12 – Earthshock

Along with Planet of Evil, this was one of the very first Doctor Who adventures my dad bought on VHS, and therefore one of the ones most firmly imprinted upon my childhood. This adventure is justifiably the highlight of Peter Davison’s debut season; not only a well told story, but also one that brings back an old foe, and has the ultimate emotional twist.

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27 – Castrovalva

Peter Davison’s debut as the Fifth Doctor owes much to Season 18 Script Editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s love of mathematics. When invited to replace the original Season 19 debut story with a new script, Bidmead would revisit certain ideas he had used in Tom Baker’s swan song Logopolis – in particular the concept of recursion, which in that story had manifested itself as a TARDIS within a TARDIS. For Castrovalva, Bidmead would put this concept on steroids.

Peter Davison’s first broadcast adventure was not actually his first recorded adventure – by this stage they had recorded Four to Doomsday, The Visitation, and Kinda. In practice this works extremely well, providing a TARDIS crew already well settled with one another, allowing them to pull off an ambitious regeneration story. Picking up directly from Logopolis (including a rare pre-title sequence film section reprising the regeneration) the TARDIS crew escape from the Pharos Project on earth to find the Doctor highly unstable – the first time in the show’s history it is overtly suggested that a regeneration can go wrong. The Doctor spends most of the adventure trying to find a peaceful space in which to recover while his regeneration completes – initially a room in the TARDIS known as the Zero Room, then latterly a dwelling of simplicity, the titular town of Castrovalva. Behind this story, very much in the theme of recursion, are layers of traps within traps, all set by the Master.

Kindapping and then releasing Adric at the very start of the adventure, the Master impels Adric to send the TARDIS directly into a supernova. In the truest style of the Hooded Claw, the Master then lays a trap within a trap – the town of Castrovalva itself. Leaving information about the fictional town in the TARDIS databanks, the Master uses Adric’s mathematical genius to use a skill revealed in the previous adventure of Logopolis – the capacity to build matter through pure mathematics. Adric constructs the entire town as a trap for the remaining TARDIS crew, and the Master lies in wait (disguised, obviously!) for the right moment to strike.

The more thoughtful reader might conclude with some justification that the entire plot is needlessly complicated – but to write off the story on these grounds would be to miss the enjoyment of the story. In rather the same way that The Edge of Destruction was crucial for building the relationship of the initial TARDIS crew of Season 1, Castrovalva really allows the viewer to get a better flavour for how Nyssa and Tegan would relate to the new Doctor; unfortunately for Adric, he spends most of the episode imprisoned by the Master, perhaps foretelling the rather grim destiny the producers had in mind for him. While the inspiration for the story is undoubtedly mathematical (making this story one of my dad’s favourites) it is not so overtly mathematical that it is impossible for the less mathematically minded (viz. me!) to follow!

Davison himself plays his role superbly – there is a wonderful moment in episode 1 in which he appears to regress to the mannerisms of the First and Second Doctors – very well acted, and an utterly charming nod to the show’s heritage. As debut stories go, Castrovalva is one of the very best, and a very pleasing conclusion to the ‘New Beginnings’ trilogy. Perhaps because it borrows so heavily from themes in Logopolis, it is harder to imagine this story working so well as a standalone adventure. The fact that it nevertheless does, is very much to its credit!

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Want to watch Castrovalva? You can buy it today on BBC Store for £4.99

Special Reviews: New Beginnings

We have reached a special section in my classic episode countdown, as over the next three weeks we will be reviewing three stories that I struggled to place in a clear order, mainly as I have come to regard them as one story in three parts. The three stories come at the end of Season 18, when Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor was coming to a close, and at the very beginning of Season 19 as Peter Davison took on the unenviable role of filling Baker’s shoes. Baker had played the Doctor for seven years, significantly longer than any of the previous actors to play the role (Hartnell and Troughton were in the role for three years; Pertwee for five) and the prospect of a new actor stepping into the role generated a large amount of uncertainty.

New producer John Nathan-Turner therefore decided to adopt a trick first used when Baker replaced Pertwee. In Season 12, the production team used the familiar faces of UNIT for Baker’s debut story, before bringing back the familiar foes of the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Cybermen.  For the conclusion of Season 18 and the beginning of Season 19, JNT brought back the character of the Master, last seen as Delgado’s Master in Frontier in Space, and as a charred husk in The Deadly Assassin. With Roger Delgado sadly departed after his untimely death in 1973, the decision was taken to cast a Delgado lookalike, Anthony Ainley, and to show the regeneration of the decayed Master into a new, younger Master. A further idea to bring Elisabeth Sladen back to play Sarah Jane Smith for four episodes proved ultimately unsuccessful – Sladen quite sensibly realising she would have played a bit part at best.

