Saturday, August 30, 2014

Rider From Shang-Tu

It really is amazing just how epic this serial feels. We're five episodes in, and already we have traveled from the Himalayas to Cheng-Ting and taken in sandstorms, oases, treachery, hidden caverns, and sub-plots galore. We've had what feels like a massive cast and tons of incident, and Shang-Tu and Kublai Khan loom ahead with all the weight of 150 solid minutes of foreshadowing. This is the episode where all that momentum really starts to pull the story forward towards its conclusion.

Which isn't to say it's perfect--the bandit fight is a tense sequence, but the whole "let's scare the superstitious peasants by popping bamboo at them" strategy is a bit embarrassing in that way that treating everyone from The Past as superstitious peasants always is. Luckily, that's not the only thing going on here; Tegana shows he's not just a panto villain in a kiddie show by ruthlessly sacrificing his compatriots to preserve his ruse. He also shows himself as clever and adaptable--when his first ploy, canceling the raid to discredit Ian, fails due to Acomat's impatience, he's willing to change tactics and ingratiate himself further to Marco Polo.

The scene with Ian and Marco bears special mention as well, as it's a good example of the kind of characterization this story does well. The two men are clearly comrades, in an era of the series where Ian is treated credibly as a second protagonist (it's unfortunate that Barbara is mostly sidelined in this episode and to some extent in this entire story), and the speech between them shows a respect and admiration that clearly makes them wish their goals didn't conflict. Which leads also to the wonderful scene where Marco asks for their promise to cease trying to steal the TARDIS...and each of them respects him too much to lie to him. (And where he displays a common-sense, healthy distrust of Tegana by refusing his offer of bodyguarding duties. In one brief moment, we're made aware that Marco knows he has no true allies on either side.) The dynamics of this story really do make it a highlight of the "circumstances have separated us from the TARDIS for X episodes" era of the series.

And in an episode filled with so much plot and character development I almost can't fit it all in, I also want to bring special attention to Tegana's character once again. He's an interesting twist on the "superstitious peasant" trope that I disdained just a few paragraphs ago. Ian points out that he can't be after the TARDIS because he believes it to be magical and he's terrified of it, and he's both very right and very wrong. Tegana isn't faking his superstition about the TARDIS; he genuinely does believe it to be a magical artifact created by a wizard with evil magical powers. But it's exactly that quality that makes him want it so badly--Tegana believes that with the TARDIS' power, Noghai will gain a decisive advantage over Kublai Khan. His superstitious make him more dangerous, not less, because Lucarotti understands that superstition and stupidity don't necessarily go hand in hand.

And then there's Ping-Cho, who suddenly steps to the forefront and gains agency in a story where she has conspicuously been denied it at every turn. She still has no control over her own life, but circumstances put her into a position where she has both a moral dilemma and the power to bring hope back to her only friend. (Although it does put the idiot ball squarely into Marco's hands--why not just re-hide the keys?) Her inventive solution to the moral dilemma is obvious equivocation, but it's also an entirely understandable character beat that shows just how deep the characterization is for all the cast. This really is an ensemble series at this point, with the incidental characters just as important as the regulars.

Oh, and there's a great cliffhanger too, with Susan under threat for the entirely understandable decision to repay her friend's kindness with a small gratitude. Ping-Cho asked for only one thing in return for stealing from Marco and possibly earning herself a dreadful punishment, and Susan refuses to leave without giving it to her. It's a risky thing to do, but not a foolish one, and deeply rooted in everything we've seen about Susan so far in the series. Shame it's gone so badly for her.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Wall of Lies

Now this is more like it. At this stage in the BBC's history, they really do view television as a sort of strange variant on the stage play, and so they're playing to their strengths when they treat 'Doctor Who' like a stage play as well. "The Wall of Lies" opens with the resolution of Barbara's rescue, but this is really just the mechanism to get to the far more important and effective conflict between the TARDIS crew and the locals. Barbara knows Tegana is up to no good, even if she didn't see him with the men who tried to kill her. Tegana knows that he's in a precarious position; there's no direct evidence implicating him, but Barbara can definitely finger him as being up to no good.

