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Third Doctor: Spearhead from Space
This is absolutely classic debut story territory, and does a great job of introducing a new Doctor, a new companion and a new regular cast and setting, all in just four episodes. It's a clear index of its strength as an introduction to a new era that the equivalent stories for both Four and Nine look back to it so directly - Four's Robot via the setting and the device of the disoriented Doctor, and Nine's Rose via the use of the same aliens, as well as some shot-for-shot scene remakes.

Like other debut stories, both Classic and New, what would otherwise be the main plot actually uses up fairly little screen-time, especially in the first couple of episodes, leaving plenty of time for the character-development which is the real business of the story. Pertwee establishes himself as a strong and authoritative Doctor, whose occasional impatience is tempered by a nice line in visual comedy (shower scene, stealing clothes, wheelchair chase, eyebrow twitching); Nicholas Courtney hits a perfect balance between gung-ho militarism and a cautious willingness to accept new ideas as the Brigadier; and Caroline John gets to perform the important task of asking all the 'WTF?' questions which need to be revisited every now and then, and especially at the start of a new era like this: travelling through time and space in a police box? changing appearance? saving the Earth? aliens from outer space? you what now? Meanwhile, there's some notably good camerawork, and the usual complement of interesting secondary characters - though nothing like enough well-defined female ones for the story to pass the Bechdel test.

For all that this story is good in itself and does what it is doing well, though, I find it hard to get terribly enthusiastic about the direction all this was heading in. Obviously the tone and themes of Doctor Who do need to be readjusted from time to time in order to keep the show interesting to an evolving audience, and I presume the production team knew what they were doing in terms of securing ratings when they decided to maroon the Doctor on Earth. But having now seen four stories from the earthbound UNIT period (The Silurians, Inferno (see below), The Sea Devils and The Claws of Axos), it's pretty clear to me that it is never going to be my favourite Who era. I mean, don't get me wrong. I love UNIT themselves, have great respect for Pertwee's Doctor, appreciate the attempt to forge a strong female character in Liz, and actually rather like Jo Grant. But I don't enjoy chase sequences for their own sake, am not that interested in stories about men doing things in labs, and am distinctly unimpressed by the consistent absence of well-developed secondary female characters in stories from this period.

Put simply, the emphasis in this era appears to be on Hard Science, Men and Plot, while the elements that I really like in Who such as character development, explorations of social norms and philosophical or metaphysical concepts, and simple old-fashioned fantastical whimsy appear to have dropped away. Whether this is a direct result of the decision to set the show entirely on contemporary Earth, or another symptom of the same factors that led to that decision being made in the first place, I'm not yet sure, and I'll need to watch more to draw a conclusion about that. Setting the show on contemporary Earth certainly limits the possibilities for exploring alternative social settings or encountering strange physical phenomena, but it doesn't close them off altogether. And it certainly shouldn't need to have a negative effect on characterisation or whimsy. The fact that those elements are little-explored in this period as well makes me suspect that it isn't the Earth setting as such, but rather the general aims and ideals of the production team at this time that are pushing out the elements I really like in Who and foregrounding the ones I don't. But, as I say, I still need to see more to get a proper picture of the era.

In summary: a good story, but heading in a direction I'm not wildly keen about.

Third Doctor: Inferno
My next Lovefilm DVD was Inferno - which means that I've now seen three-quarters of Pertwee's first season (with Ambassadors from Space still to watch). By the end of the second episode, I was actively bored, and really starting to wonder how I could make it through the earthbound UNIT period, what with the engrained sexism, silly car-chases and endless succession of stories about Men in Labs that I have complained about above. But then the Doctor got flipped into a parallel universe, and things got rather better. I still felt at the end that a seven-episode format was rather too long for the amount of story actually available here, but there's a lot to enjoy all the same.

The parallel universe trope is used above all to explore the question of nature vs. nurture: how do the same basic personalities that we know from the regular Whoniverse behave in a different social setting? And of course that is exactly the sort of social / philosophical / metaphysical stuff I was complaining about the general lack of in this era above, so its appearance here cheered me up no end. I especially liked the way the nature of the alternate universe was established through prominently-placed posters showing a Big Brother-like face with an intent, authoritarian gaze and the legend 'Unity is Strength', without the precise details of what had happened in that world or how its political system functioned being set out explicitly. It suggested a great deal, while also leaving plenty of room for the imagination, and for the effects of the setting to be revealed gradually through characterisation. Much win.

The actual central plot about drilling into the core of the Earth is less compelling, even with the addition of green slime and possessed zombie-creatures, and I don't think it would have worked for me alone without the parallel universe element. I was also somewhat unconvinced by how readily the characters in that parallel universe are persuaded to help the Doctor get back to his universe and save the other Earth - only the Brig[ade Leader] really objects to this, but you would think the other characters would have had other priorities, too, given that their whole planet is in the process of being destroyed. In fact, I could have done with seeing a little bit more emotional impact in general being got out of the device of destroying the parallel Earth, given that this is something that usually cannot be done in Doctor Who.

