Saturday, 23 January 2016

BOOK OF LISTS: TOP TEN WHO STORIES - #10

As we enter into our final month of the year, I thought I'd take a break from the dry didactic stuff I've been writing and indulge in a series of personal opinion pieces. I believe I mentioned in a previous essay that I'd like to, someday, list my top ten favorite Who stories of all-time. I've decided that now is the time to do it. 

Here's the thing: I created my "Book of Lists" category because I was looking at some postings in a fan group that were asking people to list their top 10 favorite Who stories. An endless stream of comments ensued. No doubt, fans loved showing the world what stories they loved best. I found it boring, though. Because a simple list of stories was not enough. I wanted to know why these were their favorite stories. To me, the whole posting would've been far more interesting if the fans had written reviews explaining why these particular tales ranked so highly in their personal preferences. 

So that's what I'm doing, here. Most of the reviews have been written for some time, now. So I will release them every couple of days throughout the month. Reaching my Numero Uno All-Time Fave as we come to the end of 2015. 

Hope you all follow along... 

                                  LOGOPOLIS

There are many things that make Logopolis wonderful.    But, oddly enough, perhaps the best way to explain its qualities is to compare it to another story that tries so hard to duplicate it but doesn't succeed.
            
As we learnt of David Tennant's desire to finally bow out as the Tenth Doctor, a great chill began to run through the Body of Fandom.    He was, to many (but not, necessarily, me!), an intensely popular incarnation of the Doctor.   In fact, he holds the record of being the only actor to "outshine" Tom Baker's legacy in the popularity polls.    Which meant, of course, that he needed just as grandiose of a send-off as Doctor Four had received way back in the early 80s when he had finally decided to step down and make way for someone new. And so, RTD penned a tale that was of such epic proportions that he dared to call it "The End of Time".   It was meant to be an incredible adventure in which Doctor Ten struggled with his foreknowledge of his own personal demise whilst, at the same time, fighting against his greatest foe who is accidentally causing the universe to unravel (sound familiar?).
      
The biggest problem with the End of Time, however, is not that it tries too much to imitate Logopolis.  That's not an entirely bad thing to do when you're sending off an actor as popular as Tennant.   With a challenge like that, Logopolis is a good blueprint to work from.  Its problems lie, moreso, in the fact that it concentrates too greatly on the sense of occasion that a Doctor is dieing and throws aside that All-Important Prime Cardinal Rule of Good Writing:  Story First.  Logopolis, though fully cognizant of the fact that an immensely popular actor who has portrayed our favourite Time Lord is about to shuffle his mortal coil, refuses to make the same mistake.  
            
Probably the first thing out of the mouths of any hardcore fan who discusses Baker's Finale are the two words:  "funeral atmosphere".   And it is true, that particular sentiment is in great abundance throughout Logopolis.   Most of it conveyed through Tom Baker's portrayal.    Even before the fateful meeting with the Watcher on the bridge during Episode Two, Baker plays the part with an edge of grimness that tells the audience that bad things are soon to come.    But this is never taken too far.    Whereas End of Time frequently comes to a huge screeching halt so that Tennant can lament over and over about how his life is coming to an end and he knows it.  Moments with Wilfrid Mott in cafes and spaceships are beautifully-written and well-portrayed - but they come with too great of a frequency and go for far longer than they should.    Whereas Logopolis creates similar moments (those little snippets where the Doctor spots the Watcher).   But they come less abundantly and last for much shorter periods of time.     
            
In essence Doctor Four never allows his sentimentalism to get the best of him.  Whereas Doctor Ten's final outing seems to be about nothing but sentimentalism.   
            
The other huge contributor to that notorious funeral atmosphere is the music of Logopolis.   It creates some beautifully haunting moments.   Particularly during Episode One.   When the Doctor looks across the motorway to see the Watcher for the first time.  Or the TARDIS materializes around what it believes to be a perfectly harmless Police Box.   Pay close attention to the soundtrack during those moments and you will get some serious chills.   But that's the beauty of the incidental music of  Logopolis.   You have to pay serious attention to it to feel its effects to the fullest.   It never truly gets in the way of things.  It simply enhances certain moments beautifully.
  
Whereas the music of Murray Gold has already been discussed throughout fandom on several occasions.  Most of us agree that, in many ways, he is a great composer.   But subtlety is hardly his strong point.    So the over-indulgence that End of Time is so guilty of becomes even more obvious in his hands as he gives us music that is way bigger and broader than it ever needs to be.
  
