Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#60 - #51)

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.) It's been fascinating for me to rank the serials, and discover things about my own viewing preferences I never realized. I knew I liked the William Hartnell era (I devoted a three-part essay to it), but I didn't realize how much. But of my top-60 serials, Hartnell crops up more than any other Doctor (14 times, then 12 each for Tom Baker and Peter Davison). And although I'm fond of Hartnell himself, I don't respond to him as an actor the way I do Troughton or Davison -- so it's not because of him that I rate the era so high. I love its spirit. It's a creative team working without a net, with no template for what will work and what won't -- and even when they latch onto a winning formula, they're insistent not to repeat themselves. When the scope of your show is so broad -- all of time and space -- why would you repeat yourself? You never know what's coming next in the Hartnell era, and much of the time, it's masterful. Doctor Who would never again get so jazzed about being Doctor Who.

60. The Daleks' Master Plan (First Doctor, 1965-66)
written by Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner
directed by Douglas Camfield
The audio, the extant episodes, and the surviving clips tell us everything we need to know: it's a lumbering epic, but an epic just the same. "The Daleks' Master Plan" is like one of those historical spectacles that Hollywood was fond of making in the late '50s and early '60s. (Those features typically had a break midway through, so it's fitting that the seventh episode happened to fall on Christmas Day and needed to be a palate-cleanser, because it's precisely what you crave at that point: intermission.) It takes a few installments to get its bearings. Hartnell has three bad episodes at the top, where he chuckles endlessly during even the most urgent exposition: the giveaway that filming fell on a bad night. And Peter Purves, who could always be counted on to pick up the slack when Hartnell was stumbling, is initially sidelined by the story-line. But by Episode 4, Hartnell is back on his game, and Purves is allowed to regain his customary passion and decisiveness, and "Master Plan" finds its footing. It's still, like most Nation efforts, a series of disconnects and contrivances, but it's the first time a Dalek adventure has been directed by someone with both skill and vision, and what a difference it makes. (Camfield stitches up the disconnects and steamrolls over the contrivances.) If it has majesty about it -- and it does -- it's due to Camfield. The pacing flags a bit in the second half, in the lead-up to the final sequence, but by then Dennis Spooner has taken over the writing chores, and what the serial loses in momentum, it gains in wit, as when the Daleks deflate Mavic Chen's posturing: "You make your incompetence sound like an achievement." Every extant video clip is solid and often -- as in Katrina's self-sacrifice -- sensational; have we any reason to think the rest is of lesser quality? Episode 5, one of three surviving installments, is a mix of luxurious establishing shots (the planet Mira, with its bogs and jungles and invisible creatures leaving hoof prints in the sand), taut scene work (the Doctor and Steven winning Sara to their side, and her horror in having senselessly killed her own brother), special effects the classic series rarely again equaled (the molecular dissemination, which sends the trio sailing through space, shot to suggest bodies in torment but souls kept safe), and even a touch of humor, as the Daleks try to make sense of a cage full of test mice. ("An alien device. There are small white creatures inside. They may be hostile.") The rest of "Daleks' Master Plan" may not live up to that episode, but it doesn't really need to.

59. Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Third Doctor, 1974)
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Paddy Russell
Oh, of course: if you're going to do a six-parter about dinosaurs, it would be nice if the dinosaurs weren't so dismal. But after the first puppet makes its appearance, you know what you're in for, so you make the mental adjustment. "Dinosaurs" is the oddball Hulke serial where you don't root for the meek to inherit the Earth; here, the peacemakers are the nutjobs. Hulke tries to hammer home that the quest to preserve the planet remains a noble one, and that only these particular antagonists are misguided -- but still, most of the famed Hulke moralizing is happily buried beneath layers of fruitcake. You almost sense that once Robert Sloman picked up Hulke's penchant for polemics, it liberated Hulke: he could be livelier and sloppier. But other forces drive "Dinosaurs" as well. Sarah Jane is still settling in, but Lis Sladen has already proven a force to be reckoned with. You see her mind going a mile a minute, and keeping Pertwee engaged; you can tell that he's adapting to her rhythms, not vice versa. (There's a scene early on where the Doctor, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane are seated at a table, strategizing, and each is using their particular insights to solve the puzzle; it's a dynamic we haven't seen since Liz Shaw left, and it's invigorating.) Legend has it that Pertwee was fighting pain and boredom during Season 11, and so the story has been passed down that he's muted and off his game. On the contrary: Season 11 offers some of his most ingratiating performances. The new dynamics keep him from resorting to old habits. And one other thing challenges him in "Dinosaurs" -- in a good way: the maddeningly hands-on Paddy Russell. She was a director who loved to rehearse. (Sladen would say she wrung every ounce of spontaneity out of a scene.) But her serials never seem over-rehearsed. They seem confident. They seem full of details and ambiguities too often overlooked in Classic Who. Russell feels in command of every moment of "Dinosaurs": there's not a scene in which the intent is unclear, in which the execution is muddy. And Pertwee -- with a control-freak director and an able new acting partner -- seems renewed, forced to think on his feet. Even driving through the streets silently, his face seems fairly bursting with thought. It's a look that suits him.

