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21 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 476: Horror of Fang Rock, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Oh, I’m so happy. I approached this episode with so much trepidation. Vague memories of not liking the new guest cast from the ship mixed with very few memories of anything else about this story left me thinking that it was probably about to take a bit of a nosedive in quality. In fact, I’ve laughed my way through all the comedy elements of the tale, while simply enjoying everything else about it.

Let’s start with the quest cast. Lord Palmerdale was the character I had in mind when I was complaining about not really caring for these characters, but he’s actually the best of the bunch. He’s thoroughly slimy and manipulative, but that gives him a certain air of humour that I can’t help but love. Sean Caffrey (in his only Doctor Who role) gives a really rather brilliant performance, and he’s does a nice trade in those ‘Martin Freeman’ style facial expressions, staring round in exasperation when Vince is fawning over Adelaide before him. I can only assume that he’s set to die before the adventure is done - he seems purpose-designed for that.

What’s interesting, in an era where monsters have very much become the forefront of the programme again, is that we’re now half way through this story and we’ve only had a single, very brief look at the threat we’re facing. So far, we’ve got one dead man, and the Doctor running around telling everyone (and us) that we should be on guard, and afraid, but there’s nothing really which makes the terror tangible. It’s best illustrated in the cliffhanger: Instead of something like Terror of the Zygons, where the cliffhanger involves Sarah Jane turning round and screaming while giving us our first clear shot of the monster, here the attack happens off-screen - we hear Reuben scream, the Doctor runs to find him, and we end with a simple ‘what the devil was that?’

It makes the threat so much more real, and I think it’s a testament to the story that I’m so gripped by it in spite of the relative lack of monster. We’re watching a story which excels in ramping up the drama and the tension, and I think it’s likely to really pay off in the next couple of episodes. The only downside is that the one shot of the creature that we do get in this episode is a bit of a let down - the scale is all over the place! For a moment, I thought Leela was looking at a tiny, insect-sized creature on the rail of the lighthouse (and I suddenly wondered why I couldn’t remember it growing by the end of the story - possibly with the more electricity that it absorbs?), but then I realised it must be down on the rocks below. But what size is it meant to be? I vaguely recall it being about the size of a dog, but am I just assuming that now? Hopefully we’ll get some better shots of it once the reveal has been made properly - it’s far more effective when simply seen as a rock pool glowing green when the Doctor turns away from it.

Ah, yes, the Doctor. It’s been a while since I’ve really pointed out just how good Tom Baker is, but it really does need to be done again here. I worried that now we were in his fourth season he may start to tire of there role a bit. I know at some stage he starts to go a bit over the top and just do whatever-the-hell he likes with his performance, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here. In fact, I think Louise Jameson’s style may be rubbing off on him - when he hears the tale of ‘the Beast of Fang Rock’, he stifles a smile at Reuben’s expense. It’s only a tiny action, and it would be easy to miss, but it really adds something to the scene. Jameson’s performance is full of these tiny moments: and it’s what makes her performance one of the best we’ve ever had. She does it today - the way she acts when left alone at the top of the lighthouse, entirely bored by having to operate the foghorn, but then finding ways to enjoy the task.

While I’m at it - that foghorn is one of the best bits of the episode. Right at the start, Reuben makes a point of saying that it must be kept up from now on, every few minutes. As they venture out to explore the rocks and look for survivors from the ship, the horn sounds at regular intervals in the background. I wondered just how long they’d keep it up for before fading it out in favour of simply showing us the drama unfolding downstairs… but they don’t! At regular intervals right the way through the episode, we get blasts of the foghorn to jolt us upright: it came as a shock on most occasions! It’s just another of those little things that really does help add something extra to the story, and I’m glad they went to the trouble of doing it. 

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