Sunday, June 19, 2016

Making Peace With Pertwee (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the Jon Pertwee 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 five Pertwees. Just a few words up front: things that struck me after I'd completed my list. As I've noted elsewhere, I'm not the biggest champion of writer Robert Holmes; I admire him, but I don't revere him the way many Whovians do. (Two of his best-loved serials, "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Caves of Androzani," leave me cold.) So it was a pleasant surprise to see that I'd included three Holmes scripts in my Pertwee top five. I quite like his Third Doctor contributions -- particularly his last two -- and doing this series of posts has caused me to reevaluate Holmes's output. And here's my most interesting revelation. When I published my top 25 Classic Who serials last November, only one Pertwee made the list, for which I was lightly mocked by friends and colleagues. It was "Carnival of Monsters," at #14. I'd still include it, but I've come to love one other serial more, as you'll see below. As I look back at that top 25, I'd now place my (new) top Pertwee at #10 in my list of all-time favorite Classic Whos. "Carnival" would remain where it is, and my third-place Pertwee would probably fall around #20, perhaps between "War Games" and "Image of the Fendahl." So the most illuminating thing about this latest rewatch -- which was designed to view the Third Doctor era with fresh eyes, to better understand what my friends see in it -- is how much my estimation of the era has truly grown. That's been lovely. Anyway, on to my top five:

#5. The Time Warrior
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Alan Bromly
There's some hearty laughter that goes on a beat or two too long; the scene where Sarah Jane first enters the TARDIS is oddly filmed and edited; the nods to women's lib are tiresome and misguided; and the final part feels padded. Those flaws are noticeable, but prove minor. "Time Warrior" is a pseudo-historical romp that's devilishly designed and cunningly sustained, neatly establishing a world in which a Medieval plunderer and an alien warrior would become frenemies -- and playing out that odd-couple relationship against the new, burgeoning partnership between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Holmes had to lead off Doctor Who's eleventh season by introducing its eleventh new companion; he seizes on a novel approach that energizes the serial, letting her discover the show's time-traveling premise -- which had long since become second-nature to us -- without the Doctor present. Sarah Jane snoops around a police box and finds herself in the Middle Ages, and is left to her own devices: the character there to "ask the questions" has no one to offer the answers, so she's forced -- while her life hangs in the balance -- to fill both roles. ("Now, it's not a village pageant, it's too elaborate for that... A film set! No, no lights, no cameras.") It lets Holmes establish her quick wits and intelligence, and also allows him to gently comment -- as he so often would -- on the sweet absurdity of the show's conceit. Alan Bromly keeps the tone cheeky without letting it slip into camp; the period dialogue is priceless, and performed full-on by a strong cast headed by the commanding David Daker. And Pertwee and Sladen have instant chemistry. An irony of the Pertwee era: the companion he's most remembered with is Katy Manning, but the ones who inspired his most consistent performances were Caroline John and Lis Sladen. Pertwee was at his best when he was challenged, not coddled, and the conceptions of Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith -- two no-nonsense companions who match him beat for beat -- did wonders for him.

#4. Frontier in Space
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paul Bernard

It's ostensibly Hulke riffing on Cold War tensions, of the interplanetary kind. But "Frontier" isn't really about superpowers poised to strike; it's about The Power of Jo Grant. Katy Manning has never been as striking as she is here, with the warmth and fragility we've come to love now fortified by a tougher hide. As she bursts out of the TARDIS at the top, she's equal parts waif and moll, chewing gum as she informs the Doctor, "Well, I'm never going in that thing again!" And when he parries, she attacks: "Only you could have an accident in space!" (Hulke had already given her new assurance, in "The Sea Devils"; now he gives her an assertiveness that will serve her well in the serials to come.) Later, with the pair imprisoned by the Master, Jo is charged with prattling on long enough for the Doctor to escape. Her monologue has to be winning enough to entertain us, yet inconsequential enough for the Master to ignore -- and Manning knows just how to pitch it, delivering a tour-de-force performance. And finally, Jo and the Master get the rematch we've been waiting for since their first joint appearance, as she shows how far she's come: now able to beat him (twice) at his own game -- and relishing it. Pertwee is also in top form. He was vocal about hating acting with rubber-faced aliens; reward him with some splendid masks that allow for facial expression, and he springs to life. The contours of the script are standard-fare Hulke -- multiple conversations hammering home the same points, the Doctor and Jo being dragged from one prison to another -- but the scenes themselves, mostly two-handers, show off the actors at their most appealing. (There's a nice exchange about a purple horse with yellow spots.) "Frontier" craves a better director, and the best you can say about Bernard is that he doesn't get in the way. But the serial boasts austere yet impressive futuristic settings, and when you place these actors in front of them (not just Pertwee, Manning and Delgado, but Vera Fusek, Michael Hawkins, Peter Birrel and John Woodnutt, in imposing guest shots), it's the Pertwee era at its most charismatic.

