Thursday, November 20, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years (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. 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. 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.)

#9. Inferno
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the full potential for catastrophe. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade the chief scientist, upon his return, to shut down operations, 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 late stretches are the three leads; it's only their fourth time working as a team, and you can't imagine how they could be better. (It's their last time working as a team, and you're left with longing for "what might have been.") Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney are remarkable, but Caroline John is more than that: she's radiant. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. All smart retorts and sideways glances. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two. It's a masterful performance. 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.

#8. 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.

#7. 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.

#6. The Green Death
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Michael E. Briant

The principal players are well-served (ironically, it's not until Jo's farewell that Sloman and producer Barry Letts manage to successfully showcase the UNIT family, as they'd first attempted two years earlier in "The Daemons"), and Katy Manning's departure inspires Pertwee's best performance. He's decisive without being abrasive (his "stop winding" at the end of Episode 1 is reminiscent of his "cut it open" cliffhanger in "Ambassadors of Death"), and he's permitted not only to exercise his fighting skills, but to flex his comic muscles: on a wild visit to Metebelis III in Episode 1, and posing as a milkman and a cleaning lady later on. The script has all the Pertwee-era staples: its topical concerns; its reliance on mind control as a plot device; some distractingly low-rent CSO; and, of course, its pervasive chauvinism. (In Part 4, when Jo takes off in search of a specimen needed for an experiment, the serial thinks it's showing her initiative and pluck, but it's really about Jo feeling the need to prove herself, and doing so by being foolhardy.) But its flaws are swept away by Briant's work, which is a fascinating hybrid. In its footage of factories and quarries, and its use of Welsh extras who are determinedly rough around the edges, it's got that familiar "masculine" look that the Pertwee era fed on. But it's offset by a gentility in pacing and tone; it's one of the most civilized of serials. It's a world where the principals dine out -- and dress for dinner -- while the villains, engaged in polite conversation about destroying mankind, hum Chopin and Beethoven. Where even the altercations are well-mannered: "Are you threatening me?" "Yes, I believe I am." It's admirably low-key -- and that delicacy and restraint, set against a backdrop of miners and picketers and industrial waste, gives it a duality that's almost hypnotic. And because Briant has been so even-handed, when the time comes (in the concluding chapter) for the corporate mogul to turn on his mechanical master, and for the computer to go haywire, Briant's able to pull out all the visual stops and make a familiar story-beat seem fresh -- as he's been doing throughout. Despite so many standard and potentially stale elements, "The Green Death" doesn't feel like any other work in the classic canon. Briant lulls you -- as BOSS does his victims -- into a sense of complacency; he whispers, "Watch this," and you're helpless to resist.

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

3 comments:

  1. I'm a fan of most of these too. I'm surprised Delgado doesn't get a mention in Sea Devils as he is glorious throughout and I love the CVs minus doors that stand in for prison cars. What about that goat farting music too? I also agree that Pertwee is very good in S11 and find him and Sladen a charming team (even if the Tom Baker/Sladen one is better still). I respect your views on Death to the Daleks but I find that a plod to sit through, I'm afraid!

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    1. You're right: I should have mentioned Delgado in "Sea Devils." As I noted in Part 1, though, I find him a delight throughout his time on Doctor Who; in these capsule reviews, I tended to focus on performances that were unusual or surprising or noteworthy in some way. He's so consistently good I probably don't mention him enough in these reviews! Anyway, glad you enjoyed. I know "Dinosaurs" and "Claws" usually get dismissed or mocked, but I find them entertaining. I watched "Claws" after hearing so many awful things said about it; as I watched, I was entranced by the design and direction. I see all the flaws, but when something's that visual captivating, who cares? It was interesting that on the "Claws" DVD commentary, everyone seems to apologize for the story, as if someone the serials surrounding it -- that are filled with social commentary -- are somehow "better." But for me, the serials that depend on (and occasionally get bogged down in ) social commentary don't hold up as well, after 45 years, as the stories that simply aim to be fun (like "Sea Devils") or visually stimulating (like "Claws" and "Death").

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    2. For me, the social commentary ones feel like my childhood. I remember the mining disputes and pit closures that Green Death kind of predicted and the show has always reflected the British culture of the time so for me they work on two levels of fun and personal history. Once again, a bonus of being a Brit viewer, I guess. It's also a very BBC thing, especially in the 70s and 80s. Looking forward to seeing what your top ones are.

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