I Don’t Look Back. I Can’t. (The Hand of Fear)
|Eldrad must live. Eldrad must jive. Having the time of|
It’s October 2nd, 1976. ABBA remains at number one with “Dancing Queen.” After two weeks, Pussycat unseat them with “Mississippi,” which sounds innocuous until you realize that Pussycat is a Dutch country music band, and that this is one of those moments where the British charts do what sane and rational people never would. Rod Stewart, Manfred Mann, and Chicago also chart.
In other news, the InterCity 125, a high speed train, begins service in the west of Britain. The Cultural Revolution formally ends in China. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigns as President of Ireland after being loudly denounced by the Minister of Defense. As for Fords, Motors begins production of the Fiesta, and Gerald flubs badly in a debate against Jimmy Carter.
While on television, it is the end of an era. And not the obvious one. Yes, this is the story where Lis Sladen departs the series. But in terms of screen time, she’s only actually 2/3 of the way done with her tenure in Doctor Who and related shows. This is, for her, a sort of midpoint pause in her Doctor Who career. Those who want to reflect in polite sadness can read the eulogy I wrote when Sladen passed away in April. But this is not the end for Sarah Jane.
That is not, of course, to say that the apparent end to her involvement with the show is anything less than vital to this story. But in this case, we shouldn’t focus on the sentiment of Sladen’s departure, because doing so loses sight of a far bigger fact – this story marks a fundamental shift in the relationship between Doctor Who and contemporary Britain. More specifically, this is the story where Doctor Who gives up on the idea that it is by default grounded in the real world of the viewer.
The easiest way to show this is with some raw facts. So here they are. The Hand of Fear is the last story until Terror of the Vervoids to feature a companion from contemporary Britain – a run of over a decade. The last time that was true was The War Games. And even in the Troughton era, at least one companion was from Britain at all times, albeit from its history. The last time there were no regulars who were overtly from Britain – the only time, in fact, in the series’ history before this point – was The Daleks’ Masterplan. From The Deadly Assassin through The Keeper of Traken, the Doctor does not even travel with anyone who is from Earth at all.
More telling, however, is this: from The War Machines (the first story in which the straightforwardly arrives in contemporary Britain) to The Hand of Fear, 28 of the 60 stories feature a threat to contemporary Britain – a rate of about 47%. From The Deadly Assassin through Survival only 11 of 72 do – a mere 15%. (You can move the numbers around a bit depending on what you do and don’t count, but the gulf remains.)
This, more even than the departure of Sladen, is the major legacy of this story. It’s where that line of thought essentially gives out and Doctor Who, basically until 2005, abandons contemporary Britain as a primary setting. It doesn’t abandon contemporary Britain entirely, but there’s an intrinsic connection to it that the series had up to this point that goes away. And here I’ll adopt something got a heretical position regarding Doctor Who – albeit one that Miles and Wood sketch out as well when they suggest that the whole Yeti in the Loo idea was a disaster.
The abandonment of contemporary Britain was a good thing.
First, let me add the corollary that the return of it in 2005 was also a good thing. The problem, much like the pause in the influence of social realism on Doctor Who, is not that Doctor Who set in contemporary Britain is a bad idea, but rather that the next major insight into how to do Doctor Who set in contemporary Britain is one that isn’t ready to emerge out of the culture in 1976. I’m not going to go into considerable detail on how Davies solves this problem, but I’m not saying it’s an unsolvable one at all. (Inconsiderable detail: a combination of successfully merging soap opera narrative techniques with Doctor Who [which both Letts and Nathan-Turner had done at earlier stages, but soap operas evolve too, so you can do that trick more than once in the history of the show] and enmeshing Doctor Who into the overall television landscape so that it existed as a cultural event, thus giving it a metafictional tie to contemporary Britain instead of just a literal one. Bad Wolf is, after all, the most contemporary-Britain focused story of the first season.)
But in terms of 1976, contemporary Britain wasn’t working. I mean, to some extent we can just say this aesthetically – if we look at the Tom Baker years, the contemporary Britain stories have had a visibly lower average quality than the others. This isn’t an issue specific to The Hand of Fear at all. It’s not as though one mediocre earthbound story invalidates the genre. But a lengthy string in which the stories focusing primarily on contemporary Britain are mediocre is a bigger problem. And that’s much closer to the situation at hand.
That said, The Hand of Fear happens to also double as a story that clearly illustrates the problems. But to some extent, those problems are best illustrated in terms of a different issue – the evolving career of the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker and David Martin. The thing about Baker and Martin is that the level of quality of their writing coincides almost exactly to what era they’re writing for. Under Barry Letts, they were one of the best writing teams, penning three very solid stories that are among the most interesting things the Pertwee era has to offer. Under the next producer, Graham Williams, they’re going to be bringing up the rear, with all of their stories fairly widely reviled, not even particularly praised by the proponents of the era. And under Hinchcliffe, they’re… decidedly mediocre. Not particularly offensive in either of their stories, nor particularly exciting. In other words, we have here two writers whose Doctor Who careers have a very straightforward downward arc.
