Sunday, September 03, 2006

 

Back to Old School: Horror of Fang Rock

When I was a boy, this time of year meant two things – going back to school, and the return of Doctor Who to our screens to sweeten the pill. A bit of me can’t help but still expect the same, so I’ve been watching Horror of Fang Rock, a Doctor Who story that originally started broadcasting on September 3rd, 1977. It does exactly what the title suggests: a storm-tossed island; a spooky, solitary lighthouse; shipwrecked socialites suddenly stuck in And Then There Were None; Tom Baker versus a googly monster. It’s also the series’ story most about social class.

It’s not just schoolboy memories that make Autumn a good time for Doctor Who. The new series is a huge hit in the BBC’s Spring / early Summer schedules, bringing in a solid eight million viewers to a slot and season where they’d been struggling to get three; of course they won’t change it. But for a show where much of its purpose is scaring children, it feels right to be shown as the nights are growing darker. It’s simply the perfect time for Doctor Who. Horror of Fang Rock is particularly appropriate for this feeling, set all on one dark and stormy night and almost in real time, but also perhaps the most ‘end of the summer holidays’ of any Who story. What could be more ‘British Summer’ than a trip to the seaside (or at least off the South Coast) when the weather’s horrible; cold, wind, fog…? I also have strong personal seaside associations with the story, from missing the first episode because we were out at the Doctor Who Exhibition and Blackpool Illuminations to buying the book the following Summer in St Ives. Ah, sun-kissed family holidays; next time I visit my Mum and Dad, I must look up the snapshot that most vividly recalls them, of my brother and I standing on Land’s End in the driving rain and bitter wind, in kagouls, holding ice lollies in our numb fingers because it was Summer, damn it, and we were going to ‘enjoy ourselves’ on pain of frostbite.

“Last time that Beast were seen on Fang Rock – eighty year ago, now – two men died that very night…”
Horror of Fang Rock isn’t an inspired but a craftsmanlike, ‘textbook’ tale; if you wanted to show someone how to do Doctor Who, this could be a teaching example, with a claustrophobic feel of ghosts and murders, a monster, a sense of history, characters sketched distinctly within just a couple of lines, and an extraordinary economy of both plot and the cash required. On top of scaring the kiddies, it has a moral, too: ‘being greedy gets you killed, and you deserve it!’ Made five years later, it would have looked like a critique of Thatcherism and yuppies, even featuring a greedy, amoral Tory MP, and that’s not the script’s only target. It was written in a great hurry to replace a vampire story nobbled by BBC executives as they prepared to show a ‘prestige’ Dracula adaptation that they didn’t want this upstaging, so it’s difficult not to see the names ‘Fang’ and ‘Harker’ (a character seen hammering in stakes) as two fingers up from the author for being nobbled, plus walking dead and parasitic aristocrats. It’s solidly entertaining, with the monster the only aspect reputed not to be very good; well, I thought it looked great climbing up the lighthouse and drew it incessantly when I was five or six. David Tennant’s said to like the story, and this year’s Victorian werewolf tale Tooth and Claw owes an awful lot to it (though you’d have thought if it was being done again today, rather than period horror it could be a murderously interactive version of Big Brother: lots of votes to get Adelaide slapped again, or ‘Skinsale wins the diamonds, but he’s out of the tower…’).

The DVD

Before I look at the story in more depth and to provide a gap in case you don’t want it spoiled for you, it’s out on DVD, too, and as usual with Doctor Who the picture’s been cleaned up a treat and there are some entertaining extras. The commentary’s a mix of bitchy (from grumpy author Terrance Dicks and companion Louise Jameson, describing Tom Baker with terms like “difficult” and “for all his faults”) and enthusiastic (one of the guest actors, who says “I didn’t know any of that. I was just having a good time”). There’s a good anecdote about Louise throwing her knife as skin-clad companion Leela, though it’s a shame Terrance says how much he liked the book cover, showing the Doctor in front of the lighthouse, wearing a bowler hat and with a coil of rope over his shoulder; it’s a striking piece of art, but does rather remind you that the DVD cover is an inferior copy, simply with bowler removed and a ‘meteor’ added.

