TV Club: Doctor Who, The Deadly Assassin

“The Deadly Assassin” (season 14, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Oct. 30-Nov. 20, 1976)

This is one of the giants, one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who. In terms of influence on the rest of the series, “The Deadly Assassin” is almost unsurpassed, establishing much about the Doctor and his homeworld that reverberates through subsequent seasons, from the legendary figure of Rassilon to the concept of artron energy, the quasi-radiation that the Doctor picks up from traveling through the Time Vortex in the TARDIS. The first extended look inside the society of the Time Lords, “Deadly Assassin” showed a much more human side to them, full of flaws and hypocrisy and corruption that explained much about why the Doctor ran away in the first place. It was also a significant step forward, maybe even a culmination, in his long struggle to achieve independence from their control and meddling in his life. Nothing would ever be the same again.

It doesn’t hurt that “Deadly Assassin” is so well-crafted all around, starting with the smart, slyly satiric script by the great Robert Holmes that plays off political thrillers, noirs, and espionage/conspiracy movies (especially The Manchurian Candidate) and restages the Kennedy assassination on Gallifrey, with the Doctor caught in a trap that casts him as Lee Harvey Oswald. Director David Maloney also has more than his share of Doctor Who classics to his name, including “The Mind Robber,” “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” but I don’t think he ever topped the tense, surreal, and nearly dialogue-free sequence set in the virtual-reality Matrix that takes up around a third of the running time here.

Originally published Oct. 28, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Three Doctors

“The Three Doctors” (season 10, episodes 1-4; originally aired 12/30/1972-1/20/1973)

On paper, “The Three Doctors” seems like it should be a lot better than it is. Kicking off the show’s 10th season, it celebrated Doctor Who’s anniversary by bringing together all three of the actors who’d played the mysterious traveler up to that point, and set them loose in an adventure together for the first time, and one that lifted the veil on the history of his people, the Time Lords. It also advanced one of the series’ longest-running plot points when, in thanks for saving their bacon, the Time Lords lifted the last vestiges of his criminal conviction from season six’s “The War Games,” allowing him to travel freely through time and space on his own for the first time since the program had still been filmed in black-and-white.

And I did enjoy it when I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s more than I do now, so it’s good to remember that what works for an audience in one age range might misfire for an older one—but the best of Doctor Who, I think, works for all its fans across the board. “The Three Doctors” has its good points, but on the whole it’s a disappointment, with a lackluster story and unimaginative production values that are merely adequate even by the forgiving standards by which classic-era Doctor Who must be judged. Sure, it’s not an embarrassing train wreck like “The Twin Dilemma,” which sinks so low because it’s weighed down with such a stunning array of bad ideas. But that just highlights the major problem with “The Three Doctors” again: It has some good ideas in it, but they’re treated with such an unambitious lack of imagination that there’s not enough actually happening here for the story to be offensively bad—just boring.

Originally published Oct. 14, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Romans

“The Romans” (season 2, episodes 12-15. Originally aired Jan. 16-Feb. 6, 1965)

Doctor Who was never more willing to experiment with different kinds of stories than during its first couple of seasons, which jumped from the post-apocalyptic monsters of “The Daleks” to the 13th-century historical epic “Marco Polo” to the futuristic sci-fi of “The Sensorites” and back to history again, but with a more farcical touch, in “The Romans.” Partly this was because it was a good idea to try a varied approach, since nobody was sure yet what fit the show best, but it was also a conscious choice by producer Verity Lambert and the show’s first two script editors, David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner. “The Romans” is a historical story like “Marco Polo” and “The Aztecs,” but differs in one crucial respect: It’s less interested in the history for its own sake than using it as a backdrop for thrills and comedy.

It’s pretty clear that by this point in the series, four stories into the second season, the original idea that Doctor Who should provide both entertainment and lessons in history and science was going by the wayside, if not almost entirely gone. Spooner, who not only wrote this story but made his unofficial debut as script editor here, is not particularly careful with his facts about ancient Roman life, changing Nero’s age (he was in his mid-20s, not middle-aged) and embracing the legend that he was personally responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, in both cases because it lets him tell the story he wanted to tell instead of, y’know, what actually happened. Not that I have any big problem with that; Doctor Who isn’t exactly a documentary, and it’s not something the series was ever very committed to even at the start.