I don’t mean this as an insult to Baker and Martin at all. Almost every writer who has an extended engagement with Doctor Who over multiple producers and Doctors has a downward trend in quality at some point. Some have an upward trend first (Robert Holmes), but eventually, pretty much every writer who sticks around on the series for a long time enters a period of terminal decline. Even David Whitaker, who I consider one of the three great writers of the classic series, had trouble in the end, though he lucked out and had a good rewriter to cover him.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. As we talked about, actually, in the last Baker and Martin story, and have talked about in general throughout the blog, television evolves. A writer who is good at 1971 television is genuinely unlikely to be as good at 1976 television, because being good at 1971 television means you are good at a different set of visual and storytelling conventions than works in 1976. This is why most of the claims that the new series should hire writers from the old series are misguided – because as good as many of those writers were, they’re not 2011-style television writers. For a sense of how problematic this can be, one need only look at the later scripts of Terry Nation, Gerry Davis, or, yes, Bob Baker and David Martin. (Amusingly, given that he’s written for an Academy Award winning film, Bob Baker is by miles the classic series writer with the best chance of writing for the new series.)
And what’s particularly interesting is that it is the very things that made, say, The Claws of Axos very good that makes The Hand of Fear so lackluster. The Claws of Axos worked because it treated every aspect of the show as a performative spectacle instead of messing around with “realism.” And The Hand of Fear doesn’t work because it makes zero effort towards any engagement with the real world.
The thing about The Claws of Axos is that it was a UNIT story. I have documented mixed feelings on UNIT, and have even suggested that the earthbound format might have worked better without them. But that’s too simple. The more accurate way to phrase it is that, when adopting the earthbound format in 1970, the show could have gone in either of two directions – the glam performativity it actually went for, or the more ripped-from-the-headlines approach of, say, Doomwatch. Or, to put it in the terms we framed in the System Shock entry, whether it wanted to be a sci-fi show in the cultural commentary tradition, or whether it wanted to be an SF show.
It picked cultural commentary. Decisively. In fact, and this is something Letts will never be recognized for as much as he deserves, the refusal to go for SF in 1970 did more to ensure the preservation of the Whitaker/alchemical tradition in Doctor Who even than Whitaker’s fundamental role in the show’s development did. By refusing to go SF at a moment that lent itself to going SF as much as the earthbound format did, Letts ensured that Doctor Who was never really going to be an SF show.
But UNIT was a big part of that. By giving the Doctor a large cast of exaggerated caricatures, the show was making a fundamental commitment to being a show that wasn’t about material realism. UNIT was consciously designed to look like a television army and not a real one, and that set the tone for the entire show. Yes, this had its own attendant weaknesses, including making it far too easy for the show to coast and spin its wheels in the latter days of the Letts era. But in terms of the overall direction of the show in the period where Baker and Martin got their starts, it was essential.
But now Baker and Martin are stuck writing a contemporary Earth setting without UNIT to serve as an interface between the Doctor and contemporary Earth. And without UNIT to make the show about them, Baker and Martin are left with a story that isn’t about anything. It’s a story in which a nuclear reactor is threatened and risks exploding, and in which military airstrikes are called in, but in which there’s no connection to the world. The nuclear reactor could be out in a quarry for all we care, and for all practical purposes it basically is. There’s an emptiness to this story.
In some ways, the airstrike sequence characterizes this perfectly. Airstrikes have been a common enough trope of earthbound stories in Doctor Who, such that there’s nothing inherently odd when they get called in. But there’s always the lurking refrigerator logic of how it is that nobody has noticed all the domestic military actions in the UK and the alien invasions when something like this happens. In the UNIT days, UNIT serves again as an interface for these situations. Because the UNIT era was really The Doctor juxtaposed with the UNIT show, not The Doctor juxtaposed with our world, it was OK when there were things that made it very clear that Doctor Who wasn’t in our world. (And remember, up until The War Machines, nothing in Doctor Who ever really made it impossible to say that the world of Doctor Who is just like ours only there turns out to be the Doctor except for the cricket game in Daleks’ Masterplan, and that was a joke.)
But now the show runs in our imaginations, and that makes it more real. When Moffat says that Doctor Who takes place under your bed, this is the exact era of the show he’s talking about. Not the UNIT era, but this era where the monsters are ideas and the adventures are happening not on made up worlds but in stories the audience knows. Far, far more of the audience has some sort of instinctive familiarity with Frankenstein than do with Welsh mining towns. So when we talk about which story is more “realistic,” we should remember that.
But in that case, the airstrikes, absent UNIT, are a problem. Because at that point, everything that makes it sensible to set Doctor Who in contemporary Britain is gone. The show is still not an SF show. But it’s also not commenting on anything. With UNIT, it was a commentary on a cultural creation. Here, it’s a world that doesn’t have any new and interesting ideas that make it different from ours, but is still a place where the military randomly calls in airstrikes on domestic targets and that doesn’t affect anyone’s life. It might as well be Zog.
And at that point, you may as well just give up on the approach. There is no point to doing contemporary Britain if you’re going to do it like this. So, for very sound reasons, the show stops. For the most part, from now on, when the Doctor intersects contemporary Britain, he does so in the margins, far from the eyes of authority. He doesn’t engage in the whole world, but in particular corners of it that lend itself to particular stories. He still might have a skulk around a country manor now and again, but nobody from the outside world is likely to come rescue him, and whatever the threat is will actually be in the manor instead of off through a time portal.
In fact, the show does more than stop. It disappears completely into the realm of ideas, and stays there for the next four stories, after which the show goes through what is, to date, its most decisive shift not to involve a major cast change. And it does so by jettisoning Sarah Jane. Yes, in some ways it is more accurate to say that it does it by not immediately replacing her, and then replacing her with someone utterly unlike any previous companion in that she is not even from Earth. Companions have left before, and the reason that Sarah’s departure matters is, in part, what was done to replace her.
And another part of it is, of course, Lis Sladen. This isn’t the end for her, but nobody knew it at the time. This was the apparent end of the single best actress to tackle a companion to date. To be fair, Sladen benefitted enormously from having Katy Manning before her. Manning made colossal strides with the role of companion, and was the first person to really do so since Deborah Walting. And Lis Sladen was thus in the enviable position of inheriting a role that, under Manning, had just improved dramatically. Unless she bombed it, all she had to do was stick around for a few years and she was basically guaranteed to look like one of the two best actresses ever to play the role. And she could, even if she was only pretty good, probably fine-tune it and do quite well for herself.
But, of course, this describes perfectly what was so amazing about Sladen. She took the role up after the most transformative actress ever to have played it and then transformed it again. Manning changed the role so that the companion had a role in the narrative beyond being a plot device/exposition tool. Sladen changed the role so that instead of being a supporting character, the companion could, done right, be a co-lead. And, of course, her final scene with Baker is amazing. It’s the best TARDIS scene of the classic series, bar none, and is one of only a handful of sequences in the classic series that can stand up to the new series even by the standards of today. Both Baker and Sladen are amazing in it, and it really is all them, as the scene was apparently largely improvised.
Equally significant, though, is the tone of the departure. For the first time since Susan, there’s a sense that neither the companion nor the Doctor want to go. There is an obvious, genuine love between the Doctor and Sarah, and here they are forced apart. There’s a reason that, for years after, there was the constant sense that Sarah should come back, and it’s here in her ending – in the fact that the Doctor could come back for her, and she clearly wants him to.
This means that The Problem of Susan here recurs in its most intense sense to date. The Doctor doesn’t return for her. This says bad things about him. In a strange sense, this parallels Baker’s own problems with the role that begin to arise after this story. Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to Sladen as an actress is that she was the only co-starring actress Baker actually respected. (“Slept with” is not a synonym for “respected.”) And after she was gone, Baker was actively resistant to the idea that there should be another companion – he wanted to be the show’s sole star. As it happens, of course, Baker is phenomenal in the part, and he remains so.
But an ugliness creeps in here that I would be remiss not to mention. Not just for Baker, though. The Doctor himself is sullied here. The audience is made to want him to return for Sarah, and he never does. The audience may have been perplexed why he never returned for Susan, but if we’re being honest, Susan is nobody’s favorite companion. Sarah is many, many people’s favorite companion. It’s terribly brave scriptwriting to do this – it’s the first real jump towards making the Doctor less trustworthy instead of more since Power of the Daleks, and the first really, shatteringly decisive one since The Massacre. This is a scene that fundamentally changes who we think the Doctor is.
And that parallels the real ugliness in Sarah Jane’s departure. But, of course, this ugliness is also what Sladen plays so jaw-droppingly well when she returns in “School Reunion.” Because, as I said, this isn’t actually the end for her. She gets to come back.
No. It’s the end for the Doctor. Not just in the Problem of Susan sense where he is, in a real sense, sullied by this. But there’s something more fundamental happening here. Because we’re also given an event that can force the Doctor to abandon Sarah. He hasn’t kicked a companion out since Susan, and that was at least fundamentally about Susan. Now he kicks Sarah out. Because he has been summoned to Gallifrey. Even Sarah is awed by that, saying, “I can’t miss Gallifrey.” The last time the Doctor went to Gallifrey, it was to be condemned to die. Something massive is coming.
November 7, 2011 @ 12:21 am
That's a really good point about how television was changing too rapidly for writers to keep up.
Having said that, I think the jump from 1989 to 2005 isn't as big as the jump from 1971 to 1989, and I would say that Ian Briggs and Marc Platt would both be more than capable of writing new Who stories that would be in the top half of their season.
It's also worth noting that Robert Holmes's decline isn't noticeably down to a change in television itself, it's because he got tired and ran out of ideas. Twice. The first time you can see him struggling with transitioning from being on top of the writing food chain, stealing the germ of the story from sources as diverse as Mary Shelley and Terrance Dicks, to being just another writer on his own in a room. The second time, he came back fresh, but then he and Eric Saward fed off the bad sides of each other. But Androzani is as contemporary as Claws of Axos, and The Two Doctors would be awful at any point in time.
November 7, 2011 @ 12:58 am
I think the "ugliness" doesn't stem so much from Sarah's actual departure, as from the subsequent failure to return. And, more than that, it is the seeming failure to even remember her. The scene itself, as you point out, is so beautifully underplayed it almost reduces one to tears. The choice of "Don't forget me," is so realistic and the stiff upper-lipping of it all is what makes it so genuine, putting it at odds with the increasingly maudlin tone Davies injected.
I think it's interesting to juxtapose your suggestion that the Doctor failing to return for Sarah makes him less trustworthy, or somehow different from the character we've come to know, with your identification of the Doctor's alchemical, ever-changing nature. Certainly, we see elements of the Doctor's past return often in the series, but the Doctor himself tends not to voluntarily retread his old ground. Clearly, part of this is the nature of producing a TV series, but one could imagine a one-off involving Sarah or any of the other companions, but with the exception of the Brigadier, it never happens, during the classic series at any rate.
