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 Sontaran Experiment

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According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.
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Doctor Who Project: The Time Warrior

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I’ve never heard so much gobbledygook in my life, but I suspect you know what you’re talking about.

To usher in Season Eleven of Doctor Who, series regular Robert Holmes introduces another of his larger-than-life characters, in this case Linx, the titular character from “The Time Warrior” (Series Production Code UUU). But the title proves rather incongruous, for though Commander Linx, the squat Sontaran commander, has managed to transport scientists from the twentieth century back to medieval times, he does so for no reason other than to repair his damaged spaceship, so that he can return to the eternal war between the Sontarans and the Rutans.

Meet Commander Linx

However, this time-shifting ability of the Sontarans serves merely as an excuse for the show to play historical dress-up once more, with everyone getting in on the medieval act, from Jon Pertwee clomping around in a suit of armor to new companion Elisabeth Sladen showing off both a Maid Marian outfit and a Robin Hood outfit. Assuming one discounts the jaunt to ancient Atlantis in “The Time Monster” and the limited 1920s ship scenes in “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Time Warrior” marks the first visit to an historical Earth setting since the Second Doctor’s swan song in “The War Games” some four years prior—and even that wasn’t really on Earth.

Guess who!

It’s a comfortable setting for the series, despite the long absence of pseudo-historical stories from the screen, and it shows. The BBC knows how to costume for that time period like no other production team, and they can dress a castle set with far more believable detail than they can, it must be said, outfit a spaceship. Too, there’s more than a bit of the feeling from “The Time Meddler” about this story, with an interloper from beyond the stars interfering with the natural progression of human history through the introduction of modern weaponry. It just feels like home.

But where the Meddling Monk wanted to alter history for his own, somewhat fuzzily rationalized ends, Commander Linx simply wants to get home, so he can get back to all the killing. And if he needs to arm a local bandit from the Middle Ages with long rifles and a killer robot, well, so be it…
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