Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 461: The Face of Evil, Episode One
When I was watching Genesis of the Daleks, I mentioned a work colleague who used to watch Doctor Who back in the 1970s, but only really has a passing interest in the show these days. Every now and then, he asks me how the marathon is going, and I update him as to my whereabouts in the run. I told him the other day that Sarah Jane had just left the TARDIS, and his face completely lit up. He proclaimed this to be the start of ‘the greatest run’ of Doctor Who ever made. It’s clearly made some impact, because he was able to pick out details from the next few stories beautifully. He referred to ‘Tom Baker’s face on the side of a mountain’, ‘Green Robots’, ‘The little dummy man’, ‘The Lighthouse’, and several other things which are going to be making up the Leela era, before adding that Leela remains, to this day, his favourite companion. Considering the slight apathy I seem to have been feeling towards stories of late, maybe this is a good sign?
Certainly, we’re off to a very good start for the new season. Hm? What? No, no, I’m fairly sure that this is the opening episode for Doctor Who’s Fifteenth Season. Oh, go on then…
When Series Six was announced as being split in two for transmission in 2011, there was something of an uproar in fandom. We’d grown used to the idea of a straight, 13-week run in the spring. Suddenly, there was going to be a great big gap in the middle of the series, airing half in the spring, and the rest in the autumn. They did a similar thing for Series Seven, but at the time of writing, it looks like we’re back to a straight run for this year’s set of episodes. People complained that Doctor Who had never done such a thing before, but it had in a way. What we now think of as Season Fourteen was broadcast in two chunks in the mid 1970s. The Masque of Mandragora, The Hand of Fear, and The Deadly Assassin all made up the first half of the series, running twelve weeks from September to November.
The series then took a six-week break before resuming on New Year’s Day with The Face of Evil, and continuing on through to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even the Radio Times listing for this first episode bills it as being the start of a ‘New Series’. I’ve been a bit tongue-in-cheek above when I suggest that this is the beginning of a new season - from a modern perspective, it’s far easier to think of it as all one block - but it really does feel like a fresh new start, and I’m hoping that it’s a good sign for where things are headed.
So: where do I begin with this one? I’ve never seen The Face of Evil before, though I’m sure I’ve read at least some of the Target novelisation. Not that I can really remember all that much about it, mind. The one thing that I do know is the image of Tom Baker’s face being carved into the side of a mountain. It’s a shame, really, because it’s such a striking image, and I can’t begin to imagine how brilliant that must have seemed on first transmission. It’s fun, throughout the episode, to watch people react to the Doctor as ‘the Evil One’, because it gives the Doctor a great chance for some comebacks. Tom Baker is on fine form here - it’s almost as though he’s enthused by the fresh start to things, too.
He even gets to bring in the Jelly Babies for a few appearances. I’ve been surprised so far just how little they’ve been a part of his Doctor. When people talk of the fourth incarnation, they tend to mention the long scarf, the floppy hat, the curly hair, the toothy grin… and the Jelly Babies! It’s one of the defining aspects of this Doctor, but they’ve made a surprisingly small impact on the character thus far. When Tom took over the role, I decided to start keeping count of how often he said that famous phrase: ‘Would you like a Jelly Baby?’ By the end of The Ark in Space, we were up to three mentions, but then I sort of lost track. It didn’t turn up in every story, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve heard it since those early episodes of his.
Here, though, they’re being used to great effect. I genuinely laughed out loud at Leela’s reaction to the sweets (‘They say the Evil One eats babies’), and the Doctor’s threat to poison someone with one of his ‘deadly’ sweets is similarly priceless. I’m wondering if this may be where the idea of the Doctor being so fond of the sweets really begins in earnest?
And then you’ve got the new girl. They don’t waste any time in setting Leela up as a new presence in the series, with her being front and centre in the very first shot of the episode. We’ve had contemporary Earth girls in the role of companion for a while now, and all of the Doctor’s recent companions have come to the TARDIS via UNIT (Sarah Jane is the only one who wasn’t under UNIT employ when they first met, but even she stumbled in during one of their assignments). It’s a stark difference, then, to be introduced to our new regular while she’s being put to trial in a fairly un-evolved court.
She’s great right from the start, though, standing up to the people in charge, making her voice heard, and refusing to bow down to their rules where she disagrees. When she’s then pursued through the jungle by two guards, and then proceeds to kill one of them, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a very different kind of assistant. I love that she continues to kill the people who threaten her – and I love even more than the Doctor is able to make a point of telling her not to do it. I know that she’s intended to have something of an ‘Eliza Doolittle’ vibe, with the Doctor teaching her to become a ‘lady’, and this is a great step in that direction.
It also helps that most of her scenes with the Doctor are set on that stunning jungle set. I praised the one from Planet of Evil to the high heavens (and rightly so, I think, because it was a brilliant design), but this one is up there in the same league. Once again, the majority of it is being shot on film over at Ealing, so it gives these scenes a different, richer quality than you might expect. The trees, the ‘vines’, the smoke… it all really works. The only bit which doesn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid, is the reveal of the Doctor’s face on the mountainside! I think the intention in the first shot (featuring the Doctor in the foreground while the mountain stretches up behind him) is that we don’t immediately notice what he’s looking at, but it means that I was desperately scanning the image for Tom Baker’s face, and then the impact of the sudden close up was a bit lost on me. I’m really pleased, though. After a few stories which haven’t really hit the mark, I’m glad to see that I’m not tiring of Who - I just needed a fresh start.