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.

57 – Resurrection of the Daleks

Originally scheduled to be the concluding story of Season 20, a strike by BBC staff resulted in that season ending with the rather less inspiring The King’s Demons, and the intended adventure, originally entitled The Return being pushed back to Season 21. It in the very least ensured that Peter Davison got to face off against the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest enemies …

Owing to a clash with the 1984 Winter Olympics, this story is significant for being recorded as four 25 minute episodes (as per the rest of the season) but released as two 45 minute episodes to work around the Olympic schedule taking the series’ regular timeslot. As with Season 22, it demonstrated that longer episodes did allow for greater character development – it only being a pity that the format was not preserved beyond Season 22.

The story is also significant in providing the first appearance of Terry Molloy as Davros (Michael Wisher originally lined up to return, but unable to make the rescheduled shoot), and the final appearance of Janet Fielding as Tegan. An unrelentingly grim story, it features two concurrent stories between contemporary London, where UNIT are investigating what they think are bombs but are actually chemical weapons, and a space station in the future, where the Daleks have rescued their imprisoned creator Davros. Losing their eternal war against the Movellans (introduced in Destiny of the Daleks) the Daleks seek out their creator to return their cutting edge in battle, and provide an antidote to the chemical weapons (stored on earth) that the Movellans have used against them. Davros however has other plans – intending to create a new race of Daleks loyal to him. As if such a degree of complexity was not enough, it transpires that the Daleks have been duplicating humanity, including the Doctor’s companions Tegan and Turlough, and intend to use a duplicate of the Doctor to travel to Gallifrey to assassinate the High Council of the Timelords.

It all makes for a very good and engaging story, but one that requires several watches to get your head around. There is also no escaping how grim the adventure is, with an incredibly high mortality rate. Perhaps more than anything else, it is Tegan’s departure that marks out this story and provides its significance. I remember strongly resonating with Tegan’s impassioned outburst the first time I watched this story: “It’s stopped being fun Doctor!” A lot of good people end up dead in the story, and it doesn’t feel like many people win as a result – leaving the viewer to identify with the tearful Tegan regretfully concluding that it is time to go. I enjoyed rediscovering the DVD, but can remember why I did not enjoy the VHS – it doesn’t make for cheerful viewing, and is a rather poignant pointer to the quickly approaching end of the Davison era two stories hence …

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.

Thinking about TARDIS crews …

The TARDIS hasn’t had a crew for a long time. It has usually had the Doctor plus one companion, but very rarely has it had a crew – by which I mean the Doctor plus at least two companions. Of course, there are two people we can blame for this:

Jon Pertwee, who insisted that he wanted his doctor to be an ‘action’ hero (thus negating the need for an active male companion) and …
Adric, who made the Davison era ‘crowded TARDIS’ experience so miserable that JNT became convinced that Peri was a good step forward (er …)

And yet, I found myself reflecting that some of the episodes I have enjoyed best have been enjoyable principally because of the interaction between the members of the TARDIS crew. And so (tomorrow) I will be facing off the two TARDIS crews that I think are the prime contenders for ‘best TARDIS crew’ – but first I wished to pay tribute to those crews who didn’t make the cut …

We simply cannot know …
Steven and Vicki
Steven and Dodo
Ben and Polly (and Jamie)
Sadly, we just do not know how good these TARDIS crews where (although with Dodo we can begin to make an educated and despairing guess …) I have enjoyed Steven’s performances in every story that has survived featuring him as a main companion (sadly, that’s just The Time Meddler; The Ark and The Gunfighters) and would really enjoy the opportunity to see how he got on with Vicki and Dodo over a longer period. I have a slight suspicion that his three stories with Vicki would far surpass his four stories alongside Dodo.
As I remarked previously in my review of The War Machines, I wish more material of Ben and Polly survived, as they seemed to make for a good team – in the very least alongside William Hartnell’s Doctor. Having now watched The Moonbase DVD release, the jury is out as to whether they made such a good team with Patrick Troughton, especially after Jamie joined the TARDIS crew.
As it is … for these TARDIS crews we simply don’t know …

Please. In the name of Heaven. Stop.
Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan
As the extras feature ‘Crowded TARDIS’ on the Castrovalva DVD points out – this crew was too heavy by one member. In Arc of Infinity we see that Nyssa would have made a great solo companion to the Fifth Doctor. Adric arguably aquits himself quite well in Keeper of Traken, and Tegan was exceptional in Kinda. Which one should have gone? I wouldn’t like to choose, but suffice to say three of them was too many.

