The Face of Evil

8 Apr

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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The Face of Evil gets straight to the nitty-gritty, and flings us into its fictional world with an opening scene that’s archetypal Doctor Who. “There can be but one punishment for such a heresy…” says a man in judgment of a beautiful girl. “Banishment!” It’s clearly a big deal, because Dudley Simpson blasts straight in with drums and trumpets. Da-da-da-da-daaah! Da-dah! Oh – you think – this is what Doctor Who’s all about. This is why we’re here. It’s leggy Leela who’s facing the banishment punishment, for doubting the existence of the great god Xoanon; if not his ability to pep up a game of Scrabble. Leela’s tribe is in uproar. Insults fly between the accused and high priest Neeva, and their argument fleshes out the idiosyncrasies of this world. We’re in a primitive, wattle-and-daub hut, but – look! – sci-fi gubbins litter the place. There’s no time to ponder that little tease, because Leela’s old dad is dragged away to face “the test of the Horda” and, backstage, delivers the finest scream in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a shrieking symphony in three movements: an epic yodel of horror, part Tarzan, part copulating fox. “You have until sunrise,” says leader Andor to Leela, his voice rumbling with movie trailer portent. “If you are still within the boundary then, you must be thrown to the Horda.” And so it is that we’re served with everything we need for an adventure in fewer than two dozen lines of script. There’s something to be scared of, a mystery to intrigue us, a heroine to cheer for. You can’t imagine how it might be done better… And then Tom Baker arrives, and brings us down to Earth with a bump.

It appears that our star is not quite himself. An actor of limitless horsepower, by his standards he’s barely revving the engine. Perhaps Baker suspects that he’s no longer the centre of attention, given that, as of this week, there’s now a gorgeous girl right alongside him wearing little more than a smile and a suntan. Every eye in the room is on Leela. “I’m going to enjoy lighting that!” calls a voice from the gantry. Reports of these days of recording place the new girl at the focal point of a semicircle of randy studio staff. And this being the 1970s, you picture a room of Les Dawsons with headsets and clipboards, pebble glasses steamed up, all “phwoar!” and “knickers knackers knockers!” Certainly, we know that actress Louise Jameson was wolf-whistled. Today, this would likely provoke a lengthy disciplinary procedure – and a furious, fully-illustrated article in the Daily Mail – but Jameson tells us she felt encouraged by the heartfelt enthusiasm. However, I’ll bet Tom Baker had a face like thunder. He may have the big hat and the coloured scarf, the teeth and the curls, but he’s now playing against acres of womanly flesh held in check by a few square feet of chamois leather. He’s been asking if he can go it alone without a companion, but instead he’s been given the most eye-catching sidekick imaginable. Doctor Who’s centre of gravity has shifted beneath him. And is that The Face Of Evil’s production code he keeps muttering under his breath?

“Leela is here for the dads,” says the producer. But not just the dads, surely? “Doctor Who is made for intelligent 14-year-olds”, adds the script editor. They’ll know that 14 is a particularly sticky time in a boy’s development, and Leela will certainly hold her audience rigid in front of the television for half an hour every Saturday. The irony is that while Leela is the most brazen – some would say cynical – deployment of sex appeal in the series’ history, she is also the most fully thought-through and skilfully played companion the series has ever had. Jameson makes Leela part pedantic toddler and part hunting hound. It’s a crazy-sounding combination, but her hard work makes the character completely real when she should be totally absurd. However, although Leela is certainly lovable, it’s hard to completely give your heart to her. It’s telling how, in The Face of Evil, there’s no romantic subplot for Leela and dishy tribesman Tomas. He seems devoted to her – as well he might – but she doesn’t notice or care. The need to play against all that obvious sexuality means that Leela has to be completely ignorant of such matters. Even the Doctor has to be careful not to touch. And so, Leela will stay childlike and innocent – and at an emotional remove from us – throughout her travels in the TARDIS, until the day she bizarrely decides to start a new life in the city with a middle-ranking policeman.

