Horror of Fang Rock

tomYet again, Doctor Who proves that you do not need a huge budget to produce great entertainment. The confined, claustrophobic surroundings of the lighthouse are integral to the story, and the exterior is also well realised despite being studio bound. The Rutan is wisely kept hidden until the last episode, retaining the mystery, and stringing out the tension as much as possible. The deaths of the lighthouse crew and the survivors of the shipwreck are quite frightening, but perhaps it was overstepping the mark to kill off every single character (except of course for the Doctor and Leela), which lends a rather depressing tone to the story.  It is also interesting in that it actually undermines the Doctor, just at a time when Tom Baker is starting to cause some serious problems behind the scenes.

To understand this we need to look at the kind of story that is being told here: a base under siege.  This hasn’t actually been done in such a closely controlled way since the Troughton era, and that is what we need to look at for comparison so we can see where this goes wrong.  So what is the base under siege format all about, in terms of the Doctor himself?  What is his role in a base under siege?

Looking at the Troughton stories with a similar format, what we get is a race of monsters trying to attack and get into a small, contained location of some kind.  At this stage the Doctor might be aware of this and try to stop them.  He might succeed for a while, or he might be unaware of the threat until it is inside.  Once the alien is inside the base, the Doctor then has to find a way to remove the threat, which then often tries to attack again until the Doctor finds a way to defeat it permanently.  There is generally a wider threat at stake.  For example the base might have some strategic significance, so protecting it stops a full-scale invasion.  However, the one constant throughout all this is that there are always innocent people inside the base, and the Doctor must protect them.  Horror of Fang Rock follows this long-established and frankly long-forgotten format pretty closely, with one big exception: the Doctor fails to save the people inside the base and all of them get killed… which is something that has never happened before or since.

This happens at a time when Tom Baker is commencing his fourth year as the Doctor.  What you might notice about this is that it is breaking through that three-year barrier that most actors to play the Doctor have stuck to.  In fact, give or take a few episodes or specials, there have only been two actors to play the Doctor for more than three full seasons: Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker.  In a lot of ways this worked better for Pertwee because of the team around him.  Behind the scenes everything stayed the same for his full run, he had consistency of the companion right through his fourth year, and some continuity of the UNIT team right up until his final story.  When his companion did change for the final year he got the gift of Elisabeth Sladen, who nobody could fail to adore.

Things were very different for Tom Baker.  At the end of his third year his producer left, and his original companions were both gone as well.  We should also not forget that the UNIT era was where he started and also held a significance for Tom: his friendship with Nicholas Courtney literally lasted a lifetime, but UNIT was gone by the end of his second series, never to return during his era.  So we have a similar situation to Hartnell towards the end of his tenure: an actor who has lost all his original supporting team and feels like he is the only one left around who understands Doctor Who, and thinks he should have all the creative decisions himself.  That’s a problem.

Tom is a fabulous actor, but directors exist for a reason.  They see the bigger picture: the framing, the blocking of scenes, the overall tone of a story.  When an actor completely undermines the director you get what you get here: somebody taking the limelight in every scene, to the detriment of the story.  The Fourth Doctor is such a compelling character that he actually works brilliantly when utilised in a similar manner to the Second Doctor.  Look how Troughton works in The Tomb of the Cybermen, sneaking around in the background and stepping forward when the Doctor has something significant to do.  It’s an astoundingly good performance and far, far more effective than standing in the middle of the screen announcing things.  So unfortunately Tom Baker goes over the top with his portrayal of the Doctor, shooting out each line like it has been fired from a gun and coming across as too abrupt and bad-tempered.  He gets away with it because, well, it’s Tom Baker and everybody loves him.  He plays the Doctor as a character whom the audience adore, and he is right about that.  But pushing things towards the bullish and arrogant in a story where the Doctor fails to save a single person in that base under siege is a troubling undermining of the role he is supposed to be playing.  Because we are supposed to be watching Doctor Who, not The Tom Baker Show.

