Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (parts three and four)

“The Face of Evil” is one of the most refreshing Who stories to come along in ages. In the seventies, Who did what it needed to pretty well, sometimes better than others, but it rarely told stories that really looked into classic science fiction themes. Usually we got more conventional “stop the alien invasion” tales.

In fact, it’s so unusual, and so different from what came before, that our son was really baffled by it. It’s a story that doesn’t have a malicious villain. Instead, a sentient computer has gone mad and needs to be cured. We saw one of the themes of this story in the one just before this: the scientific fact of the matter has passed into legend and folklore. The tribe of Sevateem are the descendants of the original survey team, and the tribe of Tesh are the great-great-grandchildren of the technicians who remained at the colony ship. The computer is keeping the tribes at war because it’s conducting a eugenics experiment without the ability or the maturity to understand the implications.

Our son absolutely loved the ending, where Leela disregards the Doctor telling her that she cannot come with him and storms past him into the TARDIS. Then, somehow, she manages to hit the correct switch to dematerialize. I remember cheering when I first saw this in 1984. I was so happy that Leela would be traveling with him. But how’d she hit the right switch? I think Marie was right when she told our son “Sometimes the TARDIS decides that it likes certain people and wants them to be the Doctor’s companions.”

“The Face of Evil” was one of three Who serials that Chris Boucher wrote for seasons fourteen and fifteen of the show, including, oddly, the very next one. After that, madly, the production team lost him to Blake’s 7, where he wrote all of that program’s best stories. I don’t love “The Face of Evil,” but I like it a lot, and admire how it feels so confident and certain despite its unusual scope.

But Boucher’s next story, ahhhh… that one I do love. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (parts one and two)

Sometimes I think that coincidences are a virus from outer space. It’s already the 21st in the UK, but it’s still the 20th here, meaning tonight we watched Louise Jameson’s first episode of Doctor Who on her birthday. Happy birthday, Louise!

Louise plays Leela, a warrior of the Sevateem tribe, and she kills three people in her first episode. I think that makes her unique among Doctor Who companions. “The Face of Evil” also has some new faces in the background. It’s the first serial for the show to be written by Chris Boucher, and the first to be directed by Pennant Roberts. He has a very curious claim to fame. He’s the only Who director of the 1970s to direct any episodes in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he was often given extremely difficult stories to realize. “The Face of Evil” is comparatively simple compared to some nightmares he’ll be given to direct in 1984 and 1985, but he still has the thankless task of having a tribe of shirtless men, some of whom are bald, in what’s meant to be an electricity-free bunch of huts. So what are those lights reflecting off their skin?

So on Wednesday evening, we watched the Avengers episode “Something Nasty in the Nursery,” as you may recall. The story featured Dudley Foster as the villain. On Thursday evening, after our son went to bed, Marie and I watched an episode of The Saint. Working our way very, very slowly through the complete series, and alternating with so many other things, we came to the episode “The Abductors,” which features Foster, Nicholas Courtney, and David Garfield as the villains. And then on Friday evening, we watched “The Face of Evil,” which has Garfield in it. He plays the tribe’s shaman.

In 1987 or 1988, Nicholas Courtney was at a con in Atlanta, one of the ones at the old Sheraton Century Center, so possibly Dixie Trek. These were the days when actors and guests socialized and mingled and hung out in the hotel lobby between engagements and didn’t charge for autographs. One or two days before the con, by chance, WATL-36 showed this particular episode of The Saint. I used that as my excuse to introduce myself and make small talk, and enjoyed about ten minutes of gab with Courtney about acting. It will always be one of my happiest memories of going to those cons.

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MacGyver 2.13 – Soft Touch

Teri Hatcher’s character, the bad luck-prone Penny Parker, came back for another go-round in this silly and fun story. This time, she stumbles across a couple of hitmen, played by the very familiar faces of character actors Vincent Schiavelli and Robert Donner, at the same time that Mac is babysitting a Soviet defector. I liked this one because it’s a great example of the Maverick formula. Rather than a “serious but never hopeless” story, it’s “hopeless but never serious.”

