Saturday, August 28, 2010

Our Friend From The North

That's a remarkably nice-looking, almost pleasant fellow by the TARDIS, a bloke you could go to the pub with. Given his reputation for being cantankerous (a trait also familiar to The First Doctor William Hartnell) it isn't a giant surprise Eccleston stayed on Doctor Who for only one season. With the exception of Paul McGann, who appeared only once as The Doctor, this will make Eccleston the shortest-serving Doctor in the franchise's history*, and he left by choice. Granted, I think it's an odd choice, but it's his career. If he thought G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a better use of his talents, more power to him.

Given that, he still WAS a Doctor, and as such should be accorded all respects and honors due to him. I've reviewed a few of his stories and will write on all of them, not just Eccleston's but his successors David Tennant and Matt Smith. The next review will be for Story 164: ALIENS OF LONDON (Aliens of London/World War III).

* Eccleston's Doctor had 10 televised stories while Sixth Doctor Colin Baker had 11 stories. Since I count two-episode stories as ONE story, the two-part stories ALIENS OF LONDON (Aliens of London/World War III), THE EMPTY CHILD (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), and BAD WOLF (Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways)count as one and knocks the total from 13 episodes from Eccleston's Era. Also, while many count Colin Baker's season-long The Trial of A Time Lord as ONE STORY with 14 episodes, I count them as FOUR STORIES (The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids, and The Ultimate Foe). Even going by individual stories, Colin Baker lasted longer than Christopher Eccleston, so in either count it would make the latter the shortest-serving Doctor. McGann's reign was shorter, but it was not for a season but for one television movie, so his case is unique.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A One and A Nine and An Eleven

Here at Gallifrey Exile, we've set ourselves a simple goal: watch and review every Doctor Who story available on DVD. This will encompass nearly 50 years of programs, some of which are alas, lost, probably forever. Being methodical, we will begin at the beginning with Story 001: An Unearthly Child, and then go from the surviving DVD released stories from Doctor Number 1: William Hartnell (the gentleman above) right down to Doctor Number 8: Paul McGann with Story 160: Doctor Who: The Movie (aka The Enemy Within).

Of course, as it stands many people believe Doctor Who began with this man, Doctor Number 9: Christopher Eccleston. As far as they are concerned, while all that went on before is important in terms of backstory, it's the revived version that they see. In a sense, it's a new beginning, a regeneration, if you will. Being that the case, I've opted to jump around a bit and also review these stories apart from the original series countdown, starting from Story 161: Rose, right down to Story 206: The End of Time.

Which leave us with this young man, Doctor Number 11: Matt Smith. I'm faced with a conundrum: his is the most recent series, and if I wait to get around to him I'll be more than FIVE Series/Seasons behind. Besides, I've spent this season already reviewing Story 207: The Eleventh Hour up to Story 216: THE BIG BANG * (The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang). Therefore, I'll skip yet again, and keep rolling with the reviews.

In short, I'll be taking Gallifrey Exile to three directions: Original Series, Revived Series, Matt Smith Era. At the end of every review, I'll let you know the next story in its chronological order. For example, the most recent Hartnell story reviewed was Story 012: The Romans and the next one will be Story 013: The Web Planet. I've already written three reviews from the Eccleston period--Rose, The End of the World, and The Unquiet Dead. A link will be put up soon, and the next story will be Story 164: ALIENS OF LONDON * (Aliens of London/World War III). As for Smith, once I post the review for THE BIG BANG I'll have a quick link to all those from Series/Season Five. I hope that will sort everything out.

* When it comes to two-part stories, I have adopted the policy of counting them as ONE story with two episodes as opposed to two distinct episodes. I also give it an overall title instead of calling it by both titles. Usually I'll use one of the two titles but on occassion will give it my own title.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Doctor Who Story 012: The Romans


A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the TARDIS...

Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone: A COMEDY, TONIGHT!

It might have come as a shock to Doctor Who fans to see the four-part story collectively known as The Romans (individual episodes The Slave Trades, All Roads Lead to Rome, Conspiracy, and Inferno--not to be confused with the Third Doctor story also called Inferno). It isn't because it's a historic piece: we've had two already (Marco Polo and The Aztecs). Rather, it's the fact that it veered toward comedy...a Roman farce, if you will. After ten adventures that, while having some humor in them were mostly adventures, and some quite dark, The Romans is remarkably light and comedic (especially given some of the elements within The Romans). That isn't to say the crew: The Doctor (William Hartnell), Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), or the newest companion, Vicki (Maureen O'Sullivan) didn't face dangers. On the contrary: most of The Romans involve them either getting into or out of threats to their lives, but they for the most part are done in such a deliberately funny way one can't help getting swept into the funny form The Romans takes.

