50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 2)

So! Picking up where I left off last time… part 2 of Sylvester McCoy’s run on the series, spanning all of Season 25 and the first story of Season 26.

 Dr Who - Remembrance of the Daleks
#152: Remembrance of the Daleks

Back in the day, the Daleks didn’t turn up every season (or almost every season), but were parceled out so they’d have a greater impact when they did. With this being the 25th season, the Daleks (and another major villain) were brought back for their one appearance in the McCoy era. It’s also easily one of the best stories. This is the first of two stories that Ben Aaronovitch contributed to the series, and I think it’s the better of his efforts. Set in late 1963, it’s a story that mirrors the Daleks’ belief that they are the superior race with the conflicts over race on Earth. It’s a smart script, one that picks up past elements of the Daleks story (most notably the civil war that began in their last appearance several years earlier, “Revelation of the Daleks”) but does so in a way that doesn’t leave behind anyone who hasn’t seen those stories.

This is also new companion Ace’s first story where it’s just her and the Doctor (after her introduction at the end of the previous season), and the dynamic is instantly more appealing than what we had with the 7th Doctor and Mel. It’s a story where it’s hard to imagine substituting Ace with any previous companion; she isn’t just headstrong and with a forceful personality, she’s someone who takes the fight to the Daleks. She’s the first formidable companion (in an action, fighting sense) since Leela a decade earlier, but instead of a knife or a poisonous thorn, she’s using high explosives and even a rocket launcher.

The Doctor himself is also portrayed differently than up until now, too. Having been given time to stop and plan out his time on the show (versus the scramble to just have something on the screen for Season 24), script editor Andrew Cartmel reworked the 7th Doctor into one who is more manipulative, a dark streak running beneath the clownish exterior. This could have been disastrous (and in one instance it is, but we’ll get to that shortly), but generally speaking it works well because Cartmel and the writers he chooses do so with a touch of subtlety. The Doctor’s motivations are always well intentioned and for the greater good, but for viewers up until this point, you can see where this ends up being a bit surprising. At any rate, “Remembrance of the Daleks” held up well on a re-watch. It moves at a good pace, it’s fun, and while some of the things that were new at the time are now old hat (and I’m not just talking about the Dalek that levitates up stairs), they’re still done with skill so that the surprise is gone but the quality remains.

Continue reading 50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 2)

50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 1)

We’re back! At a glance, it might look like I skipped a month. But that’s both true and not, as you’ll see below…

The 7th Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy, who came on board during an extremely troubled time for the show behind the scenes. It had already been cancelled then un-cancelled while Colin Baker was starring as the 6th Doctor, and while the show survived, Baker was fired in-between seasons. While Baker was eventually offered the opportunity to come back for one more story to bring his time to a close, he turned it down and we ended up with no real transition from one to the next (save for a pre-credits sequence involving new actor McCoy wearing Baker’s outfit and a big curly blond wig, only seen from behind).

More importantly, not only was Baker gone, but script editor Eric Saward had also left the series. In the earlier days of Doctor Who, it was the script editor (rather than the producer) who did the bulk of commissioning the scripts for the show, and by the time new script editor Andrew Cartmel was hired he ended up inheriting the first two scripts because everything was so far behind schedule. The end result was McCoy’s first season consisting of four stories where one had been written for Baker, and the remaining three for a “generic Doctor” because no one at the time knew what this new Doctor’s personality would be like.

McCoy had the role for three years, with a total of twelve stories, before the show was cancelled once more. This time it stuck. McCoy did return seven years later, though, to appear in the Doctor Who television movie starring Paul McGann. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to merge McCoy and McGann’s months into a big two-month-long viewing extravaganza (especially since McGann only had that one outing), and to watch all thirteen stories.

What I didn’t count on was work getting even busier, plus losing a lot of free time due to starting graduate school. So with still two stories waiting to be watched, I’m going to use this entry to tackle the first four stories (or first season) starring McCoy; a second and possibly third post will hopefully come soon with McCoy’s remaining stories as well as McGann’s solo outing. And with that in mind…

Dr Who - Time and the Rani
#148: Time and the Rani

Ask a Doctor Who fan which of McCoy’s episodes was the worst, and three out of four will tell you that it’s “Time and the Rani.” Sometimes fan lore leads you down a path of opinions that are based on hearsay rather than actual viewing. This is not one of those times.

“Time and the Rani” admittedly has a huge disadvantage; it wasn’t written for McCoy’s Doctor at all, and while writers Pip and Jane Baker and script editor Andrew Cartmel clearly tried to file off the edges of the previous Doctor once Colin Baker’s return was officially nixed, but it’s still trying to push a square peg into a round hole. The Doctor here is often snappish and rude, only to then veer off into pratfalls and slapstick. It’s a bungled mess right from the start.

