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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (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.

Castrovalva originally aired in 1982.

Welcome aboard. I’m the Doctor. Or will be if this regeneration works out.

– the Doctor greets Adric

Tom Baker did seven years of Doctor Who. That is impressive. No matter which way you look it, and no matter how cynical you might be, it’s hard to argue that Baker’s departure wasn’t a fundamental and radical change to the series. In fact, his influence is so great that Castrovalva even opens with a rare pre-credits sequence, just to make sure that the viewers know that Baker is gone. (Despite the fact that John Nathan Turner apparently asked that the scene be shot so that the new season could open without having to show Tom Baker.)

Baker was going to be a tough act to follow. In fact, to many people, Tom Baker is still the Doctor. I don’t mean that in a sort of “stubborn fans refusing to acknowledge change” sort of way. I mean that in a “when The Simpsons make a Doctor Who reference they use Tom Baker” sort of way. He cast one hell of a shadow, and it’s hard to truly fathom how daunting it must have been to try and step out from that show.

That Peter Davison manages to do so is nothing short of amazing. Equally impressive is the fact that Castrovalva manages to be its own story. While it suffers – as with so many Bidmead scripts – from the fact that the technical limitations of the show can’t keep pace with his ideas, there’s still a lot to love here. And not just Peter Davison. Though he helps.

“Oh! The brainy specs!”

Castrovalva is nominally the third part in a loosely-connected trilogy that feeds from The Keeper of Traken through Logopolis and into this story. The linking themes are apparently the Doctor’s regeneration and the Master’s return. However, those aren’t necessarily the strongest foundations for a trilogy, since that Fifth Doctor is very clearly a reaction against the Fourth Doctor and the Master can’t seem to maintain tonally consistency from scene-to-scene.

As a case in point, the Master has a logical and carefully engineered plan in The Keeper of Traken, but has fallen back into pantomime villain mode by Castrovalva. In fairness, that’s quite impressive if you look at it a particular way. The trilogy of stories from The Keeper of Traken through to Castrovalva not only marked the return of the Master as a credible villain, but managed to somehow diminish him past even his previous humiliations.

Just in case you didn't get it, the Master is evil.

Just in case you didn’t get it, the Master is evil.

Over these three stories, he manages to brilliantly usurp the throne of one of the most powerful empires in history through careful and skilled manipulation. However, he then goes on to accidentally wipe out a massive portion of the universe due to a cock-up in a plan that consists of him holding entropy to ransom. And now he is reduced to the point where he can’t even pry open a box loaded with old books. It’s a truly remarkable deterioration of a character who had been largely absent for an extended period.

Here, the character gets lines like “farewell my friends, farewell forever!” Indeed, he even falls back to the old cliché of being evil because… well, he’s evil. The Doctor describes him, without a hint of irony, as “the most evil force in the universe.” He doesn’t really have a character motivation beyond the fact that he likes being evil, complaining when being evil isn’t enough of a challenge. “This is all too easy. A great pity. These facile victories only leave me hungry for more conquest.” This is a character who spouts nonsense like, “I have you in my power absolutely, but I will see your face before I destroy you forever.”

Thinking inside the box...

Thinking inside the box…

In case you’re wondering, there’s no mention of the fact that he stole the body of Nyssa’s father, or that he killed Tegan’s aunt. (That said, it’s somewhat ambiguous if Tegan knows that her aunt is dead.) It’s strange, because it seems like The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis went to great trouble to create companions with tangible ties to the Master. Certainly, he didn’t need to kill Tegan’s aunt. However, the script can’t wait to treat him as an incredibly banal and generic villain.

I’m sorry to say, but the calculating and sinister Master glimpsed in The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken is an aberration. The moustache-twirling school of inept villainy on display in Castrovalva is sadly much more typical of the Master’s characterisation in the years to come. We get one brief hint of what might have been in Survival, but it’s over two decades before Russell T. Davies manages to do something interesting with the character. And even then the execution is… muddled.

"Sorry, I keep tripping over the scarf..."

