Saturday, 14 May 2016

Horror of Fang Rock

Chapter The 24th: To the lighthouse.

The Doctor and Leela arrive by accident at the Fang Rock lighthouse, somewhere on or near the south-coast of England, in the year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Something. They find that one of the three keepers has seemingly been electrocuted by the new-fangled generator. Actually, he’s been zapped by a crash-landed gween alien that despite – or perhaps because of – its usual appearance as a cling-film parcel of mashed banana and jam can shapeshift into human form. In disguise, it picks off the remaining lighthouse crew and a group of shipwrecked mariners, leaving only the TARDIS team. They convert a flare launcher into a blunderbuss and destroy the creature, then convert the lighthouse into a laser beam and destroy the fleet arriving to rescue it. With everyone but his companion and him dead, the Doctor grins like a mad fool and recites a poem.

Middle child (boy of 6) is doing lighthouses at school as part of a sea and shore module this term. The Better Half suggested he watch this to complement the learning, but I’m not convinced as to its educational content.  It may have had more to do with this story being (whisper it, as she is a closet geek) one her absolute favourites of all time. She has very good taste (Hey, who said “except in men”?).

The whole family watched the DVD an episode per night through the week. The kids were pretty gripped, but not quite as much as they were by Carnival of Monsters.

First-time round:
I can’t remember. The VHS came out in 1998, quite late on in the range, but I’m sure I must have seen it before then. It has not had a terrestrial repeat since I started watching Doctor Who in 1981, so there are two possibilities: someone lent me a pirated copy, but I can remember pretty much everything I ever saw that way (it was illicit and exciting, why would I forget?!); or, I saw it on UK Gold. But, as I only got cable in 1997, it wouldn’t have been that long before the VHS came out. Maybe I’m just remembering the Target novelisation.

That brings me something that I can remember: in school, sometime in the early 80s, I spent multiple periods very carefully copying Jeff Cummins’ astonishingly good portrait of Tom Baker on the cover of that book as accurately as I could in pencil. Then, I found one day that someone had scribbled on it, and I overreacted. A kid called Marc, who’d only been trying to help me with it, got a very bad telling off from the teacher when he owned up. I calmed down and felt bad afterwards as it was only really some squiggles in Tom’s hair, and no one would have really noticed. So, after all this time, I wanted to say sorry to Marc. Sorry Marc.

I got the feeling watching Horror of Fang Rock that it’s the most archetypal Doctor Who story ever. Something about Tom Baker’s Doctor in the foreground staring into the distance enigmatically with Leela a pace or two behind seems very representative of Doctor Who in general, and this period particularly. The story too: isolated location – check, small group of bickering victims – check, nasty alien picking them off one by one - check.  It’s the epitome of the sub-genre of Doctor Who stories labelled “base under siege” but is what would in wider genre criticism be called a sci-fi slasher, Saturday teatime or no. There’s even the hoary old horror trope, not so often seen in Who, where the victims are killed only after a moral lapse: Harker lets his anger get the better of him, Vince accepts a bribe, Skinsale is avaricious about the discarded diamonds, and Adelaide is really, really annoying.

Archetypal could slip to generic quite easily, but somehow going at the clich├ęs full-bloodedly works. Maybe it’s the period trappings that give it a lift. It’s not your everyday pitch: Upstairs Downstairs meets Halloween. Undoubtedly, the regulars are upping the overall quality too. Louise Jameson is perfect in every scene, whether counselling against superstition, slapping a hysterical woman, or shovelling coal. She is arguably the first companion to merit joint lead status since the Sixties; no wonder Tom got so jealous. Baker himself channels the bad time he’s having making this famously troubled production, which saw everyone uprooted from their usual London home of Television Centre and instead filming in Pebble Mill, and uses it to give a great moody performance.

The design is a triumph; it takes some chutzpah to film a multi-camera piece in a set that’s made of glass 360 degrees around, but it’s achieved in a convincing fashion.  The other rooms too are filled with lovely touches, like the naughty postcards in Reuben’s quarters. Even the Rutan’s a lot of fun in his globby, blobby way.

