Friday, March 27, 2015


After perfunctorily dispatching last episode's cliffhanger, "Crisis" finally gets the hang of the advantages this premise provides that no other does. The Doctor and his companions figure out a way to take the phone off the hook using corks to prop it up, and they make inventive use of a spray can, a gas tap and a match to create an improvised bomb to attract the attention of the police. You could perhaps quibble about the ease of lifting the "oversized" objects, but the general idea of the script comes into focus tightly here. The tiny heroes use improvised tools to overcome the limitations of their size in order to foil the villain's plot.

Or they would, if not for the fact that the villain's plot is primarily foiled by a switchboard operator and his own astonishingly mistaken belief that he can masquerade as an entirely different person with a higher-pitched voice, a different regional accent and a mild lisp simply by putting a piece of cloth over the mouthpiece of the telephone. He doesn't even attempt to disguise his voice--it's as though he assumes hand towels have magical powers. Certainly the Doctor's plan helps by forcing him to talk to the operator a second time, but it's frustrating to realize that there's no need for either scene. The call to the Ministry is an unnecessary contrivance, and Forester has to be bright enough to realize that "he's already left for his boating trip" is a better plan than "oh, but I'm certainly Farrow. Can't you tell by my slightly muffled voice that sounds otherwise exactly like the person who was just on the phone?" (Then again, it's the same episode where Smithers suddenly says, "Hey, maybe I should have tested this new insecticide to see if it kills bees and earthworms!" Maybe he leeched the intelligence away from Forester and turned him into a less competent villain.)

If they'd left off those two scenes, then the Doctor's bomb plan would have been more consequential to the plot and added more drama. Then again, given that this episode was mostly cobbled together in the editing room out of two other episodes, it's probably amazing that it came out as well as it did. As it is, the only slightly ropey cut is when they jump mid-conversation to Barbara insisting they stay and raise the alarm regarding DN6, and that's only ropey because it stands out as markedly different from the editing in the rest of the episode. It's actually a fairly modern and pacy cut, the sort of thing you'd probably do these days without sweating it too much. Verity had it right here.

And at the end, the mysteriously-repaired scanner (I know, they probably didn't think audiences would remember over what was originally intended to be a month of real time) displays the title of the next episode. Handy, that--if it had happened after they stopped using individual episode titles, the Doctor could have learned about the Daleks' appearances virtually every single time.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dangerous Journey

It's easy to see why Alan Tilvern had such a long and storied career as an actor watching this episode. The part isn't anything particularly special; he's a silver-tongued executive with a ruthless streak who turns to murder out of desperation, your basic villain in a suit. But Tilvern uses his expressive eyebrows and silky voice to become something more saturnine and sinister. I love the implication that he knew the story he told Smithers wouldn't hold up--the way Tilvern manipulates him first into accepting and finally into assisting with the cover-up is acted brilliantly by Tilvern. (Reginald Barratt as Smithers perhaps overacts just a bit, but he's got to sell the idea of someone so obsessed with DN6 that he'd go along with concealing a murder with very little persuasion. A little overacting helps in that department.)

The Hitchockian drama of Forester drawing Smithers into his web of deceit and murder is really the best part of the episode. Everything else is an exercise in contrivance, from "We can't go back the way we came, cats exist!" to "There's a person coming, scatter in every random direction and panic!" to "Hmm, grains of wheat covered with a sticky substance!" "Huh? Sorry, I don't really pay much attention to anything you say or do, Barbara. By the way, don't touch that wheat, it's covered in insecticide." It's all pretty much just getting everyone into the position of maximum peril for the next episode, which is kind of a shame because it doesn't really make nearly as much use of the 'miniaturized' concept as it could.

One thing that did strike me, though, is that this is the first time we've really seen the main characters split up along the lines that you'd think would be the norm for the series--Ian/Barbara, and the Doctor/Susan. It's the obvious way to group them, the aliens who've been traveling for years and the two teachers along for the ride, and yet it's just about the least common pairing they've done. 'The Daleks' has them split up like this in the last two episodes, and there are times when it's a pair and two singlets, but really it's only in the last story before Susan's departure that we see her really spending any time with just her grandfather. The actors play it well, given that it's a fairly perfunctory scene, but it's notable that the dynamic among the regulars has done so well for so long by resisting the "easiest" pairings.

Oh yes, and while I grumble about everyone doing nothing but peril monkey schtick in this episode, I have to love the dramatic touch of closing on the sink at regular size as the water slowly drains out. It's deliciously incongruous (as is the simultaneously tense and hilarious musical sting accompanying, "There's a sink in the lab") and leaves you to imagine the danger rather than attempting to show it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Planet of Giants

Boy, have they been wanting to do this one for a while. You can see it in the carefully structured reveal--this is something they've been thinking about for ages. The journey through the stone labyrinth, the discovery of the giant worms and ants (the one weakness to my mind--Barbara calls it a "snake" when it's clearly an earthworm, which makes you wonder a bit too soon what else they're not noticing) and finally the revelation of the giant matches and the crazy-paving. It's all set up so deliberately that you can almost hear the entire production team in the background going, "Wait for it, wait for it..."

But that's really how a first episode should work in Doctor Who. The classic series has always been about exploring spaces; Part One of any given story is usually centered on the Doctor learning about the structures of the new environment he's landed in, whether social or physical or biological. Here, it's not just about the discovery that he and his companions are little and tiny and wee and adorable--it's about the way that they gain understanding of the entire ecology of their new world.

Which is, of course, in deadly peril thanks to Forester's DN6. It's both wonderful and sad that this little eco-fable hasn't aged very much at all in the five decades since it originally aired; to this day, there are still people trying to turn back the march of regulations so that they can spray DDT all over the landscape, ecosystem be damned. Forester isn't really any different from Tom DeLay, except that DeLay tried to crush inconvenient scientists with political power instead of just shooting them. (Mind you, some of that may have been that his enemies didn't come visit him without telling anyone where they were going, giving a convenient excuse for being missing for several days, and then turning their backs for a while just to see what happens.)

