Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 036—The Faceless Ones


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 036—The Faceless Ones

By T. Scott Edwards

My biggest difficulty in this mammoth task–that of re-watching, and then blogging, each and every Doctor Who serial in order, including the missing serials–is not that which I had expected. It is not one of recon-fatigue, but a simple lack of time. Of course, I have a real job, in the real world. This real job, teaching English and Drama in a Private School, is a time-consuming one, using up almost every waking moment of my time. As such, during term-time, I lose evenings, weekends and even some of my holiday time to lesson planning, rehearsals, marking and choreography. As such, come term-time, the entire project has to come to a screeching halt. The problem with this, though, is that my notes for the latest blog–Patrick Troughton's The Faceless Ones, for those keeping count–were written at the end of the October half term, but never made it onto the computer. As such, page after page of blurred notes with bullet-point, throw-away phrases mean almost nothing to me. Still, this entry will try to make sense of that nonsense. Wish me luck.

The principle issue that most fans have with this serial is simply that it is not completely available in visual form; the entire thing exists in an audio format, but with only two existing episodes–indeed, the two least interesting episodes, judging by what we know from the soundtracks–it is difficult to judge how successful it is. Likewise, in a series of short and snappy serials like The Underwater Menace and The Macra Terror, it seems a little sluggish at times. Running at 6 episodes, compared with the majority of the season running at 4, it seems like there is almost not enough storyline to fill the time. Of course, we know that this is an issue of necessity; The Underwater Menace went notoriously over-budget, and so The Faceless Ones, which is surprisingly restrained by early Doctor Who standards, makes full use instead of the opportunity to use location filming, and so we end up with lots of running around on tarmac and inside the main terminal buildings. Costumes are naturalistic, due to the time setting, which means that few costumes and props need creating for this serial, minimising the cost here. But despite the slower pace, this isn't a bad serial at all. Indeed, it's an interesting premise handled admirably.

Episode 1 opens with the stunning and iconic scene with yon "flying beastie!" looming up over our intrepid travellers, as Hines' Jamie McCrimmon, out of his own time, is faced by the magic of the aircraft. The use of genuine footage, as opposed to stock footage, is wonderful, although the cross editing does leave a little to be desired–there is evidently no threat to the TARDIS, and whilst Jamie's terror is understandable, the fear in the rest of the crew is less clear. The excellence of Jamie's character, though, lies in these little moments which refer back to his history. The Doctor has never had a companion from Earth's history before, with the exception of Katarina, who joined the crew in the last five minutes of The Myth Makers and proceeded to wander around aimlessly as though she were tripping on acid, before dying during the very next serial. As such, what Jamie allows is for the audience to understand the events through the eyes of the companion. Unlike with contemporary companions, for whom the audience previously was able to see the events and understand them, Jamie allows the show to return somewhat to its educational remit; his lack of understanding of even the most basic things allows us to appreciate the wonder behind them.

Within moments, however, not only have the crew scattered away from the airplane looming over them, they come face-to-face with some of London's finest, and upon the orders of the Doctor, they swiftly "scatter!" Ben, for some unknown reason, runs directly at the police officer, whilst the other three run in approximately the same direction away from him. Cutting away to the Commandant, we are given the chance to fully appreciate the superb scale allowed by filming at Gatwick airport; everything seems so vast, and cutting between our heroes and their pursuers, to these enormous offices and overbearing hangars creates a grand scale rarely seen before in the show. Colin Gordon is wonderful as the Commandant, and from the very first appearance we can see the potential allowed by such a part–a fastidious and slightly doddery official, the type of character Troughton's Doctor has been intentionally mocking since his first serial as the Second Doctor. Whilst Hartnell's Doctor was stubborn and had a tendency to mock official people, Troughton is intentionally antiestablishment, and as such a run-in is inevitable.

Before that, though, we follow the fates of the disparate group of time travellers. With Ben hiding out in a hangar and Troughton and Jamie hiding behind two massive plane wheels, we cut to Polly, who instigates the entire story by hiding in Chameleon Tours' hangar, witnessing the execution of a man. When she returns to the Doctor, finding him and Jamie still beneath the wheels, it is a strong moment of foreshadowing when she questions "But where's... what about Ben...?" And this brings me to my biggest issue with The Faceless Ones.

