Written by: Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Paddy Russell
Background & Significance: "Horror of Fang Rock" slipped through the cracks.
Even though this is the first serial produced by Graham Williams after he took over producership from Phillip Hinchcliffe, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. More than anything, it feels like a big last hurrah commissioned in the waning hours of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, approved before Williams took over, and stamped with all of the Holmesian trademarks of his run with Hinchcliffe. Williams, as nascent producer, didn't do much to change it to match his vision.
It's directed by Paddy Russell (who had previously done "The Massacre", "Invasion of the Dinosaurs", and "Pyramids of Mars") and would be her last contribution to the show. It's also written by Terrance Dicks, who would disappear for a few years only to come back and write about some vampires and then a big multi-Doctor mashup, so in a lot of ways it really does feel like a changing of the guard. It's after this that Holmes's work on Doctor Who undergoes a noticeable shift away from his carefully cultivated tone and style towards the more playful work of the Williams era, and you can really feel his fingerprints all over this story as they make the transition from here into something... less good.
And perhaps most interesting of all is that this kicks off a season that is... middling in my opinion. It's good that the Williams run starts off so strong, but also sad because it means he can only go downhill from here.
So let's get to it!
Fury From the Deep", because I feel like the two stories seek to capture the same tonal feel. It’s in the execution of each story that we get to why I think “Fang Rock” is vastly superior to “Fury”.
I mean, in terms of setting, both stories are about a facility located on the edge of a vast expanse of sea. There’s an invading enemy that wants to take all these people out (we get hints of it here, but we don’t get much on it until later as the story progresses). There’s a cast of characters who form various functions/roles within this particular setting (the skeptic, the business-first-everything-else-later guy). And in the middle is The Doctor, who’s instantly off in investigation mode with his faithful companion as they investigate this situation.
Here it’s noticeably different. Jumping from the previous success of Victorian wonderfulness in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “Fang Rock” drops us in the middle of an isolated English lighthouse just a few years later (I’d say something Edwardian by the look of things). It’s totally a Hinchcliffe/Holmes locale, the sort of idea that sounds and is perfect, and it's impressive that it hadn’t shown up before this. It’s also got the ambiance of fog and night time, which is even more strange and rare for Doctor Who and helps (and I’m not the first to say this) make this story feel like a true companion piece to “Talons” in a way few other stories ever could.
It honestly reminds me a lot of the first episode of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs", or at least, it’s Russell’s ability to mine something special given some strongly tonal material that pops out at me. She knows exactly how to control a moment, exactly how to shoot something to make it visually interesting but in no way confusing. A lot of this, I’m sure, stems from the production design and the visual elements of the setting (in "Dinosaurs" it was abandoned London), because there’s no way this would work nearly as well if it were an audio reconstruction, and that’s not slam against Dicks’s script (which is quite strong), but it’s a testament to Russell’s deft hand at capturing what makes this story sing.
So what we’re left with in this story is the notion that we’re completely isolated from the world (much like “Fury From the Deep”) and that it’s too cramped and claustrophobic. Even going outside gives you the same sorta sense, what with the fog creeping in and all. Leela’s hunt outside for the evil creature screams both “isolation” AND “claustrophobia”, the former because she is alone, the latter because there’s absolutely nowhere to go.
And yet, I can’t help but feel like this story doesn’t quite know what it wants that cliffhanger to be. Is it an “OH NO THERE’S A CRASHING BOAT” moment? Or is it a moment that hints at something more sinister? Personally, I think it hints at something more thematically scary (which we’ll find out more on in the second part, but I’ll briefly mention here) about how the thematic claustrophobia is only going to get worse going forward now that there’s the arrival of more people, but I don’t think it works so well. It’s well constructed as a piece of composition (I love the two red flares, which function as perverse red suns that alienate the rocky shoals), but beyond that, this feels like a weak link in an unusually strong chain.
And that’s unfortunate, I think. Leela makes up for it. I love how she switches into the sweater and pants (which match her so much better than just about anything else I’ve seen her in), because it really feels like she’s progressed as a character. I like that about her. Really good stuff.
The biggest criticism I ever consistently have about Tom Baker’s Doctor is that his alienness really can get to me at times. I prefer a Doctor who’s more empathetic towards humans and humanity. That’s why I tend to gravitate towards Davison and Tennant more than, say, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Tom Baker in his later stories becomes far less empathetic than the later Doctors, considerably less and less concerned about the plight of those around him or his effect on people’s lives. He becomes fairly rigidly involved and focused on saving the day and solving the problem of the week. Stop the justice of the alien, the human element is less than important.
City of Death”, the characters become immaterial in the light of The Doctor having a swashbuckle of an adventure. By the time he’s hit JNT, he doesn’t seem to care about anything except saving the day for his own seemingly selfish reasons.
See, Lord Palmerdale is a dick. He’s a scheming, maniacal (although hardly to a Doctor Who level) douche who’s only concern is with himself and his own greed. It’s his fault the boat crashed and it’s he who wants to do anything to make all the money he can based on some knowledge he has about stuff that’s gonna go down soon. He’s helped along by the MP guy Skinsale who sold him the secrets, who now seems contented in the fact that Palmerdale isn’t going to be able to use them, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s not the nicest of guys either. After all, he did do something illegal.
