The best part of time travel is that you can really do just about anything. It’s a boon to writers because they can freely shift from genre to genre and mood to mood so long as they have the anchor of a steady, or even just semi-steady character to base it all around. Seeing the new crop of horror and sci-fi TV series sent me into a nostalgic mood and I began to think about what was horror television for me growing up. Of course, it was Doctor Who.
The now “classic” series that ran from the late 60’s into the 90’s and in particular the 4th incarnation of the lead role, played by Tom Baker. For a few seasons the series went in a very dark direction with stories focused on whodunits and lurking murderous monsters. This became know as the “gothic horror” period in the show’s history and was the target of much outcry from so-called watchdog groups that wanted to force censorship on the creators for their frightening and violent content. By today’s standards this is Saturday morning viewing but it was enough to terrify little me.
A fine example of these horror themed episodes is the aptly named “Horror of Fang Rock” written by favorite script editor and writer, Terrance Dicks. A shape shifting monster falls from the sky in a crashing spaceship onto the shores of a desolate island with a lighthouse as its sole feature. The keepers of the lighthouse are electrocuted and their bodies hauled away, at first so that the creature can dissect them to learn about human appearance and weakness but later so that it can assume their forms and stalk other prey from within the lighthouse.
A group of gentlemen and their traveling companions run aground on the rocks while the creature draws the power of the lighthouse generators. They carry their own enmities and secrets and soon turn on one another, blaming each other for the disappearances and deaths. A fresh group of victims for the monster.
Fog shrouded island, the gloomy sound of the foghorn, the old salt’s ghost stories of a beast on the rocks, lantern lit excursions into the darkness, and a beast that hunts them down. Perfect premise for any gothic horror story from the earliest days of cinema to modern television. It’s easy to see parallels from the days of 50’s monster flicks all the way to the forthcoming prequel to The Thing.
But then the Doctor is there with his kindly meddling and unflappable attitude. He recognizes the alien menace and sets about finding a way to destroy it. The Doctor’s character is often the only thing that lifts a story out of the horror genre and brings in the science fantasy of other more adventurous stories.
Despite the memories of many fans that the Doctor is a pacifist and ever optimistic in this particular story he cracks nary a smile and instead quotes from the poem Flannen Isle by Wilfred Wilson Gibson about the eerie disappearance of a lighthouse crew, the original inspiration for Dicks’s script. By the end he has constructed a makeshift blunderbuss and used it to blast the gelatinous alien and then converted the lighthouse lamp into a laser cannon that destroys the alien’s backup forces as they attempt to land. Grim to the end, the Doctor and traveling companion Leela are the only survivors. The seven other characters in the story have been electrocuted or thrown into the sea, one by one.
Horror themed television is still something of a rarity and it seems that only one or two shows can be sustained by an audience at once and we’ll see if The Walking Dead or American Horror Story can gain the traction of The X-Files or Fringe. Science fiction or science fantasy will broaden their appeal but any TV about monsters, ghosts and inhuman conspiracies is, deep in its heart, a horror show.