Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock Review
Sometimes you recognise a period of excellence only in retrospect, but sometimes you know at the time you’ve witnessed something special. So it was in 1977 when Philip Hinchcliffe’s three-year tenure as Doctor Who producer came to an end. That era has been widely discussed, including by me in previous reviews on this site, so I won’t repeat it here. Mary Whitehouse had been gunning for the programme for some time, due to what she saw as unacceptable levels of horror and violence in what was supposedly a children’s show. She had won a victory when the BBC issued a written apology after she complained about the cliffhanger to Episode 3 of The Deadly Assassin, where the Doctor’s head is held underwater and he appears to be drowning. Hinchcliffe left at the end of Season Fourteen. His next project was the thriller series Target, which achieved a notoriety of its own by being taken off the air partway through its first series after complaints about its violence. Robert Holmes continued as Script Editor for a little while longer, bowing out after his own Season Fifteen script The Sun Makers. Even for me, following all of this in the national press, I knew that an era had ended, and sitting down on 3 September 1977 (to put this in perspective, a month away from my thirteenth birthday) to watch the beginning of Season Fifteen, Episode One of Horror of Fang Rock, I knew there was something I couldn’t define not quite there, something missing…the beginning of a decline that culminated in my giving up on the show at the end of the decade.
In retrospect, I was a little unfair on Horror of Fang Rock. Graham Williams might be the credited producer, but the serial was commissioned in by Hinchcliffe and Holmes. It was a last-minute replacement for a vampire story that BBC Drama vetoed in case it conflicted with their lavish version of Dracula (with Louis Jourdan as the Count) which was in preparation. Certainly in style Fang Rock is similar to the Gothic approach that characterised much of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, and the writer was Holmes’s predecessor as Script Editor, Terrance Dicks.
We’re on Fang Rock at the start of the twentieth century. Young Vince (John Abbott), old Reuben (Colin Douglas) and Ben (Ralph Watson) tend the newly-electrified lighthouse. One night, Vince sees a shooting star fall into the sea. Soon after, Ben is fatally electrocuted. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela arrive in the TARDIS and seek shelter in the lighthouse, later joined by a four people from a shipwreck. Something nasty and alien is with them in the lighthouse and by dawn they may all be dead…
Horror of Fang Rock is a tightly-constructed four-parter with a small guest cast. It has a claustrophobic feel due to the confined setting and a downbeat tone in that most of the cast (I won’t say precisely how many, to avoid spoilers) meet horrible ends. The introduction of the ship party – Lord Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey), his secretary Adelaide (Annette Woollett), the avaricious Colonel Skinsale (Alan Rowe) and manservant Harker (Rio Fanning). The monster, which in the best traditions we don’t see clearly until late on, is a blob of green jelly with electric tentacles called a Rutan. This alien race had been referred to twice before in the show, as the ancient enemy of the Sontarans in the late Pertwee story The Time Warrior and the early Tom Baker two-parter The Sontaran Experiment, but this is the only time they appeared in the series in their own right. Terrance Dicks’s script is well structured – in the featurette on this disc, that’s rightly cited as his strong point as a writer – and Paddy Russell’s direction makes the most of the small sets (shot, for the only time in the series, at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham rather than in London). There’s nothing wrong with the guest actors’ performances and Louise Jameson seems to have settled in to the role of Leela. (What this would have been like with Sarah Jane, we can only speculate.) Tom Baker by now, three years in, has stamped his authority on the role of the Doctor. In later years he was arguably too dominating, the humorous element which here is just right getting out of bounds. Maybe the decline should be dated a little later, with such elements as K9 thrown in to the mix to make the show more kiddie-friendly. Horror of Fang Rock is hard to fault as a thoroughly professional piece of work, though for me at least it lacks that vital spark of greatness.
