Saturday, July 1, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#158 - #151)

I discovered the classic series of Doctor Who in late 2011; the following summer, it inspired my first blog post. Having since developed a fairly unhealthy addiction to Classic Who, and with my blog still chugging along after five years, I wanted to do something special to celebrate them both: the TV series that's given me enormous pleasure, and the blog that's helped me focus my thoughts, share them with others, and get through some patchy health periods. I wanted it to be a "grand gesture." So I figured I'd rank and review all 158 classic serials, from the ones I like least to the ones I cherish most. (If you're looking for a particular serial, to see where I rank it and to read the review, you can jump right to the index.) I came to Classic Who "cold." I knew nothing of which Doctors and companions were revered and which reviled: which periods were most beloved and which most belittled. But I quickly formed strong feelings about the various Doctors and the actors who played them, as well as about companions and writers and directors -- and was ultimately surprised to see how much my feelings differed from "fan consensus." But I've never been swayed by popular opinion. If you're looking for another paean to Hinchcliffe and Holmes, you won't find it here. I can only offer you thoughts (and perhaps an insight or two) informed by my background, my outlook, my preferences and my passions. This is the last Classic Who essay I'll be writing, but it's certainly not the last time I'll be sitting down to most of these serials. That said, we begin with eight serials that you couldn't pay me to watch again.

158. Mindwarp (Sixth Doctor, 1986)
written by Philip Martin
directed by Ron Jones

Peri: "Oh, Doctor, let's go back to the TARDIS." In her final serial, that's still her first instinct -- but can you blame her? The Doctor brings Peri to Thoros-Beta, home of their old foe Sil, but doesn't tell her where they're going -- because he knows if did, she'd quite reasonably object. And once they get there, he's hooked up to a mind probe, goes haywire and starts abusing her. The script never makes it clear if the abhorrent things coming out of the Doctor's mouth are a result of the mind probe, a ruse on his part (to dupe his captors), or a fabrication of the Valeyard, the man who's relating the story. And in an apocryphal story, Baker asked the director for clarity -- and he couldn't offer any. We'll probably never know what was supposed to be going on in the Doctor's head in "Mindwarp," but a part of you can't help but reject all three theories. Perhaps the bile he's hurling at Peri ("Why should I risk my life for a savage and a stupid girl?") is simply the truth coming out. Why shouldn't we think so, after he's mocked, degraded and terrified her for two-and-a-half years? At one point in "Mindwarp," the Doctor taunts and torments Peri, who's in chains, and she cries out, "What's happened to you, Doctor? Why do you hate me so?" She's forced to accept that the Sixth Doctor never became the man she hoped he'd be, and the creative team is content to let her die believing that -- and really, why shouldn't they? Even if we want to give the Doctor the benefit of the doubt, the trial scenes won't allow it. Because in the courtroom, when the Doctor reviews a scene from Thoros-Beta in which Peri had a gun pointed in her face, he objects, "You can't blame me for that! I wasn't even there!" -- ignoring that she wouldn't have been in danger if he hadn't dragged her there in the first place. And when shown evidence of Peri being shot at close range, he insists, "I am not responsible!" -- absolving himself of all blame. This is the Doctor in his right mind, in a courtroom, under oath, and that's what he believes: he can't be held accountable for the well-being of his companions. The understood subtext of Doctor Who -- dating back to the earliest Hartnells -- is that the Doctor becomes a better man for traveling with others, and that he and his companions, over time, form a sort of family. The brilliance of the Fifth Doctor's debut story, "Castrovalva," is that it turns that subtext into text, and uses the companions as viewer surrogates: it becomes a serial about the bond we feel with the Doctor; it insists that we -- like his onscreen companions -- are better for joining him on his adventures, and asserts that no matter how tough life gets, the Doctor will be there. But "Mindwarp" says, "Fooled you." "Mindwarp" says, the Doctor doesn't give a fig about you -- any kinship you feel is in your head. At the end of the day, what makes the serial so objectionable isn't the grotesquerie of Sil, or the bombast of Brian Blessed, or the half-hearted direction or the annoying trial interruptions. "Mindwarp" breaks an unspoken promise that Doctor Who had made with its audience; once that's happened, why would anyone keep watching?

