31 December 2015

The Face of Evil



“At last we are here. Us.”
Why did BBC4 show `Face of Evil` this week? Do people celebrate the 39th anniversary of something? Who am I? Yes, a curious end to 2015 sees this 1977 tale being broadcast on a main(ish) BBC channel which is about as random as you get. It’s nice though that they chose this rather than the more obvious stories that surround it. In another season `Face` would be highly regarded but appearing in between `The Deadly Assassin` and `The Robots of Death` it doesn’t stand a chance really. I can’t imagine BBC4 are showing it because it has thematic links to the season we’ve just seen but you never know. It is really the precursor to the current series’ interest in the Doctor’s mistakes though there are no confessions dials or guilty admissions to be seen here, just a dogged determination to sort it out. 



It is something of a unique idea for this period in the series even if the show was evolving from hordes of invading monsters to more complex individual adversaries. Xoanon is different again being essentially a computer which has become fused with the Doctor’s own personality after he fixed it many years ago (though oddly it takes him a while to remember). The computer senses the Doctor when he first speaks to it.  Xoanon has caused two sides of a colony ship to take part in a genetic experiment. The Sevateem are primitive, superstitious warriors, whereas the Tesh are calm, psychic thinkers. The invisible monsters that separate them are according to the Doctor “psychic projections of the computer’s id.” For us they are realised as transparent images of Tom roaring which I’m sure the actor must have approved of!
Striking stuff to be sure- there’s the Doctor’s head (rather too skillfully) carved into rock by way of a reminder of what he did when he was last here. It’s a strong notion for Chris Boucher to debut with- indeed his entry into the series with this and `Robots` is probably the strongest one-two debut until Jamie Mathison’s 204 double. Not that this Doctor is anywhere near as angst ridden over past misdemeanors as his current self.
As if that wasn’t enough contemporary resonances, the premise allows Boucher to dabble in some religious iconography. He has both tribes worshipping the same God in different ways and we’re used to that sort of thing. The Doctor himself comes to represent “the Evil One.” Not only that but the tribes are altogether different in behavior- the Sevateem indulge in pagan habits with a high priest who on the Doctor Who Mad High Priest Scale (that’s an official thing by the way) scores quite highly. Chanting, incanting and leaping about while waving pieces of old technology Neeva is a parody of a priest yet Boucher plays him well. Resisting the urge to make him simply crazy he has him eventually become the person whose intervention assists the Doctor win the day.
By contrast the Tesh are all polite restraint, their inner emotions hidden.  Their different rituals are based on the technology and processes they have long forgotten. It does seem a little odd that if that past has been almost erased from their memory, the actual control rooms remain relatively intact presumably after centuries. Still it is interesting to see the origins of their names revealed as being derivations of Survey Team and Tech, the sort of thing that crops up in language a lot I’d imagine. If you’ve seen it once this is no surprise of course but there is still a pleasingly constructed narrative leading to the reveal.
Younger audiences of the time may have been confused by the lack of a monster or even alien. Instead we’re on a more cerebral plain that in some ways elevates this story above its season bedfellows. The cliffhangar to part 3 is most unconventional with the Doctor inside Xoanon, his and it’s identity being challenged by a barrage of voices asking “Who are you?” to which after the Doctor has replied several times an even more unnerving vocal shouts “Who am I?” The conclusion too sees Xoanon restored to working order rather than anything blowing up.  As a concept it’s certainly an adult one. “I made my madness reality” says the computer at the end.
It’s refreshing that the story is not quite a serious as it sounds if you read a summary. Boucher seems to enjoy inserting quips here and there to lighten the load though they are telling ones. The Doctor gets most of them describing Neeva’s helmet through which Xoanon’s voice is heard as “a hotline to God.” When Leela declares she isn’t sure what to believe any more, the Doctor declares, “Well that sounds healthy.” At the end when the reunited tribes argue over who might lead them the Doctor strolls in, big grin on his face and says “Democaracy at work I see.”
The other significant aspect of course is that this is Leela’s debut. Tom Baker famously didn’t like the idea of Leela but the unfortunate thing for him is she works rather well as an alternative to his personality. If Sarah’s instincts were sophisticated and journalistic, Leela’s are curious and primitive. Her storyline as envisaged by producer Philip Hinchcliffe was to echo that of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in which a common girl becomes trained in matter of high society etiquette. As a blueprint for a companion it takes some beating but unfortunately once the character was let loose in the hands of other writers, this development never really happened. 
Promising seeds are nonetheless sewn here and Leela comes across as a radical character; as soon as we see her she is on trial and defiant  She is handy with poisonous Janus thorns, knives and even a good kick if need be. (Barely) dressed in tight skins it wasn’t just the Dads who nearly spilt their teatime drink. Louise Jameson makes a fantastic start, her every nuance is keyed into the primitive huntress and worse luck for Tom her rapport with the Doctor is a great new dynamic. Now there is someone who really does have to ask obvious questions but his responses –whether testy, witty or sincere- add another layer to an already fascinating Doctor.
Like `Planet of Evil, the story benefits from an extensive filmed set of the alien planet complete with sound effects. The story strives to be unpredictable in every way- the cliffhangars are original; as well as the memorable part 3 one, the previous episode ends with Tomas rather than the regulars in danger.
The only mild criticisms you could make are that there’s rather a lot of running about in corridors towards the end with gun battles taking place in confined spaces. The medical kit with which Leela is saved in part 2 also boots up rather handily too. Overall though `Face of Evil` is a clever, intriguing story that deserves to be considered as every bit the equal of its showier season companions.
Face Facts!

  • The original title of the story was going to be `The Day God Went Mad` until presumably someone remembered Mary Whitehouse.
  • The Doctor uses the word “flapdoodle” in this story which is not a word that was ever uttered in the series again.
  • When the story was first released on video in 1999 both Louise Jameson and Leslie Schofield were regulars in Eastenders.
  • The Doctor speaks directly to camera for several lines during episode one.
  • Louise Jameson has said that some of her process for moving as Leela was to mimic her dog’s reactions to events.
  • The Horda were the prime focus of publicity at the time.
  • One of Xoanon’s voices is done by Pamela Salem who also appears in the very next story `The Robots of Death`. Presumably she received a separate fee rather than being asked in the BBC canteen, “You couldn’t just say these words rather urgently into this microphone Pam” in between eating her cheese bagette.


No comments:

Post a Comment