The Visitation [Classic Doctor Who]

With my 50th birthday recently past, I’ve been investing a little bit of money and a little bit of time on classic Doctor Who‘s, mostly with my nerdier daughters.  For them, this has been seeing things for the first time, while for me it usually amounts to a rewatch.

Doctor Who - The Visitation b

The Visitation

Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor.
Companions:  Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Janet Fielding as Tegan and Matthew Waterhouse as Adric.
Written by Eric Saward (current Doctor Who script editor).  Directed by Peter Moffatt (not to be confused with Peter Moffett, which is Peter Davison’s real name).

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  Late February 1982 (Episodes 13-16 of Season 19)

The Visitation is written by Eric Saward, who was also the Script Editor of Doctor Who at the time.  However, according to the internet, it turns out to be a story he submitted before he became Script Editor, and may even be the reason he got the job at all.  This is as opposed to what one would expect, which is that he had to write it because he was the Script Editor.  It just highlights how different the show was back then–ever since it was revived in 2005 the lead producer has also been a writer, usually contributing a chunk of episodes to the season, especially the “important” ones from an overall story arc point of view.

Spoilers Ahead!

1980’s Doctor Who was full of intended glitz, and this definitely comes through with The Visitation, mostly successfully…with one notable exception.

The story starts with wealthy family in 17th century England who suddenly find themselves under attack by a mostly off-screen menace in what proves to be a very well-staged scene.  The family holes up in their dining room, muscats at the ready to face their attacker, when suddenly into the room bursts…the silliest looking android one has ever seen.  This is by far the most egregious part of the design, looking as it does like a bizarre Halloween costume covered in rhinestone stickers.  It’s not any cheaper looking than everything else, it’s just a lot sillier.

Doctor Who - The Visitation c

Other than that, the whole show holds up quite well, with decent sets and design, although a bit on the minimalist side.  Indeed, there are really only two proper guest characters.  One of them is the evil Terileptil who is the source of the episode’s problems.  He’s interesting in that he’s not actually the leader of an invasion force, but rather one of just a few fugitives who accidentally crash-landed on earth.  Still, he’s planning to wipe out the whole earth with a modified plague, so he’s still a high-stakes threat.  The Terileptil face was created with animatronics, which is as transparent an effect as any from the classic series was, but at least it allowed the thing to move its face.

The other guest character is Richard Mace, an out of work actor-turned-highwayman who winds up as the Doctor’s ally.  Mace is played with great flourish by Michael Robbins, and is easily one of the most memorable supporting characters of the era.  He works well against Peter Davison’s Doctor and has a lot of nice dialogue.

The Fifth Doctor is often regarded as the most “nice guy” Doctor from the series, but I was surprised to discover that he’s actually quite snarky and short-tempered for much of this adventure, particularly with his companions.  He struggles to maintain patience with Tegan, and he full-on tells Adric of for something he did wrong in the previous adventure.  He only seems to actually enjoy having Nyssa around, which is interesting because Peter Davison himself seemed to prefer Nyssa as a companion.  Nyssa has a good role at first in the story but eventually she’s sent back to the TARDIS to build a machine to destroy the android.  She succeeds, which is cool, but it takes a lot of extended cutaways of her slowly putting the machine together before she actually does it, which sadly becomes one of the most dragged-out and least engaging parts of the story.  That’s too bad, because I like Nyssa, and the rest of the story holds together pretty tightly.

Overall, The Visitation is a fun episode of Doctor Who, and my kids and I enjoyed it.  The ending feels a little underwhelming, but it’s possible that the revelation that the whole thing sparks off the great fire of London would have been more impactful to me if the historical event was something I was familiar with.

Doctor Who - The Visitation a

Incidentally, as a piece of trivia, this story marks the end of the sonic screwdriver in the classic series, because producer John Nathan-Turner apparently felt it was too easy a way for writers of the show to get the Doctor out of trouble.  The sentiment about this has obviously been reversed in the modern era, where the sonic screwdriver basically functions as the Doctor’s magic wand, useful for whatever the plot demands.



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