Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Doctor Who Story 041: The Web of Fear


Fear Factor...

I have long wondered whether the two stories featuring the Yeti (The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear) are worth mourning.  If you don't count their cameo in The Five Doctors, we have a monster who was popular enough for a return engagement but which have no complete stories in existence.  We do have some pluses with The Web of Fear, in particular the first appearance of then-Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, who would go on to be a vital part of the Doctor Who mythos.  Judging from Episode One of The Web of Fear (the only one known to exist), I think it is probably a better story than the first Yeti one, although at six episodes maybe an episode too long.

It's been thirty years since the events of The Abominable Snowmen, and Professor Travers (Jack Watling) is now a little soft in the head.  He knows that the Yeti he's brought with him is now alive again, but he cannot convince anyone of this.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and his Companions Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling) and Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) are having troubles of their own.  After barely having survived an attempt to kill them by Salamander from the previous story The Enemy of the World, they again barely escape being trapped within a mysterious web.  They do manage to land on Earth, and eventually find they are in the London Underground (which is not a political movement). 

There is evil afoot: the city is eerily silent and bodies are encased in a mysterious web. 

Meanwhile, Professor Travers and his daughter Anne (Tina Packer) are working, somewhat reluctantly, with the Army to stop this growing menace.  Victoria, Jamie, and the Doctor wonder about wire being laid out on the subway tracks, and they split up: the Companions following the soldiers laying down the wires, the Doctor in the other direction.  Soon, a familiar and frightening beeping grows.  Episode One ends with Victoria and Jamie captured (thanks to Victoria's Victorian screaming at coming across cobwebs) and the Doctor apparently getting some kind of jolt from explosives that the Yeti had sprayed with their web-making device.

The rest of the six-part story involves the Great Intelligence making a comeback.  All this murder and mayhem was all a trap to capture the Doctor for a most nefarious plan.  He would capture the Doctor and use his brilliant mind to take over the known universes.  The G.I. even has a little help from a mysterious traitor (who is really one of the soldiers being possessed by the Great Intelligence).  However, the Doctor is able to defeat, albeit not completely, the G.I. and his Yeti buddies thanks to the help of one Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart...

In the great scheme of things, I think having a six-part story on the heels of not one, not two, but THREE six-part stories (The Enemy of the World and the stories immediately preceding it, The Ice Warriors and The Abominable Snowmen) might have simply been too much to ask of audiences.  I have never believed that The Abominable Snowmen warranted such a long story, and while I think The Ice Warriors and The Enemy of the World might have done better at such a punishing length that's still a bit iffy.  There are certain factors to consider.

For example, The Ice Warriors introduced one of the better villains/monsters of Doctor Who, and The Enemy of the World had both political intrigue and a great turn by Patrick Troughton.  The Web of Fear only has the Yeti, who granted appear better and more menacing here than in their debut (in other words, they don't appear cute and cuddly like last time) are still not one of the better monsters in the canon.

From the vantage point of someone who has only seen the surviving episode, I think it has quite a few things going for it.  First, it has a great dramatic reappearance of both the Yeti and the Professor, so we know almost from the start that something wicked this way comes.

On that point, I think it might have been better if we had expanded on having the Yeti brought back to life rather than just jump in.  One might think I was talking out of both sides of my mouth: complaining about the story's length while asking that one aspect be expanded.  No, that's not what I'm saying.  Rather, I'm saying that in that individual episode the mystery of whether or not Travers was really crazy could have been worked out better (even though logically we know he isn't). 

It might be in the intrigue of who is the 'traitor' that we might have cut down. 

Second, we are allowed a darker story.  I was genuinely surprised at how menacing, even violent the opening scene with the Yeti was.  It is a high credit to Douglas Camfield (one of the better Who directors over its long and illustrious pre-River Song history) that he build up such quietly intense scenes with an economy of lighting, music (using selections from Bela Bartok's The Miraculous Mandolin just like they were used in The Enemy of the World). 

Third, we have the introduction of the character who would be best known as the Brig.  Sadly, Nicholas Courtney's first appearance as his soon-to-become fabled character is lost save for the audio, but it must have been a sign of how successful his character was that he was brought back in the future story The Invasion, and then continue growing and growing until he was basically a co-star, in particular during the Pertwee era.