“Sorry, I keep tripping over the scarf…”

However, you’re not here to see the Master. There’ll be plenty of time to discuss him as a character when he pops up again (and again… and again) in the years ahead. The headline attraction here is seeing Peter Davison assume the iconic role. I’m going to lay my cards on the table here. Peter Davison is my second-favourite Doctor, and my favourite from the classic series. Christopher Eccleston is my favourite Doctor, which is an unconventional choice by itself.

I won’t argue that the Davison era was the strongest period in the history of the show. I think it is – largely – unappreciated, but it is nowhere near the brilliance of the Hinchcliffe era with the Fourth Doctor or even the consistency of the Letts era with the Third Doctor. However, I think it had a higher average quality than most will give it credit for, and I think that Davison himself did a spectacular job developing the Fifth Doctor as a character.

Between a rock and a hard place...

Between a rock and a hard place…

Indeed, the Fifth Doctor has a very clear arc that doesn’t seem to have been expressly planned by the production team. He’s an inherently optimistic character – much less cynical than any other iteration of the Doctor. That’s obvious even in Castrovalva. When Portreeve describes Castrovalva as “dull”, the Fifth Doctor is more generous. “No, no, I think it does us good to be reminded the universe isn’t entirely peopled with nasty creatures out for themselves,” he remarks, suggesting his more hopeful outlook on the universe. The Fifth Doctor would like to believe that the universe is a nice place, all things being equal.

The current showrunner, Steven Moffat, is an avowed fan of the Fifth Doctor, and makes a similar case:

Davison’s Doctor is beautifully unaware that he is a hero — he simply responds as he feels he must when confronted with evil and injustice, and does so with a very ‘human’ sense of fluster and outrage. In one of the comparatively few perfect decisions in Doctor Who, Davison is allowed to finally expire saving, not the entire universe, but just one life. This isn’t to show, as has been suggested, that he’s any less capable or powerful than the other Doctors — just that, for him, saving one life is as great an imperative as saving a galaxy. This, then, is the Doctor as I believe he ought to be — someone who would brave a supernova to rescue a kitten from a tree.

The irony, of course, is that the universe isn’t as kind and as decent as the Fifth Doctor would really like it to be.

I guess the Master has a flying column...

I guess the Master has a flying column…

This forms a bit of a loose arc throughout his time on Doctor Who, coming to a head in his final year. From Warriors of the Deep onwards, it becomes clear that the universe is a dark and nihilistic and depressing place. I’d argue that this reflects Eric Saward’s vision as script editor. The Fifth Doctor is repeatedly portrayed as ineffective or inefficient, and unable to really change the hostile nature of the universe. Witness the character’s flailing in Resurrection of the Daleks, although it obviously comes to a head in The Caves of Androzani, where the Doctor can’t change anything about the bitter feuding and killing around him. The best he can do is to save one life.

The suggestion is that the Fifth Doctor was too decent and too optimistic for a universe that cold and brutal. It’s a very clear character arc to plot for Davison’s three years on the show. There is a reason that the Fifth Doctor’s defining character moment comes early in his tenure in Earthshock and his finalé in The Caves of Androzani is an effective reversal of that set-up. However, despite how well that works, I am still reluctant to believe this character arc was consciously planned by the writers and producers.

Things are beginning to unravel...

Things are beginning to unravel…

After all, Colin Baker’s more hard-edged and cynical Sixth Doctor is shown to be just as ineffective and useless, despite being nowhere near as decent and optimistic. Still, I’ll save delving into that can of worms until I’m discussing those stories, but it suggests that Saward wasn’t just presenting the Fifth Doctor as ineffective due to those character traits. In fact, I suspect that Davison’s performance is really the key to the Fifth Doctor as a character, more than the writing or the dialogue. Davison is – I’d argue – the best actor to play the title role in the classic series.

