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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (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 Hand of Fear originally aired in 1976.

Come on, where are we?

We’re in a quarry.

Yes, I know we’re in a quarry, but where?

Well, how do I know? I don’t know all the quarries that–

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane get a bit meta

The Hand of Fear is odd, because it’s the end of an era – but it’s not the end of the era for the rather obvious reason that it bids farewell to one of the franchise’s best-loved companion character. The Hand of Fear is best known as the final story to feature Sarah Jane Smith. Indeed, the DVD comes with a helpful sticker informing any potential purchasers of the story’s significance.

However, watching The Hand of Fear with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t Sarah Jane’s departure that is the most striking part of the show.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

After all, she’d be back. She’d get her two spin-offs – the dire K-9 and Company and the substantially more charming Sarah Jane Adventures. John Nathan-Turner would try to bring her back for Tom Baker’s regeneration, but – failing at that – she would return for both The Five Doctors and Dimensions in Time. She’d endear herself to an entirely new generation of fans in School Reunion and would become a supporting cast member during the Russell T. Davies era.

While viewers (and even Lis Sladen) couldn’t have known this at the time, it’s worth noting that we’ve said goodbye to companions before. Ian Marter had departed just over a year prior in Terror of the Zygons. Katy Manning had been a companion for almost as long as Lis Sladen, and even she had eventually departed the companion role. Roles change. Actors move on. Even popular ones. It’s natural.

It's my hand in a box!

It’s my hand in a box!

However, The Hand of Fear is interesting because it feels like the show is completely and irrevocably divorcing itself from the Pertwee era. To be fair, the series had been drifting away from the moorings of Barry Letts’ Doctor Who from the moment that Tom baker took over the role. Robot demonstrated that you simply couldn’t expect a UNIT story to work with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor at the heart of it. Terror of the Zygons seems like a belated goodbye to the Brigadier, a farewell to all of that. When UNIT reappears in The Seeds of Death, the Brigadier doesn’t even bother to turn up.

The Hand of Fear feels like a Pertwee era story. It’s from the writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and they imbue the adventure with a decidedly Pertwee-era sensibility. There is a nuclear plant. There is an alien invader. There is an obligatory and pointless air strike. There is no real mention of UNIT, and their absence feels conspicuous. When the Doctor and Sarah Jane venture off-world with Eldrad, the alien world doesn’t look like anything from the gothic Philip Hinchcliffe era. With its brightly-coloured stones and crystals, it fits more comfortably with the pseudo-glam-rock stylings of the Letts era, as seen in stories like Planet of the Spiders.

A rocky relationship...

A rocky relationship…

Indeed, the script feels like it might have been written for Pertwee’s Doctor. Certainly, Tom Baker looks very uncomfortable when Eldrad appeals to him as some force of cosmic order. “As a Time Lord,” she informs him, “you are pledged to uphold the Laws of Time and to prevent alien aggression.” The Doctor clarifies, “Only when such aggression is deemed to threaten the indigenous population.” He adds a Baker-esque qualification of “… I think that’s how it goes…”, but it’s just a nod to the bohemian anti-authoritarian attitudes of this version of the character.

It’s clear that Eldrad is appealing to the same sort of “defend the integrity of time” value system that Pertwee’s Doctor would play into in The Time Warrior. As such, it feels like a suitable bookend, a reflection of the story which introduced Sarah Jane. Still, given how frustrated Baker’s Doctor was at being manipulated into serving the ends of the Time Lords in Genesis of the Daleks and The Brain of Morbius, it’s weird that he is so willing to fall into the role of supreme authority here, even with the stakes as high as they seem.

Travelling companions...

Travelling companions…

Eldrad appeals to the Doctor to actually use that time machine he travels around in. “I beg you to help me to save Kastria once more. Why do you hesitate? It is your duty. Help me. Take me back through time.” The Fourth Doctor doesn’t respond by asserting how monstrous it would be to re-write time, or how the thought of playing god with the temporal continuum – deciding which history is “right” – offends him. He falls back on rules and regulations. “That would contravene the First Law of Time, a distortion of history. I can’t do that.”

