John Abbot must be in his seventies by now. In his youth he reportedly played Snoopy on the Edinburgh Fringe. But for four weeks in 1977 we knew him as the Nice One On The Lighthouse.The Lighthouse is called Fang Rock. It is populated entirely by stock characters who are wiped out by a giant luminous brussel sprout at the rate of 1.75 per episode. There is an Old Set In His Ways Lighthouse Keeper and a Middle Aged and More Up To Date Lighthouse Keeper. The latter doesn't last ten minutes into Episode One.
In Episode Two Central Casting supplies a fresh boatload of victims: otherwise the story would have been very short. There is a Greedy Financier, a Corrupt MP and a Posh Lady Who Keeps Fainting. In Episode Three, Palmerdale, the nasty rich guy, tries to bribe Vince to send a message about a shady stock deal to the mainland on the lighthouse's morse code transmitter. "A hundred pound!" exclaims Vince. "That be a fortune!" Palmerdale becomes the Monster's fourth victim almost immediately and Vince burns the money because he is afraid he'll be accused of murdering him. In Episode Four, the monster offs Vince as well.
Abbot spends the rest of his career playing rolls like Estate Agent, Lawyer, Mouth Organist and Verger. Probably getting regular bit parts on TV is a good gig for an actor; very likely he doesn't think of Vince as anything other than a job of work he did a very long time ago. But Doctor Who and its fans go on and on forever. Someday we will hear that the guy who played the nice one on the lighthouse has died, and a few thousand of us will think of that day as one thinks of a day on which we did something slightly unusual. Fifty years from now someone who thinks of the Twenty Ninth Doctor as their Doctor will decide to watch the one where the one with the scarf goes to the lighthouse and will feel ever so slightly sad when the giant Brussels sprout kills Vince Hawkins.
Acting is an odd job: fandom is an odd hobby.
Season 14 of Doctor Who came to an end in April, 1977. Season 15 began the following September. On May 25, a new space fantasy movie was released in the U.S.A. It would not arrive in the UK until the day after Boxing Day, but the comics, novels, picture cards and breakfast cereals were already much in evidence. Doctor Who knew that it couldn't compete.
Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng Chiang wanted to be exceptional: interrogating and deconstructing the show itself; embracing the idea of Time Travel and melodrama like they had never been embraced before. Horror of Fang Rock wants to be just good enough.
Fans are always dividing things into Eras. Talons of Weng-Chiang brought the Hinchcliffe Era to an end and Horror of Fang Rock inaugurated the Williams Era. And it is entirely true that between Season 14 and Season 15 Phillip Hinchcliffe stepped down as producer, and Graham Williams took over. But Producers didn't have as much power and influence as Show Runners do today; and script editor Robert Holmes would hang on for three more stories.
Season 14 ended with a Victorian costume drama; Season 15 opens with an Edwardian costume drama. Season 14 was full of pastiche horror; Season 15 opens with a spooky gothic spine chiller. The lighthouse is as emphatically shrouded in fog as the streets of London were. No-one ever suggested giving Col. Skinsale his own series, but you could imagine him in the club with Dr Litefoot, swapping tales of China and India and being patronising about the natives. Horror of Fang Rock didn't feel like a new era: it felt like business as usual.
Although it is full of stock characters and stereotypes, Fang Rock is not doing conscious literary pastiche in the way that Weng Chiang was. There is no particular "Edwardian Lighthouse Keeper" genre to draw on. If anything, it falls back on the venerable Who format of "aliens besieging a base". Everyone dies by the end of Episode Four: this is in fact the only story in which the Doctor fails to save anyone at all. No-one seems very bothered. The Doctor makes a quick joke about Louise Jameson's contact lenses, quotes an obscure poem that no-one is likely to have read, and hops into the TARDIS for next week's romp.
Doctor Who is now Tom Baker's show, and he knows it. This is his fourth season, and he has already clocked up more screen time than Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi would. He is slowly morphing from the Shakespearean One to the Alien One; the Callous One; and indeed the Insufferable One. Terrance Dicks's script does not give him very much; but he does a great deal with what he's given. He turns an innocent line like "I don't know what the truth is yet" back on itself by adding a little snarl around the word "yet". He makes much use of his trademark device of delivering lines in a convincingly inappropriate tone of voice. He exclaims "We haven't been introduced!" as if it were a life and death crisis; but announces "The lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead" with a silly grin on his face. When old Reuben ("'t'aint natural!") says that this new-fangled wireless won't bring middle-aged Ben back to life the Doctor responds "No!" just a shade too emphatically; raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes. When Reuben, insinuating that it was the Doctor who murdered Ben, says "I knows what I knows and I thinks what I thinks" the Doctor responds with the single word "Incontrovertible!" as if Reuben has just had a clever scientific insight.
It is this Doctor, smug but likeable, who won our devotion, who turned Doctor Who from a TV show into a religion. We felt sure that he would confide in us, as he does with Leela; not patronise us and ignore us, as he does with Reuben. We wished we could be as witty and supercilious to all the bullies and P.E. teachers in the world as the Doctor is to superstitious old duffers who prefer oil lamps to electricity.
Enjoy it while you can: soon it will be buried beneath a stream of weak jokes and jelly babies.
