Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rocky Horror

Graham Williams comes in for a lot of stick from me, largely because he was the producer who first showed me just how rubbish Doctor Who could really be. Now, it's not his fault that I happened to be growing up at the time - and, probably, waking up to some of the show's general shortcomings - but he is at least in part to blame for the fact that, as I was growing up, Doctor Who was travelling in the opposite direction. That said, for all his Underworlds, Nimons and Creature(s) From The Pit, he was also the producer in residence at the time of The Horror Of Fang Rock.

It is, frankly, superlative Doctor Who. Not bad for a rush job from Terrance Dicks.

Uncle Terrance had originally submitted a vampire story, but Auntie Beeb was already doing Dracula and didn’t want another set of monsters baring fangs in competition, so that was set aside for a later date and eventually became State Of Decay. But it’s easy to see how this one’s title might have come about.

So, no vampires. But what it has instead is such a near perfect mix of sf horror ingredients it’s almost as though Terrance has a recipe book to hand.

Now, I talked before about how much Planet Of Evil must have influenced Drift, but that was something to which I'd only cottoned on while watching it the other day, whereas at the time of writing the book I consciously looked to Fang Rock as my 'role model', so to speak.

It has the isolated setting (a lighthouse! - and I say this without any trace of a pun - how brilliant is that!), the nicely drawn characters getting killed off one by one, the lurking horror, atmosphere by the bucketload and, not entirely unrelated to said atmosphere, the weather. It also has Tom at his most sombre and it's really this performance that most informed my characterisation of him in the novel. As in Pyramids, he’s bordering on harsh at times in his dealings with the supporting characters, as he gets on with the serious business of defeating the alien menace. As though he is very much there at the heart of the darkness in this story, along with the alien he’s hunting – as it hunts everybody else. There are softer shades from Tom as well, like the way he tells Leela that Skinsale (Alan Rowe) “died with honour”, when that’s a fairly generous colouration of the truth, but he’s wonderfully alien – remote and removed from us mere humans, and yet capable of warmth and concerned to save us all the same.

According to director, Paddy Russell (who also helmed Pyramids), Tom wasn’t happy with the script, but if this moody Doctor is evidence of that, then Tom Baker should have been handed “rubbish” like this every time. Maybe he was sulking because he’d wanted to do the vampire story too, but whatever’s going on behind the scenes, something’s working. Heck, apparently he wasn’t getting on with Louise Jameson either, and yet the on-screen between-character dynamic is worthy of the best comedy double-act. And it’s worth noting that there is room for humour – somehow - in all the creepy, suspenseful pervading gloom. It’s simply not permitted to rule, as seemed to characterise later Williams’ adventures.

Given the challenges in production, it’s all pretty effective, visually speaking, with only what amount to minor quibbles to prove that, no matter how good it might be otherwise, this is in fact a Doctor Who story and hence subject to the same budget limitations as every other episode. But to be honest, despite a few telltale CSO-type outlines, an obviously *model* boat and a glowing spotlight for an alien mothership, really the team worked wonders. Of course the fog and the menacingly economic lighting, as well as ladling on the atmosphere, no doubt help cover a multitude of sins. But if such elements can serve a story visually as well as narratively, then pile it on, I say.

The creature itself, the Rutan scout, is a blob with tentacles and, like many a Doctor Who monster, could have done with having a bob or two more spent on it, but the jellyfish configuration is wholly in keeping with the marine setting and, who knows, maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find it anywhere near poor enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the story. And the fan in me appreciated the tie-in with the Sontarans, another little sprinkle of world-building on the notion of a coherent Who universe like glitter on a home-made Christmas card.

There are a few moments when certain actors let the side down: John Abbott (Vince) blubbing “Oh no” a tad pathetically at the discovery of the first death, some of Annette Woollett(Adelaide)’s histrionics, for example. But on the plus side, Leela (who positively shines in this one – notable highlights: threatening especially aggravating wreck survivors with a knife, popping down the stairs for a quick gloat over her fallen Rutan foe, to name but a couple) gets to slap her and the supporting cast are pretty dependable in the main, even if (again harking back to Pyramids) there are no Bernard Archards or Michael Sheards. There is, I think, a curious continuity glitch when it appears that two characters must have passed the Doctor and Leela on the stairs without either of them noticing, but without an actual plan of where each room is situated on the stairs, I couldn’t swear to that with a hundred percent certainty. Although I guess I could go back and rewatch it again soon.

When a Doctor Who is this good, it can be sure of getting a rewatch more than once. Of course, on the other hand, it can also be fairly sure its flaws and glitches will be entirely forgiven. So, perhaps instead of reporting on possible continuity hiccups, I should be apologising to Graham Williams. So, here it is: I’m sorry, Graham.

Now, in due course, at the appropriate juncture and in the fullness of time, maybe he might in turn apologise to me. For Underworld, The Creature From The Pit, The Horns Of Nimon

But I don’t know. Maybe The Horror Of Fang Rock makes up for all those put together.


Stuart Douglas said...

I've only just realised that, having bought Fang Rock in a job lot from Play along with various other things, I've never actually gotten round to watching it.

And your review really makes me want to do so *right now*. I remember Leela gloating as a 'big childish grin on my face' moment, for a start!

Damn, I wish I was still working from home :)

SAF said...

Stuart: "Damn, I wish I was still working from home :)"

Ah, also this means you're recovered now? Good to hear.

Watching DVDs in my lunch hour is just one of the perks of self-employment I try to take advantage of as much as possible. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

I watched the first episode last night - slower than I recalled but gripping none the less. I'll watch the rest over the weekend before getting back to my 'watching the Dalek stories in any old order' marathon :)

SAF said...

Stuart: "- slower than I recalled but gripping none the less."

Enjoy! I don't know much, but I'm not wrong about this one :)

Stuart: "before getting back to my 'watching the Dalek stories in any old order' marathon :)"

Even if 'Death To' wasn't, er, a brilliant experience for you, I think that's such a great 'project'. I like marathons. Of the watching variety, naturally :)

Stuart Douglas said...

I'm thinking of either Planet (which I don't think I've actually seen all through) or Ressurection (which I've seen loads of times but like a hell of a lot) next. Decisions, decisions...

SAF said...

Hmm, of the two, I'd go for 'Planet', cos, you know, it's Pertwee, but on the other hand I've heard lots of people say how rubbish it is...

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "t's Pertwee, but on the other hand I've heard lots of people say how rubbish it is..."

Well we both know how much nonsense a lot of people can talk, especially a lot of Dr Who people :)

I'm going with Planet (he said ominously)...

SAF said...

Stuart: "Well we both know how much nonsense a lot of people can talk, especially a lot of Dr Who people :)"

Don't we though? :)

Stuart: "I'm going with Planet (he said ominously)..."

Ooer. Oh well, what's the worst that could happen? If it's really really really bad, you might feel better about 'Death To'. :)