Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Three Doctors

11 May 2008, 11:05 am

The Three Doctors 1:

Fun. How important is it? During my time with Cronos, I received an email from my old chum Alex Wilcock (a name some of you may remember as a regular contributor to DWM’s Time Team). He said that the last two stories were the only ones he and his partner wildly disagreed on. Alex thought the Mutants a good script let down by its execution, and the Time Monster awful – whereas the opposing view was that the former was tedious and the latter fun.

It’s hard not to see the point. You see, for all the intelligence of its script, the Mutants isn’t especially entertaining. And vacuous as the Time Monster may be, it’s got an awful lot of enjoyable set pieces and camp villainy. If you’re in the mood to switch your brain off, and settle down with some escapist entertainment, you’re never going to pick the former over the latter. So I refer you back to the question I started with. How important is ‘fun’?

Watching The Three Doctors, I can’t help but feel this is going to be a question that comes up again. As it stands this episode is enormous fun. There’s not much else to it than that, though, not so far anyway. But in some ways that’s a clear difference from The Time Monster. Most of the fun in the first four episodes of that story is incidental, or really spread out. As I said above, you have to switch your brain off. Whereas this story seems to have higher standards for its fun. Ambitious fun. It wants to be the most fun it can be, not the barest minimum. This is the people making the show having fun, rather than just hoping they can get away with it.

So why is it more fun than its predecessor, or at least more successful fun? Well, it’s relentlessly fast paced for one. Within the first ten minutes or so we’ve established an, admittedly, somewhat nebulous threat and are going into full grown battle mode. This is an obvious necessity of the premise, as we can’t really spend too much time establishing the threat when we need the other Doctor’s in before the episode ends. But necessity leads to great things in this case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually a fan of speed for the sake of speed. But this is perfectly paced. It’s fast, but relatively simplistic (the entire plot of the first fifteen minutes or so is ‘blob attacks’) so the speed doesn’t leave it feeling rushed. OK, it does cause a couple of problems on a plot level, with the Doctor managing to leap to the right conclusion at the speed of light with very little actual evidence, and very weak justifications for the blob attacking Ollis and Tyler. But it’s all pitched with such joie de vivre that you get swept up. The whole thing is written and performed with bravado and confidence so you don’t care about minor plot problems. Within minutes you’re pitched into surprisingly high gear action – and part of the fun is that you still don’t have any real idea what’s going on.

And then of course, Patrick bloody Troughton turns up, and it kicks into high gear. The scenes between the two Doctors are the blatant highlights of the episode, full of wit and vigour. The idea of them not really getting on is probably the obvious choice, but that doesn’t make it any less the correct one (where’s the fun in them getting on all the time, eh?). It’s the perfect dynamic, and the two actors are really up to the task, the sci-fi equivalent of the odd couple. There’s not really much to add to that, as discussion of those scenes is almost redundant. They’re gloriously enjoyable, two great characters and actors (even entertainers) playing off each other brilliantly. What’s not to love?

When it comes down to it, The Three Doctors seems to me to be more fun than it’s predecessor because there’s more to fun than just set pieces. That’s the difference between dumb fun and fun. It needs heart, and joy, and the Three Doctors has that in spades. There’s the real sense that everyone involved is having a ball. Whereas the last story doesn’t have that same commitment to the material (at least until the final two episodes). No-one’s having fun, they just seem desperate to get through it.

So I suppose what it comes down to is that the most important isn’t whether something is fun or not. But that fun has to be done well. Unexciting drama is almost fine. Whereas there’s nothing as bad as dull fun.

#706 11 May 2008, 12:32 pm
The Secretive Bus

The Three Doctors starts well but I must admit I find it a bit of a slog, especially the last two episodes. Plus watching Billy clearly struggling with the script is a depressing experience which, for me, sucks a lot of the fun out of it.

#707 15 May 2008, 4:29 am

Originally Posted by The Secretive Bus
"The Three Doctors starts well but I must admit I find it a bit of a slog, especially the last two episodes. Plus watching Billy clearly struggling with the script is a depressing experience which, for me, sucks a lot of the fun out of it. "

Hartnell never looked so old as he did in the 3 docs, for obvious reasons. So, where did the TL's take him out of time and space? Sometime during the 4th episode of Tenth Planet?


