Wednesday, April 28, 2010


(Hey y'all. Sorry for the delay, moving house, living out of boxes, you know how it is.)

One of the definitive moments for me in John Pertwee's tenure on Doctor Who occurs near the end of "Inferno." After being shunted to a parallel universe where everyone is a fascist (no, not that one) and on which a project running parallel to the one on the Doctor's earth has advanced to critical stage, the Doctor finds out they've inadvertently caused the planet to break apart. Everyone on this earth will die unless they can leave quickly and the Doctor, not really having the TARDIS as a resource, kind of glumly says "I'm sorry, I'm afraid you're all going to die" and then leaves them behind.

Nowadays, these little "Holy shit, the Doctor just got hardcore on these guys" is a pretty standard trope (the new series, especially during David Tennant's "lonely god" era, positively loves it) but at this point in the series' evolution, there really wasn't a moment where the Doctor was faced with an insoluble situation. Oh sure, there's always a body count on Doctor Who, but never something where a whole planet died.

There's little bits like that all through the Third Doctor's tenure, though. Because a lot of underlying Doctor Who mythos got sorted in this period, which when you consider how the whole thing started as a mad scrabble to shore up falling ratings is even more amazing.

At the conclusion of the Second Doctor's run, a few decisions were set in motion, partially because the programme wasn't drawing in the ratings necessary to justify the current approach any longer and Patrick Troughton was on his way out, and so a number of decisions were set in motion.

One, the show would now be in colour. Two, the Doctor would be stranded on Earth. No more hopping in the blue box and buggering off (except when he did) One imagines this was a budgetary decision, accepted in a desire to keep the show going more than it seemed a creatively challenging approach. In fact, they said, rightly, that it limited them two two stories--alien invasion or mad scientist.

Third, and most importantly, the Doctor would be played by Worzel Gummidge, who would play him as a debonair man of action who enjoys old cars, crushed velvet jackets, and karate-chopping people

So they had to try a bit harder to get around all that, and ultimately they succeeded. The Doctor, stranded on Earth, becomes UNIT's (an occasionally-glimpsed cannon fodder squad) scientific advisor and thus, is on hand for the threat du jour, who has plenty of UNIT cannon fodder to wade through whilst the Doctor tries to work it all out.

This bit should have really wrecked the show--one of the Doctor's most appealing traits is that of being an outsider (and more often than not a force for anarchy) and the idea of sticking him in some kind of bureaucracy should have killed the whole thing dead. However, the Doctor is barely an employee and is really just marking time until he can get the TARDIS fixed and blow this Popsicle stand first chance he gets. He frequently finds himself at odds with the Brigadier, most notably when, in the midst of trying to broker a peace deal with the Silurians, the Brigadier says "the hell with them threatening us" and kills every last one of them. The rotating cast of bureaucrats that pop up to meddle with things don't fare much better--in fact, this period of Doctor Who becomes a very anti-establishment establishment show.

That tension carries the show through some ropey and all-too-soon cliche bits. It seems almost inevitable that the latest government science project or space mission or new power plant is bound to either contain a Terrible Secret or tampering in things Man Was Not Meant To Meddle In, and after awhile that gets a bit old. One begins to fear imminent catastrophe every time someone digs a hole in the ground.

Thankfully, this is where The Master comes in.

It wasn't like they hadn't done evil Time Lords before--the First Doctor had The Monk and the Second Doctor had the War Chief, but they were either comedic figures or one-shot baddies. The Master in a whole different class. He's basically The Doctor, only evil (and a bit camp, not that you need me to tell you that) Their interplay disguises a lot of the samey bits and evil corporations and alien invasions that sometimes threaten to weigh the damn show down at times, and it injects a lot of joie de vivre into the proceedings.

Witness this clip from "The Sea Devils." It's pretty much everything awesome about the Third Doctor in two minutes:

I have no idea why they locked The Master up with a bunch of swords and guns and shit, but these are the little lapses you just learn to go along with when it comes to Doctor Who.