Originally published Sept. 30, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Seeds Of Doom

“The Seeds Of Doom” (season 13, episodes 21-26; originally aired Jan. 31-March 6, 1976)

Horror and good old-fashioned scariness have always been a big part of Doctor Who’s appeal. The standard joke in the early ’60s was that kids watched the show from behind the sofa, not on it, for fear of the Daleks. The Silence and the Weeping Angels serve the same function today. But in seasons 12 to 14, the early years of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, the series made horror a driving force. The show started to push at the boundaries of what you could get away with in family-friendly TV, with a focus on the intensity of the violence and the creep factor that echoed Hammer Studios movies. It had the desired effect of getting attention, good and bad—ratings went up, but so did complaints from censorious conservatives. That was a primary factor in why the BBC broke up the creative team after season 14, packing off producer Philip Hinchcliffe to take over crime series Target, with script editor Robert Holmes leaving soon after. But it was a great ride while it lasted—out of the 17 serials made in these three years, I’d call 10 absolute classics, and none of the remainder are less than watchable and entertaining.

And “The Seeds Of Doom” is one of the greats. A tightly written and directed horror/thriller about an alien weed called a Krynoid, it’s anchored by a great performance by Baker that capitalizes on the rapid mood swings and charismatic intensity of his Doctor to underscore the atmosphere of unearthly danger with grim hints of what he knows but isn’t telling us about Krynoids, and then to work as his own comic relief with a zinger and a toothy smile that lightens the mood without letting you forget there’s an apocalypse blooming in the garden.

Originally published Sept. 16, 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.

R.I.P. Mary Tamm, Doctor Who’s Romana

British actress Mary Tamm, known for playing the first incarnation of Romana during Doctor Who’s “Key To Time” season in 1978 and 1979, has died of cancer. She was 62.

The child of Estonian refugees, Tamm graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, starting her career in the early 1970s with appearances in British TV shows like Coronation Street, as well as the films The Odessa File and The Likely Lads. She joined Doctor Who in the sci-fi series’ sixteenth-season opener “The Ribos Operation” as the haughty but inexperienced Time Lady Romanadvotrelundar—”Romana” for short—who was assigned to help the Doctor search for the six segments of the Key to Time, a missing artifact with vast cosmic powers. Her character made an effective foil for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, contrasting against his bohemian, devil-may-care personality with an icy sophistication of her own, and matching his arrogance and high-wattage charisma with often-superior intelligence and competence—not to mention a healthy disdain for her older colleague’s eccentricities.

Tamm also played Romana’s doppelganger, Princess Strella, in the season’s fourth serial, “The Androids Of Tara.” But Tamm was unhappy that the format of Doctor Who kept its focus tightly on its title character and didn’t allow for his companions to rival the Doctor in importance, and she left the show after the season finale, “The Armageddon Factor.” Her character was assumed in the following season by a new actress, Lalla Ward (who would later marry Baker).

After Doctor Who, Tamm was seen regularly in British TV dramas including Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Paradise Heights, Wire In The Blood, and EastEnders. Like many other Doctor Who series regulars, she returned to reprise her character in audio dramas produced by Big Finish, including a series of six new serials with Tom Baker that will be released next year.

Originally published July 27, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Black Orchid

“Black Orchid” (season 19, episodes 17-18. Originally aired March 1-2, 1982)

The most succinct description of what sets “Black Orchid” apart from the rest of Doctor Who is that it’s the last of the “pure historicals”—that is, a tale that is set in the past, taking advantage of the Doctor’s ability to travel through time, but otherwise not involving any science-fictional element. In fact, it’s not only the last of them but a weird anomaly, because this is the kind of story that Doctor Who simply stopped doing at all very early in its run. The pure historical is almost entirely an artifact of William Hartnell’s First Doctor era, when the show not only hewed closer to its original mission to educate as well as entertain, but had a much broader conception of what kind of stories Doctor Who should be trying to tell.

