The Face of Evil

Written by:
Chris Boucher
Directed by: Pennant Roberts
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1977
Video Availability: Try

It took me a couple of viewings to really get into the appeal of The Face of Evil. It probably didn't help that the first time I'd tried to get my mum to watch it with me. I mean, mums never really like Doctor Who, do they? (Gary Gillatt should do a six-page article on it for DWM. Oh, hang on…) But as well as being, despite sophisticated special effects, the cheap one of the season, it's also esoteric, with a menace as intangible as the Mandragora Helix.

And while it's tempting to give Chris Boucher credit/walk past him and shout "Zardoz" and then pretend you were coughing (delete as applicable) Hinchcliffe reveals on the The Robots of Death DVD commentary that the basic story ideas were devised by the producer and script editor.

Anyway, the first episode and my third viewing. I have an in-built fear of Who stories with ye olde cultures that say things like "what say you". However, while it's expectedly stagy, the actors are top class (Jameson had worked with the RSC before this) and, while the season 14 entry filmed entirely in studio, the season still had one of the relatively largest budgets in Who history. Add to this a fake jungle (which isn't half-bad actually, especially on film) and those stock "jungle noises" (one of my ten most hated things in Who) and it's easy to see why first viewing had such a knee-jerk reaction of disapproval from me.

It's also fairly slow, too, (not a bad thing for a fan, but for your mum…), obviously paced up to the cliffhanger, Nation-style. But with an intelligent script, above-average concepts and Tom seemingly breaking the fourth wall, it's a magical instalment. Helped enormously by the dark lighting, as soon as Tom and Louise are onscreen together it really clicks. As this is a Boucher story you sense that the witty lines weren't all Bob Holmes's ( "well nobody's perfect, but that's overstating it" replies the Doctor to being called The Evil One), while, unlike the similarly-jungle set Planet of the Daleks, the invisible monsters are at least blinded by their condition.

And so, the cliffhanger. I wonder what viewers at the time would have made of such a twist? In a mark of stupidity only bettered by the covers of Freaks and Planet of the Apes, the VHS release used this as the illustration to sell the story on. Great moment though.
* * * * ½

In many real senses this story is the biggest triumph of the fourteenth season. While the other classic stories of the season do what they do very successfully, this is the most thoughtful story, the one that actually has something to say.

If shot entirely on film I'm sure this one would be much more highly rated, though it's still very good anyway, especially the episodes set in the city. "There's no virtue in dying, Leela." "That rather depends on what you do to avoid it." There's lots of great lines in this one, though Boucher does write a startlingly hard-hearted Doctor. In Fendahl he aids a man's suicide, while here he's threatening to break a man's nose. Most shocking of all is him kicking a flesh-devouring Horda (how rubbish are the Horda?) onto a man's arm because he strikes Leela.

Particular standout here is the floating Tom head, which is a strikingly good effect for something that was made nearly thirty years ago. Though why the cliffhanger is someone we're not supposed to care about being threatened is beyond me…
* * * * ½

The most heavily science fiction based story of the season, the recreation of Xoanon is remarkable. It's also long overdue that I make a remark about Louise Jameson. Fitted with red contact lenses for her first four stories so her eyes match her skin colour, I have to say that it's a far more fetching look than the season fifteen blue-eyed girl. In fact, I'd put this one down as Louise's fittest story, especially when she's strapped down to that table. Basically - I wouldn't half! Yet such discussion also leads us to question whether or not Leela is a sexist interpretation of the companion. There's no question that seeing her half naked, tied down and prostrate is there to excite the dads. And while seeing close-ups of her armpits is very nice indeed, is a semi-nude assistant of below average intelligence really the new generation of proactive female role models? I make no decision either way, merely raise the issue.

While this is a philosophical Doctor Who story it's not as out-and-out intellectual as some of the late 80s efforts. In some ways it would fall between two stools, having not the cerebral might to satisfy the learned audience, and not possessing the requisite base thrills to engage the less demanding public. That said, back in the late 70s, a world away from today's house design schedules, over 11 million people were watching each week. Yet while essentially a ponderous tale of theological discourse, it still functions on a well-trodden narrative path of escape and capture, and reinforces the myth that schizophrenia is a multiple personality disorder. All of which ramblings mean little to me personally, as I love it anyway. Even Dudley Simpson's grossly inappropriate identikit dirge clattering doesn't bother me in this one. Plus, that's a first-class cliffhanger, especially as - confession time - I was the person who won the competition to be the extra voice of Xoanon.
* * * * ½

I wasn't really. Got you going though, didn't I? On that subject, though, events on the reprise are different, with no kiddie voice of Xoanon. So did the Doctor imagine it? There's a question of when exactly the Doctor created Xoanon's personality, and why he can't remember doing it. Personally, I reckon he did it when he was floating around during Planet of the Spiders, but they couldn't afford the extra rock to make Pertwee's nose. (Pertwee in The Face of Evil: "Who, ssssssir, am I?") In a way you could argue that this is the personification of the core divide at the programme's soul at this time. Threatening to destroy the series is the untapped ego of Tom, with the self-reflexive query "Who, am I?" an internal debate over whether or not he's bigger than the programme itself. Nah, not really - but food for thought, innit?

Okay, so the ray on Leela's gun isn't correctly aligned in the Xoanon room, but I have to reinforce the cliché and admit that Hinchcliffe really was a superior producer. So much of his work can be watched without embarrassment even today, only the tone-deaf warblings of Dud-ley a dating distraction. But on reviewing the period I've been handing out the five-star ratings like there's no tomorrow. Six classic stories in just sixteen productions is a tremendous hit rate, while only two are truly below-par. In some ways it's hard to believe that this one is part of the same season that began with the twittish Sarah and the lacklustre Mandragora, as the ambition of the series has so clearly been upgraded.

In another cobblers subtext that I'm making up just for the Hell of it, Face of Evil can be seen as the struggle between sexuality. The Sevateem are the base, overtly masculine heteros (and how do they live on with no females in the tribe, anyway?), while the Tesh… oh, okay, I admit I only came up with this theory because Leon Eagles is as camp as anything. Tom hams it up like a mad 'un again as Xoanon (Proving that even as a computer, The Drunk can still knock back a bottle of meths) though this is a fine and commendable conclusion to a well constructed tale.
* * * * ½

While The Face of Evil may be guilty of only paying lip service to its intellectual ambitions, it's a hugely rewarding story that improves and continues to engage, even after the shallow charms of other classics have faded.
* * * * *