Monday, September 13, 2010

Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews: "The Two Doctors"

It's an open secret that my favorite Doctor is the Second one and my favorite companion is Jamie McCrimmon (what?! Dude went into action wearing a kilt AND he had the legs for it too -- you don't get better than that) so, of course, a story that reunites by favorite Doctor-Companion duo should be at the top of my list right?


"The Two Doctors" is one of my least favorites... a train wreck of a story in which nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong...

It all began two years earlier with 1983's "The Five Doctors". Jonathan Nathan-Turner, seeing the boon that a multi-Doctor story could be to the ratings was almost immediately interested in producing another one. In addition to that he had been impressed with both how well the Patrick Troughton had slipped back into his character of the Second Doctor and the easy working relationship and genuine camaraderie between Troughton and Fraser Hines who played Jamie McCrimmon. At the time of "The Five Doctors" Hines had only had time for a small cameo but J N-T hoped to lure him back to do a full episode alongside Troughton.

By the mid-1980's the Doctor Who veterans had discovered the American fan base and vice-versa. The show had become a minor cult-hit in the U.S. thanks to a combination of syndication and showings on American PBS stations (which is where I discovered the show way back when). Doctor Who conventions were starting to spring up in the States and many of the people who had been or were currently involved with the show had begun traveling "across the pond" for the conventions. J N-T began to see this as the perfect time to propose a joint effort between the BBC and the American company which was syndicating the show.

In 1985 J N-T managed to secure an assurance from the American company that they would be able to cover expenses for Doctor Who to fly to the United States and film an episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana. As such, J N-T hired long-time Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes to write a script to match. In point of fact, J N-T gave Holmes a laundry list of things to squeeze into the script -- the current Sixth Doctor and his companion, Peri, the Second Doctor and his companion, Jamie, a new alien race that had some connection to New Orleans, and Holmes was also to throw long-time villains the Sontarans in for good measure... just because. Needless to say, Holmes was not really pleased at being hampered by all of the elements he had to add.

Meanwhile, J N-T got both Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines on board. Troughton had reportedly had a wonderful time filming "The Five Doctors" and was eager to do it again and he and Hines were old friends and co-workers and both were also looking forward to working together again.

Holmes, being a vegetarian, decided to focus the story around food and carnivorism and apparently planned to die this into the cuisine of New Orleans. As such his new alien race, the Androgums, was an anagram for gourmand.

At the last minute, however, it turned out that the American money would not be there after all and the BBC could not foot the bill for a New Orleans filming. Having filmed in Amsterdam for the Fifth Doctor story "Arc of Infinity" and in Lanzarote for "Planet of Fire" also for the Fifth Doctor, J N-T was reluctant to let go of the idea of filming somewhere other than Great Britain. After several ideas fell through Seville, Spain was settled on.

The change in setting required some adjustments to the script and caused several things to not come off as well as they might have otherwise. Also, the shoot ended up with limited locations to choose from and many of the crew ended up on-camera acting as extras in several of the scenes.

And in the end... it really wasn't worth it and now we get to delve in and see why...

The Plot: The Second Doctor and his companion, Jamie, are sent by the Time Lords to the science research space station Camera in order to discuss the worrying experiments of two scientists who are studying time travel. The Doctor argues with his old friend, Camera's head of research, Dastari over the potential dangers of the time travel experiments. While there the Doctor encounters the station chef -- a member of a race known as Androgums, who tend to be nasty, brutish, violent, omnivores -- and another Androgum named Chessene, whom Dastari has genetically altered and augmented to become a genius -- something else that worries the Doctor. He has a right to be worried because Chessene has made a deal with the warring Sontarans to turn over the space station to them....

Elsewhere, the Sixth Doctor and Peri are trying to enjoy a little peace and quiet for a change when suddenly the Doctor has some kind of seizure. Feeling strange, the Doctor decides to visit Dastari to see if the scientist can detect anything wrong.

The Doctor and Peri arrive on Camera only to find it a charnel house -- all of the personnel have been slaughtered. The computer indicates the Time Lords were responsible but the Doctor cannot believe this and is determined to discover the truth. As he and Peri search the station for clues they find the sole survivor of the carnage... Jamie.

The Doctor soon realizes that his previous self has been kidnapped and he knows that it can be for no good purpose. Fearing that someone is planning on using his earlier incarnation to unlock the secret of time travel, the Sixth Doctor, Peri, and Jamie follow the trail to Seville, Spain and set out to rescue the Doctor. Little do they realize they are up against the brilliant mind of Chessene which has been wedded to an insane ambition. Chessene wants to rule the universe and she will use and discard anyone along the way -- Sontarans, Dastari and even Time Lords...

My Take: And that right above is just one reason why this episode doesn't stand up. Four paragraphs just to explain the plot and that's with me actually leaving out a lot of the subplots! At this time Doctor Who had shed the tradition of four half-hour episodes in favor of two 45 minute episodes per story but "The Two Doctors", being a 'special' episode, runs to three 45 minute episodes. Even with the extra time there's more plot here than is strictly necessary.