The people in this lighthouse only serve to ratchet up the tension and stakes. Regardless of quality of life amongst these people, it doesn’t change the fact that there are quite a few of them who could bite the dust by the end. The stakes have been raised and The Doctor’s still on the line to save them. It’s just unfortunate that he doesn’t seem to care about them any more than he would a woodchuck or any other animal that’s not of his species (isn’t it weird how some people can value the life of a dog more than a person? And yet it’s not nearly the same sense of companionship we can find with another person; it’s similar just not the same…)
Only it doesn’t, and we get what’s probably my favorite cliffhanger in this whole thing. Just like the characters in this story we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security as to how exactly this story will play out. These characters ARE trapped and there IS a threat on the loose. And this threat is learning a whole manner of things about them, things that are probably not good for the future. While this danger is going on and The Doctor and Leela are investigating and running around in the dark, desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, Palmerdale is running around dealing with his get-richer-quick scheme, which has nothing to do with anything. It’s engaging though (the dialogue is delicious and the storyline is at the very least intensely engaging because we’re already invested in this story), and by the time we reach the bit at the end where Reuben screams and we get Skinsale remarking “what the hell is that”, suddenly the story has lurched forward at the worst possible moment.
And they’re going to make you wait for it as long as they can before they let you know what happens next.
Take, for instance, the way it parses out information. At the beginning of each part we, the audience, learn something that the other characters are not privy to (the definition of dramatic irony, for those curious). In the first part we learn that something has arrived at the lighthouse (in this case, an alien being), but it’s not until the end of the episode that everyone learns that something has arrived at the lighthouse (it’s the cliffhanger, remember? But the thing that arrives is the boat and its crew, not the alien). In the second episode, we learn early on that there is a creature and it is attacking and that no one is safe, but it isn’t till the end of the episode that everyone kicks into high gear and responds to the threat (sure, The Doctor and Leela are acting on their suspicions, but they’re more investigating than setting up defenses).
I’m speaking, of course, of Reuben.
At the end of part two, we hear a scream. The scream (which we know because we know he was down there) is Reuben’s scream and it’s made because he’s presumably attacked by the alien (although we don’t see it). Visually, though, in the opening few minutes of this episode we’re treated to a scene of Reuben leaving the side room and heading up to his room, closely watched by the Bosun and unresponsive to his words.
It’s a clinic in how to build suspense, and made all the more haunting because we are constantly reminded that, in this haunted house story, the killer is literally inside the house, just up the staircase, hiding in his room, biding his time, waiting for his moment. A lot of this is down to Colin Douglas, who is masterful at playing both the salty old codger and the possessed, sociopathic murderer. He’s positively electric (ha ha) in every scene he’s in, and even the hint of his presence sends chills down my spine (and I’ve seen this before). It’s all in his silences, his elections to not speak, and the fact that he knows (like we do) that he’s going to kill all of these people. And he’s going to kill them soon.
I say this all because structurally speaking, at the end of the episode, The Doctor realizes what we’ve realized the entire time: that he’s locked the creature in. This has been long cited as an amazing cliffhanger, and I can’t at all disagree. It’s chilling and wraps us in even further because my god, it’s worse than we could have possibly imagined. To add insult to injury, it’s a magnificent moment for the 4th Doctor simply because it’s a moment of failure. Tom Baker’s Doctor tends to grow more and more infallible as time goes on (especially in the Williams stuff), but watching the way he realizes he’s been underestimated is… great. It’s exactly the sort of “oh no” moment you want going into part four of a thriller/horror story.
One of the things about this story is the fact that it’s populated with a bunch of less-than-favorable people. Palmerdale in particular is especially nasty and the sorta guy who is… awful. I love the way he’s constantly attempting to do the thing that’s awful and is constantly driven by his own greed and self-whateverness. It’s refreshing and even though it’s one-dimensional (that’s all he seems to want), it’s a nice sorta character thing because far too often characters are goalless in Doctor Who and the story suffers as a result. Here, his drive provides some excellent conflict and puts him at odds with just about every character around, which makes for excellent drama.
But what sucks is the way he brought everyone down with him, or rather, everyone has a sin to atone for. Were it not for Palmerdale, Skinsale might not have sold himself out and ruined his career and reputation, but his sin is that he put his pride and the preservation of his reputation out ahead of the safety of everyone else in the lighthouse. Him destroying the telegraph puts him in the crosshairs. So too is Adelaide (although she is mostly sinless), she who is unwilling or incapable of standing up for herself, blind to the abuses of her employer.
So what we have here is a tremendous ending to a tremendous story.
Honestly, not much happens in this episode. The first half involves more of the same thriller/slasher aspects of this horror romp, while the second half degenerates into your typical “Doctor figures out a way to destroy the bad guys.” Degenerates, I realize, now that I’ve typed it, is something of a pejorative word, but it in no way reflects poorly on this story, but rather reinforces and reminds us that we’re rocking Doctor Who, which is in no way a bad thing.