It feels weird to see Baker thrown into this role, and it feels like Bob Baker and Dave Martin are still writing for the version of the show that aired in the early seventies. The Hand of Fear feels at least half-a-decade behind the curve, a throwback that isn’t wry or self-aware enough to be written off as an affectionate homage. This isn’t a world to which the Doctor belongs any longer, and arguably it’s one that Sarah Jane is drifting even further away from, the longer she spends with him.

A spanner in the works...

A spanner in the works…

You can see it in the way that the human characters react to the Doctor and Sarah Jane, without UNIT acting as a handy means of bestowing authority or legitimising them. When the Doctor offers some pseudo-scientific technobabble, all Abbott can reply is, “Yeah, well, I’ll let you get on with it, then.” After Sarah Jane wanders off, Carter tries to describe her to the security staff. The closest example he can think of is a fictional television character.

“The dark haired young woman wearing some pink-striped overalls,” he explains over the telephone. “Yes, pink-striped overalls. Yes, just like Andy Pandy.” The Doctor and Sarah Jane aren’t real any longer. If they ever were. Placing them inside a story set in something approximating the real world just draws attention to how radically the show has changed over the past couple of years, since the end of the Barry Letts era.

So long, Sarah Jane...

So long, Sarah Jane…

The wonderful Philip Sandifer makes some rather wonderful observations about the way that the show changed in the wake of The Hand of Fear:

The Hand of Fear is the last story until Terror of the Vervoids to feature a companion from contemporary Britain – a run of over a decade. The last time that was true was The War Games. And even in the Troughton era, at least one companion was from Britain at all times, albeit from its history. The last time there were no regulars who were overtly from Britain – the only time, in fact, in the series’ history before this point – was The Daleks’ Masterplan. From The Deadly Assassin through The Keeper of Traken, the Doctor does not even travel with anyone who is from Earth at all.

More telling, however, is this: from The War Machines (the first story in which the straightforwardly arrives in contemporary Britain) to The Hand of Fear, 28 of the 60 stories feature a threat to contemporary Britain – a rate of about 47%. From The Deadly Assassin through Survival only 11 of 72 do – a mere 15%. (You can move the numbers around a bit depending on what you do and don’t count, but the gulf remains.)

It’s actually a bit more stark than that. Since Mel never gets an origin, and thus can’t ground the show, we have to wait until Dragonfire for a contemporary British companion. And, even then, we don’t get to see much of Ace as a contemporary companion until the following season.

A nice ring to it...

A nice ring to it…

Similarly, the skewing of the show from being primarily Earth-based to being primarily non-Earth-based has been happening somewhat gradually since Tom Baker took over the role and Philip Hinchcliffe became producer. After all, the entire first year of Baker’s tenure, building off Robot, was designed to be a gigantic joyride through time and space in the TARDIS, a far cry from the occasional “daytrip” of the Pertwee era.

And The Hand of Fear seems to acknowledge that this shift is taking place. Indeed, it seems to put this at the root of Sarah Jane’s departure from the show. At the start of the adventure, she wants to go home. She’s had enough of these mad cosmic jaunts. When the Doctor tries to ground her during Eldrad’s attempted possession, he appeals to her innate humanity. “Stop making a fuss, Sarah, you’re from South Croydon!” Just get on with it. None of this larger-than-life nonsense. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Eldrad knows how to make an entrance...

Eldrad knows how to make an entrance…

In the final episode, Sarah Jane pines nostalgically for her former life, juxtaposed against the Doctor’s more fantastical fantasy elements:

Oh, I must be mad. I’m sick of being cold and wet, and hypnotised left right and centre. I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been.

Zeus plug.

Oh, I want a bath. I want my hair washed. I just want to feel human again.

Forget the zeus plug. I’ll have the sonic screwdriver.

Oh, and boy am I sick of that sonic screwdriver! I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home. I said, I’m going to pack my goodies and I am going home! Right! Excuse me!

“I just want to feel human again” implies that travelling in the TARDIS has made her lose sight of her humanity, just a bit. The sheer scale of gods and demons and monsters and time and infinity has eaten away at that. Her rejection of the sonic screwdriver is, perhaps, a rejection the show’s fantasy elements, what amounts to the Doctor’s magic wand.

