Monday, March 23, 2015

CLASSIC DR. WHO FIELD OF 64: THE ELITE 8 (PART ONE)

WELL, WE'VE ARRIVED AT THE ELITE 8.  Things are getting serial, folks!  There were possibly a couple upsets last time around -- the tenacity of the wacky STONE OF BLOOD is particularly surprising.  If only the last half of it didn't suck, it might be one of the best storylines EVER!  It just shows to go ya how a superb first half can save a story; but it was a squeaker, I'll tell you.  This story is probably my equivalent of Sweet Cheeks' . . . er um I mean Jon Pertcheeks . . . THE HAPPINESS PATROL on his Field of 64.  And perhaps the biggest upset to many of you will be the toppling of fan favourite THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI; after all, it did win the 2009 DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE readers poll.  Sadly, CAVES OF ANDROZANI is, in my opinion, very over-rated.  There are some great things in it, don't get me wrong, but most of the so-called innovative violence and rat-a-tat-tat shoot-em-up aspects I find . . . weeeeeeeeelllllll . . . pretty dull, actually.  Sorry.  And also, by this point, I think it's fairly obvious that for the most part gothic horror wins out over clinical, over-lit science fiction for me.  I am, after all, a horror guy.  I much prefer my Doctor to be sneaking around a dark mansion than patching circuitry in a freshly scrubbed clinically-white laboratory.  That's just me.  So let's take a look at where we stand, huh?

Ah yes, as always you can click the pix to biggify - although I'm afraid it doesn't get much bigger.  However, I'll be providing closer details of the bracket as we motor along (...in Bessie, no doubt).

So on forth we sally to the Elite 8:

FIRST DIVISION:  #1 seed)  CITY OF DEATH   Vs.   #2 seed)  TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG

#1 seed)  CITY OF DEATH  -  Ranked #8 in "The Mighty 200" Doctor Who Magazine Readers' Poll.  In that magazine, Gareth Roberts wrote:  "It's got a glow so warm you could toast bread off it." 
The original story David Fisher came up with was called "A Gamble with Time" which would've taken place in 1920s Monte Carlo where an alien masquerading as a human is winning too much at the gaming tables using a combination of mental powers and advanced mathematics in order to raise enough money to build a time machine.  But then, the guy in charge of DOCTOR WHO's budget (one John Nathan-Turner) figured out that it would be much cheaper to film in present day Paris using a small cast.  The story is one of the most-watched DOCTOR WHO programmes of all time and emerged from a series of strikes which scuttled the SHADA storyline.  CITY OF DEATH is near perfection; only the slight padding of the Doctor and Romana running through the streets of Paris may cause a grumble. 
However, without that, we wouldn't get the famous and beloved "Running Through Paris Music" which, thanks to the indispensable ABOUT TIME book series, we can all now sing along to:  "running through Paris, we're running through Paris, we're running through Paris . . . we're running through France."  The ancient Jagaroth pilot (played with relish and wit by Julian Glover) explodes his spaceship back in primordial Earth and inadvertently creates the spark that begins life on the planet.  Splintered into 12 separate but connected versions of himself throughout history, the Count nudges the development of the human race forward so that his final version (in 1979 Paris) will have technology capable of building a time machine to undo his boo boo.  All through time, the
Count has amassed art treasures to sell in his future to finance said time machine.  This results in the exquisite scene in which Tom Baker opens panel after panel to find 7 authentic Mona Lisa paintings.  This brings us to the script by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams which is one of the best-written ever to feature on DOCTOR WHO; providing sparkling dialogue which gives everyone involved a chance to shine.  The acting is perfection across the board with Tom Baker seldom appearing better.  CITY OF DEATH features one of Baker's greatest moments ever when he is ushered into Catherine Schell's drawing room and executes a delicious pratfall, pops up behind the sofa (prime DOCTOR WHO watching territory) and makes his quip about loving her butler because he's so violent.  This entire scene, in fact, is pure DOCTOR WHO magic including Baker's tossed off line to Catherine Schell that "You're a beautiful woman, probably." 
The cast, as mentioned, is top notch from Glover and Schell (of TV's SPACE: 1999)
to Tom Chadbon (of Amicus' THE BEAST MUST DIE) as the delightful thumping Duggan to the absolutely right cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron. 
Tom Baker's memories of CITY OF DEATH:  "That was wonderful.  The interesting thing about running around the streets of Paris, of course, was that in England they'd look at you in amazement, whereas in Paris they just liked the scarf!" 
Top drawer DOCTOR WHO!