The Face of Evil is admired for having a Big Idea at its core, and rightly so. It is, I think, the series’ second attempt at what I’m going to call a ‘broken spring’ adventure. Everything that happens in such a tale is merely the side effect of an unstable system that the Doctor slowly comes to understand, and then repair. It’s a story type that’s been part of the series from the beginning, and now named for the spring that jams the Fast Return switch in Doctor Who’s third story, and spins the TARDIS to the brink of destruction. However, it took until The Face of Evil for the Doctor to encounter his second broken spring mystery. Here, god Xoanon is merely a computer running a corrupted program. It was built to help humans, but thanks to a mistake – and a very special mistake in this case – it is instead doing them harm, without any clear ambition of its own. There are other homicidal computers in Doctor Who, of course – WOTAN, BOSS – but they are portrayed as sentient, and working to a self-serving purpose in the manner of any mad scientist. Xoanon’s breakdown, portrayed here as madness, is the result of a programming error, and the ultimate solution proves to be – as for so many IT problems – to switch it off and on again.

And so, The Face of Evil is one of a rare breed. The only similar stories in the original run of Doctor Who are Underworld – with another computer running degraded software – and Full Circle, where the ‘system’ to be understood by the Doctor is the cyclic evolution of a whole planet, and there’s no one to blame for that. It’s a different matter for modern Doctor Who, where the broken spring idea has featured far more frequently. The Empty Child was the first, and The Girl in the Fireplace, Gridlock and Silence in the Library also gave us machines struggling to fulfil their original program. The idea is there again in The Beast Below, Amy’s Choice and The Lodger, and we saw it five times in last year’s series alone. The Siren, the Flesh, the Handbots, a creepy hotel and the ‘night terrors’ all turned out to be functions or side effects of a misfiring mechanism. It takes someone of the Doctor’s smarts to spot the trap, break the cycle and free the victims. And with no malice aforethought, a happy side effect can be that, sometimes, everybody lives.

Put in this context, and given the calibre of stories that have ploughed the same furrow, it’s no small compliment to say that The Face of Evil is one of the very best of its type. That’s because it delivers a unique and satisfying twist, in that the Doctor is not merely the solution to the problem – he’s also the cause. It’s the Doctor’s fudged repair, in an expedition unseen, that bust Xoanon’s spring in the first place, and left it with a piece of his own personality jammed in its software. This leads to the story’s signature moment, at the end of Part Three, when the Doctor confronts Xoanon. In a beautifully-realised effect that still impresses today, the Doctor’s own distorted face, thrice over, screams back at him in confusion with the voice of a child. It’s one for the all-time clips reel.

Sadly, the story gently trundles downhill through its final episode. There’s a countdown to a nuclear-reactor overload, but it lacks the sense of urgency one normally finds with countdowns to nuclear-reactor overloads – and we’ve seen a few in our time, you and I. Not everybody lives, but Xoanon is cured; or at least that’s how it’s sold to us. We’ll come back to that.

The Face of Evil is, perhaps fittingly, a schizophrenic production, with a fidgety left hand seemingly determined to undo the good work done by the right. The jungle scenes, largely shot on film, are a triumph – moody and sinister – which is no small achievement given that the jungle in question is for the most part a delicate suspension of Hoover hose. These sequences are beautifully lit, but when you step into the huts of the Sevateem, and in front of video cameras, the floodlights sear your retinas. You can close your eyes and still see a glowing outline of Leslie Schofield.

Similarly, while the Sevateem themselves hold our interest, thanks to the sharp script and skilful casting, when we meet their rivals – the whey-faced, uptight Tesh – it’s difficult to stay focused. Sure, the Tesh have an initial impact. They’re playing-card Jacks come to life, like the Queen of Hearts’ harassed footmen. The problem is, unlike the Sevateem, we never feel that that the Tesh have a life outside of the demands of the plot – perhaps because so many are played by extras and stuntmen. And while the story generally keeps us moving along, it fills out its length with little distractions that loop back to where we were a few minutes earlier. The test of the Horda, when we see it, is straight from the medieval zone of The Crystal Maze. “This is a three-minute game, shot entirely on film, and your time starts the second I close the door.” You can imagine a gormless estate agent from Woking wielding the crossbow while his colleagues screech from the sidelines. “Shoot the rope, Darren! Gettin’ thinner as it gets faster, innit!” Later, Leela is hypnotised twice – which looks like carelessness. The second time, the Doctor cures her by sonic screwdrivering a random, unidentified prop. There’s a sneaking suspicion they’re making some of this up as they go along.

