Doctor Who – “The Hand of Fear”

A freak accident traps the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane under tons of rock.

After a miraculous survival, she is found frantically clinging to a large stone hand, and the Doctor senses a sinister power at work.

Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Hand of Fear

X X X X X

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Dr. Carter – Rex Robinson
Intern – Renu Setna
Abbott – David Purcell
Zazzka – Roy Pattison
King Rokon – Roy Skelton
Guard – Robin Hargrave
Professor Watson – Glyn Houston
Driscoll – Roy Boyd
Miss Jackson – Frances Pidgeon
Elgin – John Cannon
Eldrad – Judith Paris
Kastrian Eldrad – Stephen Thorne

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writers: Bob Baker & David Martin
Director: Lennie Mayne
Original Broadcast: 2 October – 23 October 1976

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB7jWENnDzk

X X X X X

The Hand of Fear is a tense, well-acted and beautifully directed story for the first three episodes, with Sarah Jane possessed by an ancient alien artifact and the Doctor racing against time to prevent not only her death but the reconstitution of an bloodless and ruthless alien warlord.  Then there is the final episode, where it all falls apart as any sense of tension or drama is replaced by Styrofoam sets and loud shouting substituting for acting, redeemed only by the final scene between the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith as she leaves the TARDIS for the last time.

The TARDIS lands in a quarry.  Not an alien landscape that looks like a quarry but an actual British quarry.  That’s in the process of exploding.  Sarah Jane is buried under tons of debris, but manages to somehow survive as she is pulled from the rubble clutching what appears to be a fossilized hand adorned with a gemstone ring.  The hand has done more than ensure Sarah Jane survived, however.  The ring has mesmerized her, causing the young journalist to depart the hospital and head directly for the nearby Nunton Complex, home to one of Britain’s function nuclear reactors.  Sarah Jane doesn’t care about radiation poisoning or the guards standing in her way.  All she knows is that the hand must be brought to the reactor’s core, regardless of the cost.  For it’s not Sarah Jane’s life that is important…

Eldrad must live.

Fresh off of the success of The Sontaran Experiment, writers Bob Baker and David Martin began to bandy about a new story called The Hand of Fear, as well as The Hand of Time and The Hand of Death.  The script went through numerous changes and drafts during the writing process, involving concepts such as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart going out in a blaze of glory to finally close the book on the UNIT years, a species of aliens composed entirely of rock called the Omegans, and a potentially recurring Time Lord mechanic named Drax who has designs on stealing the Doctor’s TARDIS.  Afraid that the six-part story was too complex and convoluted, Hinchliffe put off The Hand of Fear for Season 13 and replaced it with The Seeds of Doom.  Baker and Martin would continue to work on the story over the next season, focusing on the concept of an entirely bloodless alien race and the body horror of disembodied yet sentient hands.

During this time period, Elisabeth Sladen would tell Philip Hinchcliffe that she intended to leave Doctor Who early in Season 14.  About to surpass Katy Manning’s three-season run as Jo Grant, Sladen wanted to move onto new challenges.  With that in mind, noted Who director Douglas Camfield submitted a script called The Lost Legion where Sarah Jane would die at the climax during a conflict where the French Foreign Legion was caught between two warring alien races.  Hinchcliffe and Sladen were never too keen on the scripts that Camfield submitted, with Sladen worried that the show’s young audience would be traumatized by Sarah Jane’s death.  With the production for Season 14 coming down to the wire, Hinchliffe asked Baker and Martin to cut The Hand of Fear down to four episodes and change the name of the alien species to avoid confusion with the Time Lord villain Omega from The Three Doctors.   Even so, Hinchcliffe was still unsure of the script by the time production started, feeling that the first two episodes were lacking in incident and didn’t give Sarah Jane enough of a meaty role befitting her final story.

Oh, if only Hinchcliffe knew then what we know now…

The first three episodes of The Hand of Fear continued the trend of excellence that had been established since Tom Baker became the Doctor and Hinchcliffe became the show’s producer.  Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in every week to see the adventures of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, supporting Hinchcliffe’s vision of “growing the show” to reach an older and more mature audience.  One of the things that makes this story unique is the directing style laid out under the watchful eye of Lennie Mayne, a veteran BBC director with numerous credits, including the Third Doctor stories The Curse of Peladon, The Monster of Peladon, and The Three Doctors.  The sequence of the TARDIS landing in an English quarry could have easily been played for laughs or even a bit tongue-in-cheek.  Instead, the countdown to detonation mixed with a man waving his arms to get the Doctor and Sarah Jane’s attention is shot at a low angle, demonstrating just how far from safety the duo are.  The actual explosion is caught several times on camera, including a shot where debris flies directly
towards the camera.

