Thursday, March 08, 2012

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil DVD review

As I’ve written before, there are certain Doctor Who stories about which I simply cannot be objective, and 1977’s “The Face of Evil” may be at the top of that list. It’s easily Top Ten Who for me, but I’ve discovered time and again that few have the same kind of admiration for it that I do. Screw it. Right here, right now - let’s give “The Face of Evil” its proper due. It’s just as tight and smart as the rest of Season Fourteen, of which it’s a major, important component, and it goes a long way toward cementing that block of stories as very possibly the best straight run of the classic series.

Having said goodbye to Sarah Jane two stories prior in “The Hand of Fear,” and having recently engaged in an epic battle against a decaying Master on their home planet of Gallifrey in “The Deadly Assassin,” the Doctor (Tom Baker) is now roaming the universe solo and seemingly carefree. The TARDIS lands on an unnamed planet, in a dense, alien looking jungle. There the Time Lord encounters two opposing factions: tribal warriors known as the Sevateem, and the restrained technology-based Tesh. Their mutual hatred and distrust is spurred on by their god, Xoanon. After he’s repeatedly recognized as “The Evil One,” the Doctor soon learns that he’s been here before, and the situation is something only he can fix. Along the way he forms a close bond with a Sevateem woman known as Leela (Louise Jameson)…

It couldn’t have been an easy task to find someone to take the place of Sarah Jane Smith, and, in fact, Tom Baker wasn’t keen on having a companion at all. Despite the fact that Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe were able to make the Doctor operating solo work in “The Deadly Assassin,” his first scene in “The Face of Evil,” in which he talks directly to the camera, sort of proves the necessity of a companion. It’s a novel, mildly funny moment for sure, but not something the series could’ve relied on over the long haul. Luckily he bumps into the savage Leela not long after arriving. She’s been banished from her tribe for speaking out against their god Xoanon, and claiming that it doesn’t exist.

Right off the bat Leela grabs attention, and not just because of her revealing costume and stunningly natural looks. I’m not entirely sure if the character’s ever been given her proper due, probably for a couple reasons, such as the fact that she was a companion for only a season and a half, and also because when she wasn’t written by Chris Boucher or Robert Holmes (between the pair they wrote five of her nine stories), she wasn’t written to her true potential. However, if one is to judge Leela on those five stories alone, she comes out looking like one of the most dynamic and engaging companions in the history of the show, partly because she was so unlike any of the others (although a case could probably be made that she shares a fair amount of traits with Jamie McCrimmon before her), but also because of her violent, primal behavior, and the Doctor’s reactions to that behavior. Likewise, Jameson seems very sure of herself coming out of the gate (even though she admits that she was anything but), and it would have been so easy for this character to have been a misfire, especially if the wrong actress had been cast in the part.

Jameson's knack for the role aside, Leela is given such a perfect introductory storyline – one that ideally serves the essence of the character - that it’s difficult to imagine it having gone any other way. “The Face of Evil” is about the triumph of science and reason over religion and superstition, which mirrors the journey Leela takes with the Doctor over the course of their travels. I’ve said before that these types of stories are amongst my very favorite in Doctor Who, because they reflect my own world view, and “Face” was the strongest piece of science fiction I’d experienced (at the age of 13) that explored these ideas, and therefore it has stuck with me ever since.

I’d already seen “Pyramids of Mars,” “Planet of Evil,” and “The Masque of Mandragora” (the latter shares some of the philosophy of “Face,” but the method of storytelling isn’t as intricate) and several other “classic” classic Who stories that preceded it, but “Face” is the one that, after having viewed it, cemented my lifelong relationship with the series. In speaking about this particular serial, I can think of no higher testimonial than the idea that while I enjoyed the bejeezus out of “The Brain of Morbius” (and would also place it in my Top Ten) it was “The Face of Evil” that taught me that this show really was about something beyond battling monsters and aliens (possibly because this serial doesn't really feature either).