157. Battlefield (Seventh Doctor, 1989)
written by Ben Aaronovitch
directed by Michael Kerrigan

"It has a graveyard stench," the Doctor scowls early on. He's not kidding: "Battlefield" is basically DOA. The Doctor's dialogue is trite and melodramatic, and it calls upon McCoy to alternately gurn, grimace and screech his lines -- all the things he does worst. From moment to moment, it's hard to know what's worse: the dialogue or McCoy's delivery -- but when they're both bad, they're memorably awful, an earworm still gnawing at your brain hours after the serial has ended. At the top, Ace asks the Doctor what he makes of a distress call that's come in; he sneers, "The beginning of something terrible" -- and we are off, as the bad lines and line readings continue with frightening frequency: "Blowing the occasional chunk out of the earth keeps them amused." "Among all the varied wonders of the universe there's nothing so firmly clamped shut as the military mind." "Go, before I unleash a terrible something on you." "There are things out there in the dark you wouldn't want to meet." And his final speech -- "Machines of death are screaming from above" -- concluding with "end the madness." Yes, end it -- please. "High drama is very similar to comedy," the Doctor insists at one point -- but McCoy can't manage either here. Even when the lines lighten up, McCoy doesn't; it's as if, going into his second season as a darker Doctor, he can't -- when it's advisable -- find his way back to that charming chap who'd once been so invigorating and inviting. When there's an option to be intrigued or concerned (starting with that distress call at the top), he chooses to be annoyed; and when called upon to do his patented panic act at the end of Part 2, he seems to have forgotten the routine. McCoy can't get his bearings, simultaneously being pulled and pulling himself in unflattering directions, but Aaronovitch -- whose style is a sort of overwrought foreboding -- doesn't do anyone any favors, and Kerrigan only amplifies his excesses. Angela Bruce, as the new Brigadier, is yoked to a comic-strip characterization: tightly wound, barking out orders like a banshee -- until it's time to prove that she's a woman by hitting on the first available man, between rounds of gunfire. At one point, Christopher Bowen, as Mordred, engages in a spell to summon his mother Morgaine, and while he awaits her arrival, is asked to cackle for an eternity; we cut away to a scene between the Doctor and Ace, and when we return to Mordred, he's still cackling. It's a cackle montage. Later on, a thunderstorm triggers a power outage, and the entire cast screams in terror, like they've never seen the lights go out before. The comedic bits are insipid (e.g., the new Brigadier and Ancelyn, Knight Commander to King Arthur, skirmishing on the grounds of the Gore Crow Hotel, like a couple of cartoon characters), and the dialogue juvenile ("Boom!" "Boom!" "Boom!"). Only Nicholas Courtney shows how it's done; he and Marcus Gilbert (as Ancelyn) try to restore a little sanity and subtlety to the proceedings, but it's an uphill battle.

156. Underworld (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Norman Stewart

As bad as Baker and Martin's portrayal of Leela had been in "Invisible Enemy" (no worse, mind you, than the script editors and producer manage that same season), nothing prepares you for how they savage everyone's favorite savage in "Underworld." The Doctor refers to her as "semi-intelligent" in the opening scene, and it's not said humorously; it's more of an inconvenient truth. As introduced, Leela had been an eager pupil and a quick study, with a gift for intuiting danger and intent. Here her most impressive attributes are stripped away; the Doctor warns that a giant nebula is "sucking in everything around it like a giant whirlpool," and Leela responds, clueless, "Is that good?" For her penultimate serial, she's written without instincts, clarity or wit. She is merely, as the Doctor describes her, "a primitive," and that (mis)characterization leads to one of the more mortifying scenes in the classic run, as Leela is shot with a pacifier gun and instantly made kinder and, it's implied, better. (Does the primitive need fixing? We have just the thing.) In a fierce acting choice, Louise Jameson emerges from that scene as if her character had been violated (as indeed she had); Leela sits in quiet humiliation and torment -- and the men, unaware and uncaring, go about their business. That should be the serial's nadir, but the image is quickly obliterated by the laughable sight of untrained extras running terrified through a CSO cave. The CSO is sinful (and it's the most color separation overlay used in any classic serial, by far): at one point, K9 appears to float in midair; at various times, the Doctor's head is chopped off; and frequently, characters can be seen moving through supposedly solid rock -- and all this threaded through a generic string of chases and gunfights, with the occasional flat and uninspired nod to Jason and the Argonauts. Meanwhile, as K9 (Baker and Martin's own creation) is proving indispensable to the Doctor (linking two ships' computers, creating a map of the tunnels, analyzing the contents of a bomb), Leela is reduced to a new low, as the Doctor explains to her that the people in the caves are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the spacemen she's been traveling with -- and she takes to counting it on her fingers, as if a) she's unfamiliar with the very concept of genealogy, and b) it isn't a ripoff of the serial in which she was introduced, "Face of Evil." "Underworld" even cribs from "Face of Evil" (and "War Machines" and "Green Death") by making its antagonist, in the Doctor's words, "just another machine with megalomania," acknowledging how often it's been done before. "Underworld" isn't just unoriginal; it advertises its unoriginality for those who might not have been paying attention. That takes guts.