Then there are the Androgums. I have friends who are vegetarians and I myself often cook and eat vegetarian fare (although don't you dare try to take cheese from me -- I will stab you with a fork) but Holmes' script, with it's depictions and descriptions of meat eating and cooking are really just bad. If he intended it to be an advertisement for vegetarian eating he failed grandly because it is so blatant and over-the-top in it's indictment of meat eating it has the opposite effect. I almost want to sit and eat a raw steak just to spite the memory of Robert Holmes when I watch this story. Doctor Who has taken on vegetarianism in the past -- "The Green Death" for example is about not only environmentalism but healthier eating as well -- but without being this... derogatory about it.

On top of all of that Holmes seems to have caught the 'bickering bug'. Not only do the Sixth Doctor and Peri do their usual round of whining and picking on one another but there's quite a bit of it between the Second Doctor and Jamie -- something that really did not happen very often in the original run. There is probably more bickering between the Doctor and Jamie in the first 20 minutes of this story than there was in the whole three year run of the duo in the 1960's.
The tone of the story is also so far off the mark it could cause an earache. The Sixth Doctor's tenure often was criticized for excessive violence. To be fair, many of the criticisms laid were unfounded or uncalled for but here the story veers wildly from comedy to violence without warning and it just isn't handled well. There is also at least one death which serves no earthly purpose except to just be a death and there is also quite a bit of blood which is really uncalled for. Also, many criticize the Doctor's callous killing of the Androgum Shockeye but that is actually reasonably within character... the problem is the Doctor's casual, James Bond-like witticism about the killing. That's just not the Doctor -- he'll take a life if he has to but he shouldn't seem to enjoy it or crack jokes about it.

Perhaps the worst sin of all is the fact that, after J N-T went though all the trouble to get Hines and Troughton back together for this story, the duo spend the bulk of it separated. Hines's Jamie spends most of the story running around with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and there just isn't that much chemistry between the two actors. Not necessarily their fault -- after all chemistry is often something that is either there or it isn't and nothing can make it appear if it isn't there but to bypass Hines and Troughton's proven chemistry for this is bad plotting.

The plot aside, the story is also hit and miss on the special effects. The work for the space station Camera is actually pretty good overall. A lot of times the more futuristic sets don't age well but the work done for the sets here still looks fairly futuristic twenty-five years on. Many of the locations in Seville also look pretty good and do allow the show to get out of it's British focus for a while. The costumes for the Sontarans, though are just awful. For one thing the Sontarans are too tall and slender -- they were established a long time ago and rather short and squat -- powerfully built warriors -- here they just look like lanky, potato heads. As if that were not bad enough, the masks were ill-fitting and therefore muffle the actors' voices so they sound like they're talking through dish towels and on close-ups it is clearly visible that the mouths do not move on the masks and you can see the actors' lips moving behind the masks. Even by Doctor Who standards this is poor. Also, pity Nicola Bryant who is stuffed into more revealing clothes than usual, not to mention the fact that they are VERY 1980's and not in a good way, and has to run around on uneven ground in high heels... again. In the commentary Bryant also explains that the shimmery top she was wearing initially had no lining in it and under the hot Spanish sun it conducted heat like aluminum foil and burned her skin. And the less said about Dastari's Elton john-influenced glasses the better.

On the acting front... well, despite the poor script, Troughton and Hines do a bang-up job with what they have. The bickering aside, J N-T was right in that the rapport and real-life friendship between the two actors just comes through the characters beautifully and one might be fooled into thinking that virtually no time at all had passed since they last worked together.

The actor playing Shockeye is a bit too over-the-top to ever really take seriously. He's supposed to be menacing and creepy but instead he seems laughable and silly. Chessene, played by Jacqueline Pierce, is far better. She projects a perfectly haughty character and she pitches Chessene's ambitions well also. Pierce's casting, however, was something of a "stunt", however, as Pierce was well known to British sci-fi fans for playing the villainous Servalan in the series Blake's 7. Many cannot help but compare the two roles and so her Chessene often comes across as lacking to those who have seen both. Dastari is little more than a cypher and the actor emotes about as much as cricket and does little to try to add anything to the character.

As for Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant as the Doctor and Peri... eh... They're very 'meh' here. Baker and Bryant have turned in worse performances but the script doesn't do them any favors and the bickering has, by this point, gotten rather old.

"The Two Doctors" is interesting in that it is one of only a handful of stories where the Doctor met up with other incarnations of himself, it would also be the last multi-Doctor story to air on TV and it was also, sadly, the last Doctor Who Patrick Troughton did. Troughton had wanted to come back and do another story -- only this time he wanted to do the story secretly -- appearing under mask or heavy make-up as an alien but he passed away of a fatal heart attack in 1987 before he had the chance to return.

There is little here to recommend the story but it stands up to at least one viewing out of either curiosity's sake or nostalgia for the Troughton - Hines era. There are a few scenes which work well and showcase all of the talents involved and once you figure those out you can pretty much just view "The Two Doctors" for the "greatest hits" portion of the story. If, however, you choose to skip it you won't be missing much.

Trivia: WARNING: Curse word used in the following trivia note. Turn away if it bothers you...

In the second episode a little over 18 minutes into the episode after the Doctor insults Peri you can clearly see Nicola Bryant mouth the word "asshole" at the Doctor.

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