Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Serial 117: Four to Doomsday

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

Written by: Terence Dudley
Directed by: John Black

Background & Significance: A few months back we talked about "Castrovalva" and sure we had a right old laugh celebrating Peter Davison's first story, but what I failed to mention was that it wasn't ACTUALLY Peter Davison's first story. "Four to Doomsday" was the first serial Peter Davison filmed, and it's in this story that we get to see him having his first few steps as The Doctor. And boy howdy, man. Boy howdy. That guy is on from minute one.

Written by previous Doctor Who director Terence Dudley (he of "Meglos"-directing fame) who would go on to do "Black Orchid" and "The King's Demons", "Four to Doomsday" is a fairly typical Doctor Who story. It's a bit slow in places, a lot of it is about characters and mystery and seeing how annoying Tegan can be and watching Adric do whatever it is that Adric does. (Also dancing. Lots of dancing.) It's the first real Fifth Doctor adventure in the sense that "Castrovalva" is a lot about dealing with the aftermath of "Logopolis" and The Doctor's recovery as he transitions into this new chap we're going to be following for the next three years. This is a lot more about The Doctor going out and having a great adventure, saving the day, and really taking the car out for its test drive.

It's also here that we really start to see what Nathan-Turner's influence really kick in. The previous year was just about cleaning house and preparing the way for his vision to start, but here... Man. All the things he brought to the table are here: new markets, Star Wars, fun adventuring, the works.

Interestingly enough, "Four to Doomsday" was supposed to be a point for the show to get rid of Nyssa. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (obsessed with Tegan and feeling Adric was a good touchstone for the young viewers) thought getting rid of Nyssa was a good idea to trim back the oversized TARDIS crew, but after intense lobbying from Peter Davison (who felt Nyssa was the most Fifth Doctorish Companion (and she was)) decided against it. It really is a classic case of actor knowing more than producer if you ask me, especially because Nyssa is TOTALLY Davison's strongest companion (at least for his Doctor) and losing her would have been a huge mistake, especially if you consider that the alternative means that Adric wouldn't have died and Waterhouse woulda been around for at least another season beyond this one.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

This story reminds me a lot of “The Ark in Space.”

If you think about it, the similarities are there. The Doctor and his companions are alone and exploring an unidentified space machine (space station/beacon in “Ark”, giant massive spaceship here) and it’s really all about them for the first section. Unfortunately, that section ends about halfway through this episode when The Doctor and Tegan meet Monarch, Enlightenment, and Persuasion for the first time, when suddenly we have the big sci-fi conceit to play with, but that’s okay. It does lead to some wonderful early stuff.

Already we learn a lot about Davison’s Doctor. If you assume that “Castrovalva” didn’t allow his Doctor to be fullest until the very end of that stroy, this one shows a lot about him and what he’s going to be like moving forward.

As such, what we’re left with is a lot of room for Davison to fill the part. Like with other early stories of other early Doctors, the nuances of the actor’s take on the character are left out in favour of a more generic and vanilla Doctor. That’s not a bad thing, but it means you don’t have the… Davison that I connect to later. But he’s fine and is definitely trying out the role and trying out things and what he wants to do. He has the wide eyed wonder that I find missing in quite a lot of other Doctors (Pertwee and Tom Baker for example) and there’s a youthful exuberance that he brings that was never brought to the part before that he really dials into.

And all that’s in his first real shot as the Doctor. Astounding.

It’s when you get to the other characters that I think there’s a bit of a problem. We start off with our mains in the TARDIS all talking and chatting it up, giving us a heads up as to who they are and what’s up with them, but not in… a healthy way.

Tegan (as we know from ALL OF THE TEGAN IN SEASON ONE) is obsessed with getting out of the TARDIS and out into the world so she can go back to Heathrow and replace traveling in the TARDIS with some generic, boring, no-aspirations, Lifetime movie of a job (that’s a job in Lifetime movies, right? Stewardess?). Before I start tearing that apart, I guess I should caveat by saying that it makes sense and it’s a character goal and it gives her some driving conflict. That’s all fine and good or whatever. The only problem with that is it leads to some astoundingly horrendous character work in here.

And this is my problem with Tegan (I feel like I say that more than I should).

