Old, New and The Visitation (1982)

visitation

Set in the seventeenth century, but scored throughout with twinkly electronic music,The Visitation  feels both old and new – or at least 1980s new.

It also has one the best opening scenes in Doctor Who. A gentrified family in restoration England are home at night. We get to know this little family; grumpy father, son, daughter and manservant. We start to like them. Then their house is infiltrated by an alien something and all are killed. We fade through a few shots of the empty house in daylight, as alien machinery thrums. Tightly written, stylishly directed.

But leisurely. New Who does these sort of opening gambits – monstrous nasty kills people we’ve just met – all the time, but they’re much shorter and pacier and usually done before the opening credits. Think Tooth and Claw, Gridlock or The God Complex, to name but a few.

But back to The Visitation. After the opening scene, it’s over to the TARDIS to see what our heroes are up to this week. The Doctor (Peter Davison, early in his term, but firmly established as the Time Lord next door), awkward teenager Adric (played by awkward teenager Matthew Waterhouse) and alien noblelady Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, in the sensible shoes) are preparing to take mouthy air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding, all hair and purple power uniform) back to Heathrow Airport in 1982. It’s all very domestic: the Doctor and Adric are bickering about things which happened last episode. Tegan is busy putting on some very 1980s make-up. Nyssa is standing in the console room reading a magazine (of all things. Woman’s Day? DWB?).  There’s a family squabble when they realise that they’ve landed at the right spot, but three hundred years early. Tegan cracks it and storms out of the TARDIS in a huff. The other three follow her out and into the story proper.

Scenes like that one – Neighbours with roundels, I think they’ve been called – seem too inconsequential for modern tastes. Enough with the day-to-day dramas of the TARDIS crew, and get on with telling the story, the argument goes. And fair enough too. But it’s worth remembering that this sort of interaction between TARDIS crew members, unnecessarily argumentative though it is, was a novelty by Doctor Who’s 19th season. For years, the Doctor and his companion would just leap out into a story, leaving us no hint of any life lived between adventures, let alone any ramifications of such. It’s refreshing to briefly peep through that console room door, and see what goes on when they’re not battling power mad loons or giant frogs.

Once outside, our pals quickly meet actor turned highwayman Richard Mace (a fruity performance from Michael Robbins). Now as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve no beef with having three companions on board, and The Visitation – at least in its first two episodes – does a good job of splitting the action up between them. But I find it perplexing when writers feel a need to add a de facto fourth (The Impossible Astronaut, I’m looking at you too). It’s clear that writer Eric Saward is more interested in Mace than any of the three companions he has to hand, and gives him all the best lines.  “It is only with the aid of these properties,” he says waving his flintlocks around, “that I am able to command the attention of an audience nowadays.”

He also performs useful plot functions such as explaining the set up. He’s on hand to describe the strange events of the last few days, from which the Doctor can deduce that there are likely to be survivors nearby. And so there are, the reptilian Terileptils. As Doctor Who monsters go, they’re not bad, their leering lizardy heads being most effective. Unfortunately their arms seem permanently affixed to their bodies down to the elbow, making them look like they’re continually miming the carrying of a box. When they lash out at someone it’s not done with a savage swipe of a claw, more a gentle nudging of the forearm.

Still, everything rolls along at quite a clip in those first two episodes. Tegan and Adric are captured by the chief Terileptil, giving the Doctor a chance to escape in the TARDIS with his favourite companion. He doesn’t though. He decides to attempt to elicit help from the local Miller and sends Nyssa back to the TARDIS to build a machine which will vibrate (stop it) the Terileptil’s bejewelled android to pieces.

This leads to some of the dullest scenes ever committed to videotape. Nysaa collects her tools. Nyssa puts the frame of the machine together. Nyssa pushes the frame from the console room to her bed room. Nyssa tinkers with the machine. And so on. This is her whole contribution to Part Three. On and on these scenes go, with only the incidental music to (and I use the word cautiously) enliven them.

Adric drops by briefly, having escaped from the Terileptils, but he’s of no use building the machine and after a quick mope leaves again and is quickly recaptured.  ‘Poor old Adric’, sighs Nyssa in that first TARDIS scene, and I can’t help but agree. There’s a gradual degrading of Adric’s character over his time in the series. Back in season 18, he was technically competent; remember it was he who built the story ending gizmo in The Keeper of Traken with Nyssa’s help. But here their roles have reversed; Nyssa is the technician, Adric the assistant. ‘And I try so hard’, he sulks at one point, his outsider-ness a neat foreshadowing of his forthcoming demise in Earthshock.

Anyway, back to Nyssa and her box of tricks. She puts on some big ear muffs and tests the machine, vibrating a few nik naks of her dressing table. Goodness know how she plans to attack an android with this thing, which is the size and shape of a small petrol-powered generator. Luckily, in an extremely contrived bit of plotting, the Android comes to her. It boards the TARDIS, helpfully walks rights into Nyssa’s room and is shaken to death. It lies smoldering on the floor. Nyssa rushes to get a fire extinguisher. Nyssa puts out the fire. Nyssa sits on her bed and quietly wonders why she never got her own spin off series.

