Saturday 5 June 2021


First broadcast: April/May 1967 
Written by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke
Plot spoilers below!

”Haven't I met you somewhere before? You must have a double.” 
–The Doctor

Identity Theft Goes Global

Something of a fan consensus has grown around this story. It gets credit for being early (the first Earth-set Troughton story, cutting the link to the last Hartnell companions and so on) but not for actually being any good. If it did much to create a genre, its only a passable example of that genre. In short, its a dry run for and footnote to 'Spearhead From Space'. It gets credit for the Gatwick airport setting, actual location filming then a rare sight. But overall it's overlong and underworked. Plus, Ben and Polly get dispatched in a dissatisfyingly offhand manner.

Charlie Jane Anders of i09 sums it up as “not enough of a plot to sustain six episodes. Ben and Polly wander out of the story halfway through, and you wish you could too.”

At which point I'd like to come up with some clever response which proves all that orthodoxy wrong. But the truth of it is - it's completely right. The story's so padded that some scenes effectively happen twice. (It was intended to be four episodes but got bumped up to six to save money. No, really. Longer stories were cheaper per episode as they could re-use sets.) There's a succession of almost self-parodic random cliffhanger deathtraps, including that old standby of the villains walking away in order to aid the hero's escape. It often feels all too reminiscent of kids' TV of the era, with the Doctor shouting “scatter” and everyone hiding from flat-footed coppers in improbable places.

And, in this full employment era, the Tardis was overstaffed. So, as Jamie was confined to his bed for most of 'The Moonbase’, its Ben and Polly's turn to sit most of the story out on the sub's bench. Then come back only long enough to announce they're off again.

But, as so often with 'Who', there's suggestions. Suggestions so much better than what actually made it to the screen. Let's start with that celebrated airport location. Hearing that the original draft was set in a department store is a little like hearing Frank Sinatra was originally going to play the lead in 'Dirty Harry'. It's information you're better off tuning out. The setting feels like so much of what the story is, you figure that must surely have been the starting point.

And what's so great about an airport? As we saw with 'The War Machines', science fiction is often at its best not when it tries to predict the future but fixes on where current society is on the cusp of change. And this was the point where international flight was starting to become commonplace, no longer just an indulgence of the rich. The term 'jet set', as a synonym for wealthy socialites, was then still in common currency. (And even here the furthest any flight's going is the Med.) As Tat Wood & Lawrence Miles put it in 'About Time': “For most people watching at the time, the aliens were the standard 'Doctor Who' stuff and Gatwick Airport was the bizarre and scary thing”.

The often-made comparisons to 'War Machines' are therefore over-stated. True, at this point they're the only full-length stories to have a contemporary setting. But the 'poetic realism' of 'War Machines' reframed the familiar as strange. While 'Faceless Ones' makes the airport look... well, just like an airport. Point the camera and the job is done.

The scenario, for those who don't already know, is that package tours are being used as a cover for the copy-and-replace school of alien invasion. Following the David Icke model of corporations hatching plots in the utmost secrecy and then doing their best to give them away through their names and logos, this is called Chameleon Tours. There was, it seems, a catastrophe - the result of which was that aliens didn't know who they were any more. So they decided to become other people. Those other people were already inhabited. But they figured they could get over that.

There's a paradox to the Chameleons, in both their plan and their essential nature, which might be the key to the whole thing. Inevitably, they use the clipped tones of villainous bosses. Superiors curse inferiors for displaying emotion, and are mostly to be found saying things like “take your orders only from me”. All of which might seem the sort of stuff you learn in your first week at Adversary College. But here it's heavily emphasised. Compared to them the Cybermen are positively effusive, and the Daleks hysterical. (Actually, come to think of it, the Daleks are always hysterical.)

They recite the life facts of their new identities, like spies going undercover. There's a recurrent motif of those they replace losing their individuating accents, including Jamie's “Scots”. (Which is actually a dialect, but never mind.) The rule's even kept up in defiance of story sense, Chameleon Polly keeping to Anneke Wills' oh-so-English annunciations even while pretending to be Swiss. Self is tied to place here. (This is reliant on BBC English being perceived as a universalised non-accent, a sort of infectionless default setting like the service encounters in 'Anomalisa'.)

While another motif is of characters observing others through monitor screens, emphasising their disconnection. The airport, a liminal space, exudes such depersonalised officiousness that reduces self to documentation, is already strange enough to accommodate them.

But then the first cliffhanger shows a substitution take place. And it doesn't just happen in a Medical centre. The Faceless One is presented as a genuine patient, in a weakened state, requiring assistance onto the hospital bed. (It's an effective scene which offsets some of the generic deathtrap stuff which comes later on.) He's described in the reconstruction voice-over as “a raw-state template of some humanoid species”. Not sinister and malevolent, but lacking. This time we're not dealing with expansionist conquerors but escapees. Ostensibly duplication is merely their chosen method. But an undercurrent suggests what they want is our humanity – our faces, our lives. We're not the cover story. We're the prize.

Seen like this, 'Faceless Ones' is 'Tenth Planet' the other way up. Instead of a remote Antarctic base, we're in a bustling airport. Instead of the aliens surgically removing our humanity until we're like them, they want to be like us. The postcard sub-plot has a dotted-line link to the Replicants' photos in 'Blade Runner.' 

