Category: Sylvester McCoy

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

“The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” (season 25, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Dec. 14, 1988-Jan. 4, 1989)

It’s not a good sign when the first thing that pops up on screen is a cornball, embarrassingly dated rapper who talks up how wonderful the rest of the show is going to be, like a high-school principal trying desperately to get in touch with youth culture without really knowing what he’s doing. But I suppose the Rappin’ Ringmaster didn’t seem quite so terrible when “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” was originally broadcast, at the tail end of Sylvester McCoy’s second season as the Seventh Doctor. Which is also, at least where I’m coming from as a viewer, something that can be said about the Seventh Doctor era in general. This period of the show has plenty of champions among Doctor Who fans, not just among the Internetigentsia, but pretty clearly in the ranks of the folks who make new Doctor Who shows today; I think it’s safe to say that the spirit of seasons 24-26 has had a greater influence on Russell T. Davies’ and Steven Moffat’s versions of the show than anything that came before. When you look at this era in the context of the long and tortuous evolution of Doctor Who as a series, there’s a lot to admire, with a plethora of ambitious ideas and creative energy. “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” is a great showcase of this trend, showing a significant and progressive improvement over the disaster of the Sixth Doctor era. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to warm to this era, certainly not to the extent of the sizable number of fans who call it the zenith of classic-era Doctor Who. Because for all they were doing right here, it too often feels thin and amateurish, with potentially good concepts too often marred by sloppy thinking, lame execution, and tacky gimmickry. At its worst, it makes me feel a little mortified to be a Doctor Who fan in the first place. Exhibit A: the Rappin’ Ringmaster.

So, with that said: what were they doing right here? Most importantly, the sour and misanthropic stories favored by previous script editor Eric Saward were history. Andrew Cartmel’s vision of Doctor Who was more hopeful, more whimsical, and much more fun. It aimed, I think, for the bantery, light-hearted approach that typified the best of the Fourth Doctor/Romana seasons, not coincidentally the last time the series had pulled in large ratings. The show also leaned more heavily on the fantasy side of science-fantasy, which is particularly apparent in “Greatest Show In The Galaxy”: With its reliance on mysticism and allegory, and especially its tres-1980s fixation on the broken, corrupted legacy of the 1960s counterculture, this serial wouldn’t be at all out of place next to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Originally published Nov. 11, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Ghost Light

“Ghost Light” (season 26, episodes 5-7. Originally aired Oct. 4-18, 1989)

“Ghost Light” has a fitting title: It was the last Doctor Who serial to be filmed before the show was cancelled. (The last story broadcast was “Survival,” but it went before the cameras before “Ghost Light” did.) After this, except for one brief, tragic misfire, Doctor Who really did become a ghost, doomed to wander the earth as a forgotten-cult-TV spectre in the form of quasi-canonical novels and radiodramas until the day it would finally, like its hero, regenerate into a new form.

That title is also pretty ironic, considering that “Ghost Light” has a well-earned reputation as the murkiest, most difficult Doctor Who story ever televised. What begins as a mysterious Victorian ghost story shot through with surreal images and an array of insane characters to rival Alice In Wonderland swings wildly into a sci-fi tale about ancient aliens and evolution, refusing to make it easy to figure out how everything connects. Even the BBC’s official website for the story suggests that “in order to appreciate fully what’s going on it is probably necessary to watch ‘Ghost Light’ two or three times.” Naturally that’s made “Ghost Light” awfully divisive; its proponents suggest that there’s a brilliant story to be cherished here if you’re only willing to work to solve the puzzle that writer Marc Platt lays out. The other school grumbles that if it’s a puzzle, it’s still missing too many pieces to be properly solved, and it’s only a puzzle because the script does such a poor job of explaining anything. That’s compounded by post-production problems that reduce comprehensibility even further, including a bad sound mix that renders some dialogue totally inaudible, and drastic editing to make it fit the three-episode running time. I lean toward the second school.

Originally published Aug. 19, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Remembrance Of The Daleks

“Remembrance Of The Daleks” (season 25, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Oct. 5-26, 1988)

Even when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—perhaps especially when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—it’s awfully dangerous to go messing around with the established history that helps create its central premise, particularly when the show has built up 25 seasons’ worth of continuity baggage in the interim. So the sheer audacity of what “Remembrance Of The Daleks” tries to do by revisiting the time and place of the Doctor’s earliest-known adventure is little short of breathtaking once you realize what the writers are up to: Redefining the reason why the Doctor fled his home planet all those years ago, and thus implicitly suggesting that he’s never quite been the person we thought he was.

That’s the kind of thing that can completely wreck a series from within, and it’s a credit to writer Ben Aaronovich and script editor Andrew Cartmel that the gamble works as well as it does. Whether it was a good idea to have tried in the first place is, I think, debatable. But let’s come back to that later; there’s a lot happening in “Remembrance Of The Daleks,” and I shouldn’t jump too far ahead.

