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Horror of Fang Rock

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

“Aye, though we hunted high and low...”

A tale of horror set in a turn of the century, isolated setting, inhabited by a completely believable, if mostly unlikable group of characters. An intense, claustrophobic atmosphere and the brooding Fourth Doctor and Leela - how can this Season Fifteen opener fail?

Frankly, it doesn't. Horror of Fang Rock sets out to tell a good story with the barest minimum of characters and locations (and probably money!), and consequently produces a far more impressive result than most ‘more ambitious’ stories.

“... And hunted everywhere...”

To employ a well-used cliché, Horror of Fang Rock is primarily a character-driven story, but the wonderfully creepy and foreboding atmosphere is owed mostly to the extraordinary setting. A lighthouse, recently converted to electricity and perched on a jagged and fog-shrouded rock in the early 1900s is a situation from a dream (or nightmare) for a programme like Doctor Who.

The lighthouse is the only shelter for a bedraggled group of bickering humans, dominated completely by the elements, who all too soon discover that their grim haven has just become the most dangerous place of all.

“Leela, I've made the most terrible mistake,” says the Doctor at the end of Part Three, “I thought I'd locked the enemy out - instead I've locked it in - with us!”

The lamp gallery, engine and crew rooms are all places that no-one would want to spend too much time in alone, cramped and heavy with shadows, while the sea-lashed, mist-bound rock outside is the kind of place that only a fearless hunter like Leela would willingly go. Worse still, an unnatural cold pervades everywhere, and the tension between the rescued passengers, lighthouse crew and time travellers further combines to create one of the least hospitable environments ever shown in the programme. And all this before the real menace even becomes apparent!

Something Doctor Who has always done well is to build tension before actually revealing the monster of the serial. A mounting list of signs and portents is always immeasurably more frightening than the rubbery beast itself. Horror of Fang Rock feeds us an inexorable supply of ‘signs and portents’, cranking the suspense up to a surprisingly high level. An inhuman view of the waves as something swims towards the lighthouse, the uncanny fog and cold, unnatural sounds, the erratic behaviour of the electrical generator, Leela's memorably creepy discovery of the dead fishes floating in a rock pool, and then the mounting death toll begins.

In fact the entire serial is tailor-made to show off the ‘savage’ Leela's heightened instincts, as she responds to subtle signals and warnings of which even the Doctor is initially unaware.

“Leela's senses are particularly acute,” he explains. In many ways, and contrary to Tom Baker's own view, Leela was the perfect companion to his Doctor, as her instinct and intuition appealingly balance his more scientific and practical approach.

“...Of the three men's fate we found no trace...”

Possibly with a couple of exceptions, we are presented in this story with a completely unsympathetic group of characters - our own species seen at it's very worst. Most of the human vices are on show here: greed, lust, arrogance, envy, bigotry. Disconcertingly, it seems to be the negative qualities of these supporting characters, and the way they squabble and lash out at one another, which makes them so believable. This sorry bunch must make us wonder why the Doctor should care so much about the fate of homo-sapiens. (Unless it's because of his mum, of course.) In fact, in at least a couple of scenes, the Doctor does appear to finally lose his patience with the ‘humans’.

The tried and trusted theme of technology versus superstition is also given a good airing here, but with a new twist. “Leela - the people round here have been fisher-folk for generations,” explains the Doctor rather pompously, “they're almost as primitive and superstition-ridden as your lot are!”

Fang Rock already had its own legends of monsters and madness long before the events of this story take place. This legend is something which old Reuben, the senior lighthouse keeper is very aware of, and mentions at every opportunity. “Last time that beast were seen on Fang Rock, 80 year ago now, two men died that same night...”

Reuben naturally prefers the original method of oil-powered lighthouses and mistrusts the new invention of electricity intensely. The viewer naturally sides with the acceptance of this now common-place technology, but we are also reminded that electricity is an energy form for which the Rutan has a great affinity, and the creature was drawn to the lighthouse, bringing death to almost everyone, because of it.

