November 20, 2014

RANKED: Doctor Who on Hulu

Shortly after my previous blog post, in which I ranked the eighteen Doctor Who stories available on Netflix streaming, I was alerted to the presence of a larger collection of stories available on Hulu Plus. If you don't mind three commercial breaks per episode (and having to pay for the privilege), you can watch all 18 stories also available on Netflix, plus 74 more.

I'm going to lump these into groups. Ones that I think will go over best with New Series fans, ones that I think are good stories but you might find a bit rough, ones that are mediocre/average (or may be rather tough to get through if you're used to contemporary storytelling and special effects), and ones that are best left untouched (or only for the really brave).

Note: These are listed in BROADCAST ORDER.

Start With These...
54. Inferno (1970, Pertwee, 7 episodes)
This is a rare treat - the Doctor witnesses the destruction of a parallel Earth, can't do a thing to stop it, and as all hell breaks loose around him, he's in the unenviable position to rally a handful of survivors - even though he can't save their lives - to help him get back to 'our' Earth to prevent the same fate here. Fascinating to watch England re-imagined as an Orwellian fascist police state, with deliciously evil versions of the Brigadier, Liz and others. Not so fascinating are the green gorilla monsters, but still, worth the longer running time.

57. The Claws of Axos (1971, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
I love this - golden aliens come to Earth, offering wondrous technology in exchange for nuclear energy for their spaceship. The Doctor isn't fooled, not for a minute. Boundary-pushing special effects (especially episode 4's psychedelic freakout) for 1971. And the Master and Doctor's relationship is fascinating. The Doctor's potential for amorality is never more on display; when he announces he's abandoning Earth to its fate, and is prepared to betray the Time Lords to the Axons, it's plausible that he's serious.

65. The Three Doctors (1972-73, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
66. The Carnival of Monsters  (1973, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
69. The Green Death (1973, Pertwee, 6 episodes)
76. The Ark In Space (1975, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)

88. The Deadly Assassin (1976, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)
The Doctor returns to Gallifrey, is framed for the murder of the Time Lord President, and has to survive a nightmarish trip through the surreal terrain of the Matrix to unmask the real culprit. Very evocative of The Manchurian Candidate with all its political machinations, and the Matrix sequence is stunningly imaginative. Very controversial at the time, partly for the image of Tom Baker being drowned, and partly for knocking down our perceptions of the Time Lords from godlike superbeings to corrupt and/or clueless bumblers.

91. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977, Tom Baker, 6 episodes)
A major character is an Asian man played by a caucasian in yellowface (and prosthetic eyebrows), but if you can handle that, this is a great story. And since the BBC's bread and butter was Victorian-era drama, the Sherlock Holmes atmosphere is superbly rendered. The duo of Jago and Lightfoot would go on to star in their own audio adventures.

105. City of Death (1979, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)

114. Warriors' Gate (1981, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)
The cinematic direction and avant-garde flourishes distinguish this convoluted and fascinating story. The third part of a trilogy set in E-Space, it involves a super-heavy spaceship stuck near the gateway to our dimension, who carry a slave race of telepathic lion-like men who navigate the time winds.

136. The Caves of Androzani (1984, Davison, 4 episodes)

If You Survived Those, Try These...
1. An Unearthly Child (1963, Hartnell, 4 ep)
It's a great first episode, with three decent bonus episodes tacked on at the end. It's amazing how much of the show's mythology dates back to these first 25 minutes, and how ruthless and machiavellian the Doctor is initially.

2. The Daleks (1963-64, Hartnell, 7 ep)
Despite show creator Sydney Newman's stern "No Bug-Eyed Monsters" directive, he had to admit his modest aim for an educational adventure program over teatime turned into a cultural institution because of this story. The Daleks are icons. As slow-moving as this show is, it's pretty compelling. The ethics of persuading a pacifist society to take up arms, partly for their own best interest but mostly because four strangers in a blue box need them to, is pretty sticky. And some awesome special effects shots that have aged quite well a half century later.

