Thursday, August 29, 2019

Doctor Who: in defense of "The Leisure Hive"

A set of seven underrated Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "Death to the Daleks", "The Wheel in Space" and "Attack of the Cybermen."

The last of my seven “neglected or maligned” Classic Who serials, perhaps “The Leisure Hive” is the least likely entry. When its author David Fisher died in January of 2018, most fans hailed “Androids of Tara” or “Stones of Blood” as their favorite of his Who stories, but I saw quite a few single out “Leisure Hive.” And when the serial’s director Lovett Bickford passed away six months later, there were polls asking folks how they felt about his “Leisure Hive” helming (the serial went wildly overbudget, and Who producer John Nathan-Turner never asked Bickford back), and most thought quite highly of it. So I couldn’t argue that “Leisure Hive” is a maligned serial. But neglected? Yeah, I think so. I suspect if fans were asked to name their favorite Tom Baker stories, “Leisure Hive” wouldn’t make a lot of top-10 lists, but when I did my Classic Who countdown in the summer of 2018, “Leisure Hive” was my sixth favorite Fourth Doctor serial. It’s easily my favorite story of Season 18, and sits comfortably among my top-30 serials in the entire Classic Who canon.

How many fans would say that?

When I wrote up the first serial in this series, the (most certainly) maligned “Terminus,” I wondered if it was a serial best appreciated by folks with a little life experience. For me, “Terminus” is a serial for folks who’ve felt abandoned by the very institutions that, in a sane and decent society, would be there to support them. As someone who’s dealt with chronic illness for over a decade, and seen first-hand the failings of our health-care system, “Terminus” hits home for me. “The Leisure Hive,” I imagine, should hit home for everyone, because it’s a serial about the most ubiquitous of human experiences: aging. Who among us hasn’t felt a twinge of angst upon discovering that first gray hair, or seeing the beginnings of crow’s feet or a receding hairline? Who hasn’t shuddered when they saw people half their age flooding the job market (rendering them obsolete, or – in the modern parlance – “redundant”), or felt like a dinosaur browsing social media and not recognizing half the pop culture references? Who hasn’t greeted each significant birthday with a mix of fear and frustration, or wondered what the future holds or asked “what have I accomplished?”

The miracle of “The Leisure Hive” is that everyone involved seems acutely aware of the themes expressed, and how best to explore them. What's the expression: "I woke up one day, and realized I was old"? Age sneaks up on you, and so does Bickford's camera. He alternates between swiftly-edited images and languorous pans that keep you off-balance, starting with the famed 92-second tracking shot of Brighton Beach that opens the serial. It’s a shot that’s come under a great deal of scrutiny over the years. (That season’s story editor Christopher Bidmead is vocal in his dislike of the shot, as he is about much of “Leisure Hive,” but I consider Bidmead a self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed prick, so I’m not darkening this essay by referencing him further.) That first shot of “Leisure Hive” is brilliant on so many levels. It instantly resets the series, making it clear that the larger-than-life, full-on panto flavor of Season 17 has been abandoned in favor of something quieter, more serious and more ambitious. And technically, too, it’s a marvel. Yes, it’s 92 seconds of tracking across colorful beach huts and deck chairs at Brighton, but how gloriously it builds. In the DVD commentary, Bickford watches it and notes with pride that it’s perfect, and his pride is justified. As the shot proceeds, he carefully holds our attention and builds our interest by adding elements at precisely the right time — wind, music — without ever calling attention to them. It works as a bit of technical wizardry, and it works as a piece of art — exactly what those of us who toil in the world of entertainment aspire to.

But mostly, it works as an expression of the underlying themes of “The Leisure Hive.” Those 92 seconds are a journey: a life in microcosm. The journey feels out of our hands, but the sights are lovely: the colors, the patterns, the composition. We can admire the view, or we can fret about the destination — and chances are, we’ll do both. And no doubt we’ll feel uncomfortable at not being in charge of our own destiny. And so it is as the tracking shot continues — it’s a long journey, and we’re left feeling equal parts wonder and dread. And as our eyes and ears take it all in, we hear — rising from the soundtrack — something we can’t quite make out. Is it the faint growling of a monster? (This is Doctor Who, after all; by this point in the series, there’s almost always a monster.) Should we be apprehensive? But no, after a minute or so, we view the TARDIS situated among the huts, and we breathe a sigh of relief at the familiar sight — and then as Bickford reaches his destination, his camera comes to rest on the Doctor, lying in a deck chair, his scarf wrapped around his face. And we realize that that foreboding sound was no more than the Doctor snoring.

