The Leisure Hive
The polarising positions of those pushing Season 18 (or JN-T/Bidmead) over Season 17 (Williams/Adams), or vice versa, have never really resonated with me. Probably because I rate them both. If push came to shove, I’d probably assert that the latter achieves what it’s aiming for more successfully than the former, stymied as the Fourth Doctor’s final year is by some unfortunate choices of companions and a lack of rapport between leads, but I have little time for the hand grenades at dawn lobbed about in About Time 4.
One of the big failings of the JN-T era, predicated as it was on appearances (or superficiality, if you prefer) rather than content, is that it couldn’t keep up the visual ambition that informed Season 18 (and which complemented the one season of his era where content was more than its equal); if you’re going to foreground gloss, you need to be able to support it with atmosphere, pace and style, especially when the stories aren’t up to snuff.
As such, The Leisure Hive stands as a format buster that was then promptly abandoned; the JN-T run would quickly collapse in on itself, reverting to dependable, time and budget conscious directors with less capability than any hitherto in the show’s history (or at least, too many of them to be compensated by the good ones), a clear sign that its producer had little idea of what made it work when it worked (hence his infamous belief that The Twin Dilemma was the best story of its season). Here, though, we have grand ambition, for the most part headily articulated. The Leisure Hive is the story of Season 18 that has grown most in my appreciation, because of the manner in which it so wholly embraces telling itself visually, and through mood and tone. It’s a story you can happily soak up, to the extent that it is at times wholly immersive, a rarity for the showthat tends to fall short in convincing world-building.
Of course, the flip to atmosphere, mood and tone is that it could be perceived as top heavy, that this is all it has going for it. For all that it’s nigh impossible to find fans reviewing the Tom Baker era without getting into polarising evaluations of why Williams is better/inferior to JN-T, it’s the common refrain, benevolently, that The Leisure Hive is a worthy first try, one that stumbles, but sets out the store for what will follow with considerable verve. “A brave, if not altogether successful experiment” as The Discontinuity Guide puts it. The irony that Lovett Bickford, “a frustrated film director” (who came recommended by Barry Letts), who was keen to trim the fat and make the action as fast as possible (not necessarily aided by JN-T cutting passages he felt slowed things down), should have achieved what Gareth Roberts memorably described as a “qualuuded pace” is a damning one for those complaining that not only is it slow, but it’s also very short (with episodes barely reaching 20 minutes).
Certainly, when the story first arrived on video, some seventeen years since I had last seen it, I was a little disorientated by that qualuuded pace. Rediscovering stories on BBC release could be a sometimes-disappointing experience, and it could take time to feel your way back into them, resolving the cheating memory a young mind had built up with the stark reality, but it wasn’t as if I had The Leisure Hive enshrined as a hallowed object. If you’d asked me for a readily-compiled season ranking, it would probably have been about sixth, above the year’s only real turkey. And yet, like so much of the season, it had a profound effect on an impressionable mind; as About Time 4 notes, “some of its stories feel a lot more fairy tale than those stories which actively try to be”.
Part of that is the visual flourish, but part of it is Bidmead’s inclusive attitude that, as long as there’s science (or technobabble, depending on how persuasive he’s been) underpinning it, pretty much anything goes, from monstrosities scheming within stone statues, to disparate time zones bridged by mirrors, to arachnids that become swamp monsters that become pesky companions, to (evocatively) a spaceship that becomes a castle and back again; even the universe itself is found to be held together by a whole heap of chanting (Bazza must have loved that one).
Some of these ideas were striking when I was eight, some of them unnerving, but mostly it was the imagery I responded to. The Leisure Hive in particular had Tom becoming very, very old, and then becoming very, very many of himself. I didn’t understand the mechanism of the magic box Tachyon Recreation Generator, and I still don’t really (you go in a box and you’re suddenly playing Zero G tennis, while some guy serenades you with stuffy scientific theory – it doesn’t seem like much of a holiday, particularly with the fear of corrosive radiation should there be a breach in the outer wall), but what mattered was that it could apparently tear Tom apart (and, in a particularly memorable passage from David Fisher’s frequently very funny novelisation, actually tear a visitor apart to lovingly described gushers of blood).