Ultimately, The Faceless Ones is a companion-led story. Rather than leading the story, though, it is a functional story for us to bid farewell to Polly and Ben. Whilst they have not been around too long, they are memorable as companions for the simple fact that they were there during the first ever regeneration. This momentous occasion was witnessed by these two hip and cool kids from London in the swinging sixties. As such, they helped the audience to bridge the gap between Hartnell and Troughton, facilitating the change and allowing us to better understand what happened. With the arrival of Jamie in The Highlanders, though, these two lost all purpose. They are no longer our eyes and ears. Instead, they are simply cluttering up the TARDIS. When they arrived, they were evidently realised as replacements for Ian and Barbara–like anyone could replace Ian and Barbara!–and so were written as accidental travellers, desperate to get home. Here, then, they get to return home, and whilst their farewell story is nowhere near as ignominious as Dodo's, which also served as Ben and Polly's introduction, let's not forget, it still does not do credit to these faithful wanderers through time and space. In fact, it is even more telling of their unimportance as characters that they are even returned to Earth on the very day that they left–as far as the world is concerned, these two have never been anywhere or done anything of any significance.

The villains of the piece, the Faceless Ones of the title, are not seen until the cliffhanger of this first part. Instead, we are treated to the crisply-spoken menace of Blade and Spencer, played with smashing menace by Donald Pickering and Victor Winding. After executing the Detective Inspector, Winding's Spencer calls up Pickering's Captain Blade to report the situation, telling him that the man discovered "the postcards", which, at this stage in the serial, seems like the most incongruous and ridiculous sentence imaginable. Of course, via their superb CCTV system, the pair then witness the Doctor, Jamie and Polly searching the body, where we are informed that the weapon used to kill him was a ray gun capable of electrocuting, rather than a standard gun. The fact that Troughton refers to the singed clothing hints at something horrific which we don't get to see–and also foreshadows the appearance of the eponymous Faceless Ones, as we can imagine the singed flesh of DI Gascoigne.

After this comes one of the most telling scenes in the entire serial, and one which reinforces my point about the unfair treatment of Polly and Ben–Ben has not been seen since the beginning of the story, and here we have the Doctor and Jamie, walking side-by-side, chattering away like best of friends while Polly is picked off from the back of the group, without the other two even noticing. After three serials in which Jamie has done nothing but protect Polly, it is almost as though Hines has realised that without them gone he gets given far more to do, and so turns a blind eye as Spencer picks her up and takes her away. When they discuss Polly's fate, however, an interesting line comes–"We'll gain nothing by questioning her". It is as though the cast and crew themselves realise that she is now an irrelevance, and whilst the Doctor and Jamie do return to search for her, they very promptly give up and leave to speak to the authorities, without so much as opening a packing crate or looking behind some boxes.

The scenes in the airport proper are magnificent, as the Doctor and Jamie wander the corridors of the arrivals lounge. Hines' open-mouthed wonder is perfectly delivered as he paces back and forth, agog. To see the Doctor–Troughton's Doctor, no less–being wrapped up the mundane nonsense of bureaucracy is fantastic, as is Jamie's failure to understand the social norms of the time. Similarly, during the report to the Commandant, Jamie spills the truth–"he was electrocuted. With a ray gun!"–in such a smug and self-assured way that we cannot help but admire his enthusiasm. Of course, he is undermining the realism of the story; in a show like Doctor Who, we can take the story with a pinch of salt, as we have followed the adventurers through time and space–a well-spoken man with a ray gun is nothing to us. For the Commandant, though, it is all too preposterous, and yet Jamie, who takes all of this in his stride, doesn't seem to get that; he has seen flying metal birds with people in them today, so that's nothing. Here, Hulke and Ellis, the writers, achieve a wonderful balance, between what we take for granted, the modern miracles, and those fantastic elements of futurism.