6. The Aztecs (1964, Hartnell, 4 ep)

9. Planet of Giants (1964, Hartnell, 3 ep)
The "Honey, I Shrank the TARDIS"plot dates to the early brainstorming sessions in the show's development, and they pull it off pretty darn brilliantly. Post production, they edited the third and fourth episodes into a single episode - even then, they acknowledged that the emphasis on dialogue over action could make for tedious TV. Smart choice.

45. The Mind Robber (1968, Troughton, 5 ep)
51. Spearhead From Space (1970, Pertwee, 4 ep)

52. Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970, Pertwee, 7 ep)
Script editor Robert Holmes and producer Barry Letts quickly realized that once they confined the Doctor to Earth, they were limited to two plots: Mad Scientists and Alien Invasion. Here they cleverly sidestep that plot - they've been here already - and throw in a not too subtle parallel to Middle East politics. What do you do when you oversleep, wake up millions of years later, and those pesky apes have evolved into the dominant species on the planet? The Doctor is in the unenviable position of trying to negotiate a peace between two mutually xenophobic species... and he fails spectacularly.

55. Terror of the Autons (1971, Pertwee, 4 ep)
A soft re-boot of the series, with shorter stories, a new companion (Jo Grant), and Barry Letts' master-stroke: an arch-enemy Time Lord, the Master. And in addition to the Autons, we have everyday household items turning into fatal traps: inflatable chairs, troll dolls, and plastic daffodils.

56. The Mind of Evil (1971, Pertwee, 6 ep)
A mess of a plot, but a lot to recommend. An homage (read: ripoff) of A Clockwork Orange that can't decide if criminal behavior is actually due to 'evil impulses' that can be siphoned out of a person's mind, or if that's the bridge being sold to the gullible politicians who buy into it. And Britain has an illegal nerve gas missile that it's trying to dump; shame on them.

59. The Daemons (1971, Pertwee, 5 ep)
The Master appears in his fifth straight story, and after sub-contracting an alien entity that yet again grows too powerful for him to control, and once more has to rely on the Doctor to save his sorry butt, you'd think he'd've learned. This time around he poses as a rural vicar (quite a treat to see him wearing a collar), while summoning a cloven-hoofed demon in the church basement. The Doctor is rather a jerk to Jo in this one, at least in the first scene.

61. The Curse of Peladon (1972, Pertwee, 4 ep)
By this season, the production team was stretching the "exiled to Earth, with certain exceptions" beyond credibility. But this is still a treat, an alien whodunnit that's all about joining the EU, with a bevvy of alien creatures - including the much loved hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri.

67. Frontier In Space (1973, Pertwee, 6 ep)
Doctor Who rarely attempted grand space opera - mostly because it didn't have the resources - but here they go all out. The Master, with the Ogrons, is secretly manipulating Earth and Draconia into war... and he's a subcontractor working for another menace who are waiting to pounce...  Most of this is capture/escape/re-capture writ large, but it's a grand adventure, and the Draconians are awesome. Pity, though, that it all falls apart at the end, and Roger Delgado never got the sendoff he deserved.

78. Genesis of the Daleks (1975, Tom Baker, 6 ep)
The Time Lords draft the Doctor into trying to prevent the creation of the Daleks. The debut of Davros, their creator, superbly performed by Michael Wisher. Terry Nation modeled the Daleks after Nazi Germany, and no story he wrote made that clearer than this. Lots of corridor acting, and a major cliffhanger copout, but some supremely iconic moments balance it out.

82. Pyramids of Mars (1975, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
92. The Horror of Fang Rock (1977, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
98. The Ribos Operation (1978, Tom Baker, 4 ep)

100. The Stones of Blood (1978, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
Part 3 of the Key To Time season. Blood-sucking rocks, a great villain in Vivian Fay, and a superb sidekick in Professor Rumford (who might be Vivian's lesbian partner...).  Great line: "Doctor, are you from outer space?" "No, I'm from inner time."

110. The Leisure Hive (1980, Tom Baker, 4 ep)

112. Full Circle (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep)
Underrated and overlooked.

115. The Keeper of Traken (1981, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
A civilization so placid that evil shrivels up and dies. Yeah, that won't last long...

