Chapter 40. Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock (1978)

Synopsis: A lighthouse off the coast of England at the start of the 20th Century. A light in the sky heralds the arrival of an alien warrior separated from its fleet, far from the battlefield. It explores the lighthouse, examines and dismembers one of its staff – and takes his form. The Doctor and Leela arrive shortly before they are joined by the survivors of a shipwreck. When the body of the lighthouse crewman is discovered, the Doctor realises they are locked inside the lighthouse with a murderer…

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue
  • 1. The Terror Begins
  • 2. Strange Visitors
  • 3. Shipwreck
  • 4. The Survivors
  • 5. Return of the Dead
  • 6. Attack from the Unknown
  • 7. The Enemy Within
  • 8. The Bribe
  • 9. The Chameleon Factor
  • 10. The Rutan
  • 11. Ambush
  • 12. The Last Battle

Background: Terrance Dicks adapts his own scripts from the 1977 serial.

Notes: A prologue! Dicks sets up the location, a craggy rock in a furious sea, upon which stands a lighthouse. He tells of the legends of Fang Rock, the historic deaths and the glowing beast said to inhabit the waters that surround it. The Doctor wears a soft floppy hat and not the bowler hat he sports on the cover. Reuben, Vince and the Doctor help the survivors of the shipwreck from their lifeboat onto the shore of the east crag. As Leela ponders Reuben’s tale about the ‘Beast of Fang Rock’, the Doctor tries to rationalise the story, surmising that two men fought, one was killed, the other jumped into the sea, full of remorse, the third man was sent ‘out of his mind’ after spending weeks with a corpse for company. When Skinsale mocks Leela for sensing the temperature drop, Adelaide enters the room and complains about suddenly feeling cold. After Palmerdale’s death, Vince realises that he has his Lordship’s money and coded message in his pocket. Worried that it might incriminate himself in Palmerdale’s death, Vince sets fire to the evidence. There’s a detailed description of the Rutan that’s not quite what we see on screen.

In place of Reuben’s form there was a huge, dimly glowing gelatinous mass, internal organs pulsing gently inside the semi-transparent body. Somewhere near the centre were huge many-faceted eyes, and a shapeless orifice that could have been a mouth.

The Rutan’s habit of speaking in the first-person plural isn’t an affectation; Rutans don’t have individual identity, but are just one element of the whole race. It can move with ‘appalling speed’. The Doctor’s improvised rocket launcher is backed with ‘nuts and bolts, nails, cogs and other engineering debris’, as opposed to coins from various pockets. 

Cover: For the first edition, Jeff Cummins paints a superbly creepy scene of the Doctor standing in front of the lighthouse (which Clayton Hickman later mimicked for the DVD cover). Such a shame that the reprints were canceled, as we lost Alister Pearson’s cover, featuring a lesser-seen Doctor pic with a Rutan and the lighthouse.

Final Analysis: The legend goes that Robert Holmes insisted Terrance Dicks researched lighthouses for this one and it’s possible some of his studies ended up in the novelisation (such as the description of each room on each level in the tower). I suspect that Terrance Dicks might have been working from an earlier script version for this, with a couple of scenes that feel like they might have been abandoned for the final TV edit. Vince’s disposal of Palmerdale’s bribe and message is a welcome addition, especially how it conveys Vince’s conflict, not just in doing the right thing but also in protecting himself from accusation:

It was more money than he’d ever see again in his lifetime – but there was nothing but relief in Vince’s heart as he watched it burn.

One thing that’s missing is a sense of the Rutans point of view – literally how we see many scenes on TV – Dicks creates a sense of menace through a ‘faint crackling sound’ that denotes the Rutan’s presence, but we get little sense of how it feels, how it considers the humans and their environment.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 40. Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock (1978)

  1. Another of my WH Allen hardbacks and that cover is totally GORGEOUS. The book oozes an atmosphere the TV version lacks, although the TV edition is great, so therefore the book is better.
    The Rutan, as you can see from the description, is also better realised in the novel. It’s a great scary read and reeks of tragedy. Definitely one of the better novelisations

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vince does burn the money on screen but the reason is only implicit. If I hadn’t read the book first I’d probably wonder why he was doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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