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Always Accept the Unexpected: Loving ‘The Leisure Hive’

Even though I begged my parents for the shiny new E-Space VHS boxed set and loved both Keeper of Traken and Logopolis as a kid, I took against Season 18 as I got older. As a cynical teenager and twenty-something, I was rather saddened to see the indomitable Tom Baker in such reduced circumstances, gaunt, tired, and dressed in a costume that often seemed to be wearing him rather than the other way around.

One thing that never wavered, however, was my absolute love of The Leisure Hive. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why, maybe it’s that memorable Part One cliffhanger, the brilliant score by Peter Howell, the subtle differences of Tom’s performance as the aged Doctor or the mad idea of civilisation moving on from devastating nuclear conflict to operate a tourist attraction. Each time I return to this story, I find something new to enjoy.

Here, I’ll look at the serial in more detail and ponder how successful a fresh start it was for Doctor Who, the promise it held, its influence on the future of both the show and television in general and ponder whether all of that was squandered. And as for my opinions on Season 18, on revisiting both Keeper of Traken and Logopolis a couple of years back, it’s safe to say that I love it. You might say that I’ve come full circle. (Sorry)

Romana, the Doctor and Hardin in 'The Leisure Hive'
Romana, the Doctor and Hardin in ‘The Leisure Hive’

It’s been recounted numerous times before, not least in the beautiful collector’s booklet included with the set, but let’s run through it again quickly. Season 18 was the first to be produced by John Nathan-Turner and was designed as something of an overhaul. Commissioning a new title sequence, a modern electronic score and a new costume for Tom Baker, JN-T was intent on producing a Doctor Who that was more reflective of contemporary science-fiction film and television.

Nathan-Turner’s ambition is laudable and, on a good day, many of these choices breathe life into a show which had perhaps rested on its laurels a bit during the Graham Williams and Douglas Adams era. Unlike the current iteration of Doctor Who, producer JN-T was not a writer, but in Christopher H. Bidmead, he had a script editor who understood what needed to be done to reinvigorate the show and who also had a strong grasp of contemporary scientific thinking and early computing.

Together with Bidmead and former producer Barry Letts (hired in an advisory capacity), JN-T set out to tone down the daffiness of his predecessors with stories that were focused more on the science fiction than the humour.

Broadly, The Leisure Hive achieves this remit. Coming after the pantomime excesses of The Horns of Nimon, this story about a race of aliens rendered sterile by a brief and devastating nuclear war is a sharp tonal shift. Of course, this being Doctor Who this grim scenario is cheerily offset by flower people and chirruping reptilian gangsters. The ‘hard science’ of tachyonics is handled with rather a light touch, allowing the visuals to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the audience in a way that later stories like Warrior’s Gate, Logopolis and Castrovalva never quite achieve.

And whilst we’re on the subject of the visuals, the opening sequence, a sweeping tracking shot across a deserted, windswept Brighton beach is a clear statement of intent by director Lovett Bickford. It’s an incredibly beautiful combination of cinematography and direction which distracts you from the fact that the scene is a bit of padding that purely exists to write out K-9 for the duration of the serial (for reasons which become increasingly unclear as the futuristic, technological plot plays out). In the Behind the Sofa featurette on the disc, costume designer June Hudson laments not being able to realise Bickford’s cinematic vision for the serial.

Peter Howell’s excellent score, however, backs up this cinematic ambition, evoking Jean-Michelle Jarre and Vangelis whilst also possessing its own unique identity. Howell just got what 1980s Doctor Who should sound like and whilst other composers may have struggled (Paddy Kingsland’s Mawdryn Undead score comes instantly to mind), Howell’s work is evocative and timely.

Whether or not it’s a result of production shortcomings, Bickford’s filmic flourishes are only really in evidence in the aforementioned beach sequence, model shots of the Argolin city and the beautiful, shimmering golden framing of Tom and Lalla looking out over the nuclear wasteland. Which is not to denigrate them, they’re beautiful moments, but it’s hard to escape the fumbled direction and editing of the Part Three cliffhanger or the repeated use of that interminable docking sequence; surely the most egregious use of padding since we saw Patrick Troughton loosen, then tighten, then loosen a screw in a revolver handle in painstaking detail during The War Games.

