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14x4. The Face of Evil
Writer: Chris Boucher
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor arrives on a planet where the Sevateem tribe, which worship a god they call Xoanon, is preparing for battle against their rivals, the Tesh. As he is drawn into the conflict, the Doctor comes to a startling discovery: Xoanon is in fact a malfunctioning computer that he had attempted to repair on a previous visit to the planet but left with a split personality (partly the computer's and partly his own). Leela, a member of the Sevateem, helps the Doctor to correct the malfunction and eventually leaves with him in the TARDIS.

Review: "The Face of Evil" works for me not because it does any one single thing spectacularly, but because it does a number of things very well. It's an involving story with an interesting twist, the characters are drawn with some complexity and originality, and it has an underlying theme that it articulates competently.

It would have been easy to portray the Sevateem as uniformly ignorant, violent, and hostile, but Chris Boucher's script allows them more complexity than that. Some of them are honest believers in the myths of Xoanon and The Evil One, but not all of them (though the cynicism displayed by some of those who don't is not exactly endearing). Leela is the exception to both rules: she dismisses these myths as superstition and she maintains an open mind, but does not seek to use her intelligence to gain power over others. At the same time, she is quick to resort to aggression and violence, for which the Doctor rebukes her. And while we might expect the Tesh to be more sophisticated and skeptical given their technological advantages, they are just as much in the grip of unquestioning belief in a distorted myth as the Sevateem are, the only real difference being the value they place on formality and calm.

It would not be out of bounds to inquire as to whether "The Face of Evil" has a somewhat anti-religious bent, in that the believers on both sides are seen as naive and perhaps overly predisposed to use force. What makes it more than simply a screed against organized religion, however, is the way that Xoanon reacts when the Doctor tries to explain what has happened. Faced with a threat to its own understanding of the world, it reacts with the same sort of denial and violence we see from the Tesh and the Sevateem, demonstrating, as the Doctor comments, that "The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views." The script is not so much an attack on religion, then, but on its most closed-minded variants as well as all other forms of unwillingness to have one's assumptions challenged. Still, it must be said that no one in "The Face of Evil" comes off as a particularly positive example of religious faith.

"The Face of Evil" is also noteworthy for its approach towards the Doctor, who has to confront a mistake he made long ago in an encounter he barely remembers at first. This is an interesting choice for the script, and while it does not dwell on the point, it allows us to see the character as fallible in a way that is not typically emphasized, and it casts his rather abrupt departure after his repair of Xoanon (he explicitly refuses to try to settle the remaining differences between the Tesh and the Sevateem) in a somewhat curious light. At first, my reaction was that it seemed a bit irresponsible for him to just waltz away after all the trouble he'd (unintentionally) caused. On the other hand, perhaps it's a touch of understated humility from a Doctor that one certainly wouldn't expect to be prone to overt self-castigation: now that he's rectified the immediate damage he caused, he's not going to presume to meddle in this situation any further. Either way, it's a departure from the standard "Doctor solves everything" formula, and it emphasizes the Doctor's capacity to make mistakes more explicitly than any serial since "Planet of the Spiders."

The script raises another question about the Doctor as well, though I'm not sure whether it means to. Namely, if the Doctor's original arrival on this planet took place so long ago that he now barely remembers it, just how long has it been since his last regeneration, given that Xoanon is clearly modeled after the Fourth Doctor and not some previous incarnation? More to the point, how long has he been traveling alone since leaving Gallifrey at the end of "The Deadly Assassin"? Since Sarah did not visibly age much during her time in the TARDIS, we can assume that only a few years passed while she was still with him, meaning that either he has been alone for quite a while, or else his memory is just not very sharp given how long he's been traveling. The latter seems hard to swallow -- obviously memory is not equivalent to intelligence, but I still don't imagine that the Doctor would be lacking in this area.

It's hard to pin down exactly why I enjoyed "The Face of Evil" as much as I did -- if not for the ambiguity over the Doctor's reason for his quick exit, I might have been inclined to view it as the sort of subpar ending that I've found to be too characteristic of other recent serials, and the question over the Doctor's time alone may be more an accident than a deliberate mystery. But despite these possible flaws, the plot and characters really drew my interest, and the ideas are creative enough to earn a strong recommendation even if I'm not 100% comfortable with how they were resolved.

Rating: ***1/2 out of four