The two main extras are personal documentaries, with 14 minutes on Paddy Russell – A Life in Television. One of the first two women directors at the BBC, she gives an impressively acid-tongued interview, though it’s less “A life” and more ‘The bits of Quatermass and Doctor Who she worked on and that we think people buying this will be interested in seeing’. More satisfying is the 35-minute Terrance Dicks – Fact and Fiction on the story’s author, a former script editor and prolific novelist for Doctor Who. It gives a good overview of his work, mostly with a selection of other authors, of books as well as both old and new Who, and at the bar with producer Barry Letts, alongside whom he was the main creative force behind the Jon Pertwee stories. It’s very engaging, with lots on the Third Doctor (there’s a great anecdote about Barry, unfamiliar with budgeting, allowing a director to film a lorry hijack with motorbikes and a helicopter), his BBC classic serials like Oliver Twist, and his hundreds of books, Doctor Who and otherwise (the Who novelisations of which Terrance was the prime writer sold over eight million). One of the best contributions is from New Adventures and now new series author, the lovely Paul Cornell, who talks about Terrance’s command of structure (“like maths, or music by Bach”) and how he built the foundations of modern Who. Paul’s almost certainly the subject of Terrance’s anecdote about a writer on the new series being put through eight or nine rewrites, an approach he very much dislikes – though he does appear to have enjoyed multiple rewrites on another of his stories, The Five Doctors (the first story released on DVD and with no extras, so there’s quite a bit about it here), seeing it as a “jigsaw puzzle” and bitching about Cybermen. He describes himself at the end as “Professional,” which sums up this terribly dependable author; he really wasn’t, as Louis Marks calls him, “the genius of Doctor Who,” but Paul’s “structure” comment isn’t to be sniffed at for a great nuts and bolts man who could tell a story the way few others could. Oh, and it ends with an amusing montage of the same recurring line…

The Story (Spoilers)

It opens with a portent of doom, and, blimey, there aren’t many Who stories with more doom to go around. When Leela spies out a rock pool, you realise that not even the fish can survive in this adventure. All the characters are well-drawn to fit very precise dramatic functions, with the Doctor moody and powerful for almost the last time before the actor turns it into The Tom Baker Show, and Leela getting pretty much her last decent script. A terribly underused companion, she’s an intelligent and adaptable member of a tribe that’s degenerated from a lost colony; she starts out learning from the Doctor in an Eliza Doolittle way, but then a new producer takes over and she becomes ‘a stupid savage who wears as few clothes as possible, whatever the weather’. This is the turning point, as she’s starting to get a bit dim, but is still allowed a frock and then a sailor’s jumper for the weather (Tom’s Doctor, too, gets a bit of a change of clothes to fit in with the location for the last time). Still, she gets to celebrate the death of an enemy in a startling way, and when the insufferably wet “secretary” finally gets too much, Leela famously slaps her, a moment nominated by one William Berridge for use in the adverts UK Gold used to run of a short comedy moment repeated to the slogan “TV you want to see again and again”. On the downside, faced with superstition, she announces that “It is better to believe in science”; instead of learning to think and understand, she’s simply got a new dogma.

