Yes, just like Andy Pandy!
The Doctor has certainly been wrong before, but seldom does a story actively use the Doctor’s curiosity and comity against him—and against the audience—like Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Hand of Fear” (Story Production Code 4N). Right from the start, the viewer sees Eldrad, owner of the eponymous appendage, sentenced to obliteration by a people desperate to see him gone, but subsequent events in the story go to great lengths to convince the Doctor, and us, that Eldrad just might be misunderstood.
That it doesn’t quite work that way, at least for the viewer, has much to do with the general tenor of the Fourth Doctor’s stories to date; only once, in “Planet of Evil,” has the trope of “humans are the real monsters” been tried with Tom Baker at the helm, and there the nominal monster was a force of nature rather than an individual. Here, Eldrad’s ability to control the minds of humans who interact with his ring signals to the viewer that he is an evil force, responsible for two deaths by the story’s halfway point. One could see the Third Doctor being moved by Eldrad’s later protestations that he was overthrown and betrayed, but for the action-prone Fourth Doctor to so readily accept this possibility comes across oddly, a discordance that feels more plot driven than organic to the story. The viewer often knows more than the Doctor on Doctor Who, but rarely does the viewer know better.
The story itself spends an inordinate amount of time in the first of four episodes setting the stage, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane inadvertently arriving in a British quarry—which is finally just a quarry—right as a huge explosion takes place, burying Sarah Jane and unearthing a disembodied stone hand in the process. The Doctor and another scientist, Carter (Rex Robinson), discover the hand to be based on a silicon life-form matrix that regenerates in the presence of radiation. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane wakes up in hospital with a ring clutched in her hand that causes her to think, over and over, “Eldrad must live.” A few quick blue blasts from the ring later, Sarah Jane has knocked out Carter, stolen the hand, and overpowered the woeful security at a top secret nuclear research facility located conveniently nearby.
Once she has broken in, Sarah Jane takes the plastic container with the hand to the nuclear power core, locks herself in, and then waits in her red-and-white striped overalls for something to happen. She’s not the only one waiting; in place of the traditional monster revelation at the end of the first episode, we have part of a monster instead, as the hand (of fear!) comes to life—in Tupperware…
In fairness, the wriggling severed hand comes across well enough on screen, as do the majority of the effects in the story. Director Lennie Mayne marks his final Doctor Who story with innovative camera work, many shots being framed from below the actors or in extreme fisheye closeup. The industrial complex standing in for the nuclear facility could easily demand billing in the credits given the number of lingering and shadowy long shots it receives. The direction almost makes up for the relative thinness of the plot, with the second episode featuring not the regenerated hand but rather humans acting under the hand’s power. Since it’s difficult to talk to the hand (or its brainwashed minions), lots of running around and explosions substitute for any meaningful plot development.
The person in charge of the plant, Professor Watson (Glyn Houston), does break out of the normal close-minded technocrat role that so often opposes the Doctor in his conflicts with British officialdom, particularly in Baker and Martin’s stories. He’s afforded a moment to call home and speak with his wife and child just before he expects the nuclear reactor to explode, a touching scene that is somewhat undone when he later orders a tactical nuclear strike to destroy the regenerated Eldrad and then tries to shoot the rock creature at close range.
It’s only when Eldrad has regenerated, absorbing all the radiation in the reactor and from the nuclear missiles in the process, that the story really gets started. The Doctor decides that talking to this being responsible for controlling the minds of several people is the best course of action, very much against Sarah Jane’s warnings. While this approach is not out of character for the Doctor taken as a whole, as noted previously it jars in comparison with the Fourth Doctor’s usual modus operandi. Indeed, he waits until after the nuclear missile strike to suggest a more measured approach, more out of curiosity than any recognition that military force would prove futile against such a being.
Ostensibly to make the character more sympathetic, Baker and Martin initially portray Eldrad as female, who has patterned her form on her first contact, Sarah Jane, after being embedded in Jurassic limestone for one hundred and fifty million years. Eldrad (Judith Paris) recognizes the Doctor as a Time Lord after probing his mind to determine his intentions towards her, suggesting that the Time Lords themselves have been in existence for at least as long. She proclaims that she was overthrown by jealous forces on her world, Kastria, who were working with alien invaders to undermine the defenses she set up for her people. In a first for the series, she calls upon the Doctor for help solely based on his being a Time Lord, sworn “to uphold the laws of time and to prevent alien aggression,” in her telling. The Doctor seems moved by this appeal to his duty, and he agrees, but only to help her in the present, being unable to alter history by returning to Kastria in eons past.
