Monday, August 10, 2015

Season 11 Overview

The New Logo
When Doctor Who returned for its eleventh season, it immediately felt like a renewed series. This was thanks to a brand new title sequence, its first in four years, designed by Bernard Lodge. Lodge was a top graphic designer for the BBC, and he had designed the titles sequences for Doctor Who all the way back to its very first one in 1963. Back then, Lodge created the programme's eerie, otherworldly titles using a technique called "howlaround" in which a video camera is pointed at its own monitor, the feedback creating abstract patterns of light. Combined with Delia Derbyshire's spooky electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer's theme song, the effect was one of the most iconic openings to any television series in history.

But, Lodge and Barry Letts wanted something different for the new titles. Abandoning the "howlaround" technique, Lodge chose a new process for the creation of the titles, namely the "slit-scan" technique first popularized during the famous Star-Gate sequence in the climax to Satnely Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The technique combines long time exposures with a rostrum camera. A rostrum camera usually shoots a series of frames while tracking toward an image at a controlled rate. But in slit-scan, the camera tracks while only exposing a single frame towards a slit that is the only light source. The effect gives a perspective version of the image on that one frame. By placing torn strips of polystyrene between polarized filters, Lodge used the slit-scan technique to create an infinite tunnel made up of a spectrum of colour. The result was the first version of what would become one of the definitive versions of the programme's opening titles. They remain my favourite titles for the whole series, classic or new. Lodge also created a new logo for the series, this time in a diamond shape. 

Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen
at a press photo call
Of course, another new aspect of the series was the new companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane was designed to be the antithesis of Jo Grant. Where Jo had been naive, inexperienced and intentionally girl-like at first, Sarah would be a feminist, with a career and a strong self-confidence that meant she was unafraid to take charge and speak her mind and take proactive action in the stories. Though Letts and Dicks originally cast another actress, their choice of a tall, statuesque blonde was vetoed by Jon Pertwee. Pertwee saw the Doctor as a protective, paternal figure for his companions, and he wanted a smaller, less physically formidable actress to play up that angle. To their great fortune, they settled on Elisabeth Sladen. Neither Letts, Dicks or Pertwee could be accused of having the most forward-thinking feminist views, and the dialogue given to Sarah is often strident and unrealistic, like a privileged man's view of feminism. Luckily, Sladen was an actor possessed of superb charm and authenticity. She immediately takes charge the second she's on screen, taking greater agency immediately and yet never being obnoxious or laughable. She's a delight throughout the season, and never less than a real, fully rounded woman. It's a great match-up between a role that is compelling, and an actor that can deepen and enliven that role beyond what the writers intended. I'd argue that she doesn't ever really have the chemistry with Pertwee that Katy Manning had, but that was a pretty special pairing, and maybe it's unfair to compare them. In any case, she's interesting enough on her own, and if you feel that Pertwee's Doctor spends the season trying to figure her out, that's no bad thing.

But overall, the eleventh season is not my favourite of the Pertwee era by quite a long chalk. It never gels into a cohesive whole, unlike the seasons that precede it. Much of this has to be due to the fact that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were hard at work on a second series called Moonbase Three. This series was a co-production with the United States, and was a high-priority, prestige project for the BBC. I'm not implying that Letts and Dicks stopped caring about Doctor Who. But they might have assumed that they knew how to make a successful season by this point, might have stopped pushing themselves as hard as they had been, and might have simply had not enough hours in the day to give both series 100% of their time. Something had to give, and the result is a season that feels less tight, more on auto-pilot, more uneven.

A lot of this feeling comes from Peretwee as well. His Doctor feels increasingly nonchalant and by-the-numbers. I'm not saying he's phoning in his performance, but some of the urgency and spark is gone. When you combine this with the loss of Roger Delgado, and the lessening of the UNIT stories, you can't help by feel an era is winding down. There are still classics in this season, to be sure. The Time Warrior is a perfectly fun story built to entertain. Invasion of the Dinosaurs is, dodgy effects aside, nearly a masterpiece. But it's the first time in the Letts/Pertwee/Dicks era that you feel things are really hit and miss, and it's a testament to this tight team that they wisely recognized this as their time to move on. 

So, Pertwee moved on. He would, in later years, say that he would have stayed had the BBC agreed to a raise in his salary. Even with a severe back injury that let him in near-constant pain, and his sadness at the loss of Delgado and Manning, and the breaking up of UNIT and his friends Letts and Dicks, Pertwee still loved playing the role. Before taking on Doctor Who, he had been thought of as a light-weight, a capable and beloved cabaret performer who specialized in silly songs and comedy voices. Doctor Who was his chance to prove he could be a dramatic actor, a hero even. And for five years, he was the hero to millions. His authoritative, suave and confident interpretation of the role helped catapult the programme to new and sustained heights of success. Under William Hartnell the series had been a hit and phenomenon, and under Troughton it scared the kids, but Pertwee made the series a British institution. There are those today who dislike his patrician, paternal take on the role, but he remains one of the definitive Doctors. 

The UNIT Family, one last time.
From L to R, John Levene, Richard Franklin, Nicholas Courtney,
Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen in Invasion of the Dinosaurs

As they filmed Planet of the Spiders, the final adventure of Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks made one final, gigantic contribution to the show they had revitalized and moulded into a national institution. They cast, as the Fourth Doctor, a relatively unknown actor whose fortunes had dipped so low that he was working on a building site when he nabbed the coveted role. Barry Letts would produce and direct, and Terrance Dicks would write, the first Doctor Who story that would star an actor named Tom Baker. 

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