The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 12, 2011

Not . . . the Mind Probe!

No, indeed. Instead, a few words about P.R.O.B.E., the mostly forgotten, straight-to-video, Doctor Who spinoff bringing back Caroline John as Liz Shaw, now investigating, er, damned odd occurrences in England, mostly involving actors who look suspiciously like various incarnations of the Doctor. The series was written by Mark Gatiss, who has written several episode of the Doctor Who revival, and is, to put it gently, of variable quality.

The idea of bringing back Liz Shaw is appealing, in part because her character was underused in the 1970 series--her aloof-but-almost-flirty rapport with Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, and her independence from the Doctor made her a character whose depths had only been suggested, but definitely warranted further development.

Instead, she got P.R.O.B.E., with its incomprehensible first story, with Sylvester McCoy gurning pitiably after a promising opening, Colin Baker reminding me of why I couldn't stand his era as the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee appearing in the thing, seemingly, only to justify a single joke at the end (admittedly, a satisfying moment, as his character and Liz enjoy a cuppa together). Hints about Liz (when did she start smoking a *pipe*? What is she, Mammy Yokum?), her boss (Oi, is that Leela--oh, she's gone!), and a quick, not unaffectionate, jibe at the Brig--all lost in the welter of lunacy that was the unfortunate first script.

Fortunately, the second story was much better--blessed with a coherent, creepy script, a strong performance by Caroline John, well supported by Louise Jameson (told you that was Leela!). John's scenes with Jameson as her beleaguered boss, locked in battle with an unsympathetic cabinet minister, played by John's husband, Geoffrey Beevers (another Doctor Who alum, so good as the Master in "The Deadly Assassin"), are well played, if a little odd in tone. (Romance or Thelma-and-Louse-style bonding? You decide!)

But the real heart of the story is Caroline John's performance and a bit of a tour de force by Peter Davison. Here's where the story, "The Devil of Winterborne," really shines. The quintessential British cop (Terry Molloy, better known as Davros) doesn't get a look in at the interview of Davison, a suspect for a series of murders as to which Liz suspects a more outré cause. It's Liz (of course) who gets the truth out of Davison's Headmaster Purcell, but how she does it is a credit to them both. She laughs, perfectly pleasantly--sincerely, even--at Purcell's witticisms and sarcasms; she is sympathetic, but she has a razor-sharp ear for when he lies or evades. And Davison matches John here--his retreat is absolutely credible, his feelings of guilt and remorse for his share in events is believable; he uses his Tristan Farnon persona to create a level of sympathy with his character that makes you root (a little!) for him.

The third story, "Unnatural Selection", is much weaker, but enlivened by a strong, cold, mad performance by Charles Kay, whom I well remember as the vicious martinet Alcock in To Serve Them All My Days. The ending breaks down, unfortunately, and lacks the coherence of its immediate predecessor. Still, at least Liz smokes her pipe this time, instead of merely toying with it.

As for the the final episode, "The Ghosts of Winterborne," it has some of the virtues of its predecessor, including Davison's Purcell in an effort at redemption, and the strong acting partnership between John and David--and John and Jameson, again--but feels a bit overcrowded and rushed.

While I can't really recommend the PROBE series, I'm not sorry to have run across them; it's nice to imagine Liz Shaw, 20 years on, still wry, still deploring the military mind, still solving mysteries.

Just--not these particular mysteries, on the whole.

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