Skip to main content

This man they call the Doctor. Where does he get his knowledge?


Doctor Who
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. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Yeah, keep walking, you lanky prick!

Mute (2018)
(SPOILERS) Duncan Jones was never entirely convincing when talking up his reasons for Mute’s futuristic setting, and now it’s easy to see why. What’s more difficult to discern is his passion for the project in the first place. If the picture’s first hour is torpid in pace and singularly fails to muster interest, the second is more engaging, but that’s more down to the unappetising activities of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s supporting surgeons than the quest undertaken by Alex Skarsgård’s lead. Which isn’t such a compliment, really.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.