Category: Peter Davison

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 Caves Of Androzani

“The Caves Of Androzani” (season 21, episodes 17-20. Originally aired March 8-16, 1984.)

Across all his incarnations, the Doctor’s character has always stayed true to a few core traits, perhaps none more so than his restless, insatiable curiosity and wanderlust. He’s a traveler, winding his way around the universe on a flightplan drawn up with no grand scheme in mind other than to see the next new thing. He rarely knows where he’s going, and rarely plans ahead. He just steps out of the ship and looks around. And from the beginning, that has always gotten him into trouble. Which is only to be expected. That’s the basic setup of the whole show: He arrives somewhere, he gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble, and he leaves. It’d be a pretty boring show without the middle bit. But still: It’s a dangerous universe out there. You’d have to be foolish to go out there without a plan, armed with nothing but your wits. And you’d have to be criminally reckless to take people with you. One of the things that makes “The Caves Of Androzani” great is that it cuts to the heart of this problem and brutally critiques it. Here, the Doctor gets himself and his companion Peri into a deadly mess that rapidly shows itself to be much worse than he bargained for, and against which the best he can reasonably hope for is base survival and escape. In the end, he can’t even manage that. He saves Peri but sacrifices himself to do so, as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor collapses, and essentially dies, regenerating into Colin Baker’s Sixth.

“The Caves Of Androzani” enjoys a very high reputation in Doctor Who fandom; in fact, Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 readers’ poll named it the best story in series history. I can’t go quite that far, though it would certainly make my top 10 or 15. For one thing, though this is admittedly minor, you’ve gotta take some points off for the the magma beast, just a sad, sad, weak attempt at the obligatory monster-of-the-week. But what really bothers me about this one is how corrosively cynical and dark it is. And I say this as a fan of corrosively cynical and dark stories in general, and of the cynical and dark mind of Robert Holmes, who wrote this one, in particular. It’s the whole point of the story, of course, so in essence I’m objecting to Holmes hitting the bullseye. But in the final analysis I just can’t buy into the notion that a story this pessimistic is what Doctor Who is about, on a grand scale.

Still, I can see why it won that poll. It’s a terrifically propulsive, twisty thriller, well-directed by Graeme Harper—tense, raw and very dark. It vividly creates a world that has been corrupted, perhaps irreversibly, by the toxic effects of greed, violence, and unchecked corporate power, and which has poisoned the souls of every character we meet—especially the revenge-crazed maniac Sharaz Jek, a creepy and intense but ultimately pitiable Phantom Of The Opera-like figure vividly played by Christopher Gable. And it made excellent use of the extra dramatic weight that all regeneration stories get as the closing chapters of their eras, really putting the increasingly desperate Doctor through the wringer and making him fight with his every last breath. Davison makes the most of it, giving one of his best performances in a script that gives him a lot to work with.

Originally published Feb. 3, 2013 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, Resurrection Of The Daleks

“Resurrection Of The Daleks” (season 21, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Feb. 8-15, 1984)

On most TV dramas nowadays, the head writer and the executive producer are usually the same person—which makes a lot of sense, because that way there’s one unifying vision of where the show is headed. It’s been true of Doctor Who since the 2005 relaunch, with Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt in turn holding the reins, but that wasn’t how it worked during the 1963-1989 era, which instead divided the job between a producer in overall charge of the series and a script editor who oversaw just the writing. The producer was the boss and guided the show on a broad scale, but script editors had day-to-day, hands-on control of the stories, arguably making them more important in creating the tone and personality of the series in any given period—and also more important than the actor playing the Doctor, who might have been the public face of the series but didn’t actually tell the stories.

And so it’s also often been true that when the script editor wrote a Doctor Who script himself, as opposed to reworking some other writer’s earlier draft, that story captured the pure spirit of that period of the show better than the others of its season. It’s certainly true of the current series, with both Davies and Moffatt handling the season finales and other crucial episodes themselves, and it was true in 1970s Doctor Who with shows like Robert Holmes’ “The Deadly Assassin” and Douglas Adams’ “City Of Death,” among the best the series ever did.

And then there’s “Resurrection Of The Daleks,” another script-editor’s script, which holds down the middle of Peter Davison’s final season as the Fifth Doctor. To be sure, it’s a pretty pure crystallization of what Eric Saward and his boss, John Nathan-Turner, were going for in season 21—the gritty and dark atmosphere, the attempt at complex plotting, the choice to forgo a heroic conception of the Doctor in favor of a fallible and even weak protagonist, and the wholehearted embrace of the show’s long history as a living part of the series. But it’s also a painfully clear example of how Saward and JNT consistently screwed up the potential of any of those elements to create great TV storytelling, and indeed often failed to demonstrate basic competence at anything beyond cheap spectacle. “Gritty and dark” too often meant merely that the characters were bitter and unpleasant, “complex plotting” that there were too many characters and subplots and no real idea of where any of them were going, a fallible hero often was merely a passive and kind of boring one, and embracing history meant merely rehashing iconic moments from older episodes without any particular understanding of how they worked or why they were so well remembered in the first place.

Originally published June 10, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club, Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead

“Mawdryn Undead” (season 20, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Feb. 1-9, 1983)

“Mawdryn Undead” tries to do a lot. Too much, really. It’s ambitiously overstuffed with plot ideas: The nostalgic return of an old co-star, a retelling of the Flying Dutchman myth with a Doctor Who twist, a nonchronological story structure split between two timelines, the return of a well-known old villain, and most importantly the introduction of a new companion, Turlough, who joins the Doctor with orders to kill him. But while there’s a lot of moments to enjoy here, that’s too much to work into a single story. And to be fair, “Mawdryn” is not meant to be a single story, but the first part of a larger arc, with a fairly self-contained story intertwined with material that spins into the subsequent episodes. The problem is that the parts meant to be self-contained to this story wind up feeling thinly resolved and rushed, while the part that’s by far the most compelling—Turlough’s dilemma—isn’t actually resolved at all, by design.

