Friday, 10 May 2013

The Faceless Ones written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke and directed by Gerry Mill


This story in a nutshell: A potential new companion, the departure of two popular characters and an elongated tale of doppelgangers and abducted children…

Oh My Giddy Aunt: I barely recognised Troughton at all in the first episode because his characterisation is so incongruous – the Doctor displays little humour or authority and wants to contact the authorities as soon as possible! He doesn’t have time for official mumbo jumbo and he certainly doesn’t have a passport. When the Doctor gets tangled up with the airport Commandant that is when Troughton’s mischievous persona really starts to emerge. After finding his feet with the character by butting heads with authority figures in The Macra Terror, that same mischievous charm is fed into this story. This is the first instance of the Doctor telling Jamie ‘when I say run…run!’ It’s also the first time that Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines have been given the opportunity to indulge in a bit of business too, what with the silly shot of them hiding behind newspapers together (Jamie’s being upside down!). I love the images of the Doctor, Ben and Jamie posing cheesily inside the photo kiosk. There’s plenty of opportunity in this script to show off the fun interaction between this season fours regulars. Wow imagine if the Doctor pulled off that ‘I’ll blow you all to smithereens!’ trick in the middle of a busy airport now. He’d be cut down in a hail of bullets faster than the 7th Doctor was when he visited San Francisco. Watching The Doctor walking into a trap and trying to think his way out of being frozen to death is a gripping experience, if only because the Doctor can’t talk his way out of this with his usual bluster and humour but instead has to think quick and cunningly. Troughton seems full of energy in this story, and looks far more like a young, lively soul than the older, panic stricken, universe weary man he would become in season six. There just seems something more vigorous about him in his first year. I like both approaches but I am more used to seeing the latter (because that is simply where a mine of episodes exist) so this flea on a griddle version seems a little unusual. The Doctor says Ben and Polly are lucky to get home because he never got to. He sketches out a possible future for them, together.

Who’s the Yahoos: It’s the last time that we really get to see Jamie experiencing any kind of culture shock before the idea was dropped and he takes every new location in his stride. He’s terrified of planes (‘great flying beasties!’) and walks around the airport in something of a daze, never having seen a building of its type before. I can understand why they eked out this sense of alienation because it would get tiresome for the Doctor to have to explain all about the location as well as the plot to his assistant but we do also lose that sense of wanderlust that comes with it which is quite enticing. It does us well to remember the magic of things that we take for granted. Jamie has to pretend to be sick in order for him and the Doctor to gain access to the sickbay and the Time Lord tells him not to overdo it (like he’s some ham actor). It’s a small moment but suggests the glories to come with this pair. He’s not above sneaky tactics, snogging Samantha in order to nab her ticket and take her place on the flight. Taking off on a plane must be a singular first time experience for a hairy legged Highlander and the writers don’t shy away from his culture shock. Its nice to have Jamie up in space whilst the Doctor is grounded on the Earth, its proof that this character has legs and can carry the story. That would be essential moving ahead with the departure of Polly and Ben. Jamie’s duplicate losing his Scot’s accent is a lovely touch to those in the know about Frazer Hines’ true lineage.

Able Seaman & Lovely Lashes: Ben and Polly deserved a much better send off than this and the lack of love for these characters means that they get as ignominious an ending as Dodo. Its not so much departed as pushed. I’m rather fond of this often forgotten pair (mostly because their episodes have suffered a serious junking) and feel they deserved more closure than ‘oh look we’re home, bye then Doctor!’ I can only think of the aforementioned Dodo, Liz Shaw and Romana I getting less satisfying endings (and the last two are only because they don’t get any at all, its literally now you see me, now you don’t) and some of their missing stories (The Smugglers, The Macra Terror) are neglected gems. If what Anneke Wills claims is true and she was offered the chance to stay on then there is a great opportunity in episodes one to see how things would have been with just the Doctor, Jamie and Polly. The shot of the Doctor and Jamie merrily wandering off whilst Polly is knocked unconscious and kidnapped just about sums up the aims of this story.


