It can seem churlish to compare Doctor Who stories to Shakespeare, as if I’m trying to argue that The Romans has the same societal impact as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And yet, here we are. In fact, I do think many tales – be them books, films, televisions shows, theatre, dance, radio plays, or whichever medium you can think of – can be linked to the works of the Bard. And that’s not claiming an episode of EastEnders eclipses the brilliance of, say, Othello, but instead, it’s acknowledging Shakespeare’s timeless relevance and unerring understanding of humanity.
Got a problem? There’s a Shakespeare quote for that.
However, some stories are more comparable to William’s plays than others. The Caves of Androzani, for instance, is a Shakespearian tragedy. Two innocents are drawn into events outside their control and become victims of the machinations of politics and selfishness. And what’s a good tragedy without a death at the end?
Season 21 isn’t one of Doctor Who‘s finest – heck, it’s not even Peter Davison’s finest, though he is unquestionably exceptional in all his stories – but the Shakespearian undertones permeate throughout, and that makes it more cohesive than, for example, Season 17 or 22.
In His Nakedness, He Appears But A Man
What’s the key to Shakespeare’s genius? Why is he so good? The answer lies in another Doctor Who episode, and another writer: The Unicorn and the Wasp and its examination of Agatha Christie. “Because plenty of people write detective stories, but yours are the best. And why? Why are you so good, Agatha Christie?” the Doctor questions. “Because you understand. You’ve lived; you’ve fought; you’ve had your heart broken. You know about people. Their passions, their hope, and despair, and anger. All of those tiny, huge things that can turn the most ordinary person into a killer.”
Politics and warfare play a big part in Doctor Who (and many of William’s plays), but it always boils down to characters. That’s what Warriors of the Deep is all about; it might not feel that way because the characters are overshadowed by the fact that such nuances are confined only to the human side of this would-be war.
Here’s the thing: Warriors of the Deep isn’t half as bad as many make out. They just see the Myrka and cringe. It’s true that the Silurians and Sea Devils aren’t as fleshed-out or likeable as their first appearances during the Third Doctor era: their raison d’être is reduced and muddied. They become just another monster. They just want the planet to be theirs again – essentially, it’s simply another invasion story.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the ambiguity of the cold war, the rising hostilities between the Soviet Union and the West that was moving from one phase into its last (for now) hurrah; in 1985, the year after Warriors of the Deep‘s broadcast, Mikhail Gorbachev would be elected General Secretary of the Communist Party and pledge to thaw the escalations. For many, this conflict was intangible (though made tangible by the threat of nuclear weapons) and baffling. The fight was mere rivalry between superpowers. Ah, but that’s war. Most telling is Ichtar (Norman Comer) saying, “It is they who insist upon fighting” – and indeed their plan relies solely on conflict between humans. If we bring down the destruction of civilisation, it’s our own doing.
The Silurians’ motivations are explained by the Doctor, but not fully elaborated on. They are simply The Enemy. Warriors of the Deep isn’t as enjoyable as it could be because Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Sea Devils exist; our comparisons mire this Fifth Doctor story. Fans know they’re more complex than how they’re portrayed here, and we’re not content with knowing this already – it has to be dredged up again. We expect them to be more human in many respects.
It’s a shame because the crew of Sea Base 4 are a decent lot. They’re nicely realised and personable.
Despite the strictures of his commanding role, Vorshak (Tom Adams) manages not to fall into the trap establishment figures of the Third Doctor era frequently do: he does his duty, but is still reasoned and approachable, eventually coming to trust the Doctor in these high-pressure circumstances. Maddox (Martin Neil), too, is a sympathetic figure who fights against his controllers, but tragically doesn’t get closure before being killed. And that’s fine: not every individual needs to triumph. He tried. That, at least, can be said in his favour, even if he is otherwise a puppet. He’s essentially the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s not there for comedic purposes, but his being used by those with power does make him akin to Bottom in particular (is this the first time Maddox has been compared to such an ass?).
Preston (Tara Ward), especially, is a highlight: she doesn’t get a lot to do, but Ward still makes her seem like a well-rounded human being. You don’t find out her backstory, or actually very much at all; if someone else had played her, she’d have surely faded into the background, but Ward is a magnetic presence on screen. I admit this is partly because she’s gorgeous, but it’s her warmth and intellect that really draws you to her. If you want anyone to survive, it’s her. Johnny Byrne’s original script left her and Vorshak alive; sadly, Eric Saward preferred a Scorched Earth policy.
