Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fantastic Visage

Almost as key as the introduction of a new Doctor in Doctor Who is the debut story of a new companion. Like the Doctors they accompany, they often have to grow into their roles over the course of a few adventures.

Louise Jameson arrives on the scene as a fully-fledged Leela and puts her stamp on The Face Of Evil even more than Tom Baker – and he has the advantage of being backed up by a big floating head, a mad computer created in his image and an effigy carved in an alien Mount Rushmore.

She strikes the perfect balance of technological naivety and worldly wisdom. Simple and sharp as a knife. Fierce feminist icon and leather-clad sex symbol rolled into one, she’s the ultimate pre-Xena Warrior Princess. The original intention was to tread a Pygmalion path, with the Doctor civilising this savage and it’s only a shame they didn’t properly pursue this angle. Even more of a shame that they subjected her to the ultimate domestication by marrying her off in Invasion Of Time. Although while Andred might have worn the trousers in that relationship we knew who was going to be boss.

It strikes me as odd whenever I’ve encountered comments that ‘they could never get away with a character like her these days’. Yes, she commits acts of violence but they’re no worse than I’ve seen in Xena or Buffy and her motivations and morality are clearer and more consistent than the Doctor’s. (One decade it’s no more Janis Thorns, next it’s let’s plant this bomb on this bad person’s ship and blow him to smithereens.) The truth is they could never realise such a character so perfectly as Louise Jameson crafts Chris Boucher’s creation into very much one of a kind.

Indeed, I was genuinely staggered when I spotted a woman striding past the camera as the Sevateem march off to battle. Memory cheats and I didn’t recall there being any other female in the tribe, least of all another warrior. Go girl power! Although I think she only appears in the one shot so Leela is still highly conspicuous in a male-dominated world.

Fair play to the other actors involved, the tribe of the Sevateem are portrayed with conviction. The tribal politics between Tomas (BrendanPrice), Calib (Leslie Schofield) and Andor (Victor Lucas) might be token and incidental to the main plot but they flesh out proceedings with some nice interplay. David Garfield as Neeva even maintains the intensity and seriousness with a big space-suit glove on his head. No mean feat.

It’s their rivals, the Tesh, who seem faintly ridiculous. They have all the advanced tech (obviously), all the best weapons etc so if anything we’re meant to take them more seriously. But between their costumes and the affected manner, the actors’ convictions don’t carry the same weight as with the Sevateem.

There is, in any case, only one real character (other than the iGod with mental health issues) on the Tesh side of the barrier – namely Jabel (Leon Eagles). It’s a whimsical performance that leaves the rubbery Horda as the more convincing menace.

It is a very minor letdown in an otherwise well-realised story.

A jungle stalked by invisible monsters. Two factions divided by their differences despite a shared history. It’s another spin on familiar elements from DW’s own back catalogue as well as other SF sources, but it feels fresh and new. And bright. There’s an almost glaring brightness to the jungle, but instead of feeling like a problem with overlighting it helps paint an aura of strangeness and alienness to rival the one achieved with darkness and shadow on Planet Of Evil.

The invisible creatures here turn out to be telekinetic phantoms, the projections of schizoid supercomputer Xoanon (nee Hal 2000) who has been imprinted with the Doctor’s psyche – along with his face.

That Face provides for one of the all-time classic episode endings, of course. That fantastic defining moment of the story where the Doctor is confronted by the sight of his own physiognomy, writ large on the side of a mountain. And feeds Leela the deliciously Douglas Adamsian line about going up the nose. Sadly it’s a more disappointing over the teeth climb that turns out to be the means of entry, but the image remains. The fx fall short at around this point, with the ship supposedly in the distance looking a little too like a model and some CSO ‘trickery’, ‘nifty’ editing and a dash of throwaway voice-over exposition to cover the journey from the mountain Face to the Tesh HQ.

The Face also raises a continuity question or two and doubtless many a fan and/or Big Finish production has pondered exactly when on his solo travels Tom Baker’s Doctor managed to squeeze in a bit of tampering with an impressionable infant AI. Because as far as the TV show is concerned, all we know is he left straight for Gallifrey at the end of Hand Of Fear then came directly here after The Deadly Assassin. And yet the suggestion is this all arose from events that occurred a fair while ago. Ultimately, it’s just a teeny spanner thrown in by regeneration, because with the face of an old Doctor this story just wouldn’t work the same.

Baker here is his special blend of warm, friendly, gloomy and serious with an extra measure of batty as he talks to himself and rambles a bit more than usual. The phantom projections of his face make for a creepy image and I kind of wish they’d made more use of them than they do. The scenes in the heart of the computer room where Xoanon has his/her/their breakdown are genuinely freaky and played out against a suitably psychedelic backdrop. And we get served up another cliffhanger with impact as Baker’s face looms large and cries “Who am I?” with the voice of a child.

There’s a shade too much to-ing and fro-ing in the early stages (to the village, to the jungle, back to the village) and a bit too much sneaking around samey white corridors towards the end. And maybe Neeva’s timely intervention is a little too fortuitous, albeit only on a par with the Dalek trundling over the detonator wires in Genesis.

All in all though, it’s a story of clashes between primitive and advanced, the rational versus irrational and in that respect it’s not so unreasonable to have a measure of pure chance play its part. It’s also a tale of consequences, one of the few to examine a potential negative impact the Doctor can have on a society or culture – and possibly a stronger influence on my Big Finish audio, The Sandman, than I realised until, well, now really.

It plays on that well-known Arthur C Clarke riff, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and plays it well. This being a 70s BBC production it also serves as a good example of that familiar DW principle, ‘any sufficiently creative tale can, despite insufficient technology (and/or budget), seem like magic.’

A flawed gem then, like so many and yet unlike any other, and possibly one of the best introductions of a companion in the series.

Andred better realise how damned lucky he is and do the washing-up whenever his wife asks.


No comments: