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.
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 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.
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…