Friday, July 7, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#100 - #91)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) As we enter my top 100, I'd like to offer some "special thanks." When I started watching Classic Who in late 2011, I went into it "cold." But within six months, I was anxious to see what others had to say. I wasn't looking for folks to validate my opinions; I was looking for folks with fresh and distinctive points of view, who'd get me thinking about the serials in ways I hadn't expected. When I started my blog in September of 2012, those were the folks who inspired me. I knew I could never be as informed as they were, but I hoped I could follow their example and write from the heart. My deepest thanks to Paul Reed, to Walt Dunlop, to John Bensalhia, to Mike "Siskoid" and to John Bierly. Your willingness to pour out your spirit in prose emboldened me to try; as the five of you know, this blog has been a balm for me, and I will be forever grateful.

100. Logopolis (Fourth Doctor, 1981)
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Peter Grimwade
It's a four-part funeral, and funerals rarely bring out the best in people. But this one certainly brings out the best in Tom Baker. Sensing his time waning, fearing his faculties failing, the Fourth Doctor is a dead man walking, unusually attuned to his frailties and inadequacies ("I'm an ignorant old Doctor, and I've made a mistake"), but forging on. What elevates and sustains the serial is that the Doctor's mournfulness is unmistakable from Baker's, although with Baker, you suspect his gloominess stems from the company he's keeping: i.e., "How did I go from Romana and K9 to this trio of misfits?" "Logopolis" is full of marvelous ideas: chief among them, the eponymous planet, where men calculate the contours of the universe, stemming its inevitable entropy. But when it comes to establishing and serving his characters, Bidmead's work is woeful. Flight attendant Tegan Jovanka wanders into the TARDIS in Part One and gets lost, then instantly gets absorbed into the story-line. Instead of giving her a few episodes to get her bearings, Bidmead gives her lines designed to show her take-charge attitude -- but she's so out of her element, with nothing to contribute, that they become unintentionally funny. With the Doctor trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS, and Adric and the Monitor scrambling to set things right, Tegan demands, "Where are you off to? There's work to be done!" (Thank you, airline hostess: we await your instructions.) When Adric and the Monitor return with a string of numbers that could save the Doctor, Tegan grabs the printout and proudly announces, "Leave it to me!", as if enjoying the rush of a new challenge -- although the task is, literally, holding a piece of paper where the Doctor can see it. Later, when the Master's machinations precipitate the end of all creation, she chastises him, "This'll teach you to meddle in things you don't understand" -- as if he's an unruly passenger who's broken the airflow nozzle above his seat. Every line from Tegan is a howler, and the Master is a loon, running manic through the streets, whining, "You've done this deliberately. You've done this deliberately to deprive me of my prize!" -- like a ten-year-old dragged home early from the county fair. As Bidmead writes it, everyone in "Logopolis" is there to state or overlook the obvious. When the Doctor boards the TARDIS, and it unaccountably shrinks, Adric cries, "But the Doctor's in there!" When he and the Monitor discover that the Master has killed three men, to alter critical computations, the Monitor gasps, "Sabotage!" and Adric adds helpfully, "Murder!" Yet twice they rush through the streets and miss the Master cackling in plain sight. As noted, Tom Baker goes out in magnificent style, but for all the help he gets, he might as well be loading himself into his own casket.