Allow me a small digression.  Here is where the genius of the classic Who trumps the NuWho.  Certain characters, like Professor Travers and in particular Colonel, later Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, were allowed to grow and given time to build up a fan base.  They were eased into the general thread (no pun intended) of Doctor Who.  This isn't the case with NuWho.  You have characters like Captain Jack Harkness almost given Icon Status in the DEBUTS! 

The nadir of this is of course, with my bete noir, one River Song.  In her first story, Forest of the Dead Parts 1 & 2 (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead), we are all but told that she will become a GIGANTIC part of the Doctor Who mythos. 

Steven Moffat afterwards appeared obsessed with including her in as many stories as he could, and worse, making HER the center of the story or whole series/season.  Things started revolving around her, not around the Doctor.  He was becoming a supporting character in his own show, having to cede control to a character who could only say, "Hello, Sweetie," and "Spoilers."  When we find that River Song herself is Time Lord-like (or thanks to having been conceived in the TARDIS, had Time Lord DNA--as idiotic an idea as ever to come from the mind of a supposed adult), right down to being able to regenerate, it became clear to me that River Song was being hammered into being this triumphant and vital Doctor Who character with whom the show simply could not survive.

When she regenerated in the two-part story I call River's Secret Parts 1 & 2 (A Good Man Goes to War/Let's Kill Hitler), I believe future generations will say that was the moment River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who) officially jumped the shark.  It was becoming more about River than it was about the Doctor, and when a small character now takes center stage over the title character, then it all but is over. 

Sorry about the digression, but it came to me the difference between a character that started out small and grew naturally in importance to where he becomes synonymous with Doctor Who and another that from the start was declared a work of genius despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Now, where was I?

The Web of Fear has some flaws overall.  The red herring of the cowardly journalist being the traitor I think is too easy to dismiss (although I give co-writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln for the wit in Episode Six, where the Doctor is appalled at the idea of being part of a television series) and Jack Watling's twittering, tottering old man might today be a touch over-the-top.  Finally, one might wonder how he is The GREAT INTELLIGENCE if he keeps using the Yeti to work his nefarious scheme.

On the whole, while I don't think the story could have supported a circa three-hour running time (very few stories could), The Web of Fear is a marked improvement over their previous adventure.  Curiously, the door was always left open for a return, given that the Doctor didn't destroy him in the end.

Could the Yeti rise once more?     

Going further into this Doctor Who retrospective, the following story, Fury from the Deep, has no complete surviving episodes, and the one after that, The Wheel In Space, is incomplete.  However, that one also has a debut, this time of the Second Doctor's final companion, one Zoe Hariot.

Remember that face on the left.
You'll be seeing it again.


Next Story: The Wheel in Space       

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Doctor Who Story 040: The Enemy of the World


The Lost World...

The Enemy of the World is a curious entry in the Doctor Who canon, certainly in the 2nd Doctor era.  This six-part story (of which only Episode 3 survives) doesn't have any alien monsters and doesn't have the Doctor or his Companions being attacked by outside forces.  Rather, it is all about political intrigue, and a chance to give Patrick Troughton a chance to show his extraordinary range as an actor.  This above everything else is what elevates The Enemy of the World, even in its incomplete status, as one Troughton's finest hours on Doctor Who.

The Doctor and his Companions, Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) have arrived on Earth, Australia to be exact.  There, they soon get swept up in the machinations of those attempting to stop Salamander (Troughton again) from taking over the world.  Salamander, to the world, is a benevolent figure: he has helped alleviate so much world famine he's been hailed as 'The Shopkeeper of the World'.  In truth, he is determined to rule the world.  Various world leaders who oppose Salamander have mysteriously died and been replaced by Salamander loyalists.

The Doctor is recruited, somewhat unwillingly, to impersonate Salamander to help expose him.  The chief architect of this plan is Giles Kent (Bill Kerr), who has survived to oppose Salamander but now is disgraced and exiled.  Eventually, we learn that the reason Salamander has come to the rescue in ecological crises is because he caused said ecological crises (a bit of a Munchhausen Syndrome), and he is defeated.  

