God can be a problem. Whether we’re playing, preaching, discussing the gender of, arguing for, arguing against, questioning, or losing, God can be a problem. Or at least, our attitudes towards deities can be. Faith, of course, plays a big part in our lives, and it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on, or indeed if you’re desperately trying to balance on top of said fence. As such, faith plays a part in Doctor Who, but not necessarily in the ways you might initially think.
There are obvious allegories and creatures pretending to be a deity, be it with a capital or lowercase “g”. Talk of faith in Doctor Who and you’ll naturally lean towards The Daemons, The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit, and The Rings of Akhaten. Then there’s Pyramids of Mars, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and Heaven Sent. Religion pervades Doctor Who, and that feels right. After all, we may laugh and joke and cry and make tea, but most of us are looking for purpose and hope. Our compasses point towards Something More: some people find it in the smallest of things; others reject the possibility based on their own experiences. Some come to appreciate more, others lose it, and others still never find it.
Nonetheless, if fiction is a reflection of our societies, God should be a part of that. Not all the time. Yet everything has its place.
I recall learning about Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site in Turkey somewhat akin to Stonehenge; the latter is better known, but Tepe is just as important – if not more so. Göbekli Tepe could be the very first human-built temple, pre-dating Stonehenge by around 6000 years, likely constructed by hunter-gatherers. It signifies a glorious chicken-or-the-egg paradox: did people come together to worship, and from there, build a civilisation? Or did people gather to stay warm, safe, and gorged, and, seeing this society build around them, search for answers, resulting in a shared religion and site of worship? “My tribe has a saying: If you’re bleeding, look for a man with scars”, indeed.
Does the answer matter? I’m not sure. Either way, faith forms a basis for human life, admittedly structured in a pyramid with other societal foundations. You can draw parallels with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where physiological requirements (like food, sleep, sex, and water, not necessarily in that order) form the groundwork of a pyramid, while religion caters more for its other layers: safety; love and belonging; esteem; and self-actualisation.
And yet faith isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not always. Doctor Who Season 14, while not overtly focussing on demons and deities, aptly demonstrates this. Perhaps it’s this season’s examination of faith that makes this one of my favourites.
Let’s get this out of the way first, shall we? Religion can bring us all together, but it often splits us apart. At its heart, that’s all identity politics is too: something that’s supposed to unite but instead separates. It’s one reason general attitudes to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Season 14’s finale, have shifted over time.
Religion incites conflict, and in storytelling, that’s important. It fuels every story in Season 14, arguably apart from The Hand of Fear and The Deadly Assassin, but most strikingly in the tales that bookend the run – the aforementioned Talons and The Masque of Mandragora – and the story at its heart, The Face of Evil.
We have an interesting microcosm for faith in The Face of Evil: the Sevateem and Tesh have their respective takes on essentially the same “text” – that of Xoanon, their sometimes-God, sometimes-Evil One, and they use their own interpretations to exclude. It’s not a symbolic exclusion either: there are actual barriers and illusions designed to keep people, people with essentially the same origin, apart. Importantly, both tribes fear what’s on the other side. The only way these boundaries are overcome is through confrontation, bravery (in travelling into the wilderness and through a giant rendering), and disillusionment, notably in Neeva’s (David Garfield) case.
The Sevateem are seen as savages and seem to prove this point in their use of knives and thorns. The Tesh appear sworn off physical violence, instead using their minds to fend off intruders. It doesn’t matter: either way, their methods end with people dying. The Sevateem’s boisterousness is immediately obvious; the Tesh’s true nature is slightly more subtle. They initially welcome the Doctor (but admittedly quickly turn on him when he dares to speak heresy) and assure him that Leela won’t be harmed… only for them to attempt to atomise her. Probably for the greater good, so the Tesh could argue she’s not being harmed at all.
Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear they are all one people. It’s just their intolerance to different interpretations that split them; Xoanon’s twisted little experiment pushes them further apart as the intelligence wants to know which side ultimately wins.
It may, however, be due to class. The Tesh come across as more cultured, more upper class, more “high art”. Even the Doctor relents and calls Leela “savage”; he seems more at home in the spaceship (he is, after all, a Time Lord) and fiddling with the technologies left around the Sevateem’s camp. Still, there’s a deftness to the Sevateem. There’s something to be said of utilising and respecting, arguably even mastering, nature – you certainly can’t see any member of the Tesh surviving for very long if dropped in the jungle.
Class is clearly important to writer, Chris Boucher: it seeps into his other work this season, The Robots of Death. There’s even a hierarchy to the robots. Their division – Dums, Vocs, and Super-Vocs – is genius, particularly as it leads to D84 (Gregory de Polnay) subverting expectations (and the perfect line, “Doctor, this is a communicator. It can function on either robot or human command circuits. Would you like to use it? I cannot speak”).
Caste separates the humans as well. Uvanov (Russell Hunter) is obviously irked by the presence of Zilda (Tania Rogers), a member of one of the Founding Families. Like the rest of the crew of Storm Mine 4, he’s driven by money, but, perhaps unlike the others, he wants to climb the societal ladder. The Founding Families stand at the top, seemingly keeping everyone else in their place.
The Tesh also act as gatekeepers, literally holding their deity on level 37. While they revere Xoanon, the Sevateem remind me of that curious boast you often hear on Poldark and the like: “we’re a God-fearing family”, as if that were a good thing. I find that baffling: God as a punishment, to keep people in line. And yet that is a solid interpretation, another reason for faith – to keep moralities in check. Though Xoanon’s very name indicates that the Sevateem’s splintered views on their God are primitive – it’s also the name given to archaic (predominantly wooden) carvings of a diety – theirs is probably closer to the nature of religion’s duality. They do, at least, give heretics a chance, small though it may be, in the Test of the Horda; whereas the Tesh’s opinions are less malleable.
This layered approach to faith, both symbolically and physically, reflects our society beautifully; we can even draw parallels between The Face of Evil and the Vatican’s authoritarianism while nevertheless operating within Rome. It’s fair to say that Boucher gives us one of the most textured scripts in Doctor Who (though he obviously has a wealth of competition – even from his own subsequent submissions, the aforementioned Robots of Death and Image of the Fendahl).
Interestingly, The Face of Evil‘s butting of heads is a re-examination of the battle between religion and science, coming shortly after The Masque of Mandragora raised the issue at the start of Season 14. Masque approaches it in a more “enlightened” view, i.e. largely rejecting religious beliefs in favour of science: it’s something that’s particularly popular right now, and, though I’m not here to say whether or not that’s a correct notion, it is indicative of the intolerance some hold for the religious. It’s now “cooler” to be a disbeliever, and yes, that’s a significant change in our culture. Masque may examine the transition between the “dark ages” (or Middle Ages) and Modern History; however, I’d argue that we’re going through a similar (though not quite as monumental) shift in attitudes now – making Doctor Who Season 14 more relevant than ever.
The Masque of Mandragora presents a threat grounded in science, interpreted as something religious, but solved, once more, by science. It’s generally in line with what Doctor Who otherwise tells us: that advanced science looks like magic.
Still, Tom Baker’s charm and wit belies the Doctor’s arrogance and unwavering belief in science as the ultimate answer (as well as his God Complex, though we shall come back to that). It’s typically overlooked, but the Ninth Doctor’s foundations are shaken in The Unquiet Dead (2005) in a very pleasing way, as Charles Dickens claims that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Even for you, Doctor.” It would’ve been nice to see the Fourth Doctor, an incarnation more headstrong than most, similarly thrown, albeit momentarily.
There’s another intolerance sitting at the core of the show: the Doctor’s for other beliefs. He says he has an open mind, but I’m not so sure.
Even facing the Beast in The Satan Pit, he can’t quite name what it is. That’s for the best, of course. He refuses to believe in the afterlife presented in Dark Water/ Death in Heaven (again, for the best). He might be open-minded when it comes to people, but not to their faiths. He relents to Clara in The Rings of Akhaten that the myths of Sun-singers of Akhet formed “a nice story”, and that’s as receptive as he gets.