The image of the Doctor napping lethargically on a Brighton Beach deck chair isn’t merely picturesque; it’ll turn out to be exactly what the serial is about: a Doctor with no battles left to fight, no hurdles left to clear, no energy left to harness. Our Doctor, you see, is aging — a notion crucial not only to this serial, but to the entire season. “The Leisure Hive” forces us to stare death in the face, at regular intervals. How will the end come, it keeps asking. The aging Doctor suggests one way: the slow way. Our bodies will begin to ache and falter and our energies start to flag. (His young companion wants the hustle and bustle of an adventure; he’d rather nap.) But mere moments later, we get a look at another possibility: the end could come fast, too fast. We cut from the Doctor to Romana and K9, who are strolling the beach. She tosses him a ball, which he pursues, but when the slope of the beach carries it into the sea, he dutifully follows. Romana shouts “K9!!” in horror (Ward is wonderful), and the glorious slow panning that commenced the serial suddenly gives way to swift cuts and stark close-ups: from K9 rolling towards the sea, and back to Romana; to the beckoning ball, and back to Romana — until K9 enters the water and short-circuits, explosively. Bickford cleverly shifts his visual style to complement the duality in the scripting. (The Doctor, critically, doesn’t react to any of this; he doesn’t even wake up.)

Fisher, I should mention, is no one-trick pony: his script is chockful of good ideas, chief among them a race of people (the Argolins) who've been decimated and displaced by war, opening their doors to the universe to encourage harmony and discourse. There’s business intrigue and political intrigue in “The Leisure Hive”; there are scientists and con men, rulers and insurgents. It finds both fun and danger in exploring the new field of tachyons, hypothetical particles that move faster than the speed of light. Fisher even manages a cautionary tale about the perils of nuclear warfare. But mostly, he asks: how would you prefer to die? Would you like to live a long life but deteriorate slowly over time? Or would you rather go suddenly, and sooner?

As Fisher conceives it, only the Argolins don’t have to worry about that. In a wicked twist, a side-effect of their nuclear devastation is that they age normally until the end is near — then the process accelerates, and within hours, they’re gone. (Yet again, Bickford finds a striking accompanying visual motif, as baubles fall from their headdresses to signify that their rapid aging has begun. It’s as if their bodies were literally coming apart before our eyes. Then their faces go gray, as they exhale their final breath.) But the rest of us aren’t as lucky as the Argolins: chances are we’ll either live a long life that, towards the end, becomes too long — or we’ll be one of those people eulogized as having “left us much too soon.” My own father, whenever he’d complain about growing old, would trot out one of his favorite aphorisms: that as bad as it is to grow old, “it’s better than the alternative — not growing old.” Fisher reminds us that those are our choices, and that neither is enviable. (And in the real world, in 2019, as medical science continues to prolong life — confining more and more people to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, barely functional — Fisher’s script has gained even more topicality and punch.)

The story’s finest irony is that although the Argolins enjoy a long life and a swift and relatively painful death, they’re the race that’s most determined to undo the aging process. The engine that drives the story is the Argolins’ desire to perfect a device that will allow them to recapture their lost youth. Aging is seen as the enemy in “The Leisure Hive,” even to a race that manages it gracefully.

It's a grim topic, and Bickford doesn’t undercut it. On the contrary, he amplifies our unease, playing with angles and perspective, building suspense at the unlikeliest times. Everyone’s life seems at stake in this story, and we’re left to wonder whether — and how — the end will come. At one point, Romana and the Doctor have been tethered to opposite ends of his scarf, and when she reaches the TARDIS, she pulls on it slowly, thinking she's reeling in the Doctor -- but is she? Or does some other fate await her? (The eerie diminished chords provided by Peter Howell, in his first Who assignment, suggest the latter.) Later, the scarf comes into play again when the Doctor is instructed to follow it through a crowd, and as he dutifully obeys, we share his apprehension about what awaits him on the far end. (Fittingly, it's a dead body.)

In one sensationally effective sequence, Stimson — a scientist and a con man — has grown worried that his doctored experiment is about to be exposed. Frantically in need of transport, he goes searching for the Earth financier Brock: knocking on his door, then entering his darkened chamber. We watch from outside the open door, as an alien claw comes to rest on the door frame. We suspect the alien will attack, but no — not yet, at least. Stimson approaches a closet on the far side of the room and cautiously opens it, revealing a dead body — but no, it’s just one of the latex mannequins that adorns the recreation room. But he’s spooked, and so are we — as much by what hasn’t happened as by what has. As the music races, he rushes down the corridor, dropping his glasses in a panic — glasses promptly smashed by a reptilian foot (following him? we have no idea) — and makes his way into the unlit recreation room. As sweat drenches his brow, he fears he’s being stalked, yet we’re unsure: is he indeed being hunted, or is he in fact alone? How much of this is in his head? It’s a moment that gets back to the question at the heart of the story: how will he die? Will the uncertainty kill him slowly, or will his pursuer kill him quickly?