The story picks up towards the end when the Doctor and his four companions take the TARDIS to London where they blow up the Terileptils and their hideout. There’s a particularly gruesome shot where the lead lizard’s face bubbles and pops in the heat of a freshly started fire. Leaving Mace to fight the fire, the Doctor and company leave, and the final shot is of the sign ‘Pudding Lane’, instantly indicating to anyone au fait with the period that the fire in question is the Great Fire of London (but leaving little 9 year old Spandrell watching in Australia completely mystified).

And like The Visitation’s opening scenes, its closing scene is something special. It’s Doctor Who‘s first use of the ‘closing moments’ surprise reveal. And it’s still an impressive trick if you can pull it off; Steven Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace repeats it years later, right down to the tell tale writing on the wall.

Something old, something new and half an hour of Nyssa building a story stalling gizmo. The Visitation is ahead of its time, but also deeply embedded in it.

LINK to The Smugglers. Both are set in the seventeenth century. And both feature Squires. Love an easy one.

NEXT TIME… Suffering catfish, it’s The Time Monster. Come Kronos, Come!  

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Hartnell, character and The Smugglers (1966)

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In Jessica Carney’s biography of her grandfather William Hartnell, Who’s There?, there’s a photo of the actor on location in Cornwall for The Smugglers, June 1966. Dressed in his Doctor Who costume, big black cloak flapping, one foot up on a boulder, he stands on a beach looking out to the ocean. Let’s go back in time, for a moment, to when that photo was taken.

It is the end of ten long months working on Doctor Who. Effectively a year’s work, Hartnell’s third on the series and a difficult one. They’ve made 44 episodes this year and Hartnell’s been in 42 of them.

At the start of this production block, there was a new producer and script editor; both lasted about six months and have been replaced. He lost a beloved Aunt, and recording on Doctor Who meant he couldn’t attend the memorial service. He clashed with producer John Wiles, a factor in Wiles leaving the show. Long time co-star and friend Peter Purves was let go from the show a couple of months back. In all he’s had 7 companions go and come this year.

But right now, things are not so bad. Doctor Who rarely goes on location and when it does, Hartnell’s not always required. This story though, The Smugglers, has the luxury of a five day shoot in Cornwall and Hartnell features heavily. There’s still time though to pause from the daily grind and enjoy the sights. He writes a note on the back of the photo which says, ‘Cornwall. I’m looking out at the beauty God made! The colour and sound brings only the feeling of happiness into my heart and soul. Dr Who. 1966.’

The next season is due to start production in three months. In just one month, Hartnell will be convinced to relinquish this role which has consumed his life for the last three years. Did he know, when making The Smugglers, that the end was nigh? Even if he didn’t know his hand was about to be forced, surely as he looked out over that beach he must have wondered if he had another 44 weeks of this in him. Not just because of his deteriorating health, but the continual parade of new faces in front of and behind the cameras must have reminded him that of the show’s original staff, he is the last one standing.

In the recent docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time, the moment when Hartnell is told that the show will continue without him is played out with Sydney Newman having to deliver the sad news. In truth this unenviable task would surely have fallen to producer Innes Lloyd. And I suspect, there was probably no one momentous meeting. There never are with these things. It’s a conversation here, a meeting there, “don’t make any decisions yet”, “nothing’s set in stone but…” Until one day the deed is done.

So what we have in The Smugglers is arguably Hartnell’s last story. Sure The Tenth Planet is officially the final stand, but it’s a muted affair for his acerbic Doctor; he’s a commenter on events, not a protagonist. He’s not even in Episode 3. In fact, I’ve even read somewhere that Hartnell is booked as a guest star for that story. That says it all; a guest star in one’s own show.

Not so in The Smugglers, where the Doctor is an active force. He’s given the secret of where Avery’s treasure is buried, and so is kidnapped by nefarious pirates Captain Pike and the brutish Cherub. He enters into a shortlived alliance with innkeeper and smuggler Kewper, and escapes the pirates’ ship only to find he and his companions are in the middle of a power struggle between the pirates, smugglers and the taxman.

In the middle of all this, a way out presents itself: a secret passage has been discovered which leads directly to the TARDIS. It’s an immediate escape route and companions Ben and Polly are only too willing to take it. But the Doctor refuses. He strongly suspects that Pike won’t be satisfied with finding the treasure; he and his men will also sack the nearby village. The Doctor thinks that he can use his knowledge about the treasure’s whereabouts to bargain with Pike, and allow revenue man Blake time to return with troops, thus saving the village. It is, the Doctor says, their moral obligation to stay. So they stay and the Doctor confronts Cherub, bargains with Pike, reveals the treasure’s location and basically plays everyone for time until Blake arrives. In short, the Doctor’s the story’s catalyst and its hero, not a bystander.

And Hartnell plays it with his usual vigour. He’s stumbling over his lines of course, that’s what we’ve come to expect. But he plays everything with energy and commitment. Compare this to the last story he recorded, The War Machines, where he looked a bit bewildered by the whole thing. I’d be willing to bet he liked doing the historical stories better, where he could act with real people, not featureless boxes.

In fact he said as much in that recently discovered interview footage (an extra on The Tenth Planet DVD) where he complained about the lack of reaction an actor gets from a Dalek. What a revelation that footage is; a glimpse at the formidable old grump so many people have said he was. But compare that brief snippet of real life Hartnell to his performance as the Doctor, and it’s instantly clear just how much work he put into his characterisation.  That footage – the only surviving video of Hartnell himself – is demonstrable proof that he and the Doctor were not one and the same.

