Doctor Who – Horror of Fang Rock. Part One

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Doctor Who fans tend to break down sections of the show into recognisable eras.  Usually this is done by producer and not lead actor (which is understandable when, say, analysing Tom Baker’s seven year stint as his three producers – Hinchcliffe, Williams, JNT – all had very different styles).

The only problem with this method is that the cut-off is never absolute.  Horror of Fang Rock is a prime example – in mood and style it can comfortably sit alongside Talons (that it shares the same Victorian/Edwardian setting doesn’t hurt on this score).  It’s also possible to find echoes of the Williams era in several Hinchcliffe stories (when the Doctor bumps into Styggron in The Android Invasion, his cheery greeting could easily have played virtually anywhere in S15/S16/S17).

This bleeding of styles was rarely acknowledged back in the day.  In the 1980’s, when Graham Williams was still beyond the pale for many, things seemed much simpler.  His three years in charge were plainly a disaster from start to finish, not least for the unsubtle humour and schoolboy larking about.  If the Doctor mocked his adversaries and didn’t treat them with fear or respect, why should the audience?

As we’ve seen, the line between Hinchliffe/Williams wasn’t absolute, but this distinction tended not to be acknowledged.  One of my favourite summations of Graham Williams’ producership can be found in issue three of the fanzine Mondas, published in 1984.  We’ll be kind and not name the writer (a familiar name from Doctor Who fandom).  Graham Williams was apparently the man “who (unwittingly or not) almost cold-bloodedly butchered our programme, leaving it only in a fit state for recycling as dog meat”.

Hmm.  I’m slightly more of a fan ……

When he took over as producer, Graham Williams had three immediate problems to contend with.

  1. A requirement to tone down the violence and horror in the show.
  2. Galloping inflation, which meant that in real terms he had less to spend on the show for each of his three years.
  3. Tom Baker.

All three were bequests from Philip Hinchcliffe in one way or another.  The first seems to be Williams’ overriding legacy on the show, but there’s also evidence to suggest that even if the BBC management hadn’t insisted on change he would have done so anyway.  Williams (like Barry Letts) had been critical of the sadistic tone which had crept into the show during the mid seventies and was keen to steer the programme in a slightly different path (one example quoted by Williams was the moment in Genesis where Sarah is dangled over the edge of the rocket gantry by a Thal guard – a scene he never would have countenanced).

Philip Hinchcliffe liked to overspend, but it was Graham Williams who had to face the consequences. When Williams took over he discovered that budgets now had to be strictly adhered to (which led to some sticky later moments).  If the Hinchliffe era had been made in the same cash-strapped environment then it’s probable we’d think a little less of it.

Tom Baker. Ah, where do you start.  Tom and GW didn’t enjoy the best of working relationships to put it mildly.  Many believe that because Tom was by now so firmly entrenched in the series he was disinclined to listen to anybody else’s point of view.  But it’s possible to argue that Tom was simply looking to do the best for the programme (railing against unimaginative scripts) and that his actions weren’t motived by pure self-ego.  The truth probably lies somewhere inbetween.

The series had suffered from testy relationships between the lead actor and producer before.  William Hartnell and John Wiles were never a marriage made in heaven whilst Patrick Troughton’s interactions with both Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin weren’t much better. Terrance Dicks’ portrait of Bryant – a barely functioning alcoholic – is a rather unflattering one, but it suggests the reason why the professional Troughton felt frustrated towards the end of his stint on the show.  That Sherwin and Troughton didn’t get on can clearly be evidenced by Sherwin’s commentary on The War Games.  Whenever Sherwin’s in the chair and Troughton’s on the screen an acid put-down is never far away.

But if the turmoil between Baker and Williams would spill out onto the screen in later stories, at this point in time there’s no hint of what was to come.  Part one of Horror of Fang Rock is a model of efficient storytelling – establish your location (a lighthouse), your first wave of principal guest characters (the three lighthouse keepers – Ben, Rueben and Vince), introduce the Doctor and Leela, mix well and stand back.

The three keepers are, handily, of different generations.  So we have the old man, Rueben (Colin Douglas), the middle-aged Ben (Ralph) and the youngster Vince (John Abbott).  That they’re of varying ages is an obvious touch as it quickly helps to differentiate their characters.  Say what you like about Terrance Dicks, but he understood the basics of storytelling.

Rueben might be the oldest, but he’s not the senior man in charge here (a point which no doubt rankles with him).  Ben and Rueben articulate two very different viewpoints – science and superstition.  Indeed, had Ben not met his imminent death then it would have been interesting to see him and Rueben develop through the serial, almost as a surrogate Doctor and Leela.

Ben embraces the brave new world of electric-powered lighthouses whilst Rueben harks back to the good old days of oil.  Both, in their own ways, are entrenched in their own positions, although we’re no doubt meant to side with Ben.  That partly helps to explain why he’s first for the chop – having a level-headed sensible chap around is far less fun than the doomy, superstition-ridden Rueben (“‘taint natural”).  Vince occupies the middle ground as he’s prepared to listen to both of them (and the Doctor as well).

Louise Jameson was never too enamoured of this script (mistakenly believing that it had been written for Sarah-Jane).  I can’t see many causes for complaint though as Leela’s provided with some good material throughout.  The moment when Leela changes out of her wet clothes in front of a scandalised Vince (“I’m no lady Vince”) is just one nice character beat.

Tom Baker is in full brooding mood.  This may be because the script required it, but the evidence seems clear that at this point in time he wasn’t enjoying a harmonious relationship with his co-star (the fact that a female director had been assigned simply darkened his mood even more).  But if his playing here is partly informed by his off-screen irritations, then no matter – it’s also the perfect choice for the story.

Another interesting wrinkle is the air of mystery that hangs over Fang Rock.  We have a dead body – Ben – but the Doctor doesn’t know who killed him or why.  And it’ll be a long time before he finds out (Tom’s Doctor might often characterised as an unstoppable know-all, but that’s not the case here).

The cliffhanger (a toy boat runs aground) might be a little anti-climatic, but there’s little else to complain about here.  Some forty years to the day when this episode was first broadcast, Horror of Fang Rock part one still engrosses.

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