Pyramids of Mars
Eye of Heaven
Horror of Fang Rock
|Dates||Sept. 3, 1977 -
Sept. 24, 1977
With Tom Baker, Louise Jameson.
Written by Terrance Dicks. Script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by Paddy Russell. Produced by Graham Williams.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Leela face unexplained murder in a lighthouse, where dead men seemingly return to life.|
A Review by David Masters 26/5/97
My memories of the original broadcast, as cloudy as they were, filled me with a great deal of suspicion about this story. I've never been a tremendous fan of the Williams-era, and although this story was more in the mould of the Hinchcliffe years, I had an over-riding recollection of tackiness.
JNT must be right! The memory does deceive! The UK Gold broadcast totally changed my opinion of this story. From one of distaste to delight! It is by no means a classic, but it is quite effective. The acting, if not award-winning in quality, is adequate, and the whole things moves along with plenty of momentum. Some of the effects were a bit cheesy, and there is a scene where the lighthouse door is obviously a normal door with just a bad paint job (there are similar scenes in Stones of Blood & The Ribos Operation), but it remains quite a pleasing entry, and along with Image of the Fendahl, one of the few worth-while efforts from its season.
A Review by George Potter 10/4/98
The premiere of Season Fifteen overcame an array of difficulties to become one of the more memorable adventures of its era. Originally, Terrence Dicks' The Witch Lords was scheduled to lead off the season, but the BBC heirarchy decided against it due to fear that it might be percieved as a parody of an upcoming adaption of Dracula. The Witch Lords (also known as The Vampire Mutations) was shelved, later being reworked into State Of Decay. ( The situation is strangely remniscent of the earlier interference with Dicks' The Brain Of Morbius).
Hastily written as a replacement, the serial's main flaws are an over reliance on coincidence and several loose ends. What, exactly, was the mythic "beast" continually referred to by the lighthouse crew? What is the secret information that the stranded aristocrats are so concerned about? These points are played up and abandoned, with no final explanation.
Happily, the story rises above these problems with a tremendously enjoyable tale of alien activity in the late 19th century. The plot moves quickly, the atmosphere is carefully built and sustained, and the actors are uniformly excellent. In addition, this is one of Louise Jameson's finest outings as Leela-- her obvious disgust at the weakness of Victorian female "manners" is hilarious. "Has she never seen death before?" she asks in honest bewilderment. And her response to the screaming woman pretty much sums up why Leela is my favorite companion.
From it's moody opening to the satisfying conclusion, The Horror Of Fang Rock is pure fun-- perhaps not as deep or complex as many serials, but a wildly entertaining ride, and a minor classic in it's own right.
A Review by Keith Bennett 12/7/98
There's nothing quite like a claustrophobic story. The Robots of Death did it splendidly, but The Horror of Fang Rock does it even better and with less space, taking place just in a lighthouse (although, to be fair, a bit of of the action takes place on the island outside).
The chilling and growing horror of the attack by the Rutan is wonderful, and the characters involved in the horror make for involving and very enjoyable viewing. The lighthouse crew are all believable, while the shipwrecked gang of snobs, with their bickering over money deals and suchlike, bring a richness and complexity to what is a pretty basic story. Unlike Robots, the aren't all mostly dead by the end of the second episode and, even if they aren't altogether likeable (hearing Adelaide's final scream is something of a relief), they are winning factors of the story all the same.
The Doctor and Leela shine here as a superb team. The Doctor is at his authorative best, and the savage Leela contrasts him brilliantly -- who could refrain from cheering when she wields her knife at Parmadale and snarls, "Silence! You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut our your heart"? And the wonderfully amused look from the Doctor in response to that threat shows that, while he might not often be appreciative of Leela's ways, he sees that they can be useful.
The only real negative are the poor scenes of the Rutan climbing up the side of the lighthouse and, even worse, the Doctor hanging from the window! I know he's the all-conquering Doc, but he's not Superman. Wouldn't a conveniant ledge for him to stand on have been more plable?
Horror of Fang Rock shows that Doctor Who doesn't have to be ultra-complicated with its basic storyline to be first rate viewing. The latter Doctor Who seasons could have done with remembering such a rule, and the later Virgin novelisations even more so. This is a engrossing and outstanding story, one of my personal favourites and quite possibly Terrance Dicks' best. 9/10
A Review by Guy Thompson 18/12/98
Horror of Fang Rock is a decent enough story, but it's unfortunately far too derivative of previous stories to be considered a classic, as it is by many fans. Ever since we learned of the ongoing war between the Sontarans and the Rutans back in The Time Warrior, the writers must have been itching to feature the latter in one of their stories, and Terrance Dicks was the first and only writer to get the opportunity. In my mind, it was a wasted one.
Judging from the design of the featured Rutan (and considering that it takes some ten minutes to climb a few steps) it is rather difficult to imagine exactly how these creatures are capable of maintaining a war against an infinitely more mobile (and apparently more intelligent -- the Sontarans wouldn't sit on a staircase for half an hour waiting, while Leela prepared a weapon to fire at one of them) enemy.
This really does look like low-budget stuff, from the dull and unimaginitive sets (I know they're supposed to be in a lighthouse, but they could have made it a little more pleasing on the eye!), to the Rutan itslef, which appears to have been purchased from a joke shop and livened up with that old friend of the BBC -- Colour Separation Overlay. The acting however, bar that screeching woman, is excellent, with the normal arange of gentlemanly grotesques seeping over from the Hinchcliffe era, and a realistic couple of lighthouse crewman. Leela is kept very well in character (probably for the last time), and Tom Baker livens up his performance with the sort of humorous undertones that would become for more erratic and less sutle as the Graham Williams tenure of the show progressed, witness lines such as ("This lighthouse is under attack and by tomorrow we might all be dead, anyone interested?").
Terrance Dicks's script borrows freely from his and other's previous works, and is evocative of many of the base-under-siege stories that smothered the Troughton era, while retaining the gothic undertones of Tom Baker's stories. This is a good piece of entertainment, it's good Doctor Who, it's just not outstanding.
Monster in the Basement by Therese Drippe 3/4/99
For a story that takes place only on a small rocky island and in a lighthouse, Horror of Fang Rock is surprisingly exciting. It plays up the claustrophobic aspect of the lighthouse very well, and the furnace room is the quintessential basement-with-monster. This is a good one to keep kids from ever going into a cellar at night. Nowhere to run, the Routon is in our midst!
The characters are all fun, from the three lighthouse men who all had wildly different personalities, to the spoiled Parmadale and his crewmates. Adelaide, Parmadale's blonde, whimpering secretary, was a riot, as was Leela's method of dealing with her. However when Leela tells Adelaide that the Doctor has taught her that science is better than magic, one can't help but laugh. The Doctor's rubber science is itself very little short of being magic! The Routon, however, was definitely a letdown. A poor little green slimeball, a veritable fluorescent jellyfish, it didn't strike one as being much of a threat in its natural form. Just don't touch. One can't help but think if it had remained in human form it might have gotten more accomplished than just sitting on the stairs blobbing around like a sulky teenager.