The tension is palpable throughout “Leisure Hive”: even the frequent establishing shots of the Argolin complex, viewed from the point of view of the dead planet, are disorienting. Is Bickford simply pausing a moment between scenes, or is there something out there watching? "The Leisure Hive" is extraordinarily unnerving, and why not? Isn’t aging the most unnerving topic of all? And no one is more unnerved by the events in “The Leisure Hive” than the Fourth Doctor himself.

Fisher puts the Fourth Doctor through the wringer in “Leisure Hive,” and the synergy between what Fisher has to say and what the production team wants to say is powerful. Tom Baker was leaving at the end of this season, after seven years in which he had come to seem irreplaceable. How do you prepare the audience for a new Doctor? One way is to minimize the current Doctor’s screentime. The Fourth Doctor had always been proactive — sometimes too much so, dominating scenes with the force of his personality. Season 18 revises its approach to the Fourth Doctor — he often seems peripheral to the action, and key exposition frequently plays out without him. In “Full Circle,” one of the stronger serials in Season 18, the Doctor spends most of Episode 1 under the TARDIS console, making repairs, while the story take care of itself — it’s a recipe that would never have been risked a season earlier. What’s wonderful about “Leisure Hive” is that this desire of the producers to minimize the Doctor fits neatly into Fisher’s serial. It’s a story about the marginalization of the elderly, of the ones who’ve “been around too long.” And ironically, and amusingly, Tom Baker’s own disinterest at the top of Season 18 only heightens the themes. He begins the season in a stew: physically ill and mourning his recent break-up with Lalla Ward; he really doesn’t connect with the material until his fourth story filmed. In “Leisure Hive,” the season opener, Baker seems like he’s going through the motions — but that disinterest plays into Fisher’s hands. Fisher wants to show a Doctor who’s grown redundant; the producers want to limit Baker’s involvement; and Baker really doesn’t want to be there — these three different objectives fuse beautifully. Onscreen, Fisher’s goals seems indistinguishable from the producers’, and from Baker’s.

For Fisher, it’s not enough that, from the start, the Doctor seems obsolete; the serial does him the double indignity of aging him by several centuries, until he’s little more than a relic. And it’s then that the serial reminds us how invisible the elderly are. For just as Pangol, the young revolutionary, won't heed the advice of the elderly matriarch Mena (Adrienne Corri, in a moving performance that eschews vanity and camp), no one pays any mind to the declining Doctor. Romana usurps his traditional role in the story-line, adopting the scientist Hardin as her companion -- and the Doctor is promptly put out to pasture. (Romana keeps making all the observations in “Leisure Hive” — she’s unusually proactive, and Ward seems to thrive on the new freedom allowed her. It’s one of her two or three best Who performances.) While Romana and Hardin are in the laboratory making strides and discoveries, the Doctor is seated behind them looking vague and uncertain of his surroundings, or roaming around the Leisure Hive like a doddering grandfather who can’t be left unattended. And yes, the Doctor is the one who ultimately saves the day, but this is Doctor Who — you could hardly expect the title character to stay reactive and useless all the way to the end. (If you’re looking for that dynamic, check out “Vengeance on Varos,” although, in that case, the Doctor’s ineffectualness is presumably unintentional.) An upbeat reading of “Leisure Hive” might suggest that its ultimate message is “don’t undervalue your elders,” but a realistic reading of a story in which the Doctor is largely impotent (and K9 — following his seeming demise in the first scene — is altogether absent) would have to echo my father: “Getting old is awful — and not getting old is worse.”

I’ve focused a lot on aging and death — how do you not, in a discussion of “Leisure Hive”? But if that’s all there were to the story, it would be too oppressive to watch. The particular genius of Bickford’s approach is that he maintains an undercurrent of anticipation and apprehension, but on top of that, he layers a visual artifice that proves enormously diverting. Despite the grim themes at play, “Leisure Hive” also manages to be great fun. And smart fun. Strategically, just as Bickford doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the subject matter, he also doesn’t allow it to become a burden. His touch is light; his tricks are varied. From the start, he cuts imaginatively through the exposition. In the opening scene at Brighton, when Romana informs the Doctor of her desire to visit Argolis, the camera starts to pull away in a beautiful crane shot, then the sides of the screen fold in until the Doctor and Romana are confined to a circle in the center of the screen, surrounded by stars — as if the camera were making the journey ahead of the characters. When we arrive on Argolis, the inhabitants are draped in canary yellow robes, with green-tinged beehive hairdos; their doorways, ceilings and floors are outlined in yellow, orange and pink stripes. It’s not just a far cry from the beach at Brighton, it’s a far cry from anything we’ve seen on Doctor Who. (It’s a palette that will emerge only one other time, equally successfully, in “Time and the Rani.”)