 As has already been pointed out, Logopolis and End of Time share similarities beyond: "being the last story of a popular Doctor" .   In both cases, in order to truly give the Doctor a climactic swansong, the fate of the entire Universe is at stake.   And this is where we truly see the Story First Rule respected by the Former and all-but-ignored by the Latter.    While plenty of time is still devoted to mourning the loss of Tom Baker - Christopher H. Bidmead still remembers that the Doctor needs to legitimately be doing something at all times.    At first, he's simply trying to repair the Chameleon Circuit.   Then he embarks on a quest to deal with the Master (something that also occurs in End of Time).   Then he gets so wrapped up in trying to stop the entire cosmos from rotting away that he actually seems to, more or less, forget that he's soon to regenerate.  
            
Let's examine that last point just a bit more closely before I ramble on much further.    As we fly into Episode Four, it really does feel like the Doctor doesn't care anymore about his ensuing doom.    This is one of the finest qualities of Logopolis.   And the character of the Doctor, in general.    He often reaches a point in the plot where his own needs become superseded by the needs of the Greater Good and he completely forgets himself.    It's a form of heroism that few of us rarely achieve, ourselves'.   We're almost always fearing for own hides as we attempt to do a noble deed.    The Doctor somehow seems capable of letting self-preservation fall to the wayside during the most critical of moments.   And that last episode of Logopolis exemplifies that quality to its fullest.   Only as the final battle on the radio telescope begins, does Baker seem to start showing a fear for his life, again.    He recalls, just instants before he's about to fall to his death, that this moment has been waiting for him the whole time.   And he becomes sad again over what's to become of him.   But forgetting about his fate and focusing on fighting evil never seems to happen for the Doctor in End of Time.   The Tennant Incarnation seems to be always wallowing in his impending doom.   Even as the story dives into high gear - Tennant maintains that attitude.   That sadness that he must pass and a new man must walk in his place, that disappears for a while in Logopolis.  But a moment like that never occurs in Tennant's finale.   Which shows that Bidmead has not only maintained the Great Story First Rule, but has also remembered to display the character trait we love most in the Doctor just before we lose this latest version of him.     This is, perhaps, the greatest success for Logopolis.   It is also the greatest failing for The End of Time.   Because Time seems to forget that the Doctor needs to act in a truly selfless manner if he wants his audience to fully regret his death.    And when we don't get this,"I don't want to go..."  becomes horrifically less effective than "It's the end.   But the moment has been prepared for..."
  
Ultimately, Logopolis wins out over End of Time because it remembers to be both nostalgic and economical.    The sadness is dolloped out in small portions and we're able to be more mature about this whole solemn moment.    Just compare the one minute series of villain and companion flashbacks that Baker has to the fifteen-minute farewell scenes that Tennant wallows in.   It's all over the place, really.  Logopolis always makes the smarter choice to "hold back" rather than "let loose".  
            
When both Doctors finally died, I shed a few tears.   But the crying I did over Tom's passing was far more sincere.   Because everyone responsible for Logopolis earned my sympathy.    Whereas the End of Time team kept desperately trying to wring that sympathy out of me during every minute of transmission time rather than just let it happen of its own accord.    And because it is trying so consciously to do this, it ultimately fails to deliver any of the impact Logopolis had all those many years ago.  
            
Because of the wise choices it makes, I not only appreciate Logopolis  better than End of Time. This particular tale also beats out about another two-hundred-and-forty-or-so stories that currently make up the Doctor Who canon.

For me, it's the definitive regeneration story.    And I don't think any other Doctors' passing will ever be able to beat it.     





Now that the countdown is complete, here is the full list of links: 


#9 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

#8 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-10-fave-who-stories-8.html

#7 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-7.html

#6 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-6.html

#5 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-5.html

#4 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-4.html

#3 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2016/01/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-3.html

#2 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2016/01/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-2.html

#1- http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2016/01/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-1.html




Saturday, 16 January 2016

BOOK OF LISTS: TOP TEN WHO STORIES - #1

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN

For its contribution to continuity, alone, Deadly Assassin is pretty amazing. Even the most recent Hell Bent is based on a fair amount of what Assassin establishes. This is the Doctor's first proper visit to Gallifrey since the show started over a decade ago. We've had glimpses of Time Lord society, of course, in stories like The War Games and The Three Doctors. But now we're having a full and proper adventure set exclusively on Gallifrey. We're really going to learn about Time Lords. The "rules" that get set up here about them will need to be followed from this point, onward. Again, for this reason alone, Deadly Assassin is very significant.

But, as The Invasion of Time and Arc of Infinity would later prove, just because we've set an entire story on the Doctor's homeworld doesn't automatically make it great. Admittedly, there is always an enormous sense of importance to the Doctor's Gallifrey-bound adventures. But just because powerful Rassilonian relics are being thrown about and complex Time Lord politics are being discussed doesn't mean we're instantly labeling the tale as a "classic". These elements help. But it takes a lot more than just that.

Fortunately, Deadly Assassin delivers all these other elements in great abundance. Just like Remembrance of the Daleks, we’re given a very unique opening scene. And, just like Vegeance on Varos, that opening sequence is extremely iconic. A year before Lucas would be using the technique in his films, we get a nice epic text scroll introducing Time Lord society to the casual viewer. With a dramatic Tom Baker voice-over (really, George should’ve had Tom reading his scrolling texts, too – he does it so well!). Just to really make sure our attention is grabbed, we then watch the Doctor having a really bad nightmare while he’s still awake. A nightmare where he sees himself committing murder. Is there any way we can resist watching after that?!  

But it doesn't stop at the opening scene, Assassin then delivers a magnificent first episode. In the same way that we couldn't tear ourselves' away from Earthshock's first part, the Doctor's clever outwitting of the Chancellory Guard makes for some great watching. I love that moment where the cowled figure (that we don't know is the Master, yet) steps from the shadows and proclaims: "Predictable as ever, Doctor". It's another example of a first ep that really grabs you and doesn't let you go. Particularly as we reach that cliffhanger at the end and the Doctor actually does what we saw in his nightmare. After years of seeing our favorite Time Lord being put in all kinds of horrible situations where it looked like he was doomed, this cliffhanger punches you in the gut far harder than anything you've seen before or after. The Doctor appears to have shot someone in cold blood. The first time I saw this, I was floored. There was absolutely no way I was missing part two...

It is perhaps, at this point, that we should point out a trait Assassin has that I also greatly enjoyed in Kinda. Subtext. While the undertones of the Deva Lokan adventure are considerably more spiritual than our Gallifreyan foray, there is still a very nice homage happening in the latter. Deadly Assassin pays huge tribute to a great little thriller movie known as The Manchurian Candidate (the original - disregard the horrible remake). There are several intentional plot similarities that make the storyline more fun if you know the reference material. There's even minor details like referring to the Celestial Intervention Agency as the CIA or the fact that the Time Lords have a president. Just like Kinda, though, the references don't get in the way of things. They're just there as an extra nice layer. 

Episode Two rolls in with great charm. Another trial for the Doctor. But this one is considerably less serious than the last one we saw in The War Games. The Doctor indulges in cartooning as he is tried. Then introduces a great little plot twist that will represent some huge ramifications in future days. Very shortly after the trial, another gigantic revelation occurs as the Doctor and Spandrell are investigating the crime scene. The Master is back! After not seeing him since Frontier In Space, it's so great to have him return. And being an emaciated skeleton, this time, puts a great new spin on the character. Gone are the attempts to appear suave and sophisticated. The Master is now just an evil wretch who is completely out for himself. Nothing is too diabolical for him to accomplish that. As we'll see in later episodes...

This masterpiece, by the way, was penned by the great Robert Holmes. He's written another tale that made my Top Ten. Just like Ark In Space, this story really grabs my attention because it's Holmes writing outside of his usual style (okay, Spandrell and Engin become a bit of a double-act in later episodes - but not much!). I know some of the comments during this little countdown have cried out for some of his other stories that are fan favorites (Talons of Weng Chiang, Caves of Androzani even Pyraminds of Mars) but those stories didn't make it in because it was a Bob Holmes who was more comfortable with himself that wrote those stories. I'm far more interested in his work when it goes out on a limb like this.

Speaking of going out on a limb, let's talk Episode Three...

I know this particular ep can be a vote-splitter. There are fans that feel that Part Three is just one big Stall for Time. That, really, Deadly Assassin could've been a three-parter and it wasn't necessary to run around in the Matrix for 20 minutes or so. There are others, of course, who see this episode as a magnificent nightmare sequence with all kinds of surreal imagery and cat-and-mouse suspense. I tend to fall into the second category. I love Part Three of Deadly Assassin. Yes, it does stall for time and is, largely, superfluous to the rest of the plot. But that's part of what it makes it so beautiful. Robert Holmes is acknowledging that Time Lord politics are only so entertaining and it's time to just give us some action for a bit.

Like so many other stories from the Classic era that made this list, the visuals for these action sequences still hold together quite well (yes, the trains were kinda small but they still would've messed the Doctor up pretty bad had they hit him). Remember how I mentioned the nightmares Earthsock gave me? Well that damned laughing clown that appears after the Doctor wipes away some dirt on the ground still creeps me out every time I see that sequence. And there's been a few times where he's popped up in a bad dream. That, to me, is the mark of a truly effective visual. When it follows you into your subconsciousness.

Finally, we're reaching Episode Four. The tight writing that I praise in Robots of Death is on fine display, here, too. Goth was behind it all and none of us saw it coming. All thanks to some red herrings Holmes threw it in earlier episodes. He shows the same clever planning that Boucher did in his murder mystery. Beautiful stuff.

