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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!

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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.

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts three and four)

Our son was still about as frightened as a kid could be during the second half of this adventure, so much so that we had to pause during part four to get him to calm down. He was distracting himself from the horror onscreen, which reached new depths when Sutekh took control of the Doctor’s mind, first by firing an imaginary gun at Sutekh with a growl, and then by, I’m sorry to say, belching. And then giggling about it. You try to be understanding. He is just six and needed a distraction from one of his heroes being used as a plaything by the most evil and powerful creature in the cosmos. But man, was it an obnoxious mood killer!

Anyway, I think there’s an unheralded moment in this story. I think this is the first time, at least the first in quite a while, that evil forces take control of the TARDIS. I remember the villains came on board, briefly, in “The Enemy of the World” and in “The Claws of Axos,” but is this the first occasion where something as awful as this happens? It really adds to the feeling of gloom.

I think it’s an absolutely terrific production. Many people call it one of their favorite Doctor Who stories from the era for good reason. There are a few brief moments of sparkling wit among the incredibly high stakes, and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic together, especially in part three when the Doctor shows no emotion at all when Michael Sheard’s character is found to be dead, and Sarah starts to lose her temper with his dispassionate lack of what she starts to call “humanity” before checking herself. It’s scary and exciting, and people love it to pieces for a reason.

Hopefully the next story won’t have our son too terrified, but I’m a little concerned about the one after that…!

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts one and two)

The third saddest child I think I’ve ever seen would be our son, tonight, right after the cliffhanger to part two of “Pyramids of Mars.” He didn’t completely break down, but his lower lip trembled more than I’ve seen it in a while. Almost frozen with fear, he huddled beneath his security blanket and said “I need a hug.” Thumbs were definitely down. “Pyramids of Mars” is the scariest thing ever.

The first and second saddest children I think I’ve ever seen would be his older brother and sister, who saw this story in late 2003 or early 2004. They did indeed completely break down. There was screaming and there were tears and then there were two kids in bed with me.

Even worse, I didn’t have this story in serial version at the time, I had a VHS copy of the compilation movie that was shown on public television. So these robot mummies that have indiscriminately killed everybody they’ve come across in the grounds of this old priory in 1911 and are completely unstoppable come charging into the lodge after – unbelievably – crushing a poacher to death between their chests, they smash the Doctor to the ground, kick the furniture over, and are about to strangle Sarah as the music swells. And, since I had no other way to do it, I just pressed stop in the middle of the mayhem. Screams.

So “Pyramids of Mars,” which was written by Robert Holmes and directed by the brilliant Paddy Russell, has a reputation for being just about the perfect example of seminal, classic, scary Doctor Who. It’s the first time that the show consciously decides to be a Hammer horror film in the classic style with a sci-fi sheen. It’s mummies coming to life in a big old house in 1911, but they’re the robotic servants of the phenomenally powerful Sutekh, an alien who has been paralyzed in an Egyptian tomb for thousands of years. The Mars bit comes because the prison has two parts: the force field that keeps Sutekh motionless is on another planet, to keep anybody on Earth from screwing with it. But his jailers didn’t shut off their prisoner’s mind, and as soon as one of those rich Englishmen showed up to rob tombs in the name of archaeology, Sutekh took control of him and set the man and his robots to work freeing him from his prison.

But the sci-fi stuff is darn near irrelevant. The whys really, really aren’t important, because this is about killer mummies in the woods and evil servants bringing Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity:

Bringing this to life (ha!), you’ve got Bernard Archard playing the archaeologist as a walking corpse, and Michael Sheard as his unfortunate scientist brother. Peter Copley is another scientist who has a thing or two to say, sir, about all this unpleasantness before he gets killed. The sets are amazing, and the location filming is just terrific. Tom Baker is on fire in this story, as the Doctor knows that he’s up against the greatest threat that he’s ever faced, something that will change the course of history and destroy all life on Earth in 1911 unless he can find a way to stop it.

Incidentally, for those mildly curious about these things, this story is the one that emphatically – and repeatedly – finally puts a firm date on the “present day” of Doctor Who. It’s five years ahead of the broadcast date: 1980. This will later get retconned. Some of us find this terribly amusing and entertaining. About nine people lose sleep over it. They all have book deals.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part two)

After the production team finished work on Moonbase 3, they reconvened for a run of five Doctor Who stories that is nobody’s favorite run. It’s probably the weakest run until the mid-eighties, and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is, barely, my favorite of the five. In its defense, the location work is nice, and director Paddy Russell put together some really good footage of the abandoned London. There are two absolutely terrific plot twists, and three really great guest actors: John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles. Really great guest stars are going to be kind of thin on the ground after this for a while. Until Peter Miles shows up again next season, actually.

But of course, it’s not all going to be as good as it could be. This is barely a four-part adventure dragged out to six, for starters. Since it could just as well have started at the beginning of part two as part one, that’s an issue. The first of the absolutely terrific plot twists that I mentioned happens in this episode. It’s revealed that Captain Yates is, for some reason, working for the two scientists – Miles and Jarvis – who are fiddling with time and dropping dinosaurs in central London for several minutes at a stretch. Without spoiling things for my wife, who will read this before seeing what’s to come, there are actually four big plot twists in this story. Two are real stunners and two… well, they’re not stunning at all. In short, this is a story that starts very well and inexorably runs out of steam.

And then there are the visual effects, which are probably as bad as Doctor Who would ever get. I’m sympathetic and understanding, and I get it: the puppeteers simply did not have anything like enough time to do this right. The puppets barely twitch and the yellow-screen chromakey is never aligned right, so the actors just have to guess and hope for the best. It’s all very distracting and looks awful if you’re older than, say, our son.

Our kid is just the right age for this. Any older and he might just join us moaners in complaining. As it is, his only objection so far is that the Tyrannosaurus has really huge nostrils, which is a fair point. He is really happy with the dinosaur action, but he has a stipulation about it. He wishes there was more “rampaging,” as do we all, but I reminded him that all the rampaging dinosaurs in Land of the Lost had him constantly hiding in terror. So he qualified his answer to explain that he’d like to see more rampaging where just buildings get knocked down, but nobody gets scared. Sounds like he’s describing that old video game that they’re adapting to make an “Everything Explodes Again” movie that stars Dwayne Johnson and/or Vin Diesel next year.

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