In a lot of ways, the plot of this story is incredibly self-aware. Now that it’s plan is on the move, the evil Rutan (for the bad guy is a Rutan) has no qualms about marching into just about everywhere and systematically executing every extraneous character it can get its tendrils on. First, it executes Vince, and then sets its sights on Adelaide, and this is all… great great stuff, but the story is wise to drop this aspect of it rather quickly. After the second smiling murder by the malicious Reuben, we’ve really gotten all we’re going to get out of it and it’s probably for the best that we very quickly move on to the gross-out monster effect that is (as The Doctor calls him) “Reuben the Rutan.”
Genesis”, the eponymous “Brain of Morbius”, or even the Krynoid’s tendrils in “Seeds of Doom”?
It all culminates in a thrilling climax as The Doctor prepares to utilize the lighthouse as a laser beam to take out the Rutan mothership. While I’m extremely iffy on the ethics of this (I hate when The Doctor plays “in a game of us or them let’s have it be us”), I must admit the escape from the lighthouse sequence is an absolute delight, as is the actual effect of watching the lighthouse blow something up. Same too, the destruction of the Rutan and Leela’s mocking scorn at its lack of luck is a wonderful moment, even though I do worry about The Doctor endorsing such behavior.
Philip Sandifer; he’s smart), but someone pointed out that it’s rare of Doctor Who to so completely devastate its guest cast. Sure, there’s plenty of stories with high body counts, but even Saward’s stories would leave at least a person or two alive. Here, though, we get a total wipeout of anyone who isn’t The Doctor or his Companion, and it feels strangely earned. Were it not for The Doctor’s hubris, none of these people would have died (he did lock the Rutan in with them after all, and perhaps, could have handled it better), and yet here we are at the end, left with a trail of bodies and devastation behind.
After this story we get the Graham Williams era, which very famously saw The 4th Doctor not return to Earth very often in subsequent stories (he’d only return in “Image of the Fendahl”, “The Stones of Blood”, “The City of Death”, and “Logopolis”), instead choosing to visit random planets, spaceships, and galactic locales that weren’t Earth. That’s an interesting choice, and I know that Williams was totally into “the worlds of dreams and fantasy” and really loved aliens and their societies and all that shit and yes, I know that the Williams era is the one that inspires all sorts of people to bitch about The Doctor (or even the show) never leaving Earth…
Robot”, but he makes that great speech in “The Ark In Space” that’s all about the majesty and wonders of humanity (“homo sapiens” and all that) and his subsequent adventures are all about learning about and saving humanity from a whole manner of exciting plots and schemes. And then all of a sudden he stops visiting them. Of his first eighteen stories, half are set on Earth (more if you count partial credit), and then suddenly… it changes. And why? I think it’s the alienness of it all. Humanity just becomes too much for him, he loses touch, loses his mind, goes batty for a few years, and then regenerates and gets more in touch with his human goodness.
It’s honestly the exact opposite of Colin Baker (who started off hating humans and eventually grew out of that…) because it shows that The Doctor is slowly losing touch with humanity and the thing that grounds him to his sanity. I’m sure that wasn’t the thought at the time (people had their hands full trying to reel in Tom Baker….), but it would be interesting to see that explored, to see what it is that poisons him so and his attempts to turn back the clock on that sentiment when he finally hits his regeneration…
Regardless of all that though, this is still excellent and just everything you could want out of the ending to a story.
Final Thoughts?: I really really love this story.
Russell (whose praises I sang previously) really stands out as one of the key components of this story. The whole story itself takes place over four distinct sets (the boiler room, the living space, the stairwell, and the light chamber) with a few minor diversions (Reuben's room makes a cameo and there is some location shooting throughout), and it's a marvel that Russell manages to disguise this story so well. Part of that is the fact that I've seen enough Doctor Who to realize that sets are reused over and over again.... but it's also the fact that Russell is constantly re-framing and re-blocking it such that they look and feel completely different than what she's going for.
All that said, it shouldn't be a surprise for me to tell you that this is easily one of my favorite Tom Baker stories that's ever been done. Ever. It's a testament to his early days that this story isn't higher or perhaps that it's not more widely beloved (it's outside the stretch of the "legendary seasons"), but I think that's unrightly so. This is thrilling, gripping Doctor Who at its absolute best. It's a bonkers good plot, has some phenomenal drama, and it's got a killer, killer script that had to at least have been heavily polished by Robert Holmes. And my god did he polish a strong story with some wonderfully grafted on dialogue. The episodes and characters really sing their parts and they sound so good saying the words.
It's got great actors and a great villain, and it's a great piece of work by all who worked on it. Highly recommended. You should go watch it right now.
Hell, I just finished it and I'm totally down for watching it again. So good.
Next Time!: 5th Doctor! Tegan! A Mara! No Nyssa! Shakespearean madness! Lots and lots of words! Apples! Snakes! And Mama Prophets! All this and more (so much more) can be found in my new post on "Kinda"! Coming Next Tuesday!