Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Graeme Harper
Background & Significance: Robert Holmes is one of the three greatest Doctor Who writers of all time, which is rather fortunate because he also happens to be the most prolific, writing seventy two of the Classic series' original almost-seven-hundred episode run (which, by the way, is over ten percent of all Classic episodes). Throw in the lot that he oversaw as script editor and that number balloons to one hundred forty four (which is almost 20% of all Doctor Who episodes ever produced). His run was so long and prolific, in fact, it can be broken down into stages: two Troughton era stories (where he got his feet wet), to four classic Pertwee stories (which allowed him playing ground to experiment with different types of stories) to his run at script editor when he shaped and created (in a sense) Tom Baker's Doctor (during which he wrote five stories), to his few dabbles in the post-him Tom Baker era, to his long break where he didn't write any Doctor Who stories for five years, to his triumphant return with "The Caves of Androzani" and his final Colin Baker stories, which were landmarks and such. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of The Modern Era's Steven Moffat in that Moffat got his feet wet during Eccleston, played around with different stories during Tennant, and then took over the show for a new Doctor when Tennant left. Both men created/are creating classic, popular foes that are known for being scary, wrote tremendously famous/popular stories, and they both are proven to be idea factories through and through.
We've been talking about Holmes a lot lately. Hell, this is the fourth story penned by Holmes in the past two months, but this is one that's... special. It's the only time Holmes ever wrote for the 5th Doctor and it was his last opportunity to because this is Holmes's opportunity to write a Doctor's regeneration story. Indeed, it really brings him full circle because his bursting onto the scene happened in Jon Pertwee's first story (so he did a post-regen story) after two stories of warm-up. And this is his last story before (essentially) two stories of cool-down (if you count "Trial" as one big monolithic story). It also makes Holmes relatively unique, as he's one of only three other writers (Terrence Dicks, Christopher Bidmead, and Russell T. Davies) to write both a regeneration story (that is, a story that ends in regeneration) and a post-regeneration story (that is, a story that picks up immediately after The Doctor's regeneration).
The Five Doctors"). Holmes found the laundry list of things to include (Cybermen, a Dalek, Time Lords, Gallifrey, The Master, and Five Doctors) untenable and stepped down from scripting duties. But Saward, not wanting to let go of a good thing and desperate to get Holmes's quality into his own run on the show, managed to persuade Nathan-Turner to bring Holmes in for a different story. That story became, eventually, "The Caves of Androzani", The 5th Doctor's final story.
Revelation of the Daleks" but a number of stories during the David Tennant years (including the Cybermen stories in series two, "Utopia" in series three, series four's finale of "Stolen Earth/Journey's End", the exquisite "Waters of Mars", and a bunch of other programs like the BBC's most recent adaptation of Robin Hood.
I suppose I should also mention that in that Doctor Who Mighty 200 poll this came out at the very very top. So it is considered (at least as of 2009) as the fan-consensus greatest Doctor Who story ever produced. So no pressure there. That poll is basically just saying that this story is better than every single other Doctor Who story we've ever yet talked about. That's a tall order and with fifty years of television stories I'd say... well... it's worth discussing whether or not this is the best Doctor Who story ever. Granted, I know my own thoughts based on the one previous time I've watched this. I'm just wondering if this will confirm or adjust them.
So let's get to it!
Just a few short weeks ago, during an episode of Homeland in which [some major shit went down], I found myself thinking (as the major shit was going down) “how is this happening? How can they do this? Truly, this feels like a nightmare because it can’t be real. Someone’s going to wake up right now, one of these guys, because there’s no way they’re doing this right now.” And that’s not the first time something like that has happened to me. I mean, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it’s jarring. There’s a particular pace with which we expect a story to proceed and when it massively outstrips that pace it leaves us reeling because we can’t handle the relentlessness to which the story just messed with our characters in irreversible ways. Things are happening that seem unbelievable. So unbelievable that we intuit that someone is dreaming. And someone is about to wake up because this surely must be a fever dream. And I don’t know if it’s going to be Carrie or Brody or Saul or even me. Someone needs to wake up because that’s how you escape the nightmare state.
The weird thing about Doctor Who is that despite having almost eight hundred episodes under its belt it’s ridiculously difficult to get you into that nightmare space. Sure, they have moments that surprise you and make you gasp: “Professor YANA is The Master!” and “Oh my god the dude in black just killed Ibrahim Namin!” “How is Scarlioni in the Renaissance!” and “Castrovalva is a construct!” But all of those are plot-based reveals and careen the story into a new direction. The feeling of something being a nightmare has to do with a plot hitting a point of no return. We felt that in “Inferno” (which we just talked about last week) because… well… they blow up the world. And episode six feels like a “how are they going to get out of this” nightmare in the way that I’m talking about.
It takes “The Caves of Androzani” about eighteen minutes.
Now consider that. This story gets me to care about the characters and puts them in a point-of-no-return position before we’re even done. That’s insane. And yes, it does mean that Robert Holmes has to fudge the numbers a bit (The Doctor and Peri just so happen to walk across a dead drop just a minute before a bunch of Chellak’s men come across it themselves), but it’s the sorta thing where… we never question bad things happening to our characters. Pile on the bad, we’ll never question it. It’s only when there’s too much crazy random happenstance in a general “good” direction that it starts to irk us as cynical viewers (or savvy viewers as the case might be).
The War Games” and indeed the first episode of “The War Games” ends on basically the same beat as this.
Why, then, is this more staggering than 'The War Games”, though? They both end with The Doctor getting shot. And I think the reason here lies in Peri. Peri (as we’ll see) is really one of the main foci of this story in that much of the plot machinations run around her. But The Doctor here is clearly more concerned about Peri’s safety than he is for his own. He feels sorry he let her down and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself to get them out of the situation.