On the other hand, there’s Solow (Ingrid Pitt), who is… incomprehensible. She’s there to glower and scheme and be manipulative. Nilson (Ian McCulloch) does this better. You can see that his beliefs are genuine, that there’s a rationale there. Solow doesn’t get such subtlety, a fact best exemplified by her infamous death scene, in which Pitt turns in one of the most bizarre performances you’ll ever witness. It’s burned into my brain, like the impression left by an electrocution.
And so, we come to the elephant in the room. Or, more accurately, the pantomime horse.
The Myrka. This lumbering beast is often held up as an example of Doctor Who losing its way, but that’s not entirely fair. The whole serial is an example of Doctor Who, as ever, getting pushed around and being relegated to being that show the BBC can rely on without putting in much effort or cash. Production values on Warriors of the Deep are remembered as subpar but unfairly so, especially considering the circumstances in which it was made.
A snap general election had just been announced while Warriors was being filmed, so the BBC resources, including studio space, were needed for coverage of the political landscape. It meant Doctor Who had to make do. The Myrka looks as it does because it was only finished an hour or so before it was needed, and the people inside had no rehearsal time. This massive threat was reduced to be a bumbling shambles, stinking of paint and glue. Likewise, the cast had little to no rehearsal time and takes were generally done in one. Even Doctor Who‘s early days had rehearsals.
But the sets and model work are superb. The Myrka belies an attention to detail in the wider serial. The setting itself is great too – the high-pressured environment works physically and theoretically. The notion that a secret base, hidden in the dark depths of the ocean, can reduce Earth to a nuclear wasteland is beautifully horrifying and probably worryingly accurate. Again, it’s an epitome of the cold war.
The Myrka has returned, albeit not on TV. You’ll find the reptile in the Big Finish adventure, Bloodtide, and the comic, The Lost Dimension, as well as the books, The Scales of Injustice and Quick Reads: The Silurian Gift. It’s more effective, of course, realised solely by your imagination.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear
It’s nice to know this era of Homo Reptilian history isn’t entirely forgotten – you’d certainly think it were if you saw the Silurian costume, left to rot. I loved the Doctor Who Experience, but I did take exception to their online polls asking fans which costumes should be restored. The Yeti was restored, and yes, it looked marvellous. But the exhibition further housed the battered remains of various antagonists in worse condition… and left as such because a few fans voted for their favourites, over what needed the most attention. Drathro from The Mysterious Planet is falling apart. There’s barely anything left of a Vervoid outfit. And a Silurian from Warriors looks comatose, going to pieces.
The Silurian costumes are a solid update, though not as malleable as those used in their first appearance. They look more armoured, as if modelled on a turtle, or, when looking at the spine in particular, a Stegosaurus. Fans likely prefer other designs because their other looks are easier to show emotion through, easier for actors to get across feelings. Arguably their perfect design would be a mix of their Warriors of the Deep torsos and the make-up from The Hungry Earth/ Cold Blood.
More effective are the Sea Devils’ outfits, obviously based on samurais. Their necks look strange, but the faces are clearly influenced by eels and work beautifully. How sad that they don’t get much to do; there’s less time spent on their race than the Silurians.
It’s even sadder that Season 21 is rather lacking in iconic monsters, although there’s a good reason for that. That is, of course, that humanity reveals itself as the true monsters – something of a theme throughout Doctor Who.
Greed, fear, and vengeance brings out the worst in us (but those feelings aren’t exclusive to our kind). Those selfish gains fuel the lion’s share of Season 21, but most apparently, The Caves of Androzani. Everyone except the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) reveal themselves as monsters, but none more so than Morgus (John Normington), whose thirst for power makes for a truly chilling and memorable character. He’s callous and calculating, and, yes, Shakespearian. There are natural parallels between his sinister whisperings and the soliloquies delivered by the likes of Richard III, Shylock, and Macbeth. Suitably, he’s a man undone by his own scheming, someone who plans for his own downfall but nonetheless can’t stop it from happening.
He’s well matched by Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), and it’s fascinating to compare their dictions. Normington delivers most of his lines in a level, business-like tone, changing only to a menacing breathlessness when breaking the fourth wall; this is particularly powerful when he tells Krau Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn) that the President (David Neal) has been killed: “Yes, it was all over in a second. I had no time to stop him. This is a tragic loss to the world… Still, it could have been worse… It could have been me.” Then, of course, later on, when Krelper (Roy Holder) sees who their boss is, and Morgus says, “Why are you staring at me? Perhaps you think you recognise me?” It’s understated and so much more terrifying for it. Meanwhile, Jek veers between a calm, steady tone, and maddened, violent outbursts. Their speech perfectly gets across their characters: Morgus steady and threatening; Jek a strategist whose mania and need for companionship get the better of him. Two sides of the same coin. Two very human horrors.
