Friday, May 17, 2013

Doctor Who: 1977

Episode 455: Horror of Fang Rock, part 2
First broadcast: 6.15 pm, Saturday 10 September 1977
<< back to 1976
Leela threatens Lord Palmerdale,
The Horror of Fang Rock, part 2
(image swiped from Doctor Who gifs)
As wise Jonny Morris puts it in the most recent Doctor Who Magazine,
"this story is the third in what has to be the most impressive run of stories in the show's history."
Part of the strength of The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock is how well written the new companion is. Leela is a brilliant character: bold, brave and never stupid, she's grown up as a "savage" (the word the series uses) on an alien world where life is very hard. She's a sci-fi twist on Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, but for all the Doctor is Professor Higgins, teaching her about science and manners and getting her to put some clothes on, he never quite tames the savage within. Leela's best moments are when she doesn't behave like a lady.

Yet there's something troubling about a companion so comfortable with killing, who'll reach for a weapon whenever there's a problem. Tom Baker objected, too, insisting that when Leela kills someone in her first story that the Doctor replies with cold fury:
That wasn't necessary. Who licensed you to slaughter people? No more Janis thorns, you understand? Ever.
After that, she tends to wound not kill people (aliens apparently don't count).

Why is it a problem? It's not as if the Doctor hasn't previously had companions who are ready to fight and kill. All the male companions until Harry were called upon to fight and kill baddies, usually brawling with bare hands as if that's morally better. Sara wanted to kill the Doctor the first time she met him; Zoe was skilled in martial arts (as was Jo, though she rarely used it). The Doctor and his friends are frequently caught up in battles that leave their enemies dead.

Leela, though, is unlike any other companion before or since because of her relish for killing. As I said, we rarely see her kill after her first story so it's all in her words. There's her response to Palmerdale that I've chosen as my image:
Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart.
There's more in part four, as she taunts the Rutan:
Enjoy your death as I enjoyed killing you!
Later, the Doctor's chides her again - but she won't be chided.
Been celebrating, have you?

It is fitting to celebrate the death of an enemy.
Most brutally of all there's the moment she thinks she's been blinded right at the end of the story.
Slay me, Doctor.


I'm blind. Slay me now. It is the fate of the old and crippled.
This response to disability is foreshadowed in the opening episode, where Leela misunderstands a reference to Reuben "killing himself" with work, and asks if he is crippled. It's a shocking idea to put into the mouth of our main identification figure in a family show on at Saturday tea-time. Yes, it helps that the Doctor tells Leela quite clearly that she's wrong - but I'm not sure quite enough.

Part of the problem is the strength of the imagery. It's not just Leela's death we conjure in our minds but also that of the old and crippled. I spoke before about how the language used can make Doctor Who more vivid and horrible than anything we're shown on screen.

And yet, I think it's important that when Leela says these things she's not dressed as a savage: she's in ordinary jeans and a jumper. It's a brilliant juxtaposition: the words she uses cut against how she appears. She might look like an ordinary young woman but inside she's something wild. It's very rare in the old show to get inside a character's head and see the world as they do - but with Leela we do.

It's a shame that, from the next story, Leela takes a retrograde step and puts her animal skins back on. Actress Louise Jameson has said before that it's almost as if those in charge could (unconsciously) only allow such a strong female character if at the same time they took her clothes off. But I'm not sure I agree, because when they take Leela's clothes off her again the writing stops being as strong.

With the one exception of The Sun Makers - where Leela gets lines like,
You touch me again and I'll fillet you.
- for the rest of Season 15 she is written as rather a generic companion, chasing round after the Doctor to ask him what's going on. How much more brilliant and rich and rewarding if she had worn ordinary clothes? The writers would have had to remind us in dialogue and action that she wasn't what she seemed, and that would have meant more compelling stories and better served the character.

For all she grew up on another planet, Leela is a human - the last human companion in the series for some time. But when she's written well, with such bloodthirsty imagery, she's the most alien best friend the Doctor ever had.

Next episode: 1978


Anonymous said...

Sorry...but leaving the literate and brilliant "Face of Evil" out of that "run" of brilliant episodes is criminal...

0tralala said...

And The Deadly Assassin before that, too. Yes, it's a really very good run, isn't it?