It is probably impossible to review this story without also having to discuss the new era it heralds. So, let's get that out of the way first.
John Nathan-Turner, easily one of the most controversial producers to ever preside over the series, begins his tenure boldly in this story. In fact, this is probably the biggest revisions the series has ever undergone during a producer changeover. It is, at least, a bit re-assuring to notice in the credits that Barry Letts was executive producing the season with him - which means, to me, that JNT probably had an excellent sounding board to work off of as he made the radical changes that he did.
The most notable changes are, of course, the cosmetic ones (which is almost a bit of a pun since one of the changes the producer managed to pioneer was getting Tom Baker to finally wear make-up on camera!). We have a new a title sequence, new music and new logo. All very immediate assertions that show us we're about to witness a very different Who from what we've been watching before. Having, more or less, "grown up" with this era of Who - it's probably one of, if not, my favourite title sequences (but then, I thought the Sly McCoy title sequence was okay so what do I know?!). Some fans complain that it only conveys space travel and not time travel and that's part of what makes the previous "birth canal" title sequence better. Which is a comment that has always sort of amused me. The previous title sequence is just a nice special effect. That's it, really. It only became "time travelesque" because they needed something to sort of represent the time vortex during certain stories that depicted it. So they decided to save some money and use the title sequence graphics. By this same logic, the title sequence should also convey "Time Lord Mind Bending" since it was also used in The Brain of Morbius. And, of course, the title sequence that dominated the bulk of the Pertwee era should also convey "Dalek Mind Probe" since its graphics were used in Day of the Daleks!
Anyway, I digress for the sake of getting on with the review of the story. The other more obvious changes we see are that production values appear to have either gone up or been used more effectively. Although the sets are still wobbly here and there, they look much better than anything we've seen before on the show. Costumes, makeup and special effects have all improved too. Overall, the design and feel of the episodes look like the money being put into them is either greater or being used much more smartly. Not sure exactly what happened, but it all certainly looks great. By Doctor Who standards, at least.
Then finally, in the "blatant changes" department we also have the Doctor's latest costume. I think it best to say that I just plain like it. In fact, I love it. Baker looks great in the outfit and I almost wish he'd worn it for more than just the one season. And, as others have remarked, it greatly symbolises what also occurred with his performance of the role. Which is probably one of the more, but still not entirely, subtle changes this new story heralds.
I really didn't have much problems with how crazy and goofy Tom was getting in the previous season. His wit, though a bit overabundant, was still always great fun to watch. And it's a testament to Tom's talent the way he would re-invent the scripts so much during the rehearsal process. Re-writing science fiction "on the spot" the way he did was no small feat. But, I do also think the series could not handle too much more of this. That if he wasn't reigned in the way he was, the show would have become a total spoof of itself. So, even though there's still bits of the "old Tom Baker" here and there - it's kept considerably toned down and made to be a bit more whimsical and clever. The most famous of these examples in this story being, of course, "arrest the scarf!". But other sequences, such as the multiple copies of the Doctor vanishing away in episode four and the real Doctor still not being too sure of himself as being the real Doctor, convey this sort of humour far more effectively and creatively. "Arrest the scarf" was a cheap gag - this sequence was just plain talented writing.
Which is, of course, the other more subtle change in this era. The new script editor, Christopher Bidmead, not only gave us a story (and an overall season) that is much more "science fiction- based" rather than "science fantasy-based", he also gave us some of the most complicated, if not, incomprehensible of plots. From a standpoint of pure marketting, this was probably not the smartest of moves as I imagined it alienated a lot of casual viewers. But the artistic merit of this story (and, again, the overall season) is fantastic. I, for one, was delighted to see a story that could not be easilly understood from just one viewing. It gave the series a new-found sense of sophistication and perhaps, even, pretentiousness. But then, whoever said being pretentious was an entirely bad thing?
Okay, on to a review of the story, proper! The strongest impression this story leaves behind is the brilliant directing and, more specifically, the cinematography. All the gorgeous transitional shots (particularly the shots of the exterior environment being conveyed outside the windows of the Argolin Hive and then "fading through" to the scenes that were taking place on the other side of them) and tight angles (the discovery of the West Lodge Foamasi's rubber mask inside the closet being shot from inside the closet being a great example of this technique) make this story a visual delight to watch. Only the budget, which is still comparitively low by the North American standards I'm accustomed to when watching sci-fi T.V., act as a detriment to some of the director's effectiveness. It's a testament that Lovett Bickford was capable of doing so much with so little.