VS.

#2 seed)  THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG  -  Ranked #4 in the "Might 200" Doctor Who Magazine Readers Poll and the one that won it all at #1 in the original OUTPOST GALLIFREY fan poll!  In aforesaid DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE, Philip MacDonald writes:  "No Doctor Who story is entirely perfect, although this one gets pretty close..."  Like CITY OF DEATH, the story has only one real letdown in the budgetarily-challenged giant rat.  However, the gloriously realized BBC version of Victorian England circa Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, gaslights on fog-enshrouded streets, hatchet-throwing Tong members and Houdini-type stage shows is so good you could eat it! 
The often-mentioned PYGMALION aspect of the Doctor's relationship with Leela is wonderful as is the comedy duo of Jago & Litefoot (who were so good they were given their own long-running series of Big Finish audio adventures!).  Again, the script is flawless (by Robert Holmes from Robert Banks Stewarts uncredited story) and everyone is given superb dialogue.  While we're on the subject, the cast is once again unparalleled:  Tom Baker and Louise Jameson play extremely well together, Christopher Benjamin & Trevor Baxter (as the aforementioned Jago & Litefoot respectively) are superb and John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang is alternately witty and menacing.  This brings us to the "race" question which seems to hang up a few people.  The erroneous statement making the rounds the the story was long unshown in America for fear of upsetting Chinese Americans is simply untrue.  I've been watching DOCTOR WHO on American TV since 1978 and it played as often as every other Tom Baker story from then all through the 80s and into the 90s. 
Caucasian actor John Bennett wearing what's been called "slant-eyed makeup" and talking with a Chinese accent has also been brought up; however, Bennett plays the character without any hint of racial stereotypes as a cultured gentleman who is always shown as much smarter then almost everyone around him.  The script in fact takes several opportunities to point out the racial prejudice of some of the British constabulary etc. and how wrong-headed it is.  In fact, the British characters are actually hugely stereotyped as "...pompous, incompetent and self-deluded..." (as pointed out in the ABOUT TIME books) which continues "It's telling that the script replaces all Li H'sen Chang's "r's" with "l's" only when he's on the stage, suggesting that it's just part of the act he puts on for the sake of the ignorant British."  If a role's portrayal doesn't denigrate a race or utilize racial stereotypes, there is no reason why it cannot be played by any actor considered good enough to hire;  stating that only a Chinese actor can play a Chinese role (aside from instituting a hiring practice based on an actor's race) is no more valid than saying only a Swedish actor can play a Swedish character or indeed that a woman cannot play the lead in Shakespeare's "THE TEMPEST" . . . or, for that matter, in DOCTOR WHO. 
Leaving all this aside, THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG perennially tops the list of fan favourites because it's just so damn good!  To give our own Leela the final word, Louise Jameson had this to say:  "Talons is still the one that all the fans talk to me about.  It's the one that turns up in conversation more than any of the others.  And Robert Holmes was, to me, the best writer on the show.  And although it plagiarized many outside stories - Sherlock Holmes, My Fair Lady, and so on  - it also had a weird and wonderful thrust of its own.  I think the cast was fantastic - Chris Benjamin and Trevor Baxter, and lovely John Bennett.  You couldn't get better, three classical actors appearing in a sci-fi - it was an absolute joy."


THE WINNER:  (after much agonizing):  THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG

SECOND DIVISION:  #1 seed)  THE SEEDS OF DOOM    Vs.   #2 seed)  THE ROBOTS OF DEATH

#1)  THE SEEDS OF DOOM  -  Ranked #16 in DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE's "Mighty 200" Readers Poll.  A seed pod falls to Earth from outer space nearby a scientific outpost in Antarctica.  Naturally, a scientist brings it back and becomes infected by the "Krynoid" which slowly transforms him into a plant creature. 
The Doctor and his "best friend" Sarah Jane Smith are sent to investigate while, at the same time, a zillionaire named Harrison Chase (who is very, VERY keen on botany) sends his murderous thugs to "acquire" the pod for his collection.  As with the best DOCTOR WHO, the 6-part story "acquires" the best elements of many different works from "THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD" to "THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT" to "INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS" to "DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS" to "THE AVENGERS" (the one with John Steed and Mrs. Peel, you philistines!!!). 
This is one long-form DOCTOR WHO story which has not a second of padding; this fact owed probably not only Robert Banks Stewart's flawless script but also to the legendary action director Dougie Camfield - who never got another chance to director a DOCTOR WHO due to his premature death. 
Peter Griffiths, in the DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE poll puts it this way:  "THE SEEDS OF DOOM is such a lavish production it almost doesn't feel like DOCTOR WHO at all; this is a story with the Doctor as action hero, felling gangsters with an uppercut to the jaw, lobbing petrol bombs at lashing tendrils and crashing through a skylight to hold the villains at gunpoint.  And what villains they are:  John Challis as the sneering mercenary Scorby and Tony Beckley as the serenely smiling Harrison Chase, never happier than when he's adjusting his black leather gloves or noodling on his synthesizer in his green cathedral.  It's DOCTOR WHO at it's most uncompromisingly gruesome..."  Tru dat! 
Forget the violence of THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI or THE DEADLY ASSASSIN; we've got both the Doctor and, later, Sarah Jane about to be ground into a bloody pulp in a nasty-looking composter which will pump their gory ground-up guts into the garden!  As usual in the Elite 8, the cast is also superb.  Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are perfection in their chemistry and interaction with each other by this point and the aforementioned John Challis is superb as the at times sociopathic Scorby who also manages to create a rounded character that one actually kinda likes by the end of the show.  Then we have Camp Freddie himself:  Tony Beckley as urbane and also sociopathic Harrison Chase.  He's cool, cool, cool -- ice itself with his snowy hair and icy eyes . . . until, that is, he gets a spark of fire when defending his plants and demanding the eradication of the torture of the bonsai tree!  Beckley manages to be genuinely unsettling in his cold evil while inserting perfectly-placed bits of humour in his performance. 
Then the icing on the cake is the marvelous Sylvia Coleridge as dotty plant artist Amelia Ducat puffing her cheroot and adding tons of charm to the proceedings.  The only minus is that the Brigadier was in Geneva and missed being in this wonderful story.


VS.

#2 seed)  THE ROBOTS OF DEATH  -  Ranked # 9 on "THE MIGHTY 200".  The Doctor and new companion Leela land on board a sandminer run by a society who have become largely dependent upon robots to "do" for them.  Soon, a crewmember turns up murdered and this Agatha Christie-like whodunit cranks into high gear.  Which crew member is committing murders . . . it couldn't possibly be the robots whose "prime directive" programming is never to harm a human.  You KNOW this is gonna be good!  Chris Boucher's script is a jewel and Michael E. Briant's taught direction never lags for a moment!  It's almost like Douglas Camfield's back holding the reins! 
Then there's yet another absolutely fantastic cast:  Russell Hunter (the beloved "Lonely" from TV's CALLAN) leads the group as Uvanov with excellent showings from Pamela Salem (as Toos), David Bailie (as Dask) and Brian Croucher (as Borg).  Even Gregory de Polnay (as D84) and Miles Fothergill (as SV7) deliver superb voice performances while hidden underneath their robotic garb and masks.  de Polnay's "Please do not throw hands at me!" plea has always been a winner for me and his D84 is loveable as all get-out! 
Tom Baker's famously "prickly" relationship with Louise Jameson in the early days of her "companionship"(!) are well-known but there's absolutely no sign of that here; Baker and Jameson works beautifully together and seem to have a real chemistry.  As Baker would later come to adore Jameson and apologise profusely for his naughty behaviour, we must chalk that up to his distress at losing his beloved Elisabeth Sladen as cohort.  There is simply just a palpable warmth displayed between the two actors which proves to me that Baker liked Jameson in spite of himself.  The beautiful costumes, ornate makeup and superb deco production design make each shot pure magic.  There are also some genuinely creepy moments as well as some unsettling ones:  the disassembled robot's hand dripping with bloody gore or the robo-surgery scene where the hooded Taren Capel takes apart a robot's head while it's hands still twitch!  Brrrrrr! 
In the words of Louise Jameson again:  "Robots just worked.  It's a good script, but I think it had brilliant casting - the cosmopolitan feel of the cast and the art deco design were the two layers that made that script really work.  If you were to just read the script, you simply wouldn't envisage the story as we ended up with it.  And Russell Hunter gives a wonderful performance."


THE WINNER:  (do I need mention there was much agonizing once again???):  THE SEEDS OF DOOM

Join us in a little bit for the second part of our Elite 8.........                     

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