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We stared into the untempered schism and all we saw was this dodgy CSO effect

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

12 Comments

  1. Alex Wilcock
    November 29, 2011 @ 12:49 am

    I have to admit I’m still at the ‘rather good’ I’ve thought of it as for decades, but perhaps its high-profile reappraisal started earlier than that: it was the story David Tennant and Russell T Davies famously raved about when they first worked together, which was mentioned a lot when they made Tooth and Claw (which shares more than a little with Horror). Good points about its differences as well as similarities with the Hinchcliffe era, though; the key point for me is when Rueben tells the old legend, which would in effect have been the backstory in the ‘standard’ story of the previous three years, and the Doctor just scoffs at him. Its plot similarities to The Sontaran Experiment, though, for example (lone warrior from the Sontaran-Rutan War scouting out Earth, Doctor sees off main force in a flash at the end, though considerably more convincingly here), mean it’s not quite as out of kilter as you propose.

    About Time’s dating is less cut-and-dried than you suggest, incidentally, taking the outer edges of two ranges, but this story, at least, is clearly at the lower end of their range; as I’ve shown before, the historical evidence around the most repulsive of the human characters means it can’t be later than 1905.

    I’m surprised that you write that the characters are “not being used for broad social critique”, though, and while you say “That doesn't mean, however, that there's no social commentary”, you seem to restrict it to the Doctor and Leela. I’m a long way from being a class warrior, but the admirable economy of the script here manages to make characters out of stock social positions who speak in reams of exposition, and those social positions have never been more clearly delineated in a Who story: back when I wrote about Horror of Fang Rock a few years ago, I called it “the series’ story most about social class”, and it blatantly is. The critique of social class runs right through the story, most strikingly in the way that the shipwrecked passengers’ strategies for social survival are at odds with their physical survival, and with every character carefully placed on a scale of how sensitive to class and snobbish they are, ranging from the Doctor being the only one to call Vince “Mr Hawkins” at one end to the extreme-through-social-insecurity of Palmerdale’s mistress at the other.

    Then there’s the straightforward Terrance Dicks moral: ‘being greedy gets you killed, and you deserve it!’ Which leads me to the man I called the most repulsive of the human characters. Most fans seem to pigeonhole Palmerdale as “greedy” and Skinsale an “affable old soldier”, one there to dislike and one to warm to, and though you don’t talk about either of them, I’m always surprised that pretty much every other analysis of this story (my quotes are from About Time) falls for Skinsale on his own terms. His “honour” is merely something he uses to his own advantage, and he’s ruthless in defending that façade. I dislike Skinsale even more than I do Palmerdale because at least his Lordship is honestly nasty; the Colonel is every bit as greedy, though not as good at it, and wants to have it all in a way that not even Palmerdale does – “good name”, position, money – without doing the work, and is prepared to be selfish, reckless, criminal, arrogant and possibly treasonous, threatening people’s livelihoods and ultimately lives so he can get away with it. That’s a fairly sharp social critique.

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  2. Alex Wilcock
    November 29, 2011 @ 12:52 am

    Passing thoughts: it’s one of those stories, isn’t it, where it’s difficult not to take into account the writer’s reaction to a number of behind-the-scenes goings-on; not just the brilliant decision to go small-scale and do it to textbook perfection, as you say, but Bob Holmes giving him an historical set in a lighthouse as revenge for Terrance’s imposition of an historical background in The Time Warrior, Terrance being inspired by that to think of a creature that would be the opposite of Sontarans, and of course – for reasons I suspect you may come to under State of Decay a – with “Fang”, and parasitic aristocrats, and a man named Harker, I can’t help seeing as Terrance Dicks sticking two fingers up at Dracula.

    And I fear you’ve been misled by Steven Moffat’s encomium to the title, incidentally; the “obligatory” “THE” in fact isn’t there, except on the book cover…

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  3. William Whyte
    November 29, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    I think the "people being picked off one by one" model was also used in Planet of Evil, where people have been picked off one by one since before the beginning of the story, and Pyramids of Mars, where basically everyone dies. And Robots of Death. So it's not as rare a model as you're making out.

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  4. elvwood
    November 29, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    I have mixed feelings about Graham Williams' time on the show. I tend to think of it as inferior to the preceding era, though with a good middle season; but looking at my scores I see it has two 10/10s, one from season 15 (this very story, in fact) and one from season 17. Only Barry Letts matches this record in Classic Who; Philip Hinchcliffe's era only gets one 10/10 (The Robots of Death), as do Verity Lambert's, Innes Lloyd's, and John Nathan-Turner's. Not a bad record for an "inferior" period!

    For completeness, I'll add that the picture changes if we look further down my chart: nine of the next ten stories from seasons 12-17 are from Hinchcliffe. Still, credit where credit is due.

