Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts five and six)

It’s kind of the nature of action-adventure television that the hero needs to have a really good challenge in each story, against villains as resourceful as the protagonist. So in a weird way, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Doctor pitted against some adversaries who are way, way out of their league. The Chameleons did not think this thing through. The Doctor’s able to exploit a massive, massive flaw in their science and technology, and hold all but two of them hostage because these bad guys’ tech is flatly not up to the challenge of interstellar invasion. A more polished script would show these villains as desperate and pitiful rather than malevolent. It’s a missed opportunity, but I did enjoy the tables turning in parts five and six.

In fact, “The Faceless Ones” belongs to a very rare group of original Who stories – “Mawdryn Undead” and “Time and the Rani” are others – that end much more satisfactorily than they began. It’s still very unhurried, but the end of this adventure sees all the humans acting decisively and intelligently, and I like the way the Chameleons know when the jig is up. The fellow that they capture spills the beans on the operation with very little pressure, and Donald Pickering’s character, who’s been playing his main villain part as a posh airline pilot calmly ordering his subordinates around, is intelligent enough to see this is not going to end well for him, and immediately begins negotiating. It’s a shame part six is missing; Pickering and Patrick Troughton have a very interesting face-off toward the end. The animation’s as good as we can hope for, but I’d love to see those actors playing that scene.

Incidentally, while I wish that I could be only positive about the animation, I do think they missed a huge opportunity. When all two dozen of the humans who are connected to their duplicates are located, I’d love to have seen an overhead shot, from an angle much higher than the original director could actually have managed, of all twenty-five bodies laid out in the parking lot. I wish the camera moved around more in general. Why limit themselves to just what the BBC could have done in 1967?

“The Faceless Ones” is a little infamous because of the poor way that they wrote out the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly. The producer at the time didn’t want to continue with the actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, so they only appear in parts one, two, and six, and only on location in the last episode, so the BBC could dispense with them as quickly as possible. The story is set literally the day after the previous season’s “The War Machines,” which means that Ben and Polly could pick back up with their old lives as though they’d never been away. It also means that WOTAN, the Chameleons, and the Daleks in the next story were all operating in London in the third week of July, 1966. The World Cup was happening in London at the same time, and Gemini X returned to Earth. Wish I could read a Who-universe newspaper from that week. The Swinging Sixties, man.

We’ll return to the David Tennant days of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts three and four)

Some of the animation in this reconstruction is really quite nice. The team does a really terrific job with airplanes, and so while I’m not completely sold on the movement of figures, I could watch what they do with jets for forty-five minutes without complaint. I do think the production as a whole is limited by the glacial pacing of the original story, and not helped by the lack of music. Black-and-white Doctor Who was occasionally like that; when they overspent in one area, like a day or two on location at Gatwick Airport, they had to cut back in another.

Our son’s enjoying it more than I am, honestly, but that’s by no means a fault with the current presentation, which is definitely a case of the best they can do with what they had to work with. I enjoyed seeing a little modern day Easter egg thrown in: the newspapers have headline stories that a menace that the first Doctor had battled the year before, the War Machines, had been defeated. That’s actually going to be an important plot point in part six. Heck, the original production crew should have dropped those newspapers in when they made this in 1967. That’d be some great foreshadowing! Otherwise, the mandate to be as accurate a presentation of the original production kind of keeps them hamstrung. There’s a bit where the RAF sends a fighter to follow the Chameleon Tours’ jet. As I say, it looks great, but if we suddenly had some Thunderbirds music as the fighter spirals out of control, it’d be even better.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts one and two)

The latest animated reconstruction of a lost Doctor Who story is 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” although in this case the original production wasn’t completely destroyed. Episodes one and three of the serial, written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis, were mostly recovered – part three is missing several dozen frames toward the end – and now with animation, we can enjoy the whole thing in this very comprehensive set. It contains the original episodes, telesnap reconstructions of the four missing parts, and both black and white and color animations of all six. It was released in the UK last month; a region one edition is available for pre-order but it has not been scheduled.

“The Faceless Ones” feels kind of long at six parts. It would probably feel long at four. It’s one of those stories where the Doctor and his companions, Jamie, Ben and Polly, make a dumb decision to hide and scatter in a secure area, find something unpleasant, and have to spend an eternity getting people to listen and believe them. It’s Gatwick Airport, 1966, and Polly sees a man murdered by an alien weapon. Meanwhile, the police are becoming suspicious about reports of young people going missing on budget tours to Europe operated by a strange company called Chameleon Tours.

There’s a fine guest cast in the adventure, at least. There’s Bernard Kay as a detective, and Pauline Collins as a furious girl from Liverpool who’s looking for her missing brother. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham, who, in a really weird coincidence, both appeared again in a Who serial twenty years later, also have key parts. But the story feels long and is driven by foolish choices, and suffers from that tedious trope where our heroes go find somebody in authority to report a dead body, only to have the body not be there when they return. We’ve all seen that one too many times.

The kid wasn’t especially taken with it either. We watched the original part one and the black and white animation for part two, and his favorite moment was the creepy reveal of a hideous alien. They totally blew part one’s cliffhanger, by the way. The big reveal is the back of the alien’s head. I don’t know what they were thinking; the creature definitely should have turned to look at the camera and given the audience a big shock moment. But that’s this serial all over. It’s very pedestrian and slow, even by the standards of Who at the time. The kid asked to switch to the second DVD and watch the remainder of the story in color, which we’ll do tomorrow night. Hopefully it picks up!

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?