An Edwardian Adventure

It all starts off with three lighthouse-keepers, innocent young Vince, superstitious old Reuben and practical, enthusiastic Ben, who’s obviously the first to die (making way for replacement men with moustaches in Part Two). They set the standard for characters here by talking in lines that are jolly well-crafted but pure exposition, arguing about the merits of oil versus electricity, or mentioning King Edward. That helps date it securely between 1901 and 1905, as Skinsale, who turns up later, is plainly a Tory MP (not just his greed but his army background and implied aristocracy suggest it, and his name-dropping of Bonar Law and Salisbury makes it certain) with a minor position in the government before the Liberals booted them out, as he’s responsible for some form of government contract or treaty in order to leak it. With several of the Doctors known for wearing “Edwardian” frock coats, naturally in this, the series’ only televised “Edwardian adventure,” no-one’s wearing one. Still more ironically for anyone who’s ever seen my hopeless dress sense, I’m credited in Lance Parkin’s mind-bogglingly authoritative reference book of Doctor Who timing aHistory for identifying not the politics, but the fashions. Still, if you read people saying it’s “1910” (as material at the time of production put it) or “1900” (to tie in with the mystery of Flannan Isle and Wilfrid Gibson’s poem about it, misspelled in the novel), they’re wrong, OK?

Anyway, Vince is rather endearing, embarrassed when Leela changes her clothes in front of him and deeply distressed at Ben’s death. He really makes a single death mean something, so it’s unfortunate that there’s about to be a glut of them – and he ends up being the only one I’m sad for when he’s killed, too. Along the way, though he calls the Doctor “Sir,” the Doctor calls him “Mr Hawkins”; one of the class-based elements of the story is that everyone else addresses him as in inferior (as the ‘honest working man’, the script seems strongly on his side against the rapacious upper classes). That even extends to old Reuben, who starts off aggressive and curmudgeonly. There’s a great gag when the older keeper’s initially suspicious of our heroes as possible foreign spies and the Doctor mutters “Incontrovertible.” “And don’t start talking your own lingo to each other,” Reuben snaps, “I won’t have that!” It’s a part with other levels, though, as not only does he have a pile of racy postcards in his room for the Doctor to find, but he spends half the story not being quite himself. Reuben’s convinced that local legend the Beast of Fang Rock has returned, but the “meteor” the story opened with wasn’t an omen but a spacecraft carrying a Rutan, a gelatinous alien sea creature a little like a giant green poached egg that can take on the form of those it’s slain – in this case, Reuben. That sets up a clever line you might not get on first watching, as “the old keeper” shambles past and Skinsale observes, “Looked a bit done in, I thought.” ‘Reuben’ looks terribly evil as the Rutan, and while the climax of Part Two (actually his death scream) seems underwhelming at the time, its pay-off is in the terrific third cliffhanger, as the Doctor finds the real Reuben’s body, dead for hours, and Tom chillingly underplays his realisation that ‘Reuben’ is the alien wearing his shape:
“Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out; instead, I’ve locked it in. With us.”
Sex, Money and Politics

The cliffhanger at the end of Part One isn’t all that exciting, featuring an unconvincing shipwreck, but it does bring in the rest of the cast, complaining all the way. A society boat has foundered, and all the ‘fancy people’ have motivations of social survival which are entirely plausible but work against their physical survival. While Lord Palmerdale and his friend Colonel Skinsale MP are doomed by their greed, Palmerdale’s secretary Adelaide has no title and is consequently hypersensitive to her social status. Vince rushes to look after her, and though she’s momentarily grateful, she then pushes him away with a “Thank you, Hawkins,” asserting her position at a moment of vulnerability. She spends the whole story ‘protesting too much’; if her parents were of Vince’s station, no wonder she distances herself. She also spends most of the story as a braying snob complaining so loudly that almost everyone gets fed up with her, Palmerdale included, but her relationship with him is one of the few elements of the story that’s not entirely obvious. None of the actors play it this way (she even leaps into Skinsale’s arms at one terrified point, rather than her employer’s), but the script keeps suggesting Adelaide is Palmerdale’s mistress; she’s his Lordship’s “fancy woman” to the coxswain, she’s used to him getting things for her, and when she loyally calls him kind and generous Skinsale sniffs “Oh, to you, no doubt.” She also puts Leela down in a vaguely racist way for looking a bit sexual, again suggesting that with her taste for the ill-informed vituperative defence she was born too early, and would be an instantly recognisable figure from Internet message boards. On the other hand, there’s a moment where Palmerdale’s chatting Vince up with an offer to give him fifty pounds to relieve his “lonely life” that makes you wonder if perhaps she is just his secretary after all…

