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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Caves of Androzani originally aired in 1984.

Androzani Major was becoming quite developed the last time I passed this way.

When was that?

I don’t remember. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the future.

You’re a very confusing person to be with, Doctor, you know that?

I tried keeping a diary once. Not chronological, of course, but the trouble with time travel is one never seems to find the time.

– The Doctor and Peri reflect on travel in the TARDIS

At the risk of succumbing to cliché, The Caves of Androzani is my favourite Doctor Who serial from the classic series. A perfect encapsulation of Peter Davison’s tenure, a fitting farewell story that incarnation of the Doctor, and arguably the perfect regeneration adventure, The Caves of Androzani is one of the very few DVDs that I happen to own twice. And that’s quite a ringing endorsement.

Five outta five?

The Caves of Androzani sees Robert Holmes returning to the series for the first time since he wrote The Power of Kroll, the penultimate entry in The Key to Time saga that is somewhat unfairly dismissed for containing a rather stupid looking monster. In fact, the famed writer’s only Peter Davison script actually sees him returning to many of the key themes that defined The Power of Kroll: gunrunners, precious resources and corrupt corporations all serving as part of the backdrop. However, here Holmes is allowed to develop the ideas and themes in a more restrained environment. There’s no giant squid monster, no Tom Baker chowing down on the scenery and now silly extras covered in green paint.

It’s been frequently remarked that Doctor Who got progressively darker during the eighties, with stories growing increasingly grim and grotesque. Script editor Eric Saward was famous for his “kill ’em all” endings, and for giving us stories when the Doctor (either the Peter Davison or Colin Baker versions) were incredibly ineffective or uncharacteristic. However, the writing frequently left a lot to be desired, stranding Davison and Baker as poetic and tragic figures in the midst of absolute tripe like Warriors of the Deep and Attack of the Cybermen. On very rare occasions, like Revelation of the Daleks, it seemed to work, with the writing managing to generate pathos rather than indifference, but these were the exception rather than the rule.

You must be Jekking...

The Caves of Androzani is perhaps the most effectively tragic Doctor Who serial ever written, where Holmes’ grandiose and epic script elevates the slaughter to tragedy rather than relegating it to farce. There’s a sense of grand scale to all this, with the plot clear and logical. Indeed, I think part of the reason that The Caves of Androzani works so very well is because, unlike the other writers at the time, Holmes has clearly mapped out his characters’ actions and motivations. For all its violence and suffering, Resurrection of the Daleks is quite difficult to follow, with the goals and plans of the Daleks shifting every few minutes.

However, throughout The Caves of Androzani, the audience is aware of the fairly simple objectives and motivations of each of the characters. Morgus wants to make money. Sharaz Jek wants revenge. Stotz and his gunrunners want to get paid. Chellak and Salateen want to win their war and get home. The President wants to balance his public image with the businesses keeping him afloat. All of this makes sense – there are no sudden or random shifts to give us a surprise twist or to move the plots along. Instead, it remains consistent and logical throughout, which gives it all a sense of tragedy.

A bitter pill to swallow...

I think it’s hard to argue against the idea that Robert Holmes was the strongest writer to have written from the classic television series. Holmes has a fantastic sense of the character and his fictional universe, and seems to know the quintessential ingredients of a good Doctor Who story like the back of his hand. He did, after all, give us Baker’s Doctor as Sherlock Holmes in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, define the Pertwee era twice in Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons, and even write the classic series’ sole companion-less adventure, The Deadly Assassin. So Holmes knows the character quite well, and so it’s fitting that the story not only encapsulate’s Peter Davison’s tenure, but also provides a fitting characterisation of the Doctor himself.

Here the Doctor is a wanderer, a person traveling without plan or purpose. He doesn’t intend to bring down the corrupt administration of Androzani Major, he’s just a character who got caught up in events. “I’m not acting for anyone,” he insists when captured. “I was just passing through. I happened to get mixed up in this pathetic little local war.”It’s the nature of the character just to wander into situations like this, but the passive way in which the Doctor here seems to be trapped by them is very much a feature of Peter Davison’s iteration, as the character ultimately seems quite helpless in the midst of all this.

It's a scream...