Of a mind...

Of a mind…

Ace attracts a lot of attention as the companion who most heavily influenced the creation of Rose. It makes sense. After all, Rose is the next logical step of a lot of Ace’s character and development – there’s many of the same themes and ideas obvious in their characters. Ace doesn’t come from a generic “South Croydon.” She comes from a council estate with its own burnt-down buildings and its social history. It’s a very clear forerunner to Rose’s East Powell Estate.

However, there’s a lot of Sarah Jane in Rose as well, particularly in the show’s second season, when the show became more overt and explicit about acknowledging its long and rich history. Indeed, the arrogance that Ten and Rose demonstrate in episodes like Tooth and Claw seems quite similar to the behaviour of the Doctor and Sarah Jane here. Sarah Jane is playful and reckless, even after Eldrad has taken control of her mind.

It's all a bit askew...

It’s all a bit askew…

Like Rose eventually did, Sarah Jane also seems to be coming to see the universe as a cosmic theme park, filled with items that exist purely to satisfy her own curiousity and amusement. When the Doctor suggests that she can’t come to Gallifrey with him, she doesn’t respond with concern or fear about what it means. Instead, she seems rather jilted that he’s refusing to share with her. “Oh, come on. I can’t miss Gallifrey.”

Of course, this is a rather sudden (if logical) shift in the characterisation of Sarah Jane. Watching Rose feel so entitled became irritating over the course of the second season, and I imagine that watching Sarah Jane treat the universe as a holiday spot might have grated if spread over the course of a season. However, limited to this one episode, it suggests just how radically travelling with the Doctor has altered Sarah Jane’s outlook and perspective. It’s the first time we’ve really seen that idea tackled directly. Travelling time will always impact the way companions perceive the universe, but The Hand of Fear emphasises the point.

Rock on...

Rock on…

She’s also become somewhat reckless. Throughout the episode, Sarah Jane refuses to do as the Doctor instructs, and she skips gleefully through the episode as if she’s completely impervious to harm. She fakes another possession attack, before grinning at the Doctor and teasing, “Just testing.” When the Doctor asks her to wait behind, Watson observes, “I think you’d better do as he says this time.” Sarah Jane is having none of this. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I should. But I’m not going to!”

There’s an element of hubris to Sarah Jane here, and both Tom Baker and Lis Sladen invest far more than the script. The best version of The Hand of Fear is the story implied by the performances of the two lead actors, reading between the lines of a fairly generic alien invasion story. Sarah Jane is brainwashed early in the story, and walked into a nuclear reactor. One imagines that the Doctor might feel a little guilty about endangering a companion like that.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

The fact that Sarah Jane is so completely unfazed by the whole “possession” thing might be read as a warning sign to the Doctor, who clearly cares very deadly about her. Indeed, there’s a lovely exchange in the middle of the story which amounts to little more than the pair explaining that they like each other a lot:

I worry about you. Look, anyway, who found that thing?

You did.

Right. So, I’m involved. It could have been me, not Driscoll, and besides, I’m from Earth and you’re not.

That’s true.

Exactly.

Yes, but–

Oh, but what?

I worry about you.

So, be careful.

We’ll both be careful.

Fine.

It’s a lovely exchange, and the entire story would be a lot stronger if there was more of that sort of thing, if it developed into a conscious thread through the episode, building to the idea that the Doctor might be seeking to protect Sarah Jane by kicking her out of the TARDIS for her own good.

Another world...

Another world…

After all, it’s not as if this sort of manipulation is out of character for him. When he first suggests that he’s going to Gallifrey, Sarah Jane is smart enough to suspect that he might be emotionally manipulating her. “You’re playing one of your jokes on me, just trying to make me stay.” The Doctor is well-capable of that sort of behaviour. Indeed, the Tenth Doctor – arguably the version closest to Tom Baker’s iteration – is very skilfully at emotionally manipulating Rose and Martha. His stringing along of Martha with the (“just one trip”) is particularly cruel.

