Thursday, July 6, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#110 - #101)

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.) Once again, a great example of how some of my opinions veer from the "norm." This next ten includes three (#103, #106, #107) considered among the First, Second and Fifth Doctors' worst, which I can't bring myself to hate nearly as much as many do. (Their flaws are clear, but in each, there are elements I admire.) Oh, and the story that fanzines often cite as the single best classic serial, which just misses my top 100.

110. The Chase (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Richard Martin
The first Dalek romp. It's Nation's follow-up to his first-season "Keys to Marinus," once again reimagining Doctor Who as variety show, where each week has a different setting and tone. The difference is that in "The Chase," some of the weeks actually work. The opening installment is echt Hartnell: ten or twelve minutes of the Doctor and his companions enjoying themselves aboard the TARDIS (here, reliving scenes from history on the "time television" the Doctor nicked from the Space Museum) and the rest exploring an alien planet. (The scene of Barbara and the Doctor sunbathing on the sand is one of the series' most charming.) In the third episode, we get introduced to Peter Purves, who, in a Southern-yokel role that could easily descend into witless caricature, emerges as a talent and a presence to be reckoned with; Purves then reappears to enliven the conclusion, this time in the role he'll go on to play for another season, that of astronaut Steven Taylor. Episode 4 plants the principals in a haunted house, and as they did in Episode 3 (atop the Empire State Building and aboard the Marie Celeste), they embrace the opportunities for physical comedy, and they're a pleasure. Hartnell and Russell, in particular, have a few inspired moments: the Doctor, after chiding Ian for his lack of bravery, beating a hasty retreat when Frankenstein's monster appears; the two of them making their way down a flight of stairs, but avoiding the precarious final step by lunging back in perfect unison, like a couple of song-and-dance men. Martin's work is as uneven as ever, and he makes a particular mess of Episodes 2 and 5; his handling of the former is so amateur that, at one point, you can see a Dalek operator lift his casing over a rough patch of terrain, and he hobbles the latter with a maddening a lapse in judgment. The script calls for a robot duplicate of the Doctor, but instead of having Hartnell assume both roles (and using a double only when the two share a shot), Martin engages actor Edmond Warwick to play the faux Doctor throughout -- and then, unaccountably, has Hartnell overdub his voice. (The man looks nothing like the Doctor, but his companions might be duped by a familiar voice coming from a stranger?) But the failings of "The Chase" -- and they are not few, and they are not minor -- are mostly forgivable. In terms of scenes working and jokes landing, it maintains a batting average of about .500, and for a variety show, that's not too shabby.

109. The Aztecs (First Doctor, 1964)
written by John Lucarotti
directed by John Crockett

One of the sad ironies of the First Doctor era is that, with most of the historicals partially or fully missing from the archives, it's one of the least persuasive ones, the extant "Aztecs," that's gone on to represent "the Hartnell historical." No wonder some people can't get into the period pieces, if their first (and perhaps only) exposure to them is "The Aztecs." The Doctor and his companions land in 16th-century Mexico, where Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the god Yetaxa. As a history teacher, she's acutely aware of the Aztecs' propensity for, as Susan puts it, "beauty and horror developing hand-in-hand" (not unlike most other cultures, mind you) -- and yet, a mere thirteen minutes into Episode 1, Barbara decides to change all that: not just while she's there posing as their god, but for all time. She's going to make them a "better" race. It's like a madwoman possessed this once reasonable and intelligent schoolteacher, who understands exactly how civilizations existed and prospered and perished, the good alongside the bad -- but suddenly Barbara has decided to redo an entire culture to satisfy her perceived moral superiority. A deity for thirteen minutes, and Barbara develops a god complex. She insists a sacrifice be halted; she's unsuccessful (the man wants to be sacrificed -- it's an honor, as Barbara should have known -- so he plunges to his death), and Barbara winds up, needlessly, making a dangerous enemy. Barbara's idiocy quickly proves contagious. After the sacrifice debacle, where you'd think the take-away would be "don't make waves," Ian, drafted into the army, uses his modern-day knowledge of physiology to knock out a fellow warrior (just because he got on his nerves), thereby antagonizing him. Lucarotti's internal dialogue, while devising the serial, seems to have been, "How do we create drama?" "I don't know: how about if the principals all act out-of-character and go around pissing off the Aztecs, one by one?" "Brilliant!" Not to be outdone, Susan, who's being taught the local manners and traditions, can't even get through her first lesson without balking at the Aztecs' marriage custom: wailing to the High Priest of Knowledge, "I'm not going to be told who to marry. It's my life, I'll spend it with whom I choose, not someone picked out for me!" -- as if she's already forgotten that the plan is to get the hell out of Mexico as soon as possible, not stick around through her childbearing years. Meanwhile, the Doctor is busy conning a kind and lonely woman in order to find a route back to the TARDIS, perfectly happy to toy with her affections to get what he wants. They're a reckless crew, this Doctor and his friends. To be sure, "The Aztecs" looks handsome, and the cast perseveres with dignity through even the most dubious plot points. But it's a writer-driven rather than character-driven serial, where the four principals are subordinated to the needs of the plot, and the plot itself filled with contrivances, coincidences and the bizarre omission of a couple of key scenes. Not an embarrassment -- far from it: merely among the least of the Hartnell historicals.

