Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Face of Evil written by Chris Boucher and directed by Pennant Roberts

There is a very interesting premise at the core of The Face of Evil, more interesting than a computer with a split personality that split up a colony ship into two separate tribes. The Doctor has often been portrayed as a flawed hero but we never really get to see evidence of this so to hear him admit that on his last visit he tried to help and misjudged his tinkering (and his ego) is quite a shock. Much like The Ark it is fascinating to set the story long after the Doctor's first visit and to explore the consequences. Whilst hardly apologetic the Doctor is clearly horrified to see the far-reaching results of his handiwork, you realise just how much of an impact, how much change he has caused when he doesn't even recognise the planet or the people until the end of the second episode! I love this idea of the Doctor failing, its one of the reason I will take him over James Bond (actually in latter years Bond has been portrayed as a flawed hero so that is a pretty moot argument of mine) any day because the Doctor can lose and lose spectacularly. A lot of people die in this story and none of it would have happened had the Doctor never visited. He's the catalyst for everything that takes place.

The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen and looking at it objectively it is easy to see why. It isn't one of the big hitting spectaculars like Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Deadly Assassin, it doesn't have the rich visual splendour of The Robots of Death of Masque of Mandragora. Even The Hand of Fear has Lis Sladen's creepy turn as the possessed Sarah and her moving departure at the end of the story. In comparison The Face of Evil is a studio bound tale set on a faceless alien world full of visual science fiction clichés such as tribesmen and insane computers. But to write it off as such is to do the story a great disservice.

It is a very clever piece from writer Chris Boucher that takes big ideas like God-worship and split personality and applies them to a tale that is low on action but scores well intellectually. Hinchcliffe is still taking risks three stories from his departure, most producers would keep it safe and just use writers they can rely on but this young, dynamic producer is still drawing fresh talent to the show. A bold but successful step, the script is lively and packed with amusing dialogue and clever quips (but then with Robert Holmes lurking in the background that is practically a given). It's beautifully structured too, the first two episodes introduce the main concepts; the mystery of the Doctor's influence on the planet, the scientific equipment scattered about a primitive colony. After exploring the Sevateem camp the story switches location for the last two episodes into the Tesh ship and introduces the heart of the problem in the memorable third cliffhanger. It holds back its answers for as long as possible but it is more satisfying as such because we have seen so much evidence to give the revelations some weight. Because it is a more considerate story than usual it demands more time to deal with its climax, which unusually takes place halfway through the last episode with plenty of time to deal with explanations and the future of the colonists. It's not a perfect story but you cannot fault the effort that has gone into the writing, which is unusually dense for this series.

How bizarre is it to see a companionless Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I don't think I could have managed a whole story with the Doctor addressing the camera as he does at the beginning of this story. Although it is rather fun imagining that you are the companion, that he is addressing you personally. If the production team had been even braver they would have roughened Leela up even more, had her dirty and dishevelled, like she really lived in the wild. As it is the Dads need some incentive to tune in so Louise Jameson debuts in clean skins looking as though she has just taken a bath. A sanitised savage she may be, but she s still stunningly beautiful and of course a superb actress to boot. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral and that is all down to Jameson's acting choices.

There is immediate potential with Leela that isn't apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jamie and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jamie and Victoria were companions from the past and Leela is a savage warrior) who require a lot of explanations for the scientific side of things. It allows the writer to feed information to the viewer without the companion looking stupid. But it's more than that, I firmly believe the key to good comedy/drama is healthy culture clashing and to pair up an eccentric scientist with a homicidal savage and you have character gold. I think the interest in Leela as character waned when Robert Holmes gave up the script editing reins but there were plenty of wonderful moments scattered about her first five stories to justify the experiment. As is often the case, the companion simply cannot shake out of the clichés of the role but Leela managed it more often than a great many. Indeed Louise Jameson's compelling performance as the naive savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering in precisely the way Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the situation together.  and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didn't even understand at the beginning and even looking at her own people exactly the same way we saw her at the beginning, thus begins her education. It's a smart relationship, one of a handful that stood out in the seventies.

Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in The Massace but more often they are background elements (Underworld has a twisted religious sect at it's heart but we never get involved enough in it's workings to understand much about it). The Face of Evil deals with a heavy religious theme and has the balls to be less than positive about it. It is almost a deconstruction of the God myth, Xoanon is simply a diseased computer with delusions of grandeur but the myth behind this 'God' is an extremely powerful and destructive force. It shows how propaganda can lead to a belief system of its own, through Neeva (tricked by Xoanon), the Sevateem are manipulated into fighting and killing on behalf of their God. And Leela who actively speaks out against Xoanon is threatened with execution and banished from the settlement. It exposes some of the dangers that come with raw religious beliefs and shows you how far people are willing to go in the name of their icon. Even more interestingly the story opens out into religious war, with the two fractured halves of Xoanon's personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh. We see two homicidal factions that dismiss the other's beliefs and wish to see their false religion stamped out. All very interesting. I suppose the question is how far into exploring religion can a four part SF serial from the 70's go? Much of what I have discussed here is background information and there to be picked up by those who choose but they will be others who should dismiss my claims and read something completely different into the story, or even that it has no commentary at all and is only a rather witty (if drab) adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that a story should throw religion in such an unforgiving light. Certainly of you look at this story with religion in mind it has some very damning comments to make. What is bloody brilliant is the idea (and realisation) of a savage community with technological equipment scattered around their settlement. The way in which the Sevateem has compartmentalised these objects into their society is very creative. Neeva's glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment, driving home the idea of how this civilisation came to be.

One huge fault with the story and one that the Hinchcliffe era is so keen to avoid usually is the design. It is a very dour looking story which starts with the sets and then extends to the rest of the production. The bare and unconvincing jungle, the sterile corridors of the survey ship, simple hut like dwellings. The costumes: savages in simple leathers (realistic but hardly eye catching), the Tesh in bizarrely camp makeup and green quilted uniforms. The direction is lacking too, occasionally there is a moment of genius (like the test of the Horda) but sometimes Pennant Roberts sticks to dull static shots for his fight sequences and let's some shoddy production errors pass by his eye. Little of this story pleases the eye and I find myself bored and wanting some vibrancy. No trouble of that in the next two stories. Another massive problem is the third episode; this is another season fourteen story that suffers from the curse of the third episode. This instalment seems to comprise of some embarrassingly inefficient laser fights, both in the jungle and in the Tesh ship and a bunch of manual-inspired Tesh being civilised and camp with each other. It is not until the unsettling cliffhanger the things pick up where we are finally privy to some explanations. Perhaps a more dynamic director could have livened up this change of location but it's a pretty slovenly 25 minutes as it stands.

One thing the story gets very right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced British character actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Price's Tomas is the token nice guy but there is nothing queasy about his sensitive performance. David Garfield plays Neeva with the right amount of hypnotic naiveté; I love it when he interrogates the Doctor by waving scientific equipment in his face and screaming religious propaganda (although I dread to imagine how somebody would judge this had they never seen Doctor Who before and walked in on that scene). But best of the bunch is Leslie Schofield's enigmatic performance you can see a character who is watching every plot twist and seeing how they can twist it to their advantage.

It is a story that takes the psychological and religious angle over straightforward action adventure but still manages to tell a fairly entertaining story. It is far from perfect (it's not exactly the first story you would show a non fan, or even the tenth) but there is an intelligence to the story that is hard to ignore. Personally I find it a little too dry in places, the direction freezing up too often but I would still bill it as a strong story in its own right and one that manages to push the boundaries far better than the acknowledged and overrated stories that make similar claims, such as Kinda.

Just think the entire universe could be the handiwork of a clapped out computer with split personality syndrome: 7/10


Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

This story is curious because as you noted, it doesn't stand out very much for memorable imagery like its peers do but it has quite an intelligent script, in the upper half of the season actually.

To be honest, I miss the usual format - I thought it gave your reviews a distinct and memorable touch and I admit I found it hard to digest the blocks of text present here (I should talk, I write like that all the time! :P). Nonetheless, it was interesting to see you take a different approach and tone with the review - is this an experiment or is it taking full time?

Just started college so either way, I hope I can count on you for lots of reading material in-between assignments in the future :)

David Pirtle said...

Overall a very good story, but I have to say those are some seriously scrawny warrior savages.

tom said...

Thought you might like to know that the Black Archive title on this story includes a quote from this review. Thanks for all of your reviews; they have been helpful, informative, and entertaining over the years--when the editor said they needed some reviews to quote from, I knew just where to look for a good one!