Contributor: John Keegan
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by Derrick Goodwin
So this is the first serial to be produced under Graham Williams, and despite all the warnings that the tone of the show would take a dramatic shift, I wasn’t quite prepared for this. “Horror at Fang Rock” may not have been a total classic, but it is light years beyond what this story tosses into the ether.
The central premise isn’t completely useless. Riffing off of a combination of “Fantastic Voyage” and a standard sentient virus concept, the story has a spacecraft in the year 5000 AD getting captured within a region of space where a virus resides. It transmits via cheesy lightning effects, leaving plastic scales around the eyes and face, just so one knows when someone is infected. This renders the whole idea of the “invisible enemy” rather pointless, but there we are.
The execution of the story is a complete mess. At one point, the Doctor is infected, and Leela is tasked with defending him from an attack by infected crewmembers, while clones of the two of them are miniaturized and sent into the Doctor’s brain to excise the contagion. To say that the interior of the Doctor’s brain is one of the silliest looking sets is probably not a stretch. That said, the funniest part about it is when Tom Baker and Louise Jameson simulate being “flushed” into the Doctor’s head via needle by holding each other’s hands and spinning about!
When the contagion is finally discovered, the prop looks pretty silly. When the contagion is later brought to gigantic size, it gets even worse. I’ve seen this referred to as “the ridiculously daft prawn monster”, and that’s more or less what it looks like. As one story tells it, Tom Baker annoyed the director because he couldn’t stop laughing when filming scenes with the damn thing. (It’s actually in the picture used for this review. Good luck trying to make sense of it!)
One might be tempted to forgive the poor effects as a product of the low budget, and assume the story would do well regardless, but it’s never convincing at all. One big problem is the dramatic shift in the relationship between the Doctor and Leela. While the Doctor would be acerbic with Leela on occasion in earlier stories, there was still a measure of respect between them. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this story. Leela’s intelligence is dismissed, The Doctor berates her throughout, and it feels like she’s quickly being relegated to fan service duties.
The other problem is the casual treatment of one of the elements intended to increase the tension in the story. When the clones go into the Doctor’s brain, they are told that they have a very specific amount of time. This is referenced constantly. And yet, sure enough, it takes at least twice as long for events to play out. And since the remaining time is never mentioned, which might have given them an out, it makes the time constraint seem artificial and unnecessary.
I suppose it’s time to discuss the introduction of K9. Well, if there is any greater indication that the new production team was falling over themselves to align with the directive to be more “family friendly”, then I don’t know what it is. K9 couldn’t fit less with the previous gothic horror approach, that’s for sure. If the prevalence of K9 references in the fandom is any indication, he sticks around for a while, which is going to be an exercise in tedium, I predict.
After the heights of Season 14, I’m quite concerned at how quickly it’s all going to fall apart. I know that the companions turn over at a fairly blistering rate in the post-Sarah Jane years, so I can’t imagine that Leela will be around for much longer. And surprisingly enough, I have little to no sense of what the rest of the Fourth Doctor era might bring (other than a season or so of Douglas Adams at the helm). If it’s anything like this, though, it will make me thankful that the Fourth Doctor had a few good years of more substantial material.
Final Score: 4/10