Home : Archive : TSV 51-60 : TSV 53 : Review

The Leisure Hive

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

"From his very first story, 'The Leisure Hive', John Nathan Turner provided...renewed difference. Beginning with the explosively updated title and signature tune, 'The Leisure Hive' (1980) visually signified the difference of a new regime..."
- John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado,
Doctor Who - the Unfolding Text

Not since the change of Doctor, entire recording on film and transmission in colour of Spearhead from Space has a Doctor Who story felt so radically different to its preceding season. As is widely known, producer John Nathan-Turner had very clear ideas for bringing Doctor Who into the eighties, and sweeping changes were afoot. The first story of Season 18, The Leisure Hive, naturally enough embodied this mood of change the most.

Beginning life as a 'tongue-in-cheek Mafia story' (the original concept from writer David Fisher) The Leisure Hive was extensively and repeatedly rewritten to become a rather sombre but visually stylish warning against the penalties of war, incorporating script editor Christopher Bidmead's vision for the series' return to a more scientific basis, executive producer Barry Lett's desire for stories which address relevant issues and Nathan-Turner's determination to signal change, while reinforcing strong continuity links at the same time.

Added to this mix was director Lovett Bickford, who strived to tell the story as visually as possible, to the extent of having dialogue removed in favour of "Pictures, pictures, pictures..." Consequently, The Leisure Hive boasts striking and ambitious imagery, the likes of which were seldom if ever seen again on the programme.

"I think we on the Programme have to do different things instead of always playing safe...we must try to 'ring the changes'..."
- John Nathan-Turner, Producer

Season 18 Checklist
Script Editor
Title Sequence
Title Theme
Incidental Music Composer
Costume for the Doctor
Voice (but really the old one) for K-9
Emphasis on dramatic style
(and lots more to come soon...)

Some may recall from 1980 the first publicity photographs to appear in British magazines like Starburst, heralding Season 18 of Doctor Who. Invariably the shots featured were of Tom Baker, in his 'new' costume, wearing the 'cactus' make up from Meglos, or his aged make-up from The Leisure Hive. The inescapable impression given was that the new production team were 'playing around' with the image of the Doctor.

This certainly wasn't too far from the truth as the appearance of the lead character and the programme as a whole was definitely receiving a great amount of adjustment.

Being the first story of Season 18 to be recorded and transmitted, The Leisure Hive became the flagship for Nathan-Turner's vision for Doctor Who in the eighties. And so the viewing public's first taste of this came abruptly, with the unveiling of the new title sequence. Reaction to the new theme music was generally positive, making it a worthy successor to the original, but for many the accompanying sequence took a lot more getting used to. A moving star field could be glimpsed out of the window of any old spacecraft from any old programme, but the previously groundbreaking Doctor Who was now actually using it as the all-important title sequence? This new sequence seemed to lack that vital quality - 'mystery', down-grading our much-loved visual representation of 'time travel' to simply space travel. The new 'glass-like' logo went on to prove itself to be a very durable brand image, but it also seemed to indicate what was wrong with the title sequence: all smooth surface with no weight or substance. Somehow, it seemed to take a new Doctor, in 28 episodes time for the sequence to finally gain complete acceptance.

The story itself also feels very different. Frankly, at times the end result appears as if perhaps the production team were trying just a little too hard to signal change, with the Doctor and Romana occasionally appearing to be guest stars in their own programme, seemingly out of place amongst the rather sterile (though impressive) sets and a determinedly unsmiling cast.

It is welcome to see an obvious attempt to tone down the comic excesses of the previous year, but fortunately The Leisure Hive doesn't suppress all of the humour in Baker's portrayal. Perhaps embellished by the straight-facedness of all those around him, several of his lines are genuinely funny, particularly during the inquiry into the Doctor's involvement in Stimson's murder:
"His scarf murdered Stimson!"
"Arrest the scarf, then!"

Cosmetic changes such as the new, more authentic police box prop, lend deserved dignity to the TARDIS, while Baker's more sombre 'uniform' gives him similar presence. (The Doctor's range of movement does appear somewhat restricted in that coat, however - perhaps because it's new?) It's ironic to note that the same producer who neutralised Tom Baker's multi-coloured look then did exactly the opposite, four years later and with far greater success, for Colin Baker.

"I was a relatively new director with a particularly idiosyncratic style and told stories in pictures."
- Lovett Bickford, director

Director Lovett Bickford has stated that he would rather have done 3 or 4 effects shots 'really well' than have had to try and do the 23 or so which were required for The Leisure Hive. Consequently, the story is notable for the effects shots that were clearly intended, rather than those successfully achieved. Note for example the long pull back from the Doctor and Romana on Brighton beach, ending up in space (that title sequence, again!) Recent big-budget effects films Men in Black and Contact have both featured similar shots, admittedly far more breathtaking, but you saw it attempted first on The Leisure Hive.

Similarly, a long zoom-in on the Hive model, finally cutting to an interior scene obviously aspires to shots we see in various films and television series today, where current technology allows directors to pan right into the windows of models, showing actors inside. Bickford must have made his model-makers very nervous indeed, exposing the Hive miniature to so much scrutiny with his lingering close-ups and tracking shots. Most of them do work very well, however, particularly our first view of the Hive.

Speaking of technology, the BBC's recently acquired Quantel frame manipulation system allows this story to show, for the very first time, the TARDIS materialising within a moving camera shot, instead of the standard 'locked-off' position used since the programmes' inception.