#3. Spearhead From Space
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Derek Martinus

UNIT has become such a fixture in the Who-niverse that it's easy to overlook the challenges Robert Holmes faced in penning Pertwee's debut. He had to convince viewers used to spiriting through time and space that it would be fun to set up shop on Earth for a while. He had to sell a reboot that essentially undid the show's premise. And he does so almost effortlessly, with a story that's as much character study as adventure. "Spearhead" is often dismissed with complaints that "the Doctor's hardly in it" -- but that's precisely the point. We don't need to meet the Doctor right away; we expect to like him. The "troubled regeneration" story lets the show first establish the team who'll be joining him, reassuring us (by the time the Doctor is back on his feet) that they're worthy. And not worthy of joining him, in this case, but of him joining them. Holmes not only successfully introduces Liz Shaw and reintroduces the Brigadier, but he manages some nice reversals along the way. The Brigadier and the Doctor previously enjoyed a cordial camaraderie; by the end of "Spearhead," the new workplace environment triggers an amusing alpha-male rivalry. And conversely, Liz starts off as a skeptic, but ultimately, her scientific curiosity and a weakness for the Doctor's charms turn her into his champion. Derek Martinus's previous Who serial, "Ice Warriors," was all grand effects; this one is subtle gestures. He's careful not to overplay his hand or overdramatize events; as his camera fairly floats along on Dudley Simpson's jazz-infused score, he teases as much as he delivers, suggesting that the factories and field HQ's of Earth can be just as tantalizing as far-off alien planets. "Spearhead" promises a look that only rarely reemerges in the Pertwee era (it turns up next during Liz's chase scene in "The Ambassadors of Death"), but Martinus's darting camerawork ensures it's a look so elusive that you've practically forgotten it by the time the serial winds down. As such, it's the best broken promise in Who history.

#2. Carnival of Monsters
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The Third Doctor on a budget, and he never looked so good: proof, if any were needed, that imagination trumps special effects. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had developed a lovely rapport by this point in their run, and as actors, they'd rarely been as radiant. "Carnival" is a cousin to The Twilight Zone's "Stopover in a Quiet Town," but there's nothing quiet about Holmes's script: it's packed with incident. As the episode after the Time Lords restore the Doctor's ability to travel freely, it imagines the viewer asking, "What kinds of adventures are in store for us now?", and responds, "All kinds" -- and then serves up a four-part demonstration, setting us down in Earth's past to illuminate a maritime mystery, then a barren alien landscape inhabited by massive snake-like predators, and finally a far-off planet mired in political paranoia. (If "Spearhead From Space" promises an era that never truly emerges, "Carnival" shows us, proudly and prophetically, exactly where the show is headed.) The whole thing is colorful and celebratory, and there are wonderful images throughout: a giant hand from the sky spiriting the TARDIS away; a diminutive Doctor stumbling out of an alien peep show; a sea-serpent terrorizing a '20s cargo ship. But most of all, "Carnival" works, like so many of the top Classic Whos, because it's in many ways a commentary -- not the sort of "social issues" commentary that underscored many a Third Doctor story, but a commentary on the series itself: on Doctor Who as a show to be watched, as the actors as characters that we view on a big box -- exactly what they become in "Carnival of Monsters." Like most Holmes stories, it's terribly "aware," but this one is aware without being arch. It bursts with an "anything goes" spirit -- while at the same time putting the Doctor exactly where we want him: inside our TV screen.

