The Faceless Ones [Classic Doctor Who]

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 #290)

The Faceless Ones

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions: Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon, Anneke Wills as Polly and Michael Craze as Ben Jackson.
Written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke.  Directed by Gerry Mill. Animated version directed and produced by AnneMarie Walsh.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  April – May 1967.

The fourth season of Doctor Who is the only one where not a single serial survives completely intact. Fortunately for those interested in those episodes (like myself), a lot of the stories have been re-created in animation. That includes The Faceless Ones, which was the penultimate serial. Episodes One & Three of The Faceless Ones actually do exist, but the version of this story I bought–on iTunes–didn’t include them. Rather, it’s made up of animated versions of all six episodes, and in color to boot (the show was in black and white). It does make for a smoother viewing experience, I suppose, but if I could pick I would have included the original two episodes and kept the animation black and white.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Faceless Ones brings the TARDIS back to present day earth for a very modern adventure. Although the show had dabbled in the present day before (An Unearthly Child, Planet of the Giants, parts of The Chase), there had only been one other serial quite like this one, with the adventure happening “out in public” in a place which featured modern-day landmarks. That was The War Machines, and given that it was set on the exact same day as this one, I suppose that means July 20, 1966 must have been quite an intense time in London in the Doctor Who universe. Obviously, in the future these sorts of story settings would become much more common, but at the time it was still a rarity, meaning that this story features the first ever full-blown modern-day alien invasion of earth in the Doctor Who timeline.

The recognizable location for this story is Gatwick Airport, and the animated version of the story at least gives a plausible sense of bringing the airport to life. It’s full of runways, ticket counters, immigration desks, control tower officers, and the rest, giving us a locale for things that’s just a little bit different than normal. With both Ben and Polly pushed off out of the story pretty quickly, we’re left with the Doctor and Jamie, who are both “aliens” in this setting. The Doctor especially, who in his second incarnation is a bit a disheveled mess, nicely juxtoposes with all this routine formality.

The villainous Chameleons don’t have the makings of a classic, but they are interesting for the one story. They’re plan of replacing young passengers on airplane flights sounds unnecessarily complicated, but it makes for an interesting mystery. And unlike a lot of this show’s monsters, they are nicely vulnerable, a fact that the Doctor takes great advantage of. It’s really a delight to listen to Patrick Troughton (and watch his animated counterpart) turn the Chameleons against each other by playing off their fears that their originals will be rescued and set free (thus, destroying them).

It’s also a good story for Jamie, who is the only companion who is present through the whole of the six episodes. He’s got a fun relationship with Samantha Briggs, and the two of them even share a couple of kisses! It’s no wonder that Pauline Collins was apparently offered a regular role in the series–Samantha is sort of perfect companion material, being curious, brave and resourceful.

She would have had quite a lively dynamic with the Doctor and Jamie, so it’s a bit of a pity that that never worked out. On the other hand, if it had, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Victoria, which would have been too bad.

Speaking of companions, the story was the last appearance by either Michael Craze or Anneke Wills as Ben or Polly. They really stop functioning in the story after the second episode (after both being captured by the Chameleons). They get a farewell sequence in the last episode, in which they realize that they’ve returned on the same day they left and decide they’ll never get a more convenient opportunity to return to their previous lives. It’s not a bad scene, but still it’s obviously tacked onto a story that wasn’t really interested in doing anything with the characters before they were pushed out of the show. It’s not quite as bad as Dodo Chaplet’s farewell in The War Machines (the story where Ben and Polly made their debuts), but almost.

The Faceless Ones is an enjoyable story that benefits from a good turn by Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, an unusual villain with an interesting plan, and good use of its modern day setting. I’m grateful that it exists in animation as it strikes me as one of the sadder losses of the era, holding up better than some of the other stories that I’ve seen.

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