Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones – Written by Terrance Dicks & Read by Anneke Wills – CD / Download (BBC Worldwide)

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Something about airports seems to make for very unusual, somehow disconnected Doctor Who stories. Of the two extant examples, The Faceless Ones is by far the better structured (the other of course being limp-celery end to Peter Davison’s first season, Time-Flight). The Faceless Ones transposes the idea of the Midwich Cuckoos or the Invasion of The Bodysnatchers into the busy environment of Gatwick Airport in 1966, with some genuinely creepy-looking – and effectively creepily-described – aliens, the Chameleons or Faceless Ones of the title, stealing the likenesses of airport and airline staff, offering budget flights and particularly, running tours for young people to all the hippest European holiday destinations.

The young people never arrive at their destinations, meaning skulduggery at 30,000 feet.

Which is all very well as far as it goes – we love a bit of skulduggery at 30,000 feet, and we absolutely adore a creepy-faced alien reveal and a bit of bodysnatching. That’s all good Doctor Whoing, and we’ll have a storyful, anytime, anywhere.

The thing about The Faceless Ones though is that for significantly more than half its run-time, it gets you to look in one direction – at the Faceless airline staff and their bodysnatching plans at Gatwick – so that that’s really the story in which you’re invested. When, late in the day it tries to double-down on its peril by waving some thousands of missing teenagers at you, it feels like it’s trying to have its cake…and then eat an entirely different cake with no connection to the original cake, that it’s been holding behind its back all this time. It feels disconnected, and while you get invested in the face-stealing, bodysnatching creepy aliens in the first half, The Faceless Ones could really do with some stronger rubber bands to connect its first plot to its second, because the ‘Missing teens’ plot never really hits home with the same power as the ‘Aaargh! Creepy faceless people!’ plot – which means you rather stumble around for the second half going ‘Wait, what’s happening now?’

The Faceless Ones also rather fizzles out when the Doctor – Spoiler Alert! – pulls off the coup of Being Reasonable About Things. It’s perverse, but most of the time, we want the Doctor Being Reasonable About Things to be IN Doctor Who stories, but for it ultimately to fail and for things to blow up. It’s almost a narrative requirement, the climax to all the build-up of chicanery and alien palaver. That probably says something about the narrative expectations of human beings, but when Being Reasonable works, it tends to lop some of the excitement and point off the back-end of Doctor Who stories and make you wonder why they deserved to be told in the first place.

Telling the story of The Faceless Ones of course has a very specific point – at the end of it, Ben and Polly, the companions who had guided a potentially confused audience over the very first regeneration, left the Doctor and Jamie, to get on with their lives on the very same day that they first went off with the crotchety white-haired old man with the unusual police box. So the journey they take between landing at Gatwick and leaving the Doctor is as much of a reason to experience The Faceless Ones as the actual alien plot itself. It’s not particularly overwritten in Dicks’ novelisation, their decision to leave, but there’s enough put in to make the decision feel like fate catching up with them, rather than a random thought severing an otherwise strong connection between the Tardis team at the end of a runaround adventure.

The novelisation, by Terrance Dicks feels like a book written to deadline and demand, rather than a labour of particular love – there are Terrance Dicks tropes in here, including descriptions of ‘that mysterious traveller in space and time known only as the Doctor’ which will stoke nostalgia in older fans who read the books as and when they were originally released, but there’s also quite a bit of stuff which works as a visual camera technique, but in novels feels a touch on the desperate side – including several uses of ‘anticipation’ – ‘What the Doctor didn’t know was that he was walking into a trap’… ‘Had Polly but known, she had good reason to be frightened,’ and so on. It’s not by any means a deal-breaker in a Doctor Who audio novelisation, where there are necessary short-cuts to be taken, but by the third or fourth time, you might be tempted to fast forward through a narrative that tells you people don’t know the danger they’re in, or the adventure that’s to come.

Anneke Wills, the original Polly actress who continues to add depth to the character at Big Finish, is on reading duties here, and despite a plot which involves much running, hiding, swopping, switching, and hanging about in airports waiting for things to happen, injects a good deal of tension and action into her reading, making it an easier listen at just over three hours than it could be with a less skilled actor in the hot seat. She has a familiar and close-enough take on the whole Tardis crew to let you immerse yourself in the action, and Dicks’ characterisation of several of the airport staff is distinctive enough to give her a solid steer, several decades since she starred in the show, as to how to make each important character immediately recognisable – a skill which is particularly necessary in the second half of the story, when The Faceless Ones stops being one kind of story and starts being something entirely different and rather more complicated.

Overall, The Faceless Ones is a Troughton oddity that starts off by delivering serious science fiction chills and then develops into a kind of refugee crisis story that evens out our sympathies and ends with reasonableness winning the day. Add Anneke Wills, who on any given day is absolutely worth listening to for three hours, and you salvage an arguably overly complex story from its own fizzle factor by a pace and liveliness of reading that makes the most of characterisation and smooths over story’s tonal shift to leave you smiling. Tony Fyler

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