Category Archives: Dr. Who

Defense: Planet of Giants

Planet of Giants came out last September on DVD, allowing us to inaugurate the second season in proper fashion. This serial may seem a poor candidate for the defense, as its relative lack of action and plodding dialogue meant that even its creators cut it from the planned four episodes to the rarely seen three.

The serial starts in very promising fashion. While attempting to return to 1960s Earth, the TARDIS experiences a malfunction. Although at first it appears to have arrived without incident, the Doctor and Barbara, Ian and Susan quickly discover that things are not normal at all — they have arrived shrunk to only an inch high!

"We are NOT taking that home with us."

“We are NOT taking that home with us.”

This is a very different sort of predicament than the usual fare, and sets this episode off from any others I, at least, have seen. Moreover, they discover that the wildlife surrounding the TARDIS is all dead, which sparks another mystery. Unfortunately, this part of the serial is the least successful, as there are frequent cutaways to dialogue between individuals previously unknown to us and of which the main characters are unaware. This is a very kludgy way to clue us in on the mystery, and reduces the suspense, as we quickly figure out what is wrong, and the only question remains whether the Doctor and his friends can figure everything out.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

The story is redeemed, in my view, by the very creative way the design team constructed the various “giant size” sets, as well as the special effects used in other scenes. I feel this serial has the best set design of any serials to this point, with the possible exception of the lost Marco Polo, and rates very well with any of the First Doctor episodes. Such objects as a briefcase, drain and plug, notepad, and telephone are constructed very believably, and the characters have appropriate difficulty manipulating things that are far larger than they are. In point of fact, most of the sets were constructed quite simply, but that makes their success all the more noteworthy.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It's a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It’s a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Tension is set up fairly adroitly as the Doctor ends up down a drain with a full sink above and a plug about to be pulled, and later faces a pet cat who is looking for something to play with. The cut-down plot ends up working in the serial’s favor, as it would no doubt drag endlessly with an additional episode of padding. They probably ought to have adopted a policy of cutting out an episode’s worth of footage after filming every serial these first few seasons.

The Doctor has an insight.

The Doctor has an insight.

A masterpiece Planet of Giants may not be, but it definitely has enough to make it stand out from the other serials before and after, and for that alone I encourage a verdict of Not Guilty.

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Prosecution: The Myth Makers

Hello again, Mithradates here, and back on the job, sans my erstwhile partner. While I catch up on old reviews, I am continuing forward from my last stopping point, and have decided to post my impressions while they are still fresh. This will mean going out of order, but you can keep up with all reviews past and present via the links on the right-hand side of the page.

On to Mythmakers. Or Myth Makers. Nobody seems quite sure what the title is. Which is appropriate, because the serial is quite forgettable. In fact, I would call it hands down the worst Dr. Who serial to this point in the series. Yes, yes, I know, The Web Planet. But as I will say in my argument for the defense (when it appears: watch this space!), at least Web Planet was ambitious. Myth Makers, by contrast, is puerile.

The curtain opens with the TARDIS appearing on a dusty plain outside of Troy. It appears as Hector and Achilles fight outside the city, and in a true Doctor ex machina the  surprise appearance of the TARDIS allows Achilles to kill Hector. The Doctor is hailed as a manifestation of Zeus by Achilles, which is the first of many promising plot points that will be cast by the wayside.

The biggest flaw in the serial is the utter juvenility of the characters. It would seem that the writer wanted to show the Greek and Trojan heroes with feet of clay, and certainly the tradition from Homer forwards provides many human flaws to work from, but The Myth Makers takes this to absurdity. Menelaus is completely feckless and complains to Agamemnon that he didn’t really want Helen in the first place. Odysseus is sneering and scheming. Paris is a dimwitted coward. Cassandra is a shrewish harpy. Agamemnon is a waffling milquetoast. Priam is a naive bumbler. And on and on. Nobody seems to have any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

But daaaaaadddd, I want to be a hero too!

But daaaaaadddd, I want to be a hero too!

There is a certain laziness in the entire serial. The sets are plain and cheaply made, not for the first time in the show’s history, but a symptom of the shoddiness that pervades the serial. The actors chew through their lines with little enthusiasm. Odysseus overacts as bad as Tlotoxl from The Aztecs. Priam and Paris bicker like a married couple.

In addition, plot points are picked up and discarded randomly. The Doctor decides to follow Achilles’ lead and pretends to be Zeus, but when his ruse is discovered he drops it without fuss and proceeds to reveal to the Greeks that he is from the future! Vicki does the same thing when she is discovered by the Trojans. Up until this point the Doctor and his companions have taken pains not to divulge their true identities when traveling in Earth’s past; even in Marco Polo when he has to explain how they got to the Himalayas he simply tells Polo that he has a “flying caravan”. He never reveals its ability to travel through time. Here, though, he barely seems to care. He even is willing to show the Greeks how to construct a flying machine!

