Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#130 - #121)

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.) A year or so after I fell in love with Classic Who, I began to interact with more and more fans, and came to appreciate how the community -- at least, the best of it (every community has its jackasses) -- embraced all opinions. With 158 serials to choose from, there was an understanding that no two people were going to feel the same about the entire classic catalog, and so fandom adopted a "live and let live" policy. As I noted in my very first entry, my opinions deviate from "popular consensus" more than most, I suspect, and perhaps these next ten are a good example of how often I seem to offer the "minority report." They include three serials (#130, #129 and #122) that most fans seem to hate much more than I do, and three beloved nods to the horror genre (#128, #126 and #121) that I consider, well, horrid.

130. Time and the Rani (Seventh Doctor, 1987)
written by Pip & Jane Baker
directed by Andrew Morgan
The first episode is a sour one; it feels like the show is turning on itself, as it did through so much of the Sixth Doctor era, engaging in the sort of self-loathing self-referentialism that's wildly off-putting. Here, it's the Rani slipping into a Mel impression, all squeaky-voiced and histrionic, which -- whatever you think of her character -- is insulting to Bonnie Langford. (The Bakers use a character they created to degrade another character they created. That's ballsy.) It essentially says, "She's nothing more than a caricature, easily mimicked." Can you imagine someone saying that about Barbara or Sarah Jane? In one sense, it's the show admitting how the quality of the companions has declined, but it's also a show very willing to self-parody, even if the impulse behind it is cruel. (And while the Rani is skewering Mel, Langford is being forced to scream even more than usual. It's as if, to prop up Kate O'Mara's impression, Mel is reduced to a collection of tics.) Thank heavens, once the Doctor and Mel find their way back to each other -- in a splendid scene where each tries to verify the other's identity, and prove their own -- the story starts to snap into focus. McCoy is struggling to find his character, and doesn't really get there (the malaprops don't help), but he's in good hands with the great Andrew Morgan, in his first Who assignment, who surrounds him with a solid supporting cast and permits them a full range of emotions. There's some delicacy in the playing that, with few exceptions (e.g., Martin Jarvis in "Vengeance on Varos," James Saxon and Carmen Gómez in "The Two Doctors"), we haven't seen much since the Davison era. And like Matthew Robinson in "Attack of the Cybermen" and Ken Grieve in "Destiny of the Daleks," Morgan understands how to set the characters against a barren landscape and retain visual interest; the soft oranges and roses and yellows of the costumes (an unusual color scheme for Doctor Who) are muted enough to avoid garishness, but vivid enough to stand out against the rocky wasteland of Lakertya. And the exploding bubbles are a blast. After the brutal depths of "The Ultimate Foe," this one's definitely a step up; it's a step up, too, from the Rani's previous appearance. Happily, the McCoy era will take a leap in quality in the serials just ahead.

129. The Space Pirates (Second Doctor, 1969)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Michael Hart
It's an improvement on Holmes's last effort, "The Krotons," in terms of clarity and pacing, with characters you can actually tell apart. There's still plenty wrong: the three principals are underused and misused: we lose track of them for large chunks, and when they do appear, they barely interact with most of the supporting cast. And the character of prospector Milo Clancey is atrocious. Nearly every sci-fi show in the '60s was doing its "space western," typically with some geezer who seemed a relic from the California Gold Rush -- so why should Who be any different? At least when they did it on American television (Lost in Space started its second season with a "space miner" much like the one on Doctor Who), they knew the history, and mined the truth behind the fiction; as Robert Holmes writes it (dreadfully), and as Gordon Gostelow plays it (shakily), it's about five steps removed from any known reality. Gostelow, elsewhere a talented actor, is done in by the absurdity of Holmes's caricature, with no idea how to pitch or modulate it. What works particularly well in "The Space Pirates"? Here's the short list: Lisa Daniely, Lisa Daniely and Lisa Daniely. The actress offers up a charismatic performance in a serial that doesn't deserve it. (She ultimately enjoyed a career spanning half a century, but at that time, was best known for the TV adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.) "The Space Pirates" is a tough serial to make friends with. The one surviving episode is the worst of the six, and it's one of the few Whos without telesnaps, which means the reconstructions are static and repetitious. But in the surviving episode, and in the audio, you can make out the effectiveness of Daniely's performance, and she's the one character that seems to engage Holmes's creativity. Her character has made a deal with the devil, and over the course of the serial, we find out exactly the price she's had to pay. To its great credit, we get a lot of strong, commanding women during the Troughton era; here we get someone whose strength is a pretense -- she turns out to be just as fragile and flawed as the rest of us. And Daniely's graceful performance elevates "Space Pirates" from a serial worth avoiding to one worth a (quick) visit.

