Doctor Who Project: Four to Doomsday

Here we have a lively intelligence.

While viewers initially encounter the Fifth Doctor in “Castrovalva,” Peter Davison’s personal debut with the character comes in Terence Dudley’s “Four to Doomsday” (Series Production Code 5W), the first of his stories to be filmed. The Doctor we see in “Castrovalva” remains amorphous, changing, suffering as he is from a difficult regeneration caused by the Master’s mediocre machinations. Only his predilection for cricket comes through strongly in his opening story. It’s here, as the Doctor and companions find themselves not in Heathrow’s Terminal Three but aboard a spaceship slowly traveling to Earth, that the Fifth Doctor finally begins unveiling his characteristics, his temperament, and his manner.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

For the youngest of the actors to inhabit the role thus far, Davison plays the role of the Fifth Doctor far more paternalistically, more didactically, than his predecessors. To be sure, his Doctor shows ample reserves of humility and kindness, and Davison imbues the part with a willingness to be fallible, a quite refreshing corrective for a character so often granted amazing powers as the plot requires. Yet there’s a surprising firmness in his attitude when the situation becomes serious, shifting from the jocular and familiar to the demanding, and slightly demeaning, at the drop of a celery stick. Over the course of this four episode story, he calls Adric a “young idiot” and accuses him of “sloppy thinking”; tells Tegan to shut up and has no patience whatsoever for her understandable concern about being held captive by evil robot space frogs; and leaves Nyssa to be captured, drugged, and almost converted into an android in order to advance his plans. Prior Doctors have been peremptory, cavalier, and even a bit huffy, but Davison’s Doctor acts as though the companions really are “children,” as he calls them. He’ll turn the TARDIS around and go home if behavior doesn’t improve, you better believe it. Absent Davison’s undeniably charming mien, these rougher edges would be quite jarring indeed.

Enlightenment (Annie Lambert), Monarch (Stratford Johns), and Persuasion (Paul Shelley)

About those evil robot space frogs: Dudley, who previously directed “Meglos,” puts our protagonists aboard a colony ship bound for Earth, helmed by Monarch (Stratford Johns), Enlightenment (Annie Lambert), and Persuasion (Paul Shelley), all of whom are initially encountered in the amphibian forms of their native Urbanka, a now-dead planet located far away from Earth by the Doctor’s reckoning. Broadly humanoid, with amphibian features and mottled green skin, the Urbankans claim to have three billion of their people on the ship, heading for Earth to colonize it. But the only other people the Doctor and companions have seen are humans taken from Earth over several thousand years: Bigon, of Athens (Philip Locke); Lin Futu, of China (Burt Kwouk); Kurkutji, of Australia (Illario Bisi Pedro); and Villagra, of the Maya (Nadia Hammer).

Kurkutji (Illario Bisi Pedro), Bigon (Philip Locke), Villagra (Nadia Hammer), and Lin Futu (Burt Kwouk)

Over some extended exposition involving separating the Doctor and Tegan from Adric and Nyssa, our time travellers come to realize that Bigon and his fellow exiles from Earth are not immortal, despite having been taken from Earth centuries prior. They, like the billions of Urbankan colonists themselves, are stored on computer chips inside robot bodies—androids, though Monarch, who perfected the technology and leads the Urbankans, prefers the phrase “fully integrated personalities with a racial memory.” And of course, Bigon reveals his android nature to the Doctor and a horrified Tegan in that most typical of manners, the mandatory peeling off of the face…

Bigon is . . . an android!

In fairness, Dudley and director John Black spool out the story at a decent pace, keeping the audience guessing by the slow yet steady revelation of the ship and the Urbankan’s nature and purpose. Quite a few sets are built (or at least artfully repurposed), giving the ship a palpable sense of size, and both the Doctor and the companions make several tours of the various rooms, all filled with blinking things and servile androids in the guise of the four cultural groups represented by Bigon and his fellow exiles. Monarch and his advisors, meanwhile, lie and dissemble depending on whom they are speaking with—and even disassemble, with Enlightenment and Persuasion transferring their memory and personality chips from Urbankan bodies to human bodies, dressed in Earth’s latest togs as helpfully drawn for them by Tegan, whose remarkable skills at fashion illustration are quite wasted as a flight attendant. By appearing human, the Urbankans hope to entice humanity to accept their “offer” of advanced technology rather than having to conquer by force, the latter achieved by using a poison secreted by Urbankan frogs that shrinks all living matter.

Enlightenment and Persuasion, all cleaned up and humanified

The story is specifically dated as taking place on February 28, 1981, almost a year prior to the story’s air date but precisely matching the day “Logopolis” first aired, which was also to be the day of Tegan’s first flight. The TARDIS missed Earth due to the intense magnetic pull of the Urbankan ship, but nailed the date. This attention to canonical detail, a running hallmark of producer John Nathan-Turner’s reign, also shows through with a reference to Rassilon and the Eye of Harmony, both dismissed as superstition by Monarch. Even the term “companion,” last used in “State of Decay,” makes a welcome return:

Persuasion: Where are your junior companions?

