DVD Review: Doctor Who - The Face of Evil

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Review: Doctor Who - The Face of Evil (PG) / Directed by: Pennant Roberts /Written by: Chris Boucher / Starring: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, David Garfield, Leslie Schofield, Brendan Price, Lloyd Maguire / Released: March 5th 2012

Changing times in the fourteenth season of Doctor Who, transmitted on BBC1 across 1976/7 as the cosy equilibrium of the previous couple of years was disturbed as producer Philip Hinchcliffe continued to make his mark on the show, distancing it from the colourful comic strip of the Jon Pertwee years and turning the series into an edgier show driven more by science-fiction concepts and ideas rather than the need to fill the screen with big, roaring rubber-suited monsters, previously pretty much the mainstay of the show’s stories.

The fourteenth series had already seen the departure of much-loved companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) in the otherwise-unremarkable Hand Of Fear and writer Robert Holmes got the backs of most long-time viewers of the series (especially those in the nascent ‘fan’ community) by rewriting the series’ own mythology in The Deadly Assassin where he took the Doctor back to his home planet Gallifrey, now populated not by monolithic cosmic Gods but rather by petty, bureaucratic bickering old men who spent more time complaining about their bad backs than watching over the affairs of the Universe. Such stuff is grist to the 21st century series’ mill; David Tennant or even Matt Smith would have eaten up the dramatic possibilities of such rich material but back in the 1970s Doctor Who was still, by and large, just a string of intelligent adventure stories which didn’t tend to involve itself too much with emotion and real meaningful drama and scenes like Sarah Jane’s tearful exit from the TARDIS in part four of The Hand of Fear were very much the exception rather than the norm. When the series resumed in January 1977 with Chris Boucher’s The Face of Evil after its brief Christmas break (no big budget prime time festive specials in those days) the arrival of a brand new companion seemed to offer further opportunity for Doctor Who to put a bit more flesh on the bones of its series leads but in retrospect the story was probably always destined to be a bit of a let-down after the highs of the two serials which preceded it.

The Face of Evil, sadly, is a bit of a damp squib. It’s a shame because right at its heart is a really interesting science-fiction/Doctor Who concept; the Doctor returns to a planet he’s visited before but this time his interference hasn’t been necessarily beneficial to the people he’s left behind. Tennant or Smith would wrestle the maximum angst from a situation like this but Boucher’s script, whilst clever, is more interested in just presenting the idea rather than examining any moral consequences. So the Doctor arrives - alone and talking to himself, most self-consciously - to find a planet whose simple crossbow-wielding native inhabitants (the descendants of a spaceship ‘survey team’ who had arrived on the planet years earlier)- are dominated by a malevolent super-computer imprinted with the Doctor’s own personality on a previous visit. But the computer’s gone a bit tonto and the Doctor, with leather-clad new girl Leela (Jameson) in tow, sets about putting right what he’d done wrong before but he never pauses to ponder the moral responsibility he has in wandering about in Space and Time and throwing his weight about. The computer - dubbed Xoanon - has got a bit full of itself so he breaks through its defences to reprogramme it and wipe out its hostile tendencies.

Whilst it’s not fair to criticise a thirty-five year old story for not conforming to the style and values of the modern interpretation of the series there’s no getting away from the fact that, even by its contemporary standards, Face of Evil is a misfire. As a production it’s visually uninteresting; the BBC conjure up one of their rather nice alien jungle sets on film at Ealing (even though this one seems to be comprised of a lot of corrugated plastic tubing covered with vines) but the TV studio stuff is desperately dull, dreary-looking huts for Leela’s tribe and bland spaceship corridors apparently knocked up out of old egg boxes for the mysterious Tesh. The tribe themselves are the worst sort of vaguely-embarrassed BBC thesps in unflattering loincloths uttering cod-Shakespearan twaddle like ’How say you?’ and ‘Bow down before the Evil One’ and their technological opposites, the Tesh, look like minor chess pieces as they gabble on about the super-computer they worship and protect with their lives.

New girl Leela provokes a spike of interest if only because, quite sensibly, she’s the opposite of Sarah Jane Smith. She’s savage, intuitive and merrily murderous, dispatching her enemies with poisonous Janis thorns, but by episode three she’s trotting along beside the Doctor serving the usual ‘What is, Doctor?’ purpose which was the destiny of so many of the original Doctor Who girls. Fortunately there’s a decent screen chemistry between Baker and Jameson despite the uneasy professional relationship between the two at this point - Baker would have preferred the Doctor to travel alone and particularly didn’t approve of the violent characterisation of Leela - and Jameson’s wide-eyed performance is enthusiastic enough to establish the character despite the run-of-the-mill nature of the story and the fact that when her father is sacrificed in the first episode Leela looks no more concerned than if someone had told her she’d accidentally left the cat out overnight.

Face of Evil isn’t really bad, it’s just not really very interesting and the plot, whilst containing a few neat sci-fi ideas, becomes pretty predictable when the Doctor catches sight of an image of his own face carved into a nearby cliff-face. Bright, overlit sets, clumsy action sequences and some unexceptional special effects conspire to suck the life out of Face of Evil which remains, ultimately, a solid and workmanlike Doctor Who serial which never manages to power out of first gear but is nevertheless an inoffensive way of spending a couple of hours in company of one of the most popular incarnations of TV’s top Time Lord.

Special features: A decent grab-bag of stuff which makes purchasing The Face of Evil a more interesting proposition than it might otherwise have been. Into The Wild is the usual detailed ‘making of’ documentary, Tomorrow’s Times is the latest in the ongoing DVD series looking at Press coverage of the series (this time chronicling the Tom Baker years), a clip of Louise Jameson guesting on Swap Shop with Noel Edmonds, Jameson herself recalls Leela and her time in the show in extended interview footage filmed in 2003, a couple of TV advertisements and some raw behind-the-scenes footage, production notes and a busy commentary featuring Jameson, Schofield and Garfield, producer Hinchcliffe and others.

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