Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Serial 116: Castrovalva

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Adric, Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka

Written by: Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Fiona Cumming

Background & Significance: It's no secret that I have tons of affection for Peter Davison. I know I mention it every time we talk about one of his stories, but really, I can't help it. The man is a born and bred actor with a real penchant for the character that holds from... minute one, I'd say.

And this is his minute one.

Comparing him to the just-gone-by Tom Baker, the contrast is stark. Again, a Doctor always seems to be a reaction against The Doctor before. Tom Baker's Doctor was... an alien, quick to anger, very... loopy, mismatched in his clothing choices, and... a drunk (haha to that last part). Looking at Davison's Doctor... Davison is decidedly... not.

Davison's Doctor always seems to have a good head on his shoulders, is wonderfully human, always present, rather calm, very dapper... I suspect that, more often than not, people have the propensity to not get him because... he is a challenging Doctor (not, perhaps, as challenging as say Colin Baker, but for that I blame the stories Colin Baker was burdened with). He's much more subtle than all the other Doctors, very much a background player and not a limelight-stealer.

Not only that, but his inception as almost the anti-Tom Baker instantly turns off all the rabid Tom Baker fans who blindly follow him despite many examples of his failures.

Davison's era ushered in a real creative renaissance to Doctor Who. For a show that had been mostly languishing for the several years (and let's be honest, the show was never quite the same after the departure of Hinchcliffe/Holmes), the Doctor Who team (led by Davison, Jonathan Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward) shot the show full of adrenaline the likes of which the show hadn't seen in years. What had started with the final season of Tom Baker spun off into a new direction under the new Doctor.

"Castrovalva" is where all of that starts, with an adventure I've mostly heard called "slow", "boring", and "underwhelming" for the most part. That's a moot point as the real question is: does it effectively setup this new Doctor for his tenure and his stretch of stories? We've already seen a few post-regeneration stories, all designed to set us up to this new guy we're supposed to love. My question is, as always, does "Castrovalva" work?

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

For some reason, I have this preconception in my brain in which I think the prevailing thought by most Doctor Who fans is that Castrovalva is not very good.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that there’s better first stories. “The Eleventh Hour” is the first to come to mind because that’s far and away the best introduction story ever as far as I’m concerned, and while I don’t think “Power of the Daleks” or “Spearhead from Space” are perfect vehicles to show off Troughton and Pertwee respectively, they’re definitely stronger stories than this is. But for each of those, you have the ones that don’t show off the Doctor so well, the prevailing examples in that camp being “The Twin Dilemma” and “Time and the Rani” which we’ll talk about at some point, I’m sure (we kinda have to, don’t we?).

But as far as those go, I think I’d put Castrovalva right in the middle, right above “Robot” and “The Christmas Invasion”.

Part of the reason for my love of this story is probably my complete and total infatuation with Peter Davison and his portrayal of The Doctor, which is… not so much as bolstered by this script as Davison hops in the vehicle of this script and drives it right to the bank. And I think a lot of that comes from the pressure placed on what must have been a quite worried producer in Jonathan Nathan-Turner. Returning to Doctor Who after the “devastating loss” of seven years of Tom Baker is hard to bounce back from no matter who you are. To an entire generation of children, Tom Baker *was* Doctor Who, and going in and re-introducing the concept of regeneration from scratch is… it must have been daunting.

And because they can’t come in and tell the most kick assingest story because all anyone would think about if they did that was “Why isn’t this a Tom Baker story”?

So this story really does become a vehicle through which Davison gets to show us what he’s made of. Sure, there are better Davison stories and far better ones that show him and his acting skills off more, but this really does become the vehicle for him and him alone and right from his walk through the TARDIS as he searches for the Zero Room he’s just… on the game. Every line, every motion… it’s all measured and perfectly right on. I mean, spot perfect. Him doing imitations of previous incarnations cuz his brain’s all jumbled is so magnificent I can’t even tell you…

So I’ll just show you.

