Thursday, May 22, 2008

view from the panopticon- horror of fang rock

4-18-08 "Horror of Fang Rock"

Lord Palmerdale: Are you in charge here?
The Doctor: No, but I’m full of ideas.

I think I liked everything about this story (and that’s saying something). Okay, perhaps the execution of the Rutan as a blob of green dish soap could have been better, but overall I was really impressed. I wonder why Leela’s run was so brief when she and the Doctor have such great chemistry and two of the best stories in all Who-dom (this and "Talons of Weng-Chiang"). Then I see that "The Invisible Enemy" followed this and realize it was an era of great inconsistency.

Obviously I’m hooked from the Edwardian setting. While the lighthouse scenes are obviously not taking place in the fog, the wide shots of the lighthouse are as atmospheric as scenes in "The Time Meddler’ and even look like a Whistler painting. The sound and the claustrophobic, beautifully-staged direction go far in contributing to the mood. In some ways the story is a very simple one, but with a minimum of locations, I think it succeeds well. Obviously are in the realm of the Gothic, and with one of the characters named Harker, we are reminded of Dracula’s arrival at Whitby.

The BBC know how to do costume drama, so all the costumes here are fabulous and accurate. Adelaide’s gown is a costume-lover’s Art Nouveau dream (however, the ‘70s haircuts are not as welcome). It takes rather awhile for the Doctor and Leela to show up. The lighthouse workers are maybe more types than actual characters, but I believe in them. The debate over electricity and oil makes me think that if I ever did a musical parody of the Fourth Doctor’s era, Reuben and Ben would sing a version of the steam/diesel debate from Starlight Express. While we learn all about early 20th century lighthouse mechanics (and, admittedly, I’m a sucker for all of this) Terrance Dicks drops in THE best throwaway line giving the date that I’ve ever heard from Doctor Who. Vince, the youngest lighthouse guy, is rung up on his "phone." "Who’s this? Oh, King Edward, is it? Well, Your Majesty, would you tell our chief lighthouse man to get up here?"

I can no longer keep criticizing Paul Cornell for inventing the ubiquitous monster-vision—they seem to have had it since time immemorial. Suspense is served very well in not revealing the monster for a long, long time. Now we know that Kevin McNally appeared in Doctor Who in "The Twin Dilemma," but Reuben seems to the original blueprint for Gibbs from Pirates of the Caribbean: " t’ain’t natural" is his conclusion about everything (well, the fog, the cold, the appearance of the Doctor and Leela, the "unreliable" electricity).

I rest my case: Leela is the Doctor’s Eliza Doolittle. He dresses her up in an Edwardian boating costume. (To be fair, it’s an absolutely gorgeous outfit.) Leela must be so much fun to write: "You said I would like Brighton. Well, I do not." And what a contrast to Tom Baker in season 17: his comic timing is perfect here and his facial expressions are priceless. Plus, the dialogue is just sparkling—there were so many good lines I had trouble writing fast enough. "A lighthouse with no light." I’m glad to see the Doctor is taking Leela’s instincts more seriously here.

"Small in some ways, big in others" is how the Doctor describes the TARDIS to Vince. I love how Vince regards Leela’s visit as "a treat." When he confesses he talks to seals sometimes, she says, "Seals are animals?" "Well, yes, Miss." "That is stupid." I love how she then strips out of her wet clothes. "I’m no lady." Louise Jameson carries off the belted sweater look extremely well (those trousers seem to fit awfully well for having belonged to Vince).

Reuben thinks that, as foreigners, "you can’t trust none of ‘em." In the spirit of never-show-a-gun-unless-you-plan-to-use-it, The Doctor points out the "Marconi wireless telegraph," which Reuben warns him away from—he’d prefer to use semaphore. "Wireless won’t bring Ben back." "No," says the Doctor in the flat-out funniest moment of the serial. "In England, we have proper burial customs," Reuben explains coldly when Leela asks what a shroud is. "Incontrovertible," says the Doctor, then derides Reuben’s blunt approach: "What are you going to do, clap it in irons?"