But let’s back up and talk about how extremely elegant this story is in getting us here. We get a bunch of the pieces right at the start that will end up playing a role later, but they’re all things that you wouldn’t really notice the first time because you don’t quite know what they mean. For example, the spectrox nest into which Peri “falls” is remarkably important for the whole story moving forward (although you’d never guess that at this point). The closest we get in terms of hints are the cramps in Peri’s legs and the blisters and rashes that are cropping up on both Peri and The Doctor. But there’s also hints of Sharez Jek and the way that Harper delays our reveal of him, shrouding him in both mystery and mystique leading up to his big reveal in the final moments of this episode.
But he doesn’t, and we get a kick ass script that is dynamically, thrillingly directed. Nothing about this doesn’t sparkle and Harper makes a big point of focusing on points of view. Look at the way we stay with Stotz and his men as they look at The Doctor and Peri standing by the guns, or the way that The Doctor looks out of his jail cell as the execution squad sets up for The Doctor and Peri’s forthcoming execution. Or the way that Jek (and this is Holmes rather than Harper, but Harper does convey it effectively) has cameras everywhere and is constantly spying on The Doctor and Peri and Chellak. There’s a voyeuristic quality to this world that Harper illustrates with his various angles and lenses.
This gets to the truth of the matter: that Harper is big on the basic rule of filmmaking that people can often forget as they study the field: film is a visual medium and was born from a non-aural mindset. I mean, silent film means that the first… what… thirtyish years of film had to convey everything that was going on via what you could see. Visual storytelling. It’s what film is all about. But Doctor Who being on television (which started out, essentially, as filmed plays) didn’t always accentuate the visual like the great directors did. So when you get visually acclimated Doctor Who directors, your Harpers, your Camfields, it comes off as remarkably sparky and exciting.
More than that, though, the performances are excellent here. I don’t need to talk about Davison here (mostly because there will be much, much, much more to say about Davison as the story goes on) except to say that he’s at the top of his game and we’re just getting started. No, the real person I have to throw it to is John Normington as Morgus, who gives a performance that is at once terrifying and hypnotic. I mean, it doesn’t help that Harper clearly knows how good Morgus is here because the shot where we get his reveal is… stunning. It’s the moment that makes you sit up and pay attention and go "what the hell is happening here?”
So we have a stunning director pulling out shot after shot of excellence and performance after performance before we’re even cooking with gas. And we have him on a script that Robert Holmes (after it came out) confessed he felt the ability to take liberties with the structure in ways other stories wouldn’t. And walking into this story just about everyone knows that this is this Doctor’s final tale. Any other story you put a gun to The Doctor’s head and you know it’s okay. Put it up to his head in a regeneration story and it’s slightly more intense.
And again it’s the visual. The red of The Doctor and Peri. The firing squad all standing in lines. The shot of just the guns and making it purely about the object that will murder our two heroes. The idea that we’ve NO idea how the hell they’re getting out of this. I mean, sure if you pay attention there’s a shot in here that totally one hundred percent gives it the hell away, but I’m willing to forgive it because in the moment you can know everything about that shot and that this is episode one and there’s three more to go and it’ll still have you on the edge of your seat. You’re just waiting the whole time to see how The Doctor and Peri are getting out of this. Are they going to run? Is Chellak going to change his mind? Is someone going to swing in and save the day? Surely this must be happening. We’re getting way too close to the end, someone please save them. Someone please.
But no one does. No calvary arrives. And we see the guns unload their automatic clips with deafening roars as the theme music crashes in and we smash to credits. And already we can feel ourselves spiraling down as it crashes in upon us. It feels like there is no future for The Doctor and Peri and how in the world are they going to get out of this one and how in the world did we get here in less than twenty five minutes and how in the world do we possibly move forward?
It feels like the world has ended. It feels like a nightmare. It feels like Androzani.
So it’s been a while since we’ve talked about structure, but I feel now is a perfect time to talk about the way Holmes approaches his stories and this one in particular. Having done his share of four and six part stories, it’s clear the guy knows how to construct a cracking tale. The trick, as he demonstrates, is to seed interesting ideas into earlier stories that might not be relevant in later ones. To put another way: while you’re setting everything up in the first episode, go ahead and add a subplot that only passes through the first episode to keep the audience’s attention while you prep the second. In other words, it’s a magic trick. You wave your hand and make it hocus pocus while your other hand performs the sleight that makes the whole thing possible in the first place. Distract your audience with something flashy so they won’t see the next bit coming.
Pyramids of Mars” this was Ibrahim Namin. And okay. That’s cool. He was interesting in that. In “The Deadly Assassin” it was the plot to assassinate The Time Lord President.
Now I love those two stories. They’re among my favorites. But at the end of the day, they don’t thematically tie into what those stories are actually about. In “Androzani” it’s different. “Androzani” is a big ol’ treatise about mortality and the impending demise of every single character in the story. Every scene, every beat is about how the different characters grapple with their mortality. That hits home in a big bad way in this episode (in which we realize that The Doctor and Peri unwittingly started dealing with this in the first four minutes of the episode) but it was also all over the first episode, wasn’t it. The first episode saw its major plotline blossom into The Doctor and Peri about to be put before a firing squad and the whole time they really just sit there thinking about their imminent demise.
The answer, as it turns out, was something that Holmes laid into the first episode and pays off here: the Spectrox nest Peri comes across in the first episode, the stuff she picked up and rolled around in her fingers and handed off to The Doctor is the vehicle of their demise. Ever since then, the cramps, the rashes, the blisters, all of that is Spectrox poisoning. Spectrox Toxaemia as Salateen calls it. The Doctor and Peri are dying. There is no real cure to speak of (the only cure if the milk of the Queen Bat and those are all deep in the caverns of Androzani, down so deep the air doesn’t go there) and again we have The Doctor and Peri fighting for their lives, only this time there won’t be a secret passageway and an android to pull them out at the last second.
Focusing away from The Doctor and Peri, though, it’s also in this episode that we learn about the nefarious Sharez Jek and supposed villain of this story.