(Well, I mean, I assume they didn't. Maybe they did and he was just better at hiding the bodies.)

The point is, it's okay that this is an episode that's mostly just the Doctor and his companions wandering around and exploring, because that's how the series creates worlds for us to believe in. Even if those worlds are right outside our door.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Prisoners of Conciergerie

I don't want to seem mean, but...if I had to sum up that episode in a single word, it would be "misconceived". And if I got a bonus word, it would be "woefully".

The problem isn't the bad history. I mean, that's a problem too, especially as the script goes out of its way to draw attention to it--when one character spends half the episode deeply concerned with the possible rise of Napoleon to power, having him end the episode surprised to hear that a Corsican soldier might someday take the throne of France is probably a mistake. But the problem isn't even that the story is set in 1794 when Bonaparte isn't a significant political force in France and he wouldn't be offered power by Barrass or opposed by Stirling. To be honest, if they'd gotten the history right, the episode would have been even worse.

Because the meeting is the climax of the story, such as it is. Ian's been looking for Stirling since Part Two, Stirling apparently has one last vital task he needs to complete before he can leave for England and the others need to risk their lives to help him because Susan's been effectively written out of the story but is at least important as a MacGuffin, and the grand and vital task is...finding out something that the audience already knows. Or would, if they'd gotten the history right. (Maybe that's why they picked Napoleon--it probably would have been a less dramatic scene if Barrass had met with about a dozen or so guys that nobody remembers and agreed to form the Directory, a combined group of influential politicians who would then set up a provisional government and ratify a Constitution to...)

Ultimately, this is a lesson learned for Spooner. As much as he tried to subscribe to the Lucarotti philosophy of the historical story, to the point of setting the final scene inside the TARDIS so that everyone can speculate about why they couldn't change the history of France even if they tried, he's really more comfortable with the action-adventure model of story. And in an adventure, the hero has to have consequences to failure, because the structure of the adventure story makes us aware that they're pretty much immune to danger themselves. Nothing anyone did had consequences in this story, not for themselves or anyone else, and Spooner had to be aware of how hard that made it to write as an effective piece of drama. In order for him to be able to function as a writer and later a script editor, everything the series has tried up until now has to go. And with the next season of pretty much will.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Bargain of Necessity

"A Bargain of Necessity" is pretty much an exercise in backing out of the plot cul-de-sac of the last episode. It does a good job of that, with some highly entertaining bits from Hartnell and some interesting moral debate from Ian and Barbara (and once again, Susan present as a plot anchor preventing the other characters from ditching), but you can still hear a faint beeping noise as the story goes through its motions.

The first chunk of the episode is mostly given over to Ian's interrogation and rescue, along with an explanation of the reveal that Leon is the traitor. It's one of those things that probably worked when the story was first shown but suffers greatly from the huge volume of guides to the series that collectively spoil Stirling's real identity. That is to say, the story has been working very hard to try to get the audience to believe that Leon is really Stirling, but if you know going in that he's not, then he by definition has to be the traitor because otherwise his character has no real purpose to the story. (This is also how Roger Ebert used to figure out who the traitor was in every action movie--he just looked for the person who would otherwise be utterly surplus to the plot.)

Ian's interrogation is played well--it's a scene that actually uses the overall flaw of the story as its strength, because this time the TARDIS crew is almost totally disconnected from events and has only the barest connection to the Stirling plot or indeed anything else. But Leon, who has been living in the world of espionage and plot and counter-plot and treason and counter-treason for years now, simply can't accept that Ian's motivation is nothing more than, "A dying man asked me to find a total stranger and give him a message, and I figured why not?" Because it's ludicrous. For the previous four parts, that's been the problem, but right now it creates a great deal of tension until Jules shows up to save the day.

Afterwards, we get one of those scenes that occasionally pops up in this era of the program and always, always, always works: Barbara confronts Ian and Jules with the moral complexity of the French Revolution and points out that no, Leon didn't "deserve to die" because he betrayed them...from Leon's point of view, they betrayed him and everyone he cared about. It's a great scene, made no less great because Barbara later apologizes; her apology isn't an acknowledgment that Leon did deserve his fate, only that there were no other alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is off being awesome. That's really all you can say about the scene where he tricks the jailer into letting Barbara go on the pretense that they can then follow her back to her confederates, only to explain after she leaves that he thought the jailer was going to do the actual following. Sheer poetry. After that, the brief look-in on the ostensible plot (Lemaitre is on to him, Robespierre is both terrified of betrayal and inexplicably absent-minded about the official change to the French calendar that abolished "July") is almost anti-climactic. Again, this story is very much a thing of parts in the absence of any real story, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of enjoyment to be had from the best of those parts.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Tyrant of France

It's a shame we see so little of the actual Tyrant of France in "The Tyrant of France", because the scenes with Robespierre are the best part of this episode. Despite the general storybook atmosphere of the story, Spooner isn't interested in reducing Robespierre to a one-dimensional caricature; instead, he makes good use of the old truism that every villain thinks he's a hero. Spooner doesn't shy away from depicting Robespierre as a paranoid mass murderer, but he also shows the guilt lying not far beneath the surface of Robespierre's brutality. He knows that he's murdering people by the hundreds, he knows that history will remember the bloodshed, but he sees no alternatives at this point. Better to be remembered as a monster who founded the New France than a monster who failed, right?

Hartnell's Doctor is great in this scene, and he's also great in trying to avoid a reprise of it. His bluster is charming and hilarious, even as we catch wind of the fear that underlies it. The Doctor knows full well that he's stepped in it much deeper than he planned to when it was originally a hastily-improvised disguise to intimidate the jailer into releasing a few prisoners, and his attempts to bluff his way out are tense and funny at the same time. Even so...