116. Logopolis (1981, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
Tom Baker's last. Bonkers evil scheme by the Master.

117. Castrovalva (1982, Davison, 4 ep)
Peter Davison's first. Bonkers evil scheme by the Master.

125. Snakedance (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
The Mara (from Kinda) is back.

127. Terminus (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
Grim story, but look for the moment at the end of Ep 3. The Doctor is standing next to the corpse of the space pilot who inadvertently caused the Big Bang... consider the theological implications here.

128. Enlightenment (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
Yacht race in space. Devious girl pirate.

132. The Awakening (1984, Davison, 2 ep)
English Civil War re-enactments are inadvertently summoning a malevolent alien entity. And Tegan visits her grandfather or uncle or something.

133. Frontios (1984, Davison, 4 ep)
Giant alien woodlice destroy the TARDIS, temporarily. Another grim story; one of the last human space colonies are under siege from meteors from above, and said bugs from below.

152. Remembrance of the Daleks (1988, McCoy, 4 ep)
The first story to feature script editor Andrew Cartmel's 'masterplan' to re-envision the Doctor as having a deeper, darker backstory than just being a 'madman with a box.' Two warring factions of Daleks bust up stuff in the Doctor's old stomping grounds.

155. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-89, McCoy, 4 ep)
An extended metaphor for the state of the program; the Doctor and Ace are trapped in the Psychic Circus, which fanboy WhizzKid acknowledges as "not as great as it used to be, but still..."

158. The Curse of Fenric (1989, McCoy, 4 ep)

159. Survival (1989, McCoy 4 ep)
An ironic title for the final story of the Classic Series... but the Master hasn't been this awesome in over a decade, the cat people look pretty cool, and stuff blows up real good.

If You're Still Hungry For More...
The Chase (1965, Hartnell, 6 ep) - A bumbling troop of Daleks build their own time machine to pursue the TARDIS through eternity. Incompetently executed on every conceivable level (particularly the robot duplicate of the Doctor), this one is classified as "So Bad, It's Actually Awesome." Though the montage of Ian and Barbara safe at home is legitimately wonderful. (The Hulu version contains a clip of the Beatles performing "Ticket to Ride," which is edited out of the DVD release)

The Time Meddler (1965, Hartnell, 4 ep) - We meet another Time Lord for the first time, a comically mischievous meddler in a monk's cassock, trying to change the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, just for the hell of it apparently.

The Ark (1966, Hartnell, 4 ep) - The TARDIS lands on a giant spaceship in the distant future containing the last surviving humans escaping the doomed planet Earth, and new companion Dodo's head cold causes an epidemic.

The War Machines (1966, Hartnell, 4 ep) - the first story since the debut episode set on contemporary Earth, and the first story to feature a supercomputer primed to take over the world.

The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967, Troughton, 4 ep) - not quite as good as its legacy, but still worthy of viewing, though the character of Toberman is troubling

The Enemy of the World (1968, Troughton, 6 ep) - Dr Who does James Bond, and Troughton pulls double-duty as the villain as well. Be glad this was re-discovered.

The Web of Fear (1968, Troughton, 6 ep) - Fondly remembered for its atmosphere - Yeti in the subway! plus the debut of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a memorable climax. Though to me, it drag

Colony in Space (1971, Pertwee, 6 ep) - Impoverished space farmers versus an all-powerful intergalactic mega-conglomerate. And a doomsday weapon. Guess who wins.

The Sea Devils (Pertwee, 1972, 6 ep) - A virtual re-write of "Silurians," with less subtlety and more stuff blowing up.

The Mutants (Pertwee, 1972, 6 ep) - Better than its reputation, though rather patronizing in that we need the white fathers to sort out the lives of the indigenous people.

The Time Warrior (Pertwee, 1973-4, 4 ep) - Hello Sarah Jane Smith!

Planet of the Spiders (Pertwee, 1974, 6 ep) - Goodbye, Jon Pertwee.

Robot (Tom Baker, 1974-5, 4 ep) - Hello Tom Baker!

Planet of Evil (Tom Baker, 1975, 4 ep) - generic, homage to Forbidden Planet

The Masque of Mandragora (Tom Baker, 1976, 4 ep) - generic, nice medieval setting.

