Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Episode Four

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It’s slightly odd to think that during the eighties Horror of Fang Rock wasn’t a story with a terribly good reputation.  But then this was the decade (in British fandom certainly) when many of us only had very limited access to the series’ past, so we had to rely on what DWM or the fanzines of the day told us was true.

And since Graham Williams was still persona non grata for many, Horror was often lumped in with the majority of the other stories from this period as something of a disappointment.  Only City of Death managed to escape this chorus of disapproval.

It’s interesting that part four opens with what we later learn to be the shape-shifting Rutan (still looking remarkably like Rueben) running into Vince for a brief and (on Vince’s part) painful meeting.  Had Vince been killed at the end of part three then the actor wouldn’t have received a fee for the final instalment (this seems a trivial matter, but Doctor Who, like many other series of the time, tended to be quite frugal about matters like this).

I wonder if the original plan had been to end part three with Vince’s death?  It would have been a strong cliffhanger, especially since it would have immediately followed the Doctor’s weary statement that he’d been wrong all along about their mysterious foe.

But no matter, Vince now bites the dust and Adelaide follows him shortly after.  This leaves Skinsale as the last man standing, apart from the Doctor and Leela.  Whilst Leela and Skinsale head off to find a weapon to use against the Rutan, the Doctor settles down for a friendly chat with the glowing green blob.

If one were being critical, then it’s probably fair comment that part four does somewhat dribble to a conclusion.  The Rutan (looking rather like – I’m sorry – a large piece of green snot) and the Doctor have a nice little natter for a few minutes which rather slows the story down.  That Dicks chose a Rutan as the monster is a nice nod to Holmes (Holmes had already named them as the age-old enemies of his creations, the Sontarans).  Or it could just be that Dicks was running short of inspiration …..

As is often the way with even the most repellent of monsters, they tend to be very garrulous once you get them talking (a fact which Dicks slyly drops into the script) and the Doctor now knows exactly what he has to do.  Destroy the Rutan mothership – which is shortly due to land – and the rest of the Rutan fleet will scoot off to look for easier pickings elsewhere.

This is a little hard to swallow, but it’s even harder to believe that the Doctor could rig the lighthouse’s lamp into a deadly ray with little more than a dash of ingenuity and a diamond from Palmerdale’s body belt.  It’s easy to criticise the modern series for plucking solutions out of the air, but this is just as bad.

Since Dicks wrote both the script and the novel, there’s one small change which has always interested me.  Skinsale dies because he stays behind and scrabbles for Palmerdale’s extra diamonds.  When Leela asks where Skinsale is, the Doctor tells her he died with honour.  This is obviously not so and Dicks – when he penned the novelisation – chose to make this plain.  Was it not originally played as Dicks wrote it, or did he take the later opportunity to tighten up a this slight plot oddity?

But even if the ending slightly disappoints, Horror of Fang Rock is still an essential story.  Base-under-siege stories always work (although familiarity did breed contempt a little during the Troughton era) and thanks to the unusual lighthouse setting this one works better than most.

Finishing with a touch of Wilfrid Gibson doesn’t hurt either.  “Aye, though we hunted high and low, and hunted everywhere, of the three men’s fate we found no trace. In any time, in any place. But a door ajar and an untouched meal and an over-toppled chair”.

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part Three

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Horror of Fang Rock was the last time that Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes worked together on the same Doctor Who story.  If one had to choose the most significant writer who ever worked on the series then Dicks and Holmes, along with David Whitaker, would surely have to be towards the top of the list.

All three had similar career paths – they had all served as script-editors and helped to broaden the mythos of the series in numerous ways (they weren’t too shabby as writers either).  If pressed, I might have to plump for Terrance Dicks – as not only did he help to stabilise the series in the early seventies (following the rocky road the show had trod in the later Troughton era) thereby ensuring that the programme had a long term future, but he also had the good sense to commission Robert Holmes.  And a Doctor Who cosmos without Robert Holmes scarcely bears thinking about ….

