When I first started watching Doctor Who, there wasn’t quite the wealth of information about the series at my fingertips that is available to fans today. Back in my day, I had only the occasional issue of Doctor Who Magazine and my (even then outdated) copy of the Doctor Who Programme Guide as my guides.
And even though I’d seen stories from the Peter Davison era and new that a change was coming to the title sequence for the show, I never expected it to happen during Tom Baker’s final season as the Doctor.
So it was that one Sunday morning, I rewound my VHS recording of “The Leisure Hive” from San Jose’s KTEH Saturday Night Late Night Doctor Who feature and sat down to watch it, fully expecting the famous time corridor credits sequence that was (and is) my favorite title sequence and version of the famous theme. It was, therefore, a bit of a stunning moment to hear and see the starfield opening burst onto my television screen, announcing not only a new season but a new era of Doctor Who.
I’ll admit I rewound and watched the title sequence a time or two before I got down to the business of viewing “The Leisure Hive.” *
* I had a similar reaction when I was watching through the Jon Pertwee era a few months later and the title credits changed between the start of season 10 and 11.
These days if I were watching through the series, I’d probably be aware of the change in title sequence as well as the major changes coming to the series in terms of tone, style and musical scores. I might also have been prejudiced for or against the stories of Tom Baker’s final season without watching a single frame of footage from them.**
** My only outside references/influences being Doctor Who Magazine and when KTEH would announce that a certain story was Peter Davison’s favorite from his era prior to showing it. Some of the stories cited as his favorites are often hard for me to believe these days based on Davison’s commentaries on the DVDs. Of course, it could be that he’s allowed to change his mind and re-evaluate his era, just as we fans so often do.
In those days, Doctor Who was a clean slate and I was soaking it all in. It may be why I love certain stories that the general fan population is quick to dismiss and find some of the “classics” to be pretty good, but not necessarily great.
And while “The Leisure Hive” isn’t necessarily a classic of Doctor Who, I still find that it holds up well close to thirty years later and is a story I’d rank in upper half of all Doctor Who stories. I’d heard part of the musical score from a vinyl LP I’d checked out of my local library and I’ll admit that I’d imagined all kinds of scenes and storylines that would incorporate such music. None of those were even close to what actually unfolded on screen, but I still think “The Leisure Hive” is a story made stronger and better because of the incidental music.
“The Leisure Hive” is the start of a new era for Doctor Who and it certainly shows in every single moment put on screen. Incoming producer John Nathan-Turner wanted to bring the show into the 80’s and his script editor Christopher H. Bidmead wanted to have stories more grounded in hard science. And “The Leisure Hive” is certainly a solid example of both. It kicks off a season that has a loose arc all centering around decay and renewal. Many of the planets and societies the Doctor comes across in this season are stuck slowly spiraling downward, decaying and becoming shadows of their former selves. I’m not sure if this commentary on the show was intentional by JN-T or not, but it certainly becomes evident years later as we look back on the season.
I’ll also go as far as to say that the arc to season 18 is the most successful the series has ever done. Before Russell T. Davies was giving us Bad Wolf or Stephen Moffat having an arc for the entire Matt Smith era, Christopher H. Bidmead was giving us a series of seven (eight if you count “Castrovalva”) stories that all built up to the moment of the fourth Doctor regenerating.
And that all kicks off with “The Leisure Hive.” The story is set on the planet Argolis, where the natives and a reptile race called the Foamsi once engaged in a horrific war that lasted twenty minutes and decimated the surface of the planet. The surviving Argolans created the Hive to shield themselves from the planet’s toxic atmosphere and turned the planet into a tourist attraction with a deadly warning as part of the visit. They’ve began research into various scientific advances, including tachyeon particles and their various uses. While their generator is currently only a novelty to create elaborate stage shows, there is the possibility it could be used for something more, including turning back the clock and reverse the aging process.
David Fisher’s story is a fascinating one, but one that isn’t exactly crammed to the gill with your standard Doctor Who plot devices. It’s more focuses on the characters and world-building but it does have a megalomaniac bent on universal domination by the time we roll around to episode four. It seems that the youngest Argolian, Pangol, wants to use the generator to rebuilt his race and the Argolan war machine by creating copies of himself as some type of army that will roll out and rule the galaxy. He’s unimpressed by the promises of the generator to offer perpetual healing and/or regeneration to his (sterile) race and the peoples of the universe.
The original script for this one was left over from the Graham Williams/Douglas Adams era and was polished by Bidmead to fit his new view of the show. This meant a lot of the jokiness was toned down and a more serious bent was giving to the proceedings. And I think the the story benefited from this since based on what I’ve read of the original outlines and the DVD extras, the original version was doomed to miss the mark in the same that certain other stories in season 17 did.
The story is also interesting because it’s one of the rare Target novelizations of the era that really expanded on the story and characters on the printed page. I recently revisited the novelization on audio book and was struck by how just about half of the running time is devoted to events taking place in episode one, with the final three episodes feeling a bit crammed in there and rushed. I know Target had a strict page count for the Doctor Who novels and it leaves me wondering just what might have been if we could have had a few more pages for the final couple of episodes.
The story is a visually striking one by one-time director Lovett Bickord. Bickford’s direction feels like it’s a feature film with lots of camera movement and unique angles (the sets have ceilings, which is a rarity in classic Who) that help contribute to the alien look and feel of Argolis and the Hive itself. There’s the famous (and polarizing) long tracking shot to start the story as well. It’s interesting to hear the debate between Bickford and Bidmead on the DVD about whether the shot has any value to the story or not. Given that the story runs short, I can’t necessarily begrudge the tracking shot taking up as much time as it does.
The only point where the story misses the mark visually is the Foamsi themselves. The reptilian aliens are wisely kept out of shot or seen in close-ups until the mid-point of the story and even after the reveal are only used sparingly. It doesn’t give you too much time to wonder how the alien reptiles shown on screen fit into suits that make them look human.
But for all the perceived faults, “The Leisure Hive” rises above in so many other areas. If you’re watching straight through the entire run of Doctor Who, the changes are immediate and apparent. Whether or not these changes are a producer breathing new life into the program or a signal that it’s the beginning of the end for classic Who is something fans will endlessly debate and possibly never reach a satisfying answer.