Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones

Serial Title: The Faceless Ones
Series: 4
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

Gatwick, London, at a top-secret date (it’s the twist at the end, see, and I don’t want to give away that it’s coming! …Oh, rats. Fine, July 20, 1966)- the TARDIS lands in the middle of a runway, and when the police come to investigate, the TARDIS crew choose to scatter like terrified chickens rather than ducking back inside. This is fortuitous(?), as while hiding, Polly witnesses a ray-gun murder. The Doctor and Jamie also see the body, but the authorities in the airport are more concerned with the group's lack of passports and sneaking in through an arrival gate than with such silly science-fiction stories… especially when they return to the scene of the crime, a hanger belonging to private charter Chameleon Tours (a cheap tour service for young adults, ages 18-25), and find no body. (Note From Sarah: I really probably would be wary of any tour service specifically for young people...ESPECIALLY if it's cheap!:))

Meanwhile, Polly has been shanghaied, and when she turns up again, ‘arriving’ on a flight from Geneva just as the Doctor and Jamie sneak in, she claims a different name, a different identity, a different accent, no recognition of the Doctor or Jamie… and has the documents and passport to prove it! The airport Commandant, customs officer Jenkins, and the rest of the staff are not amused, not convinced- but the Doctor, with no evidence save an unused Spanish postage stamp, is dogged in his determination, and soon finds an ally in Crossland, a police investigator, and the partner of the vanished murdered man.

The murderers, Spencer and Blade, a pair of pilots for Chameleon, catch Ben investigating and nearly do away with him- but are interrupted by Jean Rock, the comandant’s assistant. They then return to their compatriot- a misshapen, blank-skulled, lumpy being with no face (NFS: Wait wait...are you saying...HE WAS A FACELESS ONE!?!). It is laid in a bed beside Meadows, an unconscious air traffic controller, by an unperturbed and presumably-complicit woman- Nurse Pinto- from the airport first aid station. Bracelets are attached to Meadows and the creature, and in a matter of moments, the creature takes on Meadows’ appearance and leaves to assume his role in the airport.

Ben spots the woman who looks like Polly manning the Chameleon Tours kiosk in the airport. She is approached by an agitated young woman, Samantha Briggs, whose brother was on a Chameleon tour to Rome- despite receiving a postcard from him, she became concerned after a long absence, and in independent inquiries, discovered that her brother never arrived at the hotel he was supposed to have stayed at. Jamie, on assignment to observe the kiosk, meets and offers to help Samantha. The kiosk reopens with another woman, who hands out pre-stamped foreign post-cards for the outgoing tour group to fill out, on the notion that they’ll be too busy sight-seeing to fill them out upon arrival. Samantha and Jamie make the connection to both her brother’s postcards and the Doctor’s evidence- and begin to suspect that no one actually arrives at their destination on a Chameleon tour.

Ben, poking around the Chameleon hangar, find the real Polly, concealed, wearing a bracelet, and in a trance- but before he is able to notify anyone, he is taken by Spencer. The Doctor witnesses this on a communications monitor, having snuck into the back room of the Chameleon Kiosk (NFS: Any relation to the Chameleon Arch? I mean....okay someone had to do it.), but arrives too late to find him- instead, he is trapped in a room with a freezing gas. He fakes being frozen long enough to bring Spencer in, turning the tables on him, and stealing his freeze-ray weapon.

With the Commandant as an unwilling ally (at inspector Crossland’s insistence), the Doctor begins to map out the happenings with Chameleon- outing Meadows (though only to his own satisfaction- the airport staff remain unconvinced) and gaining credibility by demonstrating the captured pen-weapon. Crossland forces his way onto a Chameleon Tours plane, and into the cockpit- discovering that it is in fact an alien spaceship, just in time to be captured, to witness all of the passengers disappear from their seats, and to see the beginning of another, even more fantastical process…

The Doctor, Samantha, and Jamie are captured and nearly killed by a laser-beam death-trap (not dissimilar to the famous Goldfinger laser scene), but manage to escape via a mirror in Samantha’s handbag. Back with the Chameleon staff, Jenkins becomes a ‘Chameleon,’ as does Crossland- host to the alien leader himself.

The Doctor and Jamie try to enter the first aid center, and become suspicious of the ‘forbidden’ X-ray room. He gets Jean Rock, the comandant’s assistant, to divert Nurse Pinto (NFS: Beans.) and get her out of the medical center, so that he can investigate. He retrieves a pair of the arm-bands and begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Samatha buys a ticket aboard Chameleon tours, hoping to discover where its passengers are taken for herself… concerned for her safety, Jamie steals the ticket and goes instead. The Commandant puts a fighter-jet tail on the plane- but it is destroyed as the plane transforms into a vertical-liftoff spacecraft mid-flight, and rendezvous with an orbiting space station. A hidden Jamie, the only passenger not miniaturized in his seat, tries to sneak aboard, but is captured, and becomes a Chameleon as well.