Now, this really is, more than anything, the start of the Nathan-Turner continuity hour. I mean, you say bringing The Master back is continuity binging, but I don’t really think so. Recurring villains like that is not so much with the endless continui-talk.

Here, though, it’s different.

The only reason this works is because we all know what Hartnell and Troughton and Pertwee and Tom Baker act like as The Doctor. If you don’t know, you’ll just think it’s strange. And it is. But still.

What I find most interesting about this is that it points out all the other people who’ve done the part and it shows you that Davison is not going to be like any of them. Davison is allowed (even encouraged) to be his own Doctor, independent of all these different actors but pulling from them as he will. As such, he comes out as tremendously strong because his interpretation of The Doctor is so unique, especially for the time. No Doctor had been like Davison until this and it’s… it’s just stronger for it because Davison gets to play The Doctor he wants to play.

But enough about Davison for now. What else is up?

I think adding The Master to this story is actually really rad, as we’ll see later on, although I’m confused as to a couple things while I’ll probably ruminate on later. But for now let’s focus on the plan with Adric.

The Adric thing to me is rather strange. Why bother sending Adric to The Doctor’s TARDIS? Okay, well that’s obvious: we’re using him to lock the coordinates to go to Event One so we can defeat The Doctor by sucking his TARDIS into the big bang and yada yada yada and that’s all well and good, but does The Master have Adric under a trance? And if he does, why remove it later when you’ve got him strung up in that creepy bondage situation? Unless, that is you want Adric, real Adric to enjoy it. Which is creepy. I guess it doesn’t count if he’s mindwashed into thinking it feels good.


But back to the issue at hand. How exactly does The Master get Adric out of The TARDIS in the first place? We know he can spy on him (not creepy), but how does that help The Master get Adric out of The Doctor’s TARDIS?

Speaking of TARDISes, this, I think, is a great way to handle the TARDIS exploration. We all know writer-of-this-story Bidmead has a mad hard on for The TARDIS and exploring it as an institution, but I really think exploring it here is both effective and cheap, which is always a good thing for the Doctor Who. It’s helped by director extraordinaire Fiona Cumming, who is one of my favourite Doctor Who directors and rightfully so because she rocks my world.

Oh, and the Tegan/Nyssa stuff is boring and a waste of everyone’s time.

Part 2:

Of all the parts of Castrovalva, which is, granted, considered a slow story, I’d say part two is far and away the slowest.

Now, that’s not to say I think it’s bad. It’s really not. It’s actually quite incredible. It features the first time we see Davison leap into action and take charge of the situation, which is really quite incredible. Davison is already kicking ass at the part, and while this isn’t his first story filming (which was actually “Four to Doomsday”), it’s all the little ticks he brings to the role. The two that come to mind for me are the brainy specs (which are seriously fantastic every single time) and the use of coat to touch the scorching hot console. I love the care Davison puts into the role. You can really tell he’s owning the hell out of it.

I’m also still really into the Bidmead stuff in this. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Turning the doors of the Zero Room into a Zero Room Cabinet is really excellent.

In fact, the whole first half of this episode is nothing short of a thrill ride, but it does end up leaving "Castrovalva" as something of an uneven entity. I mean, the opening recap of this episode is quite a lot much longer than what I’m normally used to, but once we get into the Doctor/Nyssa/Tegan running around trying to save the TARDIS stuff it’s actually pretty thrilling and exciting. I love the way The Doctor gets in that wheelchair and races to save the day and the plot to jettison the rooms of the TARDIS and convert them into energy/thrust is really good.

But the whole thing has a bit of a weird structure.

See, there’s like… two two part stories in here. There’s the stuff that’s of them not at Castrovalva and then there’s the stuff of them actually at Castrovalva, but the action beats are all sparsed around very lazily. I mean, once they save the TARDIS the rest of the crew is left constructing the Zero Cabinet and landing the TARDIS and then the walking (it’s seriously some Lord of the Rings, but with a box on a wheel chair (also in this metaphor, Tegan is Elijah Wood because she is annoying)) and the whole thing just feels very slight and very slow.