I suppose I'm looking at this final scene teleologically, but it seems so melancholy to me because Sarah and the Doctor both know he isn't coming back. Sarah may play it differently in "School Reunion," but I think it's so moving because they both know it's the end, but neither can admit it. With real goodbyes, that reality is often too horrific to contemplate in the moment. So, I don't see this as the Doctor breaking a promise or revealing any new or troubling aspect of his character. Ever mercurial, he hurries onward, ever contemplative, but also unwilling or unable to really reflect on himself. That is one of the things I find so interesting about the characterization of the Doctor in the classic series. Ostensibly, his character is unchanging. For all the alchemy he performs, it never really touches him, at least not until the disastrous mid-1980s. It's one of the things that keeps him credible as an alien. Surely, these things he's seen and done would affect him, as they do his companions, we think, but they do not. Or, at least we get no indication of that until the new series. Perhaps that's why the Doctor can never be seen to revisit his own past. Whenever we return to something, it is with a sense of loss or distance as we have changed. Our relationship to things changes with each passing moment. The Doctor never changes however, how does one play that? How can he go back for Sarah without having to reflect on himself and what has passed in the mean time? He cannot; it just would not work. Therefore, he must remain in motion, always moving, but never changing.
Finally, ever a partisan of Robert Holmes, I cannot fully subscribe to the idea that his quality declined. I think the script for Sunmakers is superb, if heavy-handed, easily the best in an otherwise poor season. One need not even comment on the quality of Caves of Androzani, of course. And, given the impossible task presented by the production realities of Two Doctors, that can hardly be laid at Holmes' door.
Regardless, I'm particularly enjoying your exploration of the Baker years. Keep up the fine work; looking forward to Deadly Assassin.
November 7, 2011 @ 2:42 am
I’m with you completely on "Mississippi," which was indeed on the BBC4 Top of the Pops repeats just last week, and quite unbelievable (pleasantly surprised by the Climax Blues Band in the same edition; Paul Nicholas, as always, even worse).
And I’m with you on most of this, particularly on the key observation that this is where Doctor Who parts company for a while with contemporary Britain, at least visibly. But, putting to one side the idea of whether most UNIT stories were anything to do with contemporary Britain (both in when they were set and, come on, very few of them being remotely like the real world, as you yourself say above), I can’t agree with you that “The Hand of Fear doesn't work because it makes zero effort towards any engagement with the real world”. Of course, it gets further and further away from our experience as it goes on, particularly with an alien world that fails largely because of its delivery and a nuclear strike that fails largely because the writers didn’t have a clue (and, ironically, were every bit as ridiculous on “nuclear” writing in The Claws of Axos), but surely even the most plausible UNIT stories were in huge industrial installations of types that none of us had ever stepped inside? And before all that, The Hand of Fear surely begins as more engaged with the real world than any Doctor Who for years. A works foreperson who’s concerned that the Doctor and Sarah Jane are all right, but even more concerned that it has nothing to do with him, as he’d followed all the right safety procedures; the Doctor and Sarah Jane being taken to an ordinary hospital and having their injuries treated, in a way almost all of us had experienced in the real world but never, ever happened to all those injured or blown up UNIT squaddies; and even the guy who thinks he’s about to be blown up calls his wife and kids and tries to find something to say, which again instantly grounds him in reality in a way that none of the UNIT ‘family’ had ever had meaningful families. So while the story goes off as it goes on, it does at least start by telling us it’s more a part of our world than anything we’ve seen for a very long time.
I have to agree with you, though, that Tom’s “contemporary” Britain stories “have had a visibly lower average quality than [most of] the others”, even if I think Baker and Martin’s two Hinchcliffe-Tom scripts are far less shoddy than at least The Claws of Axos (though, yes, they have shoddier to come next year).
[Whoops – more…]
November 7, 2011 @ 2:43 am
[…Continued, sorry. I won’t be like this every week]
Ironically, Sarah Jane’s leaving scene, which you so rightly praise, creates by its very naturalism one of the series’ biggest collisions with the real world. As you say, it makes us think less of the Doctor, because he never goes back – because if they loved each other so clearly, how could he not? But the recognition of that hurt and abandonment in our real lives at the same time pushes us out of seeing the characters as real, because the audience isn’t really perplexed, just suddenly unable to suspend our disbelief: it just reminds us that they’re played by actors on television, and that the reason the Doctor didn’t go back for Sarah Jane wasn’t because he chose to abandon her but because Lis Sladen isn’t Sarah Jane. One wanted the Doctor to come back; the other firmly chose to leave, and didn’t come back even when asked – not until a long time later, anyway. Because actors of course don’t want to stay in the same part for ever, and we know that, even when we also know that characters this real to us would want to stay together forever. And that fundamental clash – the more real the relationship, the more its ending has to draw attention to it only being a TV programme – is one that with a legacy right through the new series, not only in the magnificent return of Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane, but in a crippling inability to find ways for companions to leave, when marriage can no longer be a full stop to a woman’s ambitions and everyone’s supposed to have a great time in the TARDIS. Rose has to have a whole other universe invented for her, then brought back and horribly bungled when a whole other Doctor’s invented for her; Donna… Donna is written out in the most horrible way that I won’t get started on here; and only Martha gets to leave on her own terms, and that’s only because for that one time the writer dares not to have Doctor and companion having the same level of feelings for each other. So that beautiful coda in October 1976 isn’t just another example of The Problem of Susan, but the start of The Problem of Sarah Jane, and it’s one the series still hasn’t cracked.