Look, it's not that the episode is bad. It does an effective job of moving all of the pieces around in an interesting fashion, what with Susan getting sick (although again, this story does seem to mark the point where they stopped even trying to do anything with the character other than keep her around as a convenient warm body to be dragged from one peril to the next) and her and Barbara getting recaptured and Ian pursuing his spy plot and the Doctor trying to avoid getting exposed as an imposter...but it's pretty clear by now that moving the pieces around is all that's happening. There's no real story here; Stirling's plot is so slight that it's barely taken up a few minutes of each episode, and there's no real sense of urgency or momentum to it. Ian is looking for Stirling to give him a message because some guy he met asked him to. There's no emotional depth to it, and everything else in the story is just a run-around until the allotted number of episodes is up and everyone can escape to the TARDIS.

Again, this is primarily a function of Spooner having jettisoned the series' previous approach to the historical without yet knowing what to replace it with. 'The Romans' will make better use of the farce structure that is essentially being developed here, and 'The Time Meddler' will inaugurate what generations of fans will come to know as the established structure of the series, "aliens meddling in important historical events". But here, he's got six episodes to fill, and very little to fill it with. He's already getting better at learning how to hide the padding, but it's unfortunate that there's still so much padding to hide.

Review: Loving the Alien

(This post originally appeared on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 3 April, 2005.)

A Review by John Seavey 3/4/05

When I first heard about Loving the Alien, I was interested despite not enjoying any of Mike Tucker and Steve Perry's previous Doctor Who novels. The idea of a PDA that actually formed a story arc with Prime Time and Heritage, that followed up on the events of previous novels... well, it intrigued me, and so I approached Loving the Alien with cautious optimism.

Despite a promising opening, I think I can safely say that it wasn't justified.

The story is murky, muddled, confused and confusing; Ace's death, the hook that draws us into the novel, is dealt with in an irritating and disappointing fashion; the characters are dull, the Doctor's an idiot, the villain's lame, and the ending is incomprehensible. The "About the Author" section claims that this novel ends the story arc begun in Illegal Alien... my only prayer is that Perry and Tucker decide never to put pen to paper again.

The big important plot point of the book, of course, the thing that draws us into the novel, is an elegant idea -- the Doctor finds Ace's body, and has to try to figure out how to stop a murder that has already taken place. This is a great hook for a Doctor Who novel, and the opening scene with the Doctor conducting an autopsy on Ace's corpse, charting the course of events that will lead to her demise while swearing to save her, even if he has to break the Laws of Time, is a wonderful opening to the novel.

Then the Doctor lets Ace wander off on her own without him and she gets shot in the head and dies. Well, there goes the suspense and excitement... not to mention, the Doctor comes off looking like an idiot as well. We're told that when she wanders off at Woodstock, the Doctor utterly freaks out -- suddenly, he's blithely letting her traipse off to God-Knows-Where mere hours before he knows for a fact that her body's going to be fished out of the Thames, with only a homing beacon to locate her by. This isn't "saving her, even if he has to break the Laws of Time" -- this is "not even trying to save her, and letting events take their course." It doesn't deliver on the promise of the novel, it doesn't pay off later in the book, and it's a frankly awful way to deal with what could have been a truly great story.

After that, there's loads of wandering around and fighting, with alternate realities popping up left and right (the Doctor's explanations to Limb and O'Brien do contradict the way history is explained in Time Zero, but I can at least rationalize this away by believing that the Doctor, pressed for time, does not get into the details of time travel and alternate realities the way he does with Sabbath, who understands the physics involved.) Plenty of people die, others get saved, and we're never given any real reason to care about any of them. The authors clearly believe that we should care about Cody McBride, Chief Inspector Mullen, and Rita Hawks, because they devote loads of page time to them and because the Doctor and Ace like them, but giving more page time to boring characters fails to make them less boring. It just grates.

In the end, reality and the multiverse is saved because... um... apparently because James Dean crashed his car into George Limb's time machine, although I think that the Doctor must have done something else off-screen to repair the damage to reality, because that sure as heck doesn't make sense as an explanation. Then again, it's all you're going to be given, so go with it. Oh, and Ace's death doesn't matter, because the Doctor adopts a new Ace from another reality, and that makes it all better. I think the phrase "Yeurgh" neatly sums up my reaction to the last half of this novel. (And as a side note: Perry and Tucker's gargantuan retcon doesn't work as an explanation of why "their" Ace has a surname of Gale and the New Adventures Ace has a surname of McShane. They claim that the new, alternate reality Ace has trouble remembering her surname -- however, that wouldn't explain why Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart found records of the disappearance of a Dorothy McShane. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure they mention Ace's mum's name in Happy Endings...)

On the whole, if you quit reading at about page 110 and make up your own, far better ending, Loving the Alien is a decent book. If you read the whole thing cover to cover, though... you have my sympathies.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Change of Identity

I'm honestly not sure whether it's the production team being particularly aggressive in trying to sideline Susan in this episode, or whether Carole Ann Ford is just at the point where she's willing to commit suicide-by-cop in order to get out of doing any more of this story, but she is practically ludicrous in her devotion to being a wet lump of nothing in "A Change of Identity". Having already decided in the previous episode that escaping from the jail cell is far too icky to deal with, she's now giving up on their one-in-a-million free ticket out of having her head chopped off because she's got a bit of a headache. Thankfully, new characters Jules and Jean are here to literally drag her back into the plot.

Apart from Susan's now-total devotion to uselessness, this episode feels like it's really firing on all cylinders. Spooner's style of storytelling finally reaps some real rewards once the jail cell is left behind and characters can get properly embroiled into the plot; Susan and Barbara (but mostly Barbara) get embroiled in a good old-fashioned Pimpernel pastiche, while Ian gets to escape from jail and go trotting off on his English spy subplot. Lemaitre gets to be sinister and suspicious in a way that really should combine with his name to make you think that he's the Master in disguise (oh, come on! I can't be the only one who thinks that!) And the Doctor...

