Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Serial 3: The Edge of Destruction

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

Written by: David Whitaker
Directed by: Richard Martin & Frank Cox

Background & Significance: Doctor Who was under threat of cancellation.

There's only a few times you can say that about. One time is during Michael Grade's attempt to completely shut down Doctor Who starting in the late late Davison era and continuing all the way through until the show's ultimate cancellation in 1989. Another was at the end of the Troughton era, during which the show was more or less floundering creatively and underwent a massive reboot to get it into a place where it was palatable to a brand new audience.

But the first time was episodes twelve and thirteen of season one, also fondly known as "The Edge of Destruction". The BBC's initial order for Doctor Who only took them to the end of this story, so really, it was entirely possible Doctor Who would have been cancelled once it was done.

Now granted, by the time this episode aired the show was almost assuredly going to stick around for a while. "The Daleks" had done gang-busters for the show in terms of ratings and the BBC ordered more scripts and episodes immediately. There would be no interruption in the production process (remember that at this time Doctor Who was producing some forty plus episodes a year), but the production team required an extra week or so to prepare the elaborate sets for Lucarotti's forthcoming historical epic "Marco Polo", so to save on money and set construction script editor David Whitaker took matters into his own hands and wrote what's essentially a bottle episode(s) of Doctor Who set entirely on the TARDIS and featuring no one but our main cast of characters and the one character you rarely ever think of but who's around all the time...

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Serial 95: The Sun Makers

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

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Pennant Roberts

Editor's Note: Hallo hallo! Dropping in to point out that this is Cassandra's last entry! Lordie lord we are racing towards an ending and quickly, aren't we? By golly we are. But yes. Here's Cassandra with some discussion on "The Sun Makers".

Background & Significance: So the name of this game is 'satire'.

When I watched this story for the first time, the point flew right over my head and so I ended up disliking it.  "Robert Holmes?" I thought.  "Oh, surely this shall be another heavy masterpiece."  And it's not, so, I was confused and felt a bit betrayed and let down, since this was the last Robert Holmes story we did on our initial watch-through.

But just because this is much lighter fair than what I've come to expect from Holmes, doesn't make it bad.  On the contrary, it really shows off his range as a writer, as good comedy is one of the hardest things to master.

And this is a comedy.  It's a very biting satire on Imperialism and Colonialism as well as the British equivalent of the IRS, which I think is hilarious.  Granted, there are some dark elements/moments that we'll talk about in a bit, but at its heart this is a comedy, which makes it fit in splendidly with the Williams era aesthetic.

This is also one of the last stories featuring Leela as a companion, which makes me really sad because I love Leela and I think she's really great here, which may or may not have something to do with the return of Pennant Roberts, who also directed Leela's debut story "The Face of Evil".

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serial 53: The Ambassadors of Death

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companions: Liz, The Brigadier

Written by: David Whitaker (and Trevor Ray and Malcolm Hulke)
Directed by: Michael Ferguson

Background & Significance: After six seasons, most television programmes start to show age and wear and tear in their day-to-day proceedings. To counteract this, shows need to evolve or grow in the way they conduct their business (creative business, I mean) lest people get bored with what's happening. And rightly so. Even Doctor Who (which at the time was churning out "stories" as opposed to episodes) had done fifty installments, and the past three seasons had been the formulaic base-under-siege format (or to put another way, a bad case of deja-you've-seen-one-you've-basically-seen-them-all-vu). So it was growing tired and the audience was shrinking to reflect that.

Season seven, then, as we know, was a change. New Doctor. New production team. New format. New colours. New episode/story count. And outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin sought to shore up costs by doing longer, seven-part episodes as opposed to the previously standard six-parters.

Now, the second anyone familiar with Classic Doctor Who (but who hasn't seen season seven) hears "seven-parter" they instantly clam up because... my god. There are five and six part stories that don't work. What hope do the production team have of pulling off three consecutive seven-parters? And yes, that's understandable. And to be fair, after the geniusness of the four-part "Spearhead From Space" it's hard to believe that anyone would want to deviate from such an exquisitely simple structure. And yet the season also has "Doctor Who and the Silurians" from masterful structurer Malcolm Hulke, which manages to be fairly adept at keeping the seven-part structure moving so that it's not too annoying. We'll talk about "Inferno" in just a few short weeks, but today we're covering "The Ambassadors of Death".

Yes. The bastard stepchild of the season. It's the one that's not got the iconic monster (Autons or Silurians, take your pick) or the unique premise ("Inferno") or strong start ("Spearhead"). No. This is the one that was only recently released in full colour, making it less desirable Pertwee than others. Black and white was Hartnell/Troughton, not Pertwee.

