Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear Review

This review contains plot spoilers

The TARDIS lands in a quarry that, just for once, is meant to be a quarry on Earth rather than some alien planet. The Doctor and Sarah are caught in a blast. Sarah is dug out of the rubble clutching an ancient stone hand. This hand is all that remains of Eldrad, from the planet Kastria, who was blown up in space by his own people. So why is Sarah acting strangely, taking the hand in a box to the local nuclear power station…?

Nowadays there’s a common answer to the criticism that the David Tennant-era Doctor Who doesn’t live up to the classic Who era – that it’s a children’s show and always was, and middle-aged fanboys and fangirls who grew up with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker as the Doctor are looking back through rose-tinted spectacles. There’s some truth in that, though I wouldn’t generally agree – both eras have their share of classics-in-the-making and duds. But then comes along a story like 2006’s School Reunion, in which Tennant’s Doctor and his present companion Rose meet Sarah Jane Smith (still played by Elisabeth Sladen) again. That’s a show aimed squarely at people like me who watched The Hand of Fear back in 1976. I turned twelve during this serial’s original run, and I hadn’t seen it again until this DVD review checkdisc arrived. It is now what it seemed to me back then: an enjoyable but middle-ranking story from one of the series’ finest eras, and most notable as being The One Where Sarah Left.

Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, The Hand of Fear is a four-episode story that tells its story in three acts, taking a sharp turn with each one. It begins with Sarah and her possession by the hand of the title for the first episode and a half, including a memorable cliffhanger to Part One when the hand comes to life. Act Two is set entirely within Nunton Power Station and involves the regeneration by radiation of Eldrad (Judith Paris). Then, towards the end of Part Three, the Doctor and Sarah accompany Eldrad back to the ruins of Kastria… The first two acts work the best, with Glyn Houston giving considerable authority to the part of Professor Watson, the chief of the power station. Then Eldrad arrives in Part Three, in the striking form of Judith Paris in a tight-fitting costume and her voice modulated low. (Paris had trained as a dancer and was then best known for her roles for Ken Russell in The Devils and Savage Messiah) The final part, which mostly takes place on Kastria is a let-down. The dodginess of 70s Who special effects has been overstated, but Kastria looks stagey compared to the real nuclear power station (actually in Oldbury-on-Severn, local to co-writer Bob Baker) they got to film in. Secondly, Paris is written out as Eldrad, fatally wounded, regenerates into his/her true form. Stephen Thorne takes over the role, and it’s not really his fault that he fails to live up to his predecessor. There’s also inevitably a sense of déjà vu about Thorne in this role: he had been Azal in The Daemons and Omega in The Three Doctors and his Eldrad isn’t sufficiently distinguished (vocally if not visually) from these. No problem with the direction of Lennie Mayne, particularly in the earlier stages: note the use of fish-eye lenses to make Sarah look sinister. Sadly, this was amongst Mayne’s last work: the following year, he was lost at sea in the English Channel. Mayne’s wife, Frances Pidgeon, plays Miss Jackson in The Hand of Fear.

And then, with five minutes to go, Sarah leaves in what was meant to be South Croydon but is (she suspects) not there at all. It’s a lump-in-throat moment as it was thirty years ago. UNIT and all the regular characters from the Third Doctor’s era had by now been written out of the series – this is the first story set on near-contemporary Earth since the 1960s which doesn’t feature any of them – and with Sarah’s departure, the last ties to Pertwee’s Doctor had been cut. In story terms, the Doctor has received a summons to his home planet of Gallifrey, to which he is unable to take any companion. That story was The Deadly Assassin, a story of considerable importance in the series’s history, both positively and negatively, which I intend to describe in more detail when that story comes up for DVD release. But suffice to say, you sensed then that things would never be quite the same again. And in retrospect you were right.

After the two-disc releases of the six-part The Genesis of the Daleks and the seven-part Inferno, this four-parter is given a single disc, encoded as ever for Regions 2 and 4. That’s not to say that the Restoration Team have skimped, as there are still worthwhile extras here.

