Well, I can’t get everything right.
For a series built around the conceit of change, by Season Eighteen Doctor Who hadn’t changed much in a very long time. Tom Baker took on the Doctor’s scarf—er, mantle—in Season Twelve, some five and a half years prior, and while the stories and direction undoubtedly bent towards the star’s predilections for humor and action, a shared thread of narrative and visual style linked the Fourth Doctor’s stories with those of his predecessors. John Nathan-Turner, taking over as producer from Graham Williams, a veteran of three seasons himself, turns David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive” (Story Production Code 5N) into his declaration of intent to bring about as much change in the series as any regeneration of title character ever could.
From the very beginning, nothing about “The Leisure Hive” feels familiar, with a new title sequence and a new title theme causing immediate dissonance: bright, twangy electronic music accompanying the Doctor’s face forming from a field of stars in a bold declaration of newness. Director Lovett Bickford, in his only work for the series, opens with a long tracking shot of a deserted Brighton beach, an ominous gust whipping empty beach chairs and threatening to blow over canvas cabanas. It’s moody and eerie, leading to a bit of a shock when the TARDIS appears amidst the abandoned beach accessories. And then K-9 explodes because Romana gets huffy with him. Nope, this is not Season Seventeen, nor indeed Doctor Who as it has been presented before.
From that windswept beach, the setting changes—by means of an elaborate dissolve intended to be appreciated on its own rather than as a transitional technique in the background—to the planet Argolis, wracked by radiation after a war that lasted twenty minutes. The remaining few Argolins, rendered sterile by the cataclysm, have set up the Leisure Hive, a recreational resort dedicated not just to entertainment but to fostering an understanding between peoples, so that conflicts can be avoided in the future. The chief draw of the site comes from their burgeoning work with tachyonics, used here as shorthand for the manipulation and reduplication of physical objects from tachyon particles. It’s still technobabble, but with at least a patina of scientific backing.
The Doctor and Romana arrive on Argolis in search of some leisure time themselves, the Doctor deciding to forego use of the Randomizer circuit installed at the end of Season Sixteen to prevent the Black Guardian from tracking them. While the Randomizer does play a further role in the story, it’s a good example of how Nathan-Turner intends to make frequent use of the series’ back history; now it’s not just fans who remember what happened in episode 4G, it’s the producer, too, and if there’s an oblique reference to be made, or a canonical conflict to be explained away, he’ll do it, rather than letting it slide as past producers might. The story’s action is likewise very specifically dated, to 2290, a start at ironing out, or at least restarting, a wildly conflicting timeline once and for all.
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that good portions of the story’s action are inspired by the new technology available to the BBC effects department, in particular video editing tools that enable flashy dissolves like that seen at the start as well as more seamless color separation overlay scenes and the ability to separate parts of a moving image on screen. Indeed, without this ability, the concept of tachyonic object manipulation would have required extensive, and likely unsuccessful, model work. Here, in addition to demonstrating zero-gravity squash, it’s used for a particularly frightful cliffhanger, with the Doctor torn, limb from limb, as he screams in agony…
While the Doctor’s dismemberment winds up being played for laughs, with Tom Baker’s broadly smiling face zoomed in on when he reveals he was merely playing with a tachyonic copy of himself, the same technology just minutes earlier had actually ripped a visitor apart during a demonstration led by Pangol (David Haig), the youngest of the Argolins by far and their lead tachyonic engineer. Paired with an offer by the Argolins’ ancient enemy, the Foamasi, to buy the bankrupt planet of Argolis itself, the audience realizes quickly that some scheme is in the works to sabotage the Leisure Hive, a belief quickly reinforced by scenes of scaly clawed hands ripping cables out of wall panels.
Meanwhile, a scientist from Earth, Hardin (Nigel Lambert), has arrived on Argolis to unveil his work using tachyonics to bring about rejuvenation by means of reversing the flow of time, using the same “recreation generator” that powers the “experiential grid” at the heart of the Leisure Hive. He also happens to be in love with Mena (Adrienne Corri), the leader of Argolis, who is nearing death and can only be saved through his experiments. His work, though, is fraudulent, paid for by a rich human con artist who appears, threatens Hardin, then is killed after finding a human mask disguise in a room, all in the space of five minutes. The death comes from those same claws seen earlier.
Director Bickford and Nathan-Turner work assiduously to delay the revelation of the Foamasi, a reptilian species that has been trying to make reparations to the Argolin in the forty years since the war took place. Viewers see an eye, a claw, a foot, a tail, but not the creature in the whole until the third of four episodes. It’s an effective strategy, not least because the Foamasi costumes themselves tend to the underwhelming, seeming little more than ill-fitting green fabric suits, though the heads work well enough in close-up.
The problem with the Foamasi is the problem of “The Leisure Hive” broadly, attractive and interesting in flashes but an unsatisfying whole. Too many stories are trying to be told here, competing not just with each other but with Bickford’s incessant need to stylize his direction. Scenes are shot from below, behind, and above, often heedless of shadows or other impediments to visual storytelling. Just as he revels in shots where people are talking over one another, or sound is coming from off-stage, overlaid across the action on screen, so too does the story fall all over itself.
