Doctor Who Project: The Caves of Androzani

Curiosity’s always been my downfall.

After twenty stories, spanning nearly two and a half years, Peter Davison hangs up the Fifth Doctor’s cricket sweater in “The Caves of Androzani” (Story Production Code 6R). Producer John Nathan-Turner entrusts this valedictory story to a Doctor Who legend, Robert Holmes, both a prolific writer and a former script editor for the series, a recognition of the importance of this milestone moment. The ensuing four episode tale takes the Fifth Doctor on a journey into his core beliefs, confronting issues of life and death against an incredibly violent and grim backdrop. Strangely, though, the Doctor only peripherally interacts with the conflict that dominates the story, between the military from Androzani Major and a small band of androids led by their disfigured creator, waging a war on Androzani Minor for control of a life-extending drug.

Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant as the Fifth Doctor and Peri

Holmes, with the tacit agreement of Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, puts the Doctor through a grueling test in “The Caves of Androzani,” forcing him to choose between his own life and the continued well-being not of the universe, or even a whole planet—like many a prior Doctor’s regeneration story—but of one person, whom he just met: Peri (Nicola Bryant). They arrive, apparently straight after “Planet of Fire,” on barren Androzani Minor (its name an awkward Nation-esque play off of the android inhabitants) looking for glass to repair a faulty TARDIS circuit, only to be stricken immediately by a deadly toxin produced by raw spectrox, source of the precious rejuvenating elixir being fought over. Before they can return to the TARDIS, alas, they stumble upon a gun-runner’s cache of arms, destined for the rebels, just as General Chellak’s (Martin Cochrane) troops close in, apprehending them as traitors to Androzani Major.

Peter Davison and Martin Cochrane as the Fifth Doctor and General Chellak

If captivity and the increasing severity of their condition, known as spectrox toxemia and signposted by weariness and progressively unnerving makeup on their skin, were not enough, the owner of Androzani Minor, the businessman Morgus (John Normington) orders them executed, pour les encourager les autres and so forth, showing no interest in learning what they might know about the source of the weapons, preferring to get back to his financial scheming. The first episode cliffhanger, one of the most disturbing yet, shows Chellak carrying out the order. Guns blaze forth, with the Doctor and Peri slumping to the ground in their red execution hoods to open the second episode. Viewers tuning in expecting a regeneration story—or indeed those who have witnessed the inevitable violence and tendency to the unexpected during John Nathan-Turner’s run as producer—might be excused for thinking that the Doctor could die in such an unheroic manner, but instead the Gallifreyan and his companion have been replaced by perfect replica androids.

The Fifth Doctor and Peri, replaced by androids just in time

Their erstwhile savior, Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), created the androids to mine the deadly spectrox in alliance with Morgus, but when the tycoon turned on him, leaving him to die in one of the mud magma flows that plague Androzani Minor, the horribly scarred Jek vowed to avenge his fate. Hence, the android rebellion, aimed at cutting off the flow of spectrox that the people of Androzani Major rely on to the point of psychological addiction. Far from being an uprising for the rights of sentient robotic life, then, or any other noble cause that might tug on a Time Lord heart(s)-strings, Jek fights solely for revenge, demanding as a condition for ending the rebellion nothing much, just Morgus’ head on a literal plate. Jek’s whole demeanor, from his black-and-white leather face mask to his frequent unhinged rants, set him off as perhaps the most irredeemable villain yet in the series, a pantomime version of the Phantom of the Opera (stealing a march on Weber by two years), made all the worse by the fact that his besotted, and frankly creepy, behavior towards Peri comes across as unwelcome as a Dalek slug’s tentacle…

The unwelcome hand of Sharaz Jek

It’s little wonder, then, that the Doctor doesn’t actually care one bit about the conflict. It’s the rare story in Doctor Who—perhaps the only one—where the events going on have only a tangential connection to the Doctor’s actions and vice versa. He is almost completely oblivious to the constant fighting around him, except as a narrative complication to his efforts to save Peri from the toxins that are killing the both of them. Indeed, Holmes could remove the Doctor from the story entirely and still present a coherent, if slightly on-the-nose, discourse on venality, capitalism, and unbridled avarice, with all the participants dead at the end thanks to their greed for power, money, or revenge.

Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable)

The Doctor and Peri do get mixed up in events, of course. Another person, Salateen (Robert Glenister), General Chellak’s aide-de-camp, has also been replaced by an android, providing Jek with enough advance information to hold the army at bay for months; the real Salateen has been kept captive to assuage Jek’s loneliness, as the androids are mere automatons. Salateen provides the Doctor with enough information about the androids to allow them all to escape. They are programmed to kill any human not wearing a device that emits a low frequency, but the Doctor’s two hearts convince them he is not human. The military man double-crosses the Doctor, though, and takes Peri back to the army base, while the Doctor is captured by Jek and the gun-runners, led by Stotz (Maurice Roëves).

Morgus (John Normington)

The real crux of the story revolves around Magnus, who has been secretly supplying the rebellion with weapons in order to artificially limit the supply of spectrox, while simultaneously receiving payment in the precious substance for arms, thus cornering the market on an invaluable asset. Far from the humorous undertones of Holmes last treatise on the ills of unrestrained capitalism, the dystopian romp “The Sun Makers“—which also featured someone being thrown from a great height to his death, Morgus here pushing the president of Androzani Major down an elevator shaft—”The Caves of Androzani” takes a much harsher view. While one might be inclined to discount the gratuitous servings of violence on display here as just more of Nathan-Turner and Saward’s influence, Holmes and first-time director (but long-time studio hand) Graeme Harper take pains to counterpoint the bullets and scalding mud flows and explosions and obligatory cave lizard monster attacks with the cold, impersonal destruction wrought by Morgus, who forces thousands into indentured servitude by closing factories and then having the now-unemployed workers forcefully emigrated to work camps for the indigent that he just happens to own. For the first time in quite a while, the on-screen violence serves an aesthetic aim.

The Fifth Doctor in a fairly close encounter of the reptilian kind

All the more jarring, then, that the Fifth Doctor never once engages with, nor even comments on, this main philosophical current running through what is supposed to be his swan song. Other than a shake of his head when he learns why spectrox is “the most valuable substance in the universe,” his sole aim with Jek, Morgus, Chellak, Salateen, and Stotz is to get away from them to milk the bat queen in the low-oxygen caves where she rests, the secretions being the sole cure for spectrox toxemia. His mania, his single-minded drive to save Peri, ramps up episode by episode, until the third episode cliffhanger has him re-create Adric’s own demise in “Earthshock” by deliberately crashing the gun-runner’s spaceship into Minor in order to escape captivity.

The Fifth Doctor trying, and failing, to land a spaecship in one piece

Believing the Doctor to be a spy for the president—the proximate reason for the leader being pushed down the elevator shaft—Morgus heads to Minor to confer with Stotz and attempt to secure Jek’s personal supply of spectrox to ensure his power and future, as his plans have begun to unravel. Once his long-time secretary Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn) informs him that the ruling Presidium is aware of his multitude of misdeeds thanks to her meticulous notekeeping over the years, he snaps entirely, rushing off with Stotz to storm Jek’s stronghold. In the interim, the infatuated madman himself has neglected his defenses trying to care for a dying Peri, whom he rescued from Chellak’s camp personally, and he gives the Doctor oxygen to enable him to reach the sleeping bats for the antidote.

Stotz and Morgus confront Jek, and in turn: Stotz shoots Jek; who has just enough strength to push Morgus into a machine that fries his old nemesis; then the android version of Salateen appears and shoots Stotz before catching Jek just as he dies. The Doctor walks in, grabs Peri, and leaves, clambering carefully over still-warm bodies from a fight that was not his own, a far cry indeed from his anguished audience with those he could not save at the end of “Warriors of the Deep.”

Sharaz Jek's demise

Stumbling into the TARDIS amidst constant mud magma explosions, and losing a dose of the antidote along the way, the Doctor feeds all of the remaining bat milk to Peri, who revives instantly, or at least quickly enough to cradle the Doctor as he collapses. “Feels different this time,” he murmurs, then falls into a trance as visions of his companions swirl around him urging him to live. (Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse, and Gerald Flood reprised their roles as Tegan, Turlough, Nyssa, Adrian, and Kamelion for the cameos.) But then, in an ominous foretelling of the change in tone the series is about to undergo, Anthony Ainley’s Master appears, urging his longstanding foe to die with his characteristic venom.