The Sunmakers (Tom Baker, 1977, 4 ep) - extended metaphor for state taxation.

The Invasion of Time (Tom Baker, 1977, 6 ep) - Such a mess, but fun to watch Tom Baker chew scenery

The Pirate Planet
The Androids of Tara
The Power of Kroll

The Creature From The Pit (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Yeah, the one with the alien that looks like a big green willy. And Tom blows on it. Oh dear.

Nightmare of Eden (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Drugs are bad, especially when they are the crystalized remains of nasty hairy space beasties. Tom sabotages the ending.

The Horns of Nimon (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Such a mess, but fun to watch everyone chew scenery.

Meglos (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep) - Such a mess, but nice to see Jacqueline Hill (Barbara from season 1-2) again

State of Decay (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep) - Decent story, undermined by the hand puppet at the end.

Black Orchid (Davison, 1982, 2 ep) - No alien menace, a murder caper, a cricket match, and it's short.

Resurrection of the Daleks (Davison, 1984, 2 45-min ep) Tedious and grim, but with good moments.

Delta and the Bannermen (McCoy, 1987, 3 ep) Genocide and mass murder at a holiday camp with a hip 50's soundtrack.

Dragonfire (McCoy, 1987, 3 ep) - Alien done as a Christmas pantomime. It almost works.

The Happiness Patrol (McCoy, 1988, 4 ep) - Orwell on acid. Be happy or else.

Battlefield (McCoy, 1989, 4 ep) - Doctor Who does King Arthur. Of course the Doctor is Merlin, who else could he be?

Only The Brave Dare...
The Edge of Destruction (Hartnell, 1964, 2 ep) - trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS, strong suggestion that it has telepathic capabilities. Great idea but executed poorly and awkwardly.
The Sensorites (Hartnell, 1964, 6 ep) - slow and tedious slog about xenophobia
The Rescue (Hartnell, 1965, 2 ep) - spoiler: Bennett is Koquillion. Now you can skip it.
The Web Planet (Hartnell, 1965, 6 ep) - revolution on a planet of insect people. epic in conception, tedious in execution.
The Space Museum (Hartnell, 1965, 4 ep) - revolution in a museum.
The Gunfighters (Hartnell, 1966, 4 ep) - aka Dr Who at the OK Corral
The Dominators (Troughton, 1968, 5 ep) - it's fun to imagine the title characters as a bickering gay couple
The Krotons (Troughton, 1968-9, 4 ep) - Robert Holmes' first script. They got better.
Planet of the Daleks (Pertwee, 1973, 6 ep) - Invisible Daleks, boring Thals, long slog.
Death to the Daleks (Pertwee, 1974, 4 ep) - Unarmed Daleks, boring Humans, interesting maze.
The Monster of Peladon (Pertwee, 1974, 6 ep) - Caves and corridors, corridors and caves.
The Sontaran Experiment (Tom Baker, 1975, 2 ep) - Filler.
The Android Invasion (Tom Baker, 1975, 4 ep) - aka, the alien plot falls apart if that dude looks under his eyepatch
The Invisible Enemy (Tom Baker, 1977, 4 ep) - Hello, K9.
Underworld (Tom Baker, 1978, 4 ep) - the one with the infamous CSO caves
Destiny of the Daleks (Tom Baker, 1979, 4 ep) - Terry Nation wrote this in his sleep.
The Visitation
Warriors of the Deep (Davison, 1984, 4 ep) - Sea Devils, Silurians, nuclear brinksmanship, all the elements of a good story, but nothing gels. And then there's the Myrkha.
The Twin Dilemma (Colin Baker, 1984, 4 ep) - Worst Doctor Debut story ever. Start of a long, sad decline.
The Mark of the Rani (Colin Baker, 1985, 2 45-min ep) - She sets a trap that turns people into trees. Trees. As if the acting wasn't wooden enough already.
The Two Doctors (Colin Baker, 1985, 3 45-min ep) - Unrelentingly grim, intentionally and unintentionally.
Timelash (Colin Baker, 1985, 2 45 min ep) - famously spells "Lame Shit." Sums it up nicely.
Time and the Rani (McCoy, 1987, 4 ep) - Worst Doctor Debut story since... the previous one.
Silver Nemesis (McCoy, 1988, 3 ep) - Cybermen vs Neo-Nazis vs oh god make it stop.

