Monday, 3 August 2009

The Faceless Ones

Previous viewings - few (surviving episodes), one (missing episodes)

William Hartnell is my favourite Doctor but I didn't give all of his stories 5/5 just because he was in them. However when a good era is over in hindsight you start looking more favourably on its lesser stories because being part of that golden era gives them a pedigree. This is the case for Season 1. We had three-dimensional companions in Ian and Barbara, whose developing relationship with the Doctor and quest to get home gave the series a sense of forward motion, rather than just a constant crisis/solution cycle. Somewhere in Season 2 the show lost that direction. Individual stories can rate highly, but I like to feel that the series is building to something. When Ben and Polly joined I was surprised that we didn't get that; we too rarely get an insight into them as characters and their origins are merely given lip service from time to time.

Ironically, what I was critical of earlier, the loss of experimentation and more dependence on familiar story ideas, has given Doctor Who its direction back. It's found its niche, and with The Macra Terror I feel the series has once again reached the point where its no longer riding on past successes. The last piece of the puzzle is the departures of the last remaining Hartnell companions, Ben and Polly. Which brings me to The Faceless Ones...

Six episodes. Present-day Earth. Malcolm Hulke. One might think I've watched a Pertwee story by mistake. The TARDISeers can't wait to get into trouble here, as when the TARDIS lands on a runway at Gatwick Airport they decide to have a runaround. When you've got a six-parter on your hands, diversions like these at the start of the story are fun. The weary airport Commandant is bewildered that a police box is obstructing the runway and assumes it's a prank, while the Doctor is caught out not by aliens, but by immigration, for not having a passport. It's hilarious to see the Doctor tripped up by something so normal, especially Patrick Troughton's Doctor, perhaps the most anti-establishment and clueless when it comes to everyday problems of the 1960s.

Ben and Polly can't wait to leave. The moment the story starts Ben runs away from his friends, while Polly witnesses a murder by ray gun in a hangar and tells the Doctor, who insists they return there to inspect the body. Polly has her hair back to its regular length, I prefer it this way as she is prettier. Anyway, the Doctor and Jamie are a bit caught up with the investigation and don't even notice Polly being grabbed behind them. When they see her next, she denies knowing them. Being the forgiving type, it's not because she's mad at them, but because the murdering aliens have affected her. She promptly disappears from the story too.

This is the story where the Doctor/Jamie double-act starts to become something really special. Most of it is because of the chemistry between the actors but you have a classic pairing anyway as the Doctor's experience and vast knowledge contrasts with Jamie's lack of those plus his humility and somewhat childish view of the world. Jamie's extreme loyalty to the Doctor is more that of a son trying to impress his father, and Frazer Hines's entertaining performances make Jamie the most likeable companion yet.

However, The Faceless Ones also rewards viewers by giving us another good character who the Doctor forms a double act with - the airport Commandant, played by Colin Gordon. The Commandant always comes across as a man who has had a long hard day and just wants it to be over, but then the Doctor shows up to tell him about a murder. The body is gone from the hangar, however, so the Doctor has some explaining to do. It's a typical straight man/funny man relationship, and it's funny to see the Commandant reacting to the Doctor's increasingly ludicrous claims. It's a role in the story the Brigadier would later fill, although since the Brig is a military type he tends to be more unflappable.

Strange things are happening with the airline Chameleon Tours. Samantha Briggs arrives at Gatwick to investigate the disappearance of her brother, who was on one of their planes. With Ben and Polly missing, Samantha becomes a pseudo-companion for the rest of the story, and works especially well with Jamie. I'm not sure whether I would have wanted Pauline Collins to continue with the role beyond this story - my instinct says she would have been better than Victoria, but that might be because in this story she is relevant. When it's all over she could turn into a generic screamer with a Scouse accent.