Arguably, this is the moment where the Doctor becomes the Doctor proper. I know that other people will point to 'The Edge of Destruction', where he finally softens towards his companions, or at some point in 'The Daleks' or 'The Sensorites' when he helps save planets for the first time, but Spooner finally adds a key element that's been missing from the character that will come to be indispensable. The scene where the Doctor wanders into a tailor's shop, and through a bit of puckish bluff comes out as a provincial official fully prepared to use his forged credentials to throw his borrowed authority around in order to wrongfoot authority figures who throw their weight around,'s the entire Troughton era for a start. It's a tried and tested standard of the series all the way up until the psychic paper makes it virtually effortless, and Hartnell nails it so well on his first try that you can understand exactly why that is. The way his face remains stern while his eyes twinkle with mischief just sells every moment of his deception, both at the tailor and in the prison. There's something so natural about seeing the Doctor bluff his way into the halls of power, all the while giggling at the absurdity of it all, that it really feels like the show has come home.

And of course, bluffing his way into authority carries with it the constant threat of discovery, and embroils himself deeper into events...while bringing him face to face with one of the great architects of events. Yep, that's exactly how the series comes to work from now on. This is where Spooner comes into his own, and where his influence on the series and its protagonist begins to be felt most clearly.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guests of Madame Guillotine

I'm not going to say that Dennis Spooner isn't an immensely talented and influential writer who really transformed Doctor Who from the slightly staid, educational series that it started out as into the adventure series it became. It's not an argument you can seriously make. But I will go so far as to say that there are weaknesses to his approach, and "Guests of Madame Guillotine" serves to highlight them.

Because like I said about the previous episode, Spooner's approach is to take us out of Historical Revolutionary France and into Storybook Revolutionary France. We're no longer sourcing our material from the history books; we're sourcing from 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'. The heroes are wandering through the tropes associated with this era, rather than its lived experience. Now to a certain extent, that's a very intelligent move, and it's part of the reason that Spooner's scripts always feel so modern--characters in most stories now are aware of the tropes of the stories they're in, and consciously exploit or avoid them on a frequent basis. Stories like 'Cabin in the Woods' and 'Scream' do this all the time--it's just a feature that comes fitted as standard now, because the audience is so steeped in awareness of the structure and forms of drama that it seems unrealistic to have a character in a story do the expected thing when it doesn't benefit them. Spooner is basically inventing postmodern television about forty years early.

But the problem with this is that once you've committed to that decision, you have to embrace it. If the characters are consciously intended to be characters in a story, aware of its tropes and embracing the structures and forms of drama, then you have to actually embrace the structures and forms of a drama. Which means that if the main characters get locked up in a filthy, miserable jail cell in the middle of the Reign of Terror...they have to escape with ludicrous ease, because that's characters in adventure stories do. They just do. A prison cell is a narrative device to stitch two plot threads together in a story like this, not a serious impediment or threat to the heroes.

But this is a six-parter, and a six-parter in Doctor Who usually has at least one stretch of time-filling. The trick is to conceal it. 'Marco Polo' concealed it with local color and historical detail, but Spooner has consciously jettisoned that approach. And as yet, he hasn't quite figured out what to replace it with. So we get an episode that's pretty much a full-length stall (which isn't helped by the fact that Ian's only appearance in this episode is in a couple of pre-filmed inserts, a la Bela Lugosi in 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'. And yes, that particular comparison is deliberate. And no, it's not intended as a compliment.)

The only bit of actual plot in the entire episode is Webster's dying confession to Ian. Everything else is an exercise in killing time until the end credits run; Susan and Barbara dig a tunnel only to give up when it gets hard, and the Doctor spends the entire episode walking to Paris, with the exception of a brief and pointless sequence where he apparently beats a man to death with a shovel. These are things that should be handled by a montage, or better yet a dissolve to the next plot point, but instead they're shown in detail. The Lucarotti model could get away with that, because it was at least making a pretense at realism. You could justify spending a whole episode in a grotty jail cell, with Susan despondent and Barbara trying to cheer her up, because it's the sort of thing that really happened to people in jail cells and they really did get miserable and desperate and terrified. They even try to reference their imprisonment in 'An Unearthly Child', but the atmosphere is light-years away.

This is storybook jail, now. Storybook jails exist only as a place to leave. Which means that this episode, in the Spooner model, doesn't need to happen. As he gets used to the style of television he's creating, he'll come to realize that, but for right now, the longeurs of the plot are all too exposed. Which leaves us just as frustrated and trapped for most of this episode as the characters themselves.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Land of Fear

This is, of course, the first episode to be credited to Dennis Spooner, who will go on to be a major creative force on the series. It's safe to say that the difference is immediately noticeable--the previous historicals, with the exception of Coburn's opening script (which is not so much a historical as a prehistorical anyway) were all by the same gentleman, John Lucarotti, who took a view that the essence of the historical was, well...history. 'Marco Polo' and 'The Aztecs' felt very much like stories that could not have been told at any other time or place; 'Marco Polo' centers on Marco Polo and his efforts to return to Venice to the point where he gets the concluding swordfight against the villain, while 'The Aztecs' keyed in on the clash of values between the 20th century European viewpoint espoused by Barbara and that of the Aztec civilization. Even when Lucarotti wasn't being out-and-out educational, he still focused his writing on the importance of the setting to events.

Whereas here, Spooner is already making it clear that he's less interested in history as a series of events as an aesthetic. The Reign of Terror is important to 'The Reign of Terror', but it's important as a setting and a collection of tropes. It's a backdrop for the latest exciting adventures of the Doctor and his companions, a collection of snarling peasants and sniveling aristocrats and mentions of Madame Guillotine. The fiction of the French Revolution is almost as important as the fact, which explains why it's episode one and we're already getting Rouvray as a sort of pseudo-Pimpernel. (Only a much less effective one. "They seek him here, they shoot him there, he lies on the floor and bleeds everywhere!")

The change is evident in the efficiency of the scripts--as an evocation of a time, a place and a specific culture, "A Land of Fear" is nowhere near as solid as "The Roof of the World" and "The Temple of Evil"...but as a mechanism for getting the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara separated and into a series of entertaining predicaments, it's lightning-quick and brutally effective. The pace of this episode even by modern standards, and it's no surprise that many of its tropes were still used decades later. (Set "A Land of Fear" next to Part One of 'The Visitation', and it's like looking at twins.)