Some particularly vivid scenes include the one in which Leela creeps out through the fog to explore the island, knife in hand. Also when she threatens to cut out Parmadale's heart, and the Doctor grins in amusement. She positively shines in this adventure, with character development showing the results of keeping company with the Doctor. And her last bit at the end when she "looks back" and deals with the results in her typical fashion, forcing the Doctor to smile, is really delightful.
My main regrets about this story was the fact that there was such an incredibly low survival rate. And I don't just mean that the (c)Routons got made into salad (we all expected that). I really liked Parmadale's white haired fellow traveler, who was basically a very sportsmanlike gentlemen despite a few flaws. But the scriptwriters were positively ruthless. Even the fish died!
Despite the limited scope of settings, way too much glowing green stuff, and a truly pathetic Routon, this is one very fun Doctor Who episode, visually pleasing and intellectually enjoyable (no, I did not say intellectual), with just the right level of spine-tingle that makes Doctor Who so magical. 9/10
A Review by Michael Hickerson 28/7/99
In many ways, the Tom Baker era story, the Horror of the Fang Rock reminds me of an old Agatha Christie novel. You have a group of people brought together under unusual circumstances and before you know it, a large number of them have died or are about to be killed off.
The only difference is that instead of the culprit being a scheming criminal, here it's a large, blobby green alien from outer space.
Ah, the joys of Doctor Who.
The Horror of Fang Rock, in many ways, feels like a hold-over from the last Hinchcliffe/Holmes produced season. It's certainly got the elements--a remote location, a horrific monster and whole lot of extras who are killed off by the time the final credits roll.
And the idea of getting to see the Sontarins main foes, the Rutans seems like it would be of great interest.
But, overall, the story is a disappointment.
Part of it is that for the most part, you can skip episode two and three and not it doesn't really matter to the plot. Yes, during the time the Doctor and Leela make a few, minor discoveries about the creature and there's a lot of supsicion cast around the supporting cast and quite a few of them die, but overall, it's not as interesting as it could be.
It may be that the supporting cast is all one-dimensional. You've got old Ruben who is the wise old sea-keeper, the rich millionaire with a secret, his screaming secretary. The list of cliches just goes on and on.
Tom Baker really tries to elevate the script to a higher level and at times he succeeds. The cliffhanger for episode three is remarkably effective (the other two are just plain lame and feel like the cliffhangers for Americanized version of the Colin Baker stories) and shows a depth to Baker's performance. His confrontation with the Rutan are nicely done as well.
Even Louise Jameson is used well as Leela here. It's nice to see Leela get a bit more to do than just throw her knife and act savage.
Overall, though Horror of Fang Rock will never rank as one of the great classics of Tom Baker's reign as Doctor. Which is really a shame as it really had a chance to be something better than it is...and that's just a standard Who story...
Bigger on the Inside by Mike Morris 27/2/02
When discussing Horror of Fang Rock, there are two scenes that sum up the strengths of the story beautifully.
The first is early in Part Two, when a shivering, wet young lady is ushered to the fire by a young lighthouse keeper. She warms herself, smiles gratefully, and asks him his name. "Hawkins, Vince Hawkins," he says.
"Thank you, Hawkins," she replies, and in so doing encapsulates the snobbery and discrimination inherent in Victorian society in three words.
And the other? Well, I think the dialogue deserves to be repeated in full.
Doctor: Its behaviour pattern is furtive.Just to clarify; I first saw Horror of Fang Rock upon its video release... 1998 if memory serves me right. So I was by no mean a nine-year old looking for a sofa to hide behind. And yet that scene genuinely chilled me. It's similar in tone to the moment when the Doctor admits he's terrified in The Ribos Operation, but this is far more intense and even more effective. It hammers home the often-observed trait that marks Fang Rock as being different from any other story - that this isn't a story where the Doctor saves planets, mostly. This time, he's just trying to stay alive.
Leela: What is furtive?
D: That means it keeps out of sight while it spies out the land, hoping to mount a successful attack.
L: Then we are not facing an enemy that is bold!
D: No. But cunning... I don't think this fog's a freak of the weather.
L: What are you talking about?
D: I think it's been contrived to isolate us. That creature, whatever it is, it'll be getting bolder by now. It's seen this primitive technology, it's had time to calculate the physical strength of its enemies... I think we're in terrible trouble!
Okay, so i'? a gritty story about people trying to stay alive. But yeah, we all know that about Horror of Fang Rock. It's one of the two great fan praises - the other being that it's a textbook example of minimalism in storytelling, by the Grand Old Man himself, Terrance Dicks. Well, yes and no. One of the things we say about Who is that it has no formula, and that's certainly true, but at the same time it does have an array of stock scenarios. Fang Rock is a fine example of a Who staple, the Base-Under-Siege story. It has an isolated setting, a small number of supporting characters, and an external threat. It's subtly different from a similar story type, the Ten Little Indians formula, where the killer is one-of-us - although an element of that is introduced.
Sorry about the extensive preamble folks, but the point I want to make is that Fang Rock actually subverts the traditions of the Base-Under-Siege story as much as it enforces them. It's the only story of its type with a historical setting; it's the only story to introduce character-based subplots; it's the only story ever in which all the supporting characters die. The last two points are crucial. The Palmerdale-Skinsale subplot is superfluous in every way, but it gives the characters believable motivations that transcend the usual clich? of unstable leaders (The Ice Warriors), macho egos (Planet of Evil) and megalomania (Tomb of the Cybermen). And the death of everybody gives the story an unusual edge. In any other story Vince would have survived, simply because he's the most sympathetic character. Skinsale would probably also have lived, or at the very least died heroically. Instead he dies because of his own greed, and the Doctor's "dead with honour" statement is a lie... which embues the Doctor with a quietly human streak, giving a good man an epitaph he deserved but did not earn.
And the setting. Oh boy. Again, this is what marks Fang Rock out as great. Base-Under-Siege stories had always been set in space stations, spaceships, or the odd Moonbase. The lighthouse setting exposes the inherent laziness in that formula. The characters are isolated and defenceless in a very real way that future-settings can't achieve - there's usually a ray-gun lying around on a space station, one might expect a communications system or two, and Nerva had a transmat for crying out loud! However, there's sod all to fight aliens with on a lighthouse. Not only that but within this setting the Doctor and Leela are isolated too - Victorians aren't going to believe in aliens. They have no real allies, and in defence of the lighthouse are ploughing a lone furrow, protecting people who don't believe in the threat facing them. "We're on our own now." Too right. And that's why Fang Rock isn't about saving planets - because it's the only Doctor Who story with a threat so real that it doesn't have to be.
The people the Doctor and Leela are protecting hardly seem worth the bother, but that's half the point. A fine bunch of characters we have in this one, with only Reuben approaching clich? and not offensively so. They're of their period but not in the theatrical Litefoot-and-Jago way we're used to, and as such they evoke Victorian England beautifully. Not only does Fang Rock immerse itself in its setting so diligently, but it also immerses itself in Victorian values to an astonishing degree.
Forgive me but I'm going to digress a bit again. Ghost Light is generally accepted as being the Who story that's about Victorianism (as opposed to just being set in the period). However, Horror of Fang Rock takes in all the same themes, it just doesn't shout about it. The astonishment at Ace's apparel in Ghost Light is mirrored by Vince's reaction to Leela changing in front of him, for example. But other themes that Ghost Light pays loud lip-service to are addressed, subtly but better. Ghost Light's parody of "turn all the atlases pink" is just a slogan, a theme without development, whereas in Fang Rock it manifests itself in Reuben's casual racism. Josiah's "I'm a man of property" is foreshadowed by the character of Palmerdale - ordering everyone around, demanding service, and making the statement "I'm a businessman, how could there be anything wrong?"
Of course, in Ghost Light the Doctor clearly doesn't like the Victorian ethos, but he goes to dinner with Josiah all the same. Fang Rock is different - the Doctor chats with Vince, treats Harker with respect, and is generally much more at home with the common man than with the gentlemen. That's another Who convention subverted - usually there's a Lord Ravensworth around the corner for the Doctor to get pally with. Doctor Who may be (largely) an anti-establishment programme, but it rarely characterised poor, ordinary people as well as in Fang Rock. The Cartmel era may have been loudly left wing, but for all its social realism ordinary people didn't say much more than "flipping cats". At the other end of the scale is the Pertwee era comedy yokel, with all sorts of clich? and dodgy accents in-between. By contrast, characters like Vince and Harker are treated with the respect they deserve, and the gentry come across as self-satisfied snobs by comparison.
That's the biggest theme - snobbery. It comes through in Palmerdale's character, but also in Skinsale's, who considers himself a cut above Palmerdale and says so. But most astonishing is Adelaide Lessing, a secretary who never stops acting like Lady Muck. Terrance isn't famous for his female characters, but Adelaide is a triumph, even more the jumped-up nobody than Palmerdale. She introduces another theme also - that, in a sexist society, women have a perverse power over men. Adelaide is spiky, critical, and downright nasty, but she constantly expects to be waited on and - amazingly - she is. No gentleman is going to tell her to take a running jump, simply because she's a woman - another trait of Victorianism investigated beautifully.
The story's other attributes have been well-documented. Great direction, fine performances, top-notch sets (the external sets, in particular, are excellent), non-stop tension and a very dodgy monster. A word, though, for the two regulars. This is Leela's best story bar none, possibly because she contrasts so well with Adelaide. And it might seem daft to say that the Fourth Doctor's great (on a par with saying that water's a bit wet) but in Fang Rock he's particularly great. Interestingly, Paddy Russell recalls Tom Baker being intolerable during this story - criticising the script, insisting on reshoots and refusing to follow direction. Despite this Tom turns in one of his five best-ever performances, and Russell's direction positively drools over him. There's more close-ups than you can shake a stick at and the Doctor's presence is remarkable. He's intense, energetic and thoughtful, his confrontation with the Rutan is marvellous, and even the unimportant scenes are memorable. The Doctor cuts quite an image perched on the gantry at the end of Part One, for example, and when he tells Adelaide to "get back to the crew-room" it's very powerful stuff.
Then there's The Ballad of Flannen Isle. Now that's an ending.
If one ignores the poor realisation of the Rutan itself - and one can argue that bad visuals in Who should always be overlooked - it's difficult to find a flaw. The direction is tense, the performances are uniformly excellent, the pacing is exemplary and there are at least half a dozen magnificent scenes. Leela is well used, and Tom Baker dominates the story in a manner that's astonishing even be his standards. But the flawlessness of Horror of Fang Rock is generally accepted - what isn't accepted is that Horror of Fang Rock does much more than scare kids, and is about much more than a few people stuck in a lighthouse. It is, I think, the single greatest contribution Terrance Dicks ever made to the series. The more I view it, the more I'm convinced that Horror of Fang Rock is one of the best stories our little show produced - and is therefore one of the finest television dramas ever.
Nice one, Terry.
Made in Birmingham by Andrew Wixon 6/3/02
They say of oil supertankers (the use of a maritime analogy seems oddly appropriate to this story) that once one is going in a certain direction it can take a very long time to actually turn one around. And so it seems with Doctor Who also - the new Graham Williams regime, charged with toning down the horror and generally lightening up the show, produces as its debut offering one of the grimmest, most claustrophobic horror stories in the history of the series, a story that can hold its head up high alongside almost anything from the preceding three seasons. That gothic horror trend obviously proving far too tempting to abandon just yet.
Horror of Fang Rock is a great story but what's really special about it is that it's not that special at all. There are very few unusual narrative elements, no fancy storytelling tricks, no showy guest roles and no big ideas. It's the traditional - and, hey, it's a script by El Tel so that's hardly a surprise - 'outpost under siege' DW story, the 'alien menace loose in history' - what it is is nothing unusual, it's just that the story is told so exceptionally well. But yet again, there aren't that many outstanding moments - with the obvious exception of episode three's brilliantly underplayed cliffhanger. It's a story of subtle strengths - the way the insider-trading subplot is just interesting enough to help the story along, but not allowed to get in the way of the 'beast on the loose' scares. The way the traditional DW 'money shot' where the monster bursts through a wall/out of a swamp/round a corner is politely sidestepped in favour of a more gradual revelation of its form. And the novelty value of the 'everybody dies' ending, sadly devalued by its overuse in too many 80s scripts.
So, proof if ever it be needed that down-the-line trad DW can outperform virtually anything else you care to mention. And a historically significant story, too: the last story in the golden thread of Baker's early years, and one of the earliest sightings of JNT's name in the credits. Twilight's last gleaming? Maybe not, but DW would never have quite the same jugular instinct ever again.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 14/5/02
Horror of Fang Rock is sheer brilliance. Let's get that out of the way.
As to why:
Small scale suspense by Tim Roll-Pickering 19/9/02
It's clear from the outset that Horror of Fang Rock is designed to be the cheap story of the season, with a small cast, extremely limited sets and a story that works on the basis of fear and tension rather than upon locations and effects. Also of interest is the return of 'fringe' continuity in that this story introduces viewers to the Rutans for the first time even though they've been mentioned in previous Sontaran stories. Such continuity is now familiar with the novels but here is perhaps where it truly all began.
Despite its extremely limited scale, there is a lot going for the story. Following the trend for historical settings to be less than glamorous this is set in Edwardian Britain but is a far cry from the normal romantic view of this society as an Indian Summer. Instead we are shown an isolated outpost, staffed by a tiny crew that is augmented by only a few more travellers. The setting itself is effective but unfortunately none of the characters really stand out at all. Reuben's resistance against the introduction of electricity may be authentic but this is poorly developed and otherwise there is virtually nothing memorable about any of the lighthouse crew. The survivors of the ship aren't that interesting either, with the feud between Skinsale and Palmerdale never making any real impact other than when it influences the two into undertaking actions that increase the danger for everyone else. Adelaide provides a strong contrast with Leela, showing how far removed the Doctor's companion is from the traditional screaming heroine of a story, but otherwise the only interesting characters in the story are the Doctor and Leela as they seek to overcome suspicions and contemporary attitudes in order to tackle the Rutan. This story is one of a tiny handful in which every single additional character dies but it's hard to feel much for the loss of any of them. Of the cast only Tom Baker and Louise Jameson make any particularly strong impact, with the others sticking to their roles as cannon fodder.
