that Season 7, a season I very much like, would be obliterated, simply because the Palladinos hadn't written it. Was this going to be their revenge on the studio that had refused their demands, and worse, on the writer who had graciously attempted to salvage the show in their wake, and who had done so not only respectfully, but often brilliantly?

Oh, it's so much worse. Forget about undoing Season 7. The Palladinos pretty much undid everything we'd come to believe about Rory Gilmore. Rory, you see, wasn't the bright, capable, determined and grounded young woman we'd loved for seven seasons; she was a dabbler, a lightweight, a perpetual and professional screw-up. And it's not just the final line ("I'm pregnant") that cemented that impression; I realized after the first episode of A Year in the Life that that's where the Palladinos were headed with her character -- and then I realized, with even greater shock, that that's how they'd seen her all along. Rory, to them, wasn't the miraculous offspring of a dysfunctional family -- the one who managed to stay focused on the future while three generations of Gilmore women were busy reliving ancient battles. Rory was, in fact, the continuation of that cycle.

Back in the fourth episode of the first season, when Rory had a meltdown during her first days at Chilton and mouthed off to a fellow student, and Lorelai defended her ("Rory doesn’t throw fits. She’s the most even-tempered person I know"), we took her at her word. We saw Rory as her adoring mother did. But to the Palladinos, the girl who melts down if things don't go her way was Rory. And once I understood that, so many aspects of the first six seasons that had seemed unconvincing and unpalatable came into focus. I understood why the Palladinos kept returning to the worst of Rory's behavior: why she kept waffling for so long between Dean and Jess (and once she'd made her choice, waffled back); why, after floundering her first year at college, she found comfort bedding a married man (and then dumping him a few episodes later); why a few unkind words from her boyfriend's father prompted her to commit larceny; why the fights between her and her mother grew more hostile every season -- that, to the Palladinos, was the true Rory Gilmore. (The aberrations were the accomplishments she managed despite being indecisive, easily distracted, and self-entitled.) And their endgame was a cruel bit of symmetry: Rory would end up unmarried and pregnant in Stars Hollow, like her mother had. She'd get knocked up by a man of privilege she could never have, while the decent guy she didn't want gazed at her longingly. The Palladinos were committed to the series coming full circle, and that meant Rory's ambition and accomplishments had to be wiped away, so we could end up with...this.

This was clearly the Palladinos' gameplan all along. It's not a gameplan I endorse, but regardless of what you make of it, it certainly wasn't designed for 2016 -- it was intended for 2008 or 2009. It was meant for whenever the original series wrapped: after Season 8 or 9, or whenever they decided to pull the plug. Rory would have graduated from college and floundered. She would have found the real world more daunting than she'd dreamed, and having nothing to fall back on, wound up returning to Stars Hollow, reliving her mother's life. That would have been bad enough had it happened when Rory was in her early Twenties, but maybe they could have sold it then. (I don't know that we would have felt any less cheated, but it might have felt less preposterous.) But the Palladinos, holding fast to their blueprint and their ending, applied them to characters who had aged a decade since they last wrote them. And suddenly nothing made sense. It's ten years later, but Stars Hollow is trapped in a time warp.

For starters, Luke and Lorelai reconciled in the spring of 2007, but still hadn't married. What had they been doing for ten years? Lorelai offered up a weak explanation to her shrink for why she and Luke had never tied the knot -- something like "I don't do things like my mother" -- but it was inconsistent with the Lorelai who broke down at the end of Season 6 because Luke couldn't commit to a wedding date. Luke had accepted her marriage proposal at the top of that season before she'd even finished popping the question; the second half of the season was all about Lorelai's desire -- turning into something more like desperation -- to be his wife. And then they wait ten years? Clearly the Palladinos intended Gilmore Girls to end with Luke and Lorelai's wedding, a year or two after they reunited them. But now it's 2016, and they're holding to that series-ending ceremony -- so they've got to posture that the pair would reasonably settle into a decade of "going steady." A Year in the Life didn't just rewrite Season 7; it started rewriting all over the place, just to serve up stories that were ten years overdue.

Similarly, it would be one thing for Rory to be stumbling so badly just out of college; if the Palladinos had returned to the series for a Season 8, they could have shown that Rory being on the road, following Barack Obama's Presidential bid, had proven too much for her -- that the reality of living the dream was overwhelming. But ten years later? The early moments of A Year in the Life enumerated Rory's accomplishments over the previous decade, but apparently she'd achieved them through divine intervention, which had mysteriously disappeared. Because suddenly, at 32, she doesn't know how to schmooze a client, or brainstorm at an interview, or even break up with a boyfriend. (The Palladinos didn't just make her indecisive, they made her deplorable: stringing along a guy she couldn't care less about for a solid year, while sleeping with a man who's engaged to another.) The show boasted about her accomplishments, but while she was achieving them, she seemed to have gained no life experience -- nor made one lasting professional connection. You were left, again, realizing that the Palladinos didn't adjust for the time jump. They gave us their 2008 ending in 2016. It reminded me of nothing more than the end of How I Met Your Mother, where Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had a vision at the start for how the series would end, but didn't realize that that vision was unworkable a decade later.

A Year in the Life felt not only misjudged and misguided, but self-absorbed. The Palladinos didn't wipe out Season 7, but they sure didn't give it its due either -- not even in the necessary ways. Rory departed on a press bus in 2007 to cover Barack Obama's election bid. If the 2008 election had gone a different way, that might've been an insignificant plot point; given Obama's victory, it became the proverbial elephant in the room. One of the first questions any fan had to wonder is: how long did she cover him? Both terms? If not, why did she leave? Why would she? But we get no answers. We get a list of other projects she's worked on since graduation, but not an accounting of the only one we knew or cared about.

The most gracious explanation is that the Palladinos imagined the publicity that accompanied their departure after Season 6 was so big that everyone knew about it -- and that viewers would understand that Season 7, to them, was just waiting to be unraveled at the earliest opportunity. Because otherwise, you're left with the theory that they simply didn't care if viewers were confused. And I have no doubt that plenty of viewers were confused: waiting for dots to be connected that never were. I know all the behind-the-scenes stuff -- I'm a geek; if you're a Gilmore Girls guru, you may well know it too. But most folks don't. And it's not just Rory's coverage of the Obama campaign that needed a mention. It's "when did Logan and his father reconcile, and him return to the family business? When did he leave San Francisco? When did he and Rory get back together?" -- and a half-dozen other inconsistencies. A couple lines would have sufficed. But by ignoring Season 7, they chose to baffle and potentially alienate their audience. Although critics continue to swoon over the Palladinos' every move, most viewers aren't aware that they left the show after Season 6 -- and weren't looking for them to "fix it."

Because the truth is, Gilmore Girls didn't need the Palladinos to "fix it"; David Rosenthal had actually been the one to fix their show. They'd left him a mess at the end of Season 6, and he'd cleaned it up. And he took the characters to places that -- we see now, in hindsight -- the Palladinos couldn't take them. To the Palladinos, their creations were deliberately, defiantly stuck in time. It fed into their image of Stars Hollow as a magical town where nothing changed. In my write-up of Season 7, I noted that, under the Palladinos, "Every year, Lorelai and her mother Emily would start to grow closer, then something increasingly pointless would happen to drive a wedge between the two and reset the relationship." The Palladinos were wedded to the notion of Gilmore Girls as a fable, to family dynamics that were set in stone, and (as we ultimately learned) to a symmetrical story-line for Rory waiting to be revealed at series' end.

But that approach, by Season 6, had grown enervating. It's a common ailment in Hollywood: writers fall so in love with their own creations that they refuse to let them grow. (It's not just Hollywood: look at the calcified creatures of Downton Abbey.) It took other writers to demonstrate that the characters could move forward without sacrificing what made them special. Rosenthal masterminded a forward push in Emily and Lorelai's relationship, a softening of Paris, and a humanizing of April. And the Palladinos undid it all. They even staged one last reminder that nothing changes in "their" Stars Hollow, resetting Lorelai and Emily's relationship to where it all began, as Lorelai -- as in the very first episode -- had to hit up her mother for a loan, and it came at the cost of having to spend time with her. Rosenthal had intimated, in the Season 7 closer, that Lorelai might continue to spend time with her mother simply because she herself wanted to, but the Palladinos maintained that no growth is preferable to even subtle growth. (And as they re-reconceived April, she was such an oddball that no one -- not Lorelai, not Rory, not even her own father -- could carry on a conversation with her. In a bizarre bit of counter-logic that came to be emblematic of A Year in the Life, the Palladinos seemed to be proudly insisting, "She was never meant to be more than a plot device!")

