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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Doctor Who: Reign of Terror

Serial Title: The Reign of Terror
Series: 1
Episodes: 6
A Land of Fear
Guests of Madame Guillotine
A Change of Identity
The Tyrant of France
A Bargain of Necessity
Prisoners of Concierge
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

Paris, 1794 - 5 years after the revolution. An abandoned farmhouse, a dozen miles from the city. A staging post for Scarlett-Pimpernel-esque aristocrat escapes, for those innocents bound for the guillotine to be smuggled to the safety of England before they can be beheaded for simply being born a 'noble.'

A poor place for the TARDIS to land, perhaps- an even poorer place to run into a pair of escapees- and most definitely the worst place for the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara to be caught by revolutionary soldiers who lump them in with the escaped aristocrats or those who aided them. Both men are killed, and Susan, Ian, and Barbara are captured- bound for Paris and the guillotine. They leave the farmhouse ablaze behind them with, unbeknownst to them, an unconscious Doctor inside...

Rescued by a small boy and given the basic directions- as well as wary of whomever has apparently exposed this escape chain, a traitor in the ranks of the rescuers, the Doctor sets out along the road to Paris. He is briefly pressed into a road-mending crew when he is unable to produce papers, but soon escapes, bound to rescue his companions.

Ian, jailed separately from the women, is told by a dying cellmate of James Stirling, an English spy in the Revolutionary government, who has been recalled; he pleads with Ian as a fellow Englishman to complete his mission- find Stirling, by means of Jules Renan at the sign of "Le Chien Gris." An official named Lemaitre arrives, searches the corpse, and tries to find out if he told Ian anything before he died. Wishing to keep his prisoner alive for information, he pardons Ian of the death sentence. Susan and Barbara, however, are still scheduled for beheading, with no chance to speak in their defense.

Fortunately, two men, Jules and Jean, hijack the cart which is carrying them to their execution, taking the women back to their safe house. The escape chain that operated through the farm house now promises to smuggle them out of France. Jules and Jean, along with another man named Leon Colbert, promise to try and re-unite them with their companions first.

The Doctor reaches Paris and trades in his own clothes for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces. He arrives at the Concierge, but is too late- Ian, Barbara, and Susan are all gone already- Ian having stolen a key and managed his own escape; one that, unbeknownst to him, (NFS: You like saying "Unbeknownst" don't you?) was apparently aided by Lemaitre. The same Lemaitre who insists on the Doctor accompanying him to meet with First Deputy Robespierre himself, to give a personal report on the province whose overseer he is impersonating. The man is as paranoid and bloodthirsty as he is unyielding to the Doctor's suggestions to temperance and mercy (apparently Barbara is both rubbing off on him... and failing to give him any memorable object lessons, despite the futility of her own such efforts in 'The Aztecs.')

Ian follows the dying words of his cellmate and searches for Jules Renan, and is unexpectedly re-united with Susan and Barbara, as Renan is their host, the ill and bed-ridden owner of the building where they are being sheltered. Ian is dispatched to locate Stirling in hopes of his return to England ending the war they wage with France- a war that is creating the climate of fear which allows men like Robespierre and his ilk to flourish and retain power. Ian goes to see Leon Colbert, one of the freedom fighters sheltering Susan and Barbara... who turns out to be the leak responsible for compromising the escape chain. He wants very much to know what was imparted to Ian before the death of his cell mate, but Ian refuses to talk.

Meanwhile, Barbara takes Susan to a local doctor for treatment... who immediately reports them as escaped prisoners, leading to their re-capture. Jerk.

Lemaitre summons the Doctor back to the Concierge with two pieces of news- Robespierre wishes an audience with him again the following day... and the tailor whom the Doctor acquired his uniform from has informed on him (What a bunch of weasels this period Paris has!!!) (NFS: Listen to the song "The Riddle" from the Scarlett Pimpernel, it completely and totally sums up the desperation and mistrust that everyone had for each other in that time, basically everyone was looking to turn everyone else in because they knew that everyone else was thinking the same thing-it's the ultimate illustration of what happens when fear rules a people. It was kill or be killed every day.) under suspicion that he is... well, pretty much doing what he's doing, impersonating an officer. Lemaitre confines the Doctor to ensure he will remain in Paris for his audience the next day. When the captured women are brought in, the Doctor is able to arrange for Barbara to be let go, on the pretense of being followed to lead police to the leaders of the escape chain. Susan is too sick to be moved.

A wounded Ian is rescued by Jules Renan, with Leon Colbert being killed in the process. They return to Jules house, where they are reunited with Barbara.