It’s fortunate the serial has these two as their prime “monsters”, seeing as the creature stalking the caves, the Magma Beast, is so disappointing. It’s only that because the material around it is of such a high quality. And frankly, I don’t care. Because it’s The Caves of Androzani‘s only misstep. The Magma Beast would fit into any other Classic Doctor Who serial just fine.
This is evident in the surrounding serials, in which actors stumble around, largely unable to move quickly, dextrously, or, indeed, much at all. Drawing a line between the Terileptils in The Visitation and the similarly-outfitted creations of Season 21, and you’ll see a steady devolution. It seems fitting for Mestor (Edwin Richfield) in The Twin Dilemma, blundering along slowly: he is, after all, a giant slug. As with many aliens of this era, however, a lot of work has gone into Mestor’s face (the sculpt is impressively disgusting, its inspiration clear to see) but little into his body, so he becomes an unmenacing menace.
It’s a real shame for the Tractators in Frontios, however. They have such potential! Based on woodlice, the initial concept would have seen them curl into a ball and travel around their tunnels like that. It would’ve been a wonderful visual, but on a 1980s budget, rendered unfeasible. I can’t quite make up my mind over them – as a former Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead really should’ve known that they were unachievable; then again, how great is it that knowing that didn’t stunt the idea or make the production team entirely give up? The vision reached beyond their restrictions.
The Tractators remain a decent threat, given their ability to warp gravity; the effect, pulling people through the soil, is genuinely horrific, reused many years later in The Hungry Earth. The Tractators were due to return for Season 23, in a story eventually made by Big Finish called The Hollows of Time; you have to wonder whether their costumes would’ve been improved for that – during filming breaks in Frontios, they had to pump cool air into the suits as they were otherwise badly ventilated.
Nonetheless, I like the Tractators. They’re a neat idea, as is their manipulation of gravity. Still, I don’t think they’re the strongest monsters of the season. That honour surely goes to the Face of B—uh, the Malus.
Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me?
It’s only a two-part adventure, but the Malus’ massive face cracking through the stone wall makes The Awakening a memorable serial. Admittedly, his miniature is less impressive, yet there remains something very unsettling about seeing it in the TARDIS. This is supposed to be a safe haven; alas, violence and war even permeates its walls.
As with surrounding tales in the season, this story boasts a wonderful central premise: that of a psychic entity feeding off the savagery of the Little Hodcombe residents as they become embroiled in an historical re-enactment of the Civil War. “On the 13th of July, 1643, the English Civil War came to Little Hodcombe,” says Sir George Hutchinson (the superb Denis Lill). “A Parliamentary force and a regiment for the King destroyed each other, and the village.” The Doctor questions, “And you’re celebrating that?” Hutchinson counters, “Why not? It’s our heritage.” That reverence we have for such events is admittedly strange, yet we can’t ignore our history. The Doctor is immediately sceptical about it; without a TARDIS, though, we can’t relive the past. Re-enactments, books, and trips to museums and landmarks are the closest we can get. Okay, so Sir George takes it a bit far, certainly in insisting on a level of accuracy that requires actually burning the Queen of the May, but he was being egged on by a malicious force.
Jackie Southern must be applauded for designing the fantastic costumes, which show an admirable attention to detail. Yes, Tegan looks ridiculous as Queen of the May, but that is rather the point. She looks innocent and sweet, entirely at odds with Ms Jovanka’s punchy personality. (This is also the first time we see the Fifth Doctor’s new jumper: though he wore his other, with the smaller red stripes, for two previous seasons, this sweater is his definitive look. It’s one of my favourite Doctor outfits, rivalled only by the Tenth Doctor’s blue suit, and the Eleventh Doctor’s two main ensembles.)
These anachronistic costumes mean The Awakening feels almost like a historical serial – Season 21 is entirely devoid of visits to the past, so this is well judged – an enjoyable fusion of The Daemons, Image of the Fendahl, and The Visitation.