It's more than just the pacing, it's the attitude as well. 'Marco Polo' and 'The Aztecs' got the main cast into period garb as well, but there's nothing quite as charming as the way the cast upends the trunk full of costumes and gleefully plays dress-up. The previous stories also had their hints that Ian and Barbara might be on their way home, but never played with such rueful comedy as here. (And it's worth noting that Spooner's first script is also the first point where Ian and Barbara admit, if only to each other, that they're not exactly disappointed at the thought of continuing their journey on the TARDIS.)

If you did want to make a bit of a complaint, it's hard to ignore that this approach is a bit of "does what it says on the tin"; the downside of valuing the setting more as a backdrop for the Doctor's adventures is that, well, it reduces the setting to a backdrop for the Doctor's adventures. It's no wonder the pure historical starts becoming less important from here on out--if the Doctor is just doing "Doctory" things in a variety of settings, then surely it's hard to argue that it's not more fun to include monsters and aliens in among the famous historical figures, right?

It's also the point at which you really start to understand just why Carole Anne Ford wanted to ditch the show. There are a lot of scenes in "A Land of Fear" where she just stands there staring at the camera while everyone else is talking. She makes the most of her lines, and certainly gives her all when the script gives her something to do, but it's really noticeable here that the writers just aren't as interested in her as they are in the other characters. She's still got fourteen episodes to go, but the writing is on the wall--all Susan seems to be good for anymore is to shout "Grandfather!" at the episode break. And the production team is starting to realize that pretty much anyone can fill that part.

Well, metaphorically at least.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Desperate Venture

They've been trying very hard to do interesting things with this story, but "A Desperate Venture" is really where the flaws of the opening two episodes come back full circle to hit the ending where it lives. "Strangers in Space" and "The Unwilling Warriors" tried to make the Sensorites into figures of menace, and it kind of fell flat because the Sensorites aren't very scary. The next few episodes worked much better because it made the majority of the Sensorites into sympathetic figures, and made the evil Sensorites into cunning plotters who schemed to bring about the Doctor's downfall without direct confrontation.

But here we're back to the Sensorites as figures of menace, and it just doesn't work. When they threaten Carol, it's hard not to wonder why she doesn't just shout loudly at them until they writhe on the floor in agony and then kick them a few times. Or honestly, she could just skip to the kicking--Ilona Rogers is a good head taller than her supposed captors, and it's hard not to watch the scene without wondering why she doesn't just give them a good smack and walk right back out. (Which is more or less how John resolves the sub-plot a few scenes later.)

This leaves the human survivors as the source of any remaining tension (unless you count the supposedly perplexing issue of how they can prove that the City Administrator was responsible based only on Carol's eyewitness testimony and the countless other clues he left behind, or the gripping question of where the hell Barbara got her tan in space). And they can't hold up their end, because they're pathetic. I mean that in the literal sense; they are figures of pathos, gaunt and delusional figures who look like they're about one meal away from dying of starvation without the heroes having to lift a finger to stop them. William Russell and William Hartnell try to salvage the scene by playing it as though they're more concerned for the men's welfare than for their own survival, but this episode is ultimately a series of anti-climaxes.

It could possibly have been salvaged by a different director--the new series would have played up the pathos of the survivors as sad, ultimately broken figures. Or a different take on the survivors could have played up the horror...if they'd been genuinely scary, mad in a sense other than they were, the terrors of being lost in the aqueduct could have felt real and tangible. But at this point, the story tries for pathos and terror and a happy ending all in the same half-hour span, and it fails at pretty much all of them. (Yes, even the happy ending--the Doctor and Susan don't even bother saying goodbye to the First Elder, or John and Carol for that matter. Instead, the Doctor gets a final scene of pointless dickery to set up a next episode that will drop that particular plotline like a hot potato.)

Even with all that, this sets up a lot of tropes that will be used well later. The series comes to love exactly the same sort of reveal that happens here--'The Enemy of the World', for example, uses the subterranean society in the same way that "A Desperate Venture" uses the human survivors. We don't ever get quite so many non-humanoids again as we do here, but the Doctor curing a "plague" and being seen off by the grateful benevolent leader and the cute couple that found true love over the course of four to six episodes is par for the course. Even the secretly-plotting snake in the grass (or worm in the apple) becomes fitted as standard into a lot of episodes. 'The Sensorites', as a whole, is a really good example of the kind of thing Doctor Who does. It's just not exactly an example that's really good.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I know this is going to sound strange, but this episode is really starting to remind me of "The Aztecs".

No, seriously. The City Administrator is very much in the same position as Tlotoxl--he sees himself as an embodiment of the values of his society, defending it against frauds and interlopers. As his plans to remove the contamination they represent fails, he grows increasingly desperate and is forced to do things that directly contravene those values in a purported effort to uphold them. At every turn, cognitive dissonance makes him rationalize the increasingly terrible decisions he's making (both moral and practical) as necessary to put things right.

In this case, of course, he descends further than Tlotoxl ever did. Tlotoxl only had Ixta stun Autloc; here, the City Administrator's flunky commits murder. But the same desperation that drove Tlotoxl and that has driven the City Administrator to this point drives him to what's actually a pretty brilliant set of improvisational moves. He at first attempts to frame the Doctor for the murder; then, when that fails, he frames his own flunky, uses the action as a means of improving his standing with the First Elder, then breaks his flunky back out of jail to aid him in the next step of his plan. It's actually a pretty slick trick, to the point where the Doctor, Ian and Susan's instant trust of him just seems a bit overdone and clunky instead of an act of pure stupidity and authorial fiat.

By the way, it's worth mentioning (since I feel like I have to say something about this sooner or later during this story and this is the penultimate episode) that I really couldn't tell you which one of the Sensorites is Peter Glaze without resorting to Wikipedia. (It doesn't help that the credits just call him "Third". I understand that none of them have names, but couldn't you at least credit him by rank? Oh, I suppose they change rank at least twice in the story, don't they.) Everyone who's British makes a huge deal about how Peter Glaze is in it, and how it's a big blow to the story's credibility, and how they keep expecting him to break out his loveable catchphrase from the children's series "Crackerjack!" (said catchphrase being, of course, "Crackerjack!" I guess you had to be there.) But to Americans, he's just one of the guys in suits.

