Monthly Archives: March 2012

Defense: The Sensorites — A Well-Developed Alien Species

Just as The Aztecs marks in some sense the coming-of-age of the historical episodes of the first season, so The Sensorites marks a major development in the science-fiction episodes. That’s not to say that future episodes won’t have their share of goofiness (wait until The Web Planet!), but that the deeper sci-fi that attracted me to Doctor Who in the first place first appears in this serial.

Neither The Daleks nor The Keys of Marinus presented a fully-developed alien society. It’s easy to be influenced by the multitude of later Dalek-oriented episodes, but we learn very little about Dalek society in their first appearance, other than their penchant for extermination. Nor are the Thaals or the Voord much more than thinly-characterized groups. In Peter Newman’s story, however, we find a fully-articulated alien society, different enough from our own for misunderstandings to occur, but possessing deeper similarities, a tension that has made for much science fiction of the ‘self-reflecting’ category over the years — seeing human society from the outside.

The serial begins with a classic situation — the travelers come upon a derelict spacecraft, it’s location unknown, its crew senseless or raving. The crew is revived and the Doctor and companions learn that the spaceship is under the influence of the Sensorites, an enigmatic telepathic race that is able to influence humans, particularly if they are under emotional stress. The audience is thus primed to expect another race of ‘bad guys’, but as they investigate further, they find the truth is much more complicated.

Hi there!

Peekaboo, I see you!

Susan has one of her few bright moments in this story, as she finds herself able to communicate telepathically with the Sensorites. This was welcome, as her ‘unusual’ nature, hinted at in An Unearthly Child, had largely disappeared, replaced by screaming and general uselessness. (Not to blame Carol Ann Ford, as she was constrained by the sexist writing her character was given).

When the travelers finally reach the Sensorites’ home world, the Sense-Sphere, they find a society very unlike our own. All of the Sensorites look alike (a play on our propensity to think all foreigners “look the same”), and their society, government and architecture are all based on different principles than our own. Credit to Newman and the designer, Raymond Cusick (creator of the Daleks) for putting together a coherent alternative society.

The Sensorites turn to be, on the whole, much less malevolent than they appeared at first. This doesn’t remove the tension, however, as conflict nevertheless occurs due to misunderstanding and mistrust between the travelers and the Sensorites. Rather than appearing to be a monolithic group, like the Daleks, rifts are shown among the Sensorites themselves regarding the appropriate attitude to take towards the strangers among them. In fact, this episode is remarkable with respect to the amount of time none of the main characters are on screen. We are shown lengthy conversations between the Sensorites regarding the travelers, which goes a long way to make them a fully-rounded people.

SafetyDance

Little known fact: "The Robot" was invented by the Sensorites. They taught it to Ian and Barbara, who introduced it to the dance floors of London after their return to Earth in 1965.

Peter Newman’s script seems to present his attitude towards human conflict; that in any interaction between two peoples, there will be suspicion and mistrust on both sides, but that this is ultimately ill-founded. Rather, it is up to men (or aliens!) of good conscience to make a leap of faith and trust the other side. It is ultimately an optimistic view of human relationships. It suggests that there are no truly irreconcilable viewpoints, and that all intelligent beings ultimately want the same things. Which could serve as a motto for Doctor Who as a whole, apart from beings like the Daleks and Cybermen.

Hartnell’s Doctor, often a bit of a spectator in some of the early episodes, is in fine fettle in this story. He confronts the Sensorites early in the episode, showing a hint of ruthlessness in exploiting their weaknesses to compel them to negotiate. Later, he takes charge of the investigation into the poisonings in the Sensorite city, and journeys nonchalantly into the tunnels beneath the city. On the whole, this is one of his finer performances from the first season.

Sizing them up

The most perplexing aspect of the Sensorites are their reverse beards, which grow upwards instead of downwards.

The weakest part of the story are the supporting human characters. The ‘sane’ crewmembers, Maitland and Carol, are less-developed than most of the Sensorites, while the third crewmember, John, spends most of the serial babbling incoherently as a result of Sensorite mind control, leaving little room for character development.

But these small flaws pale beside the serial’s strengths. In short, The Sensorites points the way towards what Who could and would become. Acquit!

