Doctor Who Project: Horror of Fang Rock

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You said I would like Brighton. Well I do not.

Doctor Who may be lovingly needled for its reliance on multiple sequences of people running down corridors. Long-time writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks opens Season Fifteen by slightly altering that formula, with “Horror of Fang Rock” (Story Production Code 4V) featuring multiple sequences of people running up and down a spiral staircase. To his and veteran director Paddy Russell’s credit, it is a very nice staircase.

A very nice staircase

The action of this fear-tinged story takes place almost exclusively on the four levels of an isolated, fog-shrouded lighthouse off the English coast in the Edwardian era, roughly around the turn of the century. Carrying on from the last story, the BBC’s fog machines get quite a workout, with most of the first half of the four episode story shot in low light suffused with haze. Sporadic electrical faults in the lighthouse provide further narrative justification for the omnipresent darkness. Given the lackluster quality of the special effects, the dimness works to the story’s favor, concealing, for instance, the obvious nature of the model ship that provides as the first episode’s cliffhanger—which, in motion, does not so much wreck against the rocks as bounce off them—to say nothing of the actual “horror” that lurks on Fang Rock.

Shipwreck on Fang Rock

The overall effect of the confined space and limited cast of characters (nine total, including the Doctor and Leela) does lend itself to a claustrophobic anxiety. Russell strives to keep the camera close to the action, shrinking the area further, as though the viewer were leaning into the shot; her solid work with blocking and camera angles adds more menace to the proceedings than Dicks’ tale of unseen horror frankly deserves.

As ever in Tom Baker’s era, the Doctor and Leela arrive on the heels of an unexplained murder, this time in the lighthouse. Just prior to the TARDIS materializing on the rocky shore nearby, a purple flash of light streaks through the sky into the surrounding sea. After dismissing the strange occurrence, the three lighthouse keepers spend several minutes debating the relative merits of oil versus electric light sources for lighthouses. The story’s pacing doesn’t pick up markedly from here, at least until the final episode.

The Lighthouse Lads, in happier times

After the pro-electric Ben (Ralph Watson) dies at the hands of an unseen assailant in the boiler room, much of the first episode focuses on keeping those boilers stoked. The electricity goes on and off unexpectedly throughout the story, drawing individuals to the boilers, where more often than not they perish, with no clue as to the assailant’s presence besides a chill in the air and an ominous green glow. Often the audience is granted a wider understanding than the characters in Doctor Who, but here there’s a real resistance to unveiling the culprit, which is only first seen in a blurry long-shot near the end of the second episode. This approach undoubtedly builds tension, but the fact that it’s just a green ball of goo may also have something to do with it…
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Doctor Who Project: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!

Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.

A foggy Victorian night.

The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.

John Bennett as Li Hsen Chang

Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.

On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…
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Doctor Who Project: The Robots of Death

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Failure’s one of the basic freedoms.

Odds are good in Doctor Who that the robot did it. And if the robot is a butler, as in Chris Boucher’s “The Robots of Death” (Story Production Code 4R), then there’s no question who the murderer will be. Though the title sort of gives it away, too.

A robot of death (because of the red eyes)

Boucher’s second story, following “The Face of Evil” just prior, even manages the neat trick of keeping the real villain hidden until the third of four episodes, sadly with the unfortunate side effect that the events of the first three segments serve mostly as action-flavored filler.

After the Doctor gives Leela an impromptu lesson on trans-dimensional engineering, the TARDIS materializes inside an enormous ground vehicle, a sand miner crawling across a forbidding desert landscape in search of zelanite, a rare and valuable mineral. Staffed predominantly by robots, with a small, coddled human crew to oversee them, the miner has been trawling these wastes for eight mostly uneventful months, but the moment the TARDIS arrives, one of the human crew is murdered.

Robo-vision

There’s no mystery in it—veteran director Michael Briant films the attack from the robot’s blurry point of view. Given the establishing scenes of the crew discussing how utterly impossible it would be for a robot to harm a human, cribbing from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the story’s primary question becomes how the robot was able to kill one of the human crew. The violation of this prime directive would mean the end of their civilization, dependent as it is on robot labor for most of its functioning.

