Monday, May 09, 2011


Doctor Who – The Hand of Fear… Tonight!

Missing Sarah Jane Smith? At 7.40 tonight and tomorrow, BBC4 pays tribute to the late Elisabeth Sladen with Doctor Who – The Hand of Fear, starring Lis with Tom Baker in Sarah Jane’s very last story (until she came back to do all the others). Enjoy a particularly creepy cliffhanger; a mythic sweep sometimes matched by the visuals; terror in a nuclear power station; a dead planet; and even a quarry. Though not her best, The Hand of Fear is part of Doctor Who’s greatest ever season, a year of dark religion with an unusual connection to the current series…

That Golden Moment
“Emergency… Emergency… This is not an exercise…”
There are two outstanding scenes in this story, and each might be seen as a spoiler: I can’t tell you about the gorgeous closing coda, even with Tom and Lis underplaying beautifully, Sarah Jane’s superb monologue and the Doctor getting it wrong again; so it’ll just have to be the fantastic cliffhanger to Part One. Or, on BBC4 tonight, probably the mid-way point, as they tend to edit two episodes together at a time (all three of the original cliffhangers are good, but as luck would have it, the middle one – likely to be the only one BBC4 leaves as such, closing tonight’s double-episode – is the least of them). It’s one of Doctor Who’s best, beaten only by, oh, the cliffhangers to the opening episodes of Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin, both not coincidentally from the very same period of the show’s life.

Part One is an exercise in building tension, from the opening scenes establishing a sinister menace from primeval times, through Sarah Jane being injured, to her apparently going on the rampage, to… While kids are busy worrying ‘Why has Sarah turned mean?’ (Lis finding yet another way to ‘act possessed’, and a particularly unsettling one) the adults are more likely to be concerned at what threat she’s becoming to a nuclear power station, and thrillingly shot in the high gantries of a real one this time. The music, too, ramps up the tension, with Dudley Simpson providing spine-tingling, spidery echoes as the alarms start sounding – as in Planet of the Spiders, creepy-crawlies bring out the best in him, and there’s no doubt just what fear this, too, is appealing to.

And in the closing seconds, of course, just as you thought it couldn’t get any more tense, the sinister fossilised stone hand that Sarah Jane’s been gripping springs an added surprise in one of the show’s most memorable images. Oh, it’s technically a spoiler, but in a story called The Hand of Fear and with Part One featuring a sinister fossilised stone hand throughout, you’d be disappointed, wouldn’t you, if it didn’t start feeding on the energy around it to recover, regrow, and then, creepier than any spider, start to move on its own…? But, coming from one of Doctor Who’s most fertile periods, you know this isn’t going to stop at just a crawling hand – the story’s going to take that horror staple and build from it…

8.05pm Update: Hurrah! I’m so pleased to have been proved wrong. Clearly, they loved the cliffhangers too, so they’re showing the full episodes in proper pairs! Part Two’s cliffhanger was better than I’d remembered, as well. The escalating peril and mystery drew me in.

Something Else To Look Out For

The opening scene is written as something out of a legend, alien monks clinging to life in thick white cowls against the cold, full of fear and determination to destroy the carrier of all evil… Just keep that in your mind when, with this story’s weaker moments mostly on an ancient storm-tossed world, they’ve really not turned the lights down low enough and the robes look a little too much like duvets (not to mention some terribly clichéd lines). But soon it comes quite literally down to Earth, with witty dialogue – between Tom Baker never looking more iconic than leaving the TARDIS in his long scarf and deep plum coat and Lis Sladen never looking more improbable than in an outfit so infamous that Dr Carter’s description even hangs a lampshade on it – and masses of inventive location filming, as well as a proper, old-fashioned gigantic BBC explosion so inimical to health and safety that it buried one of the cameras recording it.

There’s a curious mix here of almost high fantasy (a ring that behaves almost like Tolkien’s) and, jamming up against it, naturalism: a foreman won’t take responsibility; the quarry’s really a quarry; the nuclear power station’s really a nuclear power station; the power station boss quietly rings his family when he thinks he’s about to die in a terrorist attack – Glyn Houston’s character very much grounds us, giving what may be the series’ first profanity (“I want this damn racket stopped!”) and, poor man, blatantly being left with his career in ruins and no-one to believe him after the Doctor’s dealt with the ‘big’ problem and swanned off (just try to overlook any ‘realism’ in his attitude to nuclear weapons). At the other end of the down-to-Earth scale, Judith Paris and Stephen Thorne stand out: one striking and subtly ambiguous, both sexually and perhaps gaining our sympathy; the other in the least of his three major Who roles (Azal is both bestial and coldly calculating; Omega grandiose, self-pitying, but also with real tragedy; here, he’s a ranting loon with a crooked hat). The final episode is generally the weakest, and in ordinary circumstances would end with some rather unimpressive ‘uncertain doom’ – thank goodness, then, for that heartbreaking coda and a final shot suggested by Lis Sladen herself.