It’s easy to see how that mistake could be made. The Smugglers’ director Julia Smith recalled how Hartnell refused to use a switch on the TARDIS console for what he believed was not its purpose. “It was obviously so real to him,” she said. And that makes me think of how he signed off his note the back of that photo: “Dr Who. 1966.” Was he merely noting the production he was working on, and the date the photo was taken? Or was he intentionally adopting his fictional persona, even down to the signature? Perhaps reflecting that when faced with having to give up a job you love, sometimes it’s safer just to stay in character.

Link to The Creature from the Pit. Oh just writing that looks so facile! But let’s be content with the fact that both are about various parties squabbling over precious metals.

NEXT TIME… Fire and brimstone! We visit The Visitation.

Energy, kinkiness and The Creature from the Pit (1979)

creature

For me, there are very few spots in Doctor Who’s history where there’s a string of mediocre episodes in a row. But I must confess I find the end of season 16 is a bit hard going. It all gets a bit, well, dull.

But turn the corner into season 17, and things change almost immediately, most noticeably in the dialogue. Suddenly it crackles with an energy that the last couple of seasons lacked. It’s not hard to pinpoint the new factor at play here; it’s script editor Douglas Adams. He certainly brings more humour into the scripts, but it’s not just that. There are more elegant turns of phrase, there’s more bite to the lines. It gives the actors more to play with.

The funny thing is, I was brought up to hate season 17. When I undertook that fateful move from casual viewer to fan during the Davison era, the fan press I was reading put the boot into this season as being too silly, too cheap and not taking the whole thing seriously enough. And it’s true that this season lacks that creeping menace which imbued Tom Baker’s early seasons, which are often hailed as the pinnacle of Who.

But over the years, the tide has changed a little bit, not least of all because we’ve all grown to adore City of Death and have looked around and thought, surely its stablemates can’t be that bad? And sure enough we’ve come to appreciate the groundbreaking direction in Destiny of the Daleks, the surprisingly adult themes of Nightmare of Eden and the zany brio of The Horns of Nimon. Season 17 has gone from being bad Who, to being just Who.

The Creature from the Pit though, few people have anything nice to say about. I’ll attempt to break the drought because I rather like it. But first, we have to forgive the creature itself; a deeply unconvincing mélange of garbage bags painted green. And famously, it extrudes a tentacle which is distractingly phallic. Yep, it’s awful and yep, that’s a big green dick. But Doctor Who has lots of awful effects (although rarely so, um, cocky) so we should just move on, as best we can.

(Except to ask, what was producer Graham Williams thinking? It’s often mentioned that this was period when inflation was playing havoc with the show’s budget, so given that, why did he think an enormous, shapeless blob was possible on a Who budget? And hadn’t they just tried a similar trick – with some particularly underwhelming results – two stories ago?)

The first thing that strikes you about Creature is that terrific first TARDIS scene; terrific, that is, if you like Doctor Who written like a sitcom. It’s joke after joke in rapid fire succession, between the wacky old Doctor, his sensible and long suffering companion and a cute robot. And if you think this approach to writing Who is dead, I refer you to the last randomed The Time of the Doctor, and its opening scene which, with a couple of spaceships added, is exactly the same in tone.

It’s also apparent from that first scene that the show expects its audience to be very well read. That first scene references Greek myth, the biblical tale of Samson and the Peter Rabbit books. And later we’ll be introduced to characters who take their names from ancient Greece (Erato and Organon) and one whose name suggests the latin for ‘to the stars’ (Adrasta, in conception ad astra). Frustratingly, there seems to be no common purpose to these allusions, thrown in seemingly at random. But none the less, they are clues the story leaves for its audience to collect; like the best Who, this story respects its audience’s intelligence.

The plot itself differs from the standard ‘land on a planet, discover a problem, identify a villain, solve problem, defeat villain and go home’ formula. Here, the story’s villain, Lady Adrasta (played with relish by Myra Frances) captures our TARDIS team, and is initially interested in the Doctor’s scientific expertise.

But when he jumps down the pit, she turns her interest to K9. She sees in him a weapon which she might use on Erato, the well hung blob, whom she has imprisoned in the pit. So she forces Romana and K9 into an underground search to find and eventually get K9 to kill Erato. It’s not the world’s greatest plan, particularly as K9 seems to drain power as regularly as a vintage iPhone and Erato’s the size of a cathedral.

At any rate, this leaves the Doctor and his new astrologer chum Organon (Geoffrey Balydon, basically getting another chance to play Catweazle. Now’s there’s a show which needs a reboot.) to attempt to communicate with Erato. And although the show’s budget couldn’t stretch to convincingly constructing an alien who’s basically an enormous pile of snot, at least it is varying its approach to monsters from ‘bung an extra in a rubber suit’.

Erato, it transpires, is an alien ambassador, and  needs a shield-like translator device to communicate with others. This is rather neat, as it fits with the character (a traveling ambassador would need such a device) but also gets around the problem of how every alien speaks BBC English (doesn’t explain for everyone else on Chloris does, but hey).

Once Adrasta’s storyline and the Doctor’s converge, and the shield is wheeled on by some possessed bandits (the story’s weakest and least necessary element), the gig is up. Erato explains that Adrasta trapped him in the pit to maintain her stranglehold of the planet’s scarce metal reserves. An angry Huntsman sets a pack of carnivorous weeds on her, and she dies as best as one can when being molested by some green papier mache balloons.