Then you add in a nonsensical plot (one that relies far too heavily on sheer laziness of the main villain), some truly awful acting, and another rock quarry that’s standing in for an alien planet. At the end of the previous season, new companion Melanie had been introduced as played by Bonnie Langford, but aside from being energetic she was a complete non-entity, and that unfortunately carries through into this season where it’s quickly clear that no one is interested in writing for Mel. Langford gets a lot of flack for her time on Doctor Who, but I feel that’s not fair. She’s clearly very professional and does whatever the scripts and director tell her to do, but at the same time she’s also been placed into a show where no one is interested in her sticking around.

There are two great things about “Time and the Rani,” to be fair. The first is whenever returning guest actress Kate O’Mara’s character of the Rani disguises herself as Mel. Her fake chirpy-sweet voice mixed with genuine disdain and loathing for the Doctor is nothing short of hysterical, and her ever-building annoyance with everyone around her is a real treat in those first two episodes. Sadly once she pulls off the wig and stops pretending to be Mel, she’s straight out of an episode of Dynasty, complete with shoulder pads, lipstick, and a big glamorous hairdo. So much for the hard-working scientist who doesn’t want to take over the world; in “Time and the Rani” her goal is ultimately to take over the universe and rework it as she sees fit.

The other great thing is how director Andrew Morgan has the Lakyrtians run. This may sound strange, but you need to take my word on this. They’re supposed to be slightly lizard-like, and when they run, Morgan has them hold their arms back at an angle. It actually makes them look like a species of small lizard, and while some do it better than others (Karen Clegg as Sarn in particular) it’s at least an attempt to make them a little difference.

Otherwise? I have nothing good to say about this, perhaps save that if you drink a lot it gets funnier and funnier. But it’s bad. It’s really bad. Shockingly, appallingly bad. (Not as bad as “The Twin Dilemma,” which still edges this story out as “worst first story for a new Doctor,” but this is the nadir of the McCoy era, right out of the gate.)

Continue reading 50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 1)

50 Years of Doctor Who: Colin Baker

After Peter Davison left, a relatively unknown actor by the name of Colin Baker was cast in the lead role of Doctor Who. He’d actually appeared in the show itself once before (as a Time Lord guard named Maxil in “Arc of Infinity”), but it was safe to say he wasn’t a household name. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward decided that they needed a contrast between the mild-mannered 5th Doctor played by Davison, and so the new 6th Doctor was almost a polar opposite. Loud, brash, arrogant, and at times verbally abusive to his relatively new companion Peri.

It was, to put it mildly, an unmitigated disaster.

Baker appeared in the final story of Season 21 (Davison’s contract actually expired one story short of completing that run of stories) in a story titled “The Twin Dilemma” (more on that below), which like the series up until that point consisted of 25-minute episodes. However, there had been one story earlier in the year where due to scheduling against the Winter Olympics, a 4-part story had been edited into a 2-part story where each episode was 45 minutes long. That was the format that Season 22 took; this fact will become important later. Baker and actress Nicola Bryant appeared in all of Season 22… and then Doctor Who was cancelled.

After a great deal of outcry, the show was un-cancelled, but it was clear that everyone involved with Doctor Who was on rocky ground. Nathan-Turner and Saward were given a Season 23 order, but it was greatly reduced; instead of 13 45-minute episodes, they were given 14 25-minute episodes. That season was one massive story titled “The Trial of a Time Lord” (although it’s often broken up into four sub-stories), and after it aired, Baker was soon fired from Doctor Who. While he was eventually offered the chance to come back to film one final story to write the 6th Doctor out of the series, he declined the offer. And so, after coming on board in an extremely rocky time period, his departure was almost like slipping out the back door when no one was looking. It was an ignoble end to an actor’s time on the show that’s still controversial to this day. The three stories I selected from his extremely limited run, in many ways, typify some of the problems with that brief era.

The Twin Dilemma
#137: The Twin Dilemma

As mentioned up above, “The Twin Dilemma” closed out Season 21, which meant that viewers got a full story of Colin Baker as the Doctor before the show closed up shop until the next year. Stacking the deck against Baker, that glimpse was nothing short of crap. “The Twin Dilemma” has a lot of problems, to put it mildly. The story doesn’t really make sense, written by a newcomer to the show (Anthony Steven) who clearly had no idea of any of the series’ basic concepts. Everything involving time travel defies logic (and there’s a lot of it), to say nothing of how Doctor Who treated it in every other story but this one. The titular twins’ abilities with math are never really explained (one can only guess that Steven was given the linked stories “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva” as a primer and he thought that anyone good at math could somehow warp the laws of physics by writing down equations), and the lisping actors who play them are shockingly bad actors to boot. Dialogue disasters like, “Listen… the sound of giant slugs!” run rampant. Characters adopt fake names and identities for no reason whatsoever. But all of that could probably be ignored if the new Doctor was good.

