Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. You can read my overview here; what follows are my top thirteen serials. Top thirteen? Yes, as noted earlier, I could not whittle it down to ten. Or at least, I did whittle it down, but felt dissatisfied: there were an additional three that seemed more flawed, but still worthy of mention. So I'll start with a paragraph about those three -- #13 through #11 -- and then move on to my top ten. It's worth noting, though, that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#13. THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION: The least of David Whitaker's scripting efforts, yet still better than half of Doctor Who. The first two serials, "An Unearthly Child" and "The Daleks," had left the Doctor at odds with his new companions; Whitaker dreams up a two-parter that forces them to work as a team. He offers up a mystery, and it turns out it's the TARDIS dropping the clues, in order to save the crew from imminent disaster; it's a look at a sentient TARDIS that's years ahead of its time. Where "Edge" falls short is in Richard Martin's direction of Episode 1. (Frank Cox handles the follow-up.) It plays to his worst excesses. Instead of "settling" for coherence, he takes his love of strange camera work to an extreme, sacrificing clarity for cleverness. A by-product is an unusual and unfortunate schism between the way William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill are playing the story and the way William Russell and Carole Ann Ford are. #12. THE ARK: The design of the Monoids is atrocious, with Beatles mop-tops, ill-draping rubber suits, beauty-pageant sashes, flipper feet and ping-pong eyes. But if you can look past the Monoids, there are riches in "The Ark" -- starting with the setting: a spaceship so large it resembles a domed planet, manned by all of mankind, shooting toward a new, inhabitable home. The premise is equally fine (the Doctor and his companions carrying the common cold to a strange world and inadvertently reducing it to ruin), and best of all is a visual leitmotif: a giant statue representing the humans' seven-hundred-year journey to their new home. It comes into play several times during the course of the plot and, at one point, turns the serial on its ear. And Michael Imison's direction triumphs over many of the inadequacies in performance, script and design. The legend of the Hartnell Who is that it's slow; Imison makes "The Ark" run like a racehorse. (I discuss "The Ark" in detail here.) #11. THE TENTH PLANET: The nuts-and-bolts Cyberman design is brilliant; they're all the more terrifying for having features that are recognizably human. And thanks to director Derek Martinus, the suspense never lets up; in fact, he achieves a bit of a miracle at the end of Episode 3, during the countdown to release a bomb that will destroy the planet Mondas (and possibly do irreparable damage to Earth and its inhabitants). The Doctor and his companions have tried to sabotage the launch mechanism, but it's unclear if they've succeeded; although logic tells you the TARDIS team will prevail, Martinus ramps up the tension so thoroughly that you're briefly convinced that whole planets are about to blow. What diffuses "The Tenth Planet" is that the Doctor and his companions are so ill-served. Polly is reduced to pouring coffee; the Doctor, sidelined by Hartnell's illness and the story-line, doesn't do much of anything at all. And by Episode 3, sailor Ben is rendered unrecognizable: he's gained such an instant grasp of futuristic technology that he's barking out instructions to the other scientists. "The Tenth Planet" is a taut adventure yarn, but if you're looking to spend some quality time with the Doctor, Ben and Polly before saying goodbye, look elsewhere.

#10. THE GUNFIGHTERS
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

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

#9. GALAXY 4
written by William Emms
directed by Derek Martinus

Sometimes good Who adventures are elevated by a combination of instinct, artistry and luck. "Galaxy 4" is a straightforward adventure that might have been unremarkable if not for several factors. Outgoing producer Verity Lambert, saving one of her best ideas for last, suggested that the antagonists, the Drahvins, be all female, an inspiration that transformed the serial. The icy blonde warrior race (led by Stephanie Bidmead as Maaga, in a chilling performance that at one point all but consumes the small screen) proves so memorable, it's a shame they were never given a follow-up. The stroke of luck, awful as it is to call it that, is that original director Mervyn Pinfield fell ill during initial filming at Ealing, and Derek Martinus -- in his first Who assignment -- was recruited to step in. And thus the artistry: Pinfield was a serviceable old-timer; Martinus, fresh out of the BBC internal directors' training course, was a gifted up-and-comer. By his next serial, he'd blossom into one of Who's best directors, but even here -- working with sets and set-ups that initiated with another -- he reveals a gift of sustaining tension through even the most cumbersome exposition. The Doctor describes the Drahvin ship as primitive and the Rill ship as impressive; the production design doesn't really support that, but no matter -- through Martinus's lens, the Drahvin ship becomes a claustrophobic sweatshop, the Rill ship eerily expansive. He manages to suggest the potential perils lurking in each. The script is nothing special -- a variation on the "never judge a book by its cover" plot that all sci-fi and fantasy series seem to dip into at some point. But Martinus give it weight and shape, and the three principals -- the Doctor, Vicki and Steven -- are well-used. Much has been made about how Emms devised the script when Ian and Barbara were still on board, and then, upon learning of the companion shake-up, transferred Barbara's role to Steven. Purves himself has gone on record as saying the lines felt unnatural, but they don't come off that way; on the contrary, they serve to broaden his character. After a serial of being assertive ("The Chase"), then defensive ("The Time Meddler"), it's nice to see Steven use his brains and his wiles (as Barbara would have). And his inability to defeat Maaga in hand-to-hand combat doesn't make him appear weak; it makes the Drahvins seem that much more formidable. There's excessive moralizing in "Galaxy 4," and it's paper-thin in spots, but that doesn't keep it from being charming -- or effective.

