Friday, May 20, 2016

Making Peace With Pertwee (part 2)

The second chapter of my latest Doctor Who three-parter, beginning a countdown of my top ten Pertwee serials. (You can check out the first chapter, an overview of the Pertwee years, here.) As I noted in Part 1, my enthusiasm for the Third Doctor era is tempered by some very real reservations, so I suspect my top-10 list won't resemble anyone else's. (Spoiler: two of his most beloved serials -- "The Silurians" and "The Green Death" -- are nowhere to be found.) I gravitate towards the serials that aren't quite as emblematic of the Letts-Dicks approach, but that strive for a little more novelty, even if they're rougher around the edges. And I definitely respond most to the serials that are best directed. One of the first Who reviewers I read, Finn Clark, argued that strong directors were particularly needed during the Troughton years, as a way of differentiating the numerous base-under-siege stories. I see it differently. I think solid directors were needed much more in the Pertwee era. The similarity of settings -- particularly during the earlier, Earthbound years -- cried out for directors with singular style and creative vision. I find parts of the Pertwee era visually flat (the early '70s, after all, were not a particularly flattering time, design-wise); of the serials below (#10 through #6 on my list), I see that all are anchored by directors whose work bears evidence of a deeply personal aesthetic. For me, that often made the difference between a good Pertwee and a great one. Here goes:

#10. Invasion of the Dinosaurs
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paddy Russell
Oh, of course: if you're going to do a six-parter about dinosaurs, it would be nice if the dinosaurs weren't so dismal. But after the first puppet makes its appearance, you know what you're in for, so you make the mental adjustment. "Dinosaurs" is the oddball Hulke serial where you don't root for the meek to inherit the Earth; here, the peacemakers are the nutjobs. Hulke tries to hammer home that the quest to preserve the planet remains a noble one, and that only these particular antagonists are misguided -- but still, most of the famed Hulke moralizing is happily buried beneath layers of fruitcake. You almost sense that once Robert Sloman picked up Hulke's penchant for polemics, it liberated Hulke: he could be livelier and sloppier. But other forces drive "Dinosaurs" as well. Sarah Jane is still settling in, but Lis Sladen has already proven a force to be reckoned with. You see her mind going a mile a minute, and keeping Pertwee engaged; you can tell that he's adapting to her rhythms, not vice versa. (There's a scene early on where the Doctor, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane are seated at a table, strategizing, and each is using their particular insights to solve the puzzle; it's a dynamic we haven't seen since Liz Shaw left, and it's invigorating.) Legend has it that Pertwee was fighting back pain and boredom during Season 11, and so the story has been passed down that he's muted and off his game. On the contrary: Season 11 offers some of his most ingratiating performances. The new dynamics keep him from resorting to old habits. And one other thing challenges him in "Dinosaurs" -- in a good way: the maddeningly hands-on Paddy Russell. She was a director who loved to rehearse. (Sladen would say she wrung every ounce of spontaneity out of a scene.) But her serials never seem over-rehearsed. They seem confident. They seem full of details and ambiguities too often overlooked in Classic Who. Russell feels in command of every moment of "Dinosaurs": there's not a scene in which the intent is unclear, in which the execution is muddy. And Pertwee -- with a control-freak director and an able new acting partner -- seems renewed, forced to think on his feet. Even driving through the streets silently, his face seems fairly bursting with thought. It's a look that suits him.

#9. The Sea Devils
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Michael E. Briant
In one well-remembered scene, the Master sits in a prison cell watching children's programming -- and that's apt, because "The Sea Devils" is very much like a recruitment ad that you'd see on a Saturday morning kiddie show. Join the Navy: you'll get to ride in a submarine, and there'll be sword fights and boat races, and you can navigate a mine field, and blow things up -- and there'll still be plenty of time to practice your golf putting, to fight over finger sandwiches, and to indulge in the kind of hoary gags ("after you" "no, after you") that your parents learned from their parents. "Sea Devils" is not so much a follow-up to "The Silurians" as a topsy-turvy remake: glib where that one was glum, snappy where that one was slow. It's almost the early serial's undoing -- forget about "Silurians," it tells us: you know, the one that exposed human beings at their most paranoid, ruthless and unforgivable. Now even the Doctor will blow up alien reptiles without batting an eyelash. There are a lot of devilishly good performances -- not just the regulars, but also Edwin Richfield, June Murphy and Donald Sumpter. There's almost no forward motion, it's just a string of set-pieces, but forward motion was never Michael Briant's strong suit. Derek Martinus and David Maloney propelled you from one scene to the next; Briant, at his best, simply encourages you to bask. And every ten minutes or so, he reaches into the candy box and pulls out another goodie -- and no confection is as sweet as Katy Manning, finally elevated (after a season and a half) from assistant to colleague. Hulke imbues her with new assurance and astuteness; Manning seems exhilarated by the redefinition of her role, and her empowerment fuels the fun. "Sea Devils" has its oddities -- including the fact that the eponymous aliens are draped in foam-blue fish-net mumus -- but none of that detracts from the viewing pleasure. It's the most ebullient Pertwee serial.

#8. Inferno
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation on Earth is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the catastrophic impact the drilling could have on our own world. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade our chief scientist, upon his return, to stop the drilling, but that's not where Houghton goes. He doesn't go anywhere. By the time Episode 5 hits, and the parallel Earth starts to crumble, Houghton -- after a sensational start -- runs out of ideas, so he resorts to the cliches of the horror genre to see him through, as werewolf-like beasts burst through doors and break through windows -- all while characters shout, over the crude hum of machinery, unfortunate lines like "it's about time you learned that some problems just can't be solved by brute force and terror." Eventually, the Doctor returns home, but no one believes his predictions of doom, until the chief scientist himself is changed into a werewolf -- and then everyone goes, "Omigod, he's a werewolf: we must stop the drilling," as if that's a logical conclusion to draw. What sustains "Inferno" through the bad, late stretches are the three leads, all of them at their most winning. Caroline John is particularly good. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz Shaw we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two characters. She's masterful. Right up there with the dimwitted decision to axe Ian Marter after his first season of Who is Barry Letts's decision to can Caroline John after hers. Not to denigrate Katy Manning, who grows wonderful as Jo, but John hits the ground running and only grows more assured -- and she inspires Pertwee to heights he only sporadically hits again in the serials to come. Fittingly, Pertwee's first season ends not with the Doctor, not with the Brigadier, but with a close-up of Liz: a strong woman who made the Doctor even stronger. And then, in a feat of chauvinism that will come to haunt the era, she's gone.

