Tony Fyler ponders a sillier universe in a moment of leisure.
There’s something so obvious about saying The Leisure Hive is different from everything that comes before it that I heartily wish I could avoid pointing it out. Nevertheless, when Season 18 opened, the sheer scale of the difference in the programme was what hit you in the face most immediately. The combination of Peter Howell’s screaming, threatening-bassed, electronic re-do of the theme music with Sid Sutton’s ‘starfield’ burst onto the screen and everyone who’d watched the previous season with its six-year familiar version of the theme and intro pretty much had their heads explode. Not in a bad way, though, but in a sit-up-and-take-notice, what-the-heck-did-I-just-see way that achieved the aim of John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead as incoming Producer and Script Editor – to make the series new again.
Within the first episode of The Leisure Hive, very much of the change of direction brought by the new team is mapped out: the age of Taking Things Seriously has well and truly arrived, with a story surrounding the science of tachyonics (Note to scientists – tachyon research sounds cool. Even though it’s not made-up though, calling it ‘tachyonics’ makes it sound more made-up than some of the made-up stuff in Who stories of days gone by). Within the first ten minutes K9 has exploded – a precursor to the writing out of the character in the mystifying and moderately awful Warriors’ Gate. The use of groovy new experimental visual techniques is in – Quanteltastic stuff, and not an instance of CSO to be seen – rejoice, o ye who still have the taste of Underworld in ye’re mouths. And there’s a certain grandeur in the props and costumes that make some of what’s gone before look a bit shabby. The look of the leisure hive is fairly spectacular, and the Argolin themselves are up there with the Draconians in terms of making an immediate visual impact.
Sadly, there’s also a sense in which all of this is shown to be in conflict with the art of the strictly possible – the long shots of the Foamasi eye, while technically doing the job on paper in terms of ‘introduce skulking homicidal villain in the shadows,’ still look a bit naff, with the occasional whiff of Creature From The Pit about them.
If you stop and think about the concepts at the heart of The Leisure Hive, they’re more than a bit disturbing - giant war zone wasteland turned into an amusement park. It’s about as creepy as a bunch of Jewish people setting up the Auschwitz Laugh-a-Rama – and then going bust. Near the knuckle? Yes, absolutely – but that’s the sort of thing we’re being asked to accept in The Leisure Hive. Really though, it’s a story of desperation, of doing anything necessary to survive. In a way it’s the story of the Daleks, re-run with pretty people and Mr Whippy hair. Pangol, the last child ‘born’ on Argolis, has been working with his Tachyonic Generator to develop a solution for a species made sterile by the effects of war. See? Really, really similar to the Daleks. Except of course Pangol decides to take a leaf out of the Sontaran playbook instead, and use the Generator to ‘generate’ armies of himself, at which point he intends to stop all the nicey-nicey tourist-trap stuff into which Argolis has been driven to survive, and march out, practically straight from the generator in an endless Quantel stream to take over the galaxy, driven by xenophobic hatred of all non-Argolins (one wonders how long it would be before he stopped thinking of his clones as Argolin, and they became known simply as the Pangolin. Seriously – Kaleds and Daleks, all over again).
So – an exceptionally grim story of warzone tourism, sterility and desperation, war and conquest – but that’s alright because it looks really good and is based on real science, the two key concerns of the new Production Team.
The tone of the writing too reflects the firmness with which the new broom was to be swept through the show. Had it featured in the previous season – the last Graham Williams/Douglas Adams season, which the new team thought of as ‘too silly’ – The Leisure Hive would have been a very different prospect; Pangol’s ranting – because bless him, he does love a good teenage rant, does our Pangol, played in an early role by TV and theatrical all-rounder David Haig – would have been mercilessly ridiculed by the Fourth Doctor. There would have been addresses direct to camera from the Doctor too, particularly when he emerges from the Generator himself as an old man. There might have been more of a sense of pace and above all fun to match the groovy visuals.
But no. This is the dawn of a new age – The Age of Proper Science. The Age of Taking Things Seriously. The Age of Beige. So even in a story so blatantly grim it would be genuinely helped by a little more humour, The Leisure Hive is never really allowed to develop its comic counterpoint. This is a particular shame in a story that contains a ‘monster’ that’s more than a little naff – probably the naffest visually-realised creature to lumber across the Doctor Who screen since The Nightmare of Eden – leaving the audience still laughing, but unfortunately at the show, rather than, as in the Williams/Adams era, with it, a serious misfire for the intended aims of the Production Team.
Ultimately, there was a sense from the new team that Doctor Who had become ‘too much like The Tom Baker Show.’ Season 18, culminating in Baker’s resignation and regeneration, makes a stab at reining that in – which perhaps explains why it feels in retrospect like such a generally joyless, grey, shrugworthy run of stories.
At least four of the stories in Season 18 deserve to feel better than that – The Leisure Hive, Meglos, Full Circle and The Keeper of Traken are all highly competent stories, and they all come across on screen as much flatter and duller than they should. That’s probably a thing most notable in The Leisure Hive because it’s so very clearly had a sackful of money and innovation thrown at it (it went notably over-budget even for Doctor Who), and in the new theme arrangement, the new titles, June Hudson’s new take on the Fourth Doctor’s outfit, the use of new and hideously expensive computer packages, in the design of the Hive and the costume and make-up of the Argolin, The Leisure Hive is so very far above the stories in the previous season. It’s also in and of itself a decent story, with some seriously good performances in it – Haig in particular is highly memorable, and it would be wrong to suggest The Leisure Hive is not to this day an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours; it emerges from the production process erring on the side of caution and manages to deliver enough story and pace to keep the average Whovian glued and grinning. It only becomes less than the sum of its not-inconsiderable parts when viewed in the light of The Leisure Hive that could have existed, that could have been left to us, had it not been so vital a plank in the strategy of an incoming Production Team determined to tone down the ‘silliness’ and the essential joy of a Tom Baker performance given its head.
Sadly, that more eye-twinkling, Baker-grinning Leisure Hive was not to be – there are stories of Bidmead berating Baker on set for ‘not saying the lines as written’ when Baker presumably aimed to leaven them with some of the Doctor’s personality. That, perhaps most of all, is the saddest note about the Leisure Hive – it began a season of stories in which Baker’s gloriously full-throated incarnation was watered down, muted, even made something of an irrelevance, becoming more of an omni-Doctor than arguably at any other point in his seven years in the Tardis. The solution to the threat of The Leisure Hive may have been to set the Generator to ‘Rejuvenate’ – but in terms of the central performance, it’s a story which begins the process of setting the lever in absolutely the opposite direction.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk