The Visitation ★★★★

A delightfully old-fashioned yarn sees the Doctor battling Terileptils at the time of the Great Fire of London

711

Season 19 – Story 119

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“It’s survival, Doctor. Just as these primitives kill lesser species to protect themselves, so I kill them” – Terileptil leader

Storyline
In 17th-century England, strange lights appear in the night sky over a country manor and the squire’s household is soon under attack from alien intruders. Some time later, the Tardis arrives, as the Doctor delivers Tegan to Heathrow Airport three centuries too early. The travellers hook up with actor-turned-highwayman Richard Mace and are quickly on the trail of the aliens – reptilian Terileptils and their android – whose ship crashed nearby. They plan to wipe out the human race by intensifying the Great Plague with genetically re-engineered rats but, with the Doctor’s intervention, there’s an explosion at their base in London’s Pudding Lane…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Monday 15 February 1982
Part 2 – Tuesday 16 February 1982
Part 3 – Monday 22 February 1982
Part 4 – Tuesday 23 February 1982

Production
Location recording: May 1981 at Black Park, near Iver, Bucks; Tithe Barn, Hurley, Berkshire
Filming: May 1981 at Ealing Sudios
Studio recording: May-June 1981 in TC3

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Tegan Jovanka – Janet Fielding
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Richard Mace – Michael Robbins
Terileptil – Michael Melia
The Squire – John Savident
Charles – Anthony Calf
Elizabeth – Valerie Fyfer
Ralph – John Baker
Headman – Eric Dodson
Miller – James Charlton
Poacher – Neil West
Villager – Richard Hampton
Android – Peter van Dissell

Crew
Writer – Eric Saward
Designer – Ken Starkey
Incidental music – Paddy Kingsland
Script editor – Antony Root
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Peter Moffatt

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Eric Saward’s debut, written as he was on the brink of becoming script editor, is a delightfully old-fashioned adventure, the most straightforward storytelling in some time, and is the first serial since Horror of Fang Rock (four years earlier) to be set fully in a historical setting.

While it’s pedestrian in places, Saward does execute one or two dramatic flourishes. A scene-setting prologue, nearly five minutes long, shows a squire and his family under attack from intruders in their manor house. Atmospherically lit and snappily directed, the sequence keeps the aliens hidden from view, and importantly we’re kept in suspense as to the fate of the family until the third episode. (They died.)

Saward also knows that the mention of plague and fire will strike a chord with every British schoolchild. Aliens meddling in Earth’s past is a well-trodden path, but Doctor Who rarely ties into events as well known as those of 1665 and 1666. Here the invaders plan to exacerbate the Great Plague, while the denouement, an explosion in a London bakery, is the cause of the Great Fire of London. The Doctor withdraws, realising “this fire should be allowed to run its course” – rather as he did when Nero set fire to Rome in The Romans (a 1965 story).

This is the fifth Doctor’s fourth adventure on screen but was the second into production (after Four to Doomsday), and Peter Davison is growing into his character. He’s still a little stiff, often standing with hands in pockets, or with them clasped behind his back on the Tardis set, unrelaxed, as if it’s new territory, not his home.

In his cricketing costume, he has the bearing of an umpire (a terribly polite, well-meaning public school umpire), ducking while his companions lob curve balls. In the latter part of the story, he develops a welcome note of sarcasm. When a recovering Tegan says she’s feeling “groggy, sore and bad-tempered”, he parries with “almost your old self”. And when Adric asks if he knows where the alien base is, the Doctor is quite testy: “Yes, yes, that’s why I’m searching.”

The companions remain variable (in performance and characterisation), but at least Eric Saward ensures that each has a decent slice of the action. Tegan is put under mind control, Nyssa builds a device to blow up the android, and Adric is unusually fretful about his friends and gets captured by yokels. Extraordinarily, Adric and Nyssa manage to pilot the Tardis on a short hop from the wood to the manor house, with Adric completing the flight by bashing the control console as the Doctor might.

Indeed the Tardis is put to good use in the drama. The travellers reflect on their experiences on Deva Loka (in the then-unrecorded Kinda). We see Nyssa and Tegan’s bedroom. There’s amusement when the Doctor infuriates Tegan by delivering her to Heathrow three centuries too early. “Call yourself a Time Lord?” she squawks. “A broken clock keeps better time than you do. At least it’s accurate twice a day, which is more than you ever are.”

Later, he does successfully fly the Tardis to the alien base in the heart of London. And let’s not forget, at the time, it was still quite a thrill to see a monster (the Android) and a newcomer (Richard Mace) entering the Tardis.

The actor/highwayman who teams up with the travellers is great fun and Michael Robbins (well known from ITV sitcom On the Buses) plays Mace with fruity overemphasis. Intriguingly, Saward has reworked a character he’d used in three Radio 4 plays in the 1970s. That Richard Mace was a Victorian actor/investigator played by Geoffery Matthews. In The Visitation, he’s “gentleman of the road… once a noted thespian until forced into rural exile by the closure of the theatres”.

One oddity in the script occurs when the Doctor investigates the aliens’ crash site and says, “I wonder how many Terileptils this pod could carry.” He’s suddenly started talking about Terileptils out of the blue; we never see a moment when he identifies their race. The name also sounds silly, but then most Doctor Who monsters have to put up with silly names.

The design of creatures isn’t bad for the time: the leader’s mouth and gills are the earliest example of animatronics in the series, but the rest of the costume is restricting. There’s an embarrassingly clumsy kerfuffle between three Terileptils and our heroes right at the end.

But these are minor quibbles in an engaging piece of drama, which at times looks classy, expansive and expensive.

Visitation billings
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[Available on BBC DVD]