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The Hand of Fear

Reviewed by Peter Adamson

"Listen - I don't want to make any snap decisions, but this isn't South Croydon."

As an ingredient of the fan-celebrated Season 14, The Hand of Fear has almost become famous for being not so famous - presumably because of the company it kept. Its successor, Robert Holmes' revisionist The Deadly Assassin, has been so universally embraced by Who fandom as to make it renowned once more for simply having survived the initial barrage of fan outrage it received. Not so The Hand of Fear, whose story, a simple face-value stranger-on-a-strange-planet, has been diluted through various re-visitations and comparisons. At best it is known as Sarah Jane's Last Story, but there is more to this small tale than a departed companion and a handful of good quotations.

I have memories of seeing The Hand of Fear just over ten years ago, and being drawn to two new concepts brought about by the story. Of course, I probably watched the story to see Sarah Jane go, and because by this time I was hooked on Tom Baker's Doctor; but to me the concept of a silicon based life-form which wasn't a slug (there'd be a chance to see those yet), and a villain who was both female and male made The Hand of Fear a curious story indeed. It is for the most part a very traditional story, but by offering clever inversions and variations on Who's established routines provides a diverting tale with compelling characters and intriguing plot devices.

"Is that Kastria?"
"It is."
"...It's very nice."

The use of locations is quite good, and Lennie Mayne's direction offers a concise, yet far-reaching scope of the Nunton Power Complex - there is none of the pointless strolling around that other location shooting is guilty of, even (it must be said) City of Death. Even the camera-destroying explosion, surely so easy to have lifted from stock footage, is an impressive sequence, its certain location in the same quarry as the principal scenes allowing the Doctor's very real concern and worry over Sarah's burial to be easily taken on board by the viewer. Once at Nunton Power Complex, sets take over, but these too are realised sensibly, with few flashing lights and whirring tape-spool computers in the background. Of course it could be observed that the Complex layout is not entirely convincing - the main reactor oughtn't to be so accessible; in fact most would be virtually surrounded in insulating 'heavy water', and certainly shouldn't resemble a room full of dry ice; yet these criticisms are cosmetic quibbles, and therefore hardly worth mention.

The supporting cast at Nunton are economic and well drawn. Glyn Houston's Professor Watson is a believable supervisor who is sensibly offered a full explanation by the Doctor off-screen, yet who remains steady throughout the drama, particularly when, in a scene of great pathos, he telephones his wife and daughter to tell them he will be late home, quite certain that his chances of leaving the now gone critical power station are very slim indeed. It is a shame then that upon Eldrad's release he also becomes the Aggressive Human figure of the story, showing Eldrad the ways of Earth's inhabitants, and paying the price for his fear and misunderstanding.

The special effects are on the whole quite well up to the standard of 1976 BBC - the cardboard eyepieces given another look-in (sorry) after Planet of Evil. By far the most remarkable is Eldrad's animated hand - stilled only when as a model held aloft in tongs, it crawls around the complex and in and out of its container with effective realism - hard to believe that it is the product of CSO at all in some scenes, and worthy of The Addams Family at the best of times! Kastria is less convincing, but this is another quibble, and clearly the script called for a large number of different locations to be set within the planet's catacombs as the three principals make their way to the Thermal Chambers. Eldrad's rebirth is worth noting however - the false death of his pulverisation is achieved nicely, and fits well with the maintained curiosity of his mineral nature.

Eldrad himself is a fine creation; highly attractive in female form, though slightly bulky later on when played by Steven Thorne - somehow the 'pencil point' head doesn't quite work, and reminded me of one of the characters from the 'Palace of Righteous Justice' in Harry Enfield's Television Programme. Perhaps Thorne ought to have shaved off his beard as well! Still, for his first incarnation, Eldrad is a welcome change from what would be conventional models of crystalline creature designs, the cumbersome Ogri and Kraags of seasons sixteen and seventeen.

"Well I'm called the Doctor and this is Sarah Jane Smith. Say hello to the lady."
"Hi."

It is interesting that for his first incarnation Eldrad adopts the figure of a human female - said to be Sarah, but looking for all the world like a jewel-encrusted Nefertiti. The device of endowing the guest alien with both a twin gender (for all intents and purposes) and a twin personality, allowing an intriguingly full character - one of the most rounded of Baker's early adversaries. As Eldrad Judith Paris offers a remarkably engrossing portrayal of an alien who is undeniably the potential villain of the piece, yet is wholly compelling also as one struggling to master a diplomatic persona of supplication. At times Eldrad's half-truth about his/her plight becomes quite convincing - enough for the Doctor to be as taken in as Sarah Jane, making for a more interesting unfolding of events. In the end it is equally inevitable, but something of a loss when Paris reliquishes her role to Stephen Thorne, and Eldrad's previous humbled incarnation is lost to a shouting, raging tyrant figure, literally a new 'regeneration'. Stephen Thorne's portrayal of Eldrad brings in some interesting echoes with his previous anti-heroes of the series. In Eldrad we see the last of an ancient race (Azal in The Daemons), an engineering genius and pioneer who has escaped almost certain death at the hands of his own kind and now wishes to gain revenge and reclaim his once elevated position (Omega in The Three Doctors).