Jek, as it turns out, is self-proclaimedly hideous and spends all of his time down in his lair with naught but androids for company. Okay, so maybe he has Salateen hanging out with him, but Salateen seems none too happy with the given situation and really seems to have given up on life. Now, I love Jek. I think Christopher Gable does a remarkable job considering a background as a ballet dancer. As with all Holmes villains (who are often physically grotesque and disguised by hideous masks) the power is in the voice and the caricaturistic motions the characters make. Gable, having a background in ballet perfectly manages to capture the sheer physicality such a character would require. And really, this isn’t like The Master or Morbius or Magnus Greel or Sutekh. Because Gable is given slightly more of his face to work with than they were. He gets his lips and a small section around his right eye.
It helps that the physicality is accentuated here like it’s not accentuated elsewhere. Jek goes for physical intimacy where the others wouldn’t. It’s tactile. You can’t imagine Morbius putting his claw on Peri, can you? Or at least, not in a way that isn’t an attempt to murder her. Instead, Jek is just a man who is starved for intimacy and human contact and he has surrounded himself with cold, unfeeling, unthinking, untalking androids. Oh and Salateen, but Jek is more interested in Salateen as someone who will keep him from going completely bonkers insane (more than he already is). And in that he becomes arguably my favorite Holmesian villain, doesn’t he? He’s got the whole package and seems far more wantonly dangerous than any of the other villains Holmes deals with. They’re all crippled, yes. But Jek is in no way helpless, is he? He’s able to go out and orchestrate an exchange of Spectrox for guns. He is not beholden to his lair, he just stays there because that is his home.
Ah. See. Here’s the bit where it gets fun. Jek wants the Doctor and Peri to stay with him forever. He has kidnapped them and brought them to his lair. But he says to Peri that she and he will stay there forever, together, the way it’s meant to be. Now, getting away from the very classic Phantom-esque trope of the hideous monster bringing the beautiful girl down into his lair and locking her there and planning to keep her there forever, for once this is a Holmesian plot that links thematically to what he’s talking about with “mortality”. Jek, who more than anyone in this story save perhaps The Doctor should be aware of his mortality, isn’t. He thinks he will live forever. He survived the mud blast. It left him disfigured, but he plans to live in perpetuity.
Here’s the thing, though. Then why tell Peri they’re going to live forever? I mean, besides the Spectrox issue (which I’m getting to) whereby he can live perpetually forever, does this mean that Jek realizes that his quest for vengeance on Morgus is quixotic and/or that it won’t happen? If so, that’s a bleak proposition, methinks, and not great for his outlook on life. I mean, the guy clearly has a lot going for him. A sweet, well-ventilated underground bunker. Tons of robots. Computer monitors with constant, round the clock TV. It’s pretty good. But it also says that he’s not ready to face Morgus no matter how full of hate and evil he might be. The guy’s obsessed with Peri. And that obsession distracts from his ultimate destiny: that final confrontation with Morgus.
I love Morgus, but Morgus too feeds into this concept of mortality by being a peddler of (for lack of better term) immortality. In its refined state Spectrox can slow the ageing process to a standstill and make someone live up to twice their normal life span. He is the keeper of life itself and is particularly addicted to the drug itself. Normington’s complexion is such that he looks like an older man who appears much younger. And isn’t that in and of itself a reflection of The Doctor and specifically this Doctor? He’s an old man in a young man’s body for the first time ever and one of his adversaries (only he doesn’t know it yet) is a man who reflects that notion. So he’s a fantastic foil AND he’s the keeper of the thing that is slowly poisoning The Doctor: Spectrox. Like… that’s just remarkably good and remarkably clever, isn’t it?
And finally there’s Stotz.
Now… what I love about Stotz (besides the fact that Maurice Roeves is utterly brilliant) is how much of a fucking wild card he is. Stotz brings death. Never is that more clear than in the scene where he holds the knife to Krelper’s throat and threatens him to bite down on the poison pill that’ll kill him in ten seconds. Can you think of a better image for Stotz? Him pinning Krelper down with sheer brute force, a knife in one hand, a poisonous pill in the other, all the while they overlook the abyss beneath a steep cliff? It tells you everything you need to know about this character.
Isn’t that interesting? On the one hand you have the man who holds the Spectrox, the man who gives life. And on the other you have his avatar in the world, Stotz, who acts on his behalf and deals with his affairs outside of his castle, perched atop the world…
Wait. Hang on. Isn’t that just a Holmesian double act? Like a traditional double act? Only slightly subverted? Normally the Holmesian villain is a horribly grotesque and disfigured character, trapped within some subterranean lair and trying to get free and join the outside world. Inititally, you’d think that would be Sharez Jek. He has all the hallmarks of a Holmesian villain. And in a lot of ways he absolutely is. And this Holmesian villain always has an avatar who walks in and out of the narrative, interacting with the real world, preparing the way for his master’s forthcoming return. For Jek, that’s Android-Salateen. Only this seems wholly dissatisfying. Android-Salateen isn’t really accomplishing much. He’s basically shadowing General Chellak.
Here’s why: Morgus is a monster. A real monster. We’ll see it more as the story goes on, but he’s a real bastard in every sense of the word. And he’s hideous. What he’s done to his body (stretching his life past its normal course) is repugnant and against the very laws of nature. And he’s trapped not in a subterranean lair, but in what’s basically the penthouse suite of an incredibly tall tower that lords over everyone. And sure he’s not trapped, but he hasn’t really left the place yet. Everything he does he does through Stotz, his antithesis who appears rugged and old in every sense of the word. And the two complement each other remarkably well.
As for Stotz, look at the way Harper shoots the scene in which he threatens Krelper. It starts with Krelper standing over a sleeping Stotz. Honestly, it’s about the most dangerous position you could possibly stand in. It looks like Krelper is about to urinate all over Stotz. That’s what it looks like. And the scene ends with Stotz standing over Krelper in the same pose, with Krelper completely humiliated and defeated after their little scuffle. And it’s fascinating to watch. Harper is so good with the visual that every shot means something, every shot points to something larger.
