Monday, July 10, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#70 - #61)

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. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) This ten includes two helmed by Douglas Camfield, my favorite Classic Who director. My top five would be Camfield, Derek Martinus, David Maloney, Paddy Russell and Fiona Cumming; I prize their taste and talent above the others, but I've never stopped to think if their serials are among my favorites. But I see that, of their combined 31 serials, over half are in my top 50, and 24 are in my top 50%. So although the limited budgets and time constraints meant that Classic Who was rarely a director's medium, there's no denying that the best of them had an enormous impact; as these five showed, they could elevate a modest story into a good one ("Galaxy 4," "Invasion of the Dinosaurs"), and a good story into a great one ("Castrovalva," "Terror of the Zygons," "The Deadly Assassin").

70. The Two Doctors (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by Peter Moffatt
Holmes' script is full of clever bits: the Jamie reveal at the top of Part 2; the illusion the Sontarans create to fake the Second Doctor's death (and the way Peri gets swept up in it); the Androgum woman turned human, and the Time Lord becoming slowly Androgum; and the feast on which the Second Doctor and Shockeye embark in Part 3, like a pair of aging vaudevillians. But it's a script elevated not just by the details, but by two elements in the design. First is the return of the Second Doctor -- and not the merry clown who proved useful in "The Three Doctors" and "The Five Doctors." Here, the real Second Doctor returns, giving the series an air of quiet authority that's been missing. As in "Three Doctors," just being around Troughton prompts the current Doctor to kick it up a notch, but whereas Pertwee seemed competitive, Baker seems humbled. He lets go of some of the theatricality and allows more simple emotion to shine through, to better match Troughton's style of playing. And the other thing that "The Two Doctors" accomplishes is adding Jamie to the mix, and it reveals how much better the Sixth Doctor era would have been with a second companion on board. Jamie's inclusion doesn't diminish Peri; on the contrary, her having someone to converse with enlivens her. It gives her stature, assurance -- and substance. While the Doctor is off soliloquizing, or indulging his self-congratulatory pretensions, Peri has someone to commiserate with -- someone who understands her and shares her perspective. She's not left reacting to the Doctor's preening, forced to deadpan to an invisible audience. She can say, "See what I'm stuck with," and without fear that the Doctor will try to strangle her. Pretty much everything that goes wrong with the Doctor and Peri's relationship in "The Twin Dilemma," from which it never recovers, could have been averted with one extra crew member on board. Part of the genius of Classic Who was its flexibility in adding new companions. "Jamie is a good character; let's keep him around." Or "Nyssa could be useful; let's bring her back." If only there had been that kind of foresight and insight in the Sixth Doctor era, understanding how a second companion could balance the Doctor and support Peri, any number of guest roles could have served as audition reels: Lang in "Twin Dilemma," Luke in "Mark of the Rani," to name two. And the Sixth Doctor era could have gotten past the companion-as-hostage format that marred it, and moved on.

69. The Sea Devils (Third Doctor, 1972)
written by Malcolm Hulke
directed by Michael E. Briant
In one well-remembered scene, the Master sits in a prison cell watching children's programming -- and that's apt, because "The Sea Devils" is very much like a recruitment ad that you'd see on a Saturday morning kiddie show. Join the Navy: you'll get to ride in a submarine, and there'll be sword fights and boat races, and you can navigate a mine field, and blow things up -- and there'll still be plenty of time to practice your golf putting, to fight over finger sandwiches, and to indulge in the kind of hoary gags ("after you" "no, after you") that your parents learned from their parents. "Sea Devils" is not so much a follow-up to "The Silurians" as a topsy-turvy remake: glib where that one was glum, snappy where that one was slow. It's almost the early serial's undoing -- forget about "Silurians," it tells us: you know, the one that tried to expose human beings at their most paranoid, ruthless and unforgivable. Now even the Doctor will blow up alien reptiles without batting an eyelash. There are a lot of devilishly good performances -- not just the regulars, but also Edwin Richfield, June Murphy and Donald Sumpter. There's almost no forward motion, it's just a string of set-pieces, but Briant makes the most of them. And every ten minutes or so, he reaches into the candy box and pulls out another goodie -- and no confection is as sweet as Katy Manning, finally elevated (after a season and a half) from assistant to colleague. Hulke imbues her with new assurance and astuteness; Manning seems exhilarated by the redefinition of her role, and her empowerment fuels the fun. "Sea Devils" has its oddities -- including the fact that the eponymous aliens are draped in foam-blue fish-net mumus -- but none of that detracts from the viewing pleasure. It's the most ebullient Pertwee serial.

