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Doctor Who: The Face of Evil

(BBC; US DVD: 13 Mar 2012)

Chariots of the Gods?

Forget whether it’s feasible or fashionable—believing in a single god just isn’t much fun. Not that there’s no joy in connecting with an almighty power, it’s just so usual, and there’s hardly any room to expand. Add in a few more all-powerful beings to the pantheon, preferably jealous ones that don’t get along, and things start to get interesting. Give them multiple heads, great flying ships and a thirst for the blood of virgins and you’ve got a reason to pray.


In 1968, author Erich von Daniken presented the world with an idea too interesting to ignore: what if the gods of the ancients were actually space aliens? His widely-debunked book Chariots of the Gods? presented mysterious ancient relics as hard evidence of extraterrestrials having visited Earth in the past. Indeed, there are carvings and hieroglyphics which appear to depict what a post-space race society might see as beings in space suits, and structures like the pyramids of Egypt could be seen as beacons when viewed from far into the heavens. These ideas hardly put a dent in the roles of the worlds’ religions, but the influence of the book on popular science fiction of the day is undeniable.


These ideas influenced both the classic and modern iterations of Battlestar Galactica, Jack Kirby’s comic book The Eternals and Doctor Who’s “The Face of Evil”. Both Battlestar Galacitca‘s use of elements of Mormonism and astrology to portray humanity’s cosmic origins, though Ronald D. Moore’s modern version is explicit in portraying God’s plan for humanity. In “The Face of Evil”, the Doctor (Tom Baker) calls such beliefs “gobbledygook”. This story followed “The Deadly Assassin”, the only story to feature the Doctor with no companion, so when the he emerges alone from the TARDIS it’s a bit jarring. It’s not as if he seems alone, though. Baker’s Doctor is content to roam the jungle on his own, his curiosity his companion as he treks leading the strange vines and fog.


In a nearby village, Leela (Louise Jameson) faces execution for speaking blasphemy against Xoanon, the god of her people, the Sevateem. She’s banished, left to wander the jungle, with minions of the village priest on her trail, and it’s there she meets the Doctor. Right away there are personality clashes between them, with the Doctor preferring reason and repartee to solve problems versus Leela’s preference to violence.


Even today, over 30 years past her first appearance, Leela is a jarring figure in the Doctor Who universe. Her people are tribal jungle dwellers, so her leather loin cloth makes fashion sense, but the amount of skin showing is a lot—even by today’s standards. It’s not that previous female companions weren’t attractive, it’s just that their costumes left more to the imagination.


Jameson herself addresses this in a bonus interview conducted in 2003, just prior to the current show’s relaunch. She was “naive”, she says, to think her figure would give viewers a reason to run out from behind the couch, where it’s said many hid from the show’s monsters. Jameson brings more than looks to the role, however, portraying Leela with a savagery and intense curiosity which serves as a great counter to Baker’s Doctor.


Upon meeting the Doctor, Leela calls him “the Evil One”, which the he soon learns is due to his face being carved into a nearby mountainside. The Doctor tries to use his likeness to his advantage when faced with capture by tribesmen. “Tread softly, gentlemen,” he says, “or I’ll turn you into toads.” When the tribesmen fail to relent the Doctor offers them a jelly baby.


There are remnants of technology all around the village of the Sevateem, including the throne of their leader, Andor (Victor Lucas), and the ceremonial garb of Neeva (David Garfield), the tribe’s high priest. The Doctor recognizes these as space suits and computers, all parts of some long-forgotten visitors to the planet. Even the tribe’s name, he realizes, is a corruption of the “survey team” which must have visited the planet in the past. The tribe’s unseen enemies, the Tesh, live on the other side of an invisible Wall, the domain of the Evil One and the prison of the god Xoanon. The Sevateem lead an invasion against the Tesh to free Xoanon, and the Doctor seeks to discover the truth of his role in the foundation of the planet’s religion.


The longer he stays among the Sevateem the more the Doctor deconstructs their mythology. This culminates on the other side of the wall, where the Doctor learns that Xoanon is a supercomputer he once reprogrammed using parts of his own personality. It’s now insane, speaking in multiple voices and appearing as the Doctor’s disembodied head in the jungle and on view screens in the Tesh’s dilapidated spaceship.


By the time he reaches the temple of Xoanon the Doctor has put aside his crusading and stands in awe of the being he had a hand in creating. Though he knows that Xoanon is no god, he is still in awe of the power of creation. That middle ground seems a likely place for someone who knows the ins and outs of time and space so well but is still mesmerized by them.


Xoanon’s character is modeled in part on the the Holy Trinity, made explicit by its appearance on three view screens surrounding the Doctor. With its disembodied head, Xoanon is also like Oz, the Great and Terrible, before the curtain is pulled back. Writer Chris Boucher, a devout atheist, piles on the ways in which even our deepest beliefs can be broken down, but it’s never didactic, never crass. It’s all very matter of fact, such as when the new Sevateem leader, Calib (Leslie Schofield), sums up his sudden loss of faith after seeing Xoanon’s temple: “With proof we don’t have to believe.”


Bonus features include “Tomorrows Times”, a fake newscast pulling together contemporaneous newspaper reviews from the ‘70s, the requisite making-of, and the aforementioned interview with Jameson. There’s a great 1977 interview with Jameson from the program Swap Shop in which she reads a letter from a little girl begging her to put more clothes on Leela, as well as a brief but wonderful toy commercial featuring doll versions of the Doctor and Leela, and a plastic TARDIS.


“The Face of Evil” is all about seeking: answers, comfort, and the truth, both in the concrete and abstract. It’s also the beginning of the Doctor’s adventures with Leela, a strange and interesting addition to the Doctor Who universe. She isn’t a learned scientist or rugged reporter, but she recognizes her new friend’s penchant for running off at the mouth. “Do you know the answer to everything?” she asks, her voice dripping with sarcasm. After all, the Doctor arrived out of nowhere and completely blew apart centuries of her peoples’ beliefs.


As he puzzles over some new problem the Doctor responds, “Answers are easy. It’s asking the right questions which is hard.”

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Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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