Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Doctor Who #434: The Hand of Fear Part 1

"Eldrad MUST live."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Oct.2 1976.

IN THIS ONE... Sarah Jane goes to a nuclear power plant, mind controlled by a hand in a Tupperware container.

REVIEW: This story was my first. And then a year or two later, it was my first AGAIN. To explain, I saw it (in omnibus format) one summer while away on shared custody duty, not knowing what Doctor Who was. And then I saw it again (in omnibus format) on the PBS station we got in my home town, right at the start of my love affair with British television (Monty Python and Hitchhiker's, mostly). So it was a case of "Hey, this is the show I once saw that haunted my dreams, but I didn't know what it was so could never find it again!". So I'll try to keep my very personal connection to this story out of these reviews and judge it as objectively as I can. Good news, I still think it's a good one!

Its first surprise is starting out on another planet - a spaceship, a wind-swept dome, swaddled up aliens, unfamiliar words - before sending the TARDIS to Earth after all. This is a story with scope in relation to both space AND time, as the mysterious hand and ring Sarah finds place that opening sequence (at a minimum) during the Jurassic era. The use of a quarry AS a quarry isn't played as a twist, but our heroes are so distracted by the possibility it might be an alien planet, they don't pay attention to what the blaring siren might be for and get hit with explosives. We're used to the Doctor not seeing the trees for the forest (so to speak), so the moment works despite its absurdity. This is a man intent on showing off his cricketing skills during this cacophony, no wonder Sarah didn't realize until too late. Too bad she's the one who almost paid for his absent-mindedness with her life. But that's nothing compared to what is done with Sarah over the rest of the episode.

Putting Sarah Jane in her most child-like costume only heightens the creep factor of having her taken over by Eldrad. Giving off a Village of the Damned vibe, she goes around zapping people with the alien's ring, carrying its severed hand in a box. Director Lennie Mayne really goes for broke in these sequences, using all sorts of devices seldom used on Doctor Who to underscore the wrongness of the situation. Fish eye lenses, POV shots, handheld cameras, hearing Sarah's thoughts in voice-over, observing her through a round parking lot mirror... Mayne creates a visual sense of unease by breaking aesthetic format. The use of locations sells the reality of Sarah's predicament, as she walks the halls of a true blue nuclear plant (Oldbury standing in for the story's Nunton)! So when she walks into the set representing the radioactive area, it seems authentic and is all the scarier for it. Cue severed hand squirming in its box...

- A very effective SF/horror story begins, and putting Sarah Jane in jeopardy is just what's needed to instill the proper dread in viewers. As a further bonus for New Who fans, there's the first of two classic mentions of Gallifrey thought to be in Ireland by humans, referenced in Human Nature.


Matthew Turnage said...

I really like this story quite a bit. Lis Sladen is really creepy as the possessed Sarah Jane, and the disembodied hand is well realized. The pacing is really good through the first three parts, although I find part four drags a bit at times. Still, one of my favorites of the era.

Eldrad MUST live!

Siskoid said...

He/she MUST!

Chops said...

This is my first story too, in a way. I was aware of Doctor Who through PBS, but I never managed to catch more than two episodes in a row. (For that matter, I still haven't seen an entire Who story on PBS.) One day in middle school I saw the novelization of The Hand of Fear at the library, and picked it up. Later I checked out The Five Doctors on VHS, and maybe one other serial. Those few glimpses were enough to get me excited about new Who, and I've been watching those ever since.

I tried going through the stories from Hartnell a few years ago, but I didn't get very far. I always enjoy reading your reviews though!

Siskoid said...

I find that a good way to introduce a person to the classic series is one story per Doctor, consecutively. Some eras are more difficult, but if you watch only one story, then you don't get discouraged.

So for example, The Romans followed by The Mind Robber, followed by Spearhead from Space, then Genesis of the Daleks, The Visitation, and so on.