As the years went by, the Palladinos ran out of legitimate reasons for their characters to squabble, so they increasingly relied on forced fights. And that unfortunate trend only intensified here. Lorelai -- asked to say a few words about her father following his funeral -- freezes, and lets loose with a sputtering set of anecdotes that show him as neglectful and abusive. As you watch, you're thinking, "Really -- you can't think of one nice memory? I've watched your show, and I can think of half a dozen." But Lorelai has to have full-scale amnesia so they can put her and Emily through their annual fight. (Emily stops speaking to her for months.) And then, three (long) episodes later, Lorelai calls her mother: she's finally remembered a nice story about her father. And it's a beautiful one. Lauren Graham is incandescent telling it, and Kelly Bishop is heart-rending hearing it. But here's the thing. Putting your characters through manufactured fights just to give them moving reconciliations is the laziest kind of writing. And the miniseries was full of moments like that. Lorelai and Rory had their own pointless altercation, over Rory's intent to write a book about their lives. Lorelai and Luke had another, over two innocent appointments neither told the other about.

A Year in the Life rarely felt character-driven; mostly it felt like the Palladinos were stacking the deck against Lorelai and Rory, for maximum effect. How many things have to go wrong for Rory so that she ends up back in Stars Hollow, jobless and homeless? How many characters have to clash with Lorelai, one after another, before she decides to embark on a spiritual retreat?

In perhaps the strangest sequence, Stars Hollow stages a musical in celebration of its long history, and Lorelai, who's serving on the advisory committee, attends a read-through and bashes it. Bashes everything about it. Even though it's completely in line with every nutty thing we've seen this town do, from Revolutionary War re-enactments to its Festival of Living Art to a children's production of Fiddler on the Roof starring Kirk as Tevye. The Stars Hollow Musical is exactly what this town would come up with -- in fact, it's far better than anything we could have expected them to come up with: it's performed by Sutton Foster and Christian Borle, brilliantly. At any other time, Lorelai would have reveled in the anachronisms, bad rhymes and puns, severe lapses of taste, self-referentialism, and quirky spirit. But because the episode depended on her returning to the scene of the crime an hour later, to hear a new song that had just been written, and having a dramatic change of heart, she had to hate the initial read-through.

Few of the big moments in A Year in the Life felt earned; the build-ups -- mostly altercations -- seemed confusing and arbitrary. You recognized they were scripted that way because there was a pay-off coming. Thirty minutes into the first episode, I realized that the Palladinos were plotting backwards from the next meltdown or epiphany. There was hardly a moment that wasn't foreshadowed -- and clumsily.

Ultimately, A Year in the Life revealed how little we all understood about Gilmore Girls: about how the Palladinos saw their characters. It's not so much that it undermined Season 7; it undermined us as well. By 2016, the viewers didn't count; the Palladinos had gotten so caught up in their own PR that they wrote the Netflix specials for themselves. (They even insisted on directing them, although -- heaven knows -- more accomplished helmers would have improved them immeasurably.) "Here's another character of ours you love," they announced, as they paraded some of their weakest creations. It didn't matter if we loved them; they did. They celebrated the deadly duo of Colin and Finn in the final episode, as if they'd been an important fixture in Rory's life. They hadn't: they'd mostly been an irritant and a foil, and they were at the root of some of Rory's most painful memories. (They typically brought out the worst in Logan, and when that happened, he often inspired the worst in Rory.) They're "needed" in the last episode so that Logan can whisk Rory away for a holiday, where she can get pregnant, but once they've served their purpose, my God: let them go. Quickly. When Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote them off with an extended Wizard of Oz homage that managed to be both thudding and precious, I cringed. Oh yah, they're as iconic as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. Someday they'll be writing musicals based on your work -- oh, wait, you already did that.

I should say something nice about A Year in the Life; it's simply hard to look past the anger it instilled in me to recall the things I actually enjoyed. It was lovely hearing Lorelai and Rory speak again in Amy Sherman-Palladino's voice; it was wonderful having the town of Stars Hollow sound as only Daniel Palladino could script them. David Rosenthal, wisely, hadn't tried to imitate the Palladinos' rat-tat-tat, pop-culture infused style -- he knew only they could pull it off effortlessly (none of the other staff writers could during their six-year tenure), so he focused instead on deepening the characters and advancing the story-lines. It was a fine trade-off, but nonetheless, it was grand to hear the Gilmore Girls sound like "themselves" again. I adored what they did with Jess. It was plot-dictated, of course; he had to turn into his uncle -- grounded, dependable, someone to ignite yet withstand Rory's ball of fire -- so that the story could get passed down to the next generation. But as calculated as it was, it still felt like character growth, something that was (by design, we now see) sorely lacking. I was delighted by the way they used Melissa McCarthy (after early-episode explanations of why she was missing threatened to turn her character into a joke). I knew she'd be returning for only one scene, and that scene turned out to be perfect. A roomful of wedding cakes was one of the miniseries' indelible images, both overblown and magical: a combination that only the Palladinos could pull off. And I can't fault any of the performances -- there wasn't one actor who didn't seem on his or her game, and the three Gilmore Girls themselves have rarely been more radiant.

But none of that disguised the sourness at its core. The end of Season 7, the series finale -- that thing that I shall always consider the series finale, no matter how many Netflix specials they do -- felt like a moment so filled with promise. Season 7 didn't tack on arbitrary "happy endings," but it did leave the characters in a hopeful place, where you were pleased to imagine the directions in which their lives were heading. And as the years went by, the thought of Rory covering Barack Obama seemed fitting and fortuitous: the positive, embracing spirit of Stars Hollow seemed somehow tied to the optimism that defined Obama's Presidency. The Season 7 finale -- which aired just as Obama's star was in the ascendant, eighteen months before he won the 2008 election -- became inextricably linked to the Obama Administration: where dreams are worth pursuing, and good work is possible, and lives are improved because people fundamentally care about the welfare of others. ("If you need me to be with you, I will follow where you lead.")

Season 7 was a perfect lead up to the Obama era; A Year in the Life, which premiered two weeks after the 2016 Presidential election, proved eerily prescient in its own way. It captured a world where celebrity triumphs over substance, where the past is there to be rewritten, where history is something to be ignored and forward movement is fleeting. Just as real-life lawmakers, emboldened by their election victory, were already vowing to undo all that Obama had achieved, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life began dismantling its fictional world just as cruelly and completely. At its worst, it too seemed an obliteration of all that was good, carried out by egotists and enabled by acolytes. In its insistence that progress is short-lived, and that history is doomed to repeat itself, it served as a cynical, apt epitaph for 2016.

During the darkest days of the early 21st century -- as terrorists struck on U.S. soil, or as we fought a war based on a lie -- we could lose ourselves, as we always have, in beloved works of fiction. Gilmore Girls became one of those. However fearful the world outside became, within the cozy confines of our living room Lorelai and Luke were doing their mating dance, or Rory was pursuing her journalistic dreams. Young ballerinas were forever twirling at Miss Patty's, and Saturday was always karaoke night at Casey's. But now, Stars Hollow as an unchanging world isn't tied to something warm and nostalgic; it's tied to something harsh and fundamentally sad. And that's what we're left with. The world as we know it may be ending, but Stars Hollow is always there. And now, even that's no comfort.

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great primetime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Knots Landing season 11

In the days before the internet and social media, there was little uproar when a good show went bad. No fanzines started ragging on it regularly; no bloggers started penning "whatever happened to" posts -- and if the ratings took a simultaneous tumble, there were no online number-crunchers wondering how long it would take before the network staged a sit-down with the showrunner. If a long-running series took a wrong turn, viewers simply waited it out. The mea culpa that Knots Landing creator David Jacobs offered up seven episodes into Season 13 was rare for the time -- an Executive Producer admitting his show had lost its way and asking for another chance -- but he had no choice but to go public: the show was shutting down production to bring in a new headwriter. Word was bound to get out. But that sort of exchange between the creative team and the audience has since become commonplace. Nowadays, a half-season of subpar episodes or sliding ratings, and the showrunner will be out talking to the fans, assuring them he's "making adjustments." Some network honcho will take to the Television Critics Association, to let them know that the situation is under control; the show will soon be "back on track."

If Season 11 of Knots Landing aired today, then midway through the season, there no doubt would be outcries from fandom about how dark and dreary the series had become, and gurus would be swift to note that its ratings had declined dramatically from the previous season. And viewers would be assured that changes were on the way. And when people, in the far future, spoke about Knots Landing Season 11, they probably would divide the season into two parts -- maybe Season 11A and 11B -- to delineate the point where it "got good again." Because the truth is, it's hard to view Knots Landing Season 11 as one season. Earlier seasons have course corrections, but they're more subtle. The one that Season 11 undergoes, two-thirds of the way through, is mammoth. A half-dozen characters added; a half-dozen characters jettisoned. Stories that seemed designed to dominate the season wrapped up without explanation; new plotlines introduced at the drop of a hat. The salvage job that showrunners and headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham perform at the start of the third (and final) block of Knots Landing Season 11 is nothing short of amazing; it absolutely rescues the season. But perhaps as interesting as the salvage job itself is what got them there in the first place.