With one dead, the story escapes a dull spot by crashing a yacht onto the rocks. The model work is superb. Lord Palmerdale, Adelaide his secretary/fancy woman (depending on who you ask), Colonel Skinflast, and later, Harker their servant. Again, perhaps these four are types, but I think they’re fabulous characters. Adelaide, for example, is an annoying person, but hardly a villain. Palmerdale is a bully and the Colonel ruthless with a sly sense of humor that seems wholly appropriate to his character.

They come in Titanic-style life vests, and James Cameron must concede that Cal must have been inspired by Palmerdale. Palmerdale rages around wanting a drink, even though Vince tells him it’s against light house regulations. The Doctor and Leela carry out their own investigation in secret—the Doctor knows they won’t credit a story about aliens and despairs when Leela points out that they’re aliens—while Reuben is picked off.
The Colonel concedes the Doctor has "an amazing air of authority," and that Leela is "not a bad looker." "Colonel, how long were you in India?" "Long enough to appreciate nature." Adelaide disappears for awhile so Palmerdale and the Colonel can reveal their subterfuge, and not only is it essential to the plot, it makes them more interesting characters. "Besmirch my good name and I’ll sue you for every penny you’ve got." On one hand, it’s terribly melodramatic dialogue—on the other, it’s from the same vein as The Mesmerist, so I don’t mind.

Leela is so cool. She’s the first to find out that fish are dead in the water, that the temperature is truly dropping. When she asks what "furtive" is, the Doctor explains (without a hint of patronization as he would in other stories). "We are not facing an enemy that is bold." When the Doctor feels the danger is real enough to tell squawking Adelaide and the others to stay put in the crew room, Leela takes out her knife: "You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart." Tom Baker’s expression is wonderful, and for once he is amused, not appalled, at her quickness to violence. Palmerdale tries to bribe Vince to send a telegram, then hides on the railing (which is very detrimental to his health). Adelaide comments that Leela "is tied to him [the Doctor] with a bit of string." (Reminiscent of a line in Jane Eyre, but more probably a My Fair Lady reference.)

Once Adelaide finds out about Palmerdale, she goes into very proscribed hysterics, and Leela slaps her. I laughed. Adelaide is on about her astrologer, which Leela interprets as belief in magic. "It is better to believe in science." The Doctor catches the Colonel’s cigar in the telgraph, and Vince gets electrocuted. Then there were four. Leela has full confidence in the Doctor: "You-are-a-Time-Lord." It’s really funny and sweet. As Leela defends the Colonel and Adelaide from the Reuben-alien, her knife is unfortunately quite ineffective. Adelaide gets killed in a rather dumb manner.

The Doctor has a wonderful staircase confrontation with what we find out is a Rutan (outstanding). Sure, it’s a quick bit of exposition to explain the Rutans’ strategic plans in the war with the Sontarans, but the Doctor is so damn cocky, it’s a delight. "I’ve fixed that, too, oyster-face." After disabling the Rutan for a time with powder and a match, Leela suggests a laser beam. "Leela, that’s a beautiful notion!" Louise Jameson’s face is a light. First, they need diamonds. Conveniently (but believably) Palmerdale was carrying diamonds. The Doctor grabs the largest and throws away the rest. Now, on one hand, this is very characteristic of the Doctor—what does he care about the monetary or prestige value of diamonds? On the other hand, if he’d just put them in his pocket, the Colonel might have lived. The Colonel—in what is indicative of his character—stoops to pick up the diamonds and gets electrocuted by the Rutan. "He who cannot throw away a treasure in need is in fetters," as Tolkien put it.

Fortunately the plan works but the Rutan scout ship is on its way, so the Doctor has to blow it up. Leela gloats over the Rutan’s destruction—"It is fitting to celebrate the death of an enemy"—which the Doctor doesn’t agree with. They escape in time, and Leela momentarily fears blindness when she sees the blast. I forget why they had to explain Leela’s change in eye color; Louise Jameson stopped wearing contacts or something? "Pigment dispersal . . .your eyes have changed color." "What color are they?" "Blue." It’s a truly fitting end to the story: affectionate and tender. The Doctor ends with a poem, and thus ends one of the best Doctor Whos I’ve had the privilege to watch. Despite the bloodbath!

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