Oh yeah, and to celebrate the shows first decade, all three Doctors unite to battle another rogue Time Lord (well, actually Two and Three do everything, One just kinda sits in a triangle and points them in the right direction from time to time) in one of those great dream stories that kinda falls short but you don't care because holy shit all three Doctors together (It's kind of a standard thing--whenever you see characters who never mix usually, there's a certain rush that strikes you--fans of Ultraman and Kamen Rider have an idea of what this is like, and if comics hadn't so neutered the idea of crossover, you'd get that feeling in comics too) It also establishes the trope that whenever the Doctors get together, they tend to bicker a lot (we'll bring that up seven parts from now) the episode is a bit slight, but you're not really watching it for the plot as much as you are the event.

Another bit they kinda picked up and dropped was the Third Doctor having romantic feelings (no, RTD, didn't pull this out of his ass when the show returned in 2005) for his second companion, Jo Grant. To be fair, this really doesn't come to a head until her final story, "The Green Death" (subtlety has nothing to do with Doctor Who titles) wherein she runs off an marries the head of some damn hippie commune "who seems very much like the Doctor" and the Doctor gets all sombre and leaves it's underplayed and just as well, because it's kinda . . .icky. I mean, he's several orders of magnitude her age.

Anyways, by the time of the Third Doctor's final season, he's back traveling through time and space again, and he's picked up Sarah Jane Smith, who becomes one of the most enduring companions in the shows history (seriously, she got her own spinoff twice over, for God's sake) the Daleks have returned ("final end," my arse) and the Doctor is tooling around in a rather sharp-looking flying saucer.

And it's about here things change once again, as Number Three has a run-in with some spiders (they are very big spiders, in his defence) and, as the Brigadier says, "here we go again."

Join us next time when the Doctor goes all "teeth & curls" and the running of Doctor Who after Mister Rogers' Neighborhood warps a young child/future blog writer in a small North Carolina town for all time. Tons have been said about Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, so please stay tuned for even more of that. I would totally be your best friend if you did.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Continuing our discussion of all things Doctor Who from last time . . .

Or rather we will, but first, I gotta say, Matt Smith's debut was one of the strongest debuts of a new Doctor ever. While the episode's plot wasn't amazing (well, the parts that didn't focus on the Doctor's rather peculiar relationship with and effect on Amy) Number Eleven seems like such a natural as the Doctor I'm really looking forward to his tenure and seeing where he goes with it. Oh yes, and the roll call moment was a real "punch your fist into the air" moment, wasn't it?

Now, on to the main attraction--when last we talked, the First Doctor was on the way out and the Second Doctor was on the way in. The show had become popular enough to continue, but the actor who played the main part, William Hartnell couldn't really continue the role due to health reasons. Ordinarily, replacing the title character's actor is suicide for the show, but there was no way forward, so metaphorical dice were rolled, and it was decided that since the Doctor was an alien, why couldn't he change completely when necessary?

And thus, the concept of Regeneration was born. And the Doctor changed into that guy from The Omen who gets killed with the falling steeple.

Again, as with the First Doctor, not many of the early Second Doctor stories really exist anymore, so it's hard to tell just how much fidelity the Second Doctor had to the original's remit in the early days, but whatever the notion, he soon became his own character, who was quite different from the First's.

The most obvious difference was he predilection for comedy. Whereas the First Doctor was cranky and unctuous, the Second was more personable and prone to slapstick in moments. But at the same time, he was willing to be devious, when he has to be--the cliche of the Doctor playing dumb only for it to be revealed in the final episode that he's been playing a long game all the time really starts here, and that dynamic of "what exactly is he up to" is one of the driving forces of the show.