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Defense: The Crusade (1st Doctor)–Acting Greats, Shakespearean Intrigue, Strong Women

The Crusade is riveting Who that you should make time to watch. It’s Episode 14 from the second season of the First Doctor, and a four-parter. It’s on the “Lost in Time” Hartnell collection, and two of the four episodes exist in audio format only, though its easy to find the many stills stitched together in order to accompany a listen in various place online. The Crusade deserves your precious time for four reasons:

1. Character driven, actor-fueled high intrigue from start to finish. The storylines in The Crusade are bookended by two acting greats representing mortal enemies, Julian Glover as Richard, and Bernard Kay as Saladin. Just over one minute in, Julian Glover’s sonorous tones seize our attention. He was only thirty years old at the time, and the same commanding presence he’s reliably been since. The perfect choice for Richard, Coeur de Lion, or Melek-ric, as the Saracens called him. (Note that fourteen years later he appears as Scaroth with the Fourth Doctor in Douglas Adams’ The City of Death.) Interestingly, Julian Glover notes in the commentary to Episode 3 that he was hired for The Crusade just after having completed the 1960 television serial, “An Age of Kings,” which was director Peter Dews’ BAFTA-winning soap-opera style rendering of Shakespeare’s history plays. Douglas Camfield saw Glover in Age of Kings, and wanted talent like Glover and Jean Marsh in Who. A wise casting decision.

Saladin sees less screen time than Richard, but one wants more, given Kay’s superb, thoughtful and humanizing performance. He already proved his mettle as resistance fighter Carl Tyler, one of the standouts in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and here returns in a more substantial role. More on his stellar performance below.

Apart from Glover and Kay, the acting is solid in Crusade: Jacqueline Hill is luminous. (Saladin says, “her beauty lights the room”: and it’s accurate–Hill is especially good here–vibrant, assertive, demonstrating how indispensable she is to these early episodes’ success). Jean Marsh (later cast as Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan) is great in a significant part, playing Richard’s headstrong and politically cunning sister, Lady Joanna. Smaller but equally memorable parts include the duplicitous merchant Luigi Ferrigo (Gabor Baraker), and the colorful Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer (Reg Pritchard). The latter shines in a small role with delicious Simon Fisher-Becker-like bigness (of stage presence, not girth!). With few exceptions, nearly every role in The Crusade is linked to the complex web of illegal schemes or political maneuvering to curry favor with one of the warring sides. This complexity is a triumph of early Who writing.

2. It all begins with swashbuckling action. It throws the viewer instantly into the mix–there aren’t epic battles fought on-screen, but The Crusade hooks you immediately, outlining the greater war being fought. In the first moments, not one but two simultaneous swordfights break out involving the Doctor and Ian both on the defense. Barbara disappears, taken captive. And they realize they’ve stumbled into something big: the Doctor hears the Saracen name for King Richard, “Melek-ric.” (This stuff thrills me, and it’s great for hooking kids and adults alike on history (and science)–it starts those wonderful conversations, which Classic Who was so good at starting.)

They learn they’re in the woods outside Jaffa in the Holy Land. Barbara is a prisoner of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. All this in the first ten minutes. If this is what Who was aspiring to with “the historicals,” I want in–bring it on. Fantastic job bringing the viewer into the action. A little slow in the beginning of Episode 4, with the dual imprisonment of Barbara and Ian and some languid dialog, particularly the hokey accent and scheme of Ian’s captor. You’ll wince at the repeated (but not necessarily inaccurate) caricature of a middle Easterner intoning those “you are my truly, truly brother” lines; but that’s quickly resolved, and it’s the exception to the rule of complexity and great writing in this four-parter.

3. Fantastic writing, every bit as good as (better than?) Moffat’s Nu-Who Scripts. David Whitaker is the writer here, and my new fave Dennis Spooner is the script editor. The Crusade is a spectacle of pacing and wonderful writing, proving Whitaker every bit as able to write captivating scenes as did Spooner in The Romans. For one example, the meeting between the Doctor and Ben Daheer, at 13 minutes into Episode One, and the following scenes, are emblematic of the rich comic turn Who took, as I’ve argued earlier, after The Romans. Watch how the subplot is revisited in Episode 2 to great comic effect. For a second example, see (approximately 20 minutes into the first episode) the quick-paced questioning of Barbara by Saladin and his brother, and her beautifully nuanced and timed responses:

Saladin: You rode into the woods?
Barbara: No.
Saphadin: You walked into it?
Barbara: Not that either.
Saladin: You arrived?
Barbara: Yes. In a box.
Saphadin: In a box? Ah, you were carried into the woods.
Barbara: Yes.