108. The Mind of Evil (Third Doctor, 1971)
written by Don Houghton
directed by Timothy Combe

There's every reason to hate this one. The first four cliffhangers are virtually identical. Jo is given nothing to do: held prisoner for episodes at a time, while she's groped and fondled by seemingly the entire male cast. And it's Pertwee's worst performance, the one in which pretty much everything goes wrong. And some of it, it must be noted, isn't his fault. As with all the Doctors, there were things at which Pertwee excelled -- no one could slip in and out of disguises, and stay in character, the way he could -- and there were things that came harder. In his first serial, we learned -- when the climactic attack of the Nestene tentacles had to be reshot, and they still couldn't get something that wasn't unintentionally funny -- that "being menaced" wasn't a good look on him. He knew how to play it as comedy (as he'd show, triumphantly, on Metebelis III), but he couldn't find it in dramatic terms. (He was no more successful with the telephone-cord trap in "Terror of the Autons.") So why write him a script that has him being served up at regular intervals to an alien parasite, forced to mime "terror"? They should have expected exactly what they got: an eye-bulging, jaw-dropping wind-up for Worzel. That one's on Houghton, on script editor Terrance Dicks and on producer Barry Letts. But Pertwee hardly gets off scot-free. During the lengthy periods the script has him bedridden, he doesn't take pains to show pain, or resolve to recover, or anything visually interesting: he goes for "tired" -- he makes the easy acting choice. And he refrains from having to engage with most of the cast by adopting line readings that are inexplicably foul-tempered, even when there's no call for it. (Nicholas Courtney courts him with charm and patience, and in response, Pertwee goes on the attack. It's a strange dynamic that certainly doesn't endear the Doctor to us.) But "Mind of Evil" also boasts one of Roger Delgado's best performances, and that compensates for a lot. In just two serials, he's developed a delivery so facile, and a manner so smooth, that you're quite happy to overlook the lapses of logic in the script. (And his own moment of being menaced by the alien parasite is nothing short of sensational.) In fact, "Mind of Evil" is best viewed from the Master's point of view, since Delgado dominates the serial. If you look it as the story of a devilish rogue who hatches a plot to take over the Earth, dexterously weaving together everything from an alien machine to a prison riot, from a UN delegation to a nuclear warhead, all while staying one step ahead of the bland and boorish hero, it's a much more entertaining serial. Sure, his plans don't come to fruition -- as he's thwarted by a Brigadier and a Captain who are at their most heroic and amusing (Courtney's cockney caterer is a particular delight) -- but as he makes his escape, you're left with the promise of even better adventures to come.