Everything’s wrapped up, but we’re only 8 minutes into Part Four. The Doctor knows it can’t be over yet; he usually ends things back in the TARDIS wrapping things up with some more jokes and a big old grin and it’s far too early for that.

This tactic – you think the story’s over! But it’s not! – rarely works well in Doctor Who, or anywhere else for that matter. Creature does it as well as can be expected; Erato has been lying by omission and a neutron star sent by his fellow blobs is on its way to devastate Chloris. The Doctor must talk him into a dangerous manouevre with the TARDIS to neutralise it.

It’s hard to restart a story which has already met its natural climax, especially when the new threat is entirely countered from within the TARDIS console room with some enthusiastic turbulence acting and some quaint video effects. Still, it gets the episode to 25 mins, along with some more nonsense from those pesky bandits. (But even that has a clever line in it. While chief hairy Torvin is rhapsodizing about his haul of metal, old slyboots Karela stabs him in the back, adding “there’s six inches more to add to your collection”.)

It’s not the duddest of endings, but you do get the impression this is a three episode plot stretched to four. But I come to praise Creature, not to bury it. If nothing else it has some extraordinary costumes in it, courtesy of June Hudson. Her costume for Adrasta seems to be referencing Disney’s evil queen, complete with stockings, heels and a breastplate. The Huntsman is dressed head to toe in leather, it seems, and wields a mean whip. Romana’s wafty white dress is primly virginal. Add Erato’s aforementioned appendage and surely Doctor Who has never looked so kinky.

So, literate, funny, structurally novel, extravagantly designed, way too ambitious for its budget and a bit suggestive – but never dull. So far, so season 17.

LINK to The Time of the Doctor. Both feature extravagantly dressed female protagonists. Hmm, not great is it? But it’s all I’ve got.

NEXT TIME… I can foresee oodles of trouble! Arr me hearties, it’s The Smugglers.

Regeneration, resolution and The Time of the Doctor (2013)

time of the doctor

It starts with a mysterious signal emanating from an insignificant planet. The signal attracts an armada of alien spaceships piloted by a Who‘s what of monsters. But this isn’t The Pandorica Opens.

It’s the 2013 Christmas special (my random Who generator loves these; its chosen 3 out of 9 of the buggers) and Matt Smith’s farewell story. In the DWM preview for this story, showrunner Steven Moffat said of it: “It’s the greatest single performance ever given by anyone who has ever played the Doctor”. And as it happens, I spent my last post ruminating on when each Doctor gave their best performance. So was Moffat spouting promotional puffery or was he on the money?

Crafting a performance takes time. And that’s the one luxury Doctor Who has never afforded its actors. As many of the show’s actors have relayed in interviews, on old Who the low budget meant time was precious. So although there were days allocated for rehearsal, once on location it was get the scenes in the can and move on. Studio recording was even more brutal; get it done, effects and all by 10pm or the lights go out.

And on new Who, although there’s a bigger budget, the sheer amount of material to shoot means time is still of the essence. Both Smith and David Tennant have spoken about the daunting workload on the show; how during production it’s basically shoot all day, go home to learn lines and repeat for nine months of the year. It’s a crushing schedule; on The Name of the Doctor there were 15 days between the first draft script and the start of the shoot. What I’m saying is, be it old Who or new, it’s amazing we got/get anything half watchable, let alone the many fine performances it does offer.

With that in mind, let’s look at the acting challenges facing Smith in his final episode. He’s in nearly every scene. He’s being the Doctor at three different ages, under two heavy make ups (but this isn’t The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords). He has to create a relationship with an inanimate cyberhead (hmm, should it have been K9’s head?). He has to be seductive with Tasha Lem, fatherly with Barnable and man up with the monsters. And with Clara he’s performing in a screwball comedy duo, making us care about their relationship enough that it breaks our heart to see them parted at story’s end. And much of the scenery’s not actually there, because nearly everything’s on green screen. And on top of it all, this job which has consumed his life for the last four years is coming to an end, so emotions are high.

Smith does a terrific job at all this and more. But somehow this story doesn’t quite feel like the tour de force that Tennant had in Human Nature. Last entry, I talked about how a good story that pushes the Doctor in new directions helps makes a standout performance. And The Time of the Doctor is that, but it’s also the culmination of 4 years of hint dropping and mystery making by Moffat. So often the story seems to stop to pick up some loose end or other, be it ‘who blew up the TARDIS’ or ‘what was behind that door in The God Complex‘ or ‘has the Doctor run out of regenerations’? (Personally I’m still waiting to find out why the duck pond in The Eleventh Hour  had no ducks. We need to know.) Smith doesn’t get as clear a run at it as Tennant did with the uncluttered Human Nature.

For me, Smith’s best performance is to be found elsewhere. And I haven’t quite decided where it is. But I think it’s somewhere around the beginning of his second season. It’s here where there seems to be a definitive confidence in his characterization; an solidifying of that peculiar mix of gentle otherworldliness and childlike delight. Perhaps it’s when he’s playing at Christmas gift bringer in A Christmas Carol. Or perhaps its when he’s trying to piece together what’s happening to his life and his friends inThe Impossible Astronaut. Or perhaps – and this is where I’m leaning at the moment – it’s to be found in the highs and lows of meeting his own TARDIS in The Doctor’s Wife.

