Friday, 22 September 2017

The Faceless Ones

Chapter The 66th, involves those who have - in the words of Sir Billiam of Idol - eyes without a face. (But without the eyes either.)

The Doctor and Jamie (and Polly and Ben are involved too, but blink and you'd miss it) investigate at Gatwick Airport in 1966 the convoluted plot by a Club 18-30 style package holiday company, secretly run by aliens called the Chameleons, to kidnap the youngsters on their flights in order to take over each one's identity and body print for a pod-person of their own race. They've been doing this for some time, with the plan nearing completion, but are only now transforming key people in the airport authorities; as such, some suspicion has been aroused. This lack of organisation is probably because their leader, The Director, has a lethal combination of incompetence and arrogance: typical upper management. Anyway, the Doctor investigates, pretends to have been converted himself, and hitches a ride with the rest on the last flight back to the Chameleon base, a satellite in space, where he plays them off against each other, and negotiates the release of all the humans. Jamie has a holiday romance that doesn't get further than the airport with Samantha Briggs (they snog loads!) but she decides not to join him travelling in the TARDIS (and Polly and Ben leave, but blink and you'd miss it).

After two in a row stories that nobody else in the family was interested in watching with me, I was hoping for a crowd pleaser this time round. The randomiser came up, though, with a story that's two-thirds missing and would need to be supplemented by audio and slide shows. It seemed unlikely to snare any additional interest, so I got underway on my own. The Better Half dropped in a few times, though, for similar visual attraction reasons as last time when I was watching a David Tennant episode; she may not want me sharing this with the internet, but she appreciates the look of Fraser Hines in 1967 in a similar way to how she appreciates Tennant in 2006 and now. She's not the only one: Joe Orton was similarly impressed; he'd mentioned Fraser appreciatively before, and then noted in his diary at the time of The Faceless Ones episode 2's original broadcast "Watched Dr Who on television. Rubbish, but there's a young boy in it who is worth looking at... I mentally undress him. I'm sure the BBC would be horrified if they realised that even a science fiction series can be used erotically."

First-time round: 
The Faceless Ones exists in different bits and pieces discovered over many years, and aptly that's how I first experienced it too. I seem to remember having a pirate VHS in the early 1990s which had episode 3 on it, not very long after it had been found and returned to the BBC archives in 1987. I can't remember how I got the tape, and don't know how the episode would have become available on the fan circuit, but it wasn't of a very watchable quality (the recovered film was badly damaged in places). Much later, I heard the audio of all six episodes when it came out on CD in 2002. And finally, the following year, I saw episode 1 and a somewhat restored episode 3 on the final Doctor Who VHS release ever, a boxed set that mopped up the few remaining episodes that hadn't been released before then. It was a limited edition that also included an incomplete Hartnell story, another (at the time) orphaned Troughton episode, The Web of Fear 1, and an enamel pin badge.

When the producer of The Faceless Ones, Innes Lloyd, first moved into the role, he unceremoniously replaced the actors then playing the Doctor Who companions to freshen up the show. For Jackie Lane, who played Dodo, this meant being written out abruptly two episodes into a longer story, with a horribly brief explanation tagged on at the end, when she wasn't even in the studio, that she wouldn't be coming back: no heroic send-off at all. Innes must have thought this was for the greater good, as it allowed him to introduce a pair of more contemporary regular characters, Ben and Polly. It's a bit rubbish therefore that, when Ben and Polly come to leave in The Faceless Ones, they are again abruptly written out two episodes into a longer story, with a horribly brief explanation tagged on at the end, when they aren't even in the studio, that that they aren't coming back. Worse things happen to actors, of course, but what about rewarding the audience's emotional investment?

Perhaps learning from previous mistakes, this production integrates Ben and Polly's departure a little better into The Faceless Ones than Dodo's exit in The War Machines. The Chameleon Tours story is about young people of around their age going missing, which gives credence to their dropping out of view all of a sudden; there is also a brief pre-filmed goodbye scene in episode 6 (Dodo's goodbye is passed on by another character as a telephone message - the Doctor Who equivalent of being dumped by text). If anything it's integrated too well: as the story becomes about finding Ben and Polly, it raises expectations about their eventually being reunited with the Doctor and Jamie. By necessity, though, this reuniting happens off-screen, and then as soon as they're found and back with the Doctor and Jamie, and the plot is resolved, they decide to bugger off again. It's unsatisfying, and that's a shame, as it undermines an otherwise very good story.

