When Rose Tyler left Doctor Who, it was announced with a three-month build-up, a flurry of trumpets, a blitzkrieg of press releases, a cacophony of strings (scored by Murray Gold) and a bucketful of mournful looks from The Doctor, along with assorted sobbing from Billie Piper. There was a reference to Face/Off as both characters stand on opposite sides of a wall that’s a universe thick. Then there is a scene on a beach (Southerndown, passing for Norway) that makes me retch. Then there is a lot of mourning and anguish and then a period of denial, and then an inexplicable return (with incredible teeth) which basically undermines the pathos of the entire departure.
When Sarah Jane left Doctor Who, thirty years earlier, there was a thirty second monologue and then the Doctor drops her off in Aberdeen. And that’s it. In the next story (which I’ll explore another day) he’s on his own. Things were simpler in those days and we were allowed to move on, a luxury that is seemingly missing from much of New Who (at least until Moffat’s mini-reboot, which required that we move on quickly from the Davies era but simultaneously memorise absolutely everything that the new chief writer chose to tell us, because even the presence or absence of the Doctor’s jacket was important). These days, we are forced to acknowledge, with an undercurrent of tinkling piano, that these departures are A BIG DEAL FOR THE DOCTOR AND THEY HURT HIM. AND IF HE IS UPSET, WE SHOULD BE. ARE YOU SAD YET? ARE YOU? I SAID ARE YOU?
(I was about to write “For a departure story, especially one that features the loss of such an established character, ‘The Hand of Fear’ is surprisingly low key”. Then I thought better of it, simply because in those days, things generally were. Heavy sigh.)
The BBC re-screened ‘The Hand of Fear’ last spring, in the wake of Elisabeth Sladen’s death. Given that it’s her final Classic Who story (until ‘The Five Doctors’, which doesn’t really count) it was, I suppose, an obvious choice, but it’s a strange and slightly uneven four-part narrative that jumps about from place to place and never quite finds its footing – ‘The Time Warrior’ or ‘Pyramids of Mars’ are better tales (and both are trumped, of course, by ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, but that’s really more about Michael Wisher). ‘The Hand of Fear’ does, however, feature some of the most outlandish Sarah Jane moments in the original canon, which we’ll get to later, so whatever its flaws it’s never less than interesting.
We open with a shot of a paperweight sitting in a Blue Peter volcano.
The arctic base on Kastria (as it is known) is inhabited by a couple of mysterious hooded figures facilitating the execution of treacherous war criminal Eldrad. Eldrad has been blasted into space and his rocket is due to be detonated, but conditions on the planet are getting worse, and the hooded figures are forced to do this before they’re ready. The looks on their faces say it all.There is a risk that a part of Eldrad may survive. You’ll never guess which part.
Cut to Earth, some time later, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane emerging from the TARDIS.
It’s traditional for classic Doctor Who to be set on rocky alien surfaces that happen to look like quarries, but this time – believe it or not – they’ve landed in an actual quarry, as Baker takes great delight in telling Sarah Jane (with more than a slight wink to the audience). The pair haven’t much time to sightsee, however, before they’re caught up in an explosion. The Doctor escapes with minor injuries, but they have to dig poor Sarah out of the rubble. When they recover her, she’s clutching Thing from The Addams Family.Unfortunately, possession of the hand has some dastardly side effects, and when Sarah wakes up, she’s turned into Andy Pandy. In her autobiography, Sladen notes that the increasingly ridiculous costumes were her way of putting a stamp on the character: Sarah Jane starts out relatively straight, but travelling with the Doctor has made her dress sense almost as erratic as his own. This is known throughout the Whoniverse and fan base in general as ‘The Andy Pandy outfit’, and indeed that’s how one of the scientists refers to her, just after she’s knocked him out and legged it out of the hospital with the hand.
“Back up a minute”, I can hear you saying. “Did you say ‘knocked him out’? Has she let herself get hypnotised again?” To which I’d respond “Well, yes. It’s Sarah Jane. What did you expect?”. I make this the fourteenth, at last count. What’s special about this one, of course (aside from the fact that it’s her last) is the oft-quoted “Eldrad must live”, which became the line Sladen was most frequently asked to repeat over the years. If the internet had been around in those days, it would have become a meme. These days – well, actually, it’s a meme. Presumably there’s a t-shirt somewhere on Ebay.
