Review: HORROR OF FANG ROCK
Written by Terrance Dicks, directed by Paddy Russell, 1977
Though a story with a solid reputation, Horror of Fang Rock isn’t generally considered a total classic – which feels a bit of an oversight, as it’s actually quite brilliant, a tight story that’s all the more effective for its small scale. This is the sort of story I miss in the new series – ones stripped of all excess and flippancy. I suppose Midnight is the closest modern equivalent, but even that doesn’t have quite the same doomy seriousness.
Terrance Dicks is a bit of a joke because of his simplistic novelisations and novels, so it’s startling how relentlessly grim and bleak Fang Rock is. The remorselessness of its plotting is textbook-tense, with the gradually increasing body-count and destruction of the telegraph. Something like Blink might have more obvious ‘scary moments,’ but for my money it’s hard to beat this inexorably ratcheted tension.
The characters, too, are all compelling in their ways, forming a broad microcosm of society at the time – and it’s hard to miss that only the working class ones are sympathetic (Reuben, Vince, Harker). The upper class sniping though, is particularly entertaining; Palmerdale shoots Skinsale down at one point with, “Oh not one of your army stories, Jimmy – they’re even more boring than your House of Commons anecdotes,” while when Skinsale offers that Leela is “not a bad looker,” Adelaide deliciously counters, “Perfectly grotesque in my view. Were you long in India, colonel?”
I imagine Adelaide annoys a lot of people – which, obviously, to an extent is intentional, but her constant bitching is actually very funny (“Up in that room? Alone? Have you quite taken leave of your senses?!”). She is also totally vile in her unshakeable and undeserved devotion to Palmerdale; that the Doctor chooses to respond by either completely ignoring or just plain bullying her is very satisfying.
It’s taken for granted that Tom is a great Doctor, but I often find his ubiquity off-putting – not to mention his later lack of restraint. However, it’s good to be reminded how tight a performance he was capable of delivering: he’s commanding, charismatic, and steely, but leavened by an (at this point) subtle humour.
He forms an interesting counterpoint to David Tennant – perhaps the only Doctor with a comparable pop-cultural status; unlike the often emotional and apologetic Tenth Doctor, the Fourth offers little or no sympathy to the characters here. If a story ended so bleakly today (the opposite of The Doctor Dances’ “Everybody lives!”), it’d be so maudlin – all heavy-handed emoting about what a tragedy the loss of life is. Which, obviously, is true – but then, this is ‘just’ a light-entertainment TV series. Much as I do appreciate the injection of emotional awareness into the twenty-first century series, in terms of the veneer of realism it adds (if it were possible to travel the universe in a time-travelling police box, you probably would keep banging on about how amazing it all is), in some ways it can make the old series seem deficient at certain points for missing out on an acknowledgement of its characters reactions to the events they encounter. Yet, in some ways, the double-whammy lack of sympathy from Leela and the Fourth Doctor is quite refreshing.
It’s funny, actually, but as a Doctor/companion combo, the Fourth and Leela are surprisingly cold – these aren’t bleeding-heart do-gooders. We know they’re the ‘goodies’ and that they’re doing the right thing, but especially in light of the fact that not one other character survives this story – not even the sympathetic ones – and neither of them display any remorse at the end, it’s actually quite difficult to see them as out-and-out heroes. Again, given this is a story from the height of the series’ popularity, I find this hard to reconcile with its then mainstream recognition. But, I do find this slightly morally conflicted approach more interesting than the straightforward moral crusading often on display elsewhere throughout the series.
The Doctor is particularly rude in this story (“His manners are quite insufferable!”), and spends most of the time making almost callous hooded-eyed pronouncements, or considering everyone with unconcealed boredom, with only momentary bursts of energy. He looks right at home here, in such a gloomy situation, brooding and solemn, and the fact that he takes the situation so seriously does give it a very dangerous edge. Considering seventies TV (or rather, anything not contemporary) is often seen as quaint and primitive, it’s surprising – but welcome – how difficult a character this most popular of Doctors is. Practically the only time he seems happy is when he bursts in to announce, “This lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead. Anyone interested?”
