23 February 2014

TV: Horror of Fang Rock

For many years, I have thought of Horror of Fang Rock as one of my favourite stories in history of the show. Re-watching this for Artron, though, I have come to re-evaluate this opinion. Don't get me wrong, this isn't by any stretch bad, but it really isn't as good as I remembered. Had you asked me to rate this story last week, I would probably have told you 9.5 or 10. Now, as you can see at the foot of this review, it has fell significantly short of my recollections.

There's a lot to love in this story. There's a wonderful atmosphere to it, created partly by the endless amount of fog rolling around the lamp room and exterior sets, and partly by Paddy Russell's direction. Now, I know that she and Tom didn't get on, and I think her reputation in fandom is a bit short of where it ought to be. After all, Russell was also at the helm of The Massacre, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Pyramids of Mars, two of which are pretty highly regarded (I'll leave you to guess which two). Here, she really emphasises the claustrophobia lighthouses can create by shooting tight and from unusual angles. For example, one the staircase, although it is clearly built at normal level, it is always shot from high above or down below, depending on the impression we are supposed to get. She directs with a lot more intelligence that some of her peers.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are brilliant too. The Doctor seems to have been trying to reach Brighton in time for the opening of the Royal Pavilion, and so is only about eighty years late. And a bit off course too, obviously. I loved the Doctor's comment after surveying the rocks that it wasn't "even Hove", it's these little remarks of personality that really define a Doctor in my mind. I know he goes on to first overplay this, and then underplay it, but at this stage, Baker's getting it just right. Another example of this is in Part Two when he suddenly cries out "just a moment!" like he's had a ground-breaking realisation about how to defeat the creature. He then follows it up with the sublimely understated "we haven't been introduced yet". This had me laughing for a long time, and it has to be seen to be appreciated. It definitely wasn't scripted this way, and it's all Baker showing off his comic talents. Kudos to the rest of the cast for keeping going, as he was clearly in one of his more unpredictable moods.

Leela is played and written much more akin to how she is commonly thought of. She is closest in Horror to her portrayal in The Face of Evil, but in some ways, she is most distant from it too. Louise Jameson plays her as much more self-confident and assertive than in Series 14, and I'm not entirely sure I prefer it. Another aspect of her performance this is true of is the smiling. I know this sounds really picky, but after she's smiled, she seems to hold the expression for a good few seconds, and looks as if she's waiting for something. It's just a little odd, really, and I hope that's not something that's going to continue. Elsewhere, I loved the little touches the actress adds, such as her eyes darting around rooms, watching everyone keenly. It's things like this that remind us of her 'primitive' origins. I enjoyed Leela's use of the word "teshnician" as well, also referring back to her debut story. I don't know if it was scripted or not, but I suspect not. Another great piece of dialogue she delivers is about believing in science instead of magic, and it's written and played beautifully. Why did Vince have such feminine clothes in his room, too? And heeled boots that were exactly Leela's size? Hmm...

Paul Allen does well with the set design, too. He's clearly a reliable contributor, having already fulfilled the role for The Seeds of Death and Spearhead from Space. It's a shame it took him so long to return to the show for this, his final outing. The lighthouse sets are really good. We only really get four interior sets - the stairs, the lamp room, the crew room (redressed as Reuben's room later on) and the generator room at its base - which if anything adds to the isolated nature of the story. Obviously I'm not an expert on lighthouses circa 1900, but it looks pretty convincing to me. The lamp room is the most impressive set, with a working rotating lamp, the window, stairs and the balcony space. Another highlight of this story.

Where this tale falls down for me is in the guest cast. Of the three keepers alive at the beginning, Ben is easily the one I like the least. He seems to be stubborn, a bit brash and a bit too keen to pull rank (although we don't see this). It's for this reason that I was quite glad when he was killed off relatively quickly. I don't know if Ralph Watson just had an off day, or if he was deliberately playing Ben as unlikeable, but it's not his usual style. I always find Alan Rowe a bit underwhelming, and here in his third of four Who roles, that's precisely how he comes across. He plays the part of Skinsale very well, but he just doesn't look or feel like he belongs in the time the story is supposed to be set. The same could be said of Annette Woollett (who fans will recognise from nothing else ever). I'm really with Leela, rolling my eyes at her continual screaming, by Part Three. I know it's what the script says, but couldn't she have toned it down a bit

The third member of the surviving party from the shipwreck is Lord Palmerdale, a greedy, arrogant business man who was so eager to reach London (to impart information given to him by Skinsale) and make a fortune that he insisted they sailed that night, despite the rough conditions. He was apparently urging the captain to speed up even as they landed on Fang Rock. It also appears he's a bit thick, as he tries to bribe Harker to sail him to Southampton several hours after the crash. I understand it may just be a mis-marrying of effects and script, but their vessel was smashed to pieces, let alone what the rough tide will have done to it in the intervening time. He talks down to absolutely everyone, and is well played by Sean Caffery (who sadly passed away last April), but he - like the others - is just a little too '70s to be a credible Edwardian. 

