Friday, March 26, 2010

One Year On: An Update

Can you believe it's already been one whole year since I started this Chronic Hysteresis blog? As the blurb near the top right of the page boldly states, it was my intention at the time to watch and review every single episode of Doctor Who in one calendar year, ending just in time for the premiere of the new Matt Smith series.

Well, as you can quite clearly see, I haven't quite succeeded in my goal. Real life has thoughtlessly intruded into my best laid plans (nothing bad, I've just been busy), so I've obviously had to alter those plans. I'll still complete the review of every episode - worry not. But I'm finding that while I'm still able to watch each episode (although also at a reduced rate), it's the writing of reviews that's really been hampered during all this. While you've just read my review of Episode Two of The Two Doctors, I've just watched Episode Two of Battlefield this morning!

So here's what I'm going to do - once I'm done watching the classic series episodes sometime in early April, I'll be putting my Doctor Who viewing on hiatus and focusing purely on catching up on the reviews (although I'll also probably be watching each new Matt Smith episode 2-3 times a week during that time). Ironic, isn't it, that I'm announcing a hiatus of Doctor Who watching in between my reviews for Parts Two and Three of The Two Doctors, just like when the BBC announced in the week between the original broadcast of those two episodes back in 1985 that they were putting Doctor Who on hiatus. Well, I found it noteworthy, anyway.

Basically, though, nothing will change on the blog - the same erratic posting schedule will continue for a while, but I just wanted to let all you faithful readers know what was going on behind the scenes. My new goal now is to finish my review of The End of Time, Part Two right around the time of the Series 5 finale in late June/early July so that I can start all my Series 5 reviews shortly afterward.

Thanks as always, everyone, for reading this blog. I do hope you enjoy my write-ups and the episodes of Doctor Who on which they are based.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

6W2 - The Two Doctors 2

Episode Two is very similar to Episode One in that there are several tremendously long scenes. There were two scenes in Episode One that were each over six minutes long and featured just The Doctor and Peri. A similar scene happens in this episode, but it's even longer, when The Doctor postulates his theory about the universe collapsing, then Peri leaves to check on Jamie, then The Doctor discovers the "torture booth" optical illusion, then Peri and Jamie come back in, then The Doctor decides to try and contact his other self via mind link (deep breath), and so on.

It almost feels like we're watching a filmed stage play at times. There's another almost criminally long scene in the cellar that changes locations slightly, but the recording never breaks from a scene with Dastari and Chessene, to one with Dastari and Stike, to one with Stike and The Doctor. This story is almost a throwback to the Second Doctor era in more ways than one, as huge scenes without recording breaks was the style of production back in the 1960s. It's a technique that jars when seen in a 1980s context, but results in a story that is at least breathable.

Speaking of breathable, it's good to see Colin Baker ditch his coat for the scenes set in Spain, just as his predecessor did for his hot weather filming stint in Planet of Fire. Bizarrely, though, Frazer Hines is encumbered with Jamie's most thorough costume ever in the series. He wasn't this well dressed in the ice tombs of Telos or the Himalayas, but poor Hines must have baked underneath his costume in the southern Spain sun even more than the two actors playing Sontarans did.

Oh, and speaking of the Sontarans, one wonders why they have been made taller than their previous incarnations (but not equally tall, as Clinton Greyn still towers over Tim Raynham). I've always assumed that these Sontarans were rare special ops troops, cloned to be taller to be able to reach tree branches and the top shelves of bookcases. Plus, to my young eyes when I first saw this story, Sontarans were always tall because this was the first time I had seen them and remembered their stature. So, to me, I looked back at earlier stories and wondered why all the Sontarans we so small...

While it can be argued that the Sontarans are less effective in this story than in previous appearances, at least their theme music, as composed by Peter Howell, makes up for it. Howell's final score for the classic series is his best. He contrasts the heavy, drum laden backing track for the Sontarans with some gorgeous Spanish guitar music for scenes set around the hacienda. It's one of my favourite scores to this day, and it, as well as the beauty of the location footage shot in and around Seville, almost solely inspired my love of Spanish guitar music and prompts me still to want to visit the olive groves of Andalusia. Ah, Doctor Who - is there anything you can't inspire me to do?

6W1 - The Two Doctors 1

In a season that has a habit of keeping The Doctor and Peri on the sidelines while the story is set up in Episode One, perhaps the most devastating insult to the Sixth Doctor in The Two Doctors is that when The Doctor actually does become involved in the story straight off, it's not even his Doctor that does it! No, it's left to an aged Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines to carry the bulk of the story in the early going in an extended prologue before the main action of The Doctor and a nearly topless Peri fishing takes over.

It's great to see Troughton and Hines together again, although it's odd to see nothing done to disguised the actors' aged appearances, nor is much thought given to how the back story created for this episode would intersect with established events. Watching the first TARDIS scene in this episode practically begs someone to come up with the "Season 6B" theory.

The Two Doctors is, in essence, the first six-part story broadcast since 1979, and the last ever in the classic series. If you thought the pacing of Season 22 episodes seemed off in comparison to those containing the traditional 25-minute episodes, then the way the plot moves in this story will astound you. It's not so much that the story lags, but that this episode is populated with several incredibly long scenes and very few characters. Usually, the first episode of a story features the most characters, the bulk of which gradually get killed off over the rest of the story. Here, we meet eleven characters (including Doctors and companions) who will carry the events through until pretty much the end of Episode Three.