Tegan is not a fun character. She’s not the sorta person I want to see in the TARDIS or hanging around with The Doctor. Does that make me a bit elitist? Sure. I guess I want only the best companions to travel with The Doctor. Maybe not the best people, but the characters traveling in the TARDIS should at least want to be there. They should at least be enjoying THE INSANELY WONDROUS AND AMAZING SIGHTS AND SOUNDS AND SMELLS AND EXPERIENCES OF BEING ANYWHERE AND ANYWHEN. Tegan, of course, has no interest in this. None at all. She’s just a sour, sour person interested in nothing but complaining about not being on an airplane and traveling out of Heathrow to anywhere in the world.

I hate this. I really do. And I like that The Doctor is doing his best to give her what she wants (it is his fault she’s there, after all), but at the same time I really wouldn’t have any desire to put up with her shit. Because it is shit. She treats people horribly (hardly stewardess behavior) and throws nothing but tantrums at every turn. I mean, The Doctor tries his best to show Tegan the wonders of the universe, but it only ever leads to her being bitter and whiny and negative. That’s not the show I want to watch. I like watching characters who like to be there, who are just so delighted to actually be on the TARDIS that they couldn’t dream or want anything else.

Cuz if you look at Adric, he’s almost there. He just needs to stop being a pretentious dick about everything (calling salt "sodium chloride", just to be a ponce), and whining about how he has to stay with Nyssa and not hang out with The Doctor when The Doctor chooses Tegan.

That’s why I love Nyssa here. And Nyssa is god damn boring in this episode. She’s literally there to read a book and then check out the tons of gadgets and whiz-bangs that she sees all over the ship. Is that a boring job? Sure. It’s not the thing I’d want to do, but it does allow for some terrific interaction between her and The Doctor, because he finds her inquisitive nature endearing and enjoyable. There’s something about the way The Doctor smiles at Nyssa. You can tell that it’s a truly special relationship they have, and one of the few that actually works without any problems in the Davison era.

But the rest of this at the very least is interesting. There’s a good strong mystery (with plenty of hints as to what’s really going on) at the center of it and the character of Monarch is cool and threatening without being lame. Same with Enlightenment and Persuasion, for that matter, especially because they have just enough mystery to keep them interesting. As a point of anger, though, I will point out (just as a spoiler SO SPOILER CAPS ON) that Enlightenment and Persuasion are named that for no other reason than because they are. It’s not like he’s really good at persuading and she’s really enlightened. Nothing like that. He’s the Minister of Persuasion, she the Minister of Enlightenment. It’s crazy.

Also, if Tegan can draw that good, maybe she should think about being an artist and not a stewardess?

Part 2:

This is a perfect example of an episode that has some truly excellent bits and some truly blah bits.

Blah bits first.

The biggest problem with this story is Nathan-Turner as producer. Of course, that ends up being a blessing as well (this story at the very least feels fresh), but when you can see the scaffolding of Nathan-Turner’s producership fully on display like it is here, you’re in a bit of trouble. Part of the reason why Nathan-Turner eventually failed as producer was whenever he was an over-bearing  producer, making and imposing choices that affected the integrity of the story. That whole thing is on full display here with the showing off to other cultures, which was in no way a blatant attempt at trying to get Doctor Who into different markets.

The only reason why this isn’t as bad as it could be is because Dudley makes a strong concerted effort to make this production mandate work in a strong and believable way, which does work, I think. Or, at least, I’m not left seeing it as a weird decision that doesn’t really work. Unfortunately, this means we’re left with long stretches of watching other cultures for no real reason other than we need to show them off. Sure, there’s a cool fight between some Spartan warriors or whatever, but it is fairly undramatic and far from the exciting, dashing adventure I want in a Davison story.

The other areas, though, more than make up for this.

For one thing, there’s the entire mystery of what’s going on with this ship, which is the main plot of this episode. It even starts with a truly fantastic scene in which the Doctor and his companions have a conversation in which they start to work out what they need to find out based on what they know and how that affects everything else and all that early investigation stuff. I love that. A lot. I mean, I think that for the most part, the dynamic of this group does not work at this time. One of the characters needs to be shunted to the side so a core group of three can make it all work. Usually it’s Nyssa (unfortunate), but here it feels like everyone’s contributing at all times.

Sure, so Tegan’s the “what does that mean” girl, but did you really expect anything different?

And I love that. It’s a rare scene of teamwork and strong relationships that this time frame sorely lacks, if you ask me. Nevermind that The Doctor is still palling around with Tegan (still not sure why), it all works.

