Friday, May 23, 2014

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World DVD review

When the two recovered Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials were revealed found last year, it was easy for “The Web of Fear” to get all the attention. It is, after all, one of the best Who serials of the sixties, and that find – even with one remaining missing episode – was a landmark. Naturally, “The Enemy of the World” took a bit of a backseat to all the fabulous Yetiness, atmospheric faux London Underground, and the greatness of the Great Intelligence. “The Web of Fear” takes little more than a casual glance in its direction to be able to declare its “classic” status. By comparison, “Enemy” does not feel as instantly, recognizably perfect, and some aspects of it (the arguably tacky futuristic costuming[1], a potentially rambling narrative, and no monsters or aliens) might be off putting to some.

For this viewer, though, “The Enemy of the World” gets better and better with each successive viewing, and I’m now at the point where I’m really sort of in love with the entire affair. From the word go – with the TARDIS materializing on a beach, and the Doctor stripping down to long underwear and jumping into the ocean for a dip – the serial feels like something very special indeed, and Episode One continues with that vibe for the duration of its running time.

Victoria: “Perhaps we’ve landed in a world of madmen!”
The Doctor: “They’re human beings, if that’s what you mean, indulging their favorite pastime – trying to destroy each other!”

Mary Peach as Astrid Ferrier
Farther down the beach, a group of men spy the time travelers, and inexplicably recognize the Doctor. The trio is then chased by the men in a hovercraft, and is subsequently rescued by a blond woman in a helicopter who takes them to a safehouse, where they barely have time to catch their breath before coming under attack once again. After making yet another daring escape, the woman, Astrid Ferrier (Mary Peach, the serial’s most valuable guest player), takes the time travelers to meet Giles Kent (Bill Kerr), and the story unfolds: The Doctor is a ringer for the man poised to all but take over the world, Salamander. Giles fanatically leads a resistance movement with Astrid as his second in command. Their proposal is as seemingly simple as it is realistically complex: Will the Doctor impersonate Salamander, and aid Giles in bringing him down once and for all?

Beyond Episode Three, which has been around for ages (available in the “Lost in Time” DVD box set), my only real previous exposure to this story was the Target novelization, written by Ian Marter, which I devoured as a teenager. That was a long time and many Target novelizations ago, but my most vivid memory of that book was its thrilling sense of adventure – perhaps even more so than the average Target book. All these years later, and “Enemy” really lives up to enough of what my 14-year old imagination conjured up. It has been described by some as James Bond-like, an idea that I struggled with until maybe the third viewing, at which point it came into focus. The scope of the entire thing is global. It takes place in 2018 on an Earth that’s been divided by world government into zones, and the action occurs across several of them, including the story’s primary setting, the Australasian Zone (specifically, Australia).

Of course, the entire thing was made in the U.K., but all factors considered, the serial does a fine job of living up to all the script’s ideas, mostly through clever writing and the diversity of its characters. That perfect first episode, with its mesmerizing location shooting, gives way to a largely studio-bound subsequent five episodes that despite the odds manage to really work. It is deceptively good fare, and though it can feel sprawling and unfocused, the key to getting it, I think, is to really invest in all the characters no matter how seemingly fleeting their appearance. Not everyone is always who they seem, and nearly everyone has a significant role of some sort to play.

Astrid: “Oh, you’re a Doctor?”
The Doctor: “Not of any medical significance.”
Astrid: “A Doctor of law? Philosophy?”
The Doctor: (slyly) “Which law? Whose philosophies, eh?”

The story, as I understand it, was devised due to Patrick Troughton’s desire to stretch his talents a bit, and so here he plays both the hero and the villain (with the two characters only sharing screentime in, literally, the serial’s final moments), a gimmick that works splendidly. Salamander gets a great deal of screentime throughout, and thus the Doctor is never quite as front and center as he normally would be, giving the production a markedly different texture. Making the villain so deviously layered and central to the goings-on is nothing short of a masterstroke, and Troughton slips so wholly into the role it becomes easy to forget it’s the same man who plays the Doctor.

So he excels as this new character, and as the Doctor he’s also got unusually great material to play with. Where his performance just dazzles is in the scenes in which the Doctor is learning to imitate Salamander - not just mastering the thick, Mexican accent, but also adopting his mannerisms, and cultivating the look. Troughton’s performance within his performance (inspired by yet another performance) is a revelation, even by the already impeccably high standards one associates with Troughton’s work on this series. If it weren’t for Peter Capaldi’s casting, this serial would’ve provided the definitive answer to the question, “Who’s the greatest actor to have ever played Doctor Who?”

Jamie and Victoria at CSO Park
But as great a find as “Enemy” is for Troughton fanatics and Who fans in general, it’s also brilliant because it represents the very first work Barry Letts ever did on the series. Here he’s in the director’s chair, and his work on this thing is damn tight and frequently inventive (the editing, however, is sometimes questionable). There’s even a scene set in a park in Episode Two that features that trademark Letts CSO! Moments later, during a scene between Astrid and Denes (George Pravda), which takes place under a disused jetty (“A disused Yeti!?” – The Doctor), watch the way the light ripples off the water, and onto the characters’ faces – all practically done in studio. It’s no wonder he was offered the job of producer just a couple years later based on his immediate understanding of the fabric this serial needed to be made of. Likewise, he assembled an excellent cast - a number of them would return to the series further down the road in different parts. The greatest tragedy of the rediscovery of “The Enemy of the World” is that Barry Letts did not live to see its return to the fans, and to the tapestry of the series which he gave so much of his life to. Looking at it again after all these years, I think he’d have impressed even himself.

There’s a line of the Doctor’s in “The Enemy of the World” that’s entirely emblematic of the BBC’s trashing of all of those episodes of Doctor Who (as well as countless other hours of television) back in the seventies: “People spend all their time making nice things, and then other people come along and break them.” Thankfully, this long thought “broken” serial has been rescued and brought back to us where it belongs. Let’s keep some fingers crossed that these finds aren’t the last. 

This hallway is one of my favorite things in this serial

[1]The Discontinuity Guide – one of the more enjoyable Doctor Who reference guides ever written – takes “Enemy” to task over numerous costuming decisions. Across the board I disagree. The kinky rubber suits have aged beautifully, in a Planet of the Vampires sort of way. And Salamander’s matador getup is bold, crazy and perhaps the precise sort of thing someone who wants to rule the world might think fashionable. (Keep in mind, also, the character is from a Mexico of the future – a future where, perhaps, bullfighting has finally been outlawed, and as such the outfit is more symbolic of his ancestry.) It is irrelevant that someone in “our” world couldn’t realistically pull it off; this is Doctor Who!