That’s a bit of a flip reason true, since Dicks was no slouch as a writer himself.  Fang Rock is probably his best solo script for the series – which is especially impressive when you consider that it was a last minute replacement for his rejected vampire story.  Compare and contrast with The Invasion of Time, which also had to be cobbled together at great speed.  True, the season closer also had to stumble through the production from hell, but had the script been sounder then things wouldn’t have turned out to be so shambolic.  But that’s a story for another time.

Rueben’s looking far from well, but isn’t actually dead (or so it appears).  Once again the Doctor’s still several paces behind the action and is working from a false premise – he believes that Rueben’s seen the creature and has valuable information, but the truth’s a little more complicated.

Whilst the Doctor attempts to contact Rueben through a locked door, Palmerdale is tempting Vince with a fortune (fifty pounds).  Palmerdale has a limited opportunity to make a killing on the stock exchange with the information supplied earlier by a reluctant Skinsale.  Skinsale would much prefer that he didn’t of course (since he would be ruined if the news leaked out).  Quite how this would be isn’t quite made clear – some kind of insider trading obviously – but it’s not really important.

The key fact is that Palmerdale attempts to bribe Vince to use the telegraph to broadcast a message to his brokers, so Skinsale destroys the telegraph machine to ensure this doesn’t happen.  This is clearly a very bad move as it isolates them from the mainland.  The Doctor helpfully spells this out.  “To protect your honour, you’ve put all our lives in danger”.

It’s a good dramatic moment and played well by Tom (the Doctor doesn’t display anger at Skinsale, only weary resignation).  But you have to wonder why the Doctor or indeed anybody else hadn’t thought to radio for help before.  And let’s be honest, even if Skinsale hadn’t wrecked the telegraph it’s impossible to imagine the Doctor ever lowering himself to request anybody’s assistance, certainly not turn of the century human beings.

Therefore the destruction of the telegraph is a bit of a red herring, although it serves a useful purpose in allowing us to see that Skinsale is just as corrupt and untrustworthy, in his own way, as Palmerdale.

We’re closer to the end of the story than the beginning, so it’s clearly time that the remaining humans are bumped off, one after another.  Palmerdale is the first to go, which sends Adelaide into a fit of hysterics (swiftly curtailed after Leela gives her a good hard slap!).  There then follows a nice exchange between the two, which sees Leela tell Adelaide that she shouldn’t put her faith in astrology.  “A waste of time. I too used to believe in magic, but the Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science”.

Before we’ve caught our breath from Palmerdale’s demise then Harker is also killed off and a couple of scenes later the Doctor and Leela discover Rueben’s cold, dead body. This is a bit of a mystery since Rueben has recently been seen alive and well.

The Doctor finally understands. “The chameleon factor, sometimes called lycanthropy. Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead, I’ve locked it in, with us”.

It’s a slight oddity that the Doctor refers to lycanthropy, since that only refers to the change between a human and a werewolf, but the Doctor’s ominous pronouncement is an interesting point on which to end the episode. Having the Doctor or the others placed in danger would have been more of a hook, but the realisation that the Doctor’s been wrong all along is also frightening and disturbing – albeit for a different reason.

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part Two

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I’ve previously mentinoed Terrance Dicks’ firm grip of basic storytelling principles and there’s further evidence of that here.  Our new characters – Lord Palmerdale, Skinsale, Adelaide and Harker – all have interlocking conflicts with each other which will help to keep the drama ticking along.

Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey) plainly sees himself as the top dog and is quite happy to boss young Vince about.  And although Adelaide (Annette Woollett) might be Palmerdale’s employee she too has no compunction in ordering Vince to do her bidding.  There’s a nice moment of class comedy played out during the scene where Adelaide asks Vince his name.  He replies Vince Hawkins and she graciously responds. “Thank you Hawkins”.  He’s pleased to have received kind words from a lady and the fact that she used his surname doesn’t register with him.  The mistress/servant divide is plain here (just as the opposite is in play with the Doctor and Leela, who always call Vince by his first name).

If Palmerdale and Adelaide both seem rather superior (although having to share a cramped lighthouse with a killer will no doubt wipe the smiles off their faces) then our first impression of Skinsale (Alan Rowe) is rather more favourable.  The audience is invited to view the arrogant Palmerdale with disdain and it’s Skinsale who is allowed to articulate these feelings.  That Skinsale is placed in opposition to Palmerdale (along with Skinsale’s wry humour) immediately makes him a likeable character although, as we’ll see, his ruthless self-interest will prove to be dangerous.

