Monday, 26 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani

Part One

“I can take an insult. I just don’t want to be shot.”

Let us rejoice! Robert Holmes is back after six long years! May there be public holidays and dancing in the street! Never before have I squee’d so much at the name of the writer at the beginning of a story.

We begin with a great location and a bit of exposition- we’re on Androzani Minor, the smaller of two double planets and somewhat prone to mud-bursts- but the dialogue also serves to cement the relationship between the Doctor and Peri with admirable swiftness, considering they hardly know each other at the end of Planet of Fire. The Doctor and Peri potter about for a bit and Peri falls into some stuff. Still not to worry; as the Doctor says when he helps Peri up, getting a bit on his hand, “It’s probably quite harmless.”

The dialogue between the Doctor is great, well-written but with a real lightness of touch. The tongue-in-cheek riff about celery and gases in the praxis range of the spectrum is great stuff and perfect Holmes. But there are other characters, of course; this being Holmes, there are gun-runners in the shape of Stotz, Krelper and some red-shirts. There’s the over-promoted and out of his depth General Chellak, who looks the part but lacks confidence, relying heavily on the “advice” of his deputy, Salateen. And finally for now there’s Morgus, a deliciously evil corporate big-shot. 

All these characters have depth, charm (however nasty some of them may be!) and good actors playing them. They’re also all recognisably (with the addition of Krau Timmin, Morgus’s underling), ahem, “Holmesian double acts”. And as such they’re interesting characters to see in the series at this point, with Eric Saward as script editor and cynical mercenaries the new house style for guest characters. But while this set of characters may seem to fit this house style superficially, being a bunch of cynics all out for themselves, it’s all done with a wit and sense of fun reminiscent of an earlier era when, well, Robert Holmes used to write for Doctor Who.

I love John Normington as Morgus- particularly his speeches to camera! But his motives are also deliciously apparent in his reactions to various “tragic” events imparted to him by Timmin. He makes a great pantomime villain to contrast with our tragic villain, Sharaz Jek, of whom more later.

Graeme Harper makes a particularly impressive debut- there’s a great moment, following the Doctor and Peri’s capture by Chellak and their being paraded on a screen before Morgus, where we cut quickly between Morgus, the Doctor, via a screen, and Jek in turn watching Morgus through a scene. Impressive too is a later short scene involving Jek where we see a series of dissolves.

The later scenes consist of essentially of preparations for the Doctor’s and Peri’s execution, but these scenes further develop the characters and the world: Chellak believes the Doctor but is powerless to save him, underlining what a weak character he really is; the method of execution is to be “death under the red cloth”, a detail which imparts some local colour; Peri waits for her death in the cell, scared but impressively dignified, and extremely well played by Nicola Bryant. She doesn’t blame the Doctor for her predicament.

Hang on- so “Morgus said that Spectrox was the most valuable substance in the universe.” No he didn’t! But I’m nitpicking, and I’m doing that because there’s not an awful lot wrong with this episode.

Morgus meets the President, and there ensues another scene which nicely and economically develops character whilst engaging in some world building at the same time. Apparently Spectrox extends the human lifespan, and the war against Jek is to wrest control of the supply from him. But the President’s starting to go wobbly…

A flawless first episode. The master is back!

Part Two

“You have the mouth of a prattling jackanapes. But your eyes tell a different story…”

The Doctor and Peri are apparently shot, and Morgus and the President return to their discussion. Morgus is closing camps in the west, rendering his workers unemployed and so liable to slave labour in camps- which Morgus owns and is constructing more of in the east, so swapping waged workers for slave labour! How deliciously evil, and also how very ‘80s. I suspect Robert Holmes may not quite have been an ultra-Thatcherite.

The Doctor and Peri are, of course, alive, if not well, rescued by Jek, who starts to perv over Peri from the moment he meets her. Nicola Bryant plays Peri’s freaked out reaction to this very well indeed. We learn a lot about the mysterious masked Jek here; he wants Morgus’s head. My, and Morgus seemed such a nice chap to me.

