The Darkness of Glass
Tony Fyler looks through a glass darkly.
There are certain periods and certain scenarios that just work with different Doctors and different companion combinations. Earlier in the run of Fourth Doctor stories, it became clear that he and the First Romana were perfectly suited to tales of 1920s elegance or Victorian steampunk. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane (indeed, also the Third Doctor and Sarah-Jane) were perfectly suited to spacefaring, futuristic adventures. With Leela, the Fourth Doctor just somehow fits into gothic stories of dark corners, mystical monsters, and creepy oddness. As a discovery it’s no doubt reinforced by the fact that they found this relationship out on TV in time to deliver some of the best Who in decades, in stories like Horror of Fang Rock and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The Darkness of Glass is right in that vein – indeed on the extras to this release, Louise Jameson describes it as Horror of Fang Rock MEETS The Talons of Weng-Chiang. There’s validity in that description, though it also brings a New Who sensibility to bear – there’s more than one Vashta Nerada shudder in this story.
The story is set in 1907, on a windswept island (thank you, Fang Rock - an association also explicitly mentioned within the context of the story), and deals with a meeting of a society of lanternists – illusionists who use magic lanterns or glass slides to perform their beautiful trickery. What’s more, it harks back a hundred years to 1807, with the inclusion of a creepy supernatural legend about the greatest lanternist of them all, and how he was haunted by a demon of darkness, with appalling, gruesome consequences. The sense of being in a world where superstition and technological advancement sit side by side, sometimes with a good bit of jostling for supremacy, is laced throughout the tone of the script and the sound design – it’s a pre-World War time, a world that’s part imperial, part colonial, and where spiritualism, mysticism and firm religious conviction sat alongside staggering scientific and industrial progress and a sense of unbounded hope and possibility. While the characters who gather on the island are products of this world, their regular referral back to the world of 1807 shows both how far society has come since then, and at the same time how brittle that progress can be when the lights go out.
Writer Justin Richards seems to have given serious thought to the pacing of his mystery here, and the gothic tone intensifies by degrees, with an almost Sapphire and Steel creepiness as the picture of what is really going on becomes clearer. When people in the here and now start to die, as they do, it’s the realisation of a mad idea, and the sound design keeps you tightly in the frame of the drama, rather than ever letting you snap out of it to think ‘that’s ridiculous.’ The Darkness of Glass never gives you the breathing space of that much rationality, conjuring its claustrophobic environment, laying its mysteries, and piece by piece, building up an enemy against which it seems impossible for the Doctor and Leela to prevail. As with the best such stories, there’s a good amount for Leela to do here, and her faith in the Doctor is beginning to be matched by her own justified self-confidence as they work together though apart to defeat the so-called ‘demon’ at the heart of the terror.
As far as the evil is concerned, there’s a touch of Midnight about the thing – it’s never explicitly named, nor ever explicitly rationalized, which, given that it’s referred to as a demon throughout the story is a brave step for a series like Doctor Who. The eventual solution and ending is also dark like the best black coffee – it leaves an impression on you long after you’ve stopped experiencing it directly. Again, that’s partly to do with the writing, which clearly leaves both the evil’s nature and the question over just how vanquished it is open for potential future stories, and partly down to the sound design, which renders the idea of ‘screaming glass’ in a fingernails-down-a-blackboard way that makes the thing sound entirely alien and entirely without an easy physical reference point in the human imagination.
One to buy, then?
Unreservedly, yes – it’s a standout story of the season. Experience The Darkness of Glass today – you’ll never look at stained glass in quite the same way again.