Hill’s acting sells the scene. Watch Hill’s delightful expression after that final “Yes.” Anyone that blames Who for bad acting or writing hasn’t paid attention. This scene immediately reminds one of the tightly written, and equally well acted, parley between Alex Kingston and Matt Smith in The Big Bang:

Doctor: Are you married, River?
River: Are you asking?
Doctor: Yes.
River: No.
Doctor: Hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?
River: Yes.

Continue to watch past Barbara’s “Yes,” and the scene facilely segues from comedy to discussion of life and death matters. It works. And it’s followed by another fantastic scene involving the rest of the TARDIS crew and Julian Glover’s King Richard, furious at the loss of his friends and refusing to help the Doctor and companions save Barbara from death. That’s just the first episode. So well written is The Crusade wordplay throughout that, like The Romans and The Big Bang–it’s pure joy to watch. It’s about the characters. Thus, of course, this is Who at its finest. For the opposite end of the spectrum, see my assessment of The Web Planet.

Another choice example of the stellar writing is in Episode 2, at 17:00, where another three-actor scene unfolds, “Who’s on first” style, as the Doctor is blamed by the Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer for stealing clothes. Reg Pritchard as Daheer, here as in his first appearance in Episode 1, nearly steals the scene. It’s great writing, a humorous, conniving addition to the plot, and a well-used opportunity to provide some clever moments to Hartnell’s Doctor (not to mention the moral questions it poses: is it morally acceptable for the Doctor to have stolen items, for his personal use, from a thief?).

Whitaker uses Richard’s play for peace with Saladin as the basis for the most compelling scenes involving the serial’s bookend historical figures Richard and Saladin. The two never actually meet, but are always talking about each other. The writing for Glover particularly shines. See, for example, at 4:20 in Episode Two, as Richard laments how his sister receives jewels from Saladin’s brother, while both sides “armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.” It’s Shakespearean. Richard is one of British history’s most romanticized Kings, so Whitaker’s willingness to forward the most noble reading of this episode, should be unsurprising–but it’s passionate, wonderful stuff all the same. Particularly satisfying, and a nod to what Who later becomes–where the Doctor “knows everybody that is anybody”–King Richard takes an immediate shine to the Doctor. Also notable, in Episode Two: “We dub you Sir Ian, Knight of Jaffa. Arise Sir Ian, and be valiant.”

The realpolitik wisdom-versus-ambition dialog at 13:00 in Episode 3 between Saphadin and Saladin, likewise, is tremendous; Bernard Kay’s Saladin, his expressive, haunted face, and his considered delivery of each line, conjures up the young Paul Scofield the following year in Man for All Seasons (1966). And at the beginning of Episode 4, the scene with Leicester, Richard, the Doctor, and Vicki is edge of the seat intrigue, particularly beginning at 6:12, where Richard admits to the Doctor and Vicki the political maneuvering required to keep the loyalty of men like Leicester, and maintain the support of the Church in Rome. The dialogue again is Shakespearean, directly conveying the dilemmas and court tensions faced by the king. Vicki despairs after Richard departs: “Can’t we tell” Richard that his campaign is doomed to failure? No, “history must take its course,” replies the Doctor. Whatever license Whitaker takes romanticizing Richard’s intentions, The Crusades remains satisfyingly a gripping “historical.”

4. Strong female roles. Finally, focusing on Richard’s play for a marriage-driven end to the Crusades allows not only for a broad portrayal of Richard, but also an assertive role for Jean Marsh. Richard wants to use Joanna as a bargaining chip to secure an alliance and peace. Richard dictates a letter through his scribe proposing an alliance with Saladin, promising to deliver Lady Joanna to Saladin’s brother Saphadin for marriage. Richard hopes this will secure the peace, making Richard and Saladin brothers. Joanna, though, will not be used. The Episode 3 scene where she confronts and threatens Richard, and where Richard accuses the Doctor of having leaked the plan to Joanna, is pure fireworks.