#7. Death to the Daleks
written by Terry Nation
directed by Michael E. Briant
The closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" six years earlier. A lot of "Death" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era; it's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best the Pertwee era had to offer, and perhaps because -- by his own admission -- he disliked the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green (whose only other Who contribution was the sumptuous "Enlightenment"); Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (e.g., "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually arresting. And Carey Blyton upends all expectations of what Who should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition. And if that's not enough to engage you, "Death" comes with a secret weapon: Bellal. This native of the planet Exxilon, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: a triumph of conception and casting. Actor Arnold Yarrow manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. At a mere 5'3", he's nearly a foot shorter than Pertwee, and he proves a delightfully meek foil, showing Pertwee off at his most protective and endearing. "Death to the Daleks" is the quietest Third Doctor serial, and for an era steeped in squabbling, that's cause for celebration. (I discuss "Death to the Daleks" in detail here.)

#6. The Claws of Axos
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Ferguson
It's like Doctor Who on LSD: a trip you don't soon forget. There's a hallucinogenic aspect to all of Ferguson's Who serials: here he goes full throttle. "Axos" has long been dismissed as a walking-joke serial, and like most of Baker and Martin's efforts, it tosses around way more ideas than it knows what to do with. But it's visually arresting in a season that often looks flat and forgettable; the gaffes are easily forgiven, because the images stay with you, The interior of the ship is a psychedelic synthesis of textures and colors and shapes. (In its own way, it's as other-worldly as Hartnell's "Web Planet.") And "Axos" itself is full of memorable moments: the aliens materializing out of walls, then merging back into them; the Doctor and Jo escaping an exploding ship while golden faces block their path; Jo being hyper-aged, as the Doctor stares, horrified and helpless. "Axos" features one of Pertwee's best performances -- his reactions sharp, his timing impeccable, and his character deliciously ambiguous; it also has one of the era's best bureaucrats. The Pertwee years are strewn with self-serving businessmen and fatuous government officials -- after a while, it's hard to remember one from another -- and they constantly prompt Pertwee to go on the attack, a dynamic that quickly grows stale. But "Axos," to its credit, manages to eat its cake and have it too. It offers up a government official who's so loathsome that he provokes not merely testiness in the Third Doctor, but genuine rage (he lights a fire under Pertwee, rare for Season 8). And at the same time, the script takes the piss out of him by giving him a commanding officer who sees right through him. When the unctuous government official calls in his report, asking the head of the Ministry if they should scramble the call, and the Minister responds, "Just your report. I'm sure that will be scrambled enough," it's a welcome relief. Someone else can take care of cutting the bureaucrats down to size; Pertwee can just get on with the plot.

Next: continuing the countdown, #5 through #1.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Knots Landing season 9

In the beginning, Knots Landing was about four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. But as the show grew in popularity, it grew in size, and by the seventh season, there were eleven in the principal cast. The show was riding high in the ratings, so CBS happily assumed a laissez-faire attitude. But then the network got greedy: at the start of Season 8, they decided to move Knots up an hour, so they could launch a new show behind it. (It's a move that hadn't worked in Season 3, but apparently the network programmers had short memories.) So up it went to Thursday at 9 PM, where it faced off against the formidable Cheers and Night Court on NBC, and against ABC's new Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. Knots star Joan Van Ark predicted, in a bit of pre-season forecasting, "We're gonna whoop The Colbys" -- but it was Knots that took the drubbing. Oh, it beat The Colbys, and rather handily, but it shed a third of its viewers in the process. And its absence from the 10 PM slot allowed a new NBC upstart called L.A. Law to take over and dominate the time period -- so that even when CBS admitted the error of its ways and moved Knots back to its old home, it never regained its audience. While it was away, L.A. Law had blossomed into a mega-hit, and Knots was relegated to runner-up in the timeslot it once owned.

And so, the following season, instead of the Knots writers being allowed to expand the cast however they saw fit, a decree came down from the network brass: trim the budget. And by the time we were a third of the way into Season 9, there were just six principal cast members remaining.

Season 9 is an exercise in frugality; it's the season in which Knots Landing is punished for the network mucking with its timeslot. But it's also, to be fair, a punishment that isn't undeserved, as the show had been flirting with ruin for over two years. In its earliest seasons, Knots had plumbed the fears and foibles of the middle class, often brilliantly; even when it succumbed to the influence of Dallas beginning in Season 4 and became more upscale and outrageous, the focus remained firmly on character. But two-thirds of the way through Season 6, producer Peter Dunne and executive script consultant Richard Gollance departed, and the remaining scribes began to turn a character-based soap into a plot-driven one, with stories about industrial waste cover-ups and underground spy networks, where the far-fetched plotlines became focal and the characters were subordinated to them. And the issues were only magnified when Dallas scripter David Paulsen took over as headwriter at the start of Season 7. The Knots characters had always had a certain consistency and complexity that distinguished them from their sister-soap counterparts. But Paulsen ignored years of continuity; characters started behaving irrationally simply to generate story. (And the plots -- blackmail, extortion, corporate greed and corruption -- fairly reeked of Dallas; there was even a lavish party midway through the season where secrets poured out. We might as well have been at the Oil Baron's Ball.) And when Paulsen left, and new headwriters -- husband-and-wife team Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham -- assumed the reins for Season 8, they too floundered. They focused on some of the newest characters at the expense of the oldest and best-loved, and engaged in a rapid-fire series of flashbacks and misdirects and sleights-of-hand that only distracted from the storytelling. And viewers fled.

