Horror of Fang Rock

Written by:
Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Paddy Russell
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1977
Video Availability: Try sendit.com

You know, I've never really been a Horror of Fang Rock fan. Hugely overrated, it was the now-slated Invasion of Time which topped the initial DWAS season poll.

It comes down to two things: set and subtext. The lighthouse set is magnificently constructed for Who's budget, yet is shot so brightly and cleanly that it never looks like anything other than a set. Okay, suspension of disbelief and Doctor Who don't exactly go hand in hand, but this one never leaves you (or me, at any rate) in any doubt that you're watching a television programme. Maybe if they'd shot it all on film it might've worked better. And as for subtext, well, there isn't one. That's the problem. Okay, there's a kind of greed theme, but generally this is just an "alien invades lighthouse" story. Okay, it was hastily written as a replacement for a postponed tale (The State of Decay, as if you didn't know), but I like a bit more depth from my Who.

Colin Douglas is great as Reuben, but don't you think John Abbott is a little lame as Vince? And isn't the "inside the Rutan" sound effect the same one they use for inside the Doctor the following story? (Not a criticism that one, more an observation). The cliffhanger of a toy boat crashing ashore is also weak. We don't know who's on the toy boat so we don't yet care about them, and the Doctor isn't in danger, so where's the cliffhanger?

I sense fans like this one because it's competently made, decently acted and, most importantly, "straight". No jokes, no silliness. But no message, no intertextual referencing and nothing to say. There's nothing really wrong with this opening episode, but, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing really right with it, either.
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Tom's much-famed Fang Rock bad mood emerges here. There's a cracking moment when, after remarking "we haven't been introduced", he gazes boredly around the room and refuses to listen as the names are given to him. There's also some nice lines here and there, with this a particular favourite: "are you in charge here?" "No, but I'm full of ideas."

It's still no classic, though. Sean Caffrey and co turn up with period outfits and fake facial hair. Maybe it's a draconian view, but if I was a Who producer I'd make all my gueststars grow real beards weeks before filming. And I'm not going to second guess Paddy Russell but if this one had more incidental music (there's extraordinarily little of it, though as what there is is too-loud Dudley then maybe that's a blessing) and was about ten times darker then it might be more worthwhile. The cliffhanger, too, is again limp, a bad sign for new producer Graham Williams...
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I'll say one thing about Fang Rock: more than any other story I've reviewed so far, it benefits from the episode by episode format. Some, such as The Ambassadors of Death, have to be watched in large blocks, lest you realise how little narrative progression happens in each instalment. Yet watching Fang Rock in one fell swoop causes you to notice how slight the plot is.

One thing I don't care for are the supporting characters. They seem an artificially motivated bunch, there to pad out the story and act as victims to the Rutan. The exteriors of the lighthouse are also very cheap and amateur looking.

For season fifteen stories then I prefer to watch The Invisible Enemy, though I admit this is objectively better. And I would sincerely argue the qualities of Fendahl and The Invasion of Time over this one. So season-wise, it's a middling story.

This is a very episode threeish episode three, and plot advancement isn't exactly the order of the day. Like the rest it's slightly above average, yet is still the weakest of the four parts, and Annette Woollett's constant overplaying of her lines is growing to be really tiresome.

Two last observations: isn't Tom's pronunciation of "chameleon" weird? (Almost as weird as his pronunciation of Gallifrey/Gallefree) The cliffhanger is the strongest of the story, but as it involves the Doctor realising something that we the viewers knew over fifteen minutes earlier then it's somewhat neutered...
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Leela's developing a healthy line in sarcasm here, and it's to Jameson's credit that she can play these scenes so well when she and Tom weren't getting on.

In many ways this is textbook Doctor Who, the base under siege and slow build up. In the Eric Saward era the Rutan would be out straight away and slotted into an action format that the budget could not hope to support.

It also has the confidence to boast of motherships and galaxy conquests, despite showing just one Rutan on screen. If there's a theme at all to season 15 then it's that it's nicely bookended by strategic campaigns in the Rutan/Sontaran war.

The Rutan does a neat line in Morbius impersonations, and gets the piss thoroughly taken out of him by Tom. Ultimately, in a Pertweeish resolution they blow the Rutan up twice. Tom does say "I haven't got time to discuss morality" which does justify it slightly, but it does feel ever so slightly hollow even so...
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A decently made, reasonably acted Doctor Who story. Only its baffling fan proclamation as a classic causes it to disappoint.
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