The Hand of Fear ***

"Eldrad must live!" – Elisabeth Sladen's charmingly playful turn builds to her poignant departure from the series

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Hand of Fear ***

Season 14 – Story 87

"Can this be the form of the creatures who have found me and who now seek to destroy me? No matter. They shall fail, as the obliteration has failed" - Eldrad

Storyline
On Earth Sarah becomes possessed by a fossilised hand after it is uncovered by a quarry blast. She takes the hand to a nuclear research complex, where radiation from the reactor core regenerates it into an entity, based on Sarah's form, called Eldrad. The alien, who was obliterated by his own people, asks the Doctor to take him to his home planet of Kastria, which he now hopes to rule. But Eldrad finds a dead world, the race banks long since destroyed. Dispatching him down a chasm, the Doctor and Sarah leave. A disgruntled Sarah wants to go home and the Doctor, having received a distress call from Gallifrey, returns her to Earth.

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 2 October 1976
Part 2 - Saturday 9 October 1976
Part 3 - Saturday 16 October 1976
Part 4 - Saturday 23 October 1976

Production
Location filming: June 1976 in Gloucestershire at Cromhall quarry, Wootton-under-Edge; Oldbury Power Station, Thornbury; and Stokefield Close, Thornbury.
Studio recording: July 1976 in TC8

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Professor Watson - Glyn Houston
Eldrad - Judith Paris
Dr Carter - Rex Robinson
Driscoll - Roy Boyd
Miss Jackson - Frances Pidgeon
Abbott - David Purcell
Elgin - John Cannon
Intern - Renu Setna
Zazzka - Roy Pattison
King Rokon - Roy Skelton
Kastrian Eldrad - Stephen Thorne
Guard - Robin Hargrave

Crew
Writers - Bob Baker, Dave Martin
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Christine Ruscoe
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Lennie Mayne

RT Review by Mark Braxton
The departure of a much-loved companion after 18 stories and nearly three years was always going to be a landmark event. And in 1976 we knew Elisabeth Sladen was leaving - thanks to stories in the press. What made viewers anxious was the manner of her impending departure.

Hunkered down with the essence of malevolent alien inside a nuclear reactor, and apparently soaking up radiation like a sponge, Sarah Jane Smith looked for all the world like she'd had her fission chips.

The set-up made for a ripping episode-one cliffhanger. Could the rest of the story match it for tension and thrills, we wondered…

Well, before we answer that, let's go back to the wobbly prologue. Tomorrow People visual effects, faceless figures wearing quilts and confusing dialogue with insufficient distinction between who is uttering it do little to generate confidence.

Back on Earth, in a quarry that for once is intended to be a quarry (rather than the planet Uxarieus, or Exxilon, or Skaro…), matters improve. The interplay between the Doctor and Sarah is relaxed and amusing, throwing us off the scent of the explosion to come - brilliantly shot and not, as legend had it, at the expense of a camera.

The location filming here, and at Oldbury Power Station, which doubles for "Nunton", is extravagant, although the ponderous sequences of people walking past ducts and gantries showed it was rather too pleased with itself for securing such an authentic establishment.

But back to the titular hand. My 12-year-old self loved the moment when Sarah Jane opened her ice-cream tub to reveal Eldrad's wriggling digits. I had no idea how they achieved the effect, and couldn't wait to see what it belonged to…

After the immaculate build-up, I remember feeling horribly disappointed by the walking block of azurite that finally stepped through the burnt-out reactor door. My opinion today is the opposite. Make-up did an amazing job on Judith Paris, creating a costume that's exotic and alluring. The actress uses her darting, suspicious eyes, flashing white teeth and blue lippie to devastating effect. And have the sound engineers added just a hint of bass to her voice? It's subtly done, but adds immeasurably to the impact.

Eldrad's eventual metamorphosis into a roaring dullard is another matter, however, and his tumble down a Kastrian cavity can't come soon enough.

Indeed, after the efforts to root the adventure in some kind of reality, the cardboard underworld of Kastria is another letdown. Maybe producer Philip Hinchcliffe felt the whole "Eldrad, king of nothing" scenario wasn't worth shelling out for. He had a point.
But in many ways the story architecture is an elaborate superfluity, a protracted preamble to the last act - which is what we all remember it for.

Throughout The Hand of Fear, Lis Sladen gives a charmingly playful turn ("Eldrad MUST live!") as the Andy Pandy-overalled Sarah Jane. Also a clever one, which (a) suggests a growing disenchantment with time travel and (b) makes us all the more upset at her departure.

Her separation scene from the Doctor (co-written by the two actors) is a blend of canny wrong-footing and polite restraint. Assembling her "goodies" to walk out of the Tardis, Sarah's thunder is stolen by the Doctor, who has been summoned to Gallifrey.

The fact that words are left unsaid makes the parting all the more poignant, and the undemonstrative approach somehow seems more appropriate. Baker's personality was an unusual, even awkward one to dovetail. But Sladen always managed it skilfully, and arguably better than any companion who followed. The reward for her popularity with viewers was not just one spin-off but two!

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Radio Times archive

RT billings

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen also appeared on the first edition of Multi-coloured Swap Shop

[Available on BBC DVD]

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