While they survive, the guest cast are generally very good here, particularly Colin Douglas as Reuben, although Annette Woollett grates on the nerves as Adelaide, and it is a moment of triumph when Leela slaps her around the face to stop her from screaming.  This is actually one of Leela’s best stories, if not the best.  In documentaries and interviews Terrance Dicks often says things along the lines of the companion being there to ask questions and look pretty, but ironically he handles the character of Leela (who is the opposite of all that) better than any writer apart from her creator Chris Boucher.  Leela is not a straightforward character to get right because there is a fine line between “novelty savage who needs educating” (yuck) and what we have here: a formidable ally of the Doctor who just happens to be a woman, and simply does not understand how her gender is in any way relevant to that.  You could describe it as feminism but I think you would be wrong: it goes far beyond that to a point where Leela simply has zero tolerance towards gender stereotypes.  She doesn’t understand them and doesn’t need to.  And I think that makes Horror of Fang Rock one of the most forward-thinking Doctor Who stories of them all.   RP

The view from across the pond:

When I was very young, I took my first cruise with my aunt and uncle.  We went to Bermuda and while there, visited a lighthouse.  My aunt was not up for the climb but my uncle and I clambered up the stairs, made it to the top and stepped outside.  There, we waved down to my aunt, and she reluctantly waved back.   In retrospect, it was such a reluctant wave that one wonders if she was unsure whether or not we had been replaced by Rutans on the way up.  At the top, I suggested that my uncle throw his cap off (equally in retrospect, this was undoubtedly a clever move on my part to prove to my Aunt that we were in fact, human).  Instead, she turned, shook her head, and walked away (undoubtedly thinking we were both as mad as Soldeed.)

(…. Long live Soldeed!)

What struck me about the lighthouse beyond the laugh we had, was how claustrophobic the interior felt.  Admittedly, this was on the island, so people probably didn’t have to live there, but it had accommodations for it.  It was just extremely restrictive.  There’s a fine line between cozy and claustrophobic too!  Doctor Who has always done those claustrophobic, base-under-siege episodes very well, but those bases were palatial by comparison to this lighthouse.  If this was what most lighthouses were like, using a lighthouse for The Horror of Fang Rock was the perfect setting for a Doctor Who story.  And this one lived up to that old opening: “It was a cold, dark night…”  Add to that a bit of fog, and an unknown menace and this is a recipe for a perfect story.

So we have the Doctor and Leela, on a small rock, with a group of people trying to squeeze in and stay alive during a cold, foggy night while being hunted by a shape-shifting monster.  What more do you want?  Reuben (Colin Douglas) is the standout guest star here.  His superstitious grumblings don’t help the atmosphere.  And that word sums up the episode in a nutshell: atmospheric.  It makes the fog look mild as the entire story is a test of endurance for ones nerves.  It has always been one of my favorites because the tension is cranked up to 15.

Besides that, Tom Baker is as good as ever, naming Reuben the Rutan, once he understands the nature of the threat.  His dialog with the Rutan while sitting on the steps epitomizes the fourth Doctor brilliantly: he’s as much an alien as the Rutan and is quite happy to engage in a bit of dialog.  There’s this sense of mutual respect in that moment; we see that the Rutan can kill with ease but doesn’t, instead having a chat first.  In fairness, the steps probably winded him too, and he was grateful for the moment to collect himself.  I confess I do have a hard time justifying the line “that’s the empty rhetoric of a defeated dictator, and I don’t like your face either.”  He later calls the Rutan, “Oyster face.” Somehow, these are cheap shots from the Doctor.  Yes, I laughed, but I would have preferred Leela saying those lines.  The Doctor should always be about respect to all races, even those he intends to defeat.  He does redeem those comments when Leela tells him “it is fitting to celebrate the death of an enemy”, to which he replies, “Not in my opinion.  I haven’t got time to discuss morality…”  So he is still the Doctor, but I think we could have done without his derogatory jibes.