Despite it initially being considered a four-parter, submitted during the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era, its brevity definitely works in its favour. Eric Pringles’ script is expertly paced, there’s plenty of action, and it’s complimented nicely by Michael Owen Morris’ direction. There’s a pleasant balance of light and dark: the former in scenes shot on location in Shapwick (Dorset) and Martin, Hampshire; the latter principally in the catacombs and church. They were obviously fortunate that they managed to film between rainfalls. From the substantial puddles on the ground, we can gather there’d been considerable downpours. It leads to an unintentional highlight, in which Turlough tells Tegan to split away from him – he chooses the dry route, while Tegan, wearing high heels and baring ample leg, runs through a huge watery recess, soaking herself. I bet Janet Fielding was cursing the crew for that decision.
We also meet Andrew Verney (Frederick Hall), Tegan’s grandfather, the reason the TARDIS lands in Little Hodcombe. There is a familial feel to the whole serial – notably, they convince the Doctor to stay for tea at the serial’s conclusion – which certainly adds to its lasting impression. The Awakening, however, is a grim story. There’s a Devil-like creature hidden in the walls of a holy site, inciting normal people to incredible violence. Jane Hampden (Polly James) is exempt from this temptation (it’s telling that she’s a schoolteacher, demonstrating that education is important to countering evil), while Colonel Ben Wolsey (Glyn Houston) also fights his kin. Their compassion, reasoning, and bafflement work nicely to counterpoint the actions of those around them.
Sir George Hutchinson is another brilliant monster, with Lill’s frustration elevating as events spiral out of control. Across a short period, you see this man devolve. You witness how easily humans can tip over the edge. If that’s not horrifying, I don’t know what is.
Nonetheless, The Awakening is so enjoyable because it feels like such a breath of fresh air. There’s violence, sure, but it’s still less physical than subsequent serials. It’s always tempting to make Doctor Who dark. It lends itself to horror easily. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes years, considered a classic for the show, proves that it can be done well. Some would argue that it went too far during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure too, but it reaches new heights in the Sixth Doctor era.
I Hate The Murderer, Love Him Murdered
Season 21 is when things start to tip over, when the temptation gets too much. Nowhere is this more explicit than in Resurrection of the Daleks. Heck, it proves too horrible even for Tegan, who departs because “it stopped being fun”. And it is a bloodbath.
In isolation, this might’ve been fine. Introduce the Daleks and you know much of the cast won’t make it out alive. But this run of stories also includes Warriors of the Deep (in which everyone except the TARDIS team die, and the Doctor laments that “there should’ve been another way”), Frontios (the whole colony isn’t wiped out, but the tone is overwhelmingly grim, particularly as these appear to be the last dregs of humanity, eking out a cheerless existence, with the Time Lords refusing to help at all), The Caves of Androzani (“dark” doesn’t do it justice), and The Twin Dilemma, in which the Doctor tries to kill his own companion.
The weight of the universe seems to become greater towards the end of a Doctor’s tenure. It happens to the Fifth Doctor here, but it’s true also of the Fourth (his last season is an examination of entropy), the Tenth (with his prophesised death looming large, notably after he loses his best friend, Donna Noble), and the Eleventh, whose mortality creeps up on him across Series 7. These dying days are punctuated by the loss of his companions: true, he had his issues with Tegan, but her departure undeniably affects him. Though Nyssa’s leaving happened the previous season, he still seems reeling from Terminus and now, the last vestige of that stage of his life goes too.
He’s left with Turlough, someone he still doesn’t quite trust (but who, for me, is an ideal match for the Doctor). Peri is then more or less dumped on him. These are bleak times for our Time Lord.
And yet it’s a joy to see the Fifth Doctor up against the Daleks.
Writer, Eric Saward didn’t like the end product, resulting in him refocussing his efforts on a rematch, albeit for the Sixth Doctor the following season, in Revelation of the Daleks. Saward felt that there were too many subplots detracting from the main thrust of the narrative, i.e. the Daleks needing Davros’ (Terry Molloy) help to cure the Movellan virus. This strand lingers on from Destiny of the Daleks, broadcast in 1979, and therefore ancient history to a Not We audience. Does this detract from the story? I’m not sure it does. The persistence of the virus is established well enough, so understanding its origins isn’t essential.
However, Saward is right in that its subplots pull the main plot out of shape. There’s an abundance of ideas and few are properly explored – most frustratingly is the notion that the Doctor and his companions are being duplicated to sneak to Gallifrey and assassinate the High Council. Now there’s a juicy storyline! Unfortunately, this point is there merely to get the Doctor strapped to a bit of bubble wrap so his brain waves can be extracted while inert android replicas of Tegan and Turlough lie to one side and Stien (Rodney Bewes) can have a meltdown. It’s a nice scene, especially seeing those duplicates waiting. Creepy. And basically forgotten about by the end of the serial.
