Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
31 Dec 2003The Hand Of Fear, by Paul Clarke
31 Dec 2003The Hand Of Fear, by Douglas Westwood
14 Mar 2004The Hand Of Fear, by Alex Boyd
30 Sep 2007The Hand Of Fear, by Ed Martin

'The Hand of Fear' is a story made memorable only by Sarah's departure and in a season boasting 'The Deadly Assassin', 'The Robots of Death', and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' it would probably be completely overlooked were it not for this fact. In fact, it is rather entertaining and possibly deserves slightly more recognition than it gets, but despite that it also suffers from some serious flaws. 

'The Hand of Fear' starts off badly. The early model sequence of Eldrad's obliteration module looks unpleasantly cheap and an irritating scene in which the Doctor and Sarah completely fail to become alarmed by a screeching siren and men gesticulating at them in obvious agitation quickly follows this. After this slightly rocky start however, the first two episodes are actually very good, and I can't help but be amused that when Sarah asks the Doctor where the TARDIS has landed he tells her that it is obviously a quarry. Irony on that scale cannot be accidental. The first two episodes quickly gather momentum and benefit from generally decent special effects work of the disembodied hand moving about, as well as some interesting direction. When shooting people who are under Eldrad's control, Lennie Mayne uses close-up shots of the actors walking towards camera, and this is highly distinctive. In addition, the nicely sinister incidental score adds to the effect, and on top of this there is some rather effective filmed location work for the interior of the Nunton complex. 

'The Hand of Fear' also benefits from some nice bits of characterisation. Renu Setna's Intern, who cheerfully lectures the bruised and battered Doctor on the subject of pain, is quite wonderful. Later, we get Glyn Houston's Professor Watson realizing that he could be facing a nuclear meltdown, telephoning his family for what could be the last time. This could have been a cloyingly sentimental moment, but is acted so well that it just seems quietly touching instead. 

By Episode Three however, things start to fall apart. For starters, Watson is very easily able to arrange a tactical nuclear strike on his own nuclear power plant on the coast of Britain, which frankly beggars belief. Amusingly, this is made even sillier by the fact that he and his remaining staff take shelter from the impending nuclear blast by crouching behind land rovers parked a few hundred yards away. Just when you think it can't get more moronic, Watson tells Sarah to hold her nose and open her mouth to protect herself from the blast. It seems that Bob Baker and Dave Martin haven't learnt anything more about nuclear physics since 'The Claws of Axos'. And then there's Eldrad.

In Episode Three, Eldrad works really well. Judith Paris brings an aloof alien feel to the role, and her costume (which I gather she had to be sewn into) looks pretty good. More importantly, the character of Eldrad works very well at this point. She has already caused the deaths of Carter and Driscoll during her attempt to regenerate herself, and she displays obviously violent tendencies throughout, but on the other hand the fact that she is millions of years and millions of light years from home and seemingly rather confused raises the possibility that she is just as scared as, for example, Professor Watson, and is reacting accordingly out a desperation to survive. This being the case, it is easy to believe that when she reaches Kastria she isn't going to prove to be a straightforward villain, since she seems to be a rather more complex being with interesting motivations. She is also forced to trust the Doctor, and seems to gain genuine respect for him as the story progresses. In short, Eldrad is an interesting character whose true motivations are suitably intriguing. Then she turns into Stephen Thorne. 

It has probably become clear by now that I do not like the Doctor Who work of Stephen Thorne. His horrendously melodramatic and unsubtle booming worked reasonable well in goatskin trappings for 'The Dæmons', but he was horribly amateurish as Omega in 'The Three Doctors', and little better as Maximillian in 'The Ghosts of N-Space'. Here, he is astonishingly bad as Eldrad, a character whom the script in any case reduces to the status of a clichéd ranting megalomaniac. Thorne is so ludicrously unsubtle that at one point, when Eldrad indulges in maniacal laughter, he doesn't actually laugh, he shouts "Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha!". After Paris's much more interesting and, crucially, less pantomimesque, performance, it is very disappointing that Eldrad is reduced to this, although fittingly he does have least have a large moustache, which he can possibly twirl when the situation demands. He doesn't even get a decent final scene, since the Doctor just trips him into an abyss with his scarf, but then again he doesn't really deserve one. 

