Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Serial 13: The Web Planet

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

Written by: Bill Strutton
Directed by: Richard Martin

Background & Significance: "The Web Planet" is just one of those serials. It's oft forgotten by most fans, and, when you look for it on rankings of Doctor Who stories, it will inevitably always be incredibly low on the list. In Doctor Who Magazine's Mighty 200 Poll, it came after "The Gunfighters" in terms of Hartnell, ahead of only "The Sensorites" and "The Space Museum".

"Worse than 'The Gunfighters'", though? Personally, that says good things to me. And I rather did like "The Sensorites" when I watched it, so...

Producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker wanted to create another successful monster in the way The Daleks had been successful in the previous year. Enter Bill Strutton, who pitched an idea for (essentially) "giant ants" and Lambert and Whitaker loved the idea so much they didn't even request a storyline. They picked up six episodes, which was not a standard practice at the time. And suddenly everyone was off and running, with Strutton figuring out his scripts and Lambert working to figure out how the hell to make this thing producible.

The result is... well... for lack of better term: magic. Again it's widely panned and muchly maligned mostly due to the design and special effects used. As we've spoken of previously, special effects are the aspect of movies/TV/etc. that age worst as time goes on. Today, The Lord of the Rings trilogy still looks pretty good, but is nowhere near the quality of what's coming out today. Hell, look at Alien. Released just a year later than Star Wars and it looks that much better. And with "The Web Planet" being as ambitious as it is, it's no wonder it hasn't aged spectacularly. And yet, perhaps, maybe there's more to it than you might initially expect. I mean, after all, this is the story that Neil Gaiman (having gone back and rewatching EVERYTHING as an adult) refuses to ever rewatch because it scared the pants off of him as a wee lad. He knows it won't hold up, and yet his memory of it holds and he's still a bit scared of it to this day.

A total turkey, then? It does bring the idea into question.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Serial 140: The Two Doctors

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor), Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown, Jamie McCrimmon

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Peter Moffat

Background & Significance: In 1985 Doctor Who turned twenty two. So it was a few years past the 20th and still a few years from the 25th. Other than that, it's not really that remarkable. Sure, I suppose it's the sole season featuring Colin Baker as The Doctor. Compared to the previous twenty two, his twenty third is positively abbreviated, so it's hard to count that in my head. This was his first proper season. Other than that, there's nothing special or remarkable about it, is there?

And yet here we are talking about a multi-Doctor crossover.

Given the rousing success with which Robert Holmes had written "The Caves of Androzani", Eric Saward was quick to hire him back for another go at some Doctor Who. John Nathan-Turner (capable of knowing how good "Androzani" was and being not unintelligent) was quick to acquiesce to the idea. So we have the return of Robert Holmes offering one of his last stories for one of the most... marmite seasons of Doctor Who ever. And he was given a laundry list of things to do: bring in the 2nd Doctor. And Jamie. And Sontarans. Oh and set it in America. We're thinking New Orleans, because that lines up with your desire to do a story about food.

It was soon changed from Seville from New Orleans because the location filming fell through. And honestly, why not Spain?

But the point stands that this story had a laundry list of things to accomplish and Holmes had three whole episodes (the equivalent of a six parter in the old, 25-minute episode days) with which to incorporate all his ideas. And is it too much? Perhaps? How does Holmes react to the violence and intensity that he helped usher in with "Androzani"? How does he handle all of these elements and how does Colin Baker do? So many thoughts. I mean, well, we haven't talked about C. Baker in a god damn age. And it'll be the last time we talk about him. Sad.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Serial 157: The Curse of Fenric

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

Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett

Background & Significance: With the rise of Nu-Who, one of the questions that comes around regularly is "Where do I start with the Classic Series". There's a few different answers. Perhaps the most popular is to watch "An Unearthly Child" and then go for there. The other answer I hear a lot is to warm people to the show through the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and see how they like it. The idea here is to ease them into the production values with kickass stories that will make them not care. Then introduce them to other stories.