It’s an incredible episode and one that only builds upon the tensions built up in the previous one. It’s a fantastic proper introduction to Jek and Stotz and moves the story along in a rip roaring way. In fact, the first two thirds of this episode take place (from The Doctor/Peri’s perspective) in Jek’s lair. And yet it doesn’t feel stale or like it drags. It feels like the story is rocketing along. The other bits of the story, the stuff with Stotz, the stuff with Morgus are exciting and it’s fantastic to see the different various components of the story snap into place. Stotz is cracking deals with Jek. Stotz is working for Morgus. Jek is spying on Chellak via a Salateen android. And in the middle we have The Doctor and Peri trying to escape to freedom but only after they’ve gotten the Queen Bat milk.
And the end of this episode, in which Salateen takes advantage of some chaos and scurries off with Peri into the caves for parts unknown, aren’t we suddenly blessed with a remarkable moment of clarity? Peri is easily the youngest person in this story. She is the one so full of life and energy and coveted by the grumpy old men around her. I mean, you could argue that Peri does have the sexual desire aspect to her, but that doesn’t play thematically. She’s what they’re fighting over: the promise of immortality. All these guys know what’s at stake. Morgus will prolong his life for as long as possible. Jek seeks companionship before he faces his finale end. Stotz has a death wish. Thematically, Peri is the object of their affections because it’s a natural youth that money can’t buy and that… well… happens.
She is the reminder, then, of what it is these people are playing for. Immortality. And just one misstep and you find yourself on death’s door with no hope of escape. It’s that recklessness that gives you lease on life. Until you grow old you look youthful, at least you look beautiful, and at least you can convince yourself that you might just live forever.
“And I’m not going to let you stop me now!” – The Doctor
All of these characters want something. And yeah, okay, that’s a stupid fucking comment. Characters want things. Yes. That’s what characters do, but how often have we watched Doctor Who stories and seen them list lazily from concept to concept or beat to beat? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about a Doctor Who story on this blog and held it up against this story and railed about how those stories don’t have what this story has: basic conceptions of drama. All drama is based around the idea that you have a character and they want something.
All too often Doctor Who stories are about “fixing the problem.” In “The War Games” it’s The Doctor attempting to stop the injustice of The War Lord’s death scenarios. In “Pyramids of Mars” it’s The Doctor trying to stop the rise and return of Sutekh. And Holmes’s stories have a long history of that “prevention”. Perhaps that’s because Holmes is good at making nemeses for The Doctor, but he’s always going up against them and he’s always stopping them. Always. It’s very Holmes. And not just Holmes, but it’s just about every other Doctor Who story that’s ever been around. Happens. The Doctor fits into a heroic, man vs. enemy structure. So it makes sense that that’d be par for the course. There’s an enemy. The Doctor wants to stop said enemy. Conflict!
Shelve that thought.
The reason this story is so good and the reason it’s so hardcore and exciting is because everything that’s happening on screen is driven by the conflict of every single character bouncing around Androzani and off of each other. Holmes creates a scenario that’s nothing short of a powder keg ready to explode. The military is hunting a mad man and Chellak seems to be at his wit’s end as to what to do about it because he’s making no headway. Jek is biding his time waiting for his revenge on Morgus and his solitude is driving him completely insane. Stotz is working with Jek but he desperately wants to get back to Major and get paid. Morgus is desperate to keep his stranglehold over Androzani Major.
But there’s also the storyline about Morgus and Stotz. It’s because The Doctor returns to Jek and Stotz that he is taken hostage by Stotz and put on display before Morgus. Morgus (upon recognizing) The Doctor fears the worst from the government and thinks The Doctor is a captured spy in some vast conspiracy to bring down his criminal empire. This inspires Morgus to assassinate The President and head to Androzani Minor to untangle the web of conspiracy and lies. Were The Doctor not on the ship Morgus and Stotz would be none the wiser, Stotz woulda returned and who knows? Woulda been made rich based on The Doctor’s regeneration. Spectrox 2.0. But because there’s conspiracies and a massive web of paranoia and interconnectedness the entire house of cards starts to come crashing down.
Up until now these characters all want different things from each other. Stotz wants Morgus to pay him. Morgus wants Stotz to deliver the Spectrox from Sharez Jek. Sharez Jek wants Morgus’s gas weapons so he can fight the military. Chellak wants to bring down Jek and will do anything to make that happen. So it’s a ridiculous amount of conflict going down. And it’s all masterfully plotted by Holmes and masterfully weaved through by Graeme Harper. Scenes race along at a breakneck pace as we cut across the sprawling mini epic that’s going down in the Caves of Androzani Minor. Transitions, as ever, are clever. We see Chellak talk about how he will see Jek dragged before every city on Androzani Major and then we cut to a shot of The Doctor chained on the bridge of Stotz’s ship. Visually, it’s a great transition and the sort you’d only get in a story like this with a director like Harper. I mean, it’s working on every level.
Yes we’re still dealing with mortality and the idea of “what would you do to stay alive”, but as Jek points out the beginning of this episode, greed is an un-doer of things. The unbridled and unchecked wants and desires of all these men is going to bring down the balance of terror that’s keeping everything on Androzani Minor in its own tentative place. No one has any regards for any sorta caution here and it’s leading to some truly reckless things. Stotz is in such desire for a bonus from Morgus that he puts The Doctor on the vidscreen and Morgus is so greedy for more and more power (or even the status quo of his castle on a hill) that he recklessly assassinates The President (which will have an outcome in the next episode). Jek is in such desire for Peri that he barges into the military camp and personally steals her away. Not only is this about the best go-getter moment in the history of the entire series (and knowing me and this blog you should know that’s saying something) but it also points to how mad with desire Jek is and how his need for Peri will also reflect how badly he wants to take out Morgus, which, too, will be his undoing.