Naturally, technology triumphs in the end, through the Doctor's extremely unusual adaptation of a lighthouse beam. But as mentioned before, a lot of emphasis is placed upon Leela's intuitive senses, and it is she, not the Time Lord, who suggests the use of the lamp as a weapon. The one-time tribeswoman of the Sevateem even castigates Adelaide for her faith in her ‘Astrologer’, showing that Leela is fulfilling the production team's original brief of gradually ‘civilising’. “I too used to believe in magic”, she tells Adelaide, “but the Doctor has taught me about science - it is better to believe in science”.

“...Of any kind in any place...”

The story is a simple one, but well-told with memorable and clever dialogue, and strong direction from Paddy Russell. The performances are of a uniformly high standard, and each character (with the possible exception of the engineer Ben, who dies very early on in the piece) gives the impression of having a fully-realised personality and history. Perhaps this is because this story is in an almost ‘drawing room mystery' format, driven by the skill and interaction of the players, with a minimum of sets and action. This format may have been imposed for budgetary reasons, but it definitely works in the story's favour, with character conflict and claustrophobia adding immeasurably to an already atmospheric tale.

What few effects seen are variable, although the two main miniature shots of the yacht running aground and the fiery destruction of the Rutan ship are both pleasingly effective. Once revealed, the murderous Rutan is certainly given a good ‘seeing-to’ at the hands of our heroes. After a mouthful of verbal abuse from the Doctor, it is knocked down the stairs on to its gelatinous backside, not once, but twice! Somehow, the peevishly-voiced Swarfega monster doesn't really diminish the serial's impact; its slightly ridiculous quality actually contrasts neatly with the terror it has caused, and it dies very effectively. However, I found myself thinking how much more effective the final scenes might have been if, instead of bumping up the lighthouse steps in pursuit of the Doctor, the Rutan reused its previously-seen climbing ability and flowed quickly up and along the walls after him. Now THAT would be a sight worth running from...

The Rutan is at its most impressive in Reuben's body, however. His pale, unlined face and ghastly smile conjures a powerful image of the walking dead, particularly in the scene where he descends the stairs with his eyes closed.

I believe that Horror of Fang Rock is very much a Leela story, and Louise Jameson reaches new heights here, spending a great deal of the story actually seeking out the unknown danger, but never allowing the sense of threat to be diminished. Her matter-of-fact “I am not a lady, Vince” as she changes her clothes in front of the startled young man; exasperated eye-rolling when Adelaide finally faints; and her threat to cut out Palmerdale's heart if he refuses to obey the Doctor are all classic Leela moments. Scriptwriter Terrance Dicks uses her to provide moments of light relief in what could so easily have become an oppressively gloomy set of episodes, while managing not to undermine the character. An example is this piece of dialogue from Part Two:

The Doctor: “What about the others, they'll think we're mad if we start talking about creatures from outer space...”

Leela: “But we are from space!”

Doctor: “Don't tell them that, whatever you do!”

Tom Baker also is in fine form, although in some ways he just does what his Doctor has always done. Almost unconsciously assuming leadership over the beleaguered humans, he treats their individual deaths with alien detachment, while always holding the greatest concern for their planet as a whole. Classic Baker.

Another trait on show of the Fourth Doctor's (and certain others), is his baffling preoccupation with seemingly irrelevant issues and apparently insignificant facts. All the while, of course, we know that behind this facade he is quietly and meticulously piecing these and other vital clues together, forming a theory and devising an ingenious strategy to save the world.

“...But a door ajar, and an untouched meal
And an overtoppled chair...”

(The Ballad of Flannan Isle, by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, 1878 - 1962)

Horror of Fang Rock is another example of a last minute replacement story working exceedingly well. The ‘isolated group of humans under siege from an unknown enemy’ genre is executed here with economy, elegance and conviction, while giving our lead characters some truly wonderful scenes. In fact, the characters of the Doctor and Leela seem, if not actually further developed, then at least reinforced by the events of this story. This serial is difficult to fault because it begins with modest aspirations and achieves what it sets out to do - involve, entertain, scare and get rid of Louise Jameson's contact lenses - with great style.

The adage ‘less is more’ has never seemed more true.

This item appeared in TSV 57 (July 1999).

Index nodes: Horror of Fang Rock