Oddly, we thought that our son’s favorite bit was when Mac threw a flare on the roof of the hitmen’s van and our son exclaimed that it was dynamite. He wasn’t actually disappointed when it didn’t explode. He’d earlier seen the hitmen test their voice-activated bomb by blowing up a wheelchair, and that was a big enough bang.

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The Avengers 5.14 – Something Nasty in the Nursery

In a TV series full of great death scenes, Clive Dunn’s murder at the hand of a jack-in-the-box is one of the all-time best. The story, by Philip Levene, is not honestly among my favorites, but I love this moment!

“Something Nasty in the Nursery” was one of the first color Avengers episodes that we’d got our hands on in the mid-eighties. Like “Never, Never Say Die,” everybody we knew got a copy of this one. I was thinking about those video trading days earlier this week and it really was such a strange time. I guess in part because there were so many bootleg outlets churning out allegedly legit copies to legit outlets, it was a show that everybody could pick up an episode here or there for five or ten dollars. In fact, we’d occasionally flip right past tapes of color episodes, thinking we’d come back to them, in the hopes of finding an Honor Blackman tape at Blockbuster or Camelot Music.

I’m not sure why “Something Nasty in the Nursery” entered our orbit so quickly or where I got my first copy of this one. I didn’t see some of the other color Mrs. Peel stories, notably the next two and “You Have Just Been Murdered,” for years and years, but those old days seem so strange from a modern perspective. I’d find somebody who had twenty random Avengers episodes, including four I didn’t have, and I’d have twenty-two of them, including six he needed. I’d offer the fellow three tapes with those six episodes in return for three tapes with the four I needed on two, and maybe a Champions or a Saint on the third. Weird times.

Anyway, some other familiar Avengers faces are in the cast this time, including Paul Eddington, Dudley Foster, and Patrick Newell. A guy named Geoffrey Sumner, probably best known from The Army Game, plays a general. In the late nineties, I had a silly website, either on Geocities or the old NEGIA thing in Athens, that pretended to be an episode guide to Professor X / Colonel X, an old Who fan in-joke. I “cast” Sumner as the first Professor X. Funny how I can forget about all the other Professors in favor of work they actually did, but Sumner is forever the William Hartnell analog in a silly fan joke I ran into the ground, and nothing more.

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts three and four)

“The Deadly Assassin” aims for a really big ending, but it’s always felt hollow to me. I get what they were trying to do. The idea is that after hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, the actual scientific basis for the Time Lords’ power, and their ability to regenerate, has been lost to time and passed into legend, and the present day Time Lords are so lackadaisical and incurious that nobody really cares about anything other than the legend. The only person who knows the actual technical stuff would either be the Time Lords’ president (and that’s a maybe), and various renegades like the Doctor and the Master, who figure it out. So far so good.

The problem is that the execution is rushed and ridiculous, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor hears this legend once, related by a computer recording, and instantly figures everything out, and then we see that the mythical Eye of Harmony is a real thing – the nucleus of a black hole – located directly underneath the Time Lords’ capital building, accessible by a twelve-foot tall obsidian monolith that serves as some kind of dampening rod for the power of a collapsed star. And nobody knows about this.

(Even more ridiculous, the Doctor and the characters played by George Pravda’s and Erik Chitty are trapped in a vault a hundred feet underneath the level where the Master pulls up the great big control rod. You’re telling me there’s not a blueprint of this building? Nobody ever looked at it and asked what’s between the main level and the vault? Only a black hole, it’s not important…)

Actually, what annoys me more is that this story makes some very specific statements about the Time Lords that just about every subsequent story gets completely wrong. It’s not just the “special occasions only” bit of their iconic costumes, this story is really clear all the way through it that Time Lords are certain people on Gallifrey, a specific ruling class, and not the entire population. Later on, we’d start hearing that TARDISes not only get their power from the Eye of Harmony, there are Eyes of Harmony actually onboard every vehicle. It’s almost like subsequent writers and producers just read a recap of this story and never understood the implications and the specifics.