It seems like a show at the full height of its powers rather than a last hurrah. At this point, though, the show was on the cusp of another era with a new producer in charge. The next story broadcast after Fang Rock dispensed with the atmospheric chillers of recent years to focus more on space opera, with lots of lasers and a cute robot sidekick added to the crew. Unlike many other shows that adopted this template, Who was not reacting to Star Wars - which was still months away from its US premiere when the episodes in question were being written and made. Anyway, being a mini-Star Wars, coincidentally or deliberately, was also soon dropped; but, rather than going back, Doctor Who mutated again, as it must; Horror of Fang Rock thus stands as one of the last of its kind.

Both stories are great (!); both feature seafaring vessels from Earth’s history, and explosions. Actually, come to think of it now, how does the SS Bernice return to normal after Drashigs and dynamite tear big holes out of it? The scope can control people’s memories but how would it reconfigure the damaged ship?  Why doesn’t it sink once it’s returned to its natural time? Hmm…

Deeper Thoughts:  
The Horror of Time Travel Theory. For all that it can make you go cross-eyed if you think too much about it, time travel in fiction can be grouped into only two categories: stories where the time traveller can’t change history, and stories where he (usually a he) can; Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy versus Back to the Future. In the latter category, there are variations. If historical path A is changed and branches off into new path B, B can either be the audience’s real world understanding of history, i.e. things have been put ‘right’, or B can be a new changed parallel universe path where the dinosaurs survived, Hitler won the war, or where Ringo was a really good drummer.

A standard for the latter category is that the time traveller’s memory of path A does not change, or changes gradually, from path A to path B. It might be comically interesting to see a time traveller who instantly forgets the old past, so has no idea of the damage he’s doing to his timeline, but I can’t think of any work where that’s been tried. Modern Doctor Who goes in the other direction with its hero: it's hinted that he can remember everything - all the fixed points in time, all the alternate paths never taken, and it almost drives him mad trying to hold it all in his head

Doctor Who usually sticks to time being changeable but almost always it’s changed to be historically right; and – even in Moffat’s timey-wimey era - things are usually linear. Horror of Fang Rock is pretty straightforward: the Rutan killing everyone and the Doctor leaving the lighthouse an abandoned mystery does not offend our knowledge of history as the events are too localised, but we have to assume that the world that the TARDIS departs from is our world with our history. Carnival of Monsters presents the problem that the Doctor changes the history of the SS Bernice; he remembered it as being a maritime disappearance, but after he puts it back in its proper place and time, it presumably never disappeared and there was no Marie Celeste style mystery. And the Doctor after a while may forget the historical disappearance that never happened, or may remember it both ways. (Another explanation could be that after its put back the SS Bernice disappears for a completely different reason – freak tidal wave, or Drashig damage causing it to sink perhaps; but I’m emotionally invested in Claire and Co. so I will stick with the happy ending.)

Pyramids of Mars tweaks the approach again: the 1911 where the TARDIS lands, where the villain Sutekh is running amok (well, sitting amok, but never mind that now) is effectively a parallel universe, and if left alone until 1980 that path of history will see the Earth reduced to a barren wasteland rather than the world Sarah Jane knows. Sutekh isn’t a time traveller, he belongs in 1911, and the disruption was always meant to be.

At first reading it’s a clever trick – it means the Doctor always has an imperative to intervene to protect the future as we know it, and allow his companion to get back to their home. Russell T Davies and Mark Gatiss liked it, and tried and failed to shoehorn a similar scene into The Unquiet Dead from the first season of New Who. But if you think about it, this means that the viewer can never trust that the world where the TARDIS lands is the ‘real’ one, so why give a toss at all?  And it risks reducing the Doctor to a time cleaner, fixing up mistakes, like Sapphire and Steel, or Sam Beckett; but he’s always better making a stand from a moral standpoint rather than just because it's his job. Probably it's good that the show only pulled this trick once.

Then again, actually, Fang Rock does follow the same pattern as Pyramids, it just tells rather than shows: the Rutan hasn't time-travelled, it's a historical character, and had the Doctor not intervened, the fleet would have descended and - by 1980 - the Earth would have been utterly changed, becoming a strategic outpost for the Rutans. Dialogue hints that this would be a Bad Thing, it just lacks a scene where we actually see it. So, in order to have a dramatic engine, in order to be the great and long-running heroic yarn it is, every episode 1 of Doctor Who has to see the TARDIS effectively land in a parallel universe that the Doctor has to put back on track. It just isn't living in the real world at all.

See, I'm going cross-eyed thinking about it (I did warn you).

In Summary:
Fang Rock be rated anything other than excellent? Nonsense, it was made in Birmingham.