Doctor Who Project: Castrovalva

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Well, I suppose I’ll get used to it in time.

Post-regeneration stories carry the extra burden of introducing the new Doctor, setting the stage for the adventures to come. But in casting Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Doctor Who did not need to introduce the actor, as Davison was already an established and contemporary television star, with the tantalizing potential of drawing new viewers familiar with his other roles. Some of those parts were still ongoing at the time of his appointment, however, leading to the decision to push the start of Season Nineteen and Davison’s first story, “Castrovalva” (Story Production Code 5Z) out to January, 1982, a full ten months after the end of “Logopolis” (as opposed to the more typical seven to eight month hiatuses). Written by former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, “Castrovalva” stands as a direct sequel to his “Logopolis” and relies on the audience remembering the details of that story, partly solved by recapping events in a rare pre-credits bumper scene demonstrating Tom Baker’s transformation into Peter Davison.

The Watcher melds with the Doctor

Not reprised, however, is the role of the Master in the Fourth Doctor’s demise, nor the excessive reliance on the “block transfer computations” at the heart of “Logopolis.” Producer John Nathan-Turner, aided here by script editor Eric Saward, doesn’t see that as a problem, though. The Master (Anthony Ainley) is as over-the-top a villain as ever seen in the series, his motivations reduced to rage-fueled vengeance and his bilious speeches capped off with peels of uproarious laughter. Pantomime scoundrels have greater nuance. As for the “block transfer computation” capable of manipulating space and time, and somewhat crucial to the entirety of this story, it’s presented as a given, a set of sums maths wizard Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) can do in his sleep. Nathan-Turner’s approach, one he developed in Season Eighteen with Bidmead, is to elide any concerns about the coherence or consistency of technobabble and other plot contrivances; if it serves the story, it serves its purpose, a refreshing (if not always satisfying) change from the tortured logic occasionally deployed to explain away how reversing the polarity will save the day. Here, it just works, leaving more time for storytelling. Or, in this case, running. Lots and lots of running.

Four to Out of Here

After escaping the guards at the Pharos Project, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) drag the barely conscious Doctor into the TARDIS, but the Master captures Adric in the process. By means of block transfer computation, which is now shorthand for making things appear out of nothing, the Master forces Adric to project an image of himself into the TARDIS to send the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa on a one-way trip to the Big Bang. It’s telling that at first, Adric’s stilted manner can be easily written off as him being his default snotty self, such that no one notices him acting strangely.

Unravelling the Fourth Doctor's threads

He’s certainly not the only one who seems a bit off, as the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration does not proceed smoothly. The Master’s presence causes too much complication, preventing the necessary re-connections from taking place in the Doctor’s jumbled mind. Adric finds him literally (and, of course, metaphorically) unravelling the Fourth Doctor’s trademark scarf, which he uses to trace a long and winding course through the depths of the TARDIS; much of the first episode is spent watching people get lost in unmarked TARDIS hallways looking for the Zero Room, an isolation chamber that will calm the Doctor’s brain enough to allow him to finish regenerating.

Adric in the Master's Web

Frequent cutaways to the Master gloating about the Doctor’s impending doom, with Adric trussed up behind a skein of cables shouting his defiance, leave viewers quite certain as to the force causing the TARDIS to hurtle back through time and space, but it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Though Ainley turns in a bravura performance in “Castrovalva”—when he’s not playing the Master, as will be seen—the script does him, and the character, no favors; likewise Waterhouse, whose screeching as Adric diminishes any pathos his predicament might have deserved. Indeed, the story lacks so much tension that a leisurely detour into that now-mandatory regeneration feature, wardrobe selection, feels right at home. The Fifth Doctor, deep in the throes of a regeneration gone wrong, finds his new overcoat already laid out, by someone or something (the TARDIS itself, perhaps?). After some tentative toots on the Second Doctor’s recorder, he picks up a nearby cricket bat and finds it just right. A brief pop into a cricket-themed side room to change and he’s ready for a long innings…