128. Planet of Evil (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Louis Marks
directed by David Maloney
"It's this damn planet. It's alive. It's watching every move we make." And with those early lines, Louis Marks sets up a mystery: what's the deal with Zeta Minor? But the bigger mystery is: how does Prentis Hancock keep getting hired? He first appears on Doctor Who in a bit part in "Spearhead From Space"; David Maloney then casts him in "Planet of the Daleks" and apparently encouraged by his performance (?), engages him for "Planet of Evil." If you're handed a script where the overwritten lines -- e.g., "A full and immediate confession would save you great discomfort" -- suggest a man in love with the sound of his own voice, hire someone like Milton Johns. If the plot turns on a character unwilling to listen to reason, try an actor who can temper his authority with self-doubt, as Russell Hunter does in "Robots of Death." Hancock is a one-note player whose default emotion is petulance. He instantly halves the serial's potential -- not that it had much to start with. The design of Zeta Minor is so dazzling, you're left dumbstruck, but once the participants leave the planet, the serial -- like the Morestran spaceship -- fails to take off. Small wonder. Marks was given to thoughtful scripts that played as much like character studies as adventures, but the steady stream of scares required of the series' new gothic-horror format were not where his strengths lay. (Only two moments here feel Marks-ian: the Doctor and Sarah Jane referencing Shakespeare as they cross the jungle, and the Doctor cautioning Sorenson, "You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.") He responds to the challenge with a script that's unrelentingly contrived and repetitious. How often can the Doctor and Sarah Jane be discovered crouching over a mummified corpse? How many times can the Doctor be charged with a crime he didn't commit? (The answer is usually "one," but here it feels more like six -- and the final time is the most preposterous: the Doctor actually has to knock someone unconscious to get to a crime scene in time to be wrongfully accused.) And the characterizations, Marks' strong suit, are random and inconsistent. Professor Sorenson is acting odd from the moment he boards the spaceship, but no one notices, because -- for the purposes of the plot -- they mustn't. Salamar alternately mistrusts the Doctor and relies on his expertise: whatever the script requires of him at the time. And speaking of Salamar, we're never certain if he's supposed to be stubborn, inept or intense, but when Marks needs him to, he goes full-on crazy, just so he can attack Sorenson with a previously-unmentioned "neutron accelerator," one that -- darn it -- backfires and serves only to unleash a dozen more menaces. Anything, no matter how arbitrary, to up the ante. At times, you can almost hear Marks despairing, "Well, it's not what I'd do, but I guess it's what they want."

127. The Mutants (Third Doctor, 1972)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Christopher Barry
We open on a foggy, craggy terrain, where an old man in rags is being hunted by armed guards. One of them stops to complain about conditions: "Solos. Stinking rotten hole. Can't even breathe. What a planet." The dialogue indicates we're on Solos, but you have your doubts: from what you can tell, it's more likely you've touched down in the land of Bad Exposition. Your fears are confirmed a few scenes later, when the rebel leader brings us up to speed: "Once we were farmers and hunters. The land was green, the rivers ran clear, the air was sweet to breathe. And then the Overlords came, bringing Earth's poisons with them, calling it progress. We toiled in their mines, we became slaves. Worse than slaves!" So it's another Baker and Martin script where they're tossing around so many ideas, half will have to be spelled out in dialogue. There are worse things. And there are some dodgy plot devices up front: the Time Lords send the Doctor to Solos with a gift, but don't tell him to whom it should be given, because if they did, there would be no plot; the Marshall, made aware of the Doctor's dilemma, won't take the gift to a conference that pretty much everyone in the cast is attending, because if he did, there would be no plot; and of course, the Time Lords don't tell the Doctor what the gift is, because -- well, you get the idea. And again, there are worse things. But then there are the actors who comprise the guest cast, and there are no worse things. You thought the ones in the "The Space Museum" were awful -- well, get a load of "The Mutants." (No serial will come close to topping it, although "Arc of Infinity" will give it a run for its money.) There's Ky, played by Garrick Hagon, with his sculpted cheekbones and stony delivery; as Varan, James Mellor: a neanderthal from the Pre-Acting-School era; as the Marshal of Solos, tubby Paul Whitsun-Jones, who gave the only undistinguished performance in "The Smugglers," and doesn't get any better when working with actors of equal or lesser talent; as the guards, the callow Rick James and Christopher Coll. Did director Christopher Barry lose a bet with Central Casting? The talented Geoffrey Palmer settles on a characterization that's nasal and annoying, and when familiar face George Pravda turns up in Part 2, he bellows like a bull; in "The Mutants," even the good actors get dragged down into the muck of mediocrity. Pertwee and Manning do well, but they're acting in a vacuum. There are nice touches in the script, but you'd do just as well to print it out, make copies for your friends, and have everyone read it aloud. The performances won't be any worse.