But what of Xoanon, and the people he serves? There’s a suggestion that he’s been breeding the Sevateem and the Tesh for specific attributes – one for brawn and one for brains, but it’s not really explained why. Frankly, on the given evidence, he seems to have instead produced one colony of heterosexual men and one colony of homosexual men. The immediate result of bringing them together can only be confusion and disappointment on both sides, like taking a stag party clubbing in Brighton. There’s going to be no end of embarrassment the next morning, and red cheeks all round. However, there is some hope for the future, because although it’s often been commented that when Leela leaves with the Doctor the planet loses its only woman, there is – as Yoda once said – another. A second lady of the Sevateem can be glimpsed in a film sequence. Well, I say lady. Her hair is tight back in bunches, and she stomps past the camera like she’s on her way to the 24-hour garage for a scratchcard and 10 Bensons. But she at least looks the pragmatic type, and might well be game for repopulating the planet. She might even go for a Tesh, if she can see past the velvet knickerbockers and pea-green espadrilles.

That’s if she even gets the chance. For there remains reason to believe that Xoanon still isn’t the full ticket even after the Doctor’s second repair. When commenting on the computer’s crackpot foray into eugenics, Leela says: “That’s horrible!” The Doctor agrees. “It is,” he says – before addressing Xoanon. “Isn’t it horrible?”

“But it’s over now,” smarms the machine, entirely dodging the question. Hmm… That’s a rather suspicious bit of evasion, if you ask me. And was that the sound of a spring going ‘ping’?

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DVD Extras

Into the Wild, the production documentary, is as smart and comprehensive as can be. Special congratulations to the team for finding Anthony Frieze, who provided the child’s voice for Xoanon. It’s the sort of thing the DVD range so is very good at. And if you’ve ever craved a close look at the ‘stone’ head of Tom Baker made for this story, then here’s your chance. The camera caresses the big face so thoroughly, so lovingly, you feel the director won’t be completely satisfied until he’s snogged it with tongues.

An instalment of Tomorrow’s Times looks at press coverage of the Baker years, and rightly lingers over a defining piece of Doctor Who-related journalism: Jean Rook’s hatchet-job interview with Robert Holmes for the Daily Express in 1977, titled: “Who do you think you are, scaring my innocent child?” Rook was one of the great, pompous witches of old Fleet Street, and it’s a treat that she ever bothered with Doctor Who. “I wonder if this inflated ex-children’s programme is over-stretching itself,” she wrote, “and worshipping its own uninhibited cult?” Oh, Ms Rook… Over-stretching itself is what Doctor Who does best. And if you think it was uninhibited then, you should see it now. And while I have you, dear Jean… Let me take this moment to point out that any sentence written by Robert Holmes has more worth, and will live longer, than every single word you ever wrote added together.

The most exciting DVD extra of all is a TV advertisement for the Denys Fisher range of Doctor Who dollies, where a young boy with four teeth that clearly don’t get along is the show runner for a brief – but no less full-blooded and game-changing – adventure. Our tiny Time Lord and a flicky-haired Leela, who looks like she should be held by the feet and used to rinse out wine glasses, are under attack from “a fearful Cyberman, the Giant Robot, and one of the deadly Daleks.” The Giant Robot, while not so giant as it claims, strikes a swishy, hip-swinging pose that clearly puts the wind up the Doctor. “Leela covers him!” gasps the voiceover. “And the Doctor escapes!” What? He leaves the poor girl to fend for herself and just skips off in the TARDIS on his own? It’s like a miniature metaphor for Tom Baker’s dreams.

As a lad, your reviewer begged, cajoled and pleaded for these toys, and they arrived gift-wrapped, one-by-one, over the course of various birthdays and Christmases. Except for poor Leela, that is.  Buying a Sindy or Barbie – albeit one armed with a knife – was a step too far for my parents. Because, although they didn’t know the proper words for it, they already suspected their youngest son was far less Sevateem than Tesh.


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One Response to “The Face of Evil”

  1. otherproduction April 9, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    Very well spotted, Gary – I never saw the
    gay vs straight under current in it. I was more
    interested in Xoanon’s multiple personalities,
    making it a sort of mechanical Sybil or
    United States of Tara. And I never realised
    what a great actress Louise Jameson was
    until she played more conventional roles in
    “Tenko” and “Bergerac”.

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