Judge Eric Profancik's next get-rich-quick scheme: Open a chain of Doctor Who restaurants across the Midwest. You'll eat your meal in a call box.
"Travel does broaden the mind."
Teeth and curls, you just have to love Tom Baker. His Doctor's charisma is quite infectious, and it can turn even the dullest of stories into a winner. That's not to say "The Hand of Fear" is dull, it's just to say that Tom is positively beaming in this story from his third season. With these DVDs and the fact that my PBS station in Cincinnati has started to broadcast classic Tom Baker stories, I'm filling in the gaps of my Who knowledge, and I'm enjoying every minute of it. Learning about the Zygons and Sontarans and acquainting myself with early Companions is quite the joy. The best part of it is the occasional surprise, and "The Hand of Fear" tossed me two very enjoyable surprises.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor and Sarah Jane materialize in another quarry on Earth. Oblivious to the piercing warning sirens, they amble through and find themselves in the midst of a detonation. Sarah Jane is trapped under the rubble, where she finds a fossilized hand with an ornate ring upon one of its fingers.
Once pulled from the rubble, Sarah Jane is taken to the hospital and begins to act oddly. The Doctor doesn't notice, as he's off investigating the hand. But soon we learn that this hand is alive, the last remnant of the Kastrian race, Eldrad. Sarah Jane is possessed by the hand, steals it, and takes it to a nuclear reactor where it needs a massive amount of radiation to regenerate itself.
Soon, the Doctor realizes what's happening and must race to stop Eldrad from causing a nuclear catastrophe. But that's just the beginning of the tale…
"The Hand of Fear" is a wonderfully charming and engaging story. It quickly pulls you in, and sets up a tale with a delightful twist or two. What positively works in this story is Eldrad, Mark I. Eldrad does regenerate from a hand to a full biped, and takes the shape of a shapely female (because Sarah Jane was the first being to come into contact with the hand). Eldrad as a "female" "villain" is a great change from the male-dominated fare of classic Who. I'm sure we've had several female villains (The Rani), but there's something about Eldrad that's quite alluring. Perhaps it's her simple but effective costume, her relaxed delivery, confident appearance, or the obvious fact that she's quite sexy in said costume. Though I can't dispute the latter, it really is Judith Paris' performance as Eldrad that elevates her role from alien-of-the-week to something far more memorable.
Continuing with the girl power, I now want to give a little love to Sarah Jane. Classic companions, mostly female, are there to get into trouble. Most of these women are not strong female role models, but they all do have their moments. In Sarah Jane's case, it's in "The Hand of Fear." She shines as both Companion and possessed human. The look the she has while under Eldrad's control is utterly convincing, sweet but frightening. I was remarkably impressed with Elisabeth Sladen's performance in this one. (I think this may partially piggyback on the recently shown Season Two new Who episode "School Reunion," which features the brilliant return of Sarah Jane Smith.)
But this is Doctor Who, so let's talk a pinch about him. I've already mentioned the charisma, so the next logical step is to talk about his hair. Wow, is his 'fro getting monstrously shaggy. He needs to rein it in a bit before it gets so long he can't see in front of him. But seriously, the good Doctor is true to form with another brilliant deduction and analysis on Eldrad. He's large and in charge.
Now let's talk about the two surprises from "The Hand of Fear." They may sound silly, but I'll take any good surprise when I can get it. The first is simply that the cliffhanger event at the end of episode three truly caught me off guard. Normally I have a great internal clock for knowing how long I've been watching an episode, so I can feel when we're getting around that twenty-three minute mark. Yet this time I was so engrossed in the story I lost all track of time, then the elevator opens and "bam!" To the best of my recollection, that's a first for me. The second surprise is the fact that this was Sarah Jane's goodbye episode. It came out of the blue, and it was a poignant and touching farewell.
This DVD from BBC Video and The Restoration Team is an average release for this group. The full frame transfer is a touch soft (which is due to age) but colors are realistic if not bold. Detail, contrast, and sharpness are adequate for something three decades on, and I didn't notice any flaws. The audio track cleanly conveys everyone's dialogue without any nasty hiss or distortion.
The batch of bonus materials on this disc seems a bit wanting, but I again attribute that to not much material surviving thirty years:
• Audio Commentary with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Judith Paris, co-writer Bob Baker, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe: There are basically three different recordings spliced together to make this track, but surprisingly it flows and works well—though Hinchcliffe as the solo act does stand out. You'll hear a nice variety of technical and personal tales from this story.
• Text Commentary: As always, a ton of facts and minutiae about the story.
• "Changing Time" (50 minutes): A strikingly sweet and personal collection of stories about the Doctor, Sarah Jane, Doctor Who in general, and "The Hand of Fear." It's not the usual "making-of" feature.
• "Swap Shop" (11 minutes): A segment from the television show Swap Shop when Tom and Elisabeth appeared (the day part one of this story was broadcast).
Rounding things out are some continuity announcements, a photo gallery, the 1977 Doctor Who Annual and Radio Times Billings in PC PDF format.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's go from little to big quibbles:
• The semi-new (second appearance) of the TARDIS' Victorian control room left me wanting. I recall the first time I saw it, I thought it was very cool and an interesting look. Now, I don't care for the look quite so much. I'm sure it'll grow on me.
• Sarah's "Andy Pandy" candy-stripe outfit…What was she thinking?
• Eldrad Mark I was an excellent character. She was alluring, menacing, and totally captivating. Then Eldrad Mark II came into the story, changing her into a him. The male Eldrad not only looked incredibly silly but also was nowhere near as potent a force as the female. She should never have been made a he.
It's often joked that Doctor Who goes from one quarry to another, but the one that starts this story off with a bang is a great location. Maybe it's not so much the location but the great, real explosion used to propel the story forward. (Also a stunning coup is getting to film inside a real energy facility.) All in all, it's a thrilling start to a great classic Fourth Doctor episode. "The Hand of Fear" is an excellent story, and even though the DVD may be a bit lacking in the typical abundance of bonus features, that shouldn't deter you from adding this one to your collection.
Doctor Who: "The Hand of Fear" is hereby found not guilty of weepy farewells. "Oh look, rocks!"
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentary
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