Doctor Who Project: The Visitation

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So much for my friendly aliens.

Even though Eric Saward’s “The Visitation” (Story Production Code 5X) is the second story filmed in the Season Nineteen production block, the character development of the Fifth Doctor and his companions keenly reflects the story’s place as Peter Davison’s fourth televised outing. Typically this tight adherence to the subtle growth of the Doctor’s personality and his relationship with his companions would need to be added in by the production team, but here the snarls and smiles and subtle asides feel organic, integral to the four episodes of this story as well as to the overall trajectory of the Fifth Doctor as a whole, leaving little wonder why Saward would soon take on the script editor role for the series. Though current editor Anthony Root and producer John Nathan-Turner doubtless tinkered with the final script, “The Visitation” demonstrates how a keen familiarity with the overall vision of the series and its often convoluted continuity can take a decent story and elevate it into something even better.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at Heathrow, 1666

Part of the strength of “The Visitation” comes from a commitment to the “through narrative,” the connecting bits of dialogue that refer to, and indeed build upon, events that took place in prior stories. While not quite as explicit as a formal “arc” as with Season Sixteen’s “Key to Time” stories, this through narrative rewards consistent viewers, albeit at the cost of confusing more casual audience members who might not know why Tegan is still disturbed by thoughts of the Mara or why the Doctor is constantly trying to get back to Heathrow Airport on a very particular day in 1981. Rather than being lore callbacks of a kind to delight people with encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who, as prevalently found in Seasons Seventeen and Eighteen, these connecting threads instead ground viewers in these particular characters, providing depth and familiarity as well as a sense that the Doctor’s adventures are interconnected.

The Terileptil's Android

The Doctor does manage to get back to Heathrow as “The Visitation” begins, though in 1666 rather than 1981, a slight error in calculation that puts the him, Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric in the vicinity of a manor house that was the scene of a break-in of interstellar proportions. Saward and returning director Peter Moffatt reveal the “monster” in the first five minutes of the first episode, rather than employing the more common first cliffhanger revelation, bursting a brightly colored android (Peter van Dissel) through a drawing room door, where it is met by a fusillade of bullets from the soon-to-be-doomed householders. It’s a clever bit of misdirection, as the real foes of the story, the reptilian Terileptils, appear only midway through the second episode.

A fugitive Terileptil

Fugitives from the justice of their own ruthless kind, the three Terileptils, survivors of a prison ship that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, plan to rid the planet of its pesky human populace by releasing rats infected with an amplified, bioengineered version of the plague already ravaging Europe at the time. One Terileptil in particular (Michael Melia) remains behind at the manor house perfecting the plague, using villagers, subdued by the same prisoner control bracelets that recently held him and his fellow convicts in check, as a workforce. As far as Doctor Who villain motivations and plans for conquering Earth, it’s pretty run-of-the-mill, but the joy of this story comes not so much from the spectacle of a scaly green alien thundering about in high dudgeon as from the juxtaposition of high tech in a low tech environment that Doctor Who depicts better than any other show, embodied in the person of a jocular thespian (and, yes, occasional highwayman), Richard Mace (Michael Robbins), who all but steals the stage…

Michael Robbins and Peter Davison as Richard Mace and the Fifth Doctor

A delightful combination of garrulous charm and craven self-interest, Robbins imbues Mace with just the right mixture of bravado and incredulousness to re-inject a sense of wonder into the basic concept of the series. The audience, at this point, has seen the TARDIS always wind up randomly in the past or future at just the right time; has suffered through any number of nonsensical schemes to take over the Earth or some other planet; has accepted alien costumes and effects ranging from the sublime to the silly. It’s easy to get jaded at the essential conceit of Doctor Who, of a wise traveller who can go anywhere and any-when, especially after some hundred and twenty stories, spanning almost two decades at this point. Sometimes we need a reminder of just how bracing, how bold, this basic set-up can feel.