I suspect most viewers at the time wouldn’t remember the Doctor dying the last time he went to Gallifrey – I didn’t, turning five that day yet thinking it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen despite knowing none of the backstory – but it’s still something magnificent on the horizon anyway, and I’m looking forward to it. For those of us now watching Doctor Who right through, though, The War Games gives an added context not just to the Doctor but to Sarah Jane’s farewell, too: in that context, the Doctor’s “Don’t you forget me” becomes less fondness for Sarah than fear for what might happen to her if he were to bring her along…
Finally, I wouldn’t dismiss The Hand of Fear as mediocre, either, but that’s by-the-by (and you can read why here, with its clever ideas on time and religion, but the story itself’s incidental to what you’ve written. I just don’t take that as a given).
November 7, 2011 @ 3:01 am
I'm convinced that that bit where Watson is phoning up his wife is the direct inspiration for Ultravox's "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes".
November 7, 2011 @ 5:18 am
No picture? Google didn't have any good shots of Liz Sladen in her coveralls?
November 7, 2011 @ 5:19 am
No, I just forgot to upload one. Sec.
November 7, 2011 @ 9:21 am
Another great read and excellent analysis: I was expecting this one to be all about Sarah Jane and I was pleased to see how you turned it into a commentary on Doctor Who's relationship with contemporary Britain. I think you knocked it out of the park: Television was changing at a breakneck pace and absent all the things that made the Pertwee era at its best work the show runs into a huge problem. It's a great breakdown and I couldn't agree more.
That being said, ironically I now have to talk about Sarah Jane. First of all I agree completely with Alex: Sarah's departure, which was admittedly done extremely well, does nothing if not underscore the show's intersection with the real-world processes by which it is built. Lis Sladen was not Sarah Jane and I can't overstate how important a statement that is. But not only was her departure wrapped up in professional concerns about not staying in one role too long, there was a second part of her decision that is never brought up when talking about "Hand of Fear" really needs to be, nostalgia be damned:
By all accounts, Lis Sladen, at least prior to 2007, didn't like the character of Sarah Jane Smith.
From the interviews and biographies I've seen, her main complaint was that Sarah was little more than, I believe the words she used were "a cardboard cut-out". Now, I hate to be the Doctor Who contrarian again , I really do, but here I have to be because, despite all the wonderful things she did and how indisputable her legacy is, at this stage of the character's life I find it kind of hard to disagree with Sladen. Lis was a monumentally excellent actor, I would never dispute that, and she lent the role an immense gravity that has to be almost single-handedly responsible for making her so beloved. But the flipside to that, as Lis herself said, was that she was kind of forced to do that because no-one else was developing her character for her: She had to pull all the weight in making Sarah Jane work.
November 7, 2011 @ 9:21 am
Sarah Jane, at least as she was written in the 70s…Well, she was never my favourite companion. Again, I know it's sacrilege to say so, but I never warmed up to her characterisation much. Phil made an excellent plea for defending her back in April by saying she updates and builds upon the Victoria template and that's true…But see I don't like Victoria either. I have very little tolerance for characters who seem to lack narrative function besides forcing exposition and getting in peril every week to move the plot forward. That was the entire purpose of Victoria's character and to me I see little difference between her and 1970s Sarah Jane.
Not to mention that her oft-touted role as feminist icon is somewhat sullied for me a bit because, as we saw in "The Time Warrior", Doctor Who didn't necessarily have a feminism problem (or as big a one as it later did) until it made itself one. Sure, Sarah gets some killer lines, has incredible gravitas and stage presence and carries a few stories, but that's all due to Lis Sladen being a jaw-droppingly good actor, not the character or the ways she's written (at least most of the time).
I think a lot of this ties into the nostalgia filter a lot of fans look at Doctor Who from, as we touched on in the "pescatons" entry. As much grief as I give the New Series, and I give it quite a lot, one thing those writers must be unquestionably praised for is giving Sarah a lot more depth and complexity as a character than she had in the Classic Series, thereby actually becoming the incredible character fans wanted her to be, instead of just imagining she was.
I also want to applaud Alex for coining "The Problem of Sarah Jane" which I think is just a brilliant way to look at a very clear problem the series gets from here on out. None of the companion departures after this one are particularly memorable or satisfying and lack closure to their stories (the possible exception being Romana) and poor Ace, probably one of the best companions the show ever saw, just kind of vanishes into the ether because the show got cancelled and then Mark Platt screwed up her exit story. Great catch.
I'm very, very sorry. I'll bow out now…
November 7, 2011 @ 9:54 am
I'm less of a fan of the ending than most are. After having been introduced, back in "Time Warrior," as a self-possessed, professionally dressed woman, Sarah Jane in the finale of this episode becomes a petulant child, staging a fake tantrum to make the Doctor feel bad (only he wasn't paying attention), and being dressed like a ridiculous toddler (with toys in tow) to boot.