58. The Android Invasion (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Barry Letts
It arrives at a point when Baker and Sladen are at the peak of the powers, and there's nothing here to obscure our view of them. In fact, the very point of the android invasion, from a practical perspective, is that it doubles our pleasure. There's no high-concept plotting, no larger-than-life guest turns or overriding horror homages: it's just Tom and Liz, and four episodes of Letts and Nation showcasing their talents and rapport -- and not coincidentally, it contains their finest scene work. Sladen, in particular, puts lovely, fizzy spins on her lines, and the camera practically basks in her features; she's never again as perfect an everywoman as she is here. There's a particularly effective sequence in Part 3 where she uses a pitcher of water and a couple of cables to fry an android to a crisp -- and after she's masterminded her escape, she stops to react in horror at the hole the explosion has blown in the android's back. Sladen leaves no emotion unexplored. Baker and Sladen are rarely apart in "The Android Invasion," and if they are, you can bet that, whether he's tied up or tied down, she'll be there to rescue him, and if he has to take a leap off a rooftop or crash through a window pane, she'll be there -- if not to catch him, then to join him. You're not meant to take the plot seriously; this is a story, after all, that starts with a twitching soldier leaping to a slow-motion death. It's just a chance to enjoy Baker and Sladen in duplicate -- and crucially, when they appear as their android twins, they don't play them as perfect replicas. The doubles of Harry, Benton and the rest are there to trick us; the versions of the Doctor and Sarah Jane are designed to let the actors try on some new traits -- so that we can sit back and admire their versatility. When Sarah Jane's duplicate appears to the Doctor, we're never fooled into thinking she's the real thing, and we're not supposed to; it's a chance for Sladen to show us what she looks like tentative, docile and reserved. Later, as her android rises from her tomb-like pod, she gets to flash a look that's both enigmatic and evil, and as she lifts her legs over the side of the pod and waits, regally, for the faux Doctor to escort her out, she's Cleopatra on her barge. And the Doctor aping the Doctor, shooting the Doctor, fighting the Doctor and sacrificing himself for the Doctor is shrewd in concept and impudent in execution -- following a simple formula: the more Baker, the better. You watch "The Android Invasion" and ignore the dodgy effects and the absurd plotting and the tacky monster costumes, because when it comes down to it, all the serial is saying is, "We love Tom and Lis too. Let's see how much of them -- and how many of them -- we can offer you." It's an invitation only a masochist would turn down.

57. The Tenth Planet (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Kit Pedler
directed by Derek Martinus
Apparently, fighting the elements is a lot like fighting the Nazis, as the bit players on the South Pole expedition seem a lot like soldiers in a Forties film, with their photos of pin-up girls and the requisite paisan with a weakness for Rigoletto. Even the general seems to think he's still on the front lines, bellowing at the Doctor and his companions. "I don't like your tone, sir," the Doctor informs him. "And I don't like your face," the general retorts. "Or your hair!" With repartee like that, no wonder Kit Pedler kept being asked back. Later, when the general has blasted the Cybermen into submission, the Doctor asserts, "I don't think you should've done that, General. We may have learned a very great deal" -- and the general is quick with a come-back, "Yeah, we may have lost a very great deal: our lives." (Parallel construction never had it so bad.) There are two big reasons to love "The Tenth Planet," and neither is Kit Pedler. Neither one is the Doctor and his companions, either. The Doctor, sidelined by Hartnell's illness and the story-line, doesn't get to do much of anything; Polly, on the other hand, when she's not reduced to pouring coffee, is stuck being the voice of the people, making the case for emotions to the unfeeling Cybermen, in dialogue so heavy-handed and insistent, you wonder why they don't just annihilate her. (But if they did, we'd miss her moment of riotous unenlightenment, when the Cybermen inform the humans that they'll be taking them back to their home planet of Mondas, and Polly insists, "We can't come with you: you're different" -- setting back the civil rights movement a couple of decades. It's moments like that you long for Dodo, who at least would have told the Cybermen their costumes were "fab.") And by Episode 3, sailor Ben is rendered unrecognizable: he's gained such an instant grasp of futuristic technology that he's barking out instructions to the soldiers and scientists. It's the Mondas Cyberman and Martinus that sustain the serial. The nuts-and-bolts Cyberman design is brilliant, with cloth stretched over their faces, and power packs weighing on their chests; they're all the more terrifying for having features that were so recently recognizably human. And thanks to Martinus, the suspense never lets up; in fact, he achieves a bit of a miracle at the end of Episode 3, during the countdown to release a bomb that will destroy Mondas (and possibly do irreparable damage to Earth and its inhabitants). The Doctor and his companions have tried to sabotage the launch mechanism, but it's unclear if they've succeeded; although logic tells you the TARDIS team will prevail, Martinus ramps up the tension so thoroughly that you're briefly convinced that whole planets are about to blow.