The Rutan is an interesting addition to the series' mythology since it is far removed from the traditions of humanoid or machine aliens. The disguise powers work well since they are a fundamental element of the tale, but in a wider context they could so easily degenerate into being a cheap way to feature Rutans. The natural state is shown surprising well given the limitations of contemporary video effects and it makes for a truly terrifying foe given the way it just keeps on coming.
Productionwise the story has cheap sets but there's no need for them to be expensive in anyway, given the small scale of the story and Paul Allen does a good job in making them look realistic. Paddy Russell's direction is competent and so the story works despite its limited scale and characters. 6/10
A Review by William Berridge 19/11/02
Horror of Fang Rock is neither a complex nor original story, as can be seen by the statement of the then script-editor, Bob Holmes, that he got Terrance Dicks to do ‘Ten Little Indians in a lighthouse’. Actually, the lighthouse itself and the inevitable inclusion of the trademark green blob substituting for a human murderer are the story’s only real novelties.
Compared with Agatha Christie’s classic, the story gains added effectiveness from the even more claustrophobic nature of its setting, the isolated lighthouse on a barren rock being even more claustrophobic than a deserted island. However, it may, arguably, be too much so, as by the time the characters start getting bumped off around episode three, it seems they’re trying too hard to separate themselves from each other so they can be conveniently electrocuted. For instance, early in the episode Lord Palmerdale states ‘If there is something on this rock we should stick together!’ Five minutes later, the deliverer of this highly practical advice has found his way up to the top of the lighthouse and outside the lamproom, where he finds himself conveniently slaughtered. At the same time, Harker is downstairs in the pump room, Skinsale is up to no good in the crew room, Reuben is being mysterious in the room above that, the Doctor is on the stairs trying to get into it, Leela and Adelaide are at various points on the stairs and Vince is all by himself in the lamproom. Poor old Vince. Spending most of episode two and all of three on his own there, he really was asking for it. This (slight) absurdity doesn’t really detract from the plot, and is to some extent explained by the characterisation of some of these individuals as not getting on terribly well with one another.
What’s more interesting is the doubt it cast’s on the Doctor’s role, as the hero of a kid’s TV show, to protect lives, an object which, as far as the humans in the lighthouse are concerned, he totally fails to achieve (even if he does save the rest of the world’s population - AGAIN - at the end.) Not only does he not realise what the Rutan’s up to till the end of episode three (when he admits ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake’), by the time he groups everybody into a safe and defensible position - the lamproom - only him, Leela and Skinsale are left alive. Oops. He did, to be fair, encourage Adelaide, Skinsale and Palmerdale to stay in the crewroom (not that they paid any attention), and at least feel he was concerned about their preservation, even if it rather got forgotten about with the other things he had to do. His reaction to Palmerdale’s demise however, shows typical alien detachment, as he says ‘how fascinating’ in an almost Spock-like fashion (actually, Spock says ‘hmmm… fascinating’, but it’s close enough). This has similarities with his lack of remorse at Marcus Scarman’s death in an oft- quoted scene from Pyramids of Mars, and probably just shows that whilst he feels it is his moral obligation to save lives, he sees death so often he isn’t that disturbed when he fails. Whatever is made of this, it is undeniable Baker puts in one of his best performances, getting some of the best dialogue - his defence of H.G.Wells, the mocking of the Rutan, ‘are you in charge here?’ ‘no, but I’m full of ideas’ (this defines excellently his role in most adventures), and everything that has already been quoted on this reviews page… there really is too much to list.
What is particularly brilliant is the way he and Leela interact with the snobs – Adelaide, Skinsale and Palmerdale - especially when Leela slaps Adelaide. That bit’s so good I wish UK Gold would show it on their ‘TV you want to see again and again’ advert. Also enjoyable are the moment where Leela announcement ‘the creature is inside the lighthouse and we must fight for our lives’ causes Adelaide to faint, and the Doctor’s disinterested abandonment of a handful of diamonds, which Skinsale instinctively attempts to recover. The fact this greed causes Skinsale’s death is deeply ironic, since he showed a deal of bravery in assisting on accompanying the Doctor in his perilous task. Actually, the rest of the cast are well portrayed and the social gap between the snobs and the lighthouse crew and Harker is very telling depicted. Especially notable is the damning portrayal of Palmerdale and Skinsale, obsessed by wealth and prestige respectively, no matter how much danger this puts the lives of their ‘lessers’, the ship’s crew and the lighthouse crew in.
Although the petty rivalry of these to represents an element of the classical murder mystery, the plotting doesn’t really come up to the standards of Agatha Christie’s in Ten Little Indians - after all, it isn’t really a human murder story at all. The fact the murderer appears to ‘come back from the dead’, however, is a common feature in both stories, though the now overused ‘shapechanging alien’ plot device was a far from original method of achieving this. The eventual revelation of the Rutan is merciful in how delayed it was (belief was really easier to suspend previous to viewing this latest variation on the ‘round blob’ design theme, and its attempts to climb the stairs really were a bit pitiful).
For TV sci-fi adventure, though, Christie’s depth of plotting was hardly required as the acting of the two regulars and claustrophobic nature the (excellently designed) sets give the story are more than sufficient to hold the viewer’s attention and hence the story is very much a success.
Green blobs! by Joe Ford 18/8/03
Its odd, this is story I find hugely enjoyable to watch but whenever I scour my video shelves I rarely feel in the mood to watch it. I tried to pinpoint why today as I popped in the player and watched it. Was it the pathetic FX? Nope, they are serviceable and the show has dished out much worse. Was it the reported bad blood behind the scenes spilling on screen? Nadda, if anything it merely enhances the tension. Perhaps the fact that all the nice people die horribly? Don't be stupid, that's how you tell an effective story! Then what...?
It came to me during a scene that is played mostly for laughs. The Doctor rushes into a room full of frightened aristocrats and announces "Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead! Any questions?"... the simple fact is this is an extremely uncomfortable story to watch. Everything about it is uncomfortable, the sets, the performances, the script, the direction... they all merge to make one of the most tense and nail biting experiences in the show's run.
Skilled performers do most of the work. The danger cannot feel real unless we fear for the lives of our heroes. Characters such as innocent Vince and boisterous Ben appeal to us seconds into the story, they have a nice chemistry and are apparently very happy with their work on the lighthouse. Even Rueben, racist and opinionated though he is, demands our sympathy because we all know somebody like this. As they are picked off one by one we feel frightened ourselves, annoyed at the loss of such endearing people.
Then the yacht strikes the rocks and further characters are introduced to the isolated setting. This is where things get REALLY interesting because this bunch aren't worthy of our sorrow. Greedy and rude, Adelaide and Henry deserve their fates and yet we still feel for them, especially her as she is clearly so very pathetic. Anette Woolette is quite superb in the role of the screaming secretary, she delivers her lines with great aplomb helped along by a script that makes her thoroughly unlikeable. Indeed the difference between her and the much simpler (yet more capable) Leela gives Terrance Dicks a chance to contrast how useless companions of past were compared to the stronger, more able heroines of today.