Lemaitre confronts the Doctor in private, outing him as an imposter but not exposing this knowledge to the authorities; instead, he co-opts the Doctor into helping him locate Renan's house and the escape chain- using captive Susan as leverage.

The tables are surprisingly turned, however, when the Doctor leads him there- and Lemaitre reveals himself to be James Stirling! Ian is able to finally relay his message requesting Stirling's return, and information on the dying words, combined with a recently received assignment to Lemaitre from Robespierre, lead the group to piece together the location of a coming meeting to plot against Robespierre led by his deputy, Paul Barras. They go to the meeting and spy on Barras, meeting with a young Napolean Bonaparte, plotting to topple Robespierre.

Stirling/Lemaitre arranges for Susan's release, and the group flees even as the coup takes places- a bleeding Robespierre, guillotine-bound, carried in even as they flee. The escape chain carries the group to the TARDIS, with Stirling moving on ahead for England. As this season-finale ends, the group flies off into the star-speckles reaches of space, bound for whatever adventure may await them...

Wow... this was... such an amazing difference! As far as the Sensorites was below the average quality, Reign of Terror was that much- or more- above the norm! (From retrospect, I know the second season was a major jump up in quality, as if the budget had been doubled- though not quite to that standard, this serial shows a definite bleed-through of that increasing quality) The editing, effects, music, and- once you got past some truly awful bits of writing and acting in the first chapter- the majority of the performances as well were all a step up from the season 1 norms. Even though we had to watch 2 episodes in sideshow format- cursed missing episodes!!!- that wasn't a difficulty- in fact, all of the missing material so far has been interesting enough that watching it in still images made it no less interesting- it's only been some of the sci-fi based, full motion episodes that were bores thus far; the historicals have been consistently excellent! (NFS: The Historicals continue to be my favorite not only in the old series but in the new series as well, I hear that most fans complained because they wanted to see more eps on other planets, but I was perfectly content seeing so much of earth in different times. But that's just me!)

Worth noting are Doctor Who's very first location shots, as the Doctor walks the road and countryside to Paris; though only Hartnell's stunt double was freed from on-set confines to be filmed from behind, it is still a notable landmark, and lends an air of reality and authenticity to this episode, making it feel all-the-more like this episode was truly taking place in historic France.

It is a nice touch to visit the French Revolution period- and see the Doctor's familiarity with it- as it was referenced in the pilot as his favorite historical period. (NFS: Although it doesn't make much sense when you think about it, you'd think that that would be the Doctors most hated time period in that there was SOOO much blood-shed and wicked humans killing each other...I am almost certain that if you were to ask the Doctor today what his favorite time period was he would most CERTAINLY not say "The French Revolution".)

The humor that would characterize the second series and Doctor Who as a whole all throughout it's run was really starting to take shape here. It does follow the same pattern retained through most of the Ian/Barbara/Susan run... The Doctor has a related, semi-detached humorous story while everyone else has the deadly serious half of the story.

Great moments:
The house burning, the Doctor's outwitting of the work gang, and those first shots of the real, actual outdoors. (NFS: You almost start to feel like YOU'VE never seen the outdoors before when you see the outdoor shots, it's rather freeing! :)

An at-the-time analysis ranked Five out of five blessings of Orb to finish out the first season- (especially for so many great moments for the Doctor!) and a retrospective, while not quite as glowing in memory compared to series 2 highs, and the story ending up being pretty forgettable, it still ranks a very high 4 out of 5 for it's excellent production!

Series 1 overall thoughts:
Overall, the first season takes itself a little too seriously- light, witty banter and jokes are needed to sustain the long run-times, and dry characters make it a bit more dull. I'm no critic of the damsel-in-distress motif in media, I think it has it's place but it is more than a little over-used- (NFS: MORE THAN A LITTLE INDEED! It might have it's place but it can really only be used by the highly skilled because usually the whole 'damsel-in-distress" thing can come off as annoying or stupid. Susan is really embarrassing! I feel bad for her because her character is less than useless most of the time, and she's used as a macguffin for suspense and plot intricacies in the most undignified manner.) Susan hardly stops screaming and fainting- though at least Barbara shows some real growth, as does the Doctor. Ian remains largely static, but his character was fine in the first place, so that's no trouble.

Things also look a bit cheap. Often they do well with what they have to work with, but the budget is clearly low- thankfully, the next season would rectify this a bit, presumably with the show's popularity netting it a higher budget.

The stories are decent, but plodding and a bit predictable oftentimes; they suffer from pacing issues early on, and still haven't figured out a good length, often producing 6-8 part epics that simply wear out the audience.