And what follows is a wonderful riff on "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits". Tegana outmaneuvers the TARDIS crew using the most effective political tactic of them all--come out swinging and immediately accuse the other party of the exact thing you're doing. He warns Polo that the Doctor and his friends are trying to set the two of them against one another by lying, in a scene reminiscent of Iago's performance in 'Othello'. When Barbara does tell Marco that she followed Tegana to the cave, she doesn't realize she's playing right into his hands.

We then follow up with a platonic twist on 'Romeo and Juliet', as Marco decides to limit Susan's influence on Ping-Cho without realizing that the Doctor distrusts Ping-Cho just as much as Marco distrusts Susan. The two friends are caught in the middle, with a wonderfully effective sequence displaying the difficult position Marco is in. Even if Tegana is lying, it's not like Marco can simply kick his butt to the curb; Tegana is an emissary of peace from a foreign power conducting delicate negotiations. This is the kind of person Marco can't antagonize, not without definitive proof of wrongdoing. His anger at Ping-Cho is almost like a father getting upset with his daughter for doing something dangerous without even realizing it.

And it all leads up to a wonderfully effective sequence as Marco discovers the grain of truth that makes Tegana's lies so effective. For all that the Doctor is right about Tegana, Tegana is also right about the Doctor in one key area. He doesn't trust Marco, he doesn't respect Marco's authority, and he is working behind Marco's back to defy his edict and steal what Marco has claimed as his property. The fact that Marco essentially stole said property, which the Doctor views as justification for his actions, only hardens Marco's heart against him; in order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of stealing the TARDIS while still viewing himself as a moral man, Marco needs to see the Doctor as deserving of his fate. The Doctor's actions give Marco the excuse he needs to justify his harsh actions. The scene in front of the TARDIS, where Ian is forced to bluff things out until it all collapses (to Tegana's quiet delight) and the Doctor threatens to scuttle the TARDIS rather than let it fall into Marco's hands, is a brilliant and insightful sequence that changes the whole nature of the story.

And then, just when you think that the paradigm for the story's second act has settled, we get the excellent cliff-hanger. Ian prepares to subdue the guard and escape, only to find him already dead. The more this story focuses on its characters, the better it gets. This episode is a huge improvement off of last episode's stall, as Lucarotti figures out that the best thing about the series at this point is its characters.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Hundred Eyes

It's a little frustrating that this is an episode that doesn't know what the series' strengths are at this point. They have a great regular cast, all of whom are bringing their A-games week in and week out. They have a great guest cast who are really engaging with their material. They have some really good emotional material here to work with. And we just don't get enough of the real conflicts. Tegana is lying when he says that "bandits" prevented him from getting back to the caravan with life-saving water, and everybody knows it. But that scene is cut tragically short. Likewise, the conflict between Polo and the Doctor is really great stuff, with Polo as a sympathetic antagonist and a really fascinating ethical dilemma...but we get one snippy exchange in the whole episode.

Instead, we get a lengthy sequence where Ping-Cho tells the story of the Hashishin, which...look, on the one hand, I have pangs of nostalgia for this scene. Years ago, as a kid, I learned the history of the Hashishin from the Target novelization of this story. It's still got a place on my bookshelf, years after I let the rest of the Target books go in order to conserve shelf space. (The only other survivor was 'Remembrance of the Daleks', although I've built it back up a bit since then.) And it's performed beautifully by Zienia Merton. So with all that, I can't say that it's a bad scene, I really really can't.

What I can say, though, is that it doesn't really fit in with the tone of the episode that surrounds it and that it kills the momentum of the episode. And this is not an episode that can afford a five-minute stall, not with as little plot as it has. We've had a five-minute sequence involving the explanation of condensation, and now we're getting a history lesson. Even for a series that at this point has an educational mandate, this is draggy.

Luckily, Tegana is on hand to at least nudge the plot along by having Barbara kidnapped. It's really more of a set-up for next episode's action than anything else, but at least Jacqueline Hill gives it her all the way she always does. (Have I mentioned yet that the regular cast brings their A-game every week? Oh, yes. Right there, three paragraphs ago. Carry on.) This episode is definitely a bit of a longueur, but it's hard to get through a seven-parter without one. And as longueurs go, at least this one has the tale of the Hashishin.