126. The Hand of Fear (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Lennie Mayne
"We've been taken for a ride," Sarah Jane moans midway through Part 4. Haven't we all, honey, haven't we all? The final episode is a creative black hole, but in truth, there's been a tear in the fabric all along, and ironically, it's been Sarah Jane herself. For her final Classic Who serial, Lis Sladen gives a go-for-broke performance that never quite comes off. Perhaps she took her cue from her costume -- those red, striped overalls that have become inexplicably popular at conventions -- because she plays much of it like a pouty, naughty schoolgirl. You forgive the performance while she's under the control of Eldrad, the crystalline ruler of Kastria, but once she comes to, the nervous energy the actress channels to convey that she's once more "herself" -- and how violating the experience has been -- is steeped in odd tics and ill-advised double-takes. The first three episodes are largely routine, but at least there's a reservoir of reason that runs through them, and they're grounded by the sturdy presence of Glyn Houston (who, happily, isn't relegated to the role of "the man who doubts the Doctor throughout" -- Houston's character wises up fast) and Judith Paris as Eldrad, who manages to be as dangerously alluring as intended. But once the plot moves to Kastria, it loses all sense of sanity. Eldrad is transgendered and transformed into a mwahahaha villain: his body covered with shiny black rocks, his head adorned with a purple metal yarmulke. (And did the crew bet Stephen Thorne that he couldn't bellow any louder than he had in "The Three Doctors"? If so, they must have lost a fortune.) And from there, we're left with the Doctor and Sarah Jane engaging in a running meta-commentary ("What stupidity is this?" and "I quite liked her, but I couldn't stand him" are two of the best lines) until they save the universe by tripping Eldrad with the Doctor's scarf. The Doctor gets summoned to Gallifrey and drops Sarah Jane off on Earth, and it's supposed to be heartbreaking. Well, it is, but given that Lis Sladen has gone out with her worst performance, in one of her worst serials, it's a sad departure in more ways than one.

125. The Visitation (Fifth Doctor, 1982)
written by Eric Saward
directed by Peter Moffatt
Enter Eric Saward, whose dour outlook was so ill-suited to that of the Fifth Doctor. As a script editor, he had his successes during his time on Who, but from day one, he seems determined to offset the Doctor's breezy optimism with a withering snarkiness, and he doesn't rest until the Fifth Doctor is, as he puts it, "obsessed and depressed." He doesn't deal a death blow to the series itself till Davison's final season, but his impact on the character is evident right away. "The Visitation" was Davison's second serial filmed. The first, "Four to Doomsday," had fairly burst with the "reckless innocence" Davison had said he wanted to bring to the role, but "The Visitation" goes in its own direction: it's the only time the Fifth Doctor seems like a pill. He entrusts Nyssa with creating a machine to blow up androids, and when she succeeds, he complains about the mess she made; he and Tegan get stuck in a mansion, and when Adric pilots the TARDIS to the very room they're in, saving them, he whines, "So, you got here at last." He's petulant and grumpy through most of it, and Davison has no idea how to reconcile that with his vision for the character; the result is an unfocused performance full of promising bits that never come together. And the Doctor isn't the only one with an attitude problem: all three companions give him grief during the serial. But if the characters were accurately drawn, would "The Visitation" be any better? As plotted and staged, it would still be the dullest of the Davison serials. The Doctor keeps telling his companions to hurry up, but no one seems to hurry in "The Visitation" -- scenes seem to go on forever. When they're good -- as in the first episode -- "The Visitation" is very good, but when they're bad, it's deadly. The Doctor, Adric and Tegan keep escaping from one room only to get trapped in another, while Nyssa -- well, poor Nyssa: during Part Two, the Doctor dispatches her to the TARDIS to build the aforementioned machine, and when Part Four rolls around, she's still building it. She rearranges the furniture, she drags a contraption across two rooms, she kicks it and says "stupid machine" -- anything to delay her actually activating and testing it. "The Visitation" is like that; things that could be wrapped up in two minutes are stretched across two episodes. Moffatt directs like a disinterested bystander. The fight scenes are unfocused, the pacing tepid, and all four principals, at key moments, seem to lose track of the plot. Davison has a fine, energetic scene with the alien antagonist, then spends the next little while staring at the ground. (Is he trying to divine the alien's secret? -- killing time till his next line? -- awaiting some direction from the booth? It's hard to say.) There's a fun twist waiting at the end, but it's too little, far too late.