Part of what makes the story so effective is that the Doctor’s ambitions never stretch beyond Peri’s well-being, something very true to this version of the character. “I owe it to my friend to try because I got her into this,” he explains while hijacking a space ship, a rare act of desperation from the character. When Russell T. Davies revived the series, many would accuse him over introducing overly-emotional Doctors, but they’re all firmly rooted in Davison’s portrayal. From Earthshock through to stories like Snakedance, Davison’s Doctor seemed one filled with a sense of responsibility and self-doubt, so it’s a fitting end. His last word is “Adric”, demonstrating that his tenure was defined by the loss of a companion, so it’s fitting he dies saving one.

In fact, it’s perfect that Peri is still a new companion at this point. Davison’s Doctor doesn’t really know her, he’s been too busy watching his other companions decide that TARDIS life isn’t quite for them. While it seems like Nicola Bryant is still getting used to the role, and struggling with the accent, it does establish that Davison’s Doctor doesn’t have a long-term attachment to her – there’s a wonderful sequence in the first part where it doesn’t seem like she knows the Doctor well enough to have faith in his ability to save them. She’s somebody who has (despite all the unofficial media between this story and Planet of Fire) effectively taken one trip in the TARDIS with him, and he’s willing to lay down his life for her. Russell T. Davies pulled this off with Eccleston’s Doctor in The Parting of the Ways and tried to pull it off with David Tennant’s in The End of Time, but here is the idea in its purest form.

Glass houses...

And yet, despite the fact he’s “just passing through”, the Fifth Doctor has an incredible impact on events. His arrival sets off a chain of events that drives Morgus to assassinate the President on the mistaken belief he’s plotting against the business mogul, and leads to the arrest of the CEO of the largest corporation in the system, never minding pushing a long-running conflict to a bloody and bitter climax and possibly disrupting the supply and distribution of spectrox gas, none of which is intended. Morgus observes that “something is happening I don’t quite understand” and that’s the beauty of it all. The Doctor manages to affect massive political change without any intention of doing so. It’s beautiful.

It helps that Holmes manages to define the players and the game relatively quickly and relatively efficiently. In his later years, the writer had a tendency to incorporate his own views and beliefs into episodes – The Two Doctors, for example, serving as an exploration of his vegetarianism – and here one can see the author’s skepticism of big business. In the meetings between the President and Morgus, it’s clear where the power lies.

Dr. Jek, eh?

Morgus is manipulating the system, managing a balance sheet that “must look much healthier now than it did at the start of this conflict.” He’s fueling the conflict, recognising that even attacks on his facilities can lead to a profitable return if exploited properly. Of the destruction of one of his facilities, he notes, “The loss of Northcawl eliminates our little problem of over-production. The news should also raise the market price of copper.” Indeed, the President is aware of this, noting that his plan to imprison all unemployed citizens and ship them to labour camps is just a greedy little gambit. “Of course, the irony is while you’ve been closing plants here in the West, you’ve been building them in the East,” the President observes. “So if the unemployed were sent to the eastern labour camps, a great many of them would be working for you again, only this time without payment.”

Christopher Gable is absolutely superb as Sharaz Jek, drawing obvious influence from The Phantom of the Opera. Guest was a trained dancer, and he gives Jek a wonder poise, making sure that the lunatic looks as graceful as possible while wearing a variation on the gimp suit from Pulp Fiction. Jek is easily one of the better supporting characters from the decade, if only because of the pathos that Holmes’ script and Gable’s performance give him – he’s articulate and somewhat justified, but he’s also completely around the bend. While he might be sympathetic due to his backstory, there’s no denying how uncomfortable his intentions toward Peri seem, with Davison cleverly keeping his Doctor between the two during the scenes with the three together.

A flying finish...

“Excellent,” he hisses at one point, in case we didn’t get that he’s a creepy fellow. “The girl will be alone.” At another point, Peri wakes up with a massive headache. “I’m sorry it was necessary to drug you,” he assures her, trying to seem like a sensitive kidnapper. “The after effects will soon pass.” It’s brilliantly uncomfortable to watch, because we know his intentions towards Peri, but also that he sees himself as a gallant hero, which makes it all far more unsettling than it would if he addressed her as a raving mad man. Of course, he does go completely around the bend later on, but – even then – it’s all handled remarkably well and the character never goes too far.