Still, there’s much of interest going on in The Time of the Doctor. Clara gets tricked into returning to Earth as a way of ensuring her safety (but this isn’t The Parting of the Ways). Then she piggy backs on the outer hull of the TARDIS through the vortex to rejoin the story (but this isn’t Utopia). The stop/start nature of her story might seem a little offputting, but it’s an elegant device for showing the passage of long periods of time. In a way, it’s a pity we (the audience) don’t stick with her throughout, distancing us from the Doctor’s story and making his increasing age and infirmity a more immediate shock.

But we need to see what’s happening on Trenzalore in the gaps, because the Doctor’s defence of the town of Christmas is the heart of the story; to prevent another Time War the restless wanderer will settle down and commit to a cause. And because this takes hundreds of years (in which time the town barely changes, but shush now), we see the youngest ever Doctor become the oldest. Surely this is Moffat both playing to Smith’s strengths (he has often claimed that Smith is best at portraying the Doctor’s great age) but also indulging in some delicious irony;  how else should the youngest Doctor die but through old age?

This leads to the episode’s neatest trick – the regeneration. It’s not so much that it delivers the Doctor a new lifecycle, though that does feel like a cumbersome burden gratefully abandoned. It’s that the regeneration is the resolution of the story, the first time that’s happened. It’s the way of solving the problem. As it carves through those Dalek ships, it brings the siege of Trenzalore to an end. Every other time the Doctor’s regenerated, that’s been the consequence of the Doctor’s role in the story – the price he’s paid for winning through. Here regeneration is the sweet dessert at the end of the meal, not the unwanted bill.

It ends with the young, handsome and funny Doctor restored pre-change, but this isn’t The End of Time. There’s no drawn out valedictory tour of past companions, just a short scene where the differences between Doctor and actor become hard to discern. “I will not forget one line of this”, says the Doctor, but that word ‘line’ seems to deliberately reference the lines which Matt Smith has spoken in the role. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”; again it could be Matt speaking, not the Doctor. And thinking back, whether he was being mobbed by adoring children, or walking past walls plastered with fan’s artwork or even revealing his newly shaven head, this story has deliberately blurred the lines between actor and Doctor. And thus it acknowledges fictionally what the viewers already know in fact; it’s goodbye to both.

But then a whiplash crick of the neck, and the new man arrives. After an hour rich in sentiment, the show rolls on, with its trademark lack of sentimentality.

LINK to Human Nature/The Family of Blood: Both involve making the lead actor up to be aged greatly. (And these make up jobs are always brilliant, but, despite the best of efforts, are never 100% convincing are they? It’s something about the eyes which seem unageable; islands of youth in an ocean of wrinkly skin.)

NEXT TIME: Point the dog against the rock! We get big, green and rude with The Creature from the Pit.

Oscars, Doctors and Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007)

human nature family

Showrunner Russell T Davies used to say about David Tennant that he was so good as the Doctor, that he felt an obligation to keep presenting new and challenging material to keep him inspired. It’s easy to imagine that one of the stories he was talking about was Human Nature/The Family of Blood. In it, as I’m sure you know, Tennant plays both the Doctor and John Smith, the human persona he adopts in order to hide from the murderous Family.

I think it’s Tennant’s finest performance in Doctor Who, and he’s always good. But this story really gives him the chance to flex his acting muscles. As John Smith he changes his speech and his mannerisms just enough to create a vivid, new character but one which still suggests the Doctor, lying just under the surface. The scenes where he effortlessly switches from one to the other – for instance when a snippet of Doctor sneaks out when Smith holds the watch – are as clever a conjuring trick as the series ever showed.

But his real triumph is in telling the tragedy of a man who comes to gradually realise that his whole life is a fiction and that he must give up the woman he loves to save everyone else.  Tennant’s greatest achievement is that by story’s end you both want the Doctor back and you want Smith to survive.

So if we were handing out Oscar nominations for Best Performance as Doctor Who, Tennant’s would be in Human Nature etc. What about the others? What’s the story in which they give their best performance?

First of all, we have to excuse Paul McGann for lack of material. You may want to nominate some of his audio adventures, but I’ve only heard one and I have no plans to listen to the other gazillion. John Hurt too, only gets one shot at it so he’s on the bench too. Capaldi has barely started, although perhaps Listen is an early frontrunner. And we’ll excuse the non-canonical Cushing as well (though maybe that calls for a ‘best of the rest’ post at some stage. Hmmm.)

Some Doctors peak early. Hartnell, I’d suggest, earliest. For me, he’s never better than in 100,000 BC. It’s partly because his deteriorating health played havoc with his ability to remember lines as his Who career wore on. But it’s also because in his first story, his Doctor is at his most slippery and dangerous. You really don’t know where you stand with him, and he’s at the centre of the story. It’s quite unsettling.

I don’t think he ever got as strong material again, and although later Whos saw him playing as part of an impressive ensemble (The Crusade for instance, or The Myth Makers), his character was never honed with such care as in those first four eps. (Though of course we don’t have all the episodes to judge. If The Massacre turns up tomorrow in a Mormon church car boot sale or something, perhaps we’d discover a dual performance as impressive as Tennant’s in Human Nature etc.)

Pertwee too, hits his stride early, specifically in Inferno. I don’t think it’s the best story of his era, but the Pert is great in it, particularly in the latter episodes where he’s trying to engineer a way out of the doomed parallel world. Never again do we see the third Doctor as vulnerable or as desperate, and after this story, I’d argue Pertwee becomes very settled in the role and is never as edgy again.