155. The Ultimate Foe (Sixth Doctor, 1986)
written by Robert Holmes and Pip & Jane Baker
directed by Chris Clough

At the top of the serial, the Inquisitor asks the Valeyard if he has any more evidence, and he responds, "Have we not seen enough?" Oh yes, we've seen more than enough. At this point, the trial's been dragging on so long, you're grateful for his terseness; surely, it's better than the Doctor, who -- when asked if he has anything to add -- insists, "No, my lady, but I would point out that much of the Railyard's so-called evidence was a farrago of distortion which would have had Ananias, Baron Munchhausen and every other famous liar blushing down to their very toe nails." One more speech like that, and you hope they throw the book at him. No one has any evidence left, and still the trial doesn't end; the impulse behind "The Ultimate Foe" seems to be: let's take the dreariest parts of the last dozen episodes and build a two-parter around them. The Master takes over the Matrix, but no one gets too upset about that; instead, they elect to continue with the trial. The Valeyard is the Doctor in a future regeneration (big reveal!), but we don't have time for that: let's get back to the trial. The Doctor and the Valeyard escape into the Matrix, but let's get back to the trial. "In all my experience," the Inquisitor notes, "I have never before had to conclude a case in both the absence of the accused and the prosecutor." The plotting is no less preposterous for the participants actually pointing it out. It's eleven minutes before we leave the courtroom, but the Doctor's escape into the Matrix at least brings the promise of an uptick in quality -- one that's dashed almost immediately by a runaround that's random and dimwitted, set to dialogue alternately overwritten in the Bakers' worst style ("You really are the archetypal philistine") or so adrift in technobabble as to be incomprehensible. ("Eureka! And you said it couldn't be immobilized." "What have you done?" "Induced an anti-phase signal into the telemetry unit. The whole system should self-destruct." "You blundering imbecile. You triggered a ray phase shift that made a massive feedback into here.") Baker continues to perform in a declamatory style, even though he's left the courtroom, and in a manner that seems more impatient than impassioned; Ainley chuckles and snorts, while Mel is left to spit out rejoinders like "How utterly evil," "You're despicable" and "You beast!" Ultimately, "The Ultimate Foe" features a cast and creative team in free-fall. You have no idea what's going on, and you think, "Just let it end." The inmates are loose, and they're running the Matrix on Gallifrey.

154. The Monster of Peladon (Third Doctor, 1974)
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Lennie Mayne
It pays tribute to "The Curse of Peladon" by forgetting everything that was appealing about it. The earlier serial had been a high-spirited concoction that allowed for humor, romance and suspense. In "Monster," what had been light and frothy turns obvious and oppressive -- and there's a hollowness at its core: whereas David Troughton had given the role of Peladon's ruler stature and pathos, Nina Thomas proves far too green to hold the story's disparate elements in place. In Brian Hayles' best scripts ("The Smugglers," "The Ice Warriors" and "Curse"), his characters are complex enough that he can keep them at odds in unexpected ways. Here they're so crudely defined that Hill can only generate story-line by having them miscommunicate, or act irrationally, or threaten each other needlessly. Did any serial ever rely on so many conveniences, contrivances and misunderstandings to propel it forward? (The Doctor is sentenced to death twice in the first two episodes, and after that, there are still two more "the Doctor is dead" bluffs to come.) And the few noble gestures are determined by bad taste. The miners, with their fur-covered boots, animal-hide chaps, leather harnesses and skunk-striped wigs, offer up just about the most unattractive sight in the classic series. It's all well and good to address the issues of the 1973 miners' strike ("We earn barely enough to feed our families") and take a stance that's decidedly pro-labor, but you're not making a case for your miners when they look like they've wandered into an S&M club hosting a furry convention. And when the Doctor encourages Sarah Jane to talk to the young queen, to offer advice that might help her rule with authority, you aren't doing women's lib any favors when Sarah Jane offers up a definition most decidedly not found in Webster's: "It means that we women don't let men push us around." No talk of social equality; no effort to teach the queen self-respect or self-worth, the impulses from which feminism springs. Sarah Jane reduces women's lib to how scared male chauvinists view it: as a man-hating movement. As a result, the queen doesn't find an inner core of wisdom that had been suppressed by systemic sexism; she just starts raising her voice a lot, like a petulant adolescent testing the limits of her parents' patience -- until it's time for her to become a peril monkey and let the serial's antagonist hold her hostage and literally "push her around." (At the end, after her old Chancellor has died saving her life, our newly-liberated queen finds a new man in the kingdom to counsel her.) Hayles' scripts were apparently deemed unacceptable by the creative team, and script editor Terrance Dicks did the rewrites. The Pertwee era was notorious for misunderstanding the tenets of feminism, and sometimes it's hard to know what's worse: the chauvinism that permeates so many serials, or the flat-footed attempts to pay lip-service to the women's movement. "Monster of Peladon," which drags the series to a new low, manages both.

