Sunday, July 2, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#150 - #141)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (To start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) A lot of firsts this time: the first appearance of one of the Doctors, the first appearance of one of the most popular companions, and the first script by the show's most prolific (and many fans' favorite) writer. I kind of hate 'em all. When I did my series of five neglected Classic Who stories, a friend asked if I was trying to make a point that, even in the worst serials, there's plenty to love. Not at all. There are quite a few serials I find unlovable. And that's OK. When I was younger, you could like a show and still dislike some episodes; today, in some circles, appreciation means unconditional surrender -- if you complain about a series, you're not really a fan. I adore Classic Who, but find only about half the serials hugely entertaining. And I won't pretend that all the actors who played the Doctor were equally talented, and of the most talented ones, I don't claim that they're equally brilliant in every serial. I call 'em as I see 'em, but that doesn't diminish my affection for the series. For me, its highs more than make up for its lows, and even at its worst, there's always that delicious and delirious premise -- of traveling through time and space in a blue police box that's "bigger on the inside." And so I can adore Classic Who and still be forthright about its faults -- as I try to be here. The following ten serials are, to my mind, wildly unsuccessful, for an assortment of reasons.

150. The Twin Dilemma (Sixth Doctor, 1984)
written by Anthony Stevens
directed by Peter Moffatt

It's as bad as everyone claims, but not (merely) for the reason they remember. Yes, the basic idea is flawed: let's make the new Doctor verbally and physical abusive to his companion, and mentally unsound, and then give the audience a year to chew that over. But it's just the "year to chew it over" part that's disastrous. The Twelve Doctor era began with much the same premise, but audiences got to see the follow-up, and the growth in the Doctor's character, one week later. And crucially, Peter Capaldi brought such wizardly to the role -- such fiery physicality in showing a mind working so furiously that it was coming unglued, and such vulnerability in asking his companion to support him through a troubling regeneration -- you were quite willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. But Colin Baker gives a dismal introductory performance; in fact, if you'd only seen his one-note, rather irritating guest spot in "Arc of Infinity," you'd be forgiven for watching him in "Twin Dilemma" and thinking, "Well, it's about as bad as I expected." Who history is full of hypotheses that have come to be accepted as fact: chief among them, that Troughton had the greatest challenge in taking over the role of the Doctor (precisely because no one had ever taken over the role of the Doctor) and that Davison had the second-greatest, because Tom Baker had been around forever and, to some, was the Doctor. But in truth, Colin Baker had it harder, because he was coming off one of the finest actors to essay the role, in a serial that featured some of his most rawly emotional work -- and Baker was in no way up to the task of following that. Or to be more specific, he wasn't up to the challenges the creative team presented him with; there might well have been things he could do very well, working without a net, in his first serial -- but we don't see any of those. We see the things he can't do. During his big "mad scene," he tries much too hard; when it's time to convey the Doctor's anguish, he's unable to make it sympathetic. His cowardice isn't funny; his pomposity isn't entertaining. And his work in the final reel is flat and amateur; he seems to have no energy left -- during the meaty moment when his former teacher dies in his arms, his line-readings go limp. And then we're back in the TARDIS for the shot the serial will close on, and he looks like a deer caught in headlights. There are nice ideas scattered through "Twin Dilemma": in fact, the opening scene -- a father terrified by his twins' intellect and lack of empathy -- has a real kick to it. But any merits the serial has (and that's admittedly not a lot) are undercut by asking a star, out of the gate, to indulge in a virtuosic style of playing for which -- at that time, at least -- he has no aptitude.