"While I'm busy contaminating the timeline, how about I invent penicillin for you?"

“While I’m busy contaminating the timeline, how about I invent penicillin for you?”

There are issues with the period dialogue as well. I don’t expect perfect historical accuracy, naturally, particularly when dealing with what is essentially legend, but what is the idea having Cassandra call Vicki a “puny pagan goddess of the Greeks” and Vicki “a heathen sort of name”, as if those terms have any meaning in the Bronze Age! Moreover Vicki, called “Cressida” by Priam, develops a love interest with the Trojan hero Troilus, an obvious attempt to set up the story of Troilus and Cressida. Except that romance was invented by the 12th century French poet Benoît de Saint-Maure.

"I hope you know we can't consummate this relationship for another 2500 years."

“I hope you know we can’t consummate this relationship for another 2500 years.”

Plot holes abound as well. Steven is discovered by Odysseus prowling around the Greek camp and is suspected of spying for the Trojans. Yet later Stephen easily convinces Odysseus to let him dress as Diomede and go out to face Paris, even though that would be a perfect way to get back into Troy and report if he were a spy. Later, Stephen proves to be a skilled swordsman even though he comes from our future and would be unlikely to possess such a skill. Finally, the Doctor’s first scheme to defeat the Trojans takes the form of folding giant paper airplanes (ever try to fold parchment??) and shoot them into the city with soldiers attached. “Hare-brained” doesn’t even do it justice. And when Odysseus sees one he remarks that his son  makes them all the time!!! Finally, Troilus kills Achilles at the end of the serial, which seems a curious departure from the legend when all had more or less gone according to “history” by that point.

That last bit is the final death blow to this serial, though. We know what happens to Troy. Although the Doctor makes a half-hearted attempt to convince us that the legend passed down may be very different from what actually happened in history, in the end everything happens as in history, except that Troilus kills Achilles instead of vice versa. There is some tension over whether the Doctor and friends will survive, but they are never in any real danger (although Steven does get a shoulder wound at the end which seems unusually incapacitating for a superficial injury).

Bad characters, bad acting, bad sets, bad dialogue, and bad plotting. That’s the Myth Makers in a nutshell. About the only interesting thing we discover in this episode is that the Doctor happens to carry around a 1920s Flapper outfit in the TARDIS, for reasons unknown. Oh, and Vicki departs. One wonders if a woman from the 22nd century will really find happiness in the 12th century B.C. No doubt she will have lots of time cooking, cleaning, weaving, and watching her many offspring die of childhood diseases to ponder her choice.

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Prosecution: Reign of Terror

The Doctor and his companions visit Revolutionary France, a period that is “the Doctor’s favorite period of Earth history” according to Susan. As I think I have mentioned before, I like these period pieces, as they add variety to series. Although the modern episodes have included more visits to Earth’s past, it seems that every occasion ends in an encounter with aliens, as if humans alone were not interesting enough. Alas.

The serial begins with the kind of uneven portrayal of Revolutionary France that characterizes it as a whole. The travelers find themselves mistaken for French monarchists, and are arrested by a group of rustic sans-culottes. So rustic, in fact, that they have difficulty pronouncing the word “guillotine”! Only the Doctor manages to escape, through the clever tactic of being knocked out. As the farmhouse is set ablaze by the revolutionaries, the fate of the Doctor is momentarily uncertain.

Susan displays her inhuman balancing ability, standing upright while unconscious.

Upon being taken to the Bastille, the three companions immediately try to escape, led by Barbara. Although as a history teacher she ought to be the centerpiece of the episode, she fails to accomplish much in aid of the group. In this instance, characteristically, her efforts to mount an escape attempt are foiled when Susan goes into hysterics after seeing some rats. Ah, how far the intrepid traveler in time and space we met in An Unearthly Child has fallen!

Susan in one of her more useful moments.

Meanwhile, the Doctor comes to and begins to make his way to Paris. There is an amusing interlude in which he is obliged to engage in manual labor, but he quickly escapes and eventually blends in by purchasing a French bureaucrat’s outfit using a ring in his possession. Which is very strange, given that the ring was said in earlier episodes to be a futuristic device. (The ring reappears later in subsequent episodes, so maybe he has a drawer full?).

In Revolutionary France, the man with the goofiest hat makes the rules.