Lechowick and Latham were headwriters on Knots Landing from Season 8 through Season 12, longer than any other writers. Their tenure began under a cloud, with an underwhelming first season that jettisoned traditional story-telling and beloved characters for a series of flashbacks and "gotcha!" misdirects. They recovered -- beautifully -- in Season 9 by returning to basics, and emboldened by their success, proceeded confidently into Season 10. Season 10 -- the full flowering of the Lechowick-Latham "house style," which wove a cheeky humor and irreverence into the Knots Landing format -- is marked by one great story-line, one great pairing, and one great exit. The story-line: the fallout from Jill's attempted murder of Val (the Season 9 cliffhanger), which Lechowick and Latham expertly sustain for nineteen episodes. The pairing: Greg and Paige, a legitimately appealing May-December romance that, in Season 9, had seemed to exist only in Paige's head. The exit: Abby's, when Donna Mills decided Season 10 would be her last. Mills' departure was so publicized that even The Wall Street Journal wrote it up on the day her last episode aired; they also noted, as many in the business had observed, that Knots had broken the pattern of declining soap ratings by seeing its audience increase over the previous season. By the late '80s, primetime soaps simply didn't do that. Lechowick and Latham were clearly on an artistic roll.

Or were they? What got overlooked at the time -- as viewers took wagers on how Abby would be written off, while critics marveled at the show's ascending ratings -- is that the final batch of Season 10 story-lines were largely awful. Mack started fantasizing about a younger woman; Gary fell into a flirtation with someone who misdialed him; Val began dating her computer repairman. What was good about the end of Season 10 was how the show ultimately disposed of Abby: a neat twist that seemed both nimble and fitting. And not unreasonably, the writers chose to send her off in the season's penultimate episode, and used the finale to assure viewers the series would be just fine without her. (They lucked out in terms of scheduling, since the final two episodes aired as a two-hour special -- so Abby left, and then the show continued for an hour without her.) The season finale was the first time the show beat its chief competition, L.A. Law, in first-run episodes.

And so Lechowick and Latham started planning Season 11 emboldened. Audiences clearly loved what they were doing. But when the first episode of Season 11 aired the following fall, ratings were down 30% from the end of the previous season. And you could argue that a large segment of the audience wasn't interested in watching the show without Donna Mills -- except they'd kept watching that last hour of Season 10, even after Abby rolled away in her white stretch limo. They simply hadn't liked what they'd seen after that: the one-hour "life without Abby" preview had been a disaster. (One of the cliffhangers involved Mack getting sprayed by a skunk; it was a fitting metaphor for the stench that permeated the final episode.) But imagining the finale's high ratings were a stamp of viewer approval, Lechowick and Latham decided on a soft reboot for Season 11. Why not? They had done so at the start of Season 9, and it had been a smashing success. But the Season 9 overhaul was a course correction; the Season 11 reinvention was hubris: a decision to shake up a story-telling style that was less than a year old, that audiences had clearly welcomed, but certainly not yet tired of. And at the end of the day, Lechowick and Latham weren't at their best when they were empowered; they were at their best when they were humbled. (They dug themselves out of a hole better than just about any scripters in the business.)

The reboot that marks Season 11 is apparent from the opening credits. For ten seasons, the show had offered some variation on the same theme: shots of the leading actors in alphabetical order. For Season 11, we get sculpted sandcastles, with waves threatening to wash them away. The absence of the actors' faces proves prophetic: more than a few core characters will vanish from the show's canvas as the season progresses, either in terms of visibility or recognizability. Tonya Crowe, after eight seasons, is elevated to series regular -- and instantly marginalized. Michele Lee is left without a plot for two-thirds of the season; Lynne Moody is similarly stranded -- in fact, she barely gets any airtime at all. And the character of Valene Gibson is essentially recast as what Joan Van Ark would accurately call "the village idiot." The established actors make way for no less than nine supporting players who come to dominate the Season 11 landscape.

But it's not just the (mis)use of the cast that sets Season 11 apart. When Knots began, it was about four couples living in a West Coast cul-de-sac; with its hot tubs and backyard BBQ's, it celebrated a certain Southern California lifestyle. As characters started to move away from Seaview Circle, the vacation resort Lotus Point took its place as the go-to location: with three key characters stationed there, most of the plots could easily be threaded through this new "sun and fun" setting. But halfway through Season 10, Lechowick and Latham decided to move the Sumner Group to a high-rise office, no doubt in response to the success of L.A. Law. So Greg, wife Abby and assistant Paige moved to new digs, where they were joined by assorted bit players: the unctuous Mort, the nebbishy Bob. And in Season 11, the Sumner Group becomes the principal setting: Karen's son Michael is hired by Sumner, and more flunkies make their way up the company ranks. And the look of the show shifts dramatically, as Knots goes corporate.

There's a tonal shift as well. The emboldening of Lechowick and Latham at the top of Season 11 means more of the "unpredictability" on which they prided themselves. (Latham once boasted to the press that their Knots audience never knew what to expect from episode to episode. She didn't see that that obsessive need to impress the viewer was also their greatest flaw.) They seem to have forgotten the lessons of Season 8 through 10: that their brand of calculated cleverness works best when it's grounded by sound story-lines. As the season gets underway, the story-telling seems jittery and disorienting -- and ultimately, you come to realize it's because Lechowick and Latham are skipping over key plot points, to spring them later as "surprises." At times, they seem to be plotting backwards from the next big reveal.

Gary -- as he was in the final third of Season 10 -- is still engaged in a flirtation with "Sally's friend," the woman he's never met. But as Season 11 starts, the presentation is baffling. When Sally's friend first telephoned Gary, and throughout Season 10, her features were concealed. It was clearly done to suggest that Gary's deranged ex Jill was still alive. The back of her head was much the same; it was all -- like Jill's hair -- a big tease: "Did Jill somehow survive?" (Teri Austin's name remained in the opening credits contractually; Lechowick and Latham used that to their advantage.) As Season 11 starts, Sally's friend is still being hidden: we see her photographed through vases, or close-ups of her legs caressing the telephone base. But Teri Austin is no longer in the opening credits, and the voice doesn't sound like her anymore. So why the mystery? Meanwhile, Val and Danny's relationship has heated up. "It's incredibly wonderful just to be around him," Val tells Karen. "Everything is right about him. It's as if falling in love just happened, and there's nothing you can do about it." Later on, she admits, in riotous hyperbole, "I have never loved anyone this much -- not even Gary." They're accelerating Val and Danny's relationship -- you just don't know why. Joan Van Ark and Sam Behrens do their best with what they're given, but because there's no smoldering chemistry between them, the audience is never persuaded to accept the leaps that the writers are making. And the writers know it. So they fall back on a familiar Lechowick-Latham tactic: having the characters speak for the audience. First Val expresses disbelief at how fast the relationship is progressing, then Karen expresses disbelief -- as if that will preempt our own disbelief.

We eventually learn why the story-telling has been so angular. Lechowick and Latham have decided to link Gary and Val's story-lines by having Danny and "Sally's friend" turn out to be -- get this -- husband and wife. It's an absurd contrivance, but by holding off the reveal for five episodes, and having it come when we least expect it, Lechowick and Latham try to turn it into a great twist. (In the world of television, a great twist is an absurd contrivance the writers aren't embarrassed by.) And the only way they can pull off the reveal -- that Danny is married to Sally's friend, a.k.a. Amanda -- is by continuing to hide Amanda's face. You can forgive one bad coincidence -- but how about three? Because Amanda is also the twins' schoolteacher. Oh, and she sings at the same club as Val's next-door neighbor Frank. And the reason the writers have fast-tracked Danny and Val's relationship? Because Danny is going to do something heinous in a few episodes, and Val needs to be totally committed to him by then, for maximum conflict. The plotting hasn't been this cold and calculated since Season 7.

While all that's going on, Mack has gotten involved in a case of corporate corruption. Correction: another case of corporate corruption. It's a plotline that feels stale even before it gets underway. A company called Oakman Industries has liquidated its pension fund, and is silencing any employees who speak out. This plot drags on for almost fifteen episodes, and why should we care? It doesn't impact anyone in the cast, except Val's Aunt Ginny, arguably the least interesting character who ever stuck around for three seasons. (One episode ends with Mack faced with the prospect that Aunt Ginny committed murder: "Not Aunt Ginny. No way! Not Aunt Ginny" -- as if Aunt Ginny being carted off to jail wouldn't be a relief.) Another ill-advised plot features the return of Eric's wife Linda, who needs to stay with the MacKenzies while Eric is working overseas. Within a few episodes, Eric's brother Michael falls for her. Of course he does: he fell for his step-sister Paige in Season 8; that story was such a disaster, let's revive it -- now he can fall in love with his sister-in-law. But in order to accomplish it, Lechowick and Latham have to rewrite the character of Linda. They introduced her in Season 9 as aggressively opinionated, the kind of know-it-all Twenty-something you avoid at parties. Her only virtue was that she made Eric happy. Now they have to try to excuse her flaws -- and eventually, erase them: not just so Michael can fall for her, but so their forbidden love can be the stuff of tragedy. But because they still need to justify the tension between Linda and Eric, they throw her worst traits onto him, intimating that the marriage failed because he was always judging her. It's exactly the kind of thing Knots didn't do: rewrite years of history to accommodate new story-lines.