Yes, The Face of Evil also takes the stance that science is the answer, but the Time Lord seems more understanding, perhaps as a result of his own guilt – the whole situation, after all, is his fault. The hurt he has caused is immense and is best not to be dwelt upon; the same can be said of the hurt caused by religions. It’s always worth reminding ourselves, however, that the intentions are generally good.
Misunderstandings, then, are vital to storytelling. It’d be wonderful if everyone just realised that everyone else is just doing their best. They’re making do and trying to be a force for good. I wish we could all remember what the Eleventh Doctor tells Dicken at the end of The Almost People: “People are good; in their bones, truly good. Don’t hate them, will you?”
Sadly, we’re very quick to judge, and with the internet eagerly awaiting our opinions, it’s easy to spread hate. Case in point: The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Reading some thoughts on the 6-parter, you’d think Robert Holmes meant to offend as many people as possible. Instead, he likely went into it thinking, “let’s make an entertaining story” or “this’ll be fun”.
Do his intentions make Talons less racist? No, and they definitely don’t make Talons impervious to such criticisms. Still, it’d be appreciated if some moderance were employed in analyses.
The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. Which is mad, really, because you’d think some red crazy-paving would be more adequate and cheaper. Still, it’s hard to get worked up about something when you think of all the work that’s gone into it, and when considering that most writers only do something because they love it. I’m reminded of Itchy & Scratchy Land where the guy dressed as Itchy suffers a stink-bomb in his suit and desperately gasps, “I just want to entertain!”
Equally, it’s ridiculous to criticise those who enjoy The Talons of Weng-Chiang: if it’s a writer’s prerogative to entertain, it’s an audience’s prerogative to be entertained. Indeed, I’d rather be offended than bored (which is probably why I rewatch Dark Water/ Death in Heaven more than The Woman Who Died. At least the former has Cybermen).
So yes, people are offended by The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Others love it. And that’s fine.
I don’t like people saying Doctor Who is racist because that’s tarring the whole with the same brush as a minority, and there’s a word for that. The show has lasted nearly 60 years: there are going to be plenty of cast and crew members whose views you disagree with; there’s also going to be a reflection of the changing attitudes of society as a whole; and the series that now is deemed more virtuous will be seen as archaic and “problematic” in the future. That’s time, and it makes asses of us all.
It does infuriate me though. Admittedly, it pulls the rug from underneath you when the Doctor uses anachronistic slurs, and when we see those living at the Limehouse treated as slaves. However, the script is otherwise very knowing and masterful. Many have commented that it’s a satire on tales like the Fu Manchu escapades, but it’s also a satire of Victorian society and of the 1970s. This is most obviously personified by Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett).
He’s a great character. Yes, he is sometimes a caricature, a stereotype, but more often than not, that’s what he wants everyone to think. He uses it to his advantage. In one of the serial’s finest lines, he tells the Doctor, “I understand we all look the same”. He worms his way around the police, and, for much of the 6-parter, his employer, the superlative Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin). He’s underestimated, seen purely as “the outsider”. His dialogue changes, switching from fractured English (largely on stage and in his interactions with Jago) to something more assured, especially when he’s talking to Magnus Greel (Michael Spice) and the Doctor.
Bennett dons make-up to appear Chinese. When I first watched the serial, I didn’t realise, if I’m being honest. History is littered with such worrying faux-pas, but that’s not just a pre-21st Century thing. Comedy shows, more specifically sketch shows (now largely phased out for this very reason), do it a lot: stereotypes are their bread and butter – it’s also why The Simpsons is selectively criticised. Apu is a horrible character; every other stereotype is fine, apparently. Times change; shows sometimes change.
One defence of Bennett’s casting is the apparent lack of Chinese actors on Equity’s books at the time. However, the best defence is simply that Bennett is incredible. Wow, what an actor! He’s got a twinkle in his eye when running rings around the authorities. He’s panicked and in reverence when talking to his supposed-God, Weng-Chiang. He puts on a good show at the Theatre, but his quieter moments are just as eye-catching.