Overall, the show is good, watchable, usually entertaining, with glimmers of all the things that would eventually make the show great... but with plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, Series 2 would bring that improvement...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doctor Who: The Sensorites

Serial Title: The Sensorites
Series: 1
Episodes: 6
Strangers in Space
The Unwilling Warriors
Hidden Danger
A Race Against Death
A Desperate Venture
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

The TARDIS lands on a human spacecraft, drifting and apparently full of the dead. However, the crew is revivied from a deep sleep, revealing that they are orbiting the Sense-Sphere, a molybdenum-rich twin-sunned planet, and home fo the Sensorites... the latter of which will not let the Earth exploratory-ship leave orbit.

The Sensorites slip aboard the ship and steal the TARDIS's lock (they just remove the... conceptual doorknob created as part of the illusion... on an advanced spaceship... even though the doorknob isn't real... it apparently still contains the advanced spaceship's door-opening mechanism???) and try to crash the spaceship, hypnotizing the pair of survivors- the Doctor remedies both situations, while Susan's limited telepathic skills pick up the Sensorites, who are frightened of the humans and trying to communicate with her as they sense her and the Doctor to be different.

Responding to an invitation to negotiate, the Doctor, Ian, Susan, and spaceship survivors Carol Richmond and her fiance, John, a minerologist whose mind has been partially broken by the Sensorites' telepathy, travel down to the Sense-Sphere, while Barbara and the ship's captain, Maitland, remain aboard.

In a show of good faith, the Sensorites promise to heal John. The group learns that a previous expedition from Earth had arrived at the Sense-Sphere, who planned to exploit the planet for it's mineral wealth (the molybdenum). Their landing craft exploded on takeoff. Due to the strife that they caused, many Sensorites distrust this new group of humans; the City Administrator plots to kill them with conspirators- while others, including the friendly First Elder, beleive that they may be able to help with a disease currently ravaging the population.

The cause is discovered to be poisoned water from the city aqueduct, and the Doctor devises a cure. Meanwhile, the treacherous City Administrator kidnaps and impersonates his superior, the Second Elder- all Sensorites looking alike save for identifying insignia ont heir clothing.

The Doctor investigates the aqueduct caverns and finds deadly nightshade, the cause of the poisoning- but also encounters a monster, unseen in the darkness. He is knocked out but recovered by Ian and Susan... as the treacherous City Administrator kills his captive, the Second Elder. However, John, now healed, is able to finger the culprit, who revealed himself in gloating to the harmlessly 'unbalanced' man, not expecting him to be cured.

Ian and the Doctor re-descend to the aqueduct caverns, but their weapons and map have been disabled by the City Administrator, leaving them helpless against whatever lurks in the dark.

Barbara arrives from the ship and helps to recover a captured Carol, who had been forced to write a note claiming she'd left for the ship. They discover the treachery and sabotauge, and the First Elder moves in to arrest the conspirators as the women head down to the aqueducts to aid the Doctor and Ian.

Ian and the Doctor discovers the 'monster'- a band of humans from the original scout party. It turns out that the party agreed to exploit the planet for it's molybdenum, but argued the method- the conflict splitting the party in two. Half stole the landing ship- which then exploded upon takeoff- but this other half took to the subteranean caverns to survive; they have been slowly poisoning the Sensorites with nightshade, intent to take the planet and it's resources at their leisure after the Sensorites are dead.

The group is quite insane after all this time, delusional and paranoid, and the Doctor, playing to their madness, convinces them he is an ally, and leads them to the surface to be arrested by the Sensorites- who agree to be merciful and turn them over to Captain Maitland's Earth scout-ship to be treated for their madness on Earth.

Well... it took a little longer than anticipated to get to this one. At least now we can hook the computer to the TV and don't have to squint at the tiny screen.

Before jumping into a review, it occurred to me that, if this had been a New Series David Tennant episode, I think that:
A. The Doctor would have been able to telepathically communicate with the Sensorites himself, and would've been better at it than the Sensorites.
B. The Doctor would fiddle around on the ship with his sonic screwdriver for about 10 seconds. Later, when meeting the Sensorite leader, he would announce that the ship is fixed and out of their control, and could leave any time he wants it to, but he wanted to look around.
C. The humans would have ALL been evil, out for the Sensorites land- not just one crazy group. 'Cause we white people is EVIL peoples, you know...
D. The Sensorites would have psychically scanned the Doctor and announced an impending great disaster for him/his companions. ("Your song will end as silence falls and your journey comes to it's conclusion when the universe will crack and the sun will die and a great traveller will roam no more...")
E. The water thing wouldn't have been QUITE so telegraphed (Oh, I'll drink this other water that isn't as good... and get sick... and the elders drink a different water... and none of them are sick... hmmm, I wonder what could be causing the sickness...?) And the plot wouldn't have been SO IMBECCILIC!!!!!

