Class, crankiness and Horror of Fang Rock (1977)

fangrock

There is much about British television from the 1970s which is concerned with class. It’s in The Good Life, where the greenies move next door to the toffs. It’s in George & Mildred, where the toffs move next door to the oiks. It’s in Fawlty Towers, where the toffs go on holiday with the great un-poshed in Torquay. And it’s the very basis of Upstairs Downstairs where they all live together under the same roof. It’s the stuff that happens, be it funny or tragic, when the haves and the have nots are forced to mix, which seemed to fascinate TV makers of the time.

Doctor Who, being the kind of far out space fare that it is, generally bucks this trend. Until Horror of Fang Rock, when a boat full of the upper class crashes into an island of the working class.

It’s the turn of the last century. Fang Rock is home to nothing but a lighthouse, and to no one but three men and some chatty seals. The three men Ben (Ralph Watson), Reuben (Colin Douglas) and Vince (John Abbott) are briny, hard working types, plain speaking in various regional accents. Ben doesn’t get out of the first episode alive; he’s quickly done for by the monster of the week. But the other two are on hand when a particularly flimsy looking yacht disintegrates on a model stage at Pebble Mill.

Rescued from the doomed vessel are MP Skinsale (Alan Rowe), lordly Lord Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey) and his secretary Adelaide (Annette Woollett). They have few redeeming features. They arrive in the lighthouse in Part Two, soaking wet and full of complaints. As soon as he arrives, Palmerdale’s barking orders and demanding brandy. He’s a scoundrel through and through; desperate to get to London so he can make good on some shady deal. It was he, it turns out, who caused the boat to crash, as he was insisting it go faster in terrible weather. So says boatman, Harker (the very theatrically named Rio Fanning), the one member of the working class brought to Fang Rock by the ship, and it infuriates him so much he briefly tries to throttle Palmerdale. Class warfare in front of our eyes.

Palmerdale’s also at odds with Skinsale, a kindly, older gentleman who seems like he might be the toffs’ one sympathetic voice. But then he goes and spoils it all by doing something stupid like wrecking the telegraph machine. This might seem an unreasonably reckless thing to do, when you’re in a lighthouse under siege by a murderous snotball, but he’s locked in a subplot with Palmerdale and is very keen to stop the little moneygrubber getting a message to London. The corrupting power of money is an underlying theme in this story. Palmerdale’s the epitome of it (he even tries to bribe our two working class heroes Vince and Harker) and when he dies, it’s the diamonds kept in his body belt that Skinsale dies scrabbling to collect.

It’s tempting to conclude that it’s greed that leads all the characters on Fang Rock to their doom, but the alien blob in question, the electrifying Rutan, cares nothing for social class or human foibles. It sets out to kill all the humans on the island and that’s what it does, be they sympathetic or not. “Everybody dies, Leela! Just this once… everybody dies!’ we can imagine the Doctor (Tom Baker) saying and given the foul mood he’s in, I wouldn’t put it past him adding one of those enormous grins of his. Just to emphasise that although that Rutan might think it’s the scariest alien on the rock, it’s got nothing on the ol’ teeth and curls.

****

Yes, Tom is cranky. He’s been dragged away from his favourite drinking holes around Television Centre to Birmingham. No-one’s listened to him when he’s requested that his new companion be a talking cabbage and so he’s stuck with scene stealing Leela (played with fortitude by Louise Jameson). He’s being directed by Paddy Russell, who’s taking none of his nonsense. The comfort of a few dozen pints and a cohort drinking companions to raconteur at seems as distant as Fang Rock is from Brighton Beach.

Still, out of this funk comes something brilliant – a proto Capaldi. The popular image of the fourth doctor may be of a jolly, jokey fellow, but he’s nowhere to be seen on Fang Rock. If he smiles at all, it’s only to counterpoint some appalling turn of events. “Gentlemen, I’ve got news for you,” he announces at one point. “This lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead. Anyone interested?” he beams.

Of course, he looks at none of his fellow actors, but here it seems less like the by-product a Baker tanty and more a deliberate ploy to make every interaction more awkward and unsettling. As the death count mounts, he barely displays any interest, let alone remorse for the lives being snuffed out. He’s as remote and as unfeeling as a lighthouse, save for the chilling realisation that he voices at the end of Part Three, when he tells Leela that he locked the creature they’re fighting inside, not out.

This is the beginning of Season 15. Skip forward to the end of that season, to The Invasion of Time, and we see a very different fourth Doctor – one that gives jokey asides to camera, balances pot plants on his head and takes tips from the ministry of silly walks. The brooding loner of Fang Rock has been banished. Somewhere along the line, Tom decides to start having fun. But then by that stage, he’s back at Television Centre. Holding court. King Tom.

Horror of Fang Rock is highly regarded these days but it wasn’t always. In fact, it used to be the marker stone between good Doctor Who and bad; it was the point where it all went wrong. I remember a very stern letter to Doctor Who Magazine back in the eighties, where some people declared “we are of the opinion of that the show has declined in quality from Horror of Fang Rock onwards”. Or something like that. I’m not about to rummage through my stacks of DWM to find the exact quote.

I think what they meant was that this was the point where everyone started having too much fun (and as I said about The Androids of Tara, that’s a dangerous thing). If that’s right, then their aim was off a little bit. They should have gone for the other end of the season not this one.  This one’s pitch black. A vicious alien killer, a grumpy alien doctor and human greed everywhere you look. Fang Rock’s impressive in many ways, but no-one ever accused it of being fun.

LINK to The Ark in Space: Both are Toms, and both have aliens infiltrating a group of isolated humans, killing them and adopting their form.

NEXT TIME: I thought you were dead. Either you were dead, or you’d gone to Birmingham. (Tom would know how this feels). It’s a fight for Survival.

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