Thursday, April 21, 2011

Doctor Who - The Edge of Destruction by David Whitaker

This story is an oddity in Doctor Who. Unusually for science fiction, Doctor Who doesn't have "bubble" episodes like Star Trek or Stargate to save on budget. But this is the only Doctor Who story to take place entirely inside the TARDIS with the exception of last year's Amy's Choice but even that had location shooting in it.

This story was written by then script editor David Whitaker in a weekend at the last minute to fulfill the initial 13 episode order by the BBC. All the other scripts being worked on were longer and wouldn't be given the go-ahead until after the ratings success of The Daleks. So its amazing that this story is so good given all of that.

The surreal atmosphere and the mystery of what is going on is unlike anything else in Doctor Who and it entirely relies on the acting abilities of the main cast to see it through. The story is a bit uneven and the eventual resolution and the leaps of logic needed to get to the solution are a bit much but otherwise its a very solid story script-wise.

This story builds the conflict between the TARDIS crew to a crescendo leading them to suspicion and even suggesting throwing Ian and Barbara off the ship but it also leads to a peace of sorts at the end with Ian and Barbara being accepted as crew members and the Doctor mellowing quite a bit. It is here that he starts moving from anti-hero to the true hero he is later.

William Hartnell, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are excellent throughout doing an excellent job of building tension and acting oddly in this somewhat surreal story. Carole Ann Ford goes a bit over-the-top at times but otherwise she's fine. This story is another that gives her the opportunity to be a bit more alien.

Definitely a very solid third story. I give it 6 out of 10 TARDISes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Doctor Who - The Daleks by Terry Nation

In this second story, the series begins to improve greatly. A fairly blatant allegory on Nazis and Jews from WWII about racial superiority with the Daleks vs. the Thals, its still a very powerful message. Also included is an early warning about the dangers of nuclear war and its possible side effects.

The story tends to lag in the middle when you watch it all at once, but I found watching it an episode at a time to be consistently entertaining. Which, lets face it, is how these stories were intended to be watched. Still, there is quite a bit of padding. Enough so that the story would probably be stronger if it was cut to 6 episodes instead of 7.

Again, I found the story to work quite well on the limited budget. There's a few little glitches like pieces of the styrofoam cavern wall breaking away at one point but all in all it works.

The costumes of the Thals are unashamedly alien and even though they look a bit silly, I applaud them for it in this day and age where much of science fiction television has humans in the future and even alien races wearing suits and ties or t-shirts and jeans instead of alien or futuristic clothing. I know its supposed to help non sci-fi fans identify with the characters more, but I find it ridiculous that hundreds of years in the future that fashion won't have changed or that aliens wear the same clothes we do on their home planet.

The Daleks are thoroughly single-minded in their desire to exterminate all that is unlike making them truly monsters not only in form but even more so in intent. I never found them particularly scary but even so there's something about them that is just a wonderful design. Again, so many aliens are humanoid or downright human its cool to see aliens that are totally alien to us. (Even though we only get a glimpse of the creatures inside in this early adventure.)

Ian and Barbara continue to be just as important as the Doctor as leads and Susan although pushed a bit more into the background this time, gets a nice bit in the story where she is their only hope of salvation from dying of radiation poisoning.

The Doctor isn't as villainous in this story but he is very much still the anti-hero as he lies to his fellow travelers putting them in mortal danger just because he wants to investigate the Dalek city while they all insist on leaving. Viewers at this point must have been very unsure of whether this character of the Doctor was really a hero or a villain.

A very good start for the Daleks and a sign of even better stories to come. I give it 7 out of 10 TARDISes.

Doctor Who - An Unearthly Child by Anthony Coburn

The very first Doctor Who story. But certainly not the best. As with most television shows, the opening story is not the best one. The flaw mainly comes from the story setting chosen which was during prehistoric times with cavemen. Cavemen are difficult to portray in relation to modern man because they are so far removed from us that we really can't relate to one another. And it usually fails dramatically when its tried especially in a serious manner. That's really the main flaw in the story. Otherwise its fine. The performances are as good as could be expected under the circumstances given that cavemen are conversing and relating to modern man. We can make the apologists argument that the TARDIS was translating their language to make the TARDIS crew able to communicate with them but that's just what it is.