Fifth not out

He’s not ready for much else, though, and “Castrovalva” gives over most of the action and dialogue in the first two episodes to Tegan and Nyssa, a convenient (though possibly inadvertent) means of developing these new characters who were under-utilized in “Logopolis.” While the Doctor does provide instructions on how to escape the fantastic gravity of the Big Bang, Tegan and Nyssa have to carry out the procedures. Tegan leans towards decisiveness, taking charge when no one else will; she provides the clue needed to access the TARDIS database, never before seen, and attempts to land the TARDIS near Castrovalva, which is reputed to be the most peaceful and calming location in the universe, ideal for helping the Doctor to heal. Nyssa, meanwhile, builds a a cabinet for the Doctor made from panels from the Zero Room, which was unfortunately ejected when the TARDIS slipped free from the Big Bang’s pull, and she provides the technobabble sheen that makes everything “make sense” in the context of the story.

The Fifth Doctor levitating in the Zero Room as a nonplussed Tegan and Nyssa look on

When the Master sees that the TARDIS has evaded his initial trap, he fumes before revealing to Adric (and the audience) that he has a back-up trap ready to go. Bidmead deftly hides the nature of the Master’s devious plot, though it’s sufficiently outlandish that guessing it in advance would be quite the feat indeed. Focus instead shifts to Nyssa and Tegan attempting to haul the Zero Cabinet across a forest to the clifftop city of Castrovalva. The Doctor winds up captured by individuals in elaborate and fearsome headdresses, who turn out to be the inhabitants of Castrovalva out for some exercise. The companions scale a mountain in an attempt to rescue him, only to find that they are quite welcome and that the Doctor is being tended to on orders of the leader of the city, the Portreeve.

The Oddly Familiar Portreeve of Castrovalva

There’s something ominously familiar in the Portreeve’s manner and behavior, and he certainly knows quite a lot about the Doctor. The city’s librarian, Shardovan (Derek Waring), seems at odds with the Portreeve, enough to place suspicion on him as an agent of the Master, a nifty misdirection as it turns out. The credits list the Portreeve as “Neil Toynay,” and between the fleeting moments he spends on screen and, frankly, the incredible acting (and make-up work), there’s a genuine moment of surprise and delight when he turns into the Master—Neil Toynay being an anagram of Tony Ainley. Even though Ainley immediately shifts back into Master-mania once revealed, his turn as the Portreeve shows what he could do with the Master if given slightly more elevated scripts.

Anthony Ainley as the Master, pointing out some fatal flaw in his plan.

The Master’s “back up plan” hinges on Adric’s ludicrously flexible block computation transfer ability—and it’s worth noting that this plan, like sending the TARDIS back to the beginning of the universe, was whipped up in the five minutes between the Doctor falling from the radio telescope and the Master capturing Adric. In short, Adric is forced to create Castrovalva itself, having planted a reference to it in the TARDIS database (itself created for this purpose) for Nyssa and Tegan to discover. All of it, the people and buildings and even the history, comes from Adric’s facility for factoring very complicated sums in his head. Whether as an assurance of verisimilitude or as a trick by Adric, the inhabitants of Castrovalva are all seemingly gifted with independent wills and thoughts, an oversight that ultimately undoes the Master’s ploy.

Recursive Occlusion in Castrovalva

In order to prevent the Doctor from leaving Castrovalva, and to further hinder his regeneration, the Master causes Castrovalva to undergo “recursive occlusion,” a bending of space that turns the peaceful town into an Escher-esque in-folded trap, represented on screen with elaborately superimposed video effects. (Indeed, the story’s title comes directly from a work by Escher of the same name depicting a real Italian village atop a hill.) The kaleidoscopic collages work delightfully in representing confusion offset by the quotidian, with people simply going on about their lives despite the chaotic jumble of perspectives seen by the Doctor and his companions, a real triumph for the effects team and director Fiona Cumming.

Derek Waring as Shardovan

Ultimately, the Doctor finds a note in a giant bound history of Castrovalva that reveals to him the false nature of the place. Shardovan has annotated the histories, suspecting that their entire tradition has been fabricated, if only because the purportedly five hundred year-old books record Castrovalva’s history up to the present day, an odd feature indeed for any ancient tome. The two join forces and confront the Master, who believes he has finally outwitted his long-time foe. When Adric is revealed bound by “hadron webs” behind a tapestry, sustaining the physical illusion of Castrovalva, the Doctor is willing to trade his life for his young companion’s, but Shardovan hurls himself into the fatal framework in an unexpected exercise of free will, enabling the Doctor to rescue the maths wiz and setting in motion the destruction of Castrovalva.

