For a long while this was one of only two serials in Peter Davison’s first season that I hadn’t watched on VHS. For that reason, when my dad arrived home from whichever video outlet (most probably HMV) he had bought the video, I rather looked forward to watching it, having enjoyed rather a lot of the fifth doctor’s other episodes – as you will see later on in this blog!
Before I comment on this episode, it is important to explain that this was the first episode recorded featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor. His first serial Castrovalva was in fact the fourth episode recorded – for the dual reason that the originally planned serial was scrapped and needed replaced, and to enable the new Doctor and his relatively new set of companions the opportunity to settle in before recording the high-pressure first serial that they would be judged on. Unsurprisingly therefore, the cast are very rusty and it shows in their acting.
All this would matter less if they were carried by an especially strong story. Sadly the story fails to deliver on this front, and leaves one feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the end of the story.
A few factors contribute to this. For one thing, it had not been planned that Nyssa would be on the TARDIS team, so the script-editors had to work with an extra person. The solution is somewhat inelegant – Tegan spends most of her time trying to run back to the TARDIS, eventually managing to move it fifty feet (and into outer space) in sheer desperation. Nyssa briefly explores the spaceship the crew have landed on, before being hypnotised by the evil crew of the ship, while Adric … well, he seems taken in by the villain of the piece, an intergalatic frog known as Monarch.
Ah, and Monarch brings us to the crux of the matter. He has used up all of the natural resources of his home planet, and miniaturised the entire population into microchips as a slave workforce – and now he plans to take over earth so that he can use their resources. Forwhy? Why, elementary – he is convinced he can make his ship faster and faster, break the speed of light, and travel back in time. Now, most people want to travel back in time to change the past or some other grand ambition. But Monarch plans to travel back in time because he wants to travel back to the beginning of time and “meet God” – because he is convinced that he is God. As intergalatic ambitions go, it is decidedly ropey!
And that is what makes this episode a disappointment. Davison hasn’t warmed up yet; the plot never really convinces at any stage; and in what would become a recurring problem for Season 19, the showrunners struggle to make three companions work.
On the other hand – it is hugely entertaining to watch the amazing special effects as the production crew ignore the laws of physics (what?! Doctor Who unscientific? Perish the thought!) and have the Doctor reach the TARDIS in outer space by throwing a cricket ball against the side of Monarch’s spaceship, and ricochet back to propel him across the gap. Once you learn that this was achieved by wheeling poor Peter Davison across a bluescreened room in an office chair, you can never really watch it in the same way again.
It was a good effort, but on the whole I’m rather glad that the majority of Davison’s other serials did not take after this one!