It was a close call, but we made it! Here, finishing out the week, we return to Season Fourteen in our Classic Doctor Who rewatch. Let’s get to it!
We last saw the Doctor leaving Gallifrey alone in The Deadly Assassin. This is a point at which many attempts have been made to insert stories in other media; despite the Fourth Doctor’s long run on television, there are few such points where the transition between stories isn’t fully accounted for, and fewer still that allow the possibility of inserting companions not seen on television. We resume the series, however, with The Face of Evil…but we find that the Doctor has been here before.
The location of the planet seen here isn’t known, nor is the date. We do know that it is in the far future, well after the year 5000, based on the technology (of human origin) on view. The planet is a now-degraded human colony mission—the Mordee expedition, according to the Doctor–from one of the early empire periods; A History of the Universe places it in the year 25000, but admits this is totally arbitrary. The humans on the planet are the remnants of that mission, having been split at some point by the expedition’s computer into the primitive Sevateem (“Survey Team”) and the more advanced Tesh (“Techs”). At the end, new companion Leela of the Sevateem joins the Doctor; or more to the point, she forces herself on him by running into the TARDIS and throwing switches.
It’s not made clear when the Fourth Doctor visited the colony, but it’s often suggested to have been during the events of Robot Part One, while Harry Sullivan is locked in the cabinet. The TARDIS sound is heard just before the Doctor rejoins the UNIT team; the suggestion is that he was returning, not attempting to leave. If that is so, his post-regenerative confusion would go a long way toward explaining why he has trouble remembering the incident here. Regardless, it is clearly this Doctor who was here, as his face is carved into a mountainside, as well as worn by the computer, Xoanon. During the previous incident the Doctor repaired the computer, but unintentionally left behind an imprint of his mind, driving the computer insane and precipitating the history of the two tribes. It won’t be the last time we see the idea of an aspect of the Doctor as an enemy; for comparison, we have the Valeyard still to come, and also the Dream Lord (Amy’s Choice). It’s not often that it manifests in a computer, though.
The Fourth Doctor is at his best here, in my opinion. We see him being very defensive of Leela, whom he has just met; he threatens to harm those who would harm her, and then follows through, using the Horda as a weapon. He’s an excellent shot, claiming to have studied under William Tell. His wit is at a high ebb; there’s the fantastic scene where he says he will kill a warrior with “this deadly jelly baby”, then upon having his bluff called, he declares “I don’t take orders from anyone” and eats the jelly baby. He’s also inventive, repairing now-ancient weapons and building a device from spare parts before using it to defeat Xoanon. While I don’t remember watching this serial as a child, I do clearly remember reading the Target novelization; it was interesting to see how it differed from my memory, but I have to say, even so, it remains one of my favorite stories, and the high point of the season for me.
With Leela aboard, the Doctor travels back in time in The Robots of Death. This story is placed somewhat arbitrarily in about 2877, on a sand-covered world whose name is not given. It’s set entirely aboard a large, mobile mining complex known as “Storm Mine 4”. As the supporting characters are noted to be human, it is certainly in the future; this date would place it in the colonization period, before the first Earth Empire.
As I watched this serial, I was repeatedly reminded of the Tenth Doctor story, Voyage of the Damned. Both stories are set aboard a large-but-isolated moving vessel (the Titanic, Storm Mine 4), on which murderous robots (the Host, the Voc and other robots) have been reprogrammed by a human (Max Capricorn, Taren Capel) who identifies more with the robots than with humans. The robots here even look very similar to the Host! Voyage of the Damned, however, is a bit of an enigma to me; it’s a contemporary 21st-century story, but appears to be populated by spacegoing humans who are definitely not of Earth. Therefore I doubt there is a connection between the two, intentional or otherwise.
The Doctor makes a rare, simplified explanation for Leela of why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, ultimately referring to it as “transdimensional engineering”. It’s not the most satisfying explanation for the audience, but it sets the stage for further elaboration in later stories. The Doctor claims here to be 750 years old, which is probably close to accurate, given that in a couple of years Romana—an outside source with no reason to lie—will give his age as only a few years higher. It’s one of the very few times when we can be reasonably sure he was telling the truth about his age.
The episode is noteworthy for drawing inspiration both from Dune (via the sand miner) and from the works of Agatha Christie, as well as several other famous science-fiction sources. Christie will be referenced much more explicitly in NuWho’s The Unicorn and the Wasp.
We end on Earth with The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s London, 1889 (or very close to that year), shortly after the end of the Jack the Ripper murder spree; and the Doctor has decided to introduce Leela to the culture of her ancestors. Along the way they encounter 51st-century war criminal Magnus Greel, hiding out in the past in the guise of Chinese god Weng-Chiang, and killing local women to maintain his life force. Supporting characters Henry Gordon Jago and George Litefoot proved to be popular, and have since been given their own audio series by Big Finish; the series is mostly contemporary with the Victorian-era stories involving Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, and has even crossed over with Strax. The 51st-century has been a bit of a recurring theme, and seems to be a hotbed of problems that crop up periodically; like this is due to the fact that humanity develops its own time travel technology during that period, which will eventually result in the Time Agency and its operatives such as Jack Harkness.
I will admit to going into this serial with a bad attitude. Although it is a popular story, I’ve never—even on repeat viewings—found it to be very good. This viewing was no exception, and I consider it to be the low point of the season, though I am aware that that is a minority view. It was originally written with the Master in mind, with Greel’s Time Cabinet clearly intended to be the Master’s TARDIS (last seen as a grandfather clock in The Deadly Assassin). I felt as though the story lost something in writing the Master out; I’m not sure if that was enough to save it. Still, we have good things to look forward to next season! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.