There’s a nice moment at the beginning of 1977’s prog rock banger The Face of Evil where the Doctor (Tom Baker), travelling alone for once, is forced to talk to himself. He pulls from his pocket a handkerchief with a knot in it and wonders what he was trying to remind himself of. I like to think that it was to remind him to wipe his personality print from the Mordee expedition’s computer, a procedural blunder that leads to the computer becoming Xoanon, the crazed version of itself which is the focus of this smart and thought provoking story.
There are loads of interesting implications to the Doctor’s cack-handed attempt at tech support. For instance, the idea of leaving a personality print on a computer sounds like the typical 1970s proclivity for making machines human and therefore a bit far fetched. But perhaps the Doctor had to create a digital avatar to undertake the repairs, communing with the computer and effectively infiltrating it, as contemporaneous viewers had just seen him do in The Deadly Assassin. What if he forgot to wipe his boots as he left the Matrix and he gave that all-powerful computer multiple personalities? There you go, Big Finish, have that one on me.
As artificial intelligence begins to make its presence felt in our world, it’s not so hard to imagine the need for it to be accompanied by artificial personalities to make its operations more palatable to humans. In fact, my friends Siri and Alexa will tell you it’s already happening. So it seems more feasible now than ever before that the interaction of human and digital personalities might cause a computer to malfunction.
Xoanon – super advanced though it is – can’t seem to self-diagnose the problem and delete the Doctor’s personality itself, which seems a bit of a design fault. And exactly why its two personalities couldn’t live together on the same motherboard isn’t fully explained; is it the overwhelming strength of the Doctor’s personality which causes the malfunction, or is it that his morals are oppositional to the computer’s? Or could it be that the computer senses the Doctor’s own multiple personalities – his past incarnations – and seeks to mimic those many states of mind?
Here’s another possibility: that the Doctor’s own personality is so full of contractions and complexities that the simple act of trying to comprehend it sends Xoanon gaga. The fourth Doctor is easily the most changeable and in this story, it’s particularly difficult to judge whether he’s going to greet any given event with a toothy grin or a glowering stare. For every whimsical moment (such as when he threatens to kill one of the Sevateem with a “deadly” jelly baby), there’s another of ruthlessness to balance it out (most shockingly when he flicks a piranha-like Horda onto a man’s arm). Then factor in, as the Doctor suggests himself, the character’s own egotism, and perhaps it’s not all that surprising that we end up with a being that will brainwash people into carving its own image onto the side of a mountain.
And in that stony edifice, there’s another of the little details which make The Face of Evil so beguiling. That image of the Doctor doesn’t look strong and proud like a dictator or a president. It looks confused. It’s worried.
“It’s an experiment in eugenics,” the Doctor says, when he realises the results of Xoanon’s social engineering, by keeping the Sevateem and the Tesh apart. One look at the cast list will tell you that it can’t be a very successful one though; new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) is the only woman on this bifurcated world. Perhaps, like the hapless Yoss in last random’s The Tsuranga Conundrum, the men give birth on this planet.
More likely the planet’s lack of gender diversity is another example of a familiar blind spot in Doctor Who generally and in the Hinchcliffe era specifically. But the fact that Leela is the only woman present makes The Face of Evil an interesting examination of masculinity. This planet’s population is divided between the jocks and the nerds. Like if the football team and the chess club had been allowed to develop separate civilisations.
(The Sevateem are a peculiar band of warriors, though. It says something about changing body images for men that they are all played by actors of slender build. Had this been made today, surely they would have all been muscle bound goliaths (though they would have kept their neatly trimmed hipster beards). And they speak with a sophistication which belies their paleo lifestyle. The Tesh meanwhile are the pallid little swots you’d expect them to be, although somewhere within their spaceship there must be a flamboyant Tesh tailor. I imagine him spending hours in some tiny room within the ship, surrounded by piles of apple green and candy pink material, carefully piecing together the natty page boy numbers the Tesh all wear. Come to think of it, does he have an equivalent on the Sevateem’s side, constantly apologising for the fact that a shortage of leather offcuts have led to occasionally revealing gaps in their huntings duds? But I digress).
The one thing that guides the men of this planet, be they physically or intellectually inclined, is religion. Both groups are devoted to Xoanon, particularly the Tesh whose proximity to the damaged machine has turned them into acolytes and zealots. This paints the men of this planet as inveterate doers, too busy pursuing the rituals of their respective tribes to question their purpose. Those few that do – devious Calib (Lesley Schofield) and mousy Tomas (Brendan Price) – are too self-serving or weak to voice their doubts. They’ll continue to work within the system.
It’s Leela who’s the only one brave enough to speak the truth and challenge the established structures on this planet. If there’s a feminist reading of The Face of Evil (and that’s difficult to imagine, considering it has a sole female character dressed in a leather swimsuit for its duration), it’s that the stupid, self-sustaining power structures set up by men need to be interrogated and disrupted, and women like Leela – smart, capable and inquiring – are the ones to do it.
Given this, it’s a pity Leela doesn’t get to play a stronger part in Xoanon’s eventual healing. It would be fitting if it was her who pressed the final button or something, helping deliver the final blow while the Doctor is strapped by the scalp to the computer again. She was the first one to articulate that there was something wrong with Xoanon, so it would be perfect if she was the one put this planet to rights.
Still, it’s entirely right that she wants to travel with the Doctor and escape this planet of bores and bullies. And in that terrific scene where she starts her journeys around the universe, there’s another of The Face of Evil’s pleasing little details.
When the Doctor refuses to take her with him, she doesn’t take no for an answer. She simply runs inside and takes off. She wasn’t worried when that big old face was carved on a mountain, she’s not going to be pushed around now, just because it happens to be on top of a person, wrapped in a ridiculous scarf. Good for her.
LINK TO The Tsuranga Conundrum: both feature machine intelligences.
NEXT TIME: New Year’s Day. Turning over a new leaf. We’re bang up to date with Resolution.