As Part Four continues, some more plot twists get thrown our way. The Master seemed dead but wasn't. A final grand battle takes place at the Eye of Harmony. The stakes are high. Just like they were at the end of other stories on my list like Logopolis and Day of the Doctor. But, just as I said at the beginning of this review, Assassin doesn't take advantage of the grandness of the occasion. It still remembers to tell a great story. And, as we learn in the coda that the Master is still out there and that the universe might not be big enough for the two rivals, we definitely feel like a great story was told. It's almost a pity that Emaciated Master will only appear one more time. I quite liked him!

Which brings up another good point: the performances. With no companion to explains things to, Tom Baker makes sure to really up his game in this adventure. Particularly in Episode Three. He really sells the pain and torture he's being put through. Even when we're watching his reactions as he lay inert. Good 'ole Bernard Horsefall - one of my favorite returning actors - does a great job as Goth, too. Particularly in his death scene. And who can't help but fall in love with Spandrell and Engin. It's absolutely darling as Tom Baker impersonates the Coordinator just before he departs. It's the sort of strong casting that we also see in another favorite of mine - Human Nature/Family of Blood.

Okay. No doubt, you're catching on. The Deadly Assassin is the culmination of so many other strongpoints that I've talked about in reviews of other favorites. I've made it pretty obvious. But that's why I love it more than all the others. It takes the best of so many other stories I've cherished and puts them all into one big pile of fantasticness (yes, it's a word - in my world, at least). It is Doctor Who at its absolute best. And, while some of the stuff in New Who like Blink or Listen or Heaven Sent come along and threaten to knock it out of First Place, I still can't get over just how many boxes Assassin ticks for me. The fact that it also makes a huge impact on the canon of the whole show is just icing on the cake.

God bless Deadly Assassin.   

Or, at least, Rassilon should.  





The full countdown...

#10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html

#9 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

#8 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-10-fave-who-stories-8.html

#7 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-7.html

#6 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-6.html

#5 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-5.html

#4 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-4.html

#3 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2016/01/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-3.html

#2 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2016/01/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-2.html





Wednesday, 6 January 2016

BOOK OF LISTS: TOP TEN WHO STORIES #2

REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS

            
Where does one start with Remembrance of the Daleks?   It's so difficult, really.   So many things are so intensely praiseworthy.   The positive qualities of this story are endless.   So much so, that it makes me scratch my head when I look at The Mighty 200 and say to myself:   "Talons of Weng Chiang and Caves Of Adrozani got ranked higher?!    What is wrong with Fandom?!!"
            
I suppose the first thing one should point out was the way this story heralded a new-but-shortlived Golden Age of Doctor Who.    Alot of fans were worried before Remembrance hit our screens.    There'd been all that trouble with the Colin Baker era.   Season 22 was considered too violent. A tonne of behind-the-scenes drama went on during Season 23.    Sly's first season only looked so promising.    Stories like Time and the Rani and Dragonfire had us wondering if the show was becoming a parody of itself.   With a goofy slapstick Doctor going on adventures with plotholes so big you could drive trucks through them.
            
But then, we begin Season 25 with Remembrances of the Daleks.   Within the first few seconds of 60s soundbytes and a mothership hovering over the planet Earth we feel re-assured that things are finally back on course.   Actually, "back on course" is an understatement.   Those first few seconds are already telling us things are going to be awesome!   That, whether or not you've had problems with the last few seasons (and some people, like me, didn't!), Doctor Who is about to become genuinely great again.   Sylvester McCoy is suddenly going to be a better Doctor than Tom Baker.   Ace is about to become one of the coolest companions ever.    And, most importantly, the Daleks are going to become respectable monsters, again (although, admittedly, they were pretty good in Revelation too!).   
            
This is, perhaps, what's still most notable about Remembrance.   It's a signpost of better things to come after a few troubled years.    Whether you were watching Doctor Who back when all this turmoil was happening or are simply enjoying the show retrospectively from today, you see a very definite change of tone as this story comes on.   Doctor Who stops being something you're mildly embarrassed about and goes back to being a show you can truly be proud of.   Even if the special effects are still a bit wonky in places!   
            
As with so many of the stories that have made it onto this list - much of my appreciation stems from the strength of the script.   Some debates go on between fans about which authors from the Classic Series should be brought back to write for New Who.   On the basis of this script alone, Ben Aaronovitch should be getting an engraved invitation.  
            