Richard Mace (Michael Robbins) and Nyssa (Sarah Suttons) aboard the Terileptil escape pod

Despite being a seventeenth century ruffian, Mace serves as the “audience identification” character more clearly than any in some time. His disbelief at what he encounters—walls that can be walked through, rooms that are bigger inside than out, robotic men who dress up as Death to scare villagers—is followed quickly by a stern acceptance of events, tempered, always, by a desire to save his own skin. He’s awestruck and amazed in proper proportion to the fantastic, and frightful, events on offer. The current companions, by contrast, act as if they’ve seen it all before, and one has to go back practically to “The Stones of Blood” and the delightful Professor Rumford in Season Fifteen for another story where a “regular” person encounters not just the Doctor but dangers from beyond as well. Mace provides a needed corrective to a series that has taken awe for granted for years now.

The Terileptil Android, dressed as Death

The plotting itself remains taut throughout “The Visitation,” with relatively little filler aside from some unnecessary complications involving a group of villagers who seek to kill anyone from outside their encampment to prevent the spread of plague. Even those segments serve neatly to apportion scenes between the Doctor, Mace, Tegan, Adric, Nyssa, and the Terileptil. Saward seems to have mostly figured out an adequate division of dialogue and screentime for the Fifth Doctor’s crowded TARDIS. No one really gets short script shrift, except for Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, who does little except for complain, get yelled at, mope about being useless, and get captured by the villagers.

Matthew Waterhouse as Adric

The narrative itself, on the other hand, doesn’t break any new ground, with the Doctor and companions investigating the manor house after finding advanced technological components in an adjacent barn they shelter in with Mace while hiding from rampaging villagers. A projected force wall in the middle of a stairway leads them to discover an alien laboratory, which the Doctor decides, in-between episodes, belongs to Terileptils, with no discussion of who or what they are. After the android arrives and inevitably splits up the party, Tegan and Adric are captured while the Doctor, Nyssa, and Mace discover the crashed escape pod that brought the Terileptils to Earth. Nyssa then returns to the TARDIS for several episodes to work on a sonic device capable of destroying the androids, while the Doctor and Mace are themselves apprehended by the villagers, whose bloodlust is only stopped by a mind-controlled villager with orders to bring them back to the manor house.

Nyssa hard at work on a sonic device

It’s all routine, with escapes and re-capturings and the Terileptil devising an overly complicated plan to kill the Doctor while elaborating on his scheme for the destruction of humanity. But all the while, the characters shine and develop. Nyssa sets steadily to work on the sonic device in the TARDIS room she shares with Nyssa, actually showing her skill rather than just having Sarah Sutton nod sagely when the Fifth Doctor says something technical. Adric actually realizes his tendency towards fecklessness and decides to do something about it, delivering the TARDIS to the Doctor in the nick of time. Tegan doesn’t shy away from letting the Doctor know he’s being obtuse and a bit too cerebral when there’s visceral danger afoot, and the scenes of Janet Fielding whaling away at a Terileptil using a rifle as a cudgel in the final episode seem entirely cathartic for the beleaguered flight attendant who just wants to catch her plane.

Tegan getting her anger out on a Terileptil

Peter Davison, too, gets to drive the character of the Fifth Doctor forward, all the more impressive for the fact that this, his second story filmed, comes much later in the release order. He’s still quite temperamental, laying into the maths wizard right away, saying, “How many times have I told you, Adric, not to interfere with things you don’t understand,” but then softens after an insightful comment from Nyssa. The Doctor has always been in charge, no matter how strong-willed his companions, but the Fifth Doctor’s frequent frustration with their foibles hides a growing appreciation of what they bring to his existence. It is, indeed, the most character growth we’ve seen in the show’s main character in some time.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

The relative importance of the companions is highlighted by Saward’s frequent use of the term, which is never quite employed to refer to the companions in relation to the Doctor:

Tegan, to Nyssa: Nyssa, I know I haven’t always been the best of companions. But I’ll miss you.

