FAN FILM REVIEWS: THE FEMALE DOCTOR – THE WRATH OF EUKOR
THE WRATH OF EUKOR
Synopsis: Early 20th Century, Carl, a cockney ‘chimney sweep’ is walking home on the fog shrouded streets of London. Suddenly, a figure in a hideously mismatching coat looms out of the darkness at him, babbling incoherently about getting back to their ship. Dragging Carl back to a police box, she announces that she is the Doctor. Cut to, a verdant forest and a trio of vietnam vets are threatening a photojournalist, while unknown to all an alien menace gathers in the woods…
Review: The Wrath of Eukor is a landmark for Doctor Who fan films. It wasn’t the first fan film, but it was one of, if not the first professional looking one – one that featured real performances, real actors and locations, that ran long enough to tell a coherent story.
It’s also significant for timing, its release at a critical period of Doctor Who history. Timing is a big thing. This came out in August of 1984. Now, there’s some historical context we need to explore.
Doctor Who in America has its own history. The show started appearing on American television screens in 1978, mostly on public television stations, and had slowly built up a cult audience. Originally driven by Tom Baker’s formidable body of work, it paved the way for other Doctors, past and present, picking up momentum into the 1980’s. By the mid-eighties, the show was at the height of its American popularity, a peak it wouldn’t surpass until the new series. It had a major cult following.
Colin Baker had only become the Doctor in March, of 1984, starting off with the badly received Twin Dilemma. Colin’s tenure was rocky, and in March of 1985, BBC Comptroller Michael Grade cancelled the series. The outcry was so loud, Grade had to backpeddle, leading to an 18 month hiatus, where the show was literally up in the air. No one knew what was going on, particularly for American fans, but this looked like the end.
So basically, from March, 1985 to September 1986 – fans were starving. They were looking at the end of Who. No more new Who, no more new episodes or adventures. They wanted more. They wanted more stories, new stories, they wanted news and things to talk about. There was a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. It was the perfect time for a really well done, polished production to rush into that void and make a huge splash.
The Wrath of Eukor had actually been released and aired in September, 1994, at the World Fantasy Convention for that year, but it hadn’t made much of an impact. Well received, but no big deal. Not until…
“Thus it went for the next six months or so, the film passed into obscurity until a screening at Norwescon in March 1985. The audience went nuts and I was immediately asked if I was going to make a sequel….” Ryan Johnson.
And it had something more: A female Doctor.
Believe it or not, a female Doctor had been talked about publicly as early as 1979, when Tom Baker speculated on television that his successor might be a woman. Later on in the 1980’s, when Sidney Newman was brought back for his ideas to save the show, he too suggested that the Doctor could become a woman. Then of course, there’s Joanna Lumley in Curse of Fatal Death in 1999. In the new series, the speculation that some future incarnation might be a woman is a running bugaboo.
But here we are in 1984-1985, the classic series is in turmoil, on the edge of the abyss, there’s this very good fan film making the rounds, and it’s got a female Doctor! Ah, but this is the most important thing – she’s a good Doctor. She’s got that combination of wit and charm and presence that makes the Doctor a force. Benedetti was a trained actress working in the local Seattle community, and she’s able to carry it off. Say what you like, that really puts it over the edge, catapults it to something more.
So of course, there has to be another one – the sequel Visions of Utomu comes out in January of 1986, during the hiatus, and it’s another strong, if flawed story. So now it’s not a one off, but the female Doctor is a body of work.
That’s followed up by Pentagon West in May 1987, and Broken Doors in March, 1988. And at this point, you have a series. It’s not a huge series: The whole body of work is four stories and maybe two hours, or the length of one regular serial. But it’s a group of four genuine half hour stories, stories with production values, stories with beginnings, middles and ends, with real actors, with the singular characters of the Doctor and Carl running through it.
Now, I’m not sure if this had ever been done before. Making a film, even a fan film, is an exhausting and expensive proposition. Wrath of Eukor probably cost somewhere between $3000 and $10,000 – it was shot on 16 mm film, that’s not cheap, and neither is processing and lab costs. The IMDB listing shows about fifteen people working behind the camera. Figuring sweat equity, you’re looking at anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000 as the real price of the production. That’s for the Wrath of Eukor alone. That’s stunning.
Even some crappy shot on Super-8 will probably end up costing a few hundred dollars and a lot of time and effort. Remember, back in those days, it was all by hand – no computers involved. So making one, particularly back in the day, that’s reasonably impressive. Making four – making a coherent series… That’s incredible, and it’s significant.
Finally, it was lucky to squeak into an era where it would find distribution. A copy of the first two stories made its way to Seattle Public Access TV, and ran there regularly until 1995, in the Pacific Northwest. Other copies seem to have made their way to other Public Access channels. So in a number of American markets, you could actually turn on the television looking for Doctor Who and end up watching episodes of the female Doctor. Meanwhile, Ryan Johnson played and premiered at conventions, including the World Science Fiction Convention and NorWesCon
This was the era when VCR’s were coming into their own – both Beta and VHS. Fans were taping their episodes, trading back and forth. Ryan Johnson was incredibly generous in that anyone who asked, and sent him a blank VHS could get their own copy. Of course, those copies would make the rounds, shown at Conventions, shown at Fan club meetings, copied and traded.