Originally pitched as an "Invaders of Mars" type story going back to season six, Whitaker did a lot of work on it, trying to make this story of humanity's first contact with alien life useable. What started as a six-episode 2nd Doctor/Jamie/Zoe story was then molded into a seven episode story featuring The 3rd Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, and the new UNIT paradigm.  The reasoning was sound, too. The UNIT era was fresh and new and a straight-up alien invasion, first contact type story fits completely into that particular ouevre. Whitaker did his best and tried his darndest, but couldn't see eye to eye with the production team's desire and gave up after finishing the script to the third episode. He moved to Australia. He never worked on the programme proper again.

Dicks handed off the rest of the serial's four episodes to Malcolm Hulke (and his assistant Trevor Ray had done a heavy re-write on episode one) and collaborated with him to slam out the rest of the scripts based on Whitaker's notes and outlines. They brought in Michael "Seeds of Death" Ferguson to direct and the rest, as they say, is up on the screen for us to see. It's David Whitaker's final contribution to the program (and if you read Sandifer you know how big a deal this is) and so interesting to see how he pushes the series into its still-unsure but potential-packed future. And of course, it's interesting to see what great writers do with other great writers' ideas. You see this most during Robert Holmes's tenure as script editor, in which he strove to make the scripts coming in the best he could possibly make them, re-writing them if necessary. And yet this is a case of Hulke (one of my favorite writers of pre-Tom-Baker Doctor Who) shaping and molding the work of one of the greatest and most important Doctor Who writers of all time. Such a combination is rare, and definitely worth taking apart.

But really I'm mostly just dying to start re-watch it again.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Serial 33: The Moonbase

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben, and Polly

Written by: Kit Pedler
Directed by: Morris Barry

Background & Significance: Ever since "The Daleks", Doctor Who was always looking for a returning monster to rival The Doctor's original alien foes. That's clearly what the Mechanoids were and it's clearly where the Quarks came from. But nothing ever warranted that "special return" treatment. Yes, you had The Monk returning in "The Daleks' Master Plan", but that hardly counts as "returning monster" especially because he doesn't turn up again.

With this story, The Cybermen enter the pantheon and become the first one-off monster after the Daleks to be "recurring villains".

The story, of course, is also a tentpole for another reason. After their first outting with the format, the production team decided to come up with "formulaic" Doctor Who, or Doctor Who with a simpler, more predictable structure to aid in the relentless schedule they were dealing with at the time. This new format ("the base under siege") was something that would be used across almost half of the stories of the Troughton era, so it's really a key turning point for the show. It's at this point that, truly, the show focuses more on the action and adventure elements inherent in its sci-fi premise than the odd explorations and outtings prevalent across the first three seasons of the series. And if the first scene doesn't tell you that, then I don't know what to tell you.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Serial 24: The Celestial Toymaker

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Steven, Dodo

Written by: Brian Hayles (and Donald Tosh)
Directed by: Bill Sellars

Background & Significance: It's hard to think of a story with a sexier title than "The Celestial Toymaker". Part of that is because it comes off as inherently nefarious. Toymaker is the profession of a fellow obsessed with details and driven almost crazy by them. The title also sounds like a worthy adversary for The Doctor ("Celestial", that is, reaching out into the cosmos). And there's always (always!) something alluring about The Doctor going up against a nemesis. It's why The Master is so popular and why people will fetishize both The Monk and The Rani. So why not be excited about this? The title is WONDERFUL.

Because after the title it's all downhill from here.

"The Celestial Toymaker" is one of the few stories that was developed by John Wiles and Donald Tosh, the outgoing producer and script editor. As they developed it, Wiles and Tosh came up with an idea to effectively sideline The Doctor by introducing "The Trilogic Game", which The Doctor would solve while being invisible. In this, Wiles and Tosh (probably mostly Wiles) would circumvent William Hartnell and not have to deal with him, as the relationship between Wiles and Hartnell was openly confrontational/hostile. It's a shrewd move, but one that is at least understandable (if not a bit too passive aggressive for my tastes). And yet, Wiles and Tosh both stepped down from Doctor Who before this episode hit production. Wiles phased himself out during "The Ark" while Tosh stepped down during "The Massacre" to tweak Brian Hayles's scripts so they were ready for Innes Lloyd's producing and Gerry Davis's script editing.

And it's to this day considered a lost treasure.

Part of the reason for this (as Philip Sandifer so eloquently writes up here) is down to one authority deciding that certain stories (like "The Gunfighters") were bad while others (like this one) were good. And yet, outside of the underlying premise (The Doctor and his companions land in a dangerous funland full of evil, nefarious games that might end up killing our heroes) there's really... not much to it. And even with the underlying premise there's not nearly so much as you might instinctively believe. But we'll get to that. For now, know, that I dread this story, but mostly because it's the one last story that I truly hate as we pull into the end of this blog in just a few short months.

So let's get to it!