Doctor Who - The Hand of Fear, a four-part story from October 1976 starring "Fourth Doctor" Tom Baker, is a somewhat uneven but mostly entertaining entry in the long-running series. More than most Doctor Whos, this one has a storyline reminiscent of '50s-era science fiction films, and its adherence to the old-fashioned movie serial-type structure is very effective, but this tale is notable mainly as the last regular appearance of one of the Doctor's most popular and enduring human "companions": investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). The release of these particular episodes now appears timed with the current, 2006 Series of Doctor Who's upcoming January DVD release date: in one of the shows, Sladen and her character are reunited with the Doctor, and slated for her own spin-off series in 2007.
"The Hand of Fear" gets off to a rather cryptic start, in a sequence set millions of years in the past on the frozen planet of Kastria. The bulk of the narrative, however, is set in present-day Britain, where the TARDIS materializes in a rock quarry just as workers are preparing to blast. The Doctor (Tom Baker, charming as always) is unhurt by the massive explosion, but Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is nearly crushed under a pile of rocks. She's found clutching a strange stone-like disembodied hand.
At a nearby hospital, Sarah Jane revives uninjured but possessed by the hand. She escapes from intensive care largely unnoticed, eventually making her way to a nuclear power plant, stunning a front gate guard with a magical ring while exclaiming, "Eldrad must live!" Later, within the reactor itself, Eldrad uses the intense radiation to revive itself, taking the form of a beautiful stone-like woman (dancer Judith Paris).
"The Hand of Fear," is all over the map, working best in its scenes of the nuclear power plant on the brink of destruction, all of which has a "Beast with Five Fingers meets Professor Quatermass"-type flavor. Though derivative, all the business with the hand is well-done and evocative even when it isn't entirely convincing, and once Eldrad takes the form of slinky, icy Judith Paris and her crystal-encrusted leotards, the character literally takes on new life. Though rather schizophrenic in character, Paris infuses it with just the right portions of sex and paranoia.
Unfortunately, Bob Baker and Dave Martin's script begins to run out of steam toward the end, with one too many climaxes at the power plant, while the fourth episode, set back on Kastria, is despite the great cliffhanger that precedes it largely a disaster, with much eye-rolling villainy, cheap production values (a sharp contrast to the expansive, real-life nuclear power station where the preceding episodes were filmed), and an uninspired resolution that bring it crashing down. Then again, the blood and thunder climax was really just a warm-up to Sarah Jane's farewell, which is sweetly done.
Video & Audio
All four episodes of "The Hand of Fear," running 99 minutes in all, are presented in their original full-frame, and their mix of videotape (for studio interiors) and film (for location exteriors and interiors) look very good. The mono sound on all four shows is fine, and optional English subtitles are available.
As has become the norm, the BBC has done an outstanding job loading this disc with great extra features. Stars Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, guest star Judith Paris, co-writer Bob Baker, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe provide an entertaining audio commentary, which can be listened to in conjunction with Information Text which appear like subtitles and provide gobs of background on both the series and this particular episode.
Everyone save Paris appear in an extremely good documentary, Changing Time, that's in 16:9 widescreen format and runs 50 minutes. Though the documentary spends some time on "The Hand of Fear," a lot of it deals with Sladen's character, which bridged two doctors, having also appeared with Baker's predecessor, Jon Pertwee. There's also a lot about Baker's casting, the general direction of the series at that time, and Sladen's departure. Baker and Sladen also appear in Swap Shop, an 11-minute interview from 1976.
Also included are Continuity Announcements, a set of BBC network bumpers and promos that originally aired at the head and tails of the shows when they first aired; a Photo Gallery crammed with good images. DVD-ROM features include a 1977 Doctor Who Annual and Radio Times Billings, both in PDF format.
Doctor Who - The Hand of Fear is yet another enjoyable Doctor Who story made all the more appealing by the BBC's welcome feast of extras which help put everything into context.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon.