Doctor Who Project: Peter Davison Retrospective

While Peter Davison might have been the youngest actor, at 29, to take on the title role in Doctor Who when he became the Fifth Doctor in 1981, in many ways he stands as the most adult of the Time Lords to grace our screen. From the very beginning, in “Castrovalva,” Davison’s Doctor shepherds his copious flock of companions to safety, and while they certainly support him in turn, the overall effect throughout his twenty-story run feels very much like a beleaguered teacher on an intergalactic field trip, hoping to get all the kids back on the big blue box bus.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

In part, this sense of heightened responsibility for his youthful charges—Tegan notionally being oldest, somewhere in her early-twenties—dovetails with producer John Nathan-Turner’s increasing focus on the Doctor being old, not just in terms of having a massive well of off-screen experience to explain whatever might be needed to move the plot along, but also bearing the emotional scars from those hundreds of years of regeneration-fueled existence. And at its best, Davison’s ability to harness this reservoir of painful knowledge imbues his version of the Doctor with a depth of character that transcends the often uneven scripts. For the Fifth Doctor, more than any other, fails.

The Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, realizing Adric is dead

Three stories in particular—”Earthshock,” “Warriors of the Deep,” and “Resurrection of the Daleks“—highlight (for lack of a better word) the ways in which the Fifth Doctor faces the limits of his power and the limitations of his belief system. Like many a person in middle age, he comes to terms with his regrets. It’s no longer a series aimed at children…

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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…

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Doctor Who Project: Resurrection of the Daleks

It seems I must mend my ways.

Given producer John Nathan-Turner’s iconoclastic approach to Doctor Who, the most surprising element of script editor Eric Saward’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 6P) is just how long it took the two of them to get around to remaking the most beloved villains in the series’ history. By Season Twenty-One in 1984, fully three and a half seasons have elapsed since Nathan-Turner took over, and in that time he brought back many an old foe, from the Silurians and the Master to Omega and the Cybermen, often giving them a harsher, less subtle, and more menacing aspect. As for the Daleks—in their first full appearance in nearly five years, since 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” not counting their brief cameo in “The Five Doctors,” and the first not written by creator Terry Nation in over twelve years, since Louis Marks’ “The Day of the Daleks” from 1972—the perfidious pepperpots come out of the Nathan-Turner and Saward transmogrifier with a surprising twist: they are defeated.

The Mighty Daleks

Saward’s story draws heavily upon Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” which sees the Fourth Doctor and Romana in the far future outwit, in turn, the Daleks; their new forever enemies, the robotic, disco-bead-wearing Movellans; and Davros, the latter being captured and placed in suspended animation for transport back to Earth. Some ninety years later, the war between the excessively logical rivals has ended. The Movellans introduced a virus that targets Dalek genetics, wiping out most of the mutated Kaleds and scattering the remainder to far-flung corners of the galaxy to escape its effects. Hoping to engineer a cure, the Supreme Dalek, aided by a small core of followers, turns to their creator, Davros, for help once again (as they did in “Destiny of the Daleks,” after having tried to kill him in “Genesis of the Daleks,” if anyone is keeping score).

Terry Molloy as Davros

They can’t do it alone, though, as their power has waned and their ability to think strategically has diminished. They turn instead to a band of brainwashed human duplicates, led by Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), to serve as their shock army, and also, for reasons that Saward never really tries to explain, to guard a cache of Movellan virus canisters in an abandoned London warehouse in 1984, accessed via a “time corridor” created by the Supreme Dalek’s spaceship. It’s this corridor that the TARDIS finds itself trapped in at the end of “Frontios,” and by the time the Fifth Doctor breaks free of it, the temporal-spatial momentum brings the blue box down on the banks of the Thames, right near a street where a group of armed bobbies guns down a band of escaped slaves from the Dalek ship in the story’s opening scenes.

Not quite your average bobbie.