But no. The Doctor doesn’t do that. No. He’s driven (as we find out here) by an overwhelming desire to rescue Peri.
This is the crux of the story and why this is my favorite Doctor Who story of all time. The Doctor doesn’t give a fuck about Jek or Morgus or Stotz or Chellak or anyone else on Androzani Minor. All he cares about is getting Peri to safety and out of this whole mess that he keeps compounding on the situation. And that want, that need drives him into recklessness, more reckless than anyone else in this story has been so far and perhaps even will be. It’s that desire that makes him return to Stotz and Jek in the first place (because he clearly has no idea where the hell he is in these caves) and it’s that desire that drives him break out of his chains (at great personal harm to himself) and it’s that desire that gets him to a place where he turns what could have been a relative paradise in comparison to the scope and tone of the rest of the story into a flying metal death trap that’s about to crash into a fucking planet at impossible speed.
He cares so much, in fact that nothing in the world is going to stop him. Not Jek’s torturings, Chellak’s military men, Morgus’s paranoia, or Stotz’s guns. None of that is going to stop them because clearly (and this is something I missed the first time) The Doctor is about to regenerate. Well no shit he’s dying. Duh. Remember the Spectrox poisoning. But no. Look at the scene again. The Doctor turns the ship back towards Minor and starts to slip into a bit of a daze. He starts to lose consciousness and he looks up at the screen and he sees a shimmering light. At first glance, the first time you watch it, you’ll miss it because it just looks like a stuttering of the view screen as Minor comes into focus. But it’s not. That shimmer is the same effect that will take over his entire body at the end of his life. That’s what his regeneration will look like.
And that’s why the cliffhanger’s so brilliant and it’s why Stotz is not a threat. In a world full of bastards, a world full of men with convictions and greed and cupidity, a world full of men who will stop at NOTHING to get what it is they want, they’re all outstripped by the greatest man in the universe who is not stopping even at his own body’s genetic physiology. He’s fighting off the power that has overtaken his body four previous times. The pull of Mondas in the Tenth Planet left a weary old man lying broken on the floor. The blue crystal radiation on Metebelis 3 left The Doctor unable to pilot the TARDIS, unable to make it more than a few steps before collapsing into Sarah Jane’s arms. The entropy of the tower on Earth and the resulting fall breaks The Doctor’s body and leaves him with no option other than to lie and let the effect overtake him.
This fight against a regeneration? That says more than anything. We know from “Last of the Time Lords” that a Time Lord doesn’t HAVE to regenerate. They can fight it back, will it away from themselves long enough that the body just shuts down. And The Doctor is risking never coming back again. Because his life doesn’t matter. His regeneration doesn’t matter. Stotz can wave a gun at him all he wants. All that matters right now is the tunnel vision that will take him back to Peri. That means finding her. That means getting to her. That means getting the cure. That means descending back into hell from the paradise of the spaceship. It means crashing the spaceship because he is, quite literally, out of options and out of time. He’s now in a race against the clock. Either he will die or he will regenerate. But that shit is not happening until he rescues Peri. Nothing will stop him. Not anyone. Not even himself.
Castrovalva”. Harper directs it with all the flair we’ve now come to expect and still blows us away. Davison screaming will always ring in my ears and his cold fury is like nothing we’ve ever seen from him. Holmes knows that Davison hasn’t been the most active Doctor and gives him the first pump moment of the entire series and something that (in the thirty years since this episode initially aired) has never been topped. It caused me to scream with catharsis the first time, it causes me to scream with catharsis every time I’ve watched it since. It will always be the moment in which my Doctor achieves the enlightenment he’s spent his entire life trying to achieve.
Then he was pulled away from that hell. But now, having changed and learned that he needs a different mentality to work in this world, he is returning to that original situation, returning to the pits of hell, descending to save his friend because at the end of the day, that one good act is the only thing that matters to him. Being “the nice guy” is the only thing that’s ever mattered and this one act of kindness is going to make these events, this day, his entire life matter.
The only thing that matters is what he does. He’s going back into hell. And you better get the fuck out of his way. Because you’re not gonna stop him.
He’s not going to let you.
You’re god damn right he’s not.
Once upon a time on Twitter, before I had seen this story, a major twitter user with Classic Who street cred threw out a question: “What’s the best Classic Doctor Who episode of all time” and a lot of the responses were episode four. The reasoning (and this was several people saying it independently of each other) went along the lines of “because episode three ends at a ten and episode four picks it up at an eleven.” And at the time it made me want to see this story more than anything. Because I couldn’t imagine that. And coming off the cliffhanger (which, by the way, I just spent over a thousand words talking about) the first time I watched it I couldn’t imagine the story getting jacked up to an even higher level for twenty five minutes. If that were the case it would inevitably end up being one of my favorite single episodes in the entire run of the show.
What I like most about it is it’s basically the best third act to any movie you’ve ever seen. I’ve been saying in various places around the internet and/or to my friend that this year is the year of the third act being amazingly good and for my money I think that the third acts to films directed by Joss Whedon are about as good of third act as you can possibly ask for in a film. They are relentless and exciting, and being the master storyteller he is and also possibly a master fanboy at heart he knows that the secret to a good third act is to make the audience think that you’ve not held back for the whole movie and then at the end unleash the last bit you haven’t unleashed. In The Avengers it’s unleashing the hoardes of the Chutani against New York City. In Cabin in the Woods it’s the “purge” button. In Serenity it’s setting The Reavers against The Alliance. Hell, in Buffy’s “Graduation Day” it’s turning the entire graduating class into a force that will help Buffy take down an Ascended Mayor and whatever vampires come to help him out.