149. The Krotons (Second Doctor, 1968-69)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by David Maloney
As David Whitaker conceived her, Zoe Heriot was a troubled soul, one who could spout facts for days, but had little empathy or imagination. But as the next set of stories were assigned, it seems clear that script editor Derrick Sherwin told the writers, "She's smart," and pretty much left it at that, because the side of Zoe with life-lessons to learn rarely re-emerges. (Tellingly, when she sees her home city on the TARDIS monitor in "Mind Robber," she refers to it as just that: "my home city" -- no name; it's like her backstory has been wiped clean.) And one of the dangers of defining Zoe purely by her intellect is that with two brilliant minds aboard the TARDIS, Jamie -- after two years of dutiful service-- now gets handed the most tedious of companion duties: he becomes the one who asks all the questions, so that the Doctor and Zoe will provide all the answers, so that we average-IQ viewers at home will understand what's going on. "The Krotons" doesn't just feature that two-geniuses-and-a-dimwit dynamic, it builds a plot around it. It highlights it and magnifies it. An irony of Doctor Who is that with so much of Seasons 4 and 5 missing for years, most viewers only saw this side of Jamie -- they didn't see what had been lost. But if you watch from "The Highlanders" on, and observe his growth -- in assurance, intellect and wit -- then Season 6, as it goes along, is more than mildly offensive. It's Flowers for Jamie, as everything gets stripped away -- and "The Krotons" is its nadir. The devolution of Jamie -- who, newly-minted neanderthal that he is here, provokes a pointless fistfight five minutes into the proceedings -- isn't the most notable thing about "The Krotons," but it's one of the few that sticks with you. The serial is unmemorable, with bland characters over-acting in declamatory fashion, and a plot that seems both vague and messy. It's Troughton's worst Who performance; evidently aware of the tripe he was handed, he mugs incessantly, reducing his patented look of flustered horror from a character trait to a can't-miss gag. "The Krotons" was the first Troughton since "Underwater Menace" to see its ratings decline each week it aired -- and not a subtle decline, as with "Underwater": over 20% of its viewership bailed between the first episode and the last. Ratings are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but here it's apt: the two worst Troughtons had the worst audience retention. Power to the people.

148. The Creature from the Pit (Fourth Doctor, 1979)
written by David Fisher
directed by Christopher Barry
The kind of serial you can watch again and again – because absolutely nothing stays with you. Every character, every performance seems a watered-down version of something you've seen elsewhere, starting with Lalla Ward's Romana. "Creature" was her first serial filmed, and Fisher, with no idea what Ward would ultimately bring to the role, writes her as he'd written Mary Tamm, to disastrous effect. The bad line readings pile up like a traffic jam. "Go ahead and kill me": Tamm would have been nonchalant, amusingly indifferent; Ward is just pouty. "That's the first intelligent question you've asked": Tamm would have tempered the insult by being the teensiest bit impressed; Ward seems haughty. "Then what are you doing here skulking about in a pit eating people?": Tamm would have been fascinated by the possibilities; Ward sounds nasty. Tamm balanced Romana's aloofness with a gentle fascination that mirrored our own; it was a feat that in no way came naturally to Ward. But why should it? The series will ultimately play to her strengths – at this point, it simply has no idea what those are. (Amusingly, while Ward is struggling to lay Romana I to rest, David Brierley is channeling her, brilliantly. His "Guard, lift me down" -- commanding yet self-amused, in the best Tamm manner -- might be his best moment on the show.) But Ward isn't even giving the most irritating performance -- not by a long shot. The peasants with their hunched shoulders, long hair and animal-skin robes are unfortunate (chanting "What a haul, what a haul," like Fagin rejects from a casting call for Oliver!); Eileen Way is unimpressive, sort of an Estelle Winwood wannabe; but it's Myra Frances who's unbearable. As Lady Adrasta, she overacts about as badly as anyone in the history of the series, in a performance pitched for the hard of hearing. She's atrocious, with her piercing voice, screaming lines to people a foot away. The memorably awful line readings come often, but the top of Part 4 alone includes favorites like "Fools! You listen to the opinions of an electric dog?" and "No! I refuse! I utterly refuse!" -- not to mention, "It's lies, lies! It's all lies!" and her famous parting words, "No! No! No! No!" Drag queens would have added Adrasta to their repertoire moments after the serial ended -- if the memory of it hadn't already faded.

147. The Underwater Menace (Second Doctor, 1967)
written by Geoffrey Orme
directed by Julia Smith
It's the Second Doctor team trying to replicate a First Doctor story -- and getting everything wrong. It's like a bad "Web Planet" with people, where everything exotic becomes garish instead. Orme was nearly four decades into his career; by this point, he'd apparently forgotten how people speak. Straightforward lines are awkwardly inverted, as if they'd been translated from a lost language, and Smith can't seem to impose any consistency of style in the playing. Redemptive readings suggest that Joseph Furst's mad scientist is a deliberate (and somehow delicious) piece of camp; it's a piece of something, that's for sure. (It's the kind of criminal over-playing that would briefly dominate the series in Season 17.) Only one member of the guest cast does anything resembling credible acting: Tom Watson as Andon, the Chief Priest. A decade into an extraordinary career that would ultimately span nearly half a century, he manages to be quiet and affecting in a serial that's anything but. Three serials in, Troughton is still polishing his character, but he's two steps ahead of the writer and script editor, while Michael Craze and Frazer Hines actually have fairly good outings. Hines's comes at the expense of Anneke Wills, reduced here to damsel in distress; the diminishment of Polly allows Hines to show the dashing assertiveness that would distinguish his later work -- and a couple of his line-readings near the end, when he and Polly fear their companions may have perished, inject a wistfulness into the proceedings that's unexpected. Hines's line readings alone might inspire a redemptive reading of "Underwater Menace," if they weren't immediately followed by the Atlantean chief surgeon, in what's intended as a stirring speech, vowing to move on, "to build a new Atlantis, without gods and without fish people" -- and at that point, you're forgiven for thinking that the fabled city of Atlantis was submerged simply because it was too appalling to leave where anyone could see it.

