Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. Lately though I have been making my way through a lot of the classic stories–either ones I already owned or ones I bought for my birthday or Christmas–enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
The Caves of Androzani
Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor
Companion: Nicola Bryant as Peri.
Written by Robert Holmes. Directed by Graeme Harper. Produced by John Nathan-Turner. Script Edited by Eric Saward.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: March 1984 (Episodes 19-22 of Season 21)
The Caves of Androzani is of course a big deal of a story–the Fifth Doctor’s final outing as the star of the series, and a story that is consistently ranked among the highest in fan polls and assessments. It’s one of my favorites as well–I’ve actually watched it twice in recent months, with each of my younger daughters, and find that it holds up pretty well.
The Caves of Androzani is not the highest concept science fiction story, nor the deepest dive into characterization or mythology. It’s a fairly atypical Doctor Who story, with stakes that are relatively low, and a monster that has such a minimum impact upon the plot that removing it almost doesn’t change the story at all. Nonetheless, it is is an extremely well-produced action thriller, and one of the franchises strongest serials.
One of its standout strong qualities is the characterization. This is a story with decent sized and well-developed cast, nearly all of whom appear in all four episodes. And almost everyone in the story is villainous, or at least reprehensibly self-serving. But even so they’re all clearly defined, with their own distinct agendas and personalities. The drama comes out of their conflicts with one another, which the Doctor and Peri must then navigate to simply stay alive.
No other classic Doctor was presented with such an aura of virtue as Peter Davison’s, and as such the Fifth Doctor stands out sharply against the sea of immorality and amorality that make up the Androzani system. Just about everyone else is driven by something to the point of obsession, forcing the Doctor to push harder and harder just to save the life of his companion.
The dramatic tension builds over the four episodes, until we get to the stellar cliffhanger of Part Three. Here, the Doctor crashes his spaceship to get back to the planet where he’s left his friend behind, followed by the episode-long quest to find the cure for Peri’s ailment and get her back to the TARDIS before the whole area they are in explodes completely.
The whole story is strong but the energized direction by Graeme Harper and the breathless sense of pace to the story makes this last third or so of the runtime something that is hard to look away from. The drama pushes through right to the final moments as the Doctor regenerates on the floor of the TARDIS, in one of the Doctor Who‘s best such scenes from either the old series or new. It’s the first time that former cast members were brought back to film special end-of-era cameos, which makes it extra fun.
Only the fact that the moment is shot in a way that needlessly and distractingly sexualizes Peri lessens it at all.
Peter Davison is unbelievably good in his final regular outing as the Doctor, whether he is facing off in a battle of words with the insane Sharaz Jek, or contending with the volatile gunrunner Stotz, or trying to get the insecure and driven General Chellack to see reason. And the various guest actors that he is surrounded with are equally compelling.
Christopher Gable is very strong as Jek, a part he has to convey under either a mask or some pretty severe make-up, and John Normington is incredibly memorable as the vile corrupt businessman, Morgus. Maurice Roëves, who plays Stotz, has got great screen presence, and I thought that Roy Holder brought a lot of personality to Krelper, a character that would have been easy to throw away.
Caves of Androzanii might be one of Nicola Bryant’s bets televised Doctor Who stories as Peri as well. She has to be someone who is captured or dying for most of it, but she plays those things well–not like someone who is just a victim, but as someone who is an ordinary woman just caught up in overwhelming circumstances. It’s relatable, with a level of bravery, and free from the annoying bickering that marked a lot of her stories with Colin Baker later on.
The obvious weakness for the story is the effects for the monster, the so-called Magma Beast. The design work for the serial is in general really strong, but this lumbering creature is not doing anyone any favors. It’s not the worst thing the show has presented but never gets past looking like a guy in an awkward costume. It probably would have been more convincing as an actual animal if it had walked around on four legs, but I imagine that would have been harder to achieve. Considering how inconsequential the Magma Beast is to the plot, one can imagine the temptation to remove it all together, but monsters are such a part of the format of the show that that may not have been an option.
A couple of final notes. There is a visual effect used during Peter Davison’s regeneration scene, which gives the impression that the viewer is racing down a vertical split in the screen. That same effect appears briefly at the end of Part Three, as the Doctor is preparing the crash the ship.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized what is happening here is that the Doctor’s regeneration is already beginning, but he is holding it back in his efforts to save Peri. It’s a cool detail which elevates the Doctor’s already heroic portrayal.
(Incidentally, it’d be interesting to have a story someday where the Doctor actually regenerates mid-adventure, which is the kind of thing you’d think would happen someday. But then it’d be hard to include the sense of ceremony that always come with these moments. I guess the closest we’ve ever had to this is from Logopolis to Castrovalva, with the Master still running around causing trouble).
The other point is to make is that this story is often touted as a bit of an all-male bloodbath: every male character dies in the course of things, including the Doctor himself. Only the only two woman–Peri and Krau Timmin, escape this fate. That’s not strictly true. There is an uncredited man in Trau Morgus’ office in Part One, whom Morgus sends out to the troublesome Northcawl copper mine–they’ve been overproducing. He murmurs a quiet, “Yes, Trau,” as he goes. (Later you hear the mine has been destroyed in an explosion, so it sounds like the man did his job.). In any case, he is clearly a man, and nothing in the story indicates he didn’t survive, even if he is so uncredited he’s not listed with the other uncredited actors that I could.
Finally, Androzani is the first Doctor Who adventure to have a new Doctor debuting at the end who also has his own lines of dialogue–a practice which is now quite common. Colin Baker even gets top-billing in the last episode, which is a fun idea, although the episodes that were to follow were disappointing to most. Even so, it doesn’t detract from the impact and effectiveness of The Caves of Androzani‘s storytelling, which is nicely capped off by the Sixth Doctor’s startling debut.