Terileptil, to Adric and Tegan: It seems that your companions have abandoned you.

Terileptil, referring to Mace: Bring me the Doctor and his companion.

Ultimately, the Doctor, Mace, and companions track down the Terileptil base in London, where a fight ensues. The Doctor had previously offered to take the Terileptils to any uninhabited planet they wished, but the days of “friendly aliens” are very much a thing of the past on Doctor Who. Again not a master pugilist in this regeneration, the Doctor barely escapes being throttled by a Terileptil, being saved by Tegan’s enthusiastic pummeling. In the struggle, a lit torch causes a conflagration which ignites a Terileptil weapon, resulting in a massive blaze. The three aliens cannot be pulled from the fire, and in a rather gratuitously violent scene, their bodies burn and their skin bubbles up and pops, an unnecessary coda to an otherwise quite pleasant story, all things considered. The plague rats get thrown into the fire to bring the scheme to a close, and after a hasty farewell to Mace, the Doctor, Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa depart, though not before Tegan asks why they don’t try to help put out the fire. The Doctor avers that he “will explain some day,” before the story closes on a street sign tinged with flame: Pudding Lane, starting point of the Great Fire of London.

Pudding Lane, 1666

That final filigree, tying the TARDIS crew directly into some historical moment, has been sorely missing for years now on Doctor Who. While Tom Baker’s run brought a needed respite from the mostly Earth-bound seasons of Jon Pertwee’s era, the lack of pseudo-historical intervention in both their seasons feels like a missed opportunity, given how strong, narratively those types stories were in William Hartnell’s run. Though one can make the argument that “Terror of the Zygons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and “The Daemons” accomplish something similar in terms of explaining (pseudo) historical events, one must go all the way back to “The Romans” for an analogous moment where the Doctor actually caused something to happen in history that was “supposed” to happen, which, again, is part of that magic the series had when it first appeared on our screens.

The Terileptils in their Pudding Lane base

Despite Michael Robbins’ best efforts to dominate attention as Richard Mace, the main cast proves up to the challenge, and there’s a feeling that this ensemble approach to Doctor Who just might work after watching “The Visitation.” Saward, as noted, doles out scenes to everyone, and the script pushes characters forward. Adric’s relationship with Tegan and Nyssa improves greatly thanks to their shared experiences, and the Doctor comes to see the strengths in each of his companions, giving Peter Davison a chance to do more than scowl and chide. Janet Fielding again gets to play Tegan in a possessed state, and she carries off the radical change in character very well. Sarah Sutton finally has a chance to show Nyssa’s relative youth; far from just being precocious, she’s actually both scared and brave when the android crashes into her room while she’s hiding behind the bed. And Matthew Waterhouse gets a bit of redemption for Adric, even though his fate is soon to be sealed.

Tegan (Janet Fielding), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton)

Just as “Kinda” stands as a story that only works with the Fifth Doctor in the lead, “The Visitation” would be at home in any Doctor’s era. Eric Saward draws upon the essentials of Doctor Who‘s success—wonder, excitement, spectacle, and a moment that makes you smile at its well-earned cleverness—while also providing story beats that are very specifically tied to these characters, to this Doctor and his companions. The specificity of the interactions demonstrates just how much the show depends not on the number of tentacles on the monster of the week but on the interplay between the Doctor and those in his orbit. If the writer accurately portrays the contours of the heart (one or two), the absurdity of the aliens’ ploy matters little.

The Fifth Doctor and his companions

Indeed, the plot here remains bog-standard Doctor Who, mashing up futuristic technology with historical settings, and while it fails to match the intricate narrative heights of some of the finest of these types of stories, like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “Horror of Fang Rock,” “The Time Warrior,” or “The War Games,” the sheer joy, the wonder, present in the script, and in the acting, elevates “The Visitation” to the higher tiers, reminding us of just what this beloved series can accomplish when the acting, writing, direction, and production all come together with one vision.

(Previous Story: Kinda)

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