To qualify: the actual farewell scene I agree is quite good. But the scene leading up to it I find unbearable, an infantilising of the character.
November 7, 2011 @ 9:59 am
And now we've got "The Problem of Amy Pond," namely — if the Doctor gives up traveling with Amy because it endangers her life, then how can he ever have another companion? Pick people he wouldn't mind losing?
November 7, 2011 @ 10:03 am
I think, in the end, that all of these are subsets and special cases of the Problem of Susan. Which was always picked as a term not just because of Ms. Foreman but as a reference to Neil Gaiman's short story by that title, which is itself a story about the problems of female characters in children's literature
November 7, 2011 @ 10:29 am
But I would argue the show had been making strides to rectify that problem prior to 1974: When taken in that context, coming off of two companions who were The Doctor's intellectual equal and one who wound up consistently out-Doctoring The Doctor throughout her tenure by filling his role better than he did by going meta, dusting off and modernizing the Victoria template for Sarah Jane honestly feels like a step backwards to me.
Even if you skip Victoria and go back further there was Vicki, was was certainly more than a plot device. And then, looking ahead to Leela who, for all her problems I quite liked and thought was conceptually an interesting idea and Romana, who was not only a match for Baker's Doctor in both her incarnations but also arguably one of The Doctor's earliest canonical romantic interests, Sarah prior to her 2007 return comes up a bit short for me. Even if, as you say Phil, The Problem of Susan is always present the show at its best can at least be aware of it and make strides to fix it instead of ignoring it. That being said, still really enjoying this look at the Tom Baker years and can't wait to hear what you have to say about the next three stories.
Also, props to BerserkerRL for "The Problem of Amy Pond". I was thinking that very same thing and it's been nagging me since the season began.
November 7, 2011 @ 10:54 am
One of the things that makes The Hand of Fear disappointing – at least for me- is that it's one of the worse Sarah Jane stories, both overall and in Sarah Jane's specific role in the plot.
I see what BerserkRL is getting at, but they think they were going for comedy, and ended up with infantilisation. Actually, I think they were trying to combine two things: some notion that this was on some level a mutual decision, or at least not entirely unwelcome to Sarah Jane, and on the other, a tonal switch from comedy to seriousness back to (at the end) comedy, which would – with any luck – make the serious bit more effective.
Tack that scene onto the end of a story in which Sarah Jane is portrayed as adult and resourceful, and it would seem very different, I think. But at the end of The Hand of Fear, the scene leaves a bad taste in the mouth, because we haven't been given the context to view it as self-consciously exaggerated for comic effect.
And it means that Sarah Jane ends up curiously and unfortunately similar to Jo, the most pre-infantilised of all the companions, and the very character that Sarah Jane was created to counter (which is a little too on the nose for comfort). The very end, with her laughing at the Doctor, improves things a little, however.
November 7, 2011 @ 12:00 pm
Her interacting with a dog at the end is oddly prophetic. (Why does she tap it on the head with her tennis racket, though? One can't blame it for getting up and leaving to get away from this rude woman.)
November 7, 2011 @ 12:02 pm
Maybe the Doctor was still watching, and thought, "Oh, she likes dogs; maybe I'll get her one some time. Oh, but she likes to bop them on the head with tennis rackets; I'd better make sure it's a sturdy one."
November 7, 2011 @ 1:01 pm
The tune she's whistling as she's walking down the street after meeting the dog is "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow".
On my recent trawl through random Whos, I thought Leela was one of the most interesting companions, because there wasn't that cosiness between either they actors or the characters, and because she is openly sceptical to the Doctor's face, generally preferring K9. But we'll see, won't we…
November 7, 2011 @ 1:16 pm
It's interesting how rarely, in the classic series, it's the Doctor who takes the lead in deciding when a companion should leave. IIRC it only happens with Susan, Steven, and now Sarah Jane; for everyone else, when there is a choice, it's wholly the companion's decision. Sometimes the Doctor's fine with it (Dodo) and sometimes not (Iananbarbara, Jo), but he's the one reacting rather than the driving force. Oh, and sometimes he gives a K-9 away, but I'm not sure if that should count!
In the new series he pushes out Adam, Jack, Rose (the second time), Donna (although he didn't have much choice it was against her express wish), Amy, and Rory. Only Martha and Mickey decide for themselves. That's quite a difference!
Since I've been effectively watching in random order I never thought about how being summoned to Gallifrey for the first time since The War Games would affect him. That puts another spin on the conclusion of this story for me.
Anyway, another great entry – and I do like the observations about contemporary Britain too, I just haven't got anything to add on that.
November 7, 2011 @ 1:22 pm
Forgot to mention – I'm with Muad'dib in thinking that SJS never expected the Doctor to come back, but if there's any need to reconcile this with School Reunion then K-9 and Company will do the trick. After all, if he's sending her presents, that must make her think he hasn't moved on after all – surely a visit will follow?
November 7, 2011 @ 1:26 pm
"The tune she's whistling as she's walking down the street after meeting the dog is 'Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow'."
Oh duh! I should have noticed that.
So is all that just coincidence?
November 7, 2011 @ 1:26 pm
I don't think Sarah expected him to come back immediately. But consider her frame of reference – the Doctor came back to UNIT over and over again, after all, and in her experience. He seems to stop by 1970s Britain with considerable frequency, and not for Sarah's sake. So perhaps use didn't expect him to come back immediately, but I also don't think she expected it to take 30 years.