But if the Pert became too comfortable after his first few stories, I think it’s nothing compared to how settled Troughton became. As mentioned when talking about The Highlanders, the Trought in his early stories is too quixotic for the series to maintain, so he quickly becomes a safer, but still quirky Doctor. And that’s how he stays for most of his era.

It’s a brilliant performance, but it stays consistently at a certain level; perhaps because of the formulaic nature of many of his stories, he’s never really pushed. At least not his very last story, The War Games. Here, as the Doctor’s secrets are gradually revealed, Troughton gives a more varied performance than ever before. He’s wary and devious and ashamed and you really get the sense that for the first time, he has much to lose.

A common theme is emerging; when the lead actor gets a script which is a bit different, which pushes them in a new direction, then a great performance emerges. That’s the case with Eccleston in Dalek, a script which gives him a great outlet for that eye popping passion he has.  It’s true for McCoy as well I think, and the script which stretches his character the most is The Curse of Fenric. McCoy could occasionally over egg a line, or mistime a gag, but I don’t think he puts a foot wrong in Fenric. The exchange in Part Four where he bargains with Ace’s life – a softly spoken command to Fenric to ‘kill her’ – shows he can move from slapstick to sinister and be totally convincing.

Colin Baker, on the other hand, is best in an (allegedly) more run of the mill story. I’ll wax lyrical about the much underrated The Mysterious Planet when I get a random chance to, but Baker is terrific in it. He’s the Doctor you always want him to be: funny, charming and compassionate, but still with a biting line in sarcasm. Peri demonstrates a real affection for this Doctor for the first time and the audience can understand why.

As for Davison… Well, it would be easy to say Androzani wouldn’t it? Again, it’s a story which offers his Doctor something more compelling than the usual fare, and Davison rightly seizes the opportunity and turns in a great performance.

But perhaps it’s an even greater achievement to give a terrific performance when everything else around you is a bit rubbish. And so we turn to Warriors of the Deep, long maligned for its rubbery monsters, overlit set and extravagant eye makeup. But block all that out (if you can. And then teach me how, would you?) and concentrate on Davison, who is acting his question mark socks off in this. To be properly compelling and passionate and to be giving it everything, while all falls apart around you… that’s impressive.

And so to Tom, probably the hardest to assess for a few reasons. Firstly, despite being endlessly creative and constantly trying to inject originality into the stories, his performance, like Troughton’s, is consistently comfortable. Take last random’s Image of the Fendahl for example. Is he good it in? Of course! Does his performance stand out from the crowd of other Tom stories? Um, not really.

Secondly, which fourth Doctor are we talking about? The mostly serious/slightly comic one of his first few (and last) seasons or the mostly comic/slightly serious one of his middle period? How do you compare the wildly different fourth Doctors of seasons 14 and 17, say? Well, let’s not try. Let’s allow two nominations from Tom. From his serious seasons, I’d choose The Seeds of Doom, where he’s magnetic and dangerous. From his jokier period, you can’t really go past City of Death, where his madcappery is given full license. He’s in love, in Paris and he’s giving it some considerable comic welly.  Two astonishing turns.

So that’s it. A complete set of nominations for Best Performance by a Doctor. Award those Oscars at your leisure.

What’s that? I forgot about Matt Smith, you say? Well…

NEXT TIME… I’ll never forget when the Doctor was him! It’s time for The Time of the Doctor.

And just quickly…

LINK to Image of the Fendahl. Both are set in rural England. And that’s about it! Tenuous link alert!

Costumes, stereotypes and Image of the Fendahl (1977)

image fendahl

“I like your new dress” says the Doctor to Leela, early on in Image of the Fendahl. He’s stretching the definition of ‘dress’ to a new extreme. Dress? It’s a beige leather leotard, isn’t it? The Doctor has been travelling with Leela for about a year now so you’d think he’d have noticed. Up until now, Leela’s just had the one ‘dress’, another leather swimsuit affair, but in a dark brown. She was in that one when the Doctor met her on her home planet. Which begs the question, where has this new one come from? Did she make it between adventures? Or, worryingly, is there a wardrobe full of leatherware somewhere in the TARDIS?

Unexpectedly, (or perhaps completely expectedly, given that last exchange) I found myself thinking about costuming while watching Image of the Fendahl. And despite Leela’s costume, it’s actually lab coats which are to blame. The story concerns four scientists: Adam Colby (posh English paleontologist), Thea Ransome (posh English chronologist), Dr Fendelman (German? South American? Electronics expert, but also, um, archaeologist maybe?) and Max Stael (No idea, though perhaps his surname is Belgian and no idea, although he can conduct a post mortem).

Anyway, we know they’re scientists because they’re all wearing lab coats. And they wear them throughout, whether they are working in labs or not. Their commitment to the lab coat as a fashion statement for all times and places is unstinting. The latter three wear them to their deaths, and Colby is still wearing his as he scampers away from the story’s conclusion.

The lab coat love is a bit funny, but it’s an aspect of TV grammar. Costumes are shorthand communication with the audience. You can see that fellow’s in a lab coat, so I don’t have to keep telling you he’s a scientist. It saves time. In the same way, we know that Mrs Tyler’s tied to ‘the old ways’ because she’s wearing well worn clothes. And we know Jack’s from the country because he’s wearing a pork pie hat. That and his mummerset accent.