But lessons were learned by the time Season 9 rolled around. Get back to basics. Leave behind the high-concept plotting and return to what Knots was supposed to be: a show about people. A show where story-lines were relatable: heightened, yes, but relatable. Get back to the human drama, especially the core characters the audience cared about. Oh yes, and trim a third of the cast, to reel in the budget. And so they did, and the result is the best forgotten season in the show's fourteen-year history. Not the best season, mind you: the best one that no one ever discusses. No one talks about Knots Landing Season 9. The best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines that you can sum up in a few words. (Season 3: "Sid's death." Season 4: "Ciji." Season 5: "Wolfbridge." Season 6: "Val's babies." Season 10: "Murakame.") Even the worst Knots season -- Season 13, by far (at least for the first two-thirds) -- has "tidal energy." Season 9 has "Laura's funeral," but that comes and goes in a few episodes, and although it's a moment that would haunt the show -- sometimes quite effectively -- until its dying day, it's hardly the season's defining plot. Knots Season 9 restores the Seaview Circle cul-de-sac to its roots. It doesn't ensnare its characters in underground spy networks and assassination plots; it wonders, "How far would a mother go to protect her family?" and "How do you cope with the loss of a friend?" It agonizes over how best to make decisions for young children, and when to stop making decisions for older ones. It understands how hard it is to let go of first loves, and how impossible it is to let go of true love. And how traumatic it can be to make a fresh start. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happens for most of Knots Landing Season 9; that's its beauty. It embroils us in the simplest of dramas, and we willingly, gratefully succumb.

That's not to imply that nothing of significance happens in Season 9; this is, after all, the season in which Laura (Constance McCashin, who'd been with the show since the pilot) is killed off. But what's notable is how she's killed off. In Season 7, when it was Alec Baldwin's time to go, his mother had screamed him off a rooftop. In Season 8, Senator Peter Hollister (Hunt Block) had been stabbed with a spindle and buried underneath a children's playground. Both exits were ludicrous, but they were the sudsy stuff that '80s soaps were made of. Laura, on the other hand, gets an inoperable brain tumor. At the time, it seemed like such a stark way to dispose of a character (and a well-loved character at that), fans were numb with grief. We aren't even there for the diagnosis -- we come in after the fact, when she tells her husband. And we don't even get to say goodbye; she takes off for a clinic an episode later, determined to die alone, and the next thing we know, we're at a gathering to mourn her passing. We're left with a death that seems as awful and as random to us as it does to the characters in the show, and because Laura won't dwell on it, and because the writers carefully limit its airtime, we feel helpless.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Laura's exit occurs midway through the first arc of Knots' ninth season. The Lorimar soaps (Knots, Dallas and Falcon Crest) were all doing 28-30 episodes a season at that time, and the writers often broke story in three parts; nowhere is that approach clearer -- or better handled -- than in Knots Season 9. Knots' best season, Season 5, is like one long aria: it's 25 episodes of crescendos and diminuendos, of rallentandos and accelerandos -- all building towards a furioso finale. Season 9 is like three one-act plays: like a series of miniatures. One act ends, and it's as if the lights dim, as they would in the theatre, and when the next act resumes, there are characters added, fresh story-lines to explore, and we begin the simmer-to-boil process anew.

Act I starts with a quartet of episodes resolving the Season 8 cliffhanger: the mystery of Peter's death. The end of Season 8 found Abby coming out of the ladies' room at the Lotus Point restaurant, wiping her hands dry, only to find her daughter Olivia kneeling over Peter's lifeless body. Is Abby discovering Olivia's deadly deed, or is Olivia discovering Abby's? That's our expectation going into the summer months, that there'll a mystery to unravel, but when fall rolls around, the writers let go of the whodunnit early on and focus instead on fixing the Paige Matheson problem. Nicollette Sheridan appeared like a bolt out of the blue at the tail end of Season 7. And in her first full season, she hijacks half the story-lines. The new headwriters, Lechowick and Latham, had never plotted a soap before, and they go overboard trying to be clever: they delight in keeping Paige's character and motives unclear. Is she good? Is she wicked? They even trot out "Is she an imposter?" (And what's more, they cast her in a dual role: playing Paige in the present-day sequences and her mother Anne in flashbacks.) And that would all be lovely if Sheridan were up to the task at hand. But one can only imagine that the writers and producers were blinded by her looks, because they seem catastrophically oblivious to her acting limitations. She seems to have no capacity for even the most straight-forward of line-readings; her deliveries are alternately distant and smug, and she intrudes everywhere, like visiting royalty.

In Season 9, the writers try to weave Sheridan back into the fabric of the show, and to find some softness beneath Paige's tough exterior. And they start in the aftermath of Peter's death, when Paige is having nightmares: putting up a brave front, but clearly falling apart. As it turns out, she was there when Peter died (it was an accident), but was terrified to come forward. It's a good move on the part of the writers; it engenders a little audience sympathy. And they don't stop there: they offer up a mea culpa for how they let Paige shanghai the show in Season 8, as -- one by one -- Mack, Abby and Sumner put her in her place, reminding her that she'll never have the upper hand while they're around. The principals essentially reduce Sheridan to a supporting player, as she should have been all along. The writers send her back to the barracks and make her come up through the ranks. It's training that will pay off handsomely the following season, when she has to transform herself from vixen into heroine -- and has (finally) acquired the skill set to do so.