He wasn’t. “The Twin Dilemma” is probably most notable for a scene early on where the Doctor, still reeling from his regeneration, suddenly goes insane at which point he stalks and strangles his companion Peri. It’s a jaw-dropping moment, one that’s clearly meant to shock. What script editor Saward didn’t seem to understand is that more importantly, it was a huge turn-off. And for the rest of the story, the new Doctor is an awful arrogant ass. He’s downright cruel to Peri, along with everyone else around him. The earliest Hartnell stories don’t have him as much of a hero (that doesn’t change until the fourth story), but that Doctor is positively cuddly compared to the one presented in “The Twin Dilemma.” The story concludes with the Doctor snapping, “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not!” at Peri. Considering she’d joined just two stories earlier, there really should have been one extra line where her response is, “Great, now take me home, because I’m out of here.” This story is appalling in every way. I hadn’t seen it since it first aired in the Washington DC area in the mid-80s and it was somehow even worse than I remembered. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

 

The Mark of the Rani
#140: The Mark of the Rani

A funny little story for you; when I first saw “The Mark of the Rani” ages ago, I missed the first 15 minutes or so. Seeing that section now for the first time, it struck me that I didn’t miss a single thing. Most of the Season 22 stories suffered from a bad pacing decision from script editor Saward. Even though episode 1 of the stories was now twice as long as before, he decided that the Doctor shouldn’t encounter the main action until near the end of that episode. It’s at its worse in a story called “Revelation of the Daleks” where the Doctor and Peri literally wander in the wilderness for 45 minutes, completely divorced from the rest of the story. “The Mark of the Rani” is actually one of the better stories this season in terms of when the Doctor and Peri get things moving, but even then it’s a little surprising how unessential that first chunk of time is.

The story itself was one that wasn’t as good as I remembered. Writers Pip and Jane Baker introduce the Rani in this story, a female Time Lord scientist who was supposed to be a cold, calculating, ruthless foe for the Doctor. Unfortunately, “The Mark of the Rani” also brings back the Master, and that’s where “The Mark of the Rani” completely derails. The Master continually gets one over the Rani, stealing her tools and foiling her plans. The end result is a story introducing a character that’s forever made to look incompetent. Not the brightest of ideas. It’s a little frustrating because the idea of the Rani is great, but the execution is lousy.

On the bright side, the Doctor is only a dick to Peri about half of the time (instead of all of the time), the scene of Peri chasing the Doctor’s runaway cart is unintentionally hysterically funny, and one extra’s pants are so tight you can clearly make out the shape of his genitals. “The Mark of the Rani” could have been so good, but instead it’s just limp. The memory cheated here, too, it seems. Perhaps it just felt better when comparing it to other stories in the season like “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Timelash” (the latter of which is one of the five worst stories in the series’ history; there’s a reason why so many people hate the Colin Baker era). Ah well.

 

The Two Doctors
#141: The Two Doctors

Not including script editor Saward’s own contributions, the only returning writer from the show’s past for Season 22 was Robert Holmes, who wrote “The Two Doctors.” Bringing back Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as the 2nd Doctor and Jamie, “The Two Doctors” is probably the best story of the season. And it’s just all right.

There are things that Holmes gets better than anyone else, here. By having another Doctor and companion to play with, we get the 2nd Doctor and Jamie immediately in the mix of things, which is a nice change. (Of course, once they’re captured, the 6th Doctor and Peri then take forever to catch up; the 6th Doctor doesn’t actually encounter the main villains until 20 minutes from the end of this 3-part story.) The Doctor’s jerk-factor is lowered to him being rude and nasty only on a handful of occasions, a pleasant change. And while the story isn’t great, there are some nice twists and turns, even if the location work in Seville feels utterly tacked on.

But still, when the dust settles, “The Two Doctors” underuses the admittedly-older Troughton (who wasn’t up to the rigors of a massive role), it still stalls far too much, and the less said about the alien Androgum appearances the better. And in a season peppered with increasing violence, the Doctor’s one-liners about the death of a villain feel out of place in a story that hasn’t otherwise reveled in the carnage that ones like “Vengeance on Varos” or “Revelation of the Daleks” will. It’s pleasant enough, though, and Holmes clearly tries to actually give all the characters something to do. It’s got its faults, but it also has Blake’s 7 villain Jacqueline Pearce as a wonderfully nasty foe (in many ways, she’s what the Rani should have been), and perhaps one of the gayest men ever in the form of failed thespian Oscar (who seems far more interested in catching moths than in hottie Anita who all but throws herself at him and is completely ignored). It’s not perfect, but once it finally gets going, “The Two Doctors” still makes me smile.

 

Sorry this is a little later than normal, but I actually didn’t finish watching June’s stories until… July 2nd. (June 32nd?) I blame the first story of the three for sapping my will to watch more. That and being really, really busy at work. Fortunately with August  only having one story to watch starring the 8th Doctor, I already had tentative plans that allowed for some slippage to occur, so we’ll be back on track (sort of) shortly. You’ll see.

