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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (parts one and two)

There’s a lot to like about “The Hand of Fear.” Since Tom Baker’s Doctor didn’t spend as much time on contemporary Earth as Pertwee did, it’s kind of nice to see him interacting with everyday people in 1976. There’s a lot of ordinary, everyday locations in this one: a quarry, a hospital, and a power plant. The Doctor doesn’t drive around in his old yellow roadster; instead he’s a passenger in somebody’s old Datsun or something. There is a lot of good location filming in the first half of this story, and the sets and even the choice of furniture – dig those awful plastic chairs! – make this feel more “real” than “The Android Invasion” or “The Seeds of Doom,” which were both allegedly contemporary Earth stories, did.

“The Hand of Fear” is a four-parter that was first shown in 1976. It was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and was the last serial directed by Lennie Mayne, who sadly died in a boating accident a few months later. Mayne cast one of his reliable go-to actors, Rex Robinson, for the third time, and it also has a terrific guest appearance by Glyn Houston, perhaps best known as Bunter in three of the BBC’s Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations, as the director of the power plant.

Everybody comments on how unusual and how real it is that Houston’s character gets a moment to himself, completely away from the drama of the story, to phone home and tell his wife goodbye when he thinks the nuclear plant will have a meltdown and explode soon. I think this was a great decision for the scriptwriters because part two of this story is incredibly repetitive, and it breaks up all the running up and down lots of corridors. Television adventure drama rarely takes the time to give minor characters little human moments like this. There never is time, because everything that happens needs to either serve the plot or serve the stars. It may be less than a minute of the episode, but somehow it works just perfectly and really elevates the story.

I doubt our son noticed. He seemed to enjoy this one. It wasn’t very scary, although the memorable visual of the hand coming to life gave him the creeps, as it should. That one shot of the hand in the box at the cliffhanger is a remarkably good effect. The other bits where it’s crawling along the floor are the standard yellow-or-green-screen chromakey, but when the hand first moves, it’s so darn good you’re forced to question how they did it.

While I saw the runaround and repetition of part two a little wearying, he got into it. The director tried to make the story seem urgent and desperate, and it really worked with him. Part two ends with everything exploding as the disembodied hand gets carried into the reactor core and he was excited. He says that he’s kind of scared about what’s going to happen, “because this is a very creepy one,” but he didn’t hide behind the sofa this morning, either.

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Sky 1.6 – Life Force / 1.7 – Chariot of Fire

Well, that was just about the most 1970s thing we’ve ever seen. It was terrific, don’t get me wrong, but while the grownups in the audience were certainly anticipating the Juganet to turn out to be Stonehenge, neither of us were expecting one of the kids to be transported into the future for a confrontation with the cult from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Okay, fair’s fair, I knew they’d end up at Stonehenge because I’d read a little about this, but so did Marie, who’d never heard of this serial before we started watching it. The program just hits the 1970s paranormal bingo so precisely that not only is Stonehenge inevitable, but if the writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, had sold this to an American network for a movie-of-the-week remake, they’d have filmed it in Florida and made the Juganet the Bermuda Triangle.

Didn’t see the trip to the future coming, though. In fairness, episodes one through six were just so darn good that, knowing Baker and Martin’s Doctor Who track record, I’m not at all surprised they couldn’t make the end work. Bernard Archard, an actor we will see again here in just a couple of weeks, briefly appears in the future sequences, but it’s honestly a letdown.

It’s best to focus on just how good the rest of the serial is. Part six has the kids trapped in an invisible house with unbreakable windows, menaced by Goodchild’s henchman, a really creepy man who, in one of the freakiest moments ever, is shown to be a raven or a crow turned into a human. Our son was petrified and behind the sofa for most of part six. If I were his age, when the crow-man started cawwing, I’d have been right back there with him.

Overall, though, this wasn’t a big success for our son. It was too scary for him, and the ending was just too strange. It’s my fault, though. It’s a children’s serial, but six-nearly-seven is really a couple of years too young. We may come back to the HTV serials when he’s a little older. Some of the others they made (Clifton House Mystery, King of the Castle, Raven, etc.) just sound terrific, and if any of them are half as good as this or Children of the Stones, they’ll be worth the investment. I might possibly pick up New Zealand’s Under the Mountain as well. We’ll see what 2020 looks like.

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Sky 1.5 – Evalake

We resumed watching Sky, planning to run through the final three parts tonight and tomorrow. Truthfully, our son is not enjoying this story anywhere nearly as much as I am. I think this is just fantastic, inventive and full of ideas. He’s gone from finding it “creepy” to “scary” to “crazy.”

One problem is that while we’re meant to sympathize with Sky and his teenager friends, they sure aren’t making it easy on the audience. Sky is not really able to answer questions, and he’s haughty and superior. The goal is to get him to the Juganet, whatever that is, so he can leave. Absolutely nobody will be sorry to see him go. Because Goodchild is willing to destroy anything that protects Sky, he’s putting lots of people in danger while everyone puzzles out what the Juganet is.

