The Doctor and Leela land on Fang Rock, following an alien spaceship crashing to Earth nearby. When the nearby lighthouse starts malfunctioning and the crew start turning up dead, the Doctor has a race against time to find out who is attacking the lighthouse.
Horror of Fang Rock is not a story that feels like it has been written in a hurry, which is all the more to the credit of the writer, Terrance Dicks, after his initial script had to be pulled for fears that it might be seen as making fun of the BBC’s adaptation of Dracula. When you’ve got a crisis in writing in Doctor Who, there are possibly few writers finer than Dicks, who managed to make a story that is considered to be one of the best in the Tom Baker era in the face of adversity.
Despite Philip Hinchcliffe’s departure at the end of the previous season, Horror of Fang Rock still maintains some of the gothic themes of his era. This story kicks starts the first season of the Graham Williams’ era in quite a strong way and to a casual viewer, it may not have been obvious that there had been a change in production teams between seasons. The shift in script editor later in this season would see the show become more comedic ahead of the appointment of Douglas Adams as script editor going forward, but if Fang Rock was disappointing, then it would possibly feel more like a hangover than a positive. This story features a lot of gothic elements, including the set shrouded in fog and myths and superstitions about the Beast of Fang Rock. Dicks builds a palpable sense of tension throughout the story, building to that wonderful cliffhanger to Part 3, when the Doctor realises that he’s locked the alien menace in the lighthouse with them, which Paddy Russell’s direction and Dudley Simpson’s score really help with. Dicks’ writing is quite straightforward and efficient and he likes tying his stories up neatly in a bow by the end, and there are three elements here that help towards this: the lighthouse, the diamonds and the Rutan mothership which are key to the conclusion of this story.
One of the best parts of the story is the guest cast. Dicks gives the actors a chance to really shine and ultimately, we do feel something when the Rutan scout picks them off. The three lighthouse keepers, Reuben, Ben and Vince all represent different attitudes and ages of lighthouse keepers, with Reuben being the oldest and most mistrustful of new technology, Ben being middle-aged and Vince being the relatively new lighthouse keeper. The new additions, the survivors of the shipwreck, get a chance to shine too, even if James Skinsale and Lord Palmerdale are actually pretty terrible people, and both are involved in some pretty shady financial goings on, which has resulted in the death of some of the crew of the boat. Skinsale gets a redemption arc towards the end, as he teams up with the Doctor to try and defeat the Rutan scout, but is ultimately undone by his dedication to capitalism in pursuit of the diamonds he retrieves from Palmerdale’s corpse.
The weakest factor of this story is undeniably the alien foe, the Rutan Host, and its final appearance. To their credit, I think that both Dicks and director Paddy Russell have realised this and that is why the Rutan scout is seen on screen so briefly. It works much better as an unseen threat, murdering Ben and experimenting on him, then taking on the form of Reuben as it picks off the inhabitants of the lighthouse until only the Doctor and Leela remain. In fact, the Reuben guise is so effective, complete with that creepy smile he makes to Harker before killing him, that this could have even been a story I’d love to see the Rutan Host come back in the modern series, either with or without their persistent foes the Sontarans, as I honestly think that there is more that could be done with them, with a greater effects budget.
Are you in charge here?
No, but I’m full of ideas.Lord Palmerdale and the Fourth Doctor
The tensions between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson whilst working together on the show are well documented, but here they really serve to help to increase the sense of tension. The Doctor really snaps at Leela when she asks questions, but it is because the character is afraid and that makes the audience buy into the tension even more. Despite that, Baker manages to rule every scene that he is in, stamping authority over the guest cast and bringing real warmth and wit to the Doctor, especially in the scene where he finally comes face to face with the Rutan scout, taunting him about the strategic withdrawals and the fact that the war isn’t going well. Louise Jameson is also really good here, and one of the highlights of this blog has been seeing how Leela has grown as a character. Jameson had big shoes to fill following Elisabeth Sladen into the role of companion but has done a damn fine job in making it feel like she’s been with the Doctor a long time. Adelaide serves to act as a foil to Leela, being the more traditional companion role and screaming and becoming hysterical at any opportunity, whilst Leela is skulking around in men’s clothing, wielding a knife and generally being awesome.
Verdict: Horror of Fang Rock stands up as one of the best Tom Baker stories. Terrance Dicks gives us a great story where the Doctor feels a bit out of his depth, helped by a guest cast that feel like they have real life on the bones. It’s a shame about the look of the Rutans, but I’d love to see them come back. 9/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Colin Douglas (Reuben), John Abbott (Vince), Ralph Watson (Ben), Sean Caffrey (Lord Palmerdale), Alan Rowe (James Skinsale), Annette Woollett (Adelaide Lessage) & Rio Fanning (Harker).
Writer: Terrance Dicks
Director: Paddy Russell
Producer: Graham Williams
Composer: Dudley Simpson
Original Broadcast Dates: 3rd – 24th September 1977
Behind the Scenes
- This story had the working titles The Rocks of Doom, Rocks of Doom, The Monster of Fang Rock and The Beast of Fang Rock.
- This story marks the beginning of Graham Williams’ run as producer, taking over from Philip Hinchcliffe.
- Horror of Fang Rock was a late replacement for a script that Terrance Dicks wrote that featured vampires, due to fears that it may detract from the BBC’s upcoming high-profile dramatisation of Dracula. The original script, The Vampire Mutations, would be rewritten and produced in 1980 as State of Decay.
- The last story to be directed by Paddy Russell. Russell found working on this story extremely challenging, especially as she much preferred Dicks’ original story to the hastily written Horror of Fang Rock. Whilst filming, she clashed with both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson and found that the studio space in Birmingham (which production had been forced to move to due to scheduling conflicts at Television Centre) were not up to scratch.
- Louise Jameson recalls that, in the scene where the Doctor carries in Palmerdale’s body, she feels as though the relationship between herself and Tom Baker improved. He frequently came in before his rehearsed cue, which Jameson felt was upstaging her and she insisted on three retakes until Baker finally came in at the rehearsed time.
- The pigment dispersal scene, where Leela’s eyes change from brown to blue, was a practical event designed to help Jameson, who struggled with the brown contact lenses so much that she was seriously considering leaving the show.
- The last televised story until The Doctor’s Wife in which every guest character dies.
- Colin Douglas had previously played Donald Bruce in The Enemy of the World.
- Ralph Watson played a number of roles in Doctor Who, most prominently Captain Knight in The Web of Fear, a role he reprised for The Diary of River Song story The Web of Time. He also appeared in The Underwater Menace and The Monster of Peladon.
- Alan Rowe had previously played Dr Evans in The Moonbase and Edward of Wessex in The Time Warrior. He would go on to play Garif in Full Circle.
The Doctor facing off with the Rutan on the stairs is my highlight of the episode. Baker sparkles with wit and menace, encapsulating all of the best facets of his Doctor.
Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead, I’ve locked it in here, with us.The Fourth Doctor
Previous Fourth Doctor review: The Valley of Death
Previous Fourth Doctor televised story: The Talons of Weng-Chiang