The Doctor discovers an armband on Meadows’ sleeve, and blackmails him with threat of removing it (a potentially lethal process for the Chameleons) to take him to the first-aid center when Nurse Pinto is revealed to be in charge of the transferals. There, Pinto (NFS: Beans....okay I'll stop now.) almost kills Meadows for betraying the Chameleons, but is killed herself when Meadows rips the armband off of the real concealed-and-slumbering Nurse Pinto. The Doctor hatches a desperate gamble- aware that the Chameleons have completed their mission, and are about to pull out on a last flight away- after which they, and their nearly 50,000 abductees from around the world will never be seen again- the Doctor fakes being Meadows- claiming that the Doctor was on to him, and Meadows had to swap bodies to a new host- and, along with Nurse Pinto (faking being the Chameleon-Nurse Pinto) sneak onto the final flight, arriving on the orbiting station… where they are captured. (NFS: Got that? Good.)

The Doctor has only one ace up his sleeve- as he and Pinto are taken into custody, Samantha and Jean Park conduct a desperate search for the original bodies. As the Doctor is taken by an accent-less Jamie Chameleon to be converted himself, he sows seeds of dissent in the Chameleons still dependent on the original airport-staff bodies remaining on Earth; the leader has his body, Crossland, safe aboard the station but is content to let them remain at risk with the bodies down below. He also sabotages the transformation machine, buying himself a few minutes’ time. (NFS: Were they really smart enough to have Jamie not talk in an accent? That's pretty impressive as most current sci fi tv shows and movies would probably overlook that.)

Finally, Sam and Jean locate the bodies inside of parked cars outside the airport- surviving an attack by the Chameleon Meadows- and remove one of the bracelets, killing its corresponding Chameleon aboard the station. The Doctor convinces Chameleon-Blade to take command and surrender, and the Chameleons are allowed to safely switch-back before the originals are woken… in exchange for returning their abductees aboard the station unharmed. The Chameleons are revealed to be a race mutated into identity-less, formless, dying creatures by a natural disaster- who had hoped to use the body-copying process to survive. The Doctor promises to come by their planet and help them with their problem.

As the Doctor and the restored Jamie, Ben, and Polly prepare to depart, saying their goodbyes to a now grateful and believing Commandant, Ben and Polly realize the date- July 20, 1966- is the same on which they left (The War Machines), and thus they can resume their lives without interruption. Seizing on this opportunity, they bid the Doctor and Jamie a fond farewell and return to their lives in London together.

The Doctor notes to Jamie that it’s just as well they made that decision BEFORE they reached the TARDIS, so that they wouldn’t be needlessly worried… for, despite the seized Police Box being returned by the airport staff, it has now vanished…

Strap in, folks- this is gonna be a long one!

The Faceless Ones is a good, suspenseful story- if slightly overlong- but only slightly, as very little of the stories (save maybe around the episode 4-5 mark) is really extraneous. It’s tight, pretty compelling, exciting, mysterious, and while it is somewhat aggravating (even the Doctor stomps his foot in irritation, a hilariously child-like moment)- it is, as mentioned before, the ‘good kind’ of aggravation- the kind felt with the characters. And while it seems to take a lot of work to get to each point in the story, the effort invested into it makes each achievement (such as the Doctor’s fakeout of being frozen and capture of a weapon/pen- his much-needed proof) all the more cathartic and satisfying. (NFS: Agreed. This was definitely one of the better serials, really enjoyed it..and REMEMBERED it which usually means a good thing.)