Likewise, demonstrating the evenhandedness that Whitaker applies to both sides of the conflict, Barbara’s capture by Saladin’s men, and faked rescue by El Akir, allows Whitaker to humanize Saladin. And Barbara is no potted plant, attempting three escapes. She’s given shelter by Haroun ed-Din (George Little), and if we didn’t already know El Akir was bad, we find that he kidnapped Haroun’s oldest daughter, killed his wife and son, and burned his house; the stakes are raised, as Barbara’s rescuer announces that he has vowed to kill the Emir El Akir. Haroun insists that Barbara must kill his younger daughter, then herself, if El Akir finds them. But, Barbara refuses–making good on the humanitarian instinct that failed her in The Aztecs, and despite the Doctor’s advice to not interfere with local customs. When El Akir’s men capture her, Barbara finds herself imprisoned along with Haroun’s oldest daughter in El Akir’s harem. Here, she tries, unsuccessfully, to escape the second time. While Barbara’s role is weaker than Joanna’s, she still makes her mark: she orchestrates an escape for Haroun’s younger daughter, giving herself up to El Akir’s men.

So while the scope of each of Joanna’s and Barbara’s roles are somewhat constrained by the story, neither of them “accept their fate.” Both woman are used as pawns, and neither accepts it. That’s refreshing to see, and very modern, particularly in a 1960′s period piece about the twelfth-century Crusades.

The Crusades is a fine and worthy successor to The Romans. Acquit!

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Happy Pi day!

Great day to teach your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews about pi. Challenge them to measure things and see how close they can get to the constant. My challenge to one particular little girl ended up in a flurry of 6 measurements with a tape measure, the closest of which was 3.1416. Not bad!

For more on Pi and Pi Day, as well as Pi to one million digits, see here.

And, Scientific American is offering yearlong digital subscriptions today for, appropriately, $3.14.

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Prosecution: The Web Planet–Early Who’s Weakest Hour

Last week and during my vacation, my good pal Mith and I got together for gaming, good company, and something we’d been planning for some time: we sat down for a Whoathon of epic proportions. We watched a good 24 episodes of consecutive Hartnell Who plus sundry special features, including some lost episodes and recons. We’d recommitted to watching “it all.” And “all” included, problematically for my sanity, The Web Planet. Even worse, our Whoathon started with The Web Planet. But having watched it one and a half times before (once interrupted by sheer boredom), I was well prepared for what lay ahead. My opinion didn’t change. And so, I represent the Prosecution–this one’s bad. Really bad.

So what do you need to know about Who’s 13th serial, The Web Planet? Well, primarily the three reasons it’s so bad. It’s well worth a watch if you’re a completionist as I am–there are interesting concepts explored, and some pushing of technical boundaries in making a 1965 BBC sci-fi serial. But these interesting concepts ultimately, as you’ll see, fail. In any case, watch it or no, you’ll be well suited knowing these three things about Web Planet, and moving on to the far superior 14th serial, The Crusade. And in no particular order, here are the three things you need to know.

1. An enemy needs periodic anthropomorphizing to hold the audience’s interest. Peter Jackson, in his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the risky choice to not represent the Big Bad Sauron with any human form throughout his series except in the brief prologue, showing the Big Bad fighting the alliance of Men and Elves. Rather, through the three movies Sauron was represented as a flaming eye, seated atop a large, and faraway tower in Morder. This worked so well in Lord of the Rings since there were proxy enemies aplenty: the Nazgul, Saruman, the orcs in Moria, as well as Gandalf’s (channeling Tolkien’s own words) masterful prose describing the all-too-humanlike enemy and threat Sauran once had been.

In contrast, The Web Planet’s Zarbi, the heroes’ threat through much of the serial, are actors wearing clunky, if impressively bulky, ant suits, who issue streams of repetitive (guaranteed to drive you nuts) electronic chirps that convey nothing of notable complexity. Not so much as an R2-D2-style humanizing with baleful chirrups and whirrs. Nope, these Zarbi are essentially mute drones. The Menoptera, in fact, say as much, telling us the Zarbi are little more than “cows.” How’s that for a thriller–rampaging, mind-controlled cows threaten the heroes for over two hours. And that’s what The Web Planet essentially is.

