Intending to take Leela on a trip to Brighton, the TARDIS crew ends up on a foggy island in Edwardian England. The island, Fang Rock, is home to a lighthouse, but there doesn’t appear to be any light coming from the lighthouse, leaving ships vulnerable to the rocks in the heavy fog. The Doctor decides to investigate. But the power drainage from the new-fangled electric light is as much a mystery to the lighthouse staff. As is the dead body the Doctor finds in the boiler room. Things become even more complicated when a luxury yacht runs aground, and its wealthy crew take shelter. Not only are there mysterious goings-on, but now there are tetchy visitors to deal with. However, as the body count begins to mount, and the lighthouse staff report strange lights in the sky and formerly dead people coming back to life, it becomes apparent things are a lot more serious than they at first thought. Indeed, there’s an uninvited guest in their midst, and it wants them dead…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Season Fifteen gets off the ground with a story by Doctor Who stalwart, Terrance Dicks, his first since “The Brain of Morbius” a few seasons ago. More significantly, this is the first story with new producer, Graham Williams, taking over the reins from the legendary Philip Hinchcliffe. While Williams seems to continue the “Gothic horror” feel Hinchcliffe tried to establish, it’s noticeable there’s been a change at the helm. Perhaps where I noticed it most is in the cliffhangers. Hinchcliffe insisted that every cliffhanger be a good one. We saw this particularly in the last couple of stories of the previous season, where the cliffhangers were genuine edge-of-the-seat page-turners. The three cliffhangers in “Fang Rock” are… meh. The first is the ship running aground. The second is a scream from the boiler room. And the third, possibly the best, is the Doctor admitting he made a mistake, having locked the enemy inside with them.
This is, as you might guess, a base-under-siege story, where everything happens within a single location with the threat coming from either without or within. These were popular during the Second Doctor era (e.g., “The Moonbase,” “The Web of Fear,” and “The Invasion”), and crop up from time-to-time, even in the modern era (e.g., the Twelfth Doctor story, “Mummy on the Orient Express”). This format gives plenty of opportunity for tension and drama. You don’t just have the threat from the bad guy(s), but you also have friction within the group trying to fend off the enemy. Here, Dicks ups that tension by adding a class division, with the rich, socially-advantaged being forced to rub shoulders with the “common” lighthouse staff. To make matters worse, one of the rich people desperately wants to get back to London to secure his investments, and is willing to take stupid risks to try to get in touch with the mainland.
This all makes for a good story that keeps us engaged. Even Leela exerts herself, much to the shock of the Edwardian gentry, though her enthusiasm for taking on their adversary with knives and whatever weapons they can find is, perhaps, a little excessive at times. Her comment about not being a “tesh-nician” is a nice throw-back to her first story, the “Tesh” being the brainy tribe from Leela’s home planet. All-in-all, this is a good Leela story, which is surprising since Terrance Dicks is a bit of a self-confessed chauvinist, and prefers his female companions screaming in peril for the Doctor to rescue them.
I thought the discussion between the lighthouse staff on the relative merits of electricity, oil, and other forms of lighting a lighthouse was a bit odd. It sounded as if Dicks wanted a place for all his lighthouse research to show, and so he stuck it in some dialog. Employing the Rutans as the enemy was a great idea (the Rutans were first mentioned in “The Time Warrior,” the first Sontaran story, when the Doctor mentions the interminable war between the Sontarans and the Rutans), and making them amorphous shape-shifters was clever too. Their realization on screen was, well, not so good, at least in my opinion.
“Horror of Fang Rock” is a good story, though not a classic. I wouldn’t consider it must-see Who, but certainly enjoyable, and not a waste of time. The Doctor and Leela are excellent, and there are some great lines (e.g., the Doctor, with a big grin, informing the occupants of the lighthouse, “Gentlemen, I have news for you: this lighthouse is under attack. By morning we might all be dead.”). One to watch if you have the time and opportunity.