Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts three and four)

It’s always nice when our son is happy and excited about what we’re watching. He didn’t want breakfast this morning, he wanted to watch Doctor Who. Those last five Twilight Zone stories we watched were really sapping his enthusiasm!

He was thrilled and enjoyed this one, and I agree. It’s really entertaining, and amazingly, only the Doctor and Leela survive the incident. Even more amazingly, he doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t say anything about it. The Doctor is shown as brooding and frightened for much of the story, until he figures out that their enemy is an alien blob called a Rutan, at which point he becomes the more relaxed and confident hero that we know.

But he never returns to brood over the fact that he failed to save any of the humans in the lighthouse, and left behind what must have been one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Think about it: at some point, the authorities would find the bodies of these eight people, one of them graphically disemboweled by the Rutan to understand how Earthling anatomy works. One is a peer called Lord Palmerdale and another is a highly respectable retired colonel, and the killer left a fortune in diamonds behind, before fleeing. The History Channels and the In Search Ofs of the Who world probably feature recreations of “The Fang Rock Lighthouse Murders” as often as stories about Jack the Ripper, the lost colony at Roanoke, and the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Rutans, incidentally, are kind of the big Doctor Who monster that wasn’t. They were first mentioned in 1973’s “The Time Warrior” as the primary enemies of the Sontarans, but as for television Who, they’re an offscreen enemy, existing only to motivate the Sontarans into moving into this situation or that to gain a strategic advantage over them. It’s always “What are you Sontarans doing on Koosbaine?” and they say “We must conquer Koosbaine to establish a bridgehead into Andromeda to defeat the Rutans, don’t stand in our way, puny Time Lord!”

The next time a Rutan would actually be seen is in a 1995 direct-to-video movie called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. This is an independent production made with the cooperation of Robert Holmes’ estate, who own the rights to the aliens and license them out, but without any BBC input. The producers even got Terrance Dicks to write the script for the movie, and cast a bunch of Who and Blake’s 7 actors to play the parts.

It’s not actually a shame that the Rutans have never reappeared on the show, I say. The shapeshifting and electrical powers are interesting, but as characters, all they do is rant about the glory of war, and we get enough of that from the Sontarans!

Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts one and two)

Our son has quite a delightful theory about “Horror of Fang Rock,” the serial that launched Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season in the fall of 1977. The old lighthouse keeper believes in a monster called the Beast of Fang Rock, which was last allegedly seen eighty years before – the 1820s – on an occasion where two men died. Our son thinks that the shooting star that crashed in the nearby ocean might be the beast teleporting from its home planet, and that it comes to Earth every eighty years to feed. His theory was much, much more detailed than that, but he was talking fast and I wasn’t taking notes. Usually he’s quick to move on, with a brief “creepy!” before finding something to take his mind off the terrors, but not tonight!

“Horror of Fang Rock” was a last-minute substitute for another script by Terrance Dicks that was due to go into production before some high muckity-muck at the BBC decided to cancel it. That story was called The Vampire Mutations, and since the BBC was making an adaptation of Dracula that fall, somebody at the top didn’t want Who doing the same monster. So this was how the new producer, Graham Williams, got his start on the show, having his debut story axed out from under him. Dicks hurriedly wrote this replacement, but the delay meant that other productions got the London facilities and this was made at the BBC’s Birmingham studios.

Lore has it that Tom Baker was in a horrible mood with this story, and transferred his grouchiness into what seems like genuine fear on camera. He’d clashed with the director, the fantastic Paddy Russell, before, and was butting heads with his co-star, Louise Jameson, because he was under the impression that he didn’t actually need a co-star. For the next four seasons, there are pah-lenty of stories of Tom Baker causing headaches for everybody around him behind the scenes, and making Williams’ job extraordinarily difficult!

The tension really works here. “Fang Rock” is a textbook example of a claustrophobic story. It’s all set in a lighthouse on a remote, craggy shore on a dark and foggy night. I don’t like some of the visuals, and a few of the actors really don’t impress me. Colin Douglas, who had been in “The Enemy of the World,” is the only guest star that I really like in this one, but I think it’s a super story. For something that had such a frantic production, it’s very impressive, and our son’s right, it really is creepy.

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts five and six)

As if there weren’t enough reasons to love this story, in part five, the two halves of the investigation collide, and Christopher Benjamin’s motormouthed theater owner Henry Gordon Jago calls on Trevor Baxter’s very reserved and correct medical gentleman Professor George Litefoot, and the two do their utmost to steal the show right out from under the star. They are incredibly watchable together, like capturing lightning in a bottle.

There was, briefly, a proposal for the BBC to give Jago and Litefoot their own show, but it came to nothing. It finally fell to the people at Big Finish to give them a long series of audio plays that began in 2010 and only ended last year after the sad death of Trevor Baxter. There are more than fifty hour-long episodes of Jago & Litefoot available on CD and download. In a better world, we’d have had that many TV episodes in the seventies, so damn and blast those stupid people at the BBC for not making them.

I mean honestly, David Maloney went from this story into pre-production of Blake’s 7. That show’s okay, but I would gladly, gladly swap all 52 of those with the parallel universe where Jago & Litefoot was made instead.

Anyway, part five ends with a cliffhanger that had our son leaping out of his skin. Leela pulls the mask of the villain, a war criminal from three thousand years in Earth’s future called Magnus Greel, and reveals a melting, blobby mess, the result of the energy from these failed experiments in time travel causing his cells to break down. He went behind the sofa and waited right there until the recap was over. Overall, the more-complex-than-usual story and shelves full of literary allusions all conspired to make this not one of his favorite stories, but he absolutely loved the climax, and was completely delighted with the Doctor hearing the bells of a street vendor and treating all his friends to some muffins.

And with this, we come to the end of an era. With Philip Hinchcliffe moved off the show, the new producer would be Graham Williams, who will not get to enjoy the stability and continuity of a production team or actors that his predecessor had, and would be putting out fires and managing some pretty cruel budgetary restrictions before his era will come to an ignominious end with a story being canceled midstream. There are still some great stories to come, but there are also going to be far more turkeys than we’ve seen in the previous three seasons. That said, there are three or four stories coming up that I haven’t seen in many years and have mostly forgotten. I enjoyed “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” far more than conventional wisdom suggests, so we might have some fun to come…

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start watching season fifteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts three and four)

The one thing that I don’t like about “The Robots of Death” is that the plot required David Collings’ character, Poul, to completely flip out and become practically catatonic when he learns that these robots have indeed been programmed against their first law and can kill. The character suffers from robophobia, which many people in this future society battle against, because robots don’t have body language and people get uneasy around them. This is a really interesting detail that makes this society feel more alive than a typical Doctor Who society, but sidelining Poul masks the fun that we could have had with him and his robot partner. They are detectives, a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov’s characters Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Even more fun, David Collings had played Olivaw when one of the novels that featured the duo, The Naked Sun, was adapted for a 1969 episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown. Sadly, the episode was destroyed, but there’s a partial reconstruction with stills on the BFI’s Unknown DVD set. I think it’s delightful that Collings played the robot character in 1969 and, eight years later, got to play the human half of a very similar team on Doctor Who. Except Lije Bailey never suffered from any foolishness like robophobia!

The robot detective in this story is D84, and he’s wonderful, taking everything literally and deducting with solid logic in his quiet singsong voice. The writer, Chris Boucher, gave him all of the best dialogue. I was reading about the spinoff audio plays that were made in the continuity of this story and Boucher’s novel sequel Corpse Marker. They’re called Kaldor City and also tie in to the TV series Blake’s 7. Collings got to play his character Poul in some of these. I’d like to think that Poul got over his robophobia and he and a rebuilt D84 had a successful career in Kaldor busting heads and solving crimes.

Our son took a little while to come around to this one. He was more bothered by the robots than many other Who enemies, not so much frightened as aggravated on our heroes’ behalf that they were not behaving according to their programming! He was unclear that the villain was actually a human disguised as a robot. He liked the climax, in which the silver robot SV7 turns on him, but the conclusion was so fast-paced that I’m not surprised that some of the details eluded him. Still, it’s a great story, and like I said last time, one of my favorites from the era.

Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts one and two)

“The Robots of Death” is a badly named but otherwise fantastic story from 1977. It’s one of my favorites from the Tom Baker years. It’s written by Chris Boucher and was the final Who serial to be directed by Michael E. Briant. The great guest cast includes David Collings, Russell Hunter, and Pamela Salem. I absolutely love it. It perfectly places an Agatha Christie plot in an Isaac Asimov world, with tips of the hat to Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson along the way, and then designs the costumes and rooms of this huge, moving mine with a lush jazz age sheen. Our suspects and victims are all idle rich, with fancy clothes and gaudy makeup, and the robots who do the work are built to be more beautiful than functional.