Next up is Sylvester McCoy, who appeared in the show’s final three seasons before getting cancelled for real in 1989. But of course, that’s not the end of the story at all…

50 Years of Doctor Who: Peter Davison

When I first started regularly watching Doctor Who (versus encountering the occasional episode here or there), it was near the end of Peter Davison’s run. Even though it was only a few stories before his hand-off to successor Colin Baker (more on him next month), I’ve always had a fondness for Davison as a result. Davison had a tough challenge ahead of him; after all, he was replacing someone who’d been on the show for seven seasons, a record still unsurpassed to this day.

Davison was also, for many years, the youngest actor cast as the Doctor, just 29 years old when his first story was broadcast. (Matt Smith eventually beat that.) The fresh-faced Davison also had a brand new script editor coming on board during his run (Eric Saward) whom, it could be argued, hated the show that he was working on. The end result is a run that’s a bit all over the place and problematic in places, although the biggest problems with Saward being in charge were yet to come.

Anyway, for this month’s selections, I picked three stories where I love the scripts. The production of some of these is better than others, but I feel that if you’re talking about the writing of the Davison era, all three of these need to be flagged in a positive manner.

Kinda
#119: Kinda

The genesis of “Kinda” is a long one; new writer Christopher Bailey originally wrote it for the previous season, with (presumably) the 4th Doctor and Romana, but since had to rewrite it for a new cast with the 5th Doctor, Adric, and Tegan. By the time the scripts were completely rewritten, though, the decision had been made from on high to add in one more companion, Nyssa. The end result? Nyssa takes a medically-needed nap in the first few minutes of episode 1, and isn’t seen again until the last minutes of episode 4. So for that alone, this story stands out.

But more importantly, “Kinda” has a just wonderful script. It’s influenced by Buddhism, has a series of villains that aren’t really villains at all, and also tackles the ideas like colonialism and gender-assumptions. It is, in a word, marvelous. There was nothing quite like “Kinda” and I don’t think there ever will be again. This is a story where Tegan gets trapped in her own mind with a creature that lurks in the dark spaces of humanity, where a major adversary is depicted as having been abused and whose real problem is teetering on the edge of a (quite realistic) nervous breakdown, and where the native species is quite uninterested in any of the “idiot” men.

There are a couple of production triumphs in this story, too. The possessed Tegan works surprisingly well (especially considering it’s not as long as you might remember) because of Janet Fielding’s acting; she speaks in a deeper, more languid voice, and her body language is so different from the character of Tegan that she normally plays that they didn’t even need the heavy eyeshadow or extra button undone on her shirt to flag what was going wrong. I was also impressed with some of the other little moments, like when the Kinda fight the Total Survival Suit and director Peter Grimwade keeps the angles just right so that you can’t see who’s inside it (but not in an obvious way), or how Grimwade really did his best to disguise that they’re in a studio and not a real forest. And sure, everyone always points to the big rubber snake at the end of the story, but honestly? It’s not that bad. (If you really hate it, the DVD has an option to have it swapped out with a more realistic and modern effect.) “Kinda” is my favorite Davison story, and every time I watch it I find more to love. This was a story well ahead of its time.

 

Enlightenment
#128: Enlightenment

The first Doctor Who story to be written by a woman, Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” always saddens me that she never contributed again. (There’s one earlier that has a co-writing credit that so far as all production documentation shows, she didn’t actually contribute to in any way shape or form, so I’m not counting it.) It’s a beautifully inventive story, one involving a race of eternal beings that need mortals to fill their empty minds, sailing ships that fly through outer space, and one of the creepiest “wait, this isn’t romantic at all” characters in the show’s history.

My one caveat about recommending “Enlightenment” to friends is that it’s the end of a loose trilogy of stories, where new companion Turlough has made a deal with the devil (in this case, the evil Black Guardian) to kill the Doctor, and this wraps that storyline up. That said, I think most people can twig what’s happening on that front, and there’s so much more going on too. An unapologetically lusty female pirate captain (whom, shockingly, does not have cleavage completely falling out of her dress) named Captain Wrack steals every scene she’s in, and Mariner the Eternal’s need to be around Tegan will progressively unsettle you the more the story progresses.

Even the overall mood of “Enlightenment” is grand; there’s something wonderful about a story where the big prize everyone’s fighting for isn’t quite what it seems, but never in a blatant, in-your-face manner. There’s a level of elegance present that keeps this story a real charmer, and it’s quite re-watchable. There’s also a “special edition” re-edit (with the director involved, no less) that cuts the time down a few minutes, updates the effects, and removes whenever possible the dreadful actor Leee John (no, that’s not a typo, and trust me, he’s awful). I didn’t think this story needed a re-edit, but having watched it for this, I was impressed with how it feels like any dead weight has been sliced out entirely. Good stuff.

