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Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Leisure Hive originally aired in 1980.

Look what you’ve done.

What have I done?

You’ve got the century wrong, you’ve got the season wrong and you’ve got K9’s sea-water defences wrong.

Well, I can’t get everything right.

Just something would be a help.

– Romana and the Doctor really do seem like an old married couple, don’t they?

The Leisure Hive represented a bold new beginning for the show, as it saw John Nathan-Turner move into the role of producer, very quickly putting his mark on the show with a new theme tune and opening sequence, a stronger emphasis on science-fiction and arguably a very “gimmick-y” approach to the show itself. Nathan-Turner would go on to be the longest-serving – and most controversial – producer of the show, serving in the role until the series’ untimely cancellation in 1989. It really is quite tough to discuss The Leisure Hive without getting side-tracked on to any number of tangents, isn’t it?

Is Baker getting to old for the role?

I suppose I should probably offer my opinions on Nathan-Turner, and they are that his time in charge was a mixed bag – not brilliant, but by no means as terrible as his detractors would claim. I’d make the case that Nathan-Turner produced any number of gems, but that the quality was at its most wildly inconsistent during his tenure – a fact in evidence in this opening season. After all, this was a show that followed The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma.

What’s interesting – and it’s something I’ll probably talk about (or already have talked about) in discussions of later stories – is that Nathan-Turner effectively killed the show by trusting it to its fans. Doctor Who started to pander to the hardcore continuity nerds, cultivating an audience of die-hard fans and followers, perhaps losing sight of the mainstream appeal of the series. You can see the change occur quite rapidly here.

They robe to victory...

They robe to victory…

Compare, for example, the low-key mid-episode reveal of the Master in The Keeper of Traken with the end-of-episode cliffhanger reveal of the Cybermen in Earthshock. One was a nice plot beat that made sense whether you were a fan or not; the other made little sense to anyone who had only joined after Tom Baker’s first year in the role. (And, even if they had seen Revenge of the Cybermen, would the audience be that happy to see them again?)

While the shift towards the fans became more pronounced in the years that followed, Nathan-Turner began interacting with the fandom directly, converting Doctor Who Weekly (a comic-driven fanzine) to Doctor Who Monthly (an official companion piece) and allowing fans inside access to the workings of the show. As the brilliant Philip Sandifer summarises on the wonderful TARDIS Eruditorum:

Let’s say that again, because it’s a fact about the magazine that is absolutely crucial to everything that’s going to happen over the next decade that is nevertheless almost wholly unremarked on. Durng the Williams era, which the magazine overlapped for a good few months, the magazine did not actually directly refer to what was going on in Doctor Who itself at all save for in its letter pages. It was purely a Doctor Who comic book with some text pieces. Then John Nathan-Turner took over and began implementing the obvious practice of actually connecting to the TV series. This started with a location report of the Brighton filming for The Leisure Hive, then continued with photo previews of upcoming stories, interviews with Nathan-Turner, the magazine’s first ever review of a televised story (Jeremy Bentham’s exceedingly congratulatory take on The Leisure Hive, which went out of its way to credit John Nathan-Turner with immediately improving the show’s quality), an end-of-season retrospective with John Nathan-Turner, etc.

In other words, as of this story Doctor Who began historicizing itself even as it was made. The paratext (a term in literary criticism and theory that basically means “all the stuff about a book that isn’t the actual string of characters constituting the book” – i.e. the cover, the advertising, interviews with the author, etc) of Doctor Who is, as of now, part of Doctor Who. And this is not something that has ever or will ever stop. From The Leisure Hive on any competent reading of Doctor Who has to remain aware of the paratext because the paratext is genuinely part of the storytelling. Things happen on screen that have dramatic resonance provided to them by what happens off-screen.

It’s a very dangerous approach, and one that I credit for the eventual mess the show became – a series that relied too heavily on continuity and too reliant on proving itself “mature” and “sophisticated” while being anything but. I’m more fond of the Nathan-Turner era than most, and I can understand his attempt to court the fans. In the United States, for example, fans had kept Star Trek alive. However, fandom is a very selfish and insecure demographic, and attracting a rapid fandom often comes at the cost of a broader appeal, as you find yourself playing more and more to a particular group of people to the expense of others.

An ageing demographic was just one problem that Nathan-Turner mishandled...

An ageing demographic was just one problem that Nathan-Turner mishandled…

Still, despite all this, I don’t doubt for one second that he had the best intentions of the show at heart, and it would be unfair to place the blame for all the problems with the show at his feet. More often than other producers, it seems that Nathan-Turner relied on his script editor – he was more concerned with the trappings than the plotting. His willingness to trust his script editors led to Eric Saward’s excessively grim aesthetic clashing with his pantomime style, effectively dooming the Colin Baker era. However, it also allowed Andrew Cartmel a great deal of freedom to bring the show briefly back to greatness before it ended.

All that is yet to come, though. Even here, it’s hard to defend some of the producer’s fondness for cheap gimmickry – evident here in the question marks on the Doctor’s clothing, something that would add an air of pantomime to all that followed, not to mention some dire stunt casting. All that said, I think he made some generally good decisions early on, the most obvious being to tone down the camp of his predecessor, ditch K-9 and give Baker what seems like a relatively grand send-off with a season-long thematic arc.

Dead man sitting…

In fact, that season-long theme of entropy and decay is handled so well that it almost makes me forget how incredibly frustrating Logopolis turned out to be. It’s quite poetic that Baker, the most iconic and recognisable Doctor with some of the show’s very best stories, should have ended up with such disappointing opening and closing episodes. I love the opening shot of The Leisure Hive, a long and slow establishing shot of Brighton beach, with the gloomy clouds overhead and no real sign of civilisation to be seen, save the Doctor, Romana and K-9. It establishes the mood of the year so perfectly: this is the end, old age, dying alone.

I’d argue that the theme of entropy, sewn through this particularly uneven season of Doctor Who, is perhaps one of the strongest season-long arcs that the show has ever done. I honestly think that using a theme to unite episodes works much better than an over-arching plot like The Key to Time saga or Moffat’s “who is River Song?” stuff, if only because the stories on the show tend to work better if they stand alone without intrusive narrative elements. So while a viewer might be frustrated that Night Terrors doesn’t pick up the threads from Let’s Kill Hitler, all that Warrior’s Gate has to worry about is continuing the theme of decay from the earlier episodes of the season. So it’s possible for fans to follow a theme, while casual viewers aren’t locked out by particulars.

Suits you, sir!

It does feel like a grand send-off is being planned for the Doctor, and Tom Baker gives his best performance in quite some time, more subdued than he had been during the Graham Williams tenure of the show. It actually reminds me of the more subdued performances he gave during the Hinchcliffe era, which is undoubtedly a very good thing. Apparently Baker had been sick while preparing for the serial (and while filming) and he certainly looks it. Even before the Doctor is aged by five centuries, he feels much older and less healthy than we remember – it helps give the impression of inevitability to what is coming.

Of course, we’ve managed to get this far without discussing The Leisure Hive itself, which is a shame. As a story, it really doesn’t deserve to get overshadowed by all the bigger details surrounding it. The Leisure Hive is one of those Doctor Who adventures where my opinion diverges quite a bit from the consensus – while fans have never seemed too hostile to the adventure, they’ve never been too positive about it either, and most would seem to describe it as mediocre. I actually really like it – I love it, in fact. It’s funny, but it seems that David Fisher stories tend to do that with me – I dislike Stones of Blood far more than most, but I also have greater affection than the majority for The Androids of Tara.

On our way to a Baker’s Dozen?

Supposedly, The Leisure Hive was one of those carry-over scripts from the Graham Williams team, in much the same way that Image of the Fendahl was carried over from the Hinchcliffe team. It was deemed to be the only script from Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor that was deemed usable by the new production staff. In fact, you can sense something of a Douglas Adams vibe around the story, which presents a relatively high concept take on what sounds like “hard” science. Still, it feels decidedly like a Nathan-Turner story, so much so that you could almost imagine the Fifth Doctor wandering into the same situation.

