Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Classic Doctor Who Level Two: What to watch.

The only way some people will watch Doctor Who.
Level two is for viewers with even greater tolerance for cardboard, corridors, slow pacing and dodgy effects.

But you will be rewarded with lots of retro-sci-fi and fun whacky weirdness.

See Level One here.

There are a good number of Jon Pertwee episodes in this set. He's the Patrician Doctor, the action-hero alien Buddhist exile with the fashion sense of a dandy and the combat skills of Bruce Lee.

Hubris is his weakness.

But as a little kid, I always found him reassuring.

I don't see Pertwee going along with 'The Doctor lies' or the angle that he turns his companions (the stand in for the children watching) into weapons.

A former comedian, Pertwee loved the role and took it seriously, believing that acknowledging the silliness around him would annihilate the suspension of disbelief.

He made a closet and cardboard into other times and planets.

Thank you, Mr. Pertwee.

Third Doctor

Weeping Angels aren't the only ambulatory statues on the show.
The Daemons 
Story: A tomb is unearthed in rural England and a demon, who turns out (naturally) to be an alien, is awoken.

The Master turns up leading a Satanic cult that aims to gain the demon's powers.

The Doctor is aided by the charmingly guileless Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and the UNIT crew, including Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton.

The story includes Nicholas Courtney's favourite line: 'Jenkins. Chap with the wings there. Five rounds rapid.'

The Good: Jon Pertwee's favourite story, and widely regarded as a classic, The Daemons is a fun but subdued riff on super-science as sorcery. Sort of Childhood's End, only on a village scale.

The production team was petrified they'd be denounced as endorsing and promoting Satanism to children, and toned down the original script. There was no outcry. A practicing witch did vet the script for accuracy.

Best of all, to summon the demon, The Master recites Mary Had a Little Lamb backwards.

The Bad: Natas Sivel!

"They're so cute. Let's adopt them!"
The Green Death (AKA My Little Maggots)
Story: A scheming and megalomaniacal corporate computer, BOSS, gets uppity and decides to take over the world. The industrial plant it oversees for Global Chemicals also produces deadly toxic waste that results in over-sized maggots.

Because WTF!

Originally I thought the giant maggots were part of the BOSS computer's plan to take over the world, but they're just an awesomely gross side effect. 

The Good: Giant, wiggly maggots. Regular maggots make my skin crawl. When they're three feet long and spit acid I like them even less.

The story also features Jo's departure and great Welsh bit players.

This pissed off the Welsh.

The Bad: The giant dragonfly. Some of the background maggots are actually inflated condoms.

They don't really look like that. SPANX works wonders.
The Claws of Axos
Story: An alien ship lands, crewed by beatific beings in spandex bearing gifts of free power for mankind. Of course they're not. They're really alien parasites that look like human hearts on legs with explosive tipped tentacles, all part of Axos, a seemingly mellow gestalt organism that's set on absorbing the earth's energy. And Axos has got The Master prisoner it's pulsing innards.

It was originally titled The Vampire from Space.

See Lifeforce.

The Good: The Trojan horse aliens: their true appearance is wonderfully hideous, if you remember the budget and the effects typical for the time. The gestalt nature of Axos struck me as a pretty wild idea when I was five.

Also, Jo Grant flashes her knickers.

The Bad: The blue screen behind Benton and Yates when they flee in their jeep is impressively bad, even for Who.

Exxilon: The Dalek's Vietnam / Afghanistan
Death to the Daleks
Story: The Doctor and Sarah Jane wind up stuck on an alien planet, as the TARDIS has been sucked dry of power by an empty alien city. Daleks and humans are also stranded on the planet, and they must cooperate to free themselves from the city's deadly grip. The humans must also get a cure for a deadly plague back to their planets, adding time pressure. Millions are dying every second.

The Good: The City. A sentient, power sucking edifice that destroys its creators reminded me of one of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles stories. The short term cooperation with the Daleks allows for some unusual scenes, but Daleks are too one note to be interesting, and the uneasy alliance doesn't last.

The first episode of the story I found especially atmospheric.

The Bad: How the Daleks manage to still function when they have no energy is explained away as 'psycho-kinetic power' which always struck me as silly. They produce kinetic weaponry… how did they do that without power? Do they have a telekinetic factory? On top of that, an Exxilon is left wandering around the interior of the TARDIS, and has been left there seemingly to this very day.

Fourth Doctor

Cybermen give a great back rub, but it isn't enough to win The Doctor over and they must resort to cruder methods.
Revenge of the Cybermen
Story: Our intrepid travelers arrive on a space station under quarantine, most of the crew killed by plague. Or is it? Soon mechanical men arrive to take control and dragoon our heroes into carrying explosives to the gold planet of Voga below.

The Good: Best costumes for the Cybermen until the new series. They look big, powerful. One helmet wobbles as the actor is shorter than the other, and they recycle sets for The Arc in Space, but that's Who for you. The bickering between the bad guys and not-so-bad guys is fun, too.

The Bad: Christopher Robbie's bombastic Cyberleader. Many people hate the character, but I thought he was great as a hydraulic-brained villain. Quirky. Which is more interesting than any of the other Cyberleaders, who are uniformly bland emotionless megalomaniacs.

Take this exchange:

(The Doctor has been tied up back to back with Sarah.)

LEADER: The Beacon is approaching Voga at ten thousand light units. It is time for us to leave.

DOCTOR: Bye bye.

LEADER: You two are especially privileged. You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system. It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it.

(The Cybermen leave.) 

I mean, come on, this Cyberleader is a real card!

What a dry sense of humour.

Sadly, I am the only one who thinks this.


The episodes' logic is dodgy thanks to a big last minute rewrite, and it shows.

Worse, the invulnerable Cybermen get another vulnerability: gold.

Previously they were vulnerable to gravity.

Next it will be peanuts.

You heard it hear first.

"Just trim a little off the sides."
Masque of Mandragora
Story: Malevolent alien entity meets Shakespearean Italy. The Beeb drags out their Renaissance costumes for a Doctor Who adventure that pits a prestidigitator and his power hungry patron against the rightful, enlightened ruler. Things get more complicated when The Doctor arrives accompanied by an unwelcome passenger: an evil energy helix bent on world domination…

The Good: The Beeb does Shakespeare better than anyone. Here, the village from The Prisoner doubles as San Martino. The massacre reminds me of Poe's Masque of the Red Death.

The Bad: The story is a bit slight and I don't like salami sandwiches.

The Doctor IS Sherlock Holmes. Mind = •BLOWN*
The Talons of Weng-Chiang 
Story: Young women are disappearing in Victorian London, and The Doctor (wearing a deerskin cap and affecting a very Sherlockian attitude) and Leela are on the case.

Of course Leela starts killing people.

I love Leela.

The Good: The supporting characters: the theatre manager Mr. Jago and Mr. Lightfoot are two of the most fun fellows to ever appear on the program. Apparently they were popular enough to inspire some spin-off audio adventures. Good for them. Wish The Doctor had revisited the pair, and the period. The BBC is best at doing Victorian era dramas, and this one hits the mark.

The Bad: A bit racist by today’s standards. As a kid, I had no idea the lead Asian character was actually a white guy in makeup. Yes, I was pretty oblivious. It came as a bit of a shock when I watched it again as an adult. The giant man-eating Rat of Sumatra is pretty lame, too, even by standards of the day. It's an ambulatory fur coat with buck teeth and a bad attitude.

"Me? I don't know what's going on either."
Image of the Fendahl
Story: Quartermass and the Pit meets Lovecraft via Doctor Who. It's weird. I still don't really know what was going on, but there are giant man-eating lampreys that turn into a woman (make subtext of that if you dare), a glowing crystal skull, and deaths aplenty. The Doctor confuses the Fendahl by asking if it would like a jelly-baby but actually offering it a liquorice allsort. The man is endlessly diabolical!