The Good:
  • I’m sure that everybody must feel a little tingle when a story is filmed in or around their hometown and The Faceless Ones is my moment of pride. I was brought up in Crawley and so Gatwick is very familiar territory for me and a lot of the location work in this story (which is terrific) really gives me a little thrill. I especially love the shot of the Doctor and Jamie sheltering behind the wheels of a plane, an often published publicity still that sums up the resources of this story perfectly.
  • Talk about initial economy of storytelling – Hulke and Ellis have six episodes to fill and yet within seconds the TARDIS has landed in the path of a jumbo jet (a fantastic conceit) and the crew have been forced to split up! The first episode is a jumble of great images and ideas; Polly stumbling on a murder in a hangar and being chased by a man with a gun, the TARDIS strapped to the back of a van, a dead man in a crate and the ingenious idea of the Doctor’s companions not recognising who he is. Its an opening episode that makes full use of its resources to tell a very different, far more contemporary Doctor Who story. Shots of the Chameleon being helped through the airport and then breathing heavily on the hospital bed, its mangled face disguised are quite creepy. It takes a long time to get to the truth behind Chameleon Tours (the first three episodes could easily be truncated down to two and would be stronger for it) but when they do get to the point the story flaunts some very engaging ideas. Crossland discovers the cockpit of a plan decked out with futuristic controls, the cliffhanger to episode three with the camera panning along the body of the plane to reveal all the children are missing is genuinely chilling and the entire sequence of the plane heading into orbit of the Earth and turning into a spaceship on the way is just extraordinary. When the plane falls off of the radar (because it has rendezvoused with the satellite in outer space) the Commandant declares that it must have collided with the RAF jet and crash landed in the ocean which just goes to show the level of realism the show would inject back in the day. Full marks for trigger happy, stony faced Nurse Pinto, a rare femme fatale in this period.
  • Its Doctor Who’s first attempt at doing an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style story and goes straight for the jugular by having the aliens posing as the Doctor’s companions. The image of Polly staring wide eyed out of a packing crate pretty much justifies the idea although the thought of having fun with his companions is quickly dropped as Ben and Polly are shunted off stage in favour of the Doctor/Jamie/Sam team. It was never going to take the Doctor long to figure it out, the answer to the aliens ability is all there in the name of the company they are operating. By adding the word ‘youth’ to the tour programme it automatically makes your hair stand on end. Whilst this was a more innocent time, the abduction of children is still enough to get the audience itchy. I love the sequence where the Doctor looks for the victim in the crate in Air Traffic Control and finds him, it’s a great way of driving home the doppelganger effect. To actually see the horrid, scabby faces of the Chameleons being transformed into a person is another terrific, insidiously conceived visual and one which would have kids looking over their shoulders at their parents wondering if they are who they say they are. Its very satisfying that the aliens are less evil and more misguided (this is a period of the show that was often black and white in more ways than one) and that they are merely trying to find a new home to colonise and identities to claim. Their methods are obscene but their intentions because of the adversity they have faced (losing their home planet) are merely to benefit their struggling race.
  • Samantha Briggs is definitely the one that got away. Bold, brassy and resourceful with a cracking sense of humour and fashion sense. She would have been far and away a much better companion than Victoria and I could see her pushing her way through season five knocking the heads of Cybermen, Yetis and Leader Clent and Penley together. Her chemistry with Jamie is electric and very funny, as soon as they hook up the story instantly starts to entertain in a way that it doesn’t before that point. She’s not above looking weak (she gets something in her eye when she realises what has happened to her brother) but generally she is brave, confident and full of spunk (oh gross, get that out of your head) – all the things that Victoria was lacking. The image of the Doctor, Jamie and Samantha unconscious in episode four is a good visual representation for what could have been.
  • Several actors have proven that they have real versatility and worth on Doctor Who by appearing in the series in several memorable parts. Peter Halliday, Dennis Lill, Wanda Ventham (one of her three appearances is in this story), David Collings… In the sixties I would split that honour between Kevin Stoney (brilliant in both The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Invasion) and Bernard Kay. The latter proves so different from world weary freedom fighter Dortmun (The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and the honourable but slightly scary Saladdin (The Crusade) or even later as the conscience ridden IMC worker (Colony in Space) here as Inspector Crossland, a salt of the Earth Scot’s police investigator who is always quietly assessing the situation and never lets on to his conclusions unless it suits him. Kay is strong enough to head off on his own narrative and hold up large chunks of the action. He’s wonderfully sinister once he takes on the role of a transformed Chameleon.
  • Setting so much of episode four on a Chameleon Tours plane and intercutting the action with dynamic stock footage of a flying beastie it in action gives the episode a dynamism that the first three were lacking. Sending an RAF jet plane after the next Chameleon Tours flight is an exciting, cinematic approach, quite unlike Doctor Who of the time (which preferred low budget, base under siege adventures to give a polished, economic look). You can see just by looking at the telesnaps how the sequence where the plane transforms into a spacecraft must have been an incredible sight. It’s the sort of creative, madcap idea that Doctor Who revels in. The sort of idea than any other show would dismiss as ridiculous. The sight of the blistered Chameleons wandering about the empty plane is extremely jarring in a very unsettling way. The first shot of episode six is through a porthole looking out into space, the story diving headlong into science fiction. Mind there is a clever intercutting of scenes on the satellite and scenes set on Earth suggesting a sense of scale and ambition. That mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary is Doctor Who’s bread and butter.

