The Faceless Ones: Episode One
Fifteen years before that era-defining ‘80s story set at another London airport, The Faceless Ones brings full-circle the adventures of Ben and Polly. Unlike Ian and Barbara, they are returned to their time in the same year and (roughly) on the same day. Which may go some way to making up for the shockingly dismissive treatment the characters receive in their final story. Except that we’re used to that by now. The last new companion also received shockingly dismissive treatment in her final story.
The 1966 setting actually makes the story a historical so, if we’re to assume slightly futuristic UNIT dating, the next contemporary setting for a story after The War Machines is… Image of the Fendahl?
The Faceless Ones feels much less forced in its modernity than The War Machines. Placing it at the not-yet decade old Gatwick Airport probably granted it a certain shorthand, but in plot terms too it has the vibe of a gadget-heavy ‘60s spy thriller (just as The Enemy of the World would later appropriate a thick-accented Bond villain bent on world domination). Lloyd and Davis looking over their shoulders for inspiration? But, coming from Malcolm Hulke (and David Ellis), it positions itself against an easily diametric good vs evil outcome and so distinguishes itself from previous Troughtons. The script bears signs of an uneasy gestation, not least in being at least two episodes too long, but it feels sufficiently different from its predecessors to continue the approach of Season Four innovation. Troughton is at home in the ‘60s in a way that Hartnell never was (except in an Adam Adamant “highlighting the incongruity” way) and his rapport with Frazer Hines emerges here fully–formed, just as Wills and Craze are unceremoniously shunted from view.
The premise, identity-less aliens steal the personas of young Britstock (except that most of the Chameleons we see in the story are mid-30s or older), has been interpreted as a knee-jerk commentary on the dangers of immigration. I have to side with About Time in seeing any subtext as more of a straight Cold War paranoia tale, though. Particularly given that the aliens are making a point of “corrupting the minds” of our youth.
Superficially the story picks up the theme of sinister goings-on under the banner of recreational pursuits of The Macra Terror, but the most significant recurring element (in the first half anyway) is the repressive grip of bureaucracy. It’s more common for a ‘70s story to have the Doctor shut down by regulations and fine print, but in some respects it’s a more appropriate force to be reckoned with for the unfettered character of the second Doctor. It is far more of an anathema to his free spirit than the evils in some corners of the universe that must be fought.
And fitting that, no sooner has the TARDIS landed (on a decidedly scrappy looking bit of tarmac, avoiding a plane that first appears to be landing, then taking off) he instructs his companions to leg it from an approaching representative of the Filth. No attempt to appease the law (he later rejects reporting the crime to them, opting to look for the man in charge of the Airport). They’ve remembered to write Jamie as a fish-out-of-water (“It’s a flying beastie!”) while Ben, presumably due to his armed services training, scatters straight in the direction of the pursuing plod.
One of the pleasures of this story, which allows it to coast relatively painlessly over the more padded sections, is the supporting cast. Colin Gordon’s dry Commandant is foremost among these (his interplay with Troughton later is especially enjoyable). He’d serve twice as Number Two in The Prisoner later in the year. Wanda Ventham has a less interesting role than Thea Ransome in Image of the Fendahl, but Jean Rock is a great name.
The reaction to the presence of the TARDIS is a signature comedy beat now, and I suppose it was then too (The Daleks’ Master Plan). There’s the suggestion that it was put there as a prank, and much show is made of the location filming in the first episode (airport police called out, TARDIS placed on the back of a lorry), although much of this amounts to hiding at the edges of hangars. But all it takes is one iconic shot, which is provided with Trout and Jamie crouched behind a wheel of an airplane.
All this running about was jolly japes back then, but from a present day perspective it is clearly the behavior of terrorists. There’s also the sinister undertone of ensnaring groups of young people to do unspeakable things to (Eli Roth would be proud). No time is wasted involving the TARDIS crew in the nefarious activities of Chameleon Tours (nice logo, but the name is rather on-the-nose), probably because Wills and Craze were only put down for two episodes (and a departure scene); at least Colin Baker had the chance to stick two fingers up at a four episode goodbye.
Polly witnesses a murder with a ray gun (we later discover the victim is Inspector Gascoigne; Peter Whitaker appeared in five other stories)), but is so unobservant that she only describes it as a gun to the Doctor. Donald Pickering is smoothly villainous as Captain Blade (he was Eyesen in The Keys of Marinus and, alas for him, got to look a right tit alongside Ventham in Time and the Rani), although it’s a testament to his multi-tasking skills and the threadbare nature of the Chameleon Tours that he appears to be doing everything required Earth-wise. Issuing orders, piloting the space plane, putting stamps on postcards. He’s supported by somewhat incompetent Spencer (Victor Winding).