But before it all falls apart, it’s very entertaining. I loved episode three’s very long chase and fight in the hallucinatory world of the Matrix, which was shot entirely on film. We’ve never seen the Doctor so desperate, dirty, and bloody before. He and Bernard Horsfall have a really excellent brawl. It was Horsfall’s last appearance in Who, and he went down fighting.

Our son, who was more frightened by the desperation and the urgency of the story than usual, grumbled that this wasn’t exciting because there were not enough explosions in Horsfall and Tom Baker’s fight. I think that sometimes when he gets frightened, he pretends that he’s not having a good time. Earlier today, out of the blue, he started asking me about the Autons. It’s neat that the show leaves such an impact and keeps him wondering and thinking about it, even when actually watching it often leaves him feigning dissatisfaction.

About which, it’s established in part four of this story for the very first time that Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and after that, nothing can cheat death. They’ll change that in time, too. We talked about how this means that, at this stage anyway, there can be thirteen Doctors. As I was writing this, our son proved that he is still wondering and thinking about the show. He came downstairs to suggest that there should be fourteen Doctors, because the second-into-third regeneration in his mind didn’t count. He didn’t think that was a real regeneration because “the Time Lords just used a machine to change his face.” I said that no, that was the second actual regeneration.

Although maybe somebody should have told Steven Moffat this idea in 2013. I’m sure that while he was messing up the numbering between the two Tennants and John Hurt, he could have found room for my son’s idea. It’ll only make Whittaker number 16 instead of 15 when her actual number is 13… no biggie!

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

For many people who participate in fandom, the past is always preferable to the present. It’s not unique to Doctor Who, you see it in many long-running franchise fandoms, especially Star Wars. 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin,” written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney (who, again, cast Bernard Horsfall in a key supporting role), is a funny case study. The fandom that existed in 1977 was of the typewriter-and-mimeograph school. Zines and newsletters from that year show that fans hated this story.

By the early eighties, it was considered a modern classic. Some of my first fan purchases were things like Peter Haining’s 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration and some 1982-84 issues of Doctor Who Magazine and they all praised the show. But in ’77, the fan press was howling for blood. They got Gallifrey wrong, apparently. It’s a funny complaint. We’d seen three Time Lords in 1969 being all old and boring and putting the second Doctor on trial, and we’d seen three other Time Lords in 1973, also old, arguing in a garish control room. What’s new in 1977 is they have different clothes – the script specifies that they’re “seldom-worn,” for special occasions, and every costume designer since has reused them as casualwear – and, instead of being a unified mass of TV aliens who groupthink as one, these Time Lords have individual characters, and they squabble, plot, and stab each other in the back. The fans of ’77 were so silly.

Another complaint was that they brought back the Master after Roger Delgado’s death, but why shouldn’t they? Although I should point out that somebody suggested that in a parallel universe, they cast Peter Wyngarde as the Master opposite Tom Baker, and I want a dimension-hopping travel machine RIGHT NOW to see those episodes. Wow! Just imagine that for a minute. The Master in our less amazing universe is played by Peter Pratt in this story, wearing a grotesque, skeletal costume. When I first saw this at age 12 in 1984, he also reminded me of the Incredible Melting Man.

(Sidenote: Around the same time that my three best pals in seventh grade were refusing to watch Doctor Who, we were all devoted fans of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which I think was shown Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Atlanta on WATL-36. The first episode that I caught was The Incredible Melting Man, which fueled my tweenage love and obsession with skeletal people. Other favorites, which we recounted and replayed in class as loudly as possible, were Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the based-on-a-true-story (suuuuuure) Monstroid, and the Gamera: Super Monster compilation movie. Wikipedia tells me these all aired during our seventh grade year. Because the four of us were spectacular troublemakers, we were separated into different “pods” in the eighth grade. Whenever we’d manage to pass each other in the halls the next year, we’d shout “So Sad About Gloria!” at each other. As Manos is to MST3K, So Sad About Gloria was to Elvira.)

