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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Face Of Evil”

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“The Face Of Evil” (season 14, episodes 13-16. Originally broadcast Jan. 1-22, 1977.)

The Doctor, as I’ve noted often before, is a terribly irresponsible person. Sure, he’s a good guy—he’ll come to your planet and save you from an invasion by the Daleks, but generally speaking he doesn’t do the hero thing with any kind of a plan. The m.o. has been pretty consistent for 50 years: Show up somewhere randomly, wander into trouble, fix it and save the day, and then leave before the cleanup begins. There are practical storytelling reasons for this: It’s a convenient way to get your main character off to the next adventure in a show that changes locations with each new story. But it’s also been baked into his character from the beginning: The Doctor may charm you, and he may save your life, but that doesn’t mean you should rely on him. For one thing: If he’s off to the next planet five minutes after, say, blowing up an Ice Warrior invasion fleet, then he never knows whether any other problems crop up after he’s gone—or if his own actions have caused new problems.

That’s the issue at the heart of “The Face Of Evil,” which shows us just how catastrophic it can be when the Doctor makes a mistake. In this case: Some time in the distant past on an unnamed jungle planet, the Doctor met a starship full of planetary colonists, and helped them with a well-intentioned repair job on their HAL-9000 style superintelligent computer, called Xoanon. Unknowingly, he caused it to go insane, with the Doctor’s own personality superimposed on Xoanon’s in something like a schizophrenic break. And then he left before thoroughly checking his work. That was bad news for the colonists. In his madness, Xoanon became their jailer and eventually their God, destroying their high-tech society in favor of a eugenics experiment pitting two heavily-manipulated tribes against each other, apparently for centuries. What was once a sophisticated group of people building a new life on a distant planet becomes, thanks to the Doctor, a pair of cargo cults, the emotionless Tesh and Leela’s tribe, the Sevateem, created out of and named for the two divisions of colonists at the time—the technicians who lived on the starship and the survey teams out exploring the surface. They hate each other only slightly less than they hate him—since Xoanon has told them the Doctor is the Devil incarnate, easy to recognize since Xoanon’s carved his face into a cliffside, hundreds of feet high.

“The Face Of Evil” was the first of three Doctor Who scripts written by Chris Boucher, whose love of dark, noirish stories fit nicely with script editor Robert Holmes’ own sensibilities. (On Holmes’ recommendation, Boucher would later become the story editor for the cult-favorite space-opera/noir series Blake’s 7.) Besides showing us an unsavory side of the Doctor, “The Face Of Evil” is also a rather barbed, cynically satirical comment on religion, and on the nature of politics as a game of backstabbing and ruthless pragmatism. Though I’d rank the story only fourth-best out of the six serials making up season 14, that’s more to do with the overall high quality of that season in general, which is one of Doctor Who’s high-water marks. Ranked against the series as a whole, this would be in my top 25, in no small part because it’s the debut of Leela, the infamous queen-of-the-jungle companion played by Louise Jameson. Simultaneously a strong, independent, and intriguingly complex female character; a risky and in some ways problematic take on the “noble savage” trope; and a blatant attempt by the producers to add a little Emma Peel-style violence and sex appeal, Leela’s one of the most outlandish companions in Doctor Who’s history—and also one of its finest. I’ll come back to her momentarily.

Of course, if Tom Baker had had his way, the Doctor wouldn’t have had any traveling companions. This was Baker’s third season as the Fourth Doctor, by which time he’d established himself so firmly in the role that until David Tennant came along 30 years later, he was basically the Doctor in the minds of most of the viewing public. Baker was well aware of his cachet and wasn’t shy about throwing his weight around—and one of his big ideas was the notion that the Doctor should travel alone. That this would free up more screen time from co-stars that could be focused instead on him was, surely, not a motivation for this demand.

At any rate, after Elisabeth Sladen’s character Sarah Jane Smith left in “The Hand Of Fear,” the producers gave Baker’s way a try with a solo adventure in “The Deadly Assassin,” It worked pretty well there, but it wasn’t ever going to last. Having the Doctor travel by himself was a huge burden for the very basic reason that on television, you have to have conversations if you want to get any information across to the audience. In a book, you can use interior monologue or authorial narration to do that, but both are awkward at best in a visual medium. The only other recourses are to have a character who’s either constantly talking to himself, or meeting and working closely with a different new guest star in every episode. Neither are great options.