The Doctor then invites Eldrad into the TARDIS, another rarity for the series, and takes her to contemporary Kastria. He begins to question her trustworthiness after she attempts to mind probe him in the ship, an effort that fails because the interior of the TARDIS stands in a “state of temporal grace,” preventing such mental intrusions inside of it. (Not that earlier or later writers for the show necessarily take note of this assertion.) But once Eldrad triggers a booby trap on Kastria and suffers a mortal wound, the Doctor focuses entirely on reaching a regeneration chamber to save her. He even dismisses Sarah Jane, who questions whom the traps are designed to keep out and generally highlights the audience’s own awareness that Eldrad is hiding something.
Once Eldrad has returned to his original Kastrian form (Stephen Thorne) via regeneration, he throws off all pretenses, reveals the alien invasion to have been a lie, and prepares to resume his conquest not only of Kastria but of the universe. No one is shocked but the Doctor, though Baker and Martin oddly have Sarah Jane express dismay as well despite her earlier misgivings. A projection of the Kastrian king, Rokon (Roy Skelton), appears to taunt Eldrad, who rushes to seek vengeance on his old foe. He finds instead a desiccated corpse; Rokon, and all of Kastria, died millennia past. Rather than submit to his potential rule should Eldrad return from obliteration, the Kastrian people decided to sacrifice themselves instead, a rather drastic measure given that the initial odds of his survival were stated at one in three million at the beginning of the story.
For all the eloquence of the human-form Eldrad, the Kastrian-form Eldrad merely froths and moans, capable of no tactical or strategic thinking whatsoever. The Doctor and Sarah Jane defeat him by tripping him into an endless abyss with the Doctor’s scarf. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps necessitated because the final ten minutes of the story serve to set up Sarah Jane’s departure as well as the Doctor’s summons to Gallifrey.
With Elisabeth Sladen desiring to leave the show, Sarah Jane finally has enough of the dangers involved in travelling with the Doctor, not to mention his general disregard for her insights and well-being. He’ll do anything to save her, but listening to her is a bridge too far. Sladen receives another strong script, at least in the first half where she is once again possessed for the second story running. An independent Sarah Jane, even if in the service of some malign force, moves the story along in ways that a companionate Sarah Jane does not; it’s a shame that her time on the show did not feature more solo scenes. That the Doctor hypnotizes her himself in order to gain information about Eldrad comes across as a bit cruel, particularly given the opprobrium directed at Eldrad when she does the same to the Doctor.
The Doctor fails to listen to Sarah Jane complaining about her experiences, so that when he receives a telepathic call to return to Gallifrey, alone, he’s stunned that she’s standing there, packed and ready to leave. It’s shocking for the viewer as well—Ben and Polly are the last companions to have left because they wanted to go home, rather than being in love with someone or needing to rule a planet. Certainly, her leave-taking receives more time than almost any prior companion departure, but it still feels abrupt, particularly when she shows dismay at the prospect of actually leaving. The scene of Elisabeth Sladen standing in not-South Croydon, luggage in hand, stands as one of the iconic moments in the Fourth Doctor’s era and the series as a whole.
While the departure of Jo Grant definitely affected Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor—and viewers—it’s difficult at this point to imagine Tom Baker’s Doctor without Sarah Jane Smith, a testament both to Elisabeth Sladen’s performances and the chemistry the two share.
Tom Baker continues to behave with his usual savoir faire, the Fourth Doctor happily inserting himself into any situation with an ease rivaled only by Troughton’s Second Doctor at his finest. Elisabeth Sladen and Judith Paris more than give him a challenge for prominence on screen, however, and we have a story where the Doctor really only advances the plot by being a Time Lord (and owning a long scarf). Still, this promised focus on the Time Lords, particularly the mysterious telepathic call at the end, more than makes up for the fact the plot fits as poorly as a tea cozy on a coffee maker.
In all, “The Hand of Fear” succeeds most at being an atmospheric piece, thanks in large part to Lennie Mayne’s direction. Baker and Martin utilize the series’ lore to good effect and manage to place the Doctor and his adventures into a larger arena that has been missing throughout Tom Baker’s run so far. For the first time in quite some seasons, there’s no real sense of where Doctor Who will go next, an exciting accomplishment indeed for a series in its fourteenth year.
(Previous Story: The Seeds of Doom)
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Post 90 of the Doctor Who Project