October 30, 2014

RANKED: Classic Doctor Who on Netflix

Eighteen classic Doctor Who stories from the 60's, 70's and 80's are available for instant streaming on Netflix. If you only know the 'new' (i.e. 2005 and up) series, want to investigate the old series but feel daunted by its half-century legacy and don't know where to start, here's our completely subjective ranking of the Netflix stories.

Before we begin:
- The stories of the classic series (1963-89) were broadcast in individual episodes (usually four, sometimes six, other times as little as two and as many as twelve ), usually 25 minutes in length, so a typical story runs the length of a feature film.
- In the black and white days (1963-69), the show was recorded virtually live to tape, and re-takes were very rare, so minor line fluffs and technical glitches were common.
- In typical BBC fashion, through the 80's, interior shots were on video and exterior shots were on film, so the transition between the two could be jarring. Complicated FX were also frequently done on film.
- We can't talk about early Doctor Who without talking about special effects. Before Star Wars, audiences were a lot more forgiving about hand-puppet dinosaurs, wobbly sets, latex alien suits, flying saucers on strings, etc. The BBC allotted Doctor Who about the same budget as a regular drama series, and the effects, such as they were, still were the most technically advanced television effects of the time.
- There are no Colin Baker (Doctor #6) stories on Netflix, except for his appearance at the end of "Caves of Androzani." Trust us, that's for the best.
- This list does not necessarily reflect how *I* personally feel about these stories, but more my estimate of how fans of the New Series might embrace these stories. I would, for example, rank the two B/W stories much higher.

OK, now for the list, starting from the top:

1. City of Death (1979, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writers: Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams under the pen-name David Agnew
This is my go-to story to initiate newbies. The plot? Briefly summarized: the Doctor and Romana are enjoying a holiday in Paris when they become embroiled in a time-traveling plot involving selling multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (all original!) on the black market to finance the scientific research of a debonair art thief who's actually an ancient alien war lord attempting to return to a pivotal moment in history. Baker and Lalla Ward have sparkling chemistry (they would later marry, albeit briefly), Adams' script is just the right balance of scientific gobbledygook, wit, and goofy humor, and the Paris location filming is great.
Watch For: a hysterical cameo appearance in Episode Four (I won't spoil the surprise)
Recycling: Adams re-used plot elements from this story and his unfinished/unbroadcast story "Shada" in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

2. The Caves of Androzani (1984, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Peri
Writer: Robert Holmes
Apart from the stupid and pointless Magma Beast, this is near-perfection. The Doctor and Peri wander into a web of political and economic intrigue centered around a precious mineral known as Spectrox. The character of Peri pretty much existed to be drooled over by campy villains, and Sharaz Jek, in his Phantom of the Opera slash BDSM mask, is the absolute pinnacle. Robert Holmes had been writing for the series since the late 60's, and his best tropes and anti-capitalist sentiments are on display. Ratcheting up the tension is the fact that the Doctor and Peri are slowly dying thanks to a casual mishap five minutes in, ultimately resulting in Davison's Doctor regenerating into Colin Baker. Davison calls this his favorite story, so much so that if there were more scripts like this, he'd've stayed in the role.

3. Carnival of Monsters (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant
Writer: Robert Holmes
For the previous three seasons, the Doctor has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords (though the definition of this exile was a bit malleable), but after the previous story (The Three Doctors, more on that later), he is once again free to roam time and space. And where does he land? In the cargo hold of a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Or so we think. And what does it have to do with the Amazing Vorg and his lovely assistant Shirna as he peddles his Miniscope to the gray, drab, bureaucratic denizens of planet Inter Minor? One of Robert Holmes' best scripts.
Look For: Ian Marter plays a dashing young sailor, and would later return as companion Harry Sullivan when Tom Baker took over as Doctor. Also Michael Wisher and Peter Halliday, two of Doctor Who's most memorable guest actors, under the gray makeup.