We also get some strong investigating with Adric and Nyssa exploring the ship section by section while The Doctor and Tegan try to get closer to Bigon to find out what he knows. It leads to some truly great scenes, like when The Doctor stands up and collapses for next to no reason or when Nyssa and Adric learn about the weird devices on every ethnic character’s hand. Nevermind that it’s not necessarily accomplishing anything. Entire episodes of Doctor Who go by with nothing happening. It happens sometimes. So long as it’s entertaining, I hardly think that matters.

And while this plot’s going on, the more I watch it, the more I marvel at how subtly genius the big “twist” at the end of the episode is. A lot of that goes to Dudley, who does a great job of planting EVERY clue he can possibly plant in preparation for the big realization payoff at the end. I dunno. Maybe I’m dumb, but I seriously had NO Idea that Bigon (or the rest of everyone) was a robot. It’s totally obvious in retrospect, but why I didn’t think to go there is beyond me. Perhaps it’s the introduction of the aliens (Monarch, etc) that made me think something different, but the Bigon reveal at the end really works in the way only the best mystery reveals work. It’s Agatha Christie: the revelations are both surprising and inevitable.

So mad props to Dudley for making that reveal work. It’s a great turning point for the story, especially one that’s so shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Two episodes in, I think this is strong, entertaining stuff. Sure, it’s not the best, but god damn am I having a good time.

Part 3:

And then I started to have a bit of a sketchy time with this.

First the good: I love Davison here. I love the way he’s firm but gentle. It’s a very paternal attempt at the role, and something not seen since Pertwee. I love the way he treats Tegan when she needs to be told that she’s wrong and I likewise love the way he interacts with Nyssa and later Adric (rescuing her and dismissing him). It’s a strong performance (isn’t it always?) and it’s super awesome that he’s this good this early. The guy only ever did get better and this is a great showing for him.

And then there’s the bad.

I hate Tegan. I just can’t stand her, and before everyone throws the “you just don’t understand what she’s going through” thing at me, believe me, that’s not the case. I understand how much she can be freaking out after seeing the madness of Bigon’s reveal at the end of the last episode. I understand that she’s concerned for her planet. I understand that she’s not having the best of days. I understand that she just wants to go home. Hell, I even understand and respect Janet Fielding’s performance of the character, with her freaking out as she’s trying to get the TARDIS the hell out of there. What I cannot abide is how completely nonsensical it is for the character to behave this way.

Sure, maybe I know The Doctor better than she does (this is our 99th story we’ve covered on this blog, after all), but this is the shit Tegan is pulling EVERY. BLOODY. EPISODE. After Logopolis and after Castrovalva you’d think she’d trust him a bit more, but no. We’re back to her doing the great big reset button and being the one who has to naysay and be a contrarian or whatever. I hate that. I hate it a lot. It’s especially useless because what does she hope to accomplish. The Doctor talks sense (“You land on Earth and then what? No one will believe you!”), but she doesn’t listen to him, thinking she’s the one who knows how best to do the thing. It’s completely unbelievable and doesn’t help the story at all.


Speaking of giant character reset buttons, Adric is back doing the “wait is he going to the dark side?” thing he did back in "State of Decay", what with teaming up with the bad guy and going along with their plan rather than The Doctor’s. It’s not that I have a problem with this in theory, but it’s like Terence Dudley is writing these characters as if they have not had any experiences that have informed them to behave differently than how they did when they first showed up in the TARDIS. Sure, that allows him to nail character moments and nail certain things for people who had never seen the show before, but it also means that the character work doesn’t make sense if you know these characters even remotely well.

And then there’s Monarch. Oh boy, Monarch.

So here’s Monarch. He’s a guy who’s an alien who eventually managed to become part cybernetic life form and extend his life into millennia levels (he’s been around for over a dozen millennia at this point) and who thinks that because he has created robots based on organic organisms that he has the ability to control and alter life, but because he’s out of silicon he’s going back to Earth (which is abundant in silicon) so he can plunder the earth for its silicon and while he lands under a banner of peace he will release a deadly toxin that can shrink any organic life form, which will make him ruler of the earth long enough to steal its silicon so he can produce more robots to help calculate a formula that will allow him to develop faster than light travel, which, when he does, will allow him to go faster than light thereby enabling him to time travel back to the beginning of time where he will meet God. Whom he believes to be himself. Because he is god.