The other great strongpoint of this story were the aliens. Both on paper and visually. The Argolins and Foamasi are very well-written cultures that seem like "real people" rather than just cardboard monsters. The Foamasi look as great as they possibly could with the budgetary constraints - and the Argolins look gorgeous. Especially when their whole look is really just a basic "wig, make-up and robe" effect. It was nice to see an Argolin again in the background during "Dragonfire" - they really are a beautiful-looking race that were visually conveyed by the simplest of means.
The story itself, though a bit contrived, is excellently plotted. The scenes were constructed in a very different and unique way compared to how they were written previously in the show. Expository dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and characterisation is kept to a maximum. Which is further enhanced by the acting in this story. All the performers are comfortable with the idea of subtlety and restraint. Something difficult to maintain in sci-fi when the visuals tend to be so over-the-top. Even Pangol's meglamania in episode four is handled convincingly. His voice is loud and furious, but the need to overdo facial expressions as previous meglamaniacal characters in the series have done, is kept to a bare minimum.
All of these elements come together to give us one of the smoothest, "slickest" and most sophisticated stories the show has ever produced. Can we call Leisure Hive a "classic"? Probably not. But it isn't really trying to be. It's just trying to tell a nice little story about a small colony on a distant planet whose denizens are trying to either save themselves from extinction or, at least, leave a mark on the universe. And the Doctor, nice little hero that he is, helps them along in the effort. And that's what makes this story so wonderful - even if K-9 is written out of it in a mildly unbelievable way!
Leisure Hive was the first episode of Tom Baker's last season. It featured several important new things including a new fiberglass Police Box, a new K9, and a new theme and graphics. It was also the first use of new computer based effects that were, by 1980 standards, fairly state of the art. It was a brave new era for Doctor Who and David Fisher's script was chosen as the introductory story.
There are a lot of good things about this story and a few really bad things. Unfortunately the bad things are the first five minutes of episode one and the last five minutes of episode four. It's off to a bad start with Romana and K9 walking along the beach. In a silly fit Romana throws a beach ball into the water and orders K9 to fetch. With K9's advanced brain you'd think he'd know that water and electronics don't mix but ZAP, he's down for the count. Certainly there could have been better ways to write him out for the story than making him and Romana look stupid. The conclusion is also way to fast and none of the characters even pause to accept the sudden revelations that take place. The villain is transferred to a child and the Argolian leader's body is regenerated to her youthful self and not one character is even phased by that.
There are lots of good things in between however. Lovett Bickford's directing pace is very good and it's a very steady and the story never slows down. With David Fisher's writing being so tight you could almost argue that this is a real time story. Things are happening so fast that the characters never pause to just watch the world go by or wait for things to happen. Another good thing about this story is the design of the Leisure Hive and the Argolians. They are both dressed very sharply with bright primary colors that give the story a very comic book look.
Despite the bad opening and closing the entire story is a good start to a new era of the series and the end of Baker's time on the show. Even though Baker was starting to look a bit tired of the role the Doctor's reactions in this story link quite well with the events in Logopolis. Perhaps the moment had been prepared for for quite some time.
Ah, the Leisure Hive! Such a terrible story, but what a cool, brilliant new look!
Of all the times to get a colour television for the first time, it was in 1981 on the same day as the new season of doctor who would start, specifically the Leisure Hive. And what a difference!! Gone was the time vortex introduction from the past seven years (for me), to be replaced by a stunning new space intro; marvellous colour special effects, the Doctor's new all red costume, his (comparatively) grimmer persona (most welcome!) and that so bizarre in doctor who gravity-free badmington (or whatever) game. And all this in episode one. Doctor Who had gone from base metal into gold!
But, cool new look aside, what a diabolical plot. Twenty five minutes of utter incomprehension every week, for a month. What the hell was going on? Nowadays, seeing it all in one go on video, it makes a lot more sense and the book version by David Fisher is not only clearer but filled with much needed humour to water down the pretension, but at the time the weekly episodes were just so much unintelligable gobbledegook as to make even the most die-hard DW fan blanch every saturday evening. Thank God for Meglos next month.