Perhaps I’ve gotten too serious here, and forgotten to explain that “The Face of Evil” is also loads of fun. All the little hallmarks that define the era are present here. Baker is in prime form, working his way back and forth between deadly serious and whimsically humorous. One of the most priceless, memorable moments occurs when he threatens to kill a Sevateem tribesman with a jelly baby. He’s aided by a truly spectacular guest cast, all of whom seem to totally believe in the world they’re playing in. The Sevateem in particular are smartly written, most notably Leslie Schofield’s duplicitous Calib and David Garfield’s high priest Neeva, who goes through a dramatically calculated breakdown upon realizing that his entire belief system is a sham. This is the sort of sensitivity Boucher – here, a first time Who writer – imbues the proceedings with; most Who scribes before him would’ve glossed over such an angle.

The psychically endowed Tesh don’t get nearly as much screentime, as they aren’t introduced until Episode Three, but they are undeniably strange and creepy, partly because of the fact that never once do we see a female Tesh. Further complicating this issue is the claim by the captain of the Tesh guard, Jabel (Leon Eagles), that they “deny the flesh so that our minds may find communion with Xoanon.” And yet somehow, as a race, they’ve been reproducing for survival for numerous generations. These are the kind of weirdoes who very likely keep their women locked away and out of sight, to be used only for procreation. Granted, none of this is seen or even hinted at onscreen, but on this viewing of “Face,” my mind began to ponder such issues, and that’s where I arrived. Judging them on their fashion choices, however, one might think that the Tesh have escaped en masse from the Emerald City, which was another unsettling fictitious arena lorded over by a false god.   

The working title of the serial was “The Day God Went Mad,” and many a fan, myself included, has bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t used. It would have been a fucking fantastic title, and indeed, had it been used, the perception of this story would be entirely different today. It would not be thought of as just “Leela’s first story” or as the filler in between “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Robots of Death.”  Yet let’s not entirely discount what makes the title they did use almost as cool, and that’s the fact that the face in question is that of the Doctor’s, and there are numerous moments in this story where Tom Baker’s visage and voice are used as chilling emblems of darkness, and it totally works. It’s difficult to imagine the gimmick working with most of the other actors to have played the Doctor, such is the strangeness of Baker’s face (although by all means, it’d be a debate worth having).

Sometimes it's tough to know where to stop talking in a DVD review, especially for a story that I’m as enthusiastic about as this one. Many people reading this will not have seen this serial, and the way it operates and unfolds is too clever to ruin by line listing everything there is to adore about it. (Honestly, I feel as though I’ve only scratched its surface; I didn’t even talk about the spectacular design work or the atmospheric film sequences.) Last month of “The Caves of Androzani” I said “there surely cannot be any safer Doctor Who DVD purchase this year.” On a logical, critical level I stand by that, but on a personal, emotional level, “The Face of Evil” trumps even the might of “Androzani.”

DVD Extras: Perhaps rather appropriately, the extras here are very Louise Jameson heavy, playing almost as homage to Leela. On the other hand, Tom Baker is completely absent from the proceedings as is, unfortunately, Chris Boucher…well, mostly absent. A revolving commentary track moderated by Toby Hadoke features Jameson and Hinchcliffe as well as actors Schofield, Garfield, Mike Elles (Gentek) and Harry F. Fielder, who has a small role as a Sevateem assassin in Part One, as well as film cameraman John McGlashan. Hadoke, it turns out, has been in contact with Boucher and periodically reads e-mails from him, so the writer is at least there in spirit.

There’s also a making of entitled “Into the Wild,” which runs for 25 minutes as well as nine minutes of leftover film footage. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Fourth Doctor” is another in the ongoing series that takes a look at press reaction to the show. Given that the Baker era lasted for seven seasons, at a mere 14 minutes, this particular installment feels a bit on the brief side. “Doctor Who Stories: Louise Jameson” is a 17-minute interview with the actress from 2003, and there’s also a short vintage interview with her with Noel Edmonds from Swap Shop. A Denys Fisher Toy commercial is a cool little tidbit, and there’s also a tremendously impressive trailer for next month’s release of “The Daemons,” which any Who fan will tell you has been a long time coming. Finally, there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitles option, and PDF material that includes Radio Times listings, loads of advertising tie-ins for a product called Ty-Phoo Tea, and an extensive collection of comics, stories and articles from a vintage magazine called The Amazing World of Doctor Who, which was part of the Ty-Phoo promotion.