Is this Dicks' best script? Possibly, in collaboration with top script editor Robert Holmes he produces an extremely tight story, perfect for Doctor Who. With a tiny setting, a handful of very memorable characters and a very real menace he has perfected the base under siege formula. The tension refuses to let up right until the last few seconds, early episodes concentrate on the "hidden evil" and once the cat is out of the bag it becomes a creepy "killer among us" story before climaxing in a monster fest. The dialogue sparkles, especially for the guest characters, with very few words we know these people very well indeed.
Nasties in the dark cannot be effective unless you have a focussed director at the helm. This story could not have been made later in the Williams era, directors at that point were concentrating of comedy rather than drama but during this early, experimental season Paddy Russell does a superb job with her resources. For a start she manages to convince that the story is set on a foggy island rather than a BBC studio, no mean feat but with effective sound FX, carefully shot camera work and lots of fog we are transported to an island of terror. No other story has an atmosphere quite like this one, a feeling of oppression and tension creeping from every shadow. Watching this story in the dark is a strikingly vivid experience. The lighthouse sets feel appropriately cramp and uncomfortable and the actors' offscreen tension drips into the story with superb results.
It's another excellent Leela story, a companion who in my opinion is possibly the most interesting of the lot. Louise Jameson is a great actress and seems to relish the stronger aspects of the part, Leela's curiosity, violence and protection of the Doctor. There is a positive tension between Tom and Louise in this, he spits out his lines with little time for her replies... again it helps with the uneasy feeling the story maintains. I love how the Doctor doesn't give a fig for the posh idiots rescued from the boat but spares a moment for Harker, it's very in-character. Plus his almost non-reaction to all the death happening around him helps to remind us just how alien he could be. Maybe Tom was being an arse off screen but take him away and the story would lose a great deal. His little chat with the Rutan on the stairs is a definite highlight, a seemingly absurd situation made utterly convincing by a terrific actor.
Ahh yes the Rutan, the only real fault with this story. Yep it's curse of the green blob time, an embarrassing mistake that they struggle on and use as best they can. It almost diminishes the tension watching it slither slowly up the stairs but the sudden appearance of the mother ship diverts our attention easily enough giving the story the climax it deserves.
So although I find the story a mite uncomfortable it is only a testament to the talent of everybody involved. Horror of Fang Rock works on so many levels, its a skillfully told character drama, a bite-your-nails good horror flick, an entertaining Doctor Who story and a brilliant start to the new season (and for incoming producer Graham Williams).
A Review by Brian May 29/8/03
I don't know if it's true, or just another Who myth, but the story goes that Terrance Dicks was forced to write a story set in a lighthouse by script editor Robert Holmes, after Holmes was forced to write a medieval story, season 11's The Time Warrior, by the programme's then script editor, Terrance Dicks. Whether this is true or not, Dicks does an admirable job with Horror of Fang Rock. Also given that this was a hasty rewrite, Dicks doesn't mess about and gives us an entertaining, tightly plotted adventure.
The story is one of Doctor Who's best examples of what can be achieved on a tight budget, with minimalism all the way. The lighthouse sets are excellent, as are the craggy, fog shrouded "exteriors" of Fang Rock, where the viewer can almost feel the cold. Even the shipwreck scenes are not that bad - the worst single shot is the cliff-hanger, when the boat hits the rocks, but in the scheme of things there has been much worse. The fried green egg of the Rutan monster really isn't that bad, either. The special sounds, in particular those accompanying the monster in most of its scenes, before and after it is revealed, are appropriately atmospheric.
But there are other things that make Horror of Fang Rock work. Basically it is an exciting and suspenseful tale in the vein of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None combined with the "base under siege" story that flourishes in Doctor Who. Although not as claustrophobic as it's intended to be, the story benefits from solid scripting and being well paced. Even subplots like the conflict between Skinsale and Palmerdale, and the latter's attempts to bribe Vince, don't seem like padding, where this could well have been the case. The four episode length is not too long or too short.
The story also benefits from good performances all around, despite the characters being rather clich?. Colin Douglas's Reuben is the crusty old sea dog, xenophobic and resistant to change. Vince, the young keeper and Harker, the seaman, are honourable, trustworthy working class men, whilst Skinsale and Palmerdale are the snivelling and perfidious aristocracy. I'm not sure what to make of Adelaide - a few years ago in an Amazon review I called her despicable - but I've softened to her a bit more recently. It's implied she's more than Palmerdale's secretary (she is referred to as his "fancy woman"). In her first scenes it seems she might be nice - she might even fancy Vince - but as soon as she says "Thank you, Hawkins" in a very class conscious, dismissive way, she doesn't attract much sympathy. Granted, she's caught in a situation she cannot control, but her constant snide remarks, complaining and screams are very annoying (how many in the audience cheered when the monster finally killed her?). But even though we have a base under siege version of Upstairs Downstairs going on, the characters are well fleshed out. Vince in particular is a warm, sympathetic man; the scene of his death is very moving.
There are, however, a few niggling things with this story. Firstly, an annoying continuity problem I don't think has been noticed by anyone (not The Discontinuity Guide, anyway). When Palmerdale ventures upstairs from the crew room to the lamp room, in order to bribe Vince, and Skinsale follows him to eavesdrop, they must surely pass by the Doctor and Leela, who - just moments before - went up to check Reuben's room. The stairs are too narrow not to notice somebody coming up behind you - he and Leela noticed Adelaide - and would the Doctor have sent them downstairs again, as with Adelaide? The encounter with Adelaide in the stairway confirms that the Doctor does not think that anyone apart from Vince is above them.
The other thing is that the Doctor could, at any time, have bundled everyone in the TARDIS and left Fang Rock; or at least got them to safety before returning to fight the Rutan. His melodramatic "We're on our own now" after Skinsale destroys the telegraph just doesn't seem convincing. Perhaps if the TARDIS had been made inaccessible - as was the case in many Hartnell stories, especially season one - the sense of urgency might have been more plausible. Being a story where all the non-regulars die has a good dramatic impact, but the Doctor does not seem too perturbed. He just puts on a funny voice, quotes poetry and leaves!
However, these shortcomings do not detract from an enjoyable, well written, acted and directed adventure. It's one of those stories I find constantly watchable. 8/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 19/12/03
Horror Of Fang Rock is an effective season opener because it is an exercise in minimalism and as such things are kept simple. Terrance Dicks turns out a great last minute replacement script which is basically a base under siege tale; albeit a very effective one. This is thanks to strong, believable characterisation, both in the case of the regulars (Leela comes off particularly well and is a good counterpoint to Adelaide) and similairly the Doctor is equally intense although he does keep things light when conversing with the Rutan. Add to this an increasing sense of foreboding which adds to the atmosphere and you have a strong, successful story to kickstart the season.
A Review by John Seavey 29/9/05
It's a story so trad it's practically paleolithic, but who cares? Watching this feels almost like watching a distillation of every Doctor Who story you remember from when you were a kid. There's a spooky-but-unconvincingly-realized monster, a cast of recognizable caricatures that's getting slowly whittled down, a well-realized historical location, and Tom Baker being Tom Baker. The tropes of this story are practically imprinted on every subsequent one (and it almost feels like they're imprinted on every previous one as well). Well-worn, but entertaining.
