It’s not been all that long since the end of series 12 of Doctor Who and our last update here on Taking The Short View, yet in that short time it seems like the world has been turned upside down in every conceivable way.
Cinemas were among the first business to have to shut down because of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, followed soon after by ‘non-essential’ retailers including shops selling both new and used books, CDs and DVDs/Blu-rays. Even television has been hit, with long-running dramas having to shut down production for the duration. Streaming and download services have picked up some of the slack of course, while those of us of a more old-fashioned disposition have rediscovered the value of having extensive home media archives crammed onto groaning shelves around the house.
One new release that did just squeeze under the wire before the general shutdown was the latest addition to the BBC’s Doctor Who home media range, “The Faceless Ones. I’d pre-ordered it weeks before the release date, when coronavirus was completely unknown, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned up on my doorstep just when everything was going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. It’s been a welcome distraction, and the viewing of the episodes strictly rationed to eke out the pleasure of watching a ‘new’ Doctor Who tale for the very first time.
Well, as ‘new’ as a tale originally made in 1967 can be, of course. “The Faceless Ones” is an example of a serial which no longer exists in a complete form in the BBC vaults, due to the Corporation’s ill-considered cost-cutting policy of wiping many programmes from its archives in order to reuse the then-expensive video tape for newer material. After all, the management saw no possible further use for black and white ‘childrens’ shows once television moved to colour broadcasting in 1970 – clearly they would never be aired again, and the concept of home media releases was still a decade away.
The problem of dealing with lost or missing episodes has come up before in the history of Doctor Who releases, and the BBC has tried various ways to plug the gaps. Toward the end of the original run of releases of stories on DVD, odd missing episodes in otherwise largely complete stories were reconstructed using primitive but effective animated reconstructions synced to off-air audio recordings made at home by fans at the time of the original transmission. Once all the stories that could be released were finally out on DVD, there was a pause before the BBC decided to see if fans would show up in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile to animate stories where most or all of the original material had been destroyed. They started with “The Power of the Daleks” in 2016 and followed it up with “The Macra Terror” in 2019. In between those two releases was the somewhat anomalous “Shada“, which also used animation this time to fill in unmade sections of a late 1970s production that was never completed due to industrial action. And it seems that these releases did indeed prove financially viable, because this year there are slated to be two more animated releases of lost serials – both from Patrick Troughton’s era as the Doctor which was hardest hit by the purge of the archives.
“The Faceless Ones” is the first of these and recreates a story originally aired in April 1967, a six-part serial of which only two episodes survive. The story is set at Gatwick Airport and sees the Doctor and his companions Jamie (Frazer Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) materialise in the Tardis on the runway just as an airplane is landing. Taking cover in local hangers, Polly is witness to a murder by someone wielding an anachronistic ray gun, but the corpse disappears and soon Polly and Ben also go missing. It’s up to the Doctor and Jamie to convince the airport authorities that something is seriously wrong at package holiday operator Chameleon Tours.
When I reviewed “The Macra Terror” last year, I was pretty enthusiastic by how strong the story was – rather against my expectations as I’d never really been all that keen to know more about it before. Unfortunately I wasn’t nearly so taken by “The Faceless Ones”, mainly because it’s a very slow paced tale. That’s mainly down to the decision to stretch it out over six 25 minute episodes rather than a brisk four, so for a good half of the story the Doctor is endlessly trying to convince the airport controller and the police to take him seriously. It’s the sort of thing that in modern stories would be dealt with in five seconds through the use of the psychic notepaper, but here seems to take forever to resolve before the Doctor can finally get things going.
On the plus side, the slow pace does enable a simmering build up of brooding atmosphere (helped hugely by an effective soundscape from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ranging from a menacing throbbing to an alarming shriek) and to establish a strong supporting cast that includes Donald Pickering, Wanda Ventham, Bernard Kay, Colin Gordon and Christopher Tranchell. It’s good to be able to see them for real in surviving footage included on the DBVD and Blu-ray release, and the animation uses avatars that retain the performers’ personalities surprisingly well.
There’s also a effective abstract core concept to the story behind the disappearances of flight loads of holiday-bound young people, with an alien race seeking to use their victims as replacements for their own identities which have been lost during an unspecified catastrophe on their home planet. But we don’t find this out until the end of the fourth episode, further evidence that if this had been a modern production then a good half of the serial would have been considered completely unnecessary. However, despite the faults it’s good to finally be in a position to watch a good representation of the original story after all these years, where up to know the only option would have been to listen to the audio soundtrack or read the Target paperback version.
The animation techniques used by the makers of these reconstructions continue to improve in leaps and bounds with each successive project, and now have a very pleasingly fluidity to them. It’s still a predominantly two-dimensional technique – more Captain Pugwash than Finding Nemo – but there are some effective CGI enhancements here and there such as when smoke starts to flood into a room through concealed vents. Whereas the earlier animations suffered from time and budget constraints and could only manage a small number of facial gestures for the main characters which quickly became repetitive and left the supporting cast staring blankly into middle distance for long stretches, here it’s been hugely improved upon for “The Faceless Ones” with everyone getting a full range of expressions based on the original performances.
Troughton’s highly expression face is the key beneficiary of this advance, and Jamie also does well out of it: in later scenes where he’s replaced by an alien doppelgänger, the animators do a great job in taking the same basic features but giving them a completely new feel to them to show that it’s not the Jamie we know. Ben and Polly do rather less well out of the process for the simple reason that after the first two episodes they’re abruptly written out, only to briefly return at the end for a perfunctory farewell scene when they decide to stay in England rather than continue to travel with the Doctor. It’s a great shame and a an undeserved dispatch for two likeable characters, which seems to have been done entirely at the producer’s behest. Ben and Polly had been introduced at the end of William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor, but Ben was made surplus to requirements by the arrival of the more popular Jamie in the second Troughton story; and when Michael Craze was axed, Anneke Wills decided that since they had started as a team they would go out the same way and also decided to quit. Much of “The Faceless Ones” seems to be setting up the character of scouser Samantha Briggs to join the Doctor and Jamie at the end of this story and it’s a surprise when she doesn’t – actress Pauline Collins (yes, that Pauling Collins!) turned down the offer to become a regular.
Given how much time, care and attention has gone into the animation effort, it’s surprising to see some very clumsy oversight in terms of framing. The original story was filmed for the standard ‘full frame’ 4:3 ratio black and white televisions of the time, and the main presentation of “The Faceless Ones” preserves these features for the benefit of old school purists (like myself!) while a second disc contains a widescreen colour version of the story. But it’s soon clear that the first version has been produced by dimply pressing ‘desaturate output’ on the computer and masking off the left and right hand sides to change the ratio, and tis gives rise to some quality control issues that should have been picked up. One early scene has a character deliver his dialogue with his face cropped out of the picture. Other times they’re something that can’t be seen because their hands aren’t in shot, but if you switch over to the widescreen version and it’s all absolutely fine. I originally thought that maybe the animators were recreating some clumsy direction in the filmed version, but the most egregious examples happened in scenes where the broadcast episode survives making it possible to make a like-for-like comparison to be made. And sure enough, there was no problem: it’s down to the animators attempting to space out the characters to make better use of the 16:9 space that is to blame. It does rather take the gloss off the animation team’s commendable intentions in providing the full frame version.
The colourisation also has a problem in that it seems to contribute to some major inconsistencies in the quality of the picture, resulting in sequences that are very flat and lacking in contrast. Instead of being white points in the picture there are light greys, and what should be black shadows come up more as insipid midtones. It’s not a problem with the mastering or with my TV set-up, because the very next scene will have spot-on representation of white and dark points – and then the next won’t. Nor is this effect limited to the black and white disc, because the colour version also has scenes where everything is just an overall mirky brown/beige mishmash. At times it seems as though whatever technique they’re using to add depth and lighting shadow/shade is to blame, with the animation tending to overuse a ‘lens flare’ effect throughout, far more than the in-picture desk lamps and overhead lighting should produce. But it must be an intentional artistic choice by the animation team since it’s similar to the way that “The Macra Terror” was presented; I didn’t much like it then, either, but maybe it’s just a personal thing.
A slightly more objective matter arises when considering how faithful the animated version of “The Faceless Ones” is to the broadcast material. When the team did “The Power of the Daleks” it made great pains to replicate every facet of the original production to ensure fidelity with surviving clips, production photos and telesnaps, right down to the scuff marks on the skirts of the Daleks from years of filming. There was a bit more freedom given to the team when it came to “The Macra Terror”. whose titular terror was portrayed in the original production by a large, costly but ultimately lumbering prop. The animators were given free rein to use their imaginations to make the Macra look as creepy, threatening and fast-moving as they had always been intended.
But “The Faceless Ones” is the first time that whole episodes still exist from 1967 which allow for a proper comparison with the new version – and it’s surprising just how much difference there now is, and not always for obvious reasons. Camera angles are adjusted, staging altered, and a much faster style of editing is adopted, presumably to make the story more natural and appealing to a modern, younger audience. For example, in the original filmed episode, the sequence where the Doctor and his companions run from the Tardis to avoid the landing plane is tackled in one single overhead shot; but the animation does a sequence of increasingly tight close ups as each person steps out of the Tardis and reacts to the situation.
Other changes are entirely more understandable: early on there is a cutaway to a bit of stock footage of passengers disembarking from the airplane, but even in the broadcast episode it’s a bit of a jarring non sequitur. The animated version excises it completely, because the cost of setting up a five second cutaway is simply not justifiable. Similarly, a scene where the four regulars run away from a policeman glosses over some of the original mistakes of the filmed episode, in which for some reason Ben first of all slips and nearly falls, and then inexplicably runs almost directly at the policeman rather than trying to get away. The animation takes a far more intelligent approach, with no detriment to the story. There is also one slightly more playful change made by the animators in the form of a familiar face on a half-glimpsed police station ‘Wanted’ poster early in the first episode.
Given that these new releases have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible to be sustainable – new, younger viewers as well as old fogeys like myself have to buy them to make them worthwhile – it’s understandable that changes are required to make them work for a modern sensibility. Notwithstanding the cropping issues on the full frame black and white version, none of the changes worried me unduly or affect my enjoyment of the serial itself, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next instalment later in the year which will be “Fury from the Deep” – otherwise known as the story that introduced the sonic screwdriver to Doctor Who canon for the very first time!
Now there’s an effective cliffhanger on which to close this review.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 16 2020.