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 its 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 Pertwees 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.
Whats immediately striking is the cheapness of the production, almost as if Barry Letts had returned as producer; this isnt 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 its hard not to snarl at the constant this time its really a quarry, tee hee banality from some corners. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have a wonderfully comfortable, breezy relationship with each other (didnt 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, arent 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 seasons 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 its 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. Theres 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 shes 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 cliffhangers 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 Im 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.
Theres still a lot of padding, with much running up and down stairs at the power station. I dont know quite what the logic was behind the use of the fish-eye lens and its surrealism doesnt quite come off, unless the idea was that the tension should increase in direct proportion to Tom Bakers nose expanding to twice the size. Dr Carters death is a superb stunt and very well edited, although on a mildly amusing note his body ends up looking like its 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 hes 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 doesnt 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 wed 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 CSOd 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 storys 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. Eldrads 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 seriess bludgeon. Its followed by the great first exchange with Eldrad, and its also good to see a kind of mini-conclusion for Watson. Suddenly the episode is picking up again. It doesnt 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 doesnt 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 Doctors moody suggestion that Eldrads story is not adding up adds a small but welcome dose of extra mystery.
Eldrads apparent death is another effective moment as the viewer doesnt realise just how sympathetic she is until this point. Shes 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 its 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 its all too obviously falling apart. At least he gets some motivation through, and its a nice twist to have him fooling the Doctor and Sarah all along and its a bone-chilling thought, a race submitting to their own destruction willingly through fear of a tyrant. Its a good job that Paris was doing this though, as Thorne doesnt deal with that kind of subtlety. Unfortunately, his death is rushed and clumsy watching him step over a scarf and get CSOd down an abyss is just about the least inspiring thing Ive seen for months.
Now we come to the storys acknowledged highlight: Sarahs departure. Its certainly the best departure of any companion, with some real though added, unlike many. Which is better: Roses I wub oo Docta, sniff, snivel at the end of Doomsday, or the Doctors quite understated until we meet again, Sarah from this? I know which one Ill pick. It ends well, with Sarahs 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 doesnt let down the quality of the season in general, grants Sarah a good leaving scene and has some great ideas of its own
but its just not quite Hinchcliffe.