Aired 2 – 23 October 1976
‘The Hand of Fear’ marks another time of change for Doctor Who, bidding farewell to Elisabeth Sladen’s immensely popular Sarah Jane Smith who has redefined what it means to be the Doctor’s companion and helped transition the show between the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras. Perhaps it is fitting for the character, then, that writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin have crafted a contemporary Earth alien invasion tale that hearkens back to Sarah Jane’s early adventures for her departure.
Indeed, the Third Doctor had declared that he was tasked with defending the integrity of time in Sara Jane’s premiere story, ‘The Time Warrior,’ and so it seems quite fitting that the alien Eldrad again appeals to those sensibilities in her final story, albeit with the Fourth Doctor putting his own unique spin on what his obligations to time truly are. However, just as the Doctor has consciously distanced himself from UNIT as time has progressed, he has also shown an unwillingness to join time’s battles as well. While his declaration that helping Eldrad to restore Kastria would contravene the First Law of Time plays to these sensibilities, hearing the Doctor rely on his own race’s regulations rather than explaining his viewpoint with potential consequences seems strangely out of character.
Even without explicitly focusing on Sarah Jane, though, ‘The Hand of Fear’ is very much about her as a character and how much she has changed by traveling with the Doctor. Perhaps referencing the Fourth Doctor’s tendency to travel off Earth, Sarah Jane proclaims that she just wants to feel human again, having lost any sense of normality as the TARDIS continues its journey through space and time. Of course, even after having been hypnotised and placed in mortal danger at a nuclear power plant, it’s telling that at the same time she bemoans the fact that she will not be able to travel with the Doctor to Gallifrey. She has become quite the thrill-seeker alongside the Doctor and actually acts quite recklessly at times as if she is impervious to injury or harm, and it’s fascinating to piece together from these small scenes how her character has changed while still remaining true to herself during her tenure, setting the bar high for future companions along the way.
It’s also quite fitting that, although the Doctor likely recognises that Sarah Jane is becoming dangerously proud as she throws herself into adventures, it’s an apparent fear of Gallifrey that spurs him to say good-bye to his friend. While the Time Lords have undergone something of a shift in characterization since their introduction in ‘The War Games,’ they were responsible for taking away Zoe and Jamie from the Doctor and wiping their memories of their travels with him following their very first adventure. Wanting to save Sarah Jane from that possible fate, he decides that he must answer his summons to Gallifrey by himself. Even though the permanence of their farewell is never explicitly stated, the fact that Sarah Jane walks out with all of her belongings and even a plant certainly hint at this, and the understated nature of this final scene is strikingly powerful in its simplicity even if it possibly doesn’t pack the full intended emotional punch for that very same reason.
Ultimately, though, ‘The Hand of Fear’ is not the highlight story that Sarah Jane deserves for her exit. It seems to be a throwback story of sorts with an intriguing but ultimately forgettable villain even amidst the high stakes. Fortunately, both Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are on top form throughout and raise the serial to something altogether more memorable than the script does by itself.