And in any case, if Baker’s first scene here is any indication, it’s a good thing the plug was pulled so quickly. Stepping out of the TARDIS after it lands, the Doctor is surprised to find himself in an alien jungle instead of Hyde Park, grumbles about needing to fix his ship’s navigation system, then decides to have a look around anyway. It’s a minor scene, just a way to establish that he’s lost and to get him out into the action with a couple of jokes and minimum of fuss—his version of Bugs Bunny’s “I shoulda taken a left turn at Albuquerque” line. But it’s painfully stagy and artificial, because Baker chooses to declaim his lines while looking directly into the camera, rather than playing it more casually, like he’s simply talking out loud to himself. Which reveals one of Baker’s weaknesses as an actor: His instincts about how to approach a scene were questionable when he was alone, and he badly needed other actors to play against and ground his magnetic, grandiose eccentricity in something normal (for local values of normal, anyway). And once he runs into Leela, and through her the others in her tribe, the Sevateem, he’s back in his best Bakerian form, bewildering his opponents with a flurry of conflicting emotions from clownish grinning to high moral dudgeon to simple curiosity. And, of course, this time there’s also a creeping sense of guilt, as he slowly realizes his own past error and what madness it’s led to, however inadvertently.

Or was the error even inadvertent? In the middle of explaining to Leela how Xoanon wound up with a copy of his personality stuck in its own silicon brain, the Doctor quietly and casually drops the idea that he failed to delete his mindprint not from forgetfulness, but because he liked the idea of leaving such a permanent stamp of himself on the star-colonists’ culture. “Or did I really forget? I forget if I forgot. … It may have been my own egotism.” What he didn’t realize either way, though, was that Xoanon had already developed sentience on its own, and thanks to the Doctor’s meddling it could no longer distinguish its own thoughts from the ones the Doctor gave it.


The Doctor’s unreliability is an issue all the way back to the beginning of the show, and during the Fifth and Sixth Doctor eras, it was common to see him fail. The Fourth Doctor, despite that he could usually back up his titanic confidence with success, had his flaws too: He was such a terrible secret agent for the Time Lords in “Genesis Of The Daleks” that he nearly gave his greatest enemies the key to dominating the universe. But up to this point in the series, the idea that the Doctor could screw something up on such a massive scale as this was new and shocking.

The original title of “The Face Of Evil” was the far more provocative “The Day God Went Mad.” I can see why that was probably deemed a little too strong, but still, there’s a pointed jab at the Doctor in the final title: Xoanon itself has no face. Only the Doctor’s face, representing that unwanted half of its dual personality, shows up—on the mountain, as the wonderfully surreal manifestations of its invisible jungle predators (which may be a nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”), and finally as the accusatory head in Xoanon’s sacred chamber who hysterically shouts “Who am I?” in the voice of a small child. Every time Xoanon interacts with the outside world beyond its protected chamber back on the Tesh-controlled ship, it uses the Doctor’s face or voice to do its dirty work, the same way Norman Bates used his mother’s persona to commit his murders and sins.


Point being: Xoanon is a victim here as much as the people it’s been treating as lab rats in its planet-scale experiment in the post-human condition. Xoanon itself isn’t evil, but seriously traumatized and mentally ill. Still, the effect it has on the humans it dominates is profound and pernicious, and it’s chilling to realize both the Tesh and the Sevateem are completely unfazed by the idea of killing. Compassion seems to have no place in either branch of Xoanon’s crazy religion.

Even the worst human characters in “Face Of Evil” are also victims twisted by the false beliefs imposed on them, and by Xoanon’s survival-of-the-fittest eugenics program. The one exception may be the crafty Calib, whose villainy springs out of the fact that he sees things as they really are and is willing to exploit that advantage for his own ends. But while the two tribes’ spiritual leaders, Neeva and Jabel, are each creepily fanatical and dangerous, they’re ultimately made that way because that’s the kind of religious leader Xoanon wants.