At heart, the tale is one of revenge. Fisher’s story assumes that no one has noticed that the youngest Argolin, Pangol, is far younger than he should be given that all Argolins were made sterile forty years prior. He is “the child of the generator,” a tachyonic clone, and he intends to create an army of himself to finish the war with the Foamasi, against Mena’s wishes. In what passes for a grand revelation, the Doctor notes that the “recreation” generator is actually a “re-creation” generator.
The Foamasi involvement centers around a criminal element, not the species as a whole, a refreshing broadening of the usual approach where all alien species are monolithic in attitude and intention. Two Foamasi gangsters, the heads of a crime family (and note that Foamasi is an anagram for Mafiosa, as Miles and Wood point out in their superlative About Time), seek to take over Argolis as a base of operations to avoid the Foamasi government. They have disguised themselves as Brock (John Collins) and Vargos (Martin Fisk), the Hive’s human business representatives, who are pushing the Argolins to sign a deal to sell the planet.
The “good” Foamasi show up part way through the third episode, rescuing Romana from being aged to death in the generator. In a favorite Fisher plot point, they cannot be understood, even by the Doctor or Romana, until they unmask the rogue reptiles, apprehend them, and take their translator device, thankfully a smaller one than in “The Creature from the Pit.” The Foamasi ambassador (Andrew Lane) wishes nothing other than peaceful relations with the Argolins, a Pertwee-esque inversion of the usual “all monsters are bad” approach of which Doctor Who is frequently guilty.
The third strand in the story, that of Hardin’s seemingly unrequited love for Mena and his desire to save her from death, seems equally shoehorned in. Mena, though at first a seemingly cold bureaucrat, truly believes in the quest for peace, and her passing will yield control of the planet to the headstrong Pangol. Hardin and Romana perfect a technique for using the recreation generator to move time backwards, but a hidden device in the generator—placed there by Pangol to create his clone army—winds up aging people instead for some reason, as the Doctor finds out when he is forced to submit to a test of the device as a bizarre means of proving his innocence for a murder committed by the criminal Foamasi. (And no, it doesn’t make much more sense if you watch it.)
Ultimately, the Doctor manages to sneak into the generator right before Pangol begins duplicating himself, and by inserting the Randomizer circuit from the TARDIS, all the clones turn out to be quite temporary tachyonic images of the Doctor himself, rather than permanent proxies of Pangol, with the side benefit of returning him to his proper age. When Pangol tries again, Hardin pushes the dying Mena into the generator, thinking he has solved the rejuvenation problem, and in the ensuing melee, the device restores twenty years of life to Mena while returning Pangol to infancy. A potential war between Argolis and the Foamasi is averted, despite Pangol blowing up the Foamasi’s shuttle, and the Doctor and Romana just slip away.
Most Doctor Who stories wrap up a bit pithily in the final episode, but few do so with as slapdash of a resolution as “The Leisure Hive.” If nothing else, Romana has helped develop a makeshift form of regeneration that should have astounding repercussions across the galaxy, though no one seems to notice it at the time. At least the Doctor gets to hand the child Pangol to Hardin at the end and say, “Have a baby,” a delightful play off of his frequent proffering of jellied sweets.
Tom Baker seems oddly tamed in this story, with no evident moments of improvisation and a real equanimity in terms of sharing the stage. He is weighed down with makeup for the latter half of the story after being aged some five hundred years—though certainly nothing like the makeup he’ll be burdened with in the next story—but beyond that, he’s a subdued presence, though no less vibrant in his moments, the broad trademark grin making several appearances.
Romana figures fairly prominently in this story, as she has in most of Fisher’s work for the series, giving Lalla Ward a good turn on the screen. She is called upon to scream more than once, but she carries the bulk of the technobabble and solves most of the scientific problems, a nice use of a companion who is at least the Doctor’s equal in such matters. She also carries scenes by herself, a sign of confidence by both Fisher and Nathan-Turner.
That confidence does not extend to poor K-9, though, John Lesson returning to voice the soon-doomed metal mutt for a single scene at the beginning, right before he explodes in the English Channel, as robotic rovers are wont to do. Repairs will be made, but the countdown to remove K-9 from the series has begun.
John Nathan-Turner, along with new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, have set out their stall with “The Leisure Hive,” declaring that the future of Doctor Who will be detail-observant, fast-paced, scientifically-based (sort of), exciting, and just plain new, however and wherever possible. They’ve also signaled that story takes a back seat to this new style, at least anywhere the two might be in conflict; explosions over exposition, if you will. “The Leisure Hive” feels undeniably fresh, with innovative (if at times irritating) direction, a revamped sound, flashy effects, and a slightly toned-down lead actor who is nevertheless at the peak of his form. It’s also a narrative disaster. The core concept of a dying race creating a clone army to wreak revenge against an apologetic enemy is a story made for Doctor Who, but one gets the sense that Nathan-Turner kept pushing Fisher to add more, more, more, until it burst at the seams. Almost like a Foamasi trying to fit into a human suit…
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Post 113 of the Doctor Who Project