Friday, January 21, 2011

Two Of A Lost Kind


There was a suspicion that The Doctor's most famous enemy would not be appearing in the revived Doctor Who. This situation was further exacerbated when we have the revival explain that the Doctor is the last surviving Time Lord, his people being destroyed along with all the Daleks at the end of the Time War. How could the Daleks come back if all of them had been destroyed along with all Time Lords? As far as we could see, the Daleks were finally themselves exterminated. However, now we find in Dalek that at least ONE Dalek survived...

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) receive a distress signal that leads them to the deep bowels of an underground museum in Utah, United States. There, they discover a hidden museum full of alien artifacts. Quickly discovered, they are taken to Mr. Van Statten (Corey Johnson), a billionaire genius who "owns the Internet" and has been collecting space artifacts in order to gain profit from them. He has his own scientific advisor, a British kid named Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), whose main job is to find the artifacts and figure out their uses. There is one piece in his collection that is Van Statten's pride and joy: a mysterious object he calls the Metaltron. The reason the Metaltron is so important is because unlike the others, it is alive. Van Statten forces the Doctor to have a look at it, and the Doctor realizes that it is the Metaltron that has been sending the distress signal. He also realizes that it is in fact, a Dalek--the Last of the Daleks who somehow survived the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords.

This Dalek cannot fight back, but Van Statten realizes that the Doctor himself must be alien and takes him prisoner. Meanwhile, Adam and Rose are bonding, and she persuades him to show him the Metaltron. She feels genuine sorrow for it, especially when the Dalek tells her that he "feels pain". She reaches out and touches it, and soon the Dalek transfers her DNA to himself, allowing him to free himself and strike back at those who've been torturing him. With the Dalek now loose and causing death and destruction, the Doctor gets Van Statten to release him and attempt to seal the Dalek off. They do manage that, but while Adam manages to save himself, Rose is left behind to face extermination. The Dalek, however, cannot bring himself to kill her. Her DNA, it appears, not only brought him back to full power, but has altered his own nature to where he takes on emotions unknown to Daleks: such things compassion and mercy. The Doctor is now hell-bent on rescuing Rose and killing off the Last of The Daleks, but in the end Rose makes him see that the Dalek isn't the one putting her in's The Doctor. Once the crisis is over, Van Statten gets what's coming to him and a reluctant Doctor takes Adam in the TARDIS.

Dalek is brilliant to tackle some of the criticisms the iconic monsters have had thrown at them since 1963-64. The most famous of the criticisms is the fact that its shape makes it difficult to move anywhere that doesn't have a flat surface. I think writer Robert Shearman put in that scene specifically to answer the charge that the best way to escape a Dalek is to run up a flight of stairs. The ensuing revelation of how a Dalek can move makes the moment even more terrifying, and it's a credit to The Mill that now we have the technology, we have the capability to create the world's first fully-flying Dalek (to misquote another program) to realize the full potential of the Daleks. We also get a nod to their distinctive design. Near the middle of Dalek, the monster lifts its plunger-shaped arm. The armed guard working at it scoffs. "What you gonna do? Sucker me to death?" Bad question to taunt the Dalek with.

Beyond the special effects aspects in Dalek, director Joe Ahearne created some especially sharp visual moments. When the Doctor first enters the Metaltron's chamber, we don't see much. Ahearne builds the tension by introducing elements slowly in the scene: that humming, that single blue light hovering, that staccatto voice.

Shearman and Ahearne also tap into the unresolved war between the Doctor and the Dalek. As the last of their kind, they find themselves continuing the war that brought an end to both their civilizations. However, we see an evolution in both the characters: the Dalek (thanks to Rose's DNA) is becoming more conflicted and even with individual longings of its own, while the Doctor is becoming more aggressive, more vengeful. Dalek does a fine job of maintaining the tension between these two aggressors who for most of the episode are actually kept apart. In fact, in Dalek they never actually fight each other.