Being a four-parter, Horror of Fang Rock is released on a single DVD-9 disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The serial had no location work, being shot mostly on videotape at Pebble Mill, with some 16mm film material from Ealing Studios. This DVD is based on digital video copies made from the original masters in the mid-1990s. As with any colour Doctor Who where videos (as opposed to black and white 16mm film copies) survive, the picture quality is as good as it can be, given the limitations of the source material, which is of lower resolution than DVD, let alone 35mm cinema film. Much of the serial is quite darkly lit, making shadow detail on the poor side. The picture is somewhat soft and there’s the occasional “trail” on bright objects and some grain and edge enhancement. Considering what it could be like, it’s time once again to commend the Restoration Team for their efforts here. Anyone interested in the technical details of restoring a show like this is referred to their website. As you might expect, this serial was made in a ratio of 1.33:1 and that’s the way it’s presented on DVD.
The sound is the original mono, over two channels. There’s little to say except that it is entirely clear, with dialogue, music and effects well mixed – BBC professionalism at work. There are the usual six chapter stops per episode. There are subtitles for the hard-of-hearing for both the feature and the commentary, as well as the extras. In addition there are Richard Molesworth’s ever-useful information subtitles.
The main extra is, as ever, an audio commentary, this time involving Louise Jameson, Terrance Dicks and John Abbott. There’s an obvious rapport between the three of them, and some more-candid-than-usual stories are told about Tom Baker and Paddy Russell. It’s an entertaining listen which does stand up to repeated hearings.
The remainder of the extras are dominated by two specially-made featurettes. “Terrance Dicks: Fact and Fiction” is a tribute to the man who, as Paul Cornell says, is one of the two major voices (the other being Robert Holmes) of Doctor Who, from latter-day Troughton onwards. Not only are his contributions as screen writer and script editor discussed, but also by far the most prolific writer (60+ titles) of the Target novelisations which for many of us in the 1970s were the only way we had of accessing earlier stories that we’d been too young to see. He has also gone on to write original novels in the New Adventures and Missing Adventures lines. Much of this featurette (which runs 36:07) is a join interview with his Pertwee-era producer Barry Letts. There are also contributions from writers Louis Marks and Paul Cornell, future script editor Eric Saward and others. There are also clips from some of Dicks’s serials, starting with his ten-part swansong for Patrick Troughton, The War Games, which he cowrote with Malcolm Hulke.
The second featurette is a shorter (14:05) piece, “Paddy Russell: A Life in Television”. Now retired, and too frail to travel far, she is interviewed at her home, looking over her forty-year career. (Her contributions to the Pyramids of Mars DVD commentary were separately recorded and edited in.) She began as an actress before realising that floor managers were better paid. She worked as an assistant to pioneering director Rudolph Cartier, particularly on the Quatermass serials, before becoming one of the first two women to be employed as a director at the BBC. She was also the first woman to direct Doctor Who, and the only one (apart from future Eastenders creator Julia Smith) to do so in the 60s and 70s. This tribute is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that the first of her four Who serials, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve no longer exists. Not only have all four episodes been destroyed, it is one of only three stories not to have any clips known to exist, not even poor-quality footage shot by fans aiming 8mm cameras at their TV sets. (The seven-part Marco Polo and the single-episode Mission to the Unknown are the other two.) We have the scripts and the soundtrack, of course, but the only remaining visual record is a handful of stills. And for some reason, one of the two we see actually comes from The Aztecs, which Russell had nothing to do with. Fortunately, for her other serials – Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Pyramids of Mars and the present one – clips are provided.
“The Antique Doctor Who show” is a little item (4:49) broadcast for the programme’s thirtieth anniversary in 1993. It’s modelled on Antiques Roadshow where members of the public bring along their memorabilia to have its value assessed by the resident experts – here, Justin Pressland and David Howe. The items include a model K9, Pertwee-era Doctor Who sweet wrappers, and even an original script.
The extras are completed by a stills gallery, which runs 3:28 and self-navigates. All the extras are 4:3, as is the Easter Egg. Click left off the “Antique Doctor Who Show” and click the link that is highlighted. You then see eleven seconds of the countdown clock to Episode 3.
Horror of Fang Rock has its fans and admirers, who may well adjust my mark upwards. One of them was Philip Segal, executive producer of the 1996 TV movie, who saw the serial as a model Doctor Who story and used it to try to sell the idea of a new television film. He, and those of like mind, may wish to adjust my ratings up a little. As ever, on DVD the story looks and sounds as good as it is ever likely to, given the limitations of the source materials, and there are some well-chosen extras.