Timestamp #92: Horror of Fang Rock

Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock
(4 episodes, s15e01-e04, 1977)



A delightfully spooky and claustrophobic beginning to the 15th season.

A bright light streaks across the night sky near a lighthouse at Fang Rock, splashing down in the ocean below. The lighthouse crew – which seems really well-constructed and defined for Doctor Who cannon fodder (spoiler!) – dismisses it. The object, however, does not dismiss them. As an unnatural fog rolls in, the TARDIS materializes near the lighthouse and the lighthouse’s light goes out.

Leela is perturbed that they won’t be touring Brighton because the TARDIS decided on scenic Fang Rock instead. The Doctor, unconcerned about the vacation plans, is interested in how the working lighthouse is dark, and decides to investigate and ask for directions. Leela’s sixth sense kicks in again, and one of the keepers, Ben, is attacked by a creature in the generator room.

The travelers arrive at the lighthouse and introduce themselves before helping to fix the generator. The Doctor looks for Ben while Leela stays with Vince, the youngest of the crew. The light is restored without any assistance from the Doctor, and he discovers Ben’s corpse. The Doctor tells Vince that it was electrocution, but further investigation yields strange clues. The eldest keeper, Reuben, confronts the travelers, presuming that they may be spies for a foreign power.

Reuben tends to Ben’s corpse, Leela goes to hunt the creature, and the Doctor learns about the light in the sky from Vince. Ben’s body somehow moves to the rocks outside, but the crew can’t worry about that as a fast moving sailboat emerges from the thickening fog and runs aground. The Doctor, Reuben, and Vince search for survivors as Leela reluctantly keeps watch over the lighthouse. Leela spots a jellyfish-like creature on the rocks as the crew returns with the survivors: Colonel James Skinsale, a member of Parliament; the yacht’s owner, Lord Palmerdale; and his highly strung secretary Adelaide Lessage. The ship’s coxswain, Harker, arrives later, bearing Ben’s corpse.

Reuben assumes that the Beast of Fang Rock, a local superstition, has returned, adding further atmosphere to this already spooky and ethereal story.

As the Doctor and Leela investigate the rocky shoreline, we find out that Skinsale provided secret information to Palmerdale, which the latter hoped to sell on the London Stock Exchange for a large profit. That’s why they were traveling so fast under such weather conditions. The clues lead the Doctor to conclude that the creature is an alien invader – that the way this show works – and that it is creating the fog as a shield while it prepares to attack. Everyone else on the rocky island, as expected, scoffs in disbelief.

Reuben goes to stoke the boiler as Leela’s sixth sense flares up again. Reuben is attacked and screams, prompting the Doctor and Leela to investigate. Harker follows shorty thereafter and encounters a zombie-like Reuben – which he dismisses as a cranky, tired old man – just before the Doctor and Leela return. Harker and Leela secure the boiler room access door as the Doctor talks with Vince. Vince is being targeted by Palmerdale as an easy mark who will transmit his information to London, and the man and his money duck out onto the observation deck as the Doctor arrives. As Vince and the Doctor converse, the creature scales the exterior of the lighthouse and kills Lord Palmerdale. Meanwhile, Skinsale, who overheard Palmerdale’s offer to Vince, destroys the telegraph to prevent outgoing transmissions.

In his quarters, Reuben is role-playing as a flashlight. Yeah, he’s definitely possessed.

The Doctor hears of Palmerdale’s death and retrieves the body with Skinsale and Harker. The character of Adelaide is reduced from redshirt to apoplectic redshirt. I assume that she’s not a damsel in distress only because the antagonists aren’t taking prisoners. Harker remains in the boiler room to secure the door, but his day is ended as Reuben arrives and kills him with glee. With no one to tend the boiler, the pressure goes too low, and the Doctor and Leela respond only to discover Harker’s body. In a twist, they also find Reuben’s body, and he’s been dead for hours. The aliens are learning about their prey by assuming their form, similar to lycanthropy. The Doctor realizes that in securing the lighthouse, he has locked the danger inside with them all.

Because it can, the Reuben-alien kills Vince, and the Doctor and Leela strategize on how to defeat it. They find a distress beacon relay attached to the generator, and Leela moves everyone to the lamp room as the Doctor searches for the signal modulator. Before the survivors can leave the telegraph room, the Reuben-alien corners them. It kills Adelaide and evades Leela’s attacks. The Doctor sends Leela and Skinsale to the lamp room as he confronts the alien, which he finally recognizes as a Rutan, the foe of the Sontarans.

The Rutan and the Doctor discuss the situation: The Rutan are looking for a fall-back position as they strategically withdraw from the Sontaran fronts, and Earth is prime real estate. Never mind that the Sontarans will bombard Earth to remove the Rutans because the Rutan mothership is nearly here.

The Doctor lures the Rutan to the lamp room where Leela and Skinsale spring a flare-based trap. The fire and heat harm the alien. The Rutan retreats, and the remaining survivors devise a plan to transform the lighthouse into a laser to destroy the mothership.

A Death Star lighthouse? I can dig it.

The Doctor and Skinsale make their way downstairs to retrieve some convenient diamonds from Palmerdale’s corpse while Leela defends the lamp room. Skinsale snags the diamonds and the Doctor selects one, discarding the rest. Skinsale goes after them, and his greed kills him as the Rutan attacks. The Doctor ascends the staircase and Leela fires her weapon, killing the Rutan. The Doctor rigs the laser as the mothership approaches. They arm it and evacuate the lighthouse, running for cover. Leela glances at the blast, which temporarily blinds her, but it disperses, changing her eye color in the process. Which, behind the scenes, is a good thing for actress Louise Jameson and for fans of the hunter-companion.

They depart, leaving behind the corpses of everyone they met on this adventure, as the Doctor recites Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Gibson, another tale of missing lighthouse keepers.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a great exercise in being spooky. Between the foggy and small, isolated island to the claustrophobic lighthouse itself, this story reveled in its unnerving vibe. I loved how well the keepers were developed as secondary characters, but I found the shipwreck survivors to be nothing more than two-dimensional props.


Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.




6 thoughts on “Timestamp #92: Horror of Fang Rock

  1. Even though Philip Hinchcliffe stepped down as producer after the last serial, Robert Holmes stayed on for half of this season to help groom his successor as script editor. New producer Graham Williams hadn’t yet made a mark on the series, so Holmes continued the much-darker tone of storytelling that he and Hinchcliffe had developed over the last few seasons. Williams mark will finally be made in the next serial, and I’m interested to see what you make of it.

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