November 7, 2011 @ 1:32 pm
"Look at you, beaming away like you're Father Christmas!"
"Who says I'm not, metal-dog-later-on-when-you'll-be-30?"
November 7, 2011 @ 1:40 pm
"Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to Sladen as an actress is that she was the only co-starring actress Baker actually respected. ("Slept with" is not a synonym for "respected.")"
That seems incredibly harsh on Tom, and more than a little disingenuous. How do you know Tom didn't respect Lalla Ward, given that they got married (not just "slept with") and were both incredibly intelligent people who must have needed mutual respect for a relationship like that to work?
You make some really good points about the direction of the series, and I'd really never realised how few stories from here on in involved contemporary Earth. But that little snide remark rankles somewhat.
November 7, 2011 @ 2:50 pm
I was gonna let that slide but it confused me a bit too. From everything I read Tom and Lalla had nothing but the utmost respect for one another and were always on the same page on a lot of things, especially when it came to Doctor Who. She was just as vocal and outgoing on set as he was and every time they were on screen together they just crackled with chemistry. Hell, Lalla even said recently she still loves Tom and they divorced because they were too busy for each other, not because they had any kind of falling-out.
November 7, 2011 @ 3:00 pm
There are also ample reports of jaw-dropping friction between them, albeit while they were also having relationship difficulties. The comment was snide and bitchy – I mean, I'm not going to pretend otherwise. But the fact remains that Sladen is the only female co-star of Baker's that I can find no reports of blow-out fights with and no reports of him being frankly horrible to.
So yes, it was obviously a low blow. But on the other hand, the underlying point – that the downturn in Baker's behavior that happens at this point in the series is pronounced and permanent – stands.
So yeah. The bitchiness was deliberate. Largely because I wanted to make the harshest critique of Baker's behavior first and get the fullest extent of the sting on that one out of the way so that later analysis is nuance and not apologism.
November 7, 2011 @ 3:03 pm
Also, (and I apologise for continuously popping in and out) but one thing I forgot to mention in regards to Sarah Jane and The Doctor's failure to return for her, is that this seems wholly consistent with the interpretation we gleaned from "The Time Travelers": The reason The Doctor doesn't return for Sarah, or any of his other companions after they leave him, is that they're no longer "his" version as he's subsequently changed history and are moved to an alternate timeline as soon as they leave the TARDIS. Seems less like painting The Doctor in an ugly light and more just him doing exactly what we'd expect him to do given who he is and what his life is like.
November 7, 2011 @ 10:04 pm
On a different tack, you really can read Sarah here as representing modern (1976) Britain – weary, leaderless, and lost.
This is the country that had just appointed a Minister for Rain.
November 8, 2011 @ 1:44 am
It'd be interesting to think that the Doctor dumps her as he doesn't want all their time together wiped from her mind, as happened to Jamie and Zoe (which is seemingly the consequence of breaking the rule of bringing non-gallifreans to Gallifrey, that or they have to stay forever, like Leela and K9).
However this doesn't at all explain why he never returned for her, but for audiences who had yet to see beyond the end of Hand Of Fear that has to be what some of them are thinking, reinforcing that perhaps the Doctor may be facing another trial and execution.
Right, back to Season 10 for me and no more sneak-peeking forwards.
November 8, 2011 @ 2:53 pm
sorry, coming to the discussion late, and yes, this is a problematic tale to take on, since it is, in my opinion, the worst tom baker tale to date and precisely for the reasons that philip mentioned. Its utter disconnection with reality, its general cheapness, the way in which so little of it really ads up to anything until the ending. Baker and Martin really wrote the worst stories for me, they epitomize the insult "its a plot out of a comic book", since comics used to have writers that didn't know a galaxy from a black hole from a transistor. Comic books are generally far better written than a baker and martin tale.
but the ending, oh the ending. always tough and yes, it certainly brings up "the problem with sarah" which, for Doctor who, is far worse than the problem with Susan. (Thanks WGPJosh) Played out in Andy Panda PJs does take the very capable Sarah Jane and diminish her tremendously, and yet Lis Sladen's acting and chemistry with Tom redeem the scene tremendously. The look on Baker's face after she walks out, and the breath blown out of his lips gives us body language to guess at: sad she's gone? releived that she's gone before Gallifrey? Ready to move on from Sarah, ending the affair earlier rather than later? Leaving her first before she pulls a Jo on him? The 4th Doctor is inscrutable here. Decidedly so.
What Sarah Jane needed, decidedly so, was a true character arc, which, of course, they tried to give to Leela and promptly forgot about. Lis Sladen would have certainly responded to that, and not had to do all the heavy lifting herself.
The look on Sarah's face, to me, and the final turn of her head, always said that Sarah expected him to pop back at any time, and sweep her into the Tardis again. That he didn't makes her anger in School Reunion all the more understandable.
November 8, 2011 @ 3:20 pm
@ Alex Wilcock – clearly you felt that this story worked better for you than it did for me. none of the bits you mentioned were acted or staged or shot in a way that meant anything more to me than you average high school play, which is about where this story sits with me.