To be fair, the top of Season 11 gets a few things right. Paige gets a new boyfriend, dirty cop Tom Ryan, and in a season where the romantic pairings largely fall flat (Penny Peyser's Amanda seems less like a potential love interest for Ted Shackelford and more like his goofy kid sister), Joey Gian and Nicollette Sheridan have sensational chemistry. The coupling of William Devane and Melinda Culea isn't as persuasive, but it's charming. When she tells him that she doesn't want to be his rebound from Paige, he counters that he has no expectations; he's simply delighted to discover that, when you're at your lowest, "Someone new can come into your life and brighten it up." It's such a healthy, sane way of looking at a new relationship -- and such an improvement over watching Greg pine after Paige early in the season, like a voyeuristic schoolboy -- that you're inclined to be patient. And although Behrens and Van Ark don't convince romantically, and although Shackelford and Peyser are a mismatch, Behrens and Peyser seem believable as an embattled husband and wife; his intensity is nicely matched by her smart-aleck delivery. You can see the attraction -- and you understand why the marriage failed.

But back to the Gary-Val-Danny-Amanda quadrangle, because that's going to dominate the first two-thirds of the season. Once the "big reveal" is over, it's time for the main event -- and with horror, you realize the main event is a sexual assault. Danny rapes Amanda at the end of episode 9, and from there, the writers instantly flip from "look how clever we are" to "look how responsible we are." With great power comes great responsibility; the new Lechowick and Latham aren't merely going to entertain -- they're going to educate. They're taking up a social issue, determined to encourage a healthy dialogue -- but you can't get away from the fact that all the contrived plotting up to this point has been designed mostly to put Val solidly, foolishly, in Danny's camp, setting her and Gary at odds. And "Sally's friend," who's been teased for a dozen episodes by that point, is revealed just in time to be assaulted. They essentially introduce a character solely so she can be raped. It's so cutthroat in conception, you can't imagine the execution could be any worse -- but it is. Lechowick writes the episode after Gary learns of the assault -- it's called "Twice Victim" -- and it's a series low point. He structures the episode around a series of monologues -- rhetorical questions that are asked and answered, with key words repeated for emphasis -- and while the speeches are being delivered, the other characters sit in rapt attention. The drama stops dead in its tracks; what's left is a public service announcement, or maybe an afterschool special. Gary tells Amanda that he's going to seek revenge on Danny, and she turns it around on him:

Amanda: That'll make you feel better, won't it? What? You gonna beat him up? You gonna break his arm? Then what happens? Who does he take it out on? Does he take it out on me? On Val? On her kids? And then what? Do you break his jaw? And then what? What does he break? And what do you break? And then what? And then what?

Later, it's Gary's turn to pontificate, while Mack sits uncharacteristically mute:

Gary: I know better than to blame the victim. I'm enlightened. But. But. If only she hadn't gone to his apartment. If only she divorced him earlier. If only. If only I'd exercised perfect judgment my whole life. I mean, you can't fault someone for bad judgment, right? Yeah, right. I'd be condemned for half the things I've ever done. It doesn't matter why she went to his apartment. She could be the dumbest, most irresponsible person in the world -- she could've been drunk and stark naked standing in front of him, and she still had the right not to be raped. I know that. I believe that. So why do I have all these questions? I mean, why do I have even the slightest doubt?

And finally, when Amanda decides to report the rape, but is informed that no evidence can be lifted because she showered after, Lechowick offers up his most stultifying sermon, reducing Amanda to a mouthpiece:

Amanda: You know what is really odd about this whole thing? I feel like I've done something wrong. Isn't that weird? You know that shower I took right after: the "mistake" shower that destroyed evidence? I took that shower because... because I felt so dirty. I felt dirty. I just wanted to wash. I didn't think of him as dirty, I thought of myself as dirty. I mean, people have that image of a rape victim -- they think she's dirty. Not consciously -- probably not consciously -- but they do think that. Maybe that's why after I admitted I was raped, I felt so bad I admitted it. Did you hear that? I said "admit." Are there any other crimes we "admit" happened to us? Do we admit that we were robbed? No, we just say we were robbed. We don't admit we were mugged or beaten up, we just say it. But we commonly say, or hear, "She admitted she was raped." I "admitted" I was raped. Listen to that. It's as though I'm guilty of something. Or of being lesser or dirty or something. Why is that, Gary? Why do I "admit" to being raped?

It's not compelling as drama, nor is it convincing as rhetoric. One doesn't want to belittle a story-line that attempts to open a dialogue about sexual assault. But there's a way of doing it that draws people in, that makes them receptive and empathetic. And there's a way of doing it that feels so pompous and relentless that you want to tune it out, like a bad college lecture.

Don't hate the message; blame the messenger.

The first block of Season 11 undermines some characters, under-uses others, and sacrifices both drama and entertainment for heavy-handed moralizing. In some ways, the second block is worse. The Oakman Industries investigation gets extended, as Sumner's daughter Mary Frances (unseen since Season 5) turns up to expose another company scandal. Mary Frances doesn't resemble the Mary Frances we last saw (she's played by a different actress, but that's not what I mean) -- but there's no attempt at character consistency where Linda is concerned, and she was just introduced in Season 9, so why respect the backstory of a character introduced six "long" years ago? When last seen, she was a typical teenager with a burgeoning libido. As reintroduced, Mary Frances (or "Mare," as she says her friends call her -- her friends presumably being Rhoda and Brenda Morgenstern) is now a surly young woman, angry with her father for all the years of neglect and his lack of business ethics. "Why'd you even bother having a kid?" she berates him in a newly-filmed flashback. "Did you think it would look good on your resume?" Back from Africa with a BS in biology, she's sullen, a bore. She announces, "I've worked for two years with families who've had to watch their children starve and die," as if she deserves a medal, and starts psychoanalyzing her father: "You raised a child exactly how you were raised." If you thought the rape story-line was numbing, here comes Miss Doom & Gloom of 1990.

Mary Frances is killed off after one episode, but we can't catch a break. The next episode is her funeral; in the one after that, she's back as a ghost. You can practically hear Lechowick and Latham salivating in the writer's room: "Let's do an episode where Mary Frances comes back to haunt Greg." "Ooh, and maybe we can bring back Howard Duff as Sumner's father." "Twin ghosts! What a concept!" Two seasons earlier, Lechowick and Latham never would have imagined or dared an episode about "twin ghosts" (can you imagine Paul Galveston turning up after Laura's funeral?), but the newly unleashed headwriters have no boundaries -- or shame. Both the funeral and the ghost episode are written by Lechowick, and part of what's wrong with Season 11 is how many of the scripts are his. Typically he and Latham shared scripting duties equally with others on the writing staff, but in Season 11, Lechowick writes 3 of the first 5 episodes, 8 of the first 17. He sets the tone for the first two-thirds of the season, and it's deadly, because his worst habits are on display. The heavy-handedness, the self-referentialism, the conceptual plotting that strains credulity and common sense. And an alarming willingness to sacrifice character consistency for cheap theatrics.

Funeral episodes are dour by definition, and funeral episodes for a character you just met -- one whom you're not even mourning -- can be brutal; you need a fresh approach to keep them from feeling static and oppressive. Lechowick does just the opposite of what you want him to do; he makes Mary Frances's funeral as grim as possible, choosing -- as the key subplot -- to revisit the rape story-line. Hearing that Val is considering marriage to Danny, Gary threatens her:

Gary: Wherever you are, wherever my children are, I'm going to be watching you. And at your wedding, when the minister says, "If anybody has any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace," I'm gonna yell, "Rapist! Rapist! Rapist!"

(You want to shout at the TV screen: "And then what? And then what?")

As for the ghostly, ghastly follow-up, entitled "My Bullet," it's a "very special episode" that -- like the rape monologues -- brings the show to a grinding halt, as two characters rise from the dead to indulge in aphorisms and clichés. ("Girlie has a pair of legs I'd like to wrap around me twice," Galveston drawls, drooling over Paula. His chauvinism was entertaining in Season 6 as a foil for businesswomen Abby and Karen. Here, he's just spouting offensive one-liners.) Sumner tries to escape them by fleeing to Mack and Karen's, but the ghosts show up in his car. "Trying to get away from us, but it won't work," Mare informs him. "And we don't have to bother with seat-belts," Galveston quips. And the next bit is pure vaudeville: Greg responds, "Aw, shut up," and his driver delivers the requisite punch-line: "I didn't say anything, sir." Ba-dum-tsh. Lechowick isn't resuscitating Mary Frances and Paul Galveston to drag Greg into greater depths of despair -- or to offer him new insight or awareness. They're just there so Lechowick can try something different, do something "unpredictable," show how clever he can be. (The difference between a character-driven soap and a writer-driven one is that, in the latter case, you can hear the scripters, at every turn, going, "What if...?" That question pops up ever more frequently during the Lechowick-Latham era: "What if we start Laura's funeral with just the principals present?" "What if we riff on that new Ann Landers column?" "What if we imagine all the ways Danny might have died?" And of course, "What if Sumner sees ghosts?" There's even an episode early in Season 12 called "What If?" -- why disguise your calculated cunning when you can celebrate it?)