David Whitaker's script is curiously one of the few six-part stories that, given the plot, could actually hold up over such a large story.  This is primarily because the story involves all those political twists and turns that make for great drama.  On the whole, I think The Enemy of the World might have lagged by Episode Five but given that other six-part stories past and future would definitely feel sluggish it is actually a positive turn.

In the surviving episode, Barry Letts' direction kept things moving quickly but not overwhelming the audience.  We not only have the menace and danger with schemes to assassinate high-ranking officials like Denes (George Pravda), Kent's last remaining ally in power or the actual killing of the weak-willed Salamander stooge Fedorin (David Nettheim), but also allows for moments of comedy.  The laughs come from the gruff Griffin the Chef (Reg Lye), who seems resigned to not have his cooking ever appreciated or having anyone (especially the inept Victoria) ever turning out a good meal.

In Episode Three, we have not only good acting and action, but a line so beautiful and brilliant that it might as well be the Doctor's philosophy of life and the foolishness of war.  In Kent's trailer just outside the border, two thugs ransack the place in part due to the search for Salamander's doppelganger.  The Doctor looks around in sadness at the results of their actions.

People spend all their time making nice things and other people come along and break them.

I don't think few other lines so brilliantly capture the Doctor's worldview.  Moreover, as an alien being himself we can see how an outside view of how humans can be so destructive is instructive as to how truth can be presented.   The Doctor speaks the truth: great energy is spent in creating things of beauty, and in a brief moment others with nefarious motives can come along to destroy them.

There are the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.  They were created from the mountains and seen as a beautiful expression of faith, created over months if not years straight from the rocks.  In comes the Taliban, and in seconds the Buddhas were gone (although they are being reconstructed).

Then there is the fabled Amber Room.  The gold-laden salon of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia disappeared during the chaos of the Second World War, never to be seen again.

History sadly is littered by people who have destroyed great buildings and artwork and literature, from Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities in medieval Florence to the Nazi book-burning.  The Doctor was so right...people spend all their time making nice things and other people come along and break them.

Here is where The Enemy of the World really excels.  It is in Troughton's dual performances of Salamander and the Doctor.  In the only surviving episode, when we see Troughton, we can easily forget that it is the same actor.  Troughton's inflection and body movements as the Doctor is so different from his turn as Salamander that it becomes a master class in acting.

Granted, I understand Salamander is suppose to be Mexican, and as someone of Mexican descent I never got the impression he was Hispanic, not even with the make-up work.  Truth be told, it was never an issue.  I figured given his accent he was vaguely European, I figured Spaniard or even Hungarian, but never Latin.  One might have a better idea if other episodes are ever discovered, but on the whole I didn't think anything of it. 

In short, Troughton gives the best performance he's ever given on Doctor Who, primarily because he is allowed to play evil, and he never overdoes it in the evil department.  He's never hammy or over-the-top, but quietly menacing.

The Enemy of the World is a strong story that sadly we don't have.  It looks interesting and has both a strong pace and even little bit of humor that lifts some of the heaviness of the plot.  I still can't get away from the Doctor's line in Episode Three.

There's more than poetry in his turn of phrase...


Next Story: The Web of Fear

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The House of Werewolf


It's another history trip for The Doctor (David Tennant) and his Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).  Oddly, while we are back to where we were the last time we encountered the Victorian Age, we have a few difference in Tooth & Claw which almost make us forget we've been this way before in The Unquiet Dead.  One: we arrive in Scotland rather than Wales.  Two: the Victorian we meet is not  Charles Dickens, but the Big Cheese herself.  Ladies and Gentlemen, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India.  We get some monks, some werewolves, and some points of logic not addressed.

A group of monks arrive at a grand house.  They declare they wish to take the estate, and are natrually refused.  With that, they go all kung-fu Avatar: The Last Airbender on them and take it by force.  Meanwhile, the Doctor lands in what he thinks is 1979 (Vietnam, Margaret Thatcher, punk), but it really 1879.  We are near Balmoral, and the Doctor and Rose encounter Queen Victoria (Pauline Collins).  She has been diverted from her train and now must travel by carriage.  Where do they all end up in?