Good gracious, what infant wrote this screenplay? It was maddeningly, irritatingly stupid, and you wanted to strangle that absurdly idiotic City Administrator, and the intelligence level of the story was LOW BEYOND REASON! A few nice moments with the Doctor in his research element, being the Doctor ("But you didn't kill him- that shows promise for the future of your race..."), and Susan being, realistically, a sulking teenager when she discovers she can't read minds anymore!

*Sigh* I was looking forward to this one, too... bleah! It's no secret that I'm no fan of the Ood from the New Series- like the Slitheen, they felt a little too much like a pet project the creators were determined to make beloved by repeatedly forcing it down our throats and having the characters gush about how great they were. But at least I relished the conection- the 'Ood Sphere,' their home, was supposed to be right by the Sense Sphere, and the alien designs, with their pale, bald heads and big eyes, were designed in homage to the Sensorites with a definite simillarity. Too bad the Ood's cousins turned out to be just as big a dissapointment as the Ood themselves...

Interesting, though, that the description of the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey in this episode is finally visualized in the New Who episode "The Sound of Drums," all those years- and seasons- later; in 2007 we finally saw, through CGI, the orange skies and silver trees and great glass-domed city that Susan speakes of so lovingly in this 1963 episode. Also interesting that, though this is the first true indication we've had of the Doctor and Susan being aliens, the Doctor refers to having a singular heart and doesn't object to being labeled an Earthman. Clearly the progression was there, but the notion of a Time Lord has not yet been developed.

But that STORY...! So dull, so slow- though there were a few nice moments- like the Sensorite outside the window IN SPACE, which was a genuinely creepy shocker- the first three episodes were especially agonizing! At least Barbara had the good fortune to be only tangenitally tarnished by this lackluster episode, as she hardly appeared.

Oh, one other note I forgot- seemed like way more flubs-per-capita than any other episode thus far; a lot of blown lines, from everyone! Despite that humor, it is not enough to redeem this miserable sack of suck.

Great moments:
Much as I dislike this... Susan's description of Gallifrey and the Episode 1-ending creepy exterior Sensorite still shine. (NFS: The scariest moment in many Doctor Who's to come....Ian's first glimpse of a Sensorite out the window....serious....behind-the-sofa...material.)

No blessings of Orb! None at all! Curses of Orb! Bleah!!!!!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Doctor Who: The Aztecs

Serial Title: The Aztecs
Series: 1
Episodes: 4
The Temple of Evil
The Warriors of Death
The Bride of Sacrifice
The Day of Darkness
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

The TARDIS materializes inside an ancient tomb chamber... with a very sneaky one-way onlydoor (NFS: If I could count how many times that happens...). Now trapped outside with no way back in to the TARDIS, Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor are at the mercy of the Aztecs, circa 1454- save for Barbara's posing as Yetaxa (NFS: You will have this name stuck in your head for an eternity if you watch this episode), a deity for whom she is mistaken in one of those plots that was probably original at the time. Fortunately, Barbara, as a history teacher, is well-versed enough in Aztec culture to pull of the ruse... but as a 20th century sophisticate, is still in danger of failing the you're-only-the-god-as-long-as-you-act-like-one test due to her sympathetic bleeding heart... or at least her objection to seeing one torn out of a still-living human sacrifice victim.

As Barabara struggles with the harsh realities of the brutal Aztec culture and the temptation to use her position of influence to try and change it (an urge which could expose the entire charade and get the group killed). She finds a kindred spirit in the noble Autloc, while Ian falls afoul of Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice, who is suspicious of Barbara in the first place. Thus Ian is drafted into the military and made to fight Ixta, the strongest warrior to prove his ability to command their forces- a role he had no desire of. Ian defeats him using a pressure-point hold from 20th century knowledge, and the grudge bearing Ixta joins forces to expose and kill the group of newcomers.

Ian is nearly killed in a rematch when drugged, and Tlotoxl tries to poison Barbara; Barabara refuses to drink the poison and admits her false-godhood to the high priest, but only to him- making him all the more desperate to find proof to the people.

Susan is betrothed to the Perfect Victim, the next scheduled ritual sacrifice-ee, for her transgression fo Aztec law, and the Doctor is enamored of- and unintentionally finds himself engaged to- the elderly Cameca, after accepting her gift of a shared cup of hot chocolate. (It pays to know local customs, Doctor...!) Cameca, a kind and generous woman (NFS: I think they would have been rawther happy together actually...quite quite.), helps the group to find an entrance to the tomb where the TARDIS is trapped. After Ian braves a flooding tunnel, he reports that the group will be able to enter the chamber and escape in the TARDIS.

As end-game treachery descends, Ian fights Ixta once again to defend the group, knocking him off of the temple. Autloc, after helping Barbara, exiles himself to the wilderness to meditate on what must change in his culture. Cameca is tearfully left behind by her brief fiance (a position that most women would kill to have claimed by the time the Doctor became David Tennant in his tenth incarnation), and Barbara sadly realizes that history cannot be changed, as Tlotoxl, now fully in charge, sacrifices the next in a long line of victims just as they depart.

Someone else described 'The Aztecs' as "exciting, funny, educational, and - when it comes to Cameca - heartbreaking." I can't think of a better way to put it, so I'll just second that! Barbara's transition is definitely completed in this serial; her courage, her steel, her improvisational acting skills and knowledge of Aztec lore, saved the entire TARDIS crew (NFS: For once there's no flying off the handle or looking totally nutty). I also really liked the Doctor and Barbara's conversation at the end- how helping one man, making a difference in one life... that's the point. Great stuff!

And of course, the message of 'You can't change history' is both confirmed and refuted so many times in the series history; the New Series episode "Fires of Pompeii" finally clarified, in a brilliant ret-con, that certain points of history are 'fixed' and unchangeable- they will happen no matter what you try to do- while others are in flux, and can be altered either way. Time Lords like the Doctor have the ability to 'see' which is which. This is important to keep in mind, lest the following reviews seem a bit confusing- the Doctor's repeated warnings of, alternately, "History can't be changed!" and "We must be careful not to accidentally change history!" are situational-specific; which viewed retrospectively, makes sense of the episodes. (NFS: Sure it does Andrew....sure.)

Of course, the getting-separated-from-the-TARDIS-and-have-to-get-back-to-it bit is getting a little tiresome... :-) (NFS: That's their meat and cheese though! Without that MacGuffin they wouldn't be able to like...DO ANYTHING!)

Aside from BBC not wanting an additional cast member, why didn't the Doctor take Cameca with him? He knew her people were soon to die out. She was much happier with him. Any reason NOT to bring her, but to send her away? (NFS: Take someone out of their own time?! As a companion?! Are you mad!? It's not as if he ever....oh wait...) Still, Hartnell's acting at so many points in this serial- from his crafty horticulture grin to his realization of his engagement to his explanation of said engagement to Ian to his expression as Cameca left for the final time was superb; really cemented him as a top-notch Doctor, in my mind. I also loved loved Ian's bits against Ixta- especially his 'pick up your club/victory with my thumb' moment. (You'll just have to see it for yourself... :-) )

The matte-painting behind the temple looks a little too faded to be believable (in person it may have looked believable, but it's faint on camera from the lighting), but is an impressive vista nonetheless, and a worthy attempt to give the appearance of being on top of an open-air temple balcony overlooking a sprawling Aztec city. The music was likewise good, but very repetitive- like the cue we hear when we first cut to the Doctor setting up his pulley in the temple.

Only one Major Line flub I caught in this one- it was a little more jarring for it's rarity, but overall, good job for the actors.

Again, a few minor plot quibbles or ideas:
Man, I know the Doctor messed up with the whole thorn thing (mentioning it's tranquilizing properties when coerced to provide Ixta a method of defeating his enemy... not knowing that said enemy would be Ian), but... did he have to provide the actual diversion during which Ixta could scratch him, too?

The whole mess of tension afterwards could have been resolved if Yetaxa, since she was already in a making-declarations mood, simply declared Ixta the victor as he had Ian at his mercy; Ian wouldn't have minded, I'm sure, and Ixta would have been rid of the chip on his shoulder!

Still, overall, I wouldn't consider there to be any plot holes, just solutions the characters didn't think of. This was a very solid story, well-paced, attention-holding, clever, and a very strong showcase for Barbara. (NFS: This is actually when I started being able to actually stand Barbara, and by the time she leaves I was actually quite sorry to see her go. I think that if this story had never happened a lot of people wouldn't have started to see the good in Barbara's character.)

Great moments:
The dark ending, Ian's clever disabling of Ixta, the Doctor's face when he realizes he has inadvertently betrothed himself.

For the strong performances, I'm going to have to give this a 5 out of 5 Blessings of Orb. (In retrospective of memory, it's strange that this is higher-rated than Keys of Marinus, in that I remember that one more fondly- but both were excellent!)