The ghost episode is made even worse by the subplot that underscores it. Karen and Mack's four-year-old Meg brings home a goldfish from the school carnival, and it dies. And so we get Karen and Mack debating how to tell Meg that her goldfish has gone belly-up. Ultimately Karen just replaces it with a new one, but not before linking the two story-lines for us, in case we weren't paying attention: "There's too much death already. She has plenty of time to learn about death."

The season's first block is about rape. The second block is about death. Where, we fear, do we go from there? We start with a creative shake-up: the departure, at the end of the second block, of two of the series' worst staff writers, Chuck Bulot and M.J. Cody, replaced by one of its best, Dianne Messina, returning to active duty for the first time since Season 8. (She'd written "Love In" in Season 9, one of the highlights of the Lechowick-Latham era, and would go on to pen "The Unknown," its last great episode.) Perhaps Messina arrived and said, with bemused horror, "What have you done to this show?" Perhaps Lechowick and Latham (and the reliable James Stanley, on staff since Season 9) realized on their own, after nearly twenty episodes, that nothing was working: that core characters were being underutilized, that too many plots were uninviting, that the tone was too grim and oppressive. But however it happened, it inspires the kind of clean-up job at which Lechowick and Latham excelled. With impressive precision, they make a series of smart moves that transform the season -- starting with a story-line for Michele Lee.

People remember Karen's Season 11 story-line as the one where she gets a stalker. That's not what's memorable about it. The stalker story-line works the first time you see it -- Lechowick and Latham keep laying traps, as they do so well, and you fall for every one of them -- but once it starts to heat up, it doesn't really have any place to go. (It ultimately dead-ends Karen four episodes into Season 12.) What's great about Karen's story isn't that they give her a stalker; it's that they give her Robin Strasser. Strasser, as her producer Diane, puts her on the defensive, and Karen's insecurities prompt her to push back, even when it's ill-advised. What's brilliant about Open Mike, once that story takes off, is that you can see exactly why Karen would succeed as a talk-show host -- her intelligence, her passion, her advocacy, and her lack of artifice are ready-made for TV -- but you can also see why a producer might consider her a prima donna. Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie was, at her worst, opinionated and self-righteous. The people who loved her put up with that, first and foremost because she was generally right. But in a work environment in which she's a novice, where others know much more about putting on a show than she does, her know-it-all attitude can be galling. It's an opportunity to see Karen at both her best and her worst, and it's often those times that Michele Lee excels the most. Her acting choices are vivid and startling. In one of Strasser's first episodes, she takes down Karen, in brutal fashion, for introducing her son on the air: "You are what we loosely call the talent. And talent can be replaced." The brilliance of how Michele Lee pitches her response is that she doesn't get defiant, which would be the expected choice; instead, she gets teary. She gets emotional about the public dressing-down. Her voice shaking, she insists, haltingly, "I was hired to do a talk show... and I talk about things that I think are important to the audience... and I think family is very important to the audience -- and if it's not, it should be." It's about the first time in Season 11 that you go, "Oh my God, that is some great acting."

Pretty much everything turns around for the final block of the season. It's obviously not just the return of Messina to the writing staff that makes all the difference, but it's hard to ignore that her first script of the season -- the twentieth, "Wrong for Each Other" -- puts the first nineteen episodes to shame. "Wrong for Each Other" marks the return of Paige's mother Anne, which is cause enough for celebration -- but more notable is how fully rounded all the characters seem. Messina digs deep. Tom has a magnificent speech in which he explains to Paige how his life has changed since he met her, and she realizes how similar their childhoods were, both of them neglected by their mothers and forced to fend for themselves. We've seen enough of the steamy and stormy side of their relationship; now Messina start to cultivate the sweet side, and it does wonders for both of them. It starts to feel like a relationship worth investing in.

Later in the episode, Karen questions why Paula is spending all her time at the hospital, at Greg's bedside. (He's been shot by Mare's boyfriend, who -- befitting the histrionic middle block of Season 11 -- turned out to be a psychopath.) Paula offers up a passionate defense:

Paula: Because I'm in love with him. Come on, he's an incredible man. He was a prominent senator. He's been married to some phenomenal women. But in the biggest crisis of his life, he's alone: no friends, no family, a paid employee who comes to the hospital with his pajamas. You might say that that's because he's self-serving, mean and shallow. Someone else might say it's because he's sensitive and afraid of being hurt, so he alienates himself from the people who want to be close to him. I don't want to be there in case he dies. I want to be there in case he lives.

On the surface, it's Paula justifying her attraction to Greg; underneath, it's Messina reestablishing what makes Sumner such a fascinating character. (It's knowledge that's going to come in handy later in the season, when we're asked to forgive and empathize with some of his most abhorrent behavior -- ironically, directed towards Paula herself.) It defines and humanizes him in a few sentences, in a way that "My Bullet" failed to do in an entire episode.

Later still, there's a moving scene where Eric, who's returned to town, realizes that his marriage is over, and that it's time to move on. As he sobs in Karen's arms, she assures him, "You deserve to be happy" -- and then, in the next scene, alone with Mack, reflecting on her own life when she was Eric's age, growing up on the East Coast, she expresses an unexpected regret:

Karen: I wish we lived where it snowed. It'd be different if it snowed. Eric's leaving -- I just hate what happened to him. I'm so worried about Michael. I wish I'd raised my sons where it snowed. They would have known what it was like to have to shovel the snow and... the walks... Feel the cold air. Slip on the ice. They could've seen how pretty the snow could be -- and how dangerous. How it could get sooty and stay that way for weeks. How inconvenient. How wonderful. How... out of our hands. Snow would've been good for them.

It's the question every mother agonizes over: how do I keep my children from getting hurt? And the answer Karen considers is not only specific to her background, but to Eric and Michael's: two naïve young men who keeps setting themselves up for heartbreak. Messina doesn't posture that Eric and Michael's upbringing has left them unprepared for life's vagaries. She simply put the question out there and lets it linger – and then has Karen concede the foolishness of second-guessing ("Maybe it doesn't matter") before getting to the heart of what really pains her: "I miss them so much when they're not here." In a season that has set most of its plots in a corporate high-rise with tinted windows, this one speech restores Knots to its roots. It reasserts that however much the Sumner Group seems to dominate the proceedings, the heart of the show is in Seaview Circle: that cul-de-sac overlooking the sea, in the land of perpetual sunshine.

The half-dozen episodes starting with "Wrong for Each Other" are as good as any six-episode run in Knots history. The writers get everything right, pulling the plug on the worst stories (Oakman Industries is never mentioned again), and re-energizing the ones that have grown static. They instantly flip two relationships for the better. Tom, after lying to Paige for a dozen episodes, comes clean about his past -- and she forgives him. Val, who's been foolishly defending Danny against the rape charges, learns the truth -- and takes action. The evolution of Paige and Tom's relationship gives us romance; the dissolution of Val and Danny's marriage gives us suspense. And the return of Anne Matheson gives us a sense of fun that the season has been sorely lacking. Paula observes of Anne, "She is constantly performing. There is not one sincere word that comes out of that woman's mouth" -- but that's just what the show craves at this point: an antidote to all the gloom. When Paula asks her what she's going to do when she can't fit into a size 4 any longer ("Size 3," Anne is quick to correct), Anne simply replies, "Enjoy life. What else is there?" After a second act haunted by ghosts, it's so nice to see someone so joyously alive.

But then, all the characters come to life during the final third of Season 11, particularly the women: Karen, defending herself against Diane's attacks; Val, trying to reclaim her dignity once Danny's actions and lies are exposed; Paige, finding herself (despite her father's objections) falling for Tom, and willing to take the matrimonial plunge. The scene in which Tom gives Paige a garnet engagement ring, during a picnic, is some of the loveliest work the actors do together; it's also another glorious piece of writing by Messina. And the follow-up later in the episode, in which new client Mrs. Richfield spots Paige's garnet and expresses her approval, has one of my favorite pieces of advice Knots ever imparted: "Never worry about anything that's replaceable." Here's to you, Mrs. Richfield. (In the same episode, when Pat is in a coma and Julie refuses to leave her bedside, Frank observes, "One who won't go to sleep; one who can't wake up." Some of Messina's lines play like poetry.)

The final block of Season 11 marks the departure of three fine actresses. The writers can't figure out what to do with them, so they dispose of them. But at least -- over three consecutive episodes -- they give them three great send-offs.

