Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Serial 116: Castrovalva

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

Written by: Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Fiona Cumming

Background & Significance: It's no secret that I have tons of affection for Peter Davison. I know I mention it every time we talk about one of his stories, but really, I can't help it. The man is a born and bred actor with a real penchant for the character that holds from... minute one, I'd say.

And this is his minute one.

Comparing him to the just-gone-by Tom Baker, the contrast is stark. Again, a Doctor always seems to be a reaction against The Doctor before. Tom Baker's Doctor was... an alien, quick to anger, very... loopy, mismatched in his clothing choices, and... a drunk (haha to that last part). Looking at Davison's Doctor... Davison is decidedly... not.

Davison's Doctor always seems to have a good head on his shoulders, is wonderfully human, always present, rather calm, very dapper... I suspect that, more often than not, people have the propensity to not get him because... he is a challenging Doctor (not, perhaps, as challenging as say Colin Baker, but for that I blame the stories Colin Baker was burdened with). He's much more subtle than all the other Doctors, very much a background player and not a limelight-stealer.

Not only that, but his inception as almost the anti-Tom Baker instantly turns off all the rabid Tom Baker fans who blindly follow him despite many examples of his failures.

Davison's era ushered in a real creative renaissance to Doctor Who. For a show that had been mostly languishing for the several years (and let's be honest, the show was never quite the same after the departure of Hinchcliffe/Holmes), the Doctor Who team (led by Davison, Jonathan Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward) shot the show full of adrenaline the likes of which the show hadn't seen in years. What had started with the final season of Tom Baker spun off into a new direction under the new Doctor.

"Castrovalva" is where all of that starts, with an adventure I've mostly heard called "slow", "boring", and "underwhelming" for the most part. That's a moot point as the real question is: does it effectively setup this new Doctor for his tenure and his stretch of stories? We've already seen a few post-regeneration stories, all designed to set us up to this new guy we're supposed to love. My question is, as always, does "Castrovalva" work?

So let's get to it!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Serial 115: Logopolis

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Adric, Nyssa, Tegan

Written by: Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Peter Grimwade

Background & Significance: After seven long years, Tom Baker had finally decided to move on.

Most interesting is the prospect that this might not have been his final season.There's a thing I heard once upon a dream that he totally would have gone and done an eighth had the opportunity arisen, but as it stands, the introduction of producer Johnathan Nathan-Turner as guy with a specific vision (for better or worse) and the variety of changes Nathan-Turner imported to shake up the show proved to be too much for Tom Baker.

So he left.

Personally, I find that strange. Well, sorta. The early Nathan-Turner years were something of a creative renaissance for Doctor Who (especially Davison's three seasons. Woof). As we saw in "The Keeper of Traken" earlier this week, that story is leaps and bounds ahead of most things in the Graham Williams era (certain exceptions notwithstanding), and "Warriors' Gate" (which we'll talk about eventually, I promise!) was no slouch either. But it's interesting that Tom Baker was pimping out of there in a season that was far from awful, especially because he didn't mind sticking around even when the stories got really, really, really awful (I'm looking at you "Underworld", "The Armageddon Factor", "Destiny of the Daleks", and "Horns of Nimon" just to name a few). It feels to me like Tom Baker had come across a producer who wasn't going to take any crap from him, someone against whom Tom Baker couldn't win any fights. And from what I understand, Nathan-Turner really did want Tom Baker to pimp out of there, tossing out the old and re-inventing the show from the ground up. So from a Nathan-Turner perspective, this really is a good thing.

So... Tom Baker decided to leave. And that gave rise to a whole 'nother mess of issues. How would people react when the most popular Doctor, the one who had been around for so long, left? They had to bridge the gap and ease people into this new transition that would be... difficult.

One of the ways they did this was by incorporating both The Master (re-introduced in the previous story "The Keeper of Traken" and continuing onto the next story "Castrovalva") and the introduction of several new companions to help guide The Doctor through his forthcoming regeneration to bridge this totally new gap. It's a very "An Unearthly Child" approach, to be honest, and terribly smart (if flawed; it would take almost three years for the show to shake this "Party in the TARDIS and everyone's invited" mentality).

Not only that, but how in the world do you provide an adequate sendoff to the most popular, longest lived Doctor there was (and so far is)?

What we're left with is "Logopolis," a story with big sci-fi ideas and huge stakes (someone once called them in the vein of Russell T Davies but to them I say harumph!) and... an ending. It's certainly aided by the knowledge that this is Tom Baker's final story, but... It's difficult. You can tell that Tom Baker's glory days are long over and done with. The peak and height of his powers is long gone and the quality of his reign had been in an eddy for at least two seasons (possibly more). So sending off such a beloved character required... Well... I guess we can talk about that as we go through it...

And it turns out Tegan is still the worst companion and that's true from minute one.