Methodical, yes. But still incredibly slow and almost… I dunno, they could be more exciting about it. I will confess that.

While this is more true in the last episode, it’s interesting to see The Doctor as vulnerable as he is here. It’s one of the things that’s always bandied about in this story. Davison is constantly talked about as birthed into the world in a state of vulnerability and weakness. It’s a stark contrast to where he ends up in three year’s time in that spaceship, dying, and on a collision course with Androzani Minor, and that arc is one of the things I really love about Davison’s character, but all that’s best perhaps discussed at a later date (probably when we discuss “The Caves of Androzani”, but I digress).

What I love about this perhaps most of all is the fragility of the character.

I know that’s a controversial statement, especially to people who have a specific vision of The Doctor, but I love Davison’s vulnerability. I love how inherently flawed he is from minute one. He’s reliant on his companions and the people around him (as we’ll see coming up) rather than running all gung-ho and doing the “I can do this on my own” and being all perfect and never flawless… That’s not to say he isn’t at times (because he is constantly getting into mischief and getting himself out of it), but it’s really ballsy to have a main character who’s not afraid to rely on other people.

This, to me, is one of the reasons I’m not such a super fan of Tom Baker, especially later on.

One of the reasons Nathan-Turner removed Romana and K-9 from the mix is because he felt that Tom Baker’s Doctor had gotten too powerful, and with those two as companions (a magic robot dog with the ability to do anything and another Time Lord who’s about as smart as The Doctor himself), that team is just nigh indestructible. And I don’t think he’s wrong about that. I mean, is there any point in the back half of Tom Baker’s era when you get the feeling that he’s not going to win? It lowers the stakes and makes for uninteresting, uncompelling, and boring drama that doesn’t... matter and is uninteresting.

For Davison (and it really starts here as he’s unable to protect Adric, which will also come into play in “Earthshock”), we’re allowed to see him fail and not get away unscathed.

For that, I love what they do with him throughout his run. He’s put in situations that test him and try him, making for compelling, interesting, and dramatic stories.

So I’m really okay with him being fragile and vulnerable in this. I prefer my Doctor shown that way when the time comes. That’s a strength of Matt Smith and David Tennant and even what is probably the powerful Jon Pertwee moment of all time (“Planet of the Spiders“ when the Queen of the Eight Legs tells him to march and he goes around in a circle and you can see the sheer absolute terror on his face.)

What I mean to say is none of those complaints about “Castrovalva” really tend to bother me. It gives The Doctor somewhere to go, as compared to Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee, which is… what, exactly? Where are those Doctors going? Or are they just going to trounce around the universe doing whatever? Cuz, that’s something, but it’s not as interesting to me. Even “The Twin Dilemma” for ALL of its problems (which is many) has the nice through line of Colin Baker’s Doctor slowly growing a soul, which would have been his long term goal as time went on or whatever. That, to me, is more interesting. It gives your character somewhere to go, which makes for more interesting and dramatic stories.

That said? This walking through the woods stuff is slow and boring, but it does have the thing where Nyssa is slowly stripping off her clothing (awwww yeah). But even that means… what, exactly? Are we getting Nyssa character growth? Not really. Not here anyways. Does it symbolize something? Or is it just a way to simplify her costume?

I question you, Bidmead, I question you.

The worst part of that is they DEFINITELY have room to give Nyssa some development (like maybe the part where her planet was just erased from existence and everyone she ever knew is dead? Or how about the bit where The Master murdered her father and stole her identity?)

No. Wait. Sorry. We’re just simplifying her costume because it’s needlessly extravagant.

Sigh. Ah well. One day writing will be like that. But not in 1982.

Part 3:

So this is the second half of the story. Lovely.