The Doctor discovers Adric behind the Portreeve's tapestry.

Because Adric created Castrovalva, he is able to guide the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan out of the collapsing city. The Doctor attempts to rescue some of the illusory Castrovalvans—an uncertain heroism if they, like the city itself, are but manifestations of Adric’s mathematical chanting—but they instead all pile on the Master, whose own TARDIS could not escape the recursive occlusion he himself set in place. When Adric wonders whether that’s the last of the Master, as Castrovalva winks out of existence, the Doctor certainly believes so—it’s as though he has never watched an episode of Doctor Who

The Master, overwhelmed by slightly miffed Castrovalvans

For an introductory story, “Castrovalva” fails to present the Fifth Doctor as a fully independent agent; even more so than the Third Doctor’s opening story, “Spearhead from Space,” the Fifth Doctor is simply not himself for the vast majority of the tale, spending half of it comatose and the other half confused. In what is now a very typical Nathan-Turner touch, the Doctor recounts old names and places for the delight of long-time viewers, referencing Gallifrey, Romana, Alzarius (Adric’s home), the Brigadier, the Ice Warriors, Jamie, Jo, and K-9 all before the end of the second of four episodes. Shades of personality do peek through—he is dismissive of apologies and a bit peremptory when people try to make excuses—and certainly Peter Davison has had time to develop his own take on the Doctor, as “Castrovalva” is the fourth story to be filmed in the Season Nineteen production block despite being the first aired.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor in Castrovalva

Still, judging just from the evidence on screen in this story, Davison fully inhabits the part of the Fifth Doctor. Where the character might be uncertain, Davison’s acting is not. There’s a real verve and ambition to the portrayal, a full-throated embrace of the part and its demands. He seems comfortable sharing the screen—but also unafraid of grabbing attention when the story demands. We might not see who the Fifth Doctor is quite yet, but the audience has reason to believe it will be an interesting, and enjoyable, journey of discovery.

Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton as Tegan and Nyssa

With three companions, the TARDIS is crowded indeed, solved to some degree in “Castrovalva” by splitting them up (and mostly sidelining one of them). Bidmead’s script doesn’t give incredible depth to any of the characters, but at least Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton receive significant screen—and script—time. They have been locked into unwieldy and probably uncomfortable uniforms, though, another Nathan-Turner intervention, and unlike with former companions, we’ll be seeing quite a bit more of Nyssa’s velvet vermillion outfit, Tegan’s purple flight attendant garb, and whatever it is that Adric wears.

Peter Davison and Matthew Waterhouse and the Fifth Doctor and Adric

“Castrovalva” comes across as a somewhat slight story when looked at solely in terms of plot, and indeed, not much really happens. But as “The Ribos Operation” and “The Edge of Destruction” show, sometimes smaller stakes allow Doctor Who the most room to shine. This is very much a story about the Doctor, a re-focusing of the series on its lead actor—and, more even than the changes in Season Eighteen, a very real indicator of where John Nathan-Turner wants to take the series, especially now that Executive Producer Barry Letts has left the show. Visual effects, from sight gags like a door almost hitting the Doctor on the head to complicated Quantel video effects like Castrovalva disintegrating, take equal billing with the action. Certainly there will continue to be ruminations on political and philosophical questions—science fiction can scarcely escape it—but the series is no longer going to try to explain things, particularly technical matters. If you’re already watching a series about a blue box that can travel through time and space, accepting that a descendant of a marsh monster can conjure up an entire city complete with self-aware entities isn’t that much more of a stretch. From here forward, Doctor Who will lean into accepting the inexplicable, promising in return a romping good yarn.

(Some details on the transition from Season Eighteen to Season Nineteen gleaned from Howe and Walker, Doctor Who: The Television Companion, BBC, 1998.)

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