And when we arrive at the laboratory in Episode 2, it’s awash in color: the test tubes and beakers, the scientific building blocks, even circular and square objects that seemingly hang, unaccountably, from the ceiling. (As Romana and Hardin carry out their experiments, they’re frequently positioned behind the multi-colored laboratory equipment.) It gives the serial a magical air that both contrasts and complements the subject matter; what the Argolins are working on is grim, but what a lovely place to visit. “Leisure Hive” is the rare serial where the entire creative team — the writer, the director, the composer, the art director and costume designer and visual effects designer (Tom Yardley-Jones, June Hudson and Andrew Lazell, respectively) — seems united and energized by a common — yet decidedly uncommon — vision.

Bickford’s camera is unusually active, its curiosity mirroring our own. Shots are never held for too long: Bickford always finds a fresh angle that feels imaginative but never intrusive. (When the TARDIS makes its requisite materialization, it does so in the midst of Pangol’s demonstration of the tachyon sphere. The TARDIS materializes in the foreground, masking Pangol, whom we continue to hear but not see. It’s simple, but cunning, and you’ve never seen the show try something like it.) Sometimes, mid-conversation, Bickford’s camera moves to another room, where we watch through a pane of glass. Is someone beside us secretly watching, or are we just getting a fresh perspective? We have no idea, which makes it all the eerier — and all the more effective. Ultimately, Bickford nails pretty much everything: the pyramidical holo-projection screens, the tachyonic spheres, the non-gravity squash matches. (The only effects that don’t come off are the shuttle arrivals; you can see what Bickford had in mind, but ultimately, they’re too static an image to be entirely effective.)

Even the one production aspect that’s decidedly low-rent — the bulky costume design for the reptilian Foamasi race — is carefully micromanaged. Bickford knows how to undercut its absurdity: giving us, at first, mere glimpses of the Foamasi (a claw, a foot, a shadow), heightening the tension by disguising the unfortunate design, ensuring that they seem dangerous when they need to seem dangerous. And only when the script reveals that they are, in fact, the most civilized of creatures does Bickford expose them in all their low-rent glory. (Romana appears with one of them and announces to the Doctor, “It’s all right, he’s a friend.” It instantly subverts our expectations — and the story itself — much like the Third Doctor’s “Hello, are you a Silurian?”) And from that point, Bickford proudly parades the Foamasi around, permitting them to be just what they are: a benign alien in a funny monster suit.

Ignoring my own promise from earlier, I’ll once again reference the story-editor-who-shall-not-be-named, who — on the DVD extras — postures that there were two kinds of Classic Who directors: the ones who did their job efficiently and just shot the scenes, and the ones who tried to “leave their mark.” To him, the former group was ideal and the latter worthy of derision. But it’s this prizing of efficiency over artistry that gave us Morris Barry, Lennie Mayne, Paul Bernard, Ron Jones, Chris Clough and a host of other bland directors who got hired year after year and turned out tripe. It’s the artists like Derek Martinus, Michael Ferguson and Doug Camfield — the ones who were incapable of not putting a personal stamp on the material — who so often elevated Classic Who from the pedestrian to the poetic. And in fact, Bickford seems like some wonderful combination of two of the best Classic Who directors: Martinus, a gifted chameleon who tailored his visual style to suit each serial (it’s hard to imagine that “Evil of the Daleks,” “The Ice Warriors” and “Spearhead From Space” came from the same director, except that they’re all brilliantly imagined), and Ferguson, a bold-strokes auteur whose greatest desire was to impress. Bickford’s accomplishment in “Leisure Hive” is undeniable. His budgetary woes were unfortunate; his personal aesthetic was not. Classic Doctor Who needed more Lovett Bickfords, but alas, he goes down in the annals of Who history alongside Michael Imison, Tristan de Vere Cole, Ken Grieve and Michael Owen Morris as facile directors who got their shot at the show, forged something memorable, but were never asked back. What a loss.