 

Photo May 28, 5 36 11 PM
#133: Frontios

“Frontios” is a story that I could actually see being made by the modern, 21st century Doctor Who series. There’s a lot going for it: the last dregs of humanity at the far end of time trying desperately to survive, the idea of something under the earth dragging them to their doom, the colony forever teetering on the edge of insurrection. It’s a surprisingly bleak script in places, and while there are a few quibbles I have with bits of the script (this was the era when apparently everyone knew who the Time Lords and the Doctor were), on the whole it’s a great example of how to take dark subject material and still make it all-ages appropriate without watering it down, either.

While some of the long shots are cringe-worthy, on the whole I was surprised at how good the colony on the planet Frontios is depicted. It really feels like a run down, ramshackle place that is one generation away from utter destruction. The director even understands how to use dim lighting, something that I wish the previous season’s story “Terminus” had as well. (It may sound like a strange thing to praise, but trust me, a brightly lit set that’s supposed to be dingy and dark is a real disaster.) And Tegan’s inappropriate-for-adventuring outfit aside (a leather skirt, really?), I was pleased at how much Tegan and Turlough are given to do in this story. They’re not forgotten or sidelined (a big problem in much of Davison’s stories), and I like that they get central roles without pulling things away from the Doctor.

While I’m at it, I love the depiction of the Doctor here. Like in (former script editor) Christopher H. Bidmead’s other story “Castrovalva,” the Doctor gets to wear his half-moon glasses and there’s a real contrast between the youthful body and the older mind that wears it. (A depiction I wish they’d gone for, but which went away when Bidmead didn’t stick around after shepherding the departure of Tom Baker.) He gets to give us some gravitas, some real sorrow… it’s more than just technobabble and running. I can’t help but think if he’d had some more scripts like this one during the middle portion of his time on the show, he might’ve stuck around for another year.

 

Next up: the Colin Baker era, which I think it safe to say is probably the most problematic time in the show’s history. Brace yourself.

50 Years of Doctor Who: Tom Baker

What happened to April? I’m still not sure, so let me just be brief: it was probably one of the busiest/craziest months I can remember for me, and I’d love for any future months to take that as a warning that I shouldn’t ever have quite so much going on ever again.

Anyway, April meant this month’s Doctor Who episodes were the Tom Baker era, and in doing so I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Tom Baker was on the show for a record-holding seven years, and went through multiple producers and script editors. He’s also for the original series, the face of the show in the United States. While I was extremely lucky to grow up in an area that had two PBS stations that showed all eras of the show, for many areas all they got were Baker’s stories.

With so many stories to pick from—including some favorites near and dear to my heart—I ended up deciding to start with three stories that most consider “classics” but which I’d never actually seen. (I know, I know. For two of them I read the novelizations growing up and the third… well… I’d seen lots of bits and pieces but never sat down and watched it all the way through.) The end result? Not what I expected.

Dr Who Ark in Space
#076: The Ark in Space

Baker’s second story, “The Ark in Space” for me locks in the overall tone of producer Peter Hinchcliffe’s era. It’s the first hints we get of the gothic, dark tinged stories that he (and script editor Robert Holmes) dreamed up. Fans of the films Alien and Aliens will see some certain similarities; people in suspended animation in the future, an alien that infects other species to reproduce, a confined area with no easy escape. “The Ark in Space” is a remarkably effective story, one that uses its run-time almost perfectly. This is a story which lets the Doctor and his two companions (Sarah Jane and Harry) interact with just each other and not worry about a supporting cast for the entire first episode and gets away with it wonderfully, after all. With so many “it’ll eat you from the inside” type stories now, I suspect “The Ark in Space” is a bit old hat but at the time I can only imagine how freaked out audiences must have been.

Sarah Jane had been introduced the previous year (and is probably to this day one of the original series’ all-time favorite companions; considering they brought her back for the new series and then gave her a multiple-season spin-off of her own, that’s a reasonable assumption to make) but poor Harry gets an outing here. Harry is a character whom, if I remember correctly, was supposed to be the muscle opposite a much older actor playing the Doctor. Then they hired Baker and oops, Harry was no longer needed. As a result he ends up a bit bumbling to give him something to do, but here’s the thing: he’s got charm thanks to actor Ian Marter. It’s a real shame the character didn’t get to stick around, because I love him.

Some of the effects have been redone for the DVD as an optional extra. Halfway through I switched over to them just to see what the new version of the outer space shots looked like. Are they better? Yes, a thousand times so. Were the old ones bad? Well, no… dated, yes, but not bad. Honestly I’m surprised they didn’t go whole hog and replace the “oh no, he’s got green bubble wrap on his hand” special effect while they were at it. Ultimately unnecessary but inoffensive in terms of a change. But anyway, “The Ark in Space” was a real joy to watch; I’m sorry it took this long.
Continue reading 50 Years of Doctor Who: Tom Baker

50 Years of Doctor Who: Jon Pertwee

It’s the end of March, which means it’s time for another Doctor Who viewing roundup… except this month will be a little shorter than the first two. I’d told myself that each month I’d watch at least three stories from the assigned Doctor, but this was the first month where I barely hit three stories. It didn’t have to do with quality of stories available, but rather the amount of free time I had this month. Sorry, Jon Pertwee fans.

