During the Second World War, certain islands in Melanesia became strategically important to the war effort. American planes started landing there and using some of the islands as bases, bringing in supplies with them. Unfortunately, the islands already had native populations, some of which previously had little or no contact with the Western world, and the amazing people bringing bountiful cargo in flying machines seemed like gods. So they started to be worshipped as gods. This phenomenon is known as a “cargo cult”, the most enduring being the John Frum cult that worshipped a mysterious American of that name, on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. However, it was British colonialism that created the first known cargo cult, at the tail end of the 19th Century, in Fiji.
When cargo cults are referenced in Western fiction, it tends to be with an element of humour, looking down sneeringly on the funny natives worshipping aeroplanes, which is basically the approach when Doctor Who has some fun with a cargo cult in The Face of Evil, complete with ceremonial headwear made out of a glove. It’s all a bit crass, but there is intelligence on display in the approach taken as well. The invented etymology of “Sevateem” and “Tesh” is clever, as is the genuine etymology of “Xoanon”, taken from the name of carved idols in ancient Greece. Xoanon could so easily be a stale rerun of a computer gone wrong, yet another Wotan or BOSS, but two aspects of Xoanon set it apart as something fascinating and different: it is a eugenicist, and it has a warped personality due to the past influence of the Doctor. This is a monster of the Doctor’s own creation.
The novelisation goes some way towards absolving the Doctor of some of the blame, setting his original visit to the planet during his post-regeneration trauma at the beginning of Robot. That makes perfect sense, but in a way it is refreshing to just have a direct critique of the Doctor’s methods here, without any excuses. The Doctor did his best originally, but faces the law of unintended consequences on his return. Those consequences are severe, causing untold deaths over the years and the destruction of a whole native civilisation, and the Doctor’s own god complex is at fault. This is particularly apt for the Fourth Doctor, who is the most confident and capable Doctor to date. In a precursor to the critique of the Doctor’s hubris that will bring the Tenth Doctor era to a close, the Fourth Doctor solves an issue with a malfunctioning computer system by copying his own personality over the top. There is an arrogance there, the assumption that his own mental abilities will simply be sufficient to put everything right, as if he has the perfect mind for any job. Note the eugenicist approach of Xoanon I mentioned above: the personality of a Time Lord brings an inherent belief of the superiority of one kind of person over another. The Doctor might have escaped his own aristocratic society, but you can’t quite take the Lord out of the Time Lord.
The upshot of all this is truly disturbing, especially the moment where Xoanon cries out “who am I?” in the voice of a child. The native population is not the only victim here. This is a sentient artificial life form that the Doctor had a chance to cure and instead imposed his will upon. Imagine also the impact that first cliffhanger must have had to the original viewers, now inescapably spoilt by VHS and DVD cover images: a giant carving of the Doctor’s face, somehow the false god of this society.
The writer Chris Boucher never quite follows through on the theme of the Doctor’s hubris, but it is not really reasonable to expect a level of sophistication in storytelling approach that only emerged post-2005. It is enough that a big idea is being tackled, and also that the Doctor finds a way to heal Xoanon rather than destroy his creation, and set the society back on track. And the Doctor effectively creates his own new companion here, a product of the twisted society his influence brought about. Leela is the silver lining, an independent thinker who holds onto her values because they make sense in a wider context, while discarding beliefs that do not. The Doctor’s attempt to reject her is another area where Boucher drops the ball. It is presumably due to his lingering sadness at the loss of Sarah, or perhaps because he wants to distance himself from the mess of his own making here, but that is never made clear.
LEELA: Take me with you.
LEELA: What? Well. You like me, don’t you?
DOCTOR: Well, yes, I suppose I do like you. But then, I like lots of people but I can’t go carting them around the universe with me. Goodbye.
In that moment the story collapses as a thematic whole. The Doctor attempts to reject potentially the most capable and intelligent companion he has ever had, the best her entire race has to offer. His hubris remains, and his reaction to Leela over the course of their time together will frequently return to the kind of master/savage imperialist superiority complex that led to the creation of her society in the first place, with a Doctor who simply imprints himself over another personality. He keeps trying to do that over and over again with Leela. But she is too good for that, and her journey starts by rejecting his rejection.
