Doctor Who Project: Horror of Fang Rock

You said I would like Brighton. Well I do not.

Doctor Who may be lovingly needled for its reliance on multiple sequences of people running down corridors. Long-time writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks opens Season Fifteen by slightly altering that formula, with “Horror of Fang Rock” (Story Production Code 4V) featuring multiple sequences of people running up and down a spiral staircase. To his and veteran director Paddy Russell’s credit, it is a very nice staircase.

A very nice staircase

The action of this fear-tinged story takes place almost exclusively on the four levels of an isolated, fog-shrouded lighthouse off the English coast in the Edwardian era, roughly around the turn of the century. Carrying on from the last story, the BBC’s fog machines get quite a workout, with most of the first half of the four episode story shot in low light suffused with haze. Sporadic electrical faults in the lighthouse provide further narrative justification for the omnipresent darkness. Given the lackluster quality of the special effects, the dimness works to the story’s favor, concealing, for instance, the obvious nature of the model ship that provides as the first episode’s cliffhanger—which, in motion, does not so much wreck against the rocks as bounce off them—to say nothing of the actual “horror” that lurks on Fang Rock.

Shipwreck on Fang Rock

The overall effect of the confined space and limited cast of characters (nine total, including the Doctor and Leela) does lend itself to a claustrophobic anxiety. Russell strives to keep the camera close to the action, shrinking the area further, as though the viewer were leaning into the shot; her solid work with blocking and camera angles adds more menace to the proceedings than Dicks’ tale of unseen horror frankly deserves.

As ever in Tom Baker’s era, the Doctor and Leela arrive on the heels of an unexplained murder, this time in the lighthouse. Just prior to the TARDIS materializing on the rocky shore nearby, a purple flash of light streaks through the sky into the surrounding sea. After dismissing the strange occurrence, the three lighthouse keepers spend several minutes debating the relative merits of oil versus electric light sources for lighthouses. The story’s pacing doesn’t pick up markedly from here, at least until the final episode.

The Lighthouse Lads, in happier times

After the pro-electric Ben (Ralph Watson) dies at the hands of an unseen assailant in the boiler room, much of the first episode focuses on keeping those boilers stoked. The electricity goes on and off unexpectedly throughout the story, drawing individuals to the boilers, where more often than not they perish, with no clue as to the assailant’s presence besides a chill in the air and an ominous green glow. Often the audience is granted a wider understanding than the characters in Doctor Who, but here there’s a real resistance to unveiling the culprit, which is only first seen in a blurry long-shot near the end of the second episode. This approach undoubtedly builds tension, but the fact that it’s just a green ball of goo may also have something to do with it…

Behold . . . the Rutan!

The appearance of shipwreck victims at the start of the second episode helps pad out the story, not least by providing new fodder for the monster to kill. These fresh additions—a wealthy man, anxious to get to London to trade on illicit information; his secretary; an ex-colonel in the British Army who provided the insider information; and a seaman from the wrecked yacht—bring their own sub-plot to the tale, one of honor and greed and class-based propriety, but all of it feels like set dressing, used to fill time and give viewers a reason to care when they’re unceremoniously plucked from the stage, piecemeal. One does not care. There’s no sense that they might be connected with the malevolent force that has befallen Fang Rock, and thus they do not increase the sense of foreboding in the story, just the body count.

Four for fodder

Still, “Horror of Fang Rock” lives up to its title for the first three episodes. Despite the wan inclusion of the shipwreck victims, the story carries sufficient tension to keep the audience guessing at what will happen next. Reuben (Colin Douglas), the oldest of the keepers, tells the tale of the beast that haunted Fang Rock some eighty years past, leading one to wonder if that menace has returned. Then Ben’s deceased body is dragged away mysteriously and dissected (which, in Season Fourteen, might well have been shown on screen).

Reuben, somewhat worse for wear

Reuben is the next to be attacked; he appears to recover, but acts as though possessed, and then is seen to kill a third person, the seaman Harker (Rio Fanning). The nature of the threat changes constantly, such that even the Doctor is at a loss to understand events. The mere fact of the Doctor’s confusion carries with it significant narrative unease. This isn’t how Doctor Who usually works. As the bodies pile up, and his suggested defenses all fail, the Doctor simply doesn’t know what they’re up against.

Until, of course, he does. Once the Doctor sees the creature in its true form—after only three people remain alive in the lighthouse midway through the fourth episode—he knows exactly what it is: a Rutan, first introduced conceptually in “The Time Warrior” as sworn and eternal enemies of the Sontarans. It’s a nice reference that devoted viewers will pick up on, but handled in such a way by Dicks that it can stand on its own contextually. But also, crucially, as soon as the Doctor recognizes the Rutan and has a long chat—on the spiral staircase, of course—all the horror in the story evaporates like so much fog on a sunny day.

