Back when I reviewed 'The War Machines', I stated that I don't like villainous supercomputers. I'm starting to wish that I hadn't made this claim, since I first discovered that BOSS works rather well in 'The Green Death', and now have to admit that Xoanon, the schizophrenic supercomputer of 'The Face of Evil' is also highly effective. Sandwiched as it is between 'The Deadly Assassin' and 'The Robots of Death', it is all too easy to underestimate Chris Boucher' debut Doctor Who story, but to do so is a mistake; 'The Face of Evil' is very, very good.
'The Face of Evil' benefits from a relatively complex plot that works well on several levels. Firstly, it explores the consequences of the Doctor's often-hasty actions, as he returns to a planet where he once hurriedly repaired the computer of the Mordee colonization ship, making a careless mistake in the process, which has had dire consequences for the colonists and their descendents. Having left an imprint of his own mind in the newly sentient computer Xoanon, he spawned a schizoid being of enormous power, which subjugated the Mordee and split them into two groups; the technologically primitive but physically strong Sevateem, and the technologically advanced and psychic Tesh. This is revealed in stages through well paced and highly effective story telling, as the Doctor arrives and discovers the tribal Sevateem, and he (and therefore the audience) are confronted by the innocuous presence of technological relics scattered throughout both their village and their culture. The cliffhanger ending to Episode One presents the striking image of a massive stone carving of the Doctor's face, at which point the emphasis of the story shifts slightly as the Doctor attempts to remember when he last visited the planet and what he did to make such an impact.
Presented with the consequences of his past actions, the Doctor is portrayed here with a considerable sense of urgency as he quickly accepts responsibility for the plight of the Sevateem and sets about trying to rectify his mistake. Despite characteristic flashes of humour, the Doctor is at his most intense here, as he almost impatiently tries to get the Sevateem to trust him, which he finally more or less manages when he successfully undertakes the test of the Horda. Prior to this, we see him constantly going out on a limb to befriend them, in spite of Neeva's belief that he is the Evil One, and also Calib's duplicitous nature and constant maneuvering for political power. Tom Baker rises the to the challenge magnificently, putting in one of his best performances; he seems genuinely furious when Calib tries to murder Leela with a Janis thorn, and savagely threatens to break his nose if he doesn't get up and help carry her to a handy supply of "holy relics". The Doctor is clearly appalled by Jabel's serene attitude to Leela's impending dissection, and becomes increasingly impatient during the last two episodes as he races against time to cure Xoanon. Baker also conveys well the Doctor's business-like attitude to every problem that he faces, be it Xoanon's invisible psi-tri projections, the test of the Horda, or the gun-wielding Tesh. He also superbly portrays the Doctor's angst and desperation at the end of Episode Three as he tries to explain to the utterly demented Xoanon that he wants to help it.
In addition to all of this, 'The Face of Evil' works to a degree on a metaphorical level, possibly attempting to explore the dichotomy between science and religion. Although both the Sevateem and the Tesh worship Xoanon, the former are more overtly superstitious and bound by ritual, whereas the latter are more dependent on logic, reason, and technology. Neitehr is suggested to be better than the other; the Sevateem lead a brutal life, exiling dissenters to supposedly certain death beyond the boundary or letting them face the equally deadly test of the Horda. The Tesh, initially seemingly civilized by comparison, are no better, as their disregard for Leela's life in Episode Three demonstrates. Boucher has gained something of a reputation for decrying religion in his original Doctor Who novels, but here he seems to be attempting a more balanced view. I should lay my cards on the table at this point and say that as an atheist I've never felt any particular emptiness in my life left by the absence of religion, but a television programme broadcast at teatime on a Saturday and aimed at a family audience is arguably not the place for prompting either science or religion over the other, and so Boucher here suggests that the two need to coexist; it is not until the Sevateem and the Tesh reach an uneasy truce at the end of the story that there is a suggestion of hope for the future.