The Bad:
  • Undoubtedly Donald Pickering is an actor of vast ability but his performance as the villainous Blane isn’t a highlight of his career. Its long been realised that charismatic villains are the most watchable and this still and robotic kind of delivery has long been eased out. The story chugs along quite nicely in the early episodes but every time we cut back to Blane and his ponderous dialogue and soporific activities the pace crawls to a halt.
  • What this story is really lacking is a decent Dudley Simpson score. The music is sparse and unmemorable and as a result the action feels much slower than it should. All you really get are the plucking of a violins strings, an insane cacophony of drum banging and the odd scream-like sound effect, atmosphere generating for sure but nothing melodious or entertaining.
  • The idea of Chameleon Tours covering their arses by getting the kids to write out their postcards on the way to their destination is one of those tricks that seems clever when you are first told about it but comes unravelled very quickly when you start to think about it. Regardless of a bunch of postcards telling their parents/loved ones that they are having a great time surely that many children all going missing and having flown with the same company is open to much suspicion?
  • Like most six parters this is a highly repetitive story. Things that could have been excised are repeated escape and capture moments (especially involving the Doctor opening various crates and discovering bodies inside), repeated and progressively hysterical confrontations between the Doctor and the Commandant (who somehow gets more baffled and argumentative the more evidence is presented to him) and the Doctor’s repeated attempts to sniff out doppelgangers in Air Traffic Control. Any material with Patrick Troughton is worth watching (he’s just so good) so it seems a shame that they make him run around in circles playing out the same material until he can engage with the aliens from episode five onwards and work towards a resolution.
  • Whilst they are well performed, the last episode has an extended coda full of goodbyes that should never happened. Polly and Ben have been shafted and leave in a hastily typed off excuse to get rid of them. If that was to happen anyway then Samantha should have stuck around but she and Jamie say goodbye too, sharing a rarely seen kiss in classic Who. Nice moments, but this isn’t how things should have gone down.
The Shallow Bit: Frazer Hines looking young, beautiful and innocent as a lamb. He’s just gorgeous.

Result: With its coarse location work, locked room mysteries and bureaucratic nightmares, the early episodes of The Faceless Ones is more like the first Emma Peel season of The Avengers than Doctor Who. There’s a great deal to recommend about this story, especially when it ventures wildly into science fiction in the latter episodes but there is no denying the fact that it is two episodes too long and would have served much better a pacy four parter. There is far too much too-ing and fro-ing from one location to another and repetitive action in the first half which means once the twists have done their business there is frantic lead up to the climax. Perhaps it is a mixture of its contemporary setting, the prominence of Jamie (who is very pretty) and Samantha (who is even prettier) and the way the writers stack their revelations and great ideas across the six episode that kept this story popular (most Doctor Who stories have a habit of starting with strong ratings and tailing off but The Faceless Ones scores nearly eight million for episodes one, three and six). The dream team of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines are as youthful and full of vigour as they ever would be but Polly and Ben are short-changed in a rather severe way in what should have been their memorable swansong (the responsibility of which falls on The Macra Terror instead in which they dominate). Sam Briggs is the one that got away, a much more attractive prospect than the Victorian cream puff that was to come and she slips in with the Doctor and Jamie with ease. Add in some strong guest performances, a generally polished production (although the direction is occasionally stilted) and fantastic premise (aliens colonising through such insidious means proving to be misguided victims of a natural disaster) and you have a story made of fantastic ingredients. It feels like it is leading up to something special but everything fizzles episode six with the Doctor making promises that he is never going to stick around to make sure will happen. This would have made a four episode classic, instead at six episodes it is very good but is not quite as spectacular as it wants to be: 7/10


Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/

6 comments:

Stampy said...

Hi Joe,

May I republish this review in my Dr Who fanzine, please?

Joe Ford said...

Of course, is it online? Or a physical mag? Anyway I could wing a copy?

Stampy said...

Hi Joe, Thanks for saying yes. I'll send you a copy once done. The site is at http://time-rotor.proboards.com/

Joe Ford said...

I have tried eight times to create an account for your forum and it keeps kicking me out saying I'm not filling in any of the fields correctly when I'm just doing what it asks! What am I doing wrong?

Stampy said...

Hi Joe,

Please email your registering email account to time-rotor[at]hotmail.com and I will fix it? Also a username too!

Stampy said...

Joe,

I forgot to add the .au to the end of the email.

Thanks
Andrew