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.

7 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years — 1984”

  1. New Who post on Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] The Caves Of Androzani. This one, like the one on The Five Doctors, is a little plainer than I’d like, but some of [...]

  2. Oliver Townshend Says:

    Always entertaining reviews. Unfortunately I’d just started university and had stopped watching doctor who when it came out. So there was little suspense when I finally watched it in tape years later so it’s interesting to read a more visceral reaction.

  3. Hal Says:

    I love Caves of Androzani, it’s the highlight of an uneven season (though The Awakening and Frontios have much to recommend them) following the mediocre if entertaining Planet of Fire (crap old Kamelion, itty bitty Master, Turlough in amusing shorts, PETER WYNGARDE! [fairly subdued, actually], JN-T Who at both its campest and – unintentionally? – gayest, gorgeous gorgeous Nicola Bryant running about. Yes, all entertaining!) and preceding the atrocious wrong-headed Twin Dilemma it shines all the more but more than that it’s a proper finale for the Fifth Doctor era, the last wholly satisfying story until 1988, the greatest regeneration story (no, it doesn’t have the cleverer ideas of Logopolis but then it doesn’t have its cringemaking elements either and it just about beats out The War Games because of its tautness and concentrated quality, the sheer sense of *danger*, and it doesn’t have the flop sweat forcedness of RTD’s attempts. So, the Greatest? Yes), and one of the greatest Who stories of All, obviously.
    What I especially like about Caves is that Holmes gets to the root of the fifth Doctor as a character. It’s been suggested (notably by Miles & Wood) that he writes a rather generic Doctor here but that’s not really true; Holmes writes him *as the Doctor* yet as is often typical of this Doctor when he blunders into a situation he can’t really take charge, in fact his curiosity threatens his and Peri’s lives, and as time passes all he can do is battle to save them, and all the while other stories play in parallel. And people *die*. These are arguable hallmarks of the Saward stewardship but Robert Holmes *makes them work*. Morgus, Stotz, Chellak, Sharaz Jek, Salateen Krau Temmin. All of these characters are sharply delineated. All but one are doomed by their natures, by their choices, by their manias, by sheer dumb fate or bad luck (or poetic justice). It’s great work.
    Unlike Planet of the Spiders or Logopolis or The End of My Patience (er, Time) there’s no bombast, no universe at stake. It’s one life. Peri’s.

  4. Hal Says:

    Cont’d (Oh God, won’t someone think of the children?!)
    This is somewhat fitting. The intimacy of this central story, the one actually centred on the Doctor and Peri suits. While the other stories run their courses, the Doctor’s concern is to save Peri. Adric died but nothing is going to stand in the way of saving Peri. In a way the Doctor determines to pay the price for his past failures in this incarnation by giving up his life (presumably that’s why Doctor No Six is such a bastard!).
    The fifth Doctor is quite clearly marked out as different from the others. People may have often treated the second as a funny little man but he was in charge (even when he wasn’t), the fourth might be seen as a fool or an eccentric but there was no doubt that anyone who misapprehended his nature was a fool. There were sometimes high bodycounts but in the end the “Evil” would be vanquished and greater evils will have been averted (recall how cheerful the fourth Doctor is at the end of Horror of Fang Rock). In contrast the endings of Earthshock, Warriors of the Deep, and Resurrection of the Daleks are as much about failure as triumph, in this they aren’t dissimilar to Daleks’ Master Plan tho’ there it’s more the companion than the Doctor who is devastated (um, like Tegan in Resurrection). The fifth is aware of loss to a greater degree than most of the other Doctors (we won’t talk about RTD’s or Moffat’s fucking maudlin takes on these ideas) and so Caves see him fight against the forces attempting to stop him saving Peri. Society isn’t changed by him here, Morgus, Jek, and co. find their orbits destabilized by his presence but they destroy each other, the corruption continues. The fifth’s focus is on saving Peri, that is his responsibility and in Holmes’s story he wouldn’t be able to effect social change anyway he’s too small, contrast with The Sun Makers where the danger is vague and the fourth Doctor *is* able to change a society. The fifth is a flawed vulnerable kind of “hero” here. And Peri is sarcastic and beautiful!

  5. Hal Says:

    Ay carumba! A cautionary tale on commenting while half-asleep can be found above. I really pooed that one out. Behold! The truncated sentences, the repeated phrases (“he must blah blah blah Peri”, “he blah blah blah save Peri”), the dunderheaded “analysis”, the poor grammar. In the unlikely event that anyone reads the mush I wrote, sorry. All I can say is it seemed a good idea at the time… Ugh. And so to bed.

  6. John Böttcher Says:

    Hal – if it’s a consolation, I read your comments and found them interesting. I’d not noticed the Peri/Adric before now, oddly. Which makes me want to watch the story for the umpteenth time. “Adric…” as this version of the Doctor says before death suddenly changes the narrative (for me).

  7. Hal Says:

    Thanks very much, John. I really cringed reading back what I wrote. Caves really repays reviewing doesn’t it? Some people criticize the regeneration scene but I’ve always adored it, it’s just so great. And Colin Baker’s brief appearance and lines are probably the best thing he ever did in the role in my opinion (unfortunately for him!) not that I don’t have time for some of his stories as the anti-fifth Doctor.

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