While Paige is undergoing a make-over, other story-lines are getting underway: Abby reconnecting with her first love Charles; Val letting it slip to Gary that he's the father of the twins; Val's mother Lilimae (Julie Harris) acquiring a suitor (a new character, Al Baker, played by Red Buttons). And with those plots in place, the focus shifts to Laura, as she shares her diagnosis with Greg. Laura dominates only one episode, but it's a doozy, entitled "The Gift of Life," in which she resolves -- in the little time remaining -- to leave nothing unsaid or undone. She sees to Meg's christening, allows friends to throw her a goodbye party (she's announced she's leaving her job to concentrate on full-time mothering, without letting on it's her final goodbye) -- all while Greg is making the rounds of doctors' offices, seeking out second opinions and treatment options, drowning in anger and self-pity. As dire as Laura's story-line is, it never overwhelms the show; because Laura retains a cool head, the show can, too. At the end of the episode, Laura drives away, and the other plotlines instantly resume; a week later, they collide in a one-of-a-kind marvel called "Love In."

When I did my post on Knots Season 3, I crowned that season's "China Dolls" the best episode of the series. "Love In" comes in a close second. It's penned by Dianne Messina (one of Knots' best writers, and regrettably, her sole contribution to Season 9), and it takes place over the course of one evening, as the principals engage in family dinners, first dates and romantic reunions. It's Knots Landing at its most winningly domestic, scripted with care and precision (and acted to perfection, under the loving guidance of director Kate Swofford Tilley).

It's an episode full of flashbacks, but it's almost an apology for the string of uninvolving flashbacks that dismantled Season 8. These are about Karen and Abby, two of the most popular characters, whose backstories had never been explored. We see young Karen, fired up by '60s activism (when she's not steaming up the backseat of Sid's truck), a far cry from the contented suburbanite she's become; we see Sid's kid sister Abby, a junior-college coed, meet and date the upper-crust Charles Scott -- and then, when he's forced by his family to marry someone more suitable, swearing never again to lose her heart. (No one had thought to explain why Abby had grown so calculating by the time she joined the series in Season 2. Now we know.) In the present, Charles (Michael York, in a guest shot) turns up at Lotus Point and asks Abby to dinner. In a gently overlapping montage, they catch each other up on twenty years, culminating in her cheeky request: "Tell me your life has been frustrating and lonely and unfulfilled all these years. Tell me your wife is a bore, and your work is meaningless, and your dog chews your slippers. You can spare me the details; just so I know that your life has been miserable, and that leaving me was the biggest mistake you ever made. Then I'll be happy." And his candid reply ("Let's make a toast. To the most miserable man in the world. Me.") makes us eager to see where the story-line takes us.

The evening also includes Gary and Val growing closer, falling into old habits, even though he's committed to Jill. Lilimae and Al enjoy a night of dancing, bonding over the commonalities of their generation. (Al: "That was my wife's favorite song." Lilimae: "You were married?" Al: "Who wasn't?"). And best of all, a family dinner at the MacKenzies turns hilariously uncomfortable when both of Karen's sons show up with guests: Eric, her oldest, returns from college newly married, with his (controlling) wife Linda in tow; Michael, her youngest, brings along his (clingy) girlfriend Jodi. It's a meddlesome mother's nightmare, and Michele Lee is at her most brilliant in these scenes, digesting each dinner-table revelation (Jodi: "Do you think people should wait till they're married to have sex?" Linda: "We didn't.") and hiding her horror behind a frozen half-smile. Until finally, alone in the kitchen with Mack, as she saran-wraps the leftovers, she lets loose:

Karen: Open the oven, blow out the pilot, turn on the gas... Those are my sons out there. I've loved them, I've nurtured them, and they do this to do. They bring those... those two women into my house to pontificate and paw.

And when Mack protests ("It's not that bad"), Karen demands, "Step aside," moves to the oven and turns on the gas. He turns it off; she turns it back on.

Mack: So your first impression was negative, so what? It doesn't mean you have to kill yourself.
Karen: Me? I'm not talking about me. Call those two women in here. Then we'll run out and toss in a match.

Mack urges her to "wait till you get to know them a little better," and Karen sees the light: "You're right. Then no one will blame me." And then she's back on a tear, furiously pacing the floor: "I am going to sue those boys for every penny I've ever spent on them. I just can't stand those -- " and in walks her new daughter-in-law Linda, gushing, "I'm just so happy to be a part of this family." And she hugs Karen, diffusing the situation, then returns to the dining room (but not before quizzically noting, "I smell gas"). And Karen stands there speechless: amusingly deflated and defeated.

"Love In" is the best evidence yet that Knots has gotten back on track. All of the stories are driven by the core characters, and they're relationship-based; for the first time in years, the show hasn't required the addition of madmen, criminals, con artists or kidnappers to generate plot. It's followed by "Flight of the Sunbirds," which ends with Greg receiving a late-night phone call. We hear only his end of the conversation, and little is disclosed, but when he makes his way into Meg's nursery and sighs, "It's just you and me, kid," we understand. Up to this point, Greg's been in denial, convinced Laura would return. (In some ways, even though TV Guide has announced McCashin's departure, we thought so too. Isn't that what soaps do: serve up "miracle cures"?) News of her death hits us as hard as it does him -- and then we cut to black: the end of Season 9, Act I.

We resume the following week at Greg's home, prior to Laura's funeral. But this isn't Act II just yet; this is intermission. It's a famous moment in Knots history, a gathering of the cast at creator David Jacobs' home, where they were asked to improvise -- in character -- their responses to Laura's death while the writers trailed them, notated their conversations, and then turned them into a pair of scripts. But what's been forgotten in the decades since its original airing is what a letdown the first part is. The decision was made to include only the remaining six series regulars in Part One (plus Laura's ex-husband Richard, returning for the first time in four years). The limited dynamics didn't yield an hour of good story -- but once Lechowick and Latham got an idea in their heads, they stuck with it. A pall hangs over the first episode, but not by design; it feels undernourished: as unintentionally awkward as gatherings like that are in real life. But all is redeemed by the second part, which resumes after the funeral, with the entire cast in tow; it's filled with the kind of razor-sharp exchanges and surprising shifts in tone on which Knots thrived. (It also subtly sets up three story-lines that will dominate the remainder of the season.) The episode climaxes with the airing of a video Laura prepared, in which she makes requests of all her friends, then concludes with Sumner alone hearing her final words. Sumner came on the show as the smooth politician with the toothy grin, good at choosing his words and compartmentalizing his feelings; in one key scene, Laura, who brought out the best in him, urged him to "stop giving lip-service to having a passion for something and get passionate." And now he does. He breaks down, in a way he never permitted himself while she was alive: "You left me in a bad spot, Red. I don't know what you're trying to tell me. Why did you leave me all alone? I love you... I hope I don't end up hating you." Devane sobs uncontrollably -- and he's magnificent.