The first appearance of the arm of one of the Faceless Ones shows some magnificent makeup, which is exceptionally effective, and the interruption from the Doctor, Jamie and the Commandant again allows some levity–seeing Troughton crawling about on hands and knees with a magnifying glass under the feet of the officials is fantastic. Seeing Blade and Spencer escorting one of the Chameleons up an escalator is again horrific, as we have the juxtaposition of the normal and the monstrous, and those final moments consolidate that fear–the crispy, featureless face, bobbing frantically on slumped shoulders as though struggling to breathe, is one of the most horrific images in the series up to this point.

The brief moment in episode 1 where the Doctor and Jamie meet Polly again brings me to my second issue with this serial, and this one is harder to ignore. The entire premise of the Chameleons' scheme is utterly ridiculous, for two reasons. Likewise, Blade and Spencer, whilst they are chilling and dastardly, are two of the most incompetent bad guys ever. The postcard scam makes no sense. The idea that they are kidnapping entire air-craft filled with passengers makes no sense. And the stupidest thing of all is that not only do they not kill the Doctor when they have the chance, they instead kidnap one of his companions, seemingly brainwash her (poor Polly, second serial in a row!) and then return her to the airport, in her original clothes, to work on the front desk of Chameleon Tours, no less, with a foreign name. So when the Doctor and Jamie inevitably turn up–they are investigating the company, lest we forget–they are confronted by someone who not only looks exactly like Polly, is dressed exactly like Polly was before she disappeared and, to make matters worse, sounds exactly like Polly despite allegedly being Swiss and called Michelle!

Of course, it isn't really her. Instead, it's a Chameleon who has assimilated her appearance, and the scene later in episode 2 where Ben finds her lying, motionless, in a box, is fairly horrible. But the trouble is that we have another episode in the airport, of the group running around, with not much happening in the meantime. Episode two is almost entirely filler–we see Meadows' transference and the Chameleon replacement going out to work in his stead–and a rather enjoyable moment where his vocal chords are fine-tuned. There's the fantastic moment where Ben, Jamie and the Doctor are reunited in a photo booth and they have to fake a cheesy smile. But the escape from the police and security group at the airport is all a little camp and silly for me–Hines' narration on the audio reports that, at one point, they are hiding behind newspapers which are not only "foreign–it is also upside down". This may have been a great visual gag. Sadly, with only the soundtrack to base it upon, the action falls a little flat.

What the soundtrack does allow, however, is for the incidental music to come to the fore, and the stock music used here is superb, really setting the mood. From what we can see, in episodes 1 and 3, the direction is clever and fast-paced, with Gerry Mill electing to use varied angles and a touch of deep-focus photography to make the story move along at an interesting, if slightly slow, pace. And the performances are consistently good, with one possible exception–Pauline Collins, whose appearance as Samantha Briggs allegedly led to the production team offering her a role as a companion full-time. Her accent alone would make this unthinkable–let us not forget poor Dodo Chaplet, who lost her accent within moments of being in the TARDIS–but more on her as we look at episode 3.

Once the Doctor and Jamie are caught again, though, we have the frankly disturbing moment where the Doctor pretends that a rubber ball in his pocket is a bomb. Now, this speaks volumes of the world in which we live nowadays that no one–literally no one–can make this type of joke. People are arrested for even the slightest suggestion of such an action. In the meantime, this is the last we see of Ben and Polly–although they have a scene in episode 6 wherein they wave farewell to the Doctor and Jamie which was pre-recorded. This then is their final day working for Doctor Who. What makes this all the more tragic though is that it is actually a very strong episode for Michael Craze. He looks like he's about to save the day, stumbling upon the plot accidentally as he hides within the Chameleon Tours hangar–they really should lock that door, shouldn't they?!–and returns later, discovering Polly asleep in a crate. Sadly, though, he is instantly shot with a stun gun, and the same fate awaits him; he is written out with not a bang, but a whimper.

Oh, and episode 2 features the new theme tune...! So... yeah...