4. The Ark In Space (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companions: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Writer: Robert Holmes (sensing a theme here?)
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry land on a space ark, thousands of years in the future, where the last surviving humans sit in suspended animation after the Earth is rendered uninhabitable from solar flares, but as these things usually go, they've overslept, there's been vandalism, and an alien menace lurks in the ventilation shaft. This is Doctor Who's version of Alien, but four years earlier and with no budget (and on television, so everything is brightly lit) but they still manage to make green bubble-wrap look menacing. There are some glaring limitations in the budget, but the concept trumps all.
Iconic Moment: Tom Baker's "homo sapiens" speech
Trivia: to save money, the set was re-used for "Revenge of the Cybermen" a few stories later.
More Trivia: The "In Space" was added to distinguish this story from the Hartnell story "The Ark," another story about the future of humanity facing peril on a space ark.
Unintentional Racism: The Ark's sleepers are genetically selected... and yup, they're all white.

5. The Green Death (1973, 6 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (and the UNIT team)
Writer: Robert Sloman
In an economically depressed Welsh mining town, a new petroleum refinery claims its process creates no waste, but the hippie scientists living in the nearby commune (led by the dashing Clifford Jones) believe otherwise. The Doctor looks in and discovers that, yup, the refinery is dumping its toxic sludge into the abandoned mines, which among other things, is creating a swarm of giant maggots impervious to UNIT bullets. The refinery's mysterious "BOSS" has a hypnotic hold over its employees, and turns out to be a supercomputer with megalomaniacal designs on world domination to achieve 'maximum efficiency and productivity.' A powerfully leftist political stance for the show, overtly conflating capitalism with inhumanity; definitely not recommended for Ayn Rand fans.
Famous Moment: At the end, when the Doctor sneaks out of Jo and Cliff's engagement/farewell party and drives away, alone and heart(s)broken.
Secretly Best Moment: Stevens' tear, after he regains his humanity and saves the world.
Trivia: Jo and Prof. Jones were a real-life couple at the time.
Continuity: The Metebelis Crystal would become a major plot element in Pertwee's farewell story "Planet of Spiders" the following year.

6. Pyramids of Mars (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Writer: Steven Harris (pseudonym for Robert Holmes and Louis Greifer)
Doctor Who's version of The Mummy. Sutekh, an ancient God, is trapped in a state of paralysis in an Egyptian pyramid by the Eye of Horus, a ruby sitting at the center of a pyramid on Mars. When his tomb is opened, he awakens and sets the stage for his return... with robot mummies. It takes a little while to get going, but Sutekh is one B.A.M.F. of a villain. The showdown between him and the Doctor is truly chilling, and one of Baker's best moments.

7. The Three Doctors (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (plus the UNIT team)
Writers: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
If you want to experience the first three Doctors in one sitting and don't want to sit through a black-and-white story (sigh... really?), this is your best bet. This tenth anniversary story was intended to exhibit all three doctors equally, until it was evident that Hartnell's infirmity would make this impossible (the writers' solution is clever, though). The interplay between Troughton and Pertwee is a treat. Omega, the Time Lord villain at the heart of the story, is played way over-the-top, the gel-guards are very very silly, there's a lot of capture-escape-recapture plot padding, but it's a whole lot of fun.

8. The Curse of Fenric (1989, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Ace
Writer: Ian Briggs
The Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras were arguably a nadir for the series: the budget and audience kept shrinking, the BBC execs wanted the show gone, producer John Nathan Turner wanted out, and many stories were (in our opinion at least) awful. But the 26th and final season was a brief renaissance, and this was the highlight, with a lot of concepts that laid the groundwork for the new series. It took 25 years to come up with a companion with a backstory, family, and an emotional catharsis to undergo, and seeing this in the classic series was a bit of a revelation. The plot? WWII codebreakers, Russian navy spies (who switch from sub-titled Russian to heavily accented English for no reason whatsoever), and a dormant Norse God coming back to life. And lots of monsters rising from the sea in latex masks. Or something.