Polly: I’ve just seen a man killed.
Jamie: By one of the beasties?
This story must have been quite challenging technically, as a significant number of scenes rely on observation of video monitor feedback. While Gerry Mill deserves credit on that front, he doesn’t quite pull-off the transition from location filming to very basic studio sets. One might argue that Gatwick doesn’t need to look anything other than basic, but the real problem is that it feels so cramped compared to the expansive shots we’ve seen on site.
Polly is as ungraciously treated as in her last couple of episodes as in the last couple of stories. She is flustered and overwrought when describing the crime to the Doctor.
The Doctor: This man was electrocuted. His clothes are all scorched.
Polly; It was definitely some kind of gun, Doctor.
The Doctor: Maybe, but not one that has been developed yet on this planet.
The Chameleons big-up the Doctor’s insightfulness.
Blade: This man they call the Doctor. Where does he get his knowledge?
Spencer: He looks like a normal being.
Blade: More intelligent than most. He’s a threat to our operation.
Spencer: I’ll kill him.
Blade: No, get the girl. She can identify you. You can deal with the man later.
Spencer: He may talk.
Blade: So? Nobody will believe him.
Spencer’s Polly snatch (!) is extremely fortunate to be successful, ducking out from a doorway and grabbing her in. The plan they hatch to “stop them worrying” about Polly’s disappearance is frankly baffling, since it does nothing of the sort.
Rat-faced Chris Tranchell plays rat-faced Jenkins. He is best known as rat-faced savage-shagging Commander Andred in The Invasion of Time. The bureaucratic pettiness with which he responds to the Doctor’s urgency is most amusing.
Jenkins: Your passport, please.
The Doctor: You don’t understand. We have something important to report.
Jenkins: Yes, sir. When you’ve found your passport.
He responds with a shit-eating smile, informing the Doctor that a dead body has been found, and continues stamping passports. This Doctor would likely not be enamoured of biometric ID cards, since he refers to passports as “Some sort of official mumbo-jumbo”. Jenkins’ interest is only roused on mention of the police box.
The scene with the Commandant shows off the comic timing between Troughton and Hines to good effect. Jamie continually puts his foot in it, making their claims sound ridiculous (“He was electrocuted with a ray gun”) and the Doctor responds by hitting him every time he says the wrong thing. The Doctor and Jamie were expected to have arrived on Flight 729 from Madrid.
Ben is very lucky to happen upon the Chameleon Tours hangar, of all the possible options. He’s even more sidelined than Polly, who at least gets to doppleganger.
The appearance of the Chameleons in this episode is kept to brief glimpses; a syringe injected into a veiny arm (sticking out of a locker), a figure in a coat being led gingerly, possessed of terribly manky hands, a view of a scaly head and bandaged arms in the medical centre.
The imagery is slightly queasy, not far off that of a burn victim, and the bandages and coats recall H G Wells’s The Invisible Man. The little we learn is intriguing and suggests a different agenda to the usual conquest plot. There’s a question over the Chameleon’s survival, and “He’s reaching suffocation point”.
The Doctor leads the Commandant to a now empty Chameleon hangar, and he rejoinders with sarcasm at all of the former’s observations. The Doctor’s insouciant reactions in turn are just as well-timed.
Commandant: Oh, a man with nothing in his pockets?
The Doctor: Yes, I was rather surprised myself.
Then the Doctor finds an unused Spanish postage stamp.
Commandant: Oh, I’m sure that’ll make all the difference.
The Doctor: Exactly.
The Doctor also notes burn marks and burnt fibres.
Commandant: Ray guns, burnt fibres, foreign stamp.
The Doctor: Unused foreign stamp.
Commandant: I must be as mad as you are even to be listening to you.
With the revelation that a packing crate contains nothing more sinister than plastic cups, the Commandant resolves to investigate the Doctor instead and why he is at the airport.
The appearance of the decidedly non –Swiss Michelle Leuppi doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense on any level. Why didn’t the Chameleons simply copy Polly to be Polly Wright rather than someone who will only raise further suspicions? I suppose there’s an argument that it will make the Doctor look even less believable if a supposed friend denies all knowledge of him, but it seems very risky. And then they put her on the check-in desk during the next episode. They should be trying to deflect attention. It doesn’t help that Wills isn’t great in this scene, overdoing the puzzlement.
A solid opener that maintains interest due to the locations and the Doctor’s brushes with authority. The threat at this point could end up proving to be traditional villainy (the first we see of the bad guys has them killing someone) but showing sickly aliens suggests there might be more to this than common or garden evil invaders.