The results of all these factors makes this episode and enjoyable watch, but almost completely lacking in intensity. Part of this can also be attributed to director Peter Moffatt, surely the most laid back director Doctor Who ever had. The Sontarans make their return to the screen for the first time since 1978, but they're introduced as an afterthought, nameless extras in a scene on location at the hacienda. It's almost as if Moffatt had sun stroke while directing this. Maybe he actually did...

6X2 - The Mark of the Rani 2

Doctor Who has had several directors who have directed only one story, and, in most cases, for better or worse, the results have usually been rather unique. These unique results vary from the awkward (Tristan de Vere Cole of The Wheel in Space fame) to the visionary (Lovett Bickford's sterling, and wildly over budget, work on The Leisure Hive) to the disastrous (Mary Ridge on Terminus). Sarah Hellings's only Doctor Who directorial effort was The Mark of the Rani, and her work is among the very best seen in the 1980s.

Colin Baker certainly seems to benefit from Hellings's work. For the first time, the Sixth Doctor is actually fun to watch here, bounding around the countryside with a vigour for life that was all but absent in Baker's first three stories. Colin Baker shows off the wit and charm that won him the part in the first place. His exploration of The Rani's TARDIS (a dazzling set, by the way) is just lovely, as is his efforts to free himself from being tied up to a pole amidst a minefield of plant mines.

Yeah, the plant mines and the moving tree - they're one of the things that certain sectors of fans loathe about this story, but I personally think they're an ingenious idea. And the idea of Luke being able to move his "arm" to save Peri isn't that outlandish, as it could still be the last vestiges of his humanity working to save Peri before he fully becomes a tree.

In fact, this story as a whole has been, in my opinion, unfairly slammed over the years. This marathon of Who watching and writing has yielded many surprises, even after having watched them several times already over the past few years, and The Mark of the Rani pleasantly surprised me more than most. It's an utter delight to watch, easily the most charming story in the Sixth Doctor's era, and in dire need of a reappraisal from those who have been bashing it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

6X1 - The Mark of the Rani 1

The historical stories have always been one of the staples of Doctor Who's success since the earliest days of the show, but ever since the programme moved away from the straight historicals of the 1960s, there have been a tiny handful that have successfully captured the feel, mood, and atmosphere of the period in which the story takes place. In my mind, there are only two such stories made since 1967 that have come close to achieving perfection in those qualities: The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Mark of the Rani.

Both stories were blessed with being able to film more scenes on location for a more authentic feel. Most of the Palace Theatre scenes in Talons were actually shot at a Victorian theatre, and Rani benefited from an extra week's filming at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. The results are extraordinary. The opening shots of men lifting up coal from a mine, complimented by Jonathan Gibbs's painfully beautiful music score, set the scene incredibly well. This story feels entirely different than any Who seen in some time, and it is absolutely delightful.

Writers Pip and Jane Baker, who receive a fair amount of flack from fan and script editor alike, make their penchant for overblown dialogue seem right at home in the early part of the 19th century when such language was commonplace. Their writing style suits Colin Baker's Doctor rather well, too. Baker is sublime in this. You can tell that, after a couple shaky outings, he feels he's arrived in Doctor Who, and he is at his most Doctor-ish in this episode - bragging about his genius, showing off his time tracer device like a seven-year-old waving a freshly drawn picture in front of his distracted mother's face, and verbally sparring with The Rani and, later, The Master.

Yes, The Master is back somehow, having apparently been burnt to a crisp in Planet of Fire, but magically back and intact here. Whatever. We all knew he was coming back somehow, and seeing him appear from out of his scarecrow costume here sure beats another "So, you escaped from (insert planet name here)" line. Plus, he and The Rani form a great duo. Neither are on 19th century Earth out of malice, which is nice. The Master is only after revenge against The Doctor (and, by extension, Peri). The Rani is motivated by science, and her questionable methods are borne only out of disregard as opposed to evil.

A rollicking good episode, and one that finally sees The Doctor involved in the story from an early stage.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

6V2 - Vengeance on Varos 2

Watching the acid bath sequence, it's quite clear that it's impact has been overblown over the years. It's obvious that The Doctor doesn't actually push one of the guards into the acid bath, but the other guard actually pulls him in himself (Raising another question altogether - why does the guard want so badly to have his friend share a grisly death in an acid bath together?). It's The Doctor's smug reaction and James Bond-esque humourous quip afterwards that is now seen as more troubling, but is it really? The Fourth Doctor and Romana were rampantly indifferent to seeing Rohm Dutt dragged to his doom by one of Kroll's many tentacles in one of many instances that Tom Baker's Doctor proves that his incarnation is probably the most callous of them all.

Near the end of the episode, when The Doctor rigs up some poisonous vines to instantly kill his pursuers, he does it as a last resort, having been literally backed into a corner. Once the deed is done, he is almost overcome with regret. He has done what he had to in order to survive and protect his friends, which goes a long way to erase his questionable acts from Episode One.

But while The Doctor's actions improve in this episode, other characters move in to take his place. Quillam is an angry, vile man. His motives are entirely sadistic, and his description of what he wants to happen to The Doctor and his rebel friends is florid and grotesque. If Quillam wasn't going to kill them, then those two nappy-wearing cannibals were next in line. Overall, Varos is a very grim place, which was the artistic intention, but that point is stressed far too much over the course of the story.

Not all of Vengeance on Varos is bad, though. Nabil Shaban is the obvious highlight, bringing so much to the character of Sil that he instantly makes the little Thoros Betan the most memorable villain in Doctor Who in some time. Martin Jarvis is marvellous as the weary governor and brings some nice little touches to the role, my favourite being his awkward parting handshake with The Doctor, unfamiliar with the custom, but then offering a much more confident hand towards Peri.