Episode 3 moves–yay!–so we at least have the benefit of judging this one based on action, rather than simply by telesnaps and audio tracks. The episode opens where the last left, with Troughton becoming overcome by fumes after getting trapped within the hangar, but his escape is rather ingenious, feigning unconsciousness before turning the ray gun on his attacker. The scene in which Spenser is staring, vacantly, into the camera before regaining his senses is wonderfully chilling.

These scenes are intercut with Crossland–played with wonderful 'boys' own' charm by Bernard Kay–dealing with Jamie and Samantha. Pauline Collins' character is something of an oddity though–she is evidently designed by the writers to be a replacement companion, and her banter with Jamie is excellent, as she coaxes him into keeping her company on her separate investigation. Her investigative skills are the way in which the group manages to unravel the secret of the postcard scam, and her shrugging away of Jamie's arm when he attempts to console her shows a depth to her which many female characters in Doctor Who are usually lacking.

What The Faceless Ones does marvellously is cement the plot devices which become synonymous with Pertwee's era of Doctor Who. Whilst Hulke will later write for the show alone–and his serials also feature themes which this puts out the groundwork for, which we'll discuss nearer the end of this blog–here he introduces the Doctor fighting endless pen-pushing and bureaucracy. Even when the Commandant finally accepts certain truths within the Doctor's story, he still pushes the subject of the Doctor's immigrant status and lack of passport.

As Blade, Donald Pickering's delivery is smashing, and the crisp and calm delivery of two of his best lines come in this episode; "You Earthmen are more use to us alive" and then my personal favourite, in response to Crossland's mention of the long arm of the law–"I don't think it will reach where you're going"–are cracking. There is a disturbing undertone to this serial, and one which has rarely been exploited by the show in all of its time; the concept of CCTV is one which provides a chilling criticism of modern society in general, and here in episode 3 it is particularly pertinent. In episode 2, we watched Troughton watching Ben on CCTV as he was attacked, and the Doctor couldn't help.
Here, though, we watch Spenser as he watches the Doctor collapse in the hangar. There is a bizarre sense of impotence and voyeurism throughout, as we watch people watching others. The panning camera through the cabin of the aircraft is handled wonderfully by Gerry Mill, although it is ridiculous, of course. Who exactly is manipulating the camera in the cabin, particularly as it is a diegetic image within the plot framework as we watch Crossland watching the footage.

Episode 4 is once again missing and we are back to audio files and telesnaps. This is something of a shame, particularly in the case of the cliffhanger here, which frankly sounds incredible, as the ship suddenly converts itself into a space rocket before bursting upwards into outer space. What we cannot see, and therefore are left to wonder at, is the balking stupidity of Spenser. After his ridiculous comments about interviews and his inability to kill anyone in the last few weeks, here Hulke and Ellis take it up a notch by having him commit a James Bond-esque murder, with a laser gun slowly moving towards him. And then he doesn't even hang around to watch! It's ridiculous, and frustrating, but we can only imagine how silly it looked. And they get saved by Samantha, too! Go, girl! Of course, it's playing on the arch stereotype that all women are vain and carry mirrors around, but even so, it saves their lives, deflecting the laser beam away.

Very little else really happens in episode 4–there's an action sequence involving an RAF fighter jet which sounds exciting, but we can't see. There's Jamie kissing Samantha to distract her while he steals her ticket. In fact, probably the highlight of this episode–besides the plane turning into a rocket–is probably the fact that Jamie's courage knows no bounds. He is even willing to go in one of the things which, three episodes earlier, terrified him.

Everything finally seems to come to some form of resolution in episode 5, though, and the plot begins to ratchet up to speed. Via some fascinating exposition, we learn a great deal about the alien invaders. Indeed, we learn that this slow invasion of theirs–which requires 50,000 bodies!–is the result of horrific mutilations and we end up feeling sympathy for The Faceless Ones. Whilst they may have murdered a few people, including DI Gascoigne, and kidnapped thousands of others, including Brian Briggs, they are ultimately rather pathetic and desperate. And this is the Hulke formula, one which he will perfect whilst writing for Pertwee; as we see in his later serials Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death and The Sea Devils, the concept of misunderstood alien species needing human assistance is further developed. Here, though, we can tell that Hulke is in the early stages of his career writing for Doctor Who, though. Typically, Hulke does long stories well–he co-wrote The War Games!–and also does the slow-burn of stories effectively. Here, though, it just seems a little ropier than in his later scripts, far less honed. This is proto-Hulke, rather than Hulke at his finest, but he's still using those ideals he would assimilate into his finest scripts.