153. Timelash (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Glen McCoy
directed by Pennant Roberts

The ruler, the Borad, has banned all mirrors; maybe he got a whiff of how bad it all looks. And those costumes! "We're tearing the fabric of our society apart," someone wails early on, and apparently, whatever fabric they're not tearing apart, they're wearing on their backs, because the characters look like they've been rolled in dropcloth. "Timelash" features the ugliest production design since "Underworld" and the worst guest cast since "The Mutants," with a beyond-ghastly performance by Paul Darrow, who presents himself as the Doctor's welcoming party, replete with mincing and mannered line readings that practically scream, "Don't trust me. I'm evil!" But all that fades away in light of the mistreatment of Peri: by the Doctor, by the Borad, and by the creative team. No companion suffered more degradation in one serial; for thirty minutes at the top of Part Two (that's a third of the story's running time), Peri's neck is manacled to a wall, as she's menaced by a monster. At one point, she cries out, "Doctor, save me," but although we're, by then, twenty minutes into the episode, the Doctor hasn't mentioned her once. The Doctor barely thinks about Peri during "Timelash," and when he does, she's of no consequence. Early on, he's dispatched on a mission and told Peri is being held hostage, as a bargaining tool -- and he discards her without a thought. Later, the Borad lets him catch a glimpse of Peri over a monitor, chained to that same wall, the beast inches from her face, and although he has no idea what she's been up to the last episode-and-a-half, he doesn't respond with surprise, horror, or even concern. He's more interested in the experiment the Borad is conducting. And once Peri escapes, it's business as usual: he reprimands her the moment she enters the TARDIS, insults her intelligence, then informs her, with regard to the threat of danger, "The only dangerous thing is having you on board to distract me." Boy, does he hate her. It's Baker's worst and most mystifying performance: he's charmless, boorish and distracted. He resists every opportunity to temper his lines with playfulness or irony or self-awareness; instead, his default emotion is a callous disinterest. And it's not just directed towards Peri; everyone and everything's on the receiving end, including the "irritating planet" Earth. It's been a full season now since Baker promised the Doctor would soften over time; hasn't it been time enough? Director Roberts apparently objected to McCoy's final draft, complaining about the Doctor's mean-spirited attitude, particularly towards Peri -- and script editor Eric Saward supposedly softened it. That might be the most remarkable story in all of Classic Who. If this is the "softened" version, what did the Doctor do to Peri in the earlier draft: pistol-whip her?

