Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Serial 90: The Robots of Death

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

Written by: Chris Boucher
Directed by: Michael Briant

Background & Significance: Gothic horror.

That's right, ladies and gents, we've returned once again to the famed Season Fourteen of Doctor Who with a little story called "The Robots of Death". And there's really no other way to describe this story other than one of Gothic-style horror.

Like the other serials that make up this season in particular (though many of the other stories produced in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era also share this distinction), this story has a definite horror-bent to it. I think this story in particular, however, neatly and perfectly encapsulates the entire aesthetic of this season. It's intense and kind of scary and yes, it's violent, but it's also fun and top-notch, quality Doctor Who. Everything from the production design to the direction, to the guest cast, to Tom Baker and Louise Jameson; everything fits together in such a seamless way that it's practically perfect. Watching this is a lot of fun and you can just get a sense of the harmony and perfect team that Hinchcliffe and Holmes really were.

This story is significant for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is the establishment of Leela as full-time companion. This being Leela's first official adventure since the Doctor picked her up in "The Face of Evil", the writer of that story, Chris Boucher, was asked to return to help flesh out her character more, especially since it was decided by Hinchcliffe and Holmes that she would only be a short-term companion (though Graham Williams did decide to keep her on as companion til the end of the next season).

Being the companion after Sarah Jane Smith is a tall order and a tough spot to fill, but I think this is probably the best Leela we've seen so far, and Louise Jameson does a great job with the part, as we'll soon see.

Also, this is the last story in which the oh-so-pretty Gothic TARDIS console set appears, as it was warped beyond salvagability in the off-season in storage and had to be replaced. Such a shame, because I love that thing. So pretty.

Enough of all that, though. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Serial 122: Time-Flight

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

Written by: Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Ron Jones

Background & Significance: Spoilers: It's The Master. Again.

I go both ways in my views on the Jonathan Nathan-Turner years of Doctor Who. There are some things that he did that I'm personally very in favor of (the desire to make Doctor Who more action and excitey, no-more-than-four-episode stories, etc., his propensity to mine other classic stories for ideas, bringing in new blood to write for the show, casting Peter Davison, who is very clearly his vision for The Doctor) while other things make me question his judgment (Colin Baker's first season in general, his self-righteousness, his obsession with Doctor Who's legacy and past, not leaving after "The Caves of Androzani", Tegan...).

One of the things I go both ways on is his handling of The Master.

Now, I know we've talked about this before, but I LOVE The Master. I'm very much interested in antithesis characters for some reason. Yin vs Yang and all that. But there's a fine line with The Master. We've seen him at what is possibly his absolute best, but the really outstanding Master stories are rare. The Master as a character has a propensity to be tremendously silly and boring as it's really easy to write moronic, hokey villains who descend into schlocky tropes rather than come up with a convincing, smart, complex villain. Really great Master stories occur whenever The Master manages to out-think The Doctor. Really bad Master is when he acts like a mustache-twirling melodrama villain who chuckles and postures and never actually gets anything done.

My problem with Nathan-Turner's era is we get a lot of the latter Master rather than the former. When Jonathan Nathan-Turner came on as producer, he sought to bring on The Master twice a season because The Master was popular and would drive up ratings (which, as a producer, is fine because his job is to bring viewers to the show). Nevermind a character's power in scarcity; the more you make The Daleks appear, the less effective they are. The Master's the same way. Like The Joker (and the two are stunningly similar in a lot of ways), the more sparse his appearances, the more "OH DAMN" comes out whenever he actually appears. Not only that, but The Master's motivation needs to be very specific, from something as big as "taking over the universe" to something as small as "transforming to normal again". In "The Deadly Assassin" The Master just wants to regain a life he has squandered after twelve regenerations. Killing The Doctor, The Time Lords, and causing catastrophically devastating cosmic destruction is all just a wonderful bonus. Unfortunately, The Master of the Nathan-Turner era fast descends into two really base and lame motivations: take over the universe, kill The Doctor. Compare "Deadly Assassin" to "Mark of the Rani" and you'll see that The Master just becomes a one-dimensional villain with the sole motivation to kill The Doctor. Why? Never really explained.

Which brings us to "Time-Flight", the second Master story of Peter Davison's first season.

At this point, there's really nothing I can do except bemoan the downfall of a truly awesome character (seriously, did you SEE "The Deadly Assassin"?). Time-Flight is as flawed a Master story as they come and his once greatness has descended into... camp and boring motivations and... no. I'm sorry. But not taking The Master seriously as a villain wrecks him as a character. And that's the saddest. So let's watch as this gets terribly ridiculous and terribly weak as The Master skates the line towards "Mark of the Rani" level of awful.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Serial 97: The Invasion of Time

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Leela, K-9

Written by: David Agnew (a.k.a. Graham Williams and Anthony Read)
Directed by: Gerald Blake

Author's Note: Hey guys! Before we get into this week's review, I just wanted to say that I'm one of the new co-hosts of this sw33t Doctor Who podcast called "The Doctor's Companion" where my co-host Scott and I discuss Classic Who stories in recap form not so unlike this blog (but also much unlike it too because it comes in "sound-word" form). The first episode is available for download here and I encourage everyone to subscribe in iTunes (or whatever tickles your fancy) cuz it's tons of fun and I promise a super great ride. And now on with the show!

