Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#120 - #111)

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 beginning, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) This next ten, I see, includes three serials from Seasons 8 and 9. When my husband and I first started watching Classic Who in 2011, we were armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend. As Third Doctor serials, he'd suggested his first two, "Spearhead From Space" and "The Silurians." "Spearhead" we found enjoyable, but "Silurians" felt endless, and when it was over, we turned to each other with the same request: "Can we move on to another Doctor?" The Jon Pertwee era, or at least what promised to be a "Doctor stranded on Earth" set of stories, wasn't the Who we wanted to view. (Having come to NuWho first, we had been weaned on David Tennant and Matt Smith, with big adventures through time and space.) I obviously returned to the Pertwee era later on, and grew to admire many things about it, but Seasons 8 and 9 are not, to my mind, a high point for the series, as I note more extensively in my three-part Third Doctor essay.

120. The Seeds of Doom (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Robert Banks Stewart
directed by Douglas Camfield
We're told within the first five minutes that the frozen plant pod is "alive," "growing" and "a ticking time bomb" -- so any sense of surprise is pretty much off the table. And within another five minutes, the plant has attacked its first human, and turned them into a walking vegetable -- so in terms of the scare factor, which Season 13 mostly turns on, there's really no place left to go except "how many more victims will it claim?" "The Seeds of Doom" is a joyless, airless affair in which The Quatermass Experiment is reimagined as an episode of The Avengers and called Doctor Who. A man named Chase has the world's largest collection of rare plants, so he's determined to get his hands on the deadly alien pod; his greed outweighs his common sense. His advisers warn him, "I don't think that would be wise," and he insists, "I make the decisions." They caution him of the dangers, but he assures them they'll be fine "if we take the necessary precautions" -- then proceeds to sit six inches away from the killer pod. It's another Classic Who serial where, if the antagonist weren't a lunatic, there'd be no plot; Chase seems to have a coterie of people whose job it is to give him advice he'll ignore. Had the execution been cheekier or brasher, it might have been a little fun, but Camfield (Classic Who's best director) applies his usual even-handed tone, good taste and eye for detail, and ironically, it's precisely what this particular serial doesn't need: it quickly turns relentless and unpleasant, like a gross-out film masquerading as high art. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Sarah Jane are reinvented as trained spies. ("What do you do for an encore, Doctor?" "I win.") They're chased across Chase's estate as gunfire rains down; they rappel down cliffs without breaking a sweat. He jumps off towers, crashes through skylights and smashes his fist in multiple faces. And all the while, as if feats of derring-do come second-nature to a pair of crime-fighters like the Doctor and Sarah Jane, she's matching him quip for quip, wise-cracking her way through danger. "Seeds of Doom" is the unfortunate serial where Sarah Jane essentially turns into another Doctor, something she'd been threatening to do for a while. (You're forgiven for thinking, "This never would have happened if they'd kept dear Harry around.") When Clara adopted the Doctor's skill set and outlook in NuWho Series 9, it was her grief at losing Danny that prompted her foolhardiness and compelled her to test the limits of her mortality; with Sarah Jane, it just seems like lazy writing. Sladen, it must be noted, gives one of her greatest performances in "Seeds of Doom"; she's no longer playing Sarah Jane, but she makes a swell Doctor.

