February 1st, 2013
The Caves Of Androzani is, notably, the only actually good Doctor Who story from 1984. This is not just my opinion — consensus opinion (the Doctor Who Magazine reader’s poll) places it as the best story of all time, while by comparison the story before, Planet Of Fire, comes in at 134 out of 200, and the story directly after it, The Twin Dilemma, is voted the single worst Doctor Who TV story ever.
While I can’t bring myself to agree that this is the best story ever, I for once can’t disagree with the fan ratings of the other episodes in this series. While I’m never one to follow fan consensus, The Twin Dilemma is one story I’ve found actually unbearable to watch, though I suppose I must have enjoyed it enough as an uncritical five-year-old.
Planet Of Fire, meanwhile, the story directly before this, is notable primarily because a huge amount of money was spent filming the story on Lanzarote, in the only location shoot that year, but the glossy budget couldn’t distract from a plot that mostly consisted, yet again, of the Master attempting an overcomplicated diabolical scheme that even as a five-year-old I must have thought unlikely, this time involving Kamelion, the show’s second, and less successful, attempt at having a robotic companion.
But here, in The Caves Of Androzani, we see the blueprint for the next couple of years of Doctor Who, at least the good episodes.
Eric Saward, you see, is an interesting figure. He was, by common agreement, the script editor who commissioned the largest number of duff scripts, and the fewest really good ones, but he could also recognise writing talent, at least of a specific type. Saward’s tastes ran to cynical, violent, blackly humorous scripts with a certain amount of postmodern knowingness, and as long as he commissioned scripts of that type, he was able to get good scripts by good writers. It was only when he got people to write…well, frankly, anything that would have been out of place in the pages of 2000AD, that things became less than wonderful.
And of course, if you want a cynical, violent, blackly humorous, knowingly postmodern Doctor Who script, there’s only one man to turn to — Robert Holmes. Holmes had not worked on the show since The Power Of Kroll, nearly six years earlier, at first through his own choice, but latterly because John Nathan-Turner disliked having writers who had worked on the show before 1980 contribute.
But Saward had decided that Robert Holmes was far and away the best writer ever to work on the show (an assessment that pretty much everyone would share) and eventually persuaded Nathan-Turner that he should be commissioned to write Peter Davison’s regeneration story.
What Holmes delivered was a script unlike anything that had been done in the show for years. With viewers knowing that the Doctor was going to die during this story, the cliffhangers could have real menace, and so we have what are two of the best cliffhangers ever in the series — the Doctor and new companion Peri getting executed by firing squad (a call-back to the similar cliffhanger in The War Games — but here we actually see them drop dead) at the end of the first episode, and the Doctor taking the controls of a spaceship and forcing it into a head-on collision with a planet at the end of episode three.
Admittedly, episode two’s cliffhanger, with the story’s obligatory monster, the Magma Beast, is rubbish, but it wouldn’t be a Bob Holmes script without a rubbish monster. Any of these could have been the reason for the Doctor’s regeneration, and so the question wasn’t “How will he get out of this one?” but “will he get out of this one?”
Holmes’ script became the template for the majority of the watchable stories in Colin Baker’s tenure — the Doctor turns up and takes part in a fairly small-scale story, which has ripples that affect a huge political crisis of which he’s only dimly aware. In this case, he’s only trying to rescue his companion, who has accidentally poisoned herself (and him) to death by stepping in a pile of bat-shit (yes, really), but he manages to get caught up in a three-way guerrilla war between a government, a mining corporation, and a terrorist while trying to get hold of the antidote.
The documentary on the current DVD release gets this badly wrong, incidentally, by saying the story is about the Doctor “sacrificing himself for his best friend”. He’s not. He’s sacrificing himself for someone he only met in the previous story. This is one of the things that has been weakened by later retcons — Big Finish, the company that makes audio dramas based on the series, has been forced by actor availability to come up with dozens of stories set between Planet Of Fire and this story. Some of those are very good indeed, as we will see in the entries for 2006 and 2011, but they do make this story, retrospectively, into the Doctor sacrificing himself for an old friend rather than a brand-new acquaintance, which diminishes this story. (This is one of the times when it’s good to have an attitude to continuity that embraces contradictions rather than gets upset by them. Peri and the fifth Doctor travelled together for years and this is only their second story. That kind of thing happens when you travel in time.)
The extent to which this story becomes a template for the next few years can just be seen by the fact that of the nine TV stories after this which feature Peri, a full six of them feature an ugly or deformed villain who takes an unnecessarily sexual interest in her, like Shiraz Jek in this story. In fact, almost the only stories where this doesn’t happen are the two further ones written by Robert Holmes.
But the most interesting aspect of the story, and one which again got picked up by Saward for most of the rest of the stories he edited, is the fourth-wall breaking by Morgus, the evil businessman who is secretly funding both the other sides of the war. Morgus regularly turns and soliloquises straight to camera, in what was originally an accident — John Normington misunderstood what he was meant to do, but director Graeme Harper decided to go with it. There would be a lot of this kind of thing in British TV over the next few years — Morgus is regularly compared with Francis Urquhart in House Of Cards, for obvious reasons, but the technique was also used in programmes like Lovejoy — but this was the first time since 1966 that Doctor Who had featured a diegetic acknowledgement of the audience. This kind of thing would become the most notable recurring feature of the Colin Baker years.
And those are the years we’re about to enter, and we’ll see the story that takes this style to its greatest extreme next time.