Bold, confused and confusing: Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive

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If I watch any Doctor Who story made before 1980 (even The Horns of Nimon from 1979) and then watch The Leisure Hive, I get the bends. TLH is the first story helmed by Doctor Who’s longest-lasting producer and, for better or worse, the show would never be the same. With Jonathan Nathan-Turner so bent on making changes, TLH was always going to be shocking, but it’s actually the combination of several other creative egos that makes the story flat-out bewildering to watch.

In this story, the Doctor and Romana try to take a holiday on Argolis, a planet that was devastated by nuclear war with the Foamasi and is now the site of the Leisure Hive. The Argolins have created a place for peaceful recreation and sharing of cultures. They are also sterile and are becoming extinct. The Foamasi have made a surprise offer to buy the planet but Pangol, youngest of the Argolins and master of the Tachyonic Generator, has other plans for his race.

TLH has a solid guest cast. Adrienne Corri and Laurence Payne as Mena and Morix, respectively, convey the Argolins’ moral fortitude and acceptance of their fate; these performances bring to life the war and its terrible consequences. David Haig as Pangol shows both his charismatic showmanship and his concealed mania.

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With its bright lighting and costumes, TLH is striking to look at. Of the sets, I particularly like the laboratory, with its silver metal, plastic tubes, and triangle motif. The Argolins are well realised, with their plant-like headpieces, green makeup, and yellow gowns. The Foamasi are less successful-their bodies look too much like fabric, rather than scales-but they look fine in tight shots or silhouettes. When we see them fully, they’ve more or less ceased to be a menace anyway and are nicely comical.

Costume designer June Hudson also did some fine work on the regulars, not to mention handling JN-T’s requests. The producer wanted her to revise The Doctor’s outfit, ditching the scarf and adding question marks to the collar; no one ever won a battle with JN-T over those question marks, but Huson kept the scarf and remade the outfit in a predominantly plum colour, giving it a more mature look that complemented Baker’s performance in Season 18. And JN-T was probably hoping Romana’s beachwear would be something like what Peri eventually wore in Planet of Fire, but Hudson took inspiration from Victorian boys’ sailor outfits. I think it’s too young for a character more than a hundred yeas old, but cute nonetheless.

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JN-T’s aim to improve the show’s production values and make it more visually impressive has clearly paid off. With a new logo, title sequence and theme tune arrangement, Doctor Who’s well and truly burst into the eighties. But what about the rest of the story?

The script, written by David Fisher, is a mixture of humour and seriousness that I think doesn’t blend well. It has some wonderful subtle elements. The war itself lasted only twenty minutes; driven by a single man, Theron, it brought terrible consequences to the entire Argolin race. Mena and Hardin (a human) have a careful romance that embodies a hope for intercultural relationships, and the possibility of hope itself. Pangol should embody hope for the future-yet he is the most xenophobic of all the Argolins. And it is disturbing when Mena suggests that the surviving Argolins, rather than sell their world or continue to hope for a cure, could simply walk out of the Hive and be destroyed.

The story is fundamentally serious, and yet it is all approached playfully. There’s jokes about the Doctor’s scarf being used as a murder instrument, The Doctor and Romana wander through a match of some kind of zero-g sport, and K-9 has an extreme bout of stupidity when he charges into the water at Brighton after a beach ball. The entire story is wrapped up in what feels like three seconds, going from undefined peril to happy resolution with barely an explanation and only a veneer of humour holding the scene together.

And the science! New script editor Christopher H. Bidmead wanted the show to be more like proper science-fiction and incorporate real scientific theories. That’s why the tachyonics is in there. What it is or what it’s for, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t learn anything. What it does in this story exactly, I don’t know either. Maybe it’s sound theoretically, but for all the sense it makes or how well it’s explained, it may as well be made up.

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Peter Howell’s rich and glossy synthesizer music can’t be ignored; it’s overbearing. He does create some interesting sounds, which he tries to fit to what’s happening onscreen (eg. the shuttles landing or the army marching out of the generator). However, the music is intrusive and has a bizarre effect when combined with the strong visuals, becoming almost oppressive.

Lovett Bickford seems to have been too interested in making an impression with his direction (to the point of going over-budget, no less). The revelation of the Foamasi, I will say, is surprisingly well done; the second mask is too obvious, but the first reveal does look as though one character is being violently and most unwillingly assaulted. At other times, though, I wished the camera would just push back, keep still, and show more of the actors in the space around them. And the interminably long opening shot of Brighton Beach is not good. It says nothing but “Hey, look, we went to Brighton!”

Watch Paul Joyce’s opening sequence in Warrior’s Gate and you’ll see a director who’s trying to say something; Bickford’s just going for style. Maybe I could appreciate that if he was trying harder to match his direction to the story, or if he was working with a story that had less going on, but TLH is busy enough already. Some boring direction ala The Invisible Enemy would almost be a relief.

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Watching The Leisure Hive, I’m left with a stronger sense of what Jonathan Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead were trying to achieve with Doctor Who as a whole than a sense of what anyone was trying to achieve with this particular story. Nuclear warfare, a murderous plum scarf, blazing synth chords, organised crime, and whole lot of yellow… It’s all too much. Love or hate what JN-T did for Doctor Who, this is a bold, confused, and confusing beginning.