I mean, what was the deal with the Fomasi? Kept off the screen for episodes 1 and 2, my mind was filled with the image of a fantastic monster. And what did we finally get? A humpty dumpty with green scales! And by the time I knew just what the West Lodge were supposed to be doing, they had been wrapped up (literally) by the good Fomasi!
But its not all bad. I like the characters: Brock, the silent Klout, the grim Hardin....and the Argolin at least look good even if they don't make much impression. And Tom Baker, thanks be, had at last played his role a lot less for laughs. Long may he continue....oh, yeah, Logopolis. D'oh!
‘The Leisure Hive’ heralds the arrival of new producer John Nathan-Turner, and new script-editor Christopher H. Bidmead, and starts their era with a bang. The difference in style between Season Seventeen and Season Eighteen is considerable, as demonstrated by the new title sequence, showing the Doctor’s face against the backdrop of a star field accompanied by Peter Howell’s dynamic new arrangement of the theme tune. Although the Howell version of the theme tune is the one I grew up with, I actually prefer both the previous arrangement and the previous title sequence, but the impact of the new versions of both is undeniable. But by far the biggest change in style comes in the shape of the regular cast, as K9 is slowly phased out, and Tom Baker reigns in his performance for a sombre final year in the role. After the increasingly comic approach of Season Seventeen, Nathan-Turner’s new vision for Doctor Who comes as something of a shock; nevertheless, ‘The Leisure Hive’ is an impressive debut.
Having become increasingly manic in the role of the Doctor, Tom Baker tones down his approach for ‘The Leisure Hive’, harking back to his more serious performances of the Hinchcliffe era. Appreciation of this rather depends on how individual fans prefer their Fourth Doctor, but as I’ve noted in the past, Baker’s tenure is long enough to accommodate such character development. The Doctor’s new mood is reflected in the opening sombre shot of a stark and wind swept Brighton Beach, the bleak atmosphere in keeping with Baker’s increased gravitas, and this continues throughout, with the Doctor’s usual eccentric wit stripped back to a bare minimum. It is still in evidence, as witness by his “arrest the scarf, then!” line and the scene in which he bluffs his way past an Argolin guide by warning him that there are two intruders at large in the Hive, but it is much more restrained than in ‘The Horns of Nimon’ or ‘Shada’. Baker rises to the challenge of restraining himself admirably, but his acting skills are really brought to the fore when the Doctor is aged by five hundred years in the Recreation Generator; the makeup used to make the Doctor appear ancient is astonishingly good, but it is the actual performance that really makes it work, as Baker makes the Doctor tired and absent minded, and changes his voice appropriately.
Lalla Ward also puts in her usual reliable performance, although given that she tends to play the role straight throughout her time in the series, she isn’t required to tone it down in the same way that Tom Baker does. On the other hand, the serious tone of ‘The Leisure Hive’ does require her to convey a sense of urgency throughout, especially when she’s concerned for the Doctor in the Recreation Generator both in Episodes Two and Four, and she does this very well. The only other regular is K9, once more played by John Leeson. Annoyingly, Nathan-Turner elects to phase out the character, apparently considering him too much of a convenient tool for lazy writers, but prior to actually getting rid of him this approach means that K9 is subject to various indignities during the season, starting here as he trundles out of control into the sea and explodes. I have no objection to K9’s eventual departure, since companions have come and gone throughout the series, but I like K9 and it irritates me that he is subjected to such plot devices to remove him from the action; frankly, I’d rather he just stayed in the TARDIS, as in ‘City of Death’. On the other hand, it would be churlish to critics ‘The Leisure Hive’ for this, given that it is the result of an overall approach by the production team.
And so on to the story itself. ‘The Leisure Hive’ is beautifully directed by Lovett Bickford and is riddled with impressive camera work and visuals. I’ve already mentioned the opening shot, but there are many more examples of note, including the zoom in on the Doctor’s screaming face at the end of Episode One, the Foamasi unmasking Brock and Clout at the end of Episode Two, and the fade out of the Doctor and Romana on Brighton beach into a star field and then into Argolis. This latter example is worthy of particular note, since it allows for expository dialogue to set the scene in a way that seems perfectly acceptable, rather than an example of lazing writing, which is usually the case with expository dialogue. In terms of production, everything works on ‘The Leisure Hive’, be it the model work, the sets, or the costumes. Peter Howell’s incidental music is perhaps a little brash, but is used well and the noticeable difference between this and Dudley Simpson’s work in prior seasons adds to the bold new approach of the series.