68. The War Machines (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Ian Stuart Black, from a story by Kit Pedler
directed by Michael Ferguson
The Doctor and Dodo materialize in present-day London, where he instantly senses danger. "The War Machines" pretty much tips its hand in the first ten minutes, if not the first five, and once that's done, there's nothing to look forward to except the distractions. But this being an Ian Stuart Black script -- although admittedly the least of his Who efforts -- there are plenty of said distractions, and a solidly-constructed story to boot. It's a template for the sort of contemporary Earthbound serials Doctor Who will embrace occasionally, then expansively, over the next few years, although it's very much a template, and a little straightforward for its own good. But Michael Ferguson overcomes its predictable nature in a spectacular Who debut. The most restless of Classic Who directors, he's already experimenting in ways the show had never dared, and the serial's tour of London hot spots and high rises, its gentlemen clubs and alleyways, all culminating in a full-scale battle scene at the end of Episode 3, proves the perfect vehicle for Ferguson, who never cared about about being a great director -- he cared about others knowing he was a great director. (His serials trumpet their accomplishments more than those of any other Who helmer.) As with all Black scripts, it makes marvelous use of the principal cast. Hartnell is at his most imposing, and although Jackie Lane's send-off is generally seen as insulting (as she's discarded after two episodes and gets a second-hand mention at the end), it's another good opportunity -- as "Gunfighters" and "Savages" had been -- for Lane to expand her range: in this case, by revealing some of the darkness lurking beneath Dodo's sunny exterior. (Her scenes under WOTAN's hypnotic control, in which all humor and humanity seem drained out of her face, are striking.) And although Anneke Wills overplays a bit in her first appearance, Michael Craze has an appealing ease in front of the camera. He gets a fine introductory scene, where he fends off a guy hitting on Polly (it actually looks like the kind of fight two alpha males would have in a bar), and his desperate, sweaty intensity when he first discovers the War Machine -- and feels like he's lost his mind -- is probably his best work on the series.

67. Inferno (Third Doctor, 1970)
written by Don Houghton
directed by Douglas Camfield (and Barry Letts, uncredited)
A drilling operation is going awry; the Doctor ends up on a parallel Earth where he sees the full potential for catastrophe. You presume the Doctor will gain insight that will help him persuade the chief scientist, upon his return, to shut down operations, but that's not where Houghton goes. He doesn't go anywhere. By the time Episode 5 hits, and the parallel Earth starts to crumble, Houghton (after a sensational start) runs out of ideas, so he resorts to the cliches of the horror genre to see him through, as werewolf-like beasts burst through doors and break through windows -- all while characters shout, over the crude hum of machinery, unfortunate lines like "it's about time you learned that some problems just can't be solved by brute force and terror." Eventually, the Doctor returns home, but no one believes his predictions of doom, until the chief scientist himself is changed into a werewolf -- and then everyone goes, "Omigod, he's a werewolf: we must stop the drilling," as if that's a logical conclusion to draw. What sustains "Inferno" through the late stretches are the three leads; it's only their fourth time working as a team, and you can't imagine how they could be better. (It's their last time working as a team, and you're left with longing for "what might have been.") Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney are remarkable, but Caroline John is more than that: she's radiant. She appears first as our Liz Shaw, then as one on the parallel Earth: tougher, more severe and less trusting. All smart retorts and sideways glances. But as she softens, and becomes more like the Liz we know, John still manages to distinguish between the two. It's a masterful performance. Right up there with the dimwitted decision to axe Ian Marter after his first season of Who is Barry Letts's decision to can Caroline John after hers. Not to denigrate Katy Manning, who grows wonderful as Jo, but John hits the ground running and only grows more assured -- and she inspires Pertwee to heights he only sporadically hits again in the serials to come. Fittingly, Pertwee's first season ends not with the Doctor, not with the Brigadier, but with a close-up of Liz: a strong woman who made the Doctor even stronger. And then, in a feat of chauvinism that will come to haunt the era, she's gone.