#708 15 May 2008, 10:38 am
Phil W

Surely it is just the effect of him being in proximity (however tenuously) to two of his subsequent selves [ref TimeCrash]?


#709 16 May 2008, 2:09 pm

The Three Doctors 2:

After the relentless pace of the opener, it’s time to calm down a touch.

As I mentioned last time, the speed of the first episode was down to the amount of plot required before they could reach the vital money moments of the episode (the 1st and 2nd Doctors turning up), that had to appear before the cliffhanger. This episode slightly pays the price as it’s clear that it’s marking time slightly.

This is most clear in the way that the 2nd Doctor doesn’t really achieve anything throughout the episode, and at the climax basically does what the 3rd did at the end of the last one. This wouldn’t be a major problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the third Doctor doesn’t really do much in this episode either – after the lump of anti-matter has gone out of it’s way to capture him and transport him through a black hole, he’s left to just wander around for a bit until he gets taken to a citadel, where he once again doesn’t meet anyone or do anything.

This could all be terribly tedious, but once again it’s lifted by the sparkling script. The sequences of Doctor two interacting with Benton and the Brigadier are enjoyable and amusing – ok, so the Brigadier pretty much has to turn into a moron, and act as an all purpose comedy fool, but it is something rather big he’s come across so it’s at least vaguely plausible, and it does at least manage to be funny.

Equally, there’s a engagingly witty sense of the surreal about the episode. This manifests itself in subtle ways – the oddball design of the palace, complete with the bizarre, unworldly, plinky-plonk soundtrack (innocently childlike, yet alien and strange) But it’s also obviously there in the Doctor and Jo wandering about a quarry, absolutely as typical an ‘alien’ environment as the series has and yet constantly bumping into water coolers and worktops. It’s a gorgeous juxtaposition of the quirky and the mundane. . The best example of this is their discovery of Doctor Tyler, idly standing in the middle of nowhere muttering through the mathematics of his situation in a perfect parody of the man so dull and science obsessed he’s too busy looking at the minutiae and misses the biggest and most important fact of all (he’s not on Earth).

OK, there’s only so long the episode can sustain itself on charm alone, and sure enough it does eventually have to resort to the blatant padding of Tyler’s escape attempt to fill in the time (though in many ways you do have to admire the gall of the story to have his first words when he rejoins the Doctor and Jo as: ‘Well, that was a waste of time’). But even then, the general sense of style carries the show through so you can’t help but be charmed.

There’s not much else to add. Bit of a giggle, really. That's all.

#710 18 May 2008, 4:55 pm

The Three Doctors 3:

OK, whilst I’m still enjoying this… it’d be nice if there was a bit more to the plot, wouldn’t there?

After a good couple of episodes messing around, we finally meet the proper villain of the story, and he’s the king of exposition, and that’s sort of a problem.

We’re once more dealing with the famous writing maxim ‘don’t tell, show’. Now, meeting a famous character out of legend is an exciting and intriguing prospect – unfortunately it’s less so when your audience have no idea whatsoever who this bloke is. Because then you’ve got to spend a good few minutes telling the audience who he is, why he’s important and going ‘he’s a legend you know’ over and over again.

It simply lacks impact. To us, Omega is just some bloke in a big mask (and whilst I’m there – the mask is lovely… but it’s so oversized that it actually makes the not exactly tiny Stephen Thorne look oddly squat and short, therefore ordinary). He just wanders around all the time being grumpy and telling us he’s going to have his revenge, but he never really does anything (gloriously, he seems to expect the Doctor to be afraid of him – why? He’s not killed anyone or anything. Walk into a room and be confronted with a sequined Darth Vader, fear’s not going to be the first thing that comes to mind, now is it?)

There’s just not very much threat. In a similar way to Tyler’s blatant plot criticism last time, this week we get a fairly damning statement from Benton – when the other characters break free of the cell, he turns to Jo and says ‘we can’t let them have all the fun’. It comes back to fun again. This is an action adventure series. We’re the one’s that should be having fun. If your characters are having fun, then there’s nothing at stake. It just means no one really does anything. They get told the plot, get locked up, escape. Only the Brigadier gets anything interesting to do – whilst it’s true enough to suggest that his character has been dumbed down by this point, his attempts at an almost single handed rescue of everyone else is brilliant, if ultimately a pointless diversion.