First, a little bit about where we are in the series right now: “Remembrance” kicks off season 25, the second year of Sylvester McCoy’s run as the Seventh Doctor, which began in the aftermath of the utterly disastrous “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc two years earlier when both script editor Eric Saward and star Colin Baker had both abruptly left or been forced out, ending Doctor Who’s most unwatchable era. Producer John Nathan-Turner (who somewhat surprisingly still had his job) brought in McCoy and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, to rejuvenate the series and find some new, more palatable direction. And although McCoy’s introduction, “Time And The Rani,” was unpromisingly silly and vapid, Doctor Who did improve, though it took the show the better part of the next season to find its feet. Ratings were still way down, and Doctor Who would wind up cancelled two years later anyway—but on the whole, the final two seasons were smarter, better-written, and more full of ambitious ideas than Doctor Who had been in years. They weren’t always able to actually achieve those high ambitions, hampered by Cartmel’s inexperience and the show’s low budget, but even the failures here are more compelling than the best stuff from the years immediately prior.

Originally published Aug. 5, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Curse of Fenric”

“The Curse Of Fenric” (season 26, episodes 8-11; originally aired 10/25-11/15/1989)

“The Curse Of Fenric,” like many Doctor Who stories, is about a battle to stop an impending apocalypse. It was also close to an apocalypse for Doctor Who in real life: This was the second-to-last story the series aired before its cancellation. And that was a real shame—because while “The Curse Of Fenric” isn’t brilliant or even much above average, it does represent a huge improvement over the embarrassing mess of the Sixth Doctor’s seasons 22 and 23, and one which provided a clear direction for the current revival.

“Curse Of Fenric” also shows how Doctor Who’s greatest strength, its ability to reinvent itself, wasn’t limited to a change in lead actor, but was driven by behind-the-scenes changes in production staff—in this case, by the addition of the classic-era series’ final script editor, Andrew Cartmel. Cartmel and Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, came on board at the same time, in the wake of a catastrophic meltdown that had resulted in, among other things, previous star Colin Baker getting fired. Their first season, led off by “Time And The Rani,” wasn’t much of an improvement, but Cartmel and McCoy both pushed for changes and received, by their third and final season, a pretty solid reinvention anchored by a new take on the Seventh Doctor—the comic buffoonery of “Time And The Rani” was downplayed, with McCoy now portraying a slightly bumbling but ultimately wise and mysterious near-mystical figure who acted as surrogate father to his spirited but troubled companion Ace (Sophie Aldred).

Originally published Feb. 19, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Time and the Rani”

“Time and the Rani” (season 24, episodes 1-4; originally aired 9/7/1987-9/28/1987)

By the time the Seventh Doctor rolled around, Doctor Who was probably already in a death spiral, weakened by years of cumulative creative gaffes, schedule changes, and growing hostility from the BBC brass. By now, they were making shorter seasons on a smaller budget, and I suspect the show was only kept on the air because the Beeb needed a sacrificial lamb to program against Coronation Street, the most popular soap opera of its day. The previous year’s season-spanning “Trial of a Time Lord” had ended in backstage disaster. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes died with the final episode unfinished. Script editor Eric Saward quit, incumbent Doctor Colin Baker was fired, and both complained bitterly in the press. Producer John Nathan-Turner also wanted to leave, and had made a deal to move on to a more prestigious show in exchange for firing Baker. Since he thought he was out the door, he didn’t try to hire their replacements and made no plans for the upcoming season. Which came back to bite him when the BBC decided to make him stay on Doctor Who after all, a decision that seems a little mystifying to me because everything I’ve read suggests that JNT was largely responsible for almost every change in the 1980s that made the show worse.

Originally published July 17, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Primer: Doctor Who

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rise and fall and rise again of Britain’s venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 101

An icon of modern British culture and the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, Doctor Who has never been more popular than it is today, thanks to producer Russell T. Davies, whose revitalization of the series returns this month under the aegis of new producer Steven Moffatt. Matt Smith, taking over the title role from David Tennant, will become the 11th actor to officially play the time-traveling wanderer.

The original series ran for 26 seasons, each consisting of several feature-length serials broken into half-hour episodes with cliffhanger endings. No matter who’s playing the lead, the basic premise has been essentially the same since the show’s debut: A mysterious, eccentric alien known only as The Doctor (not “Doctor Who,” in spite of the title) travels through time and space having adventures and fighting evil. He’s usually accompanied by one or two humans picked up along the way. They journey with him in a time machine called a TARDIS, which looks like a blue phone booth. If grievously wounded (especially by that fatal condition “actor-quits-itis”), he can regenerate his entire body, gaining a new face, a new personality, and a new name at the top of the cast list in the credits. This has also given the show an easy way to make more sweeping stylistic changes to evolve with changing times, and a way to correct elements after they go stale or otherwise become unworkable. In fact, it’s become expected that a regeneration of The Doctor will also regenerate the whole show. (Fans generally know each Doctor by the order in which they were introduced, so William Hartnell, who originated the role, is the First Doctor, and newcomer Matt Smith is the Eleventh.)

Originally published on April 8, 2010. Read the complete article.

WordPress Themes

Spam prevention powered by Akismet