The Hand Of FearBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 September 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Any story to which the names of Philip Hinchcliffe or Robert Holmes are attached had better be good, or my word, they get torn apart. The Hand Of Fear is up against some seriously stiff competition and is easily the worst story of season fourteen, but it’s quite a sweet story in its own right. It feels like a real throwback to the Jon Pertwee era, and indeed it could have sat pretty as the best story of Pertwee’s final season – but it has to be said that coming immediately before The Deadly Assassin does no favours for what is a decent but decidedly average tale.

What’s immediately striking is the cheapness of the production, almost as if Barry Letts had returned as producer; this isn’t the sort of thing I dwell on normally but Hinchcliffe was usually such an effective and efficient producer that such bland, boring sets, harsh lighting and silly videotaped model shots seem very out of place. With Roy Skelton hamming it up off screen, Bob Baker and Dave Martin writing and Letts-stalwart Lennie Mayne directing, the overall anachronistic effect is really quite disturbing. But there is another, more relevant downside to this prologue, in that it provides the explanation for a mystery that has yet to be introduced. Just think how much more enigmatic the titular hand would be if this scene never existed, and we knew nothing about it at all.

16mm-recorded location shooting gives us a brief respite from the cheapness, and I actually like the scenes in the quarry – although it’s hard not to snarl at the constant “this time it’s really a quarry, tee hee” banality from some corners. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have a wonderfully comfortable, breezy relationship with each other (didn’t they always?), and Sarah being buried under the rubble caused by the superb explosion is much more affecting for the viewer than it would have been had it been the third Doctor and Jo Grant. The stone hand she finds is a wonderful prop and very spooky, just lying there, although to reiterate the scene would be vastly improved without that earlier prologue which is in effect an instant spoiler.

Baker and Martin, as writers, aren’t that good at structuring a story and providing a coherent plot and as such nothing they wrote for the show was particularly amazing (indeed the following season’s Underworld comes perilously close to being an all-time nadir). However, they do seem to have a talent for easy-going and naturalistic dialogue here and therefore The Hand Of Fear is peppered with likeable characters who feel more like real people than is customary for Doctor Who. Directors’ habits of reusing actors are always fairly obvious and it’s hard to watch Rex Robinson and not think of him as “the bloke from The Three Doctors and The Monster Of Peladon,” but he puts in a charming performance and manages to rekindle some of the dampened mystery by his conversation with the Doctor about the hand. With this, not to mention the possessed Sarah up and about stealing the hand, I have to say that part one is a lot of fun. There’s no depth or subtext of any kind for me to get my teeth into, but it pushes the right buttons. 

Sladen puts in a terrific performance as a woman possessed, eschewing the standard zombie-like clichés in favour of someone twitching and skittish, as if she’s being piloted by someone unused to the controls as it were, and her lilting, erratic speech is really quite creepy. The scenes in Nunton power plant (Baker and Martin reinforcing the Pertwee references by ripping of their own idea, Nunton being only one letter out from the plant from their earlier The Claws Of Axos) are terribly padded and rather dull after a while, but the cliffhanger to part one is an absolute killer as the hand starts to move.

Unfortunately the second episode begins by undoing much of that cliffhanger’s good work, with the emergency meltdown sequence removing the tension a bit more with every long-winded minute. The Doctor claiming he can survive temperatures of 200 degrees “if I’m quick” is silly and is an early example of the kind of superpowered Doctor who can spirit his way through spinning blades. It raises the question of how his clothes survive intact, but I suppose we must be thankful for these small mercies.

There’s still a lot of padding, with much running up and down stairs at the power station. I don’t know quite what the logic was behind the use of the fish-eye lens and its surrealism doesn’t quite come off, unless the idea was that the tension should increase in direct proportion to Tom Baker’s nose expanding to twice the size. Dr Carter’s death is a superb stunt and very well edited, although on a mildly amusing note his body ends up looking like it’s dancing to ‘Night Fever’.