The characters in Image are well defined and well performed, but that doesn’t stop them being broad brush stereotypes. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a function of a fast moving show like Doctor Who. Like a handy lab coat, a stereotype saves you time and helps you push along the plot.

Fendelman, for instance, is the ‘mad scientist’ type. Ultimately, he’s shown to not be the true bad guy, but he’s still a shifty piece of work. Hence the mustache. It is he who by use of a sonic time scan is hoping to produce the eponymous image, which we never actually get to see. He’s played by the highly entertaining Denis Lill, he who delivered some high camp in The Awakening. He has many great lines usually played to maximum capacity. But my favourite moment is when he says, “About ten years ago, when I was working on a…” Here the slightest pause and a sheepish wince “…missile guidance system”. Nicely played there.

Thea Ransome is the ‘sexy female scientist’ type. She’s brunette, because as actress Wanda Ventham explains in the story’s DVD documentary, female scientists aren’t allowed to be blonde. While the male scientists all refer to each other by surname as much as by first name, our female brainbox is always ‘Thea’, never ‘Ransome’. There is the inevitable hint of a romance between her and Colby, which adds an unfortunately sexist note to proceedings. Thea is eventually transformed into the Fendahl Core, when her lab coat disappears and is replaced by a grandiose gold lame ensemble, complete with eyes painted on her lids. With hair curling snakelike from her head and a stare with the power to transfix, she’s basically golden Medusa. And thus is transformed into another stereotype, the femme fatale.

Then there’s Adam Colby, not quite our hero (that’s Tom Baker, mid tenure and using his star power to tinker with the script), more wisecracking sidekick. He’s one of the good guys, so naturally he’s blonde haired and blue eyed. But he’s not lily white; he takes little convincing from Fendelman to delay reporting the death of the hiker. And under pressure he becomes a rude snob. “Don’t you threaten me, you swede-bashing cretin,” he snaps at Jack in Part Four, underlining the class division between the RP speaking scientists and the local rustics. But he’s funny and handsome (his shirt exposes a surprising amount of chest at one stage), so we know he’s one our side; Leela even gives him a peck on the cheek to underline the point.

He’s also part of Image’s two most disturbing moments, when down in the cellar, technology and occult superstition meet in unholy union. The first comes when Colby and Fendelmen have been tied up by bad egg Stael (he’s the ‘just nuts’ type). Colby is forced to watch when Stael shoots Fendelman in the head. It happens offscreen, but it’s still an arresting moment; you certainly wouldn’t get it in New Who. Colby, being the resilient specimen that he is, takes this gruesome event in his stride. Whereas surely it would leave any real person deeply traumatised. But this is Doctor Who, the plot rolls on and so do we.

The second nasty moment comes when Stael, transfixed by the Fendahl Core, asks the Doctor to bring him a gun, and thus assist his suicide. It’s ghastly. Whether or not the Doctor’s role in it bothers you (as it does me), it’s clearly unnecessary. Stael could have had the gun on his person, or reached it through a colossal mental effort. Having the Doctor bring him the gun means he plays an active part in Stael’s death, which sits uncomfortably the Doctor as we know him.

There’s a few other moments in Image where another look over by the script editor might have helped. There’s the infamous bit where someone inexplicably lets the Doctor out of a locked room, but we never find out who. But there’s also some obvious padding in Part Three when the Doctor and Leela go back to the TARDIS and travel to the solar system’s dead fifth planet to discover that it’s trapped in a time loop. “We’ve been on a wild goose chase,” says the Doctor, but at least it has helped fill up an episode. Then there’s a whole lot of guff about them being late returning to the Priory (and the plot), which is nonsense considering they’re in a time machine.

But the story’s most contrived moment comes when Leela takes a brief nap. It’s so she can dream about the Fendahl attacking her, but I think it’s never a great idea for one of your main characters go have a sleep in the middle of a supposedly thrilling adventure. In addition, there seems to have been no money for a bedroom set, so she sleeps in the floor of the console room. Really? That cold hard floor? Those bright white lights? Perhaps warriors of the Sevateem are trained to sleep anywhere. And make replacement clothes for themselves.

I said earlier that Image’s characters are played to type, and in lots of ways this is a typical Doctor Who story, at least pre 1996. It’s got a country manor, a big green monster, physical transformation and a long hidden alien influencing humanity. But it’s typical in some less positive ways too – the Van Danniken plot’s a bit dated, the pace is stop/start, some of the effects are dodgy, it’s a bit sexist, it’s a bit classist and – with its baddies being foreign and its goodies being English – it’s a bit racist. Really though what it is, is typical 70s Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who Waited. In both, a character is keeping a disabled robot as a pet (Handbot Rory and K9).

NEXT TIME… You’re rubbish as a human! Long ago in an English autumn, it’s Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

Companions, marriage and The Girl Who Waited (2011)

girlwaited2

Let’s start with Jo Grant. A couple of years back she turned up in The Sarah Jane Adventures where she was reunited with the Doctor, as played by Matt Smith. While catching up on an alien planet, he lets slip that he’s travelling with a married couple, the Ponds. Jo is taken aback. “I only left you because I got married,” she pines.

