THE HORROR OF FANG ROCK
The Horror Of Fang Rock raises an interesting question: what's the difference between good Who, even very good Who, and great Who? Because there's no doubt that this is very good Who, but it's equally certain that it's not a classic.
It's one of those stories, as with the first episode of The Mind Robber, where budget considerations result in a show in which less is more. All the action takes place in a few small sets, but rather than being boring, this emphasises the tension and claustrophobia of the story. With all those slamming doors, it could have been like a bedroom farce, but although nothing very much actually comes of all the busy entering and exiting, it makes sense at the time and keeps the action moving.
The fog-bound setting means that the studioey nature of the supposedly outside shots is mercifully disguised by wafting clouds of dry ice. And its nice (cheap) small cast means that the story remains tight and focused. All this adds up to a superbly atmospheric pure horror story with well-controlled rising drama.
Strangely, though, when you take it apart, a lot of The Horror Of Fang Rock's not very good at all. While the two sets of supporting characters add interest and are well portrayed (with Reuben as the Rutan the most chillingly effective), ultimately all of them are irrelevant. With the single exception of Palmadale's wincingly coincidental diamonds, things would have played out exactly the same if none of them were there.
There's no moral resonance to the action at all: some of the characters are bad and naughty, some are better, but all die with no distinction between them. Also, although the Doctor and Leela save the world, they're the only ones left standing: this is a horrific situation, and one which offhand we can't think of any parallels for elsewhere in Who, and yet this aspect is totally ignored in the rush for the TARDIS.
There are other faults, too, like the nasty loose end of the mysterious Beast of Fang Rock (so was that just a coincidence, then? And what was it?), not to mention the murky secret Palmadale and Skinsale keep alluding to. In fact, all the guff between Palmadale, Skinsale and Adelaide about besmirched honour, caddishness, mysterious information and the stock market is totally spurious, since they all cark it without a single thing coming of it. It all adds up to a story with little emotional impact.
As for the Rutan, well, what can we say? After the mercifully monsterless late Hinchcliffe period, we're back to yer standard green blobs, pausing helpfully on their way to total domination to explain it all to the Doctor. It's nice to see who the Sontarans have been fighting all this time, but did they have to be quite so gigglesome?
So it's a tense and atmospheric story with good characters but with some serious faults in the storytelling. Okay as far as it goes, but what is it that makes Fang Rock so terrific? The answer is simple: the Doctor and Leela.
This is one of Tom Baker's best performances. The Doctor is as grim as we've ever seen him. As with the sets, less is more: the Fourth Doctor can be irritating when his mannerisms are full-blown, but as Philip Hinchcliffe knew, add discipline and he's one of the most powerful characters ever drawn. This is probably Tom Baker's most controlled performance, and it pays off in spades: powering the character down and letting all that Fourth Doctory stuff just seethe under the surface has a thousand times the impact of the self-indulgent eye-goggling inflicted on us later.
As for Leela, well, we all know Tom Baker's opinion about her violence, and there's no better example than Fang Rock of how utterly wrong he was. Leela's pragmatism in the face of death and her courage in unhesitatingly taking it to the enemy are the perfect foil not only for the other characters but for the Doctor himself. Tom might not like it, but the Doctor's more of a realist, as shown by his smile after Leela threatens to cut out somebody's heart. And their relationship gives rise to the best scene in the story, where Leela successfully turns the Doctor's arrogance against him ("You are a Time Lord!"). The fact that Leela can mercilessly take the piss out of the Doctor without damaging either character shows what a strong team they are.
So in the end, we've answered our own question. Despite its faults, the story's atmosphere, its beautifully wound tension and above all, the powerhouse performances from the lead characters make Fang Rock very good indeed. But it lacks the emotional and moral resonance that would lift it into classic status.
MORAL: Need an all-purpose alien repellant? Build some stairs.
NAUTICAL BUT NICE
The actor who plays Reuben seems to have cornered the market in ooh-arr sea dog parts - he also played Captain Baines in The Onedin Line.
WHILE I'M HERE
The Doctor says they'll just knock on the lighthouse door and ask directions - but he never does.
"I'm something of edgineer myself."
God, that horrendous bowler. It rivals Pat Troughton's hat in its hideousness.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT
Needless to say, the Doctor and Leela are initially suspected of Ben's murder. Can't they ever think of anything else?
WITH DRY SPELLS LATER
Leela ask for some dry clothes because apparently her own clothes are wet (presumably from the fog, since she doesn't look as if she's fallen into a puddle or anything). Yet after she comes back from hunting the killer in the fog, this time she doesn't seem to have a problem.
TOY BOAT, TOY BOAT, TOY BOAT...
That model work with the ship's a bit sad.
RING MY BELL
Leela has some lovely business with the siren, which enlivens what could otherwise be some fairly dull stuff - first she's disgruntled at being left behind, then she's enjoying playing with it, then she's bored out of her tree. Nice.
Palmadale complains that he's soaked to the skin, yet neither he nor and any of the others look so much as moist.
SHE'S MY ER
A female secretary? Way back then? Unlikely. Is it supposed to be a euphemism?
It's a bit surprising that none of the toffs comment on what Leela's wearing, which would have been eye-popping female garb in those days.
WAS THAT ALL RIGHT?
It's a seriously freaky moment when we see Reuben standing outside Leela and Adelaide's door. Shame it's undone by the later scene in which from being in the doorway he's now right inside standing by Adelaide and begins shocking her to order while she dutifully screams. You can practically hear the director calling "Action!"
SHARMA SHARMA SHARMA SHARMA SHARMA SHAMELEON
And with "shameleon", Tom Baker makes his fourth blue in four stories. Tut tut. And as for "sometimes called lycanthropy", we don't think so.
A KODAK MOMENT
Are those colour photos the Doctor's looking at by the bunk?
LOOK, NO HANDS
How does the Doctor manage to open the window - towards him, too - while he's hanging by his fingertips?
THREE O'CLOCK, LEELA. TIME FOR OUR LIFEBOAT DRILL
How does Leela know what a maroon is?
A RATTAN FROM THE PLANET CROUTON
In the latter stages, the Doctor calls the villains Rutons several times, and Leela follows his lead at least once.
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
The Doctor says Skinsale died with honour. Er, no. Actually, he died scrabbling on his hands and knees for diamonds, which only a moron wouldn't have come back for later given that a killer was blobbing up the stairs.
POTS...KETTLES.....THERE'S A MESSAGE IN HERE SOMEWHERE...
After lecturing Leela about celebrating the death of an enemy, the Doctor greets the destruction of the mothership with "That'll teach 'em."