The owner of the estate, Sir Robert MacLeish (Derreck Riddel), has been coerced into helping these meddlesome monks to help with their nefarious scheme.  We quickly learn about the legend of a werewolf in these Scottish Highlands, and what the monks want: the throne and its occupant itself.  As is the case in Doctor Who, the Doctor and the Companion are split: Rose finds herself trapped with Lady Isobel (Michelle Duncan) and the staff (talk about Upstairs, Downstairs), while the Doctor is with Her Majesty, Sir Robert, and the Queen's guard, Captain Reynolds (James Sives).  The actual werewolf, kept within the cellar, is unleashed.  However, while the Doctor and Sir Robert go after the wolf, Her Majesty is more than capable of looking after herself.

Tooth & Claw then becomes a race from the werewolf, where Her Majesty must be protected, lest the Werewolf take a royal bite and create a new Empire of the Wolf.

Allow me to stop here to wonder what exactly writer Russell T Davies' obsession with wolves is.  Wasn't all last season about Bad Wolf, and now we get another wolf-based story?  Just a thought.

Of course, it isn't just Her Majesty that must be protected, but what she carries.  It is a very special object: the Kor-I-Noor Diamond, which Victoria's late husband Prince Albert had continously cut down.  The Doctor now realizes that all this was not a trap to ensnare Victoria, but really a trap within a trap: it was to capture the werewolf.  It's off again to Sir Robert's late father's laboratory in the attic.

Sir Robert atones for his treason by sacrificing himself to the werewolf to gain time for the Doctor.  That telescope he at first dismissed he now realizes was really a way of magnifying moonlight, and with that and the Kor-I-Noor, the werewolf is stopped and destroyed at the monster's request.

The Queen does not leave uninjured: she gains a mysterious scratch (the Doctor believing it came from the wolf, Her Majesty insisting it was a splinter from the door when the wolf broke in).  Victoria knights Sir Doctor of the Tardis and Dame Rose of Powell Estates, but then banishes them because, among other things, she is not amused.  However, after the chaos of the night previous (and after some speculation from the Doctor and Rose that the current House of Windsor are all werewolves--poor Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge so unaware...), Her Majesty decides to create a new institute to prepare and study extraterrestrial menaces, and names it after the home where all this took place...


If we go by the thought that Tooth & Claw was nothing more than a way to set up a Torchwood spin-off, then we would declare it a failure.  Fortunately, while I think Tooth & Claw was created in part to set up this mythology surrounding the Torchwood Institute and/or Captain Jack Harkness from Series One, I also think it was Davies' efforts to tell a good gothic story.  For the most part, it works.

One has to compliment Collins' Queen Victoria.  She isn't the dour, grim, dare I say, 'Victorian' person she could have been played as.  Instead, Collins plays her as an enthusiastic follower of ghost stories, at one point telling Sir Robert, "Tell us of monsters," with girlish but royally restraint glee.  Collins makes a return to Doctor Who, having been Samantha in the Second Doctor story The Faceless Ones, and if one compares her performances both in The Faceless Ones (what we have that exists) and Tooth & Claw we see Collins to be an actress of great range and talent. 

In a sadly smaller role, Riddell's Sir Robert was excellent as the conflicted but ultimately noble man.  It's a sad thing in Doctor Who: there is a penchant for killing off good, even great characters (Sir Robert, Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Master Plan,  Lynda in Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2,  Rita in The God Complex) but not only keeping absolutely lousy/useless characters alive but worse, making them COMPANIONS (Katarina, Adric, Rory "Pond", and the nadir of horrible characters, River Song)!  Yes, both Katarina and Adric were killed (there is debate as to whether Rory or River have "technically" been killed) but while Sara, Lynda, definitely Rita and maybe Sir Robert would all have made better Companions, I can say that Riddell's performance was quite good.