One almost envisions him writing this story with a bit of a confidant swagger:    

"Bring back the Daleks with style?   No problem!".  
"Create a whole new dimension to the Seventh Doctor's character?   Easy stuff!"  
"Commemorate the show's 25th anniversary by re-visiting certain key points of the very first episode?    Is that all you really want?!"  
Ben shambles out of Andrew's office at a leisurely gate that belies not the slightest hint of worry over the Tall Order he's been given....  

That's how I picture the first briefing between script editor and writer.    Remembrance feels so slick, so polished, so full of genuinely sparkling dialogue and outstanding dramatic pacing that one can only imagine Ben Aaronovitch as a ridiculously over-confident bastard.   It's mildly shocking when you actually see him speaking in interviews.  He sounds so humble and even a bit insecure.    Surely such a great tale could only have been composed by the hand of a rampaging egotist?!   
           
And yet, it wasn't....
            
But before heaping on too much praise, let us acknowledge one of the more subtle qualities of the script: Ben is probably the first writer for Who that can put in "fanwankish" continuity references without being intrusive about it.   The Doctor's mentioning of the Zygon gambit with the Loch Ness Monster or his experiences on Spiridon are pleasing nods to the past that the casual watcher will simply gloss over and still understand what the story's about.   Unlike, say, Attack of the Cybermen - where an extensive knowledge of Cyber-History is required before you can truly understand what's going on in the plot.    New Who writers would become masters of this technique.    We'd hear references to the Eternals now and again or get a cameo appearance by the Macra.    We'd even see traces of zanium on the floor after people teleport out of the Game Station during Bad Wolf.   But it was Ben Aaronovitch who first showed us how to do this trick with such great style and finesse.   And he deserves honourable mention for being able to do that.  
            
But let's move away from Ben for a bit and tackle some other strongpoints.
            
Matching Ben’s talents as a writer are Sylvester McCoy’s abilities as an actor. He was getting along okay in Season 24 – doing the best that he could with the weaker scripts and then really knocking things out of the ballpark with Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen. But he definitely picks up on what Aaronovitch is doing with the character as Season 25 kicks in. And yet, he still remembers the clownishness of his previous season and makes sure that this new darker dimension still fits in with what went on before. That’s a feat in itself. But as we watch him tackle such difficult scenes as actually talking a Dalek to death or conning Davros into destroying his homeworld – we cannot deny that Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor.

A new kind of Doctor, even. One that manipulates and pre-plans his battles. Before this incarnation, the Doctor managed to keep one step ahead of the bad guys. Now he seems four miles ahead. It was truly an awesome re-invention of the character. Yes, good writing has a lot to do with it. But the man bringing the words to life must also take some solid credit.
            
As must Sophie Aldred as Ace. What we see, here, in Remembrance would have tremendous bearing on how the companion would be treated in Doctor Who from hereon in. Up until this moment, the companion was still more of a cipher. Someone to ask: “What is it, Doctor?” and then have things explained to them so that the audience can receive the explanation, too. But, from this point forward, the companion would be a fully-fledged character with a real backstory and legitimate development. The companion would receive as much, if not more, attention than the Doctor did. And Sophie makes sure to give a performance that makes her character worthy of all that attention. Not to mention how awesome she was with that super-powered baseball bat!
            
Which brings us neatly to another great aspect of this tale: the action!  Such sequences are usually difficult to watch in Classic Who. The budget and time constraints often made scenes that were meant to be exciting and dangerous look laughable, instead. But a lot of the battle sequences that take place in Remembrance still stand up pretty good - even by modern-day standards. Is there a soul out there that didn’t fall in love with the Special Weapons Dalek?! Or the way Ace takes one last swing at the Dalek on the stairs as she runs past it? Even the Doctor sliding down the rope tied to the Dalek assault shuttle with his brolly is great fun to watch every time. It’s always wonderful when a great Classic Who story also looks pretty damned good.


Counterpointing all that great action, however, is a solid story. We’ve got a well-structured plot going on with a more interesting narrative than usual because the Doctor is walking into this whole mess with a legitimate plan rather than just brilliant improvisation. When that plan is, at last, revealed with a surprise appearance by Davros (in a place where we didn’t expect to see him – we all thought he was the battle computer!) and the Doctor delivers his wonderful “Unlimited rice pudding!” line there is nothing left for the viewer to do but stand in shock and awe. This is one of the best climaxes in a Who story, ever. As scary as it is that he’s just wiped out a solar system, we also love the Doctor in this moment. The completion of his masterplan does a magnificent job of illustrating some of the greatest beauties of Doctor Who’s central messages: That intellect and romance will always conquer brute force and cynicism (let’s see who recognizes that quote!) and that evil often destroys itself with its own means. Yes, most Who stories illustrate this idea. But few display it as well as Remembrance does.