66. Attack of the Cybermen (Sixth Doctor, 1985)
written by Eric Saward, Ian Levine & Paula Woolsey (as "Paula Moore")
directed by Matthew Robinson
Decried for its continuity porn and graphic violence, but the former is easily overlooked, and the latter -- though ill-advised -- lasts all of about a minute. "Attack" pinpoints that moment in time in which the Sixth Doctor era is at its most appealing: when the Doctor has recovered enough from his regeneration crisis that he's no longer homicidal, but still experiencing enough confusion to tame his bluster. Colin Baker is allowed moments of levity, empathy and introspection; it's his most charming performance. And Peri has recovered from the Doctor's attack in "Twin Dilemma" but not yet been beaten down by all the violence that will be perpetrated against her in the serials to come: she displays some of the pluck, compassion, thirst for adventure, and survival instincts that made her seem so promising in "Planet of Fire." There's a lovely parity between Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant here; from line to line, it's hard to say who'll have the upper hand, and surprisingly, often it's her. (Doctor: "I'm a Time Lord. A man of science, temperament and passion." Peri: "And a very loud voice." And, Doctor: "I suddenly feel conspicuous." Peri: "I'm not surprised, in that coat.") The reactivation of the TARDIS's chameleon circuit makes for a couple good sight gags, there are smashing guest turns by Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover, and although things start to drag noticeably in the second half, the conception of the Cryons feels a nice nod to the Hartnell era: the all-female race reminiscent of the Drahvins, their balletic gesturing evocative of the Menoptra. "Attack" is also one of the few times that the Sixth Doctor, in his technicolor bad-dream coat, and Peri, dolled up here in a hot pink leotard, don't look like fashion eyesores. Robinson keeps the settings muted -- the grisly grays of the London sewers, the off whites of the TARDIS and the Telos tombs -- so that the Doctor and Peri stand out naturally and effectively. Instead of aspiring to new levels of garishness, as if to match the Sixth Doctor's attire (as several later serials will do), Robinson mutes everything except his stars. It serves them well. (I offer up a full review of "Attack of the Cybermen" here.)

65. The Curse of Fenric (Seventh Doctor, 1989)
written by Ian Briggs
directed by Nicholas Mallett

Flawed but fascinating. For horror aficionados, there's a viking curse and a church overrun by vampires (or in this case, Haemovores: mutations from earth's far future); for the more historical-minded, a World War II naval base setting and a character modeled after Alan Turing, here perfecting an "ULTIMA" machine to decipher German intercepts; for those who prefer personal subplots and character development, a young Wren dealing with childcare issues and Ace washing away the pain of her past. If NuWho has given you a taste for Russell T. Davies' messianic Doctor and Steven Moffat's timey-wimey plotting, it's got the all-seeing Doctor battling his ultimate foe, one he previously trapped in the third century, but who's taken revenge by manipulating the Doctor's timeline. And for those who like a little meat on the bone, it raises issues of faith and trust, and the hypocrisy of religious teachings in a world at war. (Toby Whithouse later cribbed the climax -- in which the Doctor tricks his companion into renouncing her faith in him -- for "The God Complex.") So ultimately, "Curse of Fenric" has a bit of everything -- and therein lies the problem, because it has a bit of everything, but not enough of anything. The copious subplots and characters are so busy vying for attention, the story-line never evolves into anything cohesive or coherent. It doesn't fall prey to the failings of the monotonic "Ghost Light"; the scenes vary nicely in tone and texture. But the story-telling is fragmented and diffuse, an issue compounded by the need to trim the episodes down to transmission length (a full twelve minutes were ultimately cut), rendering the script so truncated -- and the editing so tight -- that transitional scenes are all but abandoned. It feels like we arrive at every exchange ten seconds in, missing the continuity and exposition -- or perhaps Briggs is just ignoring fundamentals of story-telling. The Doctor and Ace visit a war office, then in the next scene -- without explanation -- they're on a beach. Then, perhaps, attending a church service. All the usual narrative courtesies are jettisoned, and as we leap from one scene to the next, we're forced to intuit things like relevance, motivation -- even chronology. Despite the strong performances (only Aldred, in her seduction scene, is out of her depth), we're left with puzzle pieces that are never properly assembled, except via scenes added for VHS and DVD releases, interviews with the author, and three decades of passionate and substantive fanwanking.

