There’s something very new series in the idea of the Doctor having in some way to pay for his carefree youth, and I really enjoy the fourth Doctor getting a moment of self-reflection and a pang of cosmic angst as he’s forced to admit that Xoanon and the Mordee have become victims of his own egotism. Baker always plays these well (most famously in Genesis of the Daleks), and it’s a pity there aren’t a few more moments like these scattered through his seven-year run. In general, the Doctor is more interestingly characterised in these episodes than he has been for ages, and Baker rises to the material, looking gutted at the way he has to manipulate Neeva – and then surprised when he realises the high priest isn’t as daft as he looks.
Despite the vaguely Forbidden Planet ghost faces and the haunted forest, this is executed more like science fiction than horror, which is another reason why it feels like a pivot for the show. It’s most obvious when the shadow in the caves turns out to be a man in a spacesuit, which almost feels like a bait and switch given how conditioned we’ve become to expecting monsters. The computer that’s developed sentience, become a god, and manipulated a society is pure Star Trek. The Tesh look a bit stupid (why do they have green faces and dress up like Christmas elves?) but their leader Jabel is a creep: the little smile he gives when he’s telepathically knocked out the Doctor is chilling.
There’s a line of criticism that suggests the first half of this story is pretty good and it all goes off the rails here. I don’t buy that. The Sevateem stuff is fine, but goes on too long (the Doctor almost immediately works out that they’re a sort of cargo cult) and could easily have been condensed to 25 minutes. The real story is happening here, which means, after The Deadly Assassin Part Three went surreal and The Hand of Fear Part Three introduced Sheldrad, this is the third story in a row to feature a third episode that’s an interesting twist away from its preceding instalments. Maybe Holmes and Hinchcliffe are making a concerted effort to address the infamous Part Three doldrums by pushing the stories in a new direction. If so, it’s a similar idea that Moffat uses in his modern two-parters.
Next episode: The Face of Evil – Part Four