The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meeting the Sixth and Seventh for the First Time

Long term readers will know of my affection for Doctor Who, which I watched through high school, thanks to my good friend from that time to the present, Vinnie Bartilucci, who introduced me to the show. However, on going off to college in 1984, where I had no TV, I stopped. So I missed the last episode of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, and missed the entire reigns of the last two Doctors, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.

Now, as I am following along--and indeed have pulled ahead of--Adventures with the Wife in Space, I have recently completed the Colin Baker years, and have seen the first two episodes of Sylvester McCoy's era.

First, how I would have loved Davison's send-off when it first aired! As it was, I still rate it among the all time best of the classic series. (Note, I have not yet seen all of Hartnell and Troughton, so this just means the recognized classics from those eras, and all of Pertwee-through Colin Baker for now. I'll double back. I promise.)

Caves of Androzani is simply excellent. The only weakness I can identify is the monster, and Nicola Bryant's occasionally roaming American accent. (Her acting, though, is quite good.) Davison plays the part with a reckless abandon he didn't often have, and the "nice guy" incarnation is quite ruthless here. He dies a hero, without setting out to be one.

As to Colin Baker, I can only echo the comments of Philip Sandifer on the episode in his blog Tardis Eruditorum:
OK, if you’re going to use one story to form the impression of your new Doctor then you at the very least have to actually show what your new Doctor is like. You can’t spend episodes mucking around with post-regenerative trauma when you’re trying to cement your new lead in the audience’s mind such that they’re excited to come back next season. In this regard, at least, The Twin Dilemma deserves some credit, in that Baker settles into his default mode reasonably quickly. But any points it gains are more than undone by the fact that they not only decide to introduce the Doctor in regenerative crisis, they do so by having him try to strangle Peri. In the best of circumstances this would be an unwise way to introduce a new lead character. In these circumstances it is difficult to understand how the idea even got approved.

More broadly, if giving yourself one shot to introduce your new Doctor is unwise, to do so when your concept for the new Doctor is that he’s an unlikable character who the audience slowly grows to trust and like is simply farcical. The two ideas are completely incompatible. Even if we grant that one of them is good - and I don’t really think “make your lead character unlikable” was ever going to be a winning strategy - “make your character unlikable and then put yourself in a situation where the first impression matters more than ever to the success of your show” is an idea that almost weaponizes stupidity.
Yeah, I know. But that's what they did. I mean I'm all for gritty but this?

That's frakkin' insane.

Worse, it sets the tone for the Doctor's relationship with Peri through just about half of Season 22; he's just dirt mean to her until Mark of the Rani, and only really warms to her in the first installments of Trial of a Time Lord, after which we watch when she promptly has her head shaved, is possessed by a giant slug (I'll explain later), and snuffs it--although we are told later that she is left behind by the Time Lords when they seize the Doctor, leaving her no option but to become a warrior queen to Brian Blessed, not every young woman's dream.

Here's what we see, though:

There are flashes of inspiration in season 22; Vengeance on Varos has a good premise, though the execution is only fair. The Two Doctors has a tremendous start, but becomes awful, with Troughton reduced to playing one of a pair of comic ghouls for an extended period of time. The Mark of the Rani--well, it's got some pretty funny moments, at least, including the lamest cliff hanger ever:

Trial of a Time Lord is, overall, a failure--some great moments, some interesting concepts and mostly well acted. But, ultimately, incoherent, and just not compelling. If I have to say one thing about the Colin Baker years, it's this: Baker doesn't deserve the animosity his portrayal has attracted over the years. he does a very good job--sometimes an excellent job--of playing what he's given to do. The onus is, in my opinion, squarely on the conception of the Sixth Doctor and on the scripts.

Doctor No. 7, Sylvester McCoy, opens inauspiciously with Time and the Rani--a hasty, weak regeneration, a Rani-plot that's more like the Ainley Master on a bad day, and more running around in a quarry. Also Bonnie Langford screams. A lot, and quite loudly. We're talking Chekov in Star Trek II, Fay Wray, only miked. Scream, Bonnie, scream.

I quite like McCoy's clowning as he finds his feet, especially his spoon-playing. And Kate O'Mara wins the good sport of the year award, doing an extended impression of a woman a quarter of a century her junior, as the Rani dupes the Doctor into thinking she is his companion Mel.

But then we move onto Paradise Towers--a failure, but an interesting failure. The world of the story is quite lived in--the Kangs, with their special argot, and color codes, remind me of the juvenile gangs of "cubs" in Logan's Run with a touch of Alex in Clockwork Orange; the fascist, rule-bound Caretakers mask their fear with their slavish adherence to a book of rules; and the cannibalistic grannies? Pretty damn funny. As is the all-too-aptly named Pex, deflated by cries of "Scardeycat!" until almost the very end (although the joke is used too often).

The misuse of poor old Richard Briers, though, who starts off well enough but becomes a gurning zombie when possessed by the Great Architect (why didn't that happen to the Master when occupying Tremas's body?) is shameful, as is the complete incoherence of the villain's plan.

Still, Paradise Towers fails daringly; it tries. Classic Doctor Who may be entering its last seasons, but it seems to have found its courage again.

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