Monday, August 15, 2016

"The Face of Evil"

Aired Jan 1 - 22, 1977

4 Episodes

Story 89

Written by Chris Boucher

Directed by Pennant Roberts


The Doctor arrives on an unnamed planet and begins exploring a foreboding jungle. He soon encounters a tribe of primitive people called the Sevateem, first meeting an outcast warrior named Leela. The Sevateem worship a god named Xoanon, and upon meeting the Doctor they immediately dub him the Evil One, obviously recognizing his face.

The Sevateem believe Xoanon is being held prisoner by the Evil One and a rival tribe known as the Tesh, and have been mounting unsuccessful raids in an attempt to free their god. The Doctor is fascinated by the tribe's collection of holy relics, which turn out to be nothing more than remnants of high tech devices. The shaman, Neeva, speaks to Xoanon through a communications device.

The Doctor discovers he has been to the planet before, as evidenced by the fact that his face has been carved into the side of a mountain. On his previous visit, he repaired the computer of a colony ship, but his efforts involved downloading his own personality into the data core. Having forgotten to wipe his mind from Xoanon, the computer has now gone insane, suffering from multiple personality disorder.

The Tesh are revealed to be descendants of the mission's technicians, while the Sevateem sprang from the mission's survey team. The Doctor and Leela succeed in gaining access to Xenon's data core and repair the computer, rendering it sane once again.

As the Doctor prepares to go on his way, alone once more, Leela asks to come with him. It seems the Doctor has a travelling companion once more...


The Face of Evil is sometimes overlooked, mostly because of the absolutely stellar collection of stories in this season. When it's remembered, it tends to be mostly for the introduction of Leela as played by Louise Jameson. Leela as a character is often unfairly maligned, criticized for the overt violence of her nature (famously one of the big reasons why Tom Baker never warmed to Leela either) and the overtly sexualized nature of her costume. There's some truth to those criticisms, especially when it comes to her costume on an ongoing basis and how her character is written by subsequent writers. But in her debut story Leela is a superb invention, far more complex and interesting than she is often perceived, and a far more effective companion than at first sight.

A lot of this comes from the other significant factor in The Face of Evil, and that is that it's also the debut of writer Chris Boucher. Boucher may deliver the single strongest debut story of any writer on the classic series. Even Bob Holmes had to take a warm up swing or two. But Boucher delivers a thoughtful, complex, unconventional story right out of the gate, one that may need a little more incident, but overall is a minor triumph surrounded by louder and more obvious gems.

When Boucher writes Leela, she is a perfect companion to the Doctor in a way we haven't seen since the days of Jamie MacCrimmon. She is primitive, yes, but in no way stupid. She doesn't fall all over herself trying to be intrepid or winsome, rather she is a competent, principled woman, an outlier among her own people, with a singular point of view and her own goals. But her intelligence is all instinctual, she has been taught very little in her life, and because of this quality, the Doctor can explain complex things to her without making her seem stupid or simply a passive plot device. She grows over the course of the story, taking in information the Doctor gives her and applying it. And a lot of this comes from Louise Jameson's terrific performance. Though her and Baker had a rocky relationship, they do have an interesting chemistry. It's nowhere near as effortless as the one he has with Lis Sladen, but that spiky complexity informs the scenes with a more serious, more unconventional dynamic.

The story tries to talk about issues the classic series often avoided, namely the consequences of the reckless ways the Doctor involves himself in people's lives. The entire society of this planet, and the threat it faces, is the direct result of the Doctor basically doing a sloppy job in his previous visit. He came in, saved the day, and swanned off, never realizing he was setting up an entire society to fall under the sway of zealotry and tyranny and madness. Boucher could have stuck with a simple "battle of the tribes" story, which we have certainly seen before, but he also uses the opportunity to explore the nature of religion and the inexplicably irreconcilable nature of God. The implication Boucher posits here is that maybe all Gods are mad, and maybe all are invented, and following them invites conflict and intolerance. Heady stuff for Saturday tea-time family television.

The direction by Roberts is equally superb, with his studio sections shot on film that add production value. Though the costumes of the Sevateem are silly, the use of artefacts is inventive and wonderful. The model work is great, the CSO actually looks good, and all of the Xoanon effects, from Tom Baker's screaming disembodied head to the chorus of personalities used by the computer, are all evocative and well executed.

The Face of Evil is tiny masterpiece, really, and it's no wonder that Boucher would write two more scripts for the series in quick succession. It remains a personal favourite of mine, and would easily be the best story of any season other than this one, which already contains other all-time classics.

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