Doctor Who – Spider-Man – The Dragon’s Challenge – tape 813

One of my great regrets is that I didn’t start recording TV until late 1984, and so I missed the chance to record more classic Doctor Who. The UK Gold repeats are great for catching up, but nothing beats the original broadcasts.

So here’s Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred as the Doctor and Ace in Ghost Light. It’s a story much beloved by some, but I’m afraid it leaves me rather underwhelmed, and even slightly angry.

The story opens in an old, dark house. It’s quite literally dark, because the director, Alan Wareing, wanted to have something a little more atmospheric than the usual brightly lit studio, so he tried to push the 1980s video cameras as far as possible, using far less light than they normally used.

I can’t say it worked, as all we get is a murky, brown mess.

After answering the door to the Reverend Matthews, early for his appointment, the housekeeper and maids rush out of the house, seemingly afraid to stay there any longer, leaving the house with the line “heaven help anyone who’s still here after dark.” Now I have a problem with this line. Does she say it every day when they leave? Surely, after a day or two they would take that as read? So it just comes across as a clunky bit of exposition, telling the audience that something is wrong in the house.

The Doctor and Ace have landed the Tardis in the house, and he’s seemingly testing Ace on her companion skills, getting her to assess where they are. Ace has a thing about haunted houses. We know this because she says “This isn’t a haunted house is it Professor? You know I’ve got a thing about haunted houses.” “Did you tell me that? How many have you been in?” “Only one. One was enough.”

Ace really does say “The whole place gives me the creeps” at one point.

They meet a man looking for the famed explorer Redvers Fenn-Cooper.

But it soon transpires that he is Fenn-Cooper, and is mad. The other housekeeper, Mrs Pritchard (Sylvia Sims) arrives and takes him away.

They also meet Nimrod, a servant who appears to be a neanderthal.

Gwendoline, the young lady of the house, played by Katharine Schlesinger.

Josiah Samuel Smith, the head of the household, played by Ian Hogg. He’s particularly annoying because he seems to dislike light, and the lighting drops by another 50% when he comes into the room.

The only decently lit scene in the entire episode is when Redvers, locked in a room in a straitjacket, is menaced by a snuff box with a bright light coming from it.

Ace learns that this house is actually the same old house that she once broke into when she was younger, and led to her fear of haunted houses. She runs away, down to the basement – not perhaps the best place to run if you have a fear of old houses. It’s especially unluck here as the basement appears to be an alien spaceship.

The episode ends with her being menaced by two alien looking creatures. But they’re so well dressed they’ll probably be profiled soon in the New York Times. “Face Eating Alien Hybrid: My Grooming Regimen.” As they approach her, they appear to be saying “Red Ken”. Also one of them looks like a repurposed Omega head from Arc of Infinity.

BBC Genome: BBC One – 4th October 1989 – 19:35

In the second episode, we’re given a few more hints at the secrets of the house, but the script is wilfully obtuse, very pleased with its many references and frequent wordplay. It’s all about Evolution, with the reverend Matthew telling Smith that he doesn’t believe that men are descended from primates, even as he appears to be changing into an ape.

Josiah is shedding his skin or something.

And they find a policemen in one of the specimen drawers. “A bluebottle” as the script says, and you can sense writer Marc Platt chuckling to himself as he mentally high-fives himself for such a bon mot. The policeman wakes up in the form of Frank Windsor.

And finally, from the basement comes ‘Control’, “Quintessence of wickedness” according to Josiah.

And as she emerges, so does ‘Light’.

BBC Genome: BBC One – 11th October 1989 – 19:35

Light emerges in the form of John Hallam. He’s cataloguing all life on Earth, and has been asleep in the basement.

The Doctor makes him disappear by doing some acting.

The fact that the Doctor knows all about Light and his mission is one of the really big problems with this story. The Doctor starts it knowing all the answers, so we get no sense of discovery, and the writing is too concerned with allusions and hints to actually let the audience know what’s actually happening. Part of this might be due to the episodes running very long when recorded, and having scenes cut to fit the broadcast length, but that’s down to script editor Andrew Cartmel. He was fairly new to the job – this was his second full season – and I think it was this inexperience that led to this serial in particular being far too elliptical for the general viewer.