But anyway, Pertwee’s five years on the show were a huge change in general for Doctor Who. Not only was it in color, but he was trapped on Earth for his first three seasons and worked with UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (introduced in Patrick Troughton’s story “The Invasion”) as their scientific advisor. It’s a very different sort of era, although even within it there are distinct sections…

Dr Who Spearhead from Space 1
#051: Spearhead from Space

Pertwee’s debut, this story (and the three that followed) were a very serious take on Doctor Who. I like to think of this as the “competent UNIT era” because it was only in Season 7 that we really got that. The Brigadier is ruthless and a strong military man, and new companion Dr. Liz Shaw is a Cambridge professor who is supposed to be a near-equal for the Doctor.

I say “supposed to be” because she’s barely in the second half of this story, once the Doctor is up and running around and working with UNIT and the Brigadier to stop an invasion of strange plastic-inhabiting creatures known as the Autons. (Fans of the modern series might remember they came back in the debut episode “Rose.”) It’s a little slow paced at times, but “Spearhead from Space” is entertaining. I like that you’re kept in the dark for the majority of the story on what’s really going on, and the immediate clash between the Doctor and his new “employers” in the form of a military group is brought up effectively. As a throwing the glove on the ground and announcing that this is the way the series will now be, it works.

Dr Who Daemons
#059: The Dæmons

“The Dæmons” is one of those stories where it’s been proclaimed a classic for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing it in the ’80s (back when the BBC only had some black and white prints in their archives) and enjoying it a great deal. So as a result, for the Pertwee stories I watched, this one ended up being the biggest disappointment when I revisited it. There is an awful lot of padding in this story about the evil Master trying to revive (and gain power from) an ancient alien known as a Dæmon. The Doctor is constantly diverted away from the main story, presumably to stretch things out. New companion Jo is adorable, though, which goes a long way. And UNIT? Well, they’ve started to slide into buffoon territory. They’re not out-and-out incompetent, but they’re mostly used to help stall. (Although Sgt. Benton’s sharp-shooting is presented as quite effective. Sgt. Benton’s groovy red pants, perhaps not so much.)

This was also the final story of the season that introduced the Master (think Moriarity to the Doctor’s Holmes) as an adversary to the Doctor, one that used him in every single story. I’d say he’d gotten tired by this point, but actor Roger Delgado (who gets second billing!) is so good that I don’t care that he’s overused. He’s amazing and somewhat hypnotic to boot. But still, it’s hard to deny that this story is a bit silly in places, never bothers to fully make sense, and has a god-awful resolution. The memory cheated on this one. It’s not bad, per se, but it is by no means a classic. I’m actually fine with waiting another 25-odd years to see this one again.

Dr Who Carnival of Monsters
#066: Carnival of Monsters

For this story, I had two friends (Erik and Jason) come over to watch it, which was a fun way to experience it. Erik had seen it somewhat recently, it’d been years for me, and Jason had never seen it. It’s a bit of a run-around with the Doctor and Jo isolated from the other main characters but it’s an enjoyable (if perhaps atypical Pertwee) story. No longer Earth-bound, this story traps the Doctor and Jo inside a strange alien zoo machine while an entirely different story unfolds on the planet where the machine is located. The two don’t connect until the final episode, but there’s such a strange air about “Carnival of Monsters” that it works. The two circus/carney folk who have the machine are a riot (and not just because of their ultra-crazy outfits), the aliens on the planet are wonderfully bureaucratic, and the Doctor and Jo manage to carry a story where they go around in circles for a hell of a lot of time. It’s not like most Pertwee stories (it’s short, it’s concise, there’s no UNIT, no karate-chopping, not set on Earth, no long chase scenes) but it’s very much like a typical Doctor Who story, if that makes sense. A fun way to wrap up the Pertwee stories for March.

 

And that’s it! I wish I had more to say about Pertwee, but the best laid plans and all that. (Even this entry is a little shorter than I’d hoped. Once again, time restraints and all.) In August (details still being worked out) I might be revisiting some earlier Doctors so I’m hoping to squeeze in a Pertwee then. But we shall see…

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 20)

Kinfolk Magazine
Kinfolk_Vol7_CoverOne of the things I like to buy at the store down the street (Trohv) is Kinfolk magazine, a slick squarebound quarterly publication. It’s about entertaining, about art, about photography, about cooking… It’s not really quite like anything else out there. I love reading their essays, as much for things that inspire me as things that are completely outside of my own personal wheelhouse. Even if the subject isn’t grabbing me in one particular piece, there’s almost always a great photograph that goes alongside it that makes it all work quite nicely. The latest issue had an ice cream theme, and it was slightly mouth-watering at times. Not that I minded to much, because…

Cinnamon Vanilla Ice Cream
One of the pieces in the latest issue was an interview with two ice-cream makers. When asked for their favorite flavors, one that both of them mentioned was cinnamon vanilla ice cream. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I bet I could make that.” And so, I did.

