|I was going to bring the use of the|
book/VHS covers as the
illustrations to a close after Talons
and the close of that bit of my
childhood memories, but this cover
is just way too good. All it needs is
It’s September 3, 1977. Anyone sensing a general turning backwards in the music charts will feel quite vindicated upon seeing that Elvis Presley is at number one with “Way Down,” although they will presumably be mollified by realizing that it’s only at number one because he died two weeks previously. This means that it stays there for four weeks, with Carly Simon, Donna Summer, and SPACE, French pioneers of the space disco subgenre, also chart.
In other news, since The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure crashed to their conclusions, the Red Army Faction in Germany murdered federal prosecutor and ex-Nazi Siegfried Buback, and then later Banker Jurgen Ponto. Residents of Dover, Massachusetts witness the Dover Demon on the prowl in one of cryptozoology’s iconic moments. Queen Elizabeth II began her Silver Jubilee tour. Shooters opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Turkey, killing at least 34. The shooters were never captured, and if you concluded that they were US-funded anti-communist forces you sure as hell wouldn’t be the only one. Star Wars came out in the US, but we don’t care about that so much yet. The Supremes play their final concert in London and disband, and the Son of Sam killer is captured in New York, which also enjoys a 25 hour blackout marked by looting.
While during this story, gang violence in San Francisco results in the Golden Dragon Massacre, the US agrees to give the Panama Canal to Panama at the end of the century, the Red Army Faction kidnapps Hans-Martin Schleyer, a major head of what is basically an inverse union – an association of employers. The Faction’s goal in this is to secure the release of RAF prisoners by the West German government. And Mark Bolan, the glam rock icon better known as T. Rex, dies in a car crash. Oh, and the moment on Happy Days that led to the term “jumping the shark” takes place.
While on television, we have a story with fascinating critical dimensions that we need to disentangle before we go much further. For one thing, we’re starting off the Graham Williams era, an era that the word “polarizing” seems barely to scratch the surface of. There really is a visible dividing line that takes place between the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras. The first fourteen seasons of Doctor Who are, all in all, considered to be overwhelmingly solid. Sure, they all have their detractors, but the critical consensus on the first fourteen seasons is that the series defaulted to very good.
No such consensus exists for the final twelve seasons. It’s not that they’re hated – every one of them, even seasons 22-23, have their firm defenders. But the position that Graham Williams and/or John Nathan-Turner’s tenures on the show were flat-out unsuccessful is a thoroughly mainstream one in fandom, and not without reason. (I happen to quite enjoy the majority of the remaining twelve seasons.)
All of which said, it is difficult to think of a classic series story that has had as meteoric a rise in reputation in the last few years as this one. The only other contenders I can think of in terms of stories that have relatively recently joined the list of all-time classics are Power of the Daleks and The Massacre, both of which have a simple explanation for their recent rise in popularity: the Internet made reconstructions more widely available and the stories actually got widely seen enough to be classics. But here we have something odder – a story that sat under our noses more or less unnoticed as anything other than “quite good” for decades, and then recently has become white-hot. Moffat declared it to have the best title of any Doctor Who story ever, it’s been singled out for praise on Doctor Who Confidential, Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat talked about it on Twitter a few months ago. Everybody loves this story these days.
The Penguin Pocket Guide to Generating Blog Traffic thus concludes that the only reasonable tack to take here is to slam the story in an attempt to become the first voice of the backlash. And I would, except that the story really is pretty fantastic. So let’s try a different angle. Much of the praise for The Horror of Fang Rock comes from treating it like a holdover from the Hinchcliffe era. This is not completely unfair. The writer, script editor, director, and stars are all veterans of the Hinchcliffe era, and the aesthetic is closer to the horror aesthetic of the Hinchcliffe era than the more comedic aesthetic that would eventually come (fairly or unfairly) to characterize the Williams era.
I’m not going to get too far into how this story fits with the remaining 17 stories of the Graham Williams era here, in no small part because the Williams era is the last chunk of Doctor Who that I haven’t seen the bulk of before (it was largely left fairly late in the VHS releases. I ate up novelizations of the era because my parents liked Romana and so I was curious about her, but have seen no more than four stories from it). But also because it’s kind of silly to. Yes, this story is profoundly different from the rest of the Williams era in several regards. The amount of clever critical nuance needed to observe a profound difference between this and Creature From the Pit is roughly zero.
