Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Hand of Fear

[1976, Season 14, Serial 2]

Eldrad must live!

The TARDIS lands in a quarry.

No, really a quarry, not a quarry pretending to be a distant planet.  Awesome.

The Hand of Fear is the final regular adventure for Sarah Jane Smith.  It's clear right from the beginning how far she's come.  Her relationship with the Doctor is totally smooth and relaxed; their jokes flow completely out of affection, not confict; and even when they do argue angrily, it comes from the depth of their relationship.  But more telling is Sarah's costume:

She's been traveling with the Doctor so long that she has completely lost touch with reality.  No more smart business suits or pretty dresses; it's pure self-expression - and the self-expression of a devil-may-care wanderer out for nothing in the universe except fun.

Sladen was wonderful from the very beginning, but her performances have actually improved over the years.  For comparison, look at the scene in The Time Warrior when she's hypnotized.  It's a solid, convincing portrayal.  Then look at her similar scenes in Hand of Fear: her possession scenes are genuinely unnerving and creepy.

Sladen gives Sarah such boundless joy, mirth, and humanity that only a grinch could fail to love her.

The relationship between the Doctor and Sarah is the best Doctor/companion relationship ever, and will remain so.  Even though she's a human, he treats her as a total equal - and she earns it.  There are unacknowledged hints of love here, but they remain unrequited.  Still, their friendship is simply wonderful.  Her sense of humor and adventure match his perfectly; she also shares his eternal sense of wonder at the universe.  When he needs to be taken down a notch for his smugness or immaturity, she does so with great humor.  Of course, they argue like any friends do, but deep down is pure affection.  There's a lovely moment when the Doctor walks by Sarah's hospital room and flips around the "Do Not Disturb" sign to face out, and smiles at his friend getting rest and peace.

One of their finest scenes comes in episode three, when the Doctor, characteristically, tell her to stay behind for her safety, and she, equally characteristically, totally ignores him and catches up.

Sarah: I worry about you.  Anyway, who found that thing?
Doctor: You did.
Sarah: Right.  So, I'm involved...  And besides, I'm from Earth, and you're not.
Doctor: That's true.
Sarah: Exactly.
Doctor: Yes, but...
Sarah: Ah, but what?
Doctor: I worry about you!
Sarah: So, be careful!
Doctor: We'll both be careful.
Sarah: Fine.

At the end of the serial, after the story has been wrapped up, they have an argument, which I imagine happens quite regularly, and she pretends she's going to get off immediately, while he ignores her various insults and threats (which I also imagine happens quite regularly).  But then he gets something he didn't expect - a summons to Gallifrey, his homeworld.  Outsiders aren't allowed there; he can't take her with him.  So he tells her he has to leave her.  Sladen and Baker play this scene brilliantly; it's incredibly sad and moving, all the more so because neither of them cry; in character, they try to come to terms with their separation, and really can't, but go through with it anyway.

Even here, there are moments of gentle humor, coming from these two characters trying to deal with this.  It's a wonderful finale and as good an exit as any companion could ever get.

There's also a hint that there's something more to the Doctor leaving her behind, which Sarah Jane's reappearance in School Reunion thirty years later confirms: the summons to Gallifrey isn't alone what makes him leave her behind.  He leaves her behind because he loves her, and he can't stand what that means: he's a Time Lord who, as he once said, "walks in eternity," and doesn't really die; he simply regenerates and moves on.  Even here, he's over 700 years old, and will live for hundreds or thousands more years.  Sarah has less than a single century.  She'll grow old and die, while he remains the same.  It's something he can't bear, with her more than anyone else.  When he leaves her behind, it's his final expression of both love and a sort of selfishness.  He says he'll return for her, but he never really does.  They meet again, of course, but not because he was looking for her; she was looking for him, and after thirty years, managed to find him.  But that's another story, another quite wonderful story to follow up this lovely yarn.

But even without that wistful, moving coda, The Hand of Fear would be an excellent addition to the series.  It's a beautifully-structured story, opening with a bang as the quarry literally explodes.

Buried in the rubble, Sarah grabs onto a strange hand, at which point she screams and falls unconscious.

The Doctor, along with a fellow scientist, Dr. Carter (Rex Robinson), examine the hand and find that despite being buried in the strata for 150 million years, it's alive - but it's not a carbon-based lifeform: it's silicone-based.  I should make a sidenote here about just how great Tom is throughout this story.  When he plays things seriously, it's truly dead serious, and absolutely riveting.  When he has comic moments, he plays them perfectly.  This is the Fourth Doctor at his zenith.

