‘Everybody lives, Leela! Just this once – everybody lives!’Err – sorry, wrong story.
Way, way, waaaaaay wrong story.
There are the usual ‘top story’ lists, but what every fan knows is that beyond all the obvious, there are the stories so good you almost don’t dare to watch them too often, in case you wear the greatness off them. Some of those are on the usual lists – Pyramids of Mars is there. Robots of Death is there. Genesis of the Daleks less universally so, because for all the glory and grimness, there’s a lot of faffing about in the middle. But the other stories that make up your ‘Only Watch Occasionally’ list are personal to you, and no-one can judge you for them – Hell, The Time Meddler is on mine, if that tells you anything.
Horror of Fang Rock is so on that list. People almost universally rave about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and to be sure, it’s entertaining as all get-out. But it does have the least convincing giant rat in history in it – just saying.
Horror of Fang Rock takes all the things the Fourth Doctor and Leela do well together, and then almost single-handedly proves that they do some other things so much better. It’s the ultimate base-under-siege story, but in an Edwardian style. A lighthouse stands in for the likes of a futuristic sandminer, and rather than relying on dozens of creepy mechanical men, there’s just the one enemy.
But it could be anywhere.
And it could be anyone.
The tone is an odd thing, that shouldn’t work but really, really does – it’s all grimness, death and shadows, but rather than slowing the pace down, that just gives the Doctor, Leela and the people they encounter – lighthouse keepers Reuben, Ben and Vince and stranded posh folk Lord Palmersdale, Colonel Skinsdale and the innocent Adelaide, along with Bosun Harker – a backdrop against which to rush around being urgent and desperate, and worrying about the fact that by morning, they might all be dead.
I’ve called it the ultimate base under siege story, but really, in tone, it’s like the very best of Agatha Christie – like And Then There Were None, for instance – strangers and people with connections, thrust into a tight environment together despite differing social classes in turn of the twentieth century England, forced to work together to defeat a killer they know is trapped in with them, and that could look like anyone. It’s a lesson in clammy, creepy paranoid psychological drama, pretty much designed with the singular goal of scaring the bejesus out of everyone who watched it, and pretty much succeeding to this day.
The costumes and acting are or the most part impeccable – period drama being something the BBC did insanely well in 1977 – but really it’s that clammy ‘we’re all going to die and there’s no way out’ sensation that builds Horror of Fang Rock’s atmosphere, and that makes it a classic to this day. Plus of course, when we first met the Sontarans in The Time Warrior, they were explained in a throwaway line as being involved in a perpetual war with the Rutans. Pretty much no detail about the Rutans was given, but just as The Time Warrior was originally written by Robert Holmes under a degree of sufferance and with little historical knowledge on the instructions of Terrance Dicks, who was script editor at the time, so Horror of Fang Rock was Holmes’ revenge when he became script editor, throwing Dicks the challenge of a lighthouse story – when Dicks himself was keen to write a vampire story (which he did, only to have it pulled as a kind of schedule-clash, and re-emerge in later years as State of Decay). So Dicks decided he would take the line about the Rutans and see if they had the… erm… legs?... to take on the Doctor themselves. As The Time Warrior introduced us to the whole Sontaran race through the person of one lost, crashed warrior, so Horror of Fang Rock mirrored its structure, giving us a single stranded Rutan, and showing us exactly the kind of danger they could pose. Little Green Men have long been a science-fiction cliché, but little green jellyfish of shape-changing, electrically-charged death? Oh hellyeah. It was such a bizarre alien for the stompy, potato-headed Sontarans to be at war with that it recommended the Rutans to us as something special – and crucially, Horror of Fang Rock showed us exactly why they would be such a menace. While The Time Warrior told a story that had plenty of time to breathe across a number of locations, Horror of Fang Rock was tight, building its scares relentlessly in a breathless, misty, cold, wet, closed-in world. If The Time Warrior instantly made you want another Sontaran story, to see more of them, Horror of Fang Rock made you want to be pretty careful with any return of the Rutans – in case you did irreparable damage to your Fang Rock memories. Dicks created a monstrous species that could have come back, but that you’d have to have done something entirely different with – the ending of Horror of Fang Rock was so complete in and of itself that it drew a line under the story. Any Rutan return would have to be surprising in a whole new way. As yet, on screen at least, nothing has ever been done with them again. The memories of Fang Rock last long and cast imposing shadows – it’s that good.
It would be wrong to close any look back at this story of mounting sweaty fear and culture-clash without touching on the way that all sides spin the wheel of fear. Reuben, the old lighthouse keeper, brings a touch of the Hammer Transylvanian villager to the piece, with his folk tales of the Beast of Fang Rock. The posh passengers, with their bright, Edwardian rationalism and, to be fair to them, their concerns the wretched rocks on which they’ve been marooned, show us how unprepared they are for what they’re facing, and the Doctor and Leela, with their advanced knowledge of the universe, stand in front of them all and still feel fear. As the Doctor says – ‘Gentlemen, I have some news for you – this lighthouse is under attack and by morning, we might all be dead.’ Baker is in superb form here, the base under siege scenario feeding him thespian meat and drink, and Louise Jameson – as, to give her her due, she was for most of her time in Doctor Who, is fantastically believable. Watch Leela when the camera’s not on here, and see Jameson’s commitment to the drama.
The perfect monster. A tight, deadly situation. Cultural clashes between classes that still existed when the show was broadcast. The exhausting tension of a paranoid murder mystery. A huge body count. And stars that committed to turning up the scare-factor at every turn.
That’s why Horror of Fang Rock is as good as people say it is – still, today. That’s why you don’t want to watch it too often – just in case it ever stops working for you. That would be a terrible thing.
Maybe once more couldn’t hurt…
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk