Monday, 29 August 2016

Horror of Fang Rock written by Terrance Dicks and directed by Paddy Russell

This story in a nutshell: 'Gentlemen this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead...'

Teeth and Curls: There is a positive tension between Tom and Louise in this, he spits out his lines with little time for her replies... it helps with the uneasy feeling the story maintains. Reports of Tom Baker's monstrous behaviour behind the scenes abounds and for once it merely enhances the discomforting mood of the story. I love how the Doctor doesn't give a fig for the posh idiots rescued from the boat but spares a moment for Harker, it's very in-character for him to support the underdog. Plus his almost non-reaction to all the death happening around him helps to remind us just how alien he could be. Maybe Tom was being an arse off screen but take him away and the story would lose a great deal. His little chat with the Rutan on the stairs is a definite highlight, a seemingly absurd situation made utterly convincing by a terrific actor.People often tout Pyramids of Mars as the story where the Doctor appears most alien in Tom's hands but I would definitely opt for this. He's violently moodly, unapproachable, mocks murder, offers no support to anybody around and when push comes to shove and he has to confront the menace he behaves as though the whole thing has been one big game. I'm not sure how much of this Dicks' characterisation and how much is Holmes but between them they conjure up a Doctor who is very hard to like and yet utterly compelling to watch.

Noble Savage: It's another excellent Leela story, a companion who in my opinion is one of the most interesting of the lot. Louise Jameson is a great actress and relishes the stronger moments she is given, Leela's curiosity, violence and protection of the Doctor. I've heard Jameson say that she had to cross out various parts of this script that were written for Sarah Jabe and endless screams but I simply cannot imagine where the might have been. Surely the whole point was to contrast Leela with Adelaide to show how useless companions were in the past compared with how stronger and more able they are currently. If that wasn't deliberate, it is a happy accident. Adelaide's inclusion makes Leela look even more capable than usual. Between the Doctor and Leela you have two very otherwordly regulars. I can't really relate to either of them and it's clear that they can't really relate to each other. The result should be unwatchable but it has the reverse effect. It's discordant, and grippingly so, Leela shows her naivete at the climax when she looks at the exploding Rutan spaceship, almost leaving herself blind.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Are you in charge here?' 'No but I'm full of ideas.'
'You will listen to the Doctor or I will cut out your heart.'
'Leela, I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead I've locked it in...with us.'

The Good: Nasties in the dark cannot be effective unless you have a focused director at the helm. This story could not have been made later in the Williams era, directors at that point were concentrating of comedy rather than drama but during this early, more experimental season Paddy Russell does a superb job with her resources. For a start she manages to convince that the story is set on a foggy island rather than a BBC studio. No mean feat but with effective sound FX, carefully shot camera work and lots of fog we are transported to an island of terror. No other story has an atmosphere quite like this one, a feeling of oppression and tension creeping from every shadow. Watching this story in the dark is a strikingly vivid experience. The lighthouse sets feel appropriately cramp and uncomfortable and the actors' off screen tension drips into the story with superb results. Russell is a top notch actors director too. Despite Lis Sladen suggesting she over filmed scenes until they lost any spontaneity, the handful of stories that she directed feature some of the finest ever seen in classic Who (As well as Horror, The Massacre and Pyramids of Mars are on that list). Skilled performers do most of the work. The danger cannot feel real unless we fear for the lives of our heroes. Characters such as Vince and Ben appeal to us seconds into the story, they have a nice chemistry and are apparently very happy with their work on the lighthouse. Even Rueben, racist and opinionated though he is, demands our sympathy because we all know somebody as curmudgeonly lovable as this. As they are picked off one by one we feel frightened ourselves, annoyed at the loss of such endearing people. Then the yacht strikes the rocks and further characters are introduced to the isolated setting. This is where things get REALLY interesting because this bunch aren't worthy of our sorrow. Greedy and rude, Adelaide and Henry deserve their fates and yet we still feel for them such is the sense of tension in the lighthouse. Annette Woolette is quite superb in the role of the screaming secretary, she delivers her lines with great aplomb helped along by a script that makes her thoroughly unlikable. It's possible that your ears might have been shredded by her pathetic wailings and you might welcome her death when it comes.