What’s far more interesting, and what critics largely sail over, is the degree to which this story represents a break with the Hinchcliffe era. This is most obvious when people describe the story as being extremely traditional because of its structure of a monster slowly picking off people in an enclosed space. Which, fair enough. That is certainly the plot of The Horror of Fang Rock. But what was its last appearance before this story?
That’s a harder question, actually. The Seeds of Doom and The Ark in Space are the only two Hinchcliffe-era stories with particularly similar plots, and both are a stretch, with the former being more about Harrison Chase and the latter being more about Noah. The remainder of scary stories in the Hinchcliffe era are about much grander and more epic dangers than one monster hunting people down. And the Pertwee era certainly didn’t have anything like this. No, pretty much the last time you had a story entirely about monsters picking people off in an enclosed space was, by my count, The Wheel in Space. In other words, the show hasn’t done this since before Terrance Dicks was the script editor.
So why does everybody treat this story like a story that was still too Hinchcliffe-era for Williams to screw up as opposed to as a story that does its own thing? There are basically two reasons. The first is that treating this story as if it were really a Hinchcliffe story gives Williams’s detractors one less story to make an exception for, reducing the list of stories they have to admit were good to ones written by Douglas Adams. This, however, is stupid and beneath us. The better reason is that it’s just about the only Williams story to go for “scary” as its mood from start to finish, whereas the Hinchcliffe era stayed in the vicinity of scary for almost every single story. (There is, of course, also Image of the Fendahl to deal with in terms of scariness, but that’s its own thing.)
But there the similarities largely end. The Hinchcliffe era did scary by showing the potency within the dying embers of old myths: Morbius, Sutekh, and Magnus Greel. There was always a sense of the epic there. This, on the other hand, is determinedly small scale – a handful of utterly mundane people trapped in a relatively unremarkable setting. It only becomes clear that there’s a planetary threat in the fourth episode, and that’s basically just a way to eke another ten minutes out of the thing – it’s not the primary tension of the story at all. The monster isn’t some ancient and terrible threat but a generic member of its species. And speaking of its species, it’s the Rutans! No, not the minivan from Volkswagen. The sworn enemies of the Sontarans! Yes. Even the monster is little more than the b-side of a relatively minor enemy. This is not what Hinchcliffe would have done at all. Under Hinchcliffe, one imagines it would have actually been the Beast of Fang Rock, chained under the sea millennia ago by an ancient race of aliens, and sending out its electricity-wielding servants to gather power for its resurrection. Instead of, you know, just one pissed off alien jellyfish.
It would take a viewpoint of what Doctor Who is good for that is narrow even by the standards of Doctor Who fans to conclude that the smaller approach is in some way a bad thing. After all, so much of what is wrong with the worst moments of the Hinchcliffe era comes when the play of ideas and genres is allowed to get in the way of an investment in humanity, with even Holmes running badly afoul in his last effort. Talons would have been helped immeasurably if the characters had been characters instead of wittily-written Victorian stereotypes. But there’s also something to be said for the basic radicalness of doing a small story. The Hinchcliffe era’s steady abandonment of contemporary Earth came with the understandable but ultimately unnecessary consequence of moving away from the domestic scale of Yeti-in-a-Loo towards a more epic scale.
As I said, this is understandable – as you determinedly move from Earth to space it’s natural to move from Earth-sized stakes to space-sized stakes for your stories. But Robert Holmes often took delightful measures to undercut the vast stakes, whether through the Doctor’s witticisms or through making his villains envy vegetables. And no surprise – it was Holmes who showed, in the Pertwee era, how effective it could be to shrink the stakes away from the planetary to the utterly mundane. Because the shift from the free travel of the Troughton years (where the stakes often were smaller) to the earth-based format of the Pertwee years meant that every threat became a planetary one, and Holmes rightly observed that you could do a good story on a smaller scale. But despite this the scale had drifted ever upward, and Dicks was shrewd to pull it back down.