119. The Sun Makers (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Pennant Roberts
In part, your enjoyment of it depends on your tolerance for Henry Wolff's painfully piercing voice. But there's plenty wrong besides a character designed to give you a headache. Robert Holmes set out to write an allegory on British colonialism, finding its way off-world via Adrian Berry's novel, The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe Through Black Holes. But he got distracted by his own issues with Inland Revenue's taxation policies, decided to pepper his script with satire, and ended up writing about not very much at all. It quickly develops into a lot of shoot-outs and chases up and down corridors: all the standard stuff. As in "Talons of Weng-Chiang," Holmes remains stuck in a mindset that diminishes Leela at the expense of the Doctor. For much of "Sun Makers," Leela smiles a lot, as it to say, "Oh Doctor, you're so impressive" (Pertwee would have loved her); in fact, she's pretty much reduced to doing Jo Grant bits from Season 8: succumbing to hypnotism, busying herself by asking "What is this?" and "What are you doing?" and best of all, when the Doctor is cracking a safe, "Is there something behind this door?" There is, and when she and the Doctor enter the safe, she instantly retreats (for no reason), setting off an alarm that knocks her out cold. The Doctor kneels over her body and moans, "Why don't you listen to me? Why don't you girls listen to me?" -- reducing her to every peril monkey from Victoria on. When the Doctor gets in trouble in "Sun Makers," there's never any doubt he'll get himself out of it; when Leela's in trouble, there's never any doubt the Doctor will get her out of it. Louise Jameson is as wonderful as ever (and of the guest players, Roy Macready has a sad-sack sweetness and Richard Leech and Jonina Scott an appealing opera-bouffe malevolence), but it's hard to imagine why this is her favorite of her serials. In Part 4, Holmes, as if suddenly remembering that he once had genuine literary impulses in writing the serial, has the Doctor and the Controller sit down for an lengthy chat, in which the Controller lays out the backstory for the serial, and how it relates to themes of colonial rule and military conquest that have been largely ignored along the way. But then the rebels decide to throw one of their oppressors off a rooftop and cheer him plummeting to his death (they'll make a marvelous society, you think), and the Controller, who's been wheelchair bound for the serial, unaccountably shrinks until you can see, on the seat of his chair, what appears to be an airplane lavatory loo, and he gets flushed down it, along with any attempts at allegory, satire, drama and dignity. In the final, fitting moments, the Doctor banishes Leela to the TARDIS so he can bask in the praise of the masses he has freed.

118. Terror of the Autons (Third Doctor, 1971)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Barry Letts
The new characters -- the Master, Jo Grant and Captain Yates -- seem promising, but no more, and the CSO, still in its infancy, is dodgy: what's the point in animating a murderous doll if, when it comes time for the payoff, it's obvious the victim is holding a lifeless object against his throat, pretending to be strangled? (Even the Cybermats were more convincing killers.) But those are the least of the problems with "Terror of the Autons"; there's something troubling at its core. It's the serial in which the Doctor famously greets his new assistant by calling her a "ham-fisted bun vendor." It's a flavorful line that a lot of folks love, but it signals everything that's about to go wrong with the Third Doctor era. Liz Shaw, the previous assistant, had kept Jon Pertwee on his toes; her character was smart, and the actress was shrewd, and she inspired him to great performances. But Pertwee later remarked, tellingly, "In my opinion, Caroline John didn't fit into Doctor Who. I couldn't really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn't want a know-it-all by his side." What he meant, of course, was that he himself didn't want a know-it-all by his side: the Second Doctor had no trouble traveling with Zoe, the astrophysicist. And it's here, with the hiring of Katy Manning, that the lines start to blur between the Doctor and Jon Pertwee, as the creative team gifts him a softly-rebooted series. It's even spelled out in meta-terms, as the Brigadier explains the hiring of the far less qualified Jo Grant: "What you need is someone to pass your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are." At any point did either of the previous Doctors want a sycophant or an acolyte? But Pertwee clearly wants one, to stroke his ego and lessen the challenge (and he responds to the lessened challenge with his first bland performance). In the new Doctor Who, there's no one to question the Doctor; people can't even finish sentences without him. Jo asks Mike what a Nestene is, and he stammers, "Oh, a Nestene? Er, it's a bit difficult to describe, exactly" -- so that Pertwee can provide the explanation. Later, in one of the serial's most notorious moments, Richard Franklin was supposed to offer up a commonly-held belief about hypnosis, but Pertwee insisted the line should be his. What's remarkable is that the Doctor doesn't merely usurp Mike's remarks. Mike is asking a question, and the Doctor interrupts and finishes the question so he can answer it himself. The format of Who (subverted so often, it's practically a myth) is that the companions asked the questions, and the Doctor provided the answers; in this new version, no one else is even allowed to ask the questions. At the end of the day, "Terror of the Autons" seems to be about Pertwee saying, "After a season of having to play a character, now finally, I am the Doctor -- whether you like it or not."