A Review by Thomas Cookson 8/11/05
It is no secret that my favourite Doctor Who era is the Tom Baker years. For me that was the program at its peak for many reasons, not only because of Tom Baker's performance but because of the consistently great quality of the stories under his wing, that showed a greater maturity, sophistication and sense of gravity and excitement than other eras of the long running series.
The first three years of Tom Baker's reign had been presided over by script editor Robert Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who collectively drove the series into a gothic horror atmosphere. It was here that I feel the series truly deserved its reputation as 'behind the sofa' viewing. The conventions of horror are taken much more seriously here than in the previous era when Jon Pertwee was the Doctor. In the Jon Pertwee era, the setting was safe, the lighting was often over-cast, the action involved a lot of gung-ho army barracks shoot-em-ups, the confrontations between the Doctor and his arch enemy, the Master were often too charming to feel really dangerous.
For the Tom Baker era, they seemed to very quickly make amends - the lighting gradually got turned down till it became really atmospheric and foreboding. The stories became more adventurous, taking us firmly out of the comfortable cradle of the present day secret military setup. Most importantly, they introduced new monsters, as well as re-imagining some of the old monsters as being virtually indestructible which made them really frightening.
Although this was the first story to no longer feature Philip Hinchcliffe as producer, it still retained his spirit in its conventions and atmosphere. The fact is that the story deals with only one alien creature who delivers quick electric death on all that it touches, and manages to be a greater threat than the rest of the group combined. The creature operates on stealth and strikes from the shadows and the randomness of where the creature appears makes the threat much more unpredictable and frightening. Yes, the episode actually manages to be truly scary, and I can say that about very few other Doctor Who episodes. Genesis of the Daleks and The Empty Child are really the only two other examples that come to mind.
This episode is one where there is actually no relief whatsoever from the darkness of the settings. The most tense of moments are of course, just outside the lighthouse in the rocks and near-pitch-black night and the murky fog - it's in the pale moonlight with a green reflection from the ocean. But the inside of the lighthouse is only dimly lit in a dirty yellow hue, and the interiors are especially small and claustrophobic - which I also can't say about many Doctor Who episodes.
The pacing of the episode is never bettered here in the quick succession from the lurking of the monster to its striking, and the whole routine kept weaving throughout the whole hour and thirty minutes. The music is virtually absent from this story too, so that the sound effects of rustling water, the wind, the subtle foghorn, the generator engine, the sound of screaming people on a shipwrecked boat. It makes the episode feel so much more vivid, lonely and hopeless.
Another way that the story manages to up the sense of formidable evil was by downplaying the Doctor somewhat. For me, this is where Tom Baker's performance was at its most serious. There is less of the familiar grinning and joke-cracking characteristics to the Fourth Doctor here. Somehow humour seems inappropriate here because the situation is so grave. Tom Baker's performance is one of concentration, of discreet fear and dread and there is none of the usual protected humoured front. The script has him behaving in his most fallible - a cliffhanger moment where the Doctor realises that the creature is inside the lighthouse and that he has barricaded them in with it instead of kept it out is a brilliant moment.
Furthermore the directing does well to make the Doctor appear less grand than usual. The Fourth Doctor is an impressively tall man but in this episode he is filmed more from the upper body and he sits at the table with the other characters so he is physically level with them, where he would normally have stood up with authority. His bohemian and cotton dress doesn't seem too out of place in the period and environment he is in. Even little things like his borrowing a contemporary bowler hat whilst his companion Leela puts on a workman's jumper do that little bit to make the Doctor stand out less, and be more part of the crowd and in his element.
Then there is the Doctor's companion, Leela - a tribal warrior that the Doctor met on a failed colony world in the distant future (this was in the story The Face of Evil). Leela was played by Louise Jameson, who for me has the distinction of going from one of the best British TV shows ever - Tenko in 1981 - to one of the worst - Eastenders in 1995.
With her coarse and cockney performance in Eastenders fresh in my mind, it made it hard for me to accept her as a tribal character. I was one of the few fans who was rather dubious about Leela initially - she had some rather dumb lines in The Robots of Death but I became quite fond of her here as she mingled with the people, and geared herself up for a fight, only for the Doctor to point out that any fists or blades struck on the creature will only be consumed by the beast in electric fire.
The rest of the characters comprise the three lighthousemen - the old and superstitious head Reuben, the young and sensitive Vince and the more hard-nosed Ben. There is also the small band of shipwrecked passengers Colonel Skinsale, Lord Palmerdale, Adelaide Lesage and Harker - people of rich prestige and reputation who are ruthless and bullying about maintaining their name and power. The characters have a wonderful natural rapport and conflict of interests. The conversations and interactions feel much more real than in most Doctor Who episodes in a way akin to some of the very authentic early black and white episodes.
The characters talk about issues and changing times of the day, and there are divisions between characters who bond well and characters who treat each other with suspicious distain, having a lot of conversations over the back of the shoulder. There's also a very real rattiness to the unpleasant upper class bullies, and even the hysterics have that unusual edge of reality.
The characters are basically the kind who hinder their own chances of survival in the already deadly situation. The rich characters' snobbish reluctance to interact with the lower class lighthouse men or the eccentric Doctor on any other level than demanding their servitude, or to allow the gravity of the situation to be told to them as a group for fear of offending the 'delicate' eyes and mind of their female friend Adelaide Lesage, and their own double-dealing plots against each other. They refuse to believe anything strange is going on, and even when they accept the truth they still can't join together against a common enemy. Perhaps we shouldn't care about most of these characters when they are being systematically killed, but in a strange way we do - the deaths retain so much disturbing power by the sudden finality of such burning personalities and the cruel senselessness of their deaths. It retains one hell of a sting, basically.
Finally we have the monster itself which is silent throughout most of the story, characterised by a cunning and relentlessness that really elevates it amongst the great menaces of the show. Unlike with most other villains of the series, there is almost none of the business of pausing in its death advance merely to talk to its intended victim. There is one such scene where the Doctor and the creature enter into dialogue which does its little bit to characterise the monster into not being simply a mindless killing machine but a being with its own sense of honour, methodology and purpose.
In a strange way the creature bears some parrallels to the qualities of the people that it menaces - it works on a sense of duty to an ancient cause, just like the locals believing in ancient ghost stories and living their lives by their superstitions, it also cares nothing for the 'primitive' humans, just like the rich characters are selfish and calloused towards the feelings of those beneath them.
The episode boasts a wonderful small bunch of sets, keeping the locations familiar and small. They also give the 19th century lighthouse its authentic details - the communication system, the old generator and the cookers and so on, even the secret pockets of the clothes that people wore at the time, and the life jackets are perfect recreations. The script is as intelligent as ever in its well-researched knowledge of the period, its tidbits of biological elements of the alien and its methods, making me reminisce on the days when Doctor Who truly was a thinking person's show. I have a hard time singling out any bad performances, which is a pleasant surprise.