The characterisation is generally very good in 'The Face of Evil', with Calib and Neeva worthy of particular mention (I'll come to Leela in a moment). Neeva starts out as a fairly two-dimensional religious fanatic, but as his faith in Xoanon is shattered he becomes more than that, suffering a breakdown and then turning against his false god. David Garfield plays the part well, and the character becomes increasingly sympathetic as the story progresses; the scene in which the Doctor impersonates Xoanon from within the ship and orders him to lead the tribe through the mouth of idol only to hear Neeva reply "Yes Doctor" works very well, as it shows that Neeva has finally accepted the truth that the Doctor has been offering since the start. Neeva is also the subject of a great line from the Doctor, as Leela asks what happened to him and the Doctor answers "too much, too quickly". Calib too is an excellent character, well played by Leslie Schofield. Wily and motivated entirely by politics, Calib is utterly ruthless but nevertheless not an outright villain; ultimately, he's a pragmatist, willing to sacrifice anyone who stands the way of his rise to leadership of the Sevateem, but also willing to ally himself with former enemies for the overall good of the tribe. Of all the human characters in 'The Face of Evil', the Tesh are the least sympathetic, but even they are victims of years of indoctrination by Xoanon. And Xoanon itself is not a typical Doctor Who villain, but a seriously mentally ill being, who once cured is gentle and contrite, offering the Sevateem and Tesh the opportunity to destroy it once and for all, or the chance to benefit from its vast knowledge when they suffer it to live.
'The Face of Evil' is of course best known for the introduction of Leela. After the hugely popular Sarah Jane Smith, the production team takes the sensible step of creating a very different companion for the Doctor, in the form of the savage, tribal Leela. She works beautifully as a companion for several reasons; firstly, for all Sarah's independence and bravery, Leela is far more capable in that regard, very rarely screaming, and facing any threat fearlessly with drawn knife. Secondly, for all her lack of education, she is not stupid (it is Leela who provides the clue the Doctor needs to find a way through the barrier) and also like Jamie provides a chance for the Doctor to explain the plot without appearing patronizing or without the script becoming contrived. Additionally, she creates more of a teacher/pupil relationship with the Doctor in contrast to the more casual friendship between the Doctor and Sarah, which works very well but is also sufficiently different to be memorable. The Eliza Doolittle comparison often made in reference to 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is already in evidence at this point. Finally, she makes for an interesting companion because she is prepared to kill in self-defense. Aside from being something that the Doctor frowns on, which adds a certain edge to their relationship, it also on occasion shows up the Doctor's hypocrisy about this issue, which can be rather interesting.
Production wise, the studio-bound 'The Face of Evil' looks pretty good. The costumes (which in the case of the Sevateem shown an unusual amount of flesh for Doctor Who) are highly effective, and the sets too work well. Although the trees in the jungle are obviously dressed-up lengths of plastic tubing, the fact that these scenes are shot on film aids suspension of disbelief and it manages to be rather effective. Showing Xoanon as a series of glowing walls rather than a bank of rolls of magnetic tape and clunky buttons means that it has aged far better than for example BOSS, and also allows for a chilling cliffhanger to Episode Three, as the Doctor's screaming face is seen crying "Who am I?" in a high-pitched voice. Even the Horda, arguably the token monsters, look quite effective, despite being small rubber puppets. And the effect of the invisible phantom crushing the alarm clock in Episode One is really quite impressive.
Overall, 'The Face of Evil' is a strong story and an impressive debut from Chris Boucher. The chances of any writer producing such a good story and then following it with an even better one are minimal, so it's funny how things turned out
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 14
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 (later we would get some definitive evidence in Warriors of the Deep, Terror of the Vervoids ) 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 Doctors 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 doesnt 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 my dream James Bond film would see him fail miserably and be forced to face the consequences just to subvert expectations) anyday 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. Or at least it would not have happened in this way.