The travelers, after having survived the TARDIS falling off a cliff, have been enjoying a respite in a Roman villa for about a month. While Ian and Barbara have been enjoying staying put for a spell the Doctor and Vicki want to go beyond their villa (which they are temporarily occupying while the real owners are away). The new visitors attract the attention of a couple of slavers, who become intrigued with these people from 'Londinium' in far-off Britannia. The Doctor, reverting to his short-tempered, irritable, and crotchety manner, decides to go to Rome and agrees to take Vicki with him. Thus they leave before the slavers seize Ian and Barbara, who themselves are split up respectively between a slave galley and, after a slave auction, at the Court of Emperor Nero himself (Derek Francis). As it turns out, The Doctor is mistaken for Maximus Pettulian, a noted lyre player who has been summoned to entertain at Nero's Court. Tavius (Michael Peake) who bought Barbara to be a handmaid to the Empress Poppaea (Kay Patrick), is overjoyed to see Maximus/Doctor at Court, since he is involved in a conspiracy of which The Doctor is clueless about, as he is about playing the lyre. Ian, having escaped with fellow prisoner Delos (Peter Diamond) when their ship is destroyed in a storm, decides to make for Rome to rescue Barbara. He is recaptured and made to train as a gladiator, and after the Emperor and Empress become displeased by the antics of the travellers, they decide to take revenge, but not before the Doctor gets inadvertently involved with the Great Fire of Rome and after a lot (and I MEAN a lot) of near misses the two groups manage to reunite with their travelling partner and return to their villa without knowing of the other pair's adventures.

The Romans starts off with comedy and never really lets up. The source of the comedy comes primarily through the dialogue of Dennis Spooner's script. Take, for example, in Episode 1. The Doctor goes back to mangling Ian's last name. This is the dialogue:
The Doctor: Chesterfield...
Barbara: Chester-TON.
The Doctor (to Ian): Oh, Barbara's calling you.
Same episode, when the Centurion (Dennis Edwards) questions the Doctor while he and Vicki are travelling to Rome:
The Centurion (pointing to the lyre the Doctor is holding): Is that your lyre?
The Doctor: Why? Have you lost one?

Finally, when referring to Vicki, the Doctor informs the Centurion, "She keeps her eye on all the lyres", much to her somewhat suppressed laughter. There's more pun-fun in Episode 4. The Doctor discovers Nero's plans to throw him to the lions (literally), and instead of showing fear, he shows his wit. He tells Nero that he expects his 'concert' at the Coliseum to be a "roaring success", even if it is to be his "farewell performance". He continues teasing Nero (who has no idea that The Doctor is aware of his scheme) by telling him he "always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste" and be "generally regarded as, well, palatable" (emphasis mine and his).

It's this word-play that keeps the lightness going, as does the antics in Episode 3. Here, we have the classic 'chasing down the halls' bit, where the lascivious Nero pursues Barbara with naked abandon, right down to chasing her round and around his bed. In the same episode, as Barbara & Nero run around the halls, the Doctor and Vicki keep missing her, and there's more hilarity with the Doctor and Nero while in a steam room and at Nero's banquet. All the comedy bits don't distract or weaken the more serious aspects of The Romans. We get glints of this in the slave auction and the imprisonment of Barbara and Ian. When the story requires a more serious tone, it delivers, and it's a credit to director Christopher Barry that we never get short-changed. When, for example, the minor character of Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot) is killed, it would have been quite shocking, but since it was done in a somewhat light-hearted way, we aren't as horrified as we should be.

The guest stars are excellent. Throughout the story, we wonder if Tavius is villain or hero, and Peake, with his gravelly voice and stern face, has us guessing all the way to the conclusion. The best performance is that of Francis as Nero. As I understand it, Francis was known to British audiences as a comic, and here he is quite hilarious, as when he attempts to make Barbara his newest mistress. However, he also brings quite a menace to Nero, whenever he threatens or acts upon his violent desires with no sense of guilt. Take for example Episode 4, when he stabs one of his guards for being 'too slow'. Nero is quite a monster, and Francis manages to show him as both childish and deadly. Patrick's Poppaea is by no means comic, but rather sinister mixed with a bit of irritation and vanity, though she also has some humor to her, as when she can't quite decide which bracelet to wear.

This is the first full story with O'Sullivan's Vicki, and here, she's not the central figure as she was in The Rescue. She at times did irritate with her gleeful jumping at the prospects of going to Rome or meeting Nero himself, but given that she was playing someone with a more innocent worldview that can be forgiven. Russell has to continue to be an action hero, and while he doesn't disappoint (both as a galley slave and a gladiator) he almost seems an afterthought. This probably is because he is separated from the others for three episodes. Hill has fun being chased about by Nero, but she manages the darkness of being sold with great grace and dignity, as also when she tends an ill fellow prisoner. Hartnell, I think, has the most fun. Here, he has a bit of the crankiness in Episode 1, but for the rest of the story he has an almost constant maniacal laugh, especially when he reflects that he may be partially responsible for seeing Rome go up in smoke. A side note: the part with Nero ends with the image of the Emperor playing his lyre while Rome goes up in flames, which may not be strictly speaking historically correct but which is beautifully filmed. A final credit should be given to Raymond Jones' score, which clues you in that this Doctor Who is lighter, funnier than was the usual fare.

From what I understand, there are Who fans who object to The Romans BECAUSE it is more comic. I disagree: I think there is nothing wrong with taking Doctor Who to a more comic turn, and given that we've gone through some very dark/sad stories (The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of Earth), it's a nice change of pace. In short, there's nothing wrong with being able to have a laugh, to have FUN. The fact that The Romans manages to get a lot of humor and to hold up logically makes for good, solid entertainment. To all Roman haters, I say Viva La Roma!

Next story: The Web Planet


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Doctor Who Story 011: The Rescue


A Vicki of Circumstance...

The Rescue is an important story in this sense: it established how a new Companion should be introduced. It also is a short story with two episodes, The Powerful Enemy and Dangerous Measures. Side note: if I were to follow the revived series idea of calling two-part stories by both titles (ie. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang), we COULDN'T call this story The Rescue but would have to call it The Powerful Enemy/Dangerous Measures. Since we don't, I elect to call post Survival stories by ONE title, period (ie. THE BIG BANG). Yet I digress. Above all else, The Rescue is a good, strong story, one that moves quickly, has remarkable effects for 1964, and gives a genuine twist that is for the most part logical.

The crew of the TARDIS lands inside a cave. The Doctor (William Hartnell) soon realizes he's been this way before: it's the planet Dido, home to a small community of peaceful beings. This, however, isn't the experience Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) or Ian Chesterton (William Russell) have. They are menaced by a strange monster, and this same monster, known as the Koquillion, has been menacing two survivors of a spaceship crash, Vicki (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Bennett (Ray Barrett). The Didonians have apparently been killed off, apparently at the hands of Koquillion, and Vicki and Bennett are waiting for a rescue ship. Vicki mistakes the TARDIS crew for their rescuers, but Bennett has a secret or two of his own...

In the space of one hour, The Rescue packs a great deal into it without short-changing the story or the audience. This is the result of Christopher Barry's strong directing and David Whitaker's intelligent script. Barry brought extremely impressive visuals to The Rescue: for example, in Episode 1 when Barbara & Ian look on the crash site it is one of the few times in early Doctor Who when the special effects didn't look fake but were integrated extremely well. This is also true of the end of Episode 1 and beginning of Episode 2, when Ian and The Doctor are close to falling over a ledge and into the den of a Sand Monster. The two levels were mixed in beautifully to where one could really imagine both were in the same space. The Rescue may be a simple story, but it is not told in a simple way.

There is a strong rapport between the cast (a total of five speaking parts--try getting that in any other Doctor Who, especially the revived series). This is clearly O'Sullivan's show as The Rescue basically serves as a showcase for Vicki. She handles the role extremely well: O'Sullivan creates someone who is sweet, innocent, almost a child in her vulnerability. When she has the truth of the crew's time travel she finds it all so hilarious, and her genuine disbelief at all that is brilliant. Her scenes with Hartnell are beautiful in their tenderness and gentleness. Hartnell has a reputation of being difficult on the set and crotchety as The Doctor, but watch when he and Vicki talk. Hartnell never fails to treat her on screen as a kindly old grandfather figure. He has a delicate touch with Vicki, and it belies the view that his Doctor was almost always bad-tempered.

Speaking of Hartnell, throughout The Rescue he is in top form. As stated, he is gentle when he needs to, but when he faces off against The Koquillion, he can be menacing, threatening, even dangerous. There is also a hint of sadness and a quiet inability to resign himself to the loss of Susan. In Episode 1 he asks 'Susan' to open the TARDIS door, but soon the crew realizes his mistake. No one speaks, but his face expresses sadness, confusion and embarrassment in a short moment. Barrett makes his Bennett gruff, unlikeable, which is exactly what he needed to be, especially when we discover his own secrets. Hill and Russell both have their moments: Hill when she inadvertently kills Vicki's pet and Russell when he faces the Sand Monster.

The Rescue even manages a bit of comedy. When Vicki learns that Barbara and Ian are from 1963, she figures that in a way, they are both well over 200 years old. Barbara especially does not like the idea that Vicki is, in a roundabout way, correct in her estimation of her age and her expression is priceless. Thanks to Barry's strong direction, there was never an uneven balance of drama/suspense and comedy/tenderness.

The only real flaw in The Rescue is at the very end. The Koquillion and The Doctor face off in the People's Hall of Judgment (very Communist sounding to me, but I digress), which looks like some sort of underground temple. Just when the Koquillion is about do the Doctor in, two men native to the planet (Didonians I suppose they would be called) come out of nowhere to take care of things. Given that we have been led to believe Didonians were extinct and that we've had no indication that any of them survived, this seems like a convenient cheat. Where they did come from? Where were they all this time? It made no sense and I object strongly to this. It ruins the logic of The Rescue, and given the twist (which is a genuine surprise as well as making perfect sense), it goes one too much to believe.

However, as it stands, The Rescue is a sharp, intelligent story which doesn't drain us. With Vicki on board we have a strong replacement for the teenage role in this 'family', and it is above all, a happy ending. "If you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!" the Doctor tells Vicki when she is offered the chance to join the TARDIS crew. That is something that could be said to any future Companion as well as to us the audience.

Next Story: The Romans