Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Serial 75: Robot

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

Written by: Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance: Jon Pertwee left the role of The Doctor after five solid years of stories. Again, he left a void, one to be filled by incoming producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and story editor Robert Holmes.

Hinchcliffe's vision of the show saw a departure from much of his predecessor, Barry Letts, who had relegated The Doctor to UNIT and Earth-based stories for about five years. Hinchcliffe (and his co-brain, Holmes) wanted The Doctor to get back to his pre-exile roots: as a traveling wanderer on the search for the next cool thing to see.

Also wanting to depart from Pertwee's Scientist/Man-of-Action interpretation, Hinchcliffe sought to change his focus on The Doctor, making him a peculiar alien traveler with a silly alien mind that works in silly alien ways. This saw the casting of Tom Baker as The Doctor, kicking off seven long years of Tom Baker stories.

Interestingly enough, Tom Baker's kickoff story is not "Gothic horror" in the way the first three seasons under Hinchcliffe/Holmes are "Gothic". Outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks penned the story (under Robert Holmes's script editing) and - because Doctor Who was filmed in "production blocks", with the last story filmed in a given season's production blog being the first story broadcast for the next season - the story itself still fell under the production purview of Barry Letts before Hinchcliffe's assumption of the role, meaning that what we get is essentially a traditional UNIT story with Tom Baker as The Doctor.

Which is weird.

But we get to see what it's like when Tom Baker picks up his role as The Doctor, bringing as much energy and strength to the role as he ever did, long before he became complacent and began going through the motions (which you can definitely see in the post-Hinchcliffe era when he starts, for lack of better term, phoning it in).

No. Each decision here is specific and well performed and well thought out. And it's damn good Tom Baker. Damn good. Probably my favourite of his so far.

So let's get to it!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Serial 50: The War Games (Part 2 of 2)

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Heriot

Written by: Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: As said in part one, much of Patrick Troughton's tenure helped define the show moving forward. Troughton's era established UNIT and he was the first of many many regenerations. It showed many returns of The Cybermen as a seriously badass threat, saw two of the best Dalek stories of all time, and introduced a whole cadre of monsters (Ice Warriors, Yeti, etc.) in exotic alien locales.

And then they pulled a rabbit out of their hat.

Terrance Dicks (most famous for being script editor for the last half season of Troughton and all of Jon Pertwee) decided to send out Patrick Troughton with a bang, co-writing a story that removed some of the mystery surrounding The Doctor. And by that I don't just mean any mystery or a small mysteries like his favourite brand of cat nip.

No. They decided to introduce The Time Lords.

Up until this point, The Doctor had identified himself as non-human (except early on when people weren't so sure) but had never explicitly stated what his race was actually called. Here, we get the introduction of The Time Lords and the ultimate exile of The Doctor to Earth.

Interestingly enough, we already know that this isn't the first time a non-Doctor Time Lord has appeared, but for all intents and purposes that doesn't count. The gag with the Meddling Monk was nothing short of a cheap shot, designed to just heighten the stakes without answering any bloody questions or delivering on the potential of meeting another rival Time Lord.

But this is some crazy. Seriously. You'll see. This is proper Time Lords, being a right threat and a real menace that makes you understand The Doctor and why he left and what his whole deal with leaving is. It gives us a lot of information, it sets up a radical new status quo that Doctor Who won't ever possibly escape from (although they certainly tried), and it delivers an emotional wallop in the final episode as Troughton and co. go out with an amazing bang that's still felt over forty years later.

And it really helps that the story doesn't suck.

So let's get to it!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Serial 50: The War Games (Part 1 of 2)

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Heriot

Written by: Malcolm Hulke & Terrance Dicks
Directed by: David Maloney:

Background & Significance:
In my humble opinion, I think Patrick Troughton is, in fact, the most important actor to ever play The Doctor. That's not to say he's the best Doctor of all time (he's not, but he's certainly up there), but in terms of sheer importance, Troughton's the one who cast the widest influence on the show, and it would never the same without him.

This is, for many reasons, because he's the Second Doctor. He helped redefine the role with grace and energy that Hartnell, quite frankly, wasn't capable of. And he did that without completely discarding all of Hartnell's interpretation. Without Troughton, it's easy to assume later Doctors would have been too much like Hartnell, but Troughton took the part and made it his own.

And then he left. After just three years.

Rounding out his list of contributions to the fabric of Doctor Who, Troughton established a "it's time to move on" precedent. After three years, Troughton decided to move off the role (although he would later make return appearances in the role several times) and onto different things, fearing type-casting.

While this sentiment wasn't echoed by his immediate successors (Pertwee left after five years for various reasons, citing type-casting as one of them; Tom Baker left the role because it was just that time), Davison (his own interpretation very influenced by Troughton's) departed the role after three years on Troughton's suggestion (despite later claiming he wish he had stayed on longer), and fan-favourite David Tennant (himself a huge Davison fan) left after three seasons just like Davison, just like Troughton.