The first half of the serial is the story about getting TO Castrovalva, and this half is the story of all the stuff that happens AT Castrovalva. This, to me, is a bit more interesting, and it’s interesting to see how much Davison we haven’t seen yet. He’s still wandering around trying to figure out himself and what it is he wants to do and who he is and how to behave. Still, this is all really strong character stuff that I really love. Davison is quite strong here, especially in the bit where he has that lovely scene with the little girl who teaches him how to count (which is awesome) and then remembers who Adric is.

I love that bit. Where he bursts into the room and calls Nyssa and Tegan on their bullshit and demands they stop dicking around and tell them where Adric is.

It’s a moment of affirmation, a powerful proclamation in action (not in word) of “I’m The Doctor and you will listen to me” and Nyssa and Tegan are forced to reconcile and come clean to this new, imposing Doctor for the first time. And then there’s this delightful run around I’m about to youtube that’s totally awesome and runny and action packed and has a really, really, incredibly strong cliffhanger that more than makes up for the lame one that ends off episode two. Honestly, it’s just great and visually impressive (despite being incredibly simple) and is kinda like “OH CRAP” and makes me really need to know what happens next, which is… of course… the best you can say about anything.


Lovely, no? Friggin love that thing.

So let’s talk about Castrovalva as a community, yes? Because I loves me some Castrovalva.

First off, I love these sets. They’re gorgeous. The courtyard alone is frakkin incredible. The sense of vertical space. The feel, the tone, the texture… It just looks and feels really, really excellent, totally memorable and gives that weird feeling that this all could suddenly collapse in on itself at any given second, which is… of course… Awesome and Eschery, ya know? How can you not love that?

There’s also some totally awesome characters and moments, like Shardovan (whom I love despite the fact that he really does very little) and the “Well that’s democracy for you” line, which gets me every time.

It also gives us the Portreve, which is something of a bad ass move. Most of the time, The Master is hiding for no particular reason and it’s just an opportunity for Ainley to get all dolled up in a campy disguise. But I will say? The hiding makes sense. The Master can’t gallivant around Castrovalva looking like The Master because the TARDIS crew will recognize him. So he disguises himself under a ton of fake hair and a great makeup job and it just looks so so good. I mean, the first time I watched this, I totally didn’t realize he was The Master until very late in the game, and I think that’s a combination of Ainley being the great actor he is and Fiona Cumming knowing just how to shoot it so you don’t realize it, at least initially. You could probably go all the way to the reveal in episode four and never even notice.

This of course, ties back to Adric, because if The Master is in Castrovalva then Adric is too, and and The Doctor eventually realizes that they need to find him..

And this brings me to my point.

In this story, we see the vulnerability of Adric and how much The Doctor will end up caring for him. It’s especially telling because The Doctor works so hard to save Adric from the situation, which will eventually not work as (because we all know, and if you don’t cover your ears for “Earthshock” spoilers) Adric will die in just a few stories’ time at the hands of the Cybermen in “Earthshock”.

Again, if you treat Davison like a big ol’ modern overarching story, it works. Even though it wasn’t designed that way, there’s enough there and threaded through to keep things analyzable and modern despite a very admitted lack of planning.

There’s something to that, I think. Davison very specifically has a wonderful father/daughter relationship with Nyssa, something touched upon in “Arc of Infinity” when Nyssa finally gets a chance to shine and something that’s kinda touched on later with Peri in “Planet of Fire” and “Caves of Androzani”, where he is forced to take on a protector role and shield her from all the crazy bad shit crashing around them. For Turlough, the relationship is admittedly adversarial (to start) and grows into something more buddy buddy; with Tegan, it’s something of a love-hate, what with the bickering and the clashing.

But Adric is different.