UPDATE – EXCLUSIVE! For any of you who wonder whether the script really did write Adelaide as Lord Palmerdale’s mistress, despite none of the actors playing it that way, I met Terrance Dicks in March 2008 and asked him. He replied:
“Oh, yes – I think she is his mistress. But they’re all keeping up their Victorian façade, you see.”
Palmerdale and Skinsale are the easiest characters to get the measure of, though I’m always amazed when people like the Colonel. They get some of the most exposition-dense while still being listenable introductory dialogue ever heard to get you up to speed on them, with Palmerdale’s boorish but strangely informative “Oh, not one of your army stories, Jimmy – they’re even more boring than your House of Commons anecdotes!” a classic of its kind. Lord ‘compensation culture’ Palmerdale who’s just raced his ship onto the rocks enters trying to make it all the fault of the lighthouse staff (quite funny, and very modern), but he’s mainly there to be an avaricious financier who’s just bought his peerage – how very unlike Prime Ministers today – and show the nasty, naked face of greed against Skinsale’s posher, smoother charmer who’s actually just as greedy, but not as good at it. When his Lordship exclaims to Vince, “Look, I’m a businessman. How could there be anything wrong?” you can almost hear the author and script editor cackling at the side of the set. He’s bribing the young lighthouse-keeper to send a message to his broker, based on urgent government insider trading that he’s been given by Skinsale to pay off the latter’s IOUs.

Palmerdale is often called “greedy” and Skinsale an “affable old soldier” (About Time 4), but the Colonel’s an even more selfish git, just with better presentation. When he sabotages the telegraph to stop Palmerdale calling the mainland, he’s selfishly endangering everyone to protect not his honour (he’s sold that) but his reputation, after gambling – for money – funded by insider trading and possibly treason, depending on which particular secrets he sold. He just assumes he should get away with it. He’s a worse snob than Adelaide, because with him it’s the casual arrogance of the aristocracy rather than loud affectation, and he is at the very least criminal, arrogant and greedy – he surely wasn’t about to give the proceeds of his gambling to charity. Given all his IOUs and that he dies on one last throw of the dice for diamonds, he’s not even any good at gambling (Richard observes that he gets done in because the love of money is the Rutan of all evil), but that’s not exactly a saving grace. When Palmerdale gets waspish and sneers at his friend’s taste for high living, Skinsale cheerfully recalls giving him privileged information to pay off his debts and shows great amusement at escaping the consequences of his criminal betrayal, warning the ‘cheated’ other off exposing him, while he fixes his bow tie.
“I’m an officer and a gentleman, Henry. You’re a nobody, a jumped-up little money-grubber for all your title. Besmirch my good name, and I’ll sue you for every penny you’ve got.”
Like most of Skinsale’s noble bearing, even that’s a bluff; MPs couldn’t sue anyone from 1688 (presumably the corollary of being able to say anything in Parliament with impunity was that anyone could say what they liked about you) until the Bill of Rights was amended in the 1990s for another corrupt Tory, and look what happened to him.

Just This Once, Everybody Dies!

