Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Serial 14: The Crusade

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

Written by: David Whitaker
Directed by: Douglas Camfield

Background & Significance: Season two of Doctor Who saw the first major paradigm shift on the show. Susan left and was replaced by Vicki (which is the obvious major shift), while behind the scenes David Whitaker stepped down as script editor and was replaced by Dennis Spooner. Whitaker stuck around, though, writing a variety of different stories all the way up until the first season of Pertwee's tenure and always doing something interesting (as Philip Sandifer is always eloquently pointing out).

So this is one of the stories he writes, and it's unique because it's the only historical he wrote, so we get to see what it's like to have a David Whitaker historical.

Last week we talked a lot about Robert Holmes and how he was one of three influential writers on the show. David Whitaker's the big one in that list because of the way he shaped the show at key early moments in its history. He was the script editor who saw The Doctor through a series of "firsts" and the writer who happened to write the first post-regeneration story AND the "last Dalek story" (again, read Sandifer for more). That said, an historical from him is worth noting to say the least and interesting because this season sees one from him and one from then-script-editor Dennis Spooner, so it's interesting to see how they play off each other.

It's also interesting to really see the first story properly directed by Douglas Camfield. Camfield had previously directed one episode of "Planet of Giants" and would go on to direct a myriad of other great stories, being probably the best director of the first half of Classic Who. It's also the first appearance of Julian Glover (who would go on to eventually be the great Scarlioni) and Jean Marsh (who played both Sara Kingdom in "Daleks' Master Plan" and Morgaine Le Fey in "Battlefield"), which is rather wonderful, and one of those stories that's firmly set with this specific TARDIS crew. Ian and Barbara are not quite leaving yet (they get another story before their departure one) and Vicki has been around for two more stories before this. So this (like "The Aztecs") is something of a banner story to display how this team works together now that they're going strong but don't have the inclinations to leave yet.

So it's should be interesting.

Now let's get to it!

Commentary!:

Part 1:

Now I would youtube the opening of this episode, but youtube did what it always does and blocked it because the BBC is prissy. Whatever. Know that you're missing out on some primo action and a great kick ass jump start to a strong story. It has Ian AND The Doctor picking up swords and fighting Saracens and has some tremendous blocking and great dialogue that immediately sets the stage by even FEELING like it's a Shakespearean experience. I don't even know what it is. Something about the remote location and the specificity with the way Shakespeare opens stories reminds me of the specificity with which Whitaker opens this episode here.

I say this because this story is basically Doctor Who does Shakespeare.

Looking at it, I think it’s blindingly obvious. For one thing, the dialogue is positively delicious, and everyone who speaks it is instantly elevated regardless of their qualities as an actor. It doesn’t hurt that most of the actors in this are fairly great. The TARDIS crew is good (as they always are) and Julian Glover is a wonderful character actor and this story really shows that off. And then there’s Bernard Kay’s Saladin who, despite the black face (which I’m overlooking because it’s an aspect of the time and there’s nothing I can do about it so complaining won’t do me any good) gives a wonderful, conflicted performance. And everyone else really, even the shopkeeper does a great job at being the bumbling comic foil.

But beyond even the dialogue, this story really… feels Shakespearean. It sprawls in the way Shakespeare sprawls. It takes its time within scenes and lets the characters play off each other. Hell, it even allows the characters to be wonderfully ambiguous.

Never is this more highlighted than in comparing the two major settings of this episode: the camps of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. While it’s Saladin whom we’d expect to be the savage barbarian because of the fact that he’s an “Other” (that is to say, not white), it’s really Richard who’s the jackass. He’s hot-headed and pompous, nearly petulant, really. Compare that to Saladin, who very specifically remarks that he treats all his prisoners with “every liberty except liberty itself”.  And I very much doubt Richard would treat his prisoners the same.

And yet, King Richard is not without his positives. It’s true that he’s kind of a dick, but at the same time he is kind to his friends and fiercely loyal. Likewise, Saladin is kind to his prisoner William des Preaux, but treats Barbara (who is not nearly as valuable a commodity) as though she needs to prove herself to his graces.

Needless to say, the conflict is palpable. How would someone like Barbara prove her innocence/value? It’s almost unfair, if you ask me. And yet it’s not without merit in its own right. Why shouldn’t Saladin treat her differently than he would William, especially if William’s life is palpably worth more? It’s not nearly as easy as it might seem. Likewise, Richard’s dismissal of the rest of the TARDIS crew is earned. True, we know of their true intentions, but Richard does not. They are not inherently special because they rescued his friends, nor should he treat them as such.