117. Warrior's Gate (Fourth Doctor, 1981)
written by Stephen Gallagher
directed by Paul Joyce
It feels like a serial made by committee, and by all accounts it was: Gallagher's script was deemed problematic by the director, who then proceeded to overhaul it with Script Editor Christopher Bidmead, with hefty input from stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. (Joyce later claimed he wrote roughly half the serial, but then, he himself was replaced by production assistant Graeme Harper, so who's to say?) It feels like a serial based on images and ideas that hasn't yet been properly fleshed out; all the episodes run short, yet they all feel stretched. The conversations are agonizingly empty, full of spaceship technobabble reminiscent of Kit Pedler ("High-tension cable. We'll run it to his feed point. That ought to boost him." "You want to bet?" "Connect the cable and switch on." "We're closing in on something." "We're heading for a time rift!") and equally agonizing TARDIS mumbo-jumbo that must have delighted Bidmead ("I'm just following intuition." "It's no better than tossing a coin." "What's so improbable about tossing a coin? Never heard of the I-Ching?" "Superstition." "Random samplings that affect the broad flow of the material universe." "The holistic view?" "The holistic view." "Astral Jung.") Yes, you're two sets of alien species, one in a damaged space-craft, the other in a time-hopping police box, both at the point where E-space and N-space intersect -- but could you please speak English? When the two crews converge, and the commander questions Romana if she's seen their navigator, she replies, "Vision is subjective," and when he presses her, she insists, "That's an interesting philosophical question," noting that she herself pilots "with digitally modeled time-cone isometry parallel bussed into the image translator." Lalla Ward looks terribly pleased with herself; you wonder if she wrote those lines, and thought them very clever. (Meanwhile, the Commander and Adric have a contest to see who can give the worst line readings: Clifford Rose shows he can make "Give me a printout" sound senseless, but Matthew Waterhouse tops him by failing to make the word "Look!" convincing.) To be sure, "Warrior's Gate" is full of stunning imagery, but -- unlike a similar cinematic experiment earlier in the season, "Leisure Hive" -- there's no "there" there. It has the air of a serial where numerous people collaborated on the script and, upon filming, prided themselves on their brilliant salvage job. And then, you have to figure, at least one of them watched it when it finally aired and went, "What the fuck was that?"

116. Robot (Fourth Doctor, 1974-75)
written by Terrance Dicks
directed by Christopher Barry
The new Doctor is playful and anarchic: alternately skulking and gaping wide-eyed, as if someone had tossed Groucho and Harpo into a blender. Tom Baker is the best thing about "Robot," a serial that's mostly about giving professional women a bad name. We start with an awful scene in which Sarah Jane presumes the director of the National Institute for Scientific Research will be a man because it's an important post: it's Dicks' chance to say, "See, feminists can be chauvinists, too" -- certainly a high point in Doctor Who embracing gender equality. As she's given a tour of the Think Tank, Sarah Jane spots a door marked "Positively No Admittance"; since she's a driven reporter who doesn't let details like that deter her, she doubles back after the interview, breaking into the forbidden room. And that's pretty much an invitation for the Think Tank director, one Hilda Winters, to go ahead and mess with her head. The director of the NISR is a "bad" professional woman because she's humorless and uncaring. (She's ultimately revealed to be the secret head of an extremist group. Of course she is: she's a bad professional woman.) But the script assures us that Sarah Jane is a "good" professional woman, because despite her drive, and even though she's stolen a man's job, she still has maternal feelings -- which she develops for the giant robot that's being housed at the Think Tank. Sarah Jane's compassion for a mechanical man torn between two pieces of programming is supposed to make her seem admirable, but it doesn't; it makes her look foolish. At one point, she begs the military not to shoot at the robot, as if he's flesh and blood; later, when the Doctor prevents the world from being destroyed, with just two seconds to spare, Sarah Jane's first thought is, "I wonder if the robot is OK"; and at the very end, she only achieves peace of mind when the Doctor concedes, in a doubly qualified validation, "I think you could say he was human." The story gets a much-needed kick in the pants in the final installment, when Dicks briefly apes King Kong, but most of the time, the robot is a laughable little creature, flapping his arms in the air, waddling down hallways, and taken to mock-Shakespearean pronouncements like "Oh, I have killed the one who created me." If you were watching this serial in 1974 with your children, they probably loved it -- but as you sat there grimacing through every second of it, you were probably thinking, "Oh, that I could rid myself of these children."