But the best bit of the whole story are the two average citizens of Varos, one (Arak) who is a simple, common, working man who disagrees with everything the government, and his wife, Etta, who is loyal to the core, and would sell her own husband down the river (and she almost does) if it meant maintaining her support for her beloved governor. These two characters never interact with anyone else throughout the whole story. They are there merely to provide commentary from the outside, which is incredibly rare in Doctor Who. Even rarer, and even more delightful, is their puzzlement at the end when the old way of life is cast aside. Such a thing happens all the time in Doctor Who, but we never see it from the viewpoint of those who it effects most - the common man. The last shot is of Arak and Etta staring blankly up at the the TV screen that has kept them placated for so many years, now blank.

"What do we do now?" "Dunno." A brilliant ending to a so-so story.

6V1 - Vengeance on Varos 1

Season 22's downward turn in quality continues with Episode One of Vengeance on Varos. The first impression of this story is that it feels cold, dark, and empty. It looks far too much like cheap scenery flats in a television studio to be believable, and this story isn't clever enough to be parodying the fact that the story is set in a cheap television studio. The prison dome is also far too quiet a place for such horrible acts to apparently take place in. The info dump scene between Rondel and Areta is painfully quiet and dull, despite the beams of search lights flashing across the scene giving the impression of something much more exciting happening nearby.

Unless, of course, Varos IS clever enough to be this meta-textual. If it was, then it's crowning glory would be to poke fun at people trying to act on reality shows by casting people who couldn't act in real life. Enter Geraldine Alexander as Areta and Jason Connery as Jondar, both trying to outdo each other in the shoddy acting department. Connery just wins out, displaying his vivid impression of a birch tree that somehow won him the job of Robin Hood a scant few months after Varos.

But Varos has been used as a lightning rod by those who criticize the apparent decreasing standards in taste and decency that were dragging Doctor Who down at around this time, and they may have a case in regards to the actions of the show's lead character. The Doctor is immediately sullen and defeated upon learning that the TARDIS is out of the vital (and, until now, unheard of) mineral Zeiton-7. It's left to the sarcastic Peri to try and berate The Doctor into doing something about their situation, at least when the two aren't bickering about burning dinners and other such trivial matters. These scenes not only show off The Doctor in a terrible light, but they prevent him from properly entering the story (not for the first time, and certainly not for the last).

When The Doctor does finally arrive on Varos, he and Peri rescue Jondar from certain death, but then The Doctor rigs up a laser cannon to fire blindly on anyone who comes around the corner. He doesn't even know what the situation is, and yet his first step is to kill random (and potentially innocent) victims, and to do it casually. The infamous acid bath sequence that occurs in Episode Two is nothing compared to this. 45 minutes of the worst elements of The Doctor we've seen in some time.

6T2 - Attack of the Cybermen 2

All of the problems with Attack of the Cybermen culminate in dreadful and worrying Episode Two. First off, the Cryons, who introduced no less than three times in this episode with increasingly bad results. This gist of the situation: the Cryons used to be the native population on Telos until the Cybermen took over. So why do we have to suffer through endless, creepy finger having scenes that try and bludgeon pity for the Cryons into the various characters that meet up with them? The Cryons also look and sound ludicrous, and are the second story in a row to feature drastically near sighted aliens, given the googly eyes that every Cryon has.

The scene where two Cybermen crush Lytton's hands into bloody stumps is needlessly graphic, horrific, and sadistic. Season 22 has already felt like a much grittier and rougher series of outings for Doctor Who, but this scene crossed the line of common decency. Previous examples of blood being spilled in Doctor Who have at least been easier to miss. Even Condo's guts exploding in The Brain of Morbius was limited to a very quick flash on camera. Here, the camera focuses on Lytton's growing discomfort, then his terrible scream, intercut with shots of supposedly emotionless Cybermen looking on. Such emotionless creatures wouldn't be this sadistic, and nothing was gained from this torture. Two Cybermen pick Lytton up and carry him off, and the next time we see him, he's half machine, connected up to the wall and being turned into a Cyberman.

This story was written by Eric Saward (behind the shadow of Paula Woolsey aka Paula Moore), but unofficial continuity adviser Ian Levine's input was quite easy to spot. This story explicitly references, and bases its entire story on, three previous Cybermen stories - The Tenth Planet, The Tomb of the Cybermen, and The Invasion. All these stories were not only over 15 years old at the time, but none of them were even complete in the archives in 1985 to be viewed again by the general public, nor had they ever been repeated in the short time between their original airing and when the original master tapes were wiped. Only a few, rare individuals like Ian Levine would be old enough to not only be around for the original broadcast of these stories in the 1960s, but also enough of a fan of the show at the time to remember what happened.

The links and references to the past don't end there, though, as the worst, and most superfluous, link to the past is having a clearly plump Michael Kilgarriff reprise his role as the Cyber Controller. Kilgarriff provided the height and the robotic movement to the original Controller in Tomb, but not the voice. How much nostalgia can possibly be gained by having Kilgarriff inhabit the costume again, this time speaking the lines? Kilgarriff's herky jerky robotic movements are also at odds with the more fluid nature of movement preferred by the Cybermen of the day.