We have here the typical authority-skeptics, and at first it seems as though our heroes (seriously, why DIDN’T they just run right back into the TARDIS? I suppose it’s playing into the Second Doctor’s soon to be established catch-phrase and overall theme, “When I say run… run!”) are going to spend the whole serial- and mystery- on the run, dodging authorities… but instead, they slowly find an ally (who lasts long enough to make a difference and is listened to by the authorities- an extreme rarity in this kind of story, as the typical ally is a maverick no one will listen to, or is killed off very quickly after accepting the truth, so as not to gain the protagonist any ground in their struggle against skepticism), and eventually, sufficient proof to win over the authority (also an incredible rarity- typically the skeptical authorities in these kinds of stories remain disbelieving up to the very end, their only evidence being the sight of the alien craft lifting off in the very finale, the situation resolved, realizing with an open-mouthed stare of awe that the protagonist had been right all along…) from an irritated skeptic to a forced-cooperator to a grudging ally to an enthusiastic partner- an arc that was enjoyable and realistic, very different from the pig-headed refusal to see reason typically embodied in the authority archetype of these kinds of tales. And the Doctor’s insistence on presenting the actual non-terrestrial facts instead of spinning a tale that earth-bound authorities would buy was a bold gambit- but a successful one. Also a refreshing change! (NFS: I have to say once again, this episode reminded me of an Avengers story...totally could see Steed and Peel working their way through this one.)

The serial also employed some excellent cliffhangers, like the empty plane- an almost LOST-like mysterious happening, that… (though it does raise the notion that EVERY young adult on this flight filled out a false postcard and ate some of the food just after takeoff in the past? I think not!)

It has some great characters (like the Chameleon Meadows, who was a nervous prisoner and then ‘executed’ the nurse to save his own skin- but was hardly reformed, as he slipped away to attack the ground-based companions.) It also introduces us to Sam, who could not be more obvious if “Being set up as a future companion” was tattooed on her forehead next to a picture of Dodo (whose personality she really reminded me of)- but who didn’t join the TARDIS crew because the actress wasn’t interested. Still, she does provide Jamie with a sweet romance. (NFS: The actress wasn't INTERESTED!? Wow. Well.)

We also have the skeptical-but-converted airport Commandant, the helpful secretary, the spooky nurse (and her brave real-human counterpart)(NFS: All nurses in Doctor Who are spooky....or most.), the assured but creepily-staring head of Chameleon tours, Blade (who eventually makes a very realistically selfish choice- foil his people’s plans for the sake of his own skin), and… Dang, if this wasn’t one of the best-written and characterized serials in Doctor Who yet- everyone felt very real, made very real choices, reacted realistically to whatever evidence (or lack thereof) they were presented with… excepting the Doctor’s oblivious behavior at the very start (obviously missing the authorities' skepticism to his claims, ignoring the importance of a passport in a very ignorant way, and his behavior during the investigation…), all of which simmered down to a far more realistic and grounded attitude in the rest of the episodes… all of the characters felt like people, instead of instruments of a writer, tools to move his story to the place it needed to get by acting a certain way, whether it was a part of their typical behavior/character or not. It was very refreshing after serials like The Smugglers or Galaxy 4, where the characters seemed to act like morons, ignoring the obvious at times, simply to get the story where the writer wanted it to go next. Good storytelling will always be an outgrowth of the characters acting naturally, forming a story around them- instead of forming their actions around the story, which always feels forced and false. (Note From Sarah: In other words...we no likey contrivey. And when in doubt ALWAYS favor the characters; in the end it's more realistic and even if the story ended up being simple they will be able to give it depth-there is no story so deep that it can give depth to phony characters.)

Speaking of characters…
The Doctor is a solid investigator here. Aside from some eccentric obliviousness, and the aforementioned foot-stomp, he doesn’t do much clowning. That’s okay, though- unlike the previous serials in which comic relief was a lifeline, here it isn’t needed. Though there isn’t much to say about him here that isn’t discussed elsewhere in this review, he is a strong, competent, indomitable presence, transitioning from hapless to in-charge in a hard-earned, long-delayed, but VERY satisfying manner. 

Ben… uh, was he in this serial? Oh, right, yes- I remember him. He showed up at the start, and the very end. Just like Hartnell before him, Ben is oddly absent for a large chunk of his farewell story- like the actor just couldn’t WAIT to get out of the role and had to knock off early, only grudgingly returning to film a farewell scene.

Polly (funny side note on that- did you know that the actress had a daughter named Polly, born three years before?) barely has more screen time, but leaves a much stronger impression due to her eerie (due to the sincerity, and no hint of robotic zombiness that usually indicates control or a double- simply genuine puzzlement at the situation, as if she is not Polly at all- which of course she isn’t- which is somehow far more disturbing than simply Polly acting like she’s under outside influence) doppelganger, politely questioning if something is wrong, getting appropriately upset at the Doctor (a stranger)’s prying questions, etc. It the kind of sanity-questioning, reality- confusing mystery that really makes you batty. So, even though she’s hardly there, her relatively cool (considering) handling of witnessing a murder, and her doppleganger’s spooky scene- make it feel like she was in this serial more than Ben was, even though she was in it for significantly shorter before returning for the final farewell scene. (As another aside, the actress eventually married Michael Gough, the Celestial Toymaker!)

And, speaking of that pachyderm in the living room, the farewell scene… does it fare well? Well, it certainly has more resolution than Dodo’s (though so would sneezing and falling off a bridge to your death in the process), and it has a somewhat more tender, heartfelt goodbye than, say, Steven’s. Unfortunately, it’s just as abrupt. While I can accept that not everyone has a loving tribute, like Ian and Barbara, a touching speech, like Susan, or a beautiful epilogue scene, like Vicki… it would be nice to see some desire to leave evident beforehand in any departures that aren’t forced by the situation. Oh, sure, Ben and Polly have offhandedly mentioned hoping their next destination is London a few times before, in passing… but it’s hardly setup for a grand farewell, is it? It just felt tacked-on at the last moment, more artificially so than even Steven’s departure, for some reason- while it was handled with greater warmth after it did happen than Steven’s, it seemed even more forcefully done. It’s like Vicki was the bank-breaker… after her, companions couldn’t be gracefully transitioned-off anymore. Every departure since has felt especially clumsy and rushed, a quick little cartoon after the feature, rather than a component of the plot or thematic epilogue. Well… except for the ones they killed off. (Which, to harp on it one more time, makes the ending of Massacre even MORE aggravating- because that was a MASTERFUL companion farewell scene, with an excellent setup, real character motivation, true conflict stemming from character and good writing, a companion-centric serial to serve as a fitting goodbye, and real drama and emotion… but it wasn’t used as a farewell!!!! The companion just stepped right back into the TARDIS a few minutes later to hang around for a few more adventures and then get a tacked on ending. We’ve seen that writers can do a good farewell from this… so why aren’t they now? Still, while I don’t know what happens with upcoming companion Victoria Waterfield yet, I do have it on good authority that Jamie and soon-to-be-companion Zoe will get a fitting and touching send-off as we move into the Pertwee era… but thankfully, as I’m greatly enjoying the Second Doctor’s adventures, that time is a long way off.)

Additionally, this tacked-on ending hinges on an incredible coincidence- the TARDIS landing on the exact same day that it had left previously- the day on which The War Machines had occurred. While this almost-unfathomable coincidence in the whole of time and space isn’t completely unprecedented (see The Ark for the spatial equivalent), it feels INCREDIBLY unlikely, and makes the whole thing feel impossibly clumsy and tacked on (NFS: Although since seeing the new series episode "The Doctor's Wife" it can be retro-explained. Kindof.). And it didn’t need to be… a few background mentions of strange news reports, an outside glimpse of a War Machine on the streets, or a live broadcast of the military confrontation that Hartnell ended by standing in the middle of the street… even a replaying of one of the same news broadcast from The War Machine as a far more subtle sign for fans- could have turned this into a fun, sublime, self-referential, truly time-travel-feeling story.  Elements could have and should have been woven subtly into the background- clues as to when and where they are- and the whole thing could have felt magical. Instead, it feels like a tire that went flat on an electric griddle, not only going flat, but also becoming irredeemably and irreparably limp, useless, and unwieldy- no longer fit for conveying us from where we were to where we’re supposed to have gotten to- but instead a lumpy, misshapen mess that doesn’t transport us as it should. And yes, I think that’s stretching it for the sake of a double-meaning metaphor more than has ever been stretched in the history of ever.

(Speaking of which, I will take Ben and Polly’s we-can’t-get-home arc, like Ian and Barbara’s more pronounced one, as an indication that the Fast Return Switch broke permanently in The Edge of Destruction- otherwise their home angst- not to mention a prominent cliffhanger near the end of The Dalek Masterplan- would have been irrelevant.) (NFS: Yeah I was wondering about that...suddenly the show seems to be like Sliders in that you have to JUMP at the chance when you actually land at home at the right time because it will never come again. And that would also explain why the Doctor has a harder and harder time with actually getting people back at the right times...or more often himself back. That's nailed it...the Fast Return Switch broke for all time.)

Of course, while the Who expanded universe suggested that Ben and Polly grew apart, married other people, and only saw each other again once, gathering in ’86, during the events of The Tenth Planet to hold vigil, looking for Mondas and remembering the events that their younger selves were currently experiencing elsewhere on the planet… the recent (week old, at the time of my writing, several years old at the time of this posting) Sarah Jane Adventures episode ‘Death of the Doctor’ reveals that they did indeed end up together, and, as of 2010, were running an orphanage in India together- an odd, but sweet ending for the two- together, and helping people, just as the Doctor teaches his companions- not reuniting a planet, like Steven, patching up a war-torn world, like Susan, or serving in UNIT or Torchwood like New Series companions… but simply making a difference in a small, every-day way- touching the lives of a few children who have no one else. Sometimes, that’s the most important kind of helping others. The kind that ‘isn’t important’ in the eyes of the world. (Also, just like Ian and Barbara, and, hopefully, current companions Amy and Rory, any couple that comes together through the Doctor deserves to stay together and have a happy future, leading a quiet life together.)

Au revoir, Ben and Polly. We can bid you well more peacefully in 2010 (in a perfect bit of timing for our viewing) knowing that a happy future awaits you.

This was Jamie’s spotlight serial, though- while not a Jamie-only focus in the way that the Tenth Planet was practically Ben’s story, while sharing equal time with the Doctor, Jamie comes off the strongest- a romance (including an onscreen kiss! A companion first?), a clever bit of pickpocketing, a very proactive investigation, a good acceptance and adaptation of this strange future world- plus a nice creepy turn for the actor as an accent-less copy, Jamie took center stage. The vibes given off here (handsome young kid, budding romance, action moments, plus that hair) remind me very much of Pavel Checkov, who was being introduced in the original Star Trek around the same time. (NFS: It's the Davy Jones Effect. Blame The Monkees. :-D)

The Chameleons themselves (Really? I’m gonna have to hope that was a nickname they didn’t object to, and not their species name- that’s just too hokey, otherwise…(NFS: You wouldn't be able to pronounce their real name...)...) were very real, realistically motivated, and are just begging for a follow-up to reveal their fate, or a New Series revisit (NFS: I think a new series revisit would be SOOO cool! But I think they might have done the "It's not me but it looks like me" storyline a little too much probably.). Their seemingly almost-omniscient ability to always be a step ahead, observing our heroes on camera, occasionally challenged belief, but always increased the tension positively.

The effects were very nice in the few videos we were given- the crossfade transition as the faceless aliens (themselves a very nice makeup effect) was especially effective. The transforming plane looked very cool in stills, though the space version and orbiting station looked as if they may not have fared as well. Even so, what we saw looked good. (Interestingly, problems with Shawcraft, the FX contractors, came to a head in this serial, per an external site- as they recount it, the Satellite didn’t work and the bulb at its base blew- and no replacement for the custom unit was available. Also, Shawcraft hadn’t considered how the model would actually be mounted or suspended, and suggested suspending it from piano wire- which couldn’t hold the weight, snapping, dropping the model to the floor, and breaking it. Needless to say, after the Macra debacle, this serial spelled the end of Doctor Who’s involment with Shawcraft- future serials would now have FX done by BBC’s in-house department.)

The Reconstruction- a Loose Canon affair- was quite good- while there were no moving pieces, and a couple of missed “you-could-have-used-some-footage-from-the-next-episode-for-the-ending-there” moments, it does quite nicely overall, maintaining the excellent cross-fade Chameleon appearance effects and doing a quite excellent job of conveying things, save for the Chameleon-Meadows attack on Sam.

I feel like I could go on for pages with this one, but having covered all of the major sections, I shall stop here, and move on to a rating…

Great moments:
The whole thing. The first appearance of a Chameleon’s true form, for one. The Doctor’s capturing of a freezing pen and triumphant presentation. The transforming plane/vanished passengers.

The Faceless Ones, a serial I wasn’t looking forward to because it sounded bland, earns a record-setting (for the Second Doctor) perfect 5 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys, surprising even myself! Despite the clunky goodbye, I really can’t think of anything in the story sufficient to tarnish a perfect rating, even through the stills- with a solid 3.5 out of 5 for the recreation- which could have had a little more effort put in, say with those footage bits at the beginning/end I mentioned- but which is still a cut above the rest. This is a highly recommended serial that I can honestly say hasn’t been equaled since The Keys of Marinus for enjoyment uninterrupted- beating out even favorites like the Space Museum, The Rescue, and the Daleks Master Plan… in that this one simply didn’t have any significant hitches to lower its score. It’s fantastic- go check it out!

And take heart, good friends… not only does this serial end on a cliffhanger (the TARDIS stolen), leading directly into the next serial (which the title, having learned nothing from The Moonbase, indicates will be a Daleks story), but, near as I can tell, from here out there are more intact episodes than there are reconstructions for the Second Doctor- whom in some ways I feel like we’ve hardly seen onscreen at all yet.(NFS: So it kind of speaks to his talent that he is our favorite...probably said that before, but it's true! He conveys his character so well!) So stay tuned!

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