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.

There is a lot to commend this particular serial – for one thing the baddy of the piece is decidedly sinister – a entity of pure evil called the Mara, who dwells mainly in the subconscious, but manifests itself as a giant snake … albeit one that is undeniably a gigantic plastic prop! It enters the world through dreams, and so when Tegan falls asleep on the planet Deva Loka the Mara swoops in to take advantage. In the meantime, the Doctor discovers an impasse between the mostly militant earth colonists (very thinly veiled British Imperialists) and the native Kinda, a race that mainly communicate through telepathy and a shared mind – the Kinda wise woman doing what she can to urge the colonists to leave, and the colonists brutally determined to take advantage of the planet’s natural resources. We could, all by itself, use this serial as an example of the political BBC, alongside The Happiness Patrol, The Sunmakers, and The Mutants to name but a few obvious examples.

Kinda is not just a political commentary however, but also a spiritual commentary – not least the reference to the Buddhist notion of the unbroken wheel and of the unending cycle of construction and destruction. The scene where Tegan is dreaming and the Mara is forcing her to contemplate who she is, is very much unsettling … unless you’re a child, as I was when I first watched the VHS and was more taken by the gigantic snake monster! It is without doubt further evidence of the peace and love brigade of the 1960s beginning to put forward their vision of utopia in the 1980s by contrasting the simple and evidently peaceful lifestyle of the Kinda with the stress, anger and aggression of the mostly male human colonists – which I freely admit is an aspect of the serial I find very wearing!

Aside of these commentaries, there is a good story at play here. This was Davison’s second recorded story as Doctor, and he is properly settled into the role by this stage. It wasn’t anticipated that Nyssa would stay on, so one hastily rewritten contract later put Nyssa in the TARDIS for all of this adventure (apart from brief cameos at the very beginning and end of the story) – demonstrating again that the TARDIS crew would have benefited had there been one less member. And, with apologies to Matthew Waterhouse, Adric demonstrates with great ease in this serial why it would have been better not to have him – his main roles are to cause havoc, and to demonstrate that no-one likes a know-it-all show-off. Tegan on the other hand gets a very good outing, aided and abetted by spending much of the serial possessed by the Mara. I’m often quite harsh on Tegan, but Kinda is one of her finer serials and Janet Fielding is excellent throughout.

It is a pity to put Kinda just outside the top 100, but I’d like to think this is more of a reflection on just how good the quality of classic Doctor Who is. For a very good story like this to have 100 stories ranked before it, speaks volumes for the quality of the stories still to come!

Kinda is also a very neat connection to a series of posts I am planning to do before we begin counting down from 100. The Mara would reappear in the next season in the story Snakedance, and was meant to feature again either in Season 21 or 22, in a story called Maytime. That it was not produced is a great pity, and I still think that Steven Moffat could do worse than to invite Janet Fielding to return as Tegan in Season 9 alongside the return of the Mara. That has given me pause to think which other classic series villains were underused, and ought to make a comeback – so expect a couple of posts featuring these long forgotten villains, and how I’d like to see them re-used in the new Doctor Who!

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!”

I had also though been warned that the serial had any number of flaws – chief of which is that the Master spends the first two episodes in disguise for no immediately obvious reason other than to provide the episode two cliffhanger – and to reprise the precedent set in Castrovalva of giving the character the Master is impersonating a false actor’s name based on an anagram of “Anthony Ainley.” Having watched it for myself, the reveal still seems entirely unnecessary to plot or narrative.

But I did get the DVD, and braced myself both to be unimpressed and to satisfy my curiosity. To be fair – Episode One is really quite interesting in terms of engaging the viewer with the story – flights are going missing from Heathrow, and nobody is quite sure why. The Doctor is co-opted in, and discovers his old enemy the Master is using human slave labour, captured via a time corridor, to help him escape from entrapment on planet Earth, many millions of years in the past. Along the way, it is discovered that there is a hidden species known as the Xeraphin who had crashed on Earth and possess powers that can help the Master restore his TARDIS.

All of these are good ingredients – in that regard it is a well constructed serial. But the execution falls a little flat. For all of the fanfare of using Concorde, both it and Heathrow feel chronically underused (as an aside – it’s amusing how little Heathrow has changed since then if you don’t count Terminal 5!) – the presence of Earth authorities and reference to UNIT feel wholly unneeded. And it is really hard to get beyond the pointless and rather silly disguise of the Master.

It was a sound idea, but the execution let it down somewhat. Interestingly, while I have rated Survival and The King’s Demons lower than this serial, I would say this is probably the least satisfying serial to watch that features the Master, in terms of the contribution that the Master brings. He’s actually rather dangerous in Survival portrayed in a more understated style, while playing a surprisingly enjoyable Medieval rogue in The King’s Demons. But the relatively poor role the Master plays is offset by the attempt at a reasonable story, and the genuine mystery set up in Episode One.

126 – Black Orchid

This story really fell from grace in my estimations. My dad bought this story as a VHS set that also contained The Visitation. At the time, I thought The Visitation brutal and complicated, but I rather enjoyed Black Orchid, I think mainly because at the time I also quite liked cricket!

With age (and a loss of interest in cricket) however, my appreciation has increased for the former, and reduced dramatically for the latter. To be fair, Black Orchid isn’t actually a bad story. The producers had the good grace to recognise that it couldn’t stretch beyond a two parter, and it is unashamedly a simple historical tale. The interplay of having Sarah Sutton play both Nyssa and her lookalike Ann Talbot is really quite well done, and you cannot fault the quality of acting or the sets.

The trouble is, that even for a two parter there’s an awful lot of padding, and no real sense of menace or threat. What they were aiming for is what Russell T Davies would later achieve in The Unicorn and the Wasp (incidentally, one of my favourite stories from the new Who) – the magic of bygone times in the style of a period drama, with the intrigue that comes from a Doctor Who story. All the ingredients are there – the companion lookalike, the TARDIS crew ending up at the country house by mistake, and the discovery of dead bodies. But watching it with grown-up eyes, the serial is depressingly pedestrian.

It is also the serial that more than any other demonstrates the ‘crowded TARDIS’ problem. Nyssa gets a starring role (two starring roles in fact) and poor Adric and Tegan are reduced to comical food consumption and unusual dancing respectively – and not much else. It is clear and evident why the producers would choose to reduce the team to three in the next serial, Earthshock.

That said, there are some genuinely lovely touches. There’s something very charming about the Doctor opining that as a child he’d always wanted to drive a steam train, while the cricket match is still a very enjoyable scene – a classic equivalent to Matt Smith’s virtuoso footballing appearance in The Lodger. And that rather sums up Black Orchid – nothing jars when you watch it, but it doesn’t leave much impression on the imagination. It’s arguably this low because, unlike other serials in this area, one senses there’s not a huge amount that could have been done to improve the base material.