107. Time-Flight (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Peter Grimwade
directed by Ron Jones

The alien entity at the heart of the story suffers from a split personality; in retrospect, it seems an apt metaphor for how Grimwade has come to be seen: as the genius director who decided to take a stab at writing and came a-cropper, with one of the most derided scripts in Who history. But in fact, few of the failings in "Time-Flight" are Grimwade's -- or, at least, his failings aren't all that different from the ones that plague countless other serials. The first fifteen minutes or so actually give you cause for optimism: the TARDIS crew had been needing a present-day, down-to-Earth romp, and this one seems just what the Doctor ordered. Then everyone takes a trip down a time contour, and it quickly goes to pot: low-rent special effects, a hideous painted backdrop, and a plot with so many holes you could fly a Concorde through it. But for every plot hole, there's a compensating diversion: a chipper crew of pilots, or a novel alien backstory, or a really nice scene between the Doctor and his foe-of-the-moment, Kalid, where both parties seem to be relishing the battle of wits. "Time-Flight" is actually the first script to capture the Fifth Doctor in full: equal parts inspiration and desperation -- forever thinking on his feet, always strategizing the best way out of a tight spot. Although Terence Dudley, who'd penned two Fifth Doctor serials earlier that season, had an understanding of how to write for Davison from his years directing All Creatures Great and Small, Grimwade was a better director and a better writer, and he intuitively knew what Davison wanted to do with the role. (It certainly wasn't extolling the virtues of "a well-prepared meal," as he'd done in the previous serial.) Yes, "Time-Flight" is full of lapses in logic and realms of technobabble, but Who fans have traditionally been forgiving of those. But Ron Jones makes it hard. Jones is the only Classic Who director who peaked with his first episode. The start of "Black Orchid" brims with exuberance; it seems to signal the emergence of a solid talent. Then the serial moves indoors from its cricket matches and masked balls, and Jones falls apart. If there aren't a dozen things to focus on, he has no idea how to maximize the few at his disposal -- and worse, he's unable to disguise the flaws that viewers need to overlook. And that's where "Time-Flight" runs afoul. The history books have placed the lion's share of blame squarely at Grimwade's feet, but his biggest mistake was creating a serial that needed a director of his caliber to pull it off. He got Jones, and he was sunk.

106. The Dominators (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln (as "Norman Ashby")
directed by Morris Barry

It's possible to envision a "Dominators" that isn't half bad. You'd have to get rid of the costumes and almost the entire guest cast, which means it's a serial best enjoyed by just reading the script. As you peruse the script, it's unlikely you'll envision the men in strapless party dresses with accordion bodices, or the titular characters in tortoise-shell shoulder pads. As you continue reading, and get to the young rebel who's paired with Zoe, all fired up in defiance of a sedentary society, it's doubtful you'll imagine him played by a pudgy, balding actor with the sex appeal of a squid. And when you come to the two elderly roles, Educator Balan and the Director of the Dulcians, you'll mentally picture an array of great, aging British actors who could play the parts, and probably won't settle on the dull duo cast here. So just read the script to "The Dominators" online, or if you're not really a fan of reading, then sure: watch the DVD. Just try to come in knowing nothing about the serial, so you won't realize that the Quarks were designed to be the next deadly, recurring monster; without that knowledge, you'll presume they were supposed to be cute and cuddly, like box-shaped Chumblies. And without knowing the odious intent behind Heisman and Lincoln's script -- to mock peaceful protesters, to make fun of the "make love, not war" movement -- you'll presume it's an examination of how a pacifist society defends itself against an act of aggression, and you'll accord it a degree of respect it doesn't deserve. And occasionally, you'll enjoy focusing on what's actually happening on the screen, because once you get past the costumes and the casting, there are quite a few things "The Dominators" gets right: some bright, clever exchanges; striking zoom shots and the kind of tilt shots that eluded Morris Barry in "Tomb of the Cybermen"; and one of Frazer Hines's finest Who performances, with a clever reference back to "The Highlanders" that lets you recall the boy Jamie was and admire the man he's become. Best of all: two block comedy scenes with Troughton and Hines -- one aboard an alien ship, where they feign idiocy, and one where they turn themselves upside down trying to rewire a space cruiser -- where they're in top form, nailing every gag like a couple of vaudeville troopers. I say, Jamie, I believe we were the most delectable pair in all of Classic Who. Positively, Mr. Troughton? Absolutely, Mr. Hines.