There’s too much wit and swagger in the script for this to be actually painful to watch. All the amusing banter is present and correct… but you do wish it had a stronger plot to hang off.

#711 20 May 2008, 11:23 pm

The Three Doctors 4:

It’s slightly damning how easy it is to forget this story. I watched episode four yesterday morning, got distracted by various things since, so have only got the chance to write it up now. And it’s hard to remember the first thing about it. It’s like a Chinese meal. Very enjoyable on the surface, but not really all that satisfying in the long run.

It’s not a major shock. Upon starting the episode I realised a bit I’d forgotten to mention last episode – the utterly atrocious cliffhanger. But that’s the beauty of the cliffhanger isn’t it? You can talk about it the next episode as well, and no one will know you forgot it the last time.

I remember vividly watching The Three Doctors as a young boy during the Five Faces of Doctor Who season, and recalling the cliffhanger as Omega removing his helmet. And I still don’t get why it isn’t. That’s the perfect spot – a striking image that also works as an act break, signalling a shift in Omega’s purpose.

But no, they decide to throw in a random fantasy sequence, the Doctor fighting the dark side of Omegas mind (whatever the hell that means – I mean it’s not like his general mental state is sweetness and light), because the iconic helmeted one is a bit grumpy with him. This despite him talking about how he needs the Doctor. And this whilst also ignoring the second Doctor (I mean, what’s he doing during the entire fight?). With bizarre repetition of the images and sound cues within moments (which almost makes the DVD mastering error an episode earlier look like part of the official edit). And then it’s completely dismissed in about an instant (always a good sign to tell whether a cliffhanger’s good or not, look at it and the resolution – does it change the plot? Does it have repercussions? Could you cut it completely without affecting the overall story? If the first two are answered no, and the third yes, congratulations – you’ve a rotten cliffhanger).

In the next few minutes, Omega explains his scheme, which is logical enough, though you can’t help wondering why he hung around and waited so long. Especially when the moment he imparts it, the Doctor’s pretty much instantly realise that he can’t follow it through and he starts to go barking. Yes, once again, we’re dealing with a story where people talk a lot about what they’re going to do, but never actually do it.

And it’s a shame, because the moment Omega sees he lives on only as a force of will (probably the most striking concept the story has in its armoury) is probably the point where it kicks back in. It really should be the cliffhanger for the previous episode. It raises the stakes, changes the direction. As it is, part three is another exercise in wasting time, and so is the first few minutes of this episode. When the twist occurs, suddenly we’re back in exciting territory. The last ten minutes or so are suddenly about something, there’s an actual threat as opposed to just the vague possibility of one in the distance. Something we understand is at stake. This could easily sustain a full episode, and also present the opportunity for a proper tragic feel (imagine if Omega was a little saner before the realisation, and that’s what truly tips him into evil? The whole ‘dark side of my mind’ thing just paints him as a panto baddy)

It’s a real shame. Because you do get the sense that everyone’s come up with a lot of ideas, great dialogue and scenes – they’ve just not really got a story to hang them off. Look at the characters, for example. What exactly are Tyler and Ollis for? At best plot devices in the first episode, they don’t seem to do anything at any point beyond that, only there because the script hasn’t figured out a way of removing them. They just wander around with the regulars. And for that matter, what do the regulars do? Yates is inexplicably absent throughout, Benton just hangs around with everyone else as much as Tyler and Ollis, and the Brigadier – despite getting all the best character moments, such as his ever so slightly emotional goodbye salute to the Doctors – doesn’t fare much better, his only activity being organising a raid that never actually takes place.

But even then… I can’t really bring myself to dislike it. It comes back to the whole ‘fun’ thing. There’s always something entertaining happening, even if it’s ultimately a waste of time, and the Doctor banter sequences are on a completely different level to anything we’ve seen in a good few seasons. The plot’s rotten, but… does it always have to be about the plot?

I think there’s this story had the potential to be a classic. If they’d worked just as hard on the story as they do on the set pieces and fun bits. If there wasn’t a sense that those bits were so enjoyable that they didn’t realise they were carrying the entire thing. As it is, it’s good and entertaining… but you do have to focus on the good stuff. Fortunately, there’s a reasonable amount of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment