Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Sea of Death

In this case, necessity is clearly the mother of invention. With another planned script having fallen through on short notice, Terry Nation was asked to write a six-parter on incredibly short notice. Keep that in mind when you watch not just "The Sea of Death", but all of the subsequent episodes, because it's clear that the true skill on display here is one of economy. As soon as the Doctor and his companions (and at this point, it's pretty clear that the antagonism between them is mostly in the past--they're friends and fellow travelers, not a kidnapper and his victims) leave the TARDIS, we get a series of scenes that establish the narrative with great speed. The alien world and its acid seas get a quick scene of set up, the villains are shown with a minimum of dialogue and screen time to be ruthless and murderous and yes, actually a little bit creepy in the way that silent people wearing black vinyl outfits and holding knives are generally creepy. Everyone generally takes this opportunity to point out that they're not as scary as the Daleks, but I kind of feel like that's a bit unfair. Judged on their own merits, they're pretty effective.

The central conflict is set up with equal economy...or at least with as much economy as something so blatantly contrived can be. "We have a machine on our planet that makes it impossible to be evil...and before you ask, the bad guys are immune to it...and before you ask, we can't just wreck it because we're hoping that we can fix it...and before you ask, we can't just keep working on it because we can't let it fall into enemy hands...and before you ask, we have to fix it now because we've found a way to make it work on the bad guys...and before you ask, we can't just make new keys because they've got super-special codes that would take thousands of years to replicate." To his eternal credit, George Coulouris makes the scene work by playing up the ludicrousness of the concept just a little bit; he suggests through his performance that Arbitan may not be the most trustworthy of Wise Mentor characters. It's as though he's daring everyone else in the scene to point out what a crazy idea the Conscience is in the first place.

And then we cut directly from his impassioned plea for help...to the main cast walking back to the TARDIS, feeling just a titch guilty about having turned him down flat. It's a scene that is utterly drop-dead hilarious to modern Doctor Who fans; the thought that the Doctor would respond to a planet under threat from evil dictators with, "Eh, sorry, that's not really my bag," contravenes not just the character but the basic laws of drama. It's no wonder that Arbitan railroads them into the story... again, with amazing economy. Invisible force field around the TARDIS, teleporters that pop the cast from plot point to plot point...it's contrived, and it feels contrived, but you can't help but be impressed by the sheer streamlined efficiency of it all.

It's definitely a case of everyone dancing as fast as they can, and it shows in the production design (there's at least one, if not two, laugh-out-loud special effects sequences). But it's also an episode that hits all the beats it needs to hit without lingering around, and it's about to do in six episodes what took Tom Baker a full season. Not too shabby for a rush job.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Assassin at Peking

Remember how I talked earlier about learning the history of the Hashishin from the novelization of this story? And remember how it took pride of place on my bookshelves, and I kept it long after the rest of my Target novelizations were let go to clear space on my bookshelves? Well, I have to say that it was a good thing that Lucarotti got to write that Target novelization, because as good as this is as a final episode, he didn't quite stick the landing here.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great episode. It gets off to a fast and exciting start, with Tegana getting a great villain speech (and again, it's awesome that his superstition isn't used to make him seem foolish, and in fact more of a threat) and framing Ian for the theft of the TARDIS. At this point, it must be said that Tegana has had a lot of unearned luck, here--he wasn't the one to kill Kuiju, and if either the guards had overheard him boasting about making Noghai the ruler of the world or if the guards hadn't been overzealous and Kuiju had fingered him, this would have been a very short episode seven. But you can say the same thing about any long story with a villain, really. ('Under the Dome'--the novel, not the TV show--has the same problem.) Still, it's a solid scene, made more so by Derren Nesbitt's silky smooth performance.