Which makes Neeva’s fall from grace all the more interesting. He begins as an unvarnished villain, all too eager to condemn heretics who dare question Xoanon’s authority (or his own). But his profound sense of disillusionment at Xoanon’s treachery reduces him first to catatonia, and then to a chilly, oddly distant state, like a man walking through a dream, but one who has nevertheless learned to tell the difference between the real Doctor and the Xoanon version. It’s one thing for Leela or Calib to realize Xoanon isn’t a god, since they were already skeptics, but Neeva’s entire identity and sense of purpose was wrapped up in being Xoanon’s priest. This must be what renders him immune from Xoanon’s mind-control in the final episode: That spell has already been broken, and he’s not going to fall for it again.

Even though the Sevateem have been cast down into low-tech tribal savagery, they’re neither stupid nor naïvely innocent. Neeva’s hard-won acceptance of the ugly truth is just one example. There’s also the devious Calib, who doesn’t think the Doctor is the Evil One, but doesn’t care: He just thinks it’s useful leverage to break Neeva’s power over the tribe in Calib’s favor. It’s sneaky politics played on a level more sophisticated than you might give the Sevateem credit for. Calib’s no slouch at low cunning either: After the Doctor knocks him down, he complains that his leg is broken—a lie to give him a chance to get the upper hand again. The Doctor sees through it right away, but as weaselly ploys go, it wasn’t bad. And even before the Doctor has proven how Xoanon created the Sevateem, Calib immediately understands the significance of the open question of whether all the junked equipment lying around their village was left behind as the survey teams’ trash, or the relics of the survey teams being marooned: “Are we their captors or their children?”


But the best example of Sevateem intelligence is, of course, Leela, who is firmly established even before she meets the Doctor as brave, smart, iconoclastic, and utterly no-nonsense. Louise Jameson is terrific, giving Leela a fierceness and cool competence that helps bring the character to life. In fact, although the series later failed to allow Leela to live up to her full potential and wound up actively neutralizing her, Leela is unquestionably my favorite companion. I won’t say her outfit has nothing to do with that, but she’s far more than just a pretty young woman in a leather loincloth.

It’s easy to see how Leela’s character could have been badly bungled, given that she’s a mix of two pretty paternalistic ideas. On the one hand, her relationship with the Doctor was intended from the start to echo the “street-urchin girl is schooled and civilized by upper-class gentleman” story from My Fair Lady. And indeed she was originally going to be a Cockney Londoner much closer to Eliza Doolittle than Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle. (There’s an argument to be made that Ace’s relationship with the Seventh Doctor, a teenage delinquent mentored by the Doctor into becoming a better person, was an attempt to do the Leela/Four arc to its full potential, cut short by the series cancellation.)


The idea of the Tarzan or Sheena-type “noble savage” has its roots in some fairly racist 19th-century pulp fiction as well, so taking the genuinely cool aspects of that trope while leaving the baggage behind required a certain amount of self-awareness and sensitivity on the part of Doctor Who’s production team. (So it’s not encouraging to see early test photos of Leela in which Jameson’s white skin was covered in dark brown makeup. Thankfully, that terrible idea went no further; the show really dodged a self-inflicted bullet there.)

Here, in “Face Of Evil,” she shows her promise. Unschooled and almost completely unaware of any post-Stone Age technology or science, she’s nevertheless curious about her world and willing to ask difficult questions about it, like “Is God real?” (Which in this case is “yes” and “no” at the same time.) She’s level-headed and unhesitant to act when she needs to, but also trained by her lifestyle to coldly and even brutally kill when she sees an advantage in it. There’s potential greatness in her, if she can be shown how to bring it out.