In another interesting development, it transpires that the Doctor has very little to do in the story -Sarah has the lion's share of the acting, being vessel and agent to Eldrad, and once on Kastria, Rokon's apparition delivers the story's immortal sentence of judgement on the doomed Eldrad. If this were told from Eldrad's perspective, it would be undoubtedly be a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, for here we have an outcast figure struggling to return to his home from exile, to seize again the reins of power, only to find all he has worked for has been taken from him millions of lifetimes beforehand. Somehow it cannot fail to compel, that utter humiliation Eldrad realises when he is told that as an entire race the last surviving Kastrians choose ultimate annihilation rather than risk the chance of his return and certain emancipation

"You know, travel does broaden the mind."

The opening scene sets the story going - dying Kastria is ejecting the traitorous Eldrad, ensuring his demise by disintegrating his Obliteration Module far from Kastria's system - as far as they can manage at their weakest ebb of power. Presumably a Kastrian, or at least Eldrad, is very difficult to kill, and to be sure, even the Doctor cannot guarantee Eldrad is dead at the story's conclusion. All of this is preamble however, and soon we are taken to the second, less obvious plot of the story - that of Sarah Jane's departure.

It is perhaps fitting then that the opening scenes of the Doctor and his companion should be in a quarry. Much has been made of the assumed joke that the two travellers, so used to windswept rocky barren planets, do not recognise a common quarry in England when they see one and do so at their peril; but as an opening device to set the story of How Sarah Jane Came To Leave The Doctor it is effective in its simplicity, for here they are alone, not far from the TARDIS, presumably taking a breather and having no-one to interact with but each other. It cannot last of course, but for that brief time there is a reassuring, familiar feel to the scene. There are others like this staggered through the story - the Doctor later goes back into the Power Station to face Eldrad and is stopped by Sarah as she rushes to join him. "I worry about you" she says. "Yes, but I worry about you." replies the Doctor. "Then I'll just have to be careful." "We'll both be careful." Small, intimate scenes like this help to break down the oft-touted claim that Sarah's departure is a cold and heartless one from an outside point of view. There is however a definite friendship conveyed here - not just one assumed from the various and many stories the two share beforehand, but actually within this, the last and perhaps most important story of all since Planet of Spiders.

"I must be mad. I'm sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left right and centre. I'm sick of being savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing whether I'm coming or going, or being ... and boy am I sick of that sonic screwdriver!"

This is Sarah's story; the last straw as she is used against her will and without her consent as a vessel of an alien power; led into a life-threatening situation of a well guarded nuclear power station, and even into highly radioactive areas of the same centre. She even survives a would-be nuclear attack, though without Eldrad's help it is doubtful whether the jeep she and the Doctor and Professor take cover behind would have been worth consideration. Throughout the story she is mindful of the welfare of those around her - the Doctor, and even Eldrad when, for a time, the two TARDIS crew-members are taken in by their would-be aggressor.

Elisabeth Sladen didn't want to be married off, or killed off, but to just go. With this in mind then, her departure is entirely credible - nothing new happens to her that hasn't been done to Sarah Jane before, but there is something about this story's treatment which separates itself from Sarah's other notable endured trials - blindness in Morbius, possession in Spiders. In accordance with this Sladen gives one of her strongest performances, her scenes of wandering possessed around the Nunton Complex are effectively chilling and uncanny. Perhaps it's just that as fans we know this story mainly for this one reason and judge it accordingly - probably the main reason The Hand of Fear is often overlooked in season evaluations. Perhaps then it is for the same reason, that it purports to be pedestrian Sarah Jane but offers more than the standard fare, that it is memorable and poignant; and when the final farewell is shared between the two in the TARDIS console room, little is said because in a way it has already been said. The Doctor is preoccupied with his summons to Gallifrey, and, as chance would have it, must deposit Sarah Jane at her home before he returns to his; his awkward way of having to farewell another friend voicing itself in a stumbling "You're a good girl, Sarah...". I don't believe his cold nature - so often trotted out in reference to Pyramids of Mars is to blame, rather that this being the end, there is nothing more to say, leaving a genuinely touching moment's hesitation between the two. This would be echoed twenty years later in the TV Movie, with diminished effect, but given the long gap between the stories and the similarity they share, one cannot help appreciating that this feeling of awkwardness and aloofness is something that must echo through each companions' voluntary departure the Doctor is witness to.

"... Don't forget me."
"Oh Sarah. Don't you forget me."

So, a simple tale, told in part already in the series - even within the previous season's The Seeds of Doom (an ancient alien life-form gathers energy from its surroundings), but with enough moments of occasional brilliance to keep the interest up. As a final farewell to a much loved and still well remembered companion, it achieves its aim without ballyhoo or fanfare, but with dignity and sensibility. Sarah's departure is in itself a tongue in cheek reference to not only her own history in the TARDIS, but that of any other hypothetical companion. Aside from Tegan's 'It's stopped being fun any more' - a justifiable complaint in her own era, I can't think of a more open and self- referential departure line. There's something comforting in that honesty, not only between Sarah and the Doctor, but between the show's characters and their audience, that endears this scene above all others in the story. Sarah leaves the TARDIS a firm friend of the Doctor's, and there isn't a tear in sight. Not a classic story - it probably never will be, but it should be a serious contender. And I haven't even mentioned the Andy Pandy outfit.

This item appeared in TSV 52 (November 1997).

Index nodes: The Hand of Fear