56. Planet of Giants (First Doctor, 1964)
written by Louis Marks
directed by Mervyn Pinfield & Douglas Camfield
The challenge of presenting a miniaturized TARDIS team -- by shooting them against oversized props or magnified objects -- seems at first too much for the creative team to handle: Part 1 seems under-rehearsed, with the cast consistently stepping on each other's lines, and William Russell unusually stiff and distant. But once everyone gets the hang of navigating giant briefcases and matchboxes and sinks, they settle in nicely, and by Episode 2, all four principals, despite the basic absurdity of their situation and the steady stream of perils, are at their most natural and charming. To its credit, it starts to feel more like a character piece than an adventure: the first since "Edge of Destruction." Marks runs two plotlines side by side -- the miniaturization of the TARDIS crew and a plot to distribute a deadly insecticide on Earth -- each with its own tone. The wonderful thing is that it's not just a serial about the Doctor and his companions getting small; it's about how them getting small allows them to solve a murder mystery. And Dudley Simpson's score makes it all rather whimsical, even magical, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Until Barbara realizes she's been poisoned, that is, and then the serial adopts an undercurrent as dark as anything in the classic canon. Jacqueline Hill gets a showier role in "The Aztecs," but this is her greatest acting turn, alternately conveying bravery and terror, hope and resignation. As the TARDIS team scrambles to save her, they run up against the question they'll face often on Doctor Who: would you sacrifice a friend to save millions? -- and astonishingly, the answer they reach here, rather quickly, is "yes." In the end, "Planet of Giants" manages to turn something light and fanciful into something troubling and uncompromising: it's everything you want Doctor Who to be, in microcosm. And ultimately, given that its last two episodes were (successfully) trimmed into one, its biggest achievement is in recognizing that Louis Marks' four-parters are best cut down to three. What a pity it's a lesson no one remembered.

55. The Web of Fear (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
directed by Douglas Camfield

The recovery of missing Doctor Who serials is an odd phenomenon. People greeted "Enemy of the World" with amazement -- "it was far better than I'd imagined" -- even though 90% of the serial's delights could be gleaned from the audio. "Web of Fear," on the other hand, prompted sighs of "oh, I guess it's not a masterpiece after all"; the response was one of bemused disappointment -- whereas it should have been ecstatic. It was easy to hear, from the audio alone, that it was a pretty standard action-adventure piece, without the depth or ambition of Haisman and Lincoln's previous Yeti yarn, "The Abominable Snowmen," and one that ran out of steam roughly two-thirds of the way through. What we couldn't have foreseen -- even knowing the genius that is Douglas Camfield -- is how he would transform it, how he would mine it for every bit of tension and excitement. Camfield probably never worked harder in his life, and thank goodness, because with the visuals restored, you still see the flaws (the repetitive nature of the plot, the letdown of the reveal, the contrivances at the end), but now you don't really care, because the serial grabs you by the throat and never lets go. And one other thing you couldn't quite glean from the audio: the magnificence of Nicholas Courtney's performance. In the audio, you could hear the actor's confidence; the video reveals that, even in his first appearance, he was already at his most charismatic. You understand instantly why he was invited back. As with Heisman and Lincoln's earlier effort, the characters are well-drawn, and unlike that all-male serial, this one boasts a superb female character, with one of the best smackdowns of male chauvinism in Who history. When Captain Knight asks scientist Anne Travers, "What's a girl like you doing in a job like this?", she responds, "Well, when I was a little girl, I thought I'd like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist." Later Classic Who seasons wrestled with the tenets of feminism; Season 5 -- in "Web of Fear," "The Enemy of the World" and "The Wheel in Space" -- celebrates them. All three serials are set in the future, but they're blissfully ahead of their time.

