31 Dec 2003Horror of Fang Rock, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005Horror of Fang Rock, by Ed Martin
23 Mar 2017Doctor Who: Horror Of Fang Rock - BBC Audio, by Matt Tiley

There are Doctor Who fans who feel that, after Philip Hinchcliffe left, the series took a downturn, with a greater emphasis on comedy and family viewing, partly due to the criticisms about the programme's violent content from the National Viewers and Listeners Association. Whilst the change in emphasis is demonstrably present in the series once Graham Williams took over, the downturn in quality is debatable, and whilst I do think that the Hinchcliffe era has a greater number of good stories than the Williams era, the actual change in style is not in itself detrimental. Given Tom Baker's mammoth seven-year stint in the role, I feel that his era is large enough to accommodate such a change in tone. For those fans who do bemoan this transition however, 'Horror of Fang Rock' must be welcome indeed; the first story to be produced by Williams it may be, with Holmes still script-editing it is far closer to the gothic stories of the previous two seasons than what would come later.

'Horror of Fang Rock' is in my opinion the best story that Terrance Dicks has written for Doctor Who in any format, without the extensive rewrites from Robert Holmes that elevated 'The Brain of Morbius' to classic status. The story is economical, and perfectly tailored to its format, boasting minimal sets, a memorable monster, and a cast of adequate supporting characters whom Dicks kills off one by one to maintain the tension. The setting is inspired; in many ways a basic "base under siege" story, 'Horror of Fang Rock' could have easily been set in a remote outpost in outer space, but by setting it in a Victorian lighthouse on a fog-shrouded island, he allows the story to benefit from the BBC's famous skill at creating period settings. There are very few sets on display, but they all look authentic, and a lighthouse proves to be an ideal choice as the "base" in question. With supporting characters in period costumes and suitably Victorian dialect, the story is lifted above its simplistic origins in an impressive example of style over content. Add to this a dark sky, a stormy sea, and thick fog, and the scene is set for a simple horror story as a shape-shifting monster kills off the humans on the island one by one. Claustrophobic and tense, 'Horror of Fang Rock' thus manages to be impressively creepy. 

Helping to create a feeling of tension, the story is light on wit, most of the best lines going to Leela and the Doctor and most of these working largely due to the acting of Baker and Jameson. The Doctor's retort to Leela after she has told him not to be afraid is hardly quotable ("What do you mean, do not be afraid?"), but Baker says it with such indignation and shortly after that the fact that it works very well. Indeed, 'Horror of Fang Rock' is almost entirely carried by the regulars, both of whom benefit enormously from the script. Unusually, the Doctor arrives shortly after a suspicious death, but is not suspected; Reuben is vaguely suspicious of him on principle because he suspects that he is foreign (which technically of course, is extremely true), but by the end of Episode One as the ship crashes on the rocks, he seems to have more-or-less accepted him. With no need to prove his innocence, the Doctor instead launches himself straight into the problem of finding out what is at large on the island and stopping it; interestingly, Baker's performance here is so terse that the Doctor's usual dedication to fighting evil wherever he finds it is portrayed almost as an obsession. As noted, the script is grim and almost humourless, and so indeed is the Doctor. He takes command easily throughout, ignoring any complaints from the newcomers about his abrasive attitude and showing obvious contempt for Adelaide. When Leela tells Palmerdale, "Do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart!", he doesn't berate her, because he needs Palmerdale to stop arguing. Leela too benefits from uncompromising characterisation, pragmatically dealing with the prospect of death and seemingly relishing the chance of facing a powerful and devious enemy. Her disgust at Adelaide's hysterical reaction to death is memorable and a stark reminder of her savage origins, as is her gloating over the dying Rutan. Equally, the changes that she has undergone under the Doctor's tutelage are also on display, as she dismisses superstition and tells Adelaide that "It is better to believe in science", continuing to show her developing character. As an aside, I find Leela's "pigmentation dispersal" highly amusing; I'm dubious that anyone would have noticed her change in eye colour had Jameson simply stopped wearing her contact lenses without using what is basically technobabble to explain it. 