Another, of course, is relationship with his companions, or rather, the companions which stuck with him the longest. Jamie is a well-meaning dunderhead picked up from the Highlands who basically is there to do some of the action bits, play off the Doctor, and (as the actor once said) "Give the girls a reason to put down their knitting." Zoe is there to handle the technobabble, be a charming naif, wear sparkly jumpsuits and be something for the dads watching. It's a very sturdy chemistry, and the three of them play off each other so well, that this is another element that moves the show forward.

The last, and the most characteristic of this era, are the monsters. The Daleks seemed to be the thing that really made people tune in, so for awhile there, every writer of the show seemed determined to create the new marketable monster. The Cybermen were an early success (and appeared fairly frequently in the course of the Second Doctor's tenure) but there were others that may not have endured but are fondly remembered, like the Ice Warriors and the not-quite-as-threatening-as-advertised Yeti. Some, like the Krotons and the Quarks, never made the grade. The change towards monster-centric stories is helped immensely in places by the black and white photography, which creates some very evocative moments, like the Cybermen's march on London in "The Invasion."

In addition, there are a few threads that go through his tenure, specifically the advent of one Lethbridge-Stewart, who recurs through several stories and plays a major role in the next era and in the Second Doctor's last series, he fights an evil Time Lord (yes again--but not played for comedy this time)

One more major thing to mention is the Second Doctor's last serial, "The War Games" is the last of the "epic" Doctor Who serials, clocking in at 10 episodes. From now on, when the show takes on "epic" stories, they'll usually be broken down into arcs of related serials, more than one long story. Oh, and it also introduces and names for real and proper the Time Lords, but really, who remembers them?

It's not all good for the show, of course. For one, the effects budget is still laughable and sometimes, things fall short of the mark. The aforementioned Yeti (who look like a shaggier version of Grimace from McDonaldland and whose roar is the sound of a toilet flushing) are one example. The (sadly) mostly-lost story "The Underwater Menace" is another:

. . .really looks wet, doesn't it?

There's also (also lost) "The Evil Of The Daleks," which takes mighty and determined leaps to show and let us no in uncertain terms that the Daleks have reached their end, their final end, and any Dalek serials you may have seen after that are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

Also, dear God are there a lot of bases under siege in this era. And heaven help you if the serial you're watching runs six episodes, because you are doomed to some very obvious padding. The one that springs most readily to mind is "Tomb of the Cybermen," wherein the Doctor and the baddie fight over a damn switch for an entire episode and the Cybermen pop out of the tomb . . .and back in . . .and back out . . .

But sometimes, it works out in spite of things. Perhaps it's because the principals are so good at creating a lighter touch and acting like they're in on the joke. Most wonderfully (for me, anyways) is (also mostly lost--dammit) is "The Enemy of the World," wherein Patrick Troughton does double duty as the Doctor and Salamander, ruler of the world and in possession of an accent that starts as Spanish, meanders around the globe a bit, and settles on "generic foreign." It's an utterly silly episode full of Salamander chewing scenery so bloody hard it's a wonder Troughton didn't get polystyrene poisoning. Even intact, it would never be a good episode, but it sure as hell was a fun one.

It's definitely an intriguing era, as the balance between the more childlike (in moments) Doctor and the harder-edged monster-heavy stories shouldn't work, but sure enough it works, and while Doctor Who is no longer an educational show (well, it might be, but heaven knows what lessons you'd learn from it--how to shove Daleks around?) and has changed into something else in an effort to stay relevant and survive.

Which, to no one's surprise, is what happens at the end of the Second Doctor's tenure. In the wake of "The War Games," the Doctor is forced to regenerate and stranded on Earth. While this is a rather big risk (as it trips up one of the main strengths of the concept--that one can hop in the TARDIS and go somewhere else just in time for next week) and, as mentioned by the newer folks coming in, it limits one to stories involving alien invasions or mad scientists pretty exclusively.

However, believe it or not, it's going to work, as we'll see next time, when the Third Doctor stumbles out of the TARDIS and the show changes yet again. Karate chops for everyone!