99. City of Death (Fourth Doctor, 1979)
written by David Fisher, Douglas Adams & Graham Williams (as "David Agnew")
directed by Michael Hayes
The shots of Paris are sublime -- with Romana in her Gigi hat and Dorothy Gale shoes -- but what's the point of such a detailed travelogue if the script is then going to offer up such one-note characterizations? The serial takes pains to touch down on our world, in one of our most beautiful cities, then creates characters who are paper-thin, and seem drawn from fiction: the eccentric scientist, the trigger-happy gumshoe, the Count and Countess from some mid-century drawing-room comedy. "City of Death" seems terribly pleased with itself; it's the sort of script where no one says anything simple when they can say something clever -- but that cleverness keeps you at arm's length. And the approach takes its toll on the great Julian Glover. You see him longing to dig deeper -- to make us sympathetic to his character's suffering, or horrified by his inhumanity -- but the bright lines keep getting in the way. His "mad scene" in Part Three -- in which splintered images of himself start communicating across time -- should be dazzling, but it comes on the heels of a "funny torture" scene and will be capped by the Doctor mimicking him and mugging; how far can he reasonably go? Tom Baker remains as blissfully self-absorbed as he's been for most of the last three seasons, playing the fool instead of the Doctor, and here he even gets dialogue that encourages it. (Countess: "I don't think he's as stupid as he seems." Count: "Nobody is as stupid as he seems." The lines are very smart, but are they wise?) The Doctor -- like the script -- takes nothing seriously (so no one else can either) -- until we return to the Parisian streets, and then Baker's focus and intensity reappear. All the location shooting, most of it dialogue-free, captures Baker and Ward at their most earnest and accessible: the shots of them struggling to hail a taxi -- to return to the TARDIS, to save the day -- have an air of urgency and expectancy, and the final scene, as the camera pulls back to reveal the pair strolling through the Tuileries, is enchanting. Anytime you step outside, you're instantly re-engaged, and you realize that somewhere beneath the artifice, there's a great serial where everyone's acting, not merely performing. But Adams and Williams didn't write that script. They wrote the one that's limited by its own calculated cleverness, and as a result, a story that could have been played straight -- and had a little substance -- was lost, and a serial that might have been not only amiable, but welcoming, keeps you admiring from afar. It's like the most wonderful party that no one thought to invite you to.

98. The Three Doctors (Third Doctor, 1972-73)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Lennie Mayne
Having the Doctor attacked from all sides in Part 1 is a shrewd move; Pertwee was always at his best when his character was caught off guard, and it instantly energizes him. And then the appearance of Patrick Troughton energizes him three-fold – his competitive spirit kicks in. What a shame that, in engaging Troughton for this serial, they couldn't get him to come back as the Second Doctor. He's doing Troughton-lite, locking on to the foolish side of his personality at the expense of the fearsome side, and it reduces him to a much more innocuous creature than he once was. It's not Troughton's fault; it's what the script asks him to do: play Pertwee's sidekick, his stooge. Whether he's smacking himself on the side of the head and moaning, "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear," or searching heaven and earth for his precious recorder, he's a bumbler, but a delightful one -- and Pertwee at full throttle and Troughton reduced to caricature balance each other well. Too bad no one else has much to do. "The Three Doctors" feels like the outline for a story that never got properly fleshed out; how much nicer it would be if the supporting cast (Jo, the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton) and the guest cast (a headstrong scientist and a rube with a shotgun) were able to make their own contributions. But none of them add anything; they're window-dressing. Window-dressing, it must be noted, in the ugliest department store in creation. At one point, Jo notes that Omega's lair "looks like Aladdin's cave"; she later calls it "fabulous," the Doctor concurs ("most impressive") and the scientist admits, "Almost worth the trip just to see this place." As noted elsewhere, you can't blame Classic Who, with its tight budget, for looking cheap -- but at some point, when the actors and director got onto this drab dungeon of a set, did no one consider changing those lines? The corridors are bad enough -- overrun with arches of sparkling orange balls -- but when we reach the "fabulous" and "most impressive" main chamber, it's drab gray walls slathered in green, turquoise and pink brush strokes, as if someone started painting but couldn't settle on a color scheme. (Omega boasts, "I created this world through the power of my will." He might have wanted to conjure up a decorator while he was at it.) Still, despite its abominable design, ill use of the supporting cast, and undernourished plotting, "The Three Doctors" has a celebratory spirit that can't be quelled. And although Lennie Mayne manages very little of directorial interest, he nails one memorable moment: the reveal of Omega's true form. As Omega, Stephen Thorne proves a solid adversary, and if he bellows a bit too much in spots -- well, he's forced to speak through a mask, and has been living an interior-design nightmare. You figure he has good reason to vent.

