Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Hand of Fear written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin and directed by Lennie Mayne

What’s it about: A disembodied hand sucks up the power of a nuclear reactor...and comes to life!

Teeth and Curls: It is hard to look at season fourteen and think anything but Tom Baker is at the height of his powers. For my money there are three seasons were he shines brighter than all the others - 13, 14 and 16 but this was the year where he truly understood precisely what the audience wanted and delivered it in spades. By all accounts this was just on the cusp of when he became a true pain in the ass to work with, buying into his own reputation and developing something of a God complex, but there is no denying that he produced some timeless results. He is literally an actor out time - I have been watching him for the past three decades and I don't think there has been a single time where I have felt his performance is dated. He always feels contemporary. The Hand of Fear is not one of his best remembered stories but he marches through the narrative without breaking a sweat. His quiet despair when he thinks Sarah has been buried alive is palpable and I really enjoyed all the funny business at the hospital (is this the first time Gallifrey has been mistaken for somewhere in Ireland or have Bob and Dave already slipped that gag in elsewhere?). The Doctor spends most of the first two episodes without his trusty companion and as such this could be considered a dry run for The Deadly Assassin. I love how he marches into the power station control room with no excuses or apologies and pretty much takes over. I certainly wouldn't question his authority. Defying the convention of bog standard super heroes he states that the TARDISes armaments are inside his head and he proves to be a true friend of Earth, aiding Eldrad to get back to Kastria to rid his home from home of her destructive presence. It is absolutely typical of the Doctor that when he tries to get Sarah home he materialises about as far from her place of residence as it is far to get within the same country. People have commented that the Doctor doesn’t seem to show any emotion at having force Sarah out of the TARDIS but sometimes there is far more said in a restrained reaction than in misty eyed emotion. Matt Smith is similarly quiet during the mushier moments of his era and it creates a far more poignant atmosphere than laying on the tears. Highlighting the madness of their adventures and the sudden, unresponsive silence of their feelings.

Sumptuous Sarah: You have got to give Sarah some credit for being able to step out of the TARDIS wearing such an eye catching outfit. Two explanations spring to mind; either she has completely lost her mind or she is so used to visiting extravagant alien locations where this sort of attire wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow that she feels extremely comfortable with her own sense of haute couture. Slap her next to the similarly freakishly attired sixth Doctor and they would match as a pair. Sarah has clearly been at this game for far too long when she can mistake a genuine quarry for an alien planet. Although I do wonder if she has taken leave of her sense when she starts waving animatedly at the guy who is clearly trying to warn them that she is in mortal danger. Still, she wouldn't be Sarah if she didn't occasionally do something a bit silly. Lis Sladen must have had a blast playing the villain, acing the role of the drunken, child-like Eldrad-possessed-Sarah. Watch as she taps into a feeling of flirtatious immaturity as she approaches a guard like a coy little girl biting her finger before knocking him unconscious for letting his guard down. Sarah is sick of being putting under by the Doctor (‘Oh no! That’s not fair! Not agai-’) but she does get her revenge on him by pretending to be under Eldrad’s spell once again when he brings her around. Her sneaky nose wipe when she breaks free of the Doctor’s influence is lovely, Sladen always adding little unique touches. Sarah always gets the maddest lines and Sladen somehow manages to bring them to life credibly, I loved her suggestion that they communicate with Eldrad via hand signals. Despite the danger she is clearly having a blast, holding her nose in a very pantomime fashion as she awaits a nuclear strike. Sarah knows she should do as she’s told and stay out of trouble but she’s not going to because she worries about the Doctor. It is during this scene where she marches to his side to walk into whatever danger awaits in the nuclear power plant that I got the sense of attraction between these two stronger than any other moment during their time together. Ever the child, Sarah has a right strop when the Doctor agrees to help Eldrad and sulks off to chomp on a banana. Her horrified realisation that she is walking on the dead Kastrians is fabulous, and mirrors precisely what my own reaction would be. ‘I must be mad! I’m sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left right and centre! I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters and never knowing if I’m coming, going or being! I want a bath! I want my hair washed! I just want to feel human again! I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home!’ – Sarah is so utterly, wonderfully normal it is heartbreaking to see her go. From now on it is a string of artificial characters (a savage, a robot dog, a Time Lady, a boy genius, an alien orphan, a bossy Australian, a shifty political prisoner, a bossy American, a cardboard computer programmer, a headstrong wild child...) and it wouldn't be until Rose joined the series that a companion would feel so authentically human and unaffected again. No wonder it felt very right when they came together in the series.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I salute you from the dead. Hail Eldrad…King of nothing!’