To celebrate Troughton's ending, he was given a mammoth ten-part story (easily the longest story after "The Daleks' Master Plan"). Because no one wants to see me review a ten part story in 5,000 words or less (and no, I really won't because that wouldn't do it justice) I'll be separating this particular serial into two halves and reviewing the other half later this week. There, we'll talk more about the actual ramifications of the story as they're all relegated to the back half and, most specifically, the last few episodes (and they are total doozies, lemme tell you).

But we'll worry about that later. For now, let's just talk about the first half of what is easily my favourite Doctor Who story so far.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Serial 139: The Mark of the Rani

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown

Written by: Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Sarah Hellings

Background & Significance: If you treat The Doctor as a superhero (and he is, in a lot of ways, a superhero), you'd notice that his Rogues Gallery is oddly limited.

His A-List bad guys would be Daleks, Cybermen, and The Master (Batman corollaries: The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, etc.). His B-listers would be something along the lines of Silurians, Sontarans, and Autons (Batman corollaries: Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, The Scarecrow...), and his C-listers would perhaps be Omega and The Black Guardian (For Batman: Mr Zzazz, Man-Bat, Killer Croc... etc.)

Let's face it, The Doctor's enemies, while compelling, have a very low rate of re-occurrence unless they're A-listers. (The Autons alone have made only three appearances in the show over the course of the series' almost fifty year run, which is a shame because I recently decided that I freaking love the Autons. But we'll talk about them eventually).

"The Mark of the Rani" is an attempt to forge a new recurring villain for The Doctor to face. In essence (spoilers for what you're about to read) she's an evil female Time Lord, bent on her own diabolical and selfish ends. In a way, she's like The Master, but female.

The first I'd heard of The Rani was a Russell T Davies interview about the hand that picks up The Master's ring at the end of the modern series' "Last of the Time Lords", in which he laughed and balked that it was her. That both livened my spirits and depressed me at the same time. Why is he laughing at The Rani? Shouldn't she be a major presence in the show's mythology? A huge deal? I mean I know that it didn't come about at the most opportune time (post Davison, when the show started to decline in term of viewership and popularity in the face of Colin Baker's radical (and awesome) take on The Doctor), but that doesn't mean she's worthy of scorn or dismissal.

So here's what I want you to think about as we go into this.

Why is The Rani such a failure, especially because she's such a good concept? Why was it such a poor execution, and where does said poor execution start?

I'll answer that last bit right now: From minute one.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Serial 61: The Curse of Peladon

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Jo Grant

Written by: Brian Hayles

Directed by: Lennie Mayne

Background & Significance:
"The Curse of Peladon" is an exploration of what happens when The Doctor goes out to help out another society, not necessarily to stop a problem, but to actually help some folk out.

People have said that this story is essentially what if Doctor Who told a story in the vein of Classic Star Trek, and while I'm not a yes man by any stretch of the imagination, I'm hard pressed to disagree with them. Doctor Who, as I know it, is this show that's a whole lot more about fun and big adventure a la Star Wars than the more "serious" and "culture examiney" genre of shows like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. That's not to say Doctor Who doesn't do commentary, but a show about political maneuverings and intrigue is certainly not the story I tend to look for when it comes to Doctor Who.

Then again, Doctor Who has this chameleonic ability to blend and mix genres as they see necessary. Want an alien invasion story? Do Daleks. You want zombies? Do Cybermen! It's like zombies, but they're robots! They can do western stories or horror stories or thriller stories or romance stories or war stories... It all depends on what a writer wants to do with this story. The possibilities are endless.

Granted, certain of these genres blend in with Doctor Who more than others, and political intrigue (which inevitably involves lots of people talking and very little action running) is not the easiest story to pull off.

But how in the world do they pull this off? The odds are stacked against them. If there's one thing wrong with classic Who, it's the propensity to have too much talking and cut back on the high adventure. So how do they make this, a decidedly not adventure story, into a kick ass adventure story?

I'm gonna blame the cage match. But we'll get there soon enough.

So let's get to it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Serial 133: The Resurrection of the Daleks

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Tegan Jovanka, Vislor Turlough

Written by: Eric Saward
Directed by: Matthew Robinson

Background & Significance: For Doctor Who's 20th Anniversary season, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner sought to bring back old foes for The Doctor to face. We already talked about "Arc of Infinity", but what would a twentieth anniversary be without the return of The Doctor's oldest and most popular foe?

Unfortunately, while it didn't quite work out as planned, it did manage to make it in for Davison's third and final season, which I find fortunate, but I'll discuss the why I think that a bit later.

One of the most interesting things about this story, I find, is that it did have the blessing of Terry Nation while not being written by him. This is unusual, perhaps, because Terry Nation traditionally HATED Dalek stories that weren't written by him, which is sad, because "Power of the Daleks" is really stupid good.

(For the record, I recently listened to that one and god damn that one's fantastic awesome. Seriously really really fantastic awesome.)

What we have, then, is a a classic Daleks/Davros story with tons of the early 80's Star Wars sci-fi zeitgeist and such. We get the departure of Tegan (which is fortunate because I am a huge not-fan of Tegan) and a solid story starring Daleks and their interesting little plan that is interesting.

So let's get to it!