Professor Watson phoning his family is a nice attempt at injecting some poignancy but it comes across as rather crude in a “kiss the children for me” way, although his inability to tell his wife that anything is wrong is a far more effective and telling moment.

The Doctor bursting through the vent (like he’s been posted, according to Baker on the DVD commentary) is one of my favourite moments in the story: Doctor Who was rightly never an action-adventure series but occasionally someone like Tom Baker with immense physical presence could successfully pull off those dynamic little scenes, although the fact that he doesn’t make a perfect landing adds to his credibility by not portraying him as an expert gymnast. Thus Sarah is rescued, and brought before Professor Watson: the line of “I think we’d all like an explanation” is about as crude as feed lines come, although it does remind us that there is a really brilliant, if not particularly original, idea at the heart of this story.

The CSO’d hand looks better than average, with less tell-tale fringing and an effort made to make it actually cast a shadow. Still though, despite many good moments, I can feel this story’s promise of a high rating slipping away. Like many average stories, The Hand Of Fear is in essence very good but it loses crucial points by being poorly paced and structured, denting its ability to tell a coherent story. Hence yet more superfluous scenes in the plant, and repetition abounds as the hand gets locked up, let out, captured, etc, etc…

Episode three at least gets off to a more dynamic start as Eldrad begins to regenerate in earnest, and the possessed Driscoll casually strolling into the core (“probably vaporised,” as the Doctor says) is really quite disturbing. The missile strike is exciting but improbable, but well presented with fairly unobtrusive stock footage. Eldrad’s final emergence is very well done, with a superb costume and an enigmatic performance from Judith Paris.

The scene where the Doctor and Sarah exchange “I worry about you” lines is genuinely sweet, and far more effective than the new series’s bludgeon. It’s followed by the great first exchange with Eldrad, and it’s also good to see a kind of mini-conclusion for Watson. Suddenly the episode is picking up again. It doesn’t last long though, as the sudden wave of technobabble in the TARDIS makes it feel a bit Trekky all of a sudden. The cheapo Kastrian set looks a bit better with the lights turned down, but even that doesn’t last long either. The cliffhanger though is genuinely shocking, a product of some excellent videotape editing.

Thankfully the lower levels of Kastria are slightly less bland than the surface, and the Doctor’s moody suggestion that Eldrad’s story is not adding up adds a small but welcome dose of extra mystery.

Eldrad’s apparent death is another effective moment as the viewer doesn’t realise just how sympathetic she is until this point. She’s replaced by Stephen Thorne, who resorts to his usual generic acting technique of SHOUTING VERY LOUD – it just about worked in The Daemons, but this is his second encore at this point (third if you count the handful of lines he had in Frontier In Space) and it’s beginning to wear a bit thin. How did he ever get the gig narrating The Fred Dibnah Story? His costume is quite good, a sort of small mountain, but unfortunately it’s all too obviously falling apart. At least he gets some motivation through, and it’s a nice twist to have him fooling the Doctor and Sarah all along – and it’s a bone-chilling thought, a race submitting to their own destruction willingly through fear of a tyrant. It’s a good job that Paris was doing this though, as Thorne doesn’t deal with that kind of subtlety. Unfortunately, his death is rushed and clumsy – watching him step over a scarf and get CSO’d down an abyss is just about the least inspiring thing I’ve seen for months.

Now we come to the story’s acknowledged highlight: Sarah’s departure. It’s certainly the best departure of any companion, with some real though added, unlike many. Which is better: Rose’s “I wub oo Docta, sniff, snivel” at the end of Doomsday, or the Doctor’s quite understated “until we meet again, Sarah” from this? I know which one I’ll pick. It ends well, with Sarah’s happiness at being home about to tip into rampant hysteria, and with that magic glimpse at the sky.

The Hand Of Fear is a pleasant and enjoyable story that could, and should, have been far more. It doesn’t let down the quality of the season in general, grants Sarah a good leaving scene and has some great ideas of its own…but it’s just not quite Hinchcliffe.