Doctor Who Reviews: The Faceless Ones

Mother Nature has a funny habit of putting the spanner in the works from time to time. Take the 2010 crisis of the volcanic ash crippling flights with unprecedented effect. Grim-faced passengers in newspapers and on the telly probably thought twice about booking a holiday ever again.

If only the ash had affected the population in 1967 - that way the dreaded Chameleon plan would have been thwarted in The Faceless Ones. With all planes grounded, the Chameleons wouldn’t have been able to shrink cheery holidaymakers who were duped into thinking they’d found the travel bargain of a lifetime. Alas, it didn’t quite work that way, but at least The Doctor was around to save the day.

The Faceless Ones itself finds itself at a crossroads. For years, it was known as The One With The New Titles With The Doctor’s Face. Which was disproved by The Macra Terror. The only notable element of The Faceless Ones titles is that they introduce the new jingly jangly remix of the theme tune in Episode Two - making an already creepy piece of music even more eerie.

The story itself is the last to throw off the last remnants of the Hartnell years. The most obvious example is the departure of Ben and Polly, who get a lousy last parting shot. Largely sidelined for the first two episodes, absent for the next three and a half, they only crop up again at the end when they realise that they are back in their own time. Their departure isn’t quite as abrupt as Dodo’s, but it’s still unsatisfactory. Whether or not behind the scenes tensions had arisen is unclear, but it’s a shame that Michael Craze and Anneke Wills didn’t get the final story that they really deserved.

In terms of the story structure though, The Faceless Ones is the first proper Troughton story. Not only does it feature the familiar Troughton/Hines double act in full force, it also establishes the slightly more horrific path that the production team were about to embark on. Hartnell stories, by and large, weren’t that frightening, bar a couple of examples like The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Tenth Planet. From now on, though, there would be a greater emphasis on sending kids scurrying behind the sofa. The next season would draw considerably on horror books and films - The Faceless Ones is essentially a dummy run for that type of storytelling.

Take the Chameleons - tame by today’s standards, but grim-looking things for the Sixties. With their corrugated, distorted skin, they look like they’ve just been to a nuclear reactor for a holiday. No wonder they want the appearances of human beings. The lone Chameleon in the first episode has to be shuffled around in an overgrown airport pilot coat and cap - returning holidaymakers may have thought the blobby aliens had had a bad case of sunburn. Gerry Mill directs the final few moments of the first episode very well, zooming in on subjective close ups of Chameleon hands and hoarse breathing. We don’t even get to see the Chameleon in all its glory until the next episode (which is regrettably in still form only) - the final shot of Episode 1 is the back view of the alien panting away like he’s just done 10 complete laps of the airport complex. It’s a clever trick, and no doubt, piqued the interests of several viewers to come back for more the next week.

There’s also the first bonafide example of the Troughton and Hines double act to savour. With Ben and Polly out of the picture, it’s up to The Doctor and Jamie to find out what’s going on at Chameleon Tours. The Doctor and Jamie, on the one hand, make for a great comic pairing. Jamie’s naivety and difficulty in keeping schtum when required causes some hilarious scenes, such as when he blabs about the TARDIS to an incredulous Jenkins. But by the same token, there’s a great deal of respect between The Doctor and Jamie. When they are investigating in the airport hangar, The Doctor pointedly compliments Jamie for using his loaf to find out what’s going on - unlike the Commandant who’s too busy moaning like an old woman.

What’s great about both The Doctor and Jamie is that from an outsider’s point of view, they look like a crazy pair of eccentrics: in fact, they are both more clued up than you would expect. Jamie handles the mystery very well, and also forms a rather sweet partnership with bubbly Liverpudlian Samantha Briggs. They both spar off each other well, teasing each other like brother and sister. It’s a shame that Pauline Collins didn’t want to sign up as a companion, since she plays Samantha very well.

The Doctor himself gets some great scenes. His anarchic blundering in the airport control room is classic Troughton: All Chaplin-style goofing around on the surface, but quick witted intelligence underneath. He gets to the root of the mystery, but in a totally different manner to Hartnell’s Doctor. Clowning and child-like innocence gets you everywhere, it seems, in Doctor Who circles. Troughton again delivers a fine performance that perfectly blends the serious and the comedic.

The Faceless Ones is a bit of a mish-mash though. The airport setting is inspired, and there’s more of a subtle nod to the Sixties than the mad grooviness of The War Machines, which made Austin Powers look unhip by comparison. About the only unsubtle Sixties element is that ridiculous ray machine in Episode Four, which is so hackneyed it could have been devised by Dr Evil. Hapless Chameleon lackey Spencer is determined to rid the universe of The Doctor and his friends, and so plans to kill them in a laughable James Bond style with that lethal laser beam that slowly makes its way to cut the prone group in two. Inevitably, Spencer doesn’t hang around, which he really ought to have done, and naturally, The Doctor manages to escape.

Spencer and his put-upon boss Blade don’t make for the best baddies though. The two bicker and quarrel like a pair of old grannies at a bus stop - mainly over Spencer’s many blunders. In fact, Spencer is the first example of what’s known in the Troughton era as the Rubbish Sidekick, pre-empting the likes of Toba and Peeeeaaaackaaaaahhhh. Spencer is the Robin to Batman. The Ball to Cannon. The Little to Large. Constantly getting everything wrong, it’s a wonder as to how Spencer got recruited for the gig in the first place. Although that said, Blade breezes through events with an air of weary decadence, as if he’s more interested in what’s on the menu at the airport canteen.

None of the characters are that great in The Faceless Ones. Blade and Spencer aside, the Commandant is a weary old cliché, the first in a long line of pompous authority figures for the Second Doctor to huff and puff against. Jean Rock seems to hang about in the background like a slightly more efficient human Barbie Doll. Nurse Pinto only comes in second to Sister Lamont in the Scary Doctor Who Nurse stakes. About the best of the guest actors (Pauline Collins aside) is Bernard Kay, who successfully contrasts between the bluff Inspector Crossland and his inhuman Chameleon counterpart. Frazer Hines is also excellent as Chameleon Jamie, again making for a far more effective alien than Blade and Spencer - all of the Scot’s humanity has been replaced by eerie coldness.

The other problem with The Faceless Ones is that it does seem to be two episodes too long. Either characters stand around bickering like they’re in a dummy run for a weary airport TV docusoap or else The Doctor and his friends are put through hoop after unsuccessful hoop. Freezing devices. Boiling hot bugs. Laser ray devices. They’re the sort of junk that Q could rattle off in his sleep, and sure enough they have all the effect of using a teaspoon to cut through six-inch steel.

Despite these problems, The Faceless Ones remains quite enjoyable. The direction’s up to a high standard from Heartbeat stalwart Gerry Mill - in particular, his location filming at Gatwick Airport is very well done, adding a good sense of the real world to proceedings. The script is generally well written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis - in typical Hulke style, the baddies aren’t bad per se, they’re only looking to survive and enjoy a better class of existence.

What’s more, the cliffhanger hints at great things to come. The TARDIS has gone AWOL, and The Doctor suspects that there are sinister forces at work.

Forces that make the Chameleons look like a bunch of boy scouts…

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