The Leisure Hive ★★★★★

It's the 1980s and new producer John Nathan-Turner gives the series a stylish revamp

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Season 18 – Story 109

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“There’s something called an Experiential Grid – cells of different environments designed to produce physical, psychic and intellectual regeneration. That sounds more like it, don’t you think, Doctor?” – Romana

Storyline
Having braved out-of-season Brighton, where K•9 blows up in the waves, the Doctor and Romana transfer their holiday plans to the more stimulating environment of Argolis, c2290. An interplanetary war has left the planet surface irradiated and its inhabitants sterile. The few surviving Argolins have retreated to the Leisure Hive, a recreation centre for alien visitors that promotes scientific endeavour and interracial understanding. But a warlike Argolin, Pangol, has a hidden purpose for the Hive’s Tachyon Recreation Generator – which also becomes the focus for reptilian Foamasi saboteurs and ages the Doctor by 500 years…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 30 August 1980
Part 2 – Saturday 6 September 1980
Part 3 – Saturday 13 September 1980
Part 4 – Saturday 20 September 1980

Production
Location filming: March 1980 on Brighton beach, East Sussex
Studio recording: April 1980 in TC1 and TC3

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Romana – Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 – John Leeson
Mena – Adrienne Corri
Morix – Laurence Payne
Pangol – David Haig
Brock – John Collin
Hardin – Nigel Lambert
Vargos – Martin Fisk
Stimson – David Allister
Guide – Roy Montague
Klout – Ian Talbot
Foamasi – Andrew Lane
Tannoy voice – Harriet Reynolds
Generator voice – Clifford Norgate

Crew
Writer – David Fisher
Designer – Tom Yardley-Jones
Incidental music – Peter Howell
Script editor – Christopher H Bidmead
Executive producer – Barry Letts
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Lovett Bickford

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
One could base a thesis around the enigmatic shot that opens the first full Doctor Who story of the 1980s – an extraordinary, minute-and-a-half pan past a parade of stripy bathing huts on Brighton beach.

Does it merely signify director Lovett Bickford’s desire to put an auteur’s stamp on a TV script he was determined to treat as a screenplay? Cineastes could be forgiven for wondering, momentarily, if the BBC has engaged the services of Luchino Visconti. An Edwardian beachscape, an androgynous blonde in a sailor suit playing with a beach ball, observed from a deckchair by a faded old roué with death on his shoulder… It’s all very Death in Venice.

Perhaps the phrase “camp as a row of…” springs to mind. For many, in hindsight, this furtive crawl past a row of gaudy tents on a dreary day in Brighton foreshadows, nay crystallises, the direction in which new producer and Saltdean resident John Nathan-Turner would take “his show” during the next decade.

Of course, a simple answer could be that on the first day’s filming Tom Baker was too ill to work – which he was – and the crew had to get something in the can to justify their sojourn to the south coast.

The Leisure Hive debuted on the last Saturday of the summer holidays in 1980, and I remember being blown away by the radical change in tone and quantum leap in quality. Understandably, many fans lamented the nixing of the freefalling Tomfoolery of the mid-Baker period, but how I’d longed for Doctor Who to take itself seriously again.

Such was the intention of the incoming production team: Nathan-Turner (summarily elevated from production unit manager), who disliked how silly the series had become, and his lofty script editor Christopher H Bidmead. Both were answerable to Barry Letts, the early 1970s Who guru now ensconced as the programme’s first executive producer. For all three, a more serious, scientific approach was the order of the day.

Despite a nagging worry about the triumph of style over substance, I’ve no shame in admitting I enjoy season 18 and that I’ve always adored The Leisure Hive. It’s up there among my top Tom Bakers with classics from season 13 and the Key to Time. It may not be the greatest story ever told, but I admire its panache. It has the wow factor. Even now it’s an audio-visual blast.

From the off, we’re assailed by a barrage of gob-smacking innovations: Sid Sutton’s starfield title sequence; Peter Howell’s confident rearrangement of the theme and pervasive radiophonic score; even our hero has been remodelled. Costume designer June Hudson retains the silhouette but “rebottles” the fourth Doctor as a vintage burgundy. With the cork back in. He suddenly looks sober, or at least sobered up.

Tom Baker is still allowed the odd flippant moment (“Arrest the scarf then!”) but he’s restrained, and remarkably effective when aged five centuries (excellent make-up by Dorka Nieradzik). Lalla Ward (who failed to charm me in 1979) plays Romana with gusto and conviction, instantly becoming the fourth Doctor’s ideal partner. And she looks lovely in her Tadzio sailor suit.

Leisure Hive Tom Baker
[Tom Baker aged up. Photographed by Don Smith at BBC TV Centre in April 1980. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

David Fisher invests his script with vivid characters and intriguing concepts. The Hive is a “farewell gesture” from the expiring Argolins, its ostensible purpose being, as Mena explains, “to promote understanding between life forms of all culture and genetic type”. I love the reveal of the Generator’s dual purpose – recreation and re-creation, “creating things again”.

Otherwise, the hard-science approach is indigestible. I’ve still no idea what a tachyon is. The Time Lords burble on about baryon shields, a Schrödinger oscillator and wafer wave inducer… Me, neither. Pangol announces to a crowd of Hive visitors: “For the next hour and a half we will examine the wave equations that define the creation of solid tachyonic images.” Mmm, must book that holiday next year!

David Haig, in an early role, excels as the impetuous “child of the Generator”. Angular beauty Adrienne Corri is also terrific as “madam chairman” Mena. Initially imperious, she quickly elicits sympathy, accepting her accelerated ageing with stoicism: “Despair is the death of hope and all our hope died years ago.” Both make us believe in them as people, despite the green/gold faces and beehives topped with pod-shedding Walnut Whips that so nearly render the Argolins ridiculous.

Fisher later bemoaned Bickford’s mantra: “Don’t give me plots. Just give me visuals.” But the direction is hugely impressive: beautiful compositions, thoughtful camera moves and shifting focus, a hand-held camera for unfamiliar angles, dazzling video manipulation…

The cliffhangers stun, the pacing is urgent and, lo, there’s atmosphere. The sets are superbly lit, have depth, pyramid detail and ceilings. Bickford’s wish to “fill this thing with music” also allows for respites that swamp us with sound and vision.

Occasionally his tight shots and rapid cutting hinder narrative clarity, but often also serve to mask design flaws. They almost circumvent one of my bêtes noires – monsters impossibly contained within human masks, as when Earth agent Brock is “defrocked” as a Foamasi. The hurried denouement – when a supposedly obliterated reptile ambassador enters stage right with “You mentioned Foamasi?” – is just heinous.

But then the Doctor hands over a rejuvenated Pangol with the line “Have a baby” – subverting his by-now-tedious “Have a jelly baby” (which he’d never say again). In the next breath he ditches the Tardis randomiser, signally bringing a haphazard period of Who to a close.

A new path has been forged. And for John Nathan-Turner, hereinafter affectionately known as JN-T, the honeymoon period begins.

– – –

Radio Times archive

Season 18 was launched with a two-page interview with guest star Adrienne Corri. Later, there was a piece on Tom Baker’s ageing make-up and his entry into Madame Tussaud’s.

Leisure Corri 1
Leisure Corri 2
Leisure Hive mini
Leisure Hive pics
Leisure Hive billings
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[Available on BBC DVD]