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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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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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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (parts three and four)

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy seeing how directors would return to some of the same actors. Well, the alien Eldrad first emerges as a crystalline female played by Judith Paris, but once the Doctor and Sarah take “her” back to her home planet of Kastria, she reconstitutes herself into her original male body, played by Stephen Thorne. Director Lennie Mayne had used Thorne three years previously, as Omega in “The Three Doctors.” Thorne has such an amazing voice, but the writers certainly gave him a lot of boring dialogue. It’s all ranting and raving and “I! SHALL! BE! KING!” and conquering the universe and so on.

So, going back to my own childhood and watching Doctor Who on Atlanta’s WGTV, I wasn’t able to catch every one of the compilation movies the first time around because of family trips or whatever. So I missed “The Hand of Fear” and was confused the following week because Sarah wasn’t in it. Sarah gets a remarkably unique departure. She’s the only companion in the whole of the original series who the Doctor actually leaves behind.

In the story, it’s allegedly because the Doctor’s been summoned back to his home planet, Gallifrey, and he can’t take her with him. This kind of rings hollow in the first place because nothing was stopping him from coming back to Earth to pick her up, and in the second place because later companions would get to travel to Gallifrey without incident. So even though Sarah got to return onscreen twice in the eighties, lots of people have pointed out that something wasn’t right about that. Happily, thirty years after “The Hand of Fear,” Sarah returned for a third time in the episode “School Reunion,” and this was addressed.

“The Hand of Fear” is definitely among that pile of Who adventures that start a whole lot stronger than they end. Honestly, part three’s cliffhanger has the Judith Paris version of Eldrad shot by a booby-trap missile, and part four could have just been Eldrad dying, the Doctor and Sarah exploring the dead planet by themselves, and finally going home, and I’d have been happier with it without all the ranting and threats. Sarah’s departure is the core of the story, and the male Eldrad just gets in the way of it. It’s a wonderfully sad ending, and apparently Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen wrote the scene themselves.

Unfortunately, our son didn’t enjoy this story very much at all, because he said he didn’t understand why, despite the script spelling it out very clearly, the Doctor took Eldrad back to Kastria. He has this odd habit of vaguely grumbling “I didn’t understand what that was about,” rather than asking specific questions. Once we understood the issue, his mother gave him a recap and he seemed a little more satisfied, and he was pleased when I told him that we would see Sarah Jane Smith again.

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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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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts three and four)

Our son says that he really enjoyed this story, which is a relief because it did leave him a little more confused than usual. In part three, the villains Federico and Hieronymous betray each other, and he didn’t get that at all. It’s not like he’s never seen bad guys turn on each other before, but we had to pause the story to help him through it.

We also had to pause it to underline exactly how serious this threat is: the Mandragora Helix’s plan is to conquer Earth during the Age of Enlightenment to keep the people superstitious and stupid. There’s a running gag that Leonardo da Vinci is around somewhere in the palace, but never in the same place as the Doctor. I have to say that the BBC’s resources never really convinced me that this was a palace at all, much less a great big shindig thrown for the coronation of the new ruler of a city-state, but the costumes certainly looked nice.

“The Masque of Mandragora” was the final Who serial written by Louis Marks, but he had a lot more work for the BBC ahead of him. For the next thirty years, he produced several prestigious series and serials for the BBC, several of which were shown in America on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. He oversaw two George Eliot adaptations, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. That one was probably one of the biggest hits for Masterpiece in the 1990s, though it seems to be forgotten today. Marks died in 2010.

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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts one and two)

We start season fourteen of Doctor Who with a serial written by Louis Marks. “The Masque of Mandragora” has never really thrilled me for some reason. It looks just wonderful. The location filming around Portmeiron, Wales, is great, and the costumes and the sets are terrific. The story takes place in 15th Century Italy, and the costume designer just had a ball making everything look good.

It’s got the debut of the dark wood-paneled TARDIS console room, which everybody loves. It’s full of good actors as well, including Tim Piggot-Smith and Gareth Armstrong as the Doctor’s two allies, and Norman Jones as one of the villains. Unfortunately, Jon Laurimore is stuck playing the tyrannical Count Federico, who’s one of those humorless baddies who does deeply stupid things simply because the script needs a villain to add some threats and delay the real plot. I think the writer had a similar problem with the character played by Prentis Hancock in his story “Planet of Evil” the year before.

But I guess my main problem is that the topline villain is a nebulous, formless, energy-thing called the Mandragora Helix. In the 1990s, when fanfic went pro and fans started writing Who novels for Virgin and, later, the BBC, everything synced with Lovecraft and Cthulu being trendy again, and so you had books where the Animus and the Nestene Consciousness and the Mandragora Helix and the like were all new names for what people who like that sort of thing call “Old Gods” like Nyarlathotep. The Virgin series was full of cranks like those. And virtual reality prisons. And cyberpunk. It was the 1990s. I get bored with baddies like those. I like villains with faces. The Mandragora Helix is just a boring enemy.

Speaking of faces, that brings us to our son’s principal observation, which is that Norman Jones’s bunch of villains wear some completely terrific masks. I never would have thought that “The Masque of Mandragora” was all that scary, certainly not compared to the wall-to-wall frights of the previous season, but the masks that the Cult of Demnos wear proved me wrong.

I’m not quite sure I believe his reasoning, though. He told us “Those masks made me think of the Drashigs from ‘Carnival of Monsters’,” he said, “because of the open mouths and the teeth.” Since the Drashigs remain the undisputed champions of the Scariest Thing He’s Ever Seen competition, anything that reminds him of them is cause for alarm. I don’t see the resemblance myself, but, eh, kids.

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