Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock

“Gentlemen, I have news. The lighthouse in under attack and by morning we'll all be dead.”

1977 was a year of big changes for Doctor Who. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe had been shuffled off to Target to appease moaning Mary Whitehouse. The BBC brought Graham Williams in to replace him as producer and lighten up the tone of the show and make it more suitable for children. So it is rather ironic that his very first story as producer is an absolute bloodbath.

‘Horror of Fang Rock’ is infamous for the fact that, with the exception of the Doctor and Leela, every single supporting character is horribly killed (“Just this once, Leela! Just this once, everybody dies!”). It’s practically the And Then There Were None of Doctor Who, as one by one the various sailors, lighthouse keepers and aristocrats are bumped off by a ruthless Rutan. Hinchcliffe may have been shuffled off to another corner of Television Centre, but Robert Holmes was still lingering around the Doctor Who production office, causing all sorts of trouble and mayhem.

Although it isn’t a very good example of the Williams era (it was actually commissioned by Hinchcliffe before he was shown the door), ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ is my favourite story of this season and my favourite story written by Terrance Dicks. In many ways it is my ideal type of Doctor Who story. It involves a well realised period setting (in this case Edwardian England), an isolated location (a lighthouse), a small group of interesting but ultimately expendable supporting characters, a memorable monster (the shape-shifting Rutan) and a Doctor/companion partnership that is perfectly in-sync (well, on screen at least).

The period setting is essential for this type of story to succeed. Classic Doctor Who always worked best when the action took place in a recognisable chapter of human history. Scrap that, British history! Despite his alien origins, the Doctor is as British as beans on toast, Winston Churchill and apologising when someone bumps into you. Seeing him abroad (although occasionally fun) always feels awkward and strange. No, he needs to be in Britain, in a lighthouse off the south coast, drenched in characteristically dense British fog, surrounded by simple, superstitious locals, gruff sailors, self-serving gentleman, a whinging lady and a savage child of the Sevateem.

Notes and Quotes

--In 2007, Big Finish Productions produced an Eight Doctor audio drama, co-starring the mighty Bernard Cribbins, with the frankly brilliant title of 'Horror of Glam Rock'.

--Adelaide is such an annoying character that it’s immensely satisfying when Leela gives a her right good slap to stop her screaming.

--Working titles included 'The Monster of Fang Rock' and 'The Beast of Fang Rock'.

--The Rutan works well when it’s an unseen menace or impersonating Rubin, but once it’s revealed in its true form (an amorphous green blob with trailing tentacles) it’s a little lacklustre. Oddly, despite being the arch-enemy of the Sontarans, this is the one and only appearance in the television series of a Rutan.

--This story was a late replacement for a vampire tale Terrance Dicks wrote entitled 'The Vampire Mutations'. That story was cancelled because the BBC was already producing a high-profile adaptation of Dracula. A re-written version was produced as 'State of Decay' in 1980.

--This was the only Doctor Who story to have studio scenes recorded at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, rather than in London.

--This story was partially inspired by the 1912 poem Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, which referred to a mysterious incident that occurred when three lighthouse-keepers disappeared without explanation on the Flannan Isles in 1900. The Doctor quotes from the poem at the end of the story.

The Doctor: "The localised condition of planetary atmospheric condensation caused a malfunction in the visual orientation circuits. Or to put it another way, we got lost in the fog."

Lord Palmerdale: "Are you in charge here?"
The Doctor: "No, but I'm full of ideas."

The Doctor: "I've never been more serious, Colonel. We are facing an enemy of greater power than you can dream of."
Skinsale: "I do appreciate the scientific romances of Mr. Wells, but..."
The Doctor: "Herbert may have a few of his important facts wrong, but his basic supposition is sound enough. Do you think your little speck in the galaxy is the only one with intelligent life, hm?"
--I keep forgetting that H.G. Wells was really a bloke. The Warehouse 13 version is just too damn awesome.

Leela: "They are hard to kill, these Rutans."
The Doctor: "Been celebrating, have you?"
Leela: "It is fitting to celebrate the death of an enemy."
--That's what I kept saying when Thatcher died.

The Doctor: "Now I remember: Ruban the Rutan!"
Rutan: "You know our form?"
The Doctor: "Well, when you've seen one Rutan, you've seen them all."

The Doctor: "Leela, I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead I've locked it in... with us!'"

Leela: "You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart!"

Four out of four absolute bloodbaths.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.


Darren Smith said...

its fantastic everyone dies somebody show moffat this episode because i doubt he has seen it.. if he had of written it it would of been a case of when the rutan died and the ship blew up some magic force comes into being and theres a charge of electricity and a reversal of how they died and their all brought back to life and live happily ever after kind of bullshit .

JRS said...

I actually really like Leela throughout this serial-she comes up with the laser solution and is constantly willing to fight. In a lot of ways this show plays with notions of gender throughout-Leela runs the weapons.