Tom, awoken from a nap on Brighton beach
Tom, awoken from a nap on Brighton beach

But I’m being churlish, let’s move on to one of The Leisure Hive’s other strengths, our leading man. It’s hard to escape the fact that Tom is not a well man during this season, and he does seem to have aged considerably since the end of The Horns of Nimon. And yet, more than any other story in the season (Logopolis notwithstanding) The Leisure Hive makes a virtue of Tom’s tiredness in the role. Which is not to say he’s sleepwalking his way through his performance, the charm and the wit is still there, the ‘Take me to his mother’ exchange is funny and very Fourth Doctor whilst the reassuring grin after he’s seemingly torn apart takes years off him. However, there’s clearly a concerted effort to give him a bit of an acting challenge, something to do.

It’s a challenge Tom seizes with both hands, and his portrayal of the rapidly aged Doctor is incredibly subtle, paring down the gregarious excess of the Fourth Doctor and adding little physical touches, a wince here, a hand gesture there. By the time he appears underneath the helmet at the serial’s climax, Baker appears renewed and refreshed, miles away from the exhausted, deckchair dozer we find at the beginning.

Overall then, The Leisure Hive breathes new life into the Fourth Doctor era by taking years off it. As the Doctor and Romana leave Mena and Hardin to continue their inter-species romance and bring new life to Argolis, we get the sense that our favourite show is heading off into new territory. We can expect big science fiction concepts, less goofiness but the same amount of charm alongside a sense of wonder and inventiveness. What we get, is a cactus in a chartered accountant’s suit.

Because, in reality, Meglos is more indicative of where 1980s Doctor Who was headed. The Doctor and his companions don’t turn up on Tigella until halfway through the story, and in the meantime, we’re forced to endure a huge cast of supporting characters we’ve never met before delivering reams and reams of expository dialogue. Thankfully, one of those characters is played by Jacqueline Hill, arguably stunt casting by JN-T, but never less than magnificent as Lexa. And at least the prolonged TARDIS scenes have a dramatic purpose within the overall story, keeping the Doctor and Romana out of the way whilst Meglos pilfers the dodecahedron. Ironically, had Douglas Adams script edited this story of a sentient cactus possessing a chartered accountant and commanding a band of alien mercenaries, we would probably have had something far more memorable.

If the promise of The Leisure Hive isn’t always reflected in these later stories, it has certainly influenced one of modern television’s biggest properties. Writing in his Guardian column several years ago, (and again in the charity book Behind the Sofa) the writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker recalls watching the story as a child:

“…Tom Baker appears in some kind of primitive VR machine, gets his arms and legs torn off and screams – the camera zoomed in on his bellowing mouth, the scream blended with the already-terrifying closing title music, and my spine scuttled out of my backside and ran for the nearest exit. Couldn’t walk for six months. Cheers, Doctor.”

Charlie Brooker, seen at the ‘Black Mirror' panel Q&A at the FYSee exhibit space on Friday, May 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Blair Raughley/Invision for Netflix/AP Images)
Charlie Brooker, seen at the ‘Black Mirror’ panel Q&A at the FYSee exhibit space on Friday, May 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Blair Raughley/Invision for Netflix/AP Images)

It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination, therefore, to see The Leisure Hive’s influence on Brooker’s Black Mirror, especially those more technologically fearful Netflix episodes. So there we have it, indirectly, John Nathan-Turner has influenced one of the 21st century’s most globally successful TV series, which is itself now pushing the boundaries of contemporary storytelling by dabbling in choice-driven storytelling. It’s like the Doctor says, always accept the unexpected.

Mark Donaldson

Mark is a film chatter-about-ter, writer and co-host of boozy Doctor Who podcast "On the Time Lash". He has been a Doctor Who fan since catching a repeat of The Time Meddler in the early 1990s and has only ever taken a year or two off from fandom to focus on being a moody teenager.