“Horror of Fang Rock” is the first episode in Tom Baker’s fourth season as the Doctor, and follows directly after “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” so it is Leela’s fourth episode. I’m going to say first and up front that I really enjoyed this episode. It was fun and engaging, and its atmosphere was very well-crafted.
Spoilers, of course. Lots of them.
Fang Rock is the location of a lighthouse in the south of England. One of the lighthouse keepers sees a meteor-like light in the sky, but his concerns about it are dismissed. Then, the lighthouse’s power fails, and one of the keepers is found dead. The Doctor and Leela arrive, and they deduce that something is attacking the people in the lighthouse. Meanwhile, a small ship hits the rocks and four of its passengers make it to the lighthouse. Over the course of the show, the Doctor tries to prevent any more deaths while trying to figure out what he’s up against and what the enemy is trying to accomplish.
The story in itself was very engaging. The Doctor makes a number of mistakes while figuring out the nature of the adversary, which costs more lives as the enemy gets stronger and more knowledgeable. Leela, meanwhile, tries to figure out how to attack the enemy head-on, even though she knows nothing about it. Like in other episodes that I’ve talked about, the guest characters have strongly defined personalities and backstories, which adds a lot to the narrative. There’s the gruff, old keeper who is afraid that the legend of the monster that attacks Fang Rock every century or so has returned, and the young inexperienced keeper who is unsure of himself and doesn’t know who to believe. Among the shipwrecked passengers, there’s the owner of the ship who cares only about himself and his money and had forced the ship’s captain to keep going though the lighthouse had failed, because he wanted to get to London to close a deal that would increase his profit, an acquaintance of his who he (the owner) wanted to financially and politically ruin, and his (the owner’s) private secretary. A large part of the story had to do with the ship owner’s attempts to figure out a way to get to London, at the cost of everyone else’s lives if he had to, and the acquaintance’s attempts to stop him, as he knew if the guy got to London, he’d go ahead with his plans to ruin him.
This is one of the few episodes in which I actually noticed the sets and camera work, as they aren’t things I normally pay attention to. There were a few “outside” scenes of the Doctor and Leela clambering around on rocks, which I think were just done in the studio, but beyond that, the rest of the show was set inside the lighthouse, in very tiny, crowded rooms. This would be appropriate for a lighthouse, but the cramped quarters only heightened the feeling of panic. The camera was forced to stay tight to the actors, giving a very claustrophobic feel.
Just like in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” a lot of the fun of the episode came from Leela. She doesn’t take crap from anyone – not the Doctor, and certainly not from any of the wimpy humans in the lighthouse. She was especially contemptuous of the ship owner’s secretary, a woman who simply whined about everything and completely lost it whenever anyone died. At one point, a body is brought in the room and the woman starts to wail, and Leela immediately slaps her hard. We cheered. I know it wouldn’t be a good idea to completely repeat a companion, but I would love to see a new Leela-like companion in the new show.
I’d definitely rate this episode as one of my favorites from the classic series so far. Next time, something completely different.