Monday, May 24, 2010

Serial 123: Arc of Infinity

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka

Written by: Johnny Byrne
Directed by: Ron Jones

Background & Significance: Peter Davison's second season marked Doctor Who's twentieth anniversary. The season was punctuated by the continuity porn/cluster-frak The Five Doctors. But that's just one thing. This is TWENTY YEARS. The celebration of Doctor Who needed to be a year long and it needed to be epic and noticeable and memorable.

Or, at least, a little bit gimmicky.

The celebration came in the form of returns of old villains as the main foes in each serial. Does this mean Daleks, Cybermen, and The Master? Not.... really? Oh, then you must mean Sontarans and The Monk and stuff, right?

Well... yeah no not at all.

No. Their focus are on what can only be called the important but forgotten villains. Rather seemingly haphazardly selected, "Arc of Infinity" stars the evil villain from the seminal classic story "The Three Doctors". In case you don't remember (or didn't read it or see it, which you should because it was awesome) Omega was a good villain, and one who dated back to the creation of Time Lord society as one of its creators. Crazy memorable, super fun, for many many reasons.

What we end up having is a ridiculous mess of an episode (as we'll soon see) that isn't so much bad as it is textbook "not good". Most of these are story and writing problems, which is none too inspiring for writer Johnny Byrne's other stories: Tom Baker's penultimate "The Keeper of Traken" (starring the return of The Master) and the kick off to Davison's final season "Warriors of the Deep" (featuring the return of the Silurians).

That said? This story is ridiculous fun. So much of it makes absolutely no sense, but they go with it anyways and commit full on, and for that, this serial is amazing. From shooting in Amsterdam (as in the actual place), a trigger-happy Mutant Bird Slave, and some insane Time Lord blood lust, it's a bucket o' fun, and while at the end of it all I'm fully aware that it's not very good, it's still wonderfully awful in the way a lot of old Star Trek is wonderfully awful, and I tend to love these sorts of episodes.

We open after Tegan's departure at the end of the previous season's closer "Time-Flight", and Nyssa of Traken and The Doctor are flying around the universe having a grand old time with Tegan's nowhere to be found.

That's called "Life is good".

Also, because of the disjointed nature of two very different parts of this story, I'm going to split the commentary into "The Omega Storyline" and "The Amsterdam Storyline"

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Serial 88: The Deadly Assassin

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: None

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: The start of Tom Baker's era as The Doctor saw a series of behind-the-scenes shifts that transformed Doctor Who significantly, the most important among these being a new producer in Phillip Hinchcliffe and a new script editor in Robert Holmes.

Together, this... triumvirate, I guess you could call it, was Doctor Who at its most successful. The show became immensely popular. Hinchcliffe and Holmes steered the show into darker territories, focusing more on tonally shifting what had previously been fun wacky science fiction into science fiction with a Gothic horrory bent to it. It was a reflection of the like-minded team of Hinchcliffe and Holmes: their interests were the same, and they worked to tell the stories that they loved to tell. A rare, perfect marriage of producer and script editor. Because of all this, in terms of viewership, in terms of popularity, in terms of sheer quality, Classic Doctor Who peaked here, about halfway through its initial run.

But the awesome only lasted for three seasons.

Each of the the Hinchcliffe/Holmes seasons (12, 13, & 14) got progressively stronger and more fine tuned (re: tonally aligned with the horror etc.) as they developed their show and ideas (Season 14, their final season, being so good that it has been nicknamed "The Gothic Season"), until they were removed from their positions not because they were unsuccessful in terms of ratings or popularity (far from it), but rather because of complaints about adult content. We're talking "scary" and "freak-outty". There's an oft used saying about Doctor Who - quite famous - that says "British children watch Doctor Who from behind the sofa". Yeah.... They'd probably do that for the Hinchcliffe/Holmes.

But enough about Hinchcliffe/Holmes for now (we'll talk about them as we get to more and more of their stories in the future). What about this story in particular?

"The Deadly Assassin" is ridiculously significant. Not only does it come about halfway through Doctor Who's Gothic Season, but it's significant in that it's the only story of the classic series that features absolutely no Companion, and it essentially creates The Time Lords from the ground up.

Prior to this, Time Lord mythology was largely undefined and undeveloped. They had first appeared in Patrick Troughton's final serial "The War Games" and then again in Jon Pertwee's "The Three Doctors", but even then they were only loosely defined and never specifically mythologized.

Here, in "The Deadly Assassin", script editor Robert Holmes (who is the most prolific, popular, and awesome of the writers of the classic series) takes the opportunity to completely re-define the mythology behind Gallifrey and the Time Lords. It's here that we first learn of Rassilon, the workings of Time Lord society (including their garish and ridiculous (but so so awesome) outfits), and the concept of limited regenerations.