Whatever shortcomings 'The Hand of Fear' has however, they are more than made up for by Sarah's leaving scene. As her final story, 'The Hand of Fear' generally works well; she gets a reasonable amount to do, since it is Sarah who first discovers the hand in the quarry and promptly gets taken over by it. In addition, there are some wonderful character moments between the Doctor and Sarah throughout, from the Doctor's uncharacteristic irritability when he's worried about Sarah in Episode One, to the pair of them admitting that each worries about the other and agreeing to be careful in Episode Three. Sarah's actual departure is probably my favourite companion-leaving scene from the entire series. Her initial tantrum, in which she sums up the various times she's been hypnotized, kidnapped, tied-up, etc, is a great summary of the bad times with the Doctor, but the hurt and disappointed look on her face when she finds out that she really does have to leave because he's been summoned to Gallifrey is a reminder that, however dangerous travelling with the Doctor might be, she also enjoys it enormously. There's a real feel in this scene that these are two best friends who aren't going to see each other again, or at least not for a long time, and that they both find it enormously painful to part company. Tom Baker gets a remarkable amount of emotion into the Doctor's line "Oh, Sarah… don't you forget me." It's a superb farewell, and the final freeze-frame shot of Sarah glancing skyward after the TARDIS dematerializes feels like a fitting tribute to one of the series' finest companions.

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This is a much remembered story that I particularly liked when I first saw it, in 1977. Aged eight. But 'liking' and 'understanding' a story are two different things. Being, at that tender age, somewhat ignorant of the concept of nuclear power, power stations and airplane strikes, so much of the story went over my head that I might as well have been a limbo dancer. But, for what it is worth, here are my recollections forthwith.

Firstly, part three. Parts one and two went over my head in a blur of people and supporting cast. Much of it was incomprehensible, see paragraph above. BUT, part three starts with the Doctor and Sarah in a deserted corridor and then they move to that funny metal room. Great! And then the only supporting character to appear is Professor Watson. Brilliant, even I can cope with just one supporting character! Added to this, there is the increasing drama of Eldrad, who had been wonderfully built up over the first two parts, trying to eat his way through a metal door.

But then! Eldrard turns out to be female! What a cop out, I thought. And she is comparatively friendly in a cool and distant sort of way, to the extent that they actually let her in the Tardis! Plus, episode three ends with Eldrad, the monster, actually being in danger! disaster upon disaster. But things straighten out in part four when Eldrad becomes more the sort of monster that we expected 'him' to be from the first- megalomaniac and power mad.

Then Sarah leaves. Alas! The first DW story I ever saw was Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Sarah's second story, unbeknownst to me) so Sarah had been a constant part of the show. What would happen now, I thought...

I just relealised that I have reviewed the hand of fear without once mentioning the hand! But there's not much one can say about a hand....

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The Hand of Fear is something of a roller coaster ride for fans, as we dip fairly frequently between good and bad writing, decent and below average production values. Ultimately, it’s worth seeing for some of the ideas, and some of the character moments. 

We begin with some guys in parkas on a planet talking about an “obliteration module,” some barriers, and a traitor. Having seen the story and gone back and watched this prologue, it makes a certain amount of sense, but the first time it was nearly incomprehensible. A very cheap looking ship blows up, and then we’re away to earth for the story to really begin. Given that a mysterious severed hand appears, and the first two episodes begin to gather some suspense, one wonders why the prologue (which, though incoherent, threatens to give away that the hand is the fragment of an alien, perhaps even “the traitor Eldrad”) was included at all. As it turns out, this is indeed a fragment of Eldrad, an alien who brought down barriers that allowed for the destruction of his own world, centuries ago. 

Now we dip back to some positive points: Sarah Jane Smith as a possessed villain is interesting to watch, and given that Eldrad eventually takes two forms (one far more alien, subtle and fascinating to watch than the other) it’s interesting that there are two Sarah’s as well. There is a small moment when Sarah walks up to a guard looking like a confused, innocent woman, and then zaps him. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a metaphor, or statement about different sides to the same personality (or possibly male and female tendencies – the female Eldrad is far more reasonable) but it has potential. Most of that potential is thrown away at the end with Stephen Thorne (as the second, male Eldrad) apparently encouraged to do some stereotypical ranting. We say goodbye to any possibility of a subtle story about an Eldrad who destroyed the barriers that protected her world and now regrets it. Apparently, the writers felt that either Eldrad was good and trying to help her people, or was evil and destroyed the barriers. Finally, they voted for the evil Eldrad, and the best you can say about it is that it’s a twist. 