The supporting characters on display here are so vaguely sketched that they are more caricatures than actual characters, every one of them a walking cliché. Reuben and Vince are prime examples, one an old and superstitious yokel with a distrust of new-fangled technology, the other young, wide-eyed and naïve. Once the ship crashes at the end of Episode One, this trend becomes even more obvious, with the four newcomers each distinguished by the most basic characteristics; Adelaide is pampered and hysterical; Palmerdale is a greedy business man, Skinsale is a corrupt politician, and Harker is a plain spoken, honest sailor. I have mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, all the members of the guest cast put in solid performances which makes their dialogue work, and they are in essence only present to act as "cannon fodder". In this respect they fulfill their function adequately enough, as the rising body count drives the tension of the story. On the other hand, their characterisation is so sketchy that individually their deaths have very little impact; their motivations and backgrounds are conveyed so simplistically that the I failed to develop any real emotional investment in them (a failing incidentally, that renders most of Dicks' original Doctor Who novels barely readable in my opinion). Ultimately however, I do nonetheless find 'Horror of Fang Rock' to be both gripping and creepy, which suggests that all the supporting characters are fulfilling their basic function. 

The Rutan is well used, and as the principle antagonist is crucial to the success of 'Horror of Fang Rock'. It is perhaps remembered more than it deserves to be, for the simple reason that the Rutan have been mentioned in both 'The Time Warrior' and 'the Sontaran Experiment', and this story thus gives us a glimpse of the ever-popular Sontarans' perennial foe. For the most part, the Rutan is not seen, and works very well as an unseen killer lurking out of sight and killing stealthily. The fish-eye view of the Rutan scout is effective, and its ability to change shape and kill on contact makes it a suitably formidable foe. Colin Douglas also contributes to the story's success as "Reuben the Rutan", proving to be capable of a very unsettling smile just before the disguised alien kills anyone. Unfortunately, the realization of the Rutan as an enormous green testicle is far less impressive, and rather deflates the tension thus far created, but by this point the emphasis of the story changes; with virtually everybody dead, the story suddenly concerns itself with a last minute race against time, as the Doctor struggles to convert a lighthouse and a small diamond into a laser beam capable of destroying the Rutan mother ship. It remains for me a rather contrived ending, but works well enough and does provide an explosive climax.

In summary then, 'Horror of Fang Rock' is a story that works well within its limitations, managing to work as an effective horror story on a small budget with shallow supporting characters. Despite its shortcomings, it makes an great start to the new season, and shows considerable promise for the new producer's era. A promise on which the following story utterly fails to deliver…

Filters: Television Series 15 Fourth Doctor

Horror Of Fang Rock is surprisingly tricky territory really as despite its popularity it is often criticised for being too simple and shallow. This is a justified claim but it has not come about through sheer laziness on Terrance Dicks’s part; the story was a famously last-minute addition to the schedules and in any case Dicks does make a valiant effort to correct these problems. What we are left with in the end is possibly the ultimate base-under-siege story, where all the elements that made the genre so successful under the Patrick Troughton era are distilled to absolute purity.

Admittedly the opening special effect is lame but in general the story’s visuals are excellent, with some excellent models and particularly well designed sets on display. The lighthouse is flawlessly realised, with its curved doors, intricate background scenery and dark lighting. The CSO in the lamp-room is also excellent and allows me to make that rarest of claims: it’s not that noticeable.

The first episode has a fun trio of guest stars, the best being Colin Douglas as Reuben. The exchange between him and Ben over the relative merits of oil and fire in lighthouses should silence those who claim this has a poor script, and show how a small cast totalling five people can carry the episode. The episode begins with a good ol’ mystery of the kind I get into so much – and it’s sustained too, for most of the story.

Louise Jameson will never be called the most charismatic of the Doctor’s companions but Dicks’s dialogue is reliably good and the film sets of the rocks are terrific. The sound of the foghorn is well used as well, acting as incidental music (which is rather sparse while I’m on the subject, although not bad) and showing how adept Paddy Russell is at creating atmosphere. 