This opening in particular, with its sense of disorientation, juxtaposing the familiar with the unexplained, sets out the stakes for the entire two part story. (To accommodate the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the four original twenty-five minute episodes of this story were edited into two fifty minute ones, per Howe and Walker, Doctor Who: The Television Companion.) More than anything, the first few minutes call to mind the ruined London of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and the shock when the usually unarmed contemporary police appear and kill in cold blood causes confusion and dismay in equal measure. Saward and Nathan-Turner intend to bring about just what the title suggests, a “resurrection” of the Daleks, returning them to their rightful place as the ominous, frightful, ruthless killers that they are. But then they take a page from the campiest of all Dalek stories, “The Chase,” and have the Doctor bundle a screeching Dalek out a window to its explosive demise…

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Doctor Who Project: Frontios

I think this joke’s gone far enough

The degree to which Doctor Who has changed since Peter Davison took on the title role can best be seen through the lens of Christopher H. Bidmead’s “Frontios” (Story Production Code 6N), given the extent to which this story, by a former series script editor during Tom Baker’s run, feels completely out of sync with the tone and tenor of the Fifth Doctor’s past two seasons. As with Bidmead’s last script, “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s inaugural story, “Frontios” is as much about creating a deep and rich world as it is about how the Doctor deals with the narrative dilemmas created by the same. There’s little to no character development across the four episodes on offer here, no room for the Doctor or his companions to reflect or pause; every scene pushes the action forward or establishes the complex setting, filled as it is with multiple speaking guest stars and a veritable mob of extras. And that’s even before Bidmead introduces the pillbug-like Tractators, the most alien-seeming creatures since the Menoptra from “The Web Planet,” strange precisely because of their vague familiarity and slow, dance-like movements (and, like the Menoptra, played by dancers rather than actors).

Two Tractators

Everything about “Frontios” suggests grandeur, with several large, elaborate sets depicting a wrecked colony ship and an extensive tunnel system, all effectively filmed by veteran director Ron Jones to create a palpable sense of size and scope. Even the narrative setup, with the TARDIS triggering a temporal “boundary error” alarm as it enters the Veruna system in the far future, home to the sole surviving human outpost after the Earth is destroyed by its sun, bespeaks a tendency to set the stakes as high as possible. This is, to put it plainly, Fourth Doctor stuff—the last of this, the first of that, the end of the entire human species—for real this time. The Fifth Doctor has certainly confronted major crises, having averted the destruction of Earth in the 21st century just two stories before, but the scale of his confrontations has always leaned towards the intimate, the intricate. Not so “Frontios,” where the Doctor employs his words for deception and humor in a sweeping manner rather than diplomacy and empathy on an individual level.

Peter Gilmore and Jeff Rawle as Brazen and Plantagenet

A powerful gravity beam pulls the TARDIS to the site where, forty years prior, a colony ship from Earth crashed on the planet Frontios in mysterious circumstances. The Doctor wants nothing to do with the situation, emphasizing that the Time Lords forbid him to intervene with such a delicate pivot in time, but seeing people wounded by a meteorite bombardment that coincides with the blue box’s forced landing causes him to stay and help. He, Tegan, and Turlough quickly find themselves accused of helping to perpetuate an invasion of the planet, in league with the unknown force that has been saturating the colony site with space rocks for thirty years. Led by the callow Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle), son of the original expedition leader, Captain Revere, the colony teeters on the brink of extinction, with people mysteriously vanishing; eager to establish his command after the recent death of his father, the youngster prepares to have the Doctor executed, but neither the Time Lord nor the audience really notices. Bidmead, with the approval if not outright urging or instigation of producer John Nathan-Turner, goes where no story has gone before: he destroys the TARDIS…

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Doctor Who Project: The Awakening

It’s a living history.

Of all the many changes producer John Nathan-Turner brought to Doctor Who, the regular appearance of the two-episode story structure stands as one of the most successful. Forced by necessity to strip down the story to its basics, the writers for the two-part tales have consistently turned in taut, if not always coherent, narratives, and Eric Pringle’s “The Awakening” (Story Production Code 6M) stands as no exception. From the very start of the story, with a contemporary figure being menaced by Cavaliers on horseback, Pringle plays with the notions of temporal fluidity that are at the heart of Doctor Who—if the Time Lords can travel through time, so can other beings and forces, a plot device used frequently in the early days of the series but seldom evoked by the time Peter Davison dons the Fifth Doctor’s mantle.

Cavaliers on parade

The local magistrate, Sir George Hutchinson (Denis Lill) explains to the flustered schoolteacher, Jane Hampden (Polly James), that he and his fellows are merely re-enacting the events of the English Civil War, and that it’s all simply a bit of fun that the entire village has decided to participate in, except for her. Once they have simulated the final epic battle fought in village of Little Hodcombe between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads in 1643, all will go back to normal. It’s an interesting twist, as the viewer has been conditioned by the very nature of Doctor Who to accept, and indeed expect, the very real possibility that the figures had somehow appeared in 1984 from out of the past.