97. Planet of the Spiders (Third Doctor, 1974)
written by Robert Sloman
directed by Barry Letts
It's the Third Doctor's creative team celebrating their own house style, which is as masturbatory as it sounds. If you love the Pertwee era -- the attempts at relevance, the use of CSO, the car chases and boat races, and the Doctor's Venusian karate -- then you'll love "Planet of the Spiders." If you find the CSO more arbitrary and distracting than imaginative, if you find the era's macho sensibility more irritating and superficial than exciting, and if you get consistently annoyed by the creative team's ability to trivialize the very issues they think they're honoring, then run like the wind. (Even if you're a fierce advocate of the show's penchant for topicality and social issues, you'll probably find it hard to justify the treatment of the mentally-challenged handyman whose intellect is boosted by the blue crystal from Metebelis III, particularly when Sarah Jane notices the change in him and squeals with delight, "You're normal!") But as much as "Planet of the Spiders" serves as a template for the Pertwee era, two things lift it above the norm: spectacular turns by Lis Sladen and Richard Franklin. Sladen has abandoned the "woman reporter" primness of her earlier appearances; Sarah Jane seems much more spontaneous, yet the actress's reactions remain as alert and intelligent as ever. And she enjoys a warm rapport with Franklin, no doubt because -- with Mike no longer at UNIT -- it's the first of her relationships that isn't a Jo Grant hand-me-down. They can create something fresh; they convince as friends, and that's lovely. And Franklin is a revelation, with a new ease in front of the camera; take him out of uniform and he's allowed to blossom. You realize watching him here how limiting his role at UNIT had been; everyone else had their defined roles, and he had to be careful not to intrude. Although he had his triumphs along the way, with particularly nice showcases in "Mind of Evil" and "The Green Death," he could never be as brave as the Brigadier, as wise as the Doctor, as lovable as Benton or as loving as Jo. Outside UNIT, he can be all those things. Franklin makes the fallout from "Invasion of the Dinosaurs," in which Yates's youthful idealism proved his undoing, extremely touching -- and it's somehow fitting that, for all the era's macho posturing, one of its last and most lasting images is of Mike Yates's fragility in his final serial, as he attempts to jumpstart his own regeneration.

96. Revelation of the Daleks (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Eric Saward
directed by Graeme Harper
Saward's previous (credited) script was "Resurrection of the Daleks," where the characters were so one-dimensional they were like targets in a video game; you weren't all that surprised when they all got offed. (Near the end, you lost track of who was on which side, and who was attacking whom, and you accepted that it really didn't matter.) In "Revelation," he decides to dig a little deeper: creating a varied set of characters converging on one location. In theory, that's a step up from "Resurrection." But if they're all -- once again -- just going to get slaughtered by serial's end, is that better? It's like a cruel fake-out: "Ha! I can write characters you care about -- now see how much worse it feels when I kill them all." Except it doesn't feel worse, because the setting is so claustrophobic and the mood so grim, you expect a bloodbath. You know this one isn't going to end with a wink and a smile. (Aside from the Doctor and Peri, the only ones who survive are the chief villain, Davros, and the two least interesting characters.) "Resurrection" is a world without justice; "Revelation" is a world with a perverse sense of justice. And an oddly-balanced world at that. Davros spends an inordinate amount of time trying to talk an underling (a brutally bad performance by Jenny Tomasin) into murdering her boss, and when she does, she's promptly destroyed by the Daleks. Her whole plot is a distraction -- but what is the central plot anyway? A lot of characters converge on Davros's lair, and just as they start to get interesting, they're exterminated. It's why, perhaps, one of the best scenes is the one that's not meant to be taken seriously -- where Peri and a DJ defend themselves by blasting the Daleks with rock 'n' roll; in a serial so oppressive, its cheeky irreverence is a welcome relief. Bryant is tremendous throughout "Revelation"; it's one of the few serials where her bold choice to play Peri's experiences as we ourselves might experience them -- as not merely terrifying but genuinely scarring -- pays off handsomely. (She remains the only classic companion who doesn't hit the "reset" button on her emotions between serials: who doesn't easily shake off the nightmares she's encountered.) She finds a perfect balance between tremulous and tenacious. And it's one of Baker's best performances as well, not to mention one of the best-directed classic serials. But in the end, you're forgiven for thinking: that was a lot of fine work -- what exactly did we achieve?