64. The Edge of Destruction (First Doctor, 1964)
written by David Whitaker
directed by Richard Martin and Frank Cox
Richard Martin pretty much messed up everything he touched in "The Daleks," but sure, let's give him the next serial to direct as well. Fortunately, Martin was only available for the first half, so he doesn't do too much damage. Not that he doesn't try. "Edge of Destruction" is the least of David Whitaker's scripting efforts, yet still better than half of Classic Who. The first two serials had left the Doctor at odds with his new companions; Whitaker dreams up a two-parter that forces them to work as a team and, ultimately, forge a friendship. He offers up a mystery, and it turns out it's the TARDIS dropping the clues, in order to save them from imminent disaster. (It's a look at a sentient TARDIS that's years ahead of its time.) Where "Edge" falls short is in Martin's direction. The same problems that plagued him on "The Daleks" reappear: an inability to infuse the acting with a consistency of tone, and to make critical plot points strong and lucid. Here he's only got four cast members, and he still can't get them on the same page. An explosion has knocked the Doctor and his companions to the floor, unconscious. When they come to, they're dazed, their memories fading in and out. Hartnell and Hill revert to the characters they were when they first met: he's smug, belligerent and mistrustful; she's confused and terrified. But Russell and Ford wake as if possessed: him, forming words as if for the first time, giggling and gesturing like a toddler; her, staggering like a drunk, then pouncing like a tigress. (Ford isn't playing a heightened version of the paranoia that grips teenagers; she's going for grand, theatrical gestures that are beyond her.) At one point, Martin manages a POV shot that clarifies Ian's state of mind, and you crave more -- but he seems unable to grasp or offer what the viewer needs. And when it comes to the visual clues, Martin muffs most of those, too. Early on, Susan approaches the console, then recoils, plunging to the floor; later, everyone references how the console gave her some sort of electric shock and tries to infer its meaning, and you think, is that what that was? (There are many ways to show someone being zapped. As Martin shoots it, Susan might just as well have had a stroke.) The first episode is disconcerting, and not always intentionally so. But once Frank Cox steps in for the final installment, both the story beats and the acting beats fall into place, and you realize you're witnessing something remarkable: a character study that's reset the dynamics for the remainder of the run.

63. The Smugglers (First Doctor, 1966)
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Julia Smith
Hayles had a gift for developing characters swiftly, and just enough to pit them at odds (e.g., Clent and Penley in "The Ice Warriors"), a talent that serves him well here. And in fact, for a tale of lost treasure set along the Cornish coast in the 17th century (one that could have easily devolved into melodrama), the characters are far more rounded than we have any right to expect: the crooked Squire who's loyal to the citizens he's sworn to protect; the pirate with a strict code of honor, the very quality he sees fit to mock in others. Hayles creates showcases for a host of character actors, and given that the best of them -- Michael Godfrey, John Ringham and David Blake Kelly -- are quite capable of letting it rip when the lines allow, Smith maintains an impressive consistency of tone. And Hartnell, coming off a long third season and nearing the end of his tenure on Who, shines bright in the second episode, when -- trapped aboard a ship -- he uses flattery to talk himself into a pirate's good graces, then engages his shipmates in a card game to mastermind his escape. It's the last time you'll see that familiar twinkle that told you the actor was quite enjoying an adventure; once he returns to shore, reuniting with his companions, it's clear he has no affection for his new co-stars. Whatever producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis imagined that Michael Craze and Anneke Wills might do for the show, they sure weren't doing it for Hartnell, who seems curt or flustered every time they're together. (Wills has revealed in interviews that the disdain was mutual.) Hayles couldn't have known the chilly reception Craze and Wills would get from Hartnell, but ironically, he does them the best possible turn by separating them from the Doctor early on, showing that they can hold their own, as actors and as characters. They're a smart couple of cookies, Ben and Polly, and Hayles is careful to demonstrate their strengths and delineate their differences. The odd Who serial that's diminished only by the lack of rapport between the Doctor and his companions, "The Smugglers" is nonetheless the latest (and last) in a string of splendid historicals.