The result is an overindulgent mess that looks great in some respects and rushed and amateurish in others. A story made for fans by a fan, and, by gaining almost nine million viewers during its original broadcast, Doctor Who's last flirtation with ratings success for a good few years to come.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

6T1 - Attack of the Cybermen 1

Doctor Who made it's bold return to Saturday nights for Season 22, but in the new and unfamiliar format of 45-minute episodes. Everything new takes a bit of getting used to, but the classic series of Who just doesn't seem to come to grips with the format in the short time that it was used.

Defenders of the format state that without having to build up to an obligatory cliffhanger 25 minutes into the story, the plot could breathe a bit more and could be given the room to develop properly. This is true in some respects - the storyline about Lytton (a welcome return by the brilliant Maurice Colbourne) and his gang of bank robbers trots along at a nice pace and dominates the early proceedings to the point that it looks like Lytton will be the main focus of this story.

The Doctor and Peri, on the other hand, are kept out of the action for even longer, left to bicker in the TARDIS (although this story is easily their most familial of the whole season). Sure, there were two weak cliffhangers less to have to worry about in each story now, but most cliffhangers involve The Doctor and/or the companion in extreme peril. Without having to put the lead characters in danger by the 25-minute mark, The Doctor and Peri roam around the streets and sewers of London, at least one or two steps behind the rest of the story.

That doesn't seem to matter to writer Eric Saward, though (yes, Saward, not Paula Moore, Paula Woolsley, or even Ian Levine, apparently, although the latter has his fingerprints all over this story, as I'll address later). Saward is much more interested in his own characters, particularly Lytton, than he is with The Doctor. This isn't surprising, given what we would later find out were Saward's impressions of Colin Baker's portrayal of The Doctor. What scribe would want to write for a character he doesn't like in the first place? Saward keeps The Doctor well out of the way, only thrusting him into danger at the end of the episode when a group of Cybermen ambush him in the TARDIS (how do they get in there in the first place? Obviously the "organ" disguised version spit out by the TARDIS's wonky chameleon circuit doesn't come with a lock).

The Cybermen themselves still look good, particularly the black camouflaged Cybermen that skulk about in the sewers. However, their increasing vulnerability continues, as Russell's gunshot to the arm of a Cyberman is enough to kill him, as is a shot to another's mouth (although this is less surprising). Their heads are also knocked off quite easily, with escaped prisoners cranking Probably the best part of this episode is Brian Glover as Griffiths, who gets all the best lines and provides a great foil to Lytton.

Episode One of this story still holds up for me after all these years. Some background - Attack of the Cybermen remains (and will probably always remain) my most watched Doctor Who story ever. In my youth, this was the only story I had on tape for several months, and so while I played with LEGO in my basement for countless hours, Attack of the Cybermen looped endlessly on the TV nearby. Not only could I have done this review with watching it again, I could have almost recited the dialogue, word for word...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

6S4 - The Twin Dilemma 4

Believe it or not, there are some actual positive things to say about The Twin Dilemma, although most of them circle around Colin Baker and Maurice Denham. It's not surprising, then, that the best scene of the whole story is Azmael's death scene. It's actually quite rare in Doctor Who to have such a long, and well written, death scene, but both actors do a marvelous job at it.

Colin Baker makes an impressive acting debut in the lead part, regardless of how well written that part is. The new Doctor's manic mood swings are perfectly played out by Baker in a story that seems almost to be an audition tape to show off his range as the new Doctor to an unconvinced audience. Emotions - love, pride, hate, fear - are all conveyed well by a clearly talented actor who was not well served by a strong story in his debut performance.

The ending seems tacked on, though. The Doctor has seldom given Peri (or, indeed, the viewer) that his new persona has settled down and that the manic mood swings are a thing of the past, yet a wry smile at the very end of the episode is supposed to convince any doubters. Some say it was bold to have the new Doctor so unlikable. Looking back, it was far too risky for a show that didn't know what was about to hit it.

Baker's last line of the episode ("I am The Doctor whether you like it or not!") isn't necessarily the most hopeful thing to leave with viewers for the nine months between seasons, either. That last line makes it appear that the programme is holding its viewers hostage, based on its own hubris. Don't like the new Doctor? Tough. It's Doctor Who. You're going to watch it regardless, right? And it's never going to go away, so you better get used to it, right?


6S3 - The Twin Dilemma 3

The poor costume masquerade continues in this episode with really awful costume/makeup jobs on the part of the servants of Mestor. They're meant to be some sort of bird people, resplendent with feathers, but have no wings and never convince us that there isn't just a lump of malformed makeup on the ends of their noses when we should be imagining that they're beaks.

Mestor himself is quite ludicrous. Apparently a giant slug, his eyes are like giant Coke bottle glasses, but he actually looks more like an owl - again, with no wings. Mestor also has a hell of a time getting around, content on staying in his throne room, but guided around by two of his servants whenever he wishes to leave those friendly confines.

All these elements come together in a scene worth cringing about when Mestor executes a peasant for stealing vegetables. The worst bit is when the peasant begs to be shot instead of "that" - embolism on the part of Mestor's mind control. The whole thing looks and feels like something straight out of pantomime, meant to inspire fear in the audience for the main villain but, like that peasant, it falls completely flat.

Maybe this story really is as bad as they all say after all...

6S2 - The Twin Dilemma 2

There is much about The Twin Dilemma that makes little to no sense. Hugo is locked in the TARDIS, unconscious, while The Doctor and Peri go outside to the surface of Titan 3. Before leaving, Peri hides the power pack of Hugo's gun somewhere in the the exact (gaudy) top that Hugo, for some reason, decides to try on. Convenient, that. In fact, why is so much attention paid to characters changing costumes in this story? Is it because each costume chosen by The Doctor, Peri, and Hugo are unanimously awful? Or is it because John Nathan-Turner forbade such costume changes before that when it finally happens, it's an event?