#1. The Ambassadors of Death
written by David Whitaker
directed by Michael Ferguson
On paper, Michael Ferguson seems an odd choice to direct. "Ambassadors of Death" is a fairy tale anticipating early Spielberg, where aliens come to Earth with good intent, and it falls to us to rise to the occasion. It suggests someone with a light touch and an eye for detail. Ferguson was a "bold-strokes" director; his aim was not to be detailed, but daring. (If he staged a fist-fight, he didn't much care if the punches connected -- as long as whoever took the losing punch could then fall off a cliff.) But the unlikely match of script and director only enhances the serial; Ferguson enlarges its scope in a way that augments its sense of wonder. The set-pieces -- ambushes and shoot-outs and chases -- don't strive for authenticity; they feel jam-packed and oversized, like a precocious kid with his toy soldiers, imagining adventures too wonderful for the real world to contain. And the serial's climax (the unleashing of the eponymous trio to save the day) becomes not merely satisfying but mesmerizing. "Ambassadors" is credited to Whitaker, but history relates that it was mostly written by Malcolm Hulke; Hulke may have crafted the dialogue, but the plot and sensibility are unmistakably Whitaker, and they set the tone for how the early Third Doctor era can work: for how the three leads can team up to solve a crisis, availing themselves of the Doctor's wisdom, Liz's intelligence and the Brigadier's decisiveness. In "Ambassadors," the UNIT unit is a tight one: the Doctor respects the Brigadier, the Brigadier trusts the Doctor, and everyone loves Liz. And oh, what Liz Shaw -- transformed here from companion to heroine -- brings to the proceedings. Decked out in a miniskirt, adorned by white knee-high boots and matching wide-brim hat, she nonetheless manages to be every bit the scientist. Late in the serial, the Doctor and Liz are held hostage, and the Doctor feigns willingness to help build a device for his captors. Liz has a moment of astonishment, then she realizes they're not going to build the desired machine at all; they're going to devise a means of escape. It's never stated, but it's understood -- and understood by us as well. "Ambassadors" disproves the notion that the Doctor needs someone to "ask the questions." Liz is right there with him every step of the way, and the serial trusts us to keep up -- and we do.

Want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years; and offer fuller reviews of five serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders

CBS cancelled Limitless last week; there goes another great TV series, jettisoned after one season. The network seemed to lose interest early on; they never tried a new timeslot to see if a more compatible lead-in might boost its ratings. (Mondays at 10 PM, after Scorpion, seemed a good option.) And ironically, the serialized elements that the network itself had encouraged made it less valuable to them in syndication than their more static procedurals, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, both of which got second-season pick-ups. Limitless's cancellation got me thinking of other worthy shows that disappeared after one season: shows with unexplored potential that seemed, well, limitless. Ten instantly came to mind; here are the first five. If you've read any of my blog entries, you know this list probably won't match anyone else's; my tastes remain emphatically, occasionally erratically, my own. (You also won't find Limitless on this list -- but only because I discussed it, and its brain-twisty brilliance, last November. It's a post entitled "Welcome Home, CBS," written at a time when I thought the network was finally reinventing itself with novel programming; now that it's prematurely cancelled both Mike & Molly and Limitless in the same season, I find myself watching less on CBS than at any point since the late '60s.)

Now and Again (1999-2000): It was "National Superhero Day" a few weeks ago, and I wondered, "Do I have a favorite TV superhero?" And I immediately thought of Now and Again, which seemed remarkable, given that it's been off the air for 15+ years and ran only one season. But for those who watched and adored the series (as I did), it's unforgettable: a family drama turned rom-com, masquerading as a sci-fi spy caper. The brain of a (recently deceased) middle-aged man is implanted into a young, bio-engineered body, cultivated by the government for use in espionage. Except the man wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife and daughter: the one thing his superiors won't allow. That tug-of-war between duty and desire infused the proceedings with a wistfulness and a longing that made it far more emotionally involving than the pre-season network promos led you to believe. Now and Again boasted an astounding cast: Eric Close (as the bio-engineered "Mr. Newman") just before Without a Trace, Dennis Haysbert (as his handler) just before 24, Heather Matarazzo (the daughter) just after Welcome to the Dollhouse. And anchoring it all was Margaret Colin (the wife) at the peak of her powers: never sexier than when frazzled, never fierier than when frustrated -- embodying in her own way the "ideal women" just as Close, with his sculpted torso, embodied the "ideal man." Now and Again was expertly done, but it suffered from one miscalculation. The opening three-parter -- Mr. Newman's fight to save New York City from the elderly Eggman, who engaged in bioterrorism (he kept his poison in an egg) -- promised a fun action-adventure series, one that featured our hero weekly fighting off novel baddies. But Glenn Gordon Caron, who had masterminded Moonlighting and would go on to Medium, intended something less conventional: a series that mixed and matched genres, while keeping the fractured family dynamics front and center. He just didn't let us in on the plan until weeks after the show began -- and the unexpected shifts in tone were initially disconcerting. It took a while to adjust to his approach, and in the process, Now and Again shed enough viewers that CBS couldn't justify its renewal. But it was pure pleasure while it lasted.