Future showrunner, Russell T. Davies hinted in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual that the Daleks’ plan to see off the High Council here partially led to the Time War – a neat notion working in the rather convoluted history of the Dalek race.
So yes, Resurrection of the Daleks is stretched to breaking point, but here’s the thing: I don’t really care. I still find it more enjoyable than Revelation of the Daleks. At least Resurrection doesn’t take a whole episode (a 45-minute episode, no less) for the Doctor to get embroiled in the action! I’m not claiming it ranks among The Evil of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, or Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways, but it’s better than its reputation would have you believe. There is plenty to enjoy, much of which comes from Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Mark Strickson.
It’s true that there are too many ideas, but they’re generally good ideas. There are lovely little nuances, like Stien’s disappearing stutter when he’s revealed to be a Dalek agent; of course, Bewes doesn’t entirely sell it, and his “I can’t stand the confusion in my mind” is infamous. At least his death scene is solid.
And let’s not overlook Davros, played here for the first time by Terry Molloy, who’d return for Revelation and Remembrance of the Daleks. There’s never been a bad actor as Davros, and it’s fun spotting the small difference between them – Michael Wisher’s Davros feels more poetic and manipulative; David Gooderson’s is surprisingly witty and brooding; and Molloy’s is sickly sweet and polarising, prone to sudden mad rants following quiet, almost intimate moments. In this way, he definitely influenced Julian Bleach’s version, who gloats and admonishes his enemies. They all make Davros a well-rounded tinpot dictator, fuelled by mania, paranoia, and possible PTSD.
A quick note about his reveal in Resurrection, which polarises fans. It’s not a big reveal; it just happens, his silhouette slowly emerging out of the rolling mists, then obscured by action in the foreground. I can understand that some would prefer something grander, but in this context, the subtlety is a nice touch, conspicuously in a tale otherwise very bold and lacking in such delicacy.
After his introduction in Genesis, every Dalek story until Dalek would feature Davros, and you can see why. He’s a fantastic presence, and every scene where he’s talking to the Doctor shines. In Resurrection of the Daleks, we get the Fifth Doctor holding a gun to his head. The best bit is Davros trying to convince the Doctor that he’s changing the Daleks for good. The Doctor naturally realises he means that the Daleks would be altered to make them more effective weapons, and Davros can’t see what’s wrong with that. Excellent writing, overshadowed by— well, everything else that’s going on at the same time.
Still, the thing that really holds this serial back is how heavy it gets. Davros seemingly dies (he does that a lot), innocents are gunned down, the crew of the prison ship all die – the only people who get away unscathed are the TARDIS crew, Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), and two trigger-happy policemen. To think Mary Whitehouse had issues with The Deadly Assassin…
These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends
Consider the thought process behind introducing a new Doctor by having him strangle his companion. Was there a thought process? It’s utterly bewildering. Yet there it is: The Twin Dilemma, in which the Sixth Doctor does all he can to dissuade an audience to tune back in for Season 22.
The whole thing is horribly misjudged, and yes, Colin Baker does it well, but that doesn’t make this incarnation of the Doctor likeable. There are brief glimpses of sunlight, when you can see what they were trying to do – this turbulent regeneration results in wild mood swings, an interesting idea taken too far and at precisely the wrong time. Whenever the Doctor regenerates, the series is on the ropes. Untested waters await every Doctor and production team. They just have to navigate them the best they can.
Hindsight, obviously, is a great thing, so it’s easy to criticise, knowing this era would conclude with a hiatus and near-cancellation. The rot set in and Doctor Who would vanish from screens until 2005 (via a brief reappearance in 1996).
Still, you’d think turning the Doctor into someone pretty unlikeable would damage ratings, particularly as The Twin Dilemma closed Season 21 and followed the astounding Caves of Androzani. But no, the viewers remained, at least to kick off Season 22. The Twin Dilemma‘s final episode was watched by 6.3 million, while the two-part Attack of the Cybermen was watched by 8.9 million and 7.2 million. Those numbers would drop steadily, but Doctor Who was still attracting a fair number of viewers. It seemed that a contemporary audience saw something in Colin’s Time Lord and stuck with him (perhaps encouraged by his “And I would suggest, Peri, that you wait a little before criticising my new persona; you may well find it isn’t quite as disagreeable as you think”). It’s shocking because the last scene of The Twin Dilemma – “Whatever else happens, I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not” – is so confrontational.
Then why do we, in retrospect, think of this story as the nadir of Doctor Who? The four-parter is lacklustre and insane. Mestor’s plot, to change the positions of celestial bodies, making the star spread gastropods across the universe, is perplexing, as is his use of the titular twins, Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad, respectively) to calculate exactly how this can be done. There are other stories with madder narratives though – generally anything involving the Master, and certainly Missy’s Dark Water/ Death in Heaven plot. It’s forgivable.
So too are the gastropods, giant slugs with selectively-quick-drying slime. They’re prosaic, haphazardly designed, and unconvincing as a threat. Mestor’s last minute power, transferring his mind into Azmael’s (Maurice Denham), is enough to make the Twitter generation shout “deus ex machina” so loudly, Aristotle would get a headache. Deus ex machina is criticised because it undoes a story’s internal logic, but if you’re hanging your hat on The Twin Dilemma‘s internal logic, you’re already too far gone.
It all comes back to the Doctor, I’m afraid. He shows some compassion to his dying friend, but little else for others, and that includes Peri. He’s rude, uncaring, and selfish. He’s content to let his companion die in his place. It’s not even in the smart way the Twelfth Doctor in Kill the Moon offers up Courtney: “Shoot the little girl first… She doesn’t want to stand there watching us getting shot, does she? She’ll be terrified. Girl first, then her teacher, and then me.”
Unlike most fans, I don’t mind the Sixth Doctor’s outfit too much. It’s gregarious and a mess, but that seems to suit him here. You quickly get used to it; looking at a line-up of the Doctors, you just accept it. (I like the handmade cat badge on his lapel too.)
And that’s how to approach The Twin Dilemma. It’s a curiosity. There’s a lot there to offend, an awful lot to dislike, but there are worse stories in existence. At least stuff happens. I’d rather be offended than bored. Kevin McNally, as Hugo Lang, makes it watchable, as does the model work. Actually, the models across the whole of Season 21 are impressive – especially here and in Warriors of the Deep, admittedly less so the exploding church in The Awakening (and that, only when comparing it to The Dameons).
The Twin Dilemma is never going to be the best of Season 21, nor of the Sixth Doctor era. It’s Anthony Steven’s best script for Doctor Who. Ahem.
(Steven, it’s important to note, had a long screenwriting career, including an episode of All Creatures Great and Small featuring Nicholas Courtney. He struggled with Doctor Who because his serial wasn’t due to air until the following season anyway, and writing for a new Doctor, under instructions to make him less agreeable than his previous incarnations, was a pressured job. Don’t judge his work solely on The Twin Dilemma.)
A King of Infinite Space
A highlight of Season 21 (and 20, actually) is Turlough, absolutely one of my favourite companions. Steven Moffat once described Nardole as akin to a cockroach, meaning he’s the person who will always find a way out, who will always survive. I disagree. That description applies more to Vislor Turlough. (Let’s not forget that, yes, he was reconstructed after The Husbands of River Song, but Nardole did effectively die in that festive episode, and didn’t put up much of a fight against Hydroflax.)
That’s one reason I love Turlough. He’s a very complex character, introduced as a mystery, an anti-hero whose sole purpose for being in the TARDIS is initially to kill the Doctor, and who remains an enigma throughout his tenure. He’s duplicitous, selfish, and practical. Aside from having such a twisting backstory, I think a lot of us would be like that. Oh, sure, we’d hope to be altruistic, but in the words of a certain Time Lord, “scared keeps you fast” and practicality ensures your survival. That’s why he’s so keen for Tegan to leave the Doctor to his watery doom at the end of Warriors of the Deep Part One. It comes across as heartless, but his assurance that the Doctor’s dead is merely to chivvy Tegan along so they don’t get caught. Smart and efficient – that’s Turlough. They’re his guiding principles and that makes for a fascinating character.
His time with the Doctor allows him to grow. He takes on more responsibility, becomes more dependable, and turns into something of a hero. If not always a willing one. This transition is most evident in comparing Warriors, in which he’s forced to defend the base on the front line, with Frontios, in which he makes a show of trying to decide whether he should follow his friends into the underground – only for there not to be a choice anyway.
“Don’t torture yourself,” assures Norna (Leslie Dunlop). “Nobody expects you to go back down there.”
“No, of course they don’t. I’m Turlough.”