95. The Armageddon Factor (Fourth Doctor, 1979)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Michael Hayes
If you didn't know better, you'd swear the series were still on the Hartnell-era shooting schedule, where serials weren't recorded as one block, but episodes were filmed separately, over consecutive weeks. How else to explain why the first two parts are so sane and civilized, and then it all falls to pieces? Oh sure, there are plenty of times in Who history that the writers start strong and then can't sustain their story-line, particularly in the six-parters, but usually there's a slow, steady erosion of ideas as the serial progresses. Here Part Three comes along, and not only does the plot become a fragmented mess, but actors who had shown both talent and restraint become loons. Remember the Marshall (John Woodvine), the resolute military man haunted by unseen forces? Well, he's just a war-mongering maniac. Remember Shapp (Davyd Harries), his sane and reassuring right-hand man? He's there to mug and do pratfalls. Hayes typically maintains a tight grip on his serials; what went wrong? For one thing, the last-minute rewrites clearly caught the creative team off-guard. How else to explain the Doctor announcing in Part Three that there are no Zeons on Zeos, then Romana insisting two episodes later that if their plans fail, "millions of people on Zeos and Atrios will die"? Or Shapp and Marek going MIA for an episode, then suddenly, when they reappear, knowing all the current details of the plot, without any onscreen communication with the Doctor and Romana? Yet even as Hayes loses his hold on the actors and the narrative, he manages to keep the look handsome and the camerawork clever. Against so many odds, he gives the conclusion of the Key to Time season a grandeur that, for example, Gerald Blake and Ron Jones don't remotely manage in "Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity," respectively: two other serials that, by design, should have been equally momentous. And through it all, there's Mary Tamm, resplendent. Decked out in a cream-colored handkerchief-hem dress, with leather slouch boots and high wooden heels, she looks like a contemporary goddess, and the camera is more than willing to worship her, seeing to it that she's focal whenever she's on the screen. And Baker and Martin (who had savaged Leela so in the previous season) latch onto Romana with ease. She proves just as key to the "Key to Time" narrative as the Doctor, occasionally -- as in the season's best serials -- one-upping him with grace and quiet delight. There's an amusing moment in Part 4 when she, the Doctor and Princess Astra escape into the TARDIS; the Princess goes first, followed by Romana, who then stands at the doorway and gently encourages the Doctor, "Come on!" -- as if without her help, he might wander off. If you're Romanadvoratrelundarand, who graduated from the Academy with a triple first, you don't trust some guy who's 759 years old to remember his way home, let alone save the universe.

94. The Keeper of Traken (Fourth Doctor, 1981)
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by John Black

It gets one thing very right: the clues it drops about the true identity of Melkur, which are perfectly paced and placed. It gets quite a few things wrong, but it's so lovely to look at -- and so well directed – that you almost don't care. Almost. Byrne left script editor Christopher Bidmead with a draft that still concerned two rival factions, a la "Meglos," and as with "Warrior's Gate," Bidmead didn't have the time or the aptitude to do a proper rewrite. Too much of it feels skeletal, with two sets of protagonists (the Doctor and Tremas, Nyssa and Adric) spouting endless technobabble ("Would a binary induction series serve the purpose?"), and a lot of running through groves and tunnels, which is different from the usual corridors, but is it better? Still, "Keeper of Traken," for the clever way it reintroduces the Master, would probably be a minor classic if it weren't for one jarring element: Sheila Ruskin's performance as Kassia. Ruskin overplays it all, like everything she learned about acting she learned from watching Season 17. One of the characters refers to Kassia as "a gifted sensitive," but don't believe it: she's a fruitcake. Her teased hair taking up most of the TV screen, her arms outstretched and fingers spread, she intones dire warnings like "The evil is here before you, before your eyes," and promptly faints -- but everyone just smiles and goes, "Oh, that Kassia." The characters' inability to see her clearly is never convincing, but oh my, it's certainly convenient. The only reason that the Doctor and Adric find themselves in hot water at the end of Part 2, and that the citizens of Traken find themselves at the mercy of the Master at the end of Part 3, is because the council members keep taking her word over that of her stable and sensible husband. (They're a group so incapable of reasoning, debating or even thinking clearly that they make the High Council of Gallifrey, in "Arc of Infinity," look like the Solvay Conference.) The message of "Keeper of Traken" seems to be: when in doubt, listen to the crazy lady, and if all else fails, give her the keys to the castle.