105. Terror of the Vervoids (Sixth Doctor, 1986)
written by Pip & Jane Baker
directed by Chris Clough

Story editor Eric Saward suggested the Bakers dream up a mystery in space, and the result indulges in the hoariest conventions of the genre -- but it's not without its charms. It's the kind of detective-story shorthand where if someone says, "Excuse me, aren't you Mr. So-and-So?" and the person responds, "I'm afraid you must be mistaken," it means a) they are, and b) they're traveling incognito. Everyone is defined in quick, bold strokes -- including the Doctor's new companion Mel. Mel is shrewd and proactive, and Bonnie Langford is instantly likable. (Oddly, as with her predecessor, Nicola Bryant, she's arguably most appealing in her first appearance). She's relentlessly chipper, but that just prompts Baker to reel it in, and the two instantly share a rapport and a parity that inspires one of his best performances. (It's such a relief, after the abuse that the Doctor put Peri through, to get back to a relationship where the Doctor and his companion seem to genuinely like each other; astoundingly, we haven't really seen it since the departure of Nyssa, three years earlier.) It's a blessedly civilized serial: the Doctor tries to get his way by using charm instead of bluster, and once he's charged with solving the murders, everyone is happy to offer their cooperation. In the style of the great "transportation" mysteries, there's a spot where most of the passengers go to relax, and here's it's the ship's bridge, which has an airy feel that calls to mind Agatha Christies like Death on the Nile. And there's a particularly lovely scene when Doctor, the Professor (Honor Blackman) and the Commodore (Michael Craig) are engaged in strategy, and all three actors are performing in the same style, which is rarer for the Sixth Doctor era than you might think. While the serial focuses on the human element, it's reasonably engaging; once the alien plants start overrunning the space ship, it turns into a garish frightfest. And the trial scenes are as irritating as ever. But the opening shipboard sequences -- and the chemistry between Baker and Langford -- make it a mystery largely worth exploring.

104. Meglos (Fourth Doctor, 1980)
written by John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch
directed by Terence Dudley

There's absolutely no reason why "Meglos" should be as excusable and even enjoyable as much of it is. Well, maybe one reason: Terence Dudley. An accomplished BBC director, he'd ultimately become better known in the Whoniverse during the Davison years, when he turned his attention to writing: serving up scripts that, at their best, seemed as quaint and cozy as two old friends sitting down to tea, and at their worst, seemed as quaint and cozy as two old friends sitting down to tea. Dudley wrote as he directed -- like a gentleman -- and he proves just what "Meglos" needs. Flanagan and McCullough cobble together characters and situations that we've seen a dozen times on Doctor Who, imbuing the material with no distinctive personality, and anchoring it with this premise: the Doctor is impersonated by a cactus. But Dudley doesn't give us "the Doctor is impersonated by a cactus." He gives us a fairy-tale: "Once upon a time, on a far-off planet, there were two warring factions who called upon a wise old man to settle their ancient dispute -- but an evil monster took his place." Dudley maintains an even hand in the scene work that keeps the most unlikely plot twists neatly grounded (the Doctor, at one point, even manages a graceful pratfall), and in unveiling his special effects -- the screens of Zolfa-Thura and, in particular, the slow rise of Meglos's underground lair -- he encourages us to gasp and gawk. The effects don't look quite real, yet they still look impressive: like the products of a child's imagination. Like a fairy-tale. As does the jungle surface of Tigella: the plant life seems about as organic as K9's spare parts, but that artificiality adds to the sense of make-believe. Dudley rounds up a good cast -- not just Jacqueline Hill (her flame diminished, but still commanding), but Edward Underdown, as the Tygellan leader; Colette Gleason and Crawford Logan as a pair of scientists who manage to be blond but not bland; and Bill Fraser and Frederick Treves as the (by then requisite) criminals and conmen: one, a rotund cynic; the other, a gullible wastrel. And Baker and Ward seem game for anything; in particular, Baker (in a return to form that will becoming more apparent and striking in the following serial, "Full Circle") has a couple of moments -- as when the alien Meglos is impersonating the Doctor and being grilled by the Deons, and he has to instantly deduce answers that will aid him in his objective while sounding reasonable coming from the Doctor -- that don't seem like anything we've seen in his repertoire. The serial's charms start to wear thin midway through the third episode, and the fourth barely has enough material to sustain it, but it only falls apart each time the Deons start that irritating chant to their deity: "Thanks be to Ti" -- because apparently, no one during pre-production or shooting noticed how absurd the homophone Ti sounds if you don't have the spelling in front of you. You sit there rolling your eyes as they give thanks to Thai, and perhaps you wonder when someone is going to show up with their order of chicken with cashew nuts -- or that interplanetary favorite, Pad Ti.