And this is perhaps Doctor Who doing I, Claudius (although Greatest Show in the Galaxy would utilize the "two curtains and a blank wall" set approach ever more so), since you could have shot Hand of Fear in a quarry and in a single corridor, it is a step back to time when we KNEW Doctor Who didn't have the budget to show us an alien world, so we gave up the thought that it would ever try to do so and just enjoyed the script. Sandly, all the efforts to make the jungle at the end of the universe, and a realistic space ark and actually scary Zygons has given us false expectations. shame on us.
I would perhaps amend that while Romana agot a good ending, so did, fittingly, Tegan. She was always angry, and traumatized by her Aunt's death, and her finally having enough of the death and destruction made perfect sense to me. Perhaps it wasn't the happy go lucky Doctor Who universe we'd seen, but it worked rather well, even though it made 5 seem even more feckless and "soft" in that his "wanting to fix the universe" nature in that incarnation didn't extend to trying to make her better.
Henry R. Kujawa
April 9, 2012 @ 6:15 pm
Back in 1979, this story was traumatic. No wonder I resented Leela. But the last 2 times I've watched it… nothing. Oh good.
Noticed something interesting tonight (probably as a result of reading this blog). "THE HAND OF FEAR" is Sarah's "PLANET OF THE SPIDERS". It's like "Sarah's greatest hits". Like "THE TIME WARRIOR" (Sarah's debut!), you have an alien stranded on Earth who goes to extreme lengths to return to where they belong. Then there's this "recurring event" thing. In "THE ANDROID INVASION", we more-or-less saw the invasion twice. In "THE SEEDS OF DOOM", we saw the Krynoid take over someone twice. Here, we see someone who's possessed walk into the reactor– TWICE! Like "THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA", Sarah goes thru part of the story hypnotized (brainwashed, whatever). In fact, we got a moment of this sort of thing all the way back in "THE TIME WARRIOR". Isn't it odd (or ironic) that such a strong-willed, independant career woman wind up a victim of possession so many times, not to mention being in the position of being a screaming "damsel in distress" FAR more times than sweet Jo Grant ever was??? Further, "PYRAMIDS OF MARS" has 3 episodes on Earth, the 4th on another planet, as our heroes attempt to race thru dark corridors lined with one death-trap after another. (I tend to think of "PYRAMIDS" as the 2nd story of the previous season, not the 3rd; "HAND" is this season's 2nd. Coincidence?)
Baker & Martin are also having their own "greatest hits", as Rex Robinson had earlier been in "THE THREE DOCTORS". Also, blink and you'll miss it, this story apparently is supposed to take place at the SAME nuclear complex seen in "THE CLAWS OF AXOS"!!!
Lots of fun dialogue in here. "Careful, it's not as 'armless as it looks." and "What do we do, use HAND signals?"
My understanding is that it wasn't JUST Lis Sladen, Tom Baker was ALSO improvising dialogue during rehearsals. So NOBODY on this show was getting "character arcs" (or had, really, SINCE Ian and Barbara!!! –nor would again, really, until ACE!). It's a sad tradition. Patrick Macnee said in an interview, describing THE AVENGERS, "There WAS no great writing." He explained that he and his co-stars wrote their own dialogue in rehearsals– and THAT's why the show was so good. It's fiting that in Tom Baker's 1st story, Harry Sullivan dresses up like John Steed and someone says "He's from the Ministry!"
Finally, I always believed that of all the companions, Sarah was the ONE The Doctor most loved. (Romana came in a close 2nd.) That's why, to me, "SCHOOL REUNION" was such a powerful, emotional experience. Took me 2 days to come down from that. Strangest thing… I think I've gotten over her now. Last time I watched my entire collection, ALMOST every girl on the show had a stronger effect on me. (Except for Tegan, of course. What a B****!)
December 17, 2013 @ 7:44 pm
Canonically, he does return for Tegan in Arc of Infinity. In the Pertwee years, he also traveled in the TARDIS numerous times but then returned to hang out with the Brigadier and company. And that's ignoring numerous instances in New Who of traveling multiple discrete times with the same companion or quasi-companion (Donna, Martha, Amy & Rory, River).
June 22, 2014 @ 10:27 pm
I don't believe Jamie and the Doctor wanted to break up, either.
December 9, 2014 @ 4:44 pm
Susan is my sister's favorite companion by far.
July 17, 2015 @ 4:03 am
What, no discussion of Eldrad at all?
I'm surprised at the dislike for this story in both the review and the comments. I thought the first two episodes were good, and the third episode was fascinating whenever Judith Paris was on screen. And then of course the fourth episode is fairly awful, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that Eldrad mark 1 is a compelling performance. I found myself genuinely wondering about Eldrad's motivations and character and having sympathy for "her".
September 9, 2015 @ 4:18 am
I just watched this story for the first time and had a very similar reaction. I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3 episodes – yes, the last episode is balls, but then that's no different to Pyramids of Mars, and yet that story's declared a classic and this one isn't. To be honest I think I prefer the dialogue, Watson's phone call and even Eldrad mark 1 to anything comparable in Pyramids. The enduring appeal of Egyptology has a lot to answer for.
February 7, 2023 @ 6:35 pm
Hi. Hoping wellness. Was wondering what was Dr. Carter’s name supposed to be instead of Carter? I’ve heard but forgot, poor memory.
Thx for any help.