❉ What connects Max Headroom, Virginia Woolf and Robert Louis Stephenson?
At what point does something lose focus and become something else entirely? For example, if a remix of a song trades the original’s melodies and instrumentation for a snippet of sound entirely recontextualised and with different backing and chord progression, is it really a remix or is it new? What if a screenplay purports to be based on a text but adds entirely new characters, concepts and subplots and strips the original to merely using a name from the original pages: is it really based on a text at all?
I found myself considering this as I read the latest Black Archive essay from Obverse Books. Written by Matthew Guerrieri, the story of choice this time is the 1977 story Horror of Fang Rock… or is it?
It definitely touches base at times. The opening of the essay discusses the infamous transmission of Fang Rock where the broadcast was interrupted by a video of a Max Headroom impersonator. This leads to a humorous and interesting discussion on Doctor Who and incongruity, and how it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility in the show for such a strange aside to be part of the episode proper. It’s the highlight of the essay for me.
Guerrieri also looks at the background of the supporting characters and what we can glean from their lines regarding their social standing and possible motivations. All of this is interesting.
The difficulty with this essay though is that these moments are few and far between. More often than not, I got the impression Guerrieri would rather be talking about something else. I came away from it more knowledgeable about Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse and the history of Robert Louis Stevenson, and that’s nice, but the connections to Fang Rock itself became increasingly tenuous and weak. Yes, the materials discussed outside of Doctor Who mention lighthouses but in some cases this is where the thematic links start and end.
Not always, I want to stress. Some connections are closer and clearer than others. But increasingly, I felt the essay was stretching; overreaching to grab onto an apparent connection.
Over and over, the same question reared its head for me: was this really an essay about Fang Rock? And if not, is there anything wrong with that?
That second question is easy to answer: no. There isn’t anything wrong with that at all, and Guerrieri’s knowledge is clear to see and at times very interesting to read. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little cheated, however well researched the tangents, and I would certainly advise caution with this essay.
Horror of Fang Rock is a great story, and this essay is at times an interesting read. Just go into it knowing that it’s not really about Horror of Fang Rock a lot of the time, despite its title, and you should be alright.
❉ ‘The Black Archive #33: Horror of Fang Rock’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £5.99. Click here to order.