What’s further interesting is that he manages to do that while retaining many of the cultural ideas from the previous story. This story is set almost at the same time as Talons (if About Time’s analysis of the dating of each is to be believed, you can get away with placing them a year apart. Lance Parkin’s endlessly hilarious aHistory puts them at thirteen), and though it is technically in the Edwardian era, itself in many ways just an incremental upgrade of the Victorian era to fill a technicality of calendar space between Queen Victoria’s death and World War I, which brought the real shift in culture. (There is an analogy to be drawn here to the producer shifts on Doctor Who. Particularly snide fans may wish to note that you can make this analogy in such a way as to have John Nathan-Turner be equivalent to World War I.)
But instead of the elaborate genre parodies of Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks takes a more materialist approach to it. Yes, he still has comic relief old fashioned people, but they’re not being used for broad social critique. This is a character piece with well-executed stock characters, not a pastiche. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no social commentary. Leela continues her frustrating fade-out, in which it’s obvious that she’s not being allowed to develop as a character so that she can keep being pushed into comic relief situations, which is even more demeaning than “educating” her was. Where she used to have her own peculiar instincts that originated out of her culture, now she just seems to have superpowers allowing her to detect small changes in temperature. Given that there will be a tin dog to do that starting next story, one shudders to imagine what she’ll be cut down to next.
But despite that, she gets well-used here in a variety of ways. The Doctor visibly prefers talking to her to talking to any of the other characters, and her easy competence contrasts well with their period-appropriate foibles. In this regard she is made a critique of aspects of the culture without having to resort to everybody laughing as she comically misunderstands tea while they reflect on how her simple savage wisdom has insight that even we civilized British people can learn from. There may be no more scathing moment of feminism in the show to date than Leela’s scorn for Adelaide and all of the implied scorn for the cultural norms she represents.
The Doctor, on the other hand, is more problematic. It’s shocking how sharp the change in Baker’s performance is here. It changed visibly once when Sladen left, but here shifts again as Hinchcliffe departs. When Paddy Russell last directed the series she got Baker into one of the mummy costumes when the Doctor was supposed to be inside. This time he dominates the frame whenever he’s on camera, standing in the center of the shot as characters buzz around him – the polar opposite of how he entered in Robot. Behind the scenes, his antics were flaring up as well. This was, apparently, the story in which Louise Jameson finally put her foot down and stood up to Baker, winning his respect, but on the other hand his relationship with Russell was a disaster.
The result is a Doctor who is a complete emotional cipher, with the actor simply trusting that the audience will simply adore him as long as he turns on the charm. It’s a performance of pure egotism that is carried off only by the fact that Baker is right and the audience does like him. The scene in which he delightedly informs everyone that they may be dead by morning is heavenly, and his mocking dismissal of the villain attains a new sharpness. Even without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes there’s a palpable anger to Baker’s defiance now, giving it just a tinge of punk at a point where both the series and punk were still credible enough to have that mean something.
The script also seems aware of the increasingly problematic dimensions of Baker’s incarnation. It makes the interesting decision to have the Doctor be very much responsible for some of what goes wrong. And, of course, there’s the gutsy decision to have this one be a total wipeout for the supporting cast. For the first time in the series absolutely every character not played by a series regular dies. And unlike many of the later contenders for massive body counts, here they’re not just done for flare, but each mark concrete turning points in the plot that drive it forward. Everybody dies in this story, but nobody dies as an exclamation point on an exciting scene or out of some generic effort to “up the stakes.” This story keeps the bodies offscreen in what is a clear concession to Mary Whitehouse, but it gives a better sense of the sheer human cost of the Doctor’s life than anything since The Massacre.
This makes the Doctor’s capriciousness more problematic. But at this point that’s all it is – a case of complicating the tone of the series. It’s a very distinct step in a particular direction for the series, but unlike most of the later steps in that direction it’s utterly unselfconscious about it. In this regard it marks a sort of final comment upon the metafictional excess of the Hinchcliffe era. It manages a crystal clear metafictional comment with no resort to broad symbolism or pastiche or self-reference, but just by telling a particular story with a particular character and letting the frisson between those two reveal something on its own. It’s deft and subtle in an absolutely delicious way.
It would be stretching it far too much to call this story a critique of the Hinchcliffe era. It’s not. But it is in many ways a diagnostic of it, and a demonstration of what aspects of it are merely the preferences and defaults of its major creative figures and what aspects of it are actually integral to generating the amazing aesthetic effects it so often accomplished. It is in this regard the most sensible statement possible in the face of the battering the show just took: here is what we are good at. Traditionalism has never been so radical.