CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: 'Horror Of Fang Rock'

Season 15

Horror Of Fang Rock

September 1977

‘That’s the empty rhetoric of a defeated dictator. And I don’t like your face, either.’

The first story transmitted under the producership of Graham Williams, Fang Rock is really atypical as an example of what he would end up doing with the format of the show. Strangely it’s a slight throwback to Hinchcliffe and it’s only as we progress through the rest of this season that we’ll get a feel for how he’s going to handle things from now on.

For me personally, at this point the show stopped being what is now called ‘appointment viewing’. I vaguely recall this story on transmission and the many that followed it but from 1977 through to 1980 I actually only watched the programme intermittently. I do recall feeling that ‘something’ had changed both in my attitude towards the programme and in the direction the show seemed to be going in. I had just turned 15 when this went out and perhaps it was that awkward teenage phase that both the series and me were going through that shifted my opinions at the time. However, some of the opinions still hold true so be prepared for a much bumpier ride during the Williams era.

So it’s almost business as usual here. A fog bound Edwardian setting, a ‘base under siege’ storyline and both the regulars still in place and more or less still at their peak. A Rutan scout crash lands in the sea and decides to terrorise the staff of the local lighthouse and the survivors of a shipwreck.

The production values are very good, despite received wisdom that Williams’ tenure as producer saw a rapid decline in an ability to get money up on screen. The interiors of the lighthouse are full of superb detail and are complimented with excellent period costumes and a sympathetic use of studio lighting. Basically, it’s the BBC doing what they do best with this sort of thing and this would be one of the last times we would get a period setting in a story until much later in the series history.

Performances across the board are pretty good, although there’s perhaps an element of exaggeration creeping into the acting that gives us a sign of what’s to come later with the Williams era where it’s clear that actors determined to take it seriously and deliver their roles with conviction are reduced to actors who go right over the top and back round the other side again cos it’s only a kiddies show and it’s meant to be a bit like panto, isn’t it? The worst offence here is to have a character like Adelaide just react to all the surrounding events by screaming and carrying on in a very unconvincing manner and letting the side down somewhat. It gets tiresome. There’s a gulf there between the character and how the actor is playing the role and they don’t quite meet in the middle.

One of the most noticeable things is the music. Dudley seems to be doing this on auto-pilot and it’s notable that the role of the music in supporting the drama changes over the next few years – less specific themes and more sketchy aural wallpaper - with only a few exceptions e.g. ‘City Of Death’. I don’t know if it’s me but I get the feeling that even here Williams seems to have started a slow process of leeching out the dramatic tension from the series. And the way music colours the drama seems to be the first of many casualties.

Like ‘The Thing From Another World’ the story is primarily about fear of possession and identity theft. It encompasses the typical tropes associated with possession such as hysteria, mania, psychosis, or dissociative identity disorder. You could also address the manner in which the human characters attempt to double-cross each other and their panic about this creeping possession as a collective hysteria where the true nature of the characters is revealed as the contagion of the Rutan spreads through the lighthouse.

There is also the tension between ‘the old ways’ and ‘modernism’ in the form of Reuben’s paen to the oil-fired lighthouses instead of new fangled electricity and the mythological resonance of the hidden depths of the surrounding ocean. The impact of industrialism on society is one of the themes of the story and it can’t quite decide if progress is a necessary evil or a blind alley. The boiler takes on an odd significance all the way through the narrative – is it symbolic of the price of progress as well as being an engine of possession and destruction that the Rutan cleverly exploits?

Again Leela’s character is continuing to be developed and Jameson still seems to be finding further mileage in her performance, particularly in the way she illustrates Leela’s lack of social etiquette and mangling of language - ‘Teshnician’. She is also a good counterpoint to the alleged refinement of the continually screaming and fainting Adelaide. Tom is on good form and his encounter with the Rutan on the staircase is the highlight here.

Overall then, it’s an exercise in minimalism and efficiency that strips away some of the Hinchcliffe excess even if the body count still remains high. As a season opener it’s modest and has perhaps been overlooked – at the time perhaps it was a case of audiences simply accepting the programme was still there, as reliable as ever. Turn the lights down, close the curtains and settle down with this now and you’ll find it’s a bit of a gem.

Notes on the DVD version: There's a rather good audio commentary with Louise Jameson, Terrance Dicks and John Abbott. This accompanies a tribute to Terrance Dicks, the writer, and short piece on director Paddy Russell. Both are fascinating tributes. Finally, one of the vignettes made for the 30th Anniversary transmission of 'Planet Of The Daleks' - The Antique Doctor Who Show' - is also included. Hats off again to those clever chaps at the Restoration Team for sprucing up the pictures and sound on the four episodes.


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