The Animus, who is revealed as the “real enemy” as the serial wears on, should be built-up so that the viewer will care. But the Animus is never given the full Sauron-treatment. That amazing scene of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, inside the rocket-ship in Episode Three of State of Decay and waxing nostalgic over childhood tales from Gallifrey of the Great Vampires, is a wonderful example of how such a disembodied enemy can be built-up simply through compelling dialog. It’s much like the scene early in Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf finally gives Frodo the full story of Sauron the Deceiver. The original crew members in State of Decay serve as chilling stand-ins and reminders of the omnipresent threat of the Great Vampire itself, just like the numerous smart, and Machiavellian, minions of Sauron. That gradual development of the “lore” of the enemy, and the notion that the minions are either zealous believers in some greater evil, or tragic and unwilling servants, gave me frissons of excitement. But there’s no such buildup here, either properly villifying the Animus, or giving us any buy-in to care about the enslaved Zarbis’ plight.

In fact, our Zarbi lack anything more than mute worker-drone “cow status.” The Animus is given little air time until the final minutes of The Web Planet. The Animus appears briefly merely as a disembodied voice in Web Planet Episode 2; only suddenly, in the final moments of The Web Planet, do we actually see the Animus. Small wonder we don’t care about the Animus, except to be thrilled that its destruction means we can finally leave the godforsaken planet Vortis.

2. Ballet moves in a sci-fi serial, generally, look like trash. I actually liked the bee-like Menoptera. After the nonsense Zarbi, the fact that the Menoptera could talk with the TARDIS crew, and had dreams and goals, was refreshing. Sadly, and tragically, given the amount of time spent developing and rehearsing their ballet-like “unique” movements, they’re mesmerizingly preposterous-looking. Their three-beat, ascending lilting sentences, with accompanying elbow waves and closing paws, are so distracting as to both sound like giant Swedish insects with speech impediments, and drown-out any substantive content in the Menopteras’ lines. The effect is all the more distracting when it’s clear that not all the Menopotera actors care enough to complete the effect: the upstart “invasion force” Menoptera that appears later in the serial does none of the bobbing or vocalizing–he merely waves his elbows and hands. His apparent recalcitrance to engage in the “Menoptera dance” jars us out of any suspension of disbelief (or catatonic state) that the serial managed to eke out of us.

So too their underground cousins the Optera: they sound and look like gruff, gutteral guys hopping around in felt outfits with big eyes and felt tentacles attached to their heads. But they don’t always hop: sometimes the actors decide to walk. And it jars us back to how spotty The Web Planet is. And the subpar triumvirate is complete with the Larvae Guns: they’re often mounted on small carts, rolling smoothly across the landscape–except when they aren’t, and the actors decide to crawl, again breaking the Vaseline-smeared ambiance.

Credit is due, though, to The Web Planet’s semi-thrilling invasion sequences: the scenes of Menoptera gliding through space down to landings on the Vortis surface are fantastic. Suspension wires are nowhere to be seen. And the fight scenes are among the best in the six-part serial. Much time was obviously spent getting these fight and landing scenes right, and it shows.

3. From there to here, from here to there, gaffes on Vortis everywhere. If Hartnell is known for “Hartnell fluffs” or line flubs when the rest of the serials sailed relatively smoothly about him, The Web Planet is famous for how nothing quite seems to work. The actors’ performances are lackluster: one scene where Ian sits on an Vortis bluff, William Russell looks almost detached and impassive while talking with the Menoptera Vrestin about his hopes for retaking its homeworld–a scene that should be filled with trademark William Russell enthusiasm. In that same scene, and all the scenes on the surface of Vortis, Vaseline is smeared on the camera’s lens filter so the scenes look “otherworldly.” Instead, it simply makes the serial look annoyingly smudged and blurry. Multiple times, the plot device of hanging a golden yoke on characters necks–including the necks of the Zarbi–fails simply because the yoke keeps falling off the characters’ necks.

