Written by Chad Derdowski
Tom Baker is the Doctor. At least, or my money he is. And while it might sound blasphemous to die-hards, I don’t say that as a dyed-in-the-wool lifelong fan of the series or any type of expert on Time Lords or the TARDIS. As a matter of fact, reviewing this DVD is my first real exposure to the series and the character. Sure, I saw it as a kid, but most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to watch it – it appeared as though it was filmed in my parent’s backyard using cast-off equipment from a Soviet research lab circa 1952. To a child’s eye, it was the show that looked even worse than the 1960s Star Trek (an impressive pedigree) which to a child’s mind denotes an inferior quality. And to be honest, the show was just boring and maybe even a little too creepy for me.
But still, Tom Baker is the Doctor. I guess it’s because his era was the one most Americans (myself included, obviously) are familiar with, as it was the era most often rebroadcast on PBS. But even as I’ve grown older and the show has experienced a revival, the gangly Brit with curly hair and a floor-length, multicolored scarf is the image that pops into my mind whenever I hear the good Doctor mentioned in conversation. Just as many fans consider Sean Connery to be the definitive Bond or Hulk Hogan is the face people envision when the words “pro wrestling” are uttered, Tom Baker is my Doctor… even though I’ve never really watched Doctor Who.
When I had the opportunity to review a few of the BBC’s Doctor Who DVD releases, I decided it was high time this lifelong science fiction fan educated himself on a show that has been spoken highly of for as long as I can remember (and much longer before that). And it only made sense that I began my education with an entry from the Tom Baker years, The Face of Evil. I crossed my fingers in the hopes that delving into the middle of such a long-running series wouldn’t be detrimental and jumped in feet first.
The Face of Evil, the 89th story of the Doctor, is the fourth serial of the 14th season of Doctor Who and was originally broadcast in four weekly parts from January 1 to January 29, 1977. As previously mentioned, it features the fourth man to play the Doctor and the actor I’ve always associated with the part. It is also notable for the introduction of Leela (Louise Jameson), who apparently became his companion for the next year or so (thank you, Wikipedia). And if I may say so, it’s incredibly awesome.
So, the first thing that I noticed when watching this (after the wonderful theme song) was the aforementioned production values, or complete and utter lack thereof. I felt like I was watching outtakes from a lost episode of Land of the Lost that had been kept in the back pocket of somebody’s jeans for the past two decades and gone through the wash a few times. It looks bad, folks. Like, really bad. Now, I have to admit that the shoddy effects that once scared me off are part of the appeal as an adult. There’s a certain charm to it that eluded me in my youth. That being said, it was still a bit of a challenge and for the first 15 minutes or so, I wasn’t sure I could do it. Seeing a tribe of Krull cast-offs chase each other through a jungle made of PVC piping and old tubes that my dad used to clean out the pool isn’t exactly the type of thing that sets the heart afire, if you catch my drift.
But it didn’t take long before the details of the story began to emerge and even less time before the Doctor himself emerged from that familiar time-travelling 1960s London police box. And that did manage to set the heart afire.
At times deadly serious, though often whimsical and charmingly befuddled, and most definitely British as all get out, Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor reminded me of a clown or perhaps a dentist or family doctor. The guy had a weird sort of charm to him that was undeniable. I instantly liked him and it didn’t take long to realize just why this guy was the most familiar version of the character.
But as the show progressed, it wasn’t simply Baker’s performance that drew me in; it was the layered story. The abridged version is that the Doctor encounters two warring tribes, the Sevateem and the Tesh. The Sevateem worship a god called Xoanon and the Tesh are supposedly keeping Xoanon prisoner. And then there’s an enormous, Mt. Rushmore-esque statue of the Doctor carved into the side of a mountain and the Sevateem seem convinced that he is “the Evil One”.
The slightly longer story is that the Sevateem have a shaman named Neeva who may or may not be a false prophet that receives messages from Xoanon. He has the ear of the tribe’s leader, though others within the tribe don’t trust him. And then there’s a bunch of invisible monsters, clues that seem to indicate that the holy relics of the Sevateem are leftover junk from a centuries-old spacecraft, and a deeper mystery that casts doubt on more than just the Sevateem’s religion. And just what kind of role did the Doctor play in this whole scenario that would cause someone to build such a gigantic structure in his honor?
Reminiscent of the theories of Erich von Däniken and offering a commentary on faith and logic as well as the ramifications of time travel, The Face of Evil was immensely satisfying and by the end of it (actually, about halfway through), my preoccupation with the low budget and poor special effects all but disappeared and I became utterly engaged in the story. This is intelligent science fiction at its best. Well, except for the guys in the costumes which look like they were leftover from a stage production of The Wizard of Oz, the Sevateem leader’s resemblance (both in his characterization and physicality) to “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the varying levels of film quality.
At the end of the day though, consider me a convert. I’m definitely not at the level where I can be referred to as a “Whovian” (that’s what Doctor Who fans are called, right?), but you can rest assured I’ll be reviewing more of these DVD releases in the months to come.
The DVD also includes a variety of special features including audio commentary from actors, producers and cameramen. More illuminating are the behind-the-scenes features and old news footage regarding the casting of a new Doctor as well as a new companion. Above all though, my favorite extra was the commercial for old Doctor Who action figures. Little bits of history like this are what, in my opinion, really make these DVD releases worth purchasing.
Doctor Who: The Face of Evil is money well spent, whether you are a long-time fan or someone who is dipping their toe into the time stream for the very first time. The beauty of DVD is that the Doctor can make a house call anytime and you won’t have to worry about the bill.