Close … but no cigar
Jamie and Zoe
Ian, Barbara and Susan/Vicki
Tegan and Turlough
Firstly (as you have noticed) I am counting Ian and Barbara’s time as one, since Susan and Vicki effectively played the same role in the TARDIS crew. Vicki was probably a more fun companion than Susan, but Susan certainly had more mystery – making them both an even match. Ian and Barbara certainly made for an excellent crew alongside Hartnell’s Doctor – but again there is a sense that they didn’t need a pretty young companion just to get into trouble.
Tegan and Turlough meanwhile are an interesting proposition – right numbers (finally) for the Fifth Doctor, but the chemistry doesn’t quite work. One suspects this is partially because one never quite learns to trust (or love) Turlough, and Tegan’s character was perhaps too abrasive alongside that ambiguous character. Could have worked … not sure it did.
Meanwhile, I have made Jamie and Zoe distinct from Jamie and Victoria. I was struck watching Seasons 5 and 6 that Zoe does make a big difference to the crew – as the Doctor says in The Krotons – “That’s the trouble with Zoe – she’s too smart for her own good.” It made for a jolly crew under Captain Pat … but not quite a happy ship. This is a theme I will revisit in due course …

Which leaves … the contenders

As you have by now deduced, that leaves two contenders – the Season 5 crew of Jamie and Victoria, and the Season 12 crew of Sarah-Jane and Harry. Which one wins? Tune in tomorrow to find out …

(The eagle-eyed will have observed that some ‘crews’ didn’t make the cut. These include Steven and Katarina/Sara; The U.N.I.T family; Romana and Adric; Tegan and Nyssa; Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough; and counting K9 as a crew member. This is principally because the ‘crew’ existed for so short a time that it is hard to count them with the crews above)

76 – The Five Doctors

I really don’t know where to begin in describing this simply extraordinary story. Back in the days of yore the BBC would include other videos for sale on the inside of their VHS covers. From this I learned there was a story with all five doctors (I think in my vibrant youth Six and Seven didn’t count …), the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master! I had to get my hands on it! In fact, so desperate was I for the serial that I had a proper huff with my dad when he joked that he hadn’t bought it, when in actual fact he had.

So … I was actually somewhat underwhelmed by the story as a youth. Because my Doctor wasn’t in it! Not really – he got gobbled up in some reused footage from the unfinished serial Shada. And it wasn’t the real first Doctor, Bill Hartnell having sadly passed away several years before. As for the Daleks, the story features exactly one (very easily confused) Dalek, and a host of easily betrayed Cybermen. The young man was not impressed.

The older me however could not help but enjoy the story. Yes they had to account for Tom Baker refusing to show up. Yes Richard Hurndall isn’t quite the same as William Hartnell. But the story is still jolly good fun! It was always going to be a thankless task to try to incorporate that many doctors, companions and foes into one coherent storyline – and the fact is that John Nathan Turner deserves credit for doing a more than respectable job of it. Credit also to Terrance Dicks for introducing an enemy well worth bringing back – the Raston Warrior Robot. Utterly deadly in taking out a troop of Cybermen, it would be a more than worthy adversary to bring into modern Doctor Who.

I would hesitate to recommend the story as an introduction to Doctor Who – compared to his outing in The Three Doctors, Patrick Troughton does not get quite the same space to shine in this story, and the same applies to Jon Pertwee. I also admit that my impression of the First Doctor was rather ruined by Hurndall – the opportunity lost here was to persuade Baker to come back and to find some way of using archive footage of Hartnell. Now that would have been a worthy anniversary story! As it is – I’m thankful for what we have got, and it makes for a very enjoyable hour of television.

82 – Frontios

Frontios is a prime example of the type of stories that might have persuaded Peter Davison to stay for a fourth season as the Doctor. While not spectacular by any means, it is clever, intriguing and well produced, and certainly keeps the viewer engrossed from start to finish. Those who have enjoyed the excellent Series 3 episode Utopia will see evident parallels between the two stories – the Doctor and his companions arrive at the end of the known universe, at a point beyond which the TARDIS is meant to travel. On the planet Frontios, a group of human colonists are fighting to survive, unaware of why their planet is being constantly being bombarded by meteorites. Of course, the Master does not appear in this story, and thus the parallels fall somewhat short!

It turns out that beneath the surface of the planet live a hostile alien race known as the Tractators, possessing several terrifying capabilities, not least manifested when they steal the TARDIS beneath the planet’s surface, seemingly vanished without trace. As cliffhangers go, Davison stating in a would-be-calm voice “The TARDIS has been completely destroyed” has to rank as one that would have left viewers utterly gripped, wondering how he was going to get the TARDIS crew out of this one. In truth, the reason why this story is so effective is because there is so much intrigue and mystery, and the Tractators are not revealed until the denouement. Turlough in particular puts in a sterling performance, with a racial memory of his own people coming under the attack of the Tractators. The race would return in the Big Finish audio The Hallows of Time, a story originally planned for Season 23 – more proof if needed that the BBC were fools not to give Colin Baker a proper second season in 1983!

As with many stories in this section of the review, I really have not got a bad word to say about Frontios. I was very probably too young to appreciate the VHS, but thoroughly enjoyed the DVD and would cheerfully watch it as a standalone four-parter – indeed if you are looking for an entry level to the Davison era, you could do much worse than to start here, with what is a good solid classic Doctor Who story. The only reason is not higher is that we fans wonderfully get to enjoy even more stories that are just as good!