That 'catastrophe' that beset them - it’s later revealed to be an explosion. They lost their faces and their identities in an explosion. You kind of wonder how that might have happened. If that's the best placeholder explanation anyone could come up with, they'd have been better off just leaving the thing a mystery. Yet is the intra-story explanation really the thing to focus on? Because it's going to be some kind of silly sci-fi gubbins, however much or little its polished up. It's not what we're here for.

Noted 'Who 'sage Andrew Rilstone has commented how the show “is driven by the logic of language, the logic of puns, the logic of dreams, not the logic of science or the logic of logic. It is a world where things work if they sound as if they ought to work.”

And there is some fuzzy, symbolic association with becoming faceless and losing your identity. We use 'faceless' as a semi-synonym both for bureaucracy and for characterlessness, and particularly for when they interact. In the TV drama 'Cathy Come Home', which had created such a stir the previous year, a Council official is dismissed as a “faceless man”. Here's just a place where the metaphor works literally. Notably, they don't seem to have a name for their home planet, their own species or even for each other. And, really, they can't have those things. Not if they're here to represent our tendency towards facelessness.

Buried inside 'The Faceless Ones', beneath all the running about, is the notion that all this flying business has put us in danger of leaving our selves behind. Perhaps we have, in the words of the George Harrison song of that year, “gained the world but lost our soul”. And this is enhanced by it being the young, free and single who are getting replaced. Those travelling alone, unmoored by family ties. Even the postcard home is an encumbrance, which everyone seizes the chance to get shot of before they've left Gatwick. (This would have been enhanced even further if Chameleon had kept their originally scripted name of Pied Piper Tours.)

And as we all now know well enough, international flights were a great driver of the clone-town homogenisation of the world. We can fly thousands of miles, secure in the knowledge we can eat in the same cafes, drink in the same bars and sleep in the same hotels as the place we just left.

No Ghosts in the Machine

It's true this reading is confined more to the look and feel of the story, or to incidental dialogue. (“...until the life has been drained from them!”) In some ways plot points even cut against it. Once transformed the Chameleons plan is to go home again. It might have been better if they'd taken up new lives on Earth, while maintaining a strange indifference to their supposed nearest and dearest. Later 'template' Faceless chameleons, rather than strengthless patient of earlier, act like malevolent guards.

So, how come all this is so undeveloped? If it was the first 'Who' script from both Ellis and Hulke, both were already working writers. One explanation might be that the show wasn't yet fusing the extraterrestrial with the supernatural, in a way it needed to if this story was going to truly work.

We’ve seen how the Troughton era rapidly grew more Gothic. But it wasn’t there yet. Monsters could rear up, but had to be explicitly explained away as aliens. Whereas the Chameleons needed to be real or implied ghosts, lost in transit somewhere and aching to become flesh again. Perhaps a crashed spaceship, landing where Gatwick was later built. Perhaps implanting the Knealean suggestion in us that we wanted to build an airport just there. And a ghost story set not in a cobwebby castle but a busy metropolitan airport, that's actually quite a compelling notion.

With this all the ghost images, the distanced observation over flickering monitor screens, would have become a central metaphor for the story to cluster around. As things stand the story doesn’t just fail to hit its nail, it doesn’t even set it in the first place.

Similar problems occur over the ending, though perhaps in a more intriguing way. The Doctor and his motley crew are of course the very opposite of all this anonymising. They disrupt the clockwork order of the airport literally on arrival, lacking all the requite passports and tickets, the Tardis materialising on a flight path. Their clownish antics, meeting in photo booths and inconspicuously hiding behind upside-down newspapers, distinguish them from the Chameleon's po-facelessness. First they upend everything, then they put it all to rights.

One of the most-commented features of the story is that the Doctor doesn't defeat the Chameleons but brokers a ceasefire with them. How this comes about is...wait for it... not altogether clear. He achieves it by sewing dissent between the Faceless boss and the Faceless rank and file, but whether that's an existing division he exploits or a trick of his isn't at all clear. And the finding of the bodies in the car park is so tediously unimaginative it's almost on a level with Dodo and Steven finding the key in the cake.

But let's look on the up-side. This peaceful solution demonstrates the show had not become the Cold War melodrama many imagine. In fact it reinforces the show's recurring notion that ‘evil’ is more a deficiency, a lack of comprehension, an inability to get it. The Chameleons were themselves victims of something, and really required help. Does this suggest we can reconcile the internationalism of modern living with our sense of identity after all? Or should it just be seen as a more generalised plea for tolerance and understanding?

Jamie Meets A Scouse Mouth

With both Ben and Polly off-stage we get a temporary lead - Pauline Collins steps in as Samantha. Though seemingly devised to explicitly fail the Bechdel Test (she travels to Gatwick in search of her missing brother), she's reasonably proactive and described by the Doctor as “a very strong-headed young woman”. It's now well known that she was being sized up as the replacement for Polly, which makes it interesting that she's so unlike the actually-incoming Victoria in just about every respect. (The tale is that Collins turned down the regular gig. But surely they'd have sounded her out for it before giving her the trial?) However, as her character would seem to be centred around the somewhat schematic notion that Liverpool equates to contemporary, perhaps that's not too much of a loss. Her short-term status does mean she gets to snog Jamie at the end.

After all of which, the Doctor and Jamie head back to the Tardis only to find...

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