Some more good points: good effects for the severed hand, and some great moments with the Doctor and Sarah, such as when they admit to worrying about each other. Sarah is undoubtedly the best screaming companion ever, and she has a few opportunities here to let loose. When I was growing up my friend had a TV where you could fiddle with the channels, and get the sound from one channel with the picture from another – so you’d put on a newscaster and listen to Sarah Jane Smith screaming and blubbering, something both funny and surreal. Of course, this story has Sarah’s famous departure scene, which is wonderfully written and acted. And I laughed out loud at one previous exchange between the Doctor and Sarah, after some famous Sarah Jane Smith blubbering:

“Stop making a fuss Sarah, you’re from South Croydon!”

“Eh?”

“You’re a carbon based life-form. The gas is only effective against silicon structures.”

“Oh.”

Unfortunately, while the scenes between the Doctor and Sarah are injected with real warmth and feeling, the same writers fall into deadening patters with Eldrad and company, so that repeats of “Eldrad must live!” give way to repeats of “They thought they could destroy me, but they were wrong!” Certainly, not long after Judith Paris no longer plays Eldrad, I found myself not really caring about this planet or these people at all. And unfortunately, due to budget restrictions, it feels like the planet had a population of about six anyway. Finally it comes down to a brief, pointless chase. Despite the potential that bleeds away there, the story is worth watching through to the end for Sarah’s farewell.

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Any story to which the names of Philip Hinchcliffe or Robert Holmes are attached had better be good, or my word, they get torn apart. The Hand Of Fear is up against some seriously stiff competition and is easily the worst story of season fourteen, but it’s quite a sweet story in its own right. It feels like a real throwback to the Jon Pertwee era, and indeed it could have sat pretty as the best story of Pertwee’s final season – but it has to be said that coming immediately before The Deadly Assassin does no favours for what is a decent but decidedly average tale.

What’s immediately striking is the cheapness of the production, almost as if Barry Letts had returned as producer; this isn’t the sort of thing I dwell on normally but Hinchcliffe was usually such an effective and efficient producer that such bland, boring sets, harsh lighting and silly videotaped model shots seem very out of place. With Roy Skelton hamming it up off screen, Bob Baker and Dave Martin writing and Letts-stalwart Lennie Mayne directing, the overall anachronistic effect is really quite disturbing. But there is another, more relevant downside to this prologue, in that it provides the explanation for a mystery that has yet to be introduced. Just think how much more enigmatic the titular hand would be if this scene never existed, and we knew nothing about it at all.

16mm-recorded location shooting gives us a brief respite from the cheapness, and I actually like the scenes in the quarry – although it’s hard not to snarl at the constant “this time it’s really a quarry, tee hee” banality from some corners. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have a wonderfully comfortable, breezy relationship with each other (didn’t they always?), and Sarah being buried under the rubble caused by the superb explosion is much more affecting for the viewer than it would have been had it been the third Doctor and Jo Grant. The stone hand she finds is a wonderful prop and very spooky, just lying there, although to reiterate the scene would be vastly improved without that earlier prologue which is in effect an instant spoiler.

Baker and Martin, as writers, aren’t that good at structuring a story and providing a coherent plot and as such nothing they wrote for the show was particularly amazing (indeed the following season’s Underworld comes perilously close to being an all-time nadir). However, they do seem to have a talent for easy-going and naturalistic dialogue here and therefore The Hand Of Fear is peppered with likeable characters who feel more like real people than is customary for Doctor Who. Directors’ habits of reusing actors are always fairly obvious and it’s hard to watch Rex Robinson and not think of him as “the bloke from The Three Doctors and The Monster Of Peladon,” but he puts in a charming performance and manages to rekindle some of the dampened mystery by his conversation with the Doctor about the hand. With this, not to mention the possessed Sarah up and about stealing the hand, I have to say that part one is a lot of fun. There’s no depth or subtext of any kind for me to get my teeth into, but it pushes the right buttons. 

Sladen puts in a terrific performance as a woman possessed, eschewing the standard zombie-like clichés in favour of someone twitching and skittish, as if she’s being piloted by someone unused to the controls as it were, and her lilting, erratic speech is really quite creepy. The scenes in Nunton power plant (Baker and Martin reinforcing the Pertwee references by ripping of their own idea, Nunton being only one letter out from the plant from their earlier The Claws Of Axos) are terribly padded and rather dull after a while, but the cliffhanger to part one is an absolute killer as the hand starts to move.

Unfortunately the second episode begins by undoing much of that cliffhanger’s good work, with the emergency meltdown sequence removing the tension a bit more with every long-winded minute. The Doctor claiming he can survive temperatures of 200 degrees “if I’m quick” is silly and is an early example of the kind of superpowered Doctor who can spirit his way through spinning blades. It raises the question of how his clothes survive intact, but I suppose we must be thankful for these small mercies.