9. The Ribos Operation (1978, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Season sixteen's stories, for the first time in the show's history, comprised an all-encompassing arc; each story centered around finding a segment of the Key to Time, and this was the first story. Although set on an alien planet, there are far more medieval elements than sci-fi. Two intergalactic con men attempt to scam the disgraced warrior prince Graff Vynda-K (an awesomely whackjob name) into buying a planet, and the Doctor and Romana are stuck in the middle. It's a Robert Holmes script so it's witty, funny, and wise, but its truly iconic moment is the Binro the Heretic scene. BINRO WAS RIGHT!

10. The Horror Of Fang Rock (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Leela
Writer: Terrence Dicks
A hastily-written script, but very effective. A shape-shifting alien crash-lands near an isolated lighthouse, and starts picking off the crew. It's a little slow-moving (and the episode one cliffhanger is a dud), but stick with this one. Particularly chilling (spoilers, sorry) is the body count: although the enemy menace is defeated, every character except the Doctor and Leela dies.

11. Spearhead From Space (1970, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Liz Shaw (plus the UNIT crew)
Writer: Robert Holmes
After an unprecedented six month hiatus (after running virtually every week for six years), Doctor Who did a full re-boot with a new lead actor, a new companion (who was also a scientist), a new Earthbound action-oriented direction, and in COLOR!! This one was shot entirely on film due to a strike at the BBC, so it has a cinematic quality to it. The Nestene Consciousness and their animated plastic soldiers, the Autons, were so iconic and tied to the notion of a Doctor Who re-boot, that they were also the villains of the very first New Series episode, complete with an homage to Spearhead's memorable scene of the shop window dummies.
Trivia: the film clips of doll manufacturing were originally set to Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," but the music is removed from all VHS and DVD releases.

12. The Leisure Hive (1980, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writer: David Fisher
When John Nathan Turner took over as producer after the troubled Graham Williams era, his impact was swift and dramatic: new credits and theme music, a new pool of writers, phasing out K9, an emphasis on synthesizer music, and experimentation with the latest special effects. Tom Baker is a bit lost this season, his seventh and final in the role, and his performance has an autumnal quality with a very tangible change of focus away from the overtly comic direction he'd taken the Doctor. The grab-bag plot involves cloning, nuclear holocaust, and an alien holiday camp. Director Lovett Bickford opens with a memorable panning shot on the beach, and the makeup work on the Doctor when he is aged several hundred years is outstanding.

13. The Mind Robber (1968, 5 episodes)
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Zoe, Jamie, and... Alternate Jamie!
Writer: Derrick Sherwin (ep 1) and Peter Ling (ep 2-5)
Of the two B/W era episodes available on Netflix, this narrowly gets precedence over the other, if anything for the boldly experimental plot and the boundary-pushing special effects (some that work, others that don't). The TARDIS lands outside of the known Universe, in the Land of Fiction, in which anything can happen depending on the imagination of the controller. Thanks to the 'anything goes' structure, the story is even able to absorb the temporary loss of one of the companions, when Fraser Hines' illness kept Jamie out of episode Two. It was too late to re-write the script, so a brilliantly unique solution was devised...

14. The Aztecs (1964, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Susan, Ian and Barbara
Writer: John Lucarotti
Probably the best of the surviving Hartnell era stories. For the first four seasons, the series alternated between science fiction-focused and history-focused stories. In the latter, the Doctor & Co. would land in Earth's past, get separated from the TARDIS, interact with famous people or critical moments in history, and attempt to escape without A) Getting Killed or B) Changing History. They land in an Aztec tomb which closes behind them, shutting them off from the TARDIS. The Aztecs hail Barbara as a re-incarnated goddess since she'd grabbed a bracelet off a corpse while in the tomb (um, eww...). Barbara appalls the Doctor and incites the wrath of the Aztec shaman by denouncing the practice of human sacrifice. Meanwhile, the Doctor has to woo the widow of the tomb's architect to find a way back to the TARDIS, Ian makes an enemy of the warrior chief, and Susan tries to avoid getting married. In the end they get out alive, but leave a considerable mess behind - shattered faith, spilled blood and broken hearts.