The result is an episode of Doctor Who that is unparalleled. We’ve seen great finale episodes to Doctor Who before, but this (like “The War Games” for example) uses the previous episode as a springboard to launch us into sequence after sequence of utter greatness. Nothing in the entire Classic Series is more exciting and awesome than The Doctor sprinting across the surface of Androzani Minor, relentlessly pursued by Krelper and the other, unnamed Gun Runner as he races towards Peri. The military stuff is downplayed, sure, with most of the carnage taking place off screen, but the focus stays on the stuff that matters. Why would we care about the military? Isn’t it better to see Chellak finally get his hands on Sharez Jek and to see the two wrestle like animals?
I love Morgus. Clearly. And John Normington is amazing at playing a character who’s a real bastard and doing so in a way that is… subtle. This is just the way his world works. But what I love about him is the performance Harper pulls out of him. Every move of his is cool and calculated, just like his professional life. It’s a nice touch, but Harper also chooses to shoot him seated down as much as possible, there’s a wonderful moment where Krelper returns to the ship after chasing after The Doctor and Morgus is sitting in the pilot’s chair as though he’s been there the whole time.
So we don’t see Morgus en route, so when he appears in Stotz’s ship it’s something of a jarring surprise. In fact it feels like he just… appears, like a devil come to make bargains or something. It’s really, really chilling. Cuz of all the things you expect, seeing the devil come down from his castle in the sky is not one of them. After three episodes locked in that tower suddenly he’s here? Damn. And he still barks orders long after Timmin reveals she’s exposed him, deposed him, and requisitioned his assets. Morgus now has nothing, so he descends into hell to claim a prize he believes is rightfully his.
Because with this episode what we find out is we’re watching is Doctor Who do an epic Shakespearean tragedy.
But I’ll get to that in a minute. Before that I wanna slot in some thoughts about a few more things. Like isn't it funny how Stotz and Morgus (as a Holmesian double-act) heading down into Jek's lair to steal something precious turns them into what feel like Holmesian con artists. It's honestly almost comedic, watching someone who's basically Evil Warren Buffett team up John Rambo and having that work. But comedic? That's right. Holmes, in the middle of a story about mercenaries and gun runners and drug smugglers, turns the team of Stotz/Morgus into a team reminiscent of Garron/Unstoffe from "The Ribos Operation" or Glitz/Dibber from "The Mysterious Planet." Con men, they are. And they're trying to steal something valuable in the same way characters from those stories are trying to steal something valuable.
Oh right. The end of this story is two Holmesian villains (Jek and Morgus) locked in mortal combat while their respective avatars (Android Salateen and Stotz) come to their aid.
Is there anything more satisfying than that? Again, we have Holmes playing a twist on his traditional villains by doing something new and different with them and making the entire story about how such raging egos would only end up destroying each other. There's not room in this world for the two of them and they end up cancelling each other out by the end. And really, besides the fact that it's emotionally cathartic for Jek to get revenge on his long-time tormenter, it's also a beautiful piece of poetry: the devil in the sky comes down to do battle with the devil in the ground. I know it's over stating it, but it's a bit of thematic and metaphorical resonance, isn't it?
That’s the key to Jek here. Yes he is objectifying Peri. Yes, it is wrong to objectify, but there is a part of him that is despondent because he really, truly cares about this girl. Yes, it’s creepy, but it is tender and sweet. The second he realizes that she has Spectrox Toxaemia poisoning he carries her in his arms in the same way The Doctor will carry her back to the TARDIS. But he doesn’t know where to take her, he doesn’t know what to do with his feelings. All he can do is stay in his comfort space, in his head, and lament the loss of this woman he cares so deeply about. And it’s heartbreaking because Peri will never, ever be able to love him back because… well… he’s crazy and will never be able to deal with his feelings on a personal, human level.
Well almost completely. Almost. There’s still the fact that the second Morgus walks into his life again he completely forgets about Peri and sets his sights entirely on Morgus. Then his vendetta is back and all he can think is about how much he wants to wrap his hands around Morgus’s throat. And who knows, maybe he could have survived the events of this endgame if he had mourned over the imminent loss of Peri. If only he had seen Morgus and said “Just take the Spectrox and go.” I mean, Morgus and Stotz probably would have killed him anyways (Stotz intimates as much), but there’s something poetically tragic about seeing Jek over the body of Peri and having all of his focus be on her. Yeah, it would have been a betrayal of the story, and I don’t want to see that, but it does intimate a really fantastic “what if”, I think, and through Peri his greed would have been given caution and in that he perhaps would have survived.
So that is, at least, tragic. But how is it Shakespearean?
One of the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy is the famous “everyone dies in the end” which is not quite true always. There’s a few characters who invariably survive through the final death, but at the same time proportionally, Shakespearean tragedies are bloodbaths. I mean, look at Shakespeare at his most nihilistic: the end of King Lear sees the death of (SPOILERS FOR KING LEAR) Cornwall, Oswald, Gloucester, Goneril, Reagan, Edmund, Codelia, and Lear himself, leaving only Edgar, The Duke of Albany, and The Earl of Kent on stage alive at the end. Proportionally, it’s a bloodbath. But that’s the point. Shakespearean tragedies are about playing in a godless world, because why would God allow such carnage to happen?
Here, though, Holmes is allowed to take it even further because it’s one of those rare Doctor Who stories where you are allowed to kill off the main character and make The Doctor a casualty of this “pathetic little war.” And it’s effective and means you feel all the other deaths leading up to it. Once the blood starts pouring it simply doesn’t stop. And it’s not even the characters who have lines, but it’s also implied that the androids and the military had a mutual destruction. I can’t think of a Doctor Who story where there’s a higher body count.
Like I said in the last episode, The Doctor is on a mission to save his friend, and he descends into the pits of hell, picking his way through carnage and bodies strewn about the floor. He finds Peri and sets about to retrieve the milk of the Queen Bat. And really, it’s interesting how The Doctor stays at the outskirts of the narrative during this whole time. Instead, Holmes chooses to focus instead on the machinations of the rest of the characters in this story, paying off all those elements instead of showing us The Doctor’s quest. And really, that’s more satisfying. The Doctor is already going through hell. No need to show us running around while holding his breath. That’s dramatically unsettling.