I love that the burden of expectation is subverted: normally, someone is expected to be a hero; for Turlough, he finds his confidence because others don’t believe he can rise above his natural instincts. “Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know,” a wise man once said. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”
He certainly goes through the mill in Frontios. The scenes of him experiencing a mental breakdown, reliving a race memory, are chilling and shocking. This is new territory for a companion, and Strickson is haunting. It suits his surroundings. The tunnel designs are excellent, notably how the Tractators merge into the backdrop when we first see them, helped along by the eerie lighting. The serial, as a whole, is a topsy-turvy tour de force as we’re thrust into a truly dangerous situation. The colonists are being bombarded from all angles: fire rains from the sky, the earth eats people, their peers are constantly on the verge of civil war, and the outsider retrogrades swiftly turn savage. Even the TARDIS is broken apart. It’s brilliant madness – my wits begin to turn, indeed.
Vislor’s mental state is questionable at the best of times, but he does manage to pull himself back from the brink (albeit after accidentally killing Peter Gilmore’s Brazen). This is the same character who tried to commit suicide in Enlightenment! That’s often glossed over, but crikey, it’s a desperate scene.
Turlough’s arc is surely one of, if not the best in Classic Who.
Thus, it’s a shame his last story is so tedious.
It shouldn’t be. There are lots of good elements in Planet of Fire. The unpicking of Turlough’s backstory; the redemptive fires of Sarn; the tiny Master (Anthony Ainley); Kamelion (Gerald Flood) being taken over and shapeshifting, exactly how he was intended to… But no: it drags horribly; there are cringe-inducing American accents; the costumes are embarrassing and drab; a random chap is painted silver; and the cast look bored. Just when things are looking up, as Peri wears a bikini, she suddenly remembers she can’t swim and has to be saved by Turlough. I’m still not sure why that artefact bearing the Misos Triangle is found in Lanzarote.
Peter Grimwade wrote two other serials, one of which I really like (Mawdryn Undead) and the other I don’t think is nearly as awful as people make out (Time-Flight), although it is, admittedly, largely nonsensical. His directorial efforts – Full Circle, Logopolis, Kinda, and Earthshock – are all good, as are the serials he worked on as a Production Assistant. How depressing that his final work for Doctor Who on TV is so dull.
Even Peter Wyngarde can’t pull it out of its recess; Timanov, however, is the only memorable guest in the story, and that includes Turlough’s brother (played by Edward Highmore), whose name is… Malkon? Is that right? As in, washing machines live longer with Malkon?
There are a few positives in Planet of Fire, praise be to Logar. Again, Davison and Strickson are exceptional. Nicola Bryant does well enough with material that reduces Peri to screaming a lot and slipping down volcanic residue. And Kamelion doesn’t let the side down either. True, he was only used here and in his debut, The King’s Demons (after being edited out of The Awakening), but he’s a decent idea let down by a lack of time. He was added to the mix relatively late, writers didn’t know how to work a shapeshifter into their scripts, and so he was left out. Don’t bother with Kamelion, seemed to be the message. Once the faulty prop proved exactly that, John Nathan-Turner and co. lost their enthusiasm. They could’ve utilised him, making his adaptive abilities an important feature in stories.
Instead: “Kamelion no good.”
So the Doctor kills him.
The Doctor never uses a gun, right? His morals dictate that he never fires a single bullet. Fans overlook that he used the Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator to literally murder his own companion.
My feelings towards Kamelion are mixed. There’s potential there. There really is. I like his creepiness. I like his general look, in fact. I like Gerald Flood’s smooth voice. I like that he can become anyone he wants to be. I love that the Master has a secret spy on the TARDIS. And Kamelion’s yell which draws the Doctor and Turlough’s attention is chilling yet striking. Nevertheless, whenever he’s on screen, you’re waiting for something to go wrong. He’s a car crash companion. Adric without the Star for Mathematical Excellence.
Perhaps Kamelion personifies Planet of Fire: something that should’ve worked but ultimately fell flat.
If I’m being fair, Planet of Fire isn’t nearly as uninspiring as, say, Colony in Space, Death to the Daleks, The Mysterious Planet, The Woman Who Lived, or The Ghost Monument. I’d happily watch it again, and will, in time. It’s just disappointing because Turlough’s swansong deserves to be a showstopper. Fortunately, such an astounding showstopper was just around the corner…
Put Out The Light, And Then Put Out The Light
We’ve mulled over Season 21’s darkness a lot. It’s frequently a bad thing, or at least the way it’s approached is. Now we come to a gritty Doctor Who that does pretty much everything right. You know the one. It’s The Caves of Androzani.