The Fifth Doctor's final vision of The Master and Companions

Once the blurry regeneration effects stop, Peter Davison is gone and the curly haired Colin Baker appears in his place, the Sixth Doctor.

Introducing Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor

From his first cutting words to Peri—”You’re expecting someone else?”—Baker announces the Sixth Doctor’s direction, never more clearly than in his answer to her query as to what just happened:

Sixth Doctor: Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.

Easily regarded as John Nathan-Turner’s own proclamation of intent, despite the fact that he has been calling the shots for four years by the time “The Caves of Androzani” airs, the Sixth Doctor ushers in a new era for Doctor Who, for better and, as ever, for worse.

All Change in the TARDIS

Peter Davison plays the Fifth Doctor’s final outing with vigor and imbues the Time Lord with fire and grit and determination throughout the story. Davison’s anguish as the Doctor nearly falters time and again coming through palpably. There’s anger, and just a touch of righteous madness, in his eyes as he stares down Stotz while crashing the spaceship; any uncertainty or hesitation has vanished from his visage. Yet despite the Doctor’s determination to save Peri, there’s absolutely no connection between the two; both Holmes and Peter Grimwade in the story just prior write their interactions as awkward and halting, almost dismissive on the Doctor’s part, which makes his unwillingness to let her die all the more affecting.

The Fifth Doctor, desperate to save Peri

He plays the regeneration scene on an even keel, not railing against fate but rather accepting that his time is, ironically, up. As he says near the start of the story, “the trouble with time travel is one never seems to find the time,” and a look of equanimity passes over Davison’s face before the effects start to blur the transition to Colin Baker’s visage.

Peter Davison's last moments as the Fifth Doctor

Peri herself gets no regard from Holmes, and on the basis of her first two scripts, it’s a wonder Nicola Bryant wants to stay on as the young American student. Peri is essentially treated as an object in this story unlike any companion previously, in a very unsettling, straight-up skeevy way by Jek and as the object of a “quest” for the Doctor to save her. Bryant manages to give some spark to Peri with the few lines she has, given that she’s mostly just held captive by one group after another and increasingly ill, but she has absolutely no agency in the story whatsoever, a far cry from some of the more involved companion roles that the Fifth Doctor’s stories have featured. One can only hope that Nathan-Turner’s promise for change includes better parts for Peri.

Nicola Bryant as Peri

Holmes, and by extension Nathan-Turner, misses the point of the Doctor with “The Caves of Androzani,” and one can see the Doctor’s long path begin to bend in a new direction that will be much more fully manifest when the Sixth Doctor takes to the screen. The Doctor, by definition, tries to save everyone, tries to spare the villain, tries to bend the arc of the universe towards justice. His failures along the way—and more than any Doctor yet, Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor has stumbled—make for a more interesting, deeper character, one who can sustain complex, “adult” narratives while still providing an aspirational figure for the show’s putative audience of younger viewers. The series needed to move on from the pithy, tidy endings the First and Second Doctors invariably enjoyed, whether earned or not, and from the Third Doctor on, success is not always a guarantee; but the Doctor never stops trying to save everyone, spare the villain, and bend the arc of the universe towards justice. Until now.

The desolate plains of Androzani Minor

Taken as a continual whole, the back-to-back losses of Tegan in “Resurrection of the Daleks” and Turlough in “Planet of Fire,” to say nothing of his near-killing of Davros, his maybe-killing of the Master, and his for-real killing of Kamelion in those two stories, push this Doctor into not wanting any more loss, even at the cost of his own life—and those of others. Confronting the Doctor with the calculus of one versus many does indeed provide for compelling drama, pushing the character forward into growth through loss, but Doctor Who needs to at least want to come up with a different answer than the one summed up here. Peri needs to be saved, but the Doctor does not spare even a thought for the countless lives lost all around him, a characterization ultimately at odds with who the Doctor is supposed to be, or at least who the Doctor used to be. To that extent, “The Caves of Androzani” says goodbye to more than just the Fifth Doctor.

(Previous Story: Planet of Fire)

(Next Story: The Twin Dilemma)

Post 140 of the Doctor Who Project

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