For this Doctor, in this story, Adric is the one The Doctor needs to save, and Adric’s vulnerability/capture comes ONLY from The Doctor’s own post-regeneration crisis which is, in fact, a vast limitation and weakness of his character. Not that it’s his fault, of course, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t see it that way. His job is to save the day and be the hero and stop the people from doing the thing and keep those around him safe but he can’t do that when he’s trying to recover from his regeneration. That’s why “Earthshock” is so devastating and why The 5th Doctor’s final word (SPOILER FOR THE 5TH DOCTOR’S FINAL WORD), “Adric”, is nothing short of inherently tragic. It’s the one and most devastating loss that matters most to him, the one that comes up again and again, perhaps never more than when he’s racing to save Peri from the Spectrox toxaemia. It’s inherently human and inherently remorseful and regretful.

And because of that, The Doctor’s demanding to see Adric is powerful.

The ONLY person who’s EVER in CONSTANT danger in this story is Adric, and that all comes from The Doctor’s own inherent weakness as a regenerating Time Lord. And then Adric in danger will come back in “Earthshock” and haunt him until his dying breath.

When I see that moment when The Doctor says “Where is he?”, you have to understand, it is for THAT moment (more than any other in this entire story, Doctor imitations included) that I love Davison and his entire run as The Doctor. He legitimately cares about what is currently/going to/possibly maybe happening to his companions, and none, perhaps, more so than Adric. Later on, it will be Adric as the one he cares most about (you'd argue it's Peri, but The 5th Doctor's last words aren't "Peri", are they?), and that affirmation, that bursting into the room? That is what matters, and it’s really, really great stuff.

So to all those who say “this Doctor is too nice all the time” or “too proper” or whatever the fuck people who hate on Davison say/think/believe, you should know:

There’s more here than you might give him credit for.

Part 4:

So after that rant what else is there left to say? I mean, you’d probably expect part four to be an action filled romp, right? Especially after the run around and intensity that was happening at the end of the previous episode.

The sad truth of it is a resounding “not so much”. See, part four suffers from the same fate as all the other parts in this. It’s very slow and very plodding. I mean, what really happens in this? The Doctor starts showing Castrovalva’s recursion to its citizens, he meets up against The Master, he rescues Adric, and they escape. It’s very, very plodding and slow.

Again, though, much to love.

Davison really does a great job with his story. All he needs to do here is come out and turn in a great performance, which he does. It’s not the most amazing of stories, but it’s definitely interesting and compelling and totally excellent. I love that his constant quest to discover himself is almost done and by the end he’s finished and ready to go on and have what I’ve heard someone call “Some Real Davison”. But I really think Davison shines here. You very much get the feeling that he’s trying to remember what’s going on, but it’s not…. the same.

It’s also his first real go-up against The Master. And I really like their dyamic. I’ve spoken about it in the past, but there’s something about it that gives a nice consistency to Davison. He goes up against The Master five times, essentially twice in every season, and The Master really does (in my mind) become The Doctor’s nemesis here in a ton of ways and Ainley and Davison do a phenomenal job playing off each other.

Not only that, but The Master being in this first episode of Davison helps bring around the show to a full circle as The Doctor and The Master “fight” for the final round in “Planet of Fire”, culminating in… well… that story’s ending.

Even getting outside The Master for a minute, though, it’s really interesting to see all the nice little touches Bidmead tosses into the script. Perhaps my favourite is the funeral march through the central plaza because it really hammers home the notion of death and rebirth of The Doctor, but on a metaphorical level. I really like that. It reminds me of the coffin sequence in the book Les Miserables, which is… well… always a good thing for me. Cuz that reference has been in my head for about six years at this point.

Finally, I think I should point out the interpretation of The 5th Doctor, and where that comes from and why I don’t agree with it.

See, one of the big prevailing notions of the 5th Doctor is the notion that he inspires and encourages those around him to be greater than they are.

That, of course, comes from here, and nowhere is it more present than in The Doctor’s final great act of "Castrovalva". He manages to have such a powerful influence on them that they defy their own creation and detain The Master, which is inspiring and why everyone would talk about all this. And yet, I think that gets away from Davison’s Doctor’s traits. See, I don’t think he so much is relying on other people as he’s just eternally optimistic about the capabilities of those around him.

In many cases, this works to his advantage. Take the end of “Enlightenment” and how that works.

But as The 5th Doctor goes through his adventures, I find that he finds more and more that the universe is kind of a dick, and he finds strength in fighting for the one aspect of goodness in his life that he can hold onto: those he cares about.

I mean, take Shardovan. Shardovan out and out sacrifices himself to save The Doctor and you can tell that The Doctor is feeling it, but not so much as it’s distracting him from the task at hand. Same goes for later stories. The 5th Doctor sees a lot of carnage, and the only person who out-carnages him (in my mind) is Colin Baker in his era, and by that point the show is so completely off the rails with hyper violence and unnecessary bloodshed that it’s not worth watching. (I’d count Tom Baker, but the high body count and violence was only for the first three seasons, so…)

But in Davison it works because he’s such a pure force fighting for Lawful Good and good, (as we’re about to see as his run goes on and Davison moves forward) is a weak and vulnerable force, one that is fragile, easily corrupted, but necessary because of all the evil out there in the universe.

So yeah. Davison inspires, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about the why he does it. Which is what makes him such a strong Doctor.

Final Thoughts?: So this is far from perfect, but it's still kinda fantastic.

I think one of the issues with it is that it's so sparse. All the re-cap, lead-up to the cliffhanger bits are all very long and drawn out and give you a TON of what happened last time. This sorta thing only happens when the episodes run short or whatever (like excessive establishing shots).

Not only that, but there's a LOT of running around and long stretches of time when nothing really happens. Do they really need that many books from Shardovan? How many times do the Castrovalvans have to steal the Zero Cabinet before the TARDIS crew gets wise to their moves and hides the cabinet from them? And, honestly what does all this aimless wandering have to do to anything. It's very much a saunter story.

But I'm really kinda okay with that.

"Castrovalva" is mostly awesome for the way it really kicks off the Nathan-Turner ethos and the Davison era. That's obvious, I know. But think about how different these stories are from Tom Baker just a season before. Nathan-Turner's direction has shifted the show into a much more high adventure, action-packed sorta thing, which is totally badass. Davison's era is very much a return to classic stylings and classic adventures and "Castrovalva" just has this totally badass, rompy, big ol' adventure feel that's prevalent throughout the era. There are exceptions (dear god how is "Time-Flight" so bad I don't understand), but those are very much not the norm. AND EVEN IF THEY'RE NOT! They've still got this totally awesome feel to them. Lookit "Arc of Infinity." Awful. Dreadful even. But there's still some high adventure and lots of running around and a feeling that you're watching something that is an instant classic.

Not only that, but "Castrovalva" functions as a perfect vehicle through which to introduce Davison.

Now, caveat, I know you know I love the hell out of Peter Davison, but truthfully, how can I not? How could this story be any less good to show him off? He's so good in it, and it's all about a character exploration of The Doctor to see who he is and watch him kinda grow into this new body he has. And Davison sells the hell out of it and there's a ton of really phenomenal moments and it's funny and it's exciting and it never ACTUALLY feels like it's wasting my time (despite the fact that it's mad slow in places).

It might not be the best post-regeneration story, but it functions much in the same way "The Eleventh Hour" works. It's not the most bendy of stories, but it's a great vehicle to introduce what is, essentially, a new take on an established character. And this, as we'll see when we discuss a few later post-regens at some point, is a much smarter way to go if you ask me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Water! The Master! Jo! The Navy! Sea Devils! AND THE SINGLE BEST GOD DAMN SWORDFIGHT I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE AND WE WILL YOUTUBE IT. Cassandra's back here next Tuesday with her look at "The Sea Devils!"

1 comment:

  1. It's a gorgeous production, but like the last one, quite a weak story.

    I like the fact that the Fifth Doctor is more vulnerable, but in this story he is in a weak and fragile state for just too long. I don't think it sets the Fifth Doctor off on the right footing.