Ah, Tonya Crowe. Lechowick and Latham had Abby disown her daughter before she left town in Season 10, and promised us that one of the Season 11 story-lines would be "Will Olivia, left penniless, become as scheming as her mother?" But Olivia doesn't become anything; she's barely there -- appearing in only three of the first nine episodes, and then only to fight with her husband Harold. It's as if the writers consciously said, "Let's keep Olivia and Harold around, and see if we can drain all the charm out of their relationship." When Olivia implores Harold, ten episodes in, "I don't want to fight about money anymore," you can practically hear the actress begging the writers for a fresh story-line. Olivia and Harold don't even get a plotline till halfway through the season. Newly separated, they try to make money in the ways they know best: Olivia gets in on some insider trading and makes a killing in the market; Harold bets on a football game, and loses it all. At Mary Frances's funeral, Harold recognizes Tom from their mutual mob connections, and you can see a plan form in his mind. It's a sensational idea; it feels fresh -- and it goes no place. The writers ship him off to Florida an episode later, and you realize that for all their pledges to give Olivia and Harold a story-line, they never had a gameplan. And once Harold's gone, they can't figure out what to do with Olivia either, so a few episodes later, in Episode 23, she too gets the boot. She gets a phone call from Harold, telling her life is unbearable without her -- and the look on her face is heartbreaking. She knows her life is empty without him as well -- and perhaps she realizes that if they can survive the wrath of Abby, and arguments over money, and all the horrible things they've said to each other this season, they can endure anything. It's the same look of silent anguish that made Crowe's performance in Season 9 such a standout -- that vivid understanding of how much true love hurts -- and you think, "What a find she was." And with that, she's gone (to join Harold in Florida) -- but what a way to go.

Alas, Melinda Culea. She was hired for one episode in Season 10, when Mack, wallowing in a midlife crisis, goes on a retreat and flirts with the female forest ranger. The writers liked her so much, they brought her back, but never figured out what to do with her. Mack fantasizes about her for the final third of Season 10, but the writers can't recreate the chemistry that Dobson and Culea had in the mountains; once they're on familiar turf, the pairing seems forced and misjudged. Her coupling with Greg is better -- they crop her hair nicely to age her, and give her a bit of a sarcastic streak -- but still she's mostly a sounding board. And when Anne Matheson shows up, she renders Paula obsolete. Paula can only offer sincerity -- the season's got that in spades; what it needs is irreverence. It's a mark of Lechowick and Latham's particular brilliance in the final third of Season 11 that they know just how to ease Paula off the show. As late as episode 20, she seems a fixture in Greg's life, one who's earned our respect; within a few episodes, we delight in watching Anne outmaneuver her. (Of course we do: Anne's the fun one.) And by episode 24, we realize that Greg -- drowning in guilt and self-pity over the death of his daughter -- has shut her out, and we'd rather not watch. Better they let her leave town with a little dignity -- and before she goes, she gets to alter the arc of the season. She offers Paige some advice, in case she's finding herself once again drawn to Greg: "There's the marrying kind, and there's the single kind, and it comes as a surprise, but in the end, the single kind is colossally, monumentally boring." In part, watching Greg dump all over Paula convinces Paige to marry Tom. Culea has served her purpose.

Ave atque vale, Lynne Moody. Her time on Knots was cut absurdly short. By the middle of Season 10, just a year into her run, they no longer knew what to do with her. (Once they'd decided that a romance between her and Ted Shackelford was too "daring," they couldn't envision a story-line for her.) Frank was useful to the writers: working at Mack's law practice, singing at the local club -- they could tie him to ongoing plots. But Larry Riley was merely a solid, dependable actor; Lynne Moody was an original, with a character that seemed fully formed. Pat always seemed to be thinking fast on her feet; it's why you believed she'd been a great surgeon, and why she could survive in WITSEC. And Moody's line readings were spectacular: so full of inflection, she could transform even the drabbest dialogue. Early in the season, Mack is trying to convince Karen he didn't sleep with Paula, and Pat mutters under her breath, "I don't believe this." You've never heard it said quite like that: both an aside and an embarrassed admonishment. At a dinner party for Danny and Val, Danny tells a joke, and Pat replies, "That's funny! Oh no!" It's a generic response, but she manages to seem both charmed and surprised -- and doubly surprised that the joke came from Danny, when everything she's heard about him has made him seem so menacing. Every time Moody opens her mouth, you're grateful for the thought she's put into her delivery. But for twenty episodes in Season 11, while Frank is doing buddy comedy with Mack, or singing, or playing guitar and harmonica, Pat is mostly offscreen -- and when she does appear, her airtime is minimal. In one episode, Frank has to watch over a witness, and Pat joins him at his office; she's in two scenes and has no lines. A few episodes later, Mack asks her to babysit. That's what she's reduced to, after just two seasons.

But her screentime picks up in episode 21, after Val, learning of Danny's past and panicking, stabs him with a letter opener. Pat shows up and -- in one of the season's most crackling scenes -- uses her skills as a surgeon to save his life. And from there, she decides to return to practicing medicine, even though it violates her contract with WITSEC. It ultimately becomes one of the tackiest soap tropes: let's give the underused actor a plot before we kill them off, so their death feels more meaningful. But even in hindsight, you don't care. While she's front and center, she's radiant: determined -- against all odds and in defiance of her disapproving husband -- to resume her career as a doctor. It's not just that she seems too much for Frank to handle; at times she seems too big for the screen to contain. The character's joy at returning to a profession she loves is inseparable from the actor's joy at being given a decent story-line. In its own way, it's as good a showcase for Moody as Season 3 was for Michele Lee, as Season 5 was for Donna Mills, as Season 6 was for Joan Van Ark, and as Season 14 will be for Kathleen Noone. And then, of course, Danny plows her down with his rental car, and by episode 25, she's brain dead. But Lynne Moody's resurgence is great fun while it lasts.

It would be nice to pretend that Season 11 continues just as strong to the end. It doesn't; the final four episodes are scrappier than the six that precede them. Once the stalker story-line gains prominence in episode 26, the plotting get muddier, and clear-headed story-telling is subordinated to titillation. Greg's plan to sabotage Paige's wedding provides a sturdy cliffhanger, and gives us a nice scene between him and Paige when he proffers a ring and a proposal that they live together. ("What do you think I am?" she asks, in another memorable Messina moment. "Flavor of the month?") But it's awful character assassination for Greg, who willfully destroys Paige's chance at happiness. Linda, towards the end of the season, is reinvented as a schemer and a vixen, and it's the only plotline in the final block that flops; it leaves Pat Peterson with nothing to do but mope for episodes on end -- where's the fun in that? (Why do the writers find it interesting to have Linda walk all over Michael? Their infatuation with Lar Park Lincoln's Linda is unfathomable to me -- but then I remember they created the character, and writers are always falling in love with their own creations. If they were looking to install someone at the Sumner Group as a rival for Paige, I wish they'd used Olivia. It would have been a neat way of letting us see how much of her mother's make-up -- and I don't mean the eye-liner -- had been passed on to her.) And by the time Gary and Val are engaged in a "caper" to get Danny out of Val's house, you feel the season sort of limping to a conclusion. But the season does what the previous one didn't: it leaves you eager for more. And given what a drag the first nineteen episodes are, that's something of a miracle.

A few footnotes, a couple ironies. Although the Sumner Group becomes the primary setting for the final four seasons, Lechowick and Latham never figure out how to make it work as a place of business. It simply becomes a backdrop for the same romantic entanglements and interpersonal rivalries. During the Lechowick-Latham era, no one seems to work on anything of consequence at the Sumner Group; the setting doesn't inform the stories. It'll take Ann Marcus, at the end of Season 13 and into Season 14, to fix that, as she creates a scenario that actually gives all the principals a stake in the success of the Sumner Group. But then, Season 14, ostensibly about cleaning up the mess left by John Romano at the top of Season 13, is also devoted to cleaning up much of the damage done by Lechowick and Latham in their final years. A half-dozen things Lechowick and Latham screw up in their final two seasons -- the conception of Anne, which grows limiting; the scattershot characterization of Claudia; the ineffectiveness of the Sumner Group as a means of generating story; the reduction of Val to "village idiot" and Karen to "voice of the people" -- are addressed and corrected by Marcus in just a few episodes.

Final footnote: I mentioned in an earlier post that the best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines you can sum up in a few words: "Ciji," "Wolfbridge," "Val's babies." There's no getting around the fact that the rape story-line dominates Season 11; ironically, despite Lechowick and Latham's efforts to portray sexual assault as more than a statistic, that's just how it's come to be remembered in the Knots Landing history books. Season 11 is "the rape season." And although the story-line upends the show's very structure and undermines the credibility of key characters, Lechowick and Latham viewed it as such a success that they took on another social issue -- child abuse -- the following season. That plot proved arguably even more enervating than the rape story-line. And the mere existence of those two story-lines convinced John Romano -- when he took over as headwriter in Season 13 -- that Knots was supposed to tackle at least one hot-button topic each season, and he and his staff settled on adult illiteracy. That story proved so lame that it was one of the factors that led Joan Van Ark to quit the show. It calls to mind a Season 11 exchange (by Lechowick, of course):

Paula: "Don't you ever think about leaving your mark?"
Sumner: "Some might say what I leave is scars."

