Doctor Who - Horror of Fang Rock

Horror of Fang Rock

Just this once Leela, everybody lives! Only kidding- it’s Horror of Fang Rock, reviewed by Steve Hendry...

Greetings reader, I have had my dematerialisation circuit returned to me by the Lord President and been invited to write a series of articles about Doctor Who for this impressive website. They’ve redecorated and I like it. In the absence of any new Doctor Who for another few months, I have decided to ignore Steve’s tweets and submit nothing until August review some of the jewels in Rassilon’s sash that are screening on the Horror Channel in the UK. It has been a source of frustration to me for a while that classic series Who hasn’t had much television exposure in recent years, and fezzes off to Horror for getting some of these out to a wider audience. DVD releases are all well and good, but I think the wider availability of the classic series will pique the interest of many people who’ve never watched it. It’s all about bringing the kids through, Brian. They’re the future of fandom and they’ve got to learn it’s not all fancy CGI and thirteen Doctors at a time in 3D. Know your history and all that. Anyway, I should wrap this introduction up by alerting you to the spoilers in my reviews and recommend that you watch the stories in question before reading them, sweetie.

A Gallifreyan and a Sevateem Warrior walk into a lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper says- “I reckon you killed my workmate”. The Doctor says “no we didn’t, he was killed just before we arrived, this happens to me a lot and I reckon this is a standard base-under-siege Doctor Who story”. That’s not funny, is it? No, and neither is Horror of Fang Rock. This is no City of Death or Unicorn and the Wasp; it is tonally, atmospherically and visually dark. There is a malign alien invader conditioned for war, a crashed yacht, dead men walking, a Doctor without a clue for seven-eighths of the story who fails to save everyone bar Leela from being killed, a vile toff who doesn’t care about anything that exists outside of his wallet and a story resolution that leaves The Doctor backed so close against the wall he has to blow up his first opponent and shoot their mother ship out of the sky. Who says Lethbridge-Stewart didn’t teach him anything? It’s not a standard base-under-siege either, usually The Doctor ends up shaking hands with a few grateful guest players at the end before flying off in the TARDIS having saved the day by outwitting his attacker. Only a couple of the crew walked away from Bowie Base One, but this story by proportion has the highest death count of any over the show’s first fifty years. It’s one of only two Doctor Who stories with “Horror” in its title, what did you expect?

Among the cheery conversation between the lighthouse staff in the opening scene comes the line “Bit o’ luck comin’ for you”. No, no there’s really not Reuben. There’s a Rutan coming and it’s going to kill the lot of you, along with that boatload of horrendous ponces that are due to hit the rocks in twenty-five minutes. In between these scenes though, the first episode rattles along swiftly. There’s a lighthouse without a light, the TARDIS lost in the fog after aiming for Brighton (“It’s not even Hove, could be Worthing”), The Doctor indulging his hat fetish, Leela stripping off to her underwear (Victorian garb, don’t get too excited), poor Ben being the first of the gang to die, dead fish and suitably creepy incidental music from Dudley Simpson. In an episode full of great set-pieces, the crashing yacht makes for an unsatisfactory cliff-hanger, surely “It’s Ben, he’s walking!” would have been a better choice. Nonetheless, the model of the ship in question, along with that of the TARDIS in the fog at the opposite end of the episode, is impressive.

Horror of Fang Rock

Not for the first time, I was left wishing more 70s Who had been shot on film, John Walker’s shots of Leela in part one and her outdoor recce with The Doctor in episode two are a taste of how it lends itself better to the atmosphere in a story of this type than video. Having said that though, Paddy Russell’s tight direction, intelligent use of lighting from Bob Gell and Paul Allen’s superb set designs are keys to the success of this story, which owes as much to these visual elements (tip of the bowler hat to Joyce Hawkins’ excellent early 1900s costumes as well) as it does to Terrance Dicks’ well-paced script, edited by the incomparable Robert Holmes. Holmes’ adjustments to the scripts around this era of the show absolutely sing. His quick-fire verbal exchanges have never been bettered and must have been a real pleasure for the actors privileged enough to play them on screen. He wrote all Tom Baker’s best quips, and there was no-one better suited than Tom to deliver them. This is typified by the exchange between The Doctor and the odious, “jumped-up little money grabber” Henry Palmerdale, who had the temerity to ask Number Four “Are you in charge here?” to which The Doctor replies “No, but I’m full of ideas”. Owned.

The scariest moments in Doctor Who often come when it becomes apparent that The Doctor has lost control of the situation at hand, Midnight being perhaps the best recent example of this. He’s made some misjudgements over the years, but surely none as costly as this one. He had warned them- “gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack and by morning you could all be dead” and insisted that no-one was to leave. The story’s shocking reveal comes at the end of episode three that he had unwittingly locked everyone in with Reuben the Rutan, when venturing out into the foggy weather was by far the safer option. This discovery that The Doctor has been running up and down the stairs achieving precisely nothing since arriving at the lighthouse is genuinely chilling. Tom Baker of course, plays this absolutely beautifully, his frustration building gradually over the first three episodes before his realisation hits just in time to provide one of the show’s greatest ever cliff-hangers.

Despite Baker’s well-known off-camera disagreements with Louise Jameson being at their peak at the time of filming, their repartee is entertaining throughout, high points being his amusement at Leela threatening to cut out Palmerdale’s heart and her display of unshakable faith in him just when he seems to have lost any in himself- “You will easily dispose of this primitive creature Doctor, you are a Time Lord!”. She’s there for him when he needs her the most, reminding him that he’s still the hero. Jameson never failed to deliver in what was an unorthodox regular role; there hadn’t been a regular companion who wasn’t from Earth since Susan departed at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Her slap around Adelaide‘s chops when she screams hysterically at horrid Henry’s big fall being announced by The Doctor, along with her eye rolling when the lily-livered damsel faints later on are two of the story’s treats, and about as close as we get to humour in a story that keeps the suspense wound tightly throughout. Her incomprehension at her Bristow-esque knife throwing technique failing to hurt the Rutan is perhaps the only time we see the Sevateem warrior engaging flight mode. When Leela’s scared, you know it’s spare underpants time.

Horror of Fang Rock

It isn’t until halfway through episode four that The Doctor finally makes a positive identification of his opponent. Once he starts talking Mutter Spirals with Oyster Face, it soon becomes apparent why the Sontarans clone batches of themselves solely to attack the Rutans. If this particular one is a good indicator, they’re not a pleasant bunch at all. Following the revival of the Sontarans in recent years, perhaps there’s a good opportunity to see The Doctor in the middle of this war sometime soon. It strikes me as odd that, given his loathing for war, along with his knowledge of the length of the one between Sontar and Ruta Three and the casualties it has inevitably generated, he hasn’t tried to put an end to it.

You’ve probably gathered at this point I’m starting this series of retrospectives with one of my favourite stories from Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor; I love Horror of Fang Rock for so many reasons. It reminds us that our hero isn’t infallible; he’s probably never got it this wrong before getting it right though. We got our first and to this date only televised encounter with the Sontarans’ mortal enemies and just one of them had the Doctor’s pants down until the final episode. The script is a product of Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes’ work at its peak, and it is difficult to believe it was conceived in a shorter time than usual after a vampire-related story was rejected, underlining the wealth of scriptwriting talent at the disposal of Graham Williams in his first season. This serial stands up well even forty years after its first broadcast, and will no doubt have impressed any viewer enjoying it for the first time on Horror.

Images - Wikipedia.