Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Serial 89: The Face of Evil

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Leela

Written By: Chris Boucher
Directed By: Pennant Roberts

Background & Significance: After the departure of Sarah Jane and the experiment of not giving The Doctor a companion for one story, producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes (who had found writing a companion-less Doctor Who story immensely difficult) set about looking for a new companion to fill the void.

As luck would have it, Hinchcliffe and Holmes had commissioned a story from one Chris Boucher, who had submitted several ideas to the program and had finally gotten his first bite at the apple with this story.

Interestingly enough, one of the most engaging aspects of the serial was The Doctor's de facto companion for the story: a member of the main tribe in the story, a young woman named Leela. Originally, Leela was not supposed to be a companion, but she really fit into the ideas that Hinchcliffe and Holmes wanted to incorporate into Doctor Who moving forward. The fact that she was a savage and nothing like any companion The Doctor had had before (or would ever have since) helped convinced Hinchcliffe of her long term viability. For Holmes, it was his desire to bring in a Victorian street urchinish character later in the season that the following one might have a season-long arc of educating her Eliza Doolittle style.

This story is also the first appearance of the previously mentioned Chris Boucher (who would go on to write such gems as the subsequent "Robots of Death" and the following season's "Image of the Fendahl." He would go on later to be the script editor for Blake's 7. So that's something.

It's also the first introduction to Pennant Roberts who... let's just say he has one of the poorest track records in Doctor Who, having helmed such directorial turkeys as "The Pirate Planet", "Warriors of the Deep", and "Timelash". So that's something. I guess we'll have to talk about him a bit because... well... he actually does rather good here, doesn't he? I mean, he makes great use of the fact that this whole story was shot on a soundstage with no location filming. That's impressive, if you ask me.

This story, though... it also has the unfortunate "honor" of being in one of the greatest Doctor Who seasons of all time. It's wedged between Robert Holmes's Time Lord magnum opus and Boucher's own legendary tale about Robophobia and a murder mystery on a sandcrawler. Throw in the fact that we lost Sarah Jane just two stories ago and we end off the season with "Talons" and it's no wonder this story gets lost in the shuffle. Well... Not any more!

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

This episode runs itself dangerously close to the line of “nothing happens” and it’s… strange to notice a story this decompressed this early on.

Part of the problem with that is noticing how much Boucher has to kill time until the end of episode one, what with the big grand reveal that, once revealed, allows the story to move forward. And it makes sense. Seeing The Doctor as basically Mount Rushmore really allows the whole story to come into a crisp focus, making much of what everyone was saying at throughout the whole episode about how “The Doctor is the evil one” make sense. It also definitively proves that Boucher as writer knows where he’s going and what he’s doing.

Then again, you also might have figured it out when they show you the words “Survey Team”.

That’s probably my favorite thing about this. Because this is one of the last Leela stories and I’ve been hearing over and over again about how she’s of “The Sevateem”, the moment when you just get a silent shot of the words “Survey Team” really crystalized everything about her and this culture for me. Sure, I know more than the people who are watching this for the first time, but the point stands. The perversion/jumble of language, especially by a future culture is one of my favorite things in science fiction. It’s the reason I love “The Omega Glory” so much, or the revelation that Usnavi in In the Heights was named after the ship his parents saw as they pulled into port in America for the first time.

Between these two things, Boucher sets up a “what the frak” component to his story that will keep the audience engaged and interested enough to come back next week.

Because he’s doing this, it forces you to pay attention to just about everything that’s happening in the story to see what Boucher’s doing with it and Boucher and director Pennant Roberts do a wonderful job of showing you all their clues while sneaking in a few more. Everything from the obvious (the item that Neeva shakes at The Doctor to test him or the cleansing action that the Sevateem do when they see “The Evil One for the first time) to the more subtle (the fact that Neeva’s ceremonial garb is a tattered space suit) really help build the world effectively and make it extremely memorable.

And it’s not just the story, but the production design on just about everything is wonderful. The fact that the jungle is lit despite it being black just on the outskirts is extremely off putting and somewhat sinister, but in the best of ways.

We also get a great introduction to Leela and Louise Jameson (of whom I’m a big fan), who is already kinda great in this. Everything about her is exciting and enticing in the best of ways. So too is Tom Baker as The Doctor, although he’s noticeably different here than he is in just the previous story. He’s even more aloof and more off the reservation that we’ve seen him so far in the show and I find myself… less intrigued with his Doctor than I am in even just the next story. I think it’s the fact that he TECHNICALLY has no companion in this story really hurts him.

I mean, you could count Leela, but it’s hard to because she hasn’t joined him yet. She’s more de facto companion than she is companion.

As a result I’m left put off by The Doctor. I mean, he starts by addressing the camera (and the audience) and I’m left not loving that so much. It feels contrived and needless and is one of those Doctor traits I wish would go by the wayside. All I can think about is how grateful I am that they decided to give Tom Baker a companion and that they stuck by that despite his protestations. It’s not even that I think he can’t carry a story (which he did more or less just fine in “Deadly Assassin”) but more the fact that I hate it when characters talk to themselves for no reason. It needs to be done exceptionally well or it feels like narrative convention that’s stripped away and obviously there to convey something to the audience for the audience’s sake.

But it’s a great use of Tom Baker, especially when he’s doing the voice over the speaker. It’s awesome to see him play a slightly different character using only his voice.

Solid start. Let’s see what’s next.

Part 2:

So going back to structure (because I don’t know where to start with this, I’ll be honest), this story is about as good a second part as you could do.

Because it’s all about the development and the fun & games of the Doctor Who story you happen to be telling, you just have to make it a rollick, reveal some stuff, impress people with a good time. And that’s what Boucher does here. There’s not a huge progression of the plot (that much is apparent when the first thing The Doctor says in the episode is “Let’s go back to the village”, which is where they just came from) but it’s entertaining enough that you perhaps might not notice.

There’s also stuff to like. I think. The set pieces are quite enjoyable and feature an example of both The Doctor’s humor and some sweet sweet revenge.

The revenge comes when The Doctor kicks one of the little snake lizard totally-not-Cybermat things onto one of the Sevateem and he runs off screaming. It is somewhat vindictive, sure. They just spent a while discussing how ruddy dangerous these creatures are and how if you have ten you’re pretty much screwed, so The Doctor getting this thing to latch onto the dude is something of a mean and cruel thing. But! It does allow Boucher to really give some comeuppance to the fact that this guy just backhanded Leela across the face.

It’s a delicate situation, and not so unlike a similar scene in “Vengeance on Varos” where one of the dudes slaps Peri across the face with his glove for no reason. That moment is one of my least favorite in all of Doctor Who ever because it’s sadistic just to be sadistic.

But here, Boucher completely redeems the moment by having The Doctor take out the hitter guy, and that allows the moment to be as violent as it is because they earn it back in the end. Despite the fact that The Doctor is doing something dark, it’s okay because we want this guy to suffer like he does for doing such an atrocious thing. It also helps me think Boucher doesn’t… you know… hate women. The Doctor (as the surrogate for the writer in a lot of instances) won’t put up with this bullshit. And he doesn’t. So yay.

And yet, this episode is textbook wheel spinning. The end of this episode features The Doctor and Leela going into Mount Rushmore (that’s what I’m calling it) after spending an entire episode in its shadow(ish). They also visit the barrier that keeps everything out by being out of phase with normal space time (which I always tend to enjoy) and Leela gets stuck with a Janis thorn so The Doctor can cure her. It’s not like a lot happens so I don’t quite have a lot to say. There’s a lot of great moments, like when The Doctor tricks his way to sitting on the Sevateem throne or when he fakes his voice to talk to Neeva… But…

I dunno. I don’t love it and I don’t hate it. It’s just good? But it gets bonus points for having the guy who plays Von Weich put a glove on his head and have a straight face the whole time. It’s totally ridiculous. Utterly and madly. Props to him for going for it.

Oh and we end on the reveal of GIANT TOM BAKER HEADS ATTACKING PEOPLE. Kinda awesome, especially because it’s basically the last cliffhanger but far, far more menacing. Super badass.

Part 3:

There we go.

So spoiler spoiler: nothing happens. Or rather, relatively not much happens, but what we get here is a completely new scenario for The Doctor to play around in, and that’s always a good thing.

What’s most impressive or exciting to me is the way in which Boucher manages to tell two completely different stories in one story. The first half of this story takes place entirely in the camp of the Sevateem while the second takes place almost entirely in the ship run by the Tesh. Like the Sevateem, “Tesh” is a perversion of the original function served by the original crew, although it’s not nearly as spoonfed. In this case, they were once “Tech.”

Needless to say, all of the imagination and creativity Boucher has is all laid out in this story. It’s here that we get his core concept of AI gone rogue and it… it lives up to its expectations.

See, the best part of this episode is the part where The Doctor confronts the evil computer matrix Xoanon and has to deal with the psychopathic tendencies of the AI machine. It’s a perfectly lovely sequence and is well executed by the schizophrenia of the voices lapping and overlapping, which gives the sensation of being driven mad, but in the best possible ways. I love the way The Doctor attempts to explain it, but explains it like a fairy tale, talking about birthing trauma and how he is responsible.

Not only that, but by making The Doctor directly responsible for the events that brought Xoanon both into being and into this madness, Boucher makes the story that much more exciting and resonant. I love it when The Doctor realizes the mistake he’s made, although I wonder if it’s believable if presented like this. See, I worry that The Doctor didn’t remember what happened, especially if you go by the fact that this incarnation is still a relatively new incarnation. Granted, an indeterminate amount of time HAS passed between "The Deadly Assassin" and this story, but assuming that the adventure wasn’t with Sarah Jane (it doesn’t seem like it is but it very well may be) that means that so much time has passed between "The Deadly Assassin" and this story that The Doctor literally had the prequel adventure to this story and has long since forgotten about it.

That is a bit of a leap to me, and I know that Hinchcliffe and especially Holmes are not super Doctor Who continuityphiles and I know that the impact isn’t the same if Tom Baker isn’t the one who’s been Rushmored, but the point still stands that this might be more effective if the original tale took place during the Hartnell era or what have you. That, to me, is slightly more convincing than this because it really…. It just pushes The Doctor too far and makes him far more unattainable than I think is necessary. Like I say above, it makes us wonder just how much The Doctor does when we’re not looking, and sure he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, but there should be a line, I think. Or something.

But it’s still good and it’s still compelling. Watching The Doctor wrestle with the fact that he’s essentially a surrogate father to Xoanon is wonderful and well done by Mr. Baker in every sense of the word.

Leela is good as well; she does a great job with the corridor action, proving herself a capable action star and also a great hunter. I find that Leela as a character is regularly underused, but her job here is totally wonderful and exciting. I love the tension built as she fights the guards and the “oh shit” moment where she (in a sense) “runs out of arrows”.  In the Classic series, Jameson is one of the best actresses to be a companion and there’s no better proof than right here watching this. There’s nothing so good as well-written Leela. It works super well.

And the cliffhanger is mindblowing because The Doctor collapses in pain as Xoanon (in The Doctor’s own voice) screams “NOOOOO!” And then there’s an uncomfortable silence as the voice of a young child saying “Who am I?” echoes throughout the chamber over and over again. It’s a wonderful twist on what you think the cliffhanger is going to be and subverts expectations in one of the best possible ways. You know there’s a cliffhanger coming (you can feel it) but you don’t know it until you hear it and go “oh that’s bloody creepy, isn’t it?”

And it is.

Part 4:

I think if I had to level a complaint at this story it’s that it doesn’t… really… fulfill all of the things it needs to do when it needs to do them.

Now, that’s mostly untrue for this episode. As a final episode, it’s basically fifteen minutes of utter insanity as everything starts happening at once. Leela is forcibly turned against The Doctor. The Tesh and the Sevateem are both possessed by Xoanon. Neeva turns into a raging lunatic with designs to murder Xoanon. The Doctor tries and tries to figure out what to do. It’s… it’s kinda mindblowing how well it’s constructed. Even the moment when Neeva confronts Xoanon is a great moment, especially in that it gives The Doctor time to execute his plan.

But then we get something like ten minutes of denouement., which is absurd. We get a whole ending with Xoanon and then we get the ending with the Sevateem and the Tesh and it’s just… it’s too much.