54. Galaxy 4 (First Doctor, 1965)
written by William Emms
directed by Derek Martinus

An average Who elevated by instinct, luck and artistry. The instinct: outgoing producer Verity Lambert suggested that the antagonists, the Drahvins, be all female; the result was an icy blonde warrior race led by Stephanie Bidmead, in a chilling performance that at one point all but consumes the small screen. The stroke of luck, awful as it is to call it that, is that original director Mervyn Pinfield fell ill during initial filming at Ealing, and Derek Martinus -- in his first Who assignment -- was recruited to step in. And thus the artistry: Pinfield was a serviceable old-timer; Martinus, fresh out of the BBC internal directors' training course, was a gifted up-and-comer. Even working with sets and set-ups that initiated with another, Martinus gives the serial weight and shape. The Doctor describes the Drahvin ship as primitive and the Rill ship as impressive; the production design doesn't really support that, but no matter -- through Martinus's lens, the Drahvin ship becomes a claustrophobic sweatshop, the Rill ship eerily expansive. He manages to suggest the potential perils lurking in each. The script is nothing special -- a variation on the "never judge a book by its cover" plot that all sci-fi and fantasy series seem to dip into at some point -- but the three principals (the Doctor, Vicki and Steven) are all well-served. Much has been made about how Emms devised the script when Ian and Barbara were still on board, and then, upon learning of the companion shake-up, transferred Barbara's role to Steven. Peter Purves himself has gone on record as saying the lines felt unnatural. But they don't come off that way; on the contrary, they serve to broaden his range. It's good to see Steven use his brains and his wiles (as Barbara would have), and his inability to defeat Maaga in hand-to-hand combat doesn't make him appear weak; it makes the Drahvins seem that much more formidable. There's excessive moralizing in "Galaxy 4," and it's paper-thin in spots, but that doesn't keep it from being pleasing -- or effective.

53. Remembrance of the Daleks (Seventh Doctor, 1988)
written by Ben Aaronovitch
directed by Andrew Morgan
It's like seeing the Seventh Doctor join forces with UNIT -- if both Liz Shaw and Jo Grant were working there side by side. Or perhaps guest stars Pamela Salem (as Rachel, the scientific advisor) and Karen Gledhill (as Allison, the young physicist) are more like Romana I and Romana II, paired up and primed for battle. Whatever the analogy, it's rare and remarkable to have two bright, strong-willed women in one serial, and along with faux Brigadier Simon Williams and Dursley McLinden (doing Mike Yates as played by Michael Craze), "Remembrance" boasts one of the best guest casts in Doctor Who history. Too bad it has no idea what to do with them, except have them follow the Doctor around like lemmings. Welcome to the new improved Seventh Doctor era, the start of the Cartmel Masterplan, where the Doctor typically freezes everyone out. "I just wish I were doing something," Ace complains, speaking for the rest of the cast. She spends much of the serial, as she will the next two years, annoyed that the Doctor won't open up to her -- but here, if he did, there'd be no story left. Aaronovitch shows his hand perilously early; after a while, the question of "what is the Doctor up to" is the only suspense left. There's a lot that's magical about "Remembrance," but don't thank Aaronovitch. Thank Andrew Morgan, who nails every set piece, every shift of mood, every special effect and explosion. The only thing he seemingly can't control is McCoy himself – although perhaps this is him restraining McCoy. For the next two seasons, McCoy will get darker and darker, until he's pretty much created a character he himself can no longer effectively play. Here, thank goodness, he still retains some of that playfulness that made him so captivating in Season 24; he's still enjoying fiddling with his props and doing his block comedy bits (like maneuvering the back doors of a van with his feet). But occasionally he tries out the Darker Doctor, and at the weirdest times: hissing or snarling lines for no apparent reason. At one point, he grimaces as he commands a casket to close; is he angry with the casket? Later, a spaceship lands, and the faux Brigadier asks if that's the mother ship, and the Doctor replies with disdain, "No, that's the shuttle. The mothership is much larger." You can't tell if he's disdainful of the question or the size of the mothership – or if he's just trying on a new emotion to see how it fits. Fortunately, in "Remembrance," those moments are still few and far between, and although Aaronovitch's script contains a few clinkers, there are so many diversions, they don't do much damage.