15. The Pirate Planet (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Douglas Adams (under the pen-name David Agnew)
Part Two in the Key To Time saga, this one's a mixed bag. A lot of great sci-fi concepts and a witty script, a fantastic villain in The Captain, and a nice twist at the end, but underdone by a weak supporting cast, some sloppy production work, and Tom Baker's alternately indifferent, silly, or over the top acting.

16. The Androids of Tara (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: David Fisher
Part Four of the Key To Time saga. The plot: Prisoner of Zenda, with androids in it. And a really, really, REALLY stupid looking Taran Wood Beast, so stupid looking that it almost hobbles the entire story even though it's on screen for maybe five seconds. The villainous Count Grendel is fun, and the climactic swordfight is sufficiently swashbuckly, but meh.

17. The Power of Kroll (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Part Five of the Key to Time saga. Doctor Who attempts King Kong, but with a giant squid. Not Robert Holmes' best script by any measure, hampered further by budgetary limitations and miscasting (though it is fun to watch Philip Madoc visibly seething that he's not playing Thawn).

18. The Visitation (1982, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan, Adric
Writer: Eric Saward
Saward has his fans, but we're not among them. The Terleptyl looks great, but there's nothing else memorable about him. Since the plot centers around the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, we'll bet Saward intended to set it in 1660's London, but the budget confined him to a nearby village with an apparent population of five. And the plot is one of the most egregious examples of capture, escape, re-capture. The vagabond actor Richard Mace is memorable, but that's about all there is here. There's no action. None. Just wandering around and talking for four episodes, with three crap cliffhangers in between. Others seem to rate this highly, but to us, it's a dud.

COMING SOON: The Best Dr Who Episodes Not On Netflix

May 16, 2014

Just saw... On The Verge at New Rep

I worked crew on a production of On The Verge in my tiny hometown theatre, the Players Ring, in Portsmouth NH in, oh, 1998 or so. I absolutely fell in love with this play, and in my mind his dazzling flights of linguistic fancy is only rivaled in this century by Tom Stoppard. I would sit backstage and let the words wash over me.  It helped that it starred three of my favorite actresses on the planet - well, three semi-professional actors from Portsmouth whose skills could match (and best) many pros - Peggi McCarthy, Nickie Fuller (Farr), and Kristan Raymond (Curtis), who fed on the text as if it were fuel. Director Michael Gillette wisely put the words front and center.

I saw it again at Arena Stage in 2006 or so. What a letdown. The greatest/worst example of a play sabotaged by its production design that I can conceive of, and three actresses with zero chemistry. A full third of the audience was asleep, and another third left at intermission. A narrow platform diagonally spanned the arena theatre, suspended over a chasm. I was distracted by the possibility of a castmember falling into the void, at least 16 feet down. And the actresses weren't connected with the material at all (maybe they too were distracted at the prospect of plunging). They memorized the lines and delivered them clearly (the least that can be expected from professionals), but exhibited no indication they had the slightest idea what the hell they were talking about.

A few years later, just outside of DC, Rep Stage took a stab at it, directed by the guy who directed the original production. The three actresses were better, as I recall, and the production was OK... I just had a problem with the guy playing the male roles. I learned later that he had some kind of condition that affected the way he talked, which accounted for the odd, stilted delivery. I gathered that he was not their first choice (I was invited to audition a few months beforehand, clearly indicating the original actor had dropped out, and had I been available I'd've definitely gone).

And I'm just back from seeing New Rep's production. I would rank this as the best professional production I've seen, though I must admit that the Ring production still is the gold standard. I think the key here is the abstraction of the staging. All the moving bubble-wrapped screens aside, this was a very minimalist production, arguably too minimal. Three chairs served as cliffs, bridges, etc., and it took most of the first act for the audience to glom onto and buy into the presentation. Too long. It asked for too much imagination from the audience too soon, and quite a few checked out. The Ring's production, in my opinion, was less abstract and thereby met the audience halfway and brought them across the chasm, so to speak. And in a small theatre, the emphasis invariably went to the words instead of spectacle.

More evidence that an Equity Card or a LORT contract is no guarantee of artistic validity.