93. Warriors of the Deep (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Pennant Roberts
Some of the most universally slagged Classic Who serials are elevated and (almost) excused by the brilliance of the leads. "The Dominators" would be unwatchable without Troughton and Hines, but it might well contain their most delectable double act. "Horns of Nimon" showcases Lalla Ward at her most charismatic and commanding; it makes it hard to overlook or dismiss. And so it is with "Warriors of the Deep," which offers up one of Peter Davison's two or three best performances. Whatever the faults of "Warriors" (and there are many), it's ideally suited to Davison's take on the Doctor. The Fifth Doctor was a hero not because of any superpowers (he couldn't do Venusian karate, or render a foe unconscious with one touch), not because he shrugged off danger like the Third Doctor or laughed in its face like the Fourth -- but because he was a fiercely compassionate soul who felt compelled to fight injustice wherever he found it. And Davison was precisely the actor to pull off a Doctor fueled by empathy; Mark Strickson has described how Davison taught him "how not to act whilst still acting," and that ability -- that philosophy, really -- informs Davison's performances. You're never aware of him "acting," but he always seems present, focused and -- most of all -- involved: what's often referred to as an "actor's actor." All of that comes into play in "Warriors," which gives him a large cast to engage with, two sides to mediate between, and a no-win situation that, nonetheless, has to be seen through to its conclusion. And it's not just Davison who elevates the serial. Oh sure, the Myrka, one of the most derided creatures in Who history, impedes your enjoyment the first time through; by second viewing, though, you can latch on to better things: an angular score by newcomer Jonathan Gibbs, another striking set by Who staple Tony Burrough, and surprisingly, a script by Johnny Byrne that isn't half bad -- or perhaps more accurately, is only half bad. Byrne's last effort, "Arc of Infinity," was full of incident, but little sense or substance; "Warriors" has some heft. On the flip side, there's a sea of amateur acting from the guest cast; a surfeit of gratuitous deaths near the end, courtesy of script editor Eric Saward; and props that look like they were turned out by a fifth-grade papier-mâché class. But Davison slams through it all in his finest fashion. The serial builds to a scene where the Doctor plugs himself into a computer to save the people of Earth; he's willing to fry his own brain to save humanity, and he's strong and stubborn enough to pull it off. Much has been made of how the ending -- where the humans in the sea base perish, as do the Silurians and Sea Devils -- represents a "failure" for the Doctor. Only the Fifth Doctor could save all of humanity, and have it labeled a failure. It's success that comes at a cost, and the mixed emotions it inspires lift Davison to new heights. His final line reading ("There should have been another way") is particularly splendid, and the last shot of the Doctor, shaken and singed, is memorable.