Me? I did something slightly different.

The other big recommendation is instead of going for more-than-adequate production values, you could always start with the eight 7th/Ace stories. They are the most "modern" in terms of dealing with The Doctor AND his companion as real characters with wants, needs, desires, etc. Ace herself is given an emotional and psychological clarity not afforded to previous companions, and comparing her to a previous companion like Tegan or Sarah Jane it's easy to see. Ace is impossibly specific in her construction and the role she fills in Doctor Who stories, enough so that you can tell that the Nu-Who companions like Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, etc. were all spun out of the cloth that Ace started with. It's not perfectly there and there's a way to go before then but it's mostly on the page for the 7th Doctor stories, and thusly provides a good entry point.

Which brings us to "The Curse of Fenric".

"The Curse of Fenric" is the twilight of Doctor Who's original twenty six year run and it's something of a doozy. Next to "Remembrance" is considered the best of its era, which is no small feat and if there's one story that's unequivocally about Ace, it's absolutely this one. And why wouldn't it be? Written by Ian "Dragonfire" Briggs, it's a story that delves into Ace's past and pushes both her and The Doctor to a brink, leading to something so immensely iconic that they basically ripped it off and shoved it into "The God Complex" to give that its awesome ending.

And if it's good enough for Nu-Who...

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Serial 45: The Mind Robber

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

Written by: Peter Ling
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: Patrick Troughton's final season was one giant limp to the finish line for 1960s Doctor Who. As it was originally conceived, Doctor Who was a smaller, less technically-demanding show and could thusly fit more into a weekly production schedule. Recycle your sets for a few weeks, keep the stories coming, no one would be the wiser. It's why the show was able to crank out forty episodes per year for almost six years: less location shooting, less ambition.

Fortunately, given its growing popularity, Doctor Who got more and more ambitious. There was location shooting and aliens and bigger sets and a bigger, more action-based show than the one that was originally conceived.

Needless to say, this was one of the contributing factors to the massive overhaul the show saw starting in "Spearhead From Space". The show's episode count was dropped from 40+ to 25. There was a transition to colour. And all of a sudden Doctor Who became much more producible and less demanding on its actors. Indeed, one of the reasons Patrick Troughton left the role (besides his fear of typecasting) was to take a break from the grueling pace of putting out so many frakking episodes in a year (and to his credit, he didn't take nearly as many days off as other actors did; to be fair, though, Hartnell was remarkably sick when he took the role).

"The Mind Robber" is one of those stories that suffers from this scheduling push. The production team behind Doctor Who was a revolving door around this time, There were new script editors and producers coming in and leaving more or less constantly and the upheaval the show was in led to a "let's just get these out" mentality. Despite this, though, there was the notion that the writers wouldn't sacrifice quality if they could help it, and when it became clear that the story preceding "The Mind Robber" was going to be rubbish (it's "The Dominators" if you must know) they hacked the episode count of that story from six episodes to five episodes in the hope that maybe (just maybe) they could make it a little more bearable. And in their defense, I'm fairly sure a five episode "Dominators" is slightly more bearable than a six episode one, but only fairly.

With the need to fill another episode in the order (and wanting to not get slammed like they did with "Mission to the Unknown" a few seasons back when they cut an episode out of "Planet of the Giants") it was up to script editor Derrick Sherwin to come up with an extra episode to tack onto the top of "The Mind Robber" so they would fill their seasonly quota. To compensate for the overrun, the episodes were all condensed from the usual 25 minutes to an experimental 20 minutes, so we're still getting a hundred minutes of story, only spread out over five episodes instead of the usual four (with the first being a prologue to establish the setting at hand, or at least, to weird you the fuck out for twenty minutes before they slam you with something even more mindblowing).

Written by Peter Ling and introducing the direction of the fantastic David Maloney, it makes "The Mind Robber" something remarkably special and iconic for so many different reasons.

So let's get to it!