Friday, April 30, 2010

6Z2 - Revelation of the Daleks 2

You don't realize it at the time, but the scene where Orcini destroys a Dalek with a machine gun fitted with bastic heads (his words) is quite historic. Not only because a Dalek is felled by a mere machine gun, but because it's the last scene in the classic series to be shot on location using film. For the last four season of classic Who, everything on location would be recorded with Outside Broadcast (OB) video cameras. What was gained in uniformity between studio and location footage came at the expense of visual texture. Doctor Who, for better or worse, would never look the same again.

The overall look of classic Who would also never again see the vast talents of director Graeme Harper, who directed his second of two stories with Revelation of the Daleks. Harper's work in this story isn't quite as stunning as it his earlier work in The Caves of Androzani, but it's still furlongs ahead of anything else in Season 22. Revelation is perhaps a more subtle piece for Harper. Harper's strength as an action director often overshadow his ability to underplay a scene. Look at how both the Daleks and Davros are introduced in the opening scenes of Episode 1. The first shot of a Dalek is from behind as one trundles down a hallway, flirting with disappearing off the screen entirely, to give his report to a strange console at the heart of which lies a head. The head spins round - it's Davros in long shot. Cut to the next scene. The camera doesn't linger or celebrate the fact that the Daleks are in this, are an entirely different colour to what we're used to, and that Davros is now reduced to a head in a jar. After decades of overbearing cliffhangers designed to introduce the very monsters which the episode is named after, this sharp left turn into nonchalance is perhaps the most shocking Dalek introduction of them all.

At the heart of this story is Davros, though, and Harper's direction, coupled with Terry Molloy's performance, makes this possibly the best Davros story ever (yes, even rivaling Michael Wisher's turn in Genesis of the Daleks). Molloy was in full rant mode in Resurrection of the Daleks because the script required it - a macho story required a macho villain. In Revelation, Molloy almost whispers his lines to the point where he's almost inaudible (a pervading echoey audio mix doesn't help matters), aided by some extremely tight close-ups to further dial the bombast down. It's a stunning performance, and when Davros is revealed in his usual form towards the end, the contrast between that and his decoy self is shocking. Harper shoots the real Davros from below, just as he often does with the Daleks, making the withered, wheelchair bound scientist look like he's in full control of the situation. Later, when he's hovering in midair, zapping a prone Orcini with Emperor Palpatine-like electricity from his fingers, Davros almost ascends to one of the most powerful and frightening villains ever seen in Doctor Who.

It's obvious that I'm a Graeme Harper fan, but his work commands such respect. I had the very great pleasure to interview the man on Radio Free Skaro #187, an interview that the podcast team is so fiercely proud of that I heartily recommend you listen to it now (find it here). In it, Harper describes his directorial style during the interview, particularly his decision to direct from the studio floor as opposed to overseeing everything from the upstairs control room. Being able to interact directly with his cast and floor crew, as opposed to relaying his instructions from the gallery, simply saved time, which allowed for more time to be spent on lining up more artistic shots that would have been impossible to do under the standard style favoured by most directors. Yes, Harper had a flair for the artistic and the dramatic, but it was only because of efficient time management skills that he was able to pull off some of the most dazzling sequences in Doctor Who history.

Revelation of the Daleks is quite probably the high point of Colin Baker's abbreviated time in Doctor Who, and easily the best thing that Eric Saward ever wrote for the programme. By the end of the next season (which finally aired 18 months after Season 22's conclusion), both Baker and Saward would be gone from Doctor Who for varying reasons. That last shot of Colin Baker looks so tragically hopeful, in retrospect. It's of a Doctor confident in his future, knowing full well where he's going and what he'll do when he gets there. Outside forces beyond his control were the only things that could stop him.

"All right, I'll take you to --"

A quick BBC editing job cuts off the Sixth Doctor, and Doctor Who in general, in mid-sentence. In more ways than one.

6Z1 - Revelation of the Daleks 1

Revelation of the Daleks, especially Part One, is probably one of the least Doctor Who-like episodes of Doctor Who ever. It probably has more in common with Mission to the Unknown, if anything, although Mission had more Daleks in it, and about as many scenes where The Doctor's presence is relevant.

Instead of The Doctor and Daleks, we are treated to, admittedly, a vast array of interesting characters and situations, almost all of them set in Tranquil Repose, a poncy name for a funeral home. Whether or not it's conscious homage to his new hero, Robert Holmes, writer Eric Saward pairs up most of his characters in perfectly matched double acts - Jobel and Tasambeker, Takis and Lilt, Natasha and Grigory, Kara and Vogel, and Orcini and Bostock. Perhaps, with all these characters demanding (and receiving) a great deal of attention and screen time, it's almost inevitable that something would have to take a back seat. The fact that it's The Doctor and the Daleks, the two mainstays of, and reasons for, Doctor Who's longevity, that get the chop is ironic given this story was the last to be made in the era of Doctor Who when it was virtually assured to return the following year.