Now, it certainly wasn’t seen nearly as much as the real Doctor Who on television and VHS. This was still mostly underground. But the female Doctor got around, and the circulated to Doctor Who fan groups, in ways and to numbers that simply hadn’t been possible or even imaginable even a few years previously
All of which combines to give us something unique and special in the history of Doctor Who. Literally, for a brief window of time, when Colin Baker’s tenure of the Doctor seemed to have come to an ignominious end, when the show was on ice, it’s future uncertain, when a generation of American fans had discovered the show… just in time to lose it.
For that strange sideways moment in history, in a very real way, Barbara Benedetti was The Doctor.
So what about the Wrath of Eukor itself? I’ll be honest, I was reluctant to watch this again after a couple of decades distance. The things that you enjoy in a younger day… sometimes they’re embarrassing when you go back. All those flaws and mistakes you overlooked or were disappointed by, suddenly, they loom large, and the whole thing gets painful.
I’m glad to say, that wasn’t the case. Watching it again, I’m thrilled by how well it stands up, how polished and effective it is. Trust me, I don’t enjoy watching amateurish dreck, I wade through it, seaching for the gems.
First up, the visual quality is exemplary. It’s shot on real film, 16 mm, I would guess. The image is sharp, pristine, the sound mix is professional, and the editing is sharp, the composition of shots, lighting, you name it. On a purely technical level, it stands up very nicely, it plays like a real production.
The performers are all real actors, they say their lines and hit their marks, when they speak, it comes across as spontaneous and natural, as if they’re saying what they’ve just thought in that instant, rather than reciting a line that they’ve rehearsed. They’re mature adults. There’s no sense of kids in the back yard playing grown up. Wallace the photojournalist, played by Tom Lance, really does come across as a photojournalist snooping around, someone cosmopolitan and observant on the hunt for a story. The vietnam vets/survivalists, lead by Jim Dean as Grant, convincingly portray veterans with a chip on their shoulder, hanging out in the woods playing war games, because they just can’t fit in. The characters bounce off each other in a natural way, basically, how they react to and interact with each other is direct outgrowth of here they are. There isn’t really a bad performance or a bad characterization in the bunch, except possibly ‘Eukor’ in villain mode. But villains always come with a slice of ham. It benefits from a very strong supporting cast, and very well drawn supporting characters.
Of course, what really comes alive is Barbara Benedetti’s performance as the Doctor, and Randy Rogel’s turn as the newest companion, Carl. They don’t get to be natural characters. They’re the outliers – they aren’t playing the people you could meet on the streetcorner, and so they have sell it even harder. It’s the Doctor, she has to be larger than life. She is. Barbara Benedetti, thirty-two, at the time was a well known and well respected stage actress in the Seattle cultural community. She wasn’t a Doctor Who fan, had arguably never heard of it. She was a working professional, she knew her stuff, and she gives a marvelous performance as the Doctor, mercurial, brilliant, sardonic, witty and eccentric. She is “The Doctor,” and if there’s any doubts as to whether a woman can handle the role, she puts them to rest immediately. We enjoy watching her.
Randy Rogel’s Carl Evans, a cockney fish out of water keeps up with her nicely. I suspect that his ‘cockney accent’ is probably pretty crap, but I don’t really care. British actors have butchered a lot of American accents over the years. What counts is the performance. They make a terrific team, bouncing off of each with an understated comic timing. Their chemistry is unforced and a pleasure to watch. In fact, they’d co-starred together on stage just before this production.
Both came from a stage tradition, and it shows. One of the things you get with stage actors is business. Basically, if you’re doing a lot of television or film, it’s about hitting your mark, standing in the right lighting, and basically not strolling around out of frame or doing anything that’s not specifically called for in the script. So one of the things is that the foreground characters they tend not to be spontaneous, and the background characters tend not to do anything – no one wants a shot ruined by an extra who comes up with a funny bit of business.
Stage actors though, they’re often stuck on stage for quite a bit of time, the audience sees them, watches them, even if they’re not foreground. You have to hold that attention, both with words and actions. So stage actors, good ones, will tend to be physically expressive and interesting. They do ‘business’ – throwaway bits that are just meant to keep them going onstage. We see a lot of that between Benedetti and Rogel through their episodes, they play off each other, not just verbally, but physically as well. Benedetti and Rogel are simply the best Doctor/Companion duos I’ve found in fan films.
The story, I was prepared to dismiss as standard fare. Basically – alien menace poses a threat, but the Doctor sorts it out. On rewatching it, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s actually a lot of plot going on – the initial conflict between the Vietnam Vets and the Photojournalist sets up nicely, allows us to deliver exposition, and then neatly blindsides us when the Photojournalist dies and the real menace arrives onscreen. Characters that start out as bad guys turn into good guys, characters move and countermove. We get surprised. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Eukor as a disembodied energy being on the hunt even has a bit of a swerve going, when the Doctor frustrates his original plan, he adapts and tries to steal the Tardis. That’s nice, most villains/monsters aren’t so flexible.