    Horror of Fang Rock was the last story I wholeheartedly enjoyed on original broadcast. But more on that next time…

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  5. Dougie
    November 29, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    Off-topic a little: I've been using Fang Rock to teach The Ballad of Flannan Isle this term. The class are aged around 12-13. They found Tom's glee jarring and inappropriate although they liked Leela's "superpowers". Interestingly, when invited to speculate on the real nature of The Beast, they guessed "giant jellyfish"!

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  6. Elizabeth Sandifer
    November 29, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    Alex – excellent point about the social commentary. Though, again, this supports the larger point – that this is a very small-scale, character-based sort of commentary.

    William – Yes, but Planet of Evil does it , as you point out, prior to episode one. Pyramids of Mars has a massive death toll, but that's still not characters being picked off. The Robots of Death link is better, but even there it's a murder mystery, not a "monster hunting the characters" structure. That hunting-based structure is not actually particular common in the years preceding this story.

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  7. WGPJosh
    November 29, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    I love "Horror of Fang Rock" and I love the Graham Williams era (well, most of it anyway). At its best it's just as metafictional as the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and in my opinion the only reason to slag off humour is if it's badly done or out of place, neither of which I think is particulalry applicable to the majority of the next few seasons.

    There, I said it. Fire away.

    I will submit Season 15 is my least favourite season of the era, though, with only "Horror of Fang Rock", "Image of the Fendahl" and "The Sun Makers" striking me as particularly memorable or watchable (and "Sun Makers" I haven't seen in awhile). After that though I think Season 16 is genius and Season 17 is wildly underrated.

    With that out of the way and the bounty on my head, I'll toss in a few thoughts about "Horror of Fang Rock" itself. I've always loved this story, mostly for the eery, claustrophobic mood it does so well. Setting the entire story inside the one lighthouse and keeping everyone speculating about what's going on until the last 10 minutes or so really ratchets up the paranoia. Some of my favourite moments are watching the marooned cruisers slowly self-destruct the longer they stay cramped up and immobilised. Something is clearly very wrong in their world, they don't like having their norms disrupted and they'll do anything to restore the status quo, even if it means airing everyone's dirty laundry and stabbing each other in the back in a frantic bit of rampant egoistic self-preservation until the whole situation completely unravels. I can't help reading this as an incredibly potent commentary on social apathy and the sociopathic part of me finds that deliciously cathartic to watch: As The Joker would say, "Nobody worries so long as everything is going according to plan, even if the plan is horrible".

    Tying into this is Leela who, and I must disagree with you here, I think gets one of her best turns on the entire show. At no time is she kidnapped, patronised, or in any way used as merely a plot device: She is just as integral to solving the mystery as The Doctor and gets a lot of great moments trying to mediate between him and the lighthouse dwellers, putting her in an unusual position and forcing her to improvise in ways we hadn't seen from her before (and sadly wouldn't see again). One of my favourite clifhangers of all time is in this serial (if I recall correctly it's the Episode 1-2 stinger) where Leela goes out onto the rocks to investigate and seemingly gets menaced by the monster. The implication is that she'll be captured or injured or something but, in a wonderful subversion, she drives her knife clean into it and marches back to the lighthouse to report her findings. That bit always makes me cheer.

    (cont'd Wow I need to stop ding this)

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  8. WGPJosh
    November 29, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    Observing her actions over the course of the serial, I find it hard to argue Leela's role in "Horror of Fang Rock" isn't one of, if not the, most overtly, explicitly and laudably feminist moment in the series since Katy Manning's tenure. I mentioned the Episode 1 cliffhanger and you already brought up the scene with Adelaide but the clincher for me is how Leela casually spends the entire serial in working class Victorian men's clothing and how she responds to the reaction she gets: As the lighthouse keepers awkwardly walk on eggshells around her trying to treat her in accordance with the customs of the time, Leela reassuringly says "Oh, me? Oh I am no lady." It's a beautifully subtle moment that for me captures the essence of Leela at her best (and may be a minor pot shot at her origin). She simply does not allow herself to be pigeonholed or force herself to fill some predetermined social role: She just is who she is, takes charge of the situation and does things her own way regardless.

