Picture this: A lighthouse shrouded by fog on a dark, rocky island somewhere off the mainland of England around 1905. Inside there is a small group of shipwreck survivors, superstitious lighthouse keepers and two time-travellers. They are being hunted down, one by one by a lethal but secretive alien. And only is by banding together that they stand any chance of surviving but the group is divided by fear and jealousy and greed. These factors are more likely to doom to group than the deadly alien climbing the stairs of the lighthouse. And while the Doctor does what he can to save them from the alien, he doesn't lift a finger to save the group from themselves...
Horror of Fang Rock is the perfect example of Doctor Who told as a horror story. It is one of the last stories to be told in the Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes style of Doctor Who. Horror was the first story to be produced after they had both been moved on from the BBC because of continual interference from Mary Whitehouse. So it is ironic then that the first story of a more jovial series, is one of the show's scariest adventures!
The show's new producer was Graham Williams whose job was the usher in a new, lighter and comic tone to the series. It was under his reign that the show gave us stories like City of Death and The Key To Time story arc. But the first few stories of the William's era were more like those of the Hinchcliffe era, with more emphasis on scaring the audience and building up a creepy atmosphere. Horror was written by Terrance Dicks, the script editor for the Pertwee era and friend of Robert Holmes, so it is little wonder that Horror relied so heavily on, well, horror.
Although you wouldn't know it from the excellent story he told, horror was written in serious haste, but is serves us a wonderful, base-under-siege chiller where the danger from outside is matched by the hatred and distrust inside. There are no twists to Horror as twists weren't something that Dicks did well but he was the master of a straight forward plot, who had such a handle the basic adventure that he could deliver something brilliant each time.
Now, I'm not saying that this is a flawless story. There are some pacing issues in the final episode which was intended to get the monster out of the way as quickly as possible and then allow the Doctor to run around a lighthouse trying to destroy a pretty unconvincing ball in the sky. The special effects are particularly convincing either, in particular the toy yacht that crashes into the rocks at the end of the first episode. What the story makes the most off instead, is the budgetary constraints and limited set space, giving it a moodier, more claustrophobic feel by confining the action to smaller sets which comprise of nothing more than a large staircase and a handful of small rooms and the jagged rocks outside.
It is in the opening episodes that the story really builds up the tension with some admirable efficiency. There are three workers, stationed at the lighthouse. Vince, the youngest, witnesses what he thinks is a shooting star crashing into the rocks nearby, which is then followed by the lighthouse's generator failing. This results in an argument between the two older and experienced lighthouse keeper's, the middle aged Ben and the elderly Rueben. Rueben is stuck in his ways and detests electricity, this makes the events around him even more ironic, not only dies he die from electrocution, it also replaces him in a very real sense. And in the opening episode a nice pattern is quickly established, we see the lighthouse through the eyes of the alien and therefore learn more about the characters than we do the threat trying to kill them. The alien's ability to transform into anyone is revealed to the audience long before the Doctor works it out, which leads to a number of dramatic moments later, which build themselves from that tension.
And though this time the TARDIS crew is able to explain their presence as mariners, there is a moment in the opening episodes where Rueben believes them to be foreign spies. The old-timer also suggests the possibility of vengeful ghosts or a sea monster was responsible for a group of keepers going missing in the lighthouse decades before. The audience know these to be miss-directions, since we know that none of that is true - but these points he makes are important in helping to build the tension of the story.
At the end of the first episode, we see a ship crash into the shore of the island, bringing in the other characters for episodes 2-4. We have the selfishly rich, Lord Palmerdale, whose foolish haste is the reason they run aground. His prim secretory Adelaide, the gruff sailor, Harker and Colonel. Skinsale. There is never really anything important about these characters except for their weaknesses, which are used to drive the plot forward to its conclusion. Palmerdale is greedy and too focused on securing his wealth that he refuses to pay any attention to the dangers lurking in and around the lighthouse. Adelaide is useless in a crisis. And Skinsale's vanity and gentleman's honour leads him to destroying the telegraph cutting them off from the outside, all to spite Palmerdale.
The alien is a sea monster, but not the sort that Reuben had previously believed in. The jellyfish-like creature is a Rutan, a species which had been mentioned twice before in the series and named as the arch-nemesis of the Sontarans. And where the Sontarans are clones of one another, the Rutan refers to itself as 'we', meaning it is some sort of gestalt entity. But they are just as miliatiristic as the Sontarans and they pose the exact same threat to humanity. Because this story comes from Terrance Dicks, it probably isn't any coincidence that the Rutans see Earth as a turning point in their war, much like the Sontarans did in The Time Warrior and The Sontaran Experiment. And they are both willing to casually destroy it even though our world has no stakes in the war one way or the other. All the fears of the humans in the lighthouse mean nothing to the Rutan trying to kill them.
This story also gives Leela an excellent chance to begin to understand how not to be naïve when it comes to civilisation as she is far more competent in the ways of survival than her social skills. Together with Tom Baker's Doctor, the Doctor and Leela are one of the most unusual Doctor/Companion teams there have ever been. Both are brilliantly written and compelling and both have interesting back stories and perspectives that make not the ideal hero figures. The Doctor really is an alien, the previous incarnations had been a mixture of arrogant and eccentric scientist figures who never related to other people very well. The Fourth Doctor's aloofness had an edge to it that we had never seen before and for all the compassion he had for our species, he had no patience for what he believed to be our weaknesses. But at least he was friendly than the deadly jellyfish trying to kill everyone! Here we see the Doctor being rather cagey about what is going on and puts on a face of calm to keep the others from panicking or thinking that anything was actually wrong. This continues until he is convinced that the suspicious activity around them can't be ignored anymore, which does get the sceptical response it deserves. He kept everything secret because he was motivated by caution, but that caution put the rest of the characters in danger, especially at the end of episode two when he discovers that he has locked the enemy in with the humans rather than outside, which he had previously believed.
Leela's perspective in this adventure is unsentimental, especially in comparison to those straight-laced Victorians she meets here. It is obvious that nobody had ever shut up Palmerdale before and certainly not with a line like, "Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart!" Leela is one of my favourite companions from the history of Doctor Who and Horror of Fang Rock gives her some great moments, slapping Adelaide around the face hard, to stop her screaming and her generally badassery seems to be on another level here. And who could forget how casually she took the information that a yacht had crashed on the rocks, she turns her back on it and delivers the line, "They will all die then," with casual abandon. Where she came from, people died everyday. This was nothing new to her.
But despite how distant she may have come across as, Leela was human, no matter how alien she may have appeared next to the Doctor. They respect each other and Leela admires the Doctor's knowledge and wisdom, just as the Doctor has complete confidence in her instincts and competence. But there is a real gulf between them concerning the different attitudes to death that the pair have, one cares and the other doesn't. And her scenes with Adelaide show a different side to her, from a stone-age world she may be, but she is more than capable of standing up to a stuck-up Victorian secretary. And her dismissal of Adelaide's comment about astrology is quite the little gem, showing us how far she come. Louise Jameson delivers the line with simplicity and honesty that the line luckily loses any preachiness it might have had otherwise.
And the Doctor's taciturnity masks his obvious awareness of his own vulnerabilities. He refuses, with a quiet disgust, Leela's comment that a Time Lord like him could easily kill the creature hunting them. While he may still be arrogant and vain, he knows his limitations and that the creature could very possibly kill him. This is a real change from the cocky nature of this Doctor we had seen in adventures prior and after this story. It is good to see this vulnerable side to the Doctor, after all, he is just one guy, alone in a big and very hostile universe. And the series is much more interesting when it remembers that...