Particularly in later stories, Leela is shown to have almost superhumanly keen, animal-like senses, and seeing the Tesh I realized that there’s actually an in-universe explanation for it. Just as Xoanon’s eugenics experiments cultivated telepathic powers in the Tesh half of the experiment, it’s certainly possible he might have chosen to enhance the senses of Sevateem people to better survive in their harsh jungle. Although giving people what are essentially magic powers is a bit of a stretch, it’s not impossible to think Xoanon would have been able to wreak major changes to his humans given that he had centuries to work with and complete control over the humans and their environment. Just look at how, in just a few thousand years, humans warped wolves into poodles and chihuahas. If someone could do that to people

If the Sevateem are fairly well-developed as a culture, the same can’t really be said of their enemies. Coming in late to the story, the Tesh don’t get enough screen time to be more than hastily characterized as unemotional ascetics with their own brand of fanaticism, and the story suffers for it because it’s hard to see how they have enough in common with their Sevateem cousins that they can successfully build a new society together.


But maybe that’s the point. The ending does reflect Robert Holmes’ cynicism about human nature, and Time Lord nature as well. Although the Tesh and Sevateem have agreed to merge, and although we can assume that the rejuvenated Xoanon will guide them in the right direction, their story ends in mid-squabble with no clear indication that there’s hope for the future. And the Doctor looks at them, rolls his eyes, declares that it’s no longer his problem, and sneaks off back to the TARDIS. He’s done his bit. But it’s a little harder this time to accept that it’s OK for him to slip away the way he always does. Even though he’s fixed Xoanon, the mess he leaves behind still has his larger-than-life stamp on it: That face on the mountain isn’t the only lasting imprint the Doctor inflicts on this world. And it raises an even more unsettling possibility: What other mistakes has he made on other worlds? And how much damage did he do there?

Stray observations

• A few great lines worth noting:

• “Would you like a jelly baby?”
“It’s true, then. They say the Evil One eats babies!”


• “I wonder…”
“Shh. I’m wondering.”

• “You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”


• The Doctor talks with his Xoanon-clone for the first time:
“Who are you?”
“Don’t I know?”

• Xoanon explains himself in Biblical terms: “I created a world in my own image.”


• Boucher named Leela after Leila Khaled, a Palestinian activist perhaps most well-known for taking hostages in an airline hijacking. Much later, Matt Groening may have had Doctor Who’s Leela in mind as an inspiration for the name of the cyclops star pilot in Futurama.

• When did the Fourth Doctor first arrive on Leela’s planet, “fixing” Xoanon and setting the future plot in motion? One prominent theory is that it happened only minutes after he regenerated in his first appearance, “Robot,” when he seems to take off in the TARDIS for only a moment—the idea being that he actually took a much longer trip, then landed back at UNIT HQ at the exact moment he first left. This makes sense, given that he was more than a little giddy and unhinged at the time from his regeneration experience, which would have contributed to the potential for his making a mistake as catastrophic as he did with Xoanon, and helps explain why he might have forgotten about it. (It’s a quasi-official explanation, too, since it’s given in the novelization of the story by Terrance Dicks.) The other major possibility is that he went to Xoanon’s World soon after “The Deadly Assassin,” which would mean there’s a much longer break between that story and “The Face Of Evil” than you’d think—years, probably decades.


• And where did Xoanon’s idea to create the two tribes come from in the first place? I have to wonder if it’s something he plucked from the Doctor side of his mind, because the Sevateem/Tesh split is weirdly reminiscent of another pair of cultures the Doctor once encountered, and which had a profound effect on him. Primitive savages who dwell in the open jungle and agoraphobic technophiles who never leave their city? That’s a description of Skaro. Has Xoanon, in his Doctor-inspired madness, decided to recreate the conditions that led to the birth of the Daleks?

• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• Sept. 28: The Third Doctor says goodbye to Jo Grant and hello to giant mutant maggots in “The Green Death.” Hardly seems like a fair trade.


• Oct. 12: The Second Doctor meets Martians on an Arctic base in the newly restored 1967 story “The Ice Warriors,”

• Oct. 28: A look at a Doctor Who that might have been, with the animated 2003 tale “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant as a decidedly different Ninth Doctor than the one we’re all familiar with now.


• Future reviews should include “Terror Of The Zygons” and “The Tenth Planet,” both soon to be released on DVD. And relatively soon, we’ll visit something from each of the three seasons I haven’t yet written about, season four (probably “The Tenth Planet”), season 15 (“The Horror Of Fang Rock”?), and season 23 (“The Mysterious Planet”).