The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen although it is one that is having something of a renaissance in the twilight years of the series. It is a very clever story from fresh writer Chris Boucher that takes big ideas like God-worship and split personality and applies them thoughtfully to a tale that is low on heart thumping action but scores well with the intellectuals. 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 Hinchcliffe is still drawing fresh talent to the show. A bold but successful step, the script is lively and bursting with hysterical dialogue and clever quips (but then with Robert Holmes lurking in the background this is practically a given). The story is beautifully structured, the first two episodes introduce the main concepts; the mystery of the Doctors 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. 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. Its not a perfect story but you cannot fault the effort that has gone into the writing.
How bizarre is it to see a companion less Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I dont 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 thought she has just taken a bath. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral.
There is immediate potential with Leela that isnt apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jaime and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I dont mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jaime 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 its 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 then you have character gold. Maybe Leela wasnt exploited to the full next year but there were enough wonderful moments where their ideals clash to validate this experimental companion.
Indeed Louise Jamesons compelling performance as the naïve savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering just how Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. I adore the Doctor and Leelas first scene together where he offers her a jelly baby and she recoils saying Its true then! They say the Evil One eats babies! And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the story together and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is twisted and false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her with the truth. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didnt 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.
Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in the gripping The Massacre but more often they are background elements (look at the recent Halflife that has a fascinating religious background but is not the centre of the story at all). I was reading a brilliant piece of writing by Douglas Adams recently from his article anthology in The Salmon of Doubt about the existence of an Artificial God. One point he makes wonderfully well is that there are certain ideas you are not allowed to say anything bad about. In the case of an idea he says if we think, Heres an idea that is protected by holiness what does it mean? It is very brave of him to make this move; to actively critisize religion by comparing it other much debated issues (politics) and reaching the conclusion that the validity of debating about religion is as important as any other. My point is 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 intense 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 Xoanons personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh we see two homicidal factions that dismiss the others 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 70s 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 else into the story, or even that it has no comments at all to make and is only a rather witty adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that the story throws religion in such an unforgiving light. I certainly find the religious angle far more interesting than the brains vs brawn angle people usually apply to this story.
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. Neevas glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment.
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 drab looking story which starts with the sets; the bare and unconvincing jungle set, the sterile corridors of the survey ship, simple hut like dwellings, and reaches through to the costumes; savages in simple leathers (realistic but hardly eye catching), the Tesh in bizarrely camp make up and green quilted uniforms. Even the direction is lacking on occasions, occasionally there is a moment of genius (like the test of the Horda) but sometimes Pennant Roberts sticks to dull perpendicular angles for his fight sequences. It does not please the eye and I find myself bored and wanting some vibrancy (no trouble of that in the next too stories).
Another massive problem is the third episode; this is another season fourteen story that suffers from the Curse of the third episodes. This instalment seems to comprise of some embarrassingly inefficient laser fights, both is the jungle and in the Tesh ship and a bunch of Manuel-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. There is nothing wrong with the writing that the direction couldnt have livened up.
One thing the story gets VERY right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Prices Tomas is the token nice guy but there is nothing stomach churning 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 screaming religious propaganda. But best of the bunch (apart from Louise Jameson of course who flashes some leg and kills a handful at the same time!) is that slimey rattlesnake Calib, in Leslie Schofields 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 an entertaining story. It is far from flawless (its not exactly the first story you would show a non fan) but there is 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 (Kinda).
Just think, the entire universe could just be the manufactured handiwork of a computer with a mental breakdown! Makes you think, doesnt it ?
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 14
The Face Of Evil is the forgotten story of season 14: The Deadly Assassin, The Robots Of Death and The Talons Of Weng-Chiang are flagged up as the classics (no argument from me), while The Masque Of Mandragora and The Hand Of Fear are the usual candidates for the one story per season that fans are by law required not to like. In the middle of it all nestles this story, always overlooked. This is a shame, as it's really quite a natty little tale. It's also important as it introduces Leela as a companion: not the best idea really as a character starting out in a position of less knowledge than the audience is a hard one to transplant into a setting other than their own, as John Wiles learned with Katarina. Also, Louise Jameson's performance took some time to smooth out (probably not helped by the fact that Tom Baker hated her guts) and consequently she is destined always to be remembered as the companion who didn't wear many clothes.
