Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones Fills in A Key Part of Whovian History

As the final episode to include companions Polly and Ben, "The Faceless Ones" isn't just a nailbiting sci-fi mystery, but an important chapter in Doctor Who history.

Patrick Troughton in the Animated Doctor Who The Faceless Ones
Dr Who opening title sequence - Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones _ Season 1, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Animated Series Team/BBC Photo: BBC

In a media landscape where it is possible for those with expendable income and a good internet connection to access pretty much any TV they want whenever they want, it’s a unique and interesting dilemma for an episode of television to be inaccessible to literally everyone on the planet. However, this is the reality with which Doctor Who fans must live, as 97 (of 253) of the series’ first episodes continue to be “missing,” a benevolent euphemism for “probably ironically lost to time.” While some of Classic Who‘s missing episodes have been found over the last few decades (and a handful may be held by private collectors), many of of them have not been, leaving 26 of the show’s early serials either incomplete or entirely missing.

Not all is lost. Audio tracks still exist for all of the missing episodes, along with production stills, “telesnaps,” and sometimes short clips from the 25-minute installments. Fans have been using what’s available for decades to create recreations of the lost episodes and, more recently, BBC Studios itself has gotten in on the effort, recreating missing episodes using animated storytelling. The latest missing episode to get the animated recreation treatment? “The Faceless Ones,” a partially-missing Second Doctor story. The two-night broadcast of all six animated episodes begins tonight on BBC America.

The era of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, which ran from 1966 to 1969, was the hardest hit by the BBC’s practice of deleting archived programming. Fifty-three of the episodes featuring Troughton are currently missing, representing almost half of his 119 total episodes. This is a shame because Troughton is a dynamic Doctor, the first actor asked to transition the character from one performer’s portrayal to another. Following William Hartnell, whose final years on Who were made more turbulent by his failing health, Troughton imbued the character of the Doctor with a manic energy, a zest for living and traveling that continues to be an integral part of the character today.

“The Faceless Ones” comes at the end of Troughton’s first season on the show. The penultimate serial of Season 4 follows The Doctor and Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills), and Ben (Michael Craze) as they investigate the mass disappearance of young people at Gatwick Airport, facing off against a group of identity-stealing aliens known as the Chameleons. First broadcast in 1967, the serial gets off to a slow start, but ups the stakes when Polly and Ben soon also go missing, leaving The Doctor, Jamie, and Samantha (Pauline Collins, who plays Queen Victoria in NuWho’s “Tooth and Claw”) the sister of another missing youth, to discover what has happened before it’s too late.

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Honestly, it’s kind of helpful that the serial gets off to a slow start, as it gives the viewer some time to acclimate to the animated recreation style before the action really picks up. While I appreciate the work and care that go into these recreations, it always takes me at least a few minutes to get over anew the fact that I won’t be able to watch the original performances and production. The intensity of Troughton’s performance comes across in the audio track, a reminder of just how much we are missing of his performance as intended. That being said, BBC Studio’s choice not to attempt to recreate the episodes frame-by-frame or shot-by-shot is a smart one, as these recreations are being made for a modern audience by artists who have more tools than filmmakers in 1960s London.

“We look at the actors in different footage, both in Doctor Who and other pieces,” animation director AnneMarie Walsh told Syfy Wire about the recreation process. “We tried to capture their eccentricities and idiosyncrasies and their way of acting and playing characters. We try to bring that across in the animated characters. So it’s not about following and copying the live-action. It’s about creating something new, but that’s true to the idea.”

The story of “The Faceless Ones” contains some generally nail-biting moments of suspense, especially in those moments when the Doctor or his companions are in danger, and there is one reveal that comes in Episode 5 that manages to be both iconically Whovian and gasp-aloud surprising at the same time. For Doctor Who fans who are more familiar with NuWho, it might be interesting to see the Doctor with more than one companion, a set-up that has only become common in Thirteen’s era. What is now considered a bit of a “crowded TARDIS” used to be par for the course, especially in those first seasons of the show.

While the classic science fiction elements of its central mystery are great, it’s the relationships between the Doctor and his companions that make this serial so worth the watch. Because Ben and Polly disappear for much of the serial’s runtime, “The Faceless Ones” is especially a good serial for fans of the Doctor/Jamie dynamic, which is one of the most enjoyable in all of Whovian history and has a lot in common with the traditional Doctor-Companion relationship in modern Who. While the duo is often split up as they go about looking for their missing friends, we get some excellent moments: Jamie and the Doctor hide in plain sight from the searching authorities behind newspapers. Jamie and the Doctor use a mirror to get themselves and Samantha out of a grisly death by laser. Jamie and the Doctor work together to save the day.

While Jamie and the Doctor might get the best scenes, “The Faceless Ones” is perhaps most notable in Whovian history for being the last to include Polly and Ben. The two companions hold an important, though often less-talked-about role in Doctor Who history. They were there for the Doctor’s first regeneration (or, more accurately, the first one viewers experienced with the Doctor), which means they provided the continuity from the First Doctor to the Second Doctor—a transition model often used in NuWho. No doubt the lack of hype around Ben and Polly is tied to the fact that so many of their episodes are missing. It’s why “The Faceless Ones,” and others featuring Ben and Polly, are so important in Whovian history, and why it’s such a delight to see the serial get the animated recreation treatment.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones will air on BBC America in two parts, with the first three episodes arriving on Wednesday, Oct. 7, and the final three on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, at 8 p.m. ET.