This is stupid. This is insanely stupid and super flawed. It’s almost as if Dudley was writing this story and it was going super well and he had all these great ideas and then realized it was episode three, time to stop creating ideas, time to start wrapping them up, and then created this big, giant, preposterous all-encompassing theory of what the hell is going on with this space ship. How do I know this? Because this is NEEDLESSLY complicated. Needlessly. It doesn’t really make much sense. It turns Monarch into the most complex one-dimensional villain I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Why? Because Monarch is absolutely one hundred percent insane. His creating robots (which, by the way, not that revolutionary. Have you seen the show, Mr. Monarch? There’s TONS of robots) has given him a god complex which means that he wants to meet God, who is, by the way, himself? That’s insane. That’s ludicrous. And he wants to do it by faster than light travel? Also preposterous. Have you seen the show? There’s TONS of that shit around.

So that fails. And fails completely. I don’t care how effective Monarch is at running his ship, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s batshit insane and he happens to have a COMPLETELY DEVASTATING BIOLOGICAL WEAPON. It’s here that Dudley fails and fails completely. It’s a problem you see in Doctor Who, where raising the stakes is always the name of the game, but instead of going for something simple (Morgus wants Spectrox, Sharaz Jek wants Morgus dead) they go for something out of this world and far, far beyond the realm of believability. I mean, look at the Moffat era. If Moffat made something much simpler, “The Wedding of River Song” wouldn’t have been such an unmitigated mess that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The more complicated you make something, the harder that sense is to make. That’s what makes Sutekh succeed where the Cybermen of “Earthshock” (and “Attack of the Cybermen” for that matter) fail. It’s why all of the non TARDIS-team characters of "Caves of Androzani" succeed, and why the Silence is laughably incompetent at everything it seems to do and why nothing it seems to do ever seems to make sense. Simple is ALWAYS better. Hell, even going for something complex is fine. But don’t make things complicated. Complicated things get lost in the shuffle. They’re all flash and no substance. Complex things always have nuance and something deeper going on beneath the surface that can (however compromisingly to its impressiveness), be factored down to something at least simple on the surface.

Sigh. How unfortunate. We were doing so well.

Part 4:

Before I go any further, I have to add how much I LOVE this set design.

The designer of this story is Tony Burrough and he very famously created a set that was infinitely malleable and jigsaw like. The walls are one thing, but the reason the rooms all tend to look so different (at least in terms of layout) is because of the extremely mobile sets. As such, it doesn’t look like they’re constantly visiting the same place over and over again, much in the same way it works in “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s got a cool Star Wars vibe and it’s a great way to keep sets from looking too repetitious. Totally awesome, totally memorable.

Anyways. Let’s set the tone with a little youtube. I never do them anymore (that’s what happens when I don’t have to recap and fill the void) and when I want to do them The BBC always takes them down. BUT ANYWAYS. Here’s a youtube.

I really love that sequence. Is it a bit dopey? Sure. Is it a bit ropey? Definitely. But it’s just so… fun. And it’s exciting and exhilarating and totally full of moments for cheering and excitement. I quite love it. Sure, it doesn’t really follow the laws of physics (why does The Doctor stop after he jumps off the ship?), but it’s really, really excellent in just how much fun I have while watching it. Total highlight.

The rest of this episode is not as fun as that one sequence but not as maddening as the third.

Here, we see The Doctor attempt to win over Adric who (like I said earlier) has turned coat and started to work with Monarch to help commit genocide against the whole of earth. We also see The Doctor rescue Tegan from the TARDIS, and he has a weird thing where he saves his breath by hyperventilating. He also steals Bigon by hiding under one of those Chinese dragon things (which is hilarious) and out-thinks Monarch, which, granted, was not that difficult. I mean, Monarch was only smart enough to create and subjugate androids. Anyone could do that, don’t you think?

But more than that I’m not sure what to say. I’m not sure I love the bit where The Doctor “kills” Monarch by throwing a giant canister of toxin at him (and wouldn’t it spread through the atmosphere?) because it seems a bit ruthless for him. Likewise, the moment that Monarch gets off his throne is robbed by the first episode when Monarch first got off his throne to go check out the TARDIS. Then again, if you forgot about that, this is a total eff yeah fist pump moment if you ask me. But he fails to really do anything in the long run, doesn’t he? All he’s done is barked orders at his computers to have people shut down or do his bidding. That doesn’t make him a great bad guy, just a half-competent facilitator. Or administrator, I can’t keep those words straight.

