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Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (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 Face of Evil originally aired in 1977.

The Evil One!

Well, nobody’s perfect, but that’s overstating it a little.

– Leela and the Doctor make a great first impression

The Face of Evil is probably the most underrated story of the entire Hinchcliffe era, and it’s not hard to see why. For one thing, it is positioned in the middle of a run of classic stories. Any story sitting between The Deadly Assassin and both Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang is probably going to be written off for being anything less than a perfect piece of Doctor Who.

More than that, though, The Face of Evil feels like it arrive a bit too early. Doctor Who is a show that can be many things at many different times, and The Face of Evil eschews the gothic horror evident throughout the Hinchcliffe era for the more intellectual and abstract science-fiction of Tom Baker’s final year. The Face of Evil feels more like a companion to Warriors’ Gate or Full Circle than to Planet of Evil or Brain of Morbius.

Still, it’s a triumph for the show, and one highly recommended. A wealth of good ideas, a great execution and the introduction of one of the show’s more iconic companions.

Face to face with evil...

Face to face with evil…

Of course, The Face of Evil is probably best known for introducing Leela as a companion. Leela is one of the companions who made the most significant impact on the public, for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is that if you put Louise Jameson in a leather loin clothe, people are going to remember that. To be fair, there’s an element of what John Nathan Turner would describe as “for the dads” about it, but it’s also because the image of Tom Baker’s skulking around with a woman dressed like a cave woman is just a great visual. It’s the sort of bizarreness that only Doctor Who could pull off with a straight face.

Truth be told, I’m disappointed that the revived show has been afraid to push their companion archetype beyond “pretty young girl living in modern England.” That’s not to suggest that there haven’t been fun companions (Donna and Amy spring to mind), merely that the revival seems to be limiting itself. It’s one thing to avoid the mistakes of the previous show, so you can understand and approve of the decision to jettison the Time Lords and all their tangled continuity and mumbo-jumbo nonsense.

Knot's landing...

Knot’s landing…

However, the diversity of the classic companions was something which actually contributed to the iconography of the original show. Leela is, for example, one of the most recognisable classic companions, even to people who haven’t watched the show. K-9 is remembered quite fondly, despite the fact I am not entirely sure that he worked as well as he might. I would love to see Matt Smith paired with a Victorian companion, or a Celtic tribeswoman or any of the possible combinations that the entirety of time and space allows.

If it were written well, and there’s no reason to doubt that it would be, then it could be great fun. After all, Leela is iconic despite the fact that the show occasionally had a great deal of trouble writing the character. The fact that she has one of the least graceful companion exits in the history of the show, and the questionable subtext of the Doctor’s decision to occasionally treat her like Eliza Doolittle, have had no real impact on her enduring impact. She’s still more instantly recognisable than Peri or Tegan.

Leela, L-E-E-L-A, Leela...

Leela, L-E-E-L-A, Leela…

Leela also probably benefits from the fact that she was the companion introduced directly following Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane is pretty much the companion against whom other companions are invariably measured. The show was at the height of its popularity, Tom Baker was a memorable Doctor, so it seems plausible that Leela might have been fondly remembered by sheer virtue of her location in the series’ history. I am, however, quite sceptical of that – if only because it discounts the wonderful work that Louise Jameson did and the character’s striking design.

I’ll probably talk a bit more about Leela when I get around to her final adventure. As mentioned above, the character wasn’t always well-handled. In this regard, Louise Jameson did some sterling work, making Leela always quite fun to watch even when the writers seemed to forget that the character’s bravery and stubbornness were part of her appeal, rather than rough edges to filed down to fit a particular companion archetype.

Identity crisis...

Identity crisis…

The Face of Evil is, in that regard, a great introductory episode. It gives us, in essence, pure and undiluted Leela. She’s never further from the archetypal companion role than she is here. For one thing, she’s introduced being quite capable of taking care of herself. She doesn’t need the Doctor to inspire her to acts of death-defying bravery, as we open with her being sentenced to exile for daring to speak truth to power. She’s pretty handy with a crossbow, and she’s quite willing to kill (or at least permanently paralyse) in order to stay alive.

I like that The Face of Evil is pretty honest about Leela’s brutality. It’s never really portrayed as excessive. She uses lethal force in self-defence when she really doesn’t have that many options open to her, so she never comes across as callous or unnecessarily violent. At the same time, the show concedes that this upsets the Doctor, and that it doesn’t fit his world view. A man with a magic box, a sonic screwdriver and life times of experience pretty much always has alternatives to violence, and it’s immediately clear that Leela’s violence doesn’t sit well with him, despite the fact that she doesn’t really have much alternative.

Get the point?

Get the point?

Naturally, when the Doctor sets his mind to it, he’s able to handily devise an antidote reverse the effects of the toxin. It still underscores one of the more interesting themes of The Face of Evil, though, and one which seems quite a bit ahead of its time. In a way, it almost seems to prefigure Bad Wolf, as it drops the Doctor into a situation where his meddling has had a more negative impact than he could ever have guessed. It’s fine for the character to just swoop in and save the day, but it’s very easy to forget that a lot of people wind up living with the consequences of his actions – and he never comes back to check up on them.