Indeed, for beings who have been traveling back and forth from Urbanka to Earth for tens of thousands of years, Monarch and his advisors aren’t really aware of what’s going on in the wider universe, and Dudley’s story begins to unravel under the briefest of scrutiny. If, as Bigon finally reveals to the Doctor, Monarch seeks to plunder the Earth’s resources of carbon and silicon, as he did Urbanka’s, in order to build more and more androids, then most any planet would have sufficed, particularly if he has no real plans to roboticize the humans at all; other Earthlings taken on prior trips were converted to biomatter to fertilize the few remaining Urbankan plants on the ship. And why keep going back and forth to Earth, particularly in a ship lacking faster-than-light travel, a technology the entire rest of the universe seems to have anyway? Earth had almost as much sand forty thousand years prior to 1981, and likely more carbon. It’s a veritable ship of fools.

Stratford Johns as Monarch

Monarch’s true desire, though, is to uncover the secret of faster-than-light travel, in order to move backwards in time to finally meet himself, as God, at the beginning of the universe, a motivation that seems unnecessary against the several other stories bandied about for his “true” plans, any one of which would have sufficed to weave a neat narrative around. When viewed as a megalomaniac, unused to being challenged in his own domain and craving new sources of approbation and adoration, Monarch and his behavior begin to make slightly more sense, but despite Stratford Johns’ game attempt at portraying this frog-king with some depth, the end result remains dissonant at best. The plotting, frankly, is just a mess.

A busy recreation period on the Urbankan spaceship

Never let it be said, however, that Doctor Who needs coherent plots to be good, or at the very least entertaining! In keeping with Nathan-Turner’s remit for action and visual splendor, “Four to Doomsday” provides ample spectacle, with several long scenes of the “recreational” in which the androids, under direction from the Earth exiles, act out vague representations of their respective cultures, including gladiatorial fights, dragon dances, and Mayan and native Australian ritual dances. It must be noted that, while the non-Athenian androids seem to be played by actors hailing from the particular backgrounds portrayed, the recreation scenes nevertheless lean heavily into exoticism and easy cultural shorthand. Certainly a needed progression from “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but still a bit discomfiting. Far better is Tegan, herself an Australian, conversing with the native Australian, Kurkutji, in his own language, a deft touch that both deepens the portrayal of Tegan and gives some agency to Kurkutji. (Interestingly, the Doctor cannot understand their conversation, leading him to need Tegan’s help.)

Have no space suit, will travel!

“Four to Doomsday” provides a splashy set piece scene in the final episode, with the Doctor needing to leap through space without a space suit to reach the TARDIS, piloted away from the ship by a panicked Tegan. Indeed, the whole reason for Tegan to have broken down in this story is to get the TARDIS out there for the Doctor to reach. All the while, a space-suited Adric fends off attacks from both Persuasion and Enlightenment, with the result that their personality and memory chips are thrown into the void. The effects work of Davison hanging in space, tethered with a bright orange rope against a backdrop of stars, works quite well, with very little artifacting from the CSO/green screen process. His using a cricket ball to create momentum to propel him the last distance to the TARDIS doors feels clever, and earned. One wonders if the effects team knew they could pull this scene off and campaigned for it to be shoehorned into the story somehow. It’s far more a tour de force than the Quantel-enabled dismemberment of the Fourth Doctor in “The Leisure Hive.”

The Fifth Doctor nears the end of his tether.

Ultimately, with the help of Bigon and the exiles, the Doctor and companions manage to take over the Urbankan ship—a quick bit of technobabble about collective action causing the servile androids circuits to be jammed to prevent an uprising does the trick—and the only obstacle left is Monarch himself, wielding a gun in front of the newly recovered TARDIS. The Doctor throws a vial of Urbankan frog poison at the mad king, shrinking him into irrelevance. Because the ship used plants to provide oxygen, the Doctor surmised that Monarch, alone, was not an android, remaining in “flesh time” and thus susceptible to the venom. The inherent violence in the resolution receives not a moment’s reflection, and indeed serves as a source of quick humor, with the Doctor popping a space helmet over the shrunken satrap.

Monarch's demise

With the Earth exiles deciding to take the liberated ship to a new planet to start a fresh life, the Doctor and companions head off, aiming for Heathrow once more, only for Nyssa to collapse in a relatively rare cross-story cliffhanger. Back in the First Doctor’s run, such teasers were common, to the point where even the Doctor hurting a tooth on a piece of candy at the end of a story would lead to him looking for a dentist to start the next story, only to find Doc Holliday. Structurally, such linkages create the sense that the Doctor’s adventures are being experienced in “real time,” with no interval between stories, as well as providing a reason to tune in next time—which, given Doctor Who‘s new twice-a-week Monday/Tuesday schedule, was only six days hence.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

For a first outing in the Fifth Doctor’s cream-and-red jacket and cricket sweater, Peter Davison breaks his duck with style. His somewhat dismissive attitude to the companions notwithstanding, he is a broadly likable figure, given to puns, easily amused—Davison relishes in flipping switches and turning knobs in the Urbankan ship for a good minute of screen time—and ready to apologize where needed. In some ways he’s a very human Doctor, as opposed to the more essential alienness of earlier regenerations, but he counters that through the slight abrasiveness of character when the chips are down; it’s really as though a flip is switched, so complete is the shift in tone, body language, and attitude. The scene where he excoriates Adric for being “not so much gullible as idealistic” in believing Monarch’s lies resonates just as deeply as when he apologizes to Tegan for interrupting her conversation with Kurkutji. It’s still early days, and the Doctor’s character always derives from the interplay between producers, writers, and actor, but on the evidence so far, Davison proves to be a fine choice indeed for the part, especially if some of the more prickly spots in the characterization can be sanded down.

Janet Fielding as Tegan

With three companions in play, the skill of the writer in utilizing all of them equally and equitably will be paramount, and Dudley mostly succeeds, with only Nyssa being captured (twice) as a means of reducing the cast list. Janet Fielding’s Tegan gets a fair bit of range in this story, but the character winds up in a panicked state for the final three episodes. Her eagerness to return to her life is normal—and honestly happens with most of the companions from contemporary Earth up to now, Ian and Barbara having spent essentially two and a half seasons scheming to get back to Coal Hill School—and even her shock and fear at recognizing the danger she is in feels relatable. But the story, as noted, needs to work her anxiety up to a point where she uses the spare TARDIS key and tries to get to Earth on her own, thus enabling the Doctor’s space scene. The result is a bit of one-dimensional shoe-horning, offset in part by her ability to converse with Kurkutji in his native language and the fact that she was quite right in telling the Doctor that they needed to go warn Earth. His protestation that they would’t be believed makes little sense at all, given the seven or so seasons the Third and Fourth Doctors essentially worked for UNIT. Still, Fielding, and Tegan, get a fair bit of screen time, including quite a bit with Davison, and even though burdened with panic, her resilience shows through.

Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

Sarah Sutton plays the preternaturally intelligent Nyssa with continued grace, even through the indignity of multiple captures and sedations and almost being turned into an android. Where Adric has mathematical knowledge, Nyssa is the technician, and her quick work with the sonic screwdriver and a pencil helps save the Doctor from being beheaded by a servile android. More to the point, the Doctor has begun to favor Nyssa over Adric, pointing out interesting devices in the Urbankan ship to her that Adric can’t even understand. Though somewhat sidelined, Sutton manages to keep an earnest curiosity about the young Traken royal’s demeanor. Because she’s not from Earth, she provides an interesting counterpart to Tegan, helping to create a frisson of otherness in crowded TARDIS.

Matthew Waterhouse as an exasperated Adric

Adric, alas, is quickly becoming the new incarnation of K-9, useful for exposition and as the subject of quips and gibes. Everyone has a go at Matthew Waterhouse’s character in this story. Tegan is downright dismissive of him, to the point where the knocks him cold after he tries to take the TARDIS key from her by force; Nyssa simply knows far more than he does about the TARDIS and technology in general, and makes sure he knows it; and the Doctor, well, vacillates between a didactic, almost teacherly fondness for him and a straight-up disdain of his facile approach to life. Waterhouse tries, as he always has, but when Dudley makes matters worse by scripting chauvinistic lines for Adric, there’s only so much an actor can do to salvage a character. Adric’s worst crime here is to whole-heartedly believe in Monarch’s claims that he wants to “rescue” Earth from disease and hunger by turning everyone into androids. There’s a glimmer of hope that in truth Adric is playing along with the villain for an advantage, as he did with the vampires in “State of Decay,” but nope, he’s fully on board Monarch’s soul-to-chip, body to steel conversion train. Wait until he meets the Cybermen. (Yes, that’s foreshadowing…)

The Fifth Doctor hamming it up

In “Four to Doomsday,” we have, more or less, exactly what John Nathan-Turner has said he wants: pace, action, canonical lore call-backs, and visually interesting moments, backed up by increasingly strong effects work, all designed to keep you tuned in and tuning in. What we don’t have are tight plotting, internal consistency, or deep development of non-recurring characters. But the former works quite well, enough to overshadow the lack of the latter. Despite some overly long sequences of dancing and wrestling, the story (as experience, not as narrative) keeps you involved, with just enough mystery and excitement to bridge any doubts. Add in the wonder of a new Doctor and you have a solid piece of entertainment, not destined for any “best of” lists but still better than anything else on at the same time. Doctor Who can, of course, be more than that, but it still needs to be that, and by that reckoning, “Four to Doomsday” succeeds.

(Previous Story: Castrovalva)

(Next Story: Kinda)

Post 122 of the Doctor Who Project

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