Sunday, July 23, 2006

Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (1976)

Doctor Who - The Hand of FearFor many fans of the old Doctor Who series, one of the highlights of the recently transmitted new second series was the one-off guest appearance return of Elizabeth Sladen. Sladen was one of the original companions, appearing alongside both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in episodes of the series that were first broadcast 30 years ago. It therefore makes sense for the Beeb to cash in on the media storm of publicity and release Sladen's departure from the original series, in a four episode adventure called The Hand of Fear. It hits the stores tomorrow (Monday) at a typical online price of not much more than a tenner.

In truth, time has not been kind to the doctor's original adventures and 30 years is a long time in the history of TV broadcasting and the BBC. Too often the 'bleeding edge' of 1970's computer technology was far more 'bleeding' than 'edgey', and the show's appallingly low budget is all too apparent when looking back at these episodes. In this adventure we get the usual dodgy visual changes between outside broadcast film and in-studio video (it looked bad on original transmission - it looks even worse now), some glaringly obvious Colour Separation Overlay and model work (although a transition sequence involving a stone hand that comes to life stands up surprisingly well), and 'monsters' that appear to be just people wearing old duvets!

The main 'baddie' (pictured at the bottom of this blog entry) appears to have been totally 'influenced' (cough!) by the 1960's puppet series Stingray and probably burnt up most of the adventure's budget. Originality was never one of Who's strong points, at least not once it got past inventing the daleks and cybermen. Star Trek too, which was being made at around the same time, also had a habit of taking old stories and giving them a sci-fi spin, so I guess one shouldn't protest too loudly at the rampant plagiarism. An old 1930's horror movie apparently serves as the inspiration for this Hand of Fear horror story. Whilst it is not one of Who's best, there is at least always something happening and the whole thing feels neither rushed nor padded out, the way the modern series frequently does. Nor does it have a Russel T Davis 'deus ex machina' ending, thank goodness! In the extra's the producers reveal that the mantra of the show's producer, when contemplating its intended audience of children, was 'Let's frighten the hell out of the little buggers', and even 30 years on these episodes still have that sense of dread and foreboding that the new series has only really achieved with Moffat's wartime London two-parter that was broadcast last year. Where the new series can't make up its mind whether to play it for laughs or thrills - and ends up being neither funny nor thrilling, the old series never lets the humour, of which there is a fair amount, detract from the main directive of creating many Saturday night wet beds across the nation!

Somehow, despite the shakey sets and less than realistic acting, there are genuine scares here, and the tension doesn't let up - not for a second. That being said, because of the dated technology, shakey sets, and low budget these old episodes really should be considered as suitable only for those obsessed with nostalgia and reliving their childhood - the acting and general production standards DON'T stand up to the standards we've come to expect, nay demand, from TV drama today.

What DOES make the DVD sets of the old series worth purchasing are the extra's. The amount of detail and extra material the BBC are able to put into these releases is quite impressive. Compare what's available here with the meagre extra's one gets with whole season box sets from the big US franchise 'Star Trek' that was made around the same time.

The main item of interest on Hand of Fear is a 50 minute featurette which has 'talking head' interviews with all the key players, at least those that are still alive, and which gives some great background information on the writing, the acting, the politics and the behind-the-scenes problems the cast and crew had to deal with while working at the BBC.

Aside from the main featurette, we also get an interview of the series two leads, Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen, on Noel Edmonds' Swap Shop kids show (so cringe-inducing you'll want to hide behind the sofa!), interesting titbits of information displayed in caption format throughout the episodes, a PDF file of the series' annual for the year of transmission (1976), and continuity announcements of the time. This latter feature is very odd and I really can't quite see why anybody would have any interest in hearing post-transmission announcements for Bruce Forsythe's Generation Game!

The commentary track on these old Doctor Who reissues have been consistently disappointing, and, unfortunately, this release is no different. The cast and crew never seem to have been exposed to the episodes before entering the recording booth, and seeing something for the first time in 30 years invariably results in mindless descriptions of what is happening on screen which we can happily make out for ourselves. Fortunately Tom Baker features this time round, and his occasional eccentric comment or laugh-out-loud quip at least stop narcolepsy from totally taking over any would-be listeners. That being said, it's hard to imagine anybody other than the most train-spotterish of fans sitting all the way through 80 minutes of this rambling nonsense.

The Doctor Who Restoration Team have done their usual good job of cleaning up these old transmissions, and for fans who remember the original shows and want to revisit them, the DVDs represent good value for money with all the extra's that are on offer (even if at times they do tend towards the sort of thing that would only be of interest to the most obsessive fan boy).

Ultimately though what one gets from old adventures like this is (a) an impression of just how much the world has moved on in terms of production values (b) how much better and consistent the original series were in terms of scares and plotting when compared with the new 2005/2006 revivals. The truth is I'd sooner watch Hand of Fear, even WITH the wobbly sets and poor production values, than a Russell T Davis episode. The older series has far more mood, atmosphere and genuine scares than anything we've had broadcast with David Tennant's doctor over the last twelve months.


Θεμις Μαντζαβινος said...


It is a very nice and great post and I like it.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail right on the head with this review. The new series IMO is way too much into the companions and their motivations. The effects are cool but ultimately meaningless and only serve to distract from generally weak stories. The new episodes put continuity above EVERYTHING else- if an episode is self referential then mission accomplished and it feels it can sit on its smug little as and coast.