Now, a year ahead of me in the eighth grade was another best pal, Blake, who wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t. “The Deadly Assassin” seems to have first aired in Atlanta on April 7, 1984, by which time, in the UK, Colin Baker’s first story had just finished airing. I spent the rest of that spring raving about the skeletal Master and how cool he was, and hoped that I would see his earlier appearances one day. I drew him all the time.

So I wasn’t all that pleased when, in the first week of July – I’ll explain how I can date that so precisely later – Blake phoned me, having found a copy of Starlog‘s American release of the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special, as related in this post, and proceeded to rubbish two claims I’d made. First, as related earlier, he called hogwash on my claim that the anti-matter monster looked cool because the magazine printed a production photo of it, proving it looked pretty dopey before they finished the visual effects trickery. Second, as Blake put it, “the Master’s not a skeleton man, he’s some normal guy with a beard!”

I didn’t just run down to Blake’s house to see this magazine, I stormed down there.

I got some relief from a single sentence on page 25: “Peter Pratt played the Master in emaciated form in The Deadly Assassin.” But while grown-up me appreciates the great work by all the actors who have played the Master, particularly Roger Delgado, twelve year-old me could only snarl and complain “Well, he looked a lot cooler when he was 'emaciated'!”

Tonight, though, our son thought the new-look Master was astonishingly creepy, although he’d forgotten the Master’s old calling card of shrinking people to death and wasn’t entirely clear on how there’s a “to death” part of the equation. It took me quite a few minutes to realize that he didn’t understand that the Master’s “matter condenser” isn’t a “shrink ray” in the traditional sci-fi sense – and which we’ll see in a story next month – it’s a death-ray that leaves your corpse shrunken. He gets it now, but I’m afraid he probably wishes he hadn’t asked. Nasty way to die.

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MacGyver 2.11 – Phoenix Under Siege

I’m still not entirely sure what the heck the Phoenix Foundation actually is. They keep calling it a “think tank,” but the actual scripts seem to keep using it as a place full of bomb disposal experts and MacGyver seems to keep getting the sort of missions that real world think tanks like the Rand Corporation never send people to solve. Maybe Phoenix just hoovers up all the veterans and mercenaries and adventurers and soldiers of fortune they can find, just in case they run into a story that needs one or two.

But I’m just nitpicking. It’s not like anybody ever lost sleep over an episode of The Champions wondering what the heck Nemesis actually did. In Stephen Kronish’s “Phoenix Under Siege,” we learn that the Phoenix Foundation keeps disarmed bombs in a lab on the fifth floor of a Los Angeles office building. It’s December 14, 1986, and the Edmonton Oilers are in town to play the Kings. MacGyver’s grandfather Harry, who we met last season, has come to town to see his grandson and see Gretzky, and Mac left the tickets in the office. (This can’t have done the North Stars’ PR people any good, suggesting Minnesotans would rather take a bus to Los Angeles than see the North Stars at home.) Simultaneously, a terrorist employed by a nebulous “liberation front” arrives with three lackeys to reactivate one of her dormant explosive devices.

For a low-budget “running around an office building at night” story, this wasn’t bad at all. It seems logical that they would balance some of the all-location stories with some that were made almost totally in a studio with a smaller cast, and this one worked well. Tricia O’Neil is really entertaining as the believably ruthless terrorist, and Jack Anderson is fun as Harry. I actually picked this story last year because John Davey, the second actor to play Captain Marvel in Shazam!, is in it. Unfortunately, it’s just a two-line blink-and-miss-it part as a state trooper in one of the story’s several flashback scenes.

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RIP Tim O’Connor, 1927-2018

We’re very sorry to hear that actor Tim O’Connor has died. A familiar face to anybody who watched TV in the seventies and eighties, O’Connor appeared in dozens of dramas, and was a regular in the soap opera Peyton Place for five years. We’ve seen him as a guest in The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman, where he originated the character Andros, and will of course be seeing him again down the line when we watch Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. For people in their forties, O’Connor is probably best remembered for his role as Dr. Huer in that series. Our condolences to his family and friends.

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