The hat makes the man

Boucher and the production team go to great lengths to sketch out a decadent human culture primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. Surrounded by opulence and art, the crew dons unwieldy headgear when performing their assigned tasks on this two year expedition, the symbols of their individual status and position never far from hand—or head. Even when alerted to a murder, the commander of the miner, Ulanov (Russell Hunter), insists that they continue pursuing a rich zelanite deposit before focusing on the fact that someone in their isolated environment has evil intent. He’d sooner return to base with full ore tanks than a full crew, and he almost gets his wish…

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Doctor Who Project: The Face of Evil

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On the other hand, I could be wrong about that.

While many stories feature the Doctor visiting a planet or people he has prior, off-screen knowledge of, far rarer are stories focusing on the Doctor returning to witness the aftermath of his interventions. The First Doctor story “The Ark” shows the direct cause-and-effect of his presence by taking the Doctor into the future of a setting he has just visited (and disrupted); while the Third Doctor visits Peladon over the course of two disconnected stories, the latter relying heavily for its plot twist on the events of the former. But Chris Boucher’s debut script, “The Face of Evil” (Story Production Code 4Q), posits an entire adventure for the Fourth Doctor that viewers have not seen, the outcome of which drives the events of the story on offer.

Have I been here before?

The strength of “The Face of Evil”—and indeed, it is the strongest story of Tom Baker’s reign to date—comes from the careful parcelling out of this “hidden” story about the mistake the Doctor made at some point in the past, a catastrophic error that resulted in generations of strife between the Tribe of Tesh and the Tribe of the Sevateem on this nameless planet. More interestingly, the Doctor himself doesn’t realize his past role in the proceedings until partway through the story, such that the sudden appearance of his face carved into a cliffside comes as a shock to him as well as to the viewer. This cliffhanger, shrouded as it is in genuine mystery, creates more tension than any end-of-episode monster revelation ever could.

A fine likeness.

Though Boucher slowly unveils the Doctor’s past mistake while simultaneously establishing two different factions in the Tesh and the Sevateem, he and director Pennant Roberts keep the story, rife as it is with exposition, moving quickly, a task aided by Louise Jameson’s introduction as Leela, the new companion. The first non-contemporary companion since Jamie and Zoe were returned to their worlds at the end of “The War Games,” Leela brings a much-needed spark to the series, representing as she does a different moral and ethical system. Very little conceptual daylight exists between the Third and Fourth Doctors and Liz, Jo, and Sarah Jane; they, and the audience, broadly see the world the same way as the Doctor(s), and any arguments between them hinge on philosophical nuances. By contrast, the Doctor here has to warn Leela to stop killing people as a matter of course.

Introducing Louise Jameson as Leela

As with the Second Doctor and Jamie, Leela’s non-technical background as a member of a hunter/gatherer tribe allows for more seamless exposition, giving the Doctor (and writers) a reason to avoid too much technobabble. But where Jamie at times seemed bored with the futuristically fantastical and eager to get on with the action, Leela comes across as curious, open-minded, and fearless; the story opens with her rejecting the orthodoxy of the Tribe of the Sevateem, denying the divinity of Xoanon and being banished as a result. Given the sartorial choices of the shaman who speaks for Xoanon, though, it’s not hard to understand her doubts…

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Doctor Who Project: The Deadly Assassin

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Cash and carry, Constantinople.

From their first mention in “The War Games,” the Time Lords represent a vague, ominous, near-omniscient force in Doctor Who, operating behind the scenes, pulling cosmic strings while feigning a non-interventionist approach to time and space. Writer and script editor Robert Holmes burnishes away that infallible patina with his definitive Time Lord story, “The Deadly Assassin” (Story Production Code 4P), making wholesale changes to our understanding of these powerful beings—and, for better and for worse, to the future of the series as a whole.