    As a result, Leela actually winds up becoming central to most of the narrative action here and she has to be because The Doctor is frequently absent, spending a great deal of time brooding in a corner somewhere. He's clearly several steps ahead of everyone else and equally clearly not willing to let anyone in on what he's doing. It's notable that. as you said, on the occasions he does decide to talk it's with Leela thus forming a kind of warm rapport and easy working relationship we don't often see from them. Ultimately though I like this setup: I think it's appropriate that the companion ends up taking charge of most of the story's heft while The Doctor sits at the margins until the very end. I'd say who that reminds me of, but I've probably said too much already and anyone remotely familiar with my writing and my opinions on Doctor Who should already know what would have come next. 😉

    That being said I don't think the serial is entirely perfect: I found the end reveal of the Rutans to be extremely anticlimactic and underwhelming, especially given the haunting, claustrophobic suspense of the rest of the serial. There's also still the bothersome undercurrent of Modernism and Colonialism that unfortunately tends to plague any Leela story, though thankfully it's more muted and underplayed here as opposed to something like "Talons of Weng-Chiang". That being said it's still one of my all-time favourite Doctor Who stories and my first line of defense when I get inevitably scolded for liking the Graham Williams era.

    Great analysis and I'm really looking forward to seeing your take on the rest of this tenure!

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  9. William Whyte
    November 29, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    Phil — if you define what this story is like narrowly enough, obviously you can demonstrate that few other stories are like it. ("Ah, but was it… on a lighthouse?"). I don't think it's that important that it's a single monster; what matters is the confined space. All of Pyramids, Planet of Evil and Robots of Death have this, and a small cast of victims who get picked off, and every person who goes down raises the stakes by emphasising that it won't be long until the only one left for the monster to get will be the Doctor. I actually think the England section of Seeds of Doom fits this model less well than the three I've mentioned, because of the difficulty it has keeping the characters in one place so the Krynoid can kill them.

    I think Ark in Space fits it less well too, but for a more interesting reason. The classic Hinchcliffe model is a horror movie, where there's a more-or-less unstoppable monster that kills you when you're not expecting it, or when you're actively trying to run away. Ark in Space is more like a war movie — almost all characters are killed when knowingly walking into danger, rather than trying to run away from it. The horror movie is a better nightmare but there's a lot to be said for the war movie too.

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  10. Adam B
    November 30, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    Having watched this recently, I was struck by the nearly seamless weaving of what is obviously a Terrance Dicks script (the extended 'men talking about/doing manly things' opening and the enemy reveal/denouement are clear markers of his work) into the Hinchcliffe aesthetic, all under Graham Williams' watch. It is perhaps the strongest start ever for a new producer, and his tenure includes another of my all-time favorites, so it will be interesting to see how you navigate his tenure, Phil. Looking forward to it.

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  11. Henry R. Kujawa
    April 15, 2012 @ 4:58 am

    Alex Wilcox:
    "Bob Holmes giving him an historical set in a lighthouse as revenge for Terrance’s imposition of an historical background in The Time Warrior, Terrance being inspired by that to think of a creature that would be the opposite of Sontarans"

    Brilliant! All these years, that never crossed my mind (nor have I ever ran across the thought before).

    "and of course – for reasons I suspect you may come to under State of Decay a – with “Fang”, and parasitic aristocrats, and a man named Harker, I can’t help seeing as Terrance Dicks sticking two fingers up at Dracula."

    Yes, as much as FANG ROCK feels like a leftover from Season 14, it must really have been a last-minute idea, as they were planning to do a vampire story, but the Beeb told them not to, as they didn't want something that would compete with COUNT DRACULA with Louis Jourdan & Frank Finlay. That's one of my top fave adaptations of that story, let down only by it being shot on video, which of course, watching DOCTOR WHO has allowed me to become used to (it even made it easier to deal with THE AVENGERS seasons 2-3 when I finally saw them them in the early 90s).

    WPGJosh:
    "He's clearly several steps ahead of everyone else and equally clearly not willing to let anyone in on what he's doing. It's notable that. as you said, on the occasions he does decide to talk it's with Leela thus forming a kind of warm rapport and easy working relationship we don't often see from them."

    Just hit me, it's like Van Helsing & Mina in COUNT DRACULA. I finally read the novel a couple years ago, and it really struck me that Van Helsing's own secretiveness in many ways leads directly to Lucy's death. How many times have we seen Jon Pertwee's Doctor pull this same crap? Finlay's Van Helsing was "softened" a bit to make him less cuplable. But after Mina proves she's the smartest character in the whole story, he still makes the blunder of trying to keep her out of things for her own protection, which is what leads to her ALMOST getting killed! I've wondered ever since if Stoker did this deliberately to show how stupid and dangerous that kind of sexist attitude could be.

    Leela is wonderful in this story, and I wish she could have worn outfits like that for the rest of the season.

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  12. orfeo
    July 26, 2015 @ 12:11 am

    This was an interesting one. I don't recall having seen it before (though I may have done as a youngster). I didn't entirely enjoy the first episode or two, as I think some of the acting is a bit wooden. The script, though, is excellent.

    I agree, this is going back to something that the show hasn't done in quite a long while. I'm surprised, though, the review didn't mention the magic words "base under siege", because that's what I was reminded of to some extent.

    Reply

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