Leela looks great in this story.  She’s got her typical strength of character, but without all the silly savage stuff going on.  Her dialog with the defeated Rutan is in keeping with her character.  There’s also a nice bit where her eyes change color, because the actress was having issues with the contact lenses, but they managed to write that into the story.  It seems unnecessary for the time, but if it happened today, fans would be clamoring for an explanation, so it was a nice touch.  If anything looks out of place, it’s the Rutan itself, but let’s not forget: Doctor Who had a fraction of the budget that shows like Star Trek had yet still managed to give us more aliens that were actually alien looking.  I know, original Trek gave us the Horta in The Devil in the Dark, but by and large, nearly every species in Trek lore looks distinctly human barring some facial spots or forehead ridges.  (I’m not looking for a comparison, I can also name those Denebian Slime Devils, or whatever they were called in Operation: Annihilate!  But my point still stands: Doctor Who went out on a limb and gave us strange creatures regardless of how they might have come across from a special effects point of view!)

In keeping with this review going out in the month of Halloween, I can say that The Horror of Fang Rock is an excellent story for a late October evening.  Just make sure that if you’re watching with someone, you never let them out of your sight.  They may not be the same when they get back…   ML

The view from beyond the stars:

Colin Douglas is arguably the most memorable performance in Horror of Fang Rock as the only disguise for the Rutan. But what if the Rutan chose the form of one of its other victims? The one that would have been interesting in my view would have probably been Adelaide (Annette Woollett). And as Reuben’s death scream was, if you listen carefully, the same scream made by Douglas used for the Rutan (with the actor’s voice altered audio-phonically), hearing one of Woollett’s distinctive screams for the Rutan would have really been haunting. This was the first Doctor Who produced by Graham Williams and it may not have been as successful as many scary Doctor Who thrillers by producer Philip Hinchcliffe certainly were. The Rutan was improved justly in the Dreamwatch spinoff Shakedown. It was supposed to be the twice-aforementioned enemy of the Sontarans, and its revelation could and should have been more horrific. Otherwise what would be the point in screaming?

In the novel version of Horror of Fang Rock, when the Rutan in Reuben’s shape says its last lines before reverting to its original form, that is when its real alien voice is supposed to be heard for the first time. Indeed, as Colin Douglas’s voice for the Rutan in its true form had the vocals adjusted in the TV episode, so should they have been for that one scene just prior to the Rutan’s metamorphosis before the Doctor’s eyes. I would also like to have seen Leela’s new blue eyes made more visible because it was an important scene that gave a good excuse for Louise Jameson to not have to wear those problematic contact lenses.  MB

Read next in the Junkyard… The Invisible Enemy

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Entertainment, Fourth Doctor, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Horror of Fang Rock

  1. Mike Basil says:

    Thank you for including a review of mine that I remember writing for this story, one of my favorites from T. Baker’s era. In regards to T. Baker being difficult to work with, I think what helped mellow his difficulty was how the companions, as limited as they now were as opposed to the other eras, certainly after The Deadly Assassin, proved the point that the Doctor in all his intensified difficulty needed someone close by to help keep him balanced. This was the point made in The Runaway Bride and The Fires Of Pompeii thanks to Donna. So if T. Baker’s difficulty slipped into his grand portrayal of the 4th Doctor in any way, it could consequently be a good thing by reminding us that the Doctor, no matter how genuinely heroic, is as imperfect as the rest of us and therefore just as interesting as similarly conflicted SF heroes like Capt. Kirk, Han Solo and Agent Mulder. So that was my way of sympathizing with T. Baker’s difficulty and, to be fair enough, if I were an actor as Doctor Who, I’d like to have as much creative control over the character as possible. Each actor earns their opinion for knowing what works for their characters because that’s partially what they get hired for. So Horror Of Fang Rock stands out for proving that T. Baker did occasionally know well enough what would work to make the Doctor such a distinguished icon. Louise Jameson as Leela furthers this point with quotes like: “You will easily dispose of this primitive creature, Doctor. You are a Time Lord.”, for T. Baker’s astonished expression is timeless. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If I remember correctly, I think this story featured a very rare case (at least in Classic Who) of the Doctor admitting that he was wrong about something.

    Liked by 2 people

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