You’ll have gathered that this is an unusual Doctor Who story, in that everyone bar the Doctor and his companion die. With such well-crafted and economic writing, the ‘socialite’ subplots woven tightly into making the main plot more effective, it’s unusually difficult to find a plot hole, but one does come along when the Rutan gets a perfect chance to kill the Doctor and, obviously, doesn’t. Encountering the Doctor on the stairs near the end, instead of instantly tentacling him to death as it had with everyone else, the plot just stops while they chat for five minutes for no apparent reason. Given time, the Doctor rigs up things to shoot it with, which then raises the question, why doesn’t it go up the side of the lighthouse and round the back of them at the end, rather than again face a weapon that’s already wounded it? And, for that matter, as almost everyone’s already dead by the time the Doctor fights back, why is it that he wanted them in the lamp room as “easiest to defend”? It’s also the hardest to escape from, with potential attacks from both stairs and gallery. Why not barricade the crew room and fix the wireless, or, better yet, get them to the TARDIS? I’m also never that impressed by the Doctor’s “Leela – that’s a beautiful notion,” about what just boils down to ‘blowing things up’, which turns out to be the solution in every story this particular season (that, and name-dropping the Time Lords). With the Rutans the old enemies of already-established Doctor Who monsters the Sontarans, supplying a handy sweep of existing backstory for them, this story (in outline if not style) also bears a remarkable resemblance to The Sontaran Experiment, featuring survivors of a crashed ship stranded on a bleak rock, horrible experiments as the sole alien examines humanity for weak spots, a traitor on the inside… Though, in fairness, the Doctor driving off the alien battle fleet after killing the lone scout at the end is carried off with a good deal more oomph than the earlier story’s muted brinksmanship.

Horror of Fang Rock comes straight after The Talons of Weng-Chiang, an effusive extravaganza of entertainment Victoriana, and is far less rich and multi-layered. No, it isn’t as outstanding as that story, but it succeeds by taking a very different approach, not epic but minimalist, scary and effective (to take a leaf out of Tat Wood’s About Time comparisons of Who with pop, it’s as sly and stylish a riposte as Let Me Roll It is to How Can You Sleep). It takes a bunch of colourful people, sticks them in a very dour, enclosed space from which there is no escape, and kills them. People came back from the holidays in 1977 to find this opening a new season of Doctor Who by playing shamelessly to the series’ strengths. A new producer had just taken over for what was to be the least assured season with Tom Baker’s Doctor (with the new boss’s real gift in lightness of touch, this tale is oddly like the ‘horrific’ previous season but with far fewer jokes), and while after this they decided to attempt a space epic every week on tuppence ha’penny, this probably quite cheap story has the best ‘look’ of the season. It shows you don’t need much expense or even, it appears, that much inspiration to pull off solidly professional Doctor Who; while I wouldn’t pick it out as a particular favourite, it’s satisfying because they did a small-scale story and simply got it right.

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Comments:
I watched most of this last week as I had a couple of councillors visiting who were interested in seeing it. It's never appealed to me - I think this was my third viewing, and it just doesn't excite me at all. However, the Leela slap scene is marvellous - we burst out laughing and did rewind it to watch again.
 
Oh, and as there was no MP called Skinsale in our universe, perhaps there was a Tory government in 1910 in the Whoniverse ;-)
 
You may have noticed I didn't include it in my list of essential DVDs ;-)

I like it, but it misses a certain sparkle and inspiration; with so many others that are so good from the same period, I rarely watch it. Made me appreciate it more this time, though.

What did the councillors think?

Yeah, yeah, the Whoniverse. And if Queen Victoria died earlier because of the wolf bite, King Edward might be in the 1890s... Unless I hear different, I assume it's us. That lighthouse was real, d'you hear? Real!
 
I think they enjoyed it. It's not quite accurate to say that they were both interested in seeing it - one wanted to and the other one had to ;-) One of them's a fanboy, but had never seen it.

We also watched Pyramids of Mars and part four of Robots of Death, which both went down well.
 
I hope the one who was forced at gunpoint got something out of it ;-)

And Pyramids of Mars is always a good one to whip out (though how did just the end of something go?).

I noticed The Robots of Death was one of the Who DVDs selected by The Scum in April when they were giving away freebies; they picked half a dozen stories and gave out special DVDs of just the first episode of each as teasers, which hopefully saw a spike in the sales of each of them (no reports around to confirm it). Robots was a pretty good choice, though I suppose I’d probably have gone for Pyramids for Tom… One or two of them were distinctly odd choices as introductions, I remember.
 
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