Lechowick and Latham try to leave their mark, but they stick around so long -- and get so caught up in their own PR -- they end up leaving scars. At one point in Season 11, Karen refers to Open Mike as "my show," and Diane is quick to correct her: "Our show. The show." Lechowick and Latham, during their final two seasons, come to see Knots as "their show," and it ultimately proves their undoing. But the final third of Season 11 -- enormously entertaining -- is their last gasp of greatness. It's not impeccable, but it's indelible.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the William Hartnell years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top-5 First Doctor serials.

As you'll see (and as you'll probably expect if you've read any of my other blog entries), my top Hartnells don't necessarily include the most acclaimed or seminal serials. Certainly one celebrated story is conspicuously absent: "The Aztecs." I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for it that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, it's more worthy for what it represents (the first surviving historical) than for what it actually achieves. But as I noted when I began counting down my favorite Hartnells, there are very few First Doctor serials I actively loathe; even the ones of which I'm not especially fond have premises I respect (e.g., "The Space Museum") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Daleks"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Reign of Terror." But most of the Hartnell era I consider a joy: sometimes just for the aspiration, but often for the execution as well.

One more thing, before I get to my top five. Once I'd completed these reviews, I realized that, of my top five Hartnells, four were partially or completely missing serials. I've watched them (multiple times) via reconstructions that wed the surviving audio tracks to production photographs and telesnaps, plus any extant video footage. (I synched up the audio-book narration as well, so that I gain a clearer idea of what's happening during silent passages.) But I did have to reflect: if these missing serials were found, might my estimation drop? Was I possibly overrating them, because I couldn't, quite literally, "see" their flaws? I don't think so. Since I started writing about Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me think less of a serial I admired. I would have given "The Web of Fear" a C+ before it was rediscovered; Doug Camfield's direction elevated it to a solid B. "Galaxy 4" went from a promising B- to a pleasing B+. "Enemy of the World" ticked up from an A to an A+. If the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or if the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting that the director had a good grip on the material), if the audio is engrossing in its own right, then the reconstructions tell you an awful lot of what you need to know. (The only missing Who serial I've never been able to get a handle on is Troughton's "Fury From the Deep." I can't tell if the Pinteresque pauses are well-filled by Hugh David, or if they're a sign of directorial slackness.) So I stand by these choices. My top five Hartnells, as follows:

#5. Marco Polo
written by John Lucarotti
directed by Warin Hussein
It operates on so many levels that its failings don't much matter. "Marco Polo" is about a journey: three of them, in fact. On the surface, it's about the journey that Marco Polo made to the Imperial Court in Peking in 1289: a journey that, however embellished, we're led to believe is historically accurate. Layered over that is the journey that the TARDIS crew makes with him -- turning fact into fiction. And finally, and crucially, it's about the weekly journey we make with the Doctor and his companions. Polo's expedition takes roughly three months, and when the serial first aired, over seven episodes, it seemed almost to take place in "real" time -- viewers were meant to feel the weight of the adventure as much as its participants. But imposing as its scope is, it's the tone that sets it apart. There's a marvelous synergy between Lucarotti's deliberately dispassionate recounting of events and Hussein's oblique framing of them. (Hussein is lent intoxicating support by Tristram Cary's musical score.) "Marco Polo" unfolds like a genuine journey, where there are planned stops and unexpected detours; as with any long ride, the turning points aren't easily discerned. As events unfold, you're frequently left off guard, uncertain whether moments are coming to a head, or whether they'll pass, unremarked upon and undeveloped. As destinations are reached, you're unsure whether choice encounters await, or whether the atmosphere -- and perhaps a ladle of water -- will be the only things to drink in. So you find yourself paying attention to the small gestures as much as the grand ones -- just as you would on any journey. (Notably, the only underwhelming episode is the fourth, guest-directed by John Crockett, where the set pieces build to more traditional climaxes. It takes Hussein nearly half the following episode to recover the quietly hypnotic tone.) "Marco Polo" celebrates the wonders and the dangers of traveling, and recognizes that the two aren't always distinguishable. Barbara is sidelined a bit, but Ian, the Doctor and Susan are all given strong characters to play opposite, and enjoy superior outings. It's a particularly good story for Susan, who has someone her own age to gossip with and fret about; it's one of the few times that she doesn't seem like the fifth wheel of the original TARDIS foursome, and Carole Ann Ford responds with a radiant performance.

#4. The Myth Makers
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Michael Leeston-Smith

A delight. Doctor Who, already adept at turning history into stories, now flips the script, as the Doctor turns a story into history. In Episode 1, the TARDIS sets down during the Trojan War; the Doctor is mistaken for Zeus and brought before Agamemnon and Menelaus. It's novel and entertaining, but you feel like it's not quite enough to build a script on. It's not: it's all preamble. In Episode 2, Cotton shifts his attentions to Troy and introduces King Priam, his daughter Cassandra and his son Paris, and this dysfunctional family both grounds and ignites the story. It's Doctor Who as ethnic sitcom, at that spot where insult humor and character comedy intersect. High Priestess Cassandra, with a voice pitched to the mezzanine, warns Paris, "The augeries were bad this morning. I woke full of foreboding," and Paris deadpans to the studio audience, "Never knew her when she didn't." Cotton weaves wicked variations around The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Cassandra has had a vision of the fabled Trojan Horse: "I dreamed that out on the plain the Greeks had left a gift, and although what it was remained unclear, we brought it into Troy. Then at night, from out its belly, soldiers came and fell upon us as we slept." Except that Paris has found the TARDIS on the plains and brought it into Troy, and everyone presume that's the gift of which she's dreamed. (And indeed there is someone inside: Vicki, who emerges sheepishly.) Back at the Grecian camp, Odysseus has charged the Doctor with helping the Greeks sack Troy; eager to avoid turning the legend of the Trojan Horse into fact, the Doctor improvises madly (Hartnell at his funniest), suggesting a fleet of flying machines that could be catapulted, one man at a time, over the Trojan walls. But when told he'll be making the test run himself, he changes his tune ("I'm afraid we must face up to it, Odysseus: man was never meant to fly") and defaults to a hollow wooden horse. The brilliance of Cotton's conceit is that he doesn't tell the story of the Greeks invading Troy; he tells the story of Troy being invaded. One by one, everyone heads to Troy -- of course they do: that's where all the fun is. And only then, once everyone we care about has arrived, does the slaughter commence.

#3. The Rescue
written by David Whitaker
directed by Christopher Barry

A scared girl calls out for help; the Doctor arrives, saves the day, and invites her to travel with him. No, it's not "The Eleventh Hour," it's "The Rescue": the first -- and still one of the best -- of the new-companion stories. Whitaker opens with Vicki, stranded on an alien planet, awaiting a rescue mission, and in the serial's early scenes, he paints a vivid portrait: of girlish enthusiasm that gives way to confusion and fear; of loneliness; of intelligence tempered by impulsiveness and naiveté. Vicki's certain the signal she's picking up from nearby is the rescue ship she's been awaiting, and when she's assured it's not, she wonders, "Then who's landed on the mountain?" And only then do we cut to the TARDIS crew. "The Rescue" doesn't use the Doctor and his companions to introduce a new setting; it uses Vicki to introduce the Doctor and his companions. (Whitaker delights in upending our expectations about how Who looks and works, both in the way Vicki dominates the opening and in the monster reveal at the end.) "The Rescue" is an intergalactic fairy-tale about a young girl trapped in a rundown home, caring for an infirm adult, cowering from the awful neighbor who bullies her, and finding consolation in the odd pet who's become her only friend -- and into her world come three strangers to cheer her and save her. It's enchanting and dear; even the perils are like something out of a child's imagination: cliffs and secret passages and blades that come out of walls. The story could have used more visual finesse: Christopher Barry's staging is largely perfunctory. But the serial does what it needs to do; because Vicki's predicament is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and because Maureen O'Brien's performance is so winning (and her rapport with Hartnell so convincing), you're fully prepared to welcome her aboard the TARDIS by serial's end. Whitaker even manages to craft a new companion who'll look after the star and the franchise; no doubt seeing Hartnell's memory start to fade, and his authority dwindle as a result, he invents a companion who's utterly devoted to the Doctor -- as much fangirl as foil. As Vicki looks at the Doctor with those adoring eyes, Whitaker ensures that audiences will continue to do so, too.

