Horror of Fang RockBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Horror Of Fang Rock is surprisingly tricky territory really as despite its popularity it is often criticised for being too simple and shallow. This is a justified claim but it has not come about through sheer laziness on Terrance Dicks’s part; the story was a famously last-minute addition to the schedules and in any case Dicks does make a valiant effort to correct these problems. What we are left with in the end is possibly the ultimate base-under-siege story, where all the elements that made the genre so successful under the Patrick Troughton era are distilled to absolute purity.

Admittedly the opening special effect is lame but in general the story’s visuals are excellent, with some excellent models and particularly well designed sets on display. The lighthouse is flawlessly realised, with its curved doors, intricate background scenery and dark lighting. The CSO in the lamp-room is also excellent and allows me to make that rarest of claims: it’s not that noticeable.

The first episode has a fun trio of guest stars, the best being Colin Douglas as Reuben. The exchange between him and Ben over the relative merits of oil and fire in lighthouses should silence those who claim this has a poor script, and show how a small cast totalling five people can carry the episode. The episode begins with a good ol’ mystery of the kind I get into so much – and it’s sustained too, for most of the story.

Louise Jameson will never be called the most charismatic of the Doctor’s companions but Dicks’s dialogue is reliably good and the film sets of the rocks are terrific. The sound of the foghorn is well used as well, acting as incidental music (which is rather sparse while I’m on the subject, although not bad) and showing how adept Paddy Russell is at creating atmosphere. 

This story is notable for the Doctor’s commanding presence, as he swans around taking charge of every situation he is placed in; rarely does he wait for another actor to give him his cue properly and very often he speaks without looking at his subject. This was allegedly difficult for the other actors to deal with and threatens to take the character over the top in certain places, but for the most part the Doctor comes across well as a dynamic and authoritative character. For example, the discovery of Ben’s body is an excellent piece of acting, being a mixture of disgust and calmness. 

The crash of the yacht is a brilliant piece of modelwork, unjustifiably criticised (modelwork being a particular strength of season fifteen now that I think about it) and makes for an underrated cliffhanger. A handy effect of this is that we get some extra cast members; the combination of the small space to cram them in and their general agitation means that the painstakingly-created sense of claustrophobia really begins to bite at this stage. The extra cast are generally good with the exception of Annette Woollett as Adelaide, whose drippy characterisation is a bit too much to handle. 

It’s only spoiled by the sight of the Rutan; for one thing it look ridiculous (monsters being a particular weakness of season fifteen now that I think about it) and for another thing, what’s the point of showing it in episode two if you’re just going to hide it away again until the conclusion? All it does is spoil the sense of the unknown. I ranted a bit more about this at the time but I used my notepad to kill a mosquito and frankly the rest is silence, or at least illegible.

“Are you in charge here?” “No, but I’m full of ideas.” Okay, hand on heart, this little jewel (I think from Robert Holmes) is my favourite quotation from Doctor Who and one that I had the good fortune of being able to use in a social situation not too long ago (I so rarely get asked if I’m in charge of anything). Apart from being a witty retort, it happens to make the Doctor look like the coolest bloke to ever walk the Earth or anywhere else.

On the DVD commentary Dicks gets very sniffy about the Tom Baker’s acting when Ben’s mutilated body is discovered, but really I think it’s quite appropriate as they’ve all seen violent death before; admittedly Harker doesn’t get much in the way of back history so I’m basing my assumptions about his constitution on the preconception that salty sea-dogs can handle just about anything. On the subject of back history, I consider the financial shenanigans of Skinsale and Palmerdale to be a bit of a noble failure. They are an attempt to make the characters seem a bit less like monster-fodder but as they are so inherently pointless they betray themselves; it looks like nothing more than an unsuccessful effort which in turn makes the characters seem even more like monster-fodder. That said, it’s great dialogue and always a pleasure to listen to even if it does go nowhere.

After another decent cliffhanger episode three begins, and Adelaide really starts to yell. She was never the story’s most likeable character to begin with, and her constant histrionics start to send the story over the edge.

Meanwhile Reuben-Rutan is lurking in his room; the Rutan itself is presumably attaching a transmitter to the lighthouse, but it is never explained what some projection of Reuben is left behind. Suggestions on a postcard please. On the subject of climbing the lighthouse then this isn’t a bad effect at all but is let down by it’s comparison to other visuals which are absolutely brilliant.

Yes, well, Adelaide gets slapped. Look, there are enough crass remarks about this already without me adding more so I’ll move on to the wrecked telegraph, which due to not fulfilling any narrative function I can only assume is simply there to increase the claustrophobia, which is already maxed out anyway thereby making it somewhat redundant.

The cliffhanger is another good one; seriously, what have people got against them? Vince’s death at the beginning of part four is poignant as he’s such a likeable character in a kicked-puppy sort of way, and it leads to a good scene where Reuben comes stalking into the crew-room; Adelaide’s death is arguably the story’s most dramatic moment. The transformation effect is good, but as I said before the Rutan looks terrible. Also, the talk of Sontarans and intergalactic wars seems slightly incongruous on a lighthouse off the coast of Southampton in the 1900s. 

Skinsale bites the bullet; this is famously (I think) the only story to have a 100% mortality rate. Even Pyramids Of Mars had Achmed. It should be said though that this is due to the story’s small cast (there are no extras at all) and the body count is only eight people, which is significantly less than many other stories. This means that it is characters that get killed as opposed to faceless stuntmen, and their deaths are all the more shocking for it.

The effect of the Rutan mothership is another good one; like the transformation of Leela’s eyes, the resolution is contrived but cool. To wrap up, this is followed by one of the best endings ever as the Doctor quotes from the amazingly atmospheric poem ‘Flannen Isle’, making for an appropriate ending to a very creepy story.

“Classic” is that most elitist of terms that nevertheless gets chucked around far too much; while I’m going to give this story a maximum rating, I’m not going to make the claim that it’s up there with the truly top-tier stories like Pyramids Of Mars that really can be called classics. Nevertheless, this is one of the top ten season openers.

FILTER: - Television - Series 15 - Fourth Doctor