From there, the action moves to a hospital for a few scenes, but the crux of the first three episodes takes place at a nuclear power station – a fully functioning power station in fact.  The Oldbury Nuclear Power Station in Gloucestershire doubled for the fictional Nunton Experimental Complex.  The vast structure allowed Mayne to shoot scenes from several different angles.  The standard “running about” sequences have a level of tension added to them thanks to the tall staircases, long ladders and layers of piping, valves, and gauges.  There’s no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the Doctor is in a fully functioning nuclear power station and not a three-story set, making moments such Carter trying to throw the Doctor over a railing much more tense since the viewers actually SEE the drop behind the Doctor.  Add to it some creative shooting choices, such as a mirrored reflection of Sarah Jane walking towards the reactor, the fish-eye point-of-view for those possessed by Eldrad, and the first act cliffhanger where the hand of Eldred is beginning to come to life, and while Planet of Evil might have the best studio and stage stets, The Hand of Fear is easily the best directed episode I’ve seen so far.  Sadly, a freak boating accident would claim Mayne’s life soon after this episode was completed.

The secondary cast has its standouts as well.  Rex Robinson is solid as Carter, the pathologist who initially treats Sarah Jane only to fall under the hand’s spell, attempting to throw the Doctor over a railing before meeting his demise ala Space Mutiny.

In the hands of another actor and another pair of writers, the head of the Nunton Experimental Complex, Professor Watson, could have been another government bureaucrat who gets in the Doctor’s way before realizing his mistakes, sometimes far too late.  Instead, Glyn Houston (the BBC sitcoms Keep it in the Family and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, gives a layer of relatable humanity to Watson.  While he does shout “EVERYONE SHUT UP” during his first moments on screen, not only does he realize early on the Doctor is right on the money about Sarah Jane (and later another plant attendant) being possessed and trying to break into the reactor’s core, but he’s the man willing to stay behind so all the other employees of the complex can evacuate.  It leads to a very well-written and well-acted moment where Watson, with the alarms blaring in the background and seemingly no hope of stopping Sarah Jane, calls his wife for a final conversation about a cruise they were planning to go on.  A simple scene such as this adds a lot to the story as a whole, turning Watson into the rarest of Who characters –a bureaucrat viewers can pull for.


The highlight of the supporting cast is easily veteran actress and dancer Judith Paris, whose lithe and agile form is perfect to portray the bloodless, gem-encrusted alien warlord Eldrad.  Easily one of the most unique looking antagonists in the history of Doctor Who, the female form of Eldrad is a mix of villain and sympathetic figure.  She took control of Sarah Jane and anyone else she could get her hand on (pun intended) in an effort to constitute her body and mentally assaults the Doctor in an effort to find out why the humans have tried to destroy her.  But when Sarah Jane asks her about her violent methods, Eldrad spins a sad tale about an alien leader who raised solar shields around her home planet to help it grow and thrive, only to be caught in an interstellar war and banished to the farthest corners of the galaxies by her enemies.  It’s another well-written and well-acted moment that gives the viewers a moment of pause.  Is Eldrad lying, telling the truth, or talking about something in between?  It also helps to add a bit of emotion to the third-episode cliffhanger when Eldrad is shot through the chest with a spear and lays dying on the frozen ground of her home planet.

And of course, we need a short out to the incredibly creepy, Hammer Horror-esque, The Hands of Orloc styled hand that was front and center for the first episode cliffhanger.