While on the topic of messages, this tale marks another important turning point in the series: a very strong undercurrent of social awareness will start running through many of the storylines. The futility of the Daleks’ civil war is meant to parallel the racial hatred found within Mister Ratcliff’s organization. Those two themes come together to deliver a nice big anti-racism statement. But, what makes the moral undertones of this particular story so much more enjoyable are their subtlety. Most previous attempts in Who to deliver a social message tend to hit one quite viciously over the head (yes, Green Death, we get it. We need to take better care of our environment). But Remembrance and many of the stories to follow it make sure not to ride that moral high horse too hard. It’s a great trend that starts right here, though. And that enhances our enjoyment of the tale all the more. 
            
There is so much more I could go on about regarding Remembrance of the Daleks. It’s not only a great story, but it comes with a definite sense of triumph behind it. The Doctor Who that everyone loves so much is back. And it’s back with more style and aplomb than anyone could’ve ever imagined.
            

                

Saturday, 2 January 2016

BOOK OF LISTS: TOP TEN WHO STORIES #3

Well, I thought I would get through all ten of these before the year was over. No such luck! A lot of this was due to some hardware issues I was having with my internet service. But we're back in operation and I can conclude this countdown within the next week or so...


                        
Vengeance On Varos

            
No doubt, my most controversial choice in this whole Top Ten List.   Not only am I claiming that this story deserves to be an all-time favourite, but I'm giving it a ridiculously-high ranking, on top of that!   I mean, if I had put Vengeance On Varos at, perhaps, Nine or Eight in the ranking process - I might have been forgiven.    But to claim it's the third-best Doctor Who story ever?    Sheer blasphemy! 
            
And yet, if we look at what so many fans claim makes Doctor Who great - we can easily see that Vengeance On Varos possesses these qualities in great abundance.   So, bear with me, if you will.    Not only will I praise this story, but I will build a case for it.    For I know what "Popular Fan Consensus" says about this tale and I intend to dispute it with great vehemency!   
            
First off, fans love to talk about how deeply "iconic" good episodes of Doctor Who are.    How the stories that are well-loved have imagery in it that stay with us, forever.   If that is the case, then is there anything more iconic than some of the sequences we find in Vengeance On Varos?  
            
Right in the opening scenes we get Jason Connery strapped to a wall as a camera turns to record him.  He begins a hopeless game of dodgeball with a deadly beam of energy.   Then everything cuts to an image on a TV screen being watched by an enthralled Varosian.    Here is the whole story summarized in just a few, succinct images.   There's not too many opening sequences in television that are quite as effective or iconic.   The fact that some equally-effective iconic imagery is created in its final seconds adds credence to the "Classic" status I am trying to assign, here.   Add to it that there a few more instances of this nature in between these bookends - and we have to start admitting that Vengeance is a pretty damned iconic story.   Whether we like it or not (as a great man once said at the end of his first story)! 
            
Fans also love to go on about how Doctor Who is never afraid to challenge and stretch its own limits.   Even in New Who, we praise a story like Midnight for the way it breaks all the rules.  How it presents to us a direction the show has never gone in before and shakes up all the boundaries that truly define what constitutes a "proper" episode of Doctor Who.    Vengeance on Varos, to me, is the Midnight of 80s Who.   Never has Doctor Who gone to a darker more morbid place than the Punishment Dome on Varos.   Never have we seen such genuinely twisted and bizarre characters.   On top of that, we're not even sure if we have any real confidence in the Doctor throughout most of this story.  Although, in this case, we doubt his effectiveness because he still seems to be having trouble with his recent regeneration.   Which is a far better reason for his lack of competence than the sudden spell of uselessness that seems to come out of the blue with Doctor Ten during Midnight.   It amazes me, actually, that fans don't just completely gobble up the trend-breaking that this story accomplishes.   Instead, they seem to claim that things "go too far" in this tale.    To which I can only reply:  "Isn't this what Doctor Who is supposed to be about: stepping beyond the limitations it imposes upon itself?"   
            
Finally, my third main point in my case For Vengeance On Varos and Against Popular Fan Wisdom is that being a Who fan has always been about loving a great script.   Phillip Martin serves up one of the most solidly-written stories in the entire Series.    Not only does he do some of the best world-building the show has ever accomplished, but he skirts around so many obstacles that other "society-based" tales tend to suffer from.   We learn the ins and outs of Varosian society by simply watching the story rather than having a tonne of expository dialogue forced down our throats.   We enjoy a whole host of diverse characters that are as interesting as the world they inhabit.    They are not merely components of a civilization that is far more fascinating than they are - they are people whose lives we find engaging and want to learn more about.    And, most importantly, Vengeance On Varos not only creates a fascinating social structure for us to unravel - it also remembers to hand us a whole bunch of really great action sequences.    We get a great little thrill ride along with our wonderfully-imaginative and complex society. 
            
