Doctor Who Project: The Faceless Ones

Perhaps you’d kindly explain why you have no passports?

Though it starts out as a bit of a farce, with the TARDIS materializing on an active runway at Gatwick Airport and our time travellers scattering to avoid the police, David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke’s “The Faceless Ones” (Story Production Code KK) turns into an oddly satisfying story of body-snatching aliens offering cut-rate tours for teens. But along the way to the good stuff in this six episode story, there’s a fair bit of filler to slog through.

Cue Benny Hill Theme

Credit should be given to the writers for attempting to show the difficulties the Doctor and his companions would have trying to enter an international airport from the tarmac (back in pre-jetway days) without passports or other identity papers—such appearances have, in the past, been glossed over with nary a mention—but where some simple trick on the Doctor’s part to get into the terminal would have sufficed, instead we are treated to overly-long sequences with immigration agents and officious bureaucrats who are less concerned with a dead body than with a missing passport. Still, there’s some humor about the affair, and when they escape, an inspector wryly notes that it shouldn’t be hard to find a rumpled man in a frock coat and a young lad in a kilt.

Note the emphasis, however, on two individuals, rather than the current TARDIS complement of four. Ben and Polly make no appearance after episode two, save for a filmed inset of their departure in episode six. They’ve been written out of the show, and though their leaving is treated with substantially more dignity than Dodo’s abrupt rest cure in “The War Machines,” they could easily have played substantive roles in the events of the story. Instead, they are captured by the aliens and serve as spurs to action for the Doctor.

Events start quickly enough, with Polly witnessing a murder in the hangar occupied by the aliens’ tour company, Chameleon Tours, a name that sits a bit too much on point. Polly reports the murder to the Doctor, who is intrigued and determined to investigate. Though the story returns to the scene of the crime far too many times, a sense of mystery does surround the evil goings-on, with the aliens (who, chameleon-like, look like humans) not tipping their hands via narration or action. The viewer has no idea that aliens are even at work here, with the shady motives of Chameleon Tours completely opaque, beyond the fact that they killed a man for seeing the postcards. Sinister secret society? Corrupt corporate creeps? Dastardly devious deltiologists? The first episode ends with a monster teaser that, while very much in the show’s tradition, nevertheless feels fresh. There’s actual mystery here!

Back of the head of a Faceless One

And then, in the second episode, everyone talks at length about how they figured out all the clues from the first episode (including the unsent Spanish stamp!), dispelling (almost) all the mystery.

Episodes two and three drag rather mightily, as the Doctor bounces from authority figure to authority figure, in between multiple visits to the Chameleon Tours offices and hangar. At this point in his tenure, Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor has revealed himself as rather respectful of the need to involve the proper authorities whenever possible. Upon finding the dead body of an inspector, he wants to alert those in charge (whom he hurriedly asserts are not the police), and even after escaping custody once (on immigration charges), he returns to the Commandant of the airport yet again in an attempt to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation. The Doctor behaves similarly in “The Macra Terror,” essentially turning himself in over and over just to have a word with the person in charge. He considers himself clever enough to talk his way out of most situations, or at least plant enough doubt in the minds of others to aid his cause.

Inspector, meet the Doctor

With Polly and Ben captured by Chameleon Tours, a pseudo-companion arises, Samantha Briggs, the sister of one of the tour company’s passengers. He never returned from Rome, though he sent his sister a postcard. Trying to find him, she learned that he never actually checked into a hotel in Rome and alerted the authorities. She attempts to talk to the company’s representative at Gatwick, who happens to be…Polly. One of the aliens has taken on her shape and her knowledge, and bizarrely, though her connection with the Doctor and Jamie is known to the aliens, she is put to work at the company’s kiosk in Gatwick Airport while the Doctor is still at large. Much as Sara Kingdom in “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” Samantha acts exactly as a companion would, taking it upon herself to investigate dangerous situations and coming up with a vital bit of knowledge that ultimately saves the day. She even nudges away an advancing laser beam (shades of Goldfinger) with a purse mirror. That she does not join the Doctor and Jamie at the end of the story comes as a genuine surprise, given the build-up in her role and the departure of Ben and Polly.

None of the youthful passengers who partake in Chameleon Tours’ budget offerings to Zurich and Dubrovnik ever reach their destinations, and though, as it transpires, fifty thousand of them have been taken by the aliens, it is the disappearance of that lone lad from Liverpool that has aroused the interest of authorities in Scotland Yard. Suspicion has been allayed by having the tourists fill out postcards before they reach their destinations; the postcards are then stamped and mailed from the intended destination, assuring parents and loved ones that the youths have arrived safely. And where do the youths really wind up? Well, in drawers, of course.