103. The Celestial Toymaker (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Brian Hayles (and Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis, uncredited)
directed by Bill Sellars

Detractors have branded the serial "racist," because the Toymaker surrounds himself with Mandarin accoutrements and attire, but is most decidedly Caucasian. But at no point does it suggest that the Toymaker is, in fact, from the Far East; what we see on the screen is a white man with a predilection for Asian artifacts. Are we really gonna knock that? And it's Michael Gough, a formidable presence, who -- in his desire to go one-on-one with the Doctor -- is clearly a precursor of the Master. (The Toymaker offers him power; the Doctor refuses, but calls him "my friend" -- we'll see that dynamic emerge again and again in the Pertwee and Davison eras.) And the notion of the Toymaker living "outside of time" presages everyone from the Guardians to the Eternals. Michael Gough as the Toymaker isn't what's wrong with "Celestial Toymaker" -- it's the Toymaker's notion of fun, which doesn't match any known definition. The Toymaker threatens to turn the companions into dolls, and to strand the Doctor with him, if the Doctor can't beat him at the Trilogic Game, which involves moving 1023 squares from one side of a board to the other. Even in the simpler days of 1966, that wasn't considered must-see TV. And because outgoing producer and story editors John Wiles and Donald Tosh were anxious to ditch Hartnell, we don't even get to see the Doctor strategizing: he's rendered mute and invisible for Parts 2 and 3 (the idea being, he'd turn up in Part 4 played by a different actor). Meanwhile, Steven and Dodo are engaged in games of their own, including the action-packed "choose the right chair" and the tension-filled "find the key in the kitchen." Dodo couldn't be denser in spots, and Jackie Lane starts off the serial inexplicably chipper, with an attitude of dumb delight that seems to be saying, "Oh look, Steven! We're going to get to do something dreary!" But as the weeks go by, Lane figures out -- as Purves understood intuitively -- how to modulate her delivery, to make the serial's presentational style more palatable, and to suggest a sense of urgency and danger. Hayles' original script was largely overhauled by outgoing story editor Donald Tosh, and then revised considerably by his replacement, Gerry Davis. Since Davis pretty much mucked up everything he touched, can we assign him the lion's share of the blame? From the evidence of the surviving episode, Sellars makes the most of what he's given; aside from some very fine performers, though, he's not given much at all.