There are those fans who still say that killing off Laura was a bad move: some who go so far as to claim "the show never recovered." They're mistaken. Folks love Laura because Constance McCashin was a fine actress, and Laura was always there with a clever quip. But she hadn't had a plot to call her own in three years; she was mostly a sounding board for Greg. And ironically, because she was the one who tamed him when he went wild, he was never able to potentially ascend to the heights -- or more likely, descend to the depths -- that he could without her. But the writers had written themselves into a corner. Laura was the love of Greg's life. You couldn't just "split them up" -- we'd keep waiting for a reconciliation. It took Laura dying to unleash Greg.

Act II focuses on Greg's efforts to raise a toddler without his wife, and Val's terror at giving Gary access to their twins; it's about the damage we do to our children when fear clouds our judgment. It also introduces a new cast of supporting players. In its continuing efforts to humanize Paige, it gives her an old boyfriend, the charming 33-year-old soap "veteran" Peter Reckell, here imagined as an Irish rogue named Johnny Rourke. Unfortunately, Lechowick and Latham conceive him as a singer, and even though Reckell has a wretched voice, keep making him sing (another example of the headwriters holding to an idea even when it proves unwise), but Reckell sparks Sheridan: he knows how to push her buttons -- and for the first time on the show, she seems engaged. She seems caught off guard, fighting for dominance, and it suits her. And the other set of new characters is a masterstroke: a family to reside in Laura's old house. The Williamses -- Frank and Pat and their daughter Julie -- join the cast, as a family (we ultimately learn) hiding out in witness protection. The witness-protection angle -- which starts as a "what are they hiding" mystery -- could feel contrived, but it doesn't, as we view the Williams mostly through their interactions with their neighbors, particularly Mack and Karen. (As the MacKenzies try to figure out the new family next door -- Mack, the D.A. with a knack for ferreting out the truth; Karen, the ultimate in nosy neighbors -- they unwittingly make a stressful situation worse.) And Lynne Moody, as Pat, is remarkable. Her inflections are dynamic; she breathes life into even the palest dialogue. (Her climactic day in court -- the cross-examination in which she confronts the men who forced her to abandon her medical practice and go into hiding -- is routinely scripted: it's "how dare you?" and "that's obscene" and "I was a doctor!" But Moody's line-readings are fresh and surprising -- at times, each syllable seems pitched in a different octave. She makes the scene work; she makes it powerful.) You like Moody instantly, and because of that, you're prepared to welcome the Williams family into the cul-de-sac even before their neighbors are.

The middle act of Season 9 would be pretty much flawless if it weren't for Johnny's singing -- oh, and one other thing. Abby's big storyline, as noted, is the return of her one great love, Charles Scott. The only problem: the chemistry between Donna Mills and Michael York just isn't there. There's a scene at the end of the episode "Weak Moment" where they're having a quarrel, and anger turns to desire. But it feels like, as the episode title suggests, a weak moment. York and Mills can't seem to find a common rhythm: you see them trying, like two pros, but they never convince as former lovers rediscovering their youthful passion. Everything else about the storyline works, in particular Eileen Barnett's smashing turn as Charles' wife Judith. (She and Abby are a study in contrasts: Judith is old-world money, whereas Abby only stole Gary's fortune in the last couple of seasons.) And Abby discovering that Charles has been playing her, and the coup she pulls off to get even (neatly reminiscent of how she disposed of her first husband, Jeff Cunningham, in Season 3's "The Surprise"), are great showcases for Mills. The Abby-Charles story-line isn't a disaster: far from it. The writing, and Mills and York's resolve, see it through. But as one of Knots' rare casting mistakes, it's a missed opportunity for greatness. It's clear from the way it's positioned that this story-line was to be the centerpiece of the season, but it plays second fiddle to Val and Gary's custody fight, which is splendid, and even to the mystery of the Williams family.

Act II ends with Val and Gary settling their custody dispute, and Greg making a decision about Meg's future. And Abby breaking things off with Charles, but managing to make off with a wedding gift he's given her, to expand the Lotus Point marina. And from there, we launch into Act III: the final set of stories. And it's here that things get simultaneously even better and much, much worse.

Worst first. The young characters on Knots Landing had been getting a lot of screentime, and quite a bit of attention from the press; CBS, it was reported, considered spinning them off. In the third act of Season 9, Paige, Johnny and Michael are given their own plot, sort of a try-out to see if they could sustain their own series. How do they do? Well, let's just say there was no spin-off. It's not the actors' fault: the writers fail them. They ship the younger cast members off to Mexico, and entangle them in a plot about an archaeological dig in danger of being shut down. It's the furthest thing from what Knots does best; suddenly we're in Hollywood's version of a Mexican village (where chickens scurry through dirty streets and distressing South-of-the-Border stereotypes litter the landscape) being asked to care whether some pre-Colombian artifacts can be saved. And then it turns out it's cocaine dealers who want to shut down the dig (they want to build a highway through the town), and ultimately they do: with explosives, with kidnapping and with murder. (When it all ends with the young characters held hostage, you realize their plot has strayed so far from what you loved about the show that you don't care if they're ever found.) And worse, back up north in Knots Landing, the same criminals are trying to smuggle their drugs through Abby's expanded marina, and Karen, Mack, Abby and Gary are stranded in their own mob-related drama. It's a terrible comedown, after the first two-thirds of the season have been so character-driven, to see the show return to the kind of gangster-ridden melodrama that had been plaguing it the past few years.

