Monday, November 24, 2014

A Post-Afterword: So You'd Like to Popcorn Classic Who...

Whenever I tell people I've seen all of Classic Who, the first question that I always get from interested parties (after they express envy or whatever) is confession that they don't know where to start. Conventional wisdom with the Classic Series is to watch what sounds interesting. Or start with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era because those are the best stories. Or start with the 7th Doctor/Ace stuff because it's the most modern. Or you could be bold and start from the beginning (which a friend of mine is doing without having seen any of the new stuff. I'm still pulling for him).

My gut reaction is to give those curious an order that would popcorn through the whole damn thing.

Now I have one I feel comfortable sharing.

Monday, December 31, 2012

An Afterword

And then I had talked about all of the Doctor Who.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Serial 30: The Power of the Daleks

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

Written by: David Whitaker (and Dennis Spooner)
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance: Once the Doctor Who production team had made the decision to let William Hartnell step down as The Doctor, producer Innes Lloyd set about trying to find a suitable replacement. But instead of going for Hartnell 2.0 (which Robert Shearman cynically and perhaps rightly suspected was part of the point of "The Savages") they sought something different. They needed a fresh take by someone who could do new and good things with the character. Eventually they settled on Patrick Troughton, and according to legend, William Hartnell endorsed the decision, saying "If there's one man in England who can replace me it's Patrick Troughton!"

That is, of course, probably legend.

But after "The Tenth Planet" Hartnell would step down, leaving in his wake this new actor in the same role, and the production team put a lot of work into Troughton's new character and coming up with ways to delineate him from Hartnell. One of the great stories to come out of this time was the notion that Troughton might perhaps play the character "blacked up", although that was probably a passing thing one time in a conversation and was remembered years later from a purely "wtf were we thinking" retrospective. Eventually they settled on the idea of Troughton as a "Cosmic Hobo", which is, of course, how his Doctor is still remembered as a character to this day.

Now all they had to do was introduce him.

To do this, they brought in David Whitaker, the man who had defined Doctor Who more than just about anyone in the history of the show up to that point. It was he who made the TARDIS the TARDIS and it was he who had overseen Hartnell's fantastic first season. This would help, because what they were attempting (replacing the lead actor in the middle of a season) was ludicrously insane. They'd need to keep things as stable as possible to convince the audience that this was something that would be okay. In terms of companions, this meant keeping around Ben and Polly, the companions who had been around for the past three stories. In terms of villains it meant bringing back the Daleks, because putting this new Doctor up against his greatest foe would be the best way to encourage people that this Doctor was still The Doctor, only different.

I mean, who else would defeat the Daleks? That's what The Doctor does.

Whitaker (to his credit) included a bunch of different ideas of this new Doctor, chief amongst which was the notion that this wasn't The Doctor's first regeneration (something that would, again, be picked up upon in "The Brain of Morbius"). Head of Drama Sydney Newman (who had helped bring Doctor Who to life) was somewhat dissatisfied by these aspects of Whitaker's script and requested a re-write. Whitaker (having completed his scripts and having moved on to something else) was unavailable, so duties fell to Dennis Spooner, Whitaker's successor as script editor, who trimmed up Whitaker's drafts and tweaked the portrayal of The Doctor to better align with Newman's ideas.

The result is "Power of the Daleks", the first ever regeneration story, the first ever 2nd Doctor story, and the last entry for this blog. And I'll just say this before we start: just like "Androzani" last week, I have been saving this one. And now for the last time...

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Serial 135: The Caves of Androzani

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Peri

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Graeme Harper

Background & Significance: Robert Holmes is one of the three greatest Doctor Who writers of all time, which is rather fortunate because he also happens to be the most prolific, writing seventy two of the Classic series' original almost-seven-hundred episode run (which, by the way, is over ten percent of all Classic episodes). Throw in the lot that he oversaw as script editor and that number balloons to one hundred forty four (which is almost 20% of all Doctor Who episodes ever produced). His run was so long and prolific, in fact, it can be broken down into stages: two Troughton era stories (where he got his feet wet), to four classic Pertwee stories (which allowed him playing ground to experiment with different types of stories) to his run at script editor when he shaped and created (in a sense) Tom Baker's Doctor (during which he wrote five stories), to his few dabbles in the post-him Tom Baker era, to his long break where he didn't write any Doctor Who stories for five years, to his triumphant return with "The Caves of Androzani" and his final Colin Baker stories, which were landmarks and such. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of The Modern Era's Steven Moffat in that Moffat got his feet wet during Eccleston, played around with different stories during Tennant, and then took over the show for a new Doctor when Tennant left. Both men created/are creating classic, popular foes that are known for being scary, wrote tremendously famous/popular stories, and they both are proven to be idea factories through and through.

But "The Caves of Androzani" is his unabashed masterpiece.

