FAN FILM REVIEWS: THE FEMALE DOCTOR 3 – PENTAGON WEST
Synopsis: The full title is ‘Pentagon West: Doctor in the House.’ The friends and associates of Doctor Komar are worried. The Doctor’s been acting more and more strangely, even while he mumbles about a radical new breakthrough. Meanwhile, a mysterious police box appears in the park and there are disturbing glimpses of a woman in a red jacket and a man in a black suit….
Review: This is the third of the Benedetti/Johnson female Doctor stories. I loved Wrath of Eukor as an adventure and I loved Visions of Utomu as a flawed but ultimately successful light comedy. I can’t say the same for Pentagon West. It’s like the Benedetti Doctor stories were on a downward trajectory. Eukor is a small masterpiece, Utomu is visibly flawed but worthy, and Pentagon West…. ugh.
It’s like Ryan Johnson forgot everything that worked for him in Eukor and Utomu. Locations? Parks and Living rooms, god help us. The story – heartbreakingly linear. Wit? Where? The cast – oversized, poorly handled, amateur and it all shows.
Painfully, the Doctor and Carl are barely even in the story. There’s an appearance of the Tardis at the very beginning. There’s a series quick shots of the Doctor and Carl watching, 8.5 minutes, 9.5 minutes, 11.5minutes and 13 minutes, into the 28 minute run – no dialogue, no action, just kind of there… watching, no more than a few seconds at a time. They’re just a presence that the main cast keeps noticing.
On the one hand, that’s irritating, because it feels like we’re waiting for the story to start and waiting and waiting, and it’s not happening. The Doctor just keeps lurking, and we’re waiting for the Doctor to kick things off.
On the other hand, it’s kind of an interesting or potentially interesting approach: The Doctor as a lurking, looming presence. It builds a kind of tension. The problem is that there just isn’t enough happening in the foreground to really allow this to work. There has to be a strong A plot for the subtle background stuff to take hold. Here, it’s effectively just the Doctor and Carl standing at the back of an empty room.
The Doctor doesn’t actually get a line or become an active character in the story until 19 minutes in, when she shows up and explains the crisis for two and a half minutes: Komar, the mad scientist, is breaking down the dimensional barriers, which isn’t a good thing. Not a good thing in this case equals kaboom! The Doctor suggests believing her and stopping Komar would be a good idea. Then the Doctor steps out for a couple of minutes while the rest of the cast has a debate over it.
They eventually decide to go with her. After that, though, the Doctor is part of the crowd, has a few more lines, but really, she’s just a bystander. The story resolves without her when Komar decides to die of his cancer and not destroy the universe. Count it all up, Benedetti and Rogin are maybe in for 7 minutes of a 28 minute running time, and they don’t get to do a whole lot.
That’s taking a huge risk: Benedetti’s Doctor is really good, and her Doctor and Carl are really good together. They have been from the start. It’s generally best to play to your strengths. It’s a gamble to put that to the side and try and bring out something different.
It actually was, and is, an interesting narrative trick – the Doctor as an outsider or peripheral character to his story, I will give them credit for that, and it’s one of the few things in Pentagon West that earns my respect. This idea would be used a couple of times in the relaunched series with David Tennant in ‘Blink’ and ‘Love and Monsters.’ It worked brilliantly in those episodes based on the strength of the stories and the foreground characters. Not so, this time. You can do interesting things by moving the Doctor into the backbround, making her the B-story. But if you’re going to do that, the A-story has to be strong, and… this one isn’t.
The cast isn’t strong either, a group of five less able actors or amateurs get the lions share of dialogue and action, what there is of it. Even worse, the way the story mechanics work, they’re hamstrung. They literally have nothing to do but stand around and talk about Doctor Komar, who himself doesn’t show up until later in the story. Not as late as the Doctor, but late enough. Look, you don’t just put a character in a story. They need to have something to do, some purpose. Mostly, that’s not happening. So what you really have is five characters hanging around waiting, while the key characters, the ones who drive the story, spend most of their time off screen.