One of the things I love about classic Doctor Who is its storytelling. The serial format meant that you couldn’t do a simplistic three act structure, but you had to have multiple storylines weaving in and out of each other, coming to resolutions, taking surprising turns. The Wrath of Eukor has a very good grasp of that wonderful twistiness that is a hallmark of Doctor Who.
It’s witty. The story is full of fun moments, both visual gags and clever lines in exactly the right places and delivered the right way. The scene where the Doctor confronts a group of angry survivalists and simply defeats them with the force of her personality is brilliant. Later, after a trip through time and space, the Tardis materializes outside a power station, smoke pours out, and Carl and the Vet angrily complain that the Doctor can’t drive the thing, about all those Indians and while they argue, the Doctor casually plucks an arrow from the Tardis shell and flicks it away.
It’s is a vital thing. Often, wit is a make or break quality for fan films. The Doctor is witty, the Doctor is fun, that’s the most essential thing about the Doctor. There are serious turns, of course, but wit is one of the key defining aspects of Doctor Who. The sly lines, the moments of subtle or unsubtle comedy, the straightfaced lunacy of the situations. If you don’t have that, you really don’t have Doctor Who. The Wrath of Eukor has it, and more importantly Benedetti’s Doctor and Rogel’s Carl have it.
A key but subtle strength of Wrath of Eukor is in the settings. Again, that’s something that separates the unwatchable amateur from the near professional. Locations, settings, they bring the visual quality to the story, they drive and define a story. We focus on what’s in the foreground, but it’s the background that often shapes the experience for us. A good location or set make the story come alive. A dull one can suck the life out of the story. That’s why James Bond never goes to Cleveland.
No sets were built for Eukor. They built a pretty respectable Tardis shell. But mostly, they shot outdoors on locations. In the opening scenes, old Seattle makes a nice double for turn of the century london, and they’re smart enough to shoot at night, using shadows and a fog machine to cover up any flaws. The result is really nice production values, it’s very gothic, almost archaic, it makes for a very strong visual opening for the actors to work in. Shadows and darkness are used to excellent effect.
It’s when the action shifts out of the city that it really gets going visually. Seattle is in a rain forest belt, and you don’t really get what that means until you’ve been in one. There’s ordinary forests, we’ve all seen them. Some places in Washington state average as much as 150 inches of rainfall a year, that’s a lot of water, and the green goes into overdrive.
A lot of the Wrath of Eukor takes place in the temperate rain forest outside Seattle, and it’s practically a character in itself. A rain forest isn’t just some woods or meadow. Or to put it this way, a rain forest to an english woods is like a bengal tiger to a beagle. There’s just an overwhelming lushness to the green, a proliferation of shades and plant species, crowding into every inch of the frame. It gives a real vibrancy and intensity to the story, at once familiar and alien.
The final location, the power station, is forbidding industrial gothic, a shift from the organic lushness, to angles, transformers and machinery. Wisely, the production doesn’t spend much time indoors – I think there’s only one interior shot in the whole thing.
The consequence of that is that we’re mostly seeing stuff that’s not familiar or dull looking, and that has it’s own life. Amateur film makers take note – a good location is its own production value.
It’s amazing how well it holds up some thirty years later. It’s not surprising at all that some of the fans back in the 1980’s could mistake it for the real show, or that it could attract a cult following as a worthy successor series.
Is it perfect. Of course not. If you want to be a nit picker, look at the windows on the Tardis. Carl’s ‘cockney accent’, pretty bad I suppose. The opening scene in 1911 – Police boxes hadn’t been invented. Eukor’s little pyramid? Pretty tosh stuff there. When Eukor possesses one of the Vietnam vets, all talent leaves his body. The lightning bolts, the explosion effects…. hmm. Honest to god though, look at the classic series – there’s no shortage flaws and foibles to overlook there. We forgive the classic Doctor Who because so much of the rest of it is so well done. We are obliged to forgive Fan Films even more. But surprisingly, there’s not that much that we really need to forgive here.
So here’s the secret of the female Doctor. It’s simply well done, and well done in almost every way. As I’ve said, quite possibly the very best Doctor Who fanfilm up to that time, very nearly professional, with a groundbreaking concept in the female Doctor and a solid performer in Barbara Benedetti. It came along at the perfect time to break into fan consciousness at a critical point in the show’s history, and at a key point where technology and networking allowed it to be distributed more widely than its predecessors.
Cast: Barbara Benedetti as The Doctor, Randy Rogel as Carl Evans, Tom Lance as Wallace, Jim Dean as Grant, Kevin McCauley as Harris, Michael Smith as Tate, George Catalano as Francis, Mark Schelleberg and Karl Krogstad as bound workman.
Crew: Producer/Director – Ryan K. Johnson; Writer – Cheryl Read (credited), Ryan Johnson, Deb Walsh, Linda Bushyager; Production Manager -Mark Schellberg
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