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Horror of Fang Rock – Terence Dicks’ Finest Hour

February 28, 2015


It is interesting that someone so associated with Doctor Who did not, in fact, write very many original scripts.  He did write Robot, Tom Baker’s debut, and he penned The Five Doctors, which is an enjoyable pantomime of clashing egos.  Oh and State of Decay.  Always forgetting State of Decay.  Early in his career as script editor, he had re-written much of Seeds of Death and co-wrote The War Games with Malcolm Hulke.  He notoriously wrote the first version of Brain of Morbius – which was re-written by Robert Holmes, to the extent that Dicks no longer wanted his name on it and insisted on it being credited to “some bland pseudonym” –  hence “Robin Bland”.  I find it impossible to believe that Dicks’ original script was better than the masterful script that “Robin Bland” came up with.  That must be galling.  It must be worse to have one’s ideas subverted and improved than it is to have them butchered and ruined.  But then, I’m a very petty, jealous person.

And of course, Terence Dicks wrote all those novelisations – his overwhelming contribution to the Target series helped define my childhood.  Back in the day, before DailyMotion and YouTube – Target novelisations were the most important point of access for stories which you’d missed for some reason or were too young to see.

Horror of Fang Rock is a bit special – almost as perfect in its own way as Robots of Death and for some of the same reasons.   A tight 1970s TV budget can handle some effects better than others.  Claustrophobia is something it’s especially good at.

There’s something deliciously creepy about being trapped in a tight cylindrical space with no “outside” to escape to.  It doesn’t matter if the cylinder is vertical (Horror of Fang Rock, 1977) or horizontal (Midnight 2008).  There are other delicious scares in this episode.  Reuben the Rutan’s grin – the grin of a Reubenised Rutan is especially eerie, and it’s used more than once.  The cliffhanger at the end of Episode 3 is so good that I recall being scared by it even as a child:

 “Leela, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead, I’ve locked it in here. With us”.

Rewatching the story, I find that the chill sent down the back of my spine was fully justified.  The story is remarkably ruthless in that although humanity is saved, and the earth is prevented from being turned into a charred battlefield of the endless Sontaran/Rutan war – every single human we meet gets zapped by the Rutan.  There aren’t many, I grant you, but it’s still a shock.  Normally when a group of humans meets the Doctor and his companion(s), you’re wondering – “I bet they live” and “I bet they die”.  In Horror of Fang Rock, nobody survives to tell the tale and a chilling mystery is bequeathed Edwardian England.

“Just for once – everybody dies”.  So to speak.

Louise Jameson is never better than in this serial.  There is something exquisite and moving about her conversation with the nervous and superstitious Adelade.  When Leela learns of Adelaide’s faith in astrology, she observes

 “I too used to believe in magic, but the doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science.”

So much of a particular sceptical yet optimistic strand of the franchise is summed up in this beautifully delivered speech.  And her eyes get to change colour – partly because Louise Jameson was tired of wearing the contacts she’d been wearing up that point, but partly to send us out on a transformative note.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Happy Birthday Terence Dicks

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