The Good Stuff: Some might find the opening scenes on Kastria a little too melodramatic for their tastes but the material is treated with pertinent sincerity. The planet is stylishly executed via a convincing model shot and the sets, costumes and style acting present a credible alien culture perching on the precipice of extinction. The location work in The Hand of Fear is easily Lennie Mayne's most accomplished work on Doctor Who. Somehow he events makes the standard BBC quarry a genuinely stifling environment as Sarah is traumatically buried beneath an avalanche of rubble. The POV of the camera that was buried in the explosion makes me flinch every time I see it, the rubble is literally flying at you from the screen. A stone hand buried in a quarry is a great hook into the story, lying dormant for centuries as the rest of the world built up around it. It must have been disconcerting for children to experience Sarah Jane, their heroine for past three years, staring out at them blank eyed and menacing. What an impressive location the nuclear power plant is, affording vertiginous shots that expose it's incredible proportions. This is the sort of location that Bond films are shot in, it is unusual to get this sense of space and scale in a Doctor Who story. Hinchcliffe championed the cliffhangers during his time on the show and sure turned out some nightmarish examples. The twitching, disembodied hand coming to life is an effective and unusual example of this. Some actors turn up in Doctor Who, say their lines, take their pay check and go home to their lives in the knowledge that they have done what was required of them. Others (like Glyn Houston in The Hand of Fear) really think about their characters and express far more than the script ever gives them to work with, creating characters with lives beyond the functions of the plot. Watson gets off on exactly the right foot with me, screaming ‘WILL YOU SHUT UP!’ at all the racket going on around him. Just what I was thinking. Some real effort has gone into making the power station control room feel like a hustling working environment with people working their asses off to make sure that the potential dangers of their job are kept under control. These scenes could so easily be forgettable (look at the Devesham control centre scenes in The Android Invasion that lack any believability) but instead they are some of the most natural scenes of the story. How can CSO work so well in one story and so badly in another? Is it down to the skill of the director? Or its overuse? The disembodied hand crawling into the nuclear reactor fools me every time. In a story with such well executed scenes on Earth it feels appropriate that Dr Carter's fall from a soaring height turns out to be one of the most impressive stunts attempted by the programme. It makes me giddy just to think about it. Watson’s casual conversation with his daughter ('Did you?') as he phones home for what could be the last time really moves me because it is so underplayed by Houston. He takes what is an incredibly cliched scene as written and makes it something special. That's real acting. The unmoving hand suddenly grabbing Driscoll is a great shock moment of the sort that Doctor Who doesn't usually go in for. A big round of applause for the sound effects which are continually underrated (especially by me) by fandom but so often contribute the most to an atmosphere of a story. The mournful howl as Eldrad regenerates makes my skin crawl and the slowly melting door wets the appetite for her humanoid reveal. Threatening to topple Houston for best guest performance in the story, Judith Paris gives a cold, uncompromising turn as the version of Eldrad modeled on Sarah and her costume is incredible, looking for all the world as though the crystals are actually growing from her face. For once the backstory is really quite interesting – Eldrad’s gift to Kastria was the protect them from the solar winds, building the spatial barriers and devising a crystalline silicon form for their physical needs. It is a story built on strong foundations rather than having to make something up at the climax to justify what has already taken place. I love the shot of the TARDIS being battered by the solar winds on Kastria’s surface because it was exactly the sort of image that would have opened my mind to huge storytelling possibilities when I was a kid. It still works now. Baker and Martin has though of an ingenious weapon to assassinate a crystalline entity, an arrow full of poison that shatters the crystal matrix and threatens Eldrad's homecoming. Whilst it might not come as a great surprise given his villainous actions, there is at least an attempt to throw the audience off balance with the twist that Eldrad turned on his people and threw down the barriers to let the solar winds batter at their habitation domes, effectively wiping them all out. We've not seen villany on that scale since Davros. In response to his reaction they ordered the premature detonation of the obliteration capsule whilst the remaining Kastrians committed suicide and destroyed the race banks so if there was even the remotest chance of Eldrad returning he would have nothing to control but a barren world. As cliched as it might be, he has been well and trying hoist by his own petard. Sarah’s goodbye is enough to make a grown man cry, she plays about pretending that she’s leaving but as soon as she realises that she really has to go she is gutted by the news. She tries to cover her emotion with bluster but she is holding back some very powerful emotions that she wouldn’t get to release until School Reunion, a long way in the future. I'm pleased that Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen were able to tinker with their farewell scene, it plays out as one that both actors are happy with (compare to Leela's departure in The Invasion of Time).