The pilot episode, "An Unearthly Child" however is top notch and as good as just about any other piece of Who. Very dramatic and very effective in setting up a mystery and dramatic tension and then ably explaining it all in easy-to-understand terms. I absolutely love that episode.

And watching the rest of it in episode format daily made me enjoy the rest of the story more than I usually do, especially once I get past the caveman limitations inherent in the story.

William Hartnell is fantastic as the Doctor. Far from the lovable grandfather figure he would later become, he is almost the antagonist and villain of the piece. Threatening Ian and Barbara often throughout the story and then kidnapping them. Forced to team up to survive the Doctor throughout the story, he seems only concerned with his own well being and that of his granddaughter Susan. He even goes so far as suggesting they commit murder to survive and it appears as if he is going to go through with the act before Ian stops him.

Carole Ann Ford is also very good as Susan making the most of playing a normal teenager at times and at other times seeming a bit otherworldly. An aspect of her character mostly played down in later stories unfortunately.

William Russell and Jacqueline Hill as Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are not only the audience identification characters but the real heroes of the story as well. Its them we wind up rooting for mostly and in these early episodes they are just as much the leads as William Hartnell is.

Not the best story even watching it in episode format but it has much going for it still mostly due to the interactions of the four main characters. I give it 5 out of 10 TARDISes.

Doctor Who - Spearhead From Space by Robert Holmes

I've started a quest to watch every episode of Doctor Who in order. Well, actually I started it back in 2009 but as I've just reached the Pertwee era, I've decided to write reviews of them all!

Spearhead From Space is one of the very best opening stories for any Doctor. Its the debut of the Autons, one of Doctor Who's most prominent monsters. They are great creations, utilizing the creepiness of animated dummies to great effect. The effect is enhanced by this being the first Doctor Who story to be shot entirely on film due to strike at the BBC and one wonders if the show wouldn't have been improved if all of it had been shot on film from that point on. Although the form that controls the Autons, the Nestene consciousness takes at the end is much less better realized, its pretty much the only effect in the story that's a bit shoddy. Other than that the effects, pacing and direction is top notch.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward alien invasion plot but that's part of what makes it so strong. Its familiarity allows for the story to breathe enough to also serve as an introduction to the new Doctor portrayed by Jon Pertwee and Caroline John's Liz Shaw as well. Not to mention the reintroduction of Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and the concept of UNIT.

In contrast to Patrick Troughton who had to find his way to a consistent portrayal of the Doctor, Jon Pertwee is immediately giving the same performance he delivers throughout his era and is much more comfortable in the role initially. His portrayal is a bit more quirky than usual due to the regeneration crisis but it is still the least quirky of all the Doctors as Pertwee chose to play it as a man of action. Basically the James Bond of Doctor Who without the womanizing. The only flaw in his performance is his comical expression when the Nestene is trying to choke him. Its more like something out of a vaudeville comedy rather than the actual expression of someone with their life in jeopardy. Other than that though, he's brilliant!

Caroline John is also very good as Liz Shaw and its a shame that after this story her character was pushed back to being the mere lab assistant as opposed to the primary scientific advisor she was brought in to be. In this story more so than others she is portrayed as almost an equal to the Doctor which is a big change from most of his companions. Apparently Barry Letts, the producer and Terrance Dicks, the script editor felt the companion needed to be more of a damsel-in-distress type. But then, it was the 70's and the idea of strong females was still new in concept in television particularly.

Nicholas Courtney is absolutely brilliant as the Brigadier and the chemistry between him and Jon Pertwee is already apparent this early on.

Hugh Burden gives an excellent performance as Channing, the Auton leader, especially in his facial expressions and vacant stare. You immediately realize there's something not quite right about him based on that alone.