Still, there's some great stuff here to make up for all that. Particular honourable mention goes to the scenes when the Doctor has just arrived in the parallel world, and for ages we watch him exploring his new surroundings in silence, puzzled and lost as the wind whips sand across the deserted tarmac. It reminded me a great deal of the long scenes without dialogue in the Matrix during The Deadly Assassin, and conveyed very much the same feelings of tension and atmosphere. I also liked seeing him being interrogated by Liz and evil!Brig in scenes which felt very much like The Prisoner, as well as the very Midnight-ish device of putting the Doctor in a situation where no-one around has any established reason for trusting him. Definitely some top work, there, and as far as I'm aware pretty pioneering ideas for their day.

Overall, then: a very refreshing break-out from the usual constraints of this era. May not be perfect, but its strengths definitely outweigh its weaknesses.

And that? That would be me bang up to date with my write-ups. A good feeling, I can tell you. :-)

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 5th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Luckily, The Green Death is lying on my coffee-table downstairs, just waiting to be played, so that is my next port of call! And I have seen The Daemons ages ago, I think at Bristol Uni's WhoSoc, and remember enjoying it very much. I'll definitely be revisiting that too in the not-too-distant future.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 5th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC)
Ooh, excellent! I shall look forward to that, then. :-)
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:45 pm (UTC)
Coming back to this thread, I realise now I've started watching The Green Death that isn't actually from the era I'm complaining about, since the TARDIS is able to leave Earth by this time. So although I'm really enjoying it so far (especially Jo and Professor Jones), it can't quite count as an honourable exception in an otherwise gloomy period. The Daemons and The Time Monster (yes, I've just checked - that's the one) can, though.
Oct. 5th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
Seconded on Green Death and Daemons. I was far less keen on "Time Monster" though -- I felt it just got silly.
Oct. 6th, 2008 09:20 am (UTC)
Thirded! Daemons was reputedly Pertwee's favourite story and is definitely mine.
Oct. 5th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed Inferno in the end. Interesting story. I guess we are (or at least I am) jaded with alt universe stuff these days since it's such a common sci-fi trope. Inferno was jolly good though.

I know quite what you mean about random chases in the Pertwee era. I've said this to you before I'm sure but I swear at times the script says nothing other than "they run about in the woods a bit -- 5 mins".
Oct. 5th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC)
The thing I really liked about Spearhead from Space was the way that it explored the Doctor's more childish side, which often reverses the dynamic between the Doctor and the Brig, with the Brig cast as the stern but indulgent schoolmaster, and the Doctor the naughty schoolboy. And as you so rightly note, they return to this dynamic in Robot.

With Inferno, the thing that really got me, and made this memorable, was the fact that the parallel world is actually destroyed-- I think that makes this one of the darker Pertwee episodes. I also thought that it was an interesting exploration of fascism-- when we encounter fascist groups in Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot, they tend to be working from environmentalist principals in a misguided way; it was good, here, to see a fascist group who simply were more efficient at destroying the Earth.

I agree with others that The Green Death is well worth checking out-- it's one of Jo Grant's strongest episodes. But really, I don't think that Pertwee's era really finds its feet, and starts producing consistently good episodes, until it's final season with Sarah Jane. :)
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
the thing that really got me, and made this memorable, was the fact that the parallel world is actually destroyed

I agree that this is an exciting moment - but I also felt that it could have been made more exciting than it actually was, given how major an event it is. Maybe I'm just spoiled by New Who, with its much greater emphasis on emotions and character reactions, but I would have liked to see a bit more of that for the people left behind on the parallel world.

Oh, and big kudos for celebrating Invasion's dinosaurs in icon form. Somebody has to!
Oct. 6th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC)
Hee, yes, the icon is from ellisbelle. I love it muchly. :D
Oct. 5th, 2008 09:41 pm (UTC)
I think the 3x 7 episode stories in S7 were designed to save money, but they are a bit padded out, Ambassadors of Death being the one that creaks the most. Inferno explores some interesting territory and I particularly like the ending of episode 6 (?) where the parallel earth comes to an end and they all realised that they're b@ggered.

I wholeheartedly endorse the Green Death as being the next one that you should watch. It scared the life out of me as a kid and on the whole has stood the test of time. Beware of some dodgy visual effects though- I won't spoilerise it for you, but you'll see what I mean..
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
3x 7 episode stories in S7 were designed to save money, but they are a bit padded out

Yeah, it does feel rather like that...
Oct. 5th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
"But I don't enjoy chase sequences for their own sake, am not that interested in stories about men doing things in labs, and am distinctly unimpressed by the consistent absence of well-developed secondary female characters in stories from this period."

Plus the presence of dangerously incompetent Whitehall civil servants in every episode or the interminable gadgets and cars. I'm afraid it all got much worse after the first Pertwee season.

- K
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
You speak the truth, my friend, oh yes you do...
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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