The Face of Evil isn’t quite as harsh on its protagonist as Bad Wolf, but it raises a few of the same points about the arrogance of his intervention. His condemnation of Leela’s methods seems especially harsh when it’s revealed she’s only stuck in this mess as a consequence of decisions he made a long time ago. Finally realising what went on, the Doctor concedes that his own short-sightedness is to blame for the current status quo. “I didn’t recognise a birth trauma and that was my mistake.”

No time like the present...

No time like the present…

The Face of Evil rather cleverly twists some of the standard expectations of Doctor Who around. Most obviously, it deconstructs the suggestion that the Doctor leaves every world better than he found it. It also offers a rather twisted take on the Doctor’s modus operandi. The Doctor is, as is often pointed out, a force of nature which drops out of the sky and destroys your world. The only problem is that, this time, the Doctor is the world.

As the computer plots to kill him, the Doctor explicitly articulates this, explaining, “I contradict what he thinks is real. I’m a threat to his world.” It’s a very literal expression of the existential threat the Doctor poses to these sorts of dysfunctional societies. The difference, of course, is that this culture is built up in his image. It’s a neat twist, and a nice homage to stories like Enemy of the World, where the actor playing the Doctor would swap out to play the villain of the piece.

Well met, helmet...

Well met, helmet…

However, while Patrick Troughton played a different character who had conquered the world in that story, Tom Baker is just playing another version of the Doctor – or a direct homage to him. Given the behind-the-scenes stories about Baker’s rapidly expanding ego at this point in the series’ run, one wonders if the decision to create a power-mad evil version of the Doctor with delusions of godhood represented a none-too-subtle jab at the show’s leading man. (See also: Meglos.)

It also, perhaps, represents the logical extension of Baker’s on the record reluctance to recruit another companion after Lis Sladen’s departure. Without the companion to provide exposition or to prompt explanations from the Doctor, the show would have to essentially resort to the Doctor talking to himself. The opening scene acknowledges this by giving Baker dialogue that could easily have been written for two people. “Little look round, Doctor? Why not.” Allowing Baker to move from both the Doctor and companion roles to assume the villain role as well seems like a logical extension of that that idea.

Face off...

Face off…

(As an aside, I prefer to think that this is just the Doctor’s loneliness shining through. He’s become so accustomed to the companionship and banter that he improvises it himself. Despite his own protestations, he is a very lonely Time Lord, and I quite like the idea that even the stubborn Fourth Doctor is a lot more dependent on his travelling companions than he would ever concede. There’s almost something quite sad about that opening scene as the Doctor pantomimes the opening Doctor/companion dynamic.)

Indeed, quite a lot of The Face of Evil seems to play with the expectations and tropes of Doctor Who. We get a jungle set which looks like a jungles set. It doesn’t look like a jungle, and if the audience noticed that it might give the game away a bit early. However, because the show has conditioned us to expect jungles which look like the inside of a building, with trees and foliage constructed from various man-made materials, the illusion is maintained. The invisible monsters in the first episode also seem like a nod towards the show’s budgetary constraints.

Trial by fireside...

Trial by fireside…

The Face of Evil is also full of fairly big ideas for the show. There’s a notion that time is more of a wheel than a line. It initially looks like the Doctor has arrived in the early days of a civilisation, still in the hunter-gatherer phase. However, it is subsequently revealed to be a post-apocalyptic society. There’s a sense that the beginning and the end are linked somehow, which is a recurring theme in the show, even articulated at length in The Deadly Assassin. After all, what is the Doctor’s regeneration but birth following death?

There’s some nice meditation on faith and religion. I love the idea that the religious beliefs of these people stem from the traditions of their ancestors. “That gesture you did,” the Doctor notes. “Yes, that’s the one. It’s presumably to ward off evil. It’s interesting because it’s also the sequence for checking the seals on a Starfall Seven spacesuit. And what makes that particularly interesting is that you don’t know what a Starfall Seven spacesuit is, do you?”

A highly-charged ceremony...

A highly-charged ceremony…

In particular, there’s suggestion that knowledge and faith are mutually incompatible. The explanation for their situation throws the entire belief system of the natives into doubt. “We start getting proof and we stop believing,” Neeva remarks. Tomas replies, “With proof, we don’t have to believe.” I’m not entirely sure I subscribe to that line of thought. I don’t belief that belief and rationality are mutually exclusive – and I think that adopting such a position only makes discourse harder. However, it’s a bold idea for a show like Doctor Who to tackle head-on, and I appreciate the intelligence of Boucher’s script.

The Face of Evil is just a wonderful piece of Doctor Who that generally gets lost in the shuffle when discussing the highs of the Hinchcliffe era. It’s a clever piece of science-fiction executed with considerable skill by all involved, and well worth a look for anybody wanting to take a look at the show’s ability to tackle big ideas.

Now drop your weapons, or I’ll kill him with this deadly jelly baby.

– the Doctor


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