And that’s only a problem if you’re not planning to watch the rest of Season 20 of Doctor Who the way you would probably watch, say, 2011′s Series Seven—in broadcast order from start to finish. It’s commonplace now to give audiences a season-long arc that draws you back for every episode. In 1983, though, it was a fairly big change for Doctor Who, which is a big reason that all three of the Fifth Doctor stories I’ve covered so far for TV Club were from Peter Davison’s first season in the role: They’re much easier to look at as individual stories.

Of course, in some ways Doctor Who was far more invested in the idea of ongoing storylines than was typical for its time—other than soap operas and one-off miniseries like V or Shogun, it’s hard to think of another show so insistent on its viewers returning four or six or even 12 weeks in a row to see how the story ended. But most Doctor Who serials are more or less self-contained: Given some basic knowledge about the concept of the show and who was in the cast at the time, you could pick up a DVD from almost anywhere during its first couple of decades and not feel hopelessly lost, and also be assured that the story you’re watching will come to a definitive conclusion. If you want to continue on past “Brain of Morbius” or “The Mind Robber,” you can, but you don’t have to. There had been an experiment with a season-long storyline in 1978 with the six-part quest for the Key To Time, but in practice it was loosely organized enough that a viewer could drop in anytime and pick up what was happening.

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

TV Club: Doctor Who, Kinda

“Kinda” (season 19, episodes 9-12; originally aired Feb. 1-9, 1982)

The typical Doctor Who villain is a physical, recognizable threat. You immediately know that the Daleks are dangerous and evil because they’ve got guns welded into their midsections and they’re eager to use them. Nobody expects a Dalek to conquer by winning over its enemies psychologically. “Kinda” takes a different tack: Though there’s a monster, a giant snake called the Mara, in this story evil comes from within more than without. The greatest dangers “Kinda” presents are internal ones that exploit the hidden weaknesses and flaws of the characters. It does this via two plot threads which are at times so divergent that they seem like completely unrelated stories, but which do work together as part of a larger parable. The first, centered around Tegan and the Kinda tribe, weaves Buddhist-inspired ideas about struggle against one’s own self and repressed negativity into a story about an innocent Eden-like paradise threatened by the corruption of knowledge. The second is an anti-colonialist, Heart Of Darkness-style jungle-horror story about arrogant civilized people who come to conquer a primitive world which is bigger and wilder than they can comprehend, and which instead absorbs and destroys them. In the end it’s too muddled and oblique to be entirely successful, and its poor use of the main characters leaves the story badly unfocused, but “Kinda” is an interesting experiment in something a little more psychological than usual. The story has grown on me the more I think about it, which is both good and bad—good because there’s more here to appreciate than is immediately apparent, bad because the story doesn’t really gel on the most basic level of entertainment. And I’m not really sure that it really works on that deeper level either, just that it’s thought-provoking.

Originally published Oct. 30, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Earthshock”

“Earthshock” (season 19, episodes 19-22. Originally aired March 8-16, 1982)

“Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room, and I think it’s you.” –Groucho Marx

We’re joining Doctor Who this week towards the tail end of Peter Davison’s first season as the Fifth Doctor. If you’ve been following along with my previous TV Club writeups, the main cast here is the same as in Davison’s debut, “Castrovalva”: The youthful but fatherly Doctor, irritable air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding), passive science wiz Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and boy genius Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). There is plenty to like in “Earthshock,” led by the always-engaging Davison’s performance and tension-building direction by Peter Grimwade that draws out the best of the adventure-story aspects of Eric Saward’s script. There’s plenty also that doesn’t work, some rooted in Saward’s script, some systemic things that the series as a whole struggled with at the time—a superficial focus on nostalgia and shock, poor characterizations, and slack plotting. “Earthshock” was notable at the time for the surprise return of the implacable robotic Cybermen, who had been mainstay villains during the Patrick Troughton years but had only made one other appearance after 1968, in 1975′s underwhelming “Revenge of the Cybermen.” But the major reason why “Earthshock” has such a major place in the history of Who today is a surprise disappearance: The death of Adric.

Originally published Sept. 4, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Castrovalva”

“Castrovalva” (series 19, episodes 1-4; originally aired 1/4/1982-1/12/1982)

“Castrovalva” is far from the worst Doctor Who would ever inflict on the TV viewing public, but the decline and fall of the show is clearly in evidence. It’s not a story I would show someone if I wanted them to think Doctor Who was worth watching. It’s got its moments and a fine performance by new lead actor Peter Davison, but they don’t make up for its defects—chiefly an unclear and often dull storyline, poor costumes, and atrocious acting by some of the secondary characters. It’s unwelcoming to new viewers, and crammed overfull of fanboy trivia, particularly in the first couple of episodes.

The Eighties were not kind to Doctor Who. While I think there’s some merit to be found in the series in each of its incarnations and reinventions from 1963 onward, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that the gold is very thin on the ground in the period we’re about to dive into, the age of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Don’t get me wrong, this was never a perfect show. It always struggled with low budgets, rushed production, and the limitations of ’60s and ’70s TV technology. But somewhere along the line, things started to spiral down. Star Wars has the prequels. Star Trek has Voyager. And Doctor Who has the 1980s tenure of producer John Nathan-Turner, a period starting with Tom Baker’s final year as the Fourth Doctor and covering a tumultuous period that may hold a record for the farthest fall from excellence in television history.

Originally published July 3, 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.

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