This story is notable for the Doctor’s commanding presence, as he swans around taking charge of every situation he is placed in; rarely does he wait for another actor to give him his cue properly and very often he speaks without looking at his subject. This was allegedly difficult for the other actors to deal with and threatens to take the character over the top in certain places, but for the most part the Doctor comes across well as a dynamic and authoritative character. For example, the discovery of Ben’s body is an excellent piece of acting, being a mixture of disgust and calmness. 

The crash of the yacht is a brilliant piece of modelwork, unjustifiably criticised (modelwork being a particular strength of season fifteen now that I think about it) and makes for an underrated cliffhanger. A handy effect of this is that we get some extra cast members; the combination of the small space to cram them in and their general agitation means that the painstakingly-created sense of claustrophobia really begins to bite at this stage. The extra cast are generally good with the exception of Annette Woollett as Adelaide, whose drippy characterisation is a bit too much to handle. 

It’s only spoiled by the sight of the Rutan; for one thing it look ridiculous (monsters being a particular weakness of season fifteen now that I think about it) and for another thing, what’s the point of showing it in episode two if you’re just going to hide it away again until the conclusion? All it does is spoil the sense of the unknown. I ranted a bit more about this at the time but I used my notepad to kill a mosquito and frankly the rest is silence, or at least illegible.

“Are you in charge here?” “No, but I’m full of ideas.” Okay, hand on heart, this little jewel (I think from Robert Holmes) is my favourite quotation from Doctor Who and one that I had the good fortune of being able to use in a social situation not too long ago (I so rarely get asked if I’m in charge of anything). Apart from being a witty retort, it happens to make the Doctor look like the coolest bloke to ever walk the Earth or anywhere else.

On the DVD commentary Dicks gets very sniffy about the Tom Baker’s acting when Ben’s mutilated body is discovered, but really I think it’s quite appropriate as they’ve all seen violent death before; admittedly Harker doesn’t get much in the way of back history so I’m basing my assumptions about his constitution on the preconception that salty sea-dogs can handle just about anything. On the subject of back history, I consider the financial shenanigans of Skinsale and Palmerdale to be a bit of a noble failure. They are an attempt to make the characters seem a bit less like monster-fodder but as they are so inherently pointless they betray themselves; it looks like nothing more than an unsuccessful effort which in turn makes the characters seem even more like monster-fodder. That said, it’s great dialogue and always a pleasure to listen to even if it does go nowhere.

After another decent cliffhanger episode three begins, and Adelaide really starts to yell. She was never the story’s most likeable character to begin with, and her constant histrionics start to send the story over the edge.

Meanwhile Reuben-Rutan is lurking in his room; the Rutan itself is presumably attaching a transmitter to the lighthouse, but it is never explained what some projection of Reuben is left behind. Suggestions on a postcard please. On the subject of climbing the lighthouse then this isn’t a bad effect at all but is let down by it’s comparison to other visuals which are absolutely brilliant.

Yes, well, Adelaide gets slapped. Look, there are enough crass remarks about this already without me adding more so I’ll move on to the wrecked telegraph, which due to not fulfilling any narrative function I can only assume is simply there to increase the claustrophobia, which is already maxed out anyway thereby making it somewhat redundant.

The cliffhanger is another good one; seriously, what have people got against them? Vince’s death at the beginning of part four is poignant as he’s such a likeable character in a kicked-puppy sort of way, and it leads to a good scene where Reuben comes stalking into the crew-room; Adelaide’s death is arguably the story’s most dramatic moment. The transformation effect is good, but as I said before the Rutan looks terrible. Also, the talk of Sontarans and intergalactic wars seems slightly incongruous on a lighthouse off the coast of Southampton in the 1900s. 

Skinsale bites the bullet; this is famously (I think) the only story to have a 100% mortality rate. Even Pyramids Of Mars had Achmed. It should be said though that this is due to the story’s small cast (there are no extras at all) and the body count is only eight people, which is significantly less than many other stories. This means that it is characters that get killed as opposed to faceless stuntmen, and their deaths are all the more shocking for it.