In part five, they finally get enough clues to reason out that the Juganet may have something to do with sacred sites, and there is an ancient burial mound nearby. Sky meets up with a pair of dropouts who live in an old graffiti-covered caravan with their baby. The girl doesn’t seem like she’s having a good life with her fellow dressing in rags and beads and reading Thomas Malory. The hippie thinks that Sky might be an obscure figure called Evalake, who is apparently mentioned briefly in Le Morte d’Arthur. (I confess I know extremely little about Arthurian lore, and this story seems to just glance off Malory before going its own way, but “Evalake” may be a mistranslation or a corruption of the name “Avallach,” if you’re curious what this serial’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, may have been reading among their influences.)

Anyway, Goodchild makes another attack, and this one’s a beauty. The young couple’s trailer is surrounded and enveloped by vines which smash the windows and try to kill everyone inside. While modern eyes may need to suspend a little disbelief in what was clearly a massive drain on HTV’s modest resources, it really is a remarkably frightening moment. You know that Sky’s going to get out, but these innocent bystanders might not.

This is great, great stuff, but, in deference to our son, we’ll finish it up in one go tomorrow instead of stretching it out further. Well, he came around to “Revenge of the Cybermen” in a big and unexpected way after hating the first three parts. Maybe Baker and Martin will pull out a win in the end?

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Sky 1.4 – What Dread Hand

Man alive, this thing took a sharp turn into completely creepy tonight. Sky spends the entire episode in the intensive care unit of the local hospital after Goodchild’s last attack, but Mother Earth’s agent isn’t done with the visitor from space yet. No, because Mother Earth’s manifestation is out to give every young viewer watching this nightmares forever, the dude uses his mental powers to persuade everyone in the hospital to get an operating theater ready. Can you imagine being a kid with a fear of hospitals and watching this horror show? Mother Earth is going to literally carve out this “infection” from space by operating on Sky’s brain!

Our son was behind the sofa. Was he ever behind the sofa. “This is TOTALLY the opposite of good,” he told us. “Goodchild’s name is totally wrong! He’s not a child and he’s totally not good! He is the opposite of good!”

I’m enjoying the daylights out of this, and I think he’s loving being scared, but the little dude’s earned some R & R and a couple of days’ break from the intensity.

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Sky 1.3 – Goodchild

This didn’t start off promising. I knew episode three wasn’t going to live up to this morning and afternoon; we watched Iron Man 2 here and then went to see Black Panther, which was very good, at the Regal. Our son’s been pretty wild today with all the spectacle and excitement, and tonight we settled in for a forty-three year old slow burner.

And indeed the opening scene had him completely lost. David Jackson, a familiar face on British television in the seventies who is probably best known as Gan in Blake’s 7, plays a police sergeant getting statements from the kids and their parents, trying to find out which social service or remand home that Sky has left. There’s also the matter of Major Briggs accusing Sky of assaulting him, but there’s not a mark on him. Our son asked to pause it and I needed to completely recap everything. I think the storytelling is clear, but to older viewers. Our son’s unfamiliar with any sort of police procedure and didn’t know what was happening. When Sky puts the whammy on the sergeant – a “these are not the droids you’re looking for” Jedi mind trick a couple of years early – it really had him confused.

Then Goodchild turns up. This is the character played by Robert Eddison, a manifestation of Earth’s resistance to Sky. Everything about him just oozes menace and malice in a way that not even Mickey Rourke or Michael B. Jordan, in their roles as Marvel villains, could manage. The music is an interesting clue. Most of the incidental music, which is by Eric Wetherell, is played on traditional instruments, but Goodchild is accompanied by a harsh synthesizer score. It sounds uncannily like the incidental music that Dudley Simpson had composed for “Terror of the Autons” to accompany the Master’s first arrival on Earth.

Because he’s six, our son squirms a lot. Feet are occasionally in the air. But tonight, he was shooting finger guns at Goodchild, before the character had actually done anything other than glare at Robert Speight’s character. We told him to sit down and he sat still, mouth tight and eyes wide. After the episode finished, I wondered why he was shooting at the TV, worrying that he was fed up with this odd show. No, he just didn’t like that man. “He’s going to hurt Sky.”

“Are you worried about Sky?” I asked. “I’m not worried, I’m scared for him,” he replied.

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Sky 1.1 – Burning Bright / 1.2 – Juganet

Last month, as we looked at the fabulous Children of the Stones, I briefly mentioned that there were a few other paranormal children’s serials making the rounds in the 1970s. A few of these turned up in the United States on Nickelodeon’s anthology series The Third Eye. Several which sound like they could have fit right in to that collection, such as Raven and King of the Castle, sound tantalizingly interesting.

