So I recently watched the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock, an outstanding four-part story. And one of the things that leaped out at me was the supporting cast.
The plot concerns a monster lurking at the Fang Rock lighthouse (an alien Rutan, as we eventually learn), which has begun killing off the keepers when the Doctor and Leela arrive. Midway through the story, a ship crashes on the rocks nearby, due to the owner, Lord Palmerdale, having pushed to reach London. The survivors — Lord Palmerdale, Col. Skinsale, Adelaide and Harker — arrive and become added targets for the monster (it’s a small cast, but the body count is high). But at the same time, they’ve all got their own dynamic going on and it keeps on going as the bodies pile up.
We learn that Palmerdale bought up Skinsale’s debts to pressure the latter, an M.P., into giving him confidential government information. If Palmerdale can reach London, or at least contact them by morning, he’s in the money. Skinsale knows he’s acted dishonorably, so he’s thrilled that Palmerdale can’t act on the information, especially as his lordship burned Skinsale’s IOUs. If he can’t act on the information, too bad.
This affects the plot a little (Skinsale smashes the lighthouse “wireless telegraph” at one point to keep Palmerdale from contacting anyone) but it’s mostly independent. And it makes things much more interesting — regardless of the nightmare they’re stuck in, the men’s personal issues take more precedence (and also fill up more time).
But that’s not the only way to handle supporting casts. At the other extreme we have Seeds of Doom in which the Doctor and UNIT battle the alien Krynoid. The guest cast has none of the agendas Fang Rock‘s do: they serve the story. UNIT’s out to stop the creature; Chase wants to enable it; his henchman want to kill anyone who interferes (nothing personal, they have a job to do); the victims die. But that works too.
For something in the middle, there’s 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade which I watched last weekend. The plot is a highly fictionalized version of events leading up to the idiotic and suicidal charge at the Battle of Balaclava, but along with the military derring-do there’s a B-plot. Geoffrey (Errol Flynn) is engaged to Elsa (Olivia de Haviland) but she’s fallen in love with his brother Perry (Patric Knowles). Perry, confident Geoffrey will understand, tells him how they feel, but Geoffrey refuses to believe it — of course Elsa doesn’t love Perry! And she can’t bring herself to tell Geoffrey yes, she does. But deep down Geoffrey knows, and as the movie approaches it’s end, he tells Elsa to go and find his brother and be with him. Then Geoffrey makes damn sure Perry is away from the battlefield before the Charge. This triangle doesn’t play as big a role as the financial scheming in Fang Rock but it’s more of a B-plot than the characters got in Seeds of Doom.
Which I guess means I don’t really have any insight. There’s no one right way to handle subplots and the lives of supporting characters; it’s whatever works for the story. Which isn’t a terribly surprising conclusion, but there you are.
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