Category: Patrick Troughton

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.

Review: Stephen Baxter, The Wheel Of Ice

Usually, fans have to be wildly optimistic, if not delusional, to expect quality literature from a line of authorized tie-in novels to a science-fiction TV series. But in recent years, the editors behind the Doctor Who books have been making an effort to overcome skeptics by snaring acclaimed science-fiction authors like Michael Moorcock, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter to put their own stamp on the adventures of the time-traveling vagabond. Baxter tells a new story about an old Doctor with The Wheel Of Ice, which features Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in an adventure set during the TV show’s sixth season, in 1969.

Baxter earned his reputation for the rigorously constructed hard-SF Xeelee Sequence books, but he’s no stranger to happily jumping on someone else’s train—besides his recent collaboration with Terry Pratchett on The Long Earth, he’s written an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and co-authored a trilogy set after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter takes the TARDIS controls with similar respect for the original source material, which is one of The Wheel Of Ice’s chief strengths. Troughton was Baxter’s childhood Doctor, and Baxter’s enthusiasm for the era is palpable. The book fits his serious approach to emphasizing the science in “science fiction” particularly well—although the Second Doctor era was hardly rigorous about that sort of thing, its enthusiasm for futuristic ideas like space travel was based in part on the idea that someday, humanity’s real future might look like the one it was showing us. Baxter’s Xeelee stories are filled with well-thought-out, sometimes arcane explorations of astrophysics and xenobiology, and although he tones that down to a less mind-bending degree with Wheel, it’s good to see some thought put into Doctor Who’s alien worlds beyond the superficial, timey-wimey, hand-waving level the series often settles for.

Wheel hits the ground running with an engaging, breezy first half, as the Doctor investigates an enigmatic, dangerous hole in time near the Wheel, a mining base orbiting Saturn. In spite of the exotic setting, his Companions Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon quickly feel at home—the former because she grew up on a similar space station and the Wheel is actually part of her own history, and the latter because the Wheel is populated by Scots like himself, with whom he feels a strong camaraderie, even though they were born hundreds of years after he was. But all is not well. The harsh conditions on Saturn are made worse by the profit-motivated tyranny of the Wheel’s corporate masters. That, in turn, is causing grumblings of revolt from the station’s young people and working poor, along with mysterious, deadly acts of sabotage. In classic Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor and friends are falsely accused of the crimes upon their arrival, and must find the real culprits: android-like “Blue Dolls” who serve the same alien entity responsible for the hole in time. That being, called Arkive, is older than the solar system, and aches for the days of its youth in a way that’s more than a little insane, not to mention hostile toward the unsuspecting humans it thinks of as usurpers.

Baxter nails one of the basic elements of any book like this one, capturing the voices of his three main characters with such precision that Troughton is almost audible in the Doctor’s lines. Baxter is especially good at seeing through Zoe and Jamie’s perspectives, going beyond using them as placeholder heroes, and getting at what makes them tick. Jamie’s rugged heroism and desire to protect people comes to the fore when he shepherds a group of young rebels who flee to a nearby ice moon. And Zoe has to confront the unsavory side of her own history as she learns that her own advanced civilization was founded on the near-slavery conditions on the Wheel. Baxter has mixed success with his secondary characters, creating a compellingly well-rounded portrait of a family divided by the growing political revolt, but an annoyingly one-dimensional shrew in the book’s main human antagonist, Florian Hart, a corporate greedmonger oozing with angry contempt.

Still, the first half of Wheel Of Ice is tremendously promising, setting up a smart, engaging mystery that feels like a genuine artifact of 1969 Doctor Who. That only makes it more frustrating that the second half is botched so badly by an underwhelming finale. Baxter seems to lose interest entirely in Arkive’s aeons-long scheme in favor of a hackneyed confrontation with Hart involving some truly hoary clichéconcerning a ticking time bomb and the color of the wire that should be cut to defuse it. Worse, genius-astrophysicist Zoe has no part in the resolution; Baxter sidelines her so she can babysit a 3-year-old. It’s a disappointing fumble to an otherwise satisfying read.

