Friday, August 1, 2008

Gallifrey Gothic

The Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes DOCTOR WHO (1975 - 77)

Emaciated Master makeup for THE DEADY ASSASSIN.

THE gothic tradition in DOCTOR WHO’s mid 1970s serials runs deep through the British science fantasy tradition, placing the exotic into our stoic world - Dracula may be chilling in Transylvania, but he is absolutely terrifying in Yorkshire. Most fans of the original DOCTOR WHO believe this period to be the golden era, when Tom Baker's goggle-eyed eccentricity was married with chilling horror stories. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes plundered Universal, Hammer and 1950s science fiction movies for their inspiration, as murderous dummies and disembodied hands kept Mary Whitehouse busy filing letters to the BBC. DOCTOR WHO’s take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) - THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (1976) - predictably summoned the wrath of the self appointed moral guardian, with Whitehouse proclaiming the story “contained some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.” When the Corporation issued an unprecedented apology to Whitehouse over a drowning sequence at the end of episode three of THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976), the repercussions were far-reaching: never would the show be as consistently absorbing again.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ debut season saw them tackle a set of scripts already commissioned during Barry Letts’ time as producer. Although the season featured reassuringly traditional elements, there was also a clear indication that the show was undergoing significant change, particularly the phasing out of UNIT. The classic GENESIS OF THE DALEKS (1975) - with its themes of racial hatred and war - was one example of a more horrific yet realistic quality. But calling Hinchcliffe’s tenure simply “the horror era” detracts from the ingenuity and intelligence channelled into the programme during this time. Writers, designers and directors were specifically briefed and consulted prior to production, and assigned to their strengths (budget willing) to bring Hinchcliffe and Holmes’s serial thrillers to life: each story had to have a power, a mix of rounded characterisation and sense of atmosphere to adhere to the required adult scientific concepts and convincing worlds.

A major factor in the success of DOCTOR WHO in the mid 70s was the on-screen performances of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker. Here, Sarah Jane and The Doctor appear in THE ARK IN SPACE.

Holmes - perhaps the greatest original series writer - was in his element, injecting a more black, sardonic humour. But in addition to the more mature and macabre approach, a great deal of the success was the chemistry between The Doctor and his assistant Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Baker was also creating a Doctor more overtly and fittingly alien; you need only look at his homo sapiens speech from THE ARK IN SPACE (1975) to see that he was taking things seriously, unlike later seasons when the actor’s impulse to fool around was not held in check.

In THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS (1975), the gothic horror style is given its fullest expression; the TARDIS materialises on Earth inside an old priory owned by Egyptologist Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard), who is possessed by the god-like Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf). With its entombed ancient evil and walking Mummies (in fact servicer robots), there is a genuine feel of dread, with the Mummies particularly effective in their simple yet hulking appearance. As Sutekh, Woolf creates a classic WHO villain, and it is noticeable how many such roles are voice parts - think Michael Wisher’s untouchable turn as Davros.

Following the success of the British Museum’s exhibition of relics from Tutenkhamen’s tomb, Ancient Egypt was big in the 1970s, a mythology embraced by THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS.

THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG (1977) was Hinchcliffe’s swansong. Widely regarded as one of the best ever serials, magician Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett) procures young girls for Magnus Greel (Michael Spice), a 51st Century war criminal who has come to 19th Century London to retrieve his lost time cabinet. The fog-laden streets, amateur sleuthing, oriental mystery and sinister doll Mr Sin (Deep Roy) make the story an entertaining romp, despite the major flaw of the giant sewer rats, which Greel uses to keep people away from his Palace Theatre lair. But THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG is also one of the most controversial: it was the first DOCTOR WHO that showed the taking of illicit drugs, and its use of nunchakus in one fight scene led to trouble with the censor for its first release on VHS. The most dominant controversy, however, was its uniformly bleak portrayal of the Chinese (“inscrutable chinks”), which lead to a rebroadcast ban in Ontario after complaints from the Chinese-Canadian community.

A criticism levelled at Hinchcliffe and Holmes was that they were making these stories for themselves. But it’s the fear factor in DOCTOR WHO that holds a special significance for many people, the “hiding behind the sofa” mentality that in itself has entered the British psyche.