The Singing Sands

And so, after an episode that's all about messing with people's heads and establishing the premise, 'The Singing Sands' settles in and does exactly what a story like this is supposed to do. Lucarotti is telling an exciting story of a journey through foreign lands, and that means the heroes have to overcome obstacles rooted in the cultural and geographical lore of the countries they're traveling through. Which means that the caravan has to go through the Gobi desert, which in turn means that the big drama is going to come from sandstorms and thirst. It's not rude to point out that these are old standards--a story that didn't hit these beats wouldn't feel like it was doing its job.

Likewise, Tegana is playing exactly the kind of character that needs to be in a classic adventure story; he's villainous enough that we can all lustily boo his schemes and machinations, but not so effective that he's actually disturbing. His plan to murder everyone in the caravan by cutting their water skins hits just the right sweet spot. It's potentially deadly, but not actually scary. (Which is actually one of the criticisms of the story--that Tegana is such an obvious mustache-twirling villain that the heroes seem like idiots for trusting him as much as they do. But at least at this point, it's clear that the TARDIS crew don't trust him at all, and Mark Eden does a good job of playing the part ambiguously enough that you can at least make a case that he doesn't so much trust Tegana as tolerate him.)

That said, it is an episode that does pretty much what it says on the tin, no more and no less. It's an adventure story for children, with none of the moral ambiguity or interpersonal drama of the previous fourteen episodes. Even worse, the Doctor is almost entirely missing from the story. As great as Ian, Barbara and Susan are (and at this point, I'm fully convinced that this is the best TARDIS crew ever), they need the Doctor to play off of. So does everybody else. The big emotional conflict is between Polo and the Doctor, even though Tegana is the ostensible villain; with one of them sidelined for the episode, we're left with the Boy's Own storyline for a full thirty minutes. And while that's not bad, it's not as good as it was or as it's going to be.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Roof of the World

The thing that's striking about 'The Roof of the World' is the way that it delights in playing games with its audience's heads. It's a trick that perhaps slides past us modern viewers if we're not careful; in retrospect, this is the first "historical" story and a classic example of a common sub-genre of this era of Who. But that's in retrospect. At the time, the series had never done a proper "historical" story--we'd had a bizarre drama playing out among prehistoric humanity and a science-fiction epic, but many in the audience had no idea what to expect when the travelers next stepped out of the TARDIS. (The Radio Times had published an article on the upcoming story, but it was a far cry from the modern spoileriffic Internet.)

And Lucarotti's screenplay plays with that for most of 'The Roof of the World'. The first thing we see is a footprint larger than a human being could make...which is promptly dismissed as a half-melted bootprint. Barbara sees strange, furry monsters...which turn out to be normal people in furs. Tegana, warlord of the Mongol Noghai, tells of shapeshifting evil spirits...but Marco Polo dismisses it as superstition, and it's not brought up again. Marco, when confronted with a "flying caravan", speaks of it as part and parcel of the same magic that allows Buddhist monks to levitate cups of wine to the mouth of Kublai Khan...but this is presented as a mere unusual background detail to what is otherwise settling into an adventure with a well-known historical figure in a well-documented historical period. Everything seems to be settling in...

...until Marco announces that he wants the strange, miraculous flying caravan for Kublai Khan, and we realize we've been looking in the wrong place for aliens and strange science-fiction weirdness. It's not the situation that the Doctor and his companions have stepped into; it's them. They are the strange aliens that have stepped into Marco Polo's story, and far from being the first example of a classic historical, this is the exact opposite. This is a science-fiction story, and the TARDIS--that wonderful, impossible piece of futuristic technology--is the key to it all.

But it's also, fundamentally, a personal conflict in the way that the early Hartnell stories managed so effortlessly. With the tension more or less resolved among the TARDIS crew, Polo takes the place of Ian and Barbara as a sympathetic character who nonetheless has goals that conflict with the other protagonists. The Doctor has resolved himself to helping Ian and Barbara get back to England, but Marco is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his own home. And he's utterly incapable of understanding the bitter irony in his statement that Ian and Barbara can get back, but "it would take some time".

With all that, it's almost overkill to find out that Tegana's planning to kill everyone. That may be the cliffhanger, but the climax is the Doctor giggling maniacally at the thought of Buddhist monks piloting the TARDIS. His world is so alien to Polo's, literally and figuratively, that he's reduced to tears of helpless laughter at the thought of reconciling them. A brilliant end to a brilliant episode.