Both leads are in top form in Dalek. Eccleston conveys both the anger and pain he feels as the last of the Time Lords, raging to where he literally spits out when screaming at the Dalek, and also showing something rare for this Doctor: sheer terror when he realizes he's in a locked chamber with a Dalek. He goes through so many emotions within Dalek, and Eccleston manages to maintain the range without going over-the-top either in the pathos or the fury. The best performance, however, is that of Piper. She has a soft vulnerability as Rose and conveys such tenderness to a big pepper pot that it becomes almost a tragedy. It is Rose that is the true heart of Dalek, because Piper projects the full sadness of destroying life, either physically or in an emotional sense. When she confronts the Doctor at the end, the scene is quite moving.

Langley does a good job coming off as a bit of a twit and a coward in Dalek, which is what the character of Adam was. In a smaller role, Jana Carpenter as soldier DeMaggio has a great scene guarding Rose and Adam. It is curious to see anyone tell a Dalek to surrender, but she in her brief scene creates both a strong and scared woman. Great credit should also go to Nicholas Briggs' voice work as the Dalek in Dalek. His Dalek voice is called to show more emotion due to the cross-pollination, and he manages to do that. When Briggs as the Dalek tells the Doctor, "You would have made a good Dalek", it's quite chilling. My only complaint in terms of performance is with Johnson's Van Statten. I kept wondering if he was suppose to be a bit campy and more comedic than straight. Johnson's grinning and excessive self-confidence didn't play like he was a real person but more a parody of a billionaire.

I also have an issue with the Money Motive. This is the third time (The End of the World and ALIENS OF LONDON being the first two) where financial gain is at the heart of the crisis. Granted, I,'m an unashamed capitalist, so I may be on the opposite side of the issue, but I do hope to have another reason for the villain's motives. Finally, how I detest the stubborn refusal to even suggest that other Time Lords may have survived. I don't know why they keep locking that door. Would it have killed them to say that, yes, perhaps, just as this Dalek survived, maybe some Time Lords did as well.

A curious note. According to Dalek, the Dalek crashed on Earth fifty years ago. The date given for Dalek is 2012, which meant that the Dalek came in 1962, which is one year before The First Doctor met the Daleks in the seven-part story collectively known as The Daleks. If one took a too-nerdy approach to all this, it would mean that Gallifrey was destroyed a year before the First Doctor came to London with his granddaughter Susan. It is far too much to think about trying to make sense of it all, so we'll just let it go.

Dalek is a strong story where the Dalek is shown to be the real terror it always could be rather than an object of ridicule. Eccleston and especially Piper brought moving performances to Dalek, showing that in war, there truly are no real victors. There were some light moments that didn't overwhelm the story, and on the whole, Dalek will not be exterminated from any Best Of Collection.


Next Story: The Long Game

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Doctor Who Story 014: The Crusade

Image result for doctor who the crusade


Crosses to Bear...

As it stands, the four-part story collectively called The Crusade is incomplete. The pessimist says, "Half the story is lost". The optimist says, "Half the story survives". Episodes Two & Four (The Knight of Jaffa and The Warlords) are the lost episodes, while Episodes One & Three (The Lion and The Wheel of Fortune) still exist. However, all four episodes (in fact, all episodes of Doctor Who) survive in audio form. That being the case, we can reconstruct The Crusade in a roundabout way. The VHS release had William Russell reprise his role as Ian Chesterton to narrate the missing episodes and thus provide continuity. The DVD release of the Lost In Time collection released the audio tracks to Episodes Two and Four, so we could listen to them like we would a radio play. Therefore, in a sense, we have the complete story with us. That is why I've elected to review The Crusade as a full story as opposed to merely reviewing the surviving episodes.

