The Case For…The Leisure Hive

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Guest contributor JR Wood tackles the divisive Fourth Doctor story, The Leisure Hive.

“You mentioned Foamasi?” Well, during the summer of 1980, someone did – in fact a lot of people did as the final season of the fourth Doctor hit the nation’s T.V. screens. This story ushered in what is commonly considered to be the most controversial era of Who as new producer, John Nathan-Turner, took the helm from the show’s previous guiding light, Graham Williams.

The first story to be tackled by the new team of JN-T and Christopher H. Bidmead , the latter taking up Douglas Adams’ mantle as script editor, was The Leisure Hive and it’s one that has the Who community firmly divided. It is persistently discussed, dissected and derided by those who were involved in its inception and fans of the series alike.

I am no less guilty of thawing the story’s corpse and continuing the autopsy, as there are still large elements of it that I can only watch through the gaps in my fingers for fear of cringe-induced vomiting should I watch too closely. I could wax lyrical about the 90 second pan of the camera which, in the first few frames of episode one, treats the viewer to a dawdling view across Brighton beach that establishes the astonishing fact that…the Doctor is asleep; I could criticise the over-prevalent, almost cinematic incidental music score; I could even whinge about the ending where everything suddenly rights itself in the space of two minutes as the actors tear around the set, quickly making friends with their enemies and promising to raise an evil dictator better now that he’s been rejuvenated as a small, shrieking baby – yes, that’s right!

However, being critical is far too easy and being the optimistic person that I am, I asked myself a question: what’s good about The Leisure Hive?

That question can be answered simply within the first few seconds of episode one. Visually, this story makes a huge impact on the viewer and certainly hauls the show well-and-truly into the 1980s. The opening sting of the dramatic new theme music by Peter Howell, accompanied by the mystical crawl of Sid Sutton’s star-field title sequence, establish a stark contrast to the previously barely altered theme music and the more abstract “time tunnel” titles from previous incarnations of the Time Lord. Granted the Sutton/Howell credits are the same for the fifth and sixth Doctors, but there’s something quite unique and even unsettlingly thrilling to see it applied to Tom Baker’s Doctor who, by this time, had been playing the character for nearly seven years, using the same title sequence, same theme music and same Dudley Simpson incidental music for his entire tenure to that point. From the very beginning it’s clear that the show has very different look to it.

This new look was further enhanced by the costume designs created for the story by June Hudson. It’s interesting to note how the Doctor’s costume maintains a certain consistency from his previous coat, hat and (of course) decidedly long scarf with every element remaining in tact, but instead being brightened significantly using a combination of plum and purple. This serves to revitalise the Doctor’s look in line with the other dramatic colours used in the story, notably for the bright yellow costumes of the main aliens: the Argolins.


John Nathan-Turner and The Leisure Hive’s director, Lovett Bickford, further invested in ramping up the visual appeal of the show by using more innovative ways of filming. Bickford’s direction style was quite cinematic and, although some of the panning shots that established location remain uncomfortable to watch and affect the pacing of the action (my only sleight against the story – remaining positive here!), his use of different levels of focus and close-up during some of the dialogue scenes, the way he uses light and shadow, and his experimentation with unconventional camera angles technically set the story apart from the vast majority of those that precede it. The story also saw use of the Quantel special effects system which allowed actors to be superimposed, duplicated and even torn limb from limb in a way that the Colour Separation Overlay technique (placing an screen element in front of a yellow, blue or green screen and filming elements separately to be combined either later or during filming) had not allowed quite so effectively.

If you’re new to classic Who then this might not be the best of episodes to whet your whistle for the original “vision” but, for all its apparent flaws, it effectively bridges the gap between genres of the serial as a whole and is certainly an interesting story to analyse in terms of the differences of production values. JN-T wanted to restore the show to its more serious roots and, particularly when contrasted with the previous regime’s season closer The Horns of Nimon, we are dealing with a very different Doctor. Nimon divides fans as much as Hive with some dismissing it as complete pantomime and others calling it a light-hearted romp. Whatever you may call the latter (and I’ve heard some interesting adjectives used to describe it!), it’s most definitely one to watch with a critical eye. The story is a solid one of corruption, double dealings and hidden motives and, although it may not have been handled brilliantly, it marks a significant turning-point in the history of Who and when watched in conjunction with The Horns of Nimon you’re on the verge of opening up another Russell T. Davies vs. Moffat debate!