Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Return of the Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews! "The Crusade"

I'm playing hooky from homework. Ergo, I decided to kick back with an episode of Doctor Who and get back to my grab bag reviews a bit. Also, makes a little cleanse of the palate from the Nero Wolfe stuff... although there will be more Wolfe to come as I'm behind on my reviews there.

Anyway... "The Crusade"!

We're back in the First Doctor's tenure for this one -- well into the second series. Already by this time the production team had abandoned the habit of doing a historical story every other serial but the show had not abandoned the pure historical yet either; that would not happen until 1966 (with a blip in 1983 for the story "Black Orchid").

Although there were some changes occurring to the production team at this time the biggest one -- the departure of the show's first producer, Verity Lambert, would not occur until the end of the series. By this time most of the cast had been on the job close to two years and even the newest member, Maureen O'Brien, had been on for several months and had settled into her role. As such the filming went along without a hitch and with no real controversy.

It should be noted that "The Crusade" was one of the stories which suffered from the BBC's tape wiping program in the 1960's and 1970's. Out of the four episodes two still remain but audio exists for the two missing stories. "The Crusade" can be found on the Doctor Who: Lost in Time, the William Hartnell Years DVD. The two extant stories and the audio for the two missing stories are provided. If one ventures over to the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website one can find that the whole story has been reconstructed using still images HERE. Using the audio and the still images it is possible to put together an at least rough reconstruction of the missing parts.

The Plot: The TARDIS lands in a wood... and lands right in the middle of trouble. The time travelers have managed to put themselves down right in the middle of an ambush toward the end of the Third Crusade. Barbara is kidnapped, Ian sets off on a perilous journey to find and rescue her and the Doctor and Vicki become embroiled in court intrigue at the stronghold of King Richard I. Will the court politics force the Doctor and Vicki to leave without Ian and Barbara? And can Ian find Barbara before she suffers a fate worse than death?

My Take: Many have often noted the Shakespearean tone of many of the old historical stories for Doctor Who and "The Crusade" is perhaps the most Shakespearean of all of them. Seriously, at many points while watching this you would swear that you were watching some long forgotten play by the Bard of Avon. Oddly enough it is the time travelers here who seem the most out of place and it is their dialogue which is the least Shakespearean... of course that is probably to be expected.

Let's get the good out of the way first, shall we? Julian Glover and Jean Marsh as Richard I and Richard's sister Joanna respectively turn in first class performances. Both actors were Shakespearean trained and it really shows. Glover showcases all of Richard's sides in this story. He is arrogant, temperamental, and almost childish at times but then turns around and shows nobility and a canny knowledge of politics and political expediency. Marsh counterpoints with her portrayal of Joanna as an intelligent woman who also knows well how court politics are played. She shows a strong will and self-assurance.

The other excellent performance here comes from Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. While, in some ways, Barbara is the typical female companion of the time period -- being captured and put in jeopardy -- in other ways she is a forerunner of the modern female companion. Here, while she is captured, she engineers her own escape at least once and is plotting her second escape when it becomes a moot point. She also is tough, clever, quick witted, noble, and not some little mouse easily frightened.

It also should be mentioned that, as usual, the BBC's costume department knocks it out of the park with clothes for the period pieces. The costumes for Richard, Joanna, and the rest of the knights (and later Ian, the Doctor and Vicki) are lovely and lush and emphasize the Shakespearean feel of the story. The set designers also do a pretty good job here. The forest scenes are dressed pretty well -- or at least well enough that viewers are automatically distracted by thinking it looks like a soundstage. The streets of the city of Lydda are also well done -- cramped, narrow, and dirty-looking -- just as you would expect from streets of that place and time.

That, however, is pretty much where the good ends.

One thing that becomes really obvious is just how much of a rut the show had fallen into by this time. In the two stories proceeding this one -- "The Romans" and "The Web Planet" the Doctor and Vicki have one part of the story while Ian and Barbara have the other part of the story. And the Ian/Barbara story in both of those cases as well as here with "The Crusade" consists of Barbara getting captured and taken off somewhere and Ian having to go find her to try to rescue her. It all gets so very tedious and one would think that the writers would have tried changing things up a little bit. With four main characters there are plenty of chances for mixing and matching the characters which would, in turn, showcase different aspects of the characters' personalities but instead we get the usual -- Ian goes off being heroic, the Doctor goes around being grandfatherly, and Barbara... well, I've already discussed what Barbara gets to do.

Adding to the tedium here is the fact that the the story falls into three main areas. You have the comedy element -- that is provided by the Doctor and Vicki and their ongoing wardrobe problems. The drama element is provided by the court intrigue -- of which the Doctor and Vicki are really merely bystanders, observers, and commentators rather than being in on the action. And speaking of action -- the action/adventure element is provided by Barbara's attempts to escape captivity and make her way back to her friends and Ian's attempts to overcome roadblocks to find Barbara and rescue her. And you can literally go through this entire four-part serial and anticipate when each of the different elements will be coming in. There is little to nothing here to surprise the audience or catch them off their guard. The whole thing is like a 'paint-by-numbers' picture.

And, surprisingly, even at only four episodes the story just goes on too long. The constant back-and-fourth between Barbara escaping and being captured and escaping again, etc. is interminable and while the sequences between Richard and Joanna can make for compelling viewing most of the rest of the court intrigue stuff is plain boring.

Also, there is Saladin and his brother and the nature of the crusades. Because, at this time, Doctor Who was considered a children's show, the story of the crusades has largely been condensed and cleaned up here. Added to that is the problem that this story was written in the 1960's, before many historians had fully embraced the complexities involved with the crusades and before Richard I stopped being quite so lionized. Because of that there is still a lot of mythology surrounding both Richard and Saladin and it doesn't do the story any favors. Like with many of Shakespeare's plays, there is a dash of real history to ground the story and then much of the characters and details are strictly fiction... grand, noble fiction as opposed to the dirty, bloody, slog most of the world was in that time period.

There is also the problem of the Saracens. While Saladin is shown as being intelligent, noble and honorable and a few other characters are shown the same it doesn't change the fact that all of the speaking parts are being played by Caucasian British actors in dark make-up. It gives the story a somewhat offensive tone. It also doesn't help that many of the other Saracen characters are vicious, greedy, conniving, or all three. You end up with two extremes -- the noble men (note: NOT noblemen) and the wicked.

And then there is the bit of script stupidity in trying to pass Vicki off as a 13 year-old boy at least until the third episode when she is "found out". The costumer does nothing to try to hide Maureen O'Brien's breasts and it is roundly quite obvious she's a girl and expecting the viewer to suspend disbelief that no one else notices is just ridiculous.

In the end, while there are some really nice aspects to the story which make it worth at least a cursory viewing it doesn't have a lot to recommend it for repeat viewing. The writers probably could have cut this down to a two or three part story and turned in something that would have really stood out among the historical stories but as it stands it bogs down in the middle and plods it's way to the end.

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