But I should note – again in response to the divisiveness that can arise from 17 vs 18 warring factions – that I had no keen awareness of the changes that occurred between seasons at that age. Indeed, until I got myself a Lofficier Programme Guide (effectively filling in Baker era gaps post-The Making of Doctor Who, which rudely stopped at The Hand of Fear), I laboured under the illusion that (perhaps creatively on my part) The Leisure Hive and Meglos were part of Season 17. Which, in a way, some might say, they are, thematically and narratively; it’s just the flourish that’s different. This tends to be posed as a negative, that the show lost the humour (although The Leisure Hive is funny, and as an advocate of Williams I can certainly confirm that once Davison is in full gasp the austerity can lead to, well, blandness) but gained only gloss. As Philip McDonald put it, in a slightly negative take in DWM’s The Complete Fourth Doctor, it is “Season Seventeen with its wings neatly clipped, and coated in a fresh lick of paint. And it’s glossy paint at that. A touch too glossy for some of us”.
Then there’s the take that (courtesy of Lawrence Miles) Season 18 brought back scares to the show, and there’d been a dearth of them in the previous era. He even says “Look at this from an eight-year-old’s point of view”. I was obviously an undiscerning seven-year-old viewer of Season 17, as I was rapt when Davros came back to life, aghast at the unveiled Jagaroth (and haunted by the imagery of the story, as evocative as anything in 18; the parchment of an Egyptian Jagaroth, the artist’s illustration of the cracked Time Lady), had no beef with Erato as a crappy-looking plastic bag and was on the edge of my seat when the Doctor leaped into Eden and was menaced by fearsome (and flared) Mandrells.
So simultaneously, I can see exactly what people are saying (for and against, and against and for) but perhaps because of the age I experienced them, and the mood in which I re-experienced them, I have a quite welcoming approach to both. However, the idea voiced by McDonald that it’s not so very different at all, by way of pointing out the superficial ways in which it is different is, though, everything with The Leisure Hive. It is all about presentation, and that presentation, qualuuded as it may be, is frequently quite extraordinary.
For me, once the initial post-video release response to the story as “slow” died off, every subsequent viewing has elicited an entirely different reaction. The pace of the story creeps on you, like the POV of a persistent Foamasi. In his own, TV studio, way, Lovett Bickford is doing exactly the same thing with The Leisure Hive that Ridley Scott is doing with Alien; taking an old story (or a story suited to a now old era) and making it profoundly altered through execution. Now, you’re welcome not to like it, but it’s disingenuous to simply dismiss it as nothing different (it’s when the trappings fall away, and there’s merely the airlessness of the studio without the style, as in the subsequent Meglos, that the shortcomings are exposed for all to see). As for Tat Wood’s comparison of showing some Nightmare of Eden and some The Leisure Hive to people who couldn’t tell the difference, that applies to any Who from any era in terms of the uninitiated, so he voids himself (so to speak) instantly with that ruse (Wood also manages to dismiss the aesthetics of Season 18 while staunchly advocating the grand design of the Cartmel era, which takes some doing).
Jeremy Bentham referenced “craftsmanship” as the most suitable summation of the story in his 1980 DWM 46 review, although “pleasant surprise” is someway short of describing it as an out-and-out classic. Argolis is rendered as a coherently inhabited world, one of definable spaces, light and shade. There’s scale (the shots of the hall at night) and scene-setting (possibly taking a leaf out of Scott’s book, Bickford lends the hive model a sense of verisimilitude by exposing it to the elements, the dusty winds ravaging the planet). And he gives us additional shots from without, of the Doctor et al viewing the surface from a gallery, the kind of perspective you just don’t get in the series.
Bickford famously went over budget, preferring one or two cameras over the more traditional coverage that allowed fast shooting (JN-T had to book extra studio time). As such, the attention to framing and shallow focus is very noticeable throughout. Some of the effects decisions impress even now; the video link screens, for example, or the Argolin sunrise. Others are a case of being able to see what he was aiming for but recognising the shortfall. Actors walking to “and through” the camera (cutting to the other side) is the kind of self-conscious flourish that distracts rather than wows. And, while the music for the sequence is wonderful (it should be, since it’s borrowing Holst’s Mars suite), the shuttle docking sequence isn’t quite Kubrick, since all we’re looking at is a bit of pipe moving slowly towards a hole.