So really, he’s far from the great bad guy you want out of a Doctor Who story. But there it is. We can’t all be perfect.

Final Thoughts?: Would you believe that "Four to Doomsday" is considered easily one of the weakest Davison stories? I can.

That's not to say it's not bad. This is the third time I've seen it, but I hardly think it's unwatchable. Sure, Monarch is not a great villain, and sure the character work is really shaky from a "we've already done this" point, but the rest of this is solid.

There's thrilling parts and exciting parts. There's a great mystery for the first two episodes and it does a good job of showing off the ship and providing a good amount of intrigue to keep the story going. Sure, it gets away from them in the third and fourth parts, but that's fine. I'm pretty into the story by that point that I don't much mind. It just hurts it that it's so frustrating at times. It's an awful story for both Tegan and Adric as they're given terrible stuff to do. Same with Nyssa, as she's shunted to the side at just about every conceivable opportunity. Honestly, this story is the biggest and best example of "overcrowded TARDIS" if you ask me. And no one does it very well, which is understandable. Four characters (and one of those is The Doctor) is insanely hard to juggle, so I don't fault Dudley for that. I just wish he'd been a bit more innovative in other places.

Otherwise, this is largely forgettable. There's good set pieces and some great Davison (isn't there always, though?), but all in all it's far from perfect and really only signals the best yet to come. I mean, for reals, this story comes between "Castrovalva" and "Kinda" and in the same season as insta-classic "Earthshock". Even "The Visitation" is a stronger outing than this. Well, I think it is anyways. I loves me some "Visitation". And then when you compare what comes later for Davison ("Snakedance", "Mawdryn Undead", "Enlightenment", and "Five Doctors" in the next season, "Frontios", "Resurrection of the Daleks", "Planet of Fire" and "Caves" in the one after that) it's no wonder this is considered lost in the shuffle and a far cry from the fulfilled potential we see in his later stories.

But really, when it comes right down to it, it's just a fun, watchable episode. That might not be enough for some people, but when it comes to the Davison era or any Doctor Who in general, that's good for me when the time to watch it comes around.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Leela! Jago & Litefoot! A Little Jack the Ripper! Time Agents! Giant rats! Night shoots! Ambience ambience! Racism racism! Grab your elephant guns and put on your deerstalker hats! Next week is our 100th story and I think it's high time we discuss the absolute pinnacle of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, because you guys. YOU GUYS. Next Tuesday? We're talking "The Talons of Weng-Chiang!"


  1. Couldn't agree with you more re: Tegan and Nyssa, super excited for next time!! :)

  2. Your review reminded me, Matt, that in Who-ville, there are as many opinions as there are fans. I read along noting all the spots where I disagree, to wit: I think "Visitation" is a bore; I have no problem with Tegan; I find the Sutekh saga to be the most overrated in Who history; I love the Silence, "Wedding of River Song" and the vast majority of Moffat's reign to date; I prefer Davison's first season to the two that follow. But so many other points on which we agree. I too find "Four to Doomsday," as you put it, "a fun, watchable episode." As always, Terence Dudley excels at dialogue, atmosphere, and characterization, but can't devise -- or heaven knows, resolve -- a plot to save his life. In fact, his scripts seem almost determined NOT to tell a story: they always have these set-pieces -- masquerade parties, jousts, dance recitals -- that stop the action cold. But his divertissements are so, well, diverting, and his conceits are graceful that you forgive a lot. I can't imagine Pertwee or Baker in a Dudley story, but they work well for Davison, who demonstrates during his Who tenure that he can play just about anything. And Dudley gets lucky: here, as in "Black Orchid," the production design is top-notch.

  3. I took Monarch as a religious leader and the conversion of living people into immortal androids as a rather chilling metaphor for the way religion offers eternal life as the reward for faith from its followers. A friend told me the villain is called Monarch because the King was the one who led the crusades. The fact Monarch is nuts and thinks he is God seems to be a dig at people like Charles Manson. The biggest chiller for me is when Monarch has to ask Enlightenment the meaning of "love" and she tells him it is fantasy-swapping!