I think that in some ways, this is a general benefit from not being British; we don't have these instinctive associations. We can see Beryl Reid and Nigel Plaskitt and Roy Skelton (well, hear Roy Skelton) and not immediately get thrown out of the story by remembering their other non-dramatic roles. It helps a bit if we can focus on people like Peter Glaze as characters rather than actors. Um...for those reading this who happen to be in the British Isles, maybe this helps. You know how you can watch Laurence Fishburne in 'The Matrix' without immediately thinking of him as Cowboy curtis in "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"? Yeah, it's like that only in reverse.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Race Against Death

This one leaves me genuinely torn. On the one hand, let's face it--this is the episode where the Sensorites seem to pick up the Idiot Ball and really run with it. In order for the Doctor to be the hero of the story, he has to make a lot of deductions that have utterly eluded the Sensorites in a very short span of time. He figures out that the water is toxic because Ian was the only one who drank from it; he figures out that the poisoning only happens in one district at a time, and that the reservoirs and not the aqueduct must be the cause. He tests the water, he finds the antidote, and he figures out that the fact that the aqueduct is shrouded in darkness and full of things making loud noises is not a coincidence, but a ruse to drive the Sensorites away. For him to do all this in the course of a half-hour (even with the aid of a "SCIENCE!" montage) makes the Sensorites look foolish indeed.

And then there's the City Administrator. Not only has he irrationally seized on the idea that the Doctor is EVIL! and must be stopped, but his logic involves believing that the Doctor has entered into an elaborate ruse to distribute poison to people who are dying anyway for Reasons. Oh yes, and if he gets into his TARDIS, he'll come back with a fleet of spacecraft and soldiers to enslave the entire planet. And the City's Administrator's grand plan, his big, shocking, utterly twisty scheme with which he will undo the EVIL Doctor...hinges on realizing that all the Sensorites look alike without their sashes. This seems like one of the most crazy dumb plans in the history of Doctor Who, an unopposed sprint to the end zone of stupidity with the Idiot Ball grasped firmly in both hands.

And yet...

The real truth is that people don't always react sensibly in a crisis. They don't always do the expected thing, they don't always act in a reasonable fashion, and they sometimes fall victim to blind spots in their perception of the process. Of course the Sensorites don't think it's the water--they tested the water and found it to be free of contamination. They didn't think to retest it, or test it at different locations, because they assumed that it was a natural phenomenon and thus a consistent one. The Doctor's breakthrough is in the way he reframes the problem by considering deliberate intent, allowing the scientists to find a solution. And of course, since he's assuming that someone's trying to poison the water supply, all of the seemingly disconnected events at the aqueduct fit an obvious pattern to him. (His decision to wander alone and unarmed into a situation where saboteurs are trying to kill thousands of people, on the other hand, could be a pretty big grab at the Idiot Ball.)

And the City Administrator's actions...while they don't make sense, they don't make sense in a very sensible way. His fears of an army of humans coming to enslave the populace and exploit all the natural resources is, let's face it, not exactly without justification given our history and the fact that the last two groups of people to come to the planet have wanted to enslave the populace and exploit all the natural resources. Once you start with that fear in your heart, it's easy to let paranoia carry you into developing all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories that don't make sense. Xenophobia and cognitive dissonance do most of the work once you start with the baseline assumption that any human-like being hides hatred in their closed and suspicious minds.

And yes, the idea of impersonating the Second Elder by stealing his sash is presented absurdly ("I had never thought of that!") but his later explanation makes it sound better. He's not just saying that all the Sensorites look alike; he's saying that all but a few Sensorites have never seen their leaders close at hand, and that they're used to obeying the symbols of office more than the individuals. It's no different from dressing up as a sergeant and expecting to be able to boss around privates. When you stop trying to think of it as a story and start trying to think of it as the realistic response of a society undergoing a crisis (actually two crises, one cultural and one of public health) it starts to feel surprisingly textured and intelligent. The characters might be idiots, but they're idiots for genuine and realistic reasons, not writerly fiat. Basically, they're Idiots without any Balls.

No, wait...

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hidden Danger

Wow. I think this episode may contain the single worst scene in Doctor Who history.

When Susan makes the somewhat reckless decision to entrust herself to the Sensorites, the Doctor and Ian and Barbara go after her. Does the Doctor try to convince her to discuss the issue rationally instead of making a unilateral decision? Does he express his concern for her safety? Does he buggery. The Doctor treats her like a cranky toddler who needs a time out, shouting at her in a horribly condescending and patronizing fashion. Honestly, it feels like the only reason he stops shy of spanking her and making her stand in the corner is that Susan folds so quickly on the one independent decision she's made since the start of the series that it makes you feel like she's been browbeaten to the point where she's afraid to make choices of her own. Anyone who thinks the Doctor is an arrogant, rude, sexist git to his companions in the new series needs to watch this scene, so at least they'll know he's mellowed some.

Other than that, this episode is surprisingly good. I mean, it pretty much does mark the end of any kind of menace the Sensorites have...once the Doctor defeats an enemy by turning down the lights and collecting the weapons they dropped in sheer blind panic over being in the darkness, you have to admit that they're probably never going to reach "iconic monster" status. But it's also where they start being treated like actual characters, which is a vast improvement and something Doctor Who has never really done often enough. Non-human aliens usually get relegated to "spooky spooky scary scary" status, but here the Sensorites are given a government, a society, and even some political intrigue to deal with.

And the political intrigue is actually intriguing. You have the First Elder, who wants to open up his society to outsiders; you have the Second Elder, who's doubtful about the idea but who's willing to work within the system to express those doubts. And you have the City Administrator, who's a straight-up xenophobe willing to undermine his own leader and the underlying structure of his society to "preserve" it from the alien freaks, and who's recruiting others to his cause. That's some pretty decent depth for a show that usually depicts alien cultures as "despotic tyrants" and "heroic rebels". Oh, and there's a plague going on that's been stymieing their efforts to cure it and decimating their citizenry. (And which doesn't strike the Elders, which may go some way to explaining why the City Administrator's not feeling too charitable towards them.) Admittedly, "mysterious plague" tends to come fitted as standard in Doctor Who stories, but still, it's some welcome complexity in a story that's been struggling to fill its six parts.

