DWM 473 A Bad Effect?

Invasion of the Dinosaurs. It’s a good story, but those dinosaurs are just embarrassing.

Except… Fan Twin watched it a couple of weeks ago, and he thought the dinosaurs were brilliant. He’s an intelligent child (if I do say so myself), so what’s that all about?

I’m thinking back to my own childhood viewing – actually an example from when I was two years older than Fan Twin is now – Four to Doomsday. That bit where Bigon peels his face off. That was fantastic. It stayed in my mind for years. Then, of course, I eventually got to see it on video and… um. Yes.

Husband says that there’s a contract between those who make and those who consume TV programmes. As viewers we understand that what we’re watching isn’t actually ‘real’. A model dinosaur is a representation of a dinosaur, not a real dinosaur, an action man tank is a representation of a tank, not a real tank, a CGI giant shape-shifting wasp is a representation of a giant shape-shifting wasp, not a real giant shape-shifting wasp (I’m paid by the word you know). They are, in effect, signifiers and as viewers we get this and buy into them to enable us to enjoy the story being told. In this respect, adults and children behave in much the same manner. As adults, however, we bring a lot more baggage. We’re aware of how effects have been achieved (we read DWM! We watch DVD extras!) We’re also aware of how much effects have improved over time and how what we accepted in, say, 1982, we now look at more sceptically. This is itself is a testament to just how much we invest in signifiers – when we believe, a piece ‘works’, when we stop believing, it doesn’t.

So what does the world look like without all that baggage? Non-Fan Twin likes dinosaurs, so we decided to get his opinion of the 1974 ones. He thought the pterodactyl was scary. He thought the Tyrannosaurus was super scary. We went to switch off the DVD. ‘No!’ cried Fan Twin. ‘We’ve got to see the Stegosaurus. That’s really exciting.’

A rather fun monstery afternoon followed. We tried the eponymous Hand of Fear (one of my favourite Seventies effects). This caused much discussion on how it was done. Fan Twin’s theory was that it was a robot with batteries. We promised to reveal all later.

Then an interesting experiment: Kinda. First the original broadcast papier mache snake. No problems with that. It wasn’t that scary, but they liked it. Then the new CGI snake effect. Oh yes! Definitely more effective.  So… they’re not blind to effects. They were very clear that the second was, as Non-Fan Twin put it ‘totally the scarier’ – but they had no problems with the original. For them, it did its job.

‘Can I just tell you what was really scary?’ says Non-Fan Twin. ‘The Hand of Fear. The way it scuttled across that room.’ The snake is already forgotten.

A quick discussion with husband as to what was the best monster costume from pre-2005 times. He nominates the Destroyer, so on goes Battlefield. ‘If she was my mum, I would move house,’ says Non-Fan Twin of Morgaine (possibly quoting an earlier version of a particular iconic Servalan/Tarrant scene from Blake’s 7), and then – the Destroyer appears! Oh yes. Scariest monster ever.  ‘Totally totally totally creepy.’ ‘That’s the only one I found scary,’ says Fan Twin, who is tough. ‘Now please, please tell us how they did the hand.’

Sadly, whenever the subject of rubbish Doctor Who monsters comes up, the poor old Taran Wood Beast is near the top of the list. What would they make of that? Well, they didn’t laugh or point, but Fan Twin commented that ‘it’s a bit like a bear and they don’t scare me’. ‘What if they’re flesh-eating bears?’ Non-Fan Twin countered, and both decided they would be scared of a flesh-eating furry bear running at them, even if it looked like the Taran Wood Beast.

So I’m wondering, then, if there’s something else going on here, and my children have shown me another way to ignore ‘bad’ effects or costumes. Because if I were wandering down a deserted London street and met a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex, even if it didn’t have many facial expressions and moved rather slowly and jerkily, it’d still be terrifying. If a furry monster with two great fangs ran at me in a leafy glade, that’d be pretty darn intimidating, whether or not it looked like a badly altered gorilla costume. Giant fun-fur hamsters gnawing at your leg (husband and I will reach Talons of Weng Chiang in our watch-through next week) – yes, scary. Sort of cloaked dragon thing getting between you and the Queen Bat’s milk – yes, scary. Pantomime lizard rampaging through your Sea Base? Yup, that’s scary too. If you think about what the monsters actually are, what they can do, what they intend to do – if you put yourself in the story – it is scary stuff. That’s part of what I think is happening when my children watch Doctor Who, and I can’t think of a better way to experience it. Oh, it won’t stop me rolling my eyes at, say, the Bandril Ambassador or Erato, but I’m damned if I’ll let that get in the way of my experiencing the story that’s being told.

Oh, and in the end we did explain how the Hand of Fear effect was done – but they still think it’s scary. We’ve got a few more years before cynicism kicks in. Phew.