The Bad Stuff: The Professor attacks the Doctor with the most comically enormous wrench I think I have ever clapped eyes on. Taking cover from a nuclear explosion behind a jeep? I’m not a fan of the paint on the eyes effect (see also Planet of Evil and Image of the Fendhal for other duff attempts) although I really liked the fuzzy colourful aura Eldrad attacks Watson with (also deployed in The Mind of Evil to similar success). Did the money run out come episode four or is there some other reason that the story suddenly feels as though we have transported to a shoddy looking pantomime planet? There are all the staples associated with cheesy televised science fiction; polystyrene rocks, sets repeatedly used to suggest a myriad of caverns, plastic looking gold feels like we've turned up at the end of Eastbourne pier at a JNT Christmas spectacular. Stephen Thorne doesn't really know how to underplay a Doctor Who baddie and so the male version of Eldrad loses all the subtleties of Judith Paris' version and becomes a much more conventional, storm about and shout, villain. He's kind of fun, but he's nowhere near as interesting. The plot ultimately winds up on a moment of pure panto - the villain tripping over a scarf and falling down an abyss. Considering the effort that has gone into making this society as tangible as possible to end on such a farcical note feels a little unfortunate. That was where we were heading all along?

The Shallow Bit: It doesn’t matter what they put Elisabeth Sladen in, she's just divine to look at.

Result: For once the script editor has managed to shape Baker and Martin’s insane quota of imaginative ideas into a simple and engaging narrative, The Hand of Fear works well for its first three episodes but concludes on a truly disappointing finale. It is the ultimate expression of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes obsession with possession and it seems fitting that the mantle should be handed to Elisabeth Sladen on her last story and she conjures up a chilling and playful nasty to kick start the story. Lennie Mayne has always been a reliable director but I would never say a particularly inspired one but he really pulls out the stops during his location scenes in his final piece, utilizing some imaginative camera work to give full exposure to some memorable locations. What a shame that the money runs out in the last episode because the story still has some great surprises up its sleeve and the Doctor/Sarah split is as every bit as emotional as it should be but the story does look every bit the tacky kids show in part four. Eldrad and the Kastrians have been very well thought through as race and there is an intelligent reason behind everything that happens in this story. The backstory is hinted at in episode one but not explained until episode four, suddenly piecing together all the clues seamlessly. It is one last chance to have an adventure with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen and for that alone this story is worth consideration, they are practically talking their own language at this stage. If I was reviewing the first three quarters it would get a 9 for its conviction but as a whole it has to be marked down to a less impressive: 7/10


Anonymous said...

That's quite a bouffant pic of Tom!

I'm not sure but it sounds like you have always felt that Tom's acting is dated (please clarify)?

Didn't Sarah in her Andy Pandy outfit chaperone the Sixth Doctor on Dimensions in Time?

Thanks for your thoughts

Literate Dead said...

This one always surprised me, because it's one of the rare stories I think should have -stayed- a siege story. The attack on the power plant is well-staged and effective, and the child-like possessed Sarah Jane is surprisingly creepy. Then they go into space, Eldrad becomes a dime-store Brian Blessed knockoff, and the whole thing falls apart!

This one's one of the more frustrating serials. It starts quite well, but it just seems to kind of dodge off into a tangent it never returns from. It sets up the setting, characters, and threat, then decides instead to bugger off to space and loses everything!

Also, definitely agree with you about Baker in this season. Heck, the next two stories (The Deadly Assassin & The Face of Evil) are almost all about his performance as the Doctor; especially in The Face of Evil (where he gets to wander around talking to himself!).

Doug Horton said...

I just finished watching this story yet again (I can't count how many times I've seen it since I first watched it as a teenager back in the late 1970's) and the ending still gets me. Sarah was the best! What an exit scene. The writing and acting are all remarkable. Truly moving and heart-felt. Of course when I first saw it I thought that was the last we'd ever see of Sarah Jane Smith. Thank you, Elisabeth Sladen... for bringing Sarah back again so many more times.

David Pirtle said...

I loved almost everything about this one. Great ideas, splendid build-up, an interesting twist, and one of the most moving departures any companion ever got, and without all the melodrama of Nu-Who send-offs. I didn't even mind the cheesy alien set. Lord knows we get enough of those in this show. The only thing that really lets it down is the 2nd Eldrad. How much more interesting would it have been to allow Judith Paris to actually play the villain in the end? Lord knows she'd have pulled it off with more subtlety than her replacement. Heck, I could have done, and I haven't acted since I played a chimney sweep in a grammar school production of Mary Poppins.