Forever (2014-15): Oh, for the days that networks stuck with shows for a few seasons, while they built their audience. I'm not even talking about shows still working out the kinks; I'm taking about shows that come out of the gate fully formed -- impeccably cast, written, directed and performed -- but don't attract enough viewers after six months to demand renewal. ABC gave up on Forever much too quickly, and a season later, after all its new series disappointed or died (including everything they tried out in Forever's timeslot), you couldn't help but feel vindicated. The premise of Forever wasn't novel -- a man cursed with immortality -- but nothing this charming had come along in a decade, and the cast instantly clicked. I've been a Ioan Gruffudd fan since Horatio Hornblower, but no role ever showed him off to better advantage. Henry Morgan, the doctor turned medical examiner, who uses the knowledge and observational skills that his 200 years have afforded him to assist the New York Police Department, called for the kind of intelligence and grace that Gruffudd naturally exuded. You sensed that he and his fellow actors -- Alana de la Garza, Judd Hirsch, Lorraine Toussaint, Donnie Keshawarz and Joel David Moore -- relished every moment they were together: they were in a show with meaty roles, in which adults were given permission to behave like adults. Like Grantchester, another winning series that emerged in the fall of 2014, Forever struck a novel balance between the procedural and the personal, as the cases Henry worked on with the NYPD triggered memories from his past. (The season-long flashbacks sketched in his 200-year timeline, including marriage to the radiant MacKenzie Mauzy, as a nurse he'd met during World War II.) It could have come off as frantic or unfocused, but Gruffudd grounded it all; the show proved as winning as Gruffudd's old-school manner, as warm as Henry's trademark scarfs. Its only flaw: in their haste to move the cases along, the writers too often fell back on having Henry make all the deductions, rather than letting the detectives exercise their own skills -- but it's something that no doubt would have been better handled in Season 2. The passion that viewers felt for Forever was palpable; with its recent release on DVD, that passion seems unlikely to fade.

Secrets of Midland Heights (1980-81): CBS launched Dallas in the spring of 1978, and once it made a ripple in the ratings, the network greenlighted creator David Jacobs' Knots Landing. And when Dallas, late in 1979, surged into a mega-hit, the network ordered up a third Jacobs soap from the Lorimar production company, this one the sudsiest yet. Dallas had served up the greed and grit of oil-rich Texas cowboys; Knots plumbed the fears and foibles of the Southern California middle class. Secrets of Midland Heights, set in a midwestern college town, took its cue from its younger characters, most in that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, when teens feel most invisible, yet every decision seems consequential. The adults had it just as bad: the unhappy wife preparing to leave her husband; the lonely widow fighting to make ends meet. Everyone seemed perched between despair and deliverance: clear what they wanted their lives to be, but clueless how to get there. The cast was uniformly strong, with Lorenzo Lamas and Linda Hamilton heading up the high-school set, and veterans that included the great Robert Hogan (twenty years into a career that continues to this day), plus Bibi Besch, Mark Pinter and Jenny O'Hara. And top-billed: venerable stage and film star Martha Scott as town matriarch Margaret Millington. (Her conniving son Guy was determined to get his hands on her inheritance, and all that stood in his way was his niece Ann. Ann's mother had gone insane, and Guy -- in the series' most delectable plotline -- was happy to drive Ann down the same path.) Secrets of Midland Heights debuted in December of 1980 on Saturday night, a death zone for CBS for several seasons. With a lousy lead-in, little fanfare and a late-season start, it didn't stand a chance, and only eight episodes aired. A year later, Margaret Millington was resuscitated (with less warmth but greater cunning) as Angela Channing on Lorimar's next soap, Falcon Crest. Lamas went straight from Secrets to Falcon Crest, and Besch did a six-episode stint there as well. And four of Secrets' younger actors, including Hamilton, showed up the following season on ABC's King's Crossing (also a Lorimar production), with new character names, but essentially playing the same roles. The folks at Lorimar were good to their own.