Cinnamon Vanilla Ice Cream

As it turns out, adding cinnamon to my vanilla ice cream recipe is a big hit. I love the vanilla ice cream recipe (thanks Alton Brown!) but the touch of cinnamon makes it that much more amazing. I’ll be trying some new flavors of ice cream this summer, but I think this is one I’ll be keeping in my back pocket in general. Homemade ice cream in general is such a pleasure; over the winter I barely made any (which my waistline thanks me for, at least) but I’m going to try and break out the ice cream maker a bit more this year.

Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is one of those board games that I’ve been seeing for years, now. I first encountered it at my friends Trevor and Matt’s house, when I saw some people playing it. It looks deceptively simple—collect colored trains to form connections between cities to earn points—but it’s the sort of game that clearly requires a lot of strategy and wits. I’ve held off on buying it (another huge box to store!) but I recently discovered that the game company also released a version for the iPad. Having now played it for a few days… it’s wonderfully addicting. Evilly so, in fact. And I haven’t even played it against other people (either online or locally), just against the computer. Absolutely loving it. Board or electronic game, this one is clearly a winner.

No More Amy Pond
Non-Doctor Who fans can just skip along to the next item. But I am genuinely happy that when Doctor Who returns in a couple of days, it will be without Karen Gillan, the actress who played the character of Amy Pond for the past two and a half years. I really didn’t like the character, but the bigger problem wasn’t the writing for Amy Pond but Gillan’s acting. She just wasn’t up to the level needed for such a major role, and she pulled down the show a great deal. So knowing that there are eight episodes ahead without Gillan? Well, I’m delighted. (Sadly her co-star Arthur Darvill is also gone, but it’s a fair trade.) Her replacement, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, already feels like a real improvement.

A Great 40th Birthday
Cannoli CakeToday I finally hit the big 4-0, it’s true. And in celebrating it this year, the thing that’s struck me the most was that I’m really lucky to have so many great friends that it was actually difficult to make a guest list because I wanted to invite everyone I knew. I ended up having a medium-sized party over the weekend at the tavern on the ground floor of our building, and as much as I would’ve loved to double the guest list, my gut feeling on how many the facility could hold was more or less dead-on accurate. I had a great time talking with my friends, and the food and cake were both excellent, and at the very end the manager provided us with a nice champagne toast. Then today, two co-workers (and good friends) took me out to lunch and provided cake in the afternoon (with a cannoli on top!), followed by getting a massage in the evening.

Add in the over 200 birthday greetings on Facebook (no, seriously, we’ve crossed the 200 mark), and it’s been a very pleasant way to enter the new decade. Fortunately, I’m not one to get freaked out over those milestone ages, but still, a good way to do so. (Now ask me again when I turn 70 and that might be another story entirely…)

40th birthday toast

50 Years of Doctor Who: Patrick Troughton

The second month of my big Doctor Who re-watch is the Patrick Troughton era. Troughton had the unenviable task of taking over the show after William Hartnell was fired (and at which point the show’s producers came up with the idea of the Doctor being able to regenerate his body into a new form, although that exact phrase hadn’t been invented until a later era). Hartnell wasn’t the only thing being ditched by the producers, though. The new showrunners threw out the idea of the purely-historical story (after Troughton’s second story “The Highlanders” we wouldn’t see one again for another fifteen years), switching to a popular “base under siege” format involving alien attacks.

Like Hartnell’s era, the three seasons of Troughton’s time on the show are rather incomplete in the BBC Archives due to an old policy of purging old television shows over time. Unlike Hartnell, Troughton’s era is missing far more (thanks to there being less countries overseas that had bought prints that would be recovered years later); no complete stories exist from Troughton’s first season, and only one (“The Tomb of the Cybermen”) exists from his second season. Watching the stories (and pieces of partially-recovered stories), it’s all the more a pity because there’s something about Troughton’s physical performance that can’t be quite captured via script or even audio recording. Watching him leap and jump about the screen, he’s a true performer who brought so much more to the role than he was ever asked. Most Doctor Who fans hold out hope for more stories of his being recovered; every new piece and fragment found is a virtual goldmine.

Dr Who Tomb of the Cybermen
#037: The Tomb of the Cybermen

The oldest fully-complete Troughton story, which kicked off his second season. This story was originally one wiped from the archives entirely, and only returned to the BBC in late 1991. I remember watching it a year or two later, excited about seeing an previously missing story that was thought to be a masterpiece. Now that I’m rewatching it 20 years later? It doesn’t quite hold up. There are some good bits here and there. Having previously joined the Doctor and Jamie in the season finale, new companion Victoria gets some great scenes with the Doctor; they’ve got a lovely surrogate-father/daughter relationship right off the bat. On the other hand, she’s religated to damsel-in-distress more times than one can count. The bigger problem is the casual racism in this story, with the treatment of Toberman (the only non-white character). He’s every bad stereotype of the African character; the muscle-bound, brainless slave who lives to serve his masters. It’s honestly appalling. Once you skirt around this impossible-to-ignore problem it’s also just a so-so story; the idea of finding the last remnants of the evil Cybermen race and someone trying to resurrect them from their tombs is a great one, don’t get me wrong. But as soon as the secret trap of the Cybermen is revealed, it’s a story that falls apart once you try to apply logic. “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is one of those stories that works only until you start to think about it afterwards. There are (much) worse stories out there, but this is sadly not the masterpiece that my 19-year old self remembered.
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50 Years of Doctor Who: William Hartnell

