Horror of Fang Rock
Horror of Fang Rock was the first story of Season 15 of Doctor Who. Graham Williams’ three-year stint as producer of the series began with this story. It is the only time that the Rutan Host — the oft-mentioned mortal enemies of the Sontarans — have been depicted in a broadcast television story.
The Doctor’s plans to show Brighton to Leela are on hold for now, as yet again the TARDIS takes its occupants to the wrong time and place. This time they arrive on the island of Fang Rock off the south coast of England around the start of the 20th century. Noticing that the lighthouse isn’t functioning properly, the Doctor decides to investigate and to ask for directions.
After arriving at the lighthouse and introducing themselves, the Doctor discovers the dead body of one of the keepers, Ben. The two other keepers – old, superstitious Reuben and keen young Vince – say that a light fell from the sky near the island earlier in the evening. They also say the electricity flow to the lamp on the lighthouse has become erratic. The Doctor deduces that something is feeding on the flow. Reuben does not help matters with his constant references to the mythical Beast of Fang Rock which supposedly once terrorized the lighthouse. He is also unhappy about the replacement of the old oil lights with electrical ones.
As the Doctor and Leela explore, something moves Ben’s body out of the lighthouse and onto the island. A curious electric crackling also seems to have killed the local fish. The Doctor believes Ben was electrocuted. The freak fog continues to descend. A ship passes near the island, ignoring the fog and darkness and sailing at top speed. It crashes on Fang Rock…
There are four survivors of the yacht’s wreck: the bo’sun Harker; Colonel James Skinsale, an MP; the yacht’s owner, Lord Palmerdale; and his highly strung secretary Adelaide Lessage. It emerges slowly that Palmerdale has bought government secrets from Skinsale and was desperate to reach the Stock Exchange in London to make a killing – that was why the ship was travelling at such high speed in the appalling weather.
The Doctor continues to analyse the threat being faced. Reuben believes the Beast of Fang Rock is back, but the Doctor assures Leela there is no such thing. He thinks the light which fell from the sky was a spaceship landing. Aliens unfamiliar with humans are attracted to the lighthouse’s electricity. They are keeping themselves out of sight while isolating Fang Rock by creating the fog. The Doctor deduces an attack is imminent.
Reuben goes to stoke the boiler. While he is in the boiler room Leela feels another cold wave and the electricity fails again. All is silent in the dark, save Reuben screaming in the boiler room…
The Doctor and Leela go to investigate. Reuben returns while they are away, behaving very oddly, which the others put down to shock. The pattern of death now speeds up. Palmerdale is killed in the lamp room by a glowing alien presence outside the lighthouse. Harker is killed when Reuben corners him in the boiler room. Judging by the alien light emanating from Reuben, he has been possessed or transformed by the alien creature. The Doctor determines their best protection is to secure the lighthouse to keep the creature out.
While inspecting the boiler room, the Doctor and Leela find both Harker’s body and that of Reuben, which has been hidden. The Doctor says that Reuben’s body is in rigor mortis – he’s been dead for hours. Leela is confused, as she knew that Reuben was in his room. The shocked Doctor realises that he has overlooked the chameleon factor, which he says is sometimes called lycanthropy. In securing the lighthouse, the Doctor has locked the creature in with them…
The creature, in the guise of Reuben, appears to Vince, with a grin, and kills him in a flash of blue light by placing a hand on his head.
The Doctor and Leela discuss the creature as Leela fills the boiler. The Doctor says it has great power, but it needed to study the human life pattern first. He says that, “Organic restructuring is elementary physiology for Time Lords”. Leela misunderstands, believing that if the creature is a Time Lord, then they have no chance to stop it. The Doctor corrects her, saying that what his people considerelementary might take other species thousands of years to master, and she says, “then we have nothing to worry about,” because the Doctor, as a Time Lord, should be able to deal with the creature easily. The Doctor seems to be buffered by her blind faith in his people, and begins to consider why the creature took the form of Reuben. Leela suggests trying to deceive the creature into thinking its ruse was effective, but the Doctor says it’s too dangerous. They then find an alien power relay being used with a distress beacon. He goes to look for the signal modulator, but sends Leela to gather the rest of the survivors and bring them to the lamp room.
