The Caves of Androzani ★★★★★

It's Peter Davison's exhilarating final adventure – but is it really "the best story ever made"?

769

Season 21 – Story 135

Advertisement

“Curiosity has always been my downfall” – the Doctor

Storyline
The future looks bleak for the Doctor and Peri. In the caves of Androzani Minor, they contract potentially fatal spectrox toxaemia and face a firing squad, accused of gunrunning. General Chellak is hunting for Sharaz Jek, a genius in android manufacture, who has a stranglehold on the supply of spectrox. Once refined, it has life-prolonging qualities, highly prized on Androzani Major. Jek was hideously disfigured in an accident he blames on Morgus, the ruthless chief director of the Sirius Conglomerate, who is manipulating events from Major. Jek rescues the Doctor and Peri and becomes infatuated with the young American.
During a mud burst, Chellak, Morgus and Jek fight to the death, while the Doctor battles to save Peri’s life. Back in the Tardis he only has enough spectrox antitoxin for Peri. He collapses and, beset by images of departed friends, regenerates once more…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Thursday 8 March 1984
Part 2 – Friday 9 March 1984
Part 3 – Thursday 15 March 1984
Part 4 – Friday 16 March 1984

Production
Location filming: November 1983 at Masters Pit, Stokeford Heath, Wareham, Dorset
Studio recording: December 1983/January 1984 in TC6

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Peri – Nicola Bryant
Sharaz Jek – Christopher Gable
Morgus – John Normington
Major Salateen – Robert Glenister
Stotz – Maurice Roëves
General Chellak – Martin Cochrane
Krelper – Roy Holder
Timmin – Barbara Kinghorn
President – David Neal
Soldier – Ian Staples
The Master – Anthony Ainley
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Turlough – Mark Strickson
Voice of Kamelion – Gerald Flood
The Doctor – Colin Baker

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Incidental music – Roger Limb
Designer – John Hurst
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Graeme Harper

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
I’ve approached The Caves of Androzani with caution, aware that it tops fan polls. In Doctor Who Magazine’s Mighty 200 survey in 2009, it beat every other story transmitted – including all of Russell T Davies’ output – to the number one spot. Yet I had never loved it. What was I missing?

I can spell out what I disliked. For me, it played like a Blake’s 7 episode with a bigger budget. I was bored by the machismo, the mercenaries, the political manoeuvres, the Robert Holmes tropes: his umpteenth take on The Phantom of the Opera (Sharaz Jek with his preposterous mask); if not misogyny, then Holmes’s aversion to female characters. Now I rather like the fact that while all the male characters perish (including the fifth Doctor), it is the drama’s only two women, Peri and Timmin, who survive.

Also, in 1984, I wasn’t involved in the plight of new companion Peri; there’d have been far more emotional weight if the Doctor sacrificed his life to save Tegan (had Janet Fielding been kept on). But now I buy his guilt for placing his gauche new pal in near-death situations, and Peri makes a far likelier target for Sharaz Jek’s obsession than bolshy Tegan ever could.

I must admit I had also been spoilt and “spoilered”. I’d been on set. I’d walked around Morgus’s beige plywood office in TC6, spotted plastic drainpipes around his doorways, the shoddy daub that represented a city skyline beyond his windows. In the viewing gallery we overlooked John Normington directly below as he chuntered through multiple takes of scenes with secretary Timmin; we sniggered at how silly his lift-shaft-plunge murder of the President looked from above.

I imagine some fans watch this four-parter on a monthly basis, but I’m coming to it afresh after a very long interval… and – rare for me – I’ve completely revised my opinion. I have to concede that The Caves of Androzani is brilliant in almost every department.

Holmes’s scripts are outstanding – punchy, detailed but succinct, awash with delicious dialogue… Morgus (on the Doctor and Peri): “One only has to look at them to realise the extent of their depravity.” Jek (to the Doctor): “You have the mouth of a prattling jackanapes but your eyes… they tell a different story.” Jek (to Peri): “Now I can feast my eyes on your delicacy. I can forget the pain and blackness in my mind.” Jek (on Morgus): “I want the head of that perfidious, treacherous degenerate brought to me here, congealed in its own evil blood.”

The performances have energy and subtlety. Christopher Gable, despite his daft leather mask, is a lithe, impassioned, strangely sympathetic villain in fabulous contrast to Normington’s pent-up control freak Morgus. This is composer Roger Limb’s most effective score. The magma creature is a same old, same old, dodgy Doctor Who monster, once seen, quickly forgotten.

Apart from glimpses of flat studio floor, the cave system looks convincingly cavernous and endless. I’m delighted that in 1984 I got to walk through those “narrows” where the ambushes and gun battles between androids, military and mercenaries unfolded. I saw Salateen’s perfunctory but oh-so-effective death scene in real time, several times over. And I wondered: who is that excitable bearded chap dashing about down below?

Director Graeme Harper famously liked to step down from the production box and work on the studio floor. After years of trailing experts like Douglas Camfield, it was an important gig for him and he threw himself into it. “I wanted it to be breathtaking, energetic, pacey and alive,” he enthuses on the BBC DVD. Well, he certainly achieved that. It’s the most exhilarating Who since Earthshock, even surpassing it.

Every single shot is carefully composed: high-angle, floor-level, long shots and far more close-ups than usual. Harper uses slow cross-fades between scenes. A hand-held camera follows the action, peering over shoulders, even between someone’s legs, drawing the viewer in, making us feel we’re right in there with the characters.

The third cliffhanger has extraordinary momentum, a fierce performance from Davison, yet it begins with a clever subliminal detail, as the ailing Doctor shakes off a strange pattern forming before his eyes – a presentiment of his regeneration.

John Nathan-Turner wisely arranged for the viewing gallery to be closed while the regeneration was recorded but earlier, on 15 December, I did spy down below in TC6 all of Davison’s former companions (Adric, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough) standing about, idly bantering. (Shame no one thought to photograph the entire Davison cast together on the night.)

Stifling giggles, each hit their mark and banged out a farewell line to the dying Doctor. Then suddenly Anthony Ainley came into view, eyes gleaming, ready for his close-up and… Clunk! Flash! The studio lights came up. It was 10 o’clock and everyone downed tools. The Master would have to tape his “Die, Doctor!” line the following day.

So adieu, Peter Davison. Although a winning actor, he never quite pushed my buttons as the Doctor. Given a decent script he could shine but, by Davison’s own admission, he was unimpressed and uninspired by much of his material. Back then it seemed incredible, after barely three years and just 71 episodes, that this youngest Doctor could also be the shortest-lived.

No time for tears. The incoming Doctor sits bang upright at the end and for once gets to speak. Sneering. Severe. In your face. It’s that force of nature, Colin Baker.

Advertisement

Caves billings
[Available on BBC DVD]