Episode 5 also has the horrific image of the drawers filled with dolls, each representing one of the missing people. As the story continues at this increased pace, we discover the true reason for the aliens' disfigured appearances, as well as the appearance of DI Crossland, in fact the Director of the Chameleons. The scenes between the Doctor and Nurse Pinto have been fantastic across the last two episodes, and now they have managed to infiltrate the space station, pretending to be Chameleons. After four episodes to-ing and fro-ing back and forth in Gatwick, it's nice that we're finally treated to a change in scenery with the space station, which sounds fantastic through the use of stock music, tinkling and twinkling away eerily as the Doctor wanders the corridors.

One niggling thing which confuses me somewhat about episode 5 is the way in which the replicas retain all their memories, and yet lose their accent. Now, it is chilling, seeing Kay return to his traditional received pronunciation. Even more unnerving is seeing Hines, whose natural Scottish brogue we have become readily accustomed to over the past few weeks, suddenly speaking in a Standard English accent. But it once again undermines the entire plot; there's a lovely touch where the Chameleon replacement knows more about the man's life than his record shows. Despite this, they do not assimilate the accent of their victims, undermining any potential infiltration of their real lives.

The cliffhanger at the end of episode 5 sounds utterly horrifying, particularly through the description of the oncoming creatures as being in their "raw state" as they surround Nurse Pinto and the Doctor. Episode 6, meanwhile, finally sees the story reach its conclusion. With Crossland actually the Director of the Chameleons, and the Doctor now trapped with them on the space station, there suddenly seems to be a sense of urgency, one which has sadly been lacking in the last two episodes. As the Doctor holds the threat of death over them–with the doubles discovered in the back of cars, randomly dotted around, by every member of staff from the airport–the Doctor is now able to endanger their lives, and so instead the Chameleons step back and scuttle away, their tails between their legs. Of course, the idea of debate, rather than all-out war, is very Malcolm Hulke. Indeed, this is proto-Pertwee at its finest, with the Doctor desperate to embark upon negotiations rather than actually harm anyone.

But that's the problem. It's not really a pay-off like we'd expect; there is no big bang, no ethical dilemma forcing the Doctor to choose. Instead, for one time only, we get negotiations... and they stick to them. The Doctor and the humans and the aliens all make an agreement, and stick to it. It all seems rather anticlimactic, somehow. We've come to expect certain things of the show, but what is telling is that still, even now, the show is forcing us to question where it is headed. Even now, nearly at the end of the fourth season, we don't know exactly what is happening, and where we are going. Troughton is still making his mark on the show, shaking off the last vestiges of Hartnell's tenure.

Speaking of shaking off the last of Hartnell's tenure, though, we come to the last ten minutes. And here we are reunited with Ben and Polly, just in time for the end of the story. We leave the Commandant and the real Crossland together to "tidy up", and the Doctor and his companions return to the airport to collect the TARDIS before a convoluted farewell is uttered to Ben and Polly, after a touching goodbye to Samantha, the Companion who never was. As I said earlier, the scene is better than we were given with Dodo, but even so it seems rushed and unfair given all that these two have been through with the Doctor. The realisation of the date–"July the 20th 1966, to be precise"–smacks of lazy writing, but what is terrific is that this swiftly becomes the busiest day in Doctor Who history. Not only is July 20th 1966 the day when Britain is attacked by The War Machines and The Faceless Ones, but also the first stop in a new adventure with the Daleks.

And so, Ben leaves to become and Admiral. Polly leaves to cook him dinner and have babies and other girly things. And Jamie and the Doctor are off on a new adventure, off to find the TARDIS, wherever it may be.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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