Back once again with another Doctor Who review…
Seasons 12 to 14, otherwise referred to as “The Hinchcliffe Era” wherein Philip Hinchcliffe was the show’s producer, are considered some of the series’ best seasons and today we are looking at his third and final season, in which iconic companion Sarah-Jane Smith left, we had a story without a companion that caused controversy with watchdog criticisers and the season bowed out with an iconic but controversial story.
Season 14 originally ran from 4th September 1976 to 2nd April 1977 and contains six stories and 26 episodes. It introduced a new Tardis set with a distinctly wooden-panelled aesthetic which would last for the season before being phased out early into the Graham Williams era.
The Masque of Mandragora
Masque is a pseudo-historical sci-fi story set in 15th Century Italy wherein a powerful cosmic intelligent life form known as the Mandragora Helix has hitched a ride via the Tardis and is harnessed by a local astronomer, Hieronymous (Norman Jones), who plans to prevent the Renaissance by using the ominous Cult of Demnos to interfere with an important gathering of philosophers, including the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci.
An interesting piece of trivia for this story is that filming took place at Portmeirion in Wales, a village that has an uncanny resemblance to many Italian towns and cities due to the way it was built. This certainly adds to the visual appeal as the backdrop to this tale of religious cults and superstition.
Overall, Masque offers a fun story that was one of a few historical stories for The Fourth Doctor and a supporting cast that really sink their teeth into their roles. Though it is one of the weaker stories in this boxset if it was part of any Seasons between 15 to 17 it would be a highlight.
The Hand of Fear
Chiefly known for the iconic yet understated departure of Sarah-Jane Smith, Hand is full of mind-control and manipulation as the sinister criminal Eldrad (Judith Paris & Stephen Thorne) seeks to reassemble their body following an exile and the utter obliteration of their body.
The Doctor and Sarah find themselves on Earth in a quarry (insert joke here) and get caught up in a detonation. As they recover, Sarah becomes possessed by a ring found on a severed hand that had been trapped in the Earth for millions of years. This results in Sarah infiltrating a nearby Nuclear Power Station and Eldrad using the radiation to rebuild the body.
Their design is intriguing in that it is a humanoid-Crystal hybrid. What makes the story unique is that it spends much of the second half with the Doctor and Sarah being forced to escort Eldrad back to their home planet, all the while knowing they could be betrayed at any moment.
Where Hand of Fear is let down somewhat is the final episode running out of steam and Eldrad’s final form being a bit shit, especially when compared to their more androgynous humanoid form which was much better designed. The episode does redeem itself a bit with the final moments with the departure scene for Sarah.
The Deadly Assassin
The Matrix before the Wachowski’s iconic franchise came along, Assassin is heralded as a stone-cold classic, taking story beats from The Manchurian Candidate and filled with political intrigue and bizarre and sometimes horrific imagery.
This story sees the Doctor forcibly returned to Gallifrey wherein he seemingly assassinates The Lord President and assumes the role before entering The Matrix (defined as “a vast electronic neural network which can turn thought patterns into virtual reality”) in an effort to prove his innocence.
This is where we get some of the most disturbing aspects of the story, like The Doctor narrowly surviving various attempts at his life by the cognitive forces within The Matrix-like getting his foot stuck in railway tracks and being shot down by a fighter pilot.
There’s also a rogue Time Lord who is working for a sinister enemy lurking behind the scenes-spoilers, but it’s The Master (Peter Pratt) last seen in Season 10s Frontier in Space, who is trying to repair his body having decayed and on the end of his final regeneration.
The main controversy for this story came from a scene wherein rogue Time Lord Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall giving a brilliant performance) attempts to drown The Doctor within the Matrix, which resulted in criticism from self-appointed Watchdog Mary Whitehouse and may have factored into the series toning down its darker aspects once Hinchcliffe vacated the Producer position.
I love this story, it’s a damn good Robert Holmes script and David Maloney really gives it a cinematic feel throughout. The cliffhangers are some of the most morbid of the entire series too- a definite highlight of the season.
The Face of Evil
Perhaps overlooked amongst this seasons offerings, Evil is a more spry and lively story that offers some solid ideas and introduces the least dressed and most knife-happy companion in Leela, a savage who forms an unorthodox companionship with The Doctor.
Evil focuses on a planet wherein the people have been split up into societies by a supercomputer, Xoanon, who decides to create two different races-the more simplistic and savage Sevateem and the Psychic and scientific Tesh, to see which one would become the superior Super Race.
Said super computer’s megalomania was a result of The Doctor having tampered with the computer but having forgotten about doing so-the imagery of The Doctor confronting the computer surrounded by screens with his own face screaming “No!” With a child’s voice is one of the seasons best cliffhangers.
I also really enjoyed the jungle sequences as well, the filmic elements came across especially well in this new Blu Ray release. This is a story that deserves more attention and is a recommended watch for any fan of The Fourth Doctor and Leela.
The Robots of Death
A Doctor-whodunnit set aboard a Sand-Mining craft vehicle that is chiefly manned by Voc Robots and several bizarrely-dressed humans who oversee the proceedings. This story takes inspiration from works by the likes of Agatha Christie and boasts some great designs and model work that felt reminiscent of Thunderbirds.
The Voc Robots are one of the best looking creations of the era with their expressionless faces and monotonous voices. The supporting cast is also diverse and likes to chew the scenery a bit (and scatter jelly babies) as the Doctor and Leela are framed for the various murders.
Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the story is the robot D84 (Gregory de Polnay) the sole Voc Robot on board that isn’t out for blood and actually becomes an unlikely ally amongst the murder spree.
This is another classic that deserves the title and is a well-directed (Michael E. Briant’s final time on the show) and suspenseful outing. It was notably also chosen as the second-ever DVD release for the home media line.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Considered to be one of the finest Doctor Who stories, this is a winning Robert Holmes script full of Victoriana with references to Phantom of the Opera, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. It also has some very memorable supporting characters including Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) who ended up with their own spin-off audio series several decades later.
Young Women have been going missing and this is seemingly tied to the local Theatre and one of the performers, Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett), a Chinese magician who possesses a mannequin assistant, Mr Sin (Deep Roy in an early role) that seems all too alive.
There’s also a criminal from the 51st Century, Magnus Greel (Michael Spice) who has been masquerading as the Chinese God Weng-Chiang, taking the lifeforce of Young women and setting giant rats loose in the sewers of London.
This story considered one of the finest in Classic Who but does have some major issues due to its representations of Chinese culture. The most notorious factor being that actor John Bennett wore yellowface for his role as Chang, and though they give a very good performance, there is the argument that the role should have gone to a Chinese actor. These issues were to be addressed at a panel following the cancelled screening of Talons which would have taken place fairly recently, and continue to produce debates to this day.
Overall, Talons is a great Robert Holmes script that has great iconography, including the Sherlock Holmes-esque outfit which the Doctor dons throughout the story (and on the box art of this very Blu Ray boxset) and a great cliffhanger involving Mr Sin holding Leela at gunpoint.
This was also one of the early classics I was exposed to both by the omnibus VHS and the original 2003 DVD release. It was also director David Maloney’s final Doctor Who Story, having worked on The Deadly Assassin this season and classics like The Mind Robber and Genesis of the Daleks beforehand.
Best Story: The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Worst Story: The Masque of Mandragora (still a very fun story)
Must see: The Hand of Fear (for the farewell of Sarah Jane), The Deadly Assassin
Check out the second part of the review, which features a rundown of the packaging, special features and audio/visual details as well as a final review score.
By HW Reynolds
Images provided by BBC