The Hand of Fear
Season 14 - October 1976
‘Till we meet again, Sarah…’
Sarah’s possessed by a hand. It pops into the local power station to undergo a rebirth and before you know it a Kastrian egomaniac is on the rampage.
The departure of Sarah is the shadow that falls over this story. Everything else, perhaps perfunctorily, is leading up to that final scene and as a result it’s often been regarded as one of the weaker Hinchcliffe stories over the years. It's reputation seemingly rests on that last scene between the Doctor and Sarah. From today's perspective, given that Sladen is no longer with us then it gains an additional sheen of respect simply through our fondness for the actress. What we have here is actually pretty entertaining and it only falls to pieces in the fourth episode for reasons I shall go into later. But up until then you’ve got a neat tale of alien possession and nuclear terrorism where director Lennie Mayne really gets an opportunity to shine. He pulls the stops out with interesting angles, good visual composition (lots of close ups in studio and smashing wide shots on location), even dissolves! (yes, that rare phenomenon) and some pacy editing. He’s really thought about what to do here and makes it very engaging and interesting visually.
The story itself is a partly enjoyable mish-mash of the possession theme, nascent sexual politics (does Sarah become the ultimate feminist alien?), and some very bad nuclear science (let’s all crouch behind this land rover whilst the power plant is bombed to bits a mile or so away) and walkabouts on the unconvincing studio sets representing the surface, domes and core of the planet Kastria.
If you look at the idea of possession in the story, you’re dealing with symbols of masculinity (Eldrad’s hand and Eldrad Mark 2) and femininity (Sarah and Eldrad Mark 1). This is as much about the ‘battle of the sexes’ as it is about deposed kings and the masculine ego. The opposites briefly merge when Eldrad possesses Sarah and Eldrad ‘s first regeneration is imprinted from Sarah. It’s about the uniting of conscious and unconscious – without, let’s say, Sarah’s female intuition and guile, Eldrad would probably never have convinced the Doctor to return to Kastria and of course, she/he cleverly conceals the reason for this return. The second regeneration of Eldrad is a symbolically deposed King and is the conscious male ego fully in command. Kings, however, lose their emotional base (Kastria and castration aren't that far apart phonetically) and it could be argued that if Eldrad had remained in possession of Sarah, she/he may have realised that Rokon had anticipated every move which then led to genocide. Instead, he throws his toys out of the pram and trips over the Doctor’s scarf. Look before you leap, Eldrad.
The hand is a visible symbol of the possession theme. It is grasping and unsparing. It’s also representative of Eldrad’s state of mind when trying to depose Rokon and take over Kastria. He is, quite literally, a disintegrating and disintegrated personality. His is so egotistical, so fascistic in his ideals, he literally implodes – absorbs the energy of the reactor and the missiles, survives the obliteration module – and on observing the reality of his situation we see in him this dysfunction, leading to madness, schizophrenia and the ‘Napoleon’ syndrome.
Performances are very good, particularly Lis when she’s all coy and girly in her possessed state going around zapping security guards and demanding, "Eldrad must live!". Tom is super in his exchanges with Lis, but also there’s a real chemistry between him and Judith Paris and Glyn Houston. Paris is rather stunning in this, adding a very alien quality to her performance and using her amazing eyes and cheekbones to good effect. She does a great line in using her feminine wiles to con the Doctor into going back to Kastria. Houston’s stand out scene is the now legendary ‘phone home’ bit from the nuclear power station and it really injects some humanity into the plot which is sometimes rare in ‘classic’ Who. It’s nice to have time to get that moment in there.
In terms of production, visual effects are also very good again. The miniatures for windswept Kastria are moody and effective but the standout has to be, for its time, one of the best ever crawling hand effects to grace the screen. The Tupperware box sequences are just right and are still very effective today. The CSO crawling hand bits are looking a bit rough now but there are far worse examples of CSO in the series so this stands out as a better example of the process. The location filming adds a further dimension to the story, especially the scale and atmosphere of the interior of the power station and the quarry that is, for once, standing in for a real quarry. Mayne is obviously in his element here and it shows. Studio sets are perhaps a slight letdown - the power station is fine - but especially the Kastrian underworld.
It all comes a cropper though in the final episode. It’s let down by those unconvincing sets for the Kastrian scenes which is a shame as the design for Eldrad (particularly the Paris version) is actually good. It’s all a bit too polystyrene and sprayed plastic mouldings.
It’s understandable why Russell T. Davies was concerned about depicting alien worlds for the new series when the standard was so variable in the old. Classic Who could get away with it if the conviction was there in the script and performances – see Brain Of Morbius – but the final episode is hamstrung by the ‘Brian Blessed Of The Month’ performance from Stephen Thorne. He’s just doing his Azal/Omega thing all over again and his version of Eldrad lacks any of the beautiful subtlety of Paris’ performance. The best bit is when Rokon pulls the rug out from under him, declaring ‘Hail Eldrad, King Of Nothing!’ There’s an ego boost for your friendly neighbourhood despotic silicon lifeform.
And that last scene, where Sarah ends up in Hillview Road, er...Aberdeen, I suspect is etched on every thirty and forty-something’s memory. It’s such a bittersweet moment and is played very well by the two leads. Certainly, it holds its reputation as one of the best companion departures in the series. And it was unfinished business brought majestically to a conclusion of sorts in 2005's ‘School Reunion’.
That commentary features Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Bob Baker, Judith Paris, Stephen Thorne and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. The commentary is good and Tom is very much on form here. It’s a breezy affair and very entertaining with warm banter between Tom and Lis. Tom’s pithy retort to Lis’ comments about HRT in episode two is priceless.
Changing Time: Living and Leaving Doctor Who (50:28)
An in-depth examination of Sarah's travels with the Doctor and the conclusion of her journey. However, as much as it is a good exploration of The Hand of Fear, it is also fond look back at Lis Sladen's casting and how she made the transition between her two leading men, Pertwee and Baker. Plenty of talking heads in the form of Hinchcliffe, Tom Baker, Sladen, Bob Baker, Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and guest star Glyn Houston amongst others. It's a lovely summing up of the Tom and Lis partnership and you do get the feeling that they very much enjoyed each other’s company whilst making the series.
Continuity announcements (1:25)
A promo from the end of The Masque of Mandragora plus continuity from the The Hand of Fear, including plugs for the Blackpool and Longleat exhibitions. My favourite aspect of these is that we get BBC1's schedule announcements for other programmes, including The Generation Game.
Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (10:56)
Tom and Lis on the 2 October 1976 edition of the show. A rare clip this only survives from an off-air video copy which has been restored for this DVD.
1977 Doctor Who Annual and programme listings from Radio Times
Lis Sladen being interviewed by Dilys Morgan about her departure from the series on a January 1976 edition of Nationwide.
Picture quality and sound are as ever top notch from those ‘labour of love’ boys at the RT. We are spoilt rotten when you think about it.
THE HAND OF FEAR BBC DVD (BBCDVD1833 Cert PG)
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
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The Hand of Fear
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