The science of the story, although couched in terms like “tachyon” and with reference to quantum physics, doesn’t especially impress me. It’s more the fascinating work that Fisher does with the Argolans, and the way that he portrays a society on a planet that “won’t be habitable for three-hundred years”, in the wake of a war that only took twenty minutes. There’s a sense of finality about it, particularly when the Doctor remarks that the Leisure Hive itself is “an Argolan farewell gesture”, a tomb where the dead just happen to be walking around. It really does create a sense of a society on the verge of complete collapse, and the atmosphere is heavy throughout – helped by elements like the prematurely-aged Doctor and the sense that the predators are already circling the corpse.

A hive of activity?

You could argue that the serial doesn’t play entirely fair, offering the Foamasi as a red herring villain for the first three parts before playing a last-minute bait-and-switch by revealing Pangol as the real bad guy. You could argue that it’s a rather blatant attempt at misleading the audience, but I like it. It allows us to establish the mood and the characters before the real threat reveals itself. It helps that there are plenty of signs beforehand, and that the reveal is handled so well. That moment where Pangol reveals that the Argolans aren’t quite as dead as most people would think is a brilliant twist, and one that has been right in front of us the whole time. If the Argolans have been sterile for forty years, how is Pangol so young? “But how old do you think I am, Mister Brock?” is a great moment.

Indeed, I think that Pangol’s military ambitions lend the serial quite a bit of dramatic depth, as it reflects the very real fear of a generation that never knew full-scale war. The Argolan War was forty years ago, much like the Second World War was when the serial originally aired. People were coming of age who had never seen the horrors of global conflict. Indeed, Pangol’s thirst for conflict and violence, in conflict to the elders’ quest for peace, reflects the sort of nationalist sentiment that led to the Second World War in the first place, as Germany suffered the reparations inflicted on them in the wake of the First World War. History repeats.

An army of one?

However, perhaps Pangol reflects a more modern fear, the rise of the Neo-Nazi movement in the late seventies, especially on mainland Europe. “And he will be avenged,” Pangol claims of the dictator who led the planet to ruin. “We, Pangol, the child of the Generator, will fulfil his dreams of great conquests.” He uses terms like “the fulfilment of Argolan destiny” and displays fervoured racism (which had been masquerading as misplaced nationalism), dismissing Romana as “alien trash.” It’s a very potent and very daring observation for the show to make, perhaps reiterating the same sorts of fears that Terry Nation had poured into The Daleks.

Director Lovett Bickford does a great job handling the adventure. I’ve already mentioned the superb opening shots, but he does a great job with the Foamasi, which are basically just men in silly green suits. Seemingly aware of the limitations of the costume, Bickford cleverly decides to hide them from us until the third part of the adventure, favouring to build atmosphere with silhouettes and close shots of their claws. The entire adventure seems well-paced and foreboding, which is really quite wonderful. Apparently Bickford ran significantly over budget, and so was never asked to return to the series. It’s a shame, because The Leisure Hive benefits from absolutely fantastic direction.

A girl and her dog…

I’ll close with the observation that Russell T. Davies appears to have a fondness for the story as well, as elements from it seem to keep popping up in his scripts for the revived series. A prematurely aged Doctor was included in The Last of the Time Lords, while Aliens of London featured aliens wearing “human suits.” Hell, the follow-up to that adventure, Boom Town, even ended with the villain in question deaged to the point where she became a baby, much like the ultimate fate of Pangol here. Davies has a tendency to channel underrated stories for his work (with Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways seeming to draw heavily from Colin Baker’s time in the lead role), so The Leisure Hive is certainly in good company.

I really like The Leisure Hive – I think it’s really a great story that is somewhat overshadowed by all the behind-the-scenes goings-on around the show at the time. It’s a shame, because it’s clever and insightful and well-made, which is really something worth celebrating.

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