Perhaps the finest scene in the serial is his death scene. It’s a coda we never expected, and makes Chang a memorable and sympathetic antagonist. He has lost faith in his God, but not his religion entirely. He still looks at his future with an unsettling anxiety as he goes to join his ancestors. At the end, his opium does ease the pain.
It has considerable competition. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is packed with wonderful moments (so many you can forget about the overstuffed fake rat), most of which feature Leela (Louise Jameson). Ah, she’s brilliant. Her gutsiness and naivety mean she’s markedly different from every other companion, before or since. Her interactions with Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) are a particular treat – it’s worth watching Talons for these alone. Anyone familiar with Big Finish would think that Jago and Litefoot are immediately teamed up in their debut serial, but it takes a surprisingly long time for them to meet. Nonetheless, their chemistry is immediate. They more than deserve their longevity.
Okay, so a couple of the cliffhangers tread the same ground, but Greel’s joy at possessing the Time Cabinet is beautifully effective, as is Leela opening the door to find Mr Sin (Deep Roy) advancing towards her. The Peking Homunculus is a fantastically creepy threat. The animated cerebral cortex of a pig should be a ridiculous notion, but instead results in a sinister sadist that’s only slightly undermined when the Doctor wrestles with a dummy and pulls the plug.
Still, there’s a wealth of memorable antagonists and great moments in Talons – fitting for a story about the God of Abundance. Go into it intending to be entertained and you will be.
Misjudged or mistranslated intentions are important to faith. It could be argued that religious texts and upbringings are, more often than not, the results of what is generally referred to as “Chinese whispers”, or “the Telephone Game” in America. (Is the former racist? It’s nonetheless the term used by the majority of folk in the UK. My suggested replacement would be calling it “Purple Monkey Dishwasher”. Google it.)
Again, it falls back to interpretations and intentions. (If you’d like to read about well-intentioned Christians, Doctor Who fans might like to pick up Byzantium! by Keith Topping.) This is key to The Deadly Assassin, in which the Doctor wants to stop the assassination of the Gallifreyan President but instead gets the blame for it and has to enter a make-believe land where the environment bends to the will of a malicious force.
It’s Season 14’s first of two stories (the other being Talons) by Script Editor, Robert Holmes, and as with many Holmes tales, it’s an absolute classic. Albeit a classic I don’t much care for.
I know! That, in certain quarters, is considered heresy, but I seldom warm to fictions set within fictions. I suppose that’s why I’ve never warmed to The Mind Robber, another highly-regarded story. The Deadly Assassin achieves exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well, but I rarely feel the sense of threat when everything is, essentially, just a dream: the stakes, we’re assured, are high because what happens in the dream affects reality. Standard fare. There are some scares; notably, the Doctor being strangled underwater, something so grim that Mary Whitehouse shared some choice words with the BBC. And the mystery assailant – look away now if you don’t know his identity – is rasping, unrelenting, and driven to extremes. That’s Bernard Horsfall (Chancellor Goth) for you: a wonderful actor returning to the show after appearances in The Mind Robber, The War Games, and Planet of the Daleks. He’s probably my favourite recurring actor in Classic Who. He’s a worthy opponent for Tom’s Doctor, and I can’t be the only person who thinks he’d have made a great Master.
And yet the scenes within the Matrix do drag. I love the concept of the Matrix Databank, but crikey, the Doctor spends so long dashing about a jungle, it overshadows the really sinister bits in the previous episode; that is, the glorified quarry sections in which the Doctor falls from a considerable height, is haunted by reflections of a chortling clown, and the gas-mask zombie with his First World War horse stumbling ever onwards. And the train hurtling towards a trapped Doctor! The stuff of nightmares.
See, there’s a lot to enjoy in The Deadly Assassin. The scenes set in the fabricated jungle, however, quickly become monotonous. Goth can recreate reality… so why doesn’t he? You suspect it’s purely for budgetary reasons. That’s the problem with playing God: you need a decent bank account.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Plenty of resources helps make an effective God, but they’re not essential. And that’s trying to quantify “resources” – all a writer ever does is play God, and their resources are typically restricted to their own imaginations (plus the internet). A writer who can write to a budget, however, will generally be considered a good screenwriter. It’s why Terry Nation was a good screenwriter: he was dependable. Sure, his plots frequently went over the same ground, but his scripts would be on time and were achievable.
It’s why The Face of Evil is superior to The Deadly Assassin. The former promises only what it can deliver. Sure, the effects are limited, but Xoanon can’t fabricate a reality. The confines are there. Interestingly, as evidenced when the no-longer-crazed computer creates a settee (and record player) out of thin air, Xoanon probably can fabricate something from nothing, but its limitations existed within its own mind. Goth’s, in The Deadly Assassin, do too, but he’s already demonstrated that he can switch locales and present horrors to curl your hair. Feel free to make your own Tom Baker gags.
If you want a solid story where the God-like being isn’t all-powerful, The Masque of Mandragora is a fine example, though its ending leaves something to be desired.
The Mandragora Helix is a superb idea, spanning the boundary between science and astrology. I’m not a believer in all that “Sirius is in alignment with Uranus meaning love is on the cards” stuff, but I do think there are patterns to life that we express through the zodiac. The Eighth Doctor would shirk at this assertion, but there’s something to be said for making connections like that. I find many share personality traits with others born at the same time of year, for example. The importance of the moon, too, is amazing: it affects our bodies, our moods, our sleep. It affects the tides and the animals. Much can be explained away by basic physics or, indeed, basic psychology; nonetheless, my recollections of the total solar eclipse in 1999 include the eerie silence that fell at the time – all the animals in the vicinity just stopped.
In this ‘enlightened’ age, you feel at odd with society in admitting that you find a kernel of truth in the zodiac, and yet… The Doctor encourages us to keep an open mind and not to underestimate the universe. I don’t find astrology logical, but I can’t deny that I’ve connected such dots in the past. This is partly why I enjoy The Masque of Mandragora – and, in The Sarah Jane Adventures, Secrets of the Stars, starring Russ Abbott as astrologer, Martin Trueman, whose predictions are worryingly accurate. You can be doubtful, but you can’t be sure, and that’s where Doctor Who does its finest work.
The Masque of Mandragora is brave. It tackles juxtaposing ideas and asks us to fit them all together. It doesn’t pander; there are no easy answers. For much of the tale, this is a good thing. It doesn’t quite work at its conclusion: the Doctor’s only explanation is that the Helix was defeated in a case of “energy squared”. I welcome stories that encourage free thinking (here, set during the Renaissance, one of my favourite periods of history, it’s especially apt), but this leaves a lot to be desired.
You can’t have it all, and it’s forgivable when the rest of the serial is so enjoyable.
The filming at Portmeirion, doubling for San Martino, is a beautiful touch, making Masque unlike any other story in Doctor Who. It’s always pleasing to see the series venture beyond UK confines; the Eleventh Doctor era is great at this – just look at The Vampires of Venice, Vincent and the Doctor, The Impossible Astronaut/ Day of the Moon, Let’s Kill Hitler, A Town Called Mercy, and Cold War. It’s a big universe, but the Earth needs to be explored as well!
The 4-parter moves at a cracking pace, but writer, Louis Marks, isn’t afraid to indulge in some downtime either. The Doctor’s time with Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong), and the Duke’s discussions with Marco (Tim Piggott-Smith) are evidence of this – Armstrong, in particular, is good at brooding intensity. Still, the whole production has, fittingly, an energy about it.
And let’s not forget that this is all the Doctor’s fault. He brought the Helix to Earth, so he is, in some ways, responsible for a few deaths. Such are the consequences of playing God, something that Time Lords do with regularity. The Masque of Mandragora and The Deadly Assassinboth show that a God complex is a very bad thing indeed.
Put The Deadly Assassin in another season and it’d shine. Sadly, though, it’s in the same season as my favourite Fourth Doctor story: The Robots of Death.
I’m a big fan of murder mysteries and, while it’s clearly signalled that the robots are responsible for the deaths on Storm Mine 4 (it’s literally in the title), it plays with the hallmarks of the genre beautifully, mixes in discussions on artificial intelligence, presents a layered civilisation, adds in elements of a base-under-siege tale, features gorgeous designs, and tops it all off by asking who the robot revolutionary, Taren Capel is.
Capel has a God complex, borne out of his troubled upbringing amid robots in a neat echoing of the Native American fairytale (and variations of), The Boy and the Wolves. Taren adapts to living among humans well, and deceives his peers, and the audience, for much of the 4-parter, but his duplicity is exposed – admittedly in a deflated manner – and David Bailie is glorious. He slips effortlessly between the sharp and quietly undermining Dask to the surprisingly savage Taren Capel.
In fact, most of the performances are sublime here. There is a weakest link, but it seems needlessly cruel to pick out a sole cast member, especially when everything else about Robots of Death is so good. The show would invite back Pamela Salem (one of the voices of Xoanon in the previous serial, and who appears again in Remembrance of the Daleks) and David Collings (who played Vorus in Revenge of the Cybermen and would return for the titular role in Mawdryn Undead), but it seems a shame Russell Hunter (here playing Uvanov) didn’t appear again. The cast apparently got on well behind-the-scenes, yet that doesn’t entirely spill over onto the screen – and that’s certainly not a criticism. Far from it, in fact. There’s a casual friendliness you might experience with colleagues, but the crew of the miner have been locked in together for so long, there’s a clear animosity. This is exacerbated when their peers start turning up dead.
So why does the show fall back on the notions of playing God so frequently, and especially in its central figure? It’s probably that the raison d’être of many villains is “I know better”. It also makes for a conceited hero, and audiences generally like those. The Doctor isn’t an anti-hero, per se, but he does have some characteristics held by such archetypes. He gets things wrong, but seldom relinquishes power. He is, through and through, a Time Lord. His race sits back and revel in their superiority, only deigning to get involved when absolutely necessary; the Doctor, meanwhile, goes out to share his worldview, to let others know how superior he is. Although he’s often depicted as a wanderer who just so happens to get pulled into circumstances, and that’s certainly what he preaches, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It’s true that, without his intervention, the universe would be doomed, but that’s beside the point.
The idea that a more powerful being has a better plan drives religion and Season 14. The would-be-deities presented all share that view, and in most cases, they attract followers who similarly believe.
The actual plans are invariably malicious. The Mandragora Helix wants to keep mankind in check so its power isn’t eclipsed; the Time Lords seem dry and dusty, letting their power go to waste, but corruption is soon exposed; Xoanon gives followers different benefits as an experiment; Taren Capel wants to free his supposed-brethren from slavery, by any means necessary; and Magnus Greel is content with using and disposing of the cult that’s formed around him so he can regenerate himself and continue his campaign.
The exception is Eldrad whose mania pushed everyone away and resulted in his execution. In a solid example of subversion, the Kastrians show God-like foresight in realising Eldrad would live and find his way back to the planet, with Rokon (Roy Skelton) proclaiming the returnee “King of Nothing.”
Interestingly, all these powerful beings are either immediately realised as, or become, humanoid, except Xoanon, whose crazed personalities reveal themselves purely through a projection of the Doctor’s face. We could see this as a commentary on making God in our own image. Alternatively, it’s because humanoids are easier to realise on screen.
Baker’s yelling visage is very effective, mainly as we’re not used to seeing the Doctor as the Evil One, but the set itself is similarly impressive. Austin Ruddy’s design is deceptively clever, riffing off those of Roger Murray-Leach’s use of mirrors, white panelling, and blocks (as seen in The Ark in Space) to make Xoanon’s surroundings seem larger, while adhering to a tight budget.
In contrast, the new TARDIS console room, introduced at the start of this season, is… well, naff, isn’t it? As an idea, a Victorian-esque control room is neat, and there are plenty of details that work as a room: the controls being concealed behind wooden panels, the stained-glass roundels, and the grated light above the doorway. And yet it looks small. It was probably the same size as the previous one, but because it’s so dark, it feels tight. Presumably this is why the console itself is so tiny. And there’s no time rotor! And how does it even work?! You can only guess that the TARDIS reconfigures itself so the Secondary Console Room replaces the main one in relation to the doors.
