Castrovalva [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #3)

Castrovalva

Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor.
Companions: Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, and Matthew Waterhouse as Adric
Written by Christopher H. Bidmead.  Directed by Fiona Cummings.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January 1982  (Episodes 1-4 of Season 19)

Castrovalva was the first story of Season 19, and the first to feature Peter Davison in the starring role. It was written by Christopher H. Bidmead (who had been the script editor for the previous season and had written the story which featured the Fourth Doctor regenerating), apparently at the last minute after another planned story had to be cancelled by producer John Nathan-Turner. The story also concludes a trilogy of stories which re-introduced the Master into the Doctor Who universe, and which established a new “TARDIS-team”, featuring or the first time in many years, three companions.

Spoilers Ahead!

Castrovalva is an enjoyable but peculiar story. More time is spent on the newly regenerated Doctor settling in and finding himself than in any story before or since, with it taking until the very end of the serial for the Fifth Doctor to really find his stride. This creates an interesting little drama as we watch Tegan and Nyssa struggle to find a to help the Doctor to survive, while also worrying about the Master’s traps, as well as the fate of Adric. But it also means that our new Doctor doesn’t actually do very much. Even at the end, he is involved with the climax of his own story, but is not as central to it as one might hope.

Still, the episode is enjoyable thanks to Peter Davison’s ability as an actor to engage us in the midst of that confusion, injecting a great deal of personality into the Doctor even when he is not doing much. Also, the actual Castrovalva plot is quite clever, involving as it does an entire ancient community created by Block Transfer Computations (a form of mathematics that can alter reality, introduced in the previous story). The librarian Shardovan is set up well as a false villain, allowing for the twist of the kindly Portreeve turning out to be a disguised Master to be very effective, if you didn’t already recognize Anthony Ainley under all that makeup. (It came as a complete surprise to my daughters, so that was fun to see). The visual realization of Castrovalva collapsing in on itself is not entirely successful, showing the weaknesses of most Doctor Who productions of the day, but the story itself is well done and pretty cool.

Unfortunately, it takes nearly two episodes (out of four) to actually get to that story. The first episode still has enough going on to keep it fun, with the mystery of what is going on with Adric, and Peter Davison doing some very good impersonations of previous incarnations of the Doctor. But a big part of the second episode is about Tegan and Nyssa carrying the “Zero Cabinet” slowly across a pastoral world in order to find Castrovalva, and it is incredibly tedious. The scenes are nicely done but there is almost no dramatic incident taking place–one becomes desperate for them to reach their location. More than any other part of the adventure, these bits feel like they were written in a hurry. Even the cliffhanger for Part Two ends up being a non-issue.

Also, it’s hard to make sense out of what the Master is doing over this story. He kidnaps Adric, obviously, and uses him to create a Block Transfer version of Adric himself, so that fake-Adric can program the TARDIS to fly back to the Big Bang. But at the same time, he also prepares and enacts a back-up of plan: inventing Castrovalva, planting information in the TARDIS computers to talk about it, and luring the Doctor there in case the Big Bang plan doesn’t work. Then he lurks around Castrovalva with the Doctor, chatting with him in disguise (and also while the Doctor sleeps!) delaying conveniently until the climax of Episode Four to actually try to kill him. It’s impossible to look at all this and believe that the Master actually wants to kill the Doctor, which is a problem the revival series then worked to explain under both Russell T. Davies and Steven Mofat (but to completely repeat under Chris Chibnall).

On the whole, I think the story probably could have been improved by lengthening and developing the actual Castrovalva side of things by at least another half-episode length. But even so, I enjoyed the story and the start it gave to the new Doctor and his set of core relationships.

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