I can single out some negatives in the SFX department, which is typical of old Doctor Who - the blue screen effects are rather obvious on the top of the lighthouse tower, where the background has a compulsive habit of conspicuously moving with the cameraframe. The creature itself is clearly on a blue screen, but somehow it manages to suspend the disbelief and it feels like it's actually there and is deadly and advancing (which I couldn't say about the Slitheen or the Jagrafess). Oh and yes the shipwrecked boat is obviously a model that is given an over-revealing ammount of screen time.
But if you ask me that is not nearly enough to detract from what is an unusually powerful and eerie episode of the series with a wonderful unsettling after-effect.
A Review by Finn Clark 19/5/06
I've always liked the novelisation of this one. It's scary, as is the novelisation of Image of the Fendahl despite being as substantial as a Tesco Value facial tissue. The TV version is good too, with a production every bit as solid as that of Talons of Weng-Chiang before it. Incidentally it's curious to reflect that Leela only visited contemporary Earth once, whereas here she got ten consecutive episodes set circa 1900. What's more, in her next story after this (The Invisible Enemy) she was off to the year 5000 AD, i.e. the other era mentioned in Talons.
It follows on nicely from Talons, actually. The Doctor was aiming for Brighton and Leela's dressed up in garb appropriate for the period. Even Tom gets a bowler hat. Overall this is a lovely recreation of the era, with the only regrettable visual feature being the model shot of the boat running aground. If this didn't have episode breaks, 'twould be a top-notch Hammer. I'm not just using that as the usual lazy shorthand for the Hinchcliffe era, either. Hammer's trick was to make horror films that were basically costume dramas with gore. Horror of Fang Rock is only different in being better directed than many of them and having better characters. As with Talons, the BBC could do this kind of thing in their sleep and what we get on-screen is rich and textured in its sheer quality. The comparison is almost tragic between this and the cardboard corridors of the following week's The Invisible Enemy.
The TARDIS crew is classic, of course. Tom's famously in a bad mood here, basically because he's been dragged away from his London watering-holes for studio work at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. The result is a sourer, grimmer 4th Doctor who's taking his situation more seriously than usual. He broods. In episode three he's downright pissed off, then in episode four he's a complete psycho. I loved the moment of him throwing away the diamonds, but I really wouldn't have liked to be that Rutan when Tom delivered the line, "But by then, you'll be dead."
His chemistry with Louise Jameson has improved too. Leela continues to rock, with lines like, "Enjoy your death as I enjoyed killing you." Oh, I love that scene. What other companion would have risked their neck by going downstairs to gloat over their slain enemy? Leela's great. Tom's great. There's no other team like them.
In fact the whole cast is strong. The only nonentity is Harker, through no fault of the actor but simply because it's a minor part. Reuben is obviously fantastic, but I also think John Abbott as Vince does really nice work. He's simple, sweet and sincere without becoming one of various stereotypes he could easily have been. The toffs are fun too, dripping delicious acid in their private moments. Overall it's a lovely ensemble.
Might this be the ultimate base under siege story? It's not necessarily the best, but it might be the purest example of the genre. Terrance Dicks has always specialised in cranking 'em out and here he just cranks out a stonker. Maybe it helped that he was under time pressure? His original script for this slot was the vampire tale that eventually became State of Decay, shelved on BBC instructions in case anyone saw it as a pisstake of that year's expensive Dracula adaptation. Horror of Fang Rock is a simple script with a flawless production. The lighthouse is just so claustrophobic. There's nowhere for our heroes to hide. There's a monster, probably, but even at the end of episode two, we've still basically seen nothing. It's a game of lights and mirrors... and of course screams, disappearances and mutilations. It's the Ten Little Indians thing. Everyone's gonna die. You're just watching it happen one by one.
And Reuben the Rutan is bloody creepy. That smile, brrrr.
This story remains one of my favourites, one of the few TV stories of which I have no real criticisms at all. I don't mind the Rutan. Hell, I like the Rutan. If nothing else, I believe it remains the only Doctor Who story based on a poem: The Ballad of Flannan Isle by Wilfred Gibson. [I've since been corrected. There is another: The Five Doctors, based on Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came by Browning.] Here's a short extract, as quoted by the Doctor himself:
Ay, though we hunted high and low
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place
But a door ajar and an untouched meal
And an overtoppled chair.
A Review by Tim McCree 10/3/07
Recently, I had the pleasure of purchasing the DVD of one of my most favourite Doctor Who stories, The Horror Of Fang Rock. I remember enjoying this story when I was very young, and I was happy to see that the pleasure had not faded with time. This story is just as enjoyable now for me as it was when I was little.
This is a great story, and it takes the atomosphere, a group of people trapped and cut off from the rest of the world, and really works with it. Terrance Dicks, a legend in Who circles (aside from writing many episodes and being Script Editor on Who for a while, Mr. Dicks also novelized many of the stories, including this one), wrote this story as a quick replacement for another that had fallen through. However, you cannot tell that from viewing it. Fang Rock is very well paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
The special effects are quite good, for their time (don't forget that this episode was made in 1977, long before the advent of CGI technology). The lighthouse miniature is well done, and the interior sets do give the impression of actually being filmed in a lighthouse of that time period (the early 1900's).
The only down side is the alien itself, but, as I said, this was long before CGI.
Tom Baker (the Doctor) and Louise Jameson (Leela) are spot on. Their banter is both amusing and touching at times. The Doctor has gotten quite used to his new companion, and Leela is shown to be learning to embrace science (she grew up in a tribe on a primitive planet). Of course, there were times that Leela lost patience with the survivors. At one point, she pulls her knife on Palmerdale and tells him to shut up, and in another memorial scene, she smacks a hysterical Adelaide across the face. Leela's actions here are believable, and the Doctor, despite his protests in the past, seems to approve of them on these two occasions.
The guest stars are also well presented. I think that the audience would probably most connect with Vince and Harker, because they were the common working-class men that most can sympathize with. However, Palmerdale and Skinsale also had their moments to shine. Watch the episode and see for yourself.
The DVD also has special features, including some audio commentary by Terrance Dicks, Louise Jameson and John Abbott (who played Vince). I found their comments both funny and informative.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this DVD. It is a must have for any true Doctor Who fan. I give it a 10/10.
Moody and Magnificent by Ben Kirkham 8/5/07
There are some Doctor Who stories that just get better every time you watch them. Horror of Fang Rock is such a story. Really, it's quite rare for a Doctor Who story to scare me so much, but this story always succeeds in that.
First good point about the story: the direction. Paddy Russell completely controls the flow of this claustrophobic story. It's a flawless piece of direction: dark and foreboding, with only a quiet menace stalking the lighthouse. Russell makes great use out of her setting, wringing tension from every scared look, terrifying revelation, or horrifying death. The smell of death lingers long in this story, and the tension is taken to the maximum.
This is, hands down, the best script Terrance Dicks ever wrote for the classic series. It has excellent structure throughout, has some of the all-time best interplay between the Doctor and Leela, and manages to make you feel sympathy for all of the supporting characters in their own way. His bold decision to kill everybody, except the Doctor and Leela, is shocking, and satisfyingly so. The Doctor sees death wherever he goes, and at least here is able to avert catastrophe, even though lives have been lost as a result. It is a stark reminder of the Doctor's dangerous side.
