Season 14 - January 1977
‘It’s true then. They say the Evil One eats babies’
After the Time Lord navel gazing of ‘Assassin’ it’s such a pleasure to see Hinchcliffe and Holmes just hit the reset button here. It’s also the first of Chris Boucher’s scripts and it’s noticeable how he brings a very literary sensibility to the series. It makes for much richer storytelling and oddly pre-empts the Christopher Bidemead ‘hard science’ approach of Season 18.
It’s also a fantastic example of how to introduce a new companion. Leela emerges from the page as a fully formed character, of a specific time and place, with moral values of her own. This is as much down to Louise Jameson’s performance too. Let’s face it, she brings a feral dignity to what could just be seen as a bit of titillation for the teenage boys and their fathers in the audience and makes an instant impression here. Leela is strong, powerful and lives by codes and ethics that the character will then be seen to question when confronted by the moral barometer of the Doctor and the bizarre situations he leads her into.
Plot wise, the Doctor arrives on a planet where the savage Sevateem worship an all powerful god called Xoanon. The Doctor discovers that Xoanon is a schizophrenic computer he though he’d repaired in the past. Instead, he has inadvertently driven it mad…
It’s a funny thing, whilst watching this again, I was struck by how much of the story is focused on belief systems and the chaos that opposing systems can generate when they can’t comfortably exist in parallel to one another. There is much here about personal beliefs, how you back them up and what happens when your faith in ideas is shockingly knocked out from under you. Poor old Neeva, praising Xoanon and fulfilling all the rituals of religious belief in order to give the Sevateem a frame of reference, discovers his faith in Xoanon has been wasted. Is proof of your faith in your God just down to a set of rituals and sermons, dressed up in anachronistic bits of technology that you’ve forgotten the purposes of?
Or is it, as Tomas and Calib discover, what you can see in front of your eyes, with clear evidence, with determined cause and effects? The nature of religion in the story is seen as, at best, a bit suspect as those entrusted with transmitting it, namely Neeva, don’t really understand what they’re talking about.
You also see these themes played out in the visual dichotomy between the savagery of the Sevateem and the cold intelligence of the Tesh. They are two aspects of Xoanon’s mind that it forces into conflict because it thinks this is necessary in order for those opposing aspects to truly become united.
The story also touches on the god-like nature of the Doctor and it could be seen as an attempt to bring the Doctor more into contact with the darker aspects of his personality as presented by Xoanon and also to show him where his good intentions go wrong. Xoanon is a representation of the Doctor where the processes of his inner growth and transformation have been stunted, with a crippled psyche cramped into the little steel cage of a computer. As Xoanon’s personality disintegrates, dark projections of the Id evidence themselves as the invisible creatures (images of the Doctor’s head no less) that attack the Sevateem and protect what seems like an impenetrable barrier. The Doctor not only understands that he must breakdown the accepted truths (the barrier) but also the Tesh’s obsolete prejudices and by extension neutralise Xoanon’s/his own irrational unconscious nature.
In terms of world building too, the story pays dividends. There is a real sense of who the Sevateem are, with lead characters constantly arguing about their situation and fighting for power. It may sound strange, but the way we see the Sevateem is also a very 70’s view of the dystopian return to nature. This is played out in many contemporary dramas and comedies – ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Good Life’ being two examples where old/new technologies are reduced to their basics or reaffirmed in order to install a new feudalistic way of life.
As a production, again this comes across very well. The jungle and Sevateem sets are very well realised, the computer room on the Tesh ship is a bizarre high-tec altar and Xoanon’s lair provides a very disturbing cliffhanger with multiple images of the Doctor’s face screaming out ‘Who am I?’ repeatedly. Visual effects are again variable. The CSO of Leela and the Doctor standing before the cliff face where his face is carved out is actually very good. The Horda, whilst a neat idea, do come across as a little bit rubbery and unconvincing in some scenes. The filmed sections are well done and this is probably Pennant Roberts' best work on the series.
Performances are excellent, especially Baker and Jameson but also Brendan Price (and if you could indulge me, very fetching in his loincloth too) and Leslie Schofield who both get as much conviction out of the script as they can. My only gripe is that the Tesh are a bit too emotionless even though they are supposed to be and the actors aren’t helped by the very odd costumes that seem to undermine any realism they are trying to put over. They’re a bit too obvious a visual representation of the sterility of Xoanon’s domain and their ‘Pan’s People’ bowing and scraping doesn’t help either.
There are various nods to ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘Planet Of The Apes’ and the work of Harry Harrison in the script and overall, it’s a refreshing story that builds a credible world with characters that constantly drive the plot forward and it touches on a vein of science fiction literature of the time that up until then had very rarely been exploited in the programme.
THE FACE OF EVIL BBC Video VHS (BBCV 6672 Cert PG - deleted)
- 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
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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