The Face of Evil ★★

Louise Jameson is a "stonking success" as Leela in an otherwise lifeless tale about power-mad computer Xoanon...

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Season 14 – Story 89

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“It thought I was itself. Then it began to develop another separate self, its own self. And that’s when it started to go mad” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor’s solitary travels end abruptly when he arrives in an alien forest and befriends an intelligent primitive called Leela. She has been outcast from her tribe, the Sevateem. Beset by phantoms, Leela’s kinsmen are determined to release their god Xoanon from an enemy tribe, the Tesh, and the Evil One – who has the same face as Doctor. The Time Lord realises the Sevateem and Tesh are the descendants of space explorers and that Xoanon is a computer he tried to mend long ago, which since has developed multiple personalities…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 1 January 1977
Part 2 – Saturday 8 January 1977
Part 3 – Saturday 15 January 1977
Part 4 – Saturday 22 January 1977

Production
Filming: September 1976 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: October 1976 in TC3

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Neeva – David Garfield
Andor – Victor Lucas
Tomas – Brendan Price
Calib – Leslie Schofield
Sole – Colin Thomas
Lugo – Lloyd McGuire
Jabel – Leon Eagles
Gentek – Michael Elles
Guards – Tom Kelly, Brett Forrest
Acolyte – Peter Baldock
Xoanon voices – Rob Edwards, Pamela Salem, Anthony Frieze, Roy Herrick

Crew
Writer – Chris Boucher
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Austin Ruddy
Script editor – Robert Holmes
Producer – Philip Hinchcliffe
Director – Pennant Roberts

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
New Year’s Day 1977 ushered in a “New Series” of Doctor Who… at least Radio Times seemed justified in billing it so, as the programme had been off air for six weeks. Indeed, as I watched The Face of Evil on its first transmission, it felt like the start of a whole new era… and how clearly I recall the sinking sensation that my favourite TV show was no longer being made for me.

Doctor Who was looking tired and insipid: no tension, no fear factor… Instead leaden storytelling, uninvolving characters, underdeveloped psychodrama and a dearth of originality. We’d seen invisible monsters in alien jungles at least three times before and numerous computers running amok.

New writer Chris Boucher does introduce some subtlety. Xoanon is not a boring old megalomaniac. He is, as the Doctor says, “a living creature – the first of an entirely new species… an old mission computer with schizophrenia” resulting directly from the Time Lord’s tampering long ago.

He realises Xoanon is conducting “an experiment in eugenics” to breed “a race of superhumans”. Xoanon tells Leela, “I created a world in my own image. I made your people act out my torment.” That the barbaric Sevateem are remnants of a planetary survey team and the Tesh were once ship technicians is an intriguing puzzle for younger viewers to work out.

So a handful of intriguing ideas but percolating through four episodes that are stagnant at best and for the most part knuckle-gnawingly dull. The entire production limps along. Even Dudley Simpson’s music is uninspired, parping away in the background trying to lift one lifeless tract after another.

Part two is arguably the most abysmally plotted episode of the 1970s so far. Its woeful cliffhanger sees Sevateem leader Andor expiring (gassed by Tom Baker/Xoanon’s mouth odour?), and ends on a close-up of Tomas discharging his weapon. Now Brendan Price is a comely lad but we don’t care about his character.

There are saving graces. The two other cliffhangers work well. Part one leaves us with the discovery of the Doctor’s face carved into a rock face. It’s an arresting image that throws up a quandary: has this fourth incarnation really existed long enough to forget an earlier visit? Part three’s disturbing cliffhanger shows the Doctor/Xoanon’s face on huge panels, babbling in mental torment then resolving eerily on the voice of a child: “Who am I? Who am I?” (The line was recorded from a young fan visiting BBC TV Centre – how cool must that have been!)

The other stonking success is Leela. Golden-skinned, gorgeous and barely contained in leathers, she’s a companion to lure in adolescent lads and their dads. A dab hand with a knife, crossbow and toxic Janis thorns, Boucher’s “intelligent primitive” is a radical departure from all her predecessors, and appears to be the first alien sidekick since Susan. (The Doctor makes vague references to the Mordee expedition; only months later would Leela’s Earth ancestry be clarified.)

And Louise Jameson is a wonderful find. Exuding commitment and conviction, she makes Leela earnest, warm and funny, elevating her far beyond Robert Holmes’s desire for a “Rachel Welch in the jungle”. Quite simply, she’s one of the most naturally gifted actresses ever to play a companion.

It makes it all the more ludicrous that the Sevateem would expel their one fit female from the tribe. Indeed, Leela seems to be their only female. Leela’s mother is never mentioned and her dad, Sole, is fed to the piranha-like Horda in the opening scene.

She overcomes her bereavement almost instantly. It might have been dramatically rewarding had she seen the Doctor as a surrogate father but Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe take the duo down the Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins path they’d originally intended.

There’s none of the chemistry Tom Baker shared with Elisabeth Sladen. He disliked Leela’s character, years later revealing he was “appalled at her aggression”. Their first encounter, filmed at Ealing, is so poorly lined up you sense the presence of the camera. It’s hard to know whether to blame the cameraman, film editor or director Pennant Roberts – making an inauspicious debut and incapable of massaging any life into these scripts.

Demonising the Doctor as the Evil One (the face in the rock, of the phantoms and at the centre of Xoanon) is both clever and unsettling. But, for me, it also unwittingly signals a tipping point in the era, an evolution in the Doctor’s character that emerges in his first scene here.

The solitary Time Lord emerges from the Tardis, looks straight to camera and addresses the audience: “I think this is not Hyde Park… Put a knot in my hanky. I wonder what that was for… Little look round, Doctor? Why not!” It’s done without charm, shatters illusions and marks the moment when the egos of the fourth Doctor and of the programme’s emboldened star become untethered.


Radio Times archive

Leela (Louise Jameson) was introduced with this small article and an illustration.

Face intro & cartoon

Face billings

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[Available on BBC DVD]