From Ian and Barbara to Harry and Sarah-Jane, the Doctor's companions had always been our near-contemporaries, wrenched from their proper contexts, but acting as our anchor-points and avatars. Doctor Who was about normal people taken to unusual times and places. Horror of Fang Rock lacks any contemporary viewpoint. Seven Edwardian stereotypes go through their paces, while two alien outsiders stand apart. The Doctor and Leela feel increasingly like Sapphire and Steel: visitors from a different world, not quite engaged with what is going on. Although he calls her "savage", Leela is treated almost as the Doctor's equal. The Doctor has knowledge that she doesn't have, but she has instinct which the Doctor respects. When Leela threatens to cut Palmerdale's heart out, we almost believe that she would -- and that the Doctor would let her. Leela is still a character -- recognisably the same young woman we met in Face of Evil and followed through Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang. She has not yet been reduced to a pretty assistant with a dagger instead of a personality.
When Screamy Adelaide mentions that she consults astrologers, Leela says that she too used to believe in magic. "But the Doctor has taught me about Science. It is better to believe in Science." Leela's faith in the Doctor is almost superstitious: she thinks that they have nothing to fear from the alien murderer, because the Doctor is a Time Lord and the monster is not. She believes in him more than he believes in himself. But she can also stand up to him and puncture his pomposity as Sarah-Jane used to. "That's what I thought" she says "But of course I am only a savage!"
The Doctor's pomposity needs to be punctured from time to time: we can really only enjoy someone behaving awfully if there is someone to point out his awfulness. (We are licensed to enjoy Basil Fawlty's rage because we know he will end up with egg on his face.) That's why the Doctor needs to be paired with some sassy mortal: with a Sarah or a Leela or even a Jo. Much of the rest of the Baker era will descend into bickering between two insufferably arrogant ubermenschen -- and and even more insufferably arrogant robot dog.
The murderous Brussels sprout is eventually revealed to be a Rutan. Rutans have, in fact, been mentioned before: almost the only thing we know about the Sontarans is that they are engaged in a perpetual war against them. This is something of a watershed moment. When Dicks requires a rationale for the lighthouse monster, he doesn't go into folklore or literature, but to the series' own marginalia. Vanishingly few viewers in 1977 would have remembered the small print in the Time Warrior or the Sontaran Experiment, and nothing follows from it. But there is now a feeling, outside of fan fictions in mimeographed zines, that the show has a mythos -- or at least a body of old texts -- which are worth gesturing towards.
"What are you doing in this part of the galaxy?" asks the Doctor, as if intergalactic travel is about as remarkable as hitching a ride on a stage coach. Up to this point we've been watching a kind of low key nautical gothic -- Agatha Christie meets William Hope Hodgson. But this dialogue pulls us back into the realm of space opera; the realm, indeed, of Star Wars. Weng Chiang and Sutekh remained godlike even when they were revealed to "really" be time travelling war criminals and exiled aliens. The Beast of Fang Rock ceases to be beast-like and becomes merely an alien soldier. The Doctor spends the first three episodes convincing us that he is genuinely scared and genuinely worried: but as soon as he comes face to face with his adversary, he sets about relentlessly trivialising it. "I don't like your face"; "Reuben the Rutan"; "Oyster face". We are meant to think that he is being brave, or that he is carefully goading the creature into making an error: but in fact it has the effect of making the audience think that this baddie is really nothing to be too concerned about. We don't need to take the threat seriously if the Doctor doesn't.
The Doctor will rarely take anything seriously again.
Terrance Dicks knows how to construct a story. There is set-up and pay-off: characters do exposition without it being too obvious that exposition is what they are doing. ("So long as it isn't a hazard to navigation we don't have to bother with it" says Reuben, in case we were in any doubt as to what lighthouses are there for.) Everybody remembers the cliffhanger at the end of Episode Three: "I thought I'd locked the enemy out; instead, I've locked him in". But I preferred the end of Episode Two, however much it may reek of cheese. Palmerdale asserts that "absolutely nothing is going on" just as the set is plunged into darkness and someone off stage screams.
The characters are one dimensional, and it is impossible to care about the Palmerdale / Skinsale intrigue. But they are well enough drawn that it is possible to remember which is which, and to vaguely care as they queue up to fall into the Rutan's metaphorical jaws.
After three episodes build-up and a 100% casualty rate, the Doctor makes a plan and the plan works. The monster is scared of heat, and light; the Doctor can use diamonds to turn the lighthouse into a kind of laser. It would have helped if the fact that Palmerdale carries diamonds as "insurance" had been foreshadowed. Skinsale spends an inordinate amount of time rifling through his trousers to find them.
"The Doctor jerry rigs a doohickey and saves the day" feels like a cop-out, but in a sense the Doctor's whole rasion d'etre is to be a deus ex machina. The 21st century Doctor would have made the monster go away by thinking beautiful happy thoughts at it.
There was never any point in Doctor Who trying to be bigger of flashier than Star Wars, just as there is no point in the Doctor Who of today trying to be bigger and flashier than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Horror of Fang Rock is small and cheap and just good enough. One senses that Terrence Dicks delivered the script with a resounding "will this do?". It tries to get by on charm; specifically, on Tom Baker's and Louise Jameson's charm. It very nearly succeeds.