Why does Azmael change his name to Edgeworth for parts of this story? He's not fooling anyone with his attempts at disguising his identity. Only The Doctor knows his real name, and it's Azmael's face that he recognizes before he twigs upon the name. As Azmael has never been mentioned in Doctor Who until now, there's no reason to take the viewers' considerations into account because they've never heard of Azmael or Edgeworth either. Quite silly.

But most superfluous, yet criminally damaging, of all is the inclusion of the eponymous twins, Romulus and Remus. In including them, it cornered poor director Peter Moffat into finding a set of identical twin children who could act. Fair dos to Moffat - he did the best he could with the Conrad twins and kept their screen time to a minimum. But there is never a reason for there to be twins in the first place. There's no crazy capers that usually happen when twins are involved by passing off one as the other or other such hijinks. Had it just been two genius children that Azmael was after (which is equally ridiculous - are the twins really that smart to force Azmael to cross the galaxy to find them?), then two mildly decent child actors could have been cast instead of the two non-actors (that's not an insult; that's a fact) that were eventually thrust into the roles.

Despite all these faults, the story has been at least watchable, and is in no way deserving of it's last place finish in that infamous DWM poll. There's at least three stories that are worse, surely.

Monday, March 15, 2010

6S1 - The Twin Dilemma 1

The most common criticism of The Twin Dilemma (okay, ONE of the most common criticisms in this, one of the most maligned stories ever) is that it looks terribly tacky and, well, terrible, especially in comparison to The Caves of Androzani that had finished airing less than a week before this story in 1984. Of course, in viewing each episode and story of Season 21 in quick, successive order, it's easy to tell that Androzani is the anomaly here. The Twin Dilemma was quite obviously made in 1984 and boasts the stylistic trappings of one of the gaudiest periods of fashion, art, and design in the history of mankind.

All the sets and costumes are terrible, but it's the mid-1980s, when everyone was beginning to wear pastels and ludicrous hairdos without the slightest sense of irony. Case in point: The Doctor's costume, which was made with the intention of never having to apologize for it later, as was the style at the time. In terms of the plot, the costume makes perfect sense. The newly regenerated Doctor's mind is completely addled, causing his mood and actions to sway violently from cowardice to self pity to bloodlust. He chooses his costume during this traumatic period, and the cacophony of colours that he has chosen to clad himself in is reflective of his mental state.

However, his mind obviously settles down, if not by the end of the story, then certainly by the beginning of Baker's first full season in 1985. But he still keeps the costume long after the joke is over, but long enough for him, and the character of The Doctor, to become a joke. The costume succeeds in derailing the lead character of a show which wasn't nearly as endearing and popular as it thought it was with the fans, the press, and, most importantly, the sixth floor of the BBC. Much like the irony-free attitude of the 1980s, Doctor Who had assumed by this time that it was entitled to run forever, and that it could put anything of questionable taste on screen and have it be loved and adored by all. Little did they know that those in charge of approving the show for air had a vastly different opinion of the show by this time...

Friday, March 12, 2010

6R4 - The Caves of Androzani 4

The Caves of Androzani has so much baggage in the form of almost unanimous praise attached to it that it can be difficult to watch it with a clear conscience. In the days and weeks leading up to watching it, I was almost concerned that its legacy would build it up so much and put it on an unreachable pedestal that I would be, after having seen it some 50 times over the course of my life, disappointed and slightly disinterested in this time round. The result? This was the first time I has actually cried while watching it.

It's not as if Androzani is sad or moving or emotional. That's not why I had to fight hard to hold back the tears while watching this on the bus riding to work one morning. Androzani is just quite simply the most powerful, most perfect piece of motion picture entertainment I have ever seen in my entire life. That's a statement not at all bathed in hyperbole, either. I have never felt the same after watching anything 50 times. Ever. If anything, complacency sets in, and it becomes a bit passe. I'm shocked that Androzani continues to do the impossible by actually getting better each time I see it, even after the repeated viewings.

Obviously, a lot of this enduring success is down to Graeme Harper. Upon seeing (and, more importantly, understanding) Androzani, it instantly inspired me to want to work as a television director, or somewhere, anywhere, in the TV industry. Harper's direction is the one element that links all that is spectacular about this story. Directors cast their own actors in those days, so it was Harper who was directly responsible for putting together the finest guest cast ever seen in Doctor Who.

Christopher Gable's Sharaz Jek is the centrepiece of that group, equally scintillating in the scenes where he rants uncontrollably about how Morgus has destroyed his life as he is when he barely manages to expel a tiny whisper. In fact, those two facets follow directly on from one another in Memorable Moment #1,418 in this episode, when, after a blistering rant, he demands of Peri, "Do you think I'm mad?!...I am mad. Do I frighten you?". Gable's work in this is so operatic, and so melodramatic, that in the hands of any other actor, the character of Jek could have fallen apart. We were one step away from Professor Zaroff. Instead, we get television magic.

John Normington's Morgus is wholly despicable, and completely slimy. His greasy nod at Stotz's suggestion to split Jek's stock of spectrox 50/50 betray his real plans. Stotz had better get fitted for his Jek-esque face mask now. Martin Cochrane's Chellak has a melancholic nobility about him that it's his death that seems most tragic of all. Of all the characters in this story, it is possibly Chellak who is mistreated the worst, being betrayed by both his commander (Morgus) and his lieutenant (inadvertently, thanks to the android duplicate of Salateen). Every performance here is note perfect, with a special mention for Nicola Bryant as Peri, who is the damsel in distress for most of this story, but plays it so believably. How could you expect anyone new to interstellar travel to behave any differently in such a scenario?