Following on from the E-Space Trilogy, the series follows a loose trilogy beginning with The Keeper of Traken, in which the Master returns, followed by Baker’s swansong Logopolis, in which the Doctor falls to death attempting to foil the Master’s latest madcap plan for universal domination. While not initially intended that Ainley would return for Peter Davison’s debut story Castrovalva, it was eventually decided to have the debut of Season 19 follow directly from the conclusion of Season 18, meaning that one is able to watch from Keeper of Traken to Castrovalva as one continuous narrative, even though each story is independent and stands strong in their own right – perhaps reflecting why BBC initially released these stories in a single boxset entitled ‘New Beginnings.’

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I struggled to place these three stories in order. I love them all equally, have come to regard them as one story, and if I could award them joint 26th place, I would have done so. I have nevertheless chosen to bite the bullet and attempt to rank the stories – and over the next three weeks you will get to find out which of the three I have enjoyed the best.

64 – The Visitation

This serial was foreshadowed to a certain extent by my much earlier review of the serial that followed it, Black Orchid. Coming in a double VHS boxset with the story, I found it hard as a child to get into The Visitation – in part due to an overly sensitive childish reaction to the (off screen) demise of the family whose sole contribution to the story is to die at the hands of the alien invaders in the first two minutes.

This meant that when in 2010 I treated myself to fifty pounds’ worth of Doctor Who DVDs as a Christmas present from me to me, this was the DVD I least looked forward to watching. In that regard it is a striking contrast to The Aztecs, which I bought at the same time, looked forward to watching, and was hugely disappointed by. Long-term readers of the blog will recognise the familiar refrain that my enjoyment of a serial is often shaped by my prior expectations … but I think this tells only half the story.

This was the second story to be recorded in Season 19, and by this stage you could tell that Peter Davison was getting into the swing of the role, in contrast to the very rough-around-the-edges Four to Doomsday. The crowded TARDIS is not actually too great a handicap in this story, which would not be at all out of place in the modern era of the show. The Doctor is attempting to bring Tegan back to Heathrow in the 1980s, and misses by 300 years. They are drawn into a conspiracy by a group of aliens known as Terileptils (later referenced in Matt Smith adventure The Pandorica Opens) who plot to devastate the world with a deadly plague – a theme concurrent with the Black Death ravaging England at the time.

There are some excellent plot elements at work here – the Terileptils are believable villains, even if their android is a fine example/warning of 1980s production value; the one-off character Richard Mace is a lovable addition to the crew; and there are some fitting nods to history, not least that when the Terileptils are traced to their base in London and trapped by a fire, it is revealed that that the year is 1666, and their base is in Pudding Lane – an alternative explanation to The Pyramids of Mars as to why the Great Fire of London occured …

Memorable as the story in which John Nathan Turner destroyed the Sonic Screwdriver for being a get-out-of-jail-free card, I rather like The Visitation. The plot is simple and enjoyable, with strong characters, believable adversaries, and a good showing from the regular cast members. Anyone looking to investigate the Peter Davison era could do a lot worse than to start with this serial. And the present producers could do worse than to bring the Terileptils back as an adversary.

101 – Kinda

There had to be one serial that just fell short of the top one hundred. Fans of the Fifth Doctor please look away now and forgive me, as the dubious honour falls to this four parter from Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. And as with many other serials in this range of the countdown, it only suffers from being in the category of story that I enjoy, but am not overly wowed by.

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122 – Time-Flight

We continue our theme of not-terribly-good Fifth Doctor serials with the story that concluded Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. This story is similar to Delta and the Bannermen insomuch that it was a serial I partially caught on UK Gold (never whole episodes – only snippets of each) and therefore wanted to see at some point. I was also very intrigued to see the very beginning of the story. As long-term fans of the show know well, the previous serial Earthshock ended with a massive departure for the series – the death of a companion. For a long while I could only imagine how the TARDIS team dealt with this death, and of course the challenge of time-travel that Tegan expresses so passionately: “You have a time machine! You can change the past!”

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