She’s alluding to an unstated fact about Doctor Who, at least up until the Matt Smith era. That for a companion, finding someone you want to spend your life with meant the end of your TARDIS travelling. Getting hitched meant staying behind with someone, not dragging them along. Which was kind of understandable if one viewed Doctor Who, at least in part, as a kids’ show. Because marriage brought with it the implication of sex, and although the series might occasionally invite speculation on how its main characters ate and went to the toilet, any thought of which TARDIS bedrooms saw some action was right out.

New Who, though, has no such hang ups. Since 1996, Doctor Who has had romantic relationships at its, um, heart. The Doctor has been shown to be someone who loves and who is loved. He has had a string of love interests, not least of all his companions like Rose and Martha, if not Donna. But marriage (or its de facto equivalent) was still the end of the line for a companion, even in the Russell T Davies era; Rose is paired off with the one-hearted Doctor, Martha marries Mickey and Donna marries Shaun.

What, I imagine you’re saying by this late stage, does any of this have to do with The Girl Who Waited? Only that watching it got me thinking about marriage in Doctor Who and specifically, that since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner in 2005, the subject of marriage – once used only as a way of exiting companions from the show – has been embraced. He’s placed two marriages centre stage: the Ponds’ and the Doctor and River’s.

The topic of the Doctor and River’s unorthodox union can wait till another day. The Girl Who Waited is concerned with Amy and Rory’s relationship, and while that’s not unusual in itself, it’s a story where them being a couple is essential.  In the episode, Amy gets trapped in Two-streams, a medical facility, and only Rory can rescue her. This is ostensibly because the Doctor cannot leave the TARDIS for fear of being infected with a Time Lord specific illness. But the quarantining of the Doctor feels tangential.  Of course Rory would dive into Two-streams to rescue her, as Orpheus dived into the underworld, simply because he’s her husband. That’s his job. And that’s the nuance which comes with married companions, that you wouldn’t get if this was, say, first season Tom Baker and Harry had to rescue Sarah (or vice versa).

A subtext running through this season is that the Doctor is becoming more mysterious and less reliable.  And Rory and Amy react by relying on each other. In The Curse of the Black Spot, for instance, Rory specifically asks Amy to perform CPR on him, because he trusts her (not the Doctor) to never give up.  And Amy’s opening monologue in A Good Man Goes To War is all about her faith that Rory (not the Doctor) will come for her and Melody. Having companions married to each other offers a new dynamic; their relationship with each other is more important than their relationship with the Doctor. He will always be an outsider.

A central premise of The Girl Who Waited is ‘will you still love me when I’m 64’ (or how ever old Amy ends up being), with the added sci-fi twist that Rory is still young. Rory, being the thoroughly decent chap that he is, of course stays loyal to older Amy. But then there’s the added complication when the Doctor manages to fold time back on itself (or something) and young Amy appears alongside old Amy. Rory very quickly decides he wants to save both versions of his wife, which is touching and again what a loyal husband, who loves his wife at any age, would do.  Allowing a married couple on board the TARDIS has enabled new types of stories – like The Girl Who Waited – to be told.

The Doctor meanwhile is kept on the sidelines. Well, it’s a Doctor-lite episode after all. But there’s enough of him in the story to show a new, devious side of the Eleventh Doctor. When older Amy declares that she wants both versions of herself saved, the Doctor says this is possible. This spurs Rory and the Amies into action, helping motivate them to outfox the handbots and fight their way back to the TARDIS.

But the Doctor is being crafty. He knows it’s impossible to recue both versions of Amy. Does he lie to Rory and Amy to make sure they get safely back to the TARDIS? It’s left unconfirmed, but it certainly seems that way. If so, the Eleventh Doctor has manipulated his companions as effectively as the Seventh Doctor did Ace. Writer Tom MacRae has written about his admiration for the McCoy years, so drawing parallels between these two Doctors seems deliberate.  But maybe not – after all the Moffat years have clearly established that rule one is ‘the Doctor lies’.

And his lie here leads to a great climactic moment in The Girl Who Waited, where older Amy and the Doctor see each other for the first time. In that moment – a triumph of Smith’s acting and Nick Hurran’s direction – it’s clear that now Rory and young Amy are safely on board, the Doctor is going to lock old Amy out of the TARDIS. She realises it and runs, but of course she doesn’t make it. Those Prussian blue doors slam shut.

Rory is outraged, but the Doctor is resolute. He hands the decision over to Rory, seemingly as a way of assuaging his own guilt. He says to Rory they can only take one and puts his hand on the lock, forcing Rory to make the decision.  It’s a devastating moment, and Arthur Darvill plays it brilliantly. “You’re turning me into you!’,” he bawls at the Doctor. But the door is locked and Rory and older Amy can only press their hands together on either side of the police box’s windows before the end comes.

The classic series of Doctor Who­ did love stories, but it did them pretty poorly. Jo Grant, for instance, fell in love over the course of a handful of episodes and married a man she hardly knew. Other companions fell in love far more perfunctorily than that.  If there’s one aspect in which the new series far exceeds the old, it is in its ability to tell love stories. And with a married couple on board it can tell different types of love stories. We don’t waste time seeing Amy and Rory fall in love, they already are in love. And as The Girl Who Waited shows, that brings a whole new set of complications.

LINK to Logopolis: In both stories, one of the regulars meets a future version of themselves.

NEXT TIME: You must think my head zips up the back! It’s tea and fruitcake and the Image of the Fendahl.

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