Just no. Please no. There’s this woman in an appalling pink tracksuit, wearing a pink scarf around her head in an awful bow, that’s just nightmarish. She’d be tolerable in any other wardrobe, but she’s just hard to look at. The primary cast, a group of five, literally get in each other’s way. They don’t have enough to do, none of them establish an identity. They’re just not very good actors. I’m sure that they’re very nice people, but they help to sink the story like a lead weight.
The lead hero/villain is Doctor Komar, played by Michael Santo. It’s Komar that the plot revolves around, he’s one the rest of the cast are connected to – he’s the glue that connects them to each other. He’s the one whose actions precipitate the conflicts and he’s the one that the Doctor is interested in.
It seems that Doctor Komar is working on a cancer cure, urgently so, given that he’s got cancer (represented by an awful prosthetic tumor on his bald spot). Komar, feeling desperate, has zapped up his intelligence to mad scientists levels, pierced the dimensional barrier releasing cancer-curing radiation. The trouble is, that it really will blow up the universe. They including the Doctor, try and stop him, but bungle it all up, literally falling over each other. Komar knocks them all out with a stun ray or something.
Then, left to himself, Komar has a soliloquy over the big moral quandary: “Should I keep trying to cure my cancer and blow up the universe, dying myself anyway and killing everyone else?” Which isn’t actually a moral quandary, when you stop to think about it. I mean: “Hmmm, my course of treatment will not work, in that it will kill me and lots of other people.” How is that a dilemma?
Unfortunately, Santo plays Komar with a fake European accent and a sense of theatrics channeled from Bela Lugos’s performance at the hands of Ed Wood in Bride of the Monster. Santo may be a decent actor, his turn as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Pepsi Generation is spot on and hilarious. But here he’s wrongheaded as hell. He’s handicapped all sorts of ways, he doesn’t have a chance to carry the weight.
Structurally, it’s simply a bad script, and it doesn’t do the actors, any of them, any favours at all. Sure, there’s an occasional good line. There’s a brief interlude where two of them speculate mockingly about alien life coming to earth. But a few light spots, that doesn’t save a sinking ship.
The settings – someones living room, we’ve got living room furniture, the Doctor is working against wallpaper! Wallpaper! There’s a cluttered lab. There are some nice exteriors – but these exteriors even if nicely shot, are so utterly generic that they’re just not interesting. Only the shots at the University, with its stonework facade and yawning hallways are decent. Compare the shots to the lush rain forests of Eukor or the place of mirrors in Broken Doors. Even the original scorring is sub-par.
There are some good aerial shots taken from a plane flying around Seattle, but these are problematic – yes, it’s some potentially nice production value, but they don’t know what to do with it, so they just use it for framing at the beginning and end of the story. That’s kind of a problem – you have a really good shot, but you don’t have any use for it? Then suck it up and don’t use it. Or you find a real use for it.
Sadly, what it is, is what we’ve got. Benedetti’s Doctor has a nice physical gag or two, and she and Rogin work with what the script gives them. There’s a scene that the two of them have with an easy chair that reminds you just how good they are together.
There’s actually an interesting wrinkle or two on the Doctor here, there’s a suggestion of her as a machiavellian force, glimpsed but not understood. She plays the Doctor darker, she’s not going to cure cancer for us, the world has to save itself sometimes, and her one decent line ‘I can live with what I’ve done, can you?’ is almost cruel.
This is a version of the Doctor we seldom see. This is the outsider who intrudes into the known world, the unknown quality whose very presence is an omen of bad things. The Doctor may not be trouble, may not be evil or the source of trouble. But when the Doctor comes, you know that trouble is around, and the safe, normal world you’ve enjoyed so much…. That’s over with. There’s a sense here of the Doctor not as someone who stumbles into situations, but is actively policing threats. It almost raises it from failure to near miss. Sadly, there’s just not enough of the Doctor and Carl. And without them, there’s not enough of anything else to make up for it.
