“I salute you from the dead. Hail, Eldrad, King of nothing.” – Rokon
This is one of the handful of Tom Baker episodes that I didn’t see and form an impression of as a child (though oddly enough Sarah Jane’s leaving scene is etched in my memory—I must have just caught the end of the story broadcast at the time). As such, I’ve had to watch it several times to form an opinion. At first, I thought I didn’t like the story—mainly because of how the events of the final episode come out of left field and feel a bit of a let down to the build up of the story. While I still feel that way, I’ve come to appreciate just how well written many aspects of the first three episodes are and can thus still find value in the story over all.
I like the attempt at entering into the middle of events on an alien planet and not really showing us how it all fits together until much later in the story. (The only problem is that the explanation gets a bit muddled later on.) On the other hand, they make things a little too obvious in the next scene with the Doctor and Sarah arriving in the quarry. It makes them look a little bit thick to have missed all the obvious signs as to the danger they were in. It would have been much better to have little clues that come as a surprise for them as well as the viewers such that we all figure it out at the last minute but too late. It is definitely a nice dramatic explosion though.
The scenes of the Doctor at the hospital are surprisingly low key. The chatty emergency room doctor is normal and undramatic to the point that it’s almost like they really filmed someone’s doctor visit—so in a sense I guess that an accomplishment for realism! I do like the tetchiness of the Doctor showing his concern for Sarah.
The story picks up considerably when Sarah starts acting so strange. Her mumbles to herself, hearing her inner thoughts so wrapped up in this mysterious Elrad, and her attack on poor Carter are all a surprise. Her march from the hospital to the nuclear plant is fantastically done. While there is a ridiculously small amount of security at such an important facility, they do a good job of showing the large number of staff in utter chaos. There’s a quite surprising tender moment in the midst of all this when Watson calls his wife and daughter knowing it may be his last time to talk to them but not letting on to them. A very rare humanization of a character in Doctor Who.
Obviously, the signature effect of the hand moving by itself was a big deal for the story but I would argue that Sarah’s utter change in character (and even moreso the succumbing of Carter) and seeing the Doctor’s growing fear and fascination is what really builds up the tension as to who this amazingly powerful character of Eldrad might be. I love how the Doctor points out the obvious that “any being that can live, let alone thrive, inside a nuclear pile, is hardly likely to be deterred by a few primitive missiles.” It’s a wonderfully Doctorish line for him to suggest “I think we should try much older weapons. Speech…diplomacy..conversation.”
The surprise really comes when Eldrad emerges. The costume is great, the characterization is great, the actress is phenomenal. The story does a great job in making this character we assume to be the embodiment of evil seem confused and vulnerable. The Doctor reasons and empathizes, turns the other cheek when attacked to show understanding, and seems to building a fragile trust. It’s all the more important when Eldrad seems to reveal a weakness in her inability to trust based on past betrayals. I think the story reaches the height of its potential when the Doctor invites Eldrad on board the TARDIS. Her willingness to concede the true genius of the Time Lords shows some humbling and camaraderie; her smile upon reaching her planet and proudly announcing “You will have to trust me, Doctor” seems to show her returning favor and having growth in her character. Even Sarah comes around and seems to care for her. Then we reach the end of the third episode with a “thoing” and it all goes downhill for a bit.
Though I really don’t like where the story goes in the end (see below), there are many other nice little touches throughout. The discussion of the role of the Time Lords and the description of the temporal grace of the TARDIS (“Well, in a sense, you see, we don’t exist while we’re in here. So you can’t hurt us, and we can’t hurt you”) are interesting additions to canon. I also like when Sarah wonders why she doesn’t see any evidence of death around that the Doctor correctly points out that they are dealing with silicon based life forms and thus the piles of sand she’s walking through are the dead bodies. Given that its Sarah Jane’s last story, I think they purposefully highlighted the bond between her and the Doctor throughout. There’s a wonderfully serious emotional moment between the two of them as they march together back into the nuclear complex to face Eldrad. The story is also full of lots of fun teasing between them. (You have to smile at Sarah’s “Oh no, that’s not fair. Not agai…” when hypnotized.) All this makes the leaving scene more devastating. Sarah thinks she is blowing off some dramatic steam when she announces she must leave, but the Doctor, in the meantime called back to Gallifrey, answers with a painfully earnest “How did you know?” Their goodbye is sweet but you also hate to see it.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Sarah’s walk from the hospital to the nuclear complex is filmed and acted in such a stand out way that it’s totally eerie and jarring. The odd fish lens camera filmed head-on makes everything feel a bit off kilter. Elisabeth Sladen’s half stoned, half mischievous face and wild eyes add too the mood. It’s capped off brilliantly when she wanders into the nuclear plant and sets down the plastic bin, suddenly sitting down and hugging her knees like a child reassuring herself as she stares blankly at it.
- Mention of temporal grace for the TARDIS
It’s such a shame that everything good about this episode falls apart at the end. After some silliness making their way through the booby traps, the Doctor and Sarah are honestly concerned for the fate of Eldrad so we are too. The story tries to be clever by revealing that those booby traps are only to push the character into a bigger booby trap but that it doesn’t work like they planned because the power failed. Or is it that it doesn’t work because Eldrad anticipated it? Either way, the real Eldrad is back—but then again King Rokon had already anticipated that as well and prepared for it. Wait, who was tricking whom? It all goes in a bit of circles.
What’s worse, the regenerated Eldrad who emerges in no way resembles the one we’ve been interacting with. I suppose they thought they were doing something clever in having him come back with the sort of ‘gender switch’, but he actually seems to be less godlike and powerful in this original form. His bluster and gruffness signal to us that he is an obviously unsympathetic character so the revelation that he had been lying about there being aliens earlier doesn’t have much impact. (The revelation is also supposed to make us realize that the beings we saw previously were Kastrians not aliens as if that had been a big plot point—but it wasn’t.) On the other hand, there’s such a disconnect between his character and the earlier version that we can’t entirely assume that the trust and growth we saw were an act. Even Sarah says. “Well, I quite liked her, but I couldn’t stand him”. It’s possible that that version of Eldrad really did start to become a better person—or it’s just as possible that all that positive interaction was a lie and undercuts all that was good about the previous episode. It hardly seems to matter in the end when the Doctor finishes it all anticlimactically by simply tripping the great and powerful Eldrad to just fall down a hole.