Now, just to complete my case for the defense - I shall deal with the objections:   
            
The story is too violent - Yes, yes, I know theatrical spotlight torture is an intensely disturbing image to watch.   As is men in nappies being killed by creepers!    Are you getting the sarcasm, yet, folks?    Most of the violence we complain about in the story is pretty operatic.   Had there been blood and guts spewing out all over the place - I might be more inclined to agree.   But even the fellow in the acid bath is mainly just a guy in torn clothes reaching out of water coloured green with a bit of dry ice in it.    The Death Count in Varos isn't even that high.    Particularly since these were the seasons when Eric Saward loved having full-cast slaughterfests.    In fact, considering the story takes place in a building dedicated to the execution of criminals - the amount of people that actually die in this story is embarrassingly low.    Maybe the Punishment Dome isn't such a terrible place, after all!   Whatever the case, I find this argument that the story is too violent to be ridiculous.    The violence seems to be kept to a bare minimum so that we can actually focus on plots, themes and characters.  
            
The Doctor is not likeable and, therefore, out of character -   It's funny how some fans claim early Sixth Doctor is out of character.    Particularly since these fans often claim to know their Who inside and out.    If they did, would they not remember how the Doctor started?    An irrascible old man who was, at best, an anti-hero.    At worst, he was selfish to the point of being prepared to kill in order to get what he wants (the famous "almost killing the caveman" moment).    All Colin was doing was taking the character back to its roots and building him back up again into the warm-hearted personae he became.   But some folks, regardless of how knowledgeable they claimed to be, didn't really know what they were talking about when they made such a comment.
            
And the third Popular Objection is, basically, a hybrid of the first two:
            
The Doctor is uncharacteristically violent -   There seems to be two sequences that fans point out ad nauseam to support this -
            
1)   The Big Nasty Blue Laser Beam That Kills the Guard -   "Oh look!   Nasty guards are following us.   What shall I do to stop them?" ponders the Doctor.  "I know!   I shall set up a big bright blue laser beam to shoot across the room.   Surely it will be so bright and blue that any old fool will notice it and stop rather than be harmed by it."   And then a dumb guard in a hurry doesn't notice it and dies.   Is this even the Doctor's fault?    Has not the Doctor set things up like this before and not been critized for it?   I seem to recall the Doctor causing equipment to blow up in a scientist's face in The Mutants in order to fascilitate an escape.   That's actually probably a bit more mean-spirited than a big bright blue laser beam that anyone in the world should notice before they walk into it.    Can we really call the Doctor evil and malicious because someone else was dumb and inattentive?   
            
2) The Acid Bath -  A very carefully-choreographed sequence that shows the Doctor fighting to protect himself.   It is a completely defensive battle, too.   At various points, he has an oppurtunity to throw his enemy into the acid bath but merely puts up a barrier to protect himself rather than try to harm his opponent.   It is the first person who accidentally falls into the bath (having been surprised by the Doctor's apparent ressurection rather than any deliberate attempt on the Doctor's part to push him in) that causes the death of the second attendant - not the Doctor. Because, as can clearly be seen, he is fighting a defensive battle.     
Again, many of the fans who site this are long-termers.   Have they forgotten, then, of the Doctor throwing a Horda at a Sevateem tribesman in Face Of Evil?    Or the Doctor running around a moonbase and weather-control station mercilessly slaughtering Ice Warriors and then plunging their fleet into the sun?   Or let's even go into the future and watch the Doctor ruthlessly drown the Rachnos!    All are far more ruthless acts of violence than anything the Doctor gets up to during his visit to Varos.
But wait!   Some will say it's not the fight at the acid bath that makes him uncharacteristically violent - it's the flippant remark he makes afterwards.    That's what makes him evil.    "You'll forgive me if I don't join you." is just so cold and callous.   But go look at those other three violent sequences I just described and note some of the things the Doctor says during them.    He's just as flippant with the Horda.   He's so cold and vicious with the Rachnos that he's actually a bit scary.   And with the Ice Warriors, he seems almost gleeful over their demise.   Personally, I find what he says at the acid bath almost warm-hearted compared to how he's behaving in those other scenarios!   But, you know Popular Fan-Consensus, once It makes up Its mind about something, all the contrary evidence in the world won't get It to review the inconsistency of Its opinion!       
            