Originally published Jan. 14, 2013 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 Seeds Of Death”

“The Seeds Of Death” (season 6, episodes 23-28. Originally aired Jan. 25-March 1, 1969)

As much as I like “The Seeds Of Death” as pure entertainment, I’m not sure there’s all that much to say about the story on a deeper level, because that’s really its biggest flaw: It’s kind of a low-budget late-‘60s British TV version of a Michael Bay movie, geared to deliver thrills and spectacle but not particularly interested in whether the story being told actually means anything beyond “bad guys threaten good guys, who defeat bad guys.”

That was kind of a problem with the Second Doctor era in general, which was far less wide-ranging in the kinds of stories it told than First Doctor-era Doctor Who, coming to rely on alien-invasion plots to the point where there’s a widely used shorthand phrase in Who fandom to cover this period’s signature subgenre: the “base under siege” story, in which an isolated outpost of humans is menaced by some monster or monster from beyond. It’s a classic format not unique to this show by any means—it’s also the driver of Alien, Night Of The Living Dead, and Assault On Precinct 13, to give three of my favorite examples—but the Troughton era came to rely on it as its bread-and-butter, overusing it to the point of exhaustion. And while “The Seeds Of Death” is intriguingly forward-thinking in a couple of respects, ultimately it feels like it settled for less than it could have achieved. The series as a whole wasn’t quite so unambitious—we’ve already looked at two other stories from season six, “The Mind Robber” and “The War Games,” both of which were more complex and rewarding than this one. But I think that the superficial emphasis on thrills and chills in “Seeds Of Death” was, unfortunately, more typical of this era, and maybe indicative of why the series came close to cancellation during this season, before the drastic overhaul in season seven that brought in the Third Doctor.

Originally published March 18, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The War Games, episodes 6-10

“The War Games,” episodes 6-10 (season 6, episodes 40-44. Originally aired May 24-June 21, 1969)

It’s tempting to skip ahead and dive right into the final episode of “The War Games,” since it casts the longest shadow over Doctor Who‘s future evolution. The War Lords may be in all 10 episodes of the story, but they never return to the series, and the Time Lords do—even now when they’re all dead or missing, the Doctor’s guilt and loneliness over their absence is a crucial element of his character. And just in the interest of keeping this relatively short, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on episodes six through nine, even though there’s a lot of interest happening in that penultimate section of the serial, as the long arc of the War Zones story enters its final phase.

In a way, “War Games” recapitulates in miniature Doctor Who‘s development over its first six seasons—beginning by dropping the Doctor and his companions into (what appears to be, but isn’t really) a horrifyingly real and deadly historical story before slowly shifting into more familiarly strange and psychedelic sci-fi territory. And since that’s actually where the Doctor is more comfortable, it ‘s maybe not surprising that his actions against the War Zones’ alien masters grow bolder and more effective as things progress. In fact, the major tension in the story during this section isn’t really about whether the Doctor will win, even though there are a few times he appears to be in deadly peril or imminent defeat. It’s about the growing dissension in the ranks of the villains, as the distrust between the Security Chief and War Chief boils over and the renegade Time Lord turns out to have different objectives than his alien allies. (This feeds into the “is he really the Master?” question, which I’ll get into a little later.)

Originally published Dec. 4 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The War Games, episodes 1-5

“The War Games,” episodes 1-5 (season 6, episodes 35-39; originally aired 4/19-5/17/1969)

At the end of the 1960s, Doctor Who was in the throes of its second major crisis, and so by extension was the Doctor himself. After three years, Patrick Troughton had decided he wanted to try other things, which meant that for the second time, the show would need to figure out how to get along without its lead actor. That in itself wasn’t such a devastating problem, since William Hartnell’s departure in “The Tenth Planet” had led to Doctor Who’s uniquely freeing solution to the problem of change, the concept that the Doctor periodically regenerates into a wholly new body with a new personality. The problem was that this time, the show itself was on the rocks. Ratings were way down—from 12 million for “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” to 3.5 million for the least-watched episode of “The War Games,” episode eight—and there was general agreement that something major had to change, beyond even another regeneration, if Doctor Who was going to survive.