The effect of the Rutan mothership is another good one; like the transformation of Leela’s eyes, the resolution is contrived but cool. To wrap up, this is followed by one of the best endings ever as the Doctor quotes from the amazingly atmospheric poem ‘Flannen Isle’, making for an appropriate ending to a very creepy story.

“Classic” is that most elitist of terms that nevertheless gets chucked around far too much; while I’m going to give this story a maximum rating, I’m not going to make the claim that it’s up there with the truly top-tier stories like Pyramids Of Mars that really can be called classics. Nevertheless, this is one of the top ten season openers.

Filters: Television Series 15 Fourth Doctor
Doctor Who and The Horror of Fang Rock (Credit: BBC Audio)
Based on the novelisation by Terrance Dicks
Read by Louise Jameson
Running Time - 180 Minutes
Available now

I was barely seven years old in September 1977 when Horror of Fang Rock first aired, and I can remember that, like most Doctor Who of that era - it terrified me. Since first watching the story I have never been able to look at a lighthouse without thinking of the occupants being electrified by a terrifying, angry green blob with tentacles. A visit to Portland the following year was a particularly traumatic experience.

Of course, when you are seven everything can seem terrifying. Back in the 1970's 'special' effects weren't anything like we have now, but they still captured the imagination well enough. I've bought the story twice since, once on VHS which was of course later replaced by a nice shiny DVD, with lots of extras. Yes, when viewed as an adult, you can easily see that the effects now look shoddy - but the story still thrills, and Horror Of Fang Rock still remains one of my all time favorite episodes of Who, and is one that I am always happy to revisit.

Horror Of Fang Rock is the quintessential base under siege story that Who has always done so well. The base is of course the lighthouse, with the men in charge of it, and a small assortment of disposable characters from a wrecked ship being menaced by an alien threat. Of course, this is no ordinary alien. This is our first real glimpse of a Rutan, the sworn enemy of the Sontarans the two races having been at war for longer than either species can remember. Rutans are shape shifting aliens who here demonstrate a skill for killing humans by electrocution. In their natural form they resemble a glowing green ball with tentacles, but through the power of shape shifting, they could resemble anyone. Or in this case, maybe just old Reuben, the curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper.

Like most young Who fans of the time, I feverishly collected the Target novelisations, and I can remember reading Horror of Fang Rock until the print was almost worn off of it's pages. The joys of the novelisations were of course that you could revisit your favorite stories whenever you wanted to. There was no video then, and hardly any repeats, so you read the book, and somewhere between what you remembered, and your imagination, you were able to relive every detail. Rather wonderfully though, with the help of the author's  own realisation of the tale based on what was broadcast, you often got a lot more material to fuel the imagination, and Terrance Dicks was particularly skilled at adding his own flair.

Listening to this audio transported me back to a version of the tale, and this version was visually so much more stunning that the original broadcast. Dicks always laid out a scene perfectly. A good example here is the Rutan itself. There is a moment in the show when old Reuben the Rutan reverts to it's original form - a lump of green plastic, with tentacles that was lit from the inside, which shuddered with anger and made some scary crackling noises. Which was good enough to ensure that the seven year old me plonked himself behind the sofa, awaiting Mum letting me know that the monster had gone. But just have a read of the description that Dicksput in the novelisation:

"In place of Reuben's form there was a huge, dimly glowing gelatenous mass, internal organs pulsing gently inside the semi-transparent body. Somewhere near the center were huge many faceted eyes, and a shapeless orifice that could have been a mouth."

Now seeing THAT on the telly in 1977 would have given cause for my seven year old self to need some serious therapy. With a tiny bit of prompting, the imagination can be a wonderful thing.

Louise Jameson here reads the novelisation, and she does a fantastic job. She steps back into the role of Leela of that time with ease, and it's because of this that the reading is really brought to life. Jameson also manages to differentiate between the various characters dialogue perfectly. I was also very impressed by the sound effects used throughout, and found myself sometimes looking around to see where a noise was coming from, only to rather sheepishly realise it was coming from my headphones.

Spread across three discs (the story is also available to download), and coming in at 180 minutes, you really do get great value for money on this telling of an absolute gem of a story. This audio is a must listen for fans of the era.