Sunday, January 09, 2011

Classic Who

The nice thing about being a nu-Whovian is that when the current incarnation goes on break, there's no lack of older material to mine through. I knew going in about old Who's legendarily tight budget (which translates to its shoe-string effects), and actually, I find the cheapness impossibly quaint. However, the most jarring consequence of the budget constraints of the serial era is just how much narrative fat the stories have. Specifically, a lot of stories seems to be filled with the Doctor and Co. constantly tramping here and tramping there, before tramping back here again -- especially through labyrinthine caves. (Boy, do I hate those cave sets that cave set.) As you might expect, stories get elliptical as they tread and retread (literally) the same narrative space over the course of several episodes. I mostly blame the fact that the writers had to fill up so much time in their serials, each of which might constitute anywhere from two to 10 (ten!) episodes (though one episode is typically 20-something minutes), and also a dearth of ideas (though to be fair, the show may have simply lacked means to execute more ambitious ideas, which I'll attribute to the budget). The old series is an analogue to decompressed storytelling in comics, and basically, not a lot happens.

So, of the nine or so serials that I've watched, I haven't been impressed, but once in a while, there's one story that really knocks me out. Here, then, are the serials that I've seen, and brief thoughts on each (roughly in order of when I first watched them).

  1. "City of Death" (Fourth Doctor, with Romana II)
    The consensus choice for getting people into the original series (it was written by Douglas Adams), "City of Death" was a serious letdown for me. One line of dialogue that gets singled out as an example of its wit:
    Romana: Where are we going?
    The Doctor: Are you talking philosophically or geographically?
    Romana: Philosophically.
    The Doctor: Then we're going to lunch.
    Pretty keen, to be sure, but I always imagined it being a seamless part of a larger scene, where in fact, it's pretty much its own scene, and as such, too satisfied with its own cleverness. (Sound familiar?) DOCTOR, I AM DISAPPOINT. Also: lots of walking back and forth, between a receiving room and a dungeon. No caves, fortunately.
  2. "Doctor Who and the Silurians" (Third Doctor, with Liz Shaw, Brig. Lethbridge Stewart)
    Silurians are ancient bipedal lizard-people who had once populated Earth when a planetary catastrophe forced them to seek dormant refuge, underground... in caves.
  3. "Genesis of the Daleks" (Fourth Doctor, with Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan)
    Relentlessly grim, occasionally spiked with agonizing over heroic genocide. In short, very little fun.
  4. "The Ark in Space" (Fourth Doctor, with Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan)
    I liked this one, oddly, even if the story is fairly potboiler stuff: humans have sought refuge from a planetary catastrophe (sound familiar?), not in caves, thank god, but aboard a space station where they're held in suspended animation. But they've been infected by space worms, see, which slowly transform them into giant, malevolent grasshoppers. Only four episodes -- short, but sweet and definitely on the lighthearted side, even if it exemplifies the series' persistent preoccupation with the transience of humanity, the ease with which we can become monsters.
  5. "The War Games" (Second Doctor, with Zoe Heriot, Jamie McCrimmon)
    "The War Games" is the 10-parter I alluded to above, so the amount of elliptical traveling is unavoidable, and as a result, I found the bulk of this serial to be slow-going, even though it made John Seavey's list for people new to old Who and even though Zoe (capable, calm, stands up to authority) is the best companion that I've seen. But! The finale is a total trip, in which the story suddenly shifts from a standard bit of Aliens With Plans For Universal Domination, and into straight-up German Expressionist weirdness. So cool, so eerie, and well worth the preceding nine, meandering episodes.
  6. "Remembrance of the Daleks" (Seventh Doctor, with Ace)
    Another series I watched based on Seavey's list, "Remembrance of the Daleks" is marked by everything that's bad about the '80s, most of all in the figure of Ace.
  7. "The Caves of Androzani" (Fifth Doctor, with Peri Brown)
    More caves! It's right there in the title! BARF. The whacked out Phantom of the Opera villain barely breaks through the tedium of cave tramping, though I did have fun trying to figure out what accent Peri was supposed to have. I guessed South African, when, actually...
  8. "The Three Doctors" (Third Doctor/Second Doctor/First Doctor, with Jo Grant, Brig. Lethbridge Stewart, Sgt. Benton)
    An unambiguous, romping hoot. Love this to bits. The Doctor is always the smartest guy in the room, and he lets you know it. But what happens when there's more than one Doctor is in the room? The answer: unalloyed awesome. Seeing arrogance bumping up against arrogance and the ensuing bickering is a camp joy, and the Second Doctor sparkles like your favorite, incorrigible, whimsical uncle.
  9. "Inferno" (Fourth Doctor, with Liz Shaw, Brig. Lethbridge Stewart, Sgt. Benton)
    Aside from getting a kick at the Doctor amazing a soldier at his AMAZING technological gadgets by showing off a---GARAGE DOOR OPENER---one of the villains is a green Borat.

    Anyway, as you might guess from its title, "Inferno" is an apocalyptic story with a heavy dose of dystopic parallel universe, none of which prevents it from exhibiting some classic British drollery. Really solid installment. (And by the by, Liz Shaw really looks like a young Barbra Streisand here.)


Chris K. said...

Hi, I've been loving your blog since I discovered LOLCatDeelys during SYTYCD 4. You are the only other person I know that follows BOTH Dr. Who and SYTYCD, so I have to share this unexpected mashup: Paula Van Oppen dancing to the Doctor Who theme on Craig Ferguson.

PS: I'd recommend watching "Talons of Weng-Chiang" (4th), "Vengeance on Varos" (6th) and anything with the original Master, Roger Delgado.

Leee said...

Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. I know of a couple/few So You Think You Can Whovians out there (e.g. Nate Levy), and I recall at least one other person appreciated my comparison of the new SYTYCD stage with the shell of a Dalek.

I have seen CF's Who cold open, but didn't realize that was PVO. Is it really her?

I'll add your suggestions to the queue, even if I've heard of the troubling racial aspects of "Talons of Weng-Chiang."

Chris K. said...

Paula and Shelby Rabara, the other dancer, *definitely* did the "Monster Mash" cold open a few weeks earlier for Halloween -- that appearance was promoted by their agency on facebook -- so I'm 99% percent it's her, especially now that I've seen it in HD.

(Yeah, I have to admit I've been following Paula's career after SYTYCD. Even went to see Burlesque in the theater -- "ironically," I tell my friends. Someone needs to do a poll on what people think in retrospect was the better option for her: Burlesque, the flop, or SYTYCD6, the cut-short, no-tour season.)

"Weng-Chiang" IS troubling, but I suppose that's partly why I would like to hear your deconstruction of it. The other part: That story along with "Caves of Androzani" are always exalted as the top Classic Who stories, and your dismissiveness towards "Caves" made me chuckle; It's great to hear a "newbie" upend what fans take as gospel. Keep watching!