I admit to being absolutely baffled when Genesis of the Daleks beat The Caves of Androzani in Doctor Who Magazine‘s polls. Caves came first once; Genesis subsequently beat it in the next survey. I like the latter tale, but it wouldn’t even be in my Top 10. Nor would it come out as my favourite serial of Doctor Who Season 12 (The Ark in Space gets that accolade, for those interested). Meanwhile, The Caves of Androzani stands shoulder-to-shoulder with my top-tier Who. You’ll find it next to Robots of Death, The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit, and The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang. It’s Robert Holmes’ best, against considerable competition; Peter Davison’s best, also against strong competition; and Nicola Bryant’s best. Uh, full stop.
Obvious parallels can be drawn between Caves and The Phantom of the Opera, with Jek hiding underground, away from anyone who might judge his appearance. All he craves is beauty, and he finds that, in Peri.
Poor Perpugilliam: she sets off for adventure and instead becomes the obsession of a madman; gets poisoned; faces a firing squad; screams a lot; is rendered unconscious a lot; and wakes to find her hero dying in her arms. Bryant is at the peak of her powers here, as Peri is fully out of her depths but remains that label frequently applied to companions: plucky. She’s brave, sarcastic, and smarter than how she’s later realised. Holmes naturally writes companions as go-getters. This makes sense, too; otherwise, why would the Doctor be drawn to them? Unfortunately, Peri devolves into a grumpy assistant, somewhat akin to Tegan, though with the latter you could still tell she enjoyed being in the TARDIS. It’s all about the company you keep, and there’s a good chemistry there – a warmth between Davison and Bryant which takes a while to re-establish with Baker, likely because the Sixth Doctor is so nasty to Peri in The Twin Dilemma.
It would’ve been interesting to see how the Fifth Doctor and Peri’s relationship evolved. True, they share adventures for Big Finish, but The Caves of Androzani is a limiting factor. She can’t outgrow the Doctor or become too confident.
As with any Doctor worth their salt, the Fifth brings the best out in his companions. This is another reason it’s so regrettable Davison left Doctor Who so soon. Still, if he had to go, he went out on a definite high.
Most Shakespearian tragedies end in the deaths of some central characters, more often than not the protagonists. Cymbeline ends comparatively peacefully, and the leads survive in Troilus and Cressida, one of the problem plays that straddles the line between genres. But the rest feature deaths a-plenty. Romeo and Juliet might be about romance, yet famously ends in heartbreak; families are similarly butchered in Hamlet and Othello; but the largest death count goes to Titus Andronicus, which further includes cannibalism, dismemberment, and rape.
With the deaths of all its major players, the parallels between The Caves of Androzani and these aforementioned tragedies are clear. It’s tough to recall anyone who lives through Caves. Timmin does (and she’s marvellous in her last scene, so hurrah!). Peri survives, but the cost is great. We shirk at any hint of romance between Doctors and their companions, but there is something of the star-crossed lovers about the Fifth’s death; he sacrifices himself for a girl he’s only just met. In this case, love is replaced by responsibility – symbiotic notions, regardless.
The greatest death is arguably Sharaz Jek’s: having enacted revenge on his torturer, and done whatever he can to make sure the object of his affections is saved, Jek turns to his greatest achievement, the android Salateen (Robert Glenister), and slumps into his arms. Glenister, too, is superb, his expression remaining unchanged by the struggles around him. As the official directorial debut of Graeme Harper (Utopia; The Waters of Mars), Caves is immediately gorgeous, so any lingering shots are meaningful and remarkably affecting; meanwhile, the swift despatch of Chellak (Martin Cochrane) pulls the rug from underneath you. “Death”, an infamous Time Lord once said, “is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly.”
How surprising, in retrospect, that the scene in which the Doctor’s fate is sealed is so understated. Peri falls, and the Doctor jokes about being careful after the event. Then they both get spectrox toxaemia, and we march towards the inevitable.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow: The Caves of Androzani is a tale full of sound and fury, and the actions of the idiots signify nothing… because no one is left alive to enjoy the new Androzani regimes now that war is over. The Fifth Doctor is but a brief candle, but wow, he shone.
It feels disingenuous to highlight The Caves of Androzani as Davison’s finest performance, because he never turns in anything less. Nonetheless, we can’t ignore one of the best cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. Hurtling towards the planet, odds utterly against him, the Doctor is threatened by Stotz (Maurice Roëves). “I’m going to die soon anyway”, the Doctor reasons. “Unless, of course, I can find the antidote. I owe it to my friend to try because I got her into this. So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now…!”
This serial can best be compared to Shakespeare, but the Doctor should rather be compared to the work of another writer, Dylan Thomas: Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
NEXT: In glorious technicolour!