Thursday, June 07, 2007

An Escheriffic Story...and the rest of my Top 10

Earlier today I was thinking again about the question of whether "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" has become my favorite Doctor Who story ever. I still don't have the answer. It's far too soon to have the necessary perspective to make that determination, and anyway, I've had different favorites over the past 18 years,and even before this story aired I would have been hard pressed to choose a current #1. But I found myself compiling a top 10 lift on my way up the elevator after lunch. In chronological order, it goes something like this:

1. An Unearthly Child (also titled 100,000 BC) - the first story with the First Doctor sets up several of the show's enduring icons, and gives us a very alien, slightly sinister Doctor as seen through the eyes of two rather likable schoolteachers.

2. The Mind Robber - trapped in the Land of Fiction, the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe meet Rapunzel, Cyrano, Lemuel Gulliver and others. It makes for an interesting meditation on the nature of fiction and the creative process.

3. Spearhead from Space - I'm tempted to go with The Three Doctors (the first multi-Doctor crossover) or The Time Warrior (the first Sarah Jane story) to represent the Pertwee era, but really it's the Third Doctor's first story that remains the most memorable for me. It's padded and at times a little silly, but it's still good stuff, particularly the scenes with the Doctor establishing his new post-regeneration persona. The Nestene Consciousness and the Autons are a good enough alien threat that Russell T Davies used them to launch the Doctor Who revival series in "Rose" (2005).

4. City of Death - I'm not a big fan of the Fourth Doctor, he of the long scarf, curly hair and seven-year run; but there's no denying there were several truly great stories during his era. My favorite is City of Death, credited to the fictional "David Agnew" but largely written by Douglas Adams. I once read a comment in an article to the effect that choosing the best dialogue from the show's history could easily turn into quoting this one story. From "You're a beautiful woman, probably" to "It's the Jaggaroth that need the chickens?" it's witty and wonderful. Watch out for the six Mona Lisas, art critic John Cleese, and the space ship that Adams reused, more or less, in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

5. Castrovalva - the last ten minutes of Logopolis, which immediately preceded this story, were almost enough to get me hooked on Doctor Who back in 1988 or so. As I watched, Tom Baker fell off a tower and, surrounded by his young friends, turned into the white-faced, mummy-like Watcher, and then into Peter Davison! For the first time, I made a point of watching KUAT at 10 PM the next Saturday night.

What I saw that night was an amazing, freaky story. The new Doctor is in a bad way, impaired in memory and concentration, reverting sporadically to old personality traits from previous incarnations, and at one point forgetting he's the Doctor. With the help of Nyssa and Tegan, he manages to escape from one of the Master's traps only to fall into another, the town of Castrovalva.

Screenwriter Christopher H. Bidmead based Castrovalva on M.C. Escher's mindbending art, which I can't reproduce here because it's under copyright and its use is strictly controlled. (The link goes to the official Escher website, though. You can see the pictures there.) The story goes that script editor Bidmead and producer John Nathan-Turner used to sit in the office of a BBC executive who had an Escher on his wall. JN-T found it disturbing and distracting, so Bidmead would be the one who faced the piece of art. Result: Castrovalva, named for a cliffside Italian town that Escher drew in 1930. Starting from the central square in the Bidmead's Castrovalva and going down, the Doctor and friends nearly always arrive on a walkway that looks down on that same square. The spatial anomalies are a big part of the story, but the place is weird in other ways, too. For example, the town's library consist of the 30-volume history of Castrovalva, 500-year-old books which purport to chronicle the place's history from 1200 years earlier up to the present day.

Castrovalva came out this week as part of a DVD boxed set, along with the two stories that precede it, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. John picked up a copy after work tonight, so naturally I watched Castrovalva for the first time in years. It really holds up. My favorite bit is when the Portreeve tells the amnesiac Doctor that he will find the Doctor very soon - and calls him Doctor as he makes the prediction.

6. Remembrance of the Daleks - I'm skipping over the Sixth Doctor's era (although The Two Doctors is rather good) and moving on to one of my very favorite stories ever. The Doctor revisits key places from An Unearthly Child, charges up Ace's metal bat using an ancient, coffin-shaped Gallifreyan device, thus enabling Ace to destroy a Dalek single-handed, discusses the philosophy of decisions and consequences with a stranger over a late night cup of tea, hints to Ace and Davros that he is older and more powerful than other Time Lords, and eventually blows up the Daleks real good. What's not to love?

7. The Doctor Who tv movie (1996) - This is undoubtedly the most controversial entry on this list. It has a certain taint of American connections, apparently crams Gallifrey's Eye of Harmony (basically a solar engineered black hole) into the Doctor's TARDIS, and even has the Doctor claiming to be "half human on my mother's side," which is strongly disputed by many fans. But Paul McGann is fun to watch as the Doctor, as is the aging Sylvester McCoy. The "Who am I?" scene is atmospheric and beautifully shot, the ancillary characters are memorable, and the bit in which the Master casually peels a dead fingernail off his stolen body is suitably creepy. I'll happily explain away the major continuity flaws to get to the good stuff in the Eighth Doctor's only screen outing.

Run.8. "Rose" - When Doctor Who first came back in 2005, I was seriously worried they'd mess it up by trying to make it contemporary. But the opening five minutes of "Rose" were enough to make it clear that the show would be breaking new ground without forgetting its past. Rose's ordinary day changes abruptly when she becomes trapped in a cellar with sinister, moving shop window dummies. Then a stranger takes her hand, and says, "Run!" The Doctor soon finds out that Rose isn't about to let him "swan off" without her. In a choice between folding shirts in a store or traveling by TARDIS, Rose is not going to settle for the safer option.

Rose asks the sleeping Doctor to wake up and help her.9. "Doctor Who: Children in Need" / "The Christmas Invasion" - one of these is seven minutes long, and leads directly into the other, so I'm counting them together. The newly-regenerated Tenth Doctor initially has some problems with health and mental stability, as pretty much always happens when the Doctor regenerates. Seldom has it been done this well, however. It's a treat to watch him examine his new body ("I have got a mole"), convince Rose he really is the Doctor, crash land the TARDIS, wish Jackie and Mickey a Merry Christmas just before collapsing into a coma, save Jackie from being killed by a Christmas tree, and emerge from his coma just in time to save the world with a big, threatening button, a sword and a piece of fruit.

10. "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood‎" - boys' school teacher John Smith has no idea why his personal memories are so vague, while his dreams of another life are so vivid. It is not in his nature to question his own existence, or the conventional morals of his comfortable, pre-WWI world. The things of his dreams are "just stories," and journaling them is just a fun little hobby. But as he falls in love with the school nurse, events conspire to shake him from his complacency. When two people at the school are replaced by murderous aliens, Martha - a mere cleaning lady! - claims Smith is really a man from another world, and that he is needed. Why is one of his students waving around an alien pistol, calling him "Doctor", and threatening the lives of Martha and Joan? The answer, as it unfolds, shakes John Smith to his hollow core.

Dang, it's late. I've got to get to bed! Guess this wasn't the best idea for a quick entry, huh?


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