All of this adds up to a story where it seems that there are no completely heroic figures, save the Doctor himself. Even the put-upon Chellak, the leader of the military operation in the eponymous caves, is ultimately willing to order a subordinate to certain death in order to cover up an embarrassing mistake that would potentially end his career. It’s hard to root for anybody here, much like it was hard to root for anybody in Warriors of the Deep, but at least Holmes is smart enough to spare us the Doctor’s moralising. “I don’t think anybody like us,”Peri remarks, and she’s right. Is this finally a society beyond redemption? Or is the death of Davison’s Doctor simply tied to his almost passive acceptance of evil? After all, one senses that – had Peri not been infected – the Doctor would gladly leave in his TARDIS and never come back. Is that why Davison’s Doctor had to die?

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

And is that why Colin Baker’s had to replace him? Baker’s Doctor seems like a reaction to Davison’s, one louder and more bombastic, one more suited to the violence and uncertainty of the universe. The Doctor remarks that his regeneration “feels different this time”, so is it a response to the changing universe around him? There’s been quite a few theories thrown around about the regeneration from Colin Baker to Sylvester McCoy, given the controversy around that particular swap, but the Davison to Baker switch was always more interesting to me.

After all, Baker’s Doctor is so immediately in control that he smugly dismisses his predecessor, observing that he represents “change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”That last line seems like a fairly arrogant way to brush off his previous incarnation and Baker’s Doctor goes on to hijack the remaining fifty-odd seconds of the show, being credited ahead of Davison on the end credits and projecting his own face in the background.It’s worth noting that this was the first and only time that this had happened.

A rocky relationship?

It’s as if the assertive force of Baker’s Doctor’s personality simply brushed aside the relatively humble and polite iteration that we’d just spent three years with, almost immediately. He even managed to steal the final story of Davison’s final season, the first time a departing Doctor hadn’t regenerated on the series finale since Hartnell. If this new Doctor could demonstrate such control over the end credits less than a minute after regenerating, then perhaps he was better suited to the harsher universe facing him. Sadly, history has shown us otherwise, but it was nice idea.

Anyway, back to the episode. Graeme Harper does an excellent job with the serial, creating a wonderful understated atmosphere. Even though the caves are clearly television sets (as most caves in the show are clearly television sets), Harper makes them seem more impressive by lighting them as if they were part of a play. It gives the whole serial a very grandiose air – there’s one lovely sequence with the gun runners and the Doctor in the caves that looks incredible. The show feels a bit rougher than usual, as if Harper is actually able to work with the darker material the producers seem to want. It’s no wonder that Harper not only did a great job with Revelation of the Daleks, but also returned to the new series.

Stuck in the middle...

There are admittedly flaws with the adventure. I’ll concede that. The monster looks silly. It looks especially silly because it’s entirely pointless. The adventure really didn’t need it – random mud bursts could have served the same plot functions. There are times when Morgus turns and addresses the camera, apparently the result of John Normington having misread the stage directions. Some fans claim it adds a Shakespearean air to the play. I think it just looks silly. But that’s me. However, the rest of the adventure is so solid that I think Harper and Holmes compensate for these problems.

Peter Davison is my favourite Doctor of the old series (being controversial, Christopher Eccleston is my favourite Doctor overall, but we’ll come to that soon enough). A lot of the time, the stories weren’t really up to much and didn’t give him a lot to work with, but Davison seemed to genuinely try with even the weakest material (see Warriors of the Deep). However, it’s The Caves of Androzani that really defined him, offering him a script and a director that he could work with to truly give a memorable performance. It’s worth noting that two of the three cliffhangers are among my favourite Doctor Who cliffhangers of all time.

Davison carries it off..

What’s so perfect about The Caves of Androzani is that it seems to finally accomplish what the writers and producers had been trying to do for about a year – a darker, more sombre sort of universe in contrast to the brighter adventures of earlier years. The vast majority of the serials leading up to this one were seriously flawed, so I think The Caves of Androzani is just perfect because it accomplishes what all those stories had tried to do, and does it as we come down to the wire.

When I was first trying to get into the old series, I bought about five DVDs, the usual suspects, but I found myself surprisingly luke-warm on these perceived classics. Earthshock and The Talons of Weng-Chiang were grand, and City of Death was a hugely entertaining, but it was The Caves of Androzani that really got me into the classic television show. I think it just adds to the irony that Davison’s Doctor was only perfectly defined on his death.

We’re quite innocent, you know. This is all a mistake.

Yes, I think I’m beginning to believe you, Doctor, but in times of war the innocent die too.

– the Doctor and Chellak share words before the scheduled execution

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