It's tough to rein in the praise and respect I have for Androzani, but it really is a creative high point in the history of Doctor Who. Even the regeneration sequence (oh, yeah - that. I almost forgot that we lose my favourite Doctor out of all of this) set the standard for the series (not that any subsequent regeneration sequence was at all notable). Androzani is, in my opinion, obviously the best story of the Peter Davison era, and the best story of all time, but it almost doesn't feel right to rank it so highly because it is so different than any other story. Even though it's written by old Who stalwart Robert Holmes in his first script since 1979, it doesn't feel like anything he's written before. Harper's direction is also so shockingly removed from the standard BBC style of production, and so timeless with its minimalist production design, that Androzani almost doesn't belong in Doctor Who.

It's rare that an era in Doctor Who closes out on a high. Even though some of the other Doctor finales like The Tenth Planet and The War Games are quite good and much appreciated now, at the time, it was almost perceived that each Doctor's era was limping to a close in terms of ratings and creativity. The Caves of Androzani is, therefore, a cruel tease of what could have been in more perfect world, but something that would never come again. Vivid direction coupled with a Fifth Doctor-solo companion team - it's something of a rarity in the Peter Davison era, but it's clear that these elements would have turned a very good era into a truly great one.

Even still, hand on heart, if I had to choose one Doctor above them all, it would be Peter Davison. Davison is such a good actor, and his Doctor is the first young Doctor, that his Doctor is really the template on which the new series version of the lead character is based. He is also the first Doctor to leave before his time, in my opinion. We saw all that could be brought to the role with the other actors who played The Doctor. I'm not so sure we had that same opportunity with Davison, an opinion that, after having experience The Caves of Androzani, Peter may have to agree with.

The Peter Davison Era:

Best Story : The Caves of Androzani
Worst Story : Time-Flight
Favourite Story : Enlightenment

On to Colin Baker...

6R3 - The Caves of Androzani 3

In a story crammed with "best ever"s, Episode Three of The Caves of Androzani might be blessed with the greatest cliffhanger of them all, as well, as it appears that The Doctor is intent on crash landing the ship he's piloting, no matter what the consequences. The scene is remarkable, and the buildup to the climax is almost unbearably intense. There's no music throughout the entire scene. It relies purely on the increasingly loud sounds of the ship's engines and the performances of Maurice Roeves and Peter Davison to give the scene what it needs to achieve greatness.

The performances of Roeves and Davison are far too often overlooked thanks to the equally sterling work by Christopher Gable and John Normington overshadowing them in the eyes of many reviews I've read over the years. Roeves is stunning as Stotz, especially in scenes like his confrontation with Krelper in Episode Two. But it is Peter Davison who not only gives possibly the best performance in this story (no mean feat), but his best performance as The Doctor, and, in my opinion, the best performance of any Doctor actor in the classic series. Davison is quite simply astonishing. I've said before how it seems like Davison relies on his directors for inspiration; the better the director, the better Davison acts. Davison has said many times that Androzani is his favourite story, and Graeme Harper his favourite director. It's easy to see why, and the results of Harper's collaboration with his leading actor are quite evident.

The cliffhanger scene in this episode is like a two-minute resume tape for Davison. He's giddy at first (thanks to him apparently fighting off his regeneration, which is spellbinding to think about), and has a marvelously jovial conversation with Stotz as the latter threatens him to stop the ship. Once Stotz gets through the door, The Doctor becomes intensely serious, not only refusing to stop the ship, but refusing to be interrupted in exclaiming his reasons for doing so. Has there ever been a more tragically heroic, punch-the-air, moment than when Davison shouts out "So ya see, I'm not going to let you stop me now!"?

There's so many other smaller, subtler moments to appreciate in this episode, too. The (genuine) whirl around slap that Sharez Jek lays on The Doctor. The wonderful Dutch angle Harper uses in the shot where the androids are tearing The Doctor's arms off. The one line that sums up how disgustingly self centred and untrustworthy Morgus really is (in response to his assistant's question of how the death of the President could be any worse: "It could have been me."). Jek's super delicate explanation to Peri that the belt clips being handed out will be useless against the androids. And so on and so on....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

6R2 - The Caves of Androzani 2

In a story full of memorable scenes, perhaps my favourite scene ever in Doctor Who occurs in Episode Two, and it is possibly one of The Caves of Androzani's more superfluous indulgences. It occurs when Krelper (played as the perfect buffoon by Roy Holder) challenges Stotz (Maurice Roeves) on his leadership of the gun runners, then gets put in his place by his superior.

When described like that - yeah, it's a superfluous scene indeed. But then Graeme Harper waves his magic wand, and it becomes utterly breathtaking. Harper lets his actors play it very close to the line and leaves it to the them to decide where to take it (watch for Holder stepping on Roeves's line about "cutting out your black heart"). Harper then tweaks the sound, something tragically rarely done in Who (but then, Harper is all about doing things with his story that have rarely been done in Who), and cranks up the echo when Stotz holds Krelper's head over the cliff and forces him to swallow a suicide pill. The resulting sound makes Krelper's cries and Stotz's repeated demands of "Bite!" ten times more intense and dramatic, and turns a standard BBC quarry in a vast range of hills and valleys. The scene has one minor purpose, that of establishing that Stotz and Krelper dislike each other, but it is done with such style and intensity that it firmly draws each character path from here on in. Krelper may boast, but he is a coward. Stotz will stop at little to exercise his control over others.