High Society (1995-96): Absolutely Fabulous concluded its initial run in the spring of 1995, and that fall, along came High Society to fill the void. It took Jean Smart, so sweetly suggestible as Charlene in Designing Women, and reinvented her as Ellie Walker, an author of trashy romantic novels, a boozy broad who gleefully spoke her mind, however inappropriate the thoughts. (With her leopard-print coats and purple suits and toucan-colored turbans, she was both fashion icon and eyesore.) It paired her with Mary McDonnell as her publisher and best friend Dott Emerson: Ethel to her Lucy, Mame to her Vera, Costello to her Abbott. Dott was ostensibly the sane one, but McDonnell approached her lines with a sense of wonder, then delivered them in a deliciously wry manner. (Smart could say something outrageous and incoherent, and when McDonnell translated -- "Let me see if I've got this straight" -- she'd nail just as many laughs.) High Society was hampered by one initial lapse in judgment; perhaps fearing Ellie and Dott were too far removed from most viewers' experiences, creators Robert Horn and Daniel Margolis saddled them in the pilot with an old college chum (the great Faith Prince, in a thankless role), a sad divorcee who turned up out of nowhere and moved in with Dott. (It reminded you of when Irving Thalberg decided to make the Marx Brothers "palatable" by inserting young lovers Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle into A Night at the Opera, so that people would have someone to relate to.) Prince's wet-blanket character kept intruding in story-lines, dismantling the dynamics, when all you wanted to see was Ellie and Dott unleashed; Horn and Margolis wisely wrote her off after six episodes. High Society showed only patchy brilliance during its thirteen-episode run, but there were marvelous moments throughout, and one bit (Ellie's recounting of a chance meeting with Francesco Scavullo in Ibiza, waiting for a plane from Barcelona, who sees provocative pictures she shot in Massapequa) that's a skitcom classic, its rewatchability akin to "Let's Go to the Mall" from How I Met Your Mother. What a shame CBS didn't give the series half a chance -- or at least a full season.

Swingtown (2008): Swingtown was a promising series that, in a mere thirteen episodes, became an irresistible one. It was initially crucified by critics, who presumed it was going to be all open relationships and key parties. It wasn't. It was a period piece that eschewed both melodrama and titillation: an exploration of married life in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of 1976, as three couples wrestled not only with the fallout from the sexual revolution, but with issues of class and social status that defined the era. At the heart of the story was an upwardly mobile couple (the tremulous Molly Parker and a lovably Neanderthal Jack Davenport, sporting a spot-on American accent) relocating to a more affluent neighborhood, not so much out of aspiration as desperation. In the pilot, they moved into their new home and fell in for one night with the swingers across the street (a mustachioed Grant Show, never more convincing or charismatic, and the astounding Lana Parrilla, equal parts sex kitten and earth mother). In the episodes that followed, they kept returning to them -- but not for gratification: for their advice, kindness and concern. (In the show's cleverest conceit, the swingers were the most grounded and centered of the lot.) And the friends they'd left behind in the old neighborhood (the equally splendid Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), already wrestling with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, struggled to break free from their own middle-class malaise. Every episode of Swingtown centered around an event -- a fundraiser, a housewarming, a night of clubbing, a pool-party; the tone was unmistakably celebratory. But it also mined the quiet complexities of everyday life. It was a drama that understood that our best friends are often the ones who push our worst buttons, that it's possible to wish you were closer to your parents or children and still dread every family gathering. Over its thirteen episodes, Swingtown proved invigorating, addictive and, on occasion, unexpectedly profound.

Next up: five more one-season wonders. A vampire romance, a '70s whodunnit, an '80s sitcom, and more.