“THE HAND OF FEAR” – Season 14, Serial 2, Story 87 – Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin; Directed by Lennie Mayne – Sigh. It’s the end of an era as Sarah Jane Smith takes her last spin in the TARDIS as a Companion. It’s the mid 70s, so that means we’re due for a story involving mind control. It’s Sarah Jane (of course) who falls under the spell of Eldrad after finding a fossilized hand in a quarry explosion. The Doctor runs around a nuclear facility playing expert as Eldrad takes control of mind after mind before finally attaining a humanoid form after the RAF tries to nuke Eldrad to bits. Our nuke facility adventure then transforms into an alien civilization story with silicone-based life as Eldrad tricks the Doctor, turns male, and reveals his plans of interstellar conquest. Everything turns out okay. Except for the bit about Sarah Jane leaving.
And just like that, Sarah Jane Smith is gone.
Undoubtedly one of the most beloved Companions of all time exits the TARDIS at the end of THE HAND OF FEAR after the Fates conspire to terminate her run. Sarah throws a bit of a hissy fit after the adventure is over and her and the Doctor are back in the beloved secondary control room. She’s upset that he doesn’t listen and wants to go home, and even packs her bags in a fit of anger. For his part, the Doctor really isn’t listening to her as he’s trying to fix the TARDIS and has his head buried in the central console. When Sarah is off packing the Doctor receives a summoning to return to Gallifrey and cannot bring Sarah Jane with him.
Sarah changes her mind, of course, about wanting to leave but the clearly frazzled Doctor says she has to go. Now, there’s no reason why the Doctor couldn’t have simply said, “See you next week,” but that’s not how it used to work in the TARDIS. The Doctor does say to Sarah Jane that he’ll see her again, but as we all know that didn’t happen until SCHOOL REUNION, some six iterations of himself later.
The serial puts a nice comedic bow on her exit, though, when it’s revealed that the Doctor has not delivered her to South Croydon, as promised.
Like nearly every DOCTOR WHO fan I’ve ever talked to, I believe Sarah Jane Smith is a special Companion and Lis Sladen is a special actress. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I have not been a lifelong DOCTOR WHO fan. I watched the show intermittently as a kid. Growing up in the ’70s with DOCTOR WHO only airing occasionally on one of the two or three PBS affiliates we could watch, depending on what the antenna was picking up that day (ask your parents, kids), Sarah Jane was the only Companion I could name for much of my life.
I love her enthusiasm, her intelligence, her joy, her willingness to spar with the Doctor, her smile, and … well, I just love everything about her. More than any other Companion of Classic Who, Lis Sladen was able to take an often generically written character and make her feel alive and real.
I mentioned it during the Earth Station Who podcast that I guested on back in October that I was greatly affected seeing Sarah Jane’s return in SCHOOL REUNION, even though I hadn’t “lived with her” my whole life. Yeah, she was the only Companion I “knew” (well, her and K9), but there’s a big difference between being aware of someone and knowing them. When I started my big DOCTOR WHO watch several years ago, I had no idea what I would think of the show, but I quickly fell in love with it. I watched all of the DVDs that Netflix had (which was far from complete) and even that compressed viewing experience had me bursting when Sarah Jane opened that door and saw the TARDIS standing before her. I can’t imagine how joyous long-term fans must have felt upon seeing her return.
Now that I’m watching the series for a second time, my appreciation for Sarah Jane and Lis Sladen grows with each story. She really is the greatest of all Companions in my mind. The only Companion that could compete would be the Brigadier, but he doesn’t count.
Because the Doctor was his Companion.
As for the serial itself …
THE HAND OF FEAR is a really dumb title.
It may, in fact, be the single worst title in all of DOCTOR WHO lore. The only thing I like about it is that it is so generic that it makes me want to write a story called THE (BODY PART) OF (EMOTION) because I can’t imagine that the title was created by any means other than a generic formulation.
The serial itself is pretty darn good. I wish more four-parters would take HAND OF FEAR as a blueprint because this serial moves rather quickly. What starts out like it’s going to be a new spin on a science facility serial morphs into an alien space station story, complete with the Doctor being tricked into helping Eldrad. It’s good stuff and I love stories where the Doctor gets tricked and then gets his revenge, which here consists of the Doctor and Sarah Jane using his scarf to trip Eldrad into falling down a huge chasm.
Really, though, this serial is defined by a great Lis Sladen performance. Sarah Jane is mind-controlled (by Eldrad) and hypnotized (by the Doctor), which combine to set up her ending frustration really nicely. (The final scene between her and the Doctor was reportedly re-written by Slade and Tom Baker off of Robert Holmes original draft.) You can see why this is the serial that pushes her over the edge.
It must be said, though, that THE HAND OF FEAR is one of the most painful serials to watch because half of the noises your TV will make when you watch it consists or two sounds: the most blaring, repetitive alarm ever committed to the small screen and the unending string of dialogue with people saying, “Eldrad must live.” I think it’s said 836 times during the serial but I may be understating that by a time or two.
THE HAND OF FEAR is a really good serial, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it until after you’ve seen a bunch of Sarah Jane serials so that you can properly appreciate her exit.
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