Bill Hartnell sums it up:

Best quote of The Web Planet goes to the Doctor, speaking to the Animus as a creaky plastic shell descends and the disembodied voice booms at him, inviting him to step inside the shell: he dismissively gestures towards the prop, calling it a hairdryer. It sums up the entire creaky Web Planet mess for the viewer.

I, for one, was so irritated by so many of the Web Planet’s failings that I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the Isop Galaxy.

Convict!

Lime

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Prosecution: The Aztecs

Early Who tried to rotate between “historical” and “sci-fi” episodes, something foreign to this Who watcher for whom actual time-traveling into the past was a rarity for Doctors 3-5 (although this has thankfully been revived for the new episodes). So after visiting the Marinus, the travelers set down in ancient Mexico. This immediately made the episode interesting for me, as I am an archaeologist by trade, and the Aztecs are more unfamiliar to most western viewers than even the Cathay of Marco Polo.

John Lucarotti wrote this story, and Marco Polo as well, so it’s interesting to compare them. This is actually the third ‘travel into the past’ serial, if you count An Unearthly Child. In the first two, the travelers were separated from the TARDIS and the story was relatively simplistic, if at times convoluted: find the way out of there. The Aztecs is much more interesting, as it adds a twist. No longer are the party mere passive observers. The Aztecs poses a much more interesting conundrum: can one change the past? If one can, do you have the moral obligation to try and prevent what you perceive as morally wrong behavior. And if you can’t (or won’t), does that make you an accomplice to the crimes you witness?

The Aztecs begins with the TARDIS setting down in a historically inaccurate combined pyramid temple/tomb, belonging to the high priest Yataxa. As possessor (via theft) of the high priest’s bracelet, Barbara is understood as an avatar of the priest, and a semi-divine being. She appears in the midst of a struggle for power between the priests Autloc and Tlotoxl. The latter is the High Priest of Sacrifice, and looks unkindly upon Barbara’s attempts to stop the practice. Autloc is more flexible (and perhaps more manipulable). (Note: The sacrifice is to bring rain to quench a long drought, so the god being sacrificed to is likely Tlaloc, though I don’t think this is mentioned in the episode).

High Priest Barbara

I think you could use a few more feathers there.

The main story involves the party trying to find a way to get back inside the pyramid, to the TARDIS, and Barbara’s attempts to change Aztec culture from the top down. Through it all, Tlotoxl (played in an over-the-top Shakespearean fashion by John Ringham) works behind the scenes to expose Barbara as a fraud and to kill the travelers.

malvolio?

Maybe I’ll overact a little bit, hmmmmm??

A subplot involves Ian’s enlistment as an Aztec officer and his struggle with the rather stupid warrior Ixta, who feels the honor should be his. Another involves Susan’s arranged marriage to the wonderfully named Perfect Victim. Most of these are dull and tedious, the only amusing moment coming when The Doctor inadvertently proposes marriage to the wise woman Cameca by giving her a cup of cocoa, which she accepts. The Doctor’s first wife!!

Marriage bells

True love for The Doctor?

While the fighting scenes are comical and Ixta’s incompetence more farcical than suspenseful, Barbara’s struggle with her unexpected position — and responsibility — are far more interesting. For once, she is the center of a story, and Jacqueline Hill plays the role well. I think that Barbara intuitively knows that her efforts to stop the practice of human sacrifice are a fool’s errand, but her persistence is reasonable and helps develop her character. In fact, I find everyone’s nonchalant acceptance of their impotence at the end rather off-putting. Even admitting the impossibility of changing a culture overnight, I would have a hard time taking it all in stride. Should Barbara have let the sacrificial rites go on before her, observing them as was her role, without lifting a finger? Isn’t that rather cold-blooded? The episode leaves these questions hanging, for the viewer to ponder after the fact.

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Defense: Keys of Marinus

noswimmingplease

Not the best vacation spot.