124. The Daleks (First Doctor, 1963-64)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Christopher Barry and Richard Martin

It's the first showdown between the Daleks and the Thals, but the real battle, behind the scenes, is between the two directors: one good (Barry) and one rotten (Martin). Barry was unable to commit to the entire seven-part serial, so for three episodes, Martin stepped in for his first directorial stint. On anything. Can Barry, charged with most of the early episodes, make "The Daleks" so sturdy that Martin can't topple it? Barely. But how frustrating that every time Barry fashions something great -- e.g., Episode 2, with the introduction of the Daleks (imaginatively filmed, with formations and camera angles achieving a maximum sense of menace) and the TARDIS travelers stricken with radiation poisoning (Jacqueline Hill suffering magnificently, as if just forming words takes all her discipline and will power) -- Martin nearly levels it (e.g., Episode 3, the first appearance of the Thals, a woefully uneven set of seemingly uncoached actors). Undaunted, Barry rebuilds with marvelous sequences: the Daleks' synchronized retreat when the Thals arrive, and the ensuing ambush; the Doctor and his companions making their escape to the top of the city; and a trek through a dangerous jungle. Barry even manages to disguise the hollow cynicism at the story's core, where Ian has to convince the peace-loving Thals to fight the Daleks because he and his team need something they left behind in the Dalek city, and can't retrieve it on their own. So Ian, who has functioned as the serial's hero and moral compass, persuades a pacifist population that it's in their best interest to risk annihilation, which should be character assassination -- but Barry and William Russell focus so adeptly on Ian's anguish in making the request that it balances (and even excuses) his arrogance. (And Nation lets him off the hook in the next episode, when it turns out the Daleks have decided to exterminate the Thals with a neutron bomb -- so Ian's self-serving ruse actually saves their lives. It's always nice when moral ambiguity can be wrapped up so tidily.) But then Martin, charged with the final two installments, fumbles even the simplest set-pieces, and none more so than Antodus's unsuccessful leap across a ledge (which sends him plunging into an abyss): as staged and shot, it's unintentionally comic -- it looks like Ian deliberately chest-bumps the guy to his death. And the final assault on the city is reduced to silly, random shots of the humans besting the Daleks -- throwing rocks at one, kicking another -- with no sense of a plan. It undermines the serial, badly: if it was that easy to defeat the Daleks, what have the last seven episodes been about?

123. The Horns of Nimon (Fourth Doctor, 1979-80)
written by Anthony Read
directed by Kenny McBain
It's got one of the worst performances in all of Classic Who, and it's not Graham Crowden. At the top, two men are piloting a spaceship, one of them with the unfortunate habit of screaming his lines. There's an explosion -- and dammit: the loud one lives. The actor is Malcolm Terris, and the script keeps teasing his demise. At the end of Part 2, it appears again he's been bumped off. You rejoice briefly, then you realize: shoot, no, he just fell through a bad piece of CSO. (He returns later that same episode, still bellowing.) Everything in "Horns of Nimon" is loud: the pilot, the explosions, the music (Dudley Simpson's last score: overblown and strident), the eponymous monsters, and of course, Crowden, with his bulging eyes, strutting neck, arched eyebrows and syllable spitting. Everyone is short-tempered, too (even the Doctor and K9 have a tiff), but can you blame then, with the decibel level this high? But through it all, there's Lalla Ward: confident, charismatic and sincere. She's asked to carry most of the heavy lifting, and she does it with grace. There's lovely exposition near the top where Romana befriends one of the kids being shipped to Skonnos for sacrifice. (It's the great Simon Gipps-Kent, the prolific theatre and film actor whose cherubic features would relegate him to playing characters far younger than his age.) Ward and Gipps-Kent are well-paired; you feel watching them that you'd be happy if their scene went on forever -- but of course, the loud pilot interrupts. But in that scene, she starts to move beyond the Doctor's companion and function as the serial's hero, a position she secures by Part 4, when she encounters the elderly Sezom, played by the magnificent Shakespearean actor John Bailey. (He'd last appeared on Doctor Who as Victoria's father in "Evil of the Daleks.") Once again, Ward takes over as protagonist, offering not just an ear, but a plan of action, and it all culminates in her final showdown with Crowden. It's the scene where, famously, he thought it was a camera rehearsal and went to town in a memorably over-the-top manner. But you're not really watching him; Ward's too self-assured: caring yet commanding. She walks off with the scene. There are lots of reasons to beat up on "Horns of Nimon," but it's also a chance to enjoy Lalla Ward in what might be her best Who performance, and that compensates for a lot. It has to.

