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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: The Brain of Morbius (parts three and four)

Back when we watched “Planet of Evil,” I wrote about the Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. When my mate Blake got hold of a copy, I asked him “What do you mean there are only five Doctors? I’m telling you there are at least a dozen!” And according to “The Brain of Morbius,” there are. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes decided to do a big, weird, wonderful retcon and introduce eight Doctors prior to the one we’d previously called the first.

The situation is that the Doctor and Morbius are having a mind-bending challenge, and the faces of the three previous actors to play the Doctor pop up in the space between them while Morbius taunts “Back, back to your beginnings! How long have you lived?” So we see Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell again, followed by eight members of the production team and some BBC directors, including, cheekily, Hinchcliffe and Holmes themselves. They played the fourth and seventh Doctors.

I think that when I first saw this, I just took it as new information, not that I was actually counting faces, just learning that there was this thing called regeneration. I didn’t question the number.

It didn’t take, but the show didn’t actually formally retcon this retcon for another seven years. So while we all know and love Tom Baker as “The Fourth Doctor”™, as far as 1976 goes, the production team was actually thinking of him as the Twelfth! Nothing onscreen actually contradicts this until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983, which returns things to normality and flatly states that Peter Davison’s Doctor is the fifth one. And then the same story goes and screws up the UNIT chronology.

But one thing the show’s never actually told us – and why should it bother? – is whose faces are they, if not the Doctor’s? I asked our son “Who were those eight other faces?” and he immediately replied “Morbius’s faces!” as though I had not been paying attention. That’s one of a few fan explanations. I figure that if it’s an explanation a six year-old can provide and get behind, then it’s probably the best answer!

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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (parts one and two)

I absolutely love “The Brain of Morbius.” It has a really epic feel to it, since we’re dealing with mythology in a very big and very new way. The Sisterhood of Karn is introduced here. They’re the first alien species that is ever mentioned as having any kind of alliance or friendship or actually any kind of relationship whatsoever with the Time Lords. And I love how it deals with an ancient Time Lord criminal, a powerful cult leader called Morbius. It’s done so well, and with such conviction, that it feels like everybody involved is shaking the foundations of the program for the first time since “The Three Doctors,” and doing it far more effectively than that serial did.

In this household, mine isn’t quite the majority view. Marie is aware of the Sisterhood from their brief appearances later in the series, and she’s not impressed with them. I can certainly see her point. Even understanding that this was the seventies, there’s an angle to the Sisterhood that doesn’t really sit well from a feminist, scientist perspective. The show, at this stage, tells us that the Time Lords are all male super-scientific, sterile, cloistered space monks who see all and know all, and the Sisterhood are the all female witches in the woods who worship a sacred flame, and when the Doctor tells them there’s probably a sound geological explanation about their flame dying, they don’t want to listen, they want to sacrifice him.

If your knowledge of this serial doesn’t extend much beyond “Yeah, I watched that one on PBS in the eighties and I don’t remember the gender politics because I thought this was the Frankenstein one,” well, then you’re in our son’s boat. Last night, we talked about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, to get him ready both for this story and a forthcoming Avengers installment. He’s familiar with the look of Frankenstein’s monster, of course, from Monster Squad and Mad Monster Party? and probably several other modern children’s programs, but not really the mythology of the story itself and the grave-robbing aspect. The awesome Philip Madoc plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, assembling a new body from corpses, and his Igor-like assistant resembles the classic look of the creature, with a shambling walk, corpse-like pallor and heavy brow.

In fact, it’s a lot more like Frankenstein than the writer intended. Terrance Dicks had written a story which inverted the classic tale and had one or more robots building a man, but Robert Holmes rewrote it with a more traditional spin. Dicks, angered, telephoned Holmes and told him to take his name off it. “Just give it some bland pseudonym,” he shouted. He sat down to watch the finished product, saw it credited to “Robin Bland,” laughed, and forgave his old colleague.

But I said mine wasn’t the majority view. This one is, as I suspected, scaring the daylights out of our kid, though nowhere near at “Pyramids” levels. He really got into it, though! When the Sisters teleport the TARDIS to their shrine, he called out “Poop!” He was shooting finger guns at everybody being mean to our heroes, and leapt out of his skin at the cliffhanger to part one. Mercifully, I told him up front that something bad is going to happen to Sarah – she gets blinded – but it will turn out okay.

After the story, he sat down to a couple of cookies and told us “The first story that has another Time Lord is ‘The War Games.’ That’s the last story of the second Doctor.” We were mighty impressed. I didn’t want to push the issue by reminding him that Philip Madoc was also in that story, so we just congratulated him on his good memory. (And yes, he’s not quite correct. I did tell him once about the Monk, from William Hartnell’s time, but the War Chief and those three fellows in part ten of “The War Games” were the first other Time Lords he’s actually seen!)

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Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part three)

Beginning with the most important thing about tonight’s episode, our son was much, much happier with it. It’s full of action and explosions, and at the end, a tank shows up, which thrilled him to no end, as he knew instinctively that the tank would be disintegrated.