Fresh from their visit to medieval China, the travelers come to Marinus. There they uncover a complex mystery: a strange structure with no obvious entrance; a sea of acid, and several minisubs piloted by humanoids in wetsuits — the Voord. This sets up the frame story for the plot, which reads like something I would have developed as an RPG gamemaster in high school: The building houses the Conscience of Marinus, which has the ability to control the thoughts of everyone on the planet. The machine is inactive, its control keys hidden away by its guardian, Arbitan. However, Marinus is under threat by the Voord, and the machine is both the biggest threat to the planet and the only weapon that can defeat the Voord. So the travelers are coerced by Arbitan to obtain the story’s maguffin: the keys to operate the mechanism. Most of the remainder of the plot consists of small single-episode setpieces that involved a subset of the characters, as they split up to find the keys. Unfortunately, the sets and costumes for Marco Polo ate up much of the design budget, and the wide variety of settings for each episode no doubt required further economies, so that the locations for the serial come across as particularly chintzy. Since the serial is divided up into mini-adventures, it makes the most sense to me to review each on its own. One interesting element is the wrist-transporter, which allows its owner to travel through space in an instant; a handy plot device!

mmmm...brains

Barbara having a little brain to brain talk.

The Velvet Web is a classic sci-fi plot: the apparent paradise that turns out to be far different than it appears. This is due to a hypnotic trance created by several brain-stalk creatures that appear to be distant cousins of the Gamesters of Triskelion. This episode introduces us to Altos and Sabitha, Arbitan’s servant and daughter, respectively, who are involved in later episodes. Otherwise this episode is not particularly noteworthy, apart from the fact that Barbara ends up as the hero, as she defeats the aliens’ attempt to induce hypnosis and she manages to destroy them with the help of Sabitha. At last the women get something to do!

shorts

Couldn’t find the really short ones, eh Altos?

The Screaming Jungle is even less interesting — the team end up in a jungle of mobile plants and flimsy traps, set up by the guardian of the key, a man named Darrius. Ian and Barbara have to figure out a puzzle to get the key and escape, but much of the tension is weakened by their ability to pop out whenever they need to with a twist of their transporters. At least the hypnosis of the previous episode was more insidious.

The Snows of Terror is meant I think as a character study; Ian and Barbara are rescued from the cold wasteland in which they materialize by a taciturn loner named Vasor, who turns out (surprise surprise) to be not entirely trustworthy. Cellophane caverns and stock footage of wolves are the main antagonists here, along with the Slow Moving Silent Knights Who Scream, who turn out to be the guardians of the key. Another ho-hum episode.

so.....slow.....

Our special ability is moving very slowly and awkwardly. What? You don’t put your best men on a job like this, do you?

Sentence of Death turns out to be the saving grace of the serial, however, as this is in my opinion the best episode of Dr. Who to this point in the series’ history.  Ian appears in the location of the 5th key (albeit alone, for some reason), and find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Framed for murder, he must go on trial for his life, in a society in which the accused are presumed guilty. The alien courtroom will be a commonplace among sci-fi television, but it is played to good effect here, as the danger to Ian is palpable. This episode also sees the appearance of the Doctor familiar to fans of the series. Hitherto Hartnell has played the Doctor as a curmudgeonly, often cynical opportunist, perhaps playing off his character’s back story as a fugitive wanderer. In this episode, however, the Doctor is upbeat, even brash, confident in his ability to get Ian off. This marks an important change in the personality of the Doctor, one that will have great resonance in later stories and seasons.

The following episode, The Keys of Marinus, continues the melodrama and Ian is finally freed by a combined effort of the Doctor and all of the companions. Terry Nation does a good job maintaining suspense and providing a false resolution before coming to the denouement. It’s good to see all of the companions play an active role at the same time, and Nation plays with the now-established characters (as he did in several preceding episodes) by having Ian, usually the man of action, forced to cool his heels and wait for the others to rescue him.

By contrast, the final stage of the story is anticlimactic; the Voord take over the tower of Arbitan and a struggle for control of the Conscience of Marinus ensues. Nation plays well with a twist introduced earlier in the plot, but the sequence of events is predictable, and the outcome of all the shenanigans is merely that nothing happens, other than the characters manage to escape Marinus. In short, an uneven story with a few moments of brilliance.

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Defense: The Romans–Early Who’s Finest Hour

No time to mince words here: my main man Mithradates gets it exactly right when he says I’ve found I don’t have the time.

