Monday, July 11, 2016

"The Hand of Fear"

Aired Oct 2 - 23, 1976

4 Episodes

Story 87

Written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin

Directed by Lennie Mayne


When the TARDIS arrives in a quarry in contemporary England, the Doctor and Sarah set out to explore. However, what they fail to realize is that the quarry is about to set off a scheduled demolition, and Sarah and the Doctor are caught in the blast. Though both survive, Sarah is found unconscious, clutching what looks like a fossilized human hand. 

While Sarah is taken to the hospital to recover, she is also possessed by a malevolent force. The hand is no fossil, nor is it inert. It is in fact a fragment of an extraterrestrial silicon-based life form called Eldrad. Eldrad was exiled from his home world of Kastria eons ago as punishment for his despotic and genocidal aims.

Now possessed by Eldred's will, Sarah takes the hand to a nearby nuclear research and power station, where it absorbs the radiation for the station and regenerates its body and lives again.

The Doctor manages to free Sarah from Eldrad's control, but he agrees to take the exiled and dangerous alien back to Kastria. Once there, however, Eldrad finds his home world a lifeless tomb, the Kastrians having embraced extinction rather than countenance the possibility of Eldred's return to power.

Eldrad attempts to force the Doctor and Sarah to take him back to Earth to rule that planet in Kastria's stead, but the Doctor and Sarah manage to trick Eldrad into falling into a nearly bottomless crevasse, ending the threat of leas for now.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor receives an urgent summons to return to Gallifrey, but as he cannot take an Earthling with him, he is forced to return Sarah to Earth and head back into the stars without her...


The Hand of Fear is a customarily uneven adventure from the Bristol Boys (aka Bob Baker and Dave Martin) who often had trouble with both structure and focus. There's an awful lot to like about the serial, with a hugely strong opening episode, and then an effectively tense section in the nuclear power plant. However, the second that threat is resolved, the story finds itself with nowhere left to go, which results in a fourth episode that is a total mess. Any adventure that resolves itself by having a character trip over a scarf is not well-plotted, pure and simple.

And it's a shame, because (and again this is common with the Bristol Boys) there are some fantastic ideas. The idea of silicon-based life is intriguing, as is the Creeping Hand-influenced possession stuff. The threat revolving around nuclear power is timely, and the looming threat of a meltdown or mushroom cloud is one that obviously resonates. Similarly, Judith Paris' performance as the female Eldrad is wonderfully weird and effective, and one wonders why the writers and production team didn't simply make Eldrad female entirely or at least have Paris play the character all the way through. Certainly, all the wonderful work Paris does in crafting an interesting and at least somewhat complicated performance is hugely missed in Part Four, when Stephen Thorne take over the role and shouts and rants his way over the top and down the other side. 

Speaking of Part Four, has there ever been a less momentous climax in the show's history? The last third of this story finds the Doctor acting as a taxi service, barely playing a part in the villain's comeuppance, and the part he does play is risible. I know Tom Baker's scarf was iconic, but having it actually resolve the story is an awful idea. 

Having said that, there is of course one aspect that makes this story memorable, and it's in this area that it succeeds hugely. I'm talking about the fact that this is Elisabeth Sladen's final regular appearance as Sarah Jane Smith. For many, Sarah Jane is the definitive companion, and though The Hand of Fear is not overtly about her departure, it does give Sladen an excellent showcase, and it also highlights the fantastic chemistry between her and Tom Baker, as they both had grown extremely close over their two and a half seasons together.

Firstly, Sladen gets to play the antagonist for large portions of the story, giving a creepy turn as the possessed Sarah. But the real treat is in how both she and Baker subtly shade the story by accentuating, even in the early episodes, the bond between the Doctor and Sarah. It's in their banter, their trust of one another, the way they add unscripted dialogue to scenes that echo each other and add depth. This is a pairing of best friends in a way the series hadn't seen since Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. Though you felt a great bond between, say, the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, you never felt they were equals.The Third Doctor always had that paternalistic view that created a distance. But Sarah and the Fourth Doctor, like Jamie and the Second, were best mates. And Sladen's immense charm and warmth, her earnest spirit in the role of Sarah made her perhaps the best audience surrogate the show would ever have. 

This all culminates in perhaps the most wonderfully underplayed and rich farewell scene in the series' history. It manages to be sad, but also so warm and friendly. It's the goodbye of two friends who can't be sad because it's incomprehensible to them that they will never meet again, even as they know with certainty that their farewell is a final one. It's just a lovely scene, created by Robert Holmes and Sladen and Baker. The Fourth Doctor would have great companions after this, each special in their own way. But in my opinion Baker would never have such an effortless connection with another actor like he had with Sladen. That's a testament to her skill as a performer, and why, out of all the classic series companions, it was only Sarah Jane Smith who could ever possibly have supported her own series. 

SARAH: Don't forget me.
THE DOCTOR: Oh, Sarah....Don't you forget me.
SARAH: Bye, Doctor. You know, travel does broaden the mind.
es....Till we meet again, Sarah. 

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