So it’s a perfect marriage of Shakespeare and Doctor Who. The dialogue is outstanding. The characters are extremely well thought out and developed across the board. It’s got some moments of real comedy and it’s a great performance by Hartnell, who is obviously having a hell of a time acting this all out.

And did I mention that the opening sequence is great? I mean, it just is. We’re dropped right into the action. Everything unfolds very fast and it’s great to see Ian getting in a sword fight with some Saracen. And not just Ian, but The Doctor does it as well! It’s thrilling and exciting and extremely well staged by Camfield who really is one of the best action directors the Classic series ever had. Even the shot where the guy gets “shot” by the arrow is so immaculately blocked that you don’t even realize that he’s walking backwards so you don’t see that the arrow is ALREADY IN HIM.

It’s clever and tremendously well done. A great start to an extremely promising story.

Part 2:

I’ll admit freely that I don’t love this episode nearly as much as I do the first episode. Then again, that might be down to the fact that this episode doesn’t exist.

In this story’s defense, the dialogue and character work is the star more than the visuals are. The visuals in the first part really help set the scene and fuel the imagination for all the rest of the story to come. So disregarding the visuals, every scene sparkles just as the first episode’s did and not just in terms of dialogue. All the machinations between who’s doing what and why they might be doing it is great. I mean, the evil merchant Ferrigo helps whisk Barbara away into the clutches of the vile El Akir and then lies about it to Saladin’s face. The dramatic irony there is… strong, especially because he’s called on it and revealed before the end of the episode.

We also get advancement from the Richard segment of the story, in which we meet his sister Joanna.

I’m not going to pull punches here. I think Joanna is a standout character in a story full of standout characters. I say this mostly because I almost put a negative seeming adjective in front of the word “sister”. Which adjective? Devious, mischievous, mysterious, strange, untrustworthy… take your pick. The truth of the matter is, the way Jean Marsh plays the character, we’re instantly suspicious of her, or at least I am. I find it difficult to see her as anything except off-putting.  It’s something about the way she speaks or her comfort with Richard (who himself has proven to be vaguely untrustworthy) which I’m sure I’ll talk about more in the next part (I can’t not)… I’m not sure.

Or maybe it’s the fact that she’s a woman.

I can already tell I’m going to be treading dangerous waters here, but go with me on this. This story is basically about the power struggles of two men: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Everyone is divided along those lines and thrown into the story wherever they lie. And there are women in this story. Barbara and Vicki are here, but they are without agency: that is to say their loyalties are with the TARDIS. We’ll meet a woman in the next part, and I’ll talk about her there, but it bears stating that Joanna is the only powerful woman in a world full of powerful men.

And this is down to her relationship with Richard. She seems to have almost as much power in the situation as he does. Hell, she has his ear more than just about anyone else. And we’re dealing with a time period where women weren’t allowed to have power in any sort of way, shape, or form. We’re almost four centuries before Elizabeth at this point, and Elizabeth was not even allowed to pretend to outrightly say she was a woman. So seeing Joanna here is… it’s off-putting. Especially given her relationship with Richard, which (spoilers spoilers?) Glover and Marsh played to be overtly read as incestuous. We’ll get more of that in the next episode, but it’s true and it shows here, or at least… it shows subtextually, which was their goal.

So I don’t trust Joanna. I’m sorry, I don’t. And that’s very down to the way she’s written and played, which is… it’s greatness, I must say. So often Doctor Who is full of overt good and evil that getting people who are riding grays is a welcome, welcome relief.

And Richard here… Richard knights Ian. I like that. That’s a great touch, I think. Maybe it’s because I love Ian, but there you go.

I’ll also say that the fact that we can’t see the final sequence of this which is all Barbara running through the labyrinth of the city while evading guards is a big loss. It seems thrilling and entertaining from beginning to end and I’m sad we can’t see what Camfield does with it because I’m sure it was lovely.

Anyways. Onwards!

Part 3:

So I don’t know if this has ever really happened to me, but I find I quite like the third episode of this much more than the second. There’s something that makes it more… complex and interesting, I think.

I think the thing that really strikes me is the way Camfield chooses to frame two specific scenes. In both scenes, you have a character with power in the background, watching as the character in the foreground deals with a particular situation or conflict that they cannot come to deal with. It’s an interesting choice, and it’s so incredibly highlighted that there’s no way it’s a coincidence because the framing/blocking of it is so specific each time. It’s just… visually striking in a way the show usually (unfortunately) isn’t.