Writers Bob Baker (now an Oscar-winner for Wallace and Gromit!) and Dave Martin were stalwarts of ’70s Doctor Who – famous for coming up with masses of ideas (often unaffordable), memorable catchphrases (“Eldrad must live!” is a doozy), and plots that rarely made any sense (neither did their grasp of nuclear science). Remarkably, they write out Sarah Jane here, then in their next story write in K9 – only for the two of them to be paired in spin-off series decades later. This story is one of their least silly, with more than a dash of their earlier The Three Doctors; improving on some of it, but coming a cropper with one key character near the end. And though subtlety is hardly what they’re famous for, there are surprising subtleties throughout, of course in the Doctor and Sarah Jane’s relationship, effortlessly at ease, with his very Doctorish attitude to “weapons” against what may be a villain or a victim and her brilliantly sarky practicality (with one superb gag as she springs a trap laid long ago: “Stop making a fuss, Sarah – you’re from South Croydon!”), but also in the many little time references (Carter – surely named for the mummy’s curse – being knocked out for much longer than he expected; the Doctor musing on different alien life forms and alien timescales) that turn out to be clever clues to the ending, or in where all the bodies went… While some of the characters and details are often subtle, though, it’s an unusually linear plot in which everything essentially follows the same one character, with almost nothing in the way of sub-plots and distractions, which may be why it pretty much shifts location every episode, to keep you diverted.

If you’re entertained enough by this story to pick up the DVD, not only will it definitely have all three cliffhangers in place, but a number of extras that make it all the more worth the money: an affectionate commentary that Lis, ah, starts with a sore throat; an informative and visually interesting documentary, Changing Time, that’s considerably more than a ‘Making Of’ for one story, not least in covering the casting of Lis and Tom, with Lis explaining why (fortunately for all of us) she didn’t want Sarah Jane married off or killed off; and a pdf of The Dr Who Annual 1977, the first I ever had, which it’s impossible not to love for its fabulously psychedelic artwork and utterly preposterous narratives.

Doctor Who Season 14 – The Year of Dark Religion

As if to tip you off that it’s part of a season with more than usually coherent running themes, Sarah Jane’s exit is prompted by one of ’70s Doctor Who’s rare ‘To be continued’ endings (leading into a story which has been prefigured in numerous ways throughout this one and means, if you’re familiar with the end of The War Games, the Doctor’s “Don’t you forget me” becomes less fondness for Sarah than fear for what might happen to her). And if ever there were a story that really begs you to find out ‘what happened next’, it’s the immediately following The Deadly Assassin – for me, still the greatest Doctor Who story of them all, and the centrepiece of 1976-1977’s Season 14, for me still the series’ best.

I adore the early Tom Baker era, when the creative masterminds behind the series were producer Philip Hinchcliffe – who wanted to expand the show’s horizons – and lead writer Robert Holmes – who wanted to “frighten the little buggers to death”. I was one of those little buggers, and I’m eternally grateful. You can see, here, their themes throughout of vengeance, survival and possession, and their progress from technocratic elites to lone messiahs across three outstanding years that began with a brilliant season of cold science, moved through horror and visceral colour, and climaxed with their full-blooded dark Gothic vision in Season 14. The Doctor here is intellectual, inquisitive and often very funny, helping centre the series as pro-knowledge while the earlier years’ ‘science as fascism’ and ‘science as dangerous meddling’ here give way to science as sheer intelligence, for good or evil, pitting rationalism against religion. It’s a year of invention and experimentation, with much rich, dark design aiding literate scripts in building believable societies, all creating a greater variety of settings and styles than in any season since the 1960s now the Doctor’s at last fully a wanderer again, a Renaissance man in a dark Universe of ancient secrets and fallen glories, the stories often taking place at the fringes of or as codas to great events. The horror is both more powerful than before and leavened by vivid characters, vibrant black humour, and more satisfying conclusions than just a big bang.

The season’s key themes are laid out in opening story The Masque of Mandragora like a manifesto. Enlightenment-set, it puts the importance of intellect and making up your own mind centre stage, pitching it against intrigue and dogma – so from here, the season unfolds into three main underlying ideas. The mind is this year’s battlefield, whether championing intelligence and rationalism or delving into the darker themes of mental domination and madness, with not just the human mind at stake but computer, robot, pig and even electronic group minds. That’s complemented by the running theme of growing up, from Marco trying to outgrow both superstition and his uncle, to the Doctor returning home and then finding himself another world’s absentee dad (while the villains very much refuse to move on when their time is long since up). And more than either of those two concepts, of course, religion courses through these stories. I had a very religious upbringing – watching Doctor Who every Saturday night before going to two churches every Sunday morning – so I felt this was speaking my language: it’s impossible to miss the religious elements throughout the season, usually in opposition to intelligence and individuality (imagine!). Everyone’s in a cowl, even the gorgeously wooden-panelled TARDIS control room looks like a chapel, and – coming at last to that unique connection to the new season airing right now – there’s something very striking about its structure.

What 1976-77 and 2011 Have In Common…

The current Doctor Who season, the 32nd (and, some may wrongly argue, 33rd) is unusually but not uniquely being split in two, with seven episodes being shown now and another six in the Autumn. If I mention that, back in 1976-77, the episodes were half the modern length, and that Season 14 was also first shown in a block of twelve episodes followed, after a few months’ break, by another fourteen, you may notice something strangely familiar. Only three new episodes in (as if, uncannily, we were at the moment halfway through The Hand of Fear), I can’t tell what plans Steven Moffat has for the ongoing story, but Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe created two mini-seasons that, like dark mirrors, repeated their themes to reinforce them. Each set of three stories follows the same pattern: This has been my favourite season since it first aired, and I’ve got more out of it as I’ve got older. It’s still as good as Doctor Who ever gets – so far! Watch The Hand of Fear tonight, thrill to its scary music and vivid images, appreciate its mythic scope, and see that dark religion in its central character – scientist and saviour, creator and destroyer, denounced as devil in one litany but worshipped by “We who have seen the light of Kastria” in another…

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