Our son is being incredibly observant but his deduction skills need a little tuning. He didn’t see what we were meant to infer from the over-the-top headdresses and lush common rooms of the mine, but he did catch that there are three color schemes for the robots: black, silver, and emerald. The second episode explains that the black robots are mute D-class and the lone silver robot is the controlling SV-class, but it also gives us a black robot who talks a great deal to Leela when none of the crew is present to hear his voice. Wonder what’s up with that?

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (parts three and four)

“The Face of Evil” is one of the most refreshing Who stories to come along in ages. In the seventies, Who did what it needed to pretty well, sometimes better than others, but it rarely told stories that really looked into classic science fiction themes. Usually we got more conventional “stop the alien invasion” tales.

In fact, it’s so unusual, and so different from what came before, that our son was really baffled by it. It’s a story that doesn’t have a malicious villain. Instead, a sentient computer has gone mad and needs to be cured. We saw one of the themes of this story in the one just before this: the scientific fact of the matter has passed into legend and folklore. The tribe of Sevateem are the descendants of the original survey team, and the tribe of Tesh are the great-great-grandchildren of the technicians who remained at the colony ship. The computer is keeping the tribes at war because it’s conducting a eugenics experiment without the ability or the maturity to understand the implications.

Our son absolutely loved the ending, where Leela disregards the Doctor telling her that she cannot come with him and storms past him into the TARDIS. Then, somehow, she manages to hit the correct switch to dematerialize. I remember cheering when I first saw this in 1984. I was so happy that Leela would be traveling with him. But how’d she hit the right switch? I think Marie was right when she told our son “Sometimes the TARDIS decides that it likes certain people and wants them to be the Doctor’s companions.”

“The Face of Evil” was one of three Who serials that Chris Boucher wrote for seasons fourteen and fifteen of the show, including, oddly, the very next one. After that, madly, the production team lost him to Blake’s 7, where he wrote all of that program’s best stories. I don’t love “The Face of Evil,” but I like it a lot, and admire how it feels so confident and certain despite its unusual scope.

But Boucher’s next story, ahhhh… that one I do love. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (parts one and two)

Sometimes I think that coincidences are a virus from outer space. It’s already the 21st in the UK, but it’s still the 20th here, meaning tonight we watched Louise Jameson’s first episode of Doctor Who on her birthday. Happy birthday, Louise!

Louise plays Leela, a warrior of the Sevateem tribe, and she kills three people in her first episode. I think that makes her unique among Doctor Who companions. “The Face of Evil” also has some new faces in the background. It’s the first serial for the show to be written by Chris Boucher, and the first to be directed by Pennant Roberts. He has a very curious claim to fame. He’s the only Who director of the 1970s to direct any episodes in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he was often given extremely difficult stories to realize. “The Face of Evil” is comparatively simple compared to some nightmares he’ll be given to direct in 1984 and 1985, but he still has the thankless task of having a tribe of shirtless men, some of whom are bald, in what’s meant to be an electricity-free bunch of huts. So what are those lights reflecting off their skin?

So on Wednesday evening, we watched the Avengers episode “Something Nasty in the Nursery,” as you may recall. The story featured Dudley Foster as the villain. On Thursday evening, after our son went to bed, Marie and I watched an episode of The Saint. Working our way very, very slowly through the complete series, and alternating with so many other things, we came to the episode “The Abductors,” which features Foster, Nicholas Courtney, and David Garfield as the villains. And then on Friday evening, we watched “The Face of Evil,” which has Garfield in it. He plays the tribe’s shaman.

In 1987 or 1988, Nicholas Courtney was at a con in Atlanta, one of the ones at the old Sheraton Century Center, so possibly Dixie Trek. These were the days when actors and guests socialized and mingled and hung out in the hotel lobby between engagements and didn’t charge for autographs. One or two days before the con, by chance, WATL-36 showed this particular episode of The Saint. I used that as my excuse to introduce myself and make small talk, and enjoyed about ten minutes of gab with Courtney about acting. It will always be one of my happiest memories of going to those cons.