Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Serial 91: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: In 1976, as producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes were going to wrap their third season as a team, it became obvious to the two of them that Hinchcliffe was being moved away to a new show and that Robert Holmes would most likely be going with him. Holmes, of course, did end up leaving four stories later (subsequent producer Graham Williams asked him to stay on), but in terms of the geniusness that was Hinchcliffe's oversight, this was it, and when it comes to Holmes, this (in a lot of ways) was it for him for a while.

All of this is adds up to the fact that "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is a wonderfully important and meaningful story. And if it's not that way to anyone else (how many times do we have to talk about the racism again? Fine, fine. I will too) it certainly is to me.

In a lot of ways, "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is the thesis project for both Hinchcliffe and Holmes and carries all of the trademarks they picked up over the course of their three years running the show. Indeed, Hinchcliffe's first instruction to Holmes was "write anything you want, just don't include The Master" (which Holmes, at one point, wanted to do), giving Robert Holmes free reign to write anything he wanted. This, of course, led to Holmes dialing into the Gothic horror he'd been injecting into the show, only he dialed it up by eleven. He grabbed books and books off the shelf, injecting everything from Phantom of the Opera to Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu. He brought in his classic double act, making, perhaps, the most famous double act he ever did (who, by the way, Hinchcliffe seriously considered spinning off into their own series, which would actually happen eventually and to much acclaim), set it in Victorian times (which was the only thing his era was lacking when you really look at it), homaged Jack the Ripper, created a VERY Robert Holmesian villain, and made The Doctor Sherlock Holmes.

Hinchcliffe, of course, didn't care anymore. Well, I mean he did care. He was still producer and he'd had a very good run, but he wanted to go out on a bang (and did in a way very few others have), by making the very best Doctor Who story he could. So when I say he didn't care, I mean he didn't care about silly things like "budget" anymore. His vision for Doctor Who had always run up against budgetary concerns, but this time he threw it all out the window and made it lavish and gorgeous and the best it could possibly be. He brought in David Maloney (of "Mind Robber", "War Games", "Genesis of the Daleks", and "Deadly Assassin" fame) for his final ever work on Doctor Who, authorized night shoots, and told everyone to go crazy and make the best show they possibly could.

As it turns out, when you're running what's probably the best Doctor Who era ever and you tell everyone to make the best story and give them the freedom to do so, it'd be pretty hard to mess that up. And they really don't. It's astounding how much this really ends up being the perfect ending for their era, a climax and zenith that Doctor Who had very rarely reached or would reach again. And for most everyone to agree that this story is easily the best of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes when quality of the era is as high as it is (and in case you've forgotten, go back and see all of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories there's been and look at how high a bar they set), that's really saying something. Really truly.

Also, as a heads up this is probably going to be a love fest. I can already feel it coming, but hey. It's the hundredth story we're reviewing on the blog. I say we do it right.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Serial 117: Four to Doomsday

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

Written by: Terence Dudley
Directed by: John Black

Background & Significance: A few months back we talked about "Castrovalva" and sure we had a right old laugh celebrating Peter Davison's first story, but what I failed to mention was that it wasn't ACTUALLY Peter Davison's first story. "Four to Doomsday" was the first serial Peter Davison filmed, and it's in this story that we get to see him having his first few steps as The Doctor. And boy howdy, man. Boy howdy. That guy is on from minute one.

Written by previous Doctor Who director Terence Dudley (he of "Meglos"-directing fame) who would go on to do "Black Orchid" and "The King's Demons", "Four to Doomsday" is a fairly typical Doctor Who story. It's a bit slow in places, a lot of it is about characters and mystery and seeing how annoying Tegan can be and watching Adric do whatever it is that Adric does. (Also dancing. Lots of dancing.) It's the first real Fifth Doctor adventure in the sense that "Castrovalva" is a lot about dealing with the aftermath of "Logopolis" and The Doctor's recovery as he transitions into this new chap we're going to be following for the next three years. This is a lot more about The Doctor going out and having a great adventure, saving the day, and really taking the car out for its test drive.

It's also here that we really start to see what Nathan-Turner's influence really kick in. The previous year was just about cleaning house and preparing the way for his vision to start, but here... Man. All the things he brought to the table are here: new markets, Star Wars, fun adventuring, the works.