“The War Games”—the last appearance of the Second Doctor as the lead character of the show—was not meant as the story that would solve Who’s problems, or even set up that solution. Just the opposite. By the time Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke wrote the script, the producers had already figured out how to reinvent the series: The Third Doctor would be exiled to Earth starting with season seven’s “Spearhead From Space,” which would allow the show to use familiar modern-day settings to a) bring in greater relevance and sophistication to the storylines, and b) be made more cheaply. And the necessary groundwork for the Doctor joining UNIT had been laid down in “The Invasion” earlier in season six. So “The War Games” didn’t have to worry about any of that—instead, its focus is on capping off the Second Doctor era itself, and ending his story in such a way that justified the radical changes of the next season. To that end, Dicks and Hulke confronted the Doctor with a situation that was a dark mirror of his own habit of interfering in the natural course of history, and what’s more, was too much for him to handle. The Doctor fails, and he’s forced to face the consequences of his failure when he’s caught and put on trial by the Time Lords, the people he’s been running away from since before the series began.

Originally published Nov. 20, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Invasion” (Episodes 5-8)

“The Invasion” (season 6, episodes 15-19; originally aired Nov. 2-Dec. 21, 1968)

There is a void at the heart of “The Invasion” that wasn’t completely apparent to me while watching the first half of the story last week. I’m talking about the story’s marquee villains, of course: The Cybermen, who are absent for basically the entire first four episodes of this particularly epic-length serial, turn out in the second half to be a squadron of robot MacGuffins, and not actually the story’s real antagonists. As I should have realized (especially since I’ve seen the story a couple of times before, though not for several years), “The Invasion” is really a story about Tobias Vaughn, the man who arrogantly and hubristically makes a devil’s bargain with a force he ultimately cannot control—and on the other side of the coin, it’s a groundwork-laying introduction to the UNIT era. With only minor rewriting, the Cybermen could have been replaced by any number of invading alien forces—in fact, that’s basically what happens in the next UNIT story, “Spearhead From Space.”

Alfred Hitchcock, you might remember, coined the term “MacGuffin” to refer to an element in a story that catalyzes the characters into action but isn’t necessarily an active part of the plot itself. Usually, it’s an object, like the letters of transit in Casablanca. But the Cybermen are so reactive in this story that I think they qualify as well.

The reason I forgot how little “The Invasion” is about the Cybermen, of course, is that what little screen time they do get includes several of the most iconic moments they have in the whole of Doctor Who. They have their moments here, but they are literally just moments—brief scenes that became part of the visual lore of the Cybermen across the show’s history. Some of these were themselves callbacks to earlier appearances—the awakened Cyberman bursting out of its metal container evokes a similar scene in “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” as does the moment when one of them grabs Jamie’s ankle as he climbs up from the sewer tunnels.

Originally published Oct. 9, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Invasion” (Episodes 1-4)

“The Invasion” (season 6, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Nov. 2-Dec. 21, 1968)

Doctor Who in the 1960s often made wild swings in tone from one serial to the next, but there’s few transitions quite as drastic as the one between the whimsical, surreal fantasyland of “The Mind Robber” and the stylish, modern action thriller of “The Invasion.” And the two shows were opposites in another way too: “The Mind Robber” was a side trip into a cul-de-sac, a fascinating but ultimately abandoned celebration of Doctor Who as pure childrens’-literature fantasy, which its creative staff knew was on the way out even while they were making it. But “The Invasion” was the future, in a very consciously planned way. Teaming the Doctor with the no-nonsense Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his anti-alien military taskforce UNIT, and taking place in (more-or-less) contemporary London, “The Invasion” was essentially a proof-of-concept trial run for the grittier, more grounded Earthbound stories that dominated Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s era. It’s therefore both fitting and ironic that the villains here are the Cybermen, Doctor Who’s most potent symbol of modern technology run amok, since they never actually faced off against the Third Doctor when the UNIT era became official.