Indeed, when the Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey, he doesn’t state that he is forbidden to take Sarah Jane along. He doesn’t react as if bringing her would violate some sacred rule about outsiders. (Certainly, given Leela gets to live there in The Invasion of Time, that’s not the case.) Instead, he seems to feel some personal imperative not to take her to Gallifrey. “The call. The call from Gallifrey. Gallifrey. After all this time, Gallifrey. I can’t take Sarah to Gallifrey. Must get her back home. Must reset the coordinates.” He seems frightened at the prospect of bringing her to Gallifrey.

Upper-crust...

Upper-crust…

And, to be fair, that makes a certain amount of sense. After all, The War Games isn’t that distant a memory for the Fourth Doctor. As far as he remembers, when he took Jamie and Zoe there, they had their memories wiped and they were dumped back where they’d came from without any recollection of their time with him. As such, the Doctor’s “don’t you forget me” and Sarah Jane’s reflection on what her journey has meant (“you know, travel does broaden the mind”) feels quite poignant.

Of course, The Hand of Fear isn’t written quite well enough to pull it off, but Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen work their hardest to give the farewell an emotional resonance. Indeed, I’d argue that you can trace a very clear line between what this goodbye is trying to do, and what Russell T. Davies actually does with Doomsday and Army of Ghosts. I can’t help but suspect that at least some of Rose’s emotional arc is rooted in the traces of characterisation given to Sarah Jane here.

It doesn't compute...

It doesn’t compute…

It’s worth noting that the goodbye scene does work remarkably well, despite the somewhat shoddy and unfocused episode surrounding it. Apparently a lot of that is owed to Lis Sladen, who made a conscious effort to underplay the goodbye here:

Originally I’d planned one year. That became two, then three. I got a great deal of satisfaction from making Sarah Jane what she was. Even so, there were boundaries that couldn’t be crossed and I felt I’d really done my best, had my day, and should hand over to somebody else. I felt regret, of course, but I was happy that it was I who took the initative, and not somebody giving me a quiet push – in fact, they asked me how I should go out and I said make it quiet, not over-dramatic. I didn’t want to die or anything like that. So at the end of ‘The Hand of Fear’, I slipped out of the Doctor’s life and back to the theatre.

A lot is made of the fact that the Doctor never came back for Sarah Jane, despite the promises exchanged here. I’m not convinced.

Here comes the pseudo-science...

Here comes the pseudo-science…

I always read that as a necessary subtext of the scene – two old friend who know their time together is finished, but who don’t want to ruin a fine moment by bringing it up. After all, Sarah Jane takes her stuff with her. Sure, she packed them in a huff, but she doesn’t leave her belongings on the TARDIS, as she might if she were expecting to be back on it in next to no time. The Doctor’s trip to Gallifrey might take years, but the mechanics of time travel mean that he would probably only be gone for minutes to her.

The fact that she’s taking the things she has packed (including a potted plant) implies that she knows there’s a permanence to the goodbye here. And we suspect that the Doctor know it too, he’s just not very good at saying it. Tom Baker’s Doctor was a character who refused to put down roots, or to allow himself to become too tied down. He ditched UNIT at the first opportunity. One suspects that his honest affection for Sarah Jane caught him by surprise, and he honestly doesn’t know how to deal with it. Smiling his toothy grin and avoiding the fact that the separation is permanent is perfectly in keeping with the Fourth Doctor.

Going fourth...

Going fourth…

There are a few other disappointing elements to The Hand of Fear. It’s strange that Eldrad has to change from a female form to a male form in order to be perceived as a genuine threat. Why is it necessary for the true form of a dictatorial sentient rock appear to be masculine – right down to the character’s dodgy beard? It seems to suggest that it wouldn’t be possible for the audience to accept Eldrad as a true universal monster if she remained in her female form.

The Hand of Fear is a disappointingly weak episode upon which Lis Sladen ends her run on Doctor Who. It feels like an awkward reminder that the show has changed radically during her time as a companion, rather than celebrating what it became. However, Sladen – like quite a few of the companions from this era of the show – proves herself far stronger than the material given to her. The fact that she’s so pitch perfect here, in a rather bland little episode, is a fitting tribute to her skill and professionalism. Sladen wasn’t just an actress who did exceptional work with exceptional material. She elevated the unexceptional material by her presence.

Moving out...

Moving out…

I’m sorry, I might have something in my eye.

 

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