The middle episodes are a bit goofy. There are many times in the first season in which the plot revolves around the travelers becoming separated, in order to prevent them from leaving. This is taken to extremes in Reign of Terror, as every member of the group ends up in prison or in front of a firing squad at one moment or another. Ian, as usual, shows the most pluck, and Susan is the least helpful in escaping. In the process, they become involved with a counter-revolutionary underground, something which seems to phase nobody except Barbara, who delivers an impassioned defense of the French Revolution (you go girl!). The aristocrats say they only know each other by their Christian names, but this leads to an inconsistency as one of the ringleaders is called D’Argançon.

“We are fighting for our God-given right to crush the peasantry beneath our feet.”

The writers attempt to inculcate some suspense by including that British bugbear, Bonaparte, as the rival to Robespierre. However, the Consulate wasn’t established until 1799, well after the death of Robespierre. Napoleon was actually a protégé of Robespierre, and was placed under house arrest after the Thermodorian reaction. Thus, his role in the serial is ahistorical.

“Welease me! Don’t you wascals know I am Wobespierre!”

In the end, some inspired fast-talking (and snazzy dressing) by the Doctor can’t rescue this story from its uneven pacing, non-French-speaking French, and ahistorical history. I ask the jury to find Reign of Terror guilty.

C.U.S. Ratings:

Susan: 4 (gets captured)

Barbara: 4 (gets captured)

Ian: 5 (conveys dying words of British agent, which don’t prove of much use, but form a plot point)

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Rating the Companions

During the first episode of Season 7 of the “New” Dr. Who, Asylum of the Daleks, one of the Daleks intones “records show that the Doctor needs companions.” I found this statement very interesting. Ontologically speaking, the Doctor does need companions, at least, we rarely see him acting without one or more humans in tow, even if they might be separated for plot reasons. An affection for humans is a big part of what makes the Doctor who he is — it is an essential element of his identity, in contrast to other Time Lords. In the same way, one might note that Gandalf ‘needs’ hobbits.

From a metanarrative standpoint, the Doctor’s human companions serve many functions. They provide a partner for exposition and dialogue, allow us to experience the strange worlds and times the Doctor visits through a familiar eye, and frequently aid in providing plot points. Many an adventure revolves around the rescue of a companion, or is triggered by something a companion does. In a functional sense, however, the Doctor doesn’t really need companions at all. This very episode is a signal example: Amy and Rory contribute absolutely nothing to the task at hand, and only serve to hinder the Doctor in accomplishing the main goal of the episode. It is interesting that the Daleks of all races would confuse ontological and functional reasons for the companions’ presence.

In any case, the relative uselessness of Amy and Rory in this episode is happily not characteristic of the Doctor’s companions in every episode. Quite commonly, they provide critical assistance at one point or another. This inspired me to create the Companion Usefulness Scale in order to provide a qualitative measurement of a companion’s contributions to a particular serial or episode. With this handy tool, one can measure exactly how useful any particular companion is. A companion’s rating on the C.U.S. is a number from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most useful. To generate a companion’s C.U.S. rating, find the spot on the chart that parallels the single most useful act or service that a companion provides in the course of a serial. Thus a companion who stupidly gets the Doctor into trouble, but nevertheless is responsible for getting the group rescued, will rate highly despite any foolish activity he or she may have done previously. With that said, here is the Companion Usefulness Scale:

1: Companion causes the senseless death of himself or another companion. (Note: in exception to the above, a companion who manages to get someone killed rates a “1” regardless of any redeeming acts performed later in the serial).

2: Companion causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue through a palpably stupid or shortsighted act. Examples: Pushing a button that says “do not push”, going against the Doctor’s express orders, etc.

3: Companion  causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue through miscommunication or an act that a normal person could not clearly foresee would lead to such a consequence (despite the fact that anyone traveling with the Doctor ought to be more sensitive to such possibilities). Example: Assuming that one’s own cultural mores apply everywhere, such as offering one’s hand to an alien and finding out that that is a deadly insult on their world.

4: Companion causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue in a manner that could not reasonably be anticipated or avoided. Example: Arriving in what turns out to be a war zone and immediately being captured by a patrol.

5: Companion provides minor assistance to the Doctor. Examples: bringing tools to the Doctor from the TARDIS, monitoring a dial, guarding a prisoner, etc.

6: Companion rescues another companion.

7: Companion provides assistance that is critical to moving the plot forward. Examples: breaking the Doctor out of a cell, opening a safe that contains a needed key, procuring disguises that are needed to infiltrate an enemy base.

8: Companion provides the key insight or makes the key discovery that solves the major puzzle or problem facing the explorers.

9: Companion saves the Doctor’s life.

10: Companion rescues or saves the life of the Doctor and also solves the major puzzle or problem facing the explorers. In other words, the companion fills the role normally played by the Doctor.

With the Companion Usefulness Scale, it will now be possible to objectively rate the contribution of each companion in upcoming episode reviews!

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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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Filed under Dr. Who, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, William Hartnell

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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