Unlike Christopher Bidmead (whose moaning on the DVD makes Eric Saward seem restrained), I do like the opening shot on Brighton beach. He considers it completely wrong for the story that follows, but it doesn’t need to be “right”; it’s a prologue, a prologue for the season to come. I’m less keen on what happens next, dunking K9, and the riff of “I do like to be beside the seaside” is the kind of thing, like the use of the Who theme as an incidental (and the question marks), that’s a bit too cute for my tastes, but as a whole it suitably establishes exactly that this is something fresh and distinct.
As such, it also establishes that this is a show in a new decade. For all that humour has been excised, even if it creeps in, it’s difficult not to pair it stylistically with the then up-and-coming TV incarnation of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at points. Pulling up from Brighton Beach and into the stars as the hive is described, isn’t so dissimilar to the first episode of that show, and the general musical ambience of the Radiophonic Workshop (there Paddy Kingsland, here Peter Howell) evokes a similarly united palate. Even the Foamasi-Argolin feud parallels the Vl’hurgs and the G’Gugvuntts (more explicitly so in the Fisher novelisation).
Bidmead appears to hate the less respectful touches, such as the Doctor’s “Arrest the scarf, then!”, and the indulgences of the lead actor generally, encouraged by Bickford, who he believes “condescended to do Doctor Who”. One really gets the impression that Bidmead – who I rate highly in terms of what he brought to the season –objected to others tampering with his work while he was quite happy to do the same; he rather diminishes Fisher’s contribution, while attempting to take the credit for tachyonics, which other sources indicate was Fisher, albeit embellished by the script editor.
Superficial as it may be, or maybe not when you look at how unrewarding many of the incidentals are on the show, the score of The Leisure Hive is hugely impressive. It marbles across the production, every bit as important and informing as the direction. The innovation of the synth-based composers in the ’80s was a two-edged sword. It was definitely time to, if not dispense with Dudley Simpson then broaden the compositional palette (as inevitably diminishing in returns as keeping the same guy on less than gold duties for the last eleven years of the show’s current incarnation, even if you liked his work in the first place), but almost without exception the composers, who can turn in accomplished work in one story are often left stranded, farting over-ladled noise into inert drama.
Compare someone like Roger Limb on Arc of Infinity to his work with Graeme Harper, and its night-and-day. In general, though, the occasional inadvisable waka-waka aside, the contributions to Season 18 are a testament to how well JN-T’s changes could suit the series. And Howell’s work on The Leisure Hive is a particular high that would rarely be equalled during the subsequent decade. He admitted he thought the story had too much music, but invariably the problem (later) becomes one of intrusive music, where its attempting to drive content that isn’t there. Some of the best material in The Leisure Hive is ambient, mood-sustaining and world-imbuing, the best that the synthesiser revolution had to offer (alternatively, if you’re Tat Wood, it’s “cheap electronic music of the kind most programmes of this type abandon when they can afford real instruments”, while even Miles called it “completely out of control”; that’s probably partly why I like it, but also because it’s melodic with it, as opposed to Keff McCulloch’s out of control, diarrheic drum machine.
Of course, if there wasn’t a solid plot, then no amount of production value would justify it, and The Leisure Hive has more than sufficient going on in that regard (the futility of war, inevitable mortality, atonement for past errors, the fragility of a corporate cosmos, particularly when all you have left are service industries). It even course corrects on Fisher’s previous script, so the resolution at the beginning of episode four doesn’t signal the curtailing of any further dramatic tension within the story. This is a piece that includes themes of deception and sleight of hand, so it’s rather appropriate that it should be wrapped in a new approach, where form and presentation lead the way. Brock is indulging in deception in order to wrest Argolis from the Argolin. Hardin is indulging in deception over his progress with tachyonics. The generator itself is little more than a magic act, where what appears to be happening isn’t actually (or, depending, is).
Accompanying this are pregnant mystery and acute use of reveals. It’s common feature of the season that internal history and prior staging are vital to the story being presented (the E-Space trilogy, with its societies built on dark secrets or pasts, the history lesson informing the opening scenes of The Keeper of Traken, and the past and future portends of the Doctor himself in Logopolis), and The Leisure Hive kicks that off with a war-ravaged society, one which nurses its own surprises in plain sight. The revelation concerning Pangol, the Child of the Generator, is a thematically strong one, and if the fact of the Foamasi is somewhat lessened by their underwhelming reality, the build-up during three episodes of partial glimpses, skin suits and (with an effective “push-up” shot of Brock’s “mask”) the unsettling act of reveal, is marvellously staged (I don’t have much time for the moan about their insectoid true form being far too big to fit into a human suit, and evidently RTD didn’t either, although his approach of making the Slitheen a fabulously farty wheeze was less than inspired).
As with previous contributions The Creature from the Pit and City of Death, Fisher is disposed to explore the economics that make the universe turn. Which, unsurprisingly, are very much like our own (one might extend this to The Stones of Blood, whose antagonist is a thief, and, if Tara is idly free of direct financial motivation for its villain, the Doctor is offered financial reward for his services). Argolis has been brought to the brink of bankruptcy, Hardin’s deception is motivated by diminished funds, and the Mafioso Foamasi, or their West Lodgers at any rate, know the only way to advance in the galaxy is through sound financial (read: underhand) investment activities.
Discussing terms in a space boardroom could easily spell space boredom, so it’s lucky this isn’t (boring). What is, a little, is the show’s sudden and rather grating obsession with continuity, surely courtesy of Ian Levine, with the over-explained Randomiser and Black Guardian points proving almost as intrusive as Bidmead’s dedication to the value of pseudo-scientific jargon. No number of impenetrable words and phrases can hide that the workings of the generator are mystifying. And yet, I don’t feel cheated by the lack of clarity over how/why the Doctor is within Pangol’s costume at the end (or why he is he, as Pangol is he, and they are not together) because the idea behind the reveal is such a good one, is satisfying, and feels appropriate, and “clever”, and sure, it may not make sense but the Doctor’s clever and so probably did something clever (more than just setting it on rejuvenate) didn’t he?
I’m less willing to let Pangol climbing into the generator with mumsie go, though, since other than having lost it completely it doesn’t make any sense. You can see the writerly wheels turning over; there’s a satisfying resolution to be grasped in regard to Mena’s aging and Pangol’s appetite for destruction, but how to get there? In the end it’s rather fluffed (and a little alarming that Mena instantly palms off her baby; was Pangol a victim of neglect last time round as well?) The bit that really gets me, though, is how Mena is apparently convinced of the success of the experiment in episode two, and then later in the same episode she’s in raptures when Hardin tells her it works. Erm, what changed?
The play on the adversarial nature of the races and Pangol’s xenophobic lust for power is more rudimentary, but still looks highly advanced compared to something like Galaxy 4; the aliens are insectoid and therefore bad (although not all of them) and the Argolin are beautiful and therefore good (although not all of them). It’s a Thals/Kaleds kind of thing, but with the uncertainty over clear political lines having muddied waters in the space of two decades.
Bickford elicits committed performances and moderated tone, even where it isn’t necessarily on the page. David Haig invests Pangol with believable malice, giving him an edge beyond his one-note ranting (“The life of an individual is trivial!” even when it’s your mum), and Adrienne Cori as Mena is wonderfully weary as her decrepitude accelerates. Everyone’s very good, in fact, from John Collin as oily salesman Brock to Nigel Lambert as the devoted Hardin. Much has been made of the replacement of the power-mad villains with more believable characters in the season, but the reason The Leisure Hive in particular succeeds is consistency. There are bum notes in the cast of almost every other story, whether among the main players list or the guests, and it definitely diminishes the effectiveness that much more noticeably when the whole deal is being dealt with so sombrely.
As for the regulars, well the treatment of K9 is inexcusable, as it is throughout the season (drowned, decapitated, irreparably damaged); the biggest cheek is that JN-T makes such a big thing about not liking the poor mutt, then goes and shaves two episodes off the next season to make a duff pilot for him (but the Levine theme tune remains glorious, of course). While you can see, when Lalla snootily points out on the commentary, that Tom isn’t even looking at her when they’re talking in the final episode, such was the frost that had developed, it doesn’t actually show in the performances; Ward is still being essentially likeable Romana at this point. She only becomes a pain in her last few performances when she has both Tom and Waterhouse to deal with and the strain leaks out all over the screen (it shouldn’t have got to the point where you’re glad to be rid of her in that horribly perfunctory farewell scene, particularly when the alternative is another season’s worth of Adric).
The Doctor: I’m sick of being old.