Leela is a classic companion, but I often think she’s surprisingly overlooked – however, it can’t be overstated how ace she is. All the more because, though very much not a screamer, she isn’t a straightforward example of Buffy/Xena (et al) kickass-hottie wish-fulfilment – which, it shouldn’t have to be said, would be awful: instead, she’s naïve, but clever; violent, but compassionate. She’s fantastic. Apart from anything else, she’s notably particularly proactive for a companion (for example, taking it upon herself to batter down Reuben’s door), and the moment she pulls a knife on the uppity Palmerdale is possibly the best thing any companion has ever done: “Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs or I WILL CUT OUT YOUR HEART!”
As for the production itself, fittingly, it is as tight visually as the plot itself is; there’s a remarkably expressionistic bent to the set design (reminiscent of televised versions of theatrical productions, like the Patrick McGoohan-starring adaptation of Ibsen’s Brand) – the sets, backdrops and constant smoke are undoubtedly stagy (no bad thing), but it’s so dark and foreboding it looks great. Even the modelwork’s pretty good – yes, the ship is an Airfix model, but if that’s good enough for Werner Herzog (in Fitzcarraldo), it’s good enough for seventies Doctor Who. The model-shots of the lighthouse against a brooding skyscape are almost painterly, and the brief shot of the beam striking the mothership from the lamp room at the story’s conclusion is quite brilliant.
With the addition of its spare, dramatic music, this is one of those (all too rare) stories where all the elements come together, down to – as in Human Nature/The Family of Blood – simple effects like the use of a sickly green light to signify the Rutan’s presence. The whole thing is like a play, with its limited cast and sets, and details like the red light representing the boiler fire, but I like it – it’s conducive to the kind of taughtness the modern series has all too often eschewed in favour of big, ratings-grabbing and ultimately tawdry set pieces.
I’m always worried about being overly positive in these reviews – obviously I love probably the vast majority of Doctor Who, but what’s the point of writing a ‘review’ without being critical? Having said that, it’s tedious to give something a mauling unless it’s irredeemably dreadful (which can be quite entertaining), so I generally steer clear of writing anything about mediocre stories. I suppose the worst element of this story – apart from general production values like its film quality, which are obviously unavoidable and due to age – is the acting.
For all that this is a quite brilliant example of the base under siege template, the acting isn’t of a uniformly high standard. In fact, there’s no offensive performances – Vince is a little amateurish, and even Louise Jameson, much as I love her performance, isn’t a fantastic actor here – but I think, while perhaps perfectly acceptable to a fan audience (we’ve seen a lot worse), trying to view the story from an outside perspective, it’d all seem quite stilted – which would probably be seen as more indefensible than the production values and special effects; they are a product of their time (and budget), so okay, whereas the seventies doesn’t seem long enough ago to justify less-than-perfect performances. (Having said that, things haven’t changed that much – there are often similar weakness in the new series, which people tend to overlook – maybe it’s a genre thing.)
With the special effects, the Rutan is often derided, and, yes, in a way it’s disappointing after such a tense opening to have the alien menace revealed, but given that the production team was given the task of realising a semi-aquatic alien lifeform that feeds on electricity, I’m just pleased by the atypical choice of eschewing a man in a suit. A floaty bioluminescent jellyfish, as in the otherwise execrable straight-to-video Shakedown spin-off, might be preferable, but the gooey balloon doesn’t bother me that much, as it at least comes across as truly alien, and totally at odds with the period setting. Even its first person plural dialogue and crackle of irritation adds to a level of alienness unusual for Doctor Who. Having said that, the Rutan is about a billion times scarier in the form of Colin Douglas’ Reuben – his down-to-earth gruffness shouldn’t be creepy, but somehow it is, monumentally so.
I love the concept of the Rutan – a powerful, truly alien creation. It's a real shame they’ve never been revisited, in favour of more crowd-pleasing monsters – especially since, given their inherent changeability, there’s lots of potential for reinvention. Also, the stealthy infiltrator is a much less bombastic template for a threat than usual, and all the more effective for it. Perhaps that's representative of Fang Rock's reputation; it lacks the broadness that might have secured it a better reputation within fandom. Whatever; the streamlined plot benefits this story immensely, and it is something to be admired.