I’ve noted before that one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that its format allows it to drop into not just any time or place, but any genre, any kind of story. The Doctor can appear in the middle of a pastiche on Victorian pulp fiction or Frankenstein movies or Asimov’s robot tales, swashbuckle with pirates or match wits with Emperor Nero, teach cavemen the secret of fire or carry the Olympic torch. After the pure historical died out, though, whenever the series played around with other genres, it followed a basic rule: Whatever kind of story the Doctor drops into, it’s always warped into a Doctor Who version of that story. “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” for instance, tweaks the standard format of an Agatha Christie mystery by sandwiching it between Doctor Who’s science-fiction elements—the Doctor replaces the traditional detective figure, and a giant alien wasp replaces the traditional Christie killer. “Talons Of Weng-Chiang” does the same thing with the Sherlock Holmes/Fu Manchu style of late-1800s adventure fiction. But the sci-fi element is always there—without it, you don’t really have a Doctor Who story at all. In the Hartnell era, the pure historicals were the exception to that rule, but that loophole was closed quickly and firmly after Patrick Troughton took over the lead role in season four: His second serial, 1966’s “The Highlanders,” was the last time history would trump science fiction in a Doctor Who story.

Except once.

Originally published July 22, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Revelation Of The Daleks

“Revelation Of The Daleks” (season 22, episodes 13-14. Originally aired March 23-30, 1985)

The thing about Eric Saward, who wrote this script and helped set the tone of Doctor Who overall as script editor during much of the Fifth and all of the Sixth Doctor eras, is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether he actually liked Doctor Who at all. The worldview he brings to the show is so grim and bleak, so full of pointless violence and brutal ugliness and repugnant imagery, and so insistent on presenting the Doctor and his companions as incompetent and basically useless, that it can feel like he was deliberately trying to torpedo the whole concept of the series from inside.

And I think to some extent that’s true: Especially in Britain, early-‘80s sci-fi was full of dark, nilihistic, punk-influenced satire that spit on the utopian idealism of the 1960s and sneered at the future, which a lot of us thought was disquietingly likely to end in nuclear holocaust. Uncomplicated heroism and optimistic outlooks weren’t fashionable, and even though Doctor Who had never been merely that kind of simplistic adventure show, it always changed with the times, and it makes sense that it should have gone in the direction of Terry Gilliam, Repo Man, The Road Warrior and 2000 AD when that was the trend.

And so in season 22, we got a Doctor Who replete with black-comedy elements like “Vengeance On Varos,” which skewered capitalism, violence-crazed media and the passive complacency they create in their citizens; the pro-vegetarian “The Two Doctors,” which briefly turned Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor into a cannibal; and the season-ending “Revelation Of The Daleks,” which takes aim at consumerism, fear of death and the hypocrisies they create in us—the shoddy way we sometimes treat the memory of the deceased, and our tendency to ignore the unpleasant side of how our food and the other things we buy are actually made. (In other words: Meat-is-murder cannibalism again.) And it has a twist ending that, at least as an idea, is truly shocking and puts a knife in the heart of one of Doctor Who’s core concepts.

Sounds great, right? Yeah, not so much. The problem is that Eric Saward is simply not a strong enough writer to pull this off, failing to provide the clever dialogue, well-thought-out underlying concepts or basic plot mechanics that might have made this work, and also apparently actively hostile to the notion that anyone in Doctor Who, or watching it, should be having any fun. (Quite literally: At the end of the story, Peri begs the Doctor to take her “somewhere fun,” and he reacts as if he thinks it’s the stupidest idea he’s ever heard.) Like far too much of the series during this period, “Revelation Of The Daleks” is a grim, depressing slog. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this was the last serial broadcast before Doctor Who was forced into an 18-month hiatus by BBC executives who had grown hostile to it.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Gareth Roberts/Douglas Adams, Shada

Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.

Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.

Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.

Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

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