The Bad: The biggest misstep is the realisation of the Rutan but then how many classic Doctor Who stories were tripped up by an effects attempt that was too ambitious for its budget? Yep it's curse of the green blob time, an embarrassing abberation that Paddy Russell struggles on with. It almost diminishes the tension watching it slither slowly up the stairs but the sudden appearance of the mother ship diverts our attention easily enough giving the story the climax it deserves.

The Shallow Bit: Vince isn't much of a looker but he is the most endearing character on this show by a country mile. He's the only one who you really care about and it is devastating when he meets his end.

Result: It's odd, this is story I find hugely enjoyable to watch but whenever I scour my video shelves I rarely feel in the mood to watch it. I tried to pinpoint why today as I popped in the player and watched it. Was it the pathetic FX? Nope, they are serviceable and the show has dished out much worse. Was it the reported bad blood behind the scenes spilling on screen? Nadda, if anything it merely enhances the tension. Perhaps the fact that all the nice people die horribly? Don't be stupid, that's how you tell an effective story! Then what...? It came to me during a scene that is played mostly for laughs. The Doctor rushes into a room full of frightened aristocrats and announces "Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead! Any questions?"... the simple fact is this is an extremely uncomfortable story to watch. Everything about it is uncomfortable; the sets, the performances, the script, the direction... they all merge to make one of the most tense and nail biting experiences in the show's run. It's extremely dour for the most part, with relatively little in the way of light entertainment. I think it is the same reason I rarely watch The Caves of Androzani and Genesis of the Daleks (even though I acknowledge that they are blinding stories) and find myself more drawn to the Graeme William era and season 24. I know I will have a good time with those stories. Is this Dicks' best script? Possibly, in collaboration with top script editor Robert Holmes he produces an extremely tight story, perfect for Doctor Who. With a tiny setting, a handful of very memorable characters and a very real menace he has perfected the base under siege formula. It's a sub-genre that Doctor Who has been playing out for over a decade and you would think there is nothing new to learn from it but when you shift settings and characters what appears to be the same type of story on paper becomes very different in reality. Robots of Death and Horror of Fang Rock are base under siege stories that are three stories apart and yet their realisation couldn't be more diverse. The tension refuses to let up right until the last few seconds, early episodes concentrate on the hidden evil and once the cat is out of the bag it becomes a creepy killer among us story before climaxing in a monster fest. The dialogue sparkles, especially for the guest characters and with very few words we know these people very well indeed. Terrance Dicks gets written off as something of a hack adventure writer but there is a great deal of intelligence in this script. Class tension, mysticism, progress debates, survival tactics...the dialogue is crisp and to the point but it has great deal to say about the times too. It's well worth paying attention to the talkier moments. So although I find the story a mite uncomfortable to watch that is only a testament to the talent of everybody involved. Horror of Fang Rock works on so many levels, its a skilfully told character drama, a bite-your-nails good horror flick, a entertaining Doctor Who story and a brilliant start to the new season (and for incoming producer Graham Williams). It's genuinely creepy stuff: 9/10


Richard S. said...

The New Series brought back the Sontarans - why can't they bring back the Rutans? At least a passing reference or two?

Blogger said...

Did you know that you can create short links with AdFly and earn dollars from every click on your shortened urls.

Blogger said...

Did you know you can create short urls with Shortest and get $$$ from every click on your short links.

David Pirtle said...

I feel the same way about this one. It's not one I'm ever in the mood to watch unless I'm doing a Baker marathon. It's thoroughly unpleasant to watch the Doctor and his companion both not seeming to care that they utterly fail to save anyone in the lighthouse, then go smiling off to their next adventure. The Doctor sounds like he has more sympathy for the dead Rutan. He's never more alien, and Leela's never more savage. And yet it's a brilliant production with great dialog and memorable guest characters, even if half of them are a bit insufferable. It's a five star story, but not a fun one, and definitely not one I'd want young ones to see.