115. Day of the Daleks (Third Doctor, 1972)
written by Louis Marks
directed by Paul Bernard
In its slow, insistent pacing, it makes the Hartnell era seem positively perky. But that's not a bad thing in and of itself. Marks had had quite a nice success with the First Doctor's "Planet of Giants," which was as much character study as adventure, and he tries to bring some of that light and unforced scene work to the Pertwee era. But mostly it reveals the limitations of the ensemble -- and this is a group beginning its second full season. The Hartnell Four (both with Susan and with Vicki) knew how to mine the character humor without undercutting the urgency of the plot. Here the early character beats are strong, clear and often ingratiating -- Jo exorcising her childhood demons, spending the night in a "haunted house"; Yates pulling rank on Benton by nicking the cheese plate that Jo has prepared; the Doctor sampling Sir Reginald's private stash ("That's a most good-humored wine. A touch sardonic perhaps, but not cynical. Yes, a most civilized wine") -- but there's no undercurrent of apprehension. And when the plot does get underway, the civilized tone from the top bleeds into even the most highly charged scenes, diminishing their spark. Some of that is Marks's fault -- e.g., when resistance fighters from the future mistake the Doctor for someone else, and hold a ray gun to his head, he doesn't say "I'm not him!" (three little words that would settle the matter within seconds); he tells them they're "making one fundamental mistake: a question of identity." (He basically gives them just enough time to shoot him.) Some of the issues are Bernard's, who imposes a consistent rhythm (not to mention a consistent style, making it all look equally unattractive). But most of the failings fall to the cast, who seem game but green. In the Hartnell era, the principals could indulge in their exchanges while remaining alert to the unfolding dangers. Except for Nicholas Courtney, the UNIT personnel of Seasons 8 through 10 have no facility for that -- or at least, they don't manage it until their final adventure together, "The Green Death." When they start to banter, the plot goes limp -- no one seems able to keep it in play, even subtextually. There are strong ideas at work in "Day of the Daleks": the rebels who come from the future to change the past, and the temporal paradox they find themselves trapped in. But the coziness of the serial's tone, which would have worked fine in the Hartnell era, proves -- in the Pertwee era -- continually at odds with the world-changing events at its core. We're talking about altering the very fabric of time, but everyone keeps sitting down to eat instead -- and when they do, they don't seem to have anything more on their minds than the quality of the food.