Derek Smee goes a bit over-the-top as Ransome, drooling in fear at the sight of Autons. But you have to admire him going for it all the way even if its a bit unintentionally funny.

But the only performance that really doesn't work is Hamilton Dyce as General Scobie. He gives such a bland performance that even when confronted with his own duplicate, he has absolutely no reaction whatsoever. The director edited in an off-camera scream when he his captured but its obvious that the actor must have been confused as to which version of him was supposed to be the Auton.

A great start to the Pertwee era and one of my favorite stories of his Doctor. I give it 10 out of 10 TARDISes.

On a side note, I realized that I have probably never watched this in episode format before due to it being on public television in the states and they usually played the stories in movie format. When released on VHS it was still movie format. I must say although I often enjoy watching a story all in one sitting, I prefer the episodic format better with cliffhangers intact.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Camelot - "Homecoming" and "The Sword and the Crown"

I am a huge fan of the Arthurian mythos and a bit uptight when it comes to altering it too much. I have enjoyed various re-tellings of the legend of the Knights of the Round Table. Some like the musical film "Camelot" and the 1953 film "Knights of the Round Table" offer fairly faithful versions of the main legend and are quite good. Others like "First Knight" and "King Arthur" (2004) I found disappointing due to their reinterpretations of the source material. The former due to its representation of Lancelot as a rogue rather than as in the traditional legend a deeply flawed man who tries so hard to be the perfect knight but comes up short. The latter due to its supposed presentation as a "realistic" version of the story which ends up neither being realistic nor being faithful to the possible inspirations for the legend. And still others like the TV movie "Merlin" I found to be taking such liberties with the legend that I found it distracting. And the most recent television version also entitled "Merlin" has taken broad liberties as well but its fun enough whilst occasionally throwing something from the tales into the plot to keep me entertained.

That brings me to Starz first two episodes of "Camelot". I have to say I haven't been this satisfied with a version of King Arthur since the magnificent film "Excalibur" (1981). So far this is the version of the tales I have wanted to see told in a serialized format for years. The problem with films is the shortness of the running time. When it was compiled by Sir Thomas Malory he incorporated as many legends as possible together so its an incredibly massive work. With a television show, however, they have the ability to take their time portraying more of the story than ever before.

Included in this version for example is King Lot who was Arthur's chief opponent when Merlin revealed him to be Uther's rightful heir. He is rarely included in films and yet he is one of the two main villains of the first two episodes. We also get Sir Kay (Arthur's foster brother) and Sir Ector (Arthur's foster father) in very prominent roles which is rare. There are are even references or cameos of other Arthurian knights like King Nentres, Sir Brastias, Sir Ulfius and King Pellinore.

Of course there are some liberties and/or combining of characters as in any retelling of Arthurian stories. Morgana is, as usual, combined with her sister Morgause into one character and one of Pellinore's chief deeds is actually done by another character. While it would have been nice to not have those changes, it is understandable as there are so many characters that even in a television series they are going to have to pick and choose whom to use.

There's also one major character named Leontes who is totally an invention of this series but who he turns out to be makes for an interesting unexpected plot twist.

As usual for a made-for-pay channel show there's plenty of sex and violence incorporated into the plot but with this legend that's certainly not forced into it as much of the original story's plot is driven by who slept with whom and a lot of killing so its a big plus in the win column that they have the liberty to portray those things without the hindrance of a censor.

I hope the rest of the season turns out to be as good as the premiere. I have hopes that they will be willing to show some of the other tales that are often skipped in the films. I would love to see some of the quests of Lancelot, Gawain and the quest for the Grail told in greater detail. Not to mention my favorite quest, the tale of Sir Gareth. In it he battles not only the famed Black Knight, but also Green, Blue and Red Knights as well whilst being harassed and berated by an ungrateful maiden he repeatedly saves on the way to rescue her sister from Sir Ironsides. Perhaps that's a bit much to hope for but if the series lasts for a while, who knows what they might do? Hopefully they remain faithful.