Graceful Gallifreyan script

When Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounters the Time Lords, they sit in judgement of him for his interference in the affairs of the universe; solemnly robed, they effect a sombre, passive demeanor, one the Second Doctor rails against. They seem timeless, devoid as they are of ornamentation or emotion. Jon Pertwee’s involvement with the Time Lords takes on a more whimsical tone, with a nattily dressed member of the Tribunal that exiled him appearing out of nowhere with warnings of the Master in “Terror of the Autons.” By the time the two of them, plus William Hartnell’s First Doctor, meet the Time Lords again in “The Three Doctors,” cracks begin to show in the Gallifreyan facade, with the terrible secret of Omega’s eternal banishment revealed.

Resplendent in Prydonian orange

Robert Holmes effectively reboots the Time Lords in “The Deadly Assassin,” keeping but the barest outlines of established Time Lord history. The ornate trappings of the Time Lords start here, with chapters such as the Prydonians and Arcalians gaining their colors and high collared robes. Too, Holmes posits the Time Lords as an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, above ordinary citizens who, presumably, lack regenerative powers, given the number of Gallifreyans who wind up quite dead in this story. Far from standing as exemplars of rectitude, the Time Lord hierarchy engages in petty political power plays, concerned more with appearance than substance, to the extent that they have forgotten the truth of their own origins.

The plot of “The Deadly Assassin” centers around a significant change Holmes wreaks, that of a limit on regenerations: twelve. The Master (played in decomposed form by Peter Pratt) has reached his limit and is slowly dying in his final regeneration. Only the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, traditional trappings of the Time Lord Presidency, hold the solution to gaining additional regenerations, leading to the Master’s convoluted plan to obtain these items. As a plot contrivance, it’s a fine MacGuffin, conceptual in nature and neatly playing off of the series’ most unique conceit, that of regeneration. And in providing a means to escape the otherwise hard limit of regenerations, by allowing the Master to gain another one (or dozen?) at the end, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe seek to have their narrative cake whilst eating it. That cake, alas, could have used a bit more time in the plot oven…
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Doctor Who Project: The Hand of Fear

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Yes, just like Andy Pandy!

The Doctor has certainly been wrong before, but seldom does a story actively use the Doctor’s curiosity and comity against him—and against the audience—like Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Hand of Fear” (Story Production Code 4N). Right from the start, the viewer sees Eldrad, owner of the eponymous appendage, sentenced to obliteration by a people desperate to see him gone, but subsequent events in the story go to great lengths to convince the Doctor, and us, that Eldrad just might be misunderstood.

Maybe evil, maybe not!

That it doesn’t quite work that way, at least for the viewer, has much to do with the general tenor of the Fourth Doctor’s stories to date; only once, in “Planet of Evil,” has the trope of “humans are the real monsters” been tried with Tom Baker at the helm, and there the nominal monster was a force of nature rather than an individual. Here, Eldrad’s ability to control the minds of humans who interact with his ring signals to the viewer that he is an evil force, responsible for two deaths by the story’s halfway point. One could see the Third Doctor being moved by Eldrad’s later protestations that he was overthrown and betrayed, but for the action-prone Fourth Doctor to so readily accept this possibility comes across oddly, a discordance that feels more plot driven than organic to the story. The viewer often knows more than the Doctor on Doctor Who, but rarely does the viewer know better.

A helping hand (of fear!)

The story itself spends an inordinate amount of time in the first of four episodes setting the stage, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane inadvertently arriving in a British quarry—which is finally just a quarry—right as a huge explosion takes place, burying Sarah Jane and unearthing a disembodied stone hand in the process. The Doctor and another scientist, Carter (Rex Robinson), discover the hand to be based on a silicon life-form matrix that regenerates in the presence of radiation. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane wakes up in hospital with a ring clutched in her hand that causes her to think, over and over, “Eldrad must live.” A few quick blue blasts from the ring later, Sarah Jane has knocked out Carter, stolen the hand, and overpowered the woeful security at a top secret nuclear research facility located conveniently nearby.

Have ring, will travel

Once she has broken in, Sarah Jane takes the plastic container with the hand to the nuclear power core, locks herself in, and then waits in her red-and-white striped overalls for something to happen. She’s not the only one waiting; in place of the traditional monster revelation at the end of the first episode, we have part of a monster instead, as the hand (of fear!) comes to life—in Tupperware…
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