What really makes ‘The Leisure Hive’ succeed is a combination of plot and acting. From Romana’s summary of the Argolin-Foamasi war in Episode One, and throughout the remainder of the story via the dialogue between the other characters, we are provided with a wealth of background information that gives ‘The Leisure Hive’ a sense of depth. The problem of presenting detailed alien cultures is circumvented by having the Argolin a race devastated by war, whose planet is uninhabitable save for the sanctuary of the Hive itself; thus, we have merely a handful of Argolin, whose cultural background is used as a way of justifying the limited population and providing the basis for the story. A war that lasted twenty minutes doomed the entire species, motivating them to construct the Hive and the Experiential Grid as a means of promoting peace and understanding between alien species. Parallel with the this basic premise, we have the subplot of Pangol’s intentions for his people and he too rides on the crest of a wave of carefully imparted tidbits of information, as we eventually discover that he is the child of the Recreation Generator, the only such child to have been created with deformities, and now in a position to create others of his kind without any of the problems that previously led to a twenty year moratorium on the technology. And in addition to this we have the Foamasi, the other species involved in the war. As with the Argolin, the Foamasi are well motivated; famously an anagram of Mafiosa, the Foamasi seen in ‘The Leisure Hive’ represent two distinct factions, the criminal West Lodge, and the Foamasi Government seeking to stop them. It is unusual to have one alien race presented not as a homogenous group of “monsters” but as a race of people, but to have two is even more impressive. In addition, it allows both writer David Fisher and director Bickford to play with audience expectations as the briefly glimpsed Foamasi who break into the Hive in Episode One turn out not to be the villains of the piece. Visually, both Argolin and Foamasi are well realized, although notoriously the question is raised as to how the bulky Foamasi could fit into their human guises. Fans of this story take note however; an explanation has since been offered in Gary Russell’s ‘Placebo Effect’!
The extensive motivation of the characters in ‘The Leisure Hive’ benefits the story enormously, and means that although there are villains, they are a far cry from the power-crazed madmen often seen in Doctor Who. The phony Brock, superbly played by John Collin with just the right amount of smarminess, is motivated by business, to the extent that he and Clout have been systematically sabotaging the workings of the Hive to drive it into financial ruin, forcing the Argolin to sell Argolis. The ill-fated Stimson is similarly motivated by profit, in his case offering the false promise of survival to Mena in exchange for financial gain, but he is nicely contrasted with Nigel Lambert’s troubled Hardin, who is crucial to Stimson’s scheme but who is forced to deal with his conscience. His genuine concern for Mena becomes increasingly evident throughout, and he makes a sincere attempt to redeem himself for his deceit by eventually saving her life. Also worthy of note is Morix, played by Lawrence Payne who returns to the series having previously played Johnny Ringo in ‘The Gunfighters’, who serves to illustrate the fate awaiting all Argolin by expiring in Episode One. He is nicely contrasted with Mena, who is less prepared to accept the fate of her people, hence her faith in Hardin’s experiments, but who is unwilling to go to the same lengths to save the Argolin as her adopted son. And is it David Haig as Pangol who really commands attention throughout. Pangol is the archetypal angry young man, frustrated by his people’s fate and so desperate to avert it that he is willing to repeat the mistakes of the past in an effort to compensate for them. Haig is totally convincing in the role, presenting Pangol as a man struggling to keep his feelings in check in accordance with Mena’s wishes (witness his appalled “it’s not for sale” in Episode One), until by Episode Three he finally prepares to make his misguided play for glory.
One thing that I would like to mention is that fans who appear to have no grounding in science like to praise Bidmead for his “hard science” approach to the series; what he actually does is use more internally consistent and better thought out technobabble than Douglas Adams, with a few words like tachyon, a genuine theoretical concept, thrown in for good measure. In truth, I’m not convinced that the denouement in Episode Four of ‘The Leisure Hive’ entirely makes sense, but this may be because I haven’t thought about it properly. Nevertheless, this approach does make Doctor Who feel more like science fiction and less like fantasy, which is either a good or a bad thing depending entirely on personal preference. In summary then, ‘The Leisure Hive’ is a striking debut for Nathan-Tuner and Bidmead and an impressive start to the season.