That’s weird, though. It’s weird that the guy who went and did “Robots of Death” pretty immediately after finishing this story wrote this one, not because he’s a bad writer but because this so so weirdly paced. ”Robots of Death” is pretty elegantly perfect in terms of its structure, but it feels like Boucher didn’t quite know how to pace this out as well as it needed to be. There’s the same problem in “Image of the Fendahl”, where that story doesn’t quite know what it wants to do with itself in the third part so it sends The Doctor and Leela on a wild goose chase to the asteroid belt where they accomplish nothing at all.

And that’s what I think of when I think of the ending of this episode. It just goes on for way too long and is fairly meandering in its desires to get to the end.

That’s not to say there’s not good stuff in here. I love that Leela fulfills the promise at the end of the story to leave the Sevateem for good and join The Doctor in the TARDIS, despite the fact that she was invited to lead the Sevateem and Tesh in their togetherness or whatever. It’s a great choice for the character and a wonderful trait for a Doctor Who companion, especially one whom Robert Holmes famously wanted to turn into Eliza Doolittle and educate into being “a real civilized person”. Disregarding the inherent superiority complex or whatever of that, I think it’s still interesting (if not crass) to characterize the Doctor/Companion relationship like that. I mean, don’t they travel together to make each other better people? Isn’t that why it happens more often than not?

And of course, the end of Neeva is masterful. I love how it goes and its execution is rather stunningly wonderful. I love the moment he picks up the cannon and goes Xoanon hunting. Awesome.

So it ends and then takes too long to get The Doctor back to the TARDIS. Or at least, that’s my opinion. Boucher gets points for using clever, non-violent methods to get The Doctor out of it. I love that basket thing he puts on his head (mostly because it hilariously mats down Tom Baker’s poofy head) and for turning a character I had apathy towards (Neeva) into a knock-down, drag out badass. It’s a pleasure to watch him and see what he does. So… that wins.

Final Thoughts?: "Face of Evil" is the forgotten story of an extremely strong season of Doctor Who, and I think there's a real reason for that.

The biggest reason, I think, is the fact that it is not to the insane levels of the stories around it. On the one side, it's got by far one of the most heart-crushing companion departures the show has ever seen and the definitive (and I mean *the*) Time Lord story. On the other, it's got two of the strongest Doctor Who stories ever produced.

So the odds are against it. But even despite that it's both elevated and hurt by the era. It's not nearly as openly despised as "The Android Invasion" or "Revenge of the Cybermen" but it also doesn't do enough to warrant being as special as the stories in this era that are considered bona fide classics, and that really hurts it, leaving it somewhat lost in the shuffle amidst genius stories and not.

Where I'd put it is definitely in the weak half of the season and in one of the weaker parts of the season. All through it all I could think about was watching other stories from the era, the ones that are better and more exciting and more memorable. Probably doesn't help that at the time of this writing I've been desperately wanting to rewatch "The Brain of Morbius", but the point still stands. In his first story, Boucher has the impossible task of competing with every other story of this era and they're almost all gems (and he'd go on to write one of those gems after this one) and it's... it's hard to come in right in the middle of that. Stiff competition (no matter how much it might elevate someone) is still stiff competition.

That's not to say the story's without merits. Not at all. It's more than watchable and thoroughly enjoyable. It's mostly well composed and structured, although I do find myself drifting off in the middle in places (episodes two and three in particular) and it's insanely decompressed without earning that decompression (which it could have earned  through enjoyable scenes between characters we love). The final episode is both the strongest and weakest point of the story as a whole, with the first half being a massive awesome set piece of action and adventure and the second half being fairly lifeless because the story is over but they still have to clean some stuff up before they leave.

And that's really this whole story. It's quite good, but ultimately suffers because of the quality of the stories around it. If you dropped this story in the middle of, say, Tom Baker's latter four seasons it'd stick out as a sore thumb of awesome. There's great characters and a wonderful mythology, but it... I can't say it stacks up to the bests of this season or even this era...

Then again, not much does.

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! CYBERMEN! Arrows and Tombs(?)! Lots and lots of gold! And of course The Doctor has a plan! Cassandra steps in next week for more EVIL MONTH with "Silver Nemesis" (WHICH if you anagrammed out DOES contain the word "Evil" in it)! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting... I really enjoyed this one and was totally gushing about it afterwards...