152. Ghost Light (Seventh Doctor, 1989)
written by Marc Platt
directed by Alan Wareing

Ace has a fear of haunted houses, so the Doctor brings her to the one that traumatized her in her youth, to heal her. But of course, in doing so, he first has to traumatize her further. They could just, you know, avoid haunted houses altogether; it's not as if she had a fear of something ubiquitous, like puppies. In his own way, the Seventh Doctor -- in his obsession with tricking Ace into facing her demons -- is just as abusive to her as the Sixth Doctor was to Peri; in fact, both Doctors think a love-tap means never having to say you're sorry. Platt and story editor Andrew Cartmel populate the house with a host of grotesques, and dangle a string of literary and historical references like self-indulgent schoolboys, but everything's presented in the same overwrought style, and the results are headache-inducing. The grotesques, we quickly realize, are aliens in human form, but even the outsiders, the "real" people, are playing in the same freak-show fashion. (If it were all pitched just a touch more feverishly, it would play as self-parody.) "Ghost Light" is the ultimate example of how narratives perish when the Doctor is seven steps ahead of everyone else, holding his cards fiendishly close to his chest, pulling deductions out of his panama hat without a shred of evidence. ("Josiah, tell me about your plan to assassinate Queen Victoria." "Who have you been talking to?" "Myself, mostly.") Because there's no information he has to glean, or revelations he cares to share along the way, there's nothing to counter the furioso pacing. In the stories that best combat this issue, it falls to Ace to break free of the narrative's grip, but here she's too caught up in the Doctor's machinations. And the one time the Doctor and Ace pause for a heart-to-heart, she runs out of the room mid-conversation -- and she doesn't just run out of the room: she runs down a staircase and makes her way to an open lift leading to nowhere -- as if in this place, you need to go searching for horrors. (Then again, maybe she just couldn't bear to be stuck in a room with the Doctor once he started listing things he hates: "I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls. Then there's unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty." And bad dialogue -- don't forget bad dialogue.) Wareing falls prey to the serial's "speed it up" assembly-line feel: we're permitted to observe, but never encouraged to engage. It's a serial so caught up in its own cleverness that it never answers even the most basic of questions: "How are the two leads supposed to be playing this?" McCoy and Aldred alternately fume and giggle their way through it, but their fury never convinces, and their familiar comic bits seem rushed and mistimed, as if someone's offstage, signaling them to move it along. When it's time for them to convey exposition, they throw away lines we desperately need to hear. And by the time McCoy gurns for twelve seconds near the start of Part 3 (twelve horrendous seconds that no one thought to edit out or around), you're painfully aware that -- despite its pretensions -- the whole thing has been a (haunted) house of cards.

151. The Reign of Terror (First Doctor, 1964)
written by Dennis Spooner
directed by Henric Hirsch
Its point of view is troubling: a depiction of the French Revolution that comes down squarely on the side of the counter-revolutionaries. But the presentation is worse than the politics. The requirements of stretching a story across six episodes seems daunting to Spooner, who keeps having characters sabotage their own story-lines, to slow down their progress -- and no one more than Susan, re-characterized as a defeatist. "We'll never get out of here," she moans, mere minutes after she and Barbara have been imprisoned, and when Barbara reminds her that they've always gotten themselves out of scrapes through common sense and initiative, Susan interjects: "We've been lucky. We can't go on being lucky." Barbara devises a plan for breaking out, spying some loose stones in the wall; a scene later, Susan is already complaining that she's exhausted, and shortly thereafter, spots a rat and goes into such a fit of hysteria that Barbara is forced to reassure her, "We won't do any more digging. We'll just stay where we are." ("Where they are" is in prison, awaiting the guillotine, but if Susan doesn't feel like making the effort, it's all right: they'll just accept certain death.) And later still, as they're being carted to their execution, there's a prime opportunity to escape, but Susan whines, "I don't think I can -- I don't feel very well," leaving Barbara to once again coddle her: "All right, Susan, it's all right." (We'll just go to our deaths, it's fine.) As for Spooner's plotting, the coincidences verge on the absurd, and occasionally you suspect he wrote the script as a comedy (a precursor to his later efforts), but Hirsch and the cast supposed it was to be played straight; there's a strange disconnect between the seriousness of the subject matter and the screwiness of the treatment -- all unfolding with dialogue so on-the-nose that it almost plays as parody, like lines left over from some radio-play treatment, where every event is announced: "Let's take them to Paris -- to the guillotine!" "Wait, we'll burn the house down!" At one point, Ian cautions the wounded man he's imprisoned with, "You've lost a lot of blood" -- then, handing him the only jug of water left in the cell, informs him, "That's the last of it." In the next cell over, Barbara and Susan remark on their surroundings: "The smell in here. Oh, it's terrible!" "Yes, it reminds me of when we were prisoners before, in the prehistoric age." "Oh, yes. I remember that." In "Reign of Terror," everyone speaks in exposition, as if simple conversation requires a recounting of one's life-story. Nowhere does it get quite so out of hand as the opening of Episode 2, where a boy appears before the Doctor to recap the first installment and spoil the next one, with details he couldn't possibly know: "You see, there were two men hiding in the house. One of them knocked you over the head. Then the soldiers came and the two men were shot and your friends arrested. But you can still escape. Our farm isn't far away. Just over there. And that way leads to Paris." In an alternate-universe Doctor Who, this child actor was retained for the rest of the run, so that he could offer weekly recaps. In real life, Spooner's laughable lines killed this kid's career; according to IMDb, he never worked again.

Next, continuing the countdown, #150-#141: courtrooms, kilts and Krotons.

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