My issues with Tooth & Claw are less with the performances than they are with the points of logic in the story.  How did Sir Robert's father and Prince Albert know that the werewolf would eventually strike at the Queen at Torchwood?  How did they both know to have Her Majesty helpfully bring along the Kor-I-Noor with her (given that the diamond did not come to the Queen's possession until 1850, a mere twenty-nines years before the events in Tooth & Claw)?

I digress to say that the actual diamond used in Tooth & Claw looked quite fake and again, slightly historically inaccurate: it wasn't just this big rock laying about but located in a brooch Her Majesty wore.  Yes, little technicalities, but still...

Albert died in 1861.  I just wondered why Queen Victoria, still in mourning for her beloved Albert, would continue cutting the Kor-I-Noor down almost twenty years later. 

The biggest point of logic in Tooth & Claw comes from the hemophilia angle.  The story strongly suggests that Victoria later become a werewolf because in 1879 (when she was sixty years old) because of a scratch she receieved from the werewolf.

Allow me another digression; at this point all I can hear is Monty Python & The Holy Grail: "it's just a scratch". 

This, the Doctor theorizes, is how hemophilia spread among the various royal houses of Europe after Victoria & Albert's progeny married into them.  HOWEVER, if we go by that, wouldn't it stand to reason that they were infected by bites from this 60-year-old broad running all over Europe taking bites out of her own children and not by blood line due to their birth mother?

I don't buy that bit of logic that the hemophilia spread around the Houses of Bourbon, Hohenzollern or Romanov were a result of an old lady crossing the English Channel to howl at her descendants.  Furthermore, having watched and rewatched Tooth & Claw (even going so far as to go into slow motion), I saw no visual proof that the wolf actually laid a claw on Her Majesty, bringing the entire premise of the hemophilia angle down.

Finally, the entire subplot of getting Queen Victoria to say "We are not amused" was becoming tiresome and silly.  Moreover, there is no actual proof that Her Majesty actually said, "we are not amused."  The story I had heard was that she had seen a parody of herself and replied with royal understatement her displeasure.  However, there is nothing recorded that proves she actually uttered those immortal (and given some future Doctor Who stories from later in this season, amazing precient) words.  Given all the mayhem and chaos erupting in one night, all the focus on "we are not amused" was wasting time. 

I digress to wonder why, just after seeing Sir Richard devoured by the werewolf, Rose would have the wits to get a badly shaken Queen Empress to say such a silly phrase in order to win a bet. 

A few other things that bring Tooth & Claw down at the second viewing.  While Euros Lyn should be congratulated for keeping the pace brisk I thought there were a tad too many point-of-view shots from the werewolf's perspective.  I wondered where all the monks went after the wolf was defeated (and defeated in a way that didn't strike me as good--clever perhaps but also perhaps a bit too easy), and the entire Matrix-like opening made me wonder exactly where these Brethren of the Wolf were from (Britain or Japan).   There was a suggestion that these monks had turned from worship of God to that of the Wolf, but no real time for a follow-up.

Again, I wonder if having the old standard of four-part half-hour stories a la classic Doctor Who would have allowed for greater exploration. 

Ultimately, Russell T Davies crafted a good, but not great gothic horror story in Tooth & Claw.   It had good elements of the spooky house and the werewolf as dangerous rather than hunky (wonder whatever I am referring to),

but Queen Victoria didn't have a large role in the story that one would imagine could have done more with her.  I also did wonder about those points of logic that didn't make sense to me, and the idea that this is the genesis of the Captain Jack Cult and the Torchwood Fixation that I simply have been unable to get into also push Tooth & Claw down.  Still, not a bad episode, but not among the greats...    
She was very much amused...

Next Story: School Reunion

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Doctor Who Story 038: The Abominable Snowmen

STORY 038:

Melted Snowmen...

Curiously, The Abominable Snowmen at times appears to both take things extremely seriously and not take things seriously at all.  On the one hand, you have a great deal of Buddhist mysticism wrapped up in a science-fiction show, with rather esoteric things as astrol planes and hidden mystics.  On the other hand, the title characters are not really monstrous-looking, but almost cuddly.  Granted, they can appear at times quite menacing when up close, but when we see them march up and down in unison, they end up looking rather cute.  There are some wonderful things in The Abominable Snowmen (in particular the art direction), and the one episode remaining has an intriguing set-up.  However, here is another case of whether six episodes were necessary to tell this story.