Anyway, Chameleon Tours are up to no good. The oddly smug-looking Captain Blade supervises the transformation of a faceless (yeah, the title) creature into a duplicate of the captured air traffic controller Meadows. He's determined that their flights go ahead, and acts nonchalant when questioned. Several attempts on the Doctor's life early in the story turn out to be unwise as he is pretty terrible at dispatching his enemies and it only gives the Doctor more evidence against him each time, and more co-operation from base personnel. I find it all quite interesting though as it's not clear what Chameleon Tours are up to. Teenagers use their planes and don't seem to arrive at their destinations, despite sending postcards to their families. Not being a direct invasion makes the long investigation process worth taking the number of episodes it does, filling out the six episodes quite nicely. The main problem is that after a while I'm starting to wonder if Ben and Polly are ever going to appear again!

Call me stupid, but I don't think the faceless creatures plot is that predictable. They seem to be spinning a few nefarious schemes: the people in suspended animation, the duplicates, and the missing youngsters. Episodes 3 and 4 show how the three plots are connected. These middle two episodes aren't as good as the first two and last two - they're slower paced - but they have good cliffhangers which take us to the next stage of the story. Yes, the plot twist cliffhangers I love so much, even if the eagle-eyed viewers will have already guessed what they reveal. The first sees Inspector Crossland discover the passengers of a Chameleon Tours flight have disappeared while in the air, and the second has a plane, with Jamie aboard, stop during its flight and move upwards into space, where it meets a bigger spaceship. Jamie had taken Samantha's ticket to protect her and probably to do something other than sit around in the airport as he had largely done so far.

The Doctor gets information from the duplicate of Meadows, who has been left at the airport control. The duplicates wear armbands which if removed will kill them and revive the originals, which gives the Doctor an easy advantage over the Chameleons. The conclusion of the story takes place in the Chameleon spaceship, after the Doctor manages to get aboard the last Chameleon Tours flight by impersonating the duplicate Meadows. The Chameleons have captured enough people are intend to leave Earth, but it turns out to be a poor decision to leave some of the duplicates on Earth as by removing their armbands their counterparts on the Chameleon ship will die. In an unlikely turn of events, Blade sees sense and to save his people he agrees to return the missing youngsters. It's good to see an enemy see they're beaten and try for a solution which can still benefit them rather than going out all guns blazing.

There are a few loose ends to tie up at the story comes to an end. With Pauline Collins not interested in staying on, Samantha gives Jamie a kiss and leaves. It's actually quite surprising how infrequently a companion got a little action during their time in the TARDIS, even if its just a kiss.

In an even more unlikely turn of events, Ben and Polly realise it's the day they originally left London, and decide to stay behind and return to their old lives. Their goodbye is rather hurried but it somehow fits for the type of companions they were; I get the impression they saw their travels in the TARDIS as a bit of fun, with a few friends made, but not something they wanted to continue with. Their presence comes as a shock as I was starting to think they had gone the way of the Dodo.... fortunately we won't have to wait long for another companion to come along who is as hot as Polly (yes, I'm shallow).

The Faceless Ones is proto-Pertwee. I can easily imagine it fitting into Season 8 or 9. What makes it for me is the good characters and decent villains, and Troughton and Hines on fine form. A big flaw is that it's not very scary or interesting visually, at a point where the series was starting to go down that direction (we've got the Emperor Dalek coming up in the next story, and the gorgeous Victorian interiors), but there's too much to love about it to let something so minor drag its score down. Not a classic but a cracking story regardless.

Horror quotient - The body snatcher plot is not played for scares, and it really should be. It might just have given The Faceless Ones the push it needed to enter 'classic' territory.
Comedy quotient - I seem to be saying this a lot, but the Doctor is the clear comedy highlight. He seems to make anyone he interacts with funny, too.
Drama quotient - Lots of procedure, not enough drama. It's interesting to watch but after the laughs are out of the way the Doctor is trusted way too easily.

Not very interesting visually, and not scary enough, but it gets away with it because of an interesting plot and good performances.


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