The Doctor and the Rutan scout, having a stop and chat

What was once a tight, closed-loop murder/horror tale turns into another invasion plot from which the Doctor must save the Earth. The Rutan on Fang Rock has been reconnoitering the planet to determine its suitability as a base for an attack on the Sontarans; being a scout, it has access to chameleon technology that allows it to impersonate Reuben, albeit with some discomfort. The Doctor well knows that the Sontarans will undoubtedly counter such a plan with “photonic missiles” that would devastate the planet. So, to stop such a fate, the Doctor has to not only defeat the Rutan in the lighthouse but also destroy the Rutan mothership coming to pick up its stranded scout—a far cry from a “simple” horror tale.

Rutan's eye-view of the Doctor

One accepts the jarring shift in focus, if only because it is Doctor Who, but it bears consideration that perhaps only Doctor Who could get away with such an abrupt narrative change from moody horror to bonkers science fiction with ten minutes to go in the story. The series has long floated between genre types, from dusty Western to gaslight melodrama to historical narrative to fantastical futuristic fable. That mutability allows such transitions even within stories; but it doesn’t always mean that they work effectively.

“Horror of Fang Rock” is far from the only story to concoct a resolution out of whole cloth in the waning moments, but seldom do the two parts of the story feel quite so disconnected. Here, the amount of effort—or lack thereof—put into the denouement leaves one wanting more. The Rutan in the lighthouse, a formidable foe capable of wielding electricity and assuming any form, ruthlessly hunting down the humans for three episodes, blunders into its demise when Leela fires a rudimentary mortar stuffed with the contents of the Doctor’s pockets (really) at it, turning it into a shredded, disturbingly viscous mass of goo. Further, an entire story could have been developed from the need to prevent the Rutans from reporting Earth’s suitability for invasion to their homeworld; instead, Leela suggests turning the lighthouse lamp into a laser, the Doctor thinks that’s grand, the dead toff has diamonds hidden in his waistband to amplify the light, and before you know it, one Rutan ship destroyed.

The end of the Rutan Mothership

It’s an unsatisfying, unearned ending, made the more so by the Fourth Doctor again walking away from the carnage with nary a care. Indeed, the third episode cliffhanger, with the Doctor proclaiming, “Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake,” sets the narrative stakes incredibly high. This iteration of the Doctor in particular has been reticent to acknowledge his errors, giving the moment even more power. But his inability to save anyone at the end, compounded with his silence on the matter, seems confounding. Just from a storytelling standpoint, the Doctor should be capable of failing from time to time; an infallible Doctor inherently lacks depth. But here, the Doctor gets more upset about Leela gloating over the shriveling remains of the Rutan scout than he does the deaths of any of the supporting cast, suggesting he doesn’t really recognize any failure to have occurred at all.

Granted, none would have survived anyway had they not intervened, and the Doctor did save the Earth from Rutan occupation and Sontaran destruction, lending some credence to the overarching theory that the TARDIS takes the Doctor where he needs to go rather than where he wants to go, so he deserves some measure of credit for that accomplishment. But the outcome feels a bit brutal regardless.

The Doctor, aghast

Tom Baker himself inhabits the role like the old hand he is at this point, some eighteen stories in to his time as the Fourth Doctor. His mannerisms, in particular, shine through, conveying at once an absentmindedness and an inability to suffer fools, and his comedic timing remains on point. Dicks throws in a few moments of humor for Baker, who runs with them, and they’re sufficiently integrated into the plot that they don’t come across as tonally discordant. In lesser hands than Baker’s and Dicks’, the Doctor and Colonel Skinsale (Alan Rowe) repeating, back and forth, “Early Schermuly” (a type of cannon used to fire rescue ropes) would have fallen flat.

Still a brown-eyed Leela

The character of Leela continues to waver between savant and savage, with Louise Jameson called upon to ask questions of the Doctor, often in terms of his word choice, to explain things for the audience. She tends to give as good as she gets, though, gently mocking the Doctor by insisting that any foe he describes as primitive should be no match at all for his advanced abilities. Of note, Leela’s eyes change color at the end, from brown to blue, when she looks at the explosion the Rutan mothership. Jameson agreed to extend her contract on condition that she no longer had to wear the colored lenses that gave Leela her chestnut irises. That Leela needed a particular eye color at all seems an odd character design decision, but regardless, Leela’s look of joy at the end, after she realizes she is not permanently blinded by the flash, likely matches Jameson’s joy at being rid of the contacts.

Surrounded by fog

In the end, the momentary glee at finally meeting the Rutan fades in light of the story that could have been here. The scarcely-seen green glowing blob of death from the first three episodes carries far more weight, more frisson, more potential for narrative disquiet than any possibility of Earthly invasion ever could, especially at this point in the series’ history. If Terrance Dicks, new producer Graham Williams, and script editor Robert Holmes had the courage to keep the horror in “Horror of Fang Rock” to the end, rather than pivoting to the tried-and-true, we might have had a story to rank up there with some of the best. As it stands, “Horror of Fang Rock” proves as ephemeral as the fog.

(Previous Story: The Talons of Weng-Chiang)

(Next Story: The Invisible Enemy)

Post 95 of the Doctor Who Project

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