Then we get a wonderful highlight of the story--the Doctor and Kublai Khan's backgammon match. The sequence where the Doctor totals up his winnings is sheer poetry. "35 elephants with all of their trappings, 4000 white stallions, and 25 tigers--" "That's not so bad--" "Oh, and the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha--" "Oh, that was a gift from Marco!" "...and all the commerce from Burma for one year." It's a great scene, and it sets up what seems to be the resolution of the story as the Doctor wagers it all against the TARDIS.

But in an episode that's absolutely jam-packed, that's nowhere near the end. The Doctor loses, Tegana plays Marco Polo's eagerness to leave the Khan's service against him by suggesting that Marco's sympathies secretly lie with the TARDIS crew, and Ian is set to go on trial for the theft of the Khan's property. Again, this scene works well because Nesbitt plays it well...but it also works well because the script plays him as a man with an intimate understanding of people's weaknesses. Tegana knows what secrets Marco holds, and he knows that revealing them to Kublai Khan before Marco has the chance will leave him on the defensive. It's actually a very well-written as well as a very well-acted sequence.

Unfortunately, the resolution starts to feel a bit perfunctory here. The death of Ping-Cho's intended, while a sequence that is not without a certain twisted humor, wraps up her sub-plot with the rapidity of a Restoration comedy deus-ex-machina. The TARDIS crew's realization of Tegana's plan, and their escape to the throne room, is equally rushed. And in the end, all they really do is tell Marco what's going on and let him do all the heroic lifting. It works better than it should, because at this point Marco has been on the show long enough to feel like a protagonist in his own right, but it's still a little odd in a show called 'Doctor Who' that the final confrontation features two incidental characters slugging it out.

And then there's the final conclusion, which has none of the elegance of the novelized version. Instead of Kublai Khan graciously ceding the TARDIS to the Doctor as repayment for saving his life, Marco just sort of shoves the keys their way and they sprint for the hills. And Kublai Khan, who had been established pretty well as someone who was more than just a figure of comedy, who had the power of life and death over Marco and was shown to distrust him because Marco seemed to have a conflict in loyalties over the TARDIS and its crew, just shrugs the loss of the magical caravan off with a joke about backgammon. It's a weak ending to a good episode, and it makes you glad that Lucarotti had a second chance. Because with two opportunities, he made a story that's a genuine classic.

Mighty Kublai Khan

As previously mentioned, there has been a bit of padding in the previous five episodes. A five-episode long journey through Cathay with Marco Polo may, in fact, have had a wee bit of extra kidnapping and banditry and so forth; however, that slow simmer of sub-plots now means we've got two whole episodes that are almost totally payoff. "Mighty Kublai Khan" brings (unsurprisingly) the Khan himself, and he's exactly what you don't expect him to be--far from a terrifying warlord, he's a slightly doddery old man with gout who lives in fear of his domineering wife and indulges in a quiet bit of gambling when she's not around. The scenes between him and Hartnell are adorable, and they're only going to get better.

Meanwhile, Ian and Ping-Cho wind up paired off in their own sub-plot, tracking down Tegana's theft of the TARDIS. This is where the amount of character development we've gotten over the last five episodes really pays off; Ping-Cho is far more detailed and realized than any incidental character in the new series possibly could be. We care about the resolution to her story, which makes it feel more grounded and realistic that the regular cast does as well. When they stand up to Marco, not knowing that Tegana has been playing Iago once again to undermine them, it feels like an earned character beat and not merely a further plot twist. It gives Tegana another chance to go swanning off and be evil, but by this point that feels earned as well. Sure, it's obvious to us that Tegana is evil, but he does a great job of getting his licks in early and often.

Nonetheless, even the longest-simmering plotline has to come to a boil eventually, and Kuiju's admission that Tegana hired him finally makes his villainy overt. Which leaves us exactly one episode to resolve Ping-Cho's wedding, Tegana's betrayal, Marco's moral dilemma, and oh by the way to get the Doctor and company back to the TARDIS. Too much to handle? No, the pacing finally feels like it's moving at just the right clip.