Only one of the young characters emerges from the end of Season 9 unscathed (she gets in and out of Mexico fast); Tonya Crowe gets a chance to shine as Abby's daughter Olivia -- in fact, she gets her best showcase on the series. The young actress had proven someone to watch as early as Season 5, where -- at the mere age of 13 -- she'd had a raw and riveting breakdown when Gary was thought dead. In Season 8, she has the one great plotline, as her addiction to cocaine pits mother against daughter. (Abby's determination to get her daughter clean by sheer will power is easily the season's highlight.) In Season 9, at the top of Act III, Olivia gets a boyfriend, Harold Dyer; unfortunately, unbeknownst to her, he's the nephew of the man looking to smuggle drugs through Lotus Point. Paul Carafotes is perfectly cast as Harold: you believe he'd fall for a mixed-up girl like Olivia -- you believe he'd find and bring out the best in her -- and you also believe he's the kind of guy who'd drop her off after a date, then go break someone's arm for being late on a payment. He's equal parts sweet and sinister, but Carafotes plays the "sweet" so sincerely, he makes you quite willing to overlook the sinister. And Crowe is remarkable: we're used to seeing her troubled; now the actress shows she can be just as compelling playing something as conventional as a teenager in love. As she gets happier, you get get happier for her -- she's that radiant. And yet, because you know she's being set up for a fall (you just don't know who's going to give her the final push), your heart goes out to her. (Crowe and Carafotes are never again given the chance to shine like that; the writers soon forget what made them special, and write them off after another season-and-a-half.)

But the best-remembered plot concerns Jill, who's tired of playing second fiddle to Gary's exes. In the first episode of Act III, she sets a trap to convince Val that Ben is coming home. Her thinking: that Val will be so busy readying for Ben's return that she'll leave Gary alone. Except the plan backfires: the longer Ben stays missing, the more Val turns to Gary for support. So Jill adapts: upon learning that a few years earlier, Val had a breakdown, Jill determines to drive her mad. And then after a few episodes, she decides that the only way to keep Val out of Gary's life permanently is to murder her. Jill had been introduced three years earlier as a schemer and a flirt, but over time, as her brother Peter became more ruthless, she'd been the one holding the moral compass, taking him to task for each transgression. But since Peter's death, Jill had been pursuing a darker path -- we simply had no idea how dark, and in 1988, the devolution of Jill's character (and the lengths to which she goes to set up her alibi and commit "the perfect crime") felt recklessly invigorating. Now, on rewatching, the holes show. You can't pinpoint when Jill's plans evolve; they seem to switch gears without exposition or explanation. There's muddiness in the plotting, and the penultimate episode is contrived in having Jill not only set up her alibi but comment on it -- and pride herself -- each step of the way. (There's a lot of self-conscious winking to the viewer, the sort that would ultimately come to stain Lechowick and Latham's tenure on Knots.) And the actresses' long confrontation in the season-closer, in which Jill forces Val to take sleeping pills while showing her a forged suicide note she's prepared, is shatteringly played, but scrappily scripted. There a few head-scratching moments (Frank and Julie drop by to offer baby-sitting services at what seems about 2 AM); some of the dialogue seems underwritten and repetitive; and for the scene to play out the way the writers need it to, Jill has to be monomaniacal and Val both clueless and helpless -- it starts to reduce the characters to "types" (Jill, the walking psychopath, and "Poor Val," the professional victim) that would come to define them, unhappily, in the upcoming season. These final two episodes are standard Lechowick-Latham: brilliant in design, uneven in execution.

Season 9 ends with Jill holding a gun to Val's head, but the season doesn't go out with a bang; instead, it ends with a distressing whimper, as the characters become embroiled in the kind of cheap theatrics the rest of the season had assiduously avoided. But the disappointments that cloud the end of Season 9 don't detract from the season's very real accomplishments. For most of its length, the show has gotten back on track, after a couple unrecognizable years.

And ultimately, the moments that linger in the mind aren't the mobster melodrama, or the heavy-handed scripting of the Jill-Val plotline. It's the lighter moments. It's the subtler moments. It's Abby and Olivia, when they finally figure out that neither of them was responsible for Peter's death, twirling off into the breaking Pacific waves, as we hear Olivia in voice-over, "Oh, Mom, we gotta talk more." It's the oblique way Laura chooses to share her diagnosis with Karen, when they're out shopping for dresses for Meg, and Laura insists on buying enough outfits to last her daughter the next five years: "I have to plan ahead." (Karen asks, blithely, "Why?" -- then, seeing the answer on Laura's face, her own face darkens.) It's watching Paige preen before the mirror, dressing to impress -- and when she emerges from her bedroom, certain she's irresistible, being told, "You've got a run in your stockings." (And when she hurriedly changes, her step-brother further deflates her: "I liked the other outfit.") It's Karen and Pat bonding on a shopping spree, in which Karen is convinced to buy a leather miniskirt, and it's Abby smirking in amusement during the business meeting that follows, as Karen fidgets in her chair, trying to conceal her exposed legs from a new client. (Abby, post-meeting, offers her some advice: "Don't be a slave to fashion.")

And it's moments like this one. Midseason, Gary is suing Val for visitation and has enlisted Jill to represent him. And Jill subpoenas Karen and Mack to testify, as both of them know Gary is the twins' father. But Val turns up at Karen's, prior to the court date, terrified at the havoc Gary could wreak if he's allowed into the twins' lives. She asks Karen -- begs Karen -- to lie under oath: to deny that Val ever told her that Gary is the father of her children. And later that episode, we're in court, and Karen is asked, "And did she tell you who the father is," and we hold on her face, then cut to credits. It's the end of the episode, and we have no idea what Karen will say. In the previous season, Karen had been kidnapped, held hostage, and almost burned alive; none of it was as bracing as simply watching her wrestle with a moral dilemma: should she lie under oath for her best friend? And miraculously, fortuitously, Knots Landing has reduced back down to the kind of human proportions where a moment like this feels...well, momentous. That's the beauty of Season 9, and a bunch of mobsters and a gunpoint suicide near the end can't undo it. For a brief time, Knots Landing has gotten real again. It's felt like the show you first fell in love with. There are five seasons left -- and there are some breathless highs to come -- but Knots won't recapture that "welcome home" feeling in such a warm, unforced and inviting fashion until it's nearly time to say goodbye.