Sky also didn’t make it to North America as far as I can tell, and I’m telling you: we missed out. We watched the first two episodes this evening and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I think my wife activated her “oh look, videotape interiors and 16mm film exteriors again” force field, and our son kept it at arm’s length because it’s remarkably creepy and strange. That’s okay. I like it enough for all of us.

Sky is a seven-part serial written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin for the HTV network, and shown in April and May of 1975, right alongside the last couple of Doctor Who stories that we watched. If David Bowie’s lyric about making way for Homo superior had inspired sixty-eleven television programs in that decade, then here’s its colleague. Sky is the Starman waiting in the sky who thinks he’ll blow our minds. He’s played by Marc Harrison and he’s from a different time or different dimension and very much out of place here. He needs to access something called a Juganet, a circular machine which helps travelers “cross over,” and he’s running out of time to find it.

From the instant Sky arrives on Earth, the planet retaliates against him. Sky is in constant danger from howling winds, swaying trees, roots that try to strangle him, and episode two ends with the planet forming a humanoid figure, a sinister-looking adult known as Goodchild played by Robert Eddison, in the forest to prepare a new attack. Sky is assisted by three teenagers, played by Stuart Lock, Cherrald Butterfield, and Robert Speight. Jack Watson, who showed up as the grown-up character in some similar SF/paranormal productions from the time like The Changes and The Georgian House, plays Speight’s father.

I think that so far, we’re off to a terrific start. To hear people talk about it – and it has a fantastic writeup in the essential Scarred for Life that had me ordering this DVD the same week as reading about it – Sky is just an unforgettable production full of freaky, eerie imagery and incidents that will stick with us for a while. I’m anxious to see what will happen in episode three… but we’ll watch something tomorrow morning a little more explosive to keep our son cheering before we creep him out with the next installment.

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Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment (parts one and two)

“The Sontaran Experiment” is an oddball little curiosity in all of seventies Doctor Who, the only two-part serial of the decade. And it’s exactly what I’ve been talking about all through the Pertwee years: almost all of those six-part stories are too long, and would have been improved by paring them down and using the remaining episodes to do something else. That’s what they did here: it and “The Ark in Space” is a single production block. They videotaped this story as the location shoot, and then taped “Ark” in the studio.

Our son really enjoyed this, once he learned who the villain was. I set up the TV with him out of the room so he’d be surprised by the cliffhanger. Before that, he seemed a little bothered by the claims that there’s an alien in the rocks torturing people. It builds to a climactic fight between the Doctor and the Sontaran, Styre – and he’s a really nasty and sadistic piece of work – and the fight probably doesn’t look like all that much, but he just loved it. He was all wide-eyed and feet kicking as the two throw each other around.

There’s a fun little bit of backstory about the fight. The character of Harry Sullivan had been introduced because the producers were considering a much older actor for the Doctor, and so Harry was created specifically for fights like this. But Tom Baker was young enough to do the rough stuff, leaving Harry with a lot less to do in some of these stories. He’s really surplus to requirements in this one, actually.

But then Tom Baker had a nasty accident on location and broke his collar bone. That’s why there’s an obvious double for Baker in the fight scenes and a lot of the long shots, and why you frequently see Baker very still, with his hand wrapped up in his scarf. He had a big cast on his shoulder under his overcoat. But they didn’t do a quick rewrite and send Harry Sullivan into single combat with the Sontaran while the Doctor rewired and removed the critical macguffin in his ship. That’s what poor Harry was originally created to do!

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part four)

Our son clarified that while he was no longer excited about this story after the betrayal of the bad fight with the ugly pig-faced man, he is “attached” to Doctor Who and wants to see what will happen next. Fortunately, the mad Omega banishes the pig-faced man almost instantly as this episode opens, and he enjoyed this part much, much more.

Honestly, we all grade “The Three Doctors” on a curve because we love the idea of multi-Doctor adventures and we love Patrick Troughton. This isn’t as good as it could be. My biggest aggravation is actor Stephen Thorne’s one-note bellowing, but in his defense, he lets out a seriously painful and agonized howl when he realizes that his body has been completely disintegrated, and that’s my second biggest aggravation: it’s the emotional climax of the story and it takes place six minutes into part four.

The director seems to think the climax is all the guest stars walking up a fairground haunted house’s staircase into a column of smoke one at an endless and tedious time and saying their goodbyes to the Doctors, and it assuredly isn’t. This story badly needed to have one more draft: have the Doctors realize what is wrong without telling Omega, escape for a bit, get everybody home through the smoke column, and then explain to Omega that his body has been destroyed, let the villain give out that wretched and painful howl, and then annihilate the anti-matter universe. I try not to Monday-morning-quarterback old TV too much, but I insist that would have worked better.

So it’s entertaining if not necessarily all that good, and I enjoyed letting our son know that Doctors will occasionally meet each other in the future, and never really get along with each other. It’ll be a couple of years before he sees his next teamup, though!

We’ll be taking a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll resume our look at the tenth season in early November. Stay tuned!

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