Interestingly enough, "Four to Doomsday" was supposed to be a point for the show to get rid of Nyssa. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (obsessed with Tegan and feeling Adric was a good touchstone for the young viewers) thought getting rid of Nyssa was a good idea to trim back the oversized TARDIS crew, but after intense lobbying from Peter Davison (who felt Nyssa was the most Fifth Doctorish Companion (and she was)) decided against it. It really is a classic case of actor knowing more than producer if you ask me, especially because Nyssa is TOTALLY Davison's strongest companion (at least for his Doctor) and losing her would have been a huge mistake, especially if you consider that the alternative means that Adric wouldn't have died and Waterhouse woulda been around for at least another season beyond this one.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Serial 44: The Dominators

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Zoe

Written by: Norman Ashby (aka Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln)
Directed by: Morris Barry

Editor's Note: Hello, gentle faithfuls! It's Matt here introducing another round of Cassandra, here to this time talk about "The Dominators", and by "introducing" I mean apologizing profusely (I didn't know it would suck this bad when I gave it to her. I'M SORRY). But she's back and again she has a story that is... not strong. Le sigh. But all is well! She will have some good stuff in the future. That is a guarantee! I'll be back next week with some fun goodness but for now let's see if Cassandra can find anything redeeming in "The Dominators."

Background & Significance: It all comes down to merchandising.

Season Six is a really interesting season of Doctor Who, one that is at the same time both incredibly rocky and incredibly important. I say rocky, because in comparison to the previous season (which, barring "The Wheel in Space," is pretty phenomenal story quality wise across the board), it's fairly up and down. To go from a story like "The Dominators" to one like "The Mind Robber" (which we haven't talked about yet, but we will, and it'll be fantastic) just shows you what I mean. It reminds me a lot of this past season of Nu-Who (also a season six, hmmm), with the massive fluctuations in quality episode to episode. But I digress.

The people behind Doctor Who at this time (then-producer Peter Bryant specifically) were always looking for a new monster to take the world by storm in the way that the Daleks had. Upon their introduction in Season Four, the Cybermen proved to be serious contenders for another "Dalekmania"; likewise, Season Five introduced a lot of other cool monsters, including the Yeti and the Ice Warriors. But they all never quite reached the popularity of their fellow aliens from Skaro.

Following the relative success and great fan reception of the Yeti in the previous season, Peter Bryant approached the creators, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, to come up with a new monster that would be potentially as marketable as the Daleks. What they came up with are the Quarks, and "The Dominators" would be their introductory story.

Needless to say, since you've probably never heard of quarks outside of physics class the creepy little robots never showed up again, "The Dominators" is a pretty terrible story, and the Quarks' attempt at dethroning the Daleks in the toy department failed hardcore. But that's what you get when you put merchandising ahead of storytelling.

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Serial 147: Time and The Rani

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Mel

Written by: Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Andrew Morgan 

Background & Significance: Much like "The Twin Dilemma" and "Timelash", "Time and the Rani" is one of those stories that is almost universally reviled. It always ends up WAY low on those rankings of best Doctor Who stories (and by that I mean, always at the bottom of everything). Granted, the rankings almost always inevitably end up with Tom Baker stories and Dalek stories much higher on the list than, say, Colin Baker stories, but the fact still remains that this is one of those constants that will most likely never change.

It's not really anyone's fault, though. Well, I suppose it is, but it's a miracle it exists at all.

After completing work on the marathon, nightmare of a season that was Trial of a Time Lord, Producer John Nathan-Turner went on a much needed holiday. After all, he was under the assumption that all the nonstop drama from the past few years on Doctor Who (Colin Baker's disastrous tenure (not Mr. Baker's fault) and in-fighting with his script editor (who eventually quit) and people in charge of the BBC who seemed to want nothing more than to cancel Doctor Who) was behind him now. He was moving on! To bigger and brighter pastures. He'd done his time. And now he could do something else.

When he came back from his trip in late December he found that his new assignment was Doctor Who, the show he had just left behind for good. He begged to be taken off the show, but if he left the BBC would cancel it, so he stayed on so that Doctor Who would not die.

But now he was faced with a number of problems. In just over eight months the next season would air. But he didn't have any scripts. He didn't have a new script editor. Hell, he didn't even have a new Doctor. Additionally, any attempts to woo Colin Baker back for a regeneration scene were met by Colin Baker's refusal to reappear after the way he was treated (and if I might commentary a phrase, "Good on ya, Mr. Baker"). Nathan-Turner immediately commissioned Pip and Jane Baker (hereafter referred to as "Pip'n'Jane") for a story, knowing they could write something shootable in a short amount of time, regardless of quality. They decided to bring back their "fan-favourite" creation The Rani. And... well... it turned out so good the first time that why not make her "even better"?

In mid-February Nathan-Turner found his replacement in Sylvester McCoy and had his new Doctor signed to a deal by mid-March. Also around this time, Nathan-Turner found his new script editor: Andrew Cartmel.

Both of these helped put all of the new season of Doctor Who in place, and the new Doctor's first serial commenced shooting in the first week of April, just five weeks after McCoy signed his name on the paperwork that would make him the new Doctor. Bonnie Langford would stay on as Mel (allowing some sort of continuity) and before everyone knew it, the cameras were rolling and the twenty fourth season of Doctor Who was a go, with everyone scrambling about to make it happen.

Needless to say there wasn't a lot of prep time. By the time Cartmel came in to work on the scripts they'd already been commissioned by Nathan-Turner, so he was just cleaning up what would already be established. Similarly, McCoy had barely a month to scramble together a vision and interpretation for his Doctor. The "darkness" and the "chess mastersmanship" would come from Cartmel's influence once the production team had more time to develop the show, which left McCoy to act more comedic and clown-like in this first season of his. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it made for at least something that was vaguely engaging in this first round of stories, and McCoy himself is a very comic actor, which made it a bit easier to play given the complete lack of preparation time to begin with.

The question mark pullover was, of course, Nathan-Turner's idea.

So you can see why this whole thing is leaning towards being something of a sloppy before it even started shooting.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Serial 29: The Tenth Planet

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Ben and Polly

Written by: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis

Directed by: Derek Martinus

Background & Significance: Arguably, "The Tenth Planet" is the most important Doctor Who story of all time. I mean, really, the only other stories that seem to have this much weight are the original story ("An Unearthly Child") and the recent reboot from 2005, "Rose". But still, even if those are more important ("An Unearthly Child" perhaps more than "Rose" because without it there could be no "Rose"), "The Tenth Planet" is right there at the top, and I defy you to name a more important story. "The Tenth Planet" establishes a paradigm that managed to keep Doctor Who on the air for... forever really. Everything since "The Tenth Planet" has been completely defined by it because without "The Tenth Planet" there would be no other Doctor Who stories. And why, you ask? Cuz who cares?

"The Tenth Planet" gives us our first regeneration.

At the time of his regeneration, William Hartnell was getting quite ill and increasingly more incapable of performing the rigorous day-in day-out routine of Doctor Who. I mean, this even comes after his health being less than perfect before he started working on the show, but it only deteriorated as he went on. Of course, because the show was proving popular enough that the BBC didn't want to cancel it because of the limitations of one ailing actor, producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis sought to replace Hartnell with another actor, putting into motion a notion that had started with the previous production team of John Wiles and Donald Tosh. Then again, they weren't actually thinking about Hartnell. They were more concerned about Hartnell's stubbornness and how he would get in the way and fight their attempts to divert the show's course from what Hartnell had seen as "the show's original vision", which he thought was his duty to uphold now that the original production team (Verity Lambert, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, etc.) had all left him behind.

Now was the time to replace him, though.

When approached towards the end of his third season, Lloyd very respectfully asked Hartnell to bow out, citing his illness and increasing fragility as the main cause for concern. Both Hartnell and his wife consented to the choice with the knowledge that the show would go on but with a different actor. Hartnell supposedly only had two stipulations: that the show not forget the work he had done with the character and to honor his vision at the very least, and that they get Patrick Troughton for the job. The latter is a story for another day, but the former is something that has... at the very least... been observed and respected in the forty five years since that first regeneration. It's a testament to what came later that no one ever really forgot Hartnell or his contribution to the show, and that his Doctor is no less recognizable than any other Doctor that came after him.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So that brings us to "The Tenth Planet", the second story of the show's fourth season and the first of the show's fourth recording block (the previous story, "The Smugglers" was recorded at the end of the third recording block that the show might stay ahead of schedule a little bit, at least at the beginning) and it really is a transitionary story. Tag-team written by then-scientific advisor Kit Pedler and then-story editor Gerry Davis, we're left with a milestone, turning point story. Amidst our slowly weakening and dying main character we have a completely batshit insane story introducing one of The Doctor's most famous and enduring foes, The Cybermen. It's also the big transitional turning point for the Innes Lloyd era, or indeed the Troughton era coming up. No more are Lloyd and Davis stuck with stories commissioned by the previous production team. Now they're doing their own stories and suddenly we have a new paradigm: The Base Under Siege.

Can you already tell that this one's a little important? But I suppose the bigger question is, "What else is there beyond that?" If you may allow me to quote the most underrated Doctor who ever lived one last time: "Hmmmm...."

So let's get to it!