And he does all that in four episodes.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)

Doctor: Paul McGann (8th Doctor)
Companion: Dr. Grace Holloway

Written by: Matthew Jacobs
Directed by: Gregory Sax

Background & Significance: By 1990, Doctor Who was no more. McCoy's tenure ended and the BBC canceled the show. The fanbase, like Trekkies and Browncoats, turned inward to fill the void left by their favorite show. Zines, fanfiction, fan communities, conventions, radio plays... all of "the usual" cropped up to keep the show alive.

Needless to say, after its cancellation, Doctor Who proved itself a viable property, one with amazing staying power. It had all the cultural impact of Star Trek, and if Kirk and Spock et. al. managed to create a giant franchise empire, Doctor Who certainly could as well.

So in the mid '90's, they tried to revive it.

The BBC joined with American studios (attempting to bring in a U.S. viewership) to fund a single, made-for-TV movie with an American broadcaster that would function as a backdoor pilot to an ongoing series. It would be done on the relative cheap and filmed in Vancouver, and if the movie did well enough they would move it to series with this movie serving as the show's first episode.

They also decided that the movie would continue The Doctor's story where it had [essentially] left off in 1989. Certain changes would be enacted as it had to be new-viewer friendly. Other than that, it was essentially the same thing. The movie would introduce key elements. The Time Lords, The Master, Daleks, The TARDIS, and almost all of the original mythology would stay in place. The Doctor would regenerate, making a new incarnation in Paul McGann, giving a new generation a new Doctor to grow to love.

All that? Ridiculously logical. That all makes sense (for the most part). So what could go wrong?

Ohhhhhhhhh so much. As is probably clear, the movie failed to spark any backing or interest in continuing further, specifically from broadcast network Fox. The BBC couldn't move forward without an American network, despite the fact that the movie aired to eight million in Britain (about as large as Doctor Who was back at the end of its run... Which, considering that the show had been off the air for seven years at that point, isn't that bad).

And really, all of the problems everyone has comes from odd choices and lack of good, thrilling story that's--I hate to say worthy, but--worthy of the greatness of Doctor Who.

Personally? I came to this with much excitement. I had been looking forward to Paul McGann since I had first heard about him. And the movie itself didn't sound so awful (some of the complaints from the fanbase are things I was expecting and could just write off or around).

We can discuss all of its failings as we go through it, but just to be clear at the outset: I was excited for Paul McGann going into this, and he did not disappoint. More than anything, he really does a great Doctor. All the problems fall on the story and the writing and the direction and some really strange choices. So let's keep that in mind and separate the movie from The Doctor himself.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Serial 156: Ghost Light

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companions: Ace

Written by: Marc Platt
Directed by: Alan Wareing

Background & Significance: After the "disaster" that was Colin Baker, Doctor Who underwent more shifts and changes. Colin Baker was fired by the BBC, the show moved from a prime time weeknight time slot back to Saturday nights, episode lengths went from forty five minutes to twenty five minutes, the budget was slashed again, the BBC still had their sights on killing the show, and a well-known comedian at the time, a fellow named Sylvester McCoy, became the Seventh incarnation of The Doctor.

Known for his comedy, Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was, in fact, funny. But he was also dark and manipulative, growing more and more into this Chess Master as his run progressed. He is (aside from David Tennant in 2006) the ONLY Doctor to ever be selected over Tom Baker's 4th Doctor as the "fan-favorite" in Doctor Who magazine's annual "Who is your favorite Doctor" poll.

That said, he is, perhaps, one of the "forgotten" Doctors. He wasn't as fan-favorite as Tom Baker or Peter Davison (or even Patrick Troughton), nor was he infamously reviled (a la Colin Baker). He's a Doctor like Jon Pertwee or Paul McGann who just sorta... fades into the background among the more openly popular Doctors.

But he is rather deftly incredible (especially, as we shall see, next week...) and a remarkably captivating Doctor, charismatic and incredibly specific. Far, for me, from forgettable.

Today's serial, "Ghost Light", comes from Sylvester McCoy's final season, when The Doctor has become the skilled tactician and chess master. It is also notable in that it was the final serial ever filmed in the classic Doctor Who era (although it was not, in fact, the last broadcast). Other than that, nothing special about it. No Daleks, Master, Cybermen, etc. Just a Doctor Who story.

As it was the last, and the budget had been progressively slashed more and more as time had gone on, the serial is told in three parts, even though it was written to be four (because the final budget only allowed them to do three). What you're left with, then, is a disjointed work that feels like it's missing entire sections or scenes, so I'll explain it as best I can, but if it feels disjointed, and you're left going "Huh?" that's why.

Also, apologies for the screencaps. The way they shot this was really, really dark (which goes with the whole Light thing that comes into play later) so it makes the screencaps look muddy. I did my best, but... yeah... At some point I just can't do no more. So keep that in mind and bear with me in places, cuz it might get a little bit rough.

So let's get to it!