The first instance happens with Barbara and her rescuer Haroun when Haroun talks about what happened to his family and how they were brought out and killed by El Akim. The second is when Saphadin muses over the offer to take Joanna’s hand in marriage.

What I love about this is the way it frames the problems of the separate narratives of the story and gives them a thematic throughline. Both Haroun and Saphadin are plagued by life changing events. For Haroun, the loss of his wife and son crippled the man emotionally and has shaped every decision he has made from that moment forward. For Saphadin, he is contemplating a life changing decision that could have dire consequences for both his family and the rest of the region. And it’s interesting that while one is clearly the more empathetically traumatic (the death of Haroun’s child and spouse), it’s interesting that Camfield chooses to give the”1st World Problems” dilemma the same weight.

Because really, who cares about the inter-court politics of who’s marrying who for what land when your whole family is dead? Or you're trying to put food on the table?

But that’s the point, I think. The 1st World Problems thing and problems for the elite DO matter when they matter. If Saphadin DOES take Joanna’s hand in marriage, the implications for the region and all people in it are nothing short of extreme. The problem with it being, of course, that we’re not entirely sure Richard the Lionheart is a better ruler than Saladin is. Saladin is cool, calm, and collected, and not in a psychopathic way while Richard is known for his hot temper and inability to keep his shit together when the chips are down. At least Saladin is just and honorable, whereas Richard only seems that way because he’s a British King and we haven’t seen anything that might convince me of that for reals.  And I think that’s a bold move, but not one that I think is inaccurate. Saphadin’s decision doesn’t come from a place of lust or greed. It comes from a place of “is it a smart match” and wondering if the move would be in the best interests of everyone.

Barbara can do nothing except console.

That said, both of these scenes pale in comparison to what is the standout, breakout, scene-I-think-about-whenever-I-think-of-this-story scene, which is the fight between Joanna and Richard about whether or not she will marry Saphadin. It’s probably one of my out-and-out favorite scenes in the Hartnell era because the level of acting, dialogue, direction… everything is so impossibly good. The energy and chemistry between Julian Glover and Jean Marsh is at an all-time high, and listening to them scream at each other with this Shakespeareanesque dialogue is exactly what I want out of this story.  

And then! If you throw in the implication that this pair of siblings were in an incestuous relationship (as was implied by an early draft), the situation becomes much more complex and enticing. No, I’m not condoning or backing incest at the moment, but I think it’s worth noting that IF the two WERE in an illicit relationship, then this looks like Joanna is totally getting dumped by Richard in what’s possibly the dickest move ever because Joanna (as a woman of power) KNOWS that Richard is essentially using her as a piece of meat to barter with the Saracens. It’s fascinating and engaging and extremely well done. Drama in Doctor Who rarely ever gets this good.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love it.

It honestly reminds me a bit of Game of Thrones. I imagine this was akin to the sort of conversation that went down when Jamie revealed to Cersei that she was to be wed to Robert Baratheon. As the two siblings in love (and I do think, not to be gross, that there is a tender love to be had there even amidst all the piles and piles of ick factor in it), seeing them dealing with the fact that they are being separated for something as silly as “to marry two houses” is… trivial and upsetting to say the least. And why not? To see true love (I know, I’m overstepping, forgive me, but there is a point) separated for such a cause as [essentially] money is about the most careless thing one can do in the world.

How upsetting. And yet it is so so good.

Part 4:

So I’m wondering if I like this part less because it’s a reconstruction. I’m gonna go with no, but only because none of it stands out as much as stuff did in the last part. It’s still better than part two, though.

The thing that really strikes me about this is the way that it plays with both Shakespeare’s narrative conventions (the various stories converge in the end) and Spooner’s structure for the historical as displayed in "The Romans”. As you might remember from “The Romans”, Ian and Barbara are separated from The Doctor and Vicki and both pairs of characters have their own comedic runarounds, meeting up at the villa at the very end of the story. So too here do the two storylines meet up at the end with Ian saving the day because he claims to be a knight (but couldn’t anybody do that, really?)

What I think it does, more than anything, is displace my interest in the story. Ian’s component is less than outstanding if you ask me, placed there only because a trail of ants makes a nifty set piece I suppose, but the rest of it loses interest for me. The Joanna getting married subplot is mostly dropped because we’re not going to see more of Richard’s story of his conquest of Jerusalem.  Likewise Richard turns around very quickly on the notion that The Doctor and Vicki have betrayed him, which is… less than stellar. And it feels like the majority of the conflict in this story has just… dropped like a balloon. Even the El Akir stuff doesn’t feel as threatening or intimidating as it perhaps should. I don’t know what happened.