It begins in a fairly ordinary way, with stagy actors going on about a backwards religion, but it's no worse than the average beginning of any story. It then becomes genuinely disturbing, as we get to hear an old man getting eaten alive by some vicious monster called a Horda. Blimey, what's this monster? It must be seriously impressive to be flagged up so in the script!
The forest, our next location, is a nice enough set and benefits by being well shot on film. It is slightly strange for a hardcore fan like me though to hear background effects that date all the way back to The Daleks in 1963, and the invisible monsters make the same noise as the Skarasen from Terror Of The Zygons. Baker shoots in on absolute top form with his knotted hanky and gigantic alarm clock in his pocket nice examples of his bonkers character, while not overdoing it like he would in future seasons. although his talking to himself and directly to the camera is a reminder back to the previous episode where there was no companion to give him a real reason to talk out loud. Him meeting Leela is another very good scene with more great dialogue, perhaps showing why Chris Boucher is so highly regarded as a Doctor Who writer even though he only penned three stories. However, as all three were script edited by Robert Holmes (there are definite Holmesian touches in the dialogue) I'm never quite sure who to give the credit to.
Leela seems much more intelligent within her own society, but is still extremely violent; this is a violent episode in general, with people getting shot with crossbows and poisoned with Janus thorns (much better used here than in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) left, right and centre. Although hardly the most intense story of the season this is still full-blooded in a typically Philip Hinchcliffe way, with the same high level of production values. The invisible monsters aren't brilliant compared to how the effects were done in The Daleks' Master Plan, but streets ahead of Planet Of The Daleks. The footprints look terrible, with rectangular blocks in the floor being lowered down in slow motion, but the destruction of the clock looks brilliant.
After this the jungle moves to being shot on videotape, which always highlights fakery. This example is particularly shameless, using industrial piping as vines, but it gets by on the general weirdness such as the sky being jet black in daylight. It's hard to notice anyway as attention-grabbing plot points are dealt out slowly, where the Doctor meets more of the natives and discovers that all is not as it seems on this planet. Neeva's Welsh accent is jarring but since it's an alien planet there's no good reason why it should be any more out of place than the other characters' Queen's-English (these are without doubt the poshest savages since The Time Meddler). The scene where Neeva waves the "artefact" around the Doctor is well written but ridiculously played by David Garfield, who staves of laughter by doing a Rolf Harris impression.
After escaping the Doctor manages to threaten the natives with a jelly baby, in my favourite scene in the story. The Sevateem really are a backwards people: those haircuts are just so 1967. After this scene - a very Holmesy one - we come to the cliffhanger, and it's a knockout. One of the story's major strengths is that all three cliffhangers are excellent, this one being the moment the Doctor sees his own face carved in a mountainside. The only thing that jars is the constant switching between film and video, but it's only a minor quibble.
When watched all in one go, it is very noticeable that the titles of each episode form almost the only breaks in Dudley Simpson's omnipresent score: this one is average, neither great nor terrible, but it is very intrusive. The discovery of Neeva's sanctum is an interesting scene as we get to hear Baker talking to himself over a radio link, which is played to be so ordinary that it's hard to notice how imaginative it is. The dialogue between the Doctor and his alter-ego is excellent, foreshadowing the plot without actually giving anything away.
The time barrier effect is good, as have most of the other effects been so far, and I like the way it is presented to the audience; these days people see the need to justify every science-fictional concept with a pseudo-authentic explanation, but here all we know is that time is somehow moved forward a couple of seconds. It's science...fiction! We are shown the barrier just in time for the Sevateem to attack it, and for a tribe of warriors they are seriously laughable in battle. Their plan of action seems to mainly consist of shouting "ATTACK!" at the top of their voices while creeping very slowly towards the enemy and doing nothing else once they get there. One of them even does a Red Indian war cry, for crying out loud. The scene where the Doctor breaks Calib's leg (so he claims) I consider an insult to anyone who's ever broken a bone (i.e. me) as he is up and on his feet in seconds. I am never sure whether this is a joke - the Doctor's subsequent threat to break Calib's nose would suggest so - but it is presented as being serious enough (just not very painful).