She’s given an almost Davison-esque Doctor role aiding Hardin, while Tom is given a very striking one as the old Doctor. He may have hated the make-up (I expect Corri didn’t say a peep about hers) but the transformation remains stunning and persuasive. McDonald opined that “there’s the fact that Tom Baker plainly isn’t having a good time any more” but I don’t think that’s quite true. This was when he was widely reported to be having health issues (he didn’t show up on Brighton beach, and not just because it was miserably windy), and certainly he isn’t showing off the same flamboyance of the previous era, but he’s still entirely magnetic, still has exactly the required judgement for a scene (when he knows Hardin’s a fraud and Hardin doesn’t know he knows he’s a fraud) and he’s still disarming us with that grin, be it in the generator at the start of episode two, or unmasking himself in four, and adlibbing away (that scarf line, “Have a baby”, looking to camera in the final part). It is, of course, all very prophetic that Tom should be aged and incapacitated as he is ill and about to resign, ensuring the thematic entropy that informs the season is about as a watertight as the show ever gets.
This is, also of course, the story where the show got its big revamp, introducing a new theme and credits just as the old hand was about to exit (the same happened with the Pertwee time tunnel) If Meglos had been the season opener (never on the cards, although before Tom handed in his notice Time-flight was gunning for the season closer – I guess it would have had someone other than Ron Jones to make the worst of it), the overall effect would have been much less compelling. Bickford consciously overlit sets (and, at points, shot them in darkness) to emphasise the unforgiving Argolin climes (there’s reason here, unlike the floodlit Davison era), complementing the costuming and make-up elements. The Argolin are surprisingly successful, since painting actors’ faces isn’t generally a recipe for same (see also the Swampies, Lakertyans and Jacondans), and the dropping seed pods is a simple but effective touch.
Fomasi: You’re going back to face trial.
Sure, the Foamasi aren’t all that, but I still kind of love them, mainly because (Andrew Lane’s?) incongruous vocal performance is rightly legendary: Chief Inspector Foamasi of the Yard. There are design elements here that are too much, like Tom’s question mark collar, and the very schematic costume, but they’re nothing compare to what would come later in the JN-T era. Pre-knee boots, this version of the Doctor in brogues always makes me think of his extra-idiosyncratic Junkyard Demon appearance. And talking of boots, while it’s easy to put it in at JN-T’s deficiencies as a producer, credit where it’s due if he thought up the story title, because it’s a terrific one (less so is his envisioning of it as an intergalactic Butlin’s, but he’d have many more opportunities to indulge his holiday for the Doctor obsession over the next decade, and even finally taking us to a wretched Welsh holiday camp in Delta and the Bannermen).
I suppose the ratings disaster that was Season 18 deserves comment (one wonders how Tom, if he had stayed on, would have rationalised the downturn). In their attempts to lob rocks at their chosen targets, Miles and Wood miss entirely. Namely that viewers switched off because they though the story was awful (as Miles points out, it started with ratings half those of the year before) or they thought Season 17 was so awful that they just didn’t turn up in the first place. In the latter case, Miles seems to think Buck Rogers in the 25th Century couldn’t have been the sole cause of the plunge, but I think it very easily could, and it’s the only real explanation. This wasn’t like Space:1999, which came along prior to the new cachet of SF action cinema. People (kids) were fickle; if it hadn’t been for dedication and loyalty, my family would no doubt would have skipped it too, rather than turning over to Buck after Who had finished.
There aren’t very many ’80s stories that stand apart as being fashioned with consistent care and attention. About Time 4’s essay makes a great thing of how the show at this time was reacting to Star Wars and movies generally, pointing up Peter Grimwade’s spatial approach to Earthshock. But Grimwade also gave us Kinda, which good as it is is guilty of “everything looks as if it’s shot on stage-sets” (the charge also levelled at Warriors of the Deep), something that could hardly be said of The Creature from the Pit jungle a year earlier. Grimwade gave us fine sequences, and Matthew Robinson was a dab hand at location work, but only Graybags Harper showed the kind of consistency and eye Bickford has (and penchant for handheld; was it the Hive experience that made JN-T reticent when he was asked by Harper if it was okay?) It would be superficial to only like The Leisure Hive for the way it looks; what’s most to its credit is that Bickford offers a world to immerse oneself in for eighty minutes, embellishing Fisher’s script in the best possible way, while encouraging his colleagues to produce superb results (music, design, effects). You can call it style over substance, but it’s some style.