It’s also full of UNIT troops not using their brains very much. The villains and the robot escape from the SRS meeting because not one of the dozen or so soldiers thinks to shoot out their truck’s tires. Honestly, this story could have ended here and been a satisfying three-parter. All the business at the bunker is less entertaining than what’s come before. It’s never more entertaining than when the Doctor agrees with the Brigadier that only Great Britain could be trusted with international secrets, because the rest are all foreigners. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole program.

Unfortunately, there’s a conclusion that will require some visual effects trickery, something not unlike what we saw in the story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” To make the joins a little less visible, if you take my meaning, the production team decided to mount this entire production on videotape. That way we won’t have the tank in part three (and the robot in part four) videotaped in the studio on a blue screen, and then chromakeyed into a 16mm film picture.

Part of me is glad that they learned from their earlier work, but another, bigger, part of me just loathes the look and feel of “outside broadcast” location video. This was only used sporadically until Doctor Who‘s last four seasons in the late eighties, when the whole program was taped. I’m absolutely fine with it in the studio, but sending those sorry camcorders on location just emphasizes the robot’s unreality to me. It’s a shame they couldn’t have taken both a film camera and an OB camera on location, videotaped the necessary bits for the visual effects team and filmed all the action stuff. It would have looked so much better.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part two)

I’m afraid I spoke too soon when I said last time that this is a straightforward and simple adventure for six year-olds. This episode introduces the plot complication that the villains, Miss Winters and Mister Jellico, are members of a fascist fringe group called the Scientific Reform Society, and that just left our son behind completely. The scene where Sarah puts on her journalism hat and trendy seventies clothes and gets some information from them might as well have been delivered in pig Latin, because he didn’t get what was happening at all!

Actually, what he really needs to take from this scene is that the delightful thing about watching old television is that we can time travel back to the days when outfits like that were the in thing. Once they put a stop to Winters and Jellico, Sarah’s going to wear this outfit when she interviews Elton John before his Saturday night gig at the Rainbow.

After starting well, this one’s obviously cratering a bit for him. He loved part one, was thrilled by the sight of the giant robot, and the Doctor’s oddball rudeness, including going to sleep on his lab table, is really fun for him. But then we not only got all talky with people who didn’t make sense to him, but also the Doctor has a cliffhanger confrontation with the robot that really looks like it’s going very badly for him.

It strikes me that seeing the Doctor in physical jeopardy and about to get beaten up isn’t a very common turn of events in the show. Another incident was the end of part three of “The Three Doctors.” He was also very, very aggravated when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was getting thrown around Omega’s “mind palace” by the villain’s weird pig-faced champion. Revealing a monster or a Dalek or a giant robot is a thrill, but seeing the hero get pummeled is emphatically not.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part one)

At the end of 1974, Tom Baker’s first episode of Doctor Who first aired. Writer Terrance Dicks believed that this should be a simple and straightforward adventure story for audiences to get used to the new lead actor, and he seems to have absolutely nailed how to hook any six year-olds in the crowd. Our kid loved this. There are no politics and no complicated “life in the seventies was like this” distractions about communes or meditation centers. There’s just a big stomping robot stealing the ingredients for a top secret disintegrator gun. Along the way, the Doctor checks himself out of the sick bay, frustrates UNIT’s medical officer, and tries on some new clothes. There’s not a six year-old on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy this.

Behind the scenes, this is a time of massive change. “Robot” was videotaped at the end of the same production block as Jon Pertwee’s last stories, making it the final story for Barry Letts as producer. He’ll be back in different capacities down the line, though. It’s the first story for Robert Holmes, who had written several memorable stories previously, as the script editor, but the previous script editor is still around! Terrance Dicks kind of shamelessly told the new boy that there was a BBC tradition that incoming script editors were expected to promptly commission a script from their predecessor. This way, while Dicks was no longer on the BBC payroll, he could still net some quick freelance work before his next assignment. The director is Christopher Barry, the veteran who had helmed several Who serials already, including Patrick Troughton’s first story.

Onscreen, UNIT, represented again by Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, has a new member, a naval medical officer called Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter. He had been up for the role of Captain Yates four years previously, and was cast because the original ideas for a new Doctor had been for an older and less active leading man. Famously, Richard Hearne and Fulton Mackay had been offered the part, but both of them turned it down – in Mackay’s case, because a sitcom pilot he’d done, Porridge, had been picked up as a series – and it went to Tom Baker, then forty years old and not getting nearly as much acting work as he should have had. His agent couldn’t find him anything after he’d filmed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the summer of ’73 and he was working with a construction crew in London to make ends meet while the movie was in theaters. The glamour of showbiz, folks.

And of course Elisabeth Sladen is back as Sarah Jane. This is one of the few times that we get to see her working as a journalist, and unknowingly – because, again, this is a simple story for the young viewers to easily manage – working the other end of the disintegrator gun angle. UNIT and the Doctor are looking into the thefts and she’s working on a story about the thieves, leading up to a memorable cliffhanger when the great big robot looms over her. We don’t see the robot in full just yet, which our son loved. He said that he now knows what its feet, hands, and head look like, and now he just needs to see the body and legs!

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