Despite dropping the ball with Ben and Polly, a lot of what's successful in The Faceless Ones is about character dynamics. This is the first time that Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines, one of Doctor Who's most wonderful and most natural pairings, work together properly in Doctor Who. They'd featured together in previous TV work, and no doubt clicked behind the scenes when Fraser first joined the cast - it seems likely that's why he was kept on as a regular, as in Jamie's debut story and the others between it and The Faceless Ones, he and the Doctor don't share much story time; this changes from this point on, though: they are instantly, and forever after, the double-act on screen that they were off. Try-out companion Samantha Briggs also achieves instant chemistry: when the three of them are lying down waiting to be zapped by a Goldfinger homage, they really feel like a team, despite only having been brought together minutes before. It's a great loss for the show (though not perhaps for her career) that Pauline Collins wasn't tempted to stay on.

The setting is well constructed and populated with good characters, all well cast and played. A mark of a good tale is that it creates a world one wants to visit, and that's definitely true of this version of Gatwick Airport with its exasperated commandants, campy vicious captains and arch customs officers. This is the debut outing for Malcolm Hulke (here co-writing with David Ellis) who would write regularly for the show in the 1970s and deliver this standard of world and characters again and again on TV, and then later (and even better) when he novelised his episodes. Apart from being the debut of a significant Who writer, The Faceless Ones is significant in other quiet ways: it fuses the contemporary Earth story that had been tried out before in The War Machines with the 'base under siege' template (replete with a distrustful CO that has to unwillingly put his faith in the Doctor) which would be applied increasingly in Doctor Who stories from this point onward, and even finds time for some space flight action too. It is a bit silly in places, though: the villain's plan - particularly the idea of throwing off suspicion by sending unnecessarily suspicious postcards -  seems built to fail.

More alien infiltration of a South-East England institution that arouses the suspicion of investigators, including the TARDIS team. As in School Reunion, the aliens' plan depends upon a large group of youngsters. Both involve companions the producers classify somewhat as has-beens who decide not to travel on in the TARDIS at the end (of course, this was a little more unfair in regard to Ben than it was to Sarah Jane and K9).

Deeper Thoughts:
List-o-mania. One stereotypical aspect of Doctor Who fans highlighted by commentators, sometimes somewhat cruelly, is our preponderance for making lists. It is certainly something of which I am guilty, and the volume of anecdotal evidence I have about other fans overwhelmingly tells me I'm not alone. Is it that the programme is one that attracts enthusiasts of a certain psychology, or is it something that's inherent in the programme itself? Is Doctor Who particularly list-worthy? There's certainly a lot of it. Unless one was lucky enough to start watching in November 1963, there will be a wealth of earlier episodes you haven't seen when you start, many from different Doctors and eras, many potentially containing plot points of interest in the ongoing tangled continuity of the show. Is it intimidating to navigate that new world without the 'map' of a list one has found or compiled? Casting my mind back, I can't remember ever not knowing the weight of Who's pre-history, probably because I first discovered the show during a season of repeats designed to highlight its heritage. Even so, I wanted to find out even more in more detail very quickly. Maybe some folks can just jump in, not knowing where they are in the overall story, but I'm not one of them.

Once you have such a list, then there's an obvious metric you can measure: "which of these have I seen?" or the variant for the collector fan (if that isn't all of us) "which of these do I own?". Before you know it, the list has become two lists, but one mission: to turn the shorter list into the longer list by slowly finding (and buying) and watching them all. For the Doctor Who fan (unlike, say, the Star Trek fan) there's a third list that needs to be factored in too, "which of these doesn't exist any more?". Throughout the 1990s and early twenty-first century, I would integrate all three into a slowly dwindling checklist of VHS and audio releases yet to be watched/listened to. I would, at the beginning of every year and often several times during the year, write it out longhand, ticking off all those I'd got already, putting a dot next to those that had been announced for future release in Doctor Who Magazine, speculating about which ones would be ticked off before the end of the year. I realise this makes me sound like a basket case; it's not that I needed to flip the light switch on and off 17 times or else my family would die, it was just a pleasant enough displacement activity.

The Faceless Ones episode 1 was one of the last few I ever saw, as noted above, but the very final Doctor Who story I ever caught up with (on audio) was The Underwater Menace in February 2005; and at that point I'd watched or listened to every one of 26 years worth of broadcast Who, just in time for the new series to start the following month. As long as new stories are being transmitted, the mission will never complete. Even then, there's still the chance that some of those missing stories will be found. Even if they're not, they may one day all be animated at least. For any completist, there's a love/hate relationship with completion. Finally finishing stuff off can leave one bereft, and whatever one may claim to others or even oneself, that one is eager to get to the end, it's easy to find oneself pushing the finishing line into the future, to enjoy the mission a bit more. This is presumably why, I suddenly realise, I've set up a situation where I once again am slowly whittling away all the Doctor Who stories, one by one, in a random order; I've recreated my old displacement activities in this blog.

In Summary:
Takes off nicely, hits a high and keeps going, then comes down with a bit of a bump as Ben and Polly are ejected. Overall, though, top flight.

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