So let's get to it!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Serial 114: The Keeper of Traken

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Adric

Written by: Johnny Byrne
Directed by: John Black

Editor's Note: Hey guys and welcome back (or for the first time: Hello!) Matt here introducing Cassandra's entry on The Keeper of Traken, the first of the trilogy that will conclude our anniversary celebration. She's got some good stuff, so I hope you guys enjoy it and I'll see you in a few days back here for my discussion of Logopolis!

Background & Significance: The end of an era.

Well... the prologue to the end, really.

When Tom Baker announced that he would be leaving Doctor Who after Season 18, the prospect made more than a few people nervous. Would people still be willing to accept a new leading man as their Doctor after 7 years of seeing the same face on their screen? Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner, in order to ease viewers through the transition, sought to provide a familiar face to hold on to; considering the fact that the companion at the time, Adric, was relatively new, he tried to get Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) or Louise Jameson (Leela) to make a few guest appearances, to no avail. So, out of feasible options, he decided to bring back an old enemy instead: The Master.

"The Keeper of Traken" is the first in a loose trilogy of stories that deals with the return of The Master and the regeneration of Tom Baker's Doctor into Peter Davison's. This serial sets the stage for the regeneration adventure "Logopolis," but it also accomplishes the reintroduction of The Master to the show after a four year absence, ultimately in the form of Anthony Ainley, who would go on to reprise the role many times until the show's cancellation in 1989.

This serial also introduces Nyssa, played by actress Sarah Sutton, who would go on to become a Companion (JNT liked the character so much that he chose to bring her on in the next story), as well as serving to establish the dynamics of the relationship between Adric and the Doctor, since this is their first adventure together since the departure of Romana and K-9.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Serial 1: An Unearthly Child

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Susan, Barbara, Ian

Written by: Anthony Coburn and C.E. Webber
Directed by: Waris Hussein

Background & Significance: It all starts here.

In the early 1960s, the BBC sought to create a new science fiction edutainment children's television show. That show, as we all know, is Doctor Who, a show designed to focus on teaching children about science and history. There would be the eponymous main character, an elderly man traveling from place to place, taking the crew on wondrous sights and on adventures that were designed to expand the mind and broaden an understanding of the world to British children.

"An Unearthly Child" is the first foray into this wonderful world that is, at this point, almost at the fifty year mark.

The beginnings are humble, and the first episode has very little to do with the next three, which are big on the historical leanings and edutainment and what have you. Most interesting, though, is the first episode itself. Where, of all places, does this show start? Does it hold up today? What can we learn from the original vision of this show and how does that inform our modern understanding and the current, revised version that came about forty two years after the initial broadcast of this episode? Not only that, but what do they get right?

The most interesting thing I find about this initial broadcast is that it's all here, and it shows you why Russell T Davies's reboot of the show with the episode "Rose" in 2005 is more in line with this than the 1996 Movie starring Paul McGann. There's a reason that "An Unearthly Child" and "Rose" work more than the 1996 Paul McGann movie.

I think this all speaks to the brilliance of the creative team behind the first few seasons of the show, perhaps most important being Verity Lambert, the scrappy producer who demanded the show get the respect she felt it due, and brought a good sense of vision and all that to the proceedings. Likewise David Whitaker, who is totally rad if you ask me. I'm a huge fan of him and his sense of character and what it is he brings to the table in terms of story sensibility. You can actually kinda see that here, as it's VERY character driven, at least in this first episode.

I apologize for all this talk of the first episode, but that's where I focus my energies in this. Nevermind the next three. They're just okay, pretty standard, and nothing remarkably special. What's important, and why it's taken us so long to get to discussing this point, is the first outing, and why it works at setting up a science fiction television show that's coming up on fifty years old and how it is (after everything) still completely relevant and insightful to everything that came after. The vision, the focus, the energies, The Doctor, the everything. It all starts right here.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Serial 37: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon, Victoria Waterfield

Written by: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis

Directed by: Morris Barry

Background & Significance:
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Patrick Troughton's era on Doctor Who was one of those defining times that helped shape the show's ultimate evolution. Because of the role of a producer and script editor on a show, each Doctor has a sort of ethos to his stories (except Tom Baker, who has three), a real tone or zeitgeist if you will. Prior to Troughton, the only format the show had ever known was predominantly educational and children's television.

The Troughton era was decidedly not nearly so educational. It saw the rise of off-planet adventures, the abandonment of historicals, the return of old and the creation of new alien-monsters, and sci-fi stories that were much more rooted in action/adventure than anything else. To be honest, it's a lot closer to what it is today than what it was just a few seasons before. It really reminds me of the current Steven Moffat era, which is about having big ol' adventures with big ol' fun and all that lovely noise and the like. (Also apt because Smith reminds me a whole hell of a lot of Troughton, so that's another little tie; but I'm getting ahead of meself.)

It was also The Golden Age of The Cybermen.

"The Tomb of the Cybermen" is the kickoff to Patrick Troughton's second season and it's.... It's good. Really good. If there's one problem with The Cybermen as villains over the course of their forty plus year long history, it's that they always seem to get a story that feels more or less the same. The Cybermen invade or attack a place. They try to convert everyone into Cybermen to add to their growing army. The Doctor beats them back. The Cybermen maybe march a bit. The Cybermen are defeated.