Given the misgivings that Saward had with writing for the Daleks (a trait not uncommon with other writers over the years), it's not surprising to see the Daleks' dialogue dramatically slashed. However, knowing now that Saward had a such a low opinion of Colin Baker's Doctor at the time, it's telling that he puts him so prominently on the sidelines. Just as Davros's monologues prove a convenient way of getting around having the Daleks speak too much in their grating monotone, Saward's characters all act as a surrogate Doctor - getting into trouble, uncovering mysteries, moving along the plot, etc - all while The Doctor and Peri wander through a winter wilderness doing what they've done best all season long: bicker.

Could Saward have been purposefully underusing The Doctor because he didn't like the character? Even the cliffhanger to Episode One struggles mightily to finally bring The Doctor into the action by dropping an unconvincing polystyrene statue on him. The cliffhanger, and the lack of involvement of The Doctor in the first 45 minutes of this story, is proof, too, that, even after having a whole season to work with, none of the writers ever grew comfortable with the 45-minute episode format. While the rest of the story seems to play out as normal, The Doctor's storyline merely seems to be a typical 25-minute story building up to that first cliffhanger, but just stretched out to almost double the length. As a result, the story almost stops completely whenever The Doctor and Peri are onscreen. By the end of the episode, barring a namedrop of The Great Healer, they have no more idea what they are getting themselves into than they did at the beginning.

A good episode, but one that feels more like a set-up for what's to come as opposed to having any tangible events of its own.

Monday, April 5, 2010

6Y2 - Timelash 2

It took a good few months of watching, and a lot of years of Doctor Who, to finally unseat The Chase as my least favourite Doctor Who story, but Timelash has taken the title with remarkable ease. And the tragic thing is that we were almost let off the hook, or at least our pain could have been lessened slightly, based on the fact that Episode Two initially ran six minutes short. I could have quite easily lived with 38 minutes of pain, but instead, Eric Saward had to concoct 6 more minutes of complete pap to pad out the episode.

The problem is, this padding only delays the second end of the episode, because, as far as everyone was already concerned, the story ends when the Borad is killed by The Doctor's time Kontron crystal device. Alas, no. Apparently, that was a clone, we're told, which makes about as much sense as The Doctor's seemingly impossible escape from certain death at the hands of a Bandril missile. "I'll explain someday" is the glib answer we're given. It's like The Doctor feels as indifferent to offer an explanation as everyone involved in this production is disenchanted with providing a decent, watchable television programme. Everyone seems to be giving about 80%, and if you add those missing percentages up it results in 100% crap.

Sock puppet aliens, dreadful acting, horrible dialogue, ludicrous plot twists, and some of the most stale direction ever adds up to one of the worst examples of Doctor Who ever made. If I was tuning in to Doctor Who for the first time after hearing the news that the programme was being canceled, and Timelash is what I would have seen, then I would have wanted it banished, too.

6Y1 - Timelash 1

The timing of the original airing of Timelash, coming mere days after the furore of the near-cancellation at the hands of Michael Grade in 1985, could not have been worse. Anytime a television show, celebrity, or music act crosses the boundaries of the entertainment section in the newspapers and enters the mainstream news for whatever reason (usually bad), people flock to that entertainment entity to see what the fuss is about, whether or not they've been fans of said entity before.

With a flurry of new viewers tuning in to see why such a long running show like Doctor Who was being threatened with cancellation, Timelash (and this is putting it very politely) might not be the best choice for Exhibit A in the case for the defence of Doctor Who's cancellation. This next statement is equally as polite as I can make it: Episode One of Timelash is unrepentant garbage.

In a cavalcade of dreadful scenes and moments, the opening scene of the episode is, amazingly, still probably the worst. The Doctor and Peri, having made so many positive strides in their relationship over the past couple stories, are straight back to full on arguing. And it's not even an argument with a resolution. As Peri herself says, it is complete "aimless wandering", there simply to show that, yes, The Doctor and Peri do exist, but they are included here only because there is no point to have them in the story otherwise.

After all, there all the wonders of Karfel to take in. Karfel, by definition of the plot, may be the blandest, dullest place ever visited by The Doctor (twice, apparently). It's matte finish motif rubs off on the inhabitants of Karfel, or at least those who live in the Citadel (all 500 hundred of them, as Brunner so subtly informs the viewer early in Episode One). Most of the characters are terrible, veering from merely drab to impossibly poorly acted. Jeananne Crowley as Vena might, just might, have the staying power to unseat Rick James and Jenny Laird as the worst actor to ever appear in Doctor Who. Crowley stares blankly off camera during every line she weakly delivers, presumably being silently coached by a frantically waving floor assistant trying to get her to properly emphasize the right words while still maintaining a normal breathing pattern.

