Doctor Who complete reviews: The Hand Of Fear
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
It's time to go for Sarah-Jane. For now...
Like Eldrad, The Hand Of Fear starts off well, but ends up falling into a black chasm of disappointment.
Let’s cut some slack here. By the mid-1970s, practically all Doctor Who stories were written and produced to the highest standard. Week in week out, the viewers were rewarded with some of the finest TV ever witnessed, so it’s no wonder that the ratings were phenomenally good, frequently surpassing the 10 million mark. So producing consistently good episodes of Doctor Who to such a reception was a hell of an achievement.
And then we get to The Hand Of Fear, which, for the most part (well, until the middle of part three, anyway) maintains the quality. It’s also an important story, since Sarah Jane leaves the show, leaving The Doctor to travel alone for the first time in the programme’s history.
It definitely starts off very well, by using the trick of a mysterious prologue that’s not referred to until much later in the story. We’re transported to a snowy planet where its inhabitants have an inexplicable habit of TALKING AT THE TOPS OF THEIR VOICES as if the snow has frozen their eardrums. The mystery is established with the execution of an unseen rapscallion called Eldrad, who’s floating in space in what looks like (as Big Tom muses on the DVD commentary) a mobile phone. One of the shouty creatures demands that Eldrad be obliterated now, to which the other shouty thing reluctantly agrees. All is apparently hunky dory as time passes (to the strains of a great Dudley Simpson score), and we cut to…
Come on, this is Doctor Who we’re talking about here. We haven’t had a quarry for at least two stories (The Seeds Of Doom - the bit where the chauffeur tried to kill The Doctor and Sarah), so let’s try and keep up the standard here. Having said that, director Lennie Mayne really pulls out the stops to provide the best direction that you can get in a quarry. The detonation of the rock face is immaculately achieved (even if a camera reportedly got damaged in the process) and he even shoots from down on the ground as frantic white van man Abbott runs and leaps over the camera to get to the injured Doctor and Sarah.
Things pick up considerably with the discovery of the titular hand, and more to the point, the fact that it’s got some sort of mental hold over Sarah. Appropriately, in her final regular story, Elisabeth Sladen is given a good chunk of the action and she rises to the challenge very well. I mentioned in The Android Invasion that Sladen’s very good at portraying evil - this is taken further in Hand. When she’s possessed by the ring of Eldrad, Sladen gives a creepy, other-worldly appearance. It’s all in the icy stares, jerky movement and cold voiceover.
The moving hand itself is another classic Hammer Horror staple, with inspiration taken from The Mummy’s Hand. It’s very well realised on screen, and certainly quite advanced for the time in which it was made. The cliffhanger in which the regenerated hand starts to move about of its own volition is perfectly shot. In keeping with the mid-70s, though, the hand also has the power to possess anyone its ring comes into contact with. Sarah, Carter and Driscoll are all hypnotised to the cause of Eldrad, solemnly intoning: “Eldrad Must Live” at every available opportunity. See? Even in the 1970s, catchphrases were still alive and kicking before the days of “Allons-y!” and “Geronimo!”
"Even if the cast budget is a bit on the economical side, at least the direction is as strong as all the other stories of this period"
Contact with the ring unfortunately for Driscoll and Carter means that their life expectancy is as long as a man inspecting a petrol leak at night with a cigarette lighter. So Carter plunges to his doom from a high-up gantry, while Driscoll is fried into oblivion after taking the hand for a tour of the reactor core in the local nuclear power station. Bob Baker and Dave Martin were quite shrewd when it came to budgeting for actors, since both of the above don’t last for more than two parts. The downside is that we don’t really get to know either of them that well. Dr Carter is an initially amiable but bluff sort, well played by Rex Robinson, while curly-headed Driscoll gets very little to do apart from potter around with a plastic bag on his head. Come on, there are kids watching…
Even the best human character of the lot is only in the story for two parts. But at least Glyn Houston’s Professor Watson is a well-acted, likable sub-companion. Initially hostile and rude to The Doctor, we quickly see that Watson is a big old softy at heart. When the nuclear reactor’s in danger of exploding, he gently sends his secretary Miss Jackson on her way as he prepares to stay behind all alone. And he also gently tells his family where he is in a rather charming scene. He’s prepared to face death, but he wants one last talk with his family on the telephone - it’s only a brief snapshot of the man, but it’s still a welcome bit of background, and furthermore, it’s both very well written and acted.
Even if the cast budget is a bit on the economical side, at least the direction is as strong as all the other stories of this period. Lennie Mayne’s last Peladon assignment may have been muted by comparison, but this is a spectacular return to form. He uses a whole host of clever camera tricks, including distorted fish-eye POVs for those possessed by Eldrad, a clever shot of Sarah walking to the nuclear reactor (reflected in an above mirror), plenty of low down shots (such as The Doctor and Carter giving each other evil looks in Carter’s tatty old car) and many cool video effects (such as when Watson feels the wrath of Eldrad). Despite the weak conclusion, at least Mayne’s fantastic direction gives The Hand Of Fear a memorable visual edge.