There’s still a lot of padding, with much running up and down stairs at the power station. I don’t know quite what the logic was behind the use of the fish-eye lens and its surrealism doesn’t quite come off, unless the idea was that the tension should increase in direct proportion to Tom Baker’s nose expanding to twice the size. Dr Carter’s death is a superb stunt and very well edited, although on a mildly amusing note his body ends up looking like it’s dancing to ‘Night Fever’.

Professor Watson phoning his family is a nice attempt at injecting some poignancy but it comes across as rather crude in a “kiss the children for me” way, although his inability to tell his wife that anything is wrong is a far more effective and telling moment.

The Doctor bursting through the vent (like he’s been posted, according to Baker on the DVD commentary) is one of my favourite moments in the story: Doctor Who was rightly never an action-adventure series but occasionally someone like Tom Baker with immense physical presence could successfully pull off those dynamic little scenes, although the fact that he doesn’t make a perfect landing adds to his credibility by not portraying him as an expert gymnast. Thus Sarah is rescued, and brought before Professor Watson: the line of “I think we’d all like an explanation” is about as crude as feed lines come, although it does remind us that there is a really brilliant, if not particularly original, idea at the heart of this story.

The CSO’d hand looks better than average, with less tell-tale fringing and an effort made to make it actually cast a shadow. Still though, despite many good moments, I can feel this story’s promise of a high rating slipping away. Like many average stories, The Hand Of Fear is in essence very good but it loses crucial points by being poorly paced and structured, denting its ability to tell a coherent story. Hence yet more superfluous scenes in the plant, and repetition abounds as the hand gets locked up, let out, captured, etc, etc…

Episode three at least gets off to a more dynamic start as Eldrad begins to regenerate in earnest, and the possessed Driscoll casually strolling into the core (“probably vaporised,” as the Doctor says) is really quite disturbing. The missile strike is exciting but improbable, but well presented with fairly unobtrusive stock footage. Eldrad’s final emergence is very well done, with a superb costume and an enigmatic performance from Judith Paris.

The scene where the Doctor and Sarah exchange “I worry about you” lines is genuinely sweet, and far more effective than the new series’s bludgeon. It’s followed by the great first exchange with Eldrad, and it’s also good to see a kind of mini-conclusion for Watson. Suddenly the episode is picking up again. It doesn’t last long though, as the sudden wave of technobabble in the TARDIS makes it feel a bit Trekky all of a sudden. The cheapo Kastrian set looks a bit better with the lights turned down, but even that doesn’t last long either. The cliffhanger though is genuinely shocking, a product of some excellent videotape editing.

Thankfully the lower levels of Kastria are slightly less bland than the surface, and the Doctor’s moody suggestion that Eldrad’s story is not adding up adds a small but welcome dose of extra mystery.

Eldrad’s apparent death is another effective moment as the viewer doesn’t realise just how sympathetic she is until this point. She’s replaced by Stephen Thorne, who resorts to his usual generic acting technique of SHOUTING VERY LOUD – it just about worked in The Daemons, but this is his second encore at this point (third if you count the handful of lines he had in Frontier In Space) and it’s beginning to wear a bit thin. How did he ever get the gig narrating The Fred Dibnah Story? His costume is quite good, a sort of small mountain, but unfortunately it’s all too obviously falling apart. At least he gets some motivation through, and it’s a nice twist to have him fooling the Doctor and Sarah all along – and it’s a bone-chilling thought, a race submitting to their own destruction willingly through fear of a tyrant. It’s a good job that Paris was doing this though, as Thorne doesn’t deal with that kind of subtlety. Unfortunately, his death is rushed and clumsy – watching him step over a scarf and get CSO’d down an abyss is just about the least inspiring thing I’ve seen for months.

Now we come to the story’s acknowledged highlight: Sarah’s departure. It’s certainly the best departure of any companion, with some real though added, unlike many. Which is better: Rose’s “I wub oo Docta, sniff, snivel” at the end of Doomsday, or the Doctor’s quite understated “until we meet again, Sarah” from this? I know which one I’ll pick. It ends well, with Sarah’s happiness at being home about to tip into rampant hysteria, and with that magic glimpse at the sky.

The Hand Of Fear is a pleasant and enjoyable story that could, and should, have been far more. It doesn’t let down the quality of the season in general, grants Sarah a good leaving scene and has some great ideas of its own…but it’s just not quite Hinchcliffe.

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