A curious historic footnote to this historic story: in the Arab world, the story that followed The Web Planet was NOT The Crusade but instead The Space Museum. The actual Crusades are still a touchy subject in the Arab/Islamic world, so this four-parter did not air in the Middle East. As a personal aside I find that rather curious given that A.) the Muslims did WIN the wars, and B.) The Crusade portrayed the Islamic leader Saladin (Bernard Kay) in a positive light. It appears to be a consistent portrayal in Western films of The Crusades: Saladin is always a wise and (most of the time) benevolent warrior king. Well, as it stands The Crusade is incomplete no matter how you look at it, and it is a real shame because it is for the most part a well-crafted, well-acted story, although with a few issues.

The Doctor (William Hartnell), along with his Companions Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Vicki (Maureen O'Brian) land just as a raiding party of Saracens have taken a group of Crusaders by surprise. They seize one of them believing it is Malek Ric, better known to us as King Richard I the Lion-Heart, and take Barbara as well in the confusion of battle. The real King Richard (Julian Glover) escapes, while of his courtiers, William De Tornebu (Bruce Wightman) is injured. The Doctor, Vicki, and Ian take De Tornebu back to Jaffa and the King. The captured man is William De Preaux (John Flint), but while Saladin's vassal El Akir (Walter Randall) is fooled into thinking William is the King and Barbara is the King's sister Princess Joanna, both Saladin and his brother Saphadim (Roger Avon) quickly see through the ruse. King Richard is determined to both get William back and win the war, but the TARDIS crew just want to get Barbara and then get out of there. Richard makes Ian a Knight in order to be an emissary and attempt a rescue, as well as making an indecent proposal: a marriage between Saphadim and the real Princess Joanna (Jean Marsh).

Barbara, believing she is being helped in an escape, is really taken by El Akir, but she manages to escape him and finds shelter with Haroun ed-Din (George Little), a victim of El Akir's tyranny. His wife and son were executed by El Akir, and one of his daughters was taken from him, leaving only his other daughter, Safiyah (Petra Markham). Barbara, in an effort to spare Safiyah from El Akir's men, allows herself to be captured, and soon she is taken to El Akir. Before he can kill her, Barbara escapes into the harem, where she discovers Haroun's daughter Maimuna (Sandra Hampton) is alive. Ian, having escaped bandits, gets to the harem and fights El Akir, who is about to win when Haroun comes and kills El Akir, thus reuniting with his lost daughter. Meanwhile, back in Jaffa, Joanna is infuriated at the prospect of being traded like a bag of flour and will not consent to marriage. At first, Richard believes the Doctor has betrayed his plans, but soon discovers he is mistaken. The Doctor and Vicki, wishing to avoid more court intrigue, are given freedom to leave, and soon all four are reunited. The Earl of Leicester (John Bay), believing The Doctor to be Saladin's spy, captures them and threatens death, but Ian (in his role as Knight of Jaffa), convinces him that HE will be the executioner. Fooling Leicester, the group flees into the TARDIS.

The Crusade faces that difficulty of being a story with missing episodes, but the handling of this situation is brilliant. Russell reprising his role as Ian, links the missing parts so well that the narration flows beautifully, almost as if they were always intended to be there. What is truly incredible about The Crusade is how well it works vocally. David Whitaker's script is so well-tuned that at times it reads like both a stage play and a radio play. For example, in Episode Three (The Wheel of Fortune) The Doctor whispers to Vicki, "Here comes the King", as you would when the character makes an entrance on the stage. In the lost Episode Four, the bandit holding Ian prisoner gives a description of the torture he plans on him in such a way that it almost appears that the loss of The Warlords was anticipated and it was spoken like it would be on radio.

It isn't just how the dialogue was spoken, but the actual dialogue itself is quite poetic. Haroun's monologue in Episode Three about the loss of his family to El Akim is beautiful and quite moving, as is the intrigue in the King's Chamber in the same episode. This doesn't mean that Whitaker doesn't know how to lighten the mood: there is an ample bit of comedy thanks to the character of Ben Daheer (Reg Pritchard), a shifty merchant who is almost always on the losing end of the deal. There is even a bit of Vicki/Victor/Victoria action when, to protect his youngest Companion, the Doctor has Vicki pretend to be a boy...right down to being in drag, confusing the Chamberlain (Robert Lankesheer) to no end when he first mistakes the 'girl' for a 'boy' then when the 'boy' is revealed as a girl.