We've been talking about Holmes a lot lately. Hell, this is the fourth story penned by Holmes in the past two months, but this is one that's... special. It's the only time Holmes ever wrote for the 5th Doctor and it was his last opportunity to because this is Holmes's opportunity to write a Doctor's regeneration story. Indeed, it really brings him full circle because his bursting onto the scene happened in Jon Pertwee's first story (so he did a post-regen story) after two stories of warm-up. And this is his last story before (essentially) two stories of cool-down (if you count "Trial" as one big monolithic story). It also makes Holmes relatively unique, as he's one of only three other writers (Terrence Dicks, Christopher Bidmead, and Russell T. Davies) to write both a regeneration story (that is, a story that ends in regeneration) and a post-regeneration story (that is, a story that picks up immediately after The Doctor's regeneration).

"Androzani" came about because Eric Saward (having gone back through the Doctor Who archives) became enamored with Holmes and looked for a way to get Holmes back to write a story for Doctor Who again. Somehow Holmes (who apparently thought he'd been away for long enough) and Nathan-Turner (who disliked bringing in people who had been around on the program longer than him and who could thus undermine his authority) both got on board and there was an attempt to get Holmes to write the 20th Anniversary special (what eventually became "The Five Doctors"). Holmes found the laundry list of things to include (Cybermen, a Dalek, Time Lords, Gallifrey, The Master, and Five Doctors) untenable and stepped down from scripting duties. But Saward, not wanting to let go of a good thing and desperate to get Holmes's quality into his own run on the show, managed to persuade Nathan-Turner to bring Holmes in for a different story. That story became, eventually, "The Caves of Androzani", The 5th Doctor's final story.

It's not all about Holmes, though. This story also marks the first behind-the-camera effort for Graeme Harper, who is, for my money, the best Doctor Who director of all time, and this is the first thing he'd ever directed. Ever. He'd been around the show (and other shows) as an assistant at various levels (working under Douglas Camfield at one point). If you know the name, you know for a fact this is not the last thing he directed either and that he went on to do not only "Revelation of the Daleks" but a number of stories during the David Tennant years (including the Cybermen stories in series two, "Utopia" in series three, series four's finale of "Stolen Earth/Journey's End", the exquisite "Waters of Mars", and a bunch of other programs like the BBC's most recent adaptation of Robin Hood.

But this is the first thing he ever directed, so I guess it's worth seeing if he puts his back into it and if there's any hints of a great director in here who might one day blossom into someone fantastic amazing.

I suppose I should also mention that in that Doctor Who Mighty 200 poll this came out at the very very top. So it is considered (at least as of 2009) as the fan-consensus greatest Doctor Who story ever produced. So no pressure there. That poll is basically just saying that this story is better than every single other Doctor Who story we've ever yet talked about. That's a tall order and with fifty years of television stories I'd say... well... it's worth discussing whether or not this is the best Doctor Who story ever. Granted, I know my own thoughts based on the one previous time I've watched this. I'm just wondering if this will confirm or adjust them.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Serial 54: Inferno

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

Written by: Don Houghton
Directed by: Douglas Camfield (& Barry Letts)

Background & Significance: Once Doctor Who's format changed at the start of its 7th season, script editor Terrence Dicks was looking for ways to make the show's new format conceit (aliens arrive on Earth; The Doctor teams up with UNIT to fight them) work without it getting too stale and repetitive. How many times can you see aliens land on Earth and them attempt a take over without it actually feeling like a tired, awful conceit?

We saw this conceit played out in "Spearhead From Space" and "Ambassadors of Death." "Inferno" (like "Silurians" before it) takes a slightly different tact.

Written by Don Houghton and being the twilight story "directed" by Douglas Camfield before his brief return during the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, "Inferno" is perhaps most famous for being "that one story about the alternate/parallel universe where everything is topsy turvy." It's heralded as a classic and considered not just one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, but also the best Jon Pertwee story of all time in the Mighty 200 poll. So it's got... a reputation. And yet it's still not exactly perfect. Camfield had to bow out a few episodes into production leaving new producer Barry Letts to step in and pick up the slack based on Camfield's extensive notes.

Still though. Parallel universe! That's something, eh?

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Serial 84: The Brain of Morbius

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Robin Bland (a.k.a Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes)
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance: Season 13 of Doctor Who is perhaps one of the best seasons of television the show ever experienced. After a season of stories coordinated by the previous production team, this new start allowed Holmes to sculpt the show into whatever he wanted it to be. As we've discussed previously, this resulted in a season full of horror pastiches and sendups. Mummies, mutant plants, shapeshifters, body snatchers...

And now? Frankenstein.

"Brain of Morbius" comes at the exact halfway point of their era and represents the pinnacle of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes vision for the show. Originally written by Terrance Dicks (the original version had an aesthetically-challenged robot that cobbled together a body for the wrecked Morbius based on its own warped view of human anatomy), it was eventually almost completely re-written by Robert Holmes, so much so that Dicks asked his name be removed from the writing credit. As such, it's really a Holmesian contribution to Doctor Who and to say otherwise is massive, massive self-deception (as we'll discuss) because... well... it's a Holmes story, isn't it?

So let's get to it!

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!