Image via

The passengers on the flights are miniaturized in their seats shortly past take-off, after which a flight attendant collects them in a bucket. The plane then turns into a spaceship and flies into outer space, where it docks with a satellite, at which point the youths are transferred to storage drawers. For this story to be one of those mostly missing on film (only episodes one and three exist in the archive) strikes one as a greater shame than normal, owing to all the model work, including the transforming Vickers VC10 airliner.

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A captured alien eventually reveals to the Doctor that his planet suffered a terrible cataclysm, leaving them dying and without identities. They’re faceless, though otherwise generally humanoid in appearance. They need the young humans to copy their species onto, and the assumption is that their spaceship does not have room for fifty thousand full-sized humans for the trip back. The (reversible) process that copies a human’s identity and memory to the alien requires that the alien Chameleon and the “Original” both wear an arm sleeve with controls on it; removing the sleeve from the Original causes the Original to awaken from a trance and the Chameleon to die.

Here, however, we begin to realize that, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the Chameleons are not the supreme intelligence in the universe. The vulnerability of the sleeves makes for a dodgy disguise, and the Doctor runs around pulling up shirt sleeves looking for them. Too, despite making multiple trips to their satellite-spaceship daily, they leave twenty-five Originals on Earth rather than stashing them for safekeeping in outer space. And where do they hide these bodies? In the trunks of the Originals’ cars in Gatwick Airport car park, where Samantha from Liverpool finds them after some very minor detective work.

Their discovery allows the Doctor, who has made his way to the Chameleon spaceship by pretending to be a Chameleon version of himself, to exploit a division amongst the Chameleons. The Chameleon leadership has ensured that their own Originals are onboard the spaceship, and when the Commandant back at Gatwick begins unplugging Originals and killing their copied Chameleons, those with Originals still at Gatwick rebel, accepting the Doctor’s offer to spare their lives in exchange for returning the fifty thousand mini-teens. Once more, the Second Doctor puts himself in harm’s way, confident that he will be able to talk his way out of it by exploiting doubts on the part of his captors.

The Doctor is keen not to eliminate the Chameleon people. While he won’t allow the currently copied humans to remain copied, he expresses hope that the Chameleons will find another way out of their predicament with a hopeful speech, free from revenge or malice. Once the threat is resolved, he’s willing to behave magnanimously:

Doctor: So long as you keep your side of the bargain, you may return to your planet unharmed. Perhaps your scientists will be able to find some way out of their dilemma. I may be able to, ah, give them one or two ideas of my own.

Jamie, out from the shadow of Polly and Ben, plays a more significant role in this story than in prior stories to date, though oddly he’s still second fiddle to Samantha for much of it. He’s eager to share information with authorities and lacking in discretion; a nuanced time traveller, he is not. He’s not above a bit of deception here, as he kisses Samantha in order to steal her plane ticket for a Chameleon Tours flight. And Frazer Hines gets to speak with a non-Scottish accent when Jamie is copied by a Chameleon on board the satellite-spaceship, causing the Doctor to express a fondness for that brogue.

Polly and Ben, as noted, depart in this story via a filmed inset at the end of the sixth episode, Anneke Wills and Michael Craze’s actual departure from the set having taken place earlier. As it turns out, the day the Chameleons are defeated, July 20, 1966, is just immediately after WOTAN is defeated. Quite a week for London. Ben and Polly express a desire to stay in a normal world, in their own world, but they also see that the Doctor might well need them. This recognition of the Doctor as needing his companions has always been hinted at, but the explicit acknowledgement of it here makes this departure as significant for the viewer as that of Susan. The Doctor’s loss is felt keenly, so much so that a little bit of mythos-building regarding the Doctor’s origins is easily missed:

Polly: The thing is, it, it is our world.

Doctor: Yes, I know. You’re lucky. I never got back to mine.

A proper goodbye, then, even if the story preceding it rather marginalizes the two companions who ushered in the Second Doctor’s era.

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For all the foibles in the story’s plot and its excessive length, “The Faceless Ones” nevertheless provides a satisfying experience. The Doctor is in his element, matching wits with authority figures and identity-hopping aliens with ease, there are strong science-fiction elements (including the transforming airliner effects), and it ends strongly, with a race to find the Originals and Polly and Ben saying goodbye.

Oh, and for the first time ever, the story doesn’t end with the Doctor and companions getting back in the TARDIS and going somewhere else (either seen or implied), because someone has stolen the TARDIS from Gatwick. The Doctor is staying in London for a bit.

(Selected images via BBC Photonovel for “The Faceless Ones”)

(Previous Story: The Macra Terror)

(Next Story: The Evil of the Daleks)

Post 36 of the Doctor Who Project

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