There’s a nice shot or two. Some of the scenes and dialogue aren’t too painful. And I’ll give them marks for a really interesting narrative idea that would be used by the new series. But overall, it just doesn’t work, it misfires on practically every level. The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s a failure with some interesting points.
It’s for completists at best. If it had been a stand alone, I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing or even watching it. It’s main calling card is that it’s part of the Johnson/Benedetti body of work. I suspect that this is one of those productions where the DVD commentary would be a lot more interesting than what’s on the screen.
I don’t think that it had the same reception that Eukor and Utomu got. It couldn’t, it’s just not nearly as good as the first two, perhaps not good at all, and whatever cachet it had was riding their coattails. But this is the third female Doctor story, and you know, it’s just not new and shocking any more as an idea. It’s established, the novelty is worn off.
As well, the hiatus was over. It’s released in May of 1987. Doctor Who, the real Doctor, is back. Colin Baker’s completed the Trial of a Time Lord. It hasn’t aired in North America, but it will, and there’s anticipation over that. Colin is about to be fired, there’s going to be a new Doctor, and there’s a new season coming up. The attention of fans is elsewhere. The subject of gossip and anticipation is elsewhere. Whatever credibility or following the female Doctor as ‘the Doctor of the hiatus’ had managed to gather was dissipating. It wasn’t the fresh new thing any more.
Technically, this takes a further step down. Eukor was shot on 16 mm film, Utomu was shot on 3/4 inch commercial videotape. Pentagon West is shot on betacam.
As for Ryan Johnson… Reading between the lines of his ‘making of’ essay, I really had the sense that it was the most dispiriting. From his descriptions, I’m not even sure if this was originally intended to be a Doctor Who story. That aspect may well have been added in. This production had been very hard to get off the ground, it had been frustrating, it had morphed continually, it was just a headache. This seemed to have been much more of a struggle, and a struggle in negative ways – overcoming obstacles to get something done is one thing, overcoming obstacles to be allowed to try and do something can be disheartening. The final product could not have been satisfying to him. The reception was certainly poor, Pentagon West was not knocking anyone on their ass. With Eukor, and to an extent, with Utomu, he had hit a moment, but that moment had passed, was passing. It just wasn’t fun any more. Maybe it was time to move on and do something else.
Behind the scenes things seemed to be a mess – the original plan was for a much more ambitious two part story – a serial, but the money fell apart and there were problems with the script. This was replaced by a sci fi soap, which in turn fell apart. There were money issues, coordination issues, people issues. Roadblocks kept coming up. Ultimately, the project kept getting revised, retuned and compromised into insignificance. That’s one of the risks, sometimes you start out great, but then life kicks you in the teeth, and in the journey along the way… well, where you finish sometimes isn’t fun.
It’s a shame that they never got to follow through on their original ideas. Johnson’s other work, in and out of Doctor Who is interesting enough that I’d be willing to grant potential. If only something like Kickstarter had been around for the time, or the fan community that had embraced Eukor and Utomu had been willing to fundraise for it, we might have seen a more ambitious, more disciplined production.
I really would by the way, recommend reading Ryan Johnson’s pages and making of. He’s terse and he glosses over things, but if you read carefully and read between the lines, you can get a sense of how difficult it is to make these things, what sort of commitment it takes and what people go through. Go check it out.
28 minutes. Betacam videotape. Filmed September 1986, released May 1987.
Cast. . . Michael Santo as Komar, Laura Kenny as Iz, Laura Sweany as Robin, Josh Conescu as David, Jonathon Stewart as Alex, Eric Anderson as Simon, Barbara Benedetti as The Doctor, Randy Rogel as Carl.
Directed by Howard Carson. Written and Produced by Ryan K. Johnson.
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