The Hand of Fear, Sarah Jane Smith’s farewell story of the classic series, is a favourite of mine, and I’ve never really stopped to think about why. In many ways it feels like a very ordinary story, ticking a lot of the boxes of Pertwee-Baker Earthbound serials, without even a UNIT chappie or two to liven things up.
I think that a big part of the appeal of this one for me is that the story revolves around Sarah as the companion, and has a greater effect on her than most of her later stories had. It might be paced like the old show (and how), but it has a gleam of what we would get in New Who – stories where the companion’s feelings and reactions to things were basically the point of the plot.
As the story opens, we get the deliciously meta scene in which Sarah and the Doctor step out on to the surface of another grey, rocky alien planet filmed in a location quarry… only to realise after a bit of walking that they are in fact in a QUARRY and those sirens mean the explosives are about to go off! More to the point, it’s Sarah who realises this first.
While the recovery scenes of this, with the Doctor searching for Sarah in the rubble and her being rescued are from his POV, she isn’t playing the victim for long… well, not exactly! We follow her closely as she becomes hypnotised/possessed by the mysterious fossilised hand that was exposed in the rubble, and see how this close relationship with the artefact expands later into a complicated, wary relationship with the alien woman Eldrad who returns to life thanks to Sarah’s theft of the hand.
I also really like the possessed Sarah scenes in this – the horror tropes are being used like crazy, but she never feels weak in this storyline, her personality shining through even when she is controlled by something else.
Eldrad is one of those rare alien characters in the show who feels and looks truly alien – the gorgeous prosthetic work puts her design up there with the Draconians, and I remember as a child being fascinated by the whole notion of a silicone based life form.
There are some interesting ethical issues explored in this story, and Eldrad’s femininity and beauty are used to put the Doctor and Sarah off their guard, to help them sympathise with her plight as a stranded alien desperate to return home, despite the fact that she’s holding them hostage.
What I remember most about this story is the interplay between Eldrad and Sarah – the implication is certainly that while Eldrad has compelled the Doctor to do her bidding, he isn’t falling for her sob story, whereas Sarah is much more mixed in her responses.
Then Eldrad is destroyed… and returns in a male form. The Doctor suggests that Eldrad only took on the female form in the first place because Sarah was the first life form he came across, which seems a bit dubious (perhaps if made as a New Who story, Elisabeth Sladen would play both parts) but I think it’s interesting that the character is so very different in the two gendered forms – the female Eldrad is cool, calculating and persuasive, while the male Eldrad is a wild and violent thug.
At the end of it all, there’s that scene, one of the sweetest and most genuine classic companion leaving scenes – in which Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen threw out the script to decide for themselves what needed to be said!
Her armful of “goodies” to take home tells us a lot about the amount of time she has been there, and how she has set up home in the TARDIS despite never having meant to move in on a permanent basis… and if you’ve never seen the Australian gay SF fan sitcom, it’s absolutely worth tracking down episode 2 to see a gloriously subtle homage to Sarah’s armful of stuff.
(That will never make me not laugh, John Richards!)
While it was a deliberate move (and Sladen’s request) not to make Sarah’s final story specifically about her, I think it’s pretty cool that she was given so much to do in this one, and that it turned out to be a story about gender expectations as well as trying to help an ungrateful alien find her way home – which was to become a staple plot of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
After coming up this in the Verity! Podcast discussion threads, I have decided my new head canon is that the Fourth Doctor’s pronouncement “I can’t take Sarah to Gallifrey” has nothing to do with Time Lord regulations or the threat of The Deadly Assassin, and instead is because he doesn’t want the Time Lords exposed to the concept of investigative journalism. It wouldn’t be good for them!
Though in another version of reality, Sarah runs a tabloid newspaper on Gallifrey, running articles about Andred and Leela’s role in the city guard, interviewing the sand-dwellers outside the city, and writing scathing editorials about Romana I’s latest election campaign…
I miss Sarah Jane Smith. Still. She was the absolute best at making you believe that everything that happened in the Doctor Who universe was real. No wonder they brought her back, over and over. She is irreplaceable.
ELSEWHERE IN 1976:
The Seeds of Doom [Wife in Space]
The Masque of Mandragora (AKA the one where they find the wooden console room) [Wife in Space]
Next Stop: Aberdeen [Radio Free Skaro]
Sarah Jane Smith (art) [Springfield Punx]
Verity!Extra! and the Andy Pandy Overalls Revelation [tansyrr.com]
The Deadly Assassin [Mindless Ones]