Horror of Fang Rock, by Matthew Guerrieri (and Terrance Dicks)

It’s Gallifrey One this weekend, and I’m travelling to Los Angeles today; the next few reviews here will accordingly be of my recent Doctor Who reading, starting with an old favourite seen through new eyes.

I remember vividly watching Horror of Fang Rock when it was first broadcast, kicking off the 1977-78 season of Doctor Who, keeping us entranced for the four weeks that it was on. I really enjoyed it then. On rewatching in 2008, I wrote:

Horror of Fang Rock is a very bleak and horrific story. Indeed, it made me reflect that for all his cuddly public personality, Terrance Dicks’ actual writing is often rooted in pretty horrific stuff – vampires, Frankenstein, King Kong, and his first ever story, co-written with Malcolm Hulke, was The War Games which surely has the bleakest ending of any classic Who.

This is the one with the Rutan, the electrical alien foe of the Sontarans which can change shape and indeed does so as it picks off the inhabitants of the light-house one by one. There is one actor of dubious talents, but fortunately his character is the first to die and the others all give it their best.

This is the last story in which we just have the Doctor/Leela Tardis crew, and it’s worth pausing to reflect that this was surely one of the greatest ever combinations, with a consistent run of four good stories (Face of Evil, Robots of Death, Talons of Weng-Chiang and this one). Leela could so easily have been a one-joke character, but in Louise Jameson’s portrayal she is completely credible, always earthed in her own identity, able to clash and spark with the Doctor, playing the dramatic role of a companion as the one who gets things explained to her not because she is stupid but because she is different. She is the one companion who we see the Doctor trying to change and educate, and that somehow makes it all work much better. After watching the Troughton stories over the last year or so I decided I was a huge fan of Wendy Padbury’s Zoe; but now I see things in Leela that passed me by as a ten-year-old. (Meaning the integrity of her performance, of course.)

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch in 2011, I wrote:

Horror of Fang Rock is a strong start to Season 15, with Terrance Dicks proving once again that he can actually write. Sure, it’s a base-under-siege story; but it’s one of the better ones, with everyone being killed off except our crew in the end.

It is a particularly good story for Leela, who is utterly exasperated by the screamy Adelaide (she does a brilliant eye-roll when Adelaide faints) and stuns the other Edwardians with her relaxed attitude to death; it makes her horror when Reuben-the-Rutan is unharmed by her knife all the more striking. It’s a bit un-Doctorish to wipe out the entire Rutan mothership as they land, but gives a satisfying bang at the end of the story.

I stand by all of that. A few more things struck me this time. We never actually find out the details of Palmerdale’s nefarious plan, except that it’s clearly indicated that it is dishonorable, and it’s also clearly indicated that Adelaide is more than a secretary. There’s an interesting untold story there. Also, the music is very good. Also, unfortunately, the Rutan is not all that well realised, a weak point in what is otherwise a strong story. Still, I realliy enjoyed rewatching it.

For those of us in the Worldcon community, one of the Doctor’s lines in particular has a strong resonance:

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

‘That’s what happened, according to the Doctor. Massive electric shock, he said.’

When I reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock is a case of Terrance Dicks adapting one of his own TV scripts, which gives him even more than his usual degree of confidence with the material, and he uses the opportunity to fill out the Edwardian background of the story rather satisfactorily.

I don’t completely stand by that judgement now. One point where the novelisation is consistently out of step with the TV version is that the Doctor is cheerful, funny and charming, whereas Tom Baker’s portrayal on screen is moody and Olympian. Baker apparently did not like Dicks’ script, and his bad mood carries over into his performance, but it makes it all the more watchable; this is not a funny story and a funny Doctor would have been jarring. Perhaps this is Dicks, again belying his cuddly reputation, getting obscure revenge on Baker. If you want to judge for yourself, you can get it here.

I keep on saying this about the books in this series, but with occasional exceptions it keeps being true: Matthew Guerreri’s Black Archive monograph is really good, taking us deep into the roots of the story. I have two minor complaints, and I’ll mention the first now: I wish it had been longer.

A prologue references the infamous Max Headroom incident of 1987, which Guerreri witnessed at first hand, and reflects on the manifestations of intrusion and discontinuity in the story. Like all of the chapters, it is prefaced with a literary quotation.

The first of four long chapters, dubbed “Part 1”, has the title “Technology and Character”. It starts with Robert Louis Stevenson’s credentials in lighthouse construction, goes on to E.G. Jerrome’s 1966 Lighthouses, Lightships and Buoys, compares the lighthouse crew and the production team to the Three Body Problem, looks at Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday’s contributions to lighthouse lamps, examines diamonds as a focus, explains Marconi, comes back to Robert Louis Stevenson on island life, and finishes on the timing of the Doctor’s presence on Fang Rock.

“Part 2: Time and Class” starts with Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse, quotes John Stuart Mill and Ronald Coase on lighthouse economics, ponders the fate of Palmerdale’s sailors and Skinsale’s ethics, returns to Virginia Woolf and her father Leslie Stephen and the letters Q and R, sticks with Woolf’s take on Einstein and her Orlando, detours a little to Roger Fry and the obscure late nineteenth century writer Grant Allen, and briefly considers the diamond again.

The second paragraph of “Part 3: Time and Terror” is:

In 1847, after taking up residence in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that had been George Washington’s headquarters during the war’s Boston campaign, Longfellow returned to Portland. He took a holiday at the Verandah, a new hotel that would help create Maine’s reputation as a vacation playground for well-off New Englanders. During that sojourn, the poet did not visit the Portland Head Light, but he did see the ‘Two Lights,’ twin towers at the southern end of Cape Elizabeth. Longfellow climbed to the top of the western tower to take in the views.

It starts with Longfellow’s poem, “The Lighthouse”, looks at the Rutan’s roots in Lovecraft and Verne, goes in detail into Lovecraft’s “The White Ship” and “The Color Out of Space”, considers why green should be so awful anyway, and briefly reflects on the Flannan Isles.

“Part 4: Fact and Fiction” looks in detail at Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera The Lighthouse, considers The War of the Worlds, reminds us about Dudley Simpson’s music, mentions the Tarot, looks at William Wilfred Gibson’s poem “Flannan Isle” which is (mis)quotred by the Doctor at the end, and finishes with a note about narrative.

A brief epilogue considers the story about a lighthouse left unfinished by Edgar Allan Poe at the time of his mysterious death.

There’s a lot here, and it expanded my list of books that I want to read (or re-read) much more than I really need right now. You can get it here.

My only other complaint, and it’s a small one, is that I’d have liked to see a nod to the Andy Frankham-Allen novel in the Lethbridge-Stewart sequence, Beast of Fang Rock, which is well worth a look (and you can get it here).

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | The Girl Who Died (64) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)