The Doctor is captured, and I love the scene where he dismisses Neeva's claim that he can physically renew himself as ridiculous. We then get the Horda scene, a wonderfully written and designed scene let down by a badly-choreographed fight scene with Leela rolling around the floor like a toddler. And, of course we get to see the Horda. Actually we saw them right at the beginning, slithering along at the end of a piece of string, but this is where we are told that this deadly creature we've been hearing so much about is in fact a plastic stick with a fin at one end and some Blue Peter-made teeth at the other. Frankly, things crawling in my bath have been scarier than that (i.e. me again). However, it is nice to hear some effort made to make the stone blocks actually sound like stone as they part, as opposed to polystyrene. On the subject of sounds Xoanon's second voice sounds a lot like one of the robots from the subsequent story, which is odd as Brian Croucher didn't actually play a robot in it. Maybe I'm hearing things - it certainly sounded like Baker mispronounced Tomas's name "Thomas", which made me laugh.
The CSO used to put the Doctor and Leela by the face of the idol is poor, but it's an impressive scene nonetheless. The cliffhanger, as I said before, is great, as the Doctor's image is lit up in the air. I should have been expecting it really having already heard Tom Baker's voice coming from somewhere other than Tom Baker's mouth (no, you sicko, from the speaker), but it's still wonderful to see.
Episode three gets off to a slightly muddled start as Boucher sets himself the task of introducing a completely new place and people halfway through the story. It's easy to see how the story is structured with such a sudden change between episodes, which is unusual when watching a serial all in one go. Unfortunately the design of the spaceship is bland and the Tesh look completely ridiculous, little eight-stone weaklings dressed as playing cards from Alice In Wonderland. However, Xoanon looks good: a little screen-savery perhaps, but a good screen saver, and the three actors talking together produce a brilliant atmosphere. What is also good is that the Doctor discovers the plot at the same speed as the audience for once, making the very well-written expositionary dialogue seem natural and appropriate for once. Another nice touch is the fact that all the planet's troubles have happened because the Doctor screwed up.
The scene when Leela and the Doctor are about to get diced by the laser is very derivative and closer to the lightweight action adventure that characterises most of season 15. It does show some hints of religious imagery, which would be appropriate to the story and in keeping with the deliberately Biblical imagery of Neeva's litanies - but maybe it is I who am now talking out of somewhere other than my mouth. The other action scenes are similarly staid and uneasy - a shame, as it's generally a well directed episode - but then again there are mirrored sets which must be difficult when shooting multi-camera. The final scene has a lot of plot delivered, but it is told like a story and makes very compelling listening. This is followed by one of the best cliffhangers of the 70s, with a massive image of the Doctor's face screaming "WHO AM I?" in a child's voice. It's surreal, creepy, and at least as scary as the one in The Deadly Assassin that had Mary Whitehouse choking on her garibaldi.
The final episode continues this air of bizarreness, with the Tesh getting scared by mood lighting. It's fun to watch Xoanon trying to kill the Doctor, even though the electrocution effect is rubbish, and if I'm in an unforgiving mood I'd say that Leela actually managed to shoot the Doctor. The Sevateem breaking in allows for some excellent characterisation of the Tesh, who are more concerned with not getting agitated than with actually stopping their enemies.
In the end though it reverts to a simply defuse-the-bomb scenario, which I would have thought was below this story, although the resolution is still more imaginative than usual. The end scene with Xoanon seems very forced and largely unnecessary as it's only repeating what we already know, but the old gramophone player is a nice touch. We must be thankful the episode is not written by Russell T. Davies, or the Doctor and Leela would probably start grooving to 'Dancing Queen' (see The End Of The World). The final coda is over quickly, a "get the companion into the TARDIS before the studio lights get turned off" moment, but it's well written and better than some companions got, for example Dodo. All in all then, despite a few dodgy moments of production in the second half, this is a very solid story with very little to dent it.
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 14