Between 11th March and 13th May 1967 Doctor Who had a run of 10 episodes that made going on your summer holidays a very scary idea. First The Macra Terror showed the viewers a holiday camp infested with giant crabs, and now we have The Faceless Ones, making the viewers nervous about air travel. So whether your plans were to stay in Britain or to go abroad, well… have a nice holiday.
The location work at Gatwick grounds this in the real world and plays on some very real fears. It’s not that air travel was brand new in the 60s, but it was much more of a novelty than it is today. A dramatic increase in real-terms income post-war allowed working people to travel abroad without completely breaking the bank for the first time, and during the 60s foreign holidays nearly doubled, from around 4 million a year at the start of the decade to around 7 million at the end. To put that in perspective, over 40 million Britons go abroad for a holiday per year nowadays. So Doctor Who was on trend here, with a frightening story about this weird new package holiday thing, and the idea of disappearing mid-air. What I don’t see mentioned much about this story (actually, I haven’t seen anyone mention it) is how well it chimes in with the contemporary buzz about the Bermuda Triangle, which only became a “thing” in the 50s, and was a big deal in popular culture in the early 60s, with high-profile articles about the idea in 1962 and 1964 in particular.
Behind the disappearances are the Chameleons, on the one hand pretty standard sci-fi body-snatchers, but in their natural form some of the scariest monsters we have ever seen in Doctor Who. Their features are obscured, playing on uncanny valley fears, and their skin looks diseased. So at this point in the history of Doctor Who (in fact, probably at any point), we are almost certainly expecting these monsters to be defeated and probably destroyed. But this is our first Malcolm Hulke script (co-written with David Ellis) and he is one of the few classic series writers who shuns the xenophobic view of “monsters” and instead gives us “aliens”. So the Doctor eventually finds a way to negotiate from a position of power, and this happens:
DOCTOR: Stand by while I negotiate. Now then, I will tell you my terms. I will guarantee your continued existence, if you will return to Earth all the young people you abducted.
DIRECTOR: No use. They’ve all been miniaturised.
DOCTOR: Then reverse the process.
DIRECTOR: I’m afraid that’s impossible. The equipment for that is on our home planet.
BLADE: He’s lying. The planes themselves are the miniaturisation chambers and they work both ways. What kind of continued existence would we have, Doctor?
DOCTOR: In your former state, I’m afraid. Your scientists will have to think of some other way out of your dilemma.
BLADE: It’s better than death.
SPENCER: We accept.
BLADE: All right, we accept.
…and that’s something of a departure from the usual resolution to a Doctor Who story, to say the least. It’s not that the Chameleons are perfect as a concept; as I mentioned above the body-snatching thing is pretty standard sci-fi schlock, leading to the trope’s biggest cliché with a duplicate of Jamie who is perfect in every way except it can’t do accents. These kinds of plots also tend to rely on people behaving in an overly credulous manner. Would the Chameleons really get the passengers to write their postcards home before they leave? Surely nobody is that gullible?
Like Dodo, Ben and Polly disappear mid-story, absent after the second episode, although they at least get a pre-filmed insert for a departure scene at the end. Their final moments tend to raise a few hackles, because of this little farewell speech from the Doctor:
All right, then. Off you go. Now go on, Ben can catch his ship and become an Admiral, and you Polly, you can look after Ben.
So I can completely understand why people don’t like that, because superficially it is the Doctor saying, “Ben, go be brilliant. Polly, go be a wife.” And yes, that’s pretty revolting. But if you take it in context, you actually get this:
DOCTOR: All right, then. Off you go. Now go on, Ben can catch his ship and become an Admiral, and you Polly, you can look after Ben.
POLLY: I will. You will be safe, won’t you?
JAMIE: I’ll look after him.
Now, that’s not quite so bad, because suddenly the suggestion of Ben being an admiral seems ironic (of course he won’t!), and there is a parallel being made between Ben and the Doctor, as an equivalent pair of klutzes who need looking after. Polly is going to look after Ben, and Jamie is going to look after the Doctor. It’s clumsily open to the negative interpretation, but I think the implication is reasonably clear, further setting up the bromance that is the Jamie and Second Doctor relationship. And that really comes to life here for the first time.
When Jamie starts saying too much and the Doctor nudges him to stop, this is something that will become a typical moment between the two of them. The humour in their friendship also begins here, and Jamie’s upside-down newspaper is a classic example. The contrast between discarded companion Ben and new regular Jamie has been striking already. Tellingly, Anneke Wills was offered a new contract, but Michael Craze was not, so there was clearly a recognition that the problem here wasn’t Ben and Polly. The problem was just Ben being surplus to requirements. Half his lines were already being given to Jamie, and it was time to give him the other half of that action. Jamie is in fact an ideal companion due to his background. The Doctor has to explain to him what a chameleon is, and in doing so explains it to all the younger viewers. Unlike a lot of companions, Jamie’s roots never really get forgotten, and they are useful. In The Faceless Ones he wanders around the terminal in a state of total bewilderment and later on he gets flight sickness. As a means for the writers to highlight the scariness of a situation he is magnificent. And whereas Ben and Polly were clearly but subtly written as a couple, in a similar way to Ian and Barbara, Jamie gives the writers scope to form romantic connections. Here there is a nice undercurrent of attraction between Jamie and Samantha, which would have made Samantha’s mooted companion status very interesting indeed. There will eventually be similar undercurrents between Jamie and Victoria.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. This is our farewell to Ben and Polly, and it is worth reflecting for a moment on them. From the moment Jamie turned up, Ben posed a difficulty for the writers, although The Macra Terror found something interesting to do with him. Unfortunately, that interesting thing was to build on Ben being generally the idiot one, most obvious in The Power of the Daleks where he refuses to believe the evidence of his eyes. Polly, in contrast, was a gift for the writers, established from the outset as an ambitious, strong, independent woman, with the fun of the 60s youth culture. Like any 60s companion, she ended up on several occasions being the damsel in distress, but in light of what is to come, with a whole year of nothing but damsel in distress, it is hard to find much fault with Polly. The pair of them successfully bridged the first ever transition between two different Doctors, and very different Doctors at that, finding a way to work well with both of them. If they could be said to have one big fault, it was that they were a throwback to the Ian and Barbara model of reluctant travellers, and that was always going to clash with our fun new Doctor and his Jamie bromance. But try this: imagine our original reluctant travellers, Ian and Barbara travelling with the Second Doctor. It really doesn’t work, does it. So making even a qualified success of getting their characters to work well with both their Doctors was a remarkable achievement for Wills and Craze, and they were instrumental in keeping Doctor Who alive through that transition period. But now we’re rushing headlong into a brand new era of Doctor Who. The Doctor has his best mate with him, and the monsters are waiting for them… RP
The view from across the pond:
One cannot deny the eeriness of seeing a person without a face. The image can be seen more recently in The Idiot’s Lantern when “the Wire” removed people’s faces and left them little more than shells. In The Twilight Zone movie remake of It’s a Good Life, we see a girl with no mouth, which is terribly disturbing too. We are again heading into that popular vacations spot, the uncanny valley. So for 1966, The Faceless Ones must have been very off-putting to see faceless people as the main enemy. To add to the discomfort of it, these aliens suffocate because they have no faces, which blurs the line between villain and some kind of victim. Then to go a step farther, we get a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where humans are being replaced with some of these aliens. All it all, it’s a very good mashup of some genre favorites.
Let me cover where it goes wrong first: it is 2 episodes too long. Cutting it down would have made for a tighter story. Another issue is that Ben and Polly are missing for two entire parts of this six part story, and that’s a shame really. These two were a good pairing that were shunted too often and in this, their final story, they are totally ignored for two weeks. It’s little wonder they left the show before their official end was supposed to be. Now where the episode does succeed, I’ll break down into A, B & C.
A) Yes, this episode is far from a fast paced story, but the use of eerie music that suddenly screeches is alarming. It’s not the soundtrack to listen to before bed, but could certainly help put unwanted visitors on edge enough that they’d want to leave. The acting is also subtle. The villains are very rigid, inexpressive. It might come off as wooden but considering it’s only the aliens that act this way, it plays to the fact that these creatures are uncomfortable as us; they don’t fit.
B) The cast. Troughton is superb and he’s really taking on the role of the Doctor rather well. This is the first time he’s able to just be himself since he started. First we had an Earth Examiner, then the German Doctor von Wer, followed by a merchant. This time he’s himself right from the start: all cosmic hobo. And he’s allowed to show off too. Working with the airport commandant and an investigator from Scotland Yard, he is able to prove himself and it’s a joy to watch. Seeing him outwit one of the Chameleon’s is equally fun as he freezes the enemy with his own weapon. The General, or um… the Commandant, is marvelous as he gives the Doctor twelve hours to see what he can uncover (“God help me”) and plays the put-upon authority figure to a tee. Then we have Jamie. Jamie gets the first line of the episode, “It’s a flying beastie!” How can you not love that the first line actually captures Jamie’s unfamiliarity with airplanes in the very first few seconds of the story. Remember, Jamie came from the mid-1700s, then went straight to an underwater adventure. He’s had no time to acclimate to airplanes; there’s no reason to think the TARDIS crew would have explained that to him before they land either!
C) The merging of those classic sci-fi/horror tropes, which are innately unnerving and adding the Doctor to them. Showing that the Doctor can resolve the issue with a peaceful solution… that’s really impressive.
Now I also have to confess that the moment I started this review I was going to comment on Colin Gordon because I was a fan of The Prisoner. He played “the new number two” twice. Once in A, B, & C and again in The General. No, in case you’re wondering, it’s not as much fun when you have to explain the puns, and I also know very few of you would remember The Prisoner to begin with. Furthermore, as a dear friend of mine points out to me often, even if you did, the titles would probably escape your memory. But beyond my attempt at being witty, I can only say it is a shame this story is missing 4 of its 6 parts. I don’t know that it would work with today’s audience but if we remember the time period from which it comes, there’s something deeply unnerving about it and that would have made for another classic.
I do have to ask a few questions about it to end on a humorous note. Why would the Doctor and crew, upon seeing a plane about to land on the runway, run away from the TARDIS instead of back into it, in the hopes of taking off and landing somewhere that would not cause a huge disturbance? Even if not for themselves, for the safety of the airplane crew! Or, upon seeing a police officer, they run and, as the Doctor advises, scatter? All four act like they are fugitives, when they’ve done nothing wrong. Oh, and my personal favorite, the British hyper-focus. Polly is hiding behind a barrel basically within plain sight; there is a huge gap between the barrels protecting her from the murderer in the first part. And he never sees her. Further evidence is when the Doctor is investigating with the commandant, he says they have to look for a large crate. Jamie (God bless the Scottish eyesight) notices the hulking great monstrosity right behind the Doctor. Oh, it’s all hilarious and fun. Troughton was an amazing Doctor. It’s a tragic shame so many of his episodes are missing. Probably scooped up by some bogus airline somewhere. Or maybe they aren’t missing at all. Someone might be holding them right there, behind that barrel. Yes, right there… he’s just ducking, he didn’t vanish! Oh, I give up… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Evil of the Daleks
The Faceless Ones, as a Dr. Who story mixing airplanes and airports with an SF plot device, can arguably succeeded in ways that Time-Flight failed. Time-traveling airplanes for Time-Flight was agreeably worth the creative effort. But the main problem was that it was the 80s and, to be fair, was more along the lines of science-fantasy than science-fiction, certainly with the Master as the main villain and how he came about in that one. So with The Faceless Ones, they thankfully, for the science-fiction realism of the late 60s (certainly on TV thanks to Star Trek and The Prisoner), gave us a more realistically identifiable story that consequently paved the way for UNIT. For the shape-shifting aliens of the classic Dr. Who, Chameleons in an airport make it exciting alongside the real-world hype about the Bermuda Triangle. The X-Files was the one SF show to make the most profound use of that, at least for my own SF viewing experiences. But The Faceless Ones seems the kind of SF thriller I would like to be actor in, indeed as Dr. Who.
Thanks for your reviews.
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