Sunday, 9 August 2009

Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock

Part One

“I’m not a Teshnician!”

An odd setting, this, In theory the lighthouse and surrounding rocks being all we see should make things claustrophobic and scary, especially as everything seems quite dimly lit. But I just had the impression of limited space and it being more obvious than usual that the story was studio bound.

In theory everything should work- we have a small guest cast in Reuben, Vince and Ben, three nicely differentiated characters. We have a mysterious thing that’s landed from the skies and which kills Ben, and we have some good Leela moments, especially the unselfconscious way she undresses in front of Vince. But in spite of everything from the script to the sets to the performances being perfectly good (Tom’s on particularly good, moody form- that’ll be Paddy Russell then!), the threat seems undefined somehow, making it difficult to engage with the story.

Part Two

“Gentlemen, I’ve got news for you. This lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead.”

A ship founders on the rocks and three new characters are injected into the story- Lord Palmerdale and Skinsale both provide intrigue as to what secrets each holds, while Adelaide Lessing is basically there as a comic contrast for Leela. Lord Palmerdale is desperate to get to London as money is at stake and it was his haste that caused the ship to founder, with lives being lost- we know at this point that he has zero chance of survival! The blackmail subtext between him and Skinsale provides us with something to happen this episode, as the threat from the alien is more talked about than seen at this stage.

It’s this episode that makes it clear that this is going to be a base under siege, but at least the character dynamic is different from the usual template. Again, though, although nothing seems exactly wrong there’s little definition to the threat.

Part Three

“That is what I thought. But of course, I am only a savage.”

The alien can’t become a direct threat until the very end of the episode because of how the story is structured, give or take the odd individual killing. But Terrance Dicks deals with this well by concluding the feud subplot between Palmerdale and Skinsale (“Some men make me nervous when I’m with them- Salibury, Bonar Law… but your employer has the opposite effect. It’s when he’s out of my sight.”) until Palmerdale is inevitably killed. There’s also a heartstopping moment as Vince is found morally wanting by taking Palmerdale’s bribe, thereby ensuring, by the logic of Doctor Who storytelling, that he can’t possibly survive.

There’s good Leela stuff here- I love the bit where she slaps Adelaide, surely one of the top Leela moments ever. But there’s also a good bit where she dismisses Adelaide’s astrological superstitions- “I, too, used to believe in magic. But the Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science.”

Part Four

“I don’t like your face either.”

Another good Leela bit at the start as she rolls her eyes at Adelaide fainting. And now that we’re at the final episode we can learn the nature of the threat- it’s a Rutan, a bright green spherical blob from the icy planet of Ruta 3, whose people once controlled “a whole arm of Mutter’s Spiral” (the Milky Way?) but are now losing their interminable war with the Sontarans.

Leela’s shown to be bright here, a quick learner who knows what a laser is, and I’m glad to see this- she may be a “savage” but she was presented as intelligent in Face of Evil and that needs to continue.

I notice the face of the dead Palmerdale is not visible, making it rather obvious that the actor hasn’t been contracted for this episode! Otherwise, though, it’s a good ending which arises logically, leaving everyone dead apart from Leela and the Doctor.

Oh, and Leela’s eyes change colour as she looks back at a bright light. I’m sure that’s exactly what would happen…

Difficult to rate, this. It was well made, cleverly plotted, with well-written characters, good performances and witty dialogue. And yet I never really felt much sense of threat somehow, and I can’t work out whether it’s the script or the direction that’s to blame. 3/5.

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