As usual for 70s Who, The Hand of Fear was shot with a mixture of 16mm film for exteriors and video for interiors. This story wasn’t in as bad a state as certain others – it didn’t have to be VidFIREd or colourised or reverse-standards-converted – but even so the Restoration Team have done an exemplary job. (Anyone interested in the technical details of the restoration, is directed to their website.) Anyone who has been following my reviews of the Doctor Who DVDs will know what I’m about to say next: given the less-than-standard-definition source materials, this is as good as 70s Who is ever likely to look.

There’s no problem with the soundtrack either, which is in the original mono. This is a professional job of sound mixing, with dialogue, effects and Dudley Simpson’s score perfectly balanced. It probably sounds better now than it did thirty years ago, given the lo-fi television speakers this soundtrack was originally designed for.

There are the usual six chapter stops per episode. Subtitles are available for the serial itself and all the features bar the commentary. There are also the ever-useful production subtitles, this time provided by Martin Wiggins.

That commentary features Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Bob Baker, Judith Paris, Stephen Thorne and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. These have clearly been recorded in several sessions and edited together – there are giveaways such as commentators being referred to and not answering – but the result is pretty seamless and very entertaining. Tom Baker especially is on fine form, though his frequent reminiscences of someone followed by the words “he/she’s dead” are a little disconcerting.

“Changing Time: Living and Leaving Doctor Who” (50:28) is a comprehensive featurette that does double duty. It’s a look back at The Hand of Fear itself, and also a retrospective of Sarah’s time with the Doctor, beginning with Elisabeth Sladen’s casting and also covering the transition between Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in the title role. Interviewees include all the commentary participants except the presumably unavailable Judith Paris, plus former producer Barry Letts, former script editor Terrance Dicks, Glyn Houston, special effects designer Colin Mapson and others. A major absentee – of those still alive – is co-writer Dave Martin. This is a well-presented item, though the device of having the next speaker waiting in the background of the present speaker is a bit selfconscious.

Next item is a compilation of continuity announcements (1:25), including the one from the end of the previous serial The Masque of Mandragora. This is really one for the connoisseurs: it’s less fascinating than similar items on other DVDs, as to what was on TV at the same time. We do however get a plug for the Doctor Who exhibitions in Blackpool and Longleat, and an announcement of the hundredth edition of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game following Part Four.

The following item is an instant hit of nostalgia for any adolescents of the 1970s such as yours truly: an excerpt from Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (10:56) from 2 October 1976 featuring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Noel Edmonds is our host, and it’s uncanny how little he has changed, longer and darker hair notwithstanding. Edmonds interviews Baker and Sladen, who then take phone-in questions from children watching. This excerpt is particularly rare as the show it comes from no longer exists in the BBC archives: it survives from an off-air video copy which has been restored for this DVD. The result is certainly soft but the bright colours of the set come over very well.

The remaining extras are a photo gallery (5:07) and, for those with DVD-ROM facilities, reproductions of the 1977 Doctor Who Annual and programme listings from Radio Times of all four parts plus the Swap Shop programme mentioned above.

Finally, there’s an Easter Egg. I’m risking sounding like a sad old fortysomething, but throughout the Seventies the news/magazine programme Nationwide followed the early evening News on BBC1 every weekday. This Easter Egg is a rather blurry video copy from January 1976 of Elisabeth Sladen being interviewed by Dilys Morgan about her then-forthcoming departure from Doctor Who with a Dalek lurking threateningly in the background. This runs 1:42 and can be accessed by highlighting and clicking on the Doctor Who logo at the top left of the main menu screen.

I hadn’t seen The Hand of Fear since 1976, not on UK Gold, not on the previous VHS release. I’d never call this one of the best ever serials, but it’s a well made and enjoyable one. And of course it’s where Sarah left, and this programme which formed a significant part of my childhood and early teens changed. We can’t go back again, but with this DVD which is up to the usual standards of the range, we can at least preserve a part of our past.

7 out of 10
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Last updated: 15/06/2018 20:55:33

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