Background & Significance: "The Invasion of Time" is, to me, something of a case study in the Graham Williams era. If nothing else, it really just reminds me that sometimes it's really hard to be hard on Tom Baker's second producer.

We've talked about it before, but it's definitely worth repeating here. The Williams era is, in my mind, a much maligned era, and how could it not be? He's coming right after three seasons of ridiculous high quality under producer Phillip Hinchcliffe, who had a much firmer grasp on his vision of what he wanted the show to be and was thusly able to execute it that much more effectively than Williams. In addition to that, the show's budget was slashed as hard times fell on England (or something. THIS ISN'T A HISTORY SHOW. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT DOCTOR WHO), Tom Baker (best-Doctor-ever-no-contests) was growing increasingly more and more heady and drunk when it came to his influence on the show, and the BBC came forward to tell Williams to cut back on the violence and horror of the previous era, focusing instead on something much more "important": Humour.

And then you remember that Hinchcliffe's vision was supported by the insane quality of having Robert Holmes in charge of the stories they were telling and you just realize that Williams... Williams didn't stand a chance.

But he gets props for trying.

"The Invasion of Time" is probably the thing I think of most when I think about Williams trying incredibly hard to make something that's awesome and matters and really cool. If you go and look at what Williams was trying to do, he was just trying to make the best Doctor Who stories he could make. The level of the fantastical was increased as Williams scoured the Earth for the best stories that he could find.

Building off the success of an extremely high water mark from the previous season's already extremely high quality, Williams thought Robert Holmes's fantastic Time Lord opus "The Deadly Assassin" a mythology rife with potential to expand and build upon. It had proved to be incredibly popular, so why not build on it by telling another story set on Gallifrey but with a different focus? He even asked Robert Holmes to come in and write it as a companion piece/sequel to "The Deadly Assassin". When Holmes refused and other possibilities proved fruitless, Williams and new script editor Anthony Read opted to write it together under a psuedonym in order to cut back on costs.

What we're left with is... this. And... Oh boy does it merit some discussion.

Before going into it, I'd almost recommend coming at it from a place of leniency. It needed to be made on the cheap, and what they're dealing with was... I understand why they did it and they get super props for at least trying it, because really... Why shouldn't you? Revisiting Gallifrey and Time Lord society was bound to happen at some point and choosing to revisit it wasn't a bad choice.

But... let's be honest... Neither Williams nor Read are Robert Holmes. And he's the only one who's proved himself capable of writing a quality Time Lord story. Ah well. They couldn't have known. Ce'st la.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Serial 51: Spearhead from Space

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Liz Shaw

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Derek Martinus

Background & Significance: Because of the way Classic Doctor Who worked as a convention, the way the stories were told and how they were serialized individual stories but without any real overarching serialization or continuity, it's rare for a Doctor Who story to be "important". "Pyramids of Mars" can be all the fantastic in the world. Still doesn't make it "important." Important stories are typically regeneration stories (not even necessarily companion arrivals or departures because they're almost always backgrounded excepting certain instances).

"Spearhead From Space" is one of those stories that is... well... Extremely important.

For one thing, "Spearhead from Space" is the first time in Who history that the Classical-Gallifrey-favourite line "God damn, Robert Holmes" comes into play. Holmes had previously done two Doctor Who stories ("The Krotons" and "The Space Pirates"), both Patrick Troughton stories (to lesser or greater effect), but "Spearhead From Space" is the first one that really mattered in the overall scope of Doctor Who both from a Robert-Holmes-quality standpoint and from a game-changer standpoint (Holmes would later change the game with such stories as "The Ark in Space", "The Deadly Assassin", and "The Caves of Androzani").

"Spearhead from Space" is significant for a number of reasons.

It's the first Jon Pertwee serial. It's the first time Doctor Who was broadcast in colour. It's the first Doctor Who story to be entirely shot on film. It's the first story of The Doctor's five-year exile on Earth, commonly known as "The UNIT years", which was the five year run under producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks (despite Letts's noninvolvement here (it was produced by Derrick Sherwin) it really feels like a fairly "typical" Pertwee story) And it's the introduction of one of my personal favourite villains, The Autons (and oh my god what an introduction).

And Autons aside, all of that groundbreaking firsts stuff has nothing to do with Robert Holmes (the story concepts were developed by Producer Derrick Sherwin and Script Editor Terrence Dicks, the-all-shot-on-film bits was because of a labour strike, and the colour broadcast was a BBC mandate). And yet, it's easily one of my favourite Robert Holmes stories ever. It's exquisite science fiction horror, and all of the "mandates" (specifically the introduction of possibly the show's biggest format change of the classic series: that of The Doctor being confined to Earth during the UNIT years) feels like an afterthought amidst the gorgeous distraction of this tremendous story.

So let's get to it!