It took me the longest time to realize where Ghostwatch came from.
In Russell T. Davies’ era of Doctor Who, during the time of the Tenth Doctor, the term was used by the British media to refer to the manifestation of strangely humanoid apparitions that appeared everywhere in the 2006 episode “Army of Ghosts.” Of course, these “ghosts” were actually Cybermen from an alternate reality attempting to come into this world: or that of the show itself. What I didn’t know, then, was that “Ghostwatch” was a reference to the BBC 1992 pseudo-documentary that terrified British television watchers everywhere by using their actual media spokespeople and staff to stage an elaborate tongue-and-cheek televised haunting turned bad.
I could write a lot about Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch in its own right, as it falls into my whole found footage and epistolary cinematic fiction kick, but it was another reminder of that intersection not just between fantasy and comedy with horror, but science-fiction – especially weird science-fiction – and the horror genre. And when you have something like Doctor Who, a particularly weird science-fiction series running from 1963 and onward, stopping for a time in 1989 and 1996 respectively, only to be resurrected in 2005, it is a bizarre and zany patchwork that has covered a few genres, and stories, and story concepts in its time. I used to talk about this series a lot. Hell, I once spent years at an online magazine covering entire episodes of the show, and speculating on all of its elements before truly digging into the horror genre full time in these latter years.
And then, one day, I encountered Phantasm.
It wasn’t a direct path. It never is, with me. A lot of my interests, and discussions, result from a series of geeky tangents, kind of like my Horror Doctor Blog: which bears no relation to Doctor Who in any way, just to be clear. But one day, I was on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s channel, and James Rolfe and Mike Matei were playing an unofficial game called Terrordrome: Rise of the Boogeymen: a Mortal Kombat-like simulation where you could fight as your favourite characters. And they were all there, these horror icons from the late seventies to eighties and nineties: Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Candyman, the different Ghostfaces, goddamn Herbert West, and of course freaking Ash Williams. But there were some others too. I’d only known of Leatherface in passing back when I first watched this, and Pumpkinhead. I had no clue that Maniac Cop was a thing.
And then, I saw him.
I saw this giant of an old man in a formal black suit. And he was strong. Insanely strong. He could use telekinesis as well, but he also summoned creatures that looked mysteriously like Jawas from Star Wars to do his bidding in battle.
And he also summoned silver spheres.
I had no idea who this gentleman was, and it bothered me. It especially concerned me whenever he got hit and, instead of bleeding red blood, yellow fluid came out of him instead. This wasn’t right. How could I not know who this fascinating, terrifying character was? I read up on him after the fact and saw that he was just called The Tall Man.
And that was it. But this is where I also found out that there was a horror series called Phantasm: created by the architect of Bubba Ho-Tep – coincidentally one of my favourite films – Don Coscarelli. And yet, this wasn’t enough to get me to watch them, or i didn’t have access to them at the time before I encountered The Last Drive-In, again through James Rolfe and Diana Prince – or Darcy the Mailgirl – and found out there had been an entire Christmas event where most of the films had been shown.
Why did I watch these films, and hunt down the illusive Phantasm II regardless of being a completionist? It’s because not only did this Tall Man, who as it turns out also inspired the creation of the memetic Slender Man, intrigue me as it looked like an extremely unlikely iconic villain, and one I didn’t know about, it’s that something about him vaguely nagged at my senses like Slender Man would people’s collective nightmares. I had seen him, or something like him, before – and not Angus Scrimm, the actor that portrays him.
It started with the silver spheres, I know that much now. In 2007, still under Davies’ tenure as showrunner, the Doctor Who episode “The Sound of Drums,” has The Master – The Doctor’s Time Lord archnemesis – working with, or possibly having engineered the Toclafane: a race of silvery sphered aliens that are supposed to help humanity, but actually serve him in decimating it in an event called The Year That Never Was. And, as it turns out, these creatures used to be human beings from a far distant dark future that all but had their brains regressed and changed to fit into their metal carapaces that possess blades capable of cutting many people apart. They are said to also be mostly ruled by their baser instincts, and to attack from those impulses.
Now, Phantasm watchers, what else has blades that come out of them and attack people directly and have human brains inside them obeying – or working with – a terrifying potential alien antagonist? Of course, the Silver Sentinels are more direct and will drill into a victim’s skull, and they are removed from the skulls of the transformed dead by the Tall Man to serve him directly and, as far as I know, only the Giant Sentinels from Phantasm V are capable of firing lasers instead of the Toclafane with their own energy weapons, and their hive mind, but the parallels are hard to ignore: to the point where I wonder if Davies had been inspired by Coscarelli’s films. However, science-fiction has its own share of strange and bizarre creatures, especially cybernetic humans gone wrong, and Doctor Who itself from which Davies could have more than easily been inspired.
Of course, now that I’ve seen the Phantasm films I’m also thinking again about the Lurkers: those Jawa-like beings I mentioned earlier. These particularly strange and outlandish things are the result of the Tall Man mutating dead bodies, those he is supposed to be caring for in his guise as a mortician, into his own mindless servants: their brains taken specifically to power and pilot his Sentinels. They, like the Tall Man, have yellow blood: an ichor that slightly resembles the reagent used by Herbert West in the later Re-Animator films, except that solution is a light neon green instead. It is fascinating to note that, at one point in Phantasm IV: Oblivion, the Tall Man exists in the American Civil War injecting fallen soldiers with needles filled with the yellow substance in a manner not unlike something the good Doctor West would do.