Because The Doctor pops his head in the door and, without looking at ANYTHING else, runs to Peri, picks her up, and gets her the fuck out of there. He’s had enough of this. Nevermind that there’s nothing he can do. He’s done with these assholes. He has what he came for, he can save her. God, he doesn’t even stop to give her the antidote. He just leaves. It’s one of the most amazing Doctor moments because there’s no… time spent on it. This is a far cry from the contemplation of “There should have been another way” of “Warriorsof the Deep.” This is a guy who simply doesn’t have time for the evils of the world any more.
Truly, this is The Doctor at his most heroic. Truly. Never has he fought so hard in exchange for something so small and so noble. I mean, he collapses on his way out of Stotz’s ship, his legs once again betraying him because of the Toxaemia. Yes, he falls on his way to Peri and finds himself at the mercy of Stotz’s men’s guns. But nothing stops him. Nothing stops him. And it’s exhilarating. I’ve never seen a Doctor so driven in all my time watching as much Doctor Who as I have here. There’s moments of it all throughout the show’s history (the end of “Forest of the Dead” comes to mind) but this is really just twenty five minutes of pure heroism. And it’s because the focus is clear. Sometimes Doctor Who stories can get sucked into the scope of the thing and that can leave The Doctor feeling a little bit distant and divorced from whatever his heroism is. He’s heroic and world-savey in “Parting of the Ways” but he’s also doing other things.
Why? Like, why? Why Peri? Yes, he got her into this. Yes, it’s the kind thing to do. But why make the stand here? He barely knows this girl. He just met her. And yeah, it’s not in The Doctor’s character to leave anyone behind, and yes, I know you know where it’s going, but I don’t care. It’s bears repeating and it’s worth discussing. Because this Doctor is not quite like other Doctors. This Doctor was party to a remarkable tragedy in the scope of Doctor Who. And yes, it doesn’t matter that it’s nowhere near as powerful as it possibly could have been and it’s absolutely true that it was a remarkably shrewd and cynical move from an extra-diegetic standpoint.
Now I wish I could say that Adric says something beautiful here. I wish I could say it made me start crying. Because there’s something impossibly beautiful and haunting about seeing The Doctor lying on the floor of the TARDIS as he sees images of his friends, all of them from this life come back and beg him not to die. And like… I’ll be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be Tegan to be the one who made me cry. I’ve never been a huge Tegan fan, but her coming forward and pleading him “What was it you always told me, Doctor? Brave heart? You’ll survive, Doctor” was enough to bring me to tears. It was the ultimate callback, the thing that sums up their friendship. They were there for each other, and as much as they might have fought all the time, Tegan wants him to live.
It’s stunningly beautiful, and only let down by the fact that none of the other pleas from the other companions have as stunning a character moment here. This is it, man. It’s the opportunity to bring it back around and say why THESE people need him to live.
And this is a Saward thing. From what I understand Saward wrote this part of the episode, with Holmes writing everything up to The Doctor entering the TARDIS and nothing else. Saward wrote the actual regeneration. And you know what? Fine. I don’t really mind because Holmes crushed it the whole way through. This is (still) Saward’s show at the end of the day, so he should get to write out the final minute of his Doctor. It’s only fair. That’s not what I have a problem with. What I have a problem with is how clearly Saward doesn’t fucking get how to actually do meaningful character work. The Tegan line is a stroke of genius. But Nyssa’s line is “You’re needed. You mustn’t die, Doctor.” And that’s okay. I mean, it’s certainly true. It’s lacking character, but fair enough.
And that’s your moment? Like, the second he says that the game is fucking UP. That’s how you write the second of the spinny face lines? “They’ll delight in your death”? Come the fuck on. That’s so cardboard in his moment of dying. I mean, Jesus Christ. Put your back into it. And Adric’s line here is “You know that, Doctor. You know that, Doctor.” Like really? Where’s the catharsis? Where the fuck is Adric saying “I’m proud of you, Doctor” or “You can let go now.” Something that’s emotionally therapeutic that will get us through that moment the The Doctor actually utters “Adric” as his last line? Yes, The Doctor WILL hear Adric’s voice and that “Adric” line is going to kill us every time, but for fuck’s sake don’t fumble it at the two yard line.
And all of this was for Adric, or for his memory. That was the thing that pushed him through everything, his love for Peri and the desire to not have a repeat of the events of “Earthshock”. And this was more dangerous than that story coulda dreamed of being. I mean, the ticking time bomb of this entire episode is the seeming imminent destruction of the entire surface of Minor by the biggest mudburst you’ve ever seen. As the characters collapse so collapses the cave and the rest of the planet. But The Doctor fights through that, through the chaos and the hell to rescue his best friend because that’s all that matters. He flings himself into the situation, wanting it, needing it more than anything. And for that greed he pays the ultimate price. He dies. He loses what he was and becomes another man.
But it was worth it. His friend is alive and in the end that’s all that matters to him.
Final Thoughts?: What do you think?
But it's the best. And it's not just because Robert Holmes writes the tightest, most action-packed, thematically-rich, remarkable script he's ever written. It's not just because Graeme Harper directs this story so fucking well that it really should make every other Doctor Who episode just give up. But it's because all of the elements of it come out and just... work. There's not a scene in here I don't love, not a character I don't enjoy watching (whether it's because they're a bastard or not). There's not a choice made here that doesn't make me lose my god damn mind at how frakking good it is.