Denis Lill as Sir George Hutchinson

By virtue of lovely narrative happenstance, Tegan’s grandfather, the historian Andrew Verney (Frederick Hall), lives in Little Hodcombe, and the Fifth Doctor brings the TARDIS to town for a visit at the very same time as Sir George’s men are rounding up Roundhead stragglers. But instead of materializing normally, an unexpected energy field forces the blue box into the crumbling crypt of the long-abandoned local church. While heading to the village, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough find themselves waylaid by the wanna-be Cavaliers, who forcibly escort them to Hutchinson. The magistrate’s demeanor turns from conciliatory to vindictive once Tegan mentions her grandfather, with Sir George ordering them to be held under guard.

Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, and Janet Fielding as the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, and Tegan

Jane Hampden, along with the viewer, realizes not all is quite as it seems; the participants in the wargames, with the exception of Ben Wolsey (Glyn Houston), take proceedings with an earnestness that borders on the maniacal, treating the fighting as real. Once our time travellers inevitably escape, they split up, the better for Tegan and Turlough to get caught before the end of the first episode. The Doctor, having returned to the church, finds himself buffeted by phantom sounds of combat, then sees a roughly-clothed young man tear through a weak brick wall. Named Will Chandler (Keith Jayne), the lad is trying to escape the battle raging outside the church—in 1643. Some further narrow escapes, this time with Jane, now also on the run from Sir George, sees the three confronted, in proper end-of-episode fashion, by the source of all this confusion, the giant face of the Malus…

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Doctor Who Project: Warriors of the Deep

You must decide, Doctor.

As Season Twenty-One dawns—and with Peter Davison entering his final stories as the Fifth Doctor—producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward continue their policy of serving up deep cuts from Doctor Who‘s history, enlisting Johnny Byrne to dredge up the “Warriors of the Deep” (Story Production Code 6L), catching in the narrative net not one but two long dormant foes: the Silurians and their aquatic kin, the Sea Devils. Last seen during the Third Doctor’s run, these prehistoric reptilian rulers of Earth occupy a delicate space in the Doctor’s past; far from being mindless monsters or craven conquerers, they hold legitimate claim to co-existence with the “ape primitives” whose descendants came to rule the planet. Twice, in “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “The Sea Devils,” the Doctor has attempted to bring about a truce between the humans and Silurian-kind, and twice he has presided instead over their destruction. Of his many regrets, the case can be made that these are the Doctor’s most keenly felt failings.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

But Doctor Who has changed appreciably since, with the kind of moral nuance seen during Jon Pertwee’s turn as the Third Doctor giving way to a breezier, more rollicking and less ambiguous style by the time Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor steps from the stage. The overarching question for “Warriors of the Deep” is whether Byrne’s four-episode script can honor the duty owed to the Silurians by the Doctor while fitting Nathan-Turner’s requirements for contemporary Doctor Who, particularly given that both prior stories unfolded leisurely over six episodes, the better to balance action and adventure with diplomacy and discussion.

Behold, the proud Silurian

There’s no mystery as to the putative antagonists of “Warriors of the Deep,” with the Silurians revealed within the first ninety seconds after the title sequence fades from the screen. Their well-realized underwater battlecruiser plays cat and mouse with the scanners of Sea Base 4, crewed by a vaguely British military force whose uniforms and general base aesthetic owe a substantive stylistic debt to Space: 1999, with stark white techno-cool walls and color block attire. Set in 2084, exactly a hundred years from story’s first broadcast date, these soldiers represent one of two dominant political blocs on the planet, each ready to annihilate the other with “proton” missiles launched from underwater bases.

Preston (Tara Ward), Nilsen (Ian McCulloch), Vorshak (Tom Adams), and Bulic (Nigel Humphries)

The Silurians’ motivation, however, remains initially unclear, as they first focus intently on reviving their Sea Devil brethren, entombed for “hundreds of years” after their hibernation process went awry. At this point, though, it becomes clear that a scrupulous adherence to the previously established, “canonical” Silurian/Sea Devil timeline will take a second place to the narrative needs of Byrne’s story. If the Sea Devils’ travails link directly to the Third Doctor having destroyed their underwater lair circa 1975—UNIT story dating being its own minefield—when his attempts to parley with them fail, caused equally by the Master’s conniving and the humans’ fear-based attack on their base, then scarcely a hundred years have passed, at odds with the stated passage of time. A minor quibble, to be sure, and one quickly forgiven by any devoted viewers who might notice, given that Silurians and Sea Devils finally appear on screen together for the first time…

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