Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday and Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
(Daily Doctor Who #268)
The Hand of Fear
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companion: Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Directed by Lennie Mayne.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: October 1976 (episodes 5-8 of Season 14)
The Hand of Fear is a significant story in that it was the last one to feature Elisabeth Sladen as the extremely popular and long-serving companion Sarah Jane Smith. Unusually for today, the departure of such a significant character took place in the middle of a season, rather than at its conclusion. But that kind of thing was more common back in the old days.
There is something about The Hand of Fear that is reminiscent of Pyramids of Mars–a confined alien intelligence who was defeated by fellow aliens centuries earlier exerts a sinister influence over ordinary humans, forcing them to serve it so that it can be freed / reborn. This all leads to a climax in which the Doctor must navigate an alien landscape dodging strange traps in order to prevent the villain from waging war against the universe.
However, compared to the bleak gothic horror of Pyramids, The Hand of Fear is positively light-hearted–there is a lot of easy banter between the Doctor and Sarah Jane, and though there is death it’s not anywhere near as bleak as the earlier story–there are just two human victims, as opposed to six in Pyramids, and a lot more survivors. Indeed, in a lot of ways The Hand of Fear is more reminiscent of the Third Doctor / UNIT stories from earlier in the decade, except without the presence of UNIT itself or any of the recurring characters. One can easily imagine the story stretched to include a couple of extra episodes filled with scenes of Jon Pertwee verbally sparring with the Brigadier.
But before we dismiss The Hand of Fear as a forgettable, middle-of-the-road adventure, there are a couple of things which elevate it. One of those is the high quality of the location shooting. Having a quarry play a quarry, and a nuclear power station play a nuclear power station definitely helps with the verisimilitude. Director Lennie Mayne does a good job using the locations and does some inventive things with the visual storytelling. There’s a noticeably impressive shot of an explosion at the quarry, and a very cool composition that goes from a truck driving onto a road into a traffic mirror which reveals the vehicle departing at the same time that Sarah Jane Smith is approaching.
Indeed, the direction of the story is good throughout. I especially liked a subtle moment in the first episode which revealed that Doctor Carter was also “infected” with Eldrad. And the first episode’s cliffhanger, with the mind-controlled Sarah entering a nuclear reactor with an air of childlike innocence, is outstanding.
The design work is as good as can be expected for the era, and both actors to portray Eldrad–Judith Paris and Stephen Thorne (who had previously played the memorable monsters Omega and Azal against the Third Doctor)–are effective in the parts.
But the other primary memorable thing about the story is how good both of the lead actors are in it. The affection between the Doctor and Sarah Jane is obvious, and Tom Baker is suitably grave during the story’s serious bits (and not undermined by the goofy antics which sometimes plagued his era during later seasons). The sober moment where the Doctor believes that Sarah might have been killed by a rockslide is a perfect example of this.
And Lis Sladen is excellent, both as brave and headstrong Sarah Jane, and the possessed servant of Eldrad. Indeed, her performance as the brainwashed version of Sarah strikes the perfect tone for creepy but family-focused television.
And all that brings us to the story’s final sequence, which Baker and Sladen not only performed but by one account re-wrote based on script editor Robert Holmes’ original draft. Sarah Jane’s exit from the show is one of the classic series’ best, with the gulf between Time Lord and human being finally becoming too great for even these two best friends to be able to remain together.
When a character is as beloved as Sarah Jane, its tricky to find a way to write them out without it feeling rushed, cheap, or overwhelmingly tragic (and thus leaving the audience miserable). Sarah’s departure avoids all those pitfalls–it’s beautifully acted by the two stars, and is refreshingly unique.