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Review #3533: Classic Doctor Who: “The Face of Evil”

Posted on the 30 May 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: John Keegan

Written by Chris Boucher
Directed by Pennant Roberts

This serial would be notable enough for introducing Leela, who couldn’t be more different from Sarah Jane Smith if she tried. But it also manages to incorporate some fundamentally interesting science fiction concepts that meshed extremely well with the “gothic horror” tone of the early Fourth Doctor era.

Review #3533: Classic Doctor Who: “The Face of Evil”

One of the things that drew me to “Doctor Who”, when I began watching the series with the reboot, was the flawed nature of the character. The Doctor is ostensibly the hero of the piece, but he’s flawed. He has an arrogant sense of righteousness that can lead to overconfidence in his own abilities. While unintended consequences are a major component of the Nu Who era (particularly for the Eleventh Doctor and the psychological damage done to the character of Amy Pond), it’s not something that is covered often in the first half of Classic Who.

That’s one thing that makes this story so intriguing: everything that happens is the direct result of the Doctor’s well-intentioned attempt to fix a malfunctioning computer called Xoanon on a colony ship. Because Xoanon was programmed to think independently, the Doctor’s method of repair left a copy of his personality within the AI matrix. The end result was madness, and before one can say “Destination Void”, the colonists became victims of Xoanon’s emerging God complex.

Xoanon engineers a eugenics program that splits the colonists, in the space of a few generations, into two distinct groups: the Sevateem (the original “survey team”) and the Tesh (the original “technicians”). The Sevateem have been driven towards a more savage existence, while the Tesh are telepathic and technologically advanced. Both groups, however, worship Xoanon as a deity, and as they are kept separate, they are pitted against one another as part of the grander experiment.

The construction of the story doesn’t quite delve into it enough, but there is a consistency to the personalities of the Sevateem and the Tesh that plays into this concept of forced eugenics. The Sevateem’s culture is purposefully “savage”, as if higher order thinking and insight is being bred out of them. They are ruled by emotion and feverish religious devotion. The Tesh, on the other hand, come across as cold and sterile, to the point of being bland and uninteresting. Their devotion to Xoanon is more clinical as a result. In a nice touch, this is never really mentioned in the story; these details are left to the viewer to comprehend.

It’s all the little touches that make it work. The Sevateem are surrounded by remnants of their colony ship’s technology, but they seem to have lost the knowledge of what it all means. Their “shaman” wears the scraps of a spacesuit as a ceremonial robe and headdress. The Sevateem know that it has meaning and significance to them, but without a sense of historical context, it’s all garbled. It’s an interesting concept, especially when one considers that it was a directed deconstruction by Xoanon.

We never get to see the Doctor’s initial actions, and he doesn’t even remember them. That’s one of the most telling aspects of the story; the Doctor’s typical casual attitude towards intervention is such that he doesn’t even give the matter a second thought when he is done “fixing” Xoanon. And despite his sorrow over what has taken place between the Sevateem and the Tesh, it’s somewhat clear that the Doctor doesn’t quite see the bigger picture. In the end, he “fixes” the problem by restoring Xoanon, but he leaves the Sevateem and the Tesh to work out a future together on their own. (Granted, the nature of the series doesn’t allow for much more.)

When he arrives on the scene, The Doctor comes across the Sevateem, and learn that he is fabled as “The Evil One”. In essence, Xoanon’s split personality has fashioned the Doctor’s image and personality into the Devil, which is interesting when one considers the Doctor/Master dichotomy that the previous serial served as a reminder. Whatever the case, it is played for both laughs and chills, especially when the Sevateem are forced to face the visage of their invisible enemy, and it is a creepy construct of the Doctor’s face. It’s primitive by today’s standards, but damned effective.

It’s within this context that Leela, the Doctor’s latest Companion, is introduced. Leela is one of the Sevateem, but she is blessed/cursed with some of that lingering insight and intelligence. She questions Xoanon, and therefore incurs the wrath of her people. But she’s definitely still one of the Sevateem, in that she’s fairly violent and willing to kill without hesitation. It’s not something that the Doctor likes, to say the least, but his stern rebuke exposes a bit of his own hypocrisy.

The dynamic is very different than what has come before; the closest might be what emerged with the Second Doctor and Jamie. Leela isn’t stupid; she simply lacks perspective and information. Thus she becomes a good tool for the writers to facilitate exposition for the sake of the audience; it’s natural for the Doctor to fill Leela in as needed, and for Leela to ask the same questions as the audience.

Leela is also stepping in after the departure of one of the most beloved Companions of all: Sarah Jane Smith. The writers had to deviate from Sarah Jane as much as possible. Where Sarah Jane was a modern woman of Earth, struggling to handle the dangers of a wider universe (and screeching often as a result), Leela is a warrior. Sarah Jane and the Doctor were also very friendly, reflecting the real-world affection that Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen had during their tenure. Leela and the Doctor are more at odds, which I understand also reflects the real-world circumstances.

And let’s face it: Sarah Jane wouldn’t be caught dead in the leathers worn by Leela. The series hasn’t had such blatant fan service since Zoe and her skintight catsuit during the Second Doctor era (“The Mind Robber”, anyone?). Sarah Jane was gorgeous, but she was the kind of girl you took home to meet your parents. Leela is not. One might imagine that Leela would be written to emphasize her sexual allure, but instead, she is written without comment on her appearance. It’s actually a nice touch.

If there’s one element that hurts the overall effort, it’s the direction and production values. I’m not talking about the effects so much as how certain events were staged. The attack by the Sevateem is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen. Even accounting for the fact that the Sevateem are being manipulated, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It just seems like the problems presented by budget weren’t approached as inventively as they might have been. And the second half of the serial doesn’t work nearly as well as the first.

But I’m not sure how much that matters. I was paying a lot more attention to the story and its implications than the production value. It’s easily one of the best stories I’ve seen in the Classic Who era, and one of my favorites for the Fourth Doctor. I could easily see this being redone for the Nu Who series at some point, and really digging into the aspects of artificial intelligence, religion, eugenics, and the Doctor’s personality that are touched on in the original. Imagine if this were redone with proper pacing and much better direction; the results would be phenomenal.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 1/2
Style: 4/4

Final Rating: 9/10

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