Adelaide begs Skinsale to stop pacing. They’re startled by the appearance of Leela, who tells them that Harker has died, the creature is inside, and they must fight for their lives. To Leela’s consternation, Adelaide faints. “Reuben” interrupts the Doctor as he searches someone’s bunk; the Doctor evades him by climbing out the window, dangling by his fingertips. Adelaide is revived by Skinsale, but doesn’t want to go. They get her moving, only to find that “Reuben” has found them. The Doctor laboriously climbs back inside, revealing that he has found a device. “Reuben” kills Adelaide right in front of Leela and Skinsale, and they run for it. The Doctor confronts the alien and it sheds its disguise, revealing a tentacled glowing green gelatinous sphere resembling a giant jellyfish. The Doctor immediately recognizes it as a Rutan, who uses plural pronouns to reference itself and declares that it is a scout trained in the “new metamorphosis techniques”. The Doctor tells him it’ll get better at them in time. It refuses to tell the Doctor why it is there, but is angered when the Doctor suggests that the Rutans must be losing their never-ending war with the Sontarans. The Rutan Scout calls it a “strategic withdrawal”, and although the Earth is remote, it has a sound enough strategic position to launch a counterattack. The Doctor is alarmed, as the Sontarans will use photonic bombardment (which will kill many people) to dislodge the Rutan presence. He realizes that the Rutan scout ship crash landed in the sea, and it confirms that it is trying to summon its mother ship. The Doctor reveals that he has deactivated both the primary transmitter and the backup. The Rutan Scout says it was transmitting long enough, and the Doctor says it won’t last that long before fleeing upstairs to the lamp room.
Leela and Skinsale have made it to the lamp room and start following the Doctor’s instructions to break open the maroons (maroon flares) and spread the powder down the stairs. The Doctor rushes in, and uses the powder and a fuse to hurt the Rutan Scout, who retreats back down the stairs. He explains that Ruta III is an icy planet (so its inhabitants find heat painful), and asks if they have more gunpowder or (hopefully) a flamethrower.
Skinsale shows him a kind of mortar they brought up from below. The Doctor grabs a flare device and they stuff it with items from their pockets to create shrapnel. As they do so, he explains that the real threat is the Rutan ship that is on the way.
The three devise a plan, with Leela suggesting that the Doctor change the lighthouse into a laser, but the Doctor needs crystalline carbon – diamond – to focus it. Skinsale says that Palmerdale always carried diamonds, and they get to work.
The men make their way downstairs while Leela covers them with the flare. Skinsale retrieves the diamonds from a hidden pouch. The Doctor selects one, then throws the rest on the floor before running back upstairs. Skinsale tries to collect the other diamonds, and so doesn’t see the Scout approaching. The Doctor glances back and watches as the Scout kills Skinsale. Leela shoots it with the mortar before gloating over its death. As the Doctor converts the lighthouse into a high-energy laser using the diamond, they watch the mothership approach. The Doctor warns Leela that once he turns it on, they cannot look back and they will have 117 seconds to get out of the lighthouse. They flee the lighthouse and run for cover as the laser destroys the Rutan mother ship. Leela sneaks a look back despite the Doctor’s orders not to, and is blinded by the flash; she gives her knife to the Doctor and begs to be killed, as among the Sevateem it is the fate of the old and crippled. Although he takes the knife, the Doctor laughs as he gets a closer look at her eyes. He explains that the blindness is temporary, but he is surprised to find that the flash has caused pigmentation dispersal in Leela’s eyes – in plain English, they’ve changed colour, and are now blue. The Doctor quotes Wilfrid Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle as they leave Fang Rock, which echoes eerily on the empty island as the TARDIS fades away:
- Aye: though we hunted high and low,
- And hunted everywhere,
- Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
- Of any kind in any place,
- But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,
- And an overtoppled chair…