Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Doctor Who 14.2 (1976)

Hand of Fear is a messy hybrid. It is two different stories. Worse, it is two different types of story; and they never quite manage to match or make sense. 

Story One is bog-standard science-horror. Our heroes peel the layers off an extraterrestrial onion, discover the horror lurking beneath and make it go away—Nigel Kneale rather than H.P Lovecraft. 

Story Two is a risible space opera involving corridors, obliteration, barely audible dialogue and characters with far too many Zs in their names. 

If I wanted to be kind, I would say that Story One looks back at Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks; while Story Two looks forward to Graham Williams and Douglas Adams. But that attributes to the story a thematic coherence that it doesn’t really have. 

Like Masque of Mandragora, Hand of Fear begins with the Doctor and Sarah doing nothing in particular. They had hoped to go to South Croydon (a suburb on edge of the London Conurbation, a by-word for commuter-belt dullness) but have ended up in a quarry instead. An actual quarry, not a quarry standing in for an alien planet. They aren’t bright enough to work out that a siren and a man shouting at them might indicate danger, and Sarah gets buried alive when a cliff face is dynamited. 

The Doctor and Sarah no longer go looking for adventures: adventures are interruptions to the nothing in particular they would prefer to be doing. 

The explosion uncovers a stone hand; very probably the kind of hand that might inspire fear. It takes possession of Sarah-Jane, who spends the rest of the episode chanting “Eldrad must live”; “Eldrad must live” and “Eldrad must live”. The Doctor works out that it predates the human race; has a DNA like structure and is very probably the remnant of a silicon-based life-form. 

It can also absorb radiation. Happily, there happens to be a nuclear power station in the immediate vicinity, and Sarah takes the hand to the main reactor room. In a lunch-box. By the end of Episode 1 it has come to life, and by Episode 3 it has absorbed enough radiation to grow a full body. (Strangely, the first appearance of the full-grown alien, and the pay-off line “Eldrad lives” is not used as a cliff-hanger.) The body is that of a humanoid female because Sarah is the only human the hand has been in contact with. Eldrad is surprised by this shape, and later in the story, resumes her original form of, er, a humanoid male. Fortunately, it remains the policy of this blog never to talk about transgender issues. Or football. 

It is very procedural. Characters exist primarily to discover information about the Hand and convey it to the Doctor. Warnings are sounded; anti-radiation suits are put on; orders are barked and nuclear strikes are called in; but none of it makes much difference. We are marking time until the Hand is ready to reveal its hand. 

The background characters are nicely drawn. In a season which is going to become notorious for racial stereotyping, the doctor treating Sarah at the hospital is of Indian heritage. It isn’t a plot point; he just is. (He hasn’t heard of Gallifrey and thinks it must be in Ireland.) Prof Watson, who runs the nuclear power station, is introduced as a standard-issue obstructive bureaucrat, and then gets a touching little character moment, saying goodbye to his wife and kids when he’s expecting to get killed by the radiation leak. 

At the best of times, we would not have been very surprised to find out that the Hand is the remains of a silicon based alien. But for some reason the story begins with a distinctly un-special special effects sequence which shows how the remains of Eldrad came to be in the quarry. It seems that he came from a planet so cold that everyone had to have duvets wrapped round themselves all the time. Granted, it was 1976 and duvets—still known as Continental Quilts—were as exotic and pretentious as bidets and spaghetti, but the aliens look more than usually absurd. It is very hard to make out the dialogue: but the first lines spoken seem to be “Eldrad, destroyer of the barriers, sentenced to obliteration.” 

Yes, it’s another capital punishment themed story. The duvet people put their criminals in spaceships and blow them up rather than chop their heads off. They call this Obliteration. (There is another four syllable synonym for “kill”, but the Daleks are using it.) It seems that the Barriers are going to fall, and that when this happens, life on the surface of the planet will no longer be possible. So they Obliterate Eldrad nearer earth than they meant to, meaning that he has a one in three million chance of survival. 

When Eldrad finally appears in humanoid form she tells the Doctor that she invented barriers to keep her people from the howling wind. The barriers were destroyed when the planet was invaded by another race, and the invaders caused her people to unfairly blame her. This is why she was sentenced to ob-blit-ter- ray-shun. She wants to go home and make things right. 

It may be that Bob Baker and Dave Martin intend the audience to say “Ha ha, no, radioactive pants on fire, we heard one of the Duvet People saying that you yourself destroyed the barriers in episode one.” But I think you would be doing well to understand what was being said in the prologue, let alone remember it three weeks later. And Doctor Who isn’t the kind of text which generally deals in unreliable narrators. The revelation that Eldrad destroyed the barriers herself doesn’t feel like a surprising plot twist: it feels like a big cop-out, as if the writers had changed their mind at the last minute. 

In any case, He-Eldrad is less interesting than She-Eldrad. She is a quite interesting alien who has been mistreated by her own people. He is a generic Doctor Who baddie who wants to brush aside miserable creatures and go forth and conquer the YOU-NEE-VERSE. 