114. The Silurians (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Timothy Combe
Hulke, famously, was one of the writers least enthused about Doctor Who's new Earthbound format in Season 7, fearing it would limit the series to alien invasions or mad scientists, and essentially took the assignment to prove himself wrong. And to his credit, his premise -- a race of creatures who inhabited the earth millions of years before mankind -- is a strong one; it's simply undermined by the sort of lame story-telling devices that Hulke fell back on time and again. The characters who are obstructive due to attitude or agenda -- thus allowing him to stretch the serial well beyond its desirable length. The supporting player who rushes in, prepared to make a confession (and bring all misunderstandings to an end) -- and is cut off before they can do so. The steady stream of captures and escapes. (Part 4 takes the cake, as the Doctor walks into the Silurian base, narrowly avoids apprehension, and then returns later, only to be seized and taken prisoner.) And all along, Hulke seem to be writing a different piece than the one he's imagining; there's a moral ambiguity he clearly doesn't intend, as the Silurians never seem how the Doctor describes them. Because their masks obscures their faces, they're forced to identify themselves by gesticulating wildly; the young Silurian is so animated, he seems like a nut-job -- so once all the rational Silurians have been wiped out by the young rebels, the Doctor's hopes for peace seem unrealistic. The Silurians infect the citizens of Earth with a plague, but UNIT shouldn't retaliate? And when UNIT ultimately does strike, the Doctor's umbrage doesn't ring true: "That's murder. They were intelligent alien beings. And he's just wiped them out." Yes, they were intelligent alien beings -- who were hellbent on the eradication of the human race, and were led by a young rebel who lacked the capacity to listen to reason. The Silurian leader's final command is "See that the apes are destroyed," and his last act is to try to kill the Doctor -- but seconds later, the Doctor's assuring the Brigadier, "Everything seems to be working quite smoothly. I don't think they'll be any more trouble." You're left with a Doctor who's so keen on tapping into the research of an alien race ("There's a wealth of scientific knowledge down here, and I can't wait to get started on it"), he's quite willing to risk the future of everyone around him. That's pretty much how he came to meet the Daleks in 1963; is this really a version of the Doctor we want to revisit?

113. The Mysterious Planet (Sixth Doctor, 1986)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Nicholas Mallett

After nearly two decades with Doctor Who, Robert Holmes writes his memoirs, sifting through the highlights of more than a dozen scripts: the "two cleverest youths" bit from "The Krotons," the flame-worshiping of "Brain of Morbius," the diverting conmen of "Ribos Operation." He even pays homage to more than one serial that he script-edited. Although it would have been grand to have a "new" Holmes serial, this one will do -- and it does wonderful things for the Doctor's companion. After a season in which Peri is objectified by a series of predators and sadists, it's so nice to see her relaxed and assured and taking no crap. It's encouraging to watch her have a real adventure, and not merely endure yet another trauma. It's equally gratifying to see the Sixth Doctor with a degree of self-deprecation, (finally) not taking himself so seriously. The first episode sets up a solid mystery, as the Doctor and Peri materialize on the planet Ravalox and make their way through a forest and down a cavern into what appear to be the remains of the London Underground -- and all this as it introduces Glitz and Dibber: such an enjoyable pair that Holmes can hand them pages of exposition and watch it all go down easy. It's only once we move into a typically futuristic setting that the story starts to feel a bit stale. And once you realize the serial is going to devolve into another battle between two societies, one ruled by primitives, one by a machine -- and worse, that it's yet one more story with two civilizations forged from one -- you might feel your earlier nostalgia overtaken by a flood of déjà vu and a twinge of despair. But any time you're ready to give up, Holmes counters with a twist that reels you back in. The twists never amount to anything: they're tactics, diversions; the serial, rare for Holmes, has no narrative flow, even without the interruptions of the courtroom scenes. And the courtroom scenes, so far, seem to have no point. The Valeyard puts the Doctor on trial for "introducing a disruptive influence wherever he goes." Isn't that what we love about him? -- and more to the point: didn't we already go through this in 1969? Talk about frivolous litigation.

112. The Sensorites (First Doctor, 1964)
written by Peter R. Newman
directed by Mervyn Pinfield and Frank Cox
Among the glories of the Hartnell era are the scenes where the regulars take time away from their adventures to sit and chat, to reminisce and interact. The creative team asserts that the focus of the show is four people traveling, not the travels themselves. "The Sensorites" begins, accordingly, with a sweet exchange between the Doctor and his companions about where they've been and how they've changed. Pinfield then manages a magical shot of the foursome exiting the TARDIS and entering the control room of a spaceship; it's the first -- and rare -- instance where we actually see, through the open TARDIS doors, where they've materialized, the camera tracking them from behind as they exit (instead of cutting directly to the police box exterior). Newman introduces a trio of crew members who are being held in orbit by hostile aliens called the Sensorites. (One of the actors is a little stiff, but the other two are superb: one whose mind has been taken over, the other who loves him and has been forced to watch.) As they describe their predicament, it feels like we're in for a genuinely terrifying spaceship adventure. It also seems like Newman is going to dig a little deeper into Susan's relationship with her grandfather, countering the crew's reliance on their captors with Susan's growing need for independence. Carole Ann Ford delivers an impressive performance, and Hartnell matches her intensity: frustrated and protective, bristling against her coming of age. (When Barbara declares, "I've never seen the Doctor so angry," you believe her.) Unfortunately, once we leave the spaceship and descend to the planet below, "The Sensorites" becomes a much blander serial, done in – in no small part – by its own premise: that the eponymous aliens are so similar in appearance that one could easily impersonate another. Although Newman strives to give each Sensorite a dominant trait that distinguishes him from his brethren -- and although the actors, admittedly mostly modest talents, stress those differences as best they can – there's an inevitable visual blandness about the serial that all the political intrigue, medical mysteries, and unseen monsters can't overcome. (And it's not helped by the lackluster staging and pacing provided by its two directors.) Although the serial doesn't live up to its initial promise, you're left thinking that those first few shipboard episodes -- expanded to six -- would have made a swell serial. Story editor David Whitaker no doubt thought so too; four years later, when asked to pen a Cyberman tale to close out the Second Doctor's second season, he examined -- as "The Sensorites" had -- the rigors of space travel, and the toll the unknown can take on the human spirit, and did them full justice.

111. Colony in Space (Third Doctor, 1971)
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Michael E. Briant
Ah, Malcolm Hulke: whatever one thinks of his Doctor Who adventures, and their earnest self-importance, no one knew how to write for Jo Grant like he did, and in fact, her growth during her three years with the show can be charted by viewing Hulke's three stories from Seasons 8 through 10. And Katy Manning obviously knew how well he was writing for her, as she responds in all three with luminous performances. Here still shy, frequently scared and occasionally awkward, she's nonetheless beguiling as she experiences her first visit to an alien world -- and the feistiness Hulke lets her show from time to time suggests where he'll take her in the coming seasons. It's the first time you realize how useful she'll be to the series. There's a particularly nice moment when the Doctor and Jo are trapped in an alien city, deciphering hieroglyphics, and Jo is able to show off her curiosity and initiative. (It compensates for the following scene, in which the Doctor announces he's going to buy her from the primitives, and she doesn't bat an eyelash. If you're Jo Grant, whose function so far in Season 8 has been to endure a steady stream of insults, you probably consider indentured servitude a step up.) And the serial gets infinitely livelier when Hulke stops taking himself so seriously: by the time the Doctor is doing magic tricks to escape, you start to see what a lovely pair he and Jo could become. (She sees it too.) That said, it's an odd choice to have the Doctor, after seven Earthbound adventures, finally get his wings back and then send him to an alien quarry; Pertwee's first TARDIS jaunt is the only Season 8 serial that doesn't benefit from being broadcast in color. And once Hulke gets there, he doesn't know how to keep the story in play for six episodes except to overpopulate it -- so in addition to the colonists, we get miners, two sets of alien primitives, a robot, a saboteur, a giant lizard and a puppet. (He manages population control by the end, when the primitives decide to self-destruct, and half the humans kill each other in a Wild West shoot-out. It makes the end of "Resurrection of the Daleks" look like a love-in.) It's a guest cast perilously low on charisma -- with Morris Perry and Nicholas Pennell particularly bland, although Pennell, at least, sports the thick handlebar mustache of a '70s porn star -- and it's one of Pertwee's dullest performances, where about the only thing happening on his face is him endlessly stroking his chin. So sadly, what you're left with for the Third Doctor's first off-world adventure is a drab setting and uninteresting actors. In its battle between big business and the "little guy," it's a commendable effort to take the series' newfound interest in contemporary concerns and apply them to more unearthly settings, broadening the show's outlook without undermining its ideals. But at the end of the day, you're left thinking, "Good for you. Next time, can we go someplace pretty?"

Next, continuing the countdown, #110-#101: flight, fear and furballs.

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