Yet, I can't help but feel the Magma Beast is the exception that proves the rule and Harper DOES manage to shoot around it so it looks like a Doctor Who monster rather than a dude in a big rubber suit that comes with weird wings that kinda look like a cape. But he generally keeps it all tight and close so it just looks rather generic. There's a few wide shots at the start of episode three that give it away, and it's about the only mistake I think Harper makes in the whole god damn serial. And considering that, I'd say he really comes out on top. Because look at everything else here. All of the interiors of the cave are gorgeous and while you can ALMOST tell they're sets in the first episode, by the time it hits the last few episodes it just looks like an alien planet, or at least, looks so unlike any other set I've ever seen in the Classic series that I find myself just bathed in the aesthetic of the story. There's vertical space, catwalks, pillars... it's gorgeous.
Everything else is off the charts good. I'd be hard pressed to choose a best actor here. Everyone puts out amazing work. Even Martin Cochrane brings it as Chellak despite the fact that he's given very little and Robert Glenister has a total thankless job as Salateen. He even manages to change-up both the human and the android characters, giving subtle different performance tweaks with each scene so that you can always tell which one he's playing. And of course both Barbara Kinghorn as Timmin and David Nearl are great and memorable in their parts despite not having very sidelined, supporting roles on the outskirts of the actual narrative.
I mean... God. Stotz is off the charts in every scene he's in, from when he's screaming while straddling Krelper to the moment he strides back in and executes the rest of his crew so they won't get away. That little smirk says everything. He's a filthy sadist. God. The smirk he gives as he slowly fires bullets into Sharez Jek at the end of the story. He sprayed his crew with bullets, but he wants Jek to feel every successive bullet. He relishes his slow murder of Jek. And it's stellar. Even his quieter, more personal scenes with Morgus are good. Him sitting down while the two of them make for Jek's lair and methodically laying out the new ground rules for their working relationship is as good as anything else he does in the story.
The 5th Doctor, as I've said, has never, in all his life, been better and it's about as good an exit story as any Doctor could possibly ask for. I mean, again, best Doctor Who story of all time. But what Holmes gives Davison is impossibly small in scope and remarkably personal and human despite the fact that we're basicaly watching a little war erupt on a small planet. It's just a story about The Doctor saving his friend. That's all he wants to do. His fate is sealed in the first three minutes of the story and ten minutes in all he can think about, all he wants to do is leave with her and there'll be no problem. Of course, the story spirals completely out of control in the way stories always seem to do when The Doctor jumps into the middle of them. And none of the things are his fault. All too often you have The Doctor trying to muck up the works, but The Doctor causes all this without doing a damn thing. It's awesome.
Every scene with Davison is an amazing scene and there's a number of iconic moments. Clearly Davison knows this and digs into what is the hands-down best script he ever had to work with and collaborates with a director who truly cares about this script and the two of them give a clinic in how to be The Doctor. He conveys everything and plays it off in the way only The Doctor can. I love the way he plays off Sharez Jek in episode two when Jek is trying to get some alone time with Peri and The Doctor keeps getting in his way. The Doctor is in way over his head, and you wouldn't know it because he's not giving away any indication that he knows it (even though you can kinda tell he knows). But it's his opportunity to be the hero and the best friend and Davison crushes it. Utterly crushes it. And he reminds me why he's not only one of the best actors to ever take the role, but also one of my favorite Doctors ever.
Now I know that that makes it sound like Harper didn't do anything here. But that's point blank not true. I believe Harper is the best Doctor Who director who's ever lived and this is his best work. Of course he's amazing here. There's not a wasted line, moment, beat, or shot. It's a relentless story that digs in thirty seconds in and never lets go. He has incredible transtions, brings out incredible performances from the amazing actors he hand-picked for this, his first-ever directing gig. And it's really a triumph. The Classic series never looks more dynamic and incredible than it does under Harper. I mean, who else could direct such a thrilling chase scene over the surface of Androzani Minor? The lighting, the design, the music... it broke the budget and completely fucked over "The Twin Dilemma", but that's okay. This is what you get when you hand an amazing director a fantastic piece of work and he brings it to life in ways no other Doctor Who director could have.
Seriously, though, Holmes.
I mean what haven't I said about the guy at this point? He's one of the best Doctor Who writers ever and this story is absolute proof of that. It's Holmes unleashed in a way he rarely ever was. He's given free reign to do whatever he wants and he churns out a story about gun runners and drug smugglers, so I'm on board. But he also keeps the story impossibly limited in its scope (and he knows that: it does take place on Androzani MINOR after all) and churns out an epic, small, personal story about The Doctor in which he (as he so eloquently put it in an interview after the fact) "put The Doctor through hell." I'll say he did. It's hard to watch The Doctor physically suffer because The Doctor is such a cerebral hero. But Holmes pushes The Doctor and makes The Doctor push back and leaves us with an incredible, thrilling story. Holmes is a master storyteller and a master of Doctor Who. I mean, it's what the guy did on and off for almost twenty years and if you look at his list of credits outside of Doctor Who... well... there weren't many.
What we're left with is a story that is quintessential Holmes. It's got disfigured bastards isolated from the world and avatars for those characters who will travel into the world and do their bidding. It's violent, it's scary, and everyone dies in the end. It's steals from stories that Holmes quite likes (The Phantom of the Opera, which also comes up in 'Talons"). It's got double-acts and humour, and some of the best Doctor writing I've ever seen (or definite best Doctor writing in some scenes) in my life. And everyone (including The Doctor) dies in the end. I mean, this is what happens when you give an incredible Doctor Who writer an incredible opportunity. Very few people get to write regeneration stories and Holmes in no way wastes the opportunity.
So no. In fifty years there's never been anything that's better. And you know what? That's okay, because this thing that's the best? It's mind-fuckingly good. Worth the wait however long you hold out for it, and one that will hold up forever as one of *the* seminal Doctor Who stories.
I love it to pieces. And I always will. And why wouldn't I? It's the best Doctor Who story ever made.
Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Ben and Polly! Daleks being servants! An assembly line! And a coups! We always follow up a regeneration story with a post-regeneration and this time that also the first regeneration story and our last story ever. We started with Daleks, we're gonna end with Daleks. Let's bring it home. "The Power of the Daleks!" Coming Next Tuesday!