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 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; 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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Making Peace With Pertwee

When my husband and I started watching the classic era of Doctor Who in December of 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, we had no idea what to expect. We knew nothing of the show's history: which Doctors and companions were revered, and which reviled; which periods were most beloved, and which most belittled. All we knew was that we had binged on New Who Series 2 through 6 the previous year, and now looked forward to seeing the show in its earlier incarnation. We watched in fairly random order. I remember we started with "Genesis of the Daleks" and for some reason reached the Fifth Doctor last. Somewhere around the middle, we got to the Third Doctor, and the two stories of his my friend had recommended: his first two serials, "Spearhead From Space" and "The Silurians." "Spearhead" we found enjoyable, but "Silurians" felt endless, and although we'd been giving each other quizzical looks all the way through, it wasn't till it was done that we turned to each other and spoke, with essentially the same request: "Can we move on to another Doctor?" The Jon Pertwee era, or at least what promised to be a "Doctor stranded on Earth" set of stories, was not the Who we wanted to view. We had been weaned on Tennant and Smith, with big adventures through time and space; seeing the Doctor trapped in Earthbound settings wasn't what drew us to the series. It wasn't what fired our imaginations. And having already watched the Fourth, Second and First Doctors, Pertwee was our least favorite incarnation to date: we gravitated towards the less imposing Doctors -- and his air of withering authority and exasperated superiority wasn't much to our liking.

When I published my 25 favorite Classic Whos in November of 2013 (having by then seen all the serials all at least twice and some a dozen times), the comments I received were largely kind and gracious. My opinions were obviously my own, and (maybe) no one else's, but the Who community was big enough to permit all opinions. The only place I received much flak was in how little Pertwee I included: just one serial in my top 25. (One Twitter follower said it didn't make him respect my opinions any less, just doubt my sanity.) I've come to realize that although fan consensus will tell you that the Tom Baker era was the most beloved, it's the Pertwee era that has the most passionate defenders. It's an era -- unlike Tom Baker's, which divides neatly by producer: "the Hinchcliffe years," "the Williams years," etc., each with its own supporters and detractors -- with one team supervising it all: producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, whose consistency, confidence, and unwavering belief in "what works" and "what doesn't" inspires the most ardent fans. I have heard Whovians I respect say things like, "There's not one bad episode in the whole Pertwee era," and I personally can't say that about any season of Who, let alone a whole era. But the uniformity of intent is persuasive: if you buy into the premise, if you buy into Pertwee and the Third Doctor, and the Earthbound stories that gradually give way to more out-of-this-world adventures, there's nothing to deter you from your affection. There are no sudden shifts in style, no wild reinventions or wholesale reboots. There's one long, continuous flow.

But if you don't buy into the premise, if you don't find yourself cottoning to the Third Doctor, or the men behind the scenes, how do you make peace with Pertwee? An assignment for myself. Some of the Who fans and friends I cherish most are Pertwee devotees: where do we find some common ground? It's easier perhaps to see where we differ. Aside from my disinterest in largely Earthbound adventures (although I adore Nicholas Courtney, his warm, continued presence doesn't compensate for my thirst for other worlds and other times), my reservations stack up quickly. I find the overuse of CSO distracting. It doesn't seem to me as merely "evocative of the period": the sort of thing you simply have to overlook if you watch Classic Who. It seems arbitrary and mystifying, as when the outdoor scenes in "The Green Death" flip-flop from location shooting to CSO and back again. Other complaints: I don't like the frank moralizing that was a passion of Letts and his cohorts (I'd rather my Whos be subtly allegorical than overtly polemic), and I don't know which bothers me more: the chauvinism that permeates the era once Letts takes over fully in Season 8, or the flat-footed attempts to pay lip-service to the women's movement.

I miss the audacious directors of the Troughton era. For me, one of the sad ironies of the Pertwee era is that the director most responsible for establishing the "house style" -- the brilliant Doug Camfield, who directed "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldened the producers into mounting a reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, locked horns with the star, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. The three great regular directors of the series' first six years -- Camfield, David Maloney and Derek Martinus -- were mostly absent during the Pertwee era, helming just one serial apiece. And their replacements -- Lennie Mayne, Paul Bernard and Michael E. Briant -- were notably inferior, with Mayne and Bernard rarely able to offer anything in the way of visual distinctiveness or flair.

But my biggest problem with the era lies with Pertwee himself. I'm not a Pertwee detractor: far from it. I think he's quite talented; I simply find him less interesting in Doctor Who than in other roles. The decision for Pertwee to play the Third Doctor as "himself" is certainly a sound one; his dapper demeanor nicely balances the UNIT settings. But for me, it doesn't seem to unleash his imagination the way other vehicles do, from Will Any Gentlemen? to Carry On, Cowboy to Worzel Gummidge. I find Pertwee uneven throughout much of his run on Doctor Who. At his best, I'm taken with his warmth, his sincerity, and the way he physicalizes the Doctor's thirst for knowledge. At his worst, I see him settling into a distressing complacency. When I wrote my four-part essay on Peter Davison, I noted that he seemed to have "an endless bag of tricks at his disposal"; I feel that way about Troughton as well. Playing a role far removed from their own personality keeps them sharp and focused; you're aware of the wheels ever spinning, gracefully. On Who, I find Pertwee mostly gets fired up by outside forces: actors whose rhythms counter his own, story-lines that stretch his comfort zone. But he doesn't do as well on his own; because he doesn't have to "find" the role, he doesn't always look for the variations, the grace notes, the buttons. He hits his marks, but shortly after Season 8 starts, I can pinpoint where those marks are, and sometimes I get there ahead of him. Ironically, as Pertwee begins to dictate more of what he wants, and to make himself more dominant and more comfortable, he robs himself of what sparks him as an actor: the tension. Tension between actor and role. Tension between actor and co-stars. Tension between actor and script. The things that, from what I've seen (and heard, in his delightful, dextrous work in The Navy Lark), make Pertwee a more compelling actor. Pertwee needed challenges; by playing the Doctor so close to home ("this dashing Pied Piper image," as he put it), he denied himself those.