Viewers get to see several facets of Tom Baker’s Doctor in this episode. Befitting Sarah Jane Smith’s last episode, the Doctor spends a good bit of time trying to save Sarah Jane, be it from mind control, massive radiations poisoning, or falling into a chasm deep underneath the planet of Kastria. And who else but the Fourth Doctor could walk into a British nuclear power plant and take charge within a handful of minutes? This is a Tom Baker who knows exactly what the audience wants and how to go about getting the proper response from the viewer, with a little bit of humor thrown in for good measure (from what we’ve seen of Gallifrey up to this point in the series, hearing someone think Gallifrey is a place in Ireland is good for a chuckle). And there’s a bit of empathy as the Doctor, even after all Eldrad has put him and his colleagues through, offers to help the alien back to her home planet. She’s as much a fish out of water as he is on Earth, and maybe he’s just a bit too willing to buy into her story.

But it’s all about the Doctor’s relation with Sarah Jane. Even when the Doctor is without Sarah Jane for the first two episodes (a bit of a dry run for the next episode, the companion free story The Deadly Assassin?) the Doctor is focused solely on saving her. And on the other end of the friendship, Elisabeth Sladen’s final story as an official companion (aside from her appearance in The Five Doctors) gives her a chance to shine. She played “evil” as a robot duplicate in The Android Invasion, but the slow-walking, steel-eyed Sarah Jane we see while under the control of Eldrad is very unnerving, save for those moments when she puts on the coy feminine charm to distract her victims before Eldrad’s ring knocks them unconscious.

One could imagine Sladen having a blast playing against type for her last episode, but there’s plenty of the Sarah Jane that viewers came to love over the course of three seasons as well. She protests when the Doctor is about to hypnotize her once again (ala Terror of the Zygons) and get her revenge later on by pretending to be back under Eldrad’s spell when she comes back around. There’s even a moment where Sarah Jane stomps off in disbelief as the Doctor agrees to help Eldrad, someone managing to make the art of eating a banana into a full-body sulk.

The farewell scene between Sarah Jane and the Doctor was written by Robert Holmes with rewriters by Baker and Sladen and is a truly a case of some things not needing to be said. Sarah Jane is cold, wet, hungry, and frustrated. But the Doctor is more concerned with fixing the console in the secondary control room…

I must be mad! I’m sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left right and centre! I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters and never knowing if I’m coming, going or being! I want a bath! I want my hair washed! I just want to feel human again! I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home!

As Sarah Jane packs, the Doctor receives an urgent message from the Time Lords summoning him to Gallifrey, a place where the Doctor can’t take Sarah Jane for her own safety. There’s a moment of confusion as Sarah Jane comes back into the control room, packed and ready to leave, and the Doctor agreeing that it’s time for her to go. There’s no long flowery monologue ala Doomsday or Hell Bent. It’s two people who don’t want to say goodbye saying goodbye.

DOCTOR: The call. The call from Gallifrey. Gallifrey. After all this time, Gallifrey. I can’t take Sarah to Gallifrey. Must get her back home. Must reset the coordinates. South Croydon.
(Sarah enters carrying a bag and a pile of stuff including a plant in a pot, a stuffed toy owl and a tennis racquet.)
SARAH: Ahem!
DOCTOR: You’re a good girl, Sarah.
SARAH: Oh, look, it’s too late apologising now. Everything’s packed. I’ve got to go.
DOCTOR: What? How did you know?
SARAH: What?
DOCTOR: I’ve had the call from Gallifrey.
SARAH: So?
DOCTOR: So I can’t take you with me. You’ve got to go.
SARAH: Oh, come on. I can’t miss Gallifrey. Look, I was only joking. I didn’t mean it. Hey. Hey, you’re not going to regenerate again, are you?
DOCTOR: Not this time. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
SARAH: You’re playing one of your jokes on me, just trying to make me stay.
DOCTOR: No. I’ve received the call, and as a Time Lord I must obey.
SARAH: Alone?
DOCTOR: Yes.
(The Tardis materialises.)
SARAH: And I’ll give your love to Harry and the Brigadier. Oh, and I can tell Professor Watson that you’re all right.
DOCTOR: We’ve landed, Sarah.
SARAH: What?
DOCTOR: We’ve landed.
SARAH: Where?
DOCTOR: South Croydon. Hillview Road, to be exact.
SARAH: That’s my home. Well, I’ll be off then. Here.
(She gives him his coat back.)
DOCTOR: Thanks.
SARAH: Don’t forget me.
DOCTOR: Oh, Sarah. Don’t you forget me.
SARAH: Bye, Doctor. You know, travel does broaden the mind.
DOCTOR: Yes. Till we meet again, Sarah.

