An Air of Casual Horror

Review of Horror of Fang Rock (#92)
DVD Release Date: 04 May 10
Original Air Date: 03 - 24 Sep 1977
Doctor/Companion: Four, Leela
Stars: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson
Preceding Story: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Four, Leela)
Succeeding Story: The Invisible Enemy (Four, Leela, K-9)

By the opening of his fourth season (Season 15), Tom Baker was well entrenched in his role as the Doctor. The Fourth Doctor's first two Companions (Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan) had left him nearly one and two years before, respectively (The Hand of Fear, Sarah Jane's final story, aired in October 1976; Harry left the TARDIS at the end of Terror of the Zygons in September 1975), and for the second half of Season 14 he had been traveling with his latest Companion Leela.

One could thus reasonably expect Horror of Fang Rock to be rather standard fare—par for the course, as it were. In some ways it is (it's got some quintessential Who-y elements), but it others it is superior (especially compared to the rest of the season, which has several unfortunately weak stories). I have not watched Fang Rock as often as many other serials, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more enjoyable I found it than I'd remembered.

Of particular note was the relationship between the Doctor and Leela. It is commonly known that Baker was rather nasty to his co-star Louise Jameson while they were working together (though they have since smoothed things over, and I've heard Jameson herself say that they are great friends now); however, whatever was going on behind the scenes doesn't appear to have bled over onto the screen (at least not in a way that is out of character). Granted, there is still tension between the Doctor and Leela about her being a "savage," but it has become somewhat more of an old saw or inside joke between them. The characters obviously respect and depend on each other as well as caring about each other a great deal.

As our story opens, then, we have the standard situation in which the TARDIS has landed somewhere other than expected. The Doctor and Leela are on a foggy, rocky coast by a lighthouse without a light. It turns out the light has been going out sporadically since an odd meteor-like object crashed into the sea nearby. One member of the lighthouse's crew of three has already died in mysterious circumstances, and the TARDIS team begins to investigate, each in their own way (Leela, always thinking with her knife, goes out onto the rocks to try to hunt whatever creature is responsible).

With the light only working intermittently, the old keeper Reuben charges the young Vince to keep sounding the foghorn to warn ships away from the rocks. Despite their best efforts, however, a yacht strikes the rocks, and only the three passengers and one of the crew make it to the relative safety of the lighthouse.

From this point on, the tale takes on the air of a locked-room mystery, as the unfolding tangle of personal issues among the shipwrecked socialites intermingles with the developing danger from what the Doctor soon realizes is an alien adversary. It makes for some interesting character moments (including an epic eyeroll from Leela at Miss Adelaide's weak stomach for death and fighting) and increasing tension as the body count continues to climb.

While I considered giving more details of plot specifics here, having discovered a new appreciation for the story this time around, I felt those unfamiliar with it would be better served with a more teaser-ish review. Thus I'll reiterate that the acting, particularly by the leads, is just the kind one expects from the best Classic/pre-Hiatus era stories; the plot is complex without being complicated; and the mood and tenor of the adventure is just dark enough to provide an enjoyable air of casual horror.

This is the Fourth Doctor at the height of his power, still having fun and eminently comfortable being in charge of everyone and everything around him (probably on set, too). At this point in his tenure, I'm sure no one could imagine Baker being anything but fabulous and content in the role. Fang Rock certainly set up a potentially great season, even if history tells a different tale.




It's still there, the visceral thrill I can recall oh so clearly when The Doctor turns to the camera admitting that he hadn't locked the creature out, but had actually locked it in, cue theme tune scream sting. It's almost up there with Caves pt 3 cliffhanger for the sheer impact it had on me as a viewer!

OK it's a base under siege trope but done with such panache (Memo to E Saward: If you are going to kill most of the cast, do it this way).

Never mind the work that Terrance Dicks did previously, he deserves a place in the Doctor Who Hall of Fame for writing a story as good as this, allegedly having been given the brief by Robert Holmes to set it in a lighthouse as revenge for limitations previously set on him when Dicks was script editor (Time Warrior springs to mind for some reason.).

I have to say that my gut reaction memory for this story was on the whole not positive, but having watched it a few times, I am prepared to cut it some well deserved slack.


By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

I similarly had a "meh, it's okay but not great" memory of this one, and was pleasantly surprised this time around. And yes, that's a great cliffhanger. :)

By mrfranklin
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