The Good: The atmosphere of dread. At least, that's what I remember most. The last time Doctor Who was scary. "How do you kill death itself?" Good question. The answer, apparently, is salt.

The Bad: Painted eyelids.

"They let us out of the BBC closet. I can breathe!"
City of Death
Story: A lighthearted romp through Paris and time, with plenty of location shooting. The Doctor and his fellow Timelord traveler Romana (Baker's wife for a time) are pitted against an alien who's been splintered through time and is trying to get back to the beginning of life on earth and prevent it from happening. Why? His comrades tried to take off in a damaged spacecraft, which exploded and in doing so sparked terrestrial life. He wants to undo the 'error'.

The Good: Written by Douglas Adams on a diet of whisky and black coffee, it's as clever as it is ridiculous. John Cleeese makes a cameo as an art snob. Adams recycled much of the plot for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which I enjoyed more.

The Bad: Hasn't aged well. Baker is at his silliest, which robs the series of dramatic tension. It's a different era for the program. Where before it delved into gothic horror, here it veers towards whimsical satire. Which could be a good thing, depending on your point of view.

"If you're the lion, Romana is Dorothy, K-9 is the Tin Man, then that means… oh."
Warrior’s Gate
Story: Almost an experimental film, it happens in interstitial nothingness, an in-between place populated by lion men, slavers, and robot warriors. Mirrors serve as gateways into a black and white universe of static pictures. There's trippy dialogue, gothic sets and dead people at a banquet covered in cobwebs.

Some of the episodes of this story were directed by Graeme Harper, who went on to direct a dozen episodes of David Tennant's Doctor.

The Good: The trippiness. This is one weird story filled to the gills with WTF.

The Bad: The trippiness is a bit, well, too trippy at times.

Fifth Doctor

"Is that The Starship Titanic?"
Story: The Doctor arrives on what seems to be an ocean going ship, only it's in space. It's part of a race around the solar system, with the prize being enlightenment: the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The human crews are led by Eternals, immortal beings who are bored out of their minds and desperate for distraction.

The Good: The whimsy. It's even more surreal than Warrior's Gate. And the Eternals are not depicted as implacably evil.

The Bad: The scenery chewing Black Guardian has a bird stuck on his forehead. Someone should tell him.

"This is the first time I've worked since you took my job."
The Five Doctors
Story: Multiple iterations of The Doctor are being lifted out of time and plunked into The Death Zone, an arena on Gallifrey where dangerous creatures fight for the entertainment of decadent Timelords. It's really just an excuse to assemble five ('Four, sir!') Doctors and more than a half-dozen companions in one story.

The Good: The story's a great nostalgia trip. Seeing Troughton, Pertwee, and Davidson interacting is a delight; the sniping between Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee being a highlight. Hartnell, who had passed away, is played here by a lookalike, while Tom Baker couldn't be bothered to show up and is represented by footage from an unfinished episode.

The Bad: The lame Cybermen pop in, muck about and get killed like flies. They're the most easily dispatched 'invulnerable' species ever. As Inigo might say, "This word, I do not think it means what you think it means." They're more tinfoil than steel.

The best line is also the worst: "NO! Not the Mind Probe!" We also get Sarah Jane flailing her way down a very, very slight slope as if it were a cliff. She gives it her all, but the slope's performance is… lacking.

"Can I get you some escargot?"
Story: The Doctor and team (Tegan and Turlough) arrive on a forlorn planet where people are getting sucked into the earth by evil telekinetic snails. No, I'm not kidding. The monsters were inspired by woodlice that had infested the writer's apartment.

The Good: Six foot tall woodlice sucking people underground. This stunt will be revisited in the new series by ornery, sexy Silurians. As sexy as Scottish reptiles can be.

The Bad: The episode is dry even by Classic Doctor Who standards.

Still not enough?

You're kidding right?


Then amp it up and delve deeper into time and space with… Level Three: Time Lord.

Coming next week.

Unless I forget.

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