 

It’s just so well done and so powerful, two actors and friends, one who is at the top of their game and the other who is leaving at just the right time. Not until (Ace, Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, Rory Williams) would there be a companion as iconic and as awesome as the journalist from South Croydon, Sarah Jane Smith.

And then, there is this story’s fourth episode.

Aside from the Doctor allowing the RAF to launch a nuclear strike at a creature who ABSORBS RADIATION, the problems with The Hand of Fear are mostly regulated to the final episode, as the story switches from the unique setting of the Nunton Experimental Complex to the underground catacombs of Kastria, a set that looks like a cheaper version of the complex on Mars that dominated the final episode of Pyramids of Mars. I’m talking wobbling Styrofoam, a wide chasm that is obviously a flat board painted black, and the replacement of the female Eldrad with the “true” Eldrad, a larger male gem-encrusted alien (Stephen Thorne, aka Omega from The Three Doctors and Azal in The Daemons) who forgoes the subtle uncertainty of the female form for a whole lot of shouting and stomping about, dying because he tripped over the Doctor’s scarf. If the first three episodes of The Hand of Fear are a representation of the best that Doctor Who has to offer, the final episode is a perfect representation of all the stereotypes that sum up the worst of Doctor Who. There is a neat final twist though. It turns out that Eldrad was a harsh and tyrannical ruler, and to escape his eventual return the surviving Kastrians chose to die out simply to spite Eldrad, hailed “The King of Nothing.”

Cygnia – As I said at the start of these recaps with Four, I didn’t appreciate Sarah Jane growing up.  Now I know better, now I see the things that I missed when I was a kid.  And that kick to the gut after seeing “School Reunion” is now that much more poignant.

“Croydon — it wasn’t Croydon where you dropped me off!”
“Where was it?”
“ABERDEEN!”
“Oh.”  Beat.  “That’s close to Croydon, isn’t it?”

*le sigh*

I really want those red and white overalls of hers, dammit.  And I want Eldrad’s ring too!  I don’t care how gaudy it is — ELDRAD MUST LIVE!

Found it fascinating about how fluid gender must be for Kastrians.  And that was in the 70’s!  Of course, given how hard it is to “kill a stone”, one can only wonder “What If…?” the Weeping Angels somehow were related to this deceased species, either as rivals or mutated offshoots.

And, yes, that hand creeping around gave me chills — just like a proper episode of Doctor Who should.

I am happy to report that the fine folks at Titan will be putting out a miniseries with Four and Sarah Jane starting this month, so I highly recommend that for the nostalgia feels.

The Hand of Fear is a solid episode for the most part. Even though it’s best known for the departure of Sarah Jane Smith there’s still a good bit to like here. The first three episodes are beautifully shot, taking advantage of a a unique location and some quality acting by the supporting cast. Even though the production falls apart as the setting switches during the final episode, the chemistry between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen more than makes up for it. The Hand of Fear closes the book on one era of Doctor Who in fine, understated style. To some fans, it’s been all downhill from here.

Random Thoughts
– The original script would have seen UNIT renamed to EXIT, the Extraterrestrial Xenological Intelligence Taskforce.
– The fourth episode has several technical and production faults. When Eldrad is ranting and raving following King Rokon’s message, a camera can be seen in the dark doorway behind Sarah. When Eldrad is telling the Doctor about the race banks, the shadow of a boom mike moves over the wall behind Sarah (and its reflection can be seen in the wall to her left). When the Doctor and Sarah are setting the trap for Eldrad, the Doctor bumps a large rock to his left, causing it to wobble noticeably.
– During one shooting day, there was a fly in the studio that the crew just could not get rid of. At one point, it’s seen crawling about Glyn Houston’s brow. It ended up being swallowed by Sarah Jane during a scene where she kept chanting “Eldrid must live” over and over again.
– For the record, Fly is one of the best episodes in the run of Breaking Bad and I will accept no argument otherwise.

Cobi’s Synopsis – Elisabeth Sladen’s last story as a companion, The Hand of Fear suffers from a sub-par final episode but is lifted up by the first three episodes, each superbly acted and directed with a heart-touching and poignant farewell scene between the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith.

Next up – Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power. But this was to change…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in…The Deadly Assassin.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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