Saturday, May 22, 2010

Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews

Yeah, yeah, I've been gone again. Combination of busy and a series of injuries keeping me away from my keyboard. Nothing too serious just enough to make typing uncomfortable.

So anyway, now that I'm back for a bit I thought I'd toss this out there. I have taken the titles to every Doctor Who episode I own (This includes DVD and audio stories), written them on slips of paper, put them in a grab bag and will, periodically, pull a title out at random in order to review.

The winner of the inaugural "Doctor Who Grab Bag Review" is.......

The Horror of Fang Rock

"The Horror of Fang Rock" opened up season 15 and marked actor Tom Baker's fourth season as the Fourth incarnation of the Doctor and the second season for actress Louise Jameson in the role of companion, Leela. In contrast, season 15 had a new producer, Graham Williams.

One season prior to this script editor Robert Holmes had wanted to introduce a new companion -- a young, Victorian woman from the lower class whom the Doctor would transform a la Henry Higgins did Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Producer at the time Philip Hinchcliffe, however, was more interested in having a tougher, more self-reliant companion. Holmes and Hinchcliffe came to agreement over the character of Leela -- a character meant to be a kind of "one off" companion for the Doctor in the story "The Face of Evil". In that story the Doctor lands on an alien world and discovers that the human survivors of a crashed Earth space ship have devolved into two warring societies, most of their knowledge of technology lost and eroded over the generations.

The savage huntress Leela would go on to travel with the Doctor and, for a time, the stories would include the Doctor teaching Leela knowledge, manners and dress. For her part Leela would prove to be one of the toughest and best remembered of the female companions. Partly because of her usual outfit of leather singlet and short skirt and partly due to the fact that she usually held her own in a fight and often rescued the Doctor!

Also, for those of you not in the know, the old series of Doctor Who used to consist of "serials". Each story was broken up into two, four, or six (usually, although there are a few outliers) half-hour installments. "The Horror of Fang Rock" is a four-parter.

But enough about the past... On with the review!

Plot: Vince, the youngest keeper at the Lighthouse on Fang Rock, sees a shooting star plunge into the sea. Shortly thereafter a strange, unnatural, thick fog comes up. In the midst of this the lighthouse's electric generator seems to start acting up -- leaving the main lamp dark! When another of the lighthouse keepers, Ben, goes down to fix the generator something attacks and kills him with electricity.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS goes wrong and lands on Fang Rock instead of landing at Brighton where the Doctor intended to take Leela. Noticing that the lighthouse is dark the Doctor decides to take a look and see if he can help. He and Leela find Ben's body but the Doctor knows the electric generator was not at fault. As he tries to help Vince and the senior lighthouse keeper, Rueben, keep the light going a pleasure craft smashes on the rocks! The survivors of the craft are brought into the lighthouse but soon end up complicating matters as the Doctor discovers that there is a hostile alien among the group disguised as one of them!

One by one the alien picks off members of the group as the Doctor struggles to figure out just who this enemy he is facing is and what they want. Will anyone survive the horror of Fang Rock?

My Take: Philip Hinchcliffe's tenure as producer on Doctor Who has become famous for mixing sci-fantasy with gothic horror and history. Although Hinchcliffe was gone by the time "The Horror of Fang Rock" was made his successor, Graham Williams, backed this story as almost a kind of fond farewell to that era of the show. "The Horror of Fang Rock" was based off of a poem which was, in turn, based off of a real-life event in 1900 in which an entire lighthouse crew on an island off the Hebrides disappeared sometime during a storm.

The set pieces here take center stage as the props crew must have knocked themselves out creating the claustrophobic, realistic interior of a turn of the last century lighthouse. Pay attention to the doors which are even curved to fit the walls! Even the set dressing, the prop pieces, and the background items are period realistic. It's some truly lovely work. On the flip side, though, the interior set used to try to depict the rocky landscape of the island itself is sometimes a bit fake looking. Also, much of the fog and the background in the lamp house were created using CSO -- Color Separation Overlay -- or "blue screen" as it was known back then... the preucrsor to modern "green screen" technology. As such it too sometimes looks a bit off and the CSO is often betrayed by a blue halo appearing around the actor's heads.

The story itself, however, really allows one to overlook most of the flaws. There is an immediate sense of creepy atmosphere. The setting immediately buts the viewer's hackles up as we have a lonely outpost, quickly cut off by the fog, a creepy, unnatural fog, and then an unknown and intitially poorly seen creature which is seemingly picking off victims one at at time with ease. Adding to that is the sudden realization that the creature is locked in WITH the victims and the threat level immediately hightens.

Writer Terrance Dicks has admitted that adding the crew and passengers from the pleasure craft was a way of helping pad out the story and provide a higher body count and, as such, he did not give much thought to the characters beyond cannon fodder and it is true that a couple of the characters are quite annoying and you aren't sorry when they die but there are a couple of nice additions in there. There are several characters who you feel quite sorry for when they fall victim to the alien antagonist.

While, in the commentary, Louise Jameson reveals that she had trouble working with Tom Baker up until this story (when they finally sorted things out) viewers really wouldn't be able to tell it. Jameson and Baker have a fascinating chemistry with Leela sometimes being the more pragmatic of the two and sometimes being the learner. The story also is another great example of how good Baker could be in the role of the Doctor when he gets to balance the Doctor's manic humor alongside some moments of true horror. Take, for instance, the moment when he quickly tells the assembled clutch of trapped humans that they are trapped on the island and there is an alien entity hunting them and they are all quite likely going to die and then grins as though he's told the most amusing joke. That contrasts beautifully with the moment at the end of the third part in which the Doctor turns to Leela and whispers in horror that he has made a terrible mistake and locked the creature in with them!

In the end, if you love atmosphere, gothic horror, quirky humor and lightning quick dialogue then "The Horror of Fang Rock" is a story for you.

Trivia: There is a bit of wildly unscientific science at the end of the story when an explosion seems to cause "pigment dispersion" in Leela's eyes and they change color from brown to blue. In reality this was part of Louise Jameson's agreement to return for another season as Leela. Originally, as her character was supposed to be a "savage" she had to be covered in body make-up to give her skin a sun-browned hue and she had to wear red-tinted contact lenses to turn her blue eyes brown. She eventually managed to talk producer Philip Hinchcliffe into dropping the body make-up which she found uncomfortable and time consuming to have have applied (one could argue that she would lose the 'tan' after traveling around for a while). She had intended to leave the series after only one turn as a companion but producer Graham Williams did not want to lose her and managed to talk her into staying for one more season. A condition of her agreement, however, was that she be allowed to ditch the uncomfortable contact lenses. As such Terrance Dicks was ordered to come up with something in the script to explain the change in Leela's eye color.

At one point Leela uses the word "Teshnician". Some have claimed this was a goof on actress Jameson's part but in actuality it was not. In Leela's savage society certain words had been corrupted over the years. The original "Survey Team" became "Sevateem" and "Technician" became "Teshnician". Terrance Dicks scripted the word to remind the audience of Leela's background.

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