146. Arc of Infinity (Fifth Doctor, 1983)
written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Ron Jones
Doctor Who's monsters had always been hit-or-miss, but recent efforts had been so bad as to be blinding. "Arc of Infinity" attempts to solve the problem; it ignores the obvious solution -- design better monsters -- in favor of a novel approach. It gives us a pair of backpacking Brits and casts them with two young actors so lacking in talent – so jaw-droppingly awful – that when a giant patchwork chicken with a ray-gun appears on the scene, he doesn't drag down their story-line; there's no lower it could go. (If anything, when he shoots at them, you find yourself cheering on the chicken.) With "Arc of Infinity," we revisit that age-old question first explored on Doctor Who way back in "Planet of Giants": would you sacrifice a friend to save a million strangers? It's the High Council of Gallifrey's turn to debate the issue, but surprise! -- there's no debate. There's not much drama either. "Arc of Infinity" boasts at least two events -- the return of Omega and a return to the Doctor's home planet -- that should be momentous, but the way Byrne shapes the serial, the big events all happen offstage. We keep hearing about conversations held and decisions reached -- we arrive everywhere after the fact. Byrne's no dummy: he's aware of all the issues he's skirting (his characters keep saying things like "we considered that already" -- just to make us aware that he's considered them as well), but referencing conversations isn't the same as dramatizing them. The most wasted moment comes in Part Two when, sentenced to death, the Doctor turns to the Lord President, seething, "I have a great deal to say" -- and then he's promptly carted off. Every opportunity for verbal fireworks is squandered, and director Ron Jones hardly escapes blame: the scenes are slack, the casting miserable, and the special effects brutally bad. (The Matrix, home to the most dazzling directorial display in Who history in "The Deadly Assassin," is reimagined as the sort of squiggly lines that appear on your TV screen when the antenna is misbehaving. In the age before coaxial cable, how many kids spent half the serial trying to adjust their rabbit ears?) Near the end, Davison doubles as the antagonist, and his performance has a gravitas that elevates the piece. But it's the one memorable moment in a serial that's amateur and underwhelming.

145. The Invasion of Time (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by Anthony Read & Graham Williams (as "David Agnew")
directed by Gerald Blake
Soporific. The placement of scenes is so scattershot that it feels like the only challenge Williams and Read set themselves was, "How can we kill a couple of hours?" Tom Baker performs like he has totally checked out; he yells a lot, although he's least impressive when he does, and he breaks the fourth wall so many times, it's a wonder they were ever able to rebuild it. And speaking of building things, the Gallifrey sets looks like something you would have constructed at your local summer theater. Only Louise Jameson does herself proud; whether she's stalking the Doctor or trying to break into the TARDIS or railing against her banishment from Gallifrey, Jameson fascinates in the way she tempers her fury and frustration with a child-like innocence and sense of wonder. And although her banishment pretty much sidelines her for the middle third of the serial, when she announces, "I can survive anywhere," it calls to mind a similar scene from her introductory story, "Face of Evil," when -- after being expelled from the Sevateem tribe -- she rejects Tomas's offer of assistance, insisting, "I can take care of myself." Whether intentional or not, it neatly bookends her time on Doctor Who. Jameson later expressed disappointment that her character wasn't killed off, that she wasn't given a warrior's farewell. But you don't want to see Leela as a martyr; you want to see her as indomitable, as a person who can indeed "survive anywhere" -- how her creator Chris Boucher first envisioned her, in a bold and cunning characterization that seems, just eight serials earlier, like a distant memory. And although the solution Read and Williams come up with for her exit (pairing her at the last minute with Andred, commander of the Chancellery Guard) is as scrappily devised and developed as -- well, as pretty much everything in "Invasion of Time," it's the rare Classic Who decision that works better in execution than in concept. In her brief scenes with Christopher Tranchell, Jameson finds a warmer and more receptive acting partner than she ever had in Tom Baker. (Tranchell seems genuinely entranced to be working with her.) Given the dismal acting from most everybody else in the serial, about the only moments that do convince are their scenes together. Go be happy with Andred, Leela. After four serials where the Doctor visibly hated having you around, and five where the writers mistook you for the village idiot, you deserve it.