From early on in Episode One, The Doctor and Peri's lives have been in danger not by General Chellak or Sharez Jek, but by innocently stepping into a spectrox nest. They only find out the dangers of spectrox halfway through this episode, which gives the story it's subplot. Yes - subplot. Only in a story like Androzani, with numerous strong characters and countless memorable scenes, would the fight for survival of The Doctor and his companion be seen as a subplot in the truest sense. The Doctor's attempts to survive and find the milk of a queen bat merely form the path that he takes, around which we are allowed to witness the lives of the other characters. The various plotlines that occur outside of The Doctor's own thread of survival are in no way linked, but each one is affected by the other. The Doctor has but one desire - leave the situation, find the milk, and leave. Sharez Jek wants to hold The Doctor captive to get to Peri. He would do best to just let them leave. Same goes for Chellak, Stotz, and Morgus. The Doctor explicitly states in Episode One that all he wants is to leave, and yet no one listens to him. It will soon be everyone's downfall that no one did listen.

There is so much in this episode that I haven't even mentioned, namely the performances of Christopher Gable, Peter Davison, and Nicola Bryant (who share two or three blistering scenes in this episode), but to keep going about them would invite repetition. Suffice it to say that each of them are no less than extraordinary, and that each of them will have even better chances to show off their stuff in the episodes to come.

Monday, March 8, 2010

6R1 - The Caves of Androzani 1

The Caves of Androzani has had so many accolades heaped upon it in the 26 years since its original broadcast that it is easy to assume that it isn't even part of the same programme as any other Doctor Who story ever made. But the best way to watch Androzani is to do what I've done and watch every episode leading up to it, because only then do you realize how out of left field this story comes.

Let's get this out of the way right now - the reason Androzani is so shockingly bold and different than anything that came before it can almost single-handedly be credited to director Graeme Harper. I had the honour of interviewing Harper at Gallifrey 21 and I can tell you (and you can hear for yourself on RFS #187) that the same energy that invaded the set in early 1984 is still alive and very much present in the man today. It will be tough to not use this phrase on repeated occasions but I will anyway - Episode One of Androzani is chock full of pace and energy.

Even the slow scenes hum along with an intensity only hinted at in previous stories. The scene between The Doctor and Peri waiting for the execution squad is remarkable. Any lesser director would have shot this scene as normal - Peri sitting on a bunk talking to The Doctor across the room. She may be sounding worried, as is The Doctor, but they don't look it. Harper does it differently. Peri's curled up on the floor, wracked with fear, with Nicola Bryant essentially whispering her lines into her knee. There is real danger in this scene because everyone is underplaying the tension. The looming inevitability of the execution and the characters' reaction to it gives this scene all the push it needs.

After this, there is a gorgeous montage of shots of a mysterious masked man strutting around his underground lair, moving unseen cameras into position, ordering troops to silently counter General Chellak. It's told in a series of short shots, almost all made with handheld cameras, and all dissolving from one to another. The director's handbook states that one should use dissolves to indicate passage of time. Harper goes for the opposite effect - the dissolves speed events up. Even though nothing onscreen is moving at a cracking pace, everything that is happening is almost too fast to keep up with. At the end of this (underscored by a haunting musical suite from Roger Limb), the action cuts back to The Doctor and Peri, behind whom a mysterious figure steps out, blacking out the scene, which then jump cuts to a harsh orange wall and Morgus passing a vial of spectrox to the President. The whole sequence is so remarkably crafted that it doesn't just burgeon on art. It is art.

And then the cliffhanger, which is so terrifyingly real that it still sends chills down my spine to this day. Look at The Doctor and Peri. They're no boisterous, nor are they ranting in a wanton attempt to try and stay the execution. They are two people who have quickly come to the realization that this is the end for them, and that no one can save them now. Even The Doctor barely whispers his final declaration of injustice loud enough for Chellak to hear it. There's no point to do anymore. Nothing will change what's about to happen. What really drives the effectiveness of the execution scene over the cliff is the use of machine guns by the guards. Machine guns don't have a stun setting. We see the troops line up, take aim, and fire multiple rounds directly at The Doctor and Peri as the credits crash in. How on Earth could they possibly get out of this?

25 minutes of landmark television, with much, much more to come.

6Q4 - Planet of Fire 4

After four episodes, I think I may have pegged why Planet of Fire might take the title of Most Overlooked Story for the Peter Davison era. It all comes down to The Master and his goals and ambitions.

The Master's previous outing in The King's Demons was odd in that, especially given the short two-episode length, it allowed so little time for a full blown Master scheme to take place, and so The Master's plan was suitably small scale. In Planet of Fire, The Master's solitary mission is to restore himself to full size and full health. This storyline has really only ever happened once before in The Deadly Assassin, but even then, he was content on destroying Gallifrey and gaining ultimate power via the Eye of Harmony to do it. In Planet of Fire, The Master is keen only on survival - not bettering himself, just restoring himself to his previous standing.

This motivation makes Planet of Fire possibly my favourite Master story. The Master is at one of his lowest ebbs in this story, almost enough to make him pitiable. When The Doctor allows him to (apparently) burn to a crisp at the end of Episode Four, it almost seems callous. Of all the times in the past that The Doctor has spared The Master after barely thwarting his plans for world and/or universal domination, he still lets him off the hook at the end.

The Master's quest for personal salvation isn't the only thing that is at play in Planet of Fire, though, especially in a story which must have been nigh on impossible for Peter Grimwade to write, given his obligations for elements to include. Imagine this shopping list before even putting pen to paper: write Turlough, Kamelion, and The Master out, introduce Peri, and have it all (at least partially) set in present day Lanzarote. That Planet of Fire is in any way watchable is remarkable given this; that it is actually thoroughly entertaining automatically nominates Peter Grimwade for knighthood.

Peri makes a strong debut, and not just because of those (in)famous shots for which this story is most widely know. Peri is strong willed, independent, and plucky, yet without the brashness and cynicism that Tegan brought to the table. Kamelion is actually worked in the story quite well, and by the end of all the multiple body swaps, I'm not surprised that he asks The Doctor to kill him. But Turlough is most missed of all. His central role in this story offers just a hint of what the character could have been had he been properly paid attention to. Turlough is a leader here, and while it is a sudden change in character development (as his fear of returning home despite his repeated requests to do the very same earlier in the season), it follows on from Nyssa's leaving scene in that The Doctor has succeeded in making his friends better people. Turlough was a mischievous brat when we first met him. A little over a year later, he's a fully formed young man who saves an entire planet at the possible cost of his own freedom. Given that, Turlough is perhaps The Fifth Doctor's greatest, and last, success story.

The optimistic ending of Turlough's heroic return to his homeland and Peri's boundless enthusiasm to travel with The Doctor is such a red herring, though. No Doctor's incarnation ever ends happily, and The Fifth Doctor, who is perhaps the most pleasant and easy going Doctor of them all, is about to face his greatest test...

6Q3 - Planet of Fire 3

Planet of Fire has been one one of toughest stories I think I've ever had to review during this whole marathon (as I'm sure you can tell by the massive gulf between entries on the blog these past weeks, although other, outside factors are contributing heavily to these delays and are also pretty much thwarting my intended goal of finishing the entire run of Doctor Who by March 26, 2010).

I am thoroughly enjoying the story, much more so than I thought I would, actually. But I can't put my finger on why I enjoy it so much. There are little elements - the location footage, Peter Wyngarde, Nicola Bryant's cleavage - that are fantastic on their own, but can such small mercies add up to make an enjoyable story on their own? Possibly...

I'll add to the list Peter Howell's splendid music score as one of my many favourite things of this story. Howell, who is in my mind the best composer from the 1980-85 Radiophonic Workshop era, comes up with a score for Planet of Fire that sounds ethnic, but not tied to a specific recognizable culture. Actually, strike that - the music does sound like that of a specific culture: that of the people of Sarn. Howell's score is unique and gorgeous, with enough futuristic elements to steer it away from predictability. Best bit: the idiosyncratic chase music during Peri's brief flight from The Master in Episode Three. Bizarre, but lovely.

Friday, March 5, 2010

6Q2 - Planet of Fire 2

Peter Wyngarde gives a really good performance as Timonov in this story, perhaps the best guest appearance since Julian Glover's turn in City of Death. Wyngarde is totally believable as the over zealous religious leader. He doesn't seem mad in his beliefs. They are completely normal to him, so how can he be out of his mind? He is 100% set in his ways as a result, and despite the efforts from those around him, it doesn't look like he'll waver in his convictions.

Another strong performance in this episode comes from Anthony Ainley as The Master. Ainley has been more or less hamming it up in his recent appearances as The Doctor's arch enemy, possibly against his best wishes. You get a sense of how Ainley would have really liked to play the part from day one in this story, especially as the Kamelion-Master. There are elements of the Kalid Master whenever the action cuts to him in his control room, but it's a much more understated Master when he's half robot. I credit the respectable suit that the K-Master wears. The Master has always looked best in a plain three-piece suit, and it's good to see him clad in some nice threads again.

Speaking of clothes, it's good to see The Doctor and Turlough out of their usual costumes for this story, as necessitated by the extreme temperatures of the Canary Islands. The only unfortunate circumstances of this is that the removal of The Doctor's jacket and sweater reveal another opportunity to plaster something with John Nathan-Turner's beloved question mark motif, this time with The Doctor's suspenders supposedly enhancing the character's mystery. And it would only get worse...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

6Q1 - Planet of Fire 1

An episode that seems more famous these days for being a sexual awakening (for differing reasons) for both David Tennant and Phil Collinson, Episode One of Planet of Fire has a lot going for it...although seeing both Nicola Bryant and Mark Strickson in their bathing suits is still one of those strong points (again, for differing reasons).

For one, Lanzarote looks spectacular, both as itself for the scenes set on Earth, but especially in the scenes set on Sarn. Even though Lanzarote was decided upon as a location before Planet of Fire was ever written, it seems impossible to imagine this story ever being filmed anywhere else. The brightness of the sun is also a shock after watching years of cloudy UK location footage; Planet of Fire looks entirely different than anything seen in Doctor Who before.

What's also unique to this story are the scenes of slight domestic strife between Peri and her stepfather Howard. This is one of the rare occasions that we see a soon-to-be-companion and her family, then wrench that companion from her family without them knowing where she went. After the TARDIS takes off with Peri on board, the girl never returns to Earth in this story. As far as Howard knows, she somehow managed to get herself and the Trion artifact (might be platinum, after all) off the boat and has flown off to Morocco with a "couple of nice English guys". Well, at least it's not far from the truth...