#8. THE WEB PLANET
written by Bill Strutton
directed by Richard Martin

"I've never experienced anything like this in my life before," the Doctor announces in the serial's opening moments. Audiences in 1965 must have thought much the same thing; viewers today might well agree. "The Web Planet" is a work of such dedicated scope and ambition that the results are truly one-of-a-kind. It offers up the most alien environment in all of Classic Who: a world of giant, warring insects; of atmosphere so thick it shines and distorts; of underground dwellers and invaders from outer space. It's the ideal serial for Richard Martin, an imaginative sprite with no idea how to shape a story, but an eagerness to experiment with camera and design. His serials are full of wonderful touches, but they often feel static -- and typically, he runs out of tricks early on. The planet Vortis is the perfect playground for Martin; the story doesn't build any better than his other serials, but the images keep coming, and every five minutes or so, you're dumbstruck by their beauty. (The first time a Menoptra takes off into the air, effortlessly, as if its wings were truly carrying it aloft, if your heart too doesn't take flight, you should just turn in your Classic Who card.) "The Web Planet" is a serial where you follow the images, and that's fortunate, because you couldn't be asked to follow the dialogue: Hartnell seems to be ad-libbing most of it. It's one of his most unfortunate performances, where whole passages seem to escape his memory -- and it's not a particularly good story for Maureen O'Brien either. There's one early scene with Vicki and Barbara that's charming, but it seems to have been added by Spooner (it refers back to his "Romans"); as for the rest, Strutton seems to have written Vicki's part with Susan in mind, and it shows. (It'll happen to O'Brien again three serials later, in Terry Nation's "The Chase.") But William Russell and Jacqueline Hill sell the serial, and then some. At one point, Ian is on a mountain ledge, lying reflectively on his back, conversing with a Menoptra, as if he were just out enjoying a picnic with an old friend. Russell and Hill have to spend most of the serial talking to giant butterflies, but the actors commit to the story-line so completely that it reflects well on the characters they play. Ian and Barbara seem at their most accepting and compassionate -- and ultimately at their most heroic.

#7. THE ROMANS
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Christopher Barry

Doctor Who meets Plautus, by way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (then enjoying its second year in the West End). "The Romans" is only the third effort by director Christopher Barry, whose Who career would span seventeen seasons, and it may well be his best work. A proficient story-teller who rarely came armed with more than the basics, here he adopts an easy elegance that keeps the script from growing too frantic or foolish. There's only one spot where his guiding hand falters: a series of quick chases and pratfalls down a long hallway that's a mess of mistimings. Otherwise, he seems to step back and look at everything with gentle fascination, much as Fiona Cumming would later do during the Fifth Doctor era. It's lovely work, full of personality. "The Romans" is best remembered as the serial to add humor to the historical, and indeed, at its best, it's a marvel of tomfoolery. But Spooner doesn't just do jokes. He ensures that the humor grows naturally out of the story-line by setting the Doctor and his team on holiday (a Roman holiday) and letting their high spirits dictate the tone. Ian and Barbara see their vacation cut short (the pair are kidnapped and sold into slavery), and their story quickly turns dark. The Doctor and Vicki don't encounter any real threats till the end, and their adventure remains relatively lighthearted. Because Spooner intercuts between the two -- the frivolity of the Doctor and Vicki's story-line and the starkness of Barbara and Ian's -- he's permitted a duality in his realization of Nero: part lecherous buffoon, part cutthroat killer. And that duality only serves to make him more unpredictable and menacing. The same man who pursues Barbara down palace corridors in search of a quick snog is equally capable of stabbing a man in front of her, to assert his dominance. Still, in 1965, on the heels of the series' somber portraits of Marco Polo and the Aztecs, Nero seemed a bit of a lightweight. In 2016, we're more aware that, in the political arena, blustering know-nothings and serial philanderers can be at once laughable yet deeply dangerous. You could say "The Romans" is a serial that sadly has aged well.

#6. THE SAVAGES
written by Ian Stuart Black
directed by Christopher Barry

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

Next: my top five Hartnells.

4 comments:

  1. Good piece. As ever! If memory serves, The Moonbase reduced Polly to screaming and making coffee, too, but Tenth Planet does have one of my favourite Polly moments, when she shouts at the Cyberleader (Krang?) - rather giving the lie to Anneke Wills 'weedy, frightened lady' (although perhaps that was something she developed from Power onward).

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    1. That is so funny: I actually had a parenthetical clause in my "Tenth Planet" section about how Polly again winds up serving coffee in "Moonbase." And "Moonbase" is worse, because not only does Ben again start acting like a scientist, but so does Polly; they start mixing a formula like they're chemists, and you find yourself thinking, "Who ARE these people?" Kit Pedler certainly knew how to write scientists; he just didn't seem to find average people very useful or interesting.

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  2. I love the experimentation of the Hartnell years, not knowing what you'd get next and while I don't like some on this list (I dislike Galaxy 4 and The Gunfighters), I love that there is such variety. The show was always fixing problems creatively, from Edge of Destruction having to be made to fulfil the initial 13 episode order but with no real extra cash to the rewriting done to give Hartnell more recovery time. I don't think Doctor Who has ever felt so freewheeling since, even when it came back in 2005.

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    1. I so agree. After I finished my Hartnell rewatch, and started penning hyperbolic things like "one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who," I really had to analyze WHY. Because I couldn't claim it was the best written, or best designed, or best directed. But it's got that giddy sense of experimentation that's everything I love about Doctor Who. Not settling on a formula, but on the contrary, seeing just how different the next serial can be from the last. And in some ways, that daring aspect only gets more pronounced when Wiles and Tosh take over.

      By the way, "The Gunfighters" really had to grow on me. The first two times, I was very distracted by the things I DIDN'T like. The most recent viewings, I was able to focus merely on script and performances, and found much to love.

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