I wonder if this is why it’s enjoyed by fans. They are the people who will record it and rewatch it endlessly, which gives them a chance to pore over the episodes and appreciate all the references and in jokes. There’s even a Hitchhiker’s Guide reference thrown in. But I don’t think this serial really works on a single viewing which, in 1989, is all it would get from the vast majority of viewers.

BBC Genome: BBC One – 18th October 1989 – 19:35

After this, recording switches to BBC2. There’s the very end of Film 89, and a trailer for Smith and Jones in Small Doses.

Then, Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge. One of the movie-length stories that came out of the short-lived TV series.

The plot this time revolves around Min Lo Chan, a Chinese businessman (Benson Fong) who comes to New York to find evidence that will exonerate him of charges of murder.

Luckily, he’s an old college buddy of Daily Bugle publisher J Jonah Jameson (Robert F Simon), whom Min approaches to ask if he can track down three former marines whose testimony he hopes should help him clear his name.

He’s accompanied by Emily, his neice, played by a young Rosalind Chao, more familiar to us as Keiko O’Brien in Deep Space Nine.

But there’s an industrialist in Hong Kong who stands to make a fortune if Min never returns from New York, so he puts out a hit on him despite claiming to despise violence. You can tell he’s a bad guy as he’s having his picture painted in full Chinese regalia.

And in case you’re wondering when Spider-Man will turn up, Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) is asked to track down the marines by Jameson, so he’s there when goons try to kill Min.

There’s a surprise appearance by Ted Danson as a Major who might help Peter track down the marines.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 9th November 1989 – 18:00

After this, recording continues with a trailer for Friday Report.

Then, this recording stops and underneath there’s a movie. It’s the end of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder. I love this scene, it’s so ridiculously convoluted, relying on the similarity of latchkeys, and who put which key where during the earlier murder plot. And yet, Hitchcock manages to wring some tension out of it.

After this, a trail for Hitchcock’s Rope then the tape ends.

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7 comments

  1. “The Dragon’s Challenge” got a cinematic release outside the US, and the 1970s TV special effects must have been cringemaking (with Spidey’s webbing looking ike rope) to see on a cinema screen. Or a drive-in screen, since I remember seeing the trailer for it. Although his funky theme music is a lot better than what Zimmer and chums came up for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

  2. Does Spidey’s Dragon’s Challenge have a helicopter in it, and some kind of customised red-flashing homing device used to track… someone? If so, that’s the one I saw in the cinema on a double bill with the Kirk Douglas comedy Cactus Jack. I thought CJ was hilarious (it isn’t), but Spidey was so boring the birthday party I was with resorted to running up and down the aisles – we were unsupervised, and I was quite shocked we’d been left to our own devices.

      1. Great, thanks! That’s scratched an itch. Now I’m sorry we didn’t get to see Kirk Douglas as The Green Goblin.

  3. Ghost Light I remember enjoying at the time, because I couldn’t follow it and that made it seem like watching DW when I was very young and didn’t understand everything that was going on. I subsequently discovered it was controversial because it had been written by a fan rather than a professional, and got a lot of flak from other fans wondering what was so special about his script (and not theirs, presumably).

  4. Aaah I LOVE Ghost Light. But you’re right, it’s not a story custom built for casual viewers and one-watch only. As such I can understand the argument that it’s too fan orientated and from a time when Who was becoming an insular exclusive club. But I never found it all that confusing myself

  5. In Ghost Light the the dark tone , the doctors strange mind games with Ace and the bad jokes eg. ‘The cream of Scotland Yard” after the unfortunate detective ended up as a tureen of primordial soup plus Light’s dismantling of a (hopefully) robot maid made it a standout serial for me. Sylvester McCoy’s doctor had a slightly sinister overtone and the only other decent offering in his tenure was the Rememberance of the Daleks. Don’t forget the BBC in their infinite wisdom were trying to kill the series off, the fools!

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