The performances are also quite strong and intelligent. Whatever personality conflicts Hartnell and O'Brien may have had off-screen, there is no hint of it in The Crusade. Rather, there is warmth and tenderness between The Doctor and Vicki, making their scenes together quite beautiful and sweet. Marsh is excellent as Princess Joanna, being both imperious and tenderhearted in turns. Her best scene comes when she confronts her brother about his plans to marry her off to an infidel. She is on full cylinders, expressing an uncontrolled fury to defy her King. Glover matches her in this scene, and throughout The Crusade he shows Richard to be both petty, almost child-like in his anger, as well as desperate to win the war. Randall's El Akim is what you might call a standard stock villain--all that was needed was for him to twirl his mustache, but since he didn't have one the scar across his face will have to do. Pritchard should also be singled out for his excellent comedy work, and Markham's Safiyah, although in one episode, also gives a beautiful performance.

The success of The Crusade as a story goes to Douglas Camfield's direction. He manages to keep the story going over three episodes and guides the leads and the guest stars without shifting the balance to one or the other. I do note that I said "three episodes" because by the time we get to the fourth episode, the story has lost a bit of steam and is unfortunately becoming a bit repetitive. Take for example the characters of Barbara and Ian. Neither of them are allowed to go beyond what they've done before. Ian is the dashing daring-do type, with action sequences in Episode One (The Lion) and Episode Four. Other than to rescue Barbara, he isn't integral to the story. Babs is the one that suffers most in The Crusade: she is held hostage by one Saracen or another throughout the story, and she's taken prisoner/abducted at least three times. One begins to wonder if it is becoming a running theme in Doctor Who: Barbara abducted/held prisoner and Ian having to go in and rescue her.

Another issue is that by Episode Four, the story starts wandering off a bit. We are no longer with Saladin or Richard the Lionheart; now the focus is on rescuing Barbara--which if one thinks about it was the focus of Episode One before they wandered into Richard's Court. It is curious that in The Crusade the actual Crusades are by this point secondary. Now that whatever Court intrigue (which wasn't that much to begin with) either with the Muslim or the Christian are gone, we have another 'rescue' story. It is a positive that loose ends of the story are tied by the time we leave, but somehow in Episode Four we've shifted the focus from the war between Richard and Saladin to a fight with El Akim.

Given that we no longer have Episodes Two and Four, I am surprised that there was no attempt to reconstruct these episodes for the DVD release. The seven-part Marco Polo had a condensed version recreated with photographs mixed with the audio, and the eight-part The Invasion had the missing episodes animated. For the Lost In Time release we only had one picture throughout the half-hour or so of the presentation of Episodes Two and Four of The Crusade. At the time, it seems no one had the imaginative leap to use photographs or animation to reconstruct the episodes, or at least to give the audience an idea of how it looked when first broadcast. It's a strange thing that you can find reconstructions in places like YouTube but not from the BBC. Of course, it does leave the possibility that a future official restoration of The Crusade is possible, and I would love to have an animated version a la The Invasion released. The chances of that, granted, are small, but given that only half the story is lost (unlike say, the four-part The Myth Makers or single-episode Mission to the Unknown to something like Fury From The Deep or The Power of the Daleks, both six-part stories where all episodes are lost), a full restoration is always technically possible. I Hope.

The Crusade is a good, strong, historic story, with beautiful dialogue and some wonderful performances. The lack of visuals as well as a bit of meandering at the end bring it down a bit, but on the whole it holds up extremely well, especially given that we don't have it complete. We should do our best to both preserve and restore what we have of early Doctor Who, and The Crusade may be our Call to Arms for this noble endeavour.


Next Story: The Space Museum