122. The Invisible Enemy (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Derrick Goodwin
Hot on the heels of Philip Hinchcliffe's budget blow-out at the end of Season 14, and Paddy Russell's ever-stylish hand on "Horror of Fang Rock," then of course "Invisible Enemy," the least visually appealing serial since the Pertwee era, looks cheap. Cheap as hell. But if you're going to let "cheap" trip you up, in terms of your enjoyment of Classic Who, then you're going to dismiss, out of hand, some swell serials. "Invisible Enemy" is not one of those, but it is also not without merit. It's one of Baker's best Season 15 performances, but of course, it's his first story filmed that season, so that's not surprising; you see him growing increasingly disenchanted through the serials to come. And although Baker and Martin have a shaky grasp on Leela's character -- the Doctor presumes the alien organism that's taking over the ship is ignoring her because "it attacks the intelligence" and she's "all instinct and intuition," and even the Professor, after one exchange, comes to view her as a dimwit -- there's a lot about Leela they get right. Her insights in the opening TARDIS scene -- before the Doctor gets zapped -- are spot-on: the sort that he himself would be less quick to spot. She's shrewd, and alert to danger, and able to cut through the neurotic bullshit that trips up the rest of the world. Frederick Jaeger is a bit much, but not offensively so; compared to what passes for acting in Season 17, he's positively subdued. The CSO, once we enter the Doctor's mind, is no great shakes, but at least it's colorful, and there's one moment -- as the miniaturized Doctor and Leela cross from one side of his brain to the other, and the setting matches his scarf and her outfit, and they feel the wind in their faces -- that's quite attractive. And K9, Baker and Martin's greatest gift to Doctor Who, comes fully operational: not merely useful, but adorable. (You're delighted when the creative team decides to keep him around.) And yes, a serial that had been merely undistinguished becomes highly embarrassing in the final episode, when the alien organism morphs into a giant crustacean, who's got a real mouth on him -- but happily, he's only around for five minutes tops, and then they stick him in the fridge, because that's what you do with fresh shrimp.

121. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Fourth Doctor, 1977)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney
The casual racism is distressing; it's the deification of Tom Baker that's ruinous. It's Holmes' second script that season that doesn't call for a companion. Oh, Leela's there, but she's superfluous. There's a supporting cast, but they just keep getting in the way. By this point in Tom Baker's run, his ego was starting to get out of hand -- you could see it in the last few serials, and stories of his self-aggrandizing behavior would, of course, become apocryphal. So Holmes (to make his own life easier?) writes him a story where he doesn't have to interact with anyone -- where he alone calls the shots, and everyone falls in line. Early on, he and Leela are giving statements to a sergeant, who -- in a time-honored Who tradition -- is having trouble processing the Doctor's information. "Flat-footed imbecile," the Doctor mutters, and when the sergeant responds, "What was that?", the Doctor growls, "It was nothing complimentary. Get on with it!" He wants to give evidence, and when the sergeant says, "We'll come to that later, " the Doctor shouts, "WE'LL COME TO THAT NOW!" He wanders all over the police station, interacting with no one. When a man dies, he demands, "Organize a post-mortem. I want an analysis of the organs. Now run along and do as I say -- NOW!" People tell the Doctor, "I wouldn't go in there," and he ignores them. He interrupts an autopsy, and starts doing the coroner's job. Everyone in "Talons" rolls over and plays dead when Baker enters a scene -- it's basically a six-part monologue. He doesn't even look at most of his co-stars as he's conversing with them, but as Holmes writes it, there's no reason he would; there's nothing he needs from them. And Leela, whom Baker abhorred, is reduced to a primitive dependent on the Doctor's tutelage. He admonishes her early on, "I'm trying to teach you, Leela" -- who asked him to? As Chris Boucher conceived her, Leela fit in anywhere; she was lacking only in experience and a broader worldview. Holmes appeases Baker by turning her into a walking joke (e.g., eating a roast with her hands), which only serves to exalt the Doctor all the more. When the Third Doctor, during his first few seasons, went on the attack, it stemmed from his frustration at being stuck on Earth; when the Fourth Doctor, in Season 13, grew moody and irritable, it's because the world was coming to an end, and he couldn't afford the luxury of good humor. But "Talons" is a different matter: it's about letting a star assert his superiority and perceived indispensability. It's about enabling a bully -- and as such, it may be the most unpleasant work in the Classic Who canon.

Next, continuing the countdown, #120-#111: suns, seeds and Sensorites.

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