Horror of Fang Rock ****

Season 15 kicks off in a Victorian lighthouse beset by an eerie shapeshifting Rutan

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
Horror of Fang Rock ****

Season 15 – Story 92

"Gentlemen, I've got news for you: this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead. Anyone interested?" - the Doctor

Storyline
Arriving on a small, craggy island off the English coast around the dawn of the 20th century, the Doctor and Leela enter a lighthouse that becomes shrouded in fog. As its inhabitants Ben, Reuben and Vince struggle with power failures, a steam yacht runs aground on the rocks. The high-society passengers seek shelter in the lighthouse, but a creature from a crash-landed spaceship begins to kill them one by one. The monster, whose Rutan race is at war with the Sontarans, can assume different forms at will. How can the Doctor find the killer…?

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 3 September 1977
Part 2 - Saturday 10 September 1977
Part 3 - Saturday 17 September 1977
Part 4 - Saturday 24 September 1977

Production
Filming: May 1977 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: May/June 1977 at Pebble Mill, Birmingham

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Leela - Louise Jameson
Reuben - Colin Douglas
Vince Hawkins - John Abbott
Ben - Ralph Watson
Lord Henry Palmerdale - Sean Caffrey
Colonel James Skinsale - Alan Rowe
Harker - Rio Fanning
Adelaide Lessage - Annette Woollett
Voice of Rutan - Colin Douglas

Crew
Writer - Terrance Dicks
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Paul Allen
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - Paddy Russell

RT Review by Mark Braxton
Turning a corner in the show's development, and marking the start of Graham Williams's time as producer, Horror of Fang Rock was a serial absolutely dripping with the most abject difficulty.

The 11th-hour withdrawal of a vampire story compelled a speedy replacement by Terrance Dicks, and with no space available at Television Centre, recording had to be transferred to BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham, with all the associated transportation of sets and equipment.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the all-hands-to-the-pump nature of the production, a scintillating diamond was created. But then again, there are…

FIVE FACTORS IN FANG'S FAVOUR
1. Writer under pressure

Asked to name his or her favourite writer for the show, the average fan will often cite Moffat or Holmes. Yet Terrance Dicks's contribution to Doctor Who was immeasurable and, in the case of this story, little short of astounding. 

Whether or not he was aided by script editor Robert Holmes - who had already proved adept at period detail and language - Dicks came up in a very short time with a thick stew of intrigue: sharply encapsulated sense of time and place, a hard-to-pinpoint enemy and a claustrophobic setting…

2. Beacon of hope
The curved walls of the lighthouse set were cursed by the crew for the limitations it afforded in terms of camera movement, but in story terms the cramped quarters and the trapping of the creature within them made for an eerie atmosphere, full of dreadful possibility. Designer Paul Allen did his research with a couple of field trips beforehand, and it really shows.

The set dressing is lovely, too (generator, lamp room, speaking tube, wireless telegraph), as are the extraneous props (I love the cumbersome, cardboard-y life jackets). The "exterior" scenes are well filmed and the visual-effects seascapes and shots of the lighthouse are nicely blended in, on the whole, although the less said about the balsa-wood yacht crumpling on the rocks, the better.

3. Lighthouse family
Dicks breathes life into the potentially perfunctory Ten Little Indians scenario with minor-league yet still indelible characters. Chief amongst them are gruff, whiskery Luddite Reuben ("T'aint natural"), cunning silver fox Colonel Skinsale, and naive but principled John Gordon Sinclair-alike Vince. I remember being horrified at the sight of Vince accepting Palmerdale's bung, but then mollified when he torches the £50. Perhaps Dicks recognised that a shred of decency amid the corruptible Rutan fodder wouldn't go amiss.

Not all the characters fare so well, however - it would be 32 years before a writer would restore some honour to the name Adelaide (Russell T Davies and Phil Ford in The Waters of Mars).

4. Feet of clay
We're used to the notion of the flawed hero these days, but back in 1977, the Doctor's admission that he's "made a terrible mistake" was a genuine shock. Trapping a murderer inside and giving him/it every opportunity to strike again makes it doubly appalling. But it's a brave writer that can take such a liberty; in any case, making the hero imperfect helps us relate to him. It worked then and it works now.

5. A smile says it all
The smile is used, powerfully, in two devastatingly different ways. The first is by Colin Douglas as Rutan-possessed Reuben. Descending the stairs towards Harker in the generator room, his grotesque gurn takes the prize for the most disgustingly creepy expression the programme has ever known.

In merciful contrast comes an infectious dazzler from Louise Jameson as Leela. Her character was often made to feel stupid by the Doctor. So the moment she pre-empts him with a solution to their dilemma, prompting her mentor to say, "That's a beautiful notion", causes a smile as warm and brilliant as a carbon arc beam. Interviews with both Jameson and Tom Baker indicate a slight thawing in their relationship around this time. There may be more in that smile than we'll ever know…

It's not Jameson's only lovely moment. There are many, including her endearing manglings of the English language ("Teshnician"!), her lack of qualms about changing clothes in front of a stranger, and the way she interrupts her flight from the doomed lighthouse to tuck a knife in her boot.

And in swapping barely-there animal skins for chunky knitwear and black trousers, Jameson manages the extraordinary feat of somehow becoming sexier. Call it the "Felicity Kendal in The Good Life" factor.

Horror of Fang Rock is a peculiar mixture of Upstairs, Downstairs and creature feature. The new monster - all crackling phosphorescence and radiophonic bubbling - slots right into the Doctor Who panoply, especially with that morsel of Sontaran-hating back story. The Rutan's spat-out boiled sweet look isn't the series most imaginative, but no matter.

With its attention to detail and its ability to shock, educate and unnerve, Horror of Fang Rock is classy, cosy, autumnal Who.

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Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


[Available on BBC DVD]

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