The Doctor continues to brood and Tom dominates the screen whenever he’s on.  The moment where he strides into the crew room and places his feet on the table (a Tom adlib possibly?) is one of those little touches which adds so much to the feel of the story.  The Doctor’s baiting of Palmerdale is another treat.

The arrival of Harker (Rio Fanning) ramps up the drama another notch.  The only survivor from the crew, Harker blames Palmerdale for the death of the others (this simmering resentment will eventually spill over).  For now though, he’s a handy man to have about – a practical sort, unlike the pampered upper-class types still bickering upstairs in the crew room.

The mystery of Ben’s death continues.  If he was dead, how did he find his way out of the lighthouse and into the sea?  The Doctor has an explanation for Vince.  “The shock simply stunned him, he partly recovered, staggered out onto the rocks, fell into the sea and was drowned”. It sounds reasonable, although the Doctor’s well aware that it’s not the truth. But, as he tells Leela, he can’t tell Vince the truth, because he still doesn’t know what the truth is. Whenever the Doctor is clutching at straws it helps to raise the tension just that little bit higher.

The relatively small cast and the confined space allows the Doctor and Leela to be paired together for long stretches (most stories would tend to see the Doctor and companion split up for an episode or two). Tom and Louise might have been struggling off-screen, but on-screen the Doctor and Leela make for an excellent team. Here, the Doctor shares his fears with her. “That creature, or whatever it is, will be getting bolder by now. It’s seen this primitive technology, it’s had time to calculate the physical strength of its enemies. I think we’re in terrible trouble”. Leela’s deadpan next line (“Do not be afraid, Doctor”) is another well-delivered moment as is the Doctor’s slow-burn reaction to it.

As I touched upon earlier, Terrance Dicks provided Leela with plenty of good material. Apart from her byplay with the Doctor, she gets to memorably threaten Palmerdale (“Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart”).

This week’s cliffhanger is a tad more impressive than last week’s. A blood-curdling cry causes the others to stop their squabbles as it suggests that the Beast of Fang Rock has claimed another victim ….

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Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part One

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Doctor Who fans tend to break down sections of the show into recognisable eras.  Usually this is done by producer and not lead actor (which is understandable when, say, analysing Tom Baker’s seven year stint as his three producers – Hinchcliffe, Williams, JNT – all had very different styles).

The only problem with this method is that the cut-off is never absolute.  Horror of Fang Rock is a prime example – in mood and style it can comfortably sit alongside Talons (that it shares the same Victorian/Edwardian setting doesn’t hurt on this score).  It’s also possible to find echoes of the Williams era in several Hinchcliffe stories (when the Doctor bumps into Styggron in The Android Invasion, his cheery greeting could easily have played virtually anywhere in S15/S16/S17).

This bleeding of styles was rarely acknowledged back in the day.  In the 1980’s, when Graham Williams was still beyond the pale for many, things seemed much simpler.  His three years in charge were plainly a disaster from start to finish, not least for the unsubtle humour and schoolboy larking about.  If the Doctor mocked his adversaries and didn’t treat them with fear or respect, why should the audience?

As we’ve seen, the line between Hinchliffe/Williams wasn’t absolute, but this distinction tended not to be acknowledged.  One of my favourite summations of Graham Williams’ producership can be found in issue three of the fanzine Mondas, published in 1984.  We’ll be kind and not name the writer (a familiar name from Doctor Who fandom).  Graham Williams was apparently the man “who (unwittingly or not) almost cold-bloodedly butchered our programme, leaving it only in a fit state for recycling as dog meat”.

Hmm.  I’m slightly more of a fan ……

When he took over as producer, Graham Williams had three immediate problems to contend with.

  1. A requirement to tone down the violence and horror in the show.
  2. Galloping inflation, which meant that in real terms he had less to spend on the show for each of his three years.
  3. Tom Baker.

All three were bequests from Philip Hinchcliffe in one way or another.  The first seems to be Williams’ overriding legacy on the show, but there’s also evidence to suggest that even if the BBC management hadn’t insisted on change he would have done so anyway.  Williams (like Barry Letts) had been critical of the sadistic tone which had crept into the show during the mid seventies and was keen to steer the programme in a slightly different path (one example quoted by Williams was the moment in Genesis where Sarah is dangled over the edge of the rocket gantry by a Thal guard – a scene he never would have countenanced).

Philip Hinchcliffe liked to overspend, but it was Graham Williams who had to face the consequences. When Williams took over he discovered that budgets now had to be strictly adhered to (which led to some sticky later moments).  If the Hinchliffe era had been made in the same cash-strapped environment then it’s probable we’d think a little less of it.

Tom Baker. Ah, where do you start.  Tom and GW didn’t enjoy the best of working relationships to put it mildly.  Many believe that because Tom was by now so firmly entrenched in the series he was disinclined to listen to anybody else’s point of view.  But it’s possible to argue that Tom was simply looking to do the best for the programme (railing against unimaginative scripts) and that his actions weren’t motived by pure self-ego.  The truth probably lies somewhere inbetween.

The series had suffered from testy relationships between the lead actor and producer before.  William Hartnell and John Wiles were never a marriage made in heaven whilst Patrick Troughton’s interactions with both Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin weren’t much better. Terrance Dicks’ portrait of Bryant – a barely functioning alcoholic – is a rather unflattering one, but it suggests the reason why the professional Troughton felt frustrated towards the end of his stint on the show.  That Sherwin and Troughton didn’t get on can clearly be evidenced by Sherwin’s commentary on The War Games.  Whenever Sherwin’s in the chair and Troughton’s on the screen an acid put-down is never far away.

But if the turmoil between Baker and Williams would spill out onto the screen in later stories, at this point in time there’s no hint of what was to come.  Part one of Horror of Fang Rock is a model of efficient storytelling – establish your location (a lighthouse), your first wave of principal guest characters (the three lighthouse keepers – Ben, Rueben and Vince), introduce the Doctor and Leela, mix well and stand back.

The three keepers are, handily, of different generations.  So we have the old man, Rueben (Colin Douglas), the middle-aged Ben (Ralph) and the youngster Vince (John Abbott).  That they’re of varying ages is an obvious touch as it quickly helps to differentiate their characters.  Say what you like about Terrance Dicks, but he understood the basics of storytelling.

Rueben might be the oldest, but he’s not the senior man in charge here (a point which no doubt rankles with him).  Ben and Rueben articulate two very different viewpoints – science and superstition.  Indeed, had Ben not met his imminent death then it would have been interesting to see him and Rueben develop through the serial, almost as a surrogate Doctor and Leela.

Ben embraces the brave new world of electric-powered lighthouses whilst Rueben harks back to the good old days of oil.  Both, in their own ways, are entrenched in their own positions, although we’re no doubt meant to side with Ben.  That partly helps to explain why he’s first for the chop – having a level-headed sensible chap around is far less fun than the doomy, superstition-ridden Rueben (“‘taint natural”).  Vince occupies the middle ground as he’s prepared to listen to both of them (and the Doctor as well).

Louise Jameson was never too enamoured of this script (mistakenly believing that it had been written for Sarah-Jane).  I can’t see many causes for complaint though as Leela’s provided with some good material throughout.  The moment when Leela changes out of her wet clothes in front of a scandalised Vince (“I’m no lady Vince”) is just one nice character beat.

Tom Baker is in full brooding mood.  This may be because the script required it, but the evidence seems clear that at this point in time he wasn’t enjoying a harmonious relationship with his co-star (the fact that a female director had been assigned simply darkened his mood even more).  But if his playing here is partly informed by his off-screen irritations, then no matter – it’s also the perfect choice for the story.

Another interesting wrinkle is the air of mystery that hangs over Fang Rock.  We have a dead body – Ben – but the Doctor doesn’t know who killed him or why.  And it’ll be a long time before he finds out (Tom’s Doctor might often characterised as an unstoppable know-all, but that’s not the case here).

The cliffhanger (a toy boat runs aground) might be a little anti-climatic, but there’s little else to complain about here.  Some forty years to the day when this episode was first broadcast, Horror of Fang Rock part one still engrosses.

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