Come out! Don’t touch that! Don’t touch!
… and as the TARDIS dematerialises, the Doctor has a new companion who will never quite be willing to be shaped in his own image. Many companions learn to be brilliant by travelling with the Doctor, taking on some of his own abilities and characteristics. Leela is different. She is the companion who is already amazing. RP
The view from across the pond:
As a child, I found it a big disappointment going from The Deadly Assassin to The Face of Evil. Even when I was young, I never really appreciated stories about savage societies, and it was worse when a spacefaring race degenerated into shamanism. I didn’t like it in Planet of the Spiders either! On top of that, I wasn’t enamored of Louise Jameson either, even in her sexy-as-hell leotard. And too often there were moments that turned me off altogether like the Doctor’s face carved in a mountain which looked ridiculous or the face Tom makes as Xoanon to blast the Tesh. But like a loyal fan, when doing a marathon, you keep going no matter the story. And the fact is, it pays off. You never know when an opinion will change!
Doctor Who is at its best when adding a bit of comedy to the weekly threat and Tom Baker does comedy extremely well. So many of his reactions, especially when he talks about biting the heads off babies make us laugh out loud. The babies he will bite the heads off, for those who don’t know, are jelly babies – his candy of choice. His interaction with Neeva is marvelous too. It is utterly hilarious when he pretends to be the voice of Xoanon to fool Neeva. And only Tom could pull off a fourth wall break at the start of an episode and make it seem totally natural. At no point did I even think he was talking to the audience; I assumed he was talking to himself because he is a bit mad. But beyond being mad, he’s incredibly skilled; he shoots a rope with a crossbow with perfect accuracy. His madness hides his genius under an unassuming mask of teeth and curls, and that’s something to look up to. Speaking of madness, Neeva makes a great crackpot. I can’t really call him an enemy, but he’s certainly no friend. He’s just fun to knock over with a Benny Hill style forehead smack. And it is interesting that we go from savage wasteland to advanced technology in one story, but that compounds the duality of the episode; a motif that was recently explored differently in Planet of Evil. (Must be something to do with the word evil being in the title!) Duality is fascinating and while Xoanon deals with it in his mind, the viewer deals with it visually in the two very different locations in which the story takes place.
And what may be the strongest element of the story is the actual schizophrenic computer, Xoanon. That episode 3 cliffhanger calling out “who am I?” over and over again is actually very disturbing. The idea that this super-powerful entity has no sense of self is frightening and once again does something Doctor Who is good at: takes something we see every day and makes it scary. In this case, it’s the Doctor’s face coupled with confusion. This is a motif that will crop up later with the Eighth Doctor as he too asks “Who am I?” One hopes that a powerful entity, one equivalent to a god, would not be suffering from a schizoid personality but that is exactly what happens here and it’s up to the Doctor to fix it. To add to the intrigue, however, is that it may have been the Doctor that caused the problem, which shows that even in classic Who, the Doctor’s actions sometimes have dire consequences. And it also begs the question: when did Xoanon go mad? When was the Fourth Doctor here? Could it have been after The Deadly Assassin? One would expect not, since he seems to have no memory of being there and presumably those two stories follow closely. Unless there was a much bigger gap between the two stories. Otherwise, when? Perhaps right after Robot when the Doctor would still be slightly off due to his regeneration? But then where is Sarah Jane and Harry? Perhaps we’ll never know. Best not to think about it too much.
Because this has been a subject of a few criticisms by me lately, I’ll mention the title. There were a couple of noted working titles for this story: The Tower of Imelo and The Day God Went Mad. I don’t know if Imelo was a friend of Neman in Arc of Infinity but I’ve no idea who that was meant to be. Maybe that was Xoanon’s original name. But I far prefer Xoanon anyway so good job not taking that title. But a far superior title was The Day God Went Mad. That sounds almost Lovecraftian! That’s big and scary and hopeless and awesome. I really think writers for TV shows need to have a class on good naming conventions. The Face of Evil isn’t a bad title, though. It doesn’t give away any spoilers. If anything, the idea that the face in question will be the Doctor’s is something no one would have anticipated. But then, who would have expected that the Doctor would start traveling with a savage? And we all know how that worked out, don’t we! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Robots of Death