As close to a wrap-up as one can give considering only Episode 2 out of six survives, we have this.  The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) have arrived in Tibet, where the Doctor expects a warm greeting from the monks at the nearby Buddhist monastery, in particular because he is bringing back an ancient holy relic that he has kept for safekeeping (exactly safekeeping for what, I'm not sure).  Instead, the monks believe they are responsible for making the Yeti (or Abominable Snowmen) into aggressive beings rather than the shy monsters they normally are.

There's evil at work, and the monks, along with Professor Henry Travers (Jack Watling) believe the trio are a danger.  Eventually, we learn that the Yeti we've been seeing are not the same Yeti we all know and love.  Rather, they are actually robots being controlled by who and why.  Things get even weirder when the Doctor learns that Padmasambhava, the old monk whom he was friends with is still very much alive despite it being a good two to three hundred years since last he visited.

Padmasambhava, along with the Yeti, are being controlled by an entity called The Great Intelligence, an alien which wants a living form to conquer the universes.  The Doctor manages to defeat the Great Intelligence by destroying the spheres that control the various Yeti, and his very old friend is finally able to die at last.  With the Ghanta returned and the Yeti/Great Intelligence defeated, the Doctor and his Companions leave.

As I stated earlier, The Abominable Snowmen has some beautiful art direction which captures the beauty of Buddhist art as well as making the sets look like an ancient monastery deep within the Tibetan mountains.  In the surviving episode, we can see the great care that was taken to make such an exotic locale believable, even beautiful.  The inner sanctum where Padmasambhava resides is spectacularly captured (as are some of the costumes ranging from the Doctor's fur coat to the monk's robes).

It's unfortunate that writers Mervin Haisman and Henry Lincoln didn't take the same care with the actual story.  Don't get me wrong: there are some brilliant ideas in The Abominable Snowmen (such as the shifting of Padmasambhava's voice from benevolent and sweet to malevolent and angry when speaking of the Doctor), and good moments of humor (as when the Doctor warns Victoria away from Jamie because "he has an idea").  My issue with The Abominable Snowmen is that it is built on things that don't quite hold together if one is not Buddhist.

For example, the Great Intelligence is able to capture Padmasambhava when the latter is travelling in an astral plane.  I'm not against Buddhists or their beliefs, but I don't accept people can travel outside their bodies only to be captured by evil entities.  It's almost like getting the plot for Insidious, which works in a horror film, not so much in science-fiction.  Further, after three hundred years tinkering with machines for his army, the best he could come up with are those cuddly little things?

The Ghanta, this object of mystery, appears to be a MacGuffin, that object that appears important but is really an excuse to get the ball rolling.  I think it would have been a good idea if the Ghanta were somehow highly important to the Great Intelligence and his plans, or even to Travers.

Finally, in what I consider a flaw to The Abominable Snowmen (besides the rather cuddly, roly-poly monsters...not unlike Craig Owens) is that six episodes simply appears too long to keep the mystery going.  Very rarely have I found such a long story to keep up interest.  There have been a few (mostly the Dalek stories) but whenever we face some sort of alien that asks us to continue for such a long period of time, we feel a certain drag.  I don't know whether The Abominable Snowmen would have kept my interest, but I am leaning towards "no".

Again, this isn't to say that director Garald Blake didn't have good things within it.  The performances were all quite good, from David Spenser's innocent and devout monk Thomni to Norman Jones' belligerent Krihsong.  I wasn't too thrilled with Jack Watling's Professor Travers, thinking he was a bit too tough and not a particularly bright scientist.  However, given that we have only one episode out of six I can't say whether it would have gotten better or worse.

On the whole, the surviving episode of The Abominable Snowmen creates a strong atmosphere and does leave you curious as to what happens next.  However, I don't know if the final payoff would have resulted in nirvana. 
Keeping the Faith for a Full Restoration.


Next Story: The Ice Warriors