102. Survival (Seventh Doctor, 1989)
written by Rona Munro
directed by Alan Wareing

After directing McCoy in his best performance in his best serial, "Greatest Show in the Galaxy," which was filmed early in his second block, what must Wareing have thought when he returned, late in McCoy's third block, to helm "Survival" and found that the Doctor had morphed from a man who took delight in everything he came across to one who seems embittered by having seen it all? Was he surprised? Shocked? Dismayed? Season 26 is the apex (and who knows how much worse it might have gotten, had the series not been cancelled) of McCoy and story editor Andrew Cartmel's efforts to turn the Doctor into a darker force than previously imagined. And although "Survival" isn't the worst example of how little that conception played to McCoy's strengths, it certainly proves a headache for Wareing, whom you see compensating again and again for the star's unwillingness to deliver even the most obvious lines with any sense of wonder or surprise. Tom Baker could do angry intensity; McCoy couldn't -- his dourness isn't a decent trade-off for his former joie de vivre. Even the simplest lines are delivered with a snarl; this Doctor has a bleak view of the universe. (McCoy even overplays the exposition -- it makes you long for the days when Pertwee would just throw it away.) But Wareing fills the screen with images of haunting beauty that intensify the struggle between savagery and civilization at the serial's core: the orange sun burning a hole through the drunk-tank pink sky, the barren dunes (captured in expansive wide shots) giving way to enticing lakes. And he has an ace in the hole, who happens to be Ace. While McCoy has lost his way, Aldred has improved considerably as an actress, and she makes the tale of adolescent empowerment touching and even moving in spots. Ace truly seems, as the story suggests, a force of nature. There had been companions who needed to travel in the TARDIS to feel fulfilled; in "Survival," Munro and Aldred give us the first companion who might even be too big for the TARDIS to contain. Its story of Ace's becoming would make this one of the great ones, if the Doctor weren't such a drag. At the end, in a miserable bit of misjudgment, McCoy is called upon to shout to the heavens, arms outstretched, "If we fight like animals, we die like animals" -- and then, if that weren't bad enough, they make him do it again. The McCoy era ends as the Colin Baker era began, with you thinking, "What on earth are they doing to this poor man?"

101. The Caves of Androzani (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Graeme Harper

Robert Holmes hadn't penned a Doctor Who in five years; he compensates by filling "The Caves of Androzani" with enough characters to fill five years' worth of scripts. They're cunningly drawn, but they so capture Holmes's fancy that the Doctor and Peri get short shrift. And there's an annoying incongruity at the serial's core. Holmes admitted, when invited to write the Fifth Doctor's swan song, that he hadn't actually seen any of the Peter Davison serials -- so he figured he'd just write a Fourth Doctor serial, and let the creative team revise as needed. But of course, making necessary revisions weren't where script editor Eric Saward's talents lay (in DVD interviews, where stories are unsuccessful, he's quick to blame the author, as if he were just an innocent bystander) -- plus he himself didn't have as strong a grasp on the character as other writers: Christopher Bailey, Stephen Gallagher, Barbara Clegg, Peter Grimwade, even a second-rate one like Johnny Byrne. So Peter Davison ends up playing the Fourth Doctor, and gives it his all, but if you've fallen in love with Davison's interpretation, you're pretty much left scratching your head. Early on, the Doctor and Peri are arrested and brought before a general, who insists on being addressed as "sir"; Holmes turns it into a quick comedy routine. Of course he does: those kind of hoary gags were a staple of the Fourth Doctor era, as they were well-suited to Baker's galumphing swagger, which could be commanding and detached at the same time. On Davison, whose line readings were honest to a fault, whose responses were visceral in the extreme, they seem all wrong. But as noted, the Doctor -- Fifth, Fourth or otherwise -- doesn't seem to interest Holmes much; in "Caves," he's pretty much an ancillary player: a prop, passed from one character to another like a bag of chips. Holmes structures the plot so that each of his characters has a reason for wanting the Doctor out of the picture. (This isn't telling a story; it's stacking a deck.) Near the end of Part Three, sanity and balance are briefly restored. His life slipping away, but determined to save Peri, the Doctor escapes captivity, seizes control of a ship and pilots it towards a crash landing; Davison lets loose with an adrenaline-fueled speech that gives you a glimmer of what "Caves" could have been. But the sequence is interrupted by three other scenes you couldn't care less about. Peter Davison makes a fine action hero in "Caves," but he has to do it in quick takes -- the camera rarely seems to be pointing his way.

Next, continuing the countdown, #100-#91: arks, airports and armageddon.

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