These days it's become commonplace for NuWho to tip its hat to the classic series; occasionally an episode seems a throwback to the Pertwee or Baker or McCoy era. “Smile” cribs from “Happiness Patrol” and “Ark in Space”; “Arachnids in the UK” riffs on “The Green Death”; “Cold War” takes a Troughton-era villain and apes the Troughton-era base-under-siege story. Conversely, "The Leisure Hive” is one of a handful of classic serials to anticipate the 2005 series. The direction, production design and visual effects are cutting-edge. The themes are adult and provocative. And the result manages to be both invigorating and disquieting: not merely tackling a timely topic — here, the quest to stem the aging process — but, as modern Who so often does, showing its effects on the Doctor and his companion. Clara may have taken over for a sidelined Doctor in “Flatline,” but Romana got there 34 years earlier. Matt Smith may have aged hundreds of years in “Time of the Doctor,” but Tom Baker did it first.

Ultimately, it’s only in its final scene that “Leisure Hive” falters — it all seems to wrap up much too quickly, as if the crew were about to go into overtime, and the creative team were forced to stop filming and stitch together what they had. Characters thought dead turn up alive — surprise! The anti-aging device is a success — hoorah! Tacked-on happy endings are hardly foreign to Doctor Who, and to the classic series in particular, but here it all happens so fast, you're left feeling a bit dazed and deflated.

But perhaps that's appropriate: in life, as in art, things do just "end." Death isn't tidy — until you’re an Argolin, that is. And a bit of fuss at the end of a Classic Who serial isn’t fatal. At the end of the day, "The Leisure Hive" is exquisite entertainment, with an orgy of images, a plethora of good ideas, and a theme that’s hard to face and even more difficult to shake. It’s a serial that, fittingly, has aged very well.

Want more Doctor Who? I take a look at the eleven actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. I also rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years.


  1. Wow, this is a great piece. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I rewatched all of S18 recently and did enjoy TLH much more than previously. It is a wonderfully directed story and feels very modern. I love the subdued aged Baker as well. We have to differ on that opening tracking shot, however! Great to have your blog back!

    1. Thanks so much, Terry — it feels good to be writing again. You know, after I finished all fourteen seasons of Knots Landing (culminating in that freaking 30,000-word essay on Season 5, my favorite season), I felt maybe it was time to put the blog to rest. But this past weekend, I had some free time, and knew that this particular series of essays lay unfinished, and happily, it kind of poured out of me. So maybe I do have a few more things to say after all; time will tell! :)

      We will definitely have to agree to disagree about that opening shot. I marvel at it every time I watch — not just as a viewer, but as someone who seeks, in my “day job,” to make art. I marvel at the slow aural build that Bickford manages through those 90 seconds — it’s the kind of thing I have tried to do on many an album, so I know the challenges, and the pitfalls, and I find it wholly successfully both technically and artistically. As I allude to in my essay, I was very taken when Bickford, on the DVD commentary, looked back on the shot as something he remained very proud of — and then when Bidmead interrupted him, and said, “I don’t know...” and started to pick it apart, in front of Bickford, in that judgmental, superior tone of his, I just wanted to reach through the TV screen and slug him...

  2. Once again, you have provided me a lot of food for thought. Just re-watched this on the blu-ray machine and still did not catch all the various parallels and themes as you laid out in your essay.

    And also thanks for your comments on Bickford and his directing choices. The Leisure Hive was the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw (waaaayyyyy back in 1981 on good old WTTW in Chicago) and I had never seen anything on the television machine that *looked* like that. I kept waiting for that look to come back, but alas, it never quite got there again. But I kept on watching regardless.

    As it was my introduction to the program, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for The Leisure Hive. But like you said, there is a heck of a lot more going on to keep this near the top of my rewatch pile beyond mere nostalgia. Thanks for another fab essay!

    1. I so appreciate it, Bob. Thanks! I confess, first time I watched "Leisure Hive" -- and that was a mere ten years ago -- I didn't focus on all the things I wrote about in this essay. I was bowled over by the direction, and engrossed by the story-line, but the way it comes at the aging process from so many different angles -- and all the ironies and varied intentions -- didn't truly register with me. As I mentioned in the essay, simple "getting older" gave me a different perspective; ten years later, the way it weaves its variations on the theme of "aging" seems very moving to me. But I think that's one of the things you and I both love about Doctor Who -- and Classic Who in particular: that the stories appeal to us all in different ways, according to our interests and backgrounds and preferences (and even age). The best stories are so rich, there are dozens of things to admire, and we gravitate to the things that affect and impress us the most. That's been, for me, the fun of this particular series of essays: getting to talk about why I respond to these seven stories in a way that a whole lot of Who fans don't seem to.