Clocking in at eight parts, “The Invasion” is one of the longest stories in Who history. (And because of that, I’m splitting my writeup into two columns, with the second part coming next week.) The sheer length is undoubtedly the story’s biggest flaw, because there’s no real reason why it requires the equivalent running time of two feature films. I can’t say I was ever bored watching these first four episodes, which counts in their favor, but there’s an awful lot of contrivance, drawn-out scenes, and running back and forth between locations with one group of characters just missing the other group. A more ruthless script could have done the same thing in half the time.

Originally published Oct. 2, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Mind Robber”

“The Mind Robber” (season 6, episodes 6-10. Originally aired Sept. 14-Oct. 12, 1968)

The great thing about Doctor Who‘s format is its flexibility, something that the program took far more advantage of in its early days than it does now. The TARDIS can take you anywhere in time and space, which means that it’s child’s play to segue between a Wild West gunfight, a moonbase threatened by malevolent cyborgs, and the bloody murk of the French Revolution. In doing so, the show didn’t just change settings, it changed genres, most often between straight-up science fiction adventure and historical costume drama. Especially in the William Hartnell era, Doctor Who often pushed as far as it could from the science-fiction underpinnings that made its genre-hopping possible. But “The Mind Robber” takes the show somewhere farther than it’s ever gone—not just out of its physical universe, but out of its storytelling universe, and into the overarching nature of fiction itself. At the time, that didn’t sit well with its viewers, many of whom were confused and irritated by what they saw as an unnecessarily silly and fantasy-laced premise. But the reputation of “The Mind Robber” has, quite deservedly, grown over time. No serial so closely embraces Doctor Who‘s roots as children’s literature, with the possible exception of Hartnell’s “The Celestial Toymaker.” And yet, “The Mind Robber” is also one of the series’ most genre-breaking and forward-thinking stories. If it’s sometimes sloppy and doesn’t make total sense, that actually has the weird effect of strengthening what’s at the heart of the tale: This is a story about the Doctor in which the main threat is to the Doctor’s ongoing narrative itself.ways, from helping to define the Doctor by defining who his enemies are, to establishing a tradition of dramatically revealing a serial’s main villain as the cliffhanger of its first episode.

Originally published Aug. 7, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Tomb of the Cybermen”

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (series 5, episodes 1-4; originally aired 9/2/1967-9/23/1967)

We’re jumping forward in time for the second installment of this look back at the early days of Doctor Who, and much like a certain drifting Time Lord, I’m not able to land exactly where I’d really like to. My plan for the first eight of these writeups is to visit the debut episode of each actor to play the Doctor, but history has conspired against me. Many of the episodes from the black-and-white of the show are gone, erased by the BBC so they could re-use the videotape—this was considered disposable entertainment, and nothing that would be of any lasting interest or marketability. Copies of some of those shows were rediscovered later, including the one we’re about to dive into, but a large portion of the shows starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor exist today only as still pictures, scripts, and audio. Troughton’s entire first season is affected by this, so I’ve opted to spring ahead to the start of his second season (the show’s fifth overall), for his earliest complete serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen.”

For a long time, “Tomb” enjoyed a reputation as one of the triumphs of this era of Doctor Who, but this was while the show was still missing, and fans were basing their opinions mainly on memory. Its flaws are awfully apparent today, with huge gaps in story logic and some really unfortunate racial stereotyping, but it has plenty of good moments as well.

Chief among the good bits is the solid performance by Troughton, whose new take on the Doctor was by this point firmly established. And it’s still the dominant one, particularly now that Matt Smith has based a lot of his Eleventh Doctor specifically on Troughton’s Second. That’s partly due to Troughton’s undeniable talent—he’s always watchable and often fascinatingly subtle, even when the stories themselves don’t hold up.

Originally published June 12, 2011 on Read the complete article.

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