62. Frontios (Fifth Doctor, 1984)
written by Christopher H. Bidmead
directed by Ron Jones
The best backdoor pilot in television history. Peter Davison is at his most brilliant playing a character totally unlike his previous role as the Fifth Doctor; this new character -- amusingly, also referred to as "the Doctor" -- also travels in time and space with a couple of companions in a blue police box, but otherwise, it's a whole new show. Whereas the Fifth Doctor had been an impulsive idealist who wore his heart on his sleeve, Bidmead reveals in interviews that he thought it would be fun to write Davison's role in "Frontios" as "professorial" -- not a word one would ever have used to characterize the Fifth Doctor, and thus, presenting Davison with a fresh set of challenges that he tackles head-on. His companions are more outrageous than any attempted on its parent show Doctor Who, including a miniskirted vixen who creates electrical charges that level her opponents, and a cowardly redhead with the power to recall the history of entire civilizations, but who -- in exercising that power -- is given to foaming at the mouth. The exchanges, far from the Doctor Who norm (which were geared for children), aim for the sort of audience who'd feel at home in a Mensa meeting; in the first episode alone, the characters debate four possible ways of generating light to assist in surgery. And lines of dialogue that, in Doctor Who, might have been unabashedly simple are carefully expanded and reimagined -- so that, for example, "dreams are important," in the new format, becomes "when deep ancestral memory pictures break through the conscious mind like this, dangerous instabilities are created." The cast of the pilot (in addition to Davison, there's Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson) gels nicely, the guest players are well cast and developed, and there's a fun bit of tomfoolery at the end, as the Doctor turns the table on his alien antagonist. In its depiction of the last human colony trying to survive far into the future, of a "hungry earth" devouring its victims from below, and of a group of aggressive and occasionally quite silly wood lice, it set the scene for a number of NuWho adventures, and its influence far exceeded anyone's expectations in 1984. Although the "Frontios" backdoor pilot was not picked up to series, it remains quite entertaining in spots, and when the entertainment value lapses, it's never less than fascinating as a failed experiment.

61. The Web of Fear (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Mervyn Haisman & 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.

Next, continuing the countdown, #60-#51: tennis, taranium and pterodactyls.


  1. I like 'Curse of Fenric' a lot, although this might have more to do with external reasons, than with it being a truly great yarn. Whitby and Northumberland were oft visited spots in my youth, so anything which evokes that time and place was always going to resonate with me. I also read the novelization, and thought it expanded and filled in the blanks nicely. Which probably explains why I didn't have as many problems with the story as you did. Where you perceived it to be lacking, I suspect my 'bookground' knowledge filled in the blanks.

    1. I think way back in 2011, when you recommended a bunch of Classic Who serials for me to watch (as my introduction to the series), "Curse" was among them. I suspect with most of my Who friends, if I asked for ten great classic serials, "Curse" would be among them. And I do like it -- I just don't seem to get as much out of it as others do. I don't particularly like this particular capsule review of mine -- occasionally, when I did these reviews, if a serial was wildly popular and I felt less enthusiastic about it, I fell into the trap of "justifying" my feelings rather than merely expressing them. And my "Curse" review is clearly an effort to explain something that bothers me, that doesn't seem to bother others. But it's funny that you mention the novel. I mentioned that the serial seems so choppy (and that so much material was cut) that you need to intuit a lot, which fans do from the lengthier VHS and DVD releases, and interviews with the author, and fan discussions. But I forgot about the novel -- and yes, I'm sure that explains a whole lot that's missing from the broadcast version. Unfortunately, having only viewed the broadcast version, as many times as I have, the jumps in setting and logic and continuity still bother me. I quite like the serial, but "what's missing" keeps me from listing it as one of my all-time favorites.

  2. Inferno has an atmosphere of dread that I've never found anywhere else in Doctor Who. "You're dead. There's nothing you can do about it". Remarkable, and it just doesn't stop. Seven remorseless episodes, and every minute piles it on. Bleak, terrifying and utterly fantastic. One rubbish monster makeup short of perfect, frankly.

    1. Omigosh, I wish you had been on Twitter a week or so ago when Johnny Spandrell, Tim Pieraccini and I got into a discussion about "Inferno." Johnny had written one of his typically insightful reviews, and noted (and I'll quote him, and figure he'll be too much of a gentleman to sue me), "Take a closer look at Inferno, and it's mostly padding." And we got into a conversation because all three of us see the serial as fine but flawed (and I obviously lamented the padding myself, in my review above), but I noted that for some folks, it's their favorite Third Doctor serial, or one of their favorites of all time -- it's held in enormous regard by some, and I wondered why. What was it about this serial that particularly enthralled them? And I think, of course, you've captured it: it's that sense of dread. Because we are in a parallel universe, the answer to "how bad will things get?" doesn't stop just this side of "complete devastation." There's no safety net. The serial's willingness -- almost eagerness -- to take us to extremes that we're typically shielded from must feel harrowing to some. You hit the nail on the head, Walt, and I'm embarrassed I didn't see it myself!