We also meet the real Salateen, who in a brilliant piece of writing bursts out laughing before explaining to Peri and the Doctor that “You’re dying!” It seems that they’re suffering from Spectrox toxaemia, the only cure to which is the milk of a queen bat which lives in an area with no oxygen and guarded by fearsome beasts. The Doctor, being the Doctor, resolves to just escape and go and get some! Holmes writes for Davison’s Doctor with absolute perfection on his first go, easily as well if not better than all of his predecessors. And the great thing is, I suspect, he achieves this by just writing the Doctor as he always has and to hell with who might be playing him!

We end with a splendid rant from Morgus over his appearance, the Doctor leading an escape but being rendered unconscious, and Salateen moving off with Peri. The closing scene shows the Doctor about to be attacked by the, er, fearsome magma beast.

Part Three

“I owe it to my friend because I got her into this. So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now.”

The real Salateen arrives back at Chellak’s HQ, and proceeds to reveal to Chellak what a complete and utter twonk he’s been, with the robot Salateen having ensured Jek’s known of his every move for months. Fortunately, the real Salateen is now on hand to “advise” on what to do.

Jek abandons the Doctor to the gun-runners, who want to “interrogate” him back on Major. And if that’s not bad enough, he’s now entering the third stage of Spectrox toxaemia! But even while held captive in Stotz’s ship the Doctor has the effect of a catalyst on the plot; Morgus, now revealed to be the gun-runners’ mysterious supplier, becomes paranoid at the appearance of the Doctor, and begins to think the President may be plotting against him. So, in a brilliant scene, he casually assassinates the President! Just to finish the scene, he casually remarks to Timmin “And have the lift maintenance engineer shot.”

Jek is notably cagey with Peri about his complicity in abandoning the Doctor to Stotz’s mercenaries, and in his guilt he lashes out by having another bit of a rant. These scenes work brilliantly, with both Bryant and Christopher Gable playing their parts to perfection.

But the cliffhanger- surely the Davison Doctor’s greatest ever moment?

Part Four

“What’s happened?”

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”

The Doctor crash-lands the ship, escapes, and begins an epic chase from Stotz and co- nothing’s going to stop him from saving Peri’s life. Fittingly, this often passive Doctor gets to be truly heroic throughout his final episode; battling against overwhelming odds to save his friend from the dangers he himself exposed her to. After an epic chase, he seems to be caught, but a mud-blast saves him; from now on the mud-blasts become increasingly frequent, mirroring the frenetic series of events that follow.

Stotz and co return to their ship to find- Morgus, here to lie low in case he’s under suspicion and wanting in on the Spectrox. But once again the tables are turned as he speaks to Timmin on screen; Timmin has betrayed Morgus, he’s a wanted man, and even his fortune has been seized! Now that’s bloody good plotting from the esteemed Mr Holmes.

More stuff happens; Chellak closes in on Jek, Morgus and Stotz agree to go on and split the Spectrox between them, and in another brilliant twist Stotz walks back and guns down his former comrades.

It’s fascinating seeing Jek’s hold over Peri weaken throughout this episode- with Peri now very ill, he can no longer terrify her. There’s a great moment where, following Jek’s tussle with Chellak, Peri sees Jek’s face, screams, and then Jek falls to his knees and wails. Suddenly it is she who seems to have power over him. Indeed, as the Doctor arrives Jek is as helpful as he can be as the Doctor resolves to collect some bat’s milk.

We end with Stotz shooting Jek, the android Salateen killing Stotz, Jek killing Morgus, and Jek finally dying in the android Salateen’s arms! But finally the Doctor carries Peri through the mud-blasts back to the TARDIS, although not without spilling some bats’ milk on the way. There’s enough for Peri, but the doctor slumps to the ground, asking “Is this death?”

This is possibly the finest regeneration sequence so far, better even than Logopolis. The doctor only says he “might” regenerate and it “feels different this time.” But we get a nice montage of companions- fittingly, the Fifth Doctor’s dying word is “Adric”- and a brilliant use of the Master, and then… it happens. And doesn’t it look great! Colin Baker gets a fantastic first few lines as we cut to the new Doctor’s face over the closing titles…

Not only is this a 5/5, but it’s taken the top spot from City of Death. Ridiculously good, perfect in all ways.

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