And so back to square one, regeneration-style. That is, this time it’s the same: but different. Per my original intent, I’m going to shoot at reviewing all the Who I watch. Also per that intent, I’m going to take a side–this one is on the Defense side. And, per my intent, I’m going to try to cobble together a vote between Mith and myself. But no time to waste–I’m going to push out the bare essentials, get it in the post, and let you peel back the onion yourself. My goal, as modified, is to get to you, dear reader, the essence of the episode. What to look for. The “bare necessities,” as it were. And so, onwards.

The Romans:

1. The First “Perfect” Hartnell Who Serial: I love Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and The Aztecs, but in comparison, The Romans excels in every category. It’s the first virtually perfectly paced episode of Who, and credit goes to the writer, Dennis Spooner. Dennis Spooner, who also wrote the First Doctor’s Reign of Terror (due for re-release on DVD in 2012, with two reconstructed missing episodes), went on to a well-deserved successful career writing for The Avengers, The New Avengers, Bergerac, and many other popular British television serials in the 60′s and 70′s. His early-career involvement in Who paid dividends, raising the bar in Who. The play between these three parallel plots of the Doctor and Vicki, Ian and slave Delos, and Barbara and “Caesar Nero,” is flawlessly executed. We’re treated to three great plots: The Doctor, stumbling on a murder victim and assuming the victim’s identity (with resulting hilarious plot reverberations), then becoming Nero’s bosom buddy; Ian, getting the Gladiator treatment and picking up a friend on the way; and Barbara, sold into slavery and pursued relentlessly by the Emperor. At the 2012 GallifreyOne convention, actor W. Morgan Sheppard commented that good writing such as Steven Moffat’s makes acting effortless, while bad writing makes convincing acting terribly difficult. That’s clearly the case here: for the second time, Who is graced with Spooner’s talents, and the team congeals in a way we’ve never seen before. Watch also for some great casting choices: Derek Francis as Nero and the subtle but wonderful Michael Peake as Tavius. The tying-together of the three plots in Episode 4 results in quite a few great moments of acting. Simply put, The Romans is the first nearly perfect Who story. (Caveat: haven’t seen Reign yet, but have seen or listened to all the rest.) Watch it.

And by the way: I’m a Spooner fan now. Spooner is cool.

2. Cinematography Shines: Well, except for that awfully cut stock footage of lions, it does. Note how Christopher Barry blocks the scenes, using minimal movement of the actors in relation to each other to keep the action interesting. For example, note the blocking of the actors in the villa–the Doctor in the foreground, Ian reclining behind him, neither looking at each other, but the faces of both key for to the scene’s progression. A second example: in the market scenes, Ep. 1, at about 6:30, we have the slave trader in the left foreground, and far in the distance, on the right, extras are milling back and forth to “fill out” and populate the marketplace, with good use of “crowd noise” played. It’s utterly believable, unlike, say, the Thal tribe in Daleks or the population of the Aztecs, which seemed to never go very convincingly beyond the key players themselves. Scene after scene, cut after cut, Romans is crisper and better than most of the Who before it. And watch for the three-odd live-theater-like moments where the characters break from the proceedings and stare directly at the viewer; interesting choice, and it works, given the comedic tones of Romans.

3. Great Use of Incidental Music: the incidental music seems so much better in The Romans than past episodes. I haven’t done a careful study. But perhaps because it’s historical serial, it was easier to identify “appropriate” music to set the mood. Just by way of example, the playful music during Vicki’s skip down the stone path at the beginning of Episode 1 ends clearly (unlike earlier episodes where the scene changes blurred with other scenes’ music), and the ominous music begins on the nose as the camera shot changes and we’re shown the thug sharpening his gladius. The same precision cueing is evident when we see the thug attack “the original” Maximus Petullian, and the music and camera shot glide, in unison, to reveal both the body hidden in the bushes, and the music’s end note. Again–have done no careful study, but while watching I noticed something palpably different about how The Romans uses incidental music, versus previous episodes. I think it comes down to precision cueing and good choice in music.

Bottom line: I’m thrilled more and more with each watching of The Romans. Watching from the beginning, while I loved Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and Aztecs, and see the seeds of so much later Who in those three serials, it’s The Romans that first fully, with abandon, attempts to sell me on the First Doctor and William Hartnell in his own right, in a way I was sold on Tom Baker in 1978. The Romans deserves a full acquittal.

Lime

 

 

 

 

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