144. The Mark of the Rani (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Pip & Jane Baker
directed by Sarah Hellings
The opening sequence -- the end of a work day in an early 19th-century English village -- is extraordinary. It's like the beginning of a ballet, where the performers are engaged in measured walking that will ultimately develop into dance. The spacing of the extras, the pace of their steps (even the dogs seem to cooperate): it feels both fairy-tale and documentary, dreamlike yet detailed, and it's set to an exquisite score by Jonathan Gibbs that could pass for Havegal Brian or Henry Wood. What a shame Sarah Hellings never got to direct another Doctor Who serial. What a shame she directed this one. There are some classic serials that benefit from the writer and director working at cross-purposes, and they include some of the great ones: "Deadly Assassin," "Ambassadors of Death." This isn't one of them. Hellings takes such a reverential approach to the setting, she has no idea how to alter the tone once Pip and Jane Baker send in the clowns. The Doctor, the Master and the Rani seem riotously out of place in this meticulously recreated village, like drunken frat boys crashing a christening. Kate O'Mara shows some restraint, but since most of her scenes are with Ainley, hamming it up horrendously, she doesn't have much to work with. Baker's open-mouthed theatrics when he's almost pushed down a mineshaft may be the worst thing he does on the show (is he channeling Pertwee?), and his presentational style, paired with the Bakers' penchant for over-writing, proves deadly. Early in the serial, informed that they've drifted off-course, Peri wonders if the TARDIS is malfunctioning. The Doctor goes off on a typical tear: "Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning?" Fortunately, that memorable retort provides a clue for surviving "Mark of the Rani." Every time someone says something to the Doctor, imagine him repeating the last word three times, and take a drink. (Guard: "Nobody gets in her without a pass." Doctor: "A pass? A pass? A pass?") Within just a few scenes (Peri provides some splendid set-ups almost immediately, including "I must apologize, the Doctor is a little eccentric" and "He could be anywhere -- even underground"), you'll be on your way to a much deeper sleep than anyone in "Mark of the Rani" is allowed.

143. Revenge of the Cybermen (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Gerry Davis
directed by Michael E. Briant
"What have I done now?" Harry asks early on, when he saves the Doctor from a sliding door that's about to amputate his arm, and the Doctor shows his gratitude by sneering at him. It's ironic since Ian Marter is giving the best performance in the serial -- no, let's refine that: the only good performance. Near the top, the Doctor accurately surmises that it's not a plague spreading through Space Station Nerva, infecting its passengers, but he misdiagnoses the cause. It's not the Cybermats; everyone's been bitten by the bad-acting bug. Lis Sladen is unusually bland; the guest cast -- several of them Who semi-regulars -- makes little impression; and Tom Baker delivers his worst performance from his first two seasons. (He's asked mainly to be mocking and defiant, but most of his adversaries here aren't worthy of his defiance, and he overcompensates badly.) "Revenge of the Cybermen" is an empty-headed enterprise full of endless gunfights and interminable exposition. The battles rage on so long, the Doctor might as well not even be there, and when he is there, he's reduced to gags like "I think my idea is better." "What is your idea?" "I don't know yet." It's like Davis, returning to the series after seven years, is trotting out old jokes, but he's forgotten the punchlines. But then, he's trotting out old villains that he himself helped create and has forgotten what distinguished them. And in a riotous miscalculation, Briant and his art director, the estimable Roger Murray-Leach, decide that since Vorga (where much of the action is set) is a planet of gold, they'll make it all gold, so we get guest actors hidden behind gold masks, shrouded in gold costumes, and camouflaged among gold sets. The result is a washed-out washout: an idea that made sense in theory, but in practical terms, is a nightmare in gold. The only thing that redeems "Revenge of the Cybermen" is Ian Marter, who's remarkable in his restraint. Harry is beginning to enjoy his travels in the TARDIS -- he has a twinkle in his eye -- but Marter ensures that his character is modest in making suggestions, and delicate in devising solutions and encouraging his colleagues: understanding, as an actor, that as much as Harry might rise to the occasion, he can't ever overshadow the leading man. His reward is to be proclaimed an "imbecile," and to be written off a serial later. Doctor Who won't abuse a companion again in such a distressing fashion until the arrival of Perpugiliam Brown.