Regardless, it’s confined solely to this season, consigned to the archive as a curio, next to The Time Monster control room (which was better). Still, I suppose it’s in keeping with The Talons of Weng-Chiang‘s Victoriana, which actively embraces the moody. It suits the serial’s time-setting, sure, but more importantly, its tone. Now there is a beautifully atmospheric tale. (That’s no surprise: Doctor Who always excels at that period.)
So is The Robots of Death, albeit in a different way. It’s not physically dark yet remains claustrophobic and labyrinthine. It is a masterclass in design.
The characters are all distinct anyway, but their differences, and the audience’s instant recognition of them, are further highlighted by their costumes. Zilda’s is probably the most bizarre (costumer, Elizabeth Waller must’ve watched The Underwater Menace for misguided inspiration), but it still works. Meanwhile, Taren Capel’s is the most effective – both when he’s hiding his identity and when the truth comes out. When operating on the robots, his outfit takes its cue from those worn by the Ku Klux Klan: chilling, and a shame we only see it once. Then when Dask openly embraces the metallic look, it’s perfect – evocative of the robots’ design and therefore unsettling.
But that’s The Robots of Death to a tee. Pool’s horror at realising he’d send for a robot when having difficulty shifting supplies demonstrates how deeply ingrained technology is in this civilisation (and ours). The same is true of the crew’s make-up, each member’s face having the mechanical outline in common. Robots were built to look like us; Kaldor society has bent to reflect the robots.
It’s no wonder their look inspired the Heavenly Host in Voyage of the Damned (2007).
The serial fits nicely into a larger design – that of Doctor Who itself. Artificial intelligence gone amok is a common trope throughout sci-fi, and our beloved series has tackled it regularly. Shining examples include The War Machines, The Green Death, and, indeed, The Face of Evil; The Robots of Death, however, is slightly different, in that artificial intelligence works just fine (SV7 and D84 in particular) until someone corrupts it. In a roundabout way, it’s the robots’ fault for bringing Capel up, but the blame game fuels too much already.
Ah, but a lot of blame can be brought to the Doctor’s door.
If there’s one thing that symbolises Season 14, it’s the Janus thorn. If we’re being facetious, it’s because religion is a thorny issue and can kill. But actually, it’s because Janus is the Roman God of endings and beginnings. Janus is a God that causes a lot of upset, hurt, and anger.
The Hand of Fear sees Sarah Jane Smith leave the TARDIS and the reason is rubbish. It’s a cop-out. Somehow, in the grand scheme of things, it’s also apt. How confusing it must’ve been for a 1976 audience at the start of The Face of Evil when the Doctor doesn’t go back for his much-loved Sarah. Why? He drops her off because humans aren’t allowed on Gallifrey at this juncture. We don’t really find out why he doesn’t find her again. Maybe the TARDIS is acting up? School Reunion (2006) points out what we’ve long known: the Doctor grows attached, so no, he can’t look back. He has to let her go. That explanation works in retrospect, but contemporary viewers would’ve needed to recall Jo Grant’s departure for clues. The Third Doctor doesn’t even say goodbye. He lets go.
If he did look back, of course, he’d see quite the array of casualties of his actions. In the case of The Hand of Fear, the casualties are: Sarah herself; and the fans. Because it’s gutting to lose Sarah and to lose Elisabeth Sladen.
Baker and Sladen play their final scene together beautifully. There’s a deep, unspoken sadness, understated and all the more heart-breaking for it. Writer, Bob Baker and Dave Martin wisely inject a lightness at its conclusion: the Doctor can’t even drop Sarah at home properly.
Sarah obviously thought the world of the Doctor, but, right until the end, she never let his power or arrogance go to her head. His God complex was never sated by Ms Smith. There was understandably an element of hero worship (let’s face it, we’d all be in awe of a time traveller), but their relationship can be summed up best by that scene in Pyramids of Mars where she takes the mick during his “I walk in eternity” speech. She was never under the same illusion Amy Pond, for instance, suffered from; nevertheless, as the Fourth Doctor took his leave, called back to Gallifrey for Something Important, there’s a weight to their farewell that’s echoed in The God Complex. Her realisation that the TARDIS didn’t return her back to Croydon shares Amy’s sentiment that the Doctor, by taking her and Rory home, is saving them.