It’s strange how it almost becomes a commentary on the way in which a coalescing story only really matters if the coalescence climaxes. Otherwise, the story is robbing itself of inherent drama. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to see Richard march into Saladin’s camp or something? But we can’t do that cuz it’s a historical. It’s maddening.

So the episode doesn’t really do much, and that’s the most disappointing thing. It lets Haroun have some sweet revenge on El Akir, but as a plot point that wasn’t introduced until late into the game, so much so that it’s incidental. And I know that El Akir has been the main nemesis for Barbara for the last three episodes, but the storyline was much, much more exciting when Barbara was fully in the Saladin camp. That, at least, was more interesting. Barbara in the Saladin camp, everyone else in the Richard camp.

But instead we get El Akir, the evil Saracen, not Saladin the noble one. It’s not as interesting or compelling. I mean, it is interesting because El Akir is more overtly bad guy (lookit the scar) and you can’t get a lot of drama mileage out of someone being kind and noble to everybody, but… I feel like that is a wasted opportunity on the part of all involved. Especially because it basically ends with Ian running in and grabbing Barbara and running out. Yeah, there’s good comeuppance for the evil brothel babe who sold out Barbara because she was greedy and El Akir totally deserved to get killed like that, but I can’t help but admit I’ve lost interest in it because it never was that compelling to me.

And so the story ends with the TARDIS crew back in the woods, with a crew of Knights between them and the ship, only this time the crew talks its way out of it, rather than fighting like they did when they got there.

Really, that’s the thing I’m taking away from this part. It’s almost like this is a story about how wars can often be fought through political talky talk and how they don’t have to resort to violence. Neither Saladin nor Richard draw their swords in this whole story, choosing instead to wage war through deals and trades and barters. And it’s interesting that that is the thing that is more interesting to me. Watching someone like El Akir get killed by Haroun feels strangely hollow and empty in the way revenge almost always does. Violence is unnecessary when words will do.

Final Thoughts?: So I want to say this is my favorite Hartnell story, but I'm not sure I can.

I have no doubt that I'm mostly unable to say that because the second and fourth parts of this story are missing from the archive, because episodes one and three are so strong while episodes two and four are so middling, if you ask me.

But the energy apparent in episodes one and three is unmistakeable. A lot of that is down to Whitaker's script and Camfield's direction. Those are the episodes that feel the most out and out Shakespearean while the other two feel more standard Doctor Who than anything. I mean, episode two is a moving-things-into-place episode while the fourth is just an attempt to wrap up all the extraneous plot threads and get everyone back to the TARDIS. Hell, when The Doctor is talking to Vicki about how they're stuck in the jungle and can't get back to TARDIS, the dialogue is good but nowhere near the Shakespearean levels it's at in the rest of the story.

I do rather like it though, and it's a great example of a story about the structures of power and how people go about getting it. At every turn, everyone in the story attempts to exert power over everyone else. Vicki is given agency by the fact that she's a woman. Barbara is tossed around because she is a woman. Joanna defies all the power machinations despite her womanity. There's even the power struggles between Richard and Saladin and the way that Saladin commands a room even when he's not in it. Haroun is a man with no power whose only options to exert power is to kill the man who took his livelihood away from him. Ian is trapped by a man in a desert who just wants to kill him. And it's interesting how all the characters bounce and play off each other with regards to this dynamic.

But isn't that what all the great Shakespeares were about? People with power grappling for as much as they could? And power comes in various forms: knowledge, strength... etc. Then again, that might be just drama and conflict and basic Story 101 stuff, but I am slightly with cold so I'll just go with my ideas of agency and power more than anything. But it holds, I think. And it's worth noting, especially when Doctor Who has such a problem with this later on. It's a truly compelling story despite the wonkiness you get in certain sequences (seriously, Ian is such a complete disconnect after episode one it's insane) and really does prove itself to be one of the standout stories in a season full of standout stories. It's one of the best historicals ever, and a great outing for all those involved.

So that is something at the very least.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! A quiet village! The Devil! A heat barrier! The Master! And Five Rounds Rapid! "The Daemons!" Coming Next Tuesday!

3 comments:

  1. Great review, I really enjoyed this one. I was wondering if you were going to talk more about the brothel-girl tho...? I think you said earlier in the piece that you were going to but didn't really follow up on that. But yeah, it's a super fun serial (what's left of it) and I also loved Joanna and Barbara here (but I always love Barbara). And the costumes and sets are gorgeous :)

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