Ah, the Doctor. Tom Baker was rarely better than he is here, completely commanding yet refusing to hide the utter terror he feels. He is rude, abrasive, yet tough and resourceful. He's uncertain as to exactly what is going on, and all the more convincing for it. The Doctor is fallible. He can't save every life and here looks at the bigger picture. He has to confront human greed in the guise of Palmerdale and Skinsale, yet shows regret at their deaths. Baker plays this in a moody and totally magnificent way. His chemistry with Leela in this story is extraordinary. Recently seeing the partnership between the Doctor and Rose in the new series and then watching this makes me realise that there really, really were some great companion teams in the classic series. When written well, the Fourth Doctor and Leela sizzled on the screen.
Similarly, Louise Jameson is excellent here. She shows Leela's passionate side, defending the Doctor and threatening Palmerdale with a knife and then slapping the incredibly annoying Adelaide in the face (hooray!). Wearing workmen's clothes really works for her; you get the impression that Jameson is much more comfortable like this and shows her savage yet loyal character. Particularly shocking is the moment when Leela gloats over the death of the Rutan, receiving only a quick and curt telling off from the Doctor. When the writers are brave enough to show the companion and the Doctor as flawed heroes, the story and atmosphere becomes all the more compelling.
A mostly excellent guest cast ably supports the two regulars. John Abbott and Colin Douglas are both utterly convincing as Vince and his mentor Reuben. You really get the impression that these two men (and the third, Ralph Watson's Ben) have a great working relationship and close bond. The aristocrats are also well played, with the possible exception of Annette Woollett as Adelaide. She does her best, but was probably miscast in the role of a stuck-up secretary.
The side plot of Palmerdale and Skinsale's shady dealings has been criticised as having little to do with the story, but it gives it an extra dramatic thrust and allows the characters to have their own motivations, their own respective greed being the end of them.
The sets and lighting are both magnificent, too. The lighthouse is perfectly structured and seems totally real. Likewise, Dudley Simpson's music is just as haunting as his superlative score for The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Horror of Fang Rock is a marvellous story, expertly plotted, acted, and directed. Like most classic Doctor Who, this succeeds because of the restrictions set against it, not in spite of them. Everybody involved deserves a round of applause.
The Ballad of Fang Rock by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 8/5/10
Horror of Fang Rock, the Elgin Marbles of Base-Under-Siege stories and one the last stories of the Gothic Horror era. After this there's Image of the Fendahl and The Stones of Blood and that's about it. There's a brief return in State of Decay but on the whole we won't see this style of story again until Ghost Light. It's easily one of the most effective of the Base Under Siege stories and, for me, one of the highlights of the Tom Baker era. In short, it's a claustrophobic, beautiful-looking period drama in which everyone dies; what's not to like? It's actually very similar to Alien in the sense of having a group of people in an enclosed and fairly claustrophobic space being picked off one by one by something nasty which we barely get a proper glimpse of. Throw in the shapeshifting nature of the beast and it's even closer to John Carpenter's The Thing.
We all know that the BBC can do period drama like nobody else. The Masque of Mandragora, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Mark of the Rani, Ghost Light... All great examples of what they can do. Horror of Fang Rock is no exception and with a small budget, limited sets and a few actors, they manage to create a completely believable impression of the late 19th/early 20th century, right down to the attitudes of the day i.e. mistrust of foreigners and men being bashful about women undressing. Just look at the way the toffs are shocked to see Leela wearing men's clothes. The costumes, sets and props all look wonderful, right down to the salt and pepper pots on the table in the crew room. But it isn't just inside the lighthouse that works effectively. The exterior shots are very good, whether it's the long shots of the lighthouse sitting serenely on the island or the scenes of the Doctor and co moving down among the rocks. Shooting these scenes of film rather than VT was a clever idea, misleading the audience by dint of the fact that exterior locations are normally shot on film whereas in fact they were all shot in a studio. The fog machine goes into overdrive in this story and it adds a wonderful sense of moodiness to scenes. I also like the constant sound of the waves lapping against the rocks, it creates a nice sense of ambience.
This is a character piece of the first order. Genuinely likeable characters play off against absolute bastards. Vince makes an impression. He's young, naive and bashful, and it's a shame when the Rutan fries him. Rueben is crusty but endearing. Colin Douglas then goes to the opposite end of the spectrum and is creepy as the Rutan. On the other hand, Adelaide is a spiteful, winging, stuck up toff. It's a really satisfying moment when Leela slaps her for getting hysterical, and she and the Doctor clearly find her as irritating as we do. I was actually quite pleased when she ended up getting zapped. All praise to Annette Woollett for doing such a convincing job. Palmerdale is hardly any more likeable. Skinsale is supposed to be the toff that we warm to and indeed we do. I think possibly Terrance Dicks was trying to suggest that he isn't all that honourable, considering that his greedy desire to get his hands on Palmerdale's diamonds gets him killed.
It's also a great story for the regulars. The Doctor is intense and brooding and it's great to actually get the impression of him working things out as he goes along, deducing the nature of the Rutan, the seriousness of their situation and the fact that the Rutan is calling for help from its own kind. He has little time for the toffs and barely acknowledges Adelaide. It's a great moment when he plonks his feet down on the table as if he owns the place. Palmerdale asks if he is in charge to which he replies "No but I'm full of ideas!" Priceless. He's also slightly manic, stating that "this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead" with a big grin on face. He's actually quite aloof in this as he doesn't show any sign of being bothered that everyone around him is being killed. He seems positively jovial by the end of episode four. Leela also fares well here. She has no time for Adelaide or Palmerdale and threatens to cut out his heart. It's a wonderful moment when she says that "it is better to believe in science". She's gradually evolving from a savage into something else.
Everyone dies. Everyone. Apart from the regulars, nobody gets out of this alive. No happy endings. Hooray to Terrance Dicks for having the courage to write such a grim story. The Rutan isn't great but what the hell. It's hardly the worst monster we've seen in the series. It's very effective when we don't see it and when it's imitating Rueben, but when it shows itself it isn't exactly scintillating. The Doctor isn't scared of it in the slightest. In fact, he basically takes the piss out of it. On the one hand, this is exactly what we want to see from the Doctor and his confrontation with the Rutan is genuinely entertaining. But if he shows no fear towards it, then neither will we.
Dudley Simpson's music is effective. It isn't really one of his memorable scores such as City of Death, The Ark in Space or The War Games but it does the job, creating a sense of menace.
This is a very well-paced story with the gradual increase of tension being very well orchestrated. The cliffhanger to Episode 2 is excellent; the power fails, the lights go out and a bloodcurdling scream rises up from the depths of the lighthouse. This then leads into a magnificent build up of tension in Episode 3 as the Rutan sabotages the generator and the Doctor realises that it's locked in with them. Episode 4 is essentially an amazing buildup of momentum as the Doctor realises that the Rutan is transmitting a distress beacon and it's only a matter of time before its friends arrive so therefore they all to get to the top of the lighthouse without getting killed.
Wonderful. One of the highlights of the Gothic Horror era.
Oh and has anyone else noticed that when Harker is carrying Ben's body through the door it has no head?