Once again, the baddies identify the Doctor as a Time Lord. This time, it turns out that Time Lords are supposed to take a rather active role in universal affairs: the Doctor is pledged to “prevent alien aggression” when such aggression is “deemed to threaten the indigenous population.” (So far from violating the Time Lords’ non-intervention policy, when the Doctor stops Yetis and Zygons from invading the earth he is upholding his Time Lord vows.) He’s prepared to take She-Eldrad back to her own planet (because he believes her when she says it was invaded by aliens) but he is not prepared to take her back to her own time (because that would break the First Law of Time.) This week, the Doctor is not a former Time Lord or an exiled Time Lord; he’s simply a Time Lord. He does what he does because it’s the kind of thing Time Lords do. 

It turns out that after obliterating him, Eldrad’s people decided to commit auto-genocide, just to spite her . They didn’t fancy spending a hundred and fifty million years wrapped in duvets; and they didn’t think there was much chance that anyone would invent thermal barriers or central heating, so they destroyed their archive of genetic material, and allowed their species to die out. But not before leaving a snarky note for Eldrad, on the one in three million chance of him returning home a hundred and fifty million years hence. “I salute you from the dead” it says “Hail, Eldrad, King of nothing.” 

The Doctor trips him up with a scarf and he falls down a hole. Everyone lives happily ever after. Oh dear. 

And then there is an epilogue. 

Getting rid of Sarah-Jane was always going to be a problem: with the removal of UNIT from the picture, she has become simply the Doctor’s best friend, who travels with him because she thinks it is fun. She has had multiple opportunities to stay behind on earth, but up to now has chosen not to. 

For no particular reason, Sarah becomes petulant and announces that she is going to leave. The Doctor is preoccupied by some TARDIS DIY and doesn’t pay any attention to her. By coincidence, at that exact moment, he gets a telepathic message instructing him to return to Gallifrey (“as a Time Lord I must obey”). He then pulls out of thin air the idea that humans are not allowed on Gallifrey. So poor Sarah is left behind on earth. 

It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of what we know of the characters, but Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are sufficiently good actors that they sell the scene to us. 

When Jo Grant left the TARDIS, long ago in Season 10, it was presented as something inevitable: part of a natural process. Jo had grown up. The Doctor said that the fledgling was leaving the nest. He was a bit jealous because she was marrying the wet scientist who resembles a younger version of himself; but there is no sense that Jo was going to stay around forever. Dad may cry at his daughter’s wedding; but he doesn’t really mean it. 

Sarah’s departure feels like a farewell between two adults. They can’t quite admit that they are parting, and they can’t quite admit how sad it makes them. They promise not to forget each other; the Doctor says they’ll meet again, even though both of them know how unlikely that is. He says he’s going to drop her off in South Croydon, her home, which is where they were headed at the beginning of the story. In a very nice bit of scripting, the TARDIS misfires and leaves her in an entirely different place. So we are left smiling at the Doctor’s expense, not sad because Sarah has gone. 

She has only been with us for three and a bit seasons; but “the Doctor and Sarah” have become a part of the furniture, in a way that “the Doctor and Jo” were and “the Doctor and Liz” definitely were not. 

Oh where will we find another. 

Hand of Fear came out in October 1976: my last year in primary school. (Before Star Wars; before the Eternals; before Tolkien; before Dungeons & Dragons.) My teacher was Miss Griffiths. “My name is not Miss Griffus; it is Miss Griff-ith-the-sa.” I suppose she is long dead by now. 

There was a magazine that was sold on Railway Stations and seemingly nowhere else: a glossy, weirdly loose leaf thing, called TV Sci Fi Monthly. It contained features about Star Trek and Doctor Who and the Six Million Dollar Man and an editorial by a proto-Thargian alien called The Wanderer. It was mostly just fannish summaries of stories and back stories: few behind the scenes features or interviews. Just the kind of thing you want when you are ten. There was a feature about Spock’s back-story (“torn between two species he grew to manhood on a world without emotion”) and a feature explaining the Totally Real Science behind the Six Million Dollar Man. I remember arguing about that one vociferously with my mother who felt that the idea of artificial limbs which worked better than real ones was slightly sacrilegious. TV Sci-Fi Monthly printed the address of the putative Doctor Who Appreciation Society and I must have sent them my 50p. 

So: from this story onwards, I see Doctor Who with a strange double-vision. I remember watching the story, just about. I remember reading reviews in the DWAS fanzine (imaginatively called TARDIS) written by people much older than me, who had been Doctor Who fans since 1963. Tim Dollin of Salop thought the scenes on Eldrad’s planet looked like something out of a pantomime and that the last minute gender change was stupid. Caroline Grainger from Cleveland thought that the ending had been cut short and that the story should have run to six parts. Richard Leaver of Blackpool thought that “the ultimate in special effects” had been achieved when the petrified hand came to life. 

But I also remember playing Doctor Who in the playground at playtime (“bagsie be the monster”) and chatting about it with my little friends over school-dinners. Quietly. You could still be smacked for being noisy in the dinner-hall. 

One of my friends—I think he was called Michael—had a highly original take which, once heard, can never be unheard. There is, indeed, something deliciously creepy about the end of Episode 1, in which the petrified hand comes to life and starts finger walking across the room. Disembodied body parts are weird. It may not have proved to be the ultimate special effect, but the BBC were starting to get the hang of blue-screen. 

But my little friend Michael went right to the heart of the matter. 

“It would have been better if it had been The Willy of Fear” he remarked. 

And it would have been.

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