Doctor Who‘s first episode aired on November 23, 1963. So while for most people, the big 50th anniversary this November will be one day earlier marking the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I’ll be celebrating the debut of my all-time favorite television show.

With eleven different actors playing the Doctor in a major form on the television show, I’ve decided to take the first eleven months of 2013 to revisit each era of the show in the form of a re-watch. I’ve identified three stories for most months (with the exception of August, which I’ll talk about in greater detail when we get there) to make a concerted effort to view, plus several “bonus rounds” to add in if I have the time and willpower. For each month, I tried to try and select in a way that provided a variety of supporting cast characters, approaches, and the like. We’ll see how well this goes…

January kicks off the great re-watch with William Hartnell, who played the role of the Doctor from 1963-1966. His era was different than any to follow, with a mixture of “historical” (set in Earth’s past with no science-fiction elements aside from the time machine that brought them there) and science-fiction stories (either in Earth’s future, or on other planets). By the time the show ended, it had discovered a new format (modern-day with science-fiction elements), gone through several casts and production teams, and finally inexplicably survived the recasting of the title role. Both Hartnell and his successor Patrick Troughton also have large swathes of episodes missing from the BBC Archives due to a mass purging of older television shows over the years, before the age of home video.

More importantly, the Hartnell era is pretty great. With little to look back on, the show reinvented itself on a regular basis and took chances bigger than any other era has since. In my story selections, I tried to find a mixture of historical and science-fiction, as well as hitting as many of the companions (those who travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS) as I could. I ended up watching 10 stories (or 40 episodes) in all, and while I could blather on about each one of them for some time, just a quick comment on the viewing choices.

Dr Who An Unearthly Child
#001: An Unearthly Child

The very first story, its initial episode is fantastic; it introduces the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and inquisitive teachers Ian and Barbara who get sucked up into the adventure against their will. Unfortunately, episodes 2-4 are set in the caveman era and are a bit problematic. The story itself isn’t that bad in theory (with a bit of an allegory over the arms race using a quest for fire) but the direction/acting involving the cavemen is just teeth-gratingly bad. There’s a reason why many people watch episode 1 and then skip ahead to something else, rather than episodes 2-4 of this opening story.

Dr Who Aztecs
#006: The Aztecs

“The Aztecs” is easily one of the best Hartnell stories, there’s no doubt. The plot is a fun one; landing in 15th century Mexico, schoolteacher Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa and treated as a god, and she decides to try and save the Aztecs by attempting to stop their practice of human sacrifice. It’s a marvelous story, with Barbara struggling to try and fight the tide of history even as the Doctor tries to explain that her attempts are futile. “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” is a statement of the Doctor’s that quoted often, and it sums up the story well. “The Aztecs” is the rare script that 50 years later could be reused with no problem whatsoever.

Continue reading 50 Years of Doctor Who: William Hartnell

HBO in April

There was a time when I was watching a lot of shows on HBO (Oz, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under), but since then it’s felt like there’s always one or two shows I’ve been interested in (most notably The Wire, but also ones like Carnivale, In Treatment, and Flight of the Conchords), but never much more than that. This April, though? I’m thinking it might finally be the return of there being three shows on HBO that I’m watching simultaneously. Phew!

The obvious one is, of course, Game of Thrones Season 2. I’ve been a fan of the book series since the very beginning (no, you may not have my original hardcover of the first volume), and it’s been a rare pitch-perfect adaptation in the shift from book to screen.


Game of Thrones Season 2 Trailer

There are two other shows that debut a little later in April, though. Veep is starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States who’s quickly learning her job is not all it’s cracked up to be. I adore Louis-Dreyfus; ever since the positively weak show Day by Day (where she was the bitchy next door neighbor) I’ve realized that she’s someone who is funny even when the show gives her little to work with, and in a show where she’s given good scripts she’s dynamite.


Veep Season 1 Trailer

The other is Girls, from the creator/star of the indy film Tiny Furniture. I’ll admit I have not seen Tiny Furniture, and I only heard of Girls because of Michael Penn providing the score for the show. But you know what? I like this trailer. I like the voice it’s using. I think it’s got potential. I’m in.


Girls Season 1 Trailer

I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, but after 2011 being a rather uninspired year for films, I’m down with the idea that 2012 can deliver some good quality television. Don’t prove me wrong, HBO.