You know what would be genuinely new? If the alien of the week WASN’T a savage killing machine. If it was a friendly or benevolent creature who simply misunderstood what it was doing and didn’t intend to kill or enslave. Sci-fi is more interesting when it isn’t just man versus beast. However, it wouldn’t really be a “horror” then, and for what it’s worth, Horror of Fang Rock does do the traditional horror setup pretty well.
The shipwreck is slightly too convenient a way to get another group of characters together into the lighthouse, especially after the timing of the Doctor and Leela’s arrival has already pushed convenience to a point. These characters are mostly unlikeable, from the money-minded businessman to the hysterical fainting woman, so it’s no great loss when they are offed by the monster.
I have to say that Leela is an absolute star in this, with such fantastically blunt lines as “you will do as the Doctor instructs or I will cut out your heart” (she really means it, too!) and later giving the hysterical woman a slap around the face for screaming. With a strong sense of loyalty and no fear of death, she is the most interesting companion the show has had so far. The Doctor also takes his lighthearted humour to new levels, at one point exclaiming “good news” before calmly pointing out that everyone is probably going to die by the morning.
And he’s right. The creature kills everybody, except for the Doctor and Leela, which is pretty bleak, isn’t it? The stakes are raised when the creature is identified as the first of an invasion fleet, but thankfully the Doctor manages to destroy the arriving mothership using a laser beam made from the lighthouse beacon and a large diamond (from a bag of diamonds that he hilariously discards).
With a voice like a Dalek and the appearance of a soggy cabbage with tentacles, the Rutan creature turns out to be not such a scary beast – but they sensibly keep him hidden until the end, and use his shape-changing ability for misdirection. In that respect, it’s quite effective and keeps the tension up. This is a pretty solid story, then, elevated to something much better by witty writing. Over the years, I’ve watched this show gradually replace melodrama with irreverence, adding wit and charm to horror and fear, and now it handles stories like this with confidence and conviction. There is warmth within the cold.