‘Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones’ Screening

A lively and engaging BFI event celebrating the launch of a Patrick Troughton Doctor Who animation.

The Faceless Ones, originally made in black and white, hails from 1967, when pop culture was full of psychedelic colours and groovy fashions, so the story lends itself particularly well to being reimagined in animated colour.

The story uses a contemporary idea largely inspired by the Cold War between the democratic countries of the West and the communist states of the Eastern Bloc, that of an ‘enemy within’; in this case, a race of aliens kidnapping young people on their Chameleon Tours charter flights and replacing them with identical alien doubles. It’s a riff on identity paranoia, another pop culture trope of the time. Also present and correct are a laser beam set up to cut the Doctor and friends in half (see Goldfinger, 1964), paralysing gadgets that resemble pens (also inspired by the secret agent craze) and a passenger plane that converts into a spacecraft when it folds back its wings (surely a visual debt to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1965-66), their series about a hi-tech rescue force). There’s also a feisty lass from Liverpool, Samantha Briggs (Pauline Collins). The Faceless Ones couldn’t be more 1967 if it wore flowers in its hair.

The animated version cleaves more closely to the source material than the previous animated release, The Macra Terror (2019), which saw the animation team loosening up and using their collective imagination in reimagining the headline monsters, some of the sets and inserting exterior locations missing from the original. The Faceless Ones’ more faithful rendition of what was established on television in 1967 is probably because two of the six episodes exist as reference points, with most of the sets used in the story extant in those instalments.

The animation team have fun in other ways, with a lot of in-jokes. Among them are a police ‘Wanted’ board with posters of the Roger Delgado and Sacha Dhawan Masters and the Meddling Monk, in the airport there is a kiosk for Magpie Electricals (first seen in The Idiot’s Lantern, 2006), and elsewhere a newspaper headline reads ‘War Machines Defeated’ (referencing the 1966 Doctor Who story of the same name). A particularly nice touch is that one of the air traffic control terminals is labelled Condon Ltd. after Paul Condon, a well-known and well-liked Doctor Who fan who died in 2019.

The likeness of the actors continue to improve with every release. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is now every bit as engaging as the impish original, while the stellar supporting cast of Wanda Ventham, Bernard Kay, Colin Gordon and Donald Pickering are also convincingly rendered. Potential purchasers will also be relieved to know that the characters can run a lot better – there’s a lot of running in Episode One – although the way they turn is still a bit jerky. But that’ll be forgiven as soon as you see the spectacular alien satellite at the end of Episode Five, so good it looks like a homage to Hugo Drax’s orbital colony in the James Bond film Moonraker (1979). Like the revised renditions of the aliens’ faces, it’s the one of the few places where the animators really let their imaginations take flight.

Between episodes three and four, the BFI’s Dick Fiddy had a brief chat with Anne Marie Walsh from the animation team and Mark Ayres, who restores the audio soundtracks for the DVD and Blu-ray ranges. Both concurred that the animations were, by and large, developing into a style of their own, rather than slavish recreations of the lost TV serials. Their style has been compared to the American animated secret agent sitcom Archer (2009 – ), which Anne Marie pointed out had “a lot more time” than Doctor Who, as well as, according to Dick Fiddy, “a lot more swearing.”

After the next three episodes, the two final guests were companion actors Anneke Wills (Polly) and Frazer Hines (Jamie), interviewed by Justin Johnson. By now, these two feel like old friends at these events, with Anneke saying that 2019’s screening of The Macra Terror was the highlight of her year.

Even though, back in the day, these two were part of a four-man crew in the TARDIS, in 2020 they riff off each other like a well-established double act. Frazer alighted the stage with a jerky walk like his cartoon avatar; Anneke commented that the animations were “getting better and better and better”, and Frazer immediately countered that, with both actors now well into their seventies, their animated selves were “better than us.”

Talk turned to how, with The Faceless Ones being the third Troughton story to be completely animated, Anneke thought the likenesses of the star were by now “so charming,” even if Anne Marie Walsh had said she was rather daunted at the prospect of having to animate an the likeness of an actor with such an expressive, lined face. Another highlight included discussion by companion actors of watching their stories when they were originally transmitted; apparently Hartnell-era companion Peter Purves told Frazer, “I never watch myself.” Frazer wittily responded, “Well you should, because we had to.”

 

Asked which stories they’d like to see animated, Anneke unequivocally stated The Smugglers while Frazer opted for The Highlanders, both historical adventures. Anne Marie’s perhaps predictable response to the latter had been, “No, those bloody kilts!”, although Frazer had reassured her that they wrapped around the wearer and weren’t full of pleats.

Talk then turned to the “ruthless” way companions were replaced in the mid-1960s. Jackie Lane’s Dodo infamously disappeared halfway through The War Machines (eliciting Frazer’s predictably funny comment, “Dead as a Dodo”). Revealingly, Frazer said he was sad to see Anneke’s Polly and Michael Craze’s Ben Jackson leave at the end of The Faceless Ones, as he thought the three of them and Troughton had by then gelled as a unit.

The question and answer session with the audience brought up a new anecdote in the form of the TARDIS Tie Frazer was wearing, which producer Innes Lloyd had made for himself, Troughton, Frazer and associate producer Peter Bryant. The idea was, according to Frazer, that “If you saw someone wearing one in a bar, you’d go up to them, say ‘Who?’ and they had to buy you a drink.”

Perhaps this guest session is best summed up by Anneke’s touching story of how, in the last hours of Troughton’s life at an American convention, he talked working with her and Michael. Frazer came straight back with a faux Troughton remark – “I’ll never forget Mike and Anneke, but luckily there was Frazer.” Cue laughter from the audience and the stage, and a comedy kick from Anneke towards the Troughton era’s honorary joker.

That’s the great thing about these BFI events: from the stage to the audience, it’s like convening with old friends to relive old stories we’re fond of, while being surprised and entertained by new anecdotes that, even after all these years, keep surfacing (c.f. the one about the TARDIS tie). It’s a shame the two lively guest panels can’t be on The Faceless Ones DVD and Blu-ray, but the animated reconstruction is so entertaining by itself that you really won’t be missing out.

Slither on, Fury from the Deep


❉  The preview screening of ‘The Faceless Ones’ took place on Saturday 29th February at BFI, Southbank (NFT1). ‘The Faceless Ones’ will be released on 16 March 2020. The six new animated episodes are being made in full colour and high definition and will include exclusive special features. Available to pre-order now from AmazonZoom and HMV.

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. All photos taken by Robert Fairclough.

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