Oh, and Stephen Dartnell continues to impress as John, and Ilona Rogers gets in a good scene as Carol, and we're finally rid of Maitland and his plywood performance. Yes, this is picking up nicely even before Ian collapses at the episode's end. Doesn't mean I don't want to give the Doctor a good slap, but I still think they're finally hitting some kind of stride.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Unwilling Warriors

The frustrating thing about this story is that it almost, almost works. There are so many good ideas that just need a tiny bit of tweaking on one level or another to turn this into one of the classic "base under siege" stories. The Sensorites work brilliantly as an enemy, conceptually; they're telepathic monsters that feed on your emotions to control you, picking off the crew one by one by turning the enthralled crew members into weapons to terrify the others into submission. That's brilliant, but the script never properly exploits the sense of terror and paranoia the idea evokes--John, the crew member whose mind has been shattered by fear and guilt, has some wonderful moments as he tries to resist harming the others, but it's only an isolated minute or two in a script that's otherwise fairly tension-light.

The script also needs a larger cast for that concept to work--they need to have paranoia, tension, something to work against the Doctor's attempts to calm them down and get them to work together. No only are there not enough people for that, but Lorne Cossette and Ilona Rogers as Maitland and Carol play their parts so flat that you don't buy them as being terrified into submission, or even controlled, or...okay, I'll admit it, I don't know what they were going for, but they failed at it. It may be the direction that's to blame, though...Pinfield doesn't get good performances out of the regulars, either. Hartnell comes off as pompous and belligerent, and Ian and Barbara wind up just sort of flapping around the edges of the plot. (Although the script doesn't give them much to do, either.) The only person who should feel happy this week is Carole Ann Ford, who finally gets something to do as the one person who can communicate with the Sensorites on their level.

And the Sensorites, well...look, from the neck up, they're great. They have these crenelated, elongated heads with weird, wispy hair that makes them look ancient and arrogant and wise and strange...

And then from the neck down, they're wearing footie pajamas. There's just no getting around it--there is no way to make any monster scary when they're wearing footie pajamas. Just try to imagine it in your head, the Weeping Angels or the Krillitanes in footie pajamas. Reduces the menace factor pretty heavily, doesn't it? Couple that with the fact that they're apparently scared of the dark and flinch at loud noises, and it not only kills most of the drama of the slow-motion "chase" through the spaceship (and it's about here that I feel the need to mention that the spaceship's design scheme looks a little too much like brickwork to be convincing) but it makes Susan's decision to let herself be taken hostage, which should be a dramatic game-changer, look foolish. "If I don't, they'll kill you all, Grandfather! That is, unless you make a loud noise or dim the lights a bit. Then they'll have to leg it with their ludicrous feet."

Ultimately, a big part of the problem is that the script is trying to introduce a number of concepts that its audience doesn't have the cultural vocabulary to understand yet. Later Doctor Who stories would be able to take it as read that the viewers would know what telepathy is and how it works, as well as being able to drop things like "molybdenum" into the scripts without a pause for a brief metallurgy lesson. So much of the script is spent just getting across concepts that later generations would immediately understood that they can't properly set up the real conflict, let alone the twist that the Sensorites are more desperate than evil. In that respect, it's almost unfair to judge this episode by modern standards, since most modern Doctor Who can pace itself faster and do more with the same ideas precisely because of stories like this doing the heavy lifting in terms of explaining the concepts to fans. Which means we're back to the same conclusion as last episode--everything done here will be done better later, but that's a mark of this story's influence as much as its flaws.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Strangers in Space

The opening of "Strangers in Space" (at least, the opening once you get past the adorably awkward scene where the cast recaps all their previous adventures) is really one of the purest examples ever of what Doctor Who does. The Doctor and his companions land in an eerie, deserted, mysterious environment and are immediately presented with a puzzle...and with death. There's always more to things than immediately meet the eye, they frequently find traumatized survivors who provide cryptic clues to the mystery...and almost always, they quickly find that they couldn't leave even if they wanted to.

But at the same time, the very fact that this is the first version of such a perfectly-structured opening means that there's a lot of room for improvement. Maitland and Carol are both strangely detached in their reactions; they don't seem even slightly surprised at a bunch of time-traveling strangers suddenly piling into their control room, and they seem more irritated than terrified by being held prisoner by mind-controlling aliens. It could be that this was an intentional decision on the part of the production team, some sort of side-effect of the mind control, but the TARDIS crew doesn't seem to react to their unusual reactions. Plus, they're acting a bit out of character as well, particularly when the Doctor says no less than three times that there's nothing he can do and they should leave. (Although there is, as a counter-point, the adorable line, "There's not an ounce of curiosity in me. Now, young man, what seems to be happening here?") The net effect is confusing more than tense; you feel like you must have missed a scene somewhere.

Still, the episode is conceptually impressive. It's easy to get sucked into the atmosphere; creepy, mysterious, powerful aliens that can affect not just the protagonists' perceptions but the TARDIS itself have trapped everyone in an endless cycle of artificially induced fear, panic and near-death for unknown purposes. One crew member has already had his mind shattered by the endless torture and wanders the halls like the walking dead (or, to more accurately describe his appearance, like the Walken dead...seriously, if David Tennant and Christopher Walken had a love child, it'd look like Stephen Dartnell, the actor who plays John). This is really creepy and unsettling stuff, and it's no surprise that the series returns to these themes again and again over the ensuing decades.

It's also nice, as an aside, to see mental illness portrayed with a little sensitivity. For all that Carol and Maitland are concerned that John will harm others in his traumatized state, he's really more threatened than threat. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent or dangerous, and it's nice to see Barbara reaching out to help him once she gets over her initial fright. It's a welcome piece of empathy that doesn't diminish the atmosphere of the story.