But then there is the idea that the Tall Man attempted to access the realm of the dead, or a mortal incarnation of him tried to do so, that resulted in his creation, and the creations of the Lurkers, the Sentinels, and his other undead monstrosities. Years later, in Steve Moffat’s run as showrunner in Doctor Who, he introduces the concept of the Nethersphere where, as it turns out again, Missy – the female incarnation of The Master, having survived death once – downloaded the consciousnesses of all the recently dead into a Gallifreyan Matrix data slice, or hard-drive to upload into Cybermen obedient to her will. Essentially, she hijacks the deaths of countless humans to make her army of the dead: engineering an afterlife in the form of the Nethersphere to do so. It is reminiscent of something The Tall Man says to the priest in Phantasm II: ““You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” The Tall Man’s afterlife, or homeworld or dimension, is a dark place of endless storms in a black desert and binary sun mocking the landscape of the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, and more like a purgatory or hell in itself of his own creation accessed through his Dimensional Fork Gates much like Missy’s Nethersphere is accessible through her own jury-rigged Gallifreyan technology. Could Moffat have been inspired by Coscarelli’s films as well? Who knows.
Yet one interesting parallel remains in my mind, or from my sense of aesthetics. Look at William Hartnell’s depiction of the First Doctor. Consider his suit, and his hair colour and style. Now think about the fact that whenever he is grievously injured, he Regenerates. He shapeshifts. Doctor Who was made in 1963, and by 1979 – when the first Phantasm film was released – we are all the way at the Fourth Doctor who has a device called a sonic screwdriver that allows him to access and manipulate certain elements. He is also an inventor and he can create things almost on a whim from pre-existing materials, and he travels through space and time. None of this is news to those who follow the series.
Now look at Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man. He is a lengthier old man with a similar suit, but whereas Hartnell’s Doctor is flippant and snappish, The Tall Man is grimmer and far more menacing, his voice rough and brusque. He was derived from the nineteenth century mortician Jebediah Morningside: a man was also something of an inventor or a scientist. Both seem to have less patience for the young. The Doctor himself is surprisingly strong, as Gallifreyans are made to be sturdy and do not have the same physiology as humans. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to explore, and The Tall Man utilizes his Gates to move around: the former primarily through Time and Space, and the other through what seems to be alternate dimensions of reality, and sometimes different time periods. However, The Tall Man also shapeshifts but not always when he dies, and even his limbs – when severed – can change into other creatures entirely. Fascinatingly enough, Davies does create a clone of the Tenth Doctor from a severed limb of his later in the series, but that is just coincidence as I feel that was an accident when it was combined with human DNA whereas The Tall Man’s mutations are all purposeful and malicious. And while The Doctor has a sonic screwdriver to help him, it seems a tuning fork in the hands of the protagonists often disrupt The Tall Man’s Fork Gates, his technology, and sometimes even himself. The Doctor does have aspects of telepathy too, whereas The Tall Man has telekinesis. The Doctor is able to Regenerate into different genders, and The Tall Man can change his shape to match different genders. The Doctor is impatient with his human Companions and the species in general but over time warms up to them, whereas The Tall Man sees them as resources, though he has a draw towards and wants to capture Michael Pearson – who he always calls “Boy” – and Reggie, who he loves to torment like some kind of multiversal pet of spite.
Interestingly enough The Doctor once said he was half-human, and as a Gallifreyan he has two hearts, and The Tall Man seems to have come from a human at one time. Also of note, The Master – who has the Toclafane and their version of the Cybermen – is seen as the antithesis of The Doctor, while The Tall Man with his Sentinels and creations, his own resurrections in the form of duplicates and even gender changing as well can be seen as another. I can go on, I’m sure, and I want to make it clear that I am not saying that Phantasm was inspired by Doctor Who, or that various eras of Doctor Who were clearly inspired by Phantasm, but the parallels are striking and I feel that creative “cyber-pollination ” is a thing.
I feel like I might have managed to offend two fanbases in two different genres in writing this piece such as it is, but it all comes back to horror and science-fiction: especially weird science fiction again. Things like Doctor Who are almost ridiculous. In a few other writings, I’ve talked about how The Doctor is the sublime and silly answer to the malevolence and apathy of a Lovecraftian universe: a dream that delves into nightmare to emerge, sometimes with some loss, triumphantly to face alien bees, vampires, and B-List foes like Cybermen, and Daleks once again. But Phantasm, with the Tall Man? He is on that other road. He represents that place where reality is never fixed, always changing, always shifting, a dream from which you can’t awaken, and yet the fight and the struggle keeps going. Doctor Who is the madcap insanity that laughs in the face of cosmic madness. Phantasm is the horror that keeps coming back throwing dwarves, mutants, robots, and undead in your face. Neither should work, these chimerical juxtapositions, but they do because in the end, both are strange stories that constantly reinvent themselves. And both are different sides of the Weird.
One thought on “At a Fork Between Space and Time: Phantasm and Doctor Who”
This post is brilliant. Thank you.