The Face of Evil [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Face of Evil

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Companion: Louise Jameson as Leela.
Written by Chris Boucher.  Directed by Pennant Roberts. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. Script Edited by Robert Holmes.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January 1977 (Episodes 13-16 of Season 14).

When I got into watching Doctor Who originally, back in the 1980’s, I think The Face of Evil was the first Fourth Doctor story that I saw from the beginning. It’s notable for introducing to the series the companion Leela, who didn’t last the longest time on the show but definitely made a splash thanks to her savage-girl outfit, although truth-be-told her wardrobe is actually pretty tame compared to a lot of what’s appeared on TV over the years.

Spoilers Ahead!

Season 14, as it happens, is one of the year’s of Doctor Who that I have rewatched the most of the last couple of years (this is my fourth article covering one of its serials, and there are only six). It’s one of the classic series’ high points. Tom Baker was bringing the goods, and under the shepherding of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, the series was firing on all cylinders. The Face of Evil isn’t the best story from the year, but it’s a strong and worthy one that holds its head up high, even in the context of the excellent company that it lives among.

Leela is possibly my favorite companion in the classic era, so it’s a treat to watch her introductory story. Really, he introduction is like no other that we’ve had. Even though Leela is descended from a mission from earth, she’s the show’s first companion who was not from the earth, either the past, present or future. So we are privileged to get to know not only the character but the world that she comes from, with its religion, values and regularly conflicts.

Louise Jameson plays Leela with great conviction, making the character as distinct as any other who has come before or since. The show’s companions have always been foils for the Doctor, revealing his personality and manner through contrast, but Leela does this in a way that is quite unique compared to the most of the others, being quick to run into danger and to deal with opposition violently. Really, it’s been since Jamie that the Doctor has had a traveling companion who was so quick to look for a direct, physical solution to problems. The fact that Leela is both a woman and so much more violent makes for a great change of pace. She and the Doctor show the beginnings here of a really fun relationship.

The Face of Evil is by Chris Boucher who is better known for Blake’s 7 but delivered three memorable serials for Doctor Who during this period, making him one of the writers with a better track record on the show. The following story, The Robots of Death, is a legitimate classic, and though I have not rewatched the Image of the Fendahl yet, what I recall of it was pretty good.

The concepts that The Face of Evil are built off of are pretty interesting–a super-computer that was driven mad after the Doctor used his own personality to fix it, the descendants of a ship’s crew divided intentionally into two very different civilizations, and the distorted religion that dominates everyone…all of it finds its place in the narrative. I like Xoanon as an antagonist, with its broken personality represented by varied disparate voices, all vying to express themselves. Each of the story’s cliffhangers are built around progressive reveals about Xoanon, which deepens them beyond just being moments of threat.

And the plot is paced well throughout–just as the political struggles amongst the Tribe of the Sevateem are getting a little same-y, the story shifts things up a bit and takes us beyond the giant carving of the Doctor’s face and into the bizarrely-sanitized world of the Tesh.

The contrast between the two groups is not exactly novel. One is reminded of some of the Planet of the Ape movies, with the rough-and-tumble apes on one side and the emotionally detached telepaths on the other with an unhelpful religious fixation on the other. But it’s done well here and there’s fun contrast to be seen. I also like the way that both Kalib (the new and somewhat untrustworthy leader of the Sevateem) and Jabel (the clearly untrustworthy leader of the Tesh) are both still alive at the end of the four episodes, and left trying to figure out how to make a new shared government for their people. They were both the sorts of characters that I’d have expected to be killed off, morally compromised as they are, so the fact that the script doesn’t take the easy way out shows nuance and restraint.

There are other elements which also display a nice maturity in the storytelling. Neeva, who at first is the story’s most obvious human villain, doesn’t just dig his heels into his ignorance. He grows and evolves and is even somewhat redeemed at the end. Even Xoanon itself is repaired in the end–made sane once more–and not destroyed. The final state of affairs between the Sevateem and the Tesh is uncertain while still being hopeful. And I like the fact that the invisible creatures in the forest ended up being part of the overall picture of what is going on, and not just a cost-saving measure to introduce another layer of danger. All of this keeps the story from being too obvious and predictable.

Of course there are the limitations to the production that one expects to find–sets that aren’t completely believable and some awkward stuntwork. But on the whole The Face of Evil is a good story–not quite at the level of a classic, but an intelligent science fiction adventure-drama which is a lot of fun to watch.

There is an interesting detail about this story in the novelization by Terrance Dicks. In it, its revealed that in the Doctor’s personal timeline, his first encounter with Xoanon took place shortly during his post-regeneration confusion, in Robot, when a still addled Doctor took a brief side-trip away from UNIT. It’s a clever bit of continuity which sort of explains why Xoanon is so messed up, and that I wish had been part of the TV story.

6 thoughts on “The Face of Evil [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. It’s certainly interesting to understand how the 4th Doctor’s previous involvement on Leela’s home world would help shape the individual she became. Louise Jameson made Leela and her chemistry with Tom Baker very special. She’s a very gifted actress and I’m glad that she went onto other great things like The Omega Factor, Tenko and P.R.O.B.E. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

  2. The most recent Big Finish trailer for the Gallifrey series, War Room, proves that Louise’s mark as Leela is thankfully stronger than ever.

  3. Indeed. I’m glad that she’s doing other things besides Doctor Who for Big Finish, including also reprising The Omega Factor’s Dr. Anne Reynolds.

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