The hypnotised Sarah’s destination of choice is a local nuclear power station, which she enters with frightening ease, despite her newfound ability to knock people out by raising her hand.Yes, I know it’s silly, but bear in mind that nearly three decades later the Doctor fixed a nano-virus by raising his hands and waving them around a bit. Recurring themes are important.
The Doctor has been busy in the lab, but sets off in hot pursuit as soon as he finds out about Sarah. Unfortunately he doesn’t get there in time to stop her hiding in the reactor, and he’s forced to try and negotiate over the intercom. This is unsuccessful, because Sarah’s preoccupied with a colour wheel.
Presumably it’s another side effect of the Andy Pandy thing.
While all this is going on, the plant has entered meltdown, and it’s left to Professor Watson – who runs the place – to try and keep order. He chiefly does this by addressing the workers over the PA in the manner of a union boss.I’ve not yet mentioned any of the story’s guest performers, so now would be a good time. Houston himself is probably the most watchable, taking the mandatory role of human-who-thinks-guns-would-be-a-good-idea, but for all his reliance on nuclear technology he’s rational, measured and brave, assisting the Doctor as much as he can and remaining in the complex even when it’s seemingly about to explode. He is assisted in his endeavours by Miss Jackson (Frances Pidgeon, who’d previously played a handmaiden in ‘The Monster of Peladon’). A romantic relationship is implied, but never really confirmed, and we like it that way.
The other main human of note is Dr Carter, who initially works with the Doctor to find out the secrets of Eldrad’s hand, but who – like Sarah – winds up possessed by it. This gives the writers an excuse to screen what is possibly the most unconvincing fake spanner in living history.
It’s cardboard, I tell you. It’s bloody cardboard.
This, in turn, is followed by a fall from a metal staircase that actually looks more like an acrobatic flip.Despite such setbacks the Doctor manages to get to the reactor, but Sarah isn’t coming out to play.
Ooh, look at that face. It’s a face of pure deviousness.
Suffice to say that Sarah is restored to normal, but not before events are set in motion to also bring back Eldrad. The military men outside take the conventional step of ordering a nuclear strike (which allows Baker the opportunity to swagger on the back of a truck, completely unconcerned about the radiation in one of those “You humans!” moments he did so well). Radiation, of course, is exactly what Eldrad needs to regenerate, although when he appears from his chamber, he’s apparently turned into Mystique.I am loathe, to be honest, to tell you any more. Suffice to say there are a couple of interesting twists, a drastic change in setting, and an innovative use of Baker’s scarf. Oh, and Roy Skelton, who’s always great. Perhaps part of the problem of the story is that you never really feel the world is under threat, because comparatively few of the characters take it seriously – Sladen, for example, is aware it’s her final role and hams it up mercilessly at every opportunity, never more so than when she’s under hypnosis. Baker, meanwhile, is laid-back and good-humoured – “Stop making a fuss, Sarah. You’re from South Croydon” – dashing to and fro round the power station and watching Eldrad melt through the door of the reactor before remarking “This is intensely interesting, don’t you think?”.
But if the finale is somewhat low-key, the resolution is worth waiting for. It all ends well, and the Earth is saved once again, but it’s been too much for Sarah. “I must be mad,” she says, slumped on the floor of the TARDIS as the Doctor – busy with his work – completely ignores her. “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, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been. I want a bath. I want my hair washed. I just want to feel human again.”
Simultaneously the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey, and he can’t take Sarah with him, so he has no choice but to return her to London. And Sarah tells us she’s bluffing – she doesn’t really want to go, she says. And at the same time somehow we know she’s had enough. And it’s this ambivalence which makes for the best scene in the story, touching in its brevity and in what it doesn’t say, as much as what it does. There is no tinkling piano, no mournful alto, no close-up of soulful eyes, no rain. There is, instead, a strained, slightly anxious parting in the TARDIS control room. Suitcase in hand, Sarah lingers near the door, knowing she has to face the inevitable, with the Doctor half turned away, and it is at this point that you realise both leads are no longer acting. There is a silence, with neither willing to actually make the jump, until Sladen remarks “Don’t forget me”, to which Baker responds “Oh, Sarah. Don’t you forget me.” And, of course, she never did.