#2. The Massacre
written by John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
directed by Paddy Russell

Forget "Blink." Forget "Ark in Space." Forget "Seeds of Doom" and "Web of Fear" and any of the other umpteen serials designed to scare the daylights out of you. "The Massacre" might not have had children ducking behind their sofas, but it probably was the first serial to give them nightmares afterwards. It's a historical, sure, but it's Doctor Who's first historical horror-story, because it's rooted in the most basic of childhood fears: abandonment. It's the story of a companion, Steven Taylor, who gets stranded in an era -- here, one of the most bloody periods in French history: just days prior to the 1572 Huguenot massacre -- and has to fend for himself before the Doctor returns to take him away. Steven's compassion -- his concern for a frightened girl named Anne Chaplet -- entwines him in the convulsive politics of the era. The machinations of the Huguenots and the Catholics aren't easily digested and absorbed -- nor are they meant to be. They're meant to overwhelm; the events unfolding are too much to take in, and that makes Steven's plight all the more unnerving. Peter Purves commands the spotlight with grace and intelligence, and his verbal evisceration of the Doctor at the climax -- when the Doctor insists they leave Anne behind, to face near-certain doom -- is the most dramatic scene of its kind until the end of "Kill the Moon" nearly a half-century later. The visuals remain missing, but it makes for an exquisite audio listen; given Paddy Russell's (sometimes maddening) attention to detail, it's easily one of the missing Who serials most worthy of rediscovery. Some claim the serial is undercut by the coda, in which the TARDIS lands in 20th-century London and a young woman wanders aboard who, it turns out, might be Anne Chaplet's descendant (suggesting that she survived the massacre and allowing for a reconciliation between the Doctor and Steven). But it doesn't feel contrived, as some maintain; it feels in line with everything we've since come to understand about the Doctor's relationship with his ship. Forty-five years later, in "The Doctor's Wife," the Doctor would admonish the TARDIS, "You didn't always take me where I wanted to go," and she'd reply, simply, calmly, "No, but I always took you where you needed to go." The TARDIS leads the Doctor and Steven to Dodo, to repair their friendship. It's an unexpectedly uplifting epilogue to a grim and gripping tale.

#1. The Crusade
written by David Whitaker
directed by Douglas Camfield

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the First Doctor era, beginning a countdown of my top ten serials. It's worth my noting that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#10. The Gunfighters
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

It's not "Doctor Who does a Western." It's "Doctor Who does a B-Western" -- that one letter makes all the difference. "The Gunfighters" embraces the giddiest clichés of the genre: not the open spaces of a Red River, High Noon or Shane, but the studio look of a Republic programmer from the '30s, like Doomed at Sundown, The Purple Vigilantes, or Wyoming Outlaw, where you knew that if you walked 200 feet in any direction, you wouldn't be on the road out of town; you'd be on the next soundstage. It owes more than a passing nod to 20th Century Fox's Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday, and a bloody good showdown at the O.K. Corral. (It was later remade by John Ford as the classic My Darling Clementine.) With "Myth Makers," Cotton went for character comedy; here the humor stems from a fish-out-of-water premise: the Doctor, who abhors violence, touching down in a town where all feuds are settled by gunfire. It's one of Hartnell's best performances: an amusing tug-of-war between the Doctor, who clearly doesn't want to be in Tombstone, and Hartnell, who so clearly does. It also provides terrific showcases for Jackie Lane (who shows unexpected comic chops in her scenes with Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday) and for Peter Purves, who serves up the best double-take in all of Doctor Who. Where "Gunfighters" fails is in the new production team not trusting the material; it was commissioned by producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh, but their successors -- Lloyd Innes and Gerry Davis -- had no affection for historicals, and little interest in stretching the boundaries of the series. And Rex Tucker, the assigned director, admitted to misgivings. When he opens with a shot of tumbleweed rolling down the streets of Tombstone, then pans up to show the town itself, you think he's sending up that hoary film tradition of masking constrictive settings with unusual camera angles. But by about the thirtieth oddball shot, you realize he's doing it because he thinks the script needs salvaging. (He's busy saving something that's not in need of rescue.) The same could be said for the ballad he commissions, which is charming at first, but ends up feeling random and relentless. And is it the famed tug-of-war between Tucker and Lloyd for control of the final edit that results in the serial seeming so scrappily assembled? "The Gunflighters" boasts a pleasurable script and performances to cherish. But the surgery the production team attempts is about as subtle as the extraction the Doctor undergoes in Doc Holliday's dental chair.

#9. The Web Planet
written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who -- a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space -- and proves the ideal story for Martin. One of Who's earliest directors, he suffered from a lack of technical proficiency that tripped up many a first-season episode, but even at his most static and unfocused, you saw his eagerness to experiment: to stretch the production design and maneuver the camera beyond what Doctor Who could easily handle. The planet Vortis proves his perfect playground; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but as he shuttles between the ant-like Zarbi and the butterfly-winged Menoptra and the grubby Optera (each with its own verbal and visual style of communicating), he's able to keep the images fresh, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: William Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by story editor Dennis Spooner (it refers back to the previous serial, "The Romans," which he himself had written); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have devised Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

#8. The Romans
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and stare at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, but Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. And because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero (part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer), a duality that only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2017, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

#7. The Time Meddler
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Douglas Camfield

The Hartnell era is full of sweet, unforced conversations that aren't so much consumed with pushing the plot forward as with stressing the sense of family forged from traveling together in the TARDIS. "The Time Meddler" continues in that tradition, opening with one of the most charming exchanges in all of Classic Who, as the Doctor quizzes Vicki if she'd be happier returning to her own time, as Ian and Barbara just did. It parallels a scene at the start of David Whitaker's "The Rescue," when the Doctor reflects on Susan's departure, and part of the success of Season 2 is that Spooner, Whitaker's successor, honors his model while adding his own touches (and in this case, "his own touches" means pioneering the first pseudo-historical). Like Whitaker, Spooner takes pleasure in subverting our expectations: fiendishly so in the first episode, as Steven displays all the customary doubts about the TARDIS's ability to traverse through time, and Spooner devises a scenario that actually serves to reinforce those doubts. Hartnell instantly enjoys as strong a rapport with Peter Purves as he formed with Maureen O'Brien in "The Rescue," but this is a new sort of relationship for the Doctor, one that can be as much playfully combative as convivial -- and by God, Hartnell is on form here, clearly relishing and rising to the challenge. Nearing the end of a very long season of filming, he doesn't miss a beat. And Spooner uses Hartnell's vacation week during Episode 2 to strengthen the bond between Purves and O'Brien, and Steven and Vicki prove a terrific team with a fresh dynamic: quick to acknowledge -- and bow to -- each other's strengths, even as they squabble like siblings. Doug Camfield maintains his typically tight grip on the narrative, and manages some of the most ingenious uses of stock footage the series will ever see, including a shipload of vikings making their way to shore. But as with so much of the Hartnell era, it's the relationships that make or break a serial, and here they enliven it with an ebullience last seen shortly after Vicki joined the crew. The series could have gone limp with the departures of William Russell and Jacqueline Hill; instead, Doctor Who has re-energized itself, when it needed to most.

#6. The Savages
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

Hartnell always fared better in the historicals than in the futuristic serials, but the new production team wanted sci-fi, so Black does Hartnell the best turn possible: he writes a historical set in the future. Oh, "The Savages" has its out-of-this-world technology -- the plot turns on a machine that can absorb the life force from one human and plant it in another -- but at its heart, it's about the Doctor and his companions visiting a society whose methods and mores are familiar to the Doctor, and Hartnell doing the sort of deliberating and pontificating at which he excelled. (The planet is inhabited entirely by humans. No Daleks, Monoids or Rills here.) Like Black's later "Macra Terror," "The Savages" imagines a dystopian society disguised as a utopian one; it lacks the intricacies that distinguish the later serial, and at heart (like "Galaxy 4") it's a little light on plot and heavy on message. But its straightforward story-telling is confident and occasionally clever (as when the gift that the Elders give Dodo in Episode 1 allows Steven to save the day in Episode 3), and it's a good match for Christopher Barry's lean, efficient style. Ian Stuart Black was one of those freelancers (like Chris Boucher a decade later) who invariably had a good handle on how best to use the Doctor and his companions -- sometimes better than the script editor himself. Dodo's curiosity and suspicious nature seem to spring from her upbringing and background; you're reminded how nice it is to have someone from modern-day Earth back on the TARDIS. Steven is ingenious, brave, sensible and authoritative; when the time comes for him to say goodbye to the Doctor and Dodo, you believe those qualities will serve him well on his new home. (Black creates the template for all the companions who leave the Doctor upon finding their true calling, from Jo Grant to Romana II to Nyssa.) And Black's handling of the Doctor is nothing short of cunning. Season 3 writers were challenged with devising scripts as original and entertaining as anything that came before them, but also minimizing Hartnell's role so that he could power through. Black solves the problem by having the Doctor drained by the life-force machine at the end of Episode 2, so that he's able to sit out much of Episode 3. But his energy -- and, unexpectedly, his personality -- are transferred to Jano, the leader of the Elders, and that allows Frederick Jaeger, in a bravura performance, to do a spot-on impression of Hartnell's Doctor. It keeps the Doctor's spirit alive while Hartnell gets time off to recharge, but more than that, it asserts that although Hartnell's screen time is dwindling, nothing can suppress the power of his personality. Just four serials away from Hartnell's swan-song, Black writes him an endearing tribute.

Next: my top five Hartnells.