One of the most memorable elements of Hand is, of course, Eldrad. The female Eldrad is the more successful of the two by a long chalk. Judith Paris is very good indeed, making her Eldrad a deadly hothead with a certain degree of vulnerability. Take, for example, her initial confrontation with The Doctor. She uses a painful process to extract information from The Doctor and is evidently bitter about those who obliterated her. And yet when Sarah accuses her of being destructive, she doesn’t respond with a killer blast from her eyes - instead, she responds, almost sadly with her version of events of what happened to Kastria. Although, as we’ll see, it’s all a big fib, but at least, Paris’ performance is such that the lie is actually very convincing. It’s a great shame that the female Eldrad ends up being crushed to blackened dust between two giant concrete slabs.
And it’s a shame that Hand, after such a promising start, goes rapidly downhill, as soon as The Doctor, Sarah and Eldrad leave for Kastria in the TARDIS. As Eldrad would bellow: “WHAT STUPIDITY ISSSS THISSSS?????“
The last 10 minutes of part three are padded out mercilessly with lame jokes and corny proverbs, turning Hand from a credible drama into a kids’ panto. Matters aren’t helped when they land on Kastria either. It’s the last part of Pyramids Of Mars all over again, except on a budget of what looks like 15p.
Yes, it’s Obstacle Course For Dummies time, as the brave trio battle their way through plastic scenery, polystyrene rocks, and yawning chasms - yawning being the operative word. At least Pyramids did the same sort of thing with some degree of urgency, but here, all the obstacles are overcome with lazy detachment. It’s about as taxing as the kids’ obstacle course on 1970s sports show, We Are The Champions.
And to make matters worse, the female Eldrad has a quick sex change to turn into - cover your ears…
I’m not quite sure what the new male Eldrad looks like - words really do defy me this time. I guess he looks like a big, walking, talking eggbox spray-painted silver. Thorne, unfortunately, delivers the loudest performance of his four Who appearances. Every line is delivered in a ground-shattering bellow, as if the boom microphone’s gone AWOL. What’s worse is that the new Eldrad has resorted to spewing forth a whole host of clichéd bullshit: “HE RRRRRRROBS ME OF MY DESTINY!!!” “IS THIS MY REWARD??? I CREEEEAAATEEEED THEEEES WOOOOOOOORLD!!!” In fact, as the two quotes show, Eldrad is also reduced to ineffectually stomping about and howling about the injustice of King Rokon tearing his plans of conquest into tiny strips.
"The new Eldrad really sums up what’s wrong with The Hand Of Fear. All that potential and investment quickly thrown away with nonchalant glee in favour of a one-dimensional plot, tacky set designs and a rubbish panto villain."
Yeah, that’s right. Eldrad really is - gasp - bad. All that stuff about alien invaders and the destroyed barriers was really a load of guff, and in fact, Eldrad was behind the whole sorry state of Kastria. Still, at least, Rokon had the foresight to put a stop to this great big freak - no self-respecting Kastrian would want Eldrad as a ruler. Imagine the substitute for the Queen’s Speech, as Eldrad delivers an ear-shattering rant on why he’s the tops. No wonder everyone’s upped sticks on the planet.
The new Eldrad really sums up what’s wrong with The Hand Of Fear. All that potential and investment quickly thrown away with nonchalant glee in favour of a one-dimensional plot, tacky set designs and a rubbish panto villain. Even the death of Eldrad is really slapdash, after The Doctor narrowly tries not to laugh at the Kastrian’s demand of his ring: “IT IS MY KEEEE TOOO ETERNITY!!! GIVE MEEE THE RRRRRRRRING!!!!” After which Eldrad trips over The Doctor’s scarf and falls into a big black chasm. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he still manages to survive - it’s always the really annoying ones that somehow manage to see another day.
Still, at least some degree of dignity is salvaged in Sarah’s leaving scene. In contrast with Jo’s departure in The Green Death, Sarah’s is very low-key. There are no tears. There’s no big speech. There’s not even a proposal. Instead, it’s all shell-shocked bewilderment on Sarah’s part. Having half seriously packed her goodies after a barney with The Doctor, the Time Lord receives the summons to his home planet Gallifrey. Inexplicably, this time around, he can’t take Sarah with him, even though Jamie, Zoe, Leela and Nyssa get to go there. Perhaps The Doctor’s had an inkling that the forthcoming battle on Gallifrey will be too heavy, even for Sarah.
Both parties react to the parting in different ways. Sarah wants to stay and seems quietly devastated at having to go. The Doctor, on the other hand, seems to want to get rid of her - now this isn’t the action of a man who doesn’t like company, more the action of a loner who really hates goodbyes. He can’t bear to lose Sarah, but doesn’t quite know how to say goodbye to her. In the end, all he can offer is an enigmatic “Till we meet again Sarah” as the journalist exits to a sunny Aberdeen street. Bet the train fare to South Croydon wasn’t cheap.
So it’s goodbye for now to Sarah. It’s not quite the end, though, since she’d come back for K9 And Company, The Five Doctors, a clutch of 10th Doctor adventures and her very own show. Which is all a testament to both Sarah’s popularity and also to Elisabeth Sladen’s great performances. It’s just a shame that she doesn’t quite get the leaving story that she deserved..
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.