It’s also an abrupt exit. It’s a massive contrast to The Green Death, in which we witnessed Jo Grant falling in love with another life. The Hand of Fear doesn’t concern itself with Sarah’s leaving until the final few minutes of Part 4.
The serial is otherwise about radiation as a healer and destroyer. Eldrad’s severed hand crawling around is a memorably chilling visual, as is Sarah being possessed, sitting in a nuclear reactor and smiling in a giddy, childish manner. Its beginning is brutal too, as the TARDIS dumps the Doctor and Sarah in imminent danger and the latter is horribly buried alive. The whole sequence is haunting and comes like a punch to the gut, notably after the joviality of The Masque of Mandragora‘s closing moments. Power plants are often depicted in a rather reckless manner, as if there are few regulations and security is sparse; the Nunton Experimental Complex, on the other hand, is taken more seriously. Interruptions to the daily routines are taken seriously, and the blaring klaxons underscore the panic at the plant. You have to wonder what Bob Baker thinks of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station project…
A highlight is Professor Watson (Glyn Houston) phoning to warn his wife he might be late home. It’s a gorgeous scene. Watson is understandably angry at Sarah, and that could irk an audience, but he turns into a sympathetic character you quickly invest in.
Sadly, the wheels fall off the production once we get to Kastria. The script is still solid, but the set is a serious downgrade from the complex. It’s deflating. Fortunately, it becomes a three-hander (plus Rokon for a few lines) between the Doctor, Sarah, and Eldrad, and they’re excellent. Judith Paris and Stephen Thorne are like the Jekyll and Hyde versions of Eldrad: both unnerving, threatening, and naïve (despite the character’s supposed genius), yet Paris portrays a slyness that’s juxtaposed with Thorne’s ferocity.
Oh, then he trips over the Doctor’s scarf. Anger, it seems, is always the shortest distance to a mistake.
That’s the ethic the Doctor tries to instil in Leela, his new assistant, and she couldn’t be more different to Sarah. In fairness, she’s unlike every other companion, and isn’t that wonderful?
Oh, I love Leela. She must’ve been an absolute dream to write for – and yet few seem to master the art, leading Chris Boucher to write her first two stories then, next season, Image of the Fendahl. In fact, there aren’t many scribes who wrote for Leela on TV: Boucher, Holmes, Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Anthony Read, and Graham Williams.
It’s also a shock that Tom Baker was so against her, apparently not wanting a companion who was happy to put up a fight (although one suspects it’s also that he didn’t want a companion at all). His animosity doesn’t show, at least in Season 14, and, I’d argue, the majority of Season 15. They’re a joy. I could watch this pair together forever. It’s a disappointment that her Eliza Doolittle-like journey isn’t complete by the time she leaves in The Invasion of Time.
I’m not fond of every story she’s in – a couple are otherwise pretty dull, not naming names – but she lifts them. Louise Jameson is charming and magnetic. I’ve never heard a bad word said about her after convention appearances because she’s warm, witty, and sharp. You fall for her instantly.
That’s how it works with the Doctor’s companions. Leela personifies the potential the Doctor sees in the people he travels with. All you need is a little spark.
Doctor Who is a hopeful show. The stories aren’t always so, but the friendships in the TARDIS certainly are. And religion’s like that. Faith is an optimistic term. It means you believe in something. There is an infinite potential to the world, to individuals, to us. Religion can be a problem, but it can save us too. That’s what we need to remember. It’s about unity. It’s about bringing people together. It’s seeing the potential of others. Janus is a God that causes a lot of upset, hurt, and anger, yet he also represents the duality of time. He’s associated with transitions, births, journeys, exchanges, and, yes, endings. But endings don’t always have to be sad. Sometimes, the end isn’t really The End.