Meanwhile, a possessed Sarah flees the hospital and heads to the nearest nuclear power plant, where she places the hand near the radioactive core, exposing both her and the hand to the radiation.  And the hand starts using the radiation to renew itself into a complete body, while Sarah sits quietly by the core and the station begins to go into shutdown from the interference.  The Doctor rushes to the hospital, desperate to save her... and figure out just what that hand really is.

 Besides the hand and its eventual body, there are only two major supporting characters - Dr. Carter and Professor Watson (Glyn Houston), the head of the nuclear plant.  Fortunately, both of them are superb.  Robinson makes Carter an intelligent and likable character in only a few minute of screentime, making his possession and eventual fate far more gripping than it would otherwise have been.

But it's Houston who really stands out.  The role could have come across as a total cliche - the authority figure stupidly standing in the way of the hero.  The writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, avoid this: while Professor Watson doesn't always help the Doctor, he's intelligent enough to work with him when it makes sense, and when he does work against the Doctor, it's understandable from his point of view.  But the character's centerpiece is a moment in the second episode where, believing the reactor is soon to meltdown and that he will very likely die soon, he calls his wife to say goodbye.  Touchingly, he doesn't tell her what's happening, just calls as though it's a casual conversation saying he'll be late for work.  Houston plays the scene perfectly, resisting the urge to play it for melodrama and underplaying the scene beautifully.  It's a genuinely moving sequence.  He's every bit as good in his final scene, where he has to some extent snapped from the pressures of all the insane things going on around him, and yet holds it somewhat together, entirely in character.  It's a really terrific performance.

It's also a very well-produced serial.  During the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, many of the stories look and feel more like modestly-budgeted films rather than a low-budget TV show, and this is no exception.  The location filming in the power plant adds tremendous scale to the story:

But the studio sets are excellent as well, completely convincing as both a hospital and as the smaller rooms of the plant.  The otherworldly sets of Kastria are atmospheric and work well, though they aren't quite as strong as the earthbound scenes.

The structure and pacing are superb.  The first episode builds its mysteries and ideas carefully, interweaving the intriguing notions like a silicon-based lifeform with the creepy possession scenes.  The second episode doubles the pace as the danger increases.  And then, ten minutes into the third episode and 2/3 of the way through the story, we finally meet the antagonist, Edrad.

"Can this be the form of the creatures who have found me and now seek to destroy me?"

Judith Paris' performance as Eldrad is astonishing: she seems truly, completely alien in every aspect, yet elegant and even somehow seductive.  Her voice is unforgettable.  But she also has a lot to work with.  It helps that we have to wait an hour to actually meet her, of course, but she absolutely pays off the build-up.  Further, Baker and Martin make her a genuinely interesting character; though she's certainly the antagonist and her actions do result in a pair of deaths, it's highly ambiguous just how evil she actually is.  She may be more oblivious than malevolent; after all, she also spares lives and doesn't seem to desire the killing of the human race.  It makes her all the more mysterious and creepy, and Paris plays all this to the hilt.  And the makeup and costuming finishes the character, making her one of the finest villains of the entire series, and maybe the best one to only appear once.

Or at least she is until the climax, when everything falls apart.  They return Eldrad to Kastria, the Doctor reasoning that whatever her moral position, she's better there than on Earth, and it'll be far easier to deal with her in that environment.  They find, however, that their pathway has been booby-trapped, and Eldrad is badly wounded.  They bring her to a chamber where she is apparently to be renewed again, but the Doctor appears to kill her.

Up until this point, it's a brilliant story, and it's really too bad the next ten minutes sink so low.  Bob Baker and Dave Martin come up with probably the least interesting and least satisfying way to wrap up the story that could conceivably have worked in any way.  More importantly, Eldrad returns to her regular form, which is apparently that of a male.  Unfortunately, despite his stunning voice, Stephen Thorne isn't anywhere near as interesting as the male Edrad.  Much of that is Baker and Martin, though, who reduce her/him from a complex, morally ambiguous, and eerily intelligent antagonist to a ranting, monologuing bad guy who's just evil without anything resembling shading or even interest.  The finale is a dull, disappointing conclusion to an otherwise great yarn.

But after that, of course, is Sarah's goodbye, and the story not only returns to greatness, but elevates itself to another level entirely.  The involving science fiction mystery has become the gripping thriller, which has become the moving drama of the pain of goodbye, tempered by the memories of joy and happiness.

Farewell, Sarah Jane Smith.


* * * ½

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