Okay, that's out of the way.   Let's move past merely defending the story and actually concentrate on praising it.  Vengeance On Varos, to me, is a work of sheer art.    Everyone is getting it right, here.   Philip Martin serves up a script that is legitimately dark.   A term that is, without a doubt, overly used in the analysis of TV and film - but it really does apply to this tale.   There is nothing happy about the planet of Varos.   Even moments of triumph like the one that occurs at the end when Jondar successfully kills the corrupt leaders of state with some tied off creepers is a pretty morbid sequence.    It's a kill-or-be-killed scenario that makes the action justifiable.   It also neatly cleans up one of the major plot conflicts.   But it's still a merciless slaughtering of a group of men.    And that's what makes me love this story so much.    The writer decided to create a dark story and he sticks to it all the way.  
            
Design sticks to this motif religiously.   The sets are dark.   The costumes are dark.    Even the lighting is dark (a rare feat in 80s television and film - most of the time, lighting technicians loved to turn everything up full blast!).   The actors know to play their characters harsh and gritty - or even grotesque.    Arak and Etta, our two Varosian citizens observing the whole thing, are so twisted and unlikeable that we find ourselves' wondering if they deserve to have their society saved.   And I love that Philip Martin goes there like that with innocent civilian characters.   Usually, they are the ones that get painted purer than pure by a Who writer so that the Doctor can seem all the more heroic when he rescues them from whatever form of oppression is affecting them.   But Martin chooses to manipulate this convention into something far more strange and sinister.   Again, another great example of his commitment to truly write a dark story.
            
While on the subject of our two Varosian viewers, can I just say that their inclusion in the story was utterly brilliant?!    What an absolutely awesome way to provide us with a bit of a Greek Chorus throughout the production.   Another subtle way of world-building without cramming it down our throats, too.    Arak and Etta reveal all kinds of things about Varosian society by simply interacting with each other.    I absolutely adore every one of the scenes they have.    They enhance the story to no great end.   And:  "I like that one!   The one in the funny clothes!" is another all-time favorite line of dialogue.

Wait a minute - have I made it this far into the review without mentioning Sil?! What the hell is wrong with me?!    

Yes, a villain that chooses to financially oppress a culture is not entirely new. But Sil does it with such style and relish that it's difficult to not want to see him again and learn more about his origins (which, thankfully, we get in the equally-bizarre Mindwarp). Much of the credit must go to Nabil Shaban, of course. He truly makes Sil alien. Both with delivery of dialogue and physical behavior. The costume, though it would look better in the sequel, also helps a whole lot. But we must also compliment Martin on the way he wrote the character. The attributes he gives to Sil: his foul temper, his love of others' suffering, his lust for wealth and power - they're all pitched just right so that Sil's personality is as repugnant as his appearance.  Seeing a third appearance of this Thoros Betan in the New Series would be so wonderful.                   

Colin Baker, himself, deserves some heavy praise, too.  He has frequently said in interviews that he enjoyed this story best and this is reflected in his performance.    The Sixth Doctor is firing on all cylinders, here.    Not just through Colin's portrayal but Phillip Martin also seems to have gotten his head around what makes this incarnation of the Doctor tick and has created a script that shows off all of his greatest strengths.   The Sixth Doctor thinks quick on his feet and isn't afraid to bluff when he needs to.    We see him doing this as he first meets Maldek and claims to be the technician who's come to fix the anti-hallucination helmet or the way he feigns interest in Quillam's experiments in order to create a moment of distraction so that Jondar can disarm a guard.    This version of the Doctor is also wonderfully sardonic.   Lines like:  "You're the only one who hasn't tried to kill us!" or "Do you always get the priest parts?" show this off beautifully.   But it is Doctor Six's skills as an orator that are best showed off in this tale.   The Doctor's poignant speech from the hanging gantry is delivered pitch-perfect.    Colin not only does the speech excellently but its placing within the plot is masterful.    Because of one well-spoken speech, the tide of the whole story begins to truly shift.   The Governor sees hope in the Doctor and works towards protecting him.   From there, the fate of Varos changes, too.    And, again, the Doctor is actually bluffing through all this!    But his bluff is so eloquently presented and arranged that the whole story turns on its ear.   This, my friends, is classic story-telling at its best.   And yet, Fandom seems to refuse to acknowledge this.   Instead, they'd rather focus on spotlight beams killing guards that can't look out for themselves' or acid baths that kill off clumsy Torture Dome employees.   It's sad how many people seem to miss the point.  

I know that anyone who reads this review and has already made up their mind about Vengeance On Varos will probably not be swayed by my words.  They will probably even think me quite mad that I've ranked this story as Number Three on my list.   But, in the end, that's quite all right.  I love this story.   And, in the same way that I don't think my opinion will ever change - I don't expect yours to change either.   But I shall, forever, adore those go-kart chases through dark tunnels....     

Sorry if you don't feel the same way.






Previous rankings....


#10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html

#9 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

#8 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-10-fave-who-stories-8.html

#7 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-7.html

#6 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-6.html

#5 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-5.html

#4 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-4.html