52. The Stones of Blood (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by David Fisher
directed by Darrol Blake
The Key to Time season cooking on all burners. In the opening TARDIS scene, Romana asks K9 for clarification about the game of tennis, and he answers her question with a question, baffling her all the more. (She gives him a look that says "Well, I like him, but I don't understand him" -- the plight of pet owners everywhere.) The Doctor, Romana I and K9 are the best TARDIS trio since the glory days of Jamie and Victoria. And once we exit the TARDIS for Mother Earth and beyond, there are marvelous images -- the crows that Romana keeps spying around the ruins and perched on the TARDIS, the stuffed raven inside the mansion that the Doctor is investigating -- and a script with pretty much everything you could ask for: wit, imagination, surprise, a touch of horror, and the promise of sausage sandwiches. Beatrix Lehmann, at 73, can't even recall her own character's name at one point, but Baker seems happy to give her time to remember, and as an academic so consumed with petty professional rivalries that she's practically starved for excitement, she becomes the Doctor's most enthusiastic pupil since Vicki. Susan Engel overdoes it in spots; there's nothing in Fisher's script to suggest she's supposed to give away her hand so early. But everyone else is in fine form. The scene that follows the Part 1 cliffhanger, in which Romana recoils in horror from the Doctor, is probably Mary Tamm's best work on the show. And K9 is able to get laughs silently, just by wiggling his ears, or rolling along a beat or two after his Master and Mistress, like a dog realizing he's been left behind. Part 4 is a bit of a letdown, as Romana rushes off to dig up dirt on the criminal fugitive Cessair of Diplos, who's ensnared the Doctor in a trial in hyperspace, and by the time she returns with it, it's no longer needed. Fisher, you think, could have worked a little harder on that -- but then, except for "Androids of Tara," resolutions were not his strong suit. But the final moments, in which the Doctor is -- as he was at the start -- unable to assemble the simple segments of the Key to Time, and begrudgingly turns to Romana, compensate for any stumbles along the way. The actor whose ego was so out of control a year earlier that he was unwilling to even look at his guest stars is now quite content to be the happy stooge to his co-star. It's a marvelous screwball scenario: the woman in charge, the man who thinks he's in charge, and the dog too shrewd to take sides.

51. Resurrection of the Daleks (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Eric Saward
directed by Matthew Robinson
The scene in which the Fifth Doctor announces his intention to kill Davros -- "Once before I held back from destroying the Daleks. It was a mistake I do not intend to repeat" -- is one of Peter Davison's great moments. His voice shaking with both resolve and self-loathing horror, it really does feel like the culmination of a decade of regret dating back to "Genesis of the Daleks." The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan are barely together for "Resurrection" -- they share some scenes at the top and reunite near the end -- but all three actors are at their most charismatic, and they go a long way towards keeping it watchable. As does first-time Who director Robinson, working closely with production designer John Anderson; the pair effectively delineate and diversify the settings, so that each time you jump to a new location, the serial instantly refreshes. The result is a stylish-looking action-adventure that wears its machismo like a medal. Calling it Eric Saward's best Who script may be damning it with faint praise, but it's praise nonetheless. Saward writes the principals true to form; he scatters some distinct character traits among the ample supporting cast; and he clears most of the plotting hurdles he sets for himself -- i.e., he gets by on the barest of minimums, but he gets by. Only near the end -- in the shoot-it-out, blow-'em-up finale -- does a sort of willful incoherence take over, but by then you take heart in the fact that incoherence trumps blandness. There's a good visual gag involving a cat, and only one scene that's a bust. The Doctor is being tortured, but seems to be getting through to his captor; we cut away to another scene, and when we return, the Doctor has stopped strategizing -- he's too busy screaming. But then his captor has a change of heart and frees him anyway. You're left wondering if the Doctor played any role in his escape; he's emasculated by his own editing. At the end, Tegan bids him goodbye, conceding, "It's stopped being fun." She's wrong, of course: "Resurrection" is more fun than four of the five previous serials. That said, if this slaughter-fest was a portent of things to come (and it was), she was right to get gone.

Next, continuing the countdown, #50-#41: green miners and green babies.

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