On the other hand, Harker, Reuben and Vince are all a delight. Harker seems to have met the Doctor before, given the way that they regard each other. I don't know if their introductory scene was cut, but it makes it a lot more interesting to have this existing relationship between them. He also doesn't seem unfamiliar with Leela, so perhaps there's the potential for Big Finish to plug another gap? (listen to me going all Gary Russell) I hope not though, as it's nice just to have it as a mystery. I love Rio Fanning's 'pause, look around, spot something, head towards it' routine that he seems to use at the end of each of his scenes. 

Colin Douglas returns to Who, having previously played Bruce in the recently-recovered The Enemy of the World as Reuben. He's again immensely likeable, especially in the scenes where he's comforting Vince. I really liked the relationship between them, and Douglas is clearly a highly skilled actor. In fact, he interacts well with all the characters. I also particularly liked his treatment of Leela. John Abbott as Vince is excellent in what is sadly his only role in the programme. He has a wide-eyed fascination with everything that's just a joy to watch, much in the same way as Leela. These two characters, both learning from experienced mentors are a joy when left alone as well. He, like Jameson, adds little character traits that really lend depth and personality to Vince. A great turn.

Unfortunately, another area of disappointment was the model work. To begin with the positives, the lighthouse is absolutely superb. I can't fault that. A highlight of this is when the Doctor's hanging from a ledge, hiding from the Rutan (taking the form of Reuben at that point). What isn't so good are the TARDIS and the ship. The shots of the TARDIS just look so model-like, plus the rockery surrounding it doesn't match up with that in the set, either. This is most painfully obvious in Part Four, when some of the fog (smoke) has receded. The ship has to be one of the most basic models ever seen on the show. It looks utterly fake, and is slid onto the rocks most unconvincingly. It doesn't rock from side-to-side, the planing isn't changed at all, it just kind of ambles onto a polystyrene rock and splinters into what would be huge planks were it full-size. A real let down.

I must just mention the poor picture quality on the DVD. It's pretty bad, especially coming after a run of particularly 'clean' stories. At some points, it's actually quite difficult to make out faces, but it serves to highlight how spoiled we are normally by the Restoration Team.

Terrance Dicks' script is quite the reverse, however. He has surprisingly few writing credits for television given his reputation, instead injecting his efforts in the novelisation range. I think this could be one of his strongest scripts, bettered only by The War Games. It's witty, intelligent and bold. It's confident enough to first introduce four of the seven guest cast members mid-way through Part Two before subsequently killing absolutely every supporting character. Eric Saward was clearly taking notes. This is a very strong script, but like The Face of Evil, it's let down by other elements of the production. 

Horror of Fang Rock, then, is not the classic I remembered it to be, but neither is it deserving of the average reputation it carries, despite faring well in most polls. It is of course entirely possible that my high expectations exaggerate the story's flaws, but it's nevertheless how I feel - the entire point of a review. I love the intricacies of the story, I love its irregular structure and I love Graham Williams' nerve to try and play Hinchcliffe at his own game in his first story. Of course, it doesn't quite work (thanks to some average performances) but I love the idea, even putting "Horror" in the title, to try and make it darker. And, while we're at it, it is a very dark story (visually), set over the course of one evening.

In conclusion, the standout performers are Dicks, Jameson (once again), Baker and Abbott - with an honorary mention for Paul Allen. They all help to create a claustrophobic, atmospheric tale rammed full of tension. The costume designs for the Doctor and Leela are excellent too, rarely have they looked better (Louise Jameson looks especially stunning in the opening scenes). The image of the Doctor with the rope across his shoulders is an iconic one, and lends itself well to what is one of Clayton Hickman's best efforts at a DVD cover. The past references are nice too, with Leela talking of a sea monster just in Talons, her dispensing with contractions (I hear Nicholas Briggs scribbling directorial notes as I type) and just her general manner - in particular the first scene between Baker and Jameson. 

With a lot of memorable dialogue, scenes and characters, Horror of Fang Rock is pretty good, but marred by a few other its (tiny) guest cast. If Williams can keep this standard up throughout his era, I'll be a happy boy.

Plus the Rutan's not half as bad as you might've heard.

In a Nutshell: A missed opportunity, but a strong start for Graham Williams.

You can buy Horror of Fang Rock on DVD here (why hasn't it got a Special Edition yet? It's so devoid of VAM that it's more barren than a very barren thing), and Joe from Doc Oho hasn't reviewed it yet.

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