92. The Faceless Ones (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke
directed by Gerry Mill
Early Malcolm Hulke isn't much different from later Malcolm Hulke: earnest, slow and occasionally maddening. Restraint wasn't his forte, even in his more notable Who contributions, and it isn't here either: his villains are dripping with malice and foreign accents; the airport officials are there only to doubt the Doctor's veracity and impede the investigation. And the young woman conceived as a replacement for Ben and Polly is about as subtle as a succubus. (It's Pauline Collins, who'd go on to become an award-winning actress, but here -- with no idea how to modulate her performance -- she dwarfs Frazer Hines. One of the best things to happen to the show in Season 4 is her turning down the offer to join it.) Familiar Hulke story-telling devices emerge here as well. At one point in Episode 2, a secretary is about to impart key information that could crack the case wide open, but the commandant cuts her off -- thus allowing the plot to continue for another four episodes. (He'd reuse the same bit in "The Silurians," to the same irritating effect.) And it feels like every five minutes, the villains pull out their ray guns; it's peril-by-the-numbers. First- and last-time Who director Mill imposes a stately rhythm that's annoying and exhausting. Several of his long shots are disorienting -- you have no idea what you're supposed to be following -- and the excess of establishing shots is a visual snoozefest. (He keeps cutting to planes taking off and landing, and you wonder if you're supposed to glean something from it, but then you realize it's just his way of saying, "We're still at the airport." After a while, you come to feel exactly as you do at a real airport when your flight is delayed by several hours.) By the end of Episode 3, you're ready to call it quits -- but then things get noticeably better at the halfway mark. The supporting roles expand to good effect, the villains reveal their out-of-this-world agenda, and "Faceless Ones" moves nicely to its conclusion, with some strong women working alongside the men, which is almost a miracle for the Gerry Davis era. The last act is essentially the Doctor bluffing as he brokers a peace treaty, and remarkably, all the people he's converted to his plan are bright enough to anticipate and accommodate his moves. For everything it gets wrong, "Faceless Ones" is the rare Who where the plot resolves itself by people acting reasonably and responsibly. It's one of the sanest of the classic serials.

91. The Ark in Space (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Rodney Bennett

Holmes instantly resets the series; much as he did in "Carnival of Monsters" (the first serial after the Third Doctor got his wings back), he defines the new approach clearly and proficiently. In fact, he almost defines it too well, not merely exhibiting the glories of the era to come, but its limitations. Prepare yourself for horror, and say goodbye to humanity. Holmes' work always had a cool efficiency, a subversiveness that was most welcome in the Pertwee era, which prided itself on its concern: for current events, for the future of the planet, for a group of people who forged friendships outside the office. At its worst, the Pertwee era developed a case of the warm fuzzies, and Holmes was the perfect antidote. "Ark in Space" announces a new status quo; nothing, Holmes insists, will ever feel cozy again. But can a style that was mostly a response to something else be involving in its own right? What the Holmes approach reveals -- with its outreach to adults, and its "gothic horror" homages -- is that without the warm underpinnings of the Pertwee era, it can seem a little thin: an exercise in style over substance. (Small surprise, it's a writing style that played to no one's strengths except Holmes himself.) The serials that best complemented and combatted the new, frostier approach featured directors with softer sensibilities ("Pyramids of Mars") or scorching guest turns ("Brain of Morbius") or, ironically, the return of the UNIT family ("Terror of the Zygons"). But "Ark in Space" has an impersonal director at the helm, and a dispassionate performer (Wendy Williams) in a key role, and there's a hollowness at its core. You understand why Williams was cast, but as the spokesperson for a planet facing extinction (our planet), you yearn for someone who didn't approach matters so clinically. "Ark in Space" is a strangely impassive view of mankind trying to rebuild after a natural disaster. We've had stories before about the end of humanity, and will again in the future, but "Ark in Space" is the only one that doesn't ask "will mankind survive?" It asks, "How will we defeat the monster?" (No one even gets the requisite moment when they despair that an entire race may be obliterated.) Holmes strips away the emotional component, hammering away at the horror (as if scares were generated in a vacuum), and ultimately, the set-pieces -- in terms of tension and terror -- offer diminishing returns. That human element -- which the Pertwee era had too often substituted for good story-telling, and which Holmes seems intent on minimizing -- is mostly missing here, and it's missing through much of the gothic period. "The Ark in Space" is a lean, confident and stylish serial, but it's also a troubling one. Not so much troubling in the scares it serves up, but in what it suggests about the big chills to come.

Next, continuing the countdown, #90-#81: seaweed, sadists and Sutekh.

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