But this story is decidedly different. This shows The Cybermen in a far off future, long after they've died out, trapped in their Ice Tombs on the planet of Telos, stuck in suspended animation, waiting to be re-awakened.

What happens next is a taut sci-fi thriller not so unlike "The Robots of Death", but with a nice, healthy dose of horror/action with Patrick Troughton at the helm. It's high adventure and insane tension escalating as the story goes on. Well told, totally ethosy/zeitgeisty, and a total look into one of my all time favourite eras of the show ever. Honestly, it feels like something out of a classic pulpy adventure/sci-fi magazine, and I really think that if there's one thing Doctor Who should do more of it's pulp adventure. Not just that, but pulp adventures in the Troughton era, which just has the best of feels.

Unfortunately, it's also the earliest story that survives in its entirety from the Troughton era, and the only one that exists in its entirety from this season. That doesn't diminish the fact that this is a great story to have survived the BBC wiping campaign (miraculously. It was only discovered in the early 90s and is probably the most famous recovery to date). But it's a great introduction for new viewers to Troughton and the classic series, and it's a very famous Cybermen adventure. I mean, just take the title. "The Tomb of the Cybermen". That's a phenomenal title and it gets your imagination spinning in the best of ways.The best part is the story's living up to that title, which, if I may be honest, is no mean feat.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Serial 76: The Ark in Space

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan

Written by: Robert Holmes (and John Lucarotti)
Directed by: Rodney Bennett

A note: Hey everyone! So, as you probably know if you're reading this, it's March, which means that I've been doing this blog for a whole year (also, Cassandra! Hi, Cassandra! (She helped)). Haven't missed a week (miraculously), so I think it's time for an anniversary celebration. To kick things off, I'm talking about the real start to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era with a Robert Holmes story, but the fun doesn't stop there! We've got Troughton next week, the story that started it all the week after that, and then a regeneration trilogy I've been looking forward to talking about for a long time. Thanks for all your support over the past twelve months, thanks for sticking around in the tickling of my fancy, and most of all, thanks for reading. Means the world.

Background & Significance: If you were to ever talk about Tom Baker, you'd almost have to start here.

While "Robot" started off Tom Baker's first season and kicked off his seven year run, it still doesn't have the feeling of awesome that is the legendary Gothic Era under Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. I talked about this back when I reviewed the story, but "Robot" is a very different story in terms of tone and feature. It's a UNIT story, it's a little silly-goofy, it's very much got the silly campy feel of the Pertwee era, etc. etc. Sure, there's the script editing of Robert Holmes, but the story was still being guided by the influence of producer Barry Letts and it's written by Terrance Dicks, who had just overseen five years of UNIT stories, so the formula was in-built.

It only makes sense, then, that the next story, the first one overseen by Phillip Hinchcliffe, is where the era really starts.

"The Ark in Space" came from an idea by John Lucarotti, who had previously written such widely acclaimed historical Doctor Who stories such as "The Aztecs" and "Marco Polo". He'd been away from the show since the Hartnell era (that's almost ten years) and Holmes invited him back on the recommendation of outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the script came out less well than Holmes had hoped and (due to Lucarotti's living on a houseboat and problems with the postal service (both of which were, admittedly, beyond the show's control)), the script became unusable. Because they were set to wheels up on filming soon, Holmes scrapped Lucarotti's drafts and most of his ideas (excepting that of the titular "Ark in Space") and set about writing the damn thing himself because he just couldn't wait anymore.

He wrote the whole four-part story in eighteen days.

Magic. Serious magic. And to see this thing turn into a pretty stunning story is pretty awesome. It's also a wonderful tonal and thematic gateway into what would be a staple of Hinchcliffe/Holmes Doctor Who: great scifi ideas, heavy horror, thematic darkness. It's certainly not as much as the show would get in just a few stories, but their era certainly starts here. Even coming off of "Robot", this story is so different, different from anything seen on the show in about five years. It's one of the all-time classics and it's become a cornerstone of Doctor Who's overarching mythology; even Starship UK and Liz X are byproducts of the solar flares devastating Earth.

Not only that, but it's because of the absolute quality of this story that Holmes gets such free reign later on. Hinchcliffe (very famously) trusted Holmes's style and sensibilities and often encouraged Holmes to do page-one rewrites if he thought the story not up to snuff. This, of course, wasn't very popular with the BBC, which discouraged script editors from writing for their own show. Hinchcliffe, however, eventually fought for and won Holmes's right to write two stories per season. And without that, we wouldn't have "The Deadly Assassin" or "The Talons of Weng-Chiang".

Without those (or the other stories Holmes wrote or re-wrote from top to bottom), this era wouldn't be nearly the era that it was. And that would be sad. But that all comes from this. And thank goodness for that.

So let's get to it!