The main thing that diminishes the atmosphere, sad to say, is the clunky dialogue and overly-mannered performances of the guest cast, along with a shaky performance by Hartnell. This is one of the first times you can really see him struggle with his lines--not just in a few infamous "Billy fluffs", but in a general reading of his lines that suggests he's working hard just to remember them. It's sad, even if at this stage it's more due to the rigors of the production schedule than the health problems that would eventually force him off the series.

At the end, of course, we see the aliens in the flesh. It's a nice reveal, nicer than people give it credit for--the Sensorites won't look so interesting when they're wandering around and chatting amiably, but the lighting and camerawork in this scene makes them look oddly skeletal and menacing. The tone may be off and the menace may not last, but "Strangers in Space" is definitely an important influence on stories yet to be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Day of Darkness

Everyone talks a lot about how Autloc's faith is destroyed in this story, but I think it's interesting to look at the depths Tlotoxl is driven to in "The Day of Darkness". He started the story as a keeper of the faith and defender of the Aztec way of life--if you don't mind me getting culturally relativist for a moment and pretending that a society built on imperialism and the brutal sacrifice of one's enemies to appease a bloodthirsty god isn't messed up. The point is, he is meant to represent a true believer in the Aztec society's code, and his objection to Barbara is that she's a con artist trying to lure them into heresy and the abandonment of their gods.

But in his desperation to drive Barbara and everything she represents out of his society, he's driven by this episode to manipulate the leader of the Aztec warriors into braining a high priest from behind. Barbara's schemes have driven to become the very thing he's terrified of, and the brilliance of his final scenes is that he knows it. His spitting, snarled epithet of "Let her go!" is the choked frustration of a man who feels defeated even in victory, and there's something forced about his invocation of sacrifice that belies the scene's attempts to convince us that he's won.

Everyone's desperate in this episode; after a brief moment of false hope, when Ian rigs the door at the beginning, there's a very real sense for much of the rest of the episode that the Aztec civilization is slowly closing a trap on them. Ian and Susan are framed for assault, Barbara's about to be entombed alive, and the Doctor...even though his fate seems like it's to be more pleasant than most, he's nonetheless trapped in this culture's ethos and ideals. Obviously, the trap is evaded, but the episode functions perfectly as a climax to the story. Having chosen to join the Aztec society in order to transform it, Barbara discovers almost too late that the role she's chosen is a prison without bars.

They do escape, of course, but not before Ian and Ixta have their final battle. This is a little bit of a strange note to strike; Ian is, after all, a maths teacher by trade. His scenes leading up to the battle, where he seems to be almost eager to have things out with Ixta once and for all, are surprisingly stone-cold and tinged with machismo. And yet, this is as much a watershed moment for Ian as last episode's confrontation with Tlotoxl was for Barbara. The two schoolteachers are coming around to the idea that this isn't Earth, and that they'll have to be very different people in order to survive their travels with the TARDIS. This story has left its mark on them, even if they didn't make a mark on history. That's the reason why the historicals always worked so well, even though they could "never affect things"...they could be affected, which is always the far more interesting outcome anyway.

The Bride of Sacrifice

So this is the one where Barbara the history teacher just straight up threatens to slit a man's throat within the first thirty seconds.

The thing is, Jacqueline Hill plays the scene absolutely straight. There's not a hint in her voice or her expression that she's bluffing, or that she's frightened or nervous about the act. This is really a watershed moment for Barbara, a point where she realizes that if she's going to play a game this dangerous then she has to be willing to be dangerous herself. When you watch Barbara in that scene, there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that she will leave Tlotoxl bleeding out on the flagstones if she has to. It's no wonder the man backs down.

That's just the opening scene, too. This is an episode that really specializes is racheting up the tension on every level. Each scene raises the stakes in its own way. Ixta makes it clear that he has every intention of murdering Ian in cold blood (while, in a series of events that are both bizarrely chilling and hilarious, insisting that this shouldn't affect their friendship). Tlotoxl moves directly to his next plan, convincing Tonilla to help him murder Barbara with poison. Barbara in turn foils that gambit, and plays her own counter--she tells Tlotoxl directly that she's not a goddess, and dares him to denounce her openly. Each move and counter-move draws Barbara more deeply into events, forcing her to put more and more at risk.

Then of course there's the Doctor. Much has been made of his scenes with Cameca--how much did he understand of the cocoa bean ceremony? How much of his feeling for her is genuine, and how much is him playing her along to learn the secrets Ixta's father may have told her? To his credit, Hartnell doesn't play it in a way that makes any reading obvious. He understands that there's value in suggesting both sides; it prevents the character from seeming unsympathetic or foolish. (Although the near-spit take he does while drinking his marriage proposal is great.)

It takes Ian, in the end, to confront Barbara with the truth she's been avoiding, the blunt fact that human sacrifice is a way of life for the Aztecs and not just a superstition. It's not just because he's human and the Doctor is a pompous and arrogant Time Lord (yes, yes, I know, they're not called that yet). It's because he's been out there among the people. He's seen who they are, the bad as well as the good, and understands that Barbara's view of them as clay to be molded into "civilized" people is patronizing and false. His own speech about Autloc being "the civilized one" isn't without its own prejudice, but at least he understands that they're not children who need the guidance of a Great White Mother; they have a way of life, and they don't plan on changing it any other way except through force. When he breaks through Barbara's conviction, she finally understands just how much danger they're in and how entangled in events they really are.

But Susan doesn't. She still sees herself as fundamentally apart from the Aztecs, a visitor and not a part of their society. She thinks she can take and leave their customs, learn their religion and not have to follow it. She still thinks of herself as...well, maybe not a Time Lord specifically, but at the very least an alien. It's no wonder Tlotoxl chose her to spring his next trap. Compared to the choice presented to Barbara at the end--will she see her deception through all the way to allowing Susan to be maimed and tortured?--Ian's "death by flooding" predicament that forms this week's cliffhanger seems relatively minor. Presenting both back-to-back, though, leaves the story wound up to breaking point.