The script does no one any favours, but that's what happens when you employ an inexperienced writer-cum-ambulance driver to write a Doctor Who story. The episode is littered with painful moments. The first scene in the council chamber is full of hamfisted introductory dialogue such as lines like the afore-mentioned informal census taken by Brunner, but even more so when Mykros explains to Vena, who must surely know anyway, about "Karfel's former allies, the Bandrils". It's as if Glen McCoy, who must have wrote most of this script on a particularly slow midnight shift, isn't even attempting to weave the pre-history into the story. Just mention it - that is enough, in his eyes. Even the bafflingly unnecessary reference to The Doctor's prior visit to the planet during his third incarnation is handled poorly, and with no sense of any style or panache. No wonder Paul Darrow chose to blatantly (and, in context with what was going on around him, wonderfully) overact every time he's on camera (and even sometimes when he's not).

This lurid mess does have to be laid at the feet of The Unluckiest Director in the World, Pennant Roberts, though, whose direction is the only thing flatter and duller than the walls of the council chamber. Roberts was displeased with the script, fair enough, but he is completely going through the motions in this, his last Doctor Who directing job, perhaps accepting his lot after the previous two Doctor Who assignments turned out so badly. His decision to have three people applaud Maylin Renis's grand entrance was terribly misguided, as was the decision to sign off on Liz Parker's tepid music score.

It all adds up to one of the longest 45 minutes I've ever had to endure during this entire viewing marathon.

6W3 - The Two Doctors 3

My appreciation of The Two Doctors has completely changed over the years. As a teenager first watching this story for the first time, I was impressed with the relationship between the Doctors, I was in love with the Spanish countryside and cityscape of old Seville, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first ever glimpse of Patrick Troughton's Doctor.

Today, I'm still impressed with the relationship between the Doctors, I still adore the vistas of Spain, and I'm saddened at what was the last time that Patrick Troughton would play The Doctor. Troughton's Doctor was perhaps the most influential Doctor of them all, almost directly inspiring the performances of no less than four Doctors that followed him (including current Eleventh Doctor actor Matt Smith). His Doctor was also the most aloof, yet, at the same time, curiously accessible. Troughton appeared opposite four other Doctors in three stories after he left the role in 1969. No other actor's Doctor could mesh in with the other Doctors as Troughton's Doctor did in those stories. Can you imagine a multi-Doctor story with Tom Baker and William Hartnell and/or Richard Hurndall forming a double act? Jon Pertwee and Sylvester McCoy? No, because any other Doctor, particularly Pertwee and Baker, would be so keen to install themselves as the most dominant Doctor. That's not only a quality of the actors, but it's a characteristic of the Doctors whom they portrayed.

Troughton simultaneously played second fiddle and scene stealer in every scene he appeared in, which is what made him utterly brilliant. He also brings out the best in his fellow actors. You can tell that Colin Baker is clearly relishing every second of screen time with Troughton, who Baker has often called "his Doctor". And Troughton's Doctor makes Colin Baker's Doctor a much more likable person. Baker is tremendous in this story, and, knowing what was to come for his Doctor and his era, it makes watching his carefree bounding about the Spanish countryside all the more disappointing.

To be honest, though, it's the vegetarian theme of The Two Doctors that registered with me most on this viewing. I wasn't a vegetarian for the first few times I had seen this story, but I am now. I definitely don't want to get on a soapbox in this blog (and, no, I'm not a supporter of PETA or their methods), but the veggie theme here was just another brilliant piece of satire by Robert Holmes to make you watch a show decrying something that he didn't agree with while being entertained at the same time. Like Holmes's righteous, comedic anger at the invasion of privacy in Carnival of Monsters and the UK tax system in The Sun Makers, he very neatly deals with the perils of eating meat, something that was very important to him late in his life.

The fact that Shockeye was of a different species that humans (or, to use one of Holmes's favourite demonyms, Tellurians) makes his actions, and rampant lust to devour Jamie for lunch, as acceptable as any human being looking to sink his teeth into a lamb chop (to paraphrase The Rani). It therefore makes The Doctor's controversial killing of Shockeye near the end of Part Three just as understandable. The Doctor, his mobility severely hampered by a slash to the leg administered by Shockeye, who was chasing him with severe bloodlust on his mind, had no choice but to kill Shockeye in order to survive.

This scene is another example of the double standard that existed between the two Baker eras. In The Brain of Morbius, Tom Baker's Doctor not only kills Solon with cyanide, he doesn't even have the guts to do it while in the same room as the mad scientist. No one bats an eye. Colin Baker's Doctor kills Shockeye with cyanide in a fight for survival, and he is dealt yet another blow in the public character assassination going on at the time. It was just another round of ammo in Michael Grade's increasingly loaded gun.

Neither the character attack nor the cancellation (sorry - hiatus) were deserved, but then, that's the Colin Baker era in a nutshell, isn't it?