But of course, there's much more to be savoured in The Leisure Hive's unique direction than effects shots. There are many innovations apparent in the composition of scenes - notably the dialogue scene in part three where Pangol expresses his ambivalence to Brock over the Doctor's possible death. Sets with ceilings, an unusual move for Doctor Who, also afford the opportunity for unusual camera angles. The extreme close-ups of the Foamasi eyes, claws, etc in the first part of this story are intriguing, but might also have been deemed necessary considering how appalling the costumes actually look. Thankfully they do appear slightly better on screen than they do in photographs, but as Who monsters the Foamasi are still a giant leap backwards; almost making us yearn for the Monoids and Atlantean fish-people.

The performances in The Leisure Hive are very strong, if a little on the serious side. In this category, the best and worst awards both go to Argolins - the same family, in fact. Adrienne Corri's Mena embodies all of the honour and majesty of her once-proud race with almost every word and gesture, but David Haig as her son, Pangol, is just too ordinary! His plain accent and wearisome belligerence bring to mind any old argumentative git that you're likely to meet in an English pub, hairstyle not-withstanding, of course. It doesn't help, either, that he has to deliver one of those most unforgivable of Doctor Who lines: "Nothing can stop us now..!"

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are as dependable as ever, the latter giving one of her most dramatic performances while the more subdued presentation of the Doctor is a relief after the pop-eyed excesses of the previous story.

Another performance of note is John Collin as Brock. Controlled and urbane, he lends the dramatic weight at Mena's side that Pangol's performance fails to provide. Brock is almost 'Delgado-esque' in appearance and demeanour, until we discover what's got under his skin, of course!

"...The purpose of this Hive is to promote understanding between life-forms of all cultural and genetic types. There must be no more such wars...Even the games and our experiential grid explore alien environments. Each race learns what it is like to be the foreigner."
- Mena, Heresiarch of Argolis, Madam
Chairman of 'the Leisure Planet of Argolis Inc'

Mena's quote, above, predates part of the purpose of the Babylon 5 station and Star Trek: The Next Generation's 'holo-deck'; another example of the surprising forward thinking to be found in this story. Fundamentally The Leisure Hive promotes the importance of cross-cultural cooperation and understanding, while depicting some of the ultimate consequences of their failure - the potential extinction of an entire race. The Doctor's surprise at the Argolin-Foamasi war lasting as long as twenty minutes is a humorous moment that also conveys the terrifying destructiveness of a nuclear conflict.

At the tender age I was when I first saw this story, I remember thinking that 'sterility' was a shockingly adult theme for Doctor Who to address. Of course, it's an issue central to the plot and gives the story considerable weight (and lest we forget, the 'comical' Season 17 did tackle as serious an issue as drug trafficking and addiction). The sombre and resigned Argolins perfectly suit the more serious programme which the production team intended, while being abruptly aged 500 years certainly ensures a more restrained performance from Tom Baker than usual. Rapid aging is depicted with at least three of the characters, but the Argolins are so used to it as a now-natural process that no undue alarm is expressed when the Doctor is affected. Apart from Romana, of course, who's truly horrified expression is a tribute to Lalla Ward's performance.

In keeping with the much-mentioned new scientific basis for story lies, much of the plot focuses upon the miraculous, if very vague, science of tachyonics. A tachyon is a sub-atomic particle which travels faster than light - fine so far, but ascribing to it the ability to clone, age and restore to youth seems to teeter the story back into the areas which the production team wanted to avoid: fantasy and 'technobabble'. The Tachyon Recreation Generator becomes a magic box, apparently capable of surprising us with anything. Indeed, the Doctor even refers to it as "...a cabinet of illusions" in part four.

Finally, we are even presented with a potential human/alien relationship, with the stage being set for Hardin's love for Mena to be fulfilled. It might mean adopting baby Pangol, however, something which neither father or son may be very happy about. (Is the Doctor match-making when he casually passes Pangol to the bemused Earth scientist?: "Have a baby, Hardin!")

"There were several elements in the final story which were never really balanced out...John (Nathan-Turner) was also very concerned with setting a new style and because it was a new style everyone got very neurotic about it...It was only later, I think, that they realised that new styles come about very casually."
- David Fisher, script writer

Q: When is Doctor Who not Doctor Who?
A: When it's The Leisure Hive.
This story had to try to do many things: herald a new era, re-establish the direction of the programme as a whole and tell an enjoyable story on all the levels that any serial must operate on.

When viewed in retrospect as a vast experiment in redefinition it's easy to become very generous in appraising The Leisure Hive, although certain aspects, such as the appearance of the Foamasi are harder to forgive. And, lets be honest, it certainly isn't the most exciting set of episodes or characters we've ever seen on Doctor Who.

However, when The Leisure Hive succeeds it does so with considerable style, and when it does not the issue is often one of long-term alteration for the programme as a whole, which tended to balance itself out later.

Sadly the serial received very poor ratings (which must have hit the new producer very hard) and exceeded its allocated budget. The true tragedy here is that BBC regulations prevent a director who's allowed his budget to over run from working on the same programme in future, so we were never again to see the likes of Lovett Bickford's beautiful work on Doctor Who.

This, in itself, is a very good reason to savour The Leisure Hive: the visual qualities of shots like the long, eerie opening pan across the deserted Brighton beach are unique in the truest sense of the word.

This item appeared in TSV 53 (March 1998).

Index nodes: The Leisure Hive