142. The Highlanders (Second Doctor, 1966-67)
written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
directed by Hugh David
With "Power of the Daleks" having served well as an introduction to the Second Doctor, the creative team needed the second serial to truly launch the character. Unfortunately, Gerry Davis -- the Who story editor who pretty much mucked up everything he touched -- takes a historical leap and lands in a belly-flop. Subbing last-minute for writer Elwyn Jones, who'd barely submitted an outline before being summoned back to Z Cars, Davis did enough research to get by, but no more. The result reads like a high-school term paper, not like a narrative -- and one that eschews the initial setting, the Jacobite Rebellion, in favor of a lurching plot-line heavily borrowed from Robert Lewis Stevenson's Kidnapped. And the key question required of any Doctor's second serial, once the introductions are over -- "What is he like?" -- is disastrously answered. Davis tries to emulate Donald Cotton in tone, but it's like he forgot to let the Second Doctor in on the joke. The Doctor comes off like a sitcom stooge dropped into a historical: donning disguise after disguise, each more absurd than the last, none particularly effectual. At one point, Polly gushes to the Doctor, "You're wonderful," and later, "You're fantastic," but it reeks of scriptwriter desperation, because it's far removed from the reality of what we're seeing. Most of the heroics in "The Highlanders" fall to Ben and Polly, but ironically, as a result of their increased exposure, the serial pretty much marks their death-knell. They were originally engaged (and engaging) as swinging contrasts to the old-school First Doctor; now, absorbing more of the urgency of the plot, with a lead who's already manic and outrageous, their high-pitched performances wear thin. Jamie has almost nothing to do in his introductory story, but you understand instantly why his calmness, warmth and innocence seemed a better fit with the Second Doctor. The best thing to be said about "The Highlanders": if it's ever found, it'll probably look gorgeous. As a listening experience, it's a headache of historic proportions.

141. The Keys of Marinus (First Doctor, 1964)
written by Terry Nation
directed by John Gorrie

You're five serials into the first season. So far, you've enjoyed Doctor Who as horror story, as sci-fi, as character study, as historical drama -- and now, you get Doctor Who as variety show. Is it a format that, like the others, might be sustainable? It's hard to say, since both script and direction are dismal. The Doctor and his companions are charged with scouring a planet for keys, but Gorrie never convinces that the actors are spanning the globe; instead, they seem to be rushing frantically from one set to the next, barely arriving in time for their next entrance, as if we'd traveled back in time to the earliest days of live television. Terry Nation provides one atrocious line after another, starting with Barbara, the schoolteacher, seeing a large body of water on the TARDIS scanner and exclaiming, "That's the sea, isn't it?" (Susan, not to be outdone, spots a rope bridge in Episode 4 and announces, "Look! A rope bridge!") In Episode 3, Ian tries to explain the (uncomplicated) premise to Barbara: "Oh, Barbara, don't you see? It would normally take fifty or a hundred years for a jungle to overrun this place. Now the whole process has been accelerated" -- and Barbara asks wide-eyed, "You mean the jungle is attacking us?" Near the end, one of the guest characters, Altos, informs Ian, "If Yartek sets the machine in motion, then once it feels the full force of the power, the machine will break under the strain" -- and Ian asks wide-eyed, "You mean the machine'll blow up?" No putting anything past these savvy travelers. And the final two episodes, which turn into a courtroom drama, is like Law for Dummies, invoking every cliche of the genre: the amateur sleuths listening at doors and spying through keyholes; the frantic call from the kidnap victim ("They're going to kill me!"); the courtroom confession cut short when the suspect is shot; the wife sobbing hysterically over her husband's lifeless body; the guilty party who gives themselves away with a sloppy slip of the tongue. The cast has no idea how they're supposed to be playing this. Is it melodrama? Is it light comedy? Satire? And the actors -- either from lack of affinity for the material, or lack of rehearsal time -- give some of their clumsiest performances. William Hartnell has two miserable episodes up front, mangling every third line; he takes two weeks off, and when he returns, he's still as bad. (He even trips over the requisite farewell: "I think it's time to go back to the ship.") But everyone's blowing lines, and often reacting visibly to their difficulties. At one point, Jacqueline Hill rushes into a room and muffs the entrance, and her eyes widen with horror, as if to say, "Am I even on the right scene?" Robin Phillips, as Altos, smiles each time he finishes tripping over his words, as if beaming, "I knew I could get it." Episode 2 is the least awful, as the TARDIS crew takes a hallucinatory trip to what seems like a pleasure palace, and Episode 4 serves up the most homoerotic moment in Classic Who, as Ian, unsolicited, gives Altos a thigh massage to warm up his bare legs. But otherwise, as travelogues go, "Keys of Marinus" is the studio equivalent of a train wreck.

Next, continuing the countdown, #140-#131: moonbases, marshes and maypoles.

No comments:

Post a Comment