9 September 2017

Horror of Fang Rock

Season 15 @40. Terrance Dicks understands how Doctor Who works better than most writers and if his material sometimes plays to the wider audience rather than the dedicated fan the story is usually all the better for it. His `Horror of Fang Rock` is one of the show’s definitive community under siege stories never straying from its remote sea lapped lighthouse from start to finish. Production wise it is a triumph evoking sea fog and cold waves with little more than lighting, a realistic looking set and sound effects that mean the tides are constantly ebbing in the background. Lighting was one of the aspects that the programme nearly always got right in the Seventies (and often got wrong in the Eighties) and this story is an excellent example of how to create the sort of mood you might expect from a superior stage production. 

Sometimes the picture is so dark you can hardly make out more than faces, which might have been a deliberate directorial trick from Paddy Russell. Certainly she knows how to set the mood that Terrance Dicks’ script has offered with the lamp shutting off at just the right dramatic moments. This adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere further suggested by the narrow sets and curved staircase. And when Rutan Reuben’s face is framed in darkness it is chilling.

It is hard to believe this was all written swiftly as a last minute stand in for another story because it is so rich with detail and by and large well thought through. It is something of a changeover still evoking the best of the Hinchcliffe era with only the merest hint of a new captain at the helm. `Horror` is also renowned for being one of the handful of stories in which every guest character has perished by the end, though we tend to forget how many did die in this period. Terrance Dicks’ lean but effective narrative conjures a variety of reasons for these fatalities though each coming from the character beats already established. He doesn’t spare the brutality- even innocent Vince and screaming Adelaide cop it when such characters are always the ones who survive aren’t they? However the writer is in no mood to spare anyone today, neither it seems is he prepared to spare us grisly details. True we don’t see Ben’s body but from the reactions of the characters that do it must be fairly horrifically maimed.

With a foghorn and a pink comet episode one is an attention grabber. We spend the time solely in the company of just the Doctor, Leela plus the trio of lighthouse keepers. These three are extremely well served characters but this was no anomaly in the Doctor Who of the Seventies. There are dozens of similar examples of guest characters you meet in a story that you get to know which adds another level to the drama. It’s the one area where the modern series cannot compete. In their company- and indeed later on - Dicks lavishes period detail and little asides that grow these characters. There’s a whole scene for example where they debate the pros and cons of electricity as opposed to gas lamps and this is no idle chatter either. Not only does it serve to add a backdrop but soon enough that electric lamp keeps conking out. Colin Douglas is superb throughout; Reuben’s transformation is all the more terrifying because he was so affable and fatherly beforehand- having him kill Vince is horrible! And that evil expression he pulls is classic!
Rocking an astonishing hipster moustache Ralph Watson’s Ben is the first victim but we still know enough about him to care. Its easy to see Vince as potential companion material as John Abbot’s performance is subtle and fluid enough to make you like the character.  Between them these three swap suspicions, concerns and ideas with such likeability that you could imagine an alternative programme about three light house keepers.The rich set who turn up for episode 2 are an equally interesting bunch whose story is essayed just enough to play into the main narrative. Skinsale being an MP he seems to be caught up in the sort of scenario that would have the tabloids of the day calling for his resignation having revealed some unspecified secret to Palmerdale. The latter was hoping to capitalise on this financially if he can get to the stock exchange.  Sean Caffrey's Palmerdale is a great snapshot of the overpriveliged snob too!

The exchanges between this motley bunch are invigorating and Leela’s reaction to Adelaide priceless. I’ve read some reviews say that all of these characters are clichéd ciphers, there to be despatched and I suppose the latter part is the case but I would certainly say that as a group they are well defined by the time they come from. I also like the fact that even when faced with evidence of dastardly and mysterious goings on they still bicker about reputation, money and class. Had the story really been giving us clichéd characters surely Vince and Adelaide would have made it through and fallen in love while Palmerdale’s demise would have been – after all his self -centred behaviour- a selfless act that saves the day at the end. You do wonder why Vince burns the money Palmerdale gave him though. Surely this would represent a fortune for someone like him. On the whole though these are great characters, well acted and vital. 
The Doctor and Leela’s initial arrival is another of those things I do miss in most modern Doctor Who - the wandering around exploring, picking up clues and signposts, finding a mystery. Too much of this now would irritate viewers used to being able to find out anything with a few clicks or taps but forty years ago the viewer was easier with not knowing. This may be why the old series is slower – it fits the rhythm of people’s lives then. Turn up somewhere and not know where you are, there was no Google Maps to tell you where to go- you just had to find out or ask someone.  

Tom Baker remains the dark and sombre Time Lord here for one of the last occasions. Hereafter he will introduce more levity to his performance but for the most part he remains a distant individual matching the story's mood. Dicks has him take command with no interest in any locking him up and the story shows you can move forward without people necessarily suspecting the Doctor to begin with. There is a jarring moment though when the Doctor is seen to camera essentially mocking the Victorians. That’s probably the way the Time Lord thinks about people the whole time. This will also be the last story in which Leela remains fundamentally alien. It’s a shame as Louise Jameson is giving a really different companion portrayal here as she did in her first three stories. 
Terrance is famous for declaring that “monsters should always be green” and the Rutan is a prime example.The results are mixed- the jellyfish appearance does make a change from the humanoid shape but after Rutan Reuben has scared the viewer, this rather cumbersome thing is not quite as effective. However there is an impressive effect later on when it slides accurately down the steps. It is much better at doing that than climbing up them though. The vocal effect they use on the Rutan makes it sound remarkably like Michael Spice who of course was Magnus Greel and the voice of Morbius but apparently it is Colin Douglas speaking. 
We learn quite a bit about the Rutans in quick succession though some of it seems a tad contradictory. They like electricity but evolved from water and are still amphibious. I’d have imagined they need to keep well clear of electricity then! Later we find out they are susceptible to high tempreratures as well. They are chameleonic so perhaps that explains it. There’s a namecheck for the Sontarans whose `glorious death` rhetoric they seem to share. I bet both sides have even forgotten what their “interminable war” is actually about!

The only areas where the story falls slightly short is in its cliffhangers and the climax none of which offer much opportunity for Paddy Russell to utilise. At the end of episode 1, the camera lingers rather too long on the model ship and surely Colin Douglas’ chilling fake Reuben deserved an end of episode look to haunt viewers for the rest of the week? Part 3 concludes with the Doctor simply admitting a mistake that the viewer is already aware of.
As for the final few minutes they don’t really match the tension that’s been built up. The Rutan is despatched too soon and the brief blowing up of the Rutan ship isn’t especially exciting either. However the finish is almost redeemed by the extract from the `Ballad of Flannen Isle` voiceover which reminds us too that the tale of the `Beast of Fang Rock` has not been told to us.

There's a great representative clip from the story here Lighthouse under attack...boiler to stoke clip 

So what did people think of it 1977....? 

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