And as an aside, I'm never going to take to "The Silurians." I've watched three times now, to the same mounting sense of irritation. I understand what folks see in it, but for me, it's undermined by the familiar Malcolm Hulke tropes. The characters who are obstructive either due to attitude or agenda (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The moment someone rushes in, prepared to make a confession -- and therefore bring all the misunderstandings to an end -- and is cut off before they can do so (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The steady stream of captures and escapes. And in "Silurians," I never buy in to the intended moral ambiguity; the Doctor's umbrage at the end doesn't ring true to me, as the Silurians never seem how he describes them. Because the Silurian costume obscures their faces, they're forced to identify themselves by gesticulating wildly; the young Silurian is so animated, I have trouble taking him seriously. And once all the rational Silurians have been wiped out by the young rebels, the Doctor's peace-making arguments don't seem to hold water. They infect the citizens of Earth with a plague, but UNIT shouldn't retaliate? I find "The Silurians" terribly earnest, but crying out for variety, pacing and logic.

So what do I like about the Pertwee era? Quite a few things, as my latest rewatch reminded me.

I've stated my affection for Nicholas Courtney, but someone else inspires even greater delight: Caroline John. I love Liz Shaw. I love how quickly the actress settles in; I love how sharp her reactions are. I love Liz's smart retorts, and I love her sideways glances. I love how she assumes the role not of an assistant, but a colleague: one whose scientific prowess and insights the Doctor respects and relishes. The dynamic feels fresh, and a natural extension of all the strong female guest characters who distinguish the Troughton era. And John does wonders for Pertwee: she keeps him on his toes. (Pertwee, tellingly: "In my opinion, Caroline John didn't fit into Doctor Who. I couldn't really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn't want a know-it-all by his side, he wanted someone who was busy learning about the world." What he means, of course, is that Pertwee himself didn't want "a know-it-all by his side": the Second Doctor had no trouble traveling with Zoe, the astrophysicist. But it was precisely because of that tension that Pertwee's scenes with John are so absorbing, and that he goes limp for a while after she leaves. Even the shrewdest actors don't always know what showcases them best.)

What else? I adore the chemistry that develops between Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. Although I find Katy Manning does everything asked of her brilliantly, I don't care for the way Jo is written in her earliest serials; after the novelty of Liz Shaw, I find it distressing to return to an assistant who's there mostly to be a sounding-board, and her bouts of timidity really annoy me (e.g., her terror at stepping outside the TARDIS in "Colony in Space" -- you can't help but feel Liz Shaw would have leapt out of the police box -- or her haunted-house jitters in "Day of the Daleks"). There's a chauvinism in the conception of Jo Grant that's unmistakable, and because the Third Doctor spends much of Seasons 8 and 9 talking at Jo rather than to her, it doesn't do anything for Pertwee either: a certain smug self-satisfaction starts to set into the role once Jo comes on board. But as Jo is allowed to blossom, the dynamic becomes more appealing, and by Season 10, I find the Third Doctor and Jo Grant equally matched, and it's my favorite Manning season.

I find Roger Delgado consistently entertaining, even in serials that make me shudder (e.g., "Mind of Evil," which I think might boast his most commanding performance). I've seen comments that he's at his best early in his run, that he eventually becomes too broad and hammy, but I don't see it; to me, he's eminently watchable throughout. I have no complaints with John Levene's charming Sergeant Benton, and although Richard Franklin's character proves more elusive, when the writers settle on a formula (e.g., the aforementioned "Mind of Evil," where Captain Yates is quick-witted and resourceful), Franklin responds beautifully -- and he makes his final-season arc, in which Yates's youthful idealism proves his undoing, extremely touching. (It's a nice touch that, for all the era's macho posturing, one of its most lasting images is of Mike Yates's fragility in the final serial, as he attempts to jumpstart his own regeneration.) And I'm a huge Lis Sladen fan; the writers have her initially come on too strong -- she was, after all, their "answer" to complaints of chauvinism -- but she's never less than winning, and often wonderful.

I like the gravity of Season 7, and even though I am not a Barry Letts fan, and find most of the tonal shifts that he initiates in "Terror of the Autons" not to my liking (they impede my enjoyment of Seasons 8 and 9), I like the celebratory feel of Season 10 and the go-for-broke feel of Season 11. As for writers, I'm not fond of Robert Sloman or Baker & Martin, but the Pertwee era has my favorite set of Robert Holmes scripts, and I enjoy Malcolm Hulke when he lightens up: when he stifles his penchant for didacticism and just lets rip with a good yarn, or a warm scene, or a hoary gag. And oddly, I admire many of the things about the era that we learn -- in the DVD extras -- made its creators cringe. Over the years, "Claws of Axos" has become a Doctor Who punchline,"Death to the Daleks" dismissed as one of the nadirs of the series. I like them both. I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. My overall feeling about the Pertwee era is that, in trying to avoid the woeful lows that plagued the final Troughton season, they aimed for something more stable and grounded. But in avoiding the lows, they also trimmed the highs. You don't get a lot of out-and-out turkeys in the Pertwee era, but to my mind, you also don't get many blissful flights of fancy. It's a confident era, not -- by and large -- a daring one. And "daring" is one of my favorite things about Doctor Who.

But that said, there are ten serials I like very much, that -- for various reasons -- I take delight in rewatching. And I'll go into them, in detail, next.

Next up: counting down my top ten Pertwees, #10 to #6.