Indeed, you can see hints of that arc – a character more decent than the universe will allow him to be – in Castrovalva itself. The Fifth Doctor is clearly glad to find Castrovalva. He seems relieved to be in a pleasant community without any plotting or monsters out to get him. “A civilisation evolving out of tribal warfare into an ideal community.” That would seem to be something that would appeal to the Fifth Doctor. The irony is that Castrovalva is made-up. It’s a fairytale. It’s just a fairytale that the Fifth Doctor wanted desperately to believe.

Any which way but loose...

Any which way but loose…

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s not talk about the big picture of Davison’s time in the TARDIS. Let’s talk about Castrovalva. Specifically, let’s talk about the regeneration. The trauma of regeneration tends to be one extreme or the other. The Second Doctor had to get the Daleks to identify him before he could claim to be the Doctor. On the other hand, the Eleventh Doctor simply needed fish-fingers and custard before saving the world.

Being entirely honest, it seems to depend mostly on the weight of audience expectations – how big the change is for the audience. The shift from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton was so radical that we needed to watch this newcomer earn his title. The shift from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant was more about Rose helping us come to terms with the change than about the change itself. It’s remarkably how little we see of the Tenth Doctor in The Christmas Invasion, but how much is informed through Rose’s expectations of him.

That's just not cricket...

That’s just not cricket…

However, Russell T. Davies magnanimously spent quite some time telling us that David Tennant was going to leave (and having him blow up the TARDIS on his way out), so Steven Moffat didn’t have to worry about exorcising the Tenth Doctor as much as establishing the Eleventh. So, what I’m getting at, the weight given to the trauma of regeneration depends on how radical the shift is for the audience.

The show spent a year telling us that Tom Baker was leaving. We even had a strange inexplicable third party involved to help convince us that this was all going to plan. In fact, Baker’s last dialogue seemed designed to assure us that this was not the end. However, Baker had played the Doctor for seven years. This was a fairly fundamental change to the nature of the show. It was never going to be an easy transition. And the first two episodes of Castrovalva dwell on that, to the point where – despite a trip to “Event One” – they are pretty much an hour of letting us know that Peter Davison knows he’ll have to earn our respect.

Together again, for the first time...

Together again, for the first time…

At one point, Adric asks how the regeneration is going. “I don’t know,” the Doctor responds. “I can feel it isn’t going to be as smooth as on other occasions.” Later on, he advises Nyssa and Tegan, “This regeneration is going to be difficult, and I shall need you all, every one of you.” In a way, of course, he’s speaking on behalf of John Nathan Turner, who decided to make up for the relatively young leading man by adding a large supporting cast around him. Davison generally had two or three companions in the TARDIS with him at a time, which cluttered up the stories no end.

Of course, Castrovalva sort of establishes the dynamic – for better or worse. For better, it firmly establishes Nyssa and Tegan as a functional double-act. Nyssa is the book-smart one, able to fly the TARDIS in the Doctor’s absence. Tegan is the street-smart one, able to steal a police van in a weird little introductory interlude that seems out of place. After all, would Nyssa and Tegan really risk substantial prison sentences to help the Doctor flee? I know they don’t know about U.N.I.T., but it seems the smart thing to do would be to wait for the Doctor to sort everything out before becoming wanted fugitives.

Mary Whitehouse was right, the Doctor does turn young people into criminals!

Mary Whitehouse was right, the Doctor does turn young people into criminals!

The downside to all this is that Adric winds up feeling somewhat left out. Castrovalva, unfortunately, proves to define his character. He even at one point promises to help the Master, trying to trick him in what would become “the Adric maneuver.” Unfortunately, while Tegan and Nyssa solidify their roles in the cast, Adric is shunted off stage, meaning he’ll have to play catch-up in terms of character development.

To be fair, the Doctor does outline the role that Adric should play in this TARDIS crew. In a nice little pep talk, he explains the shape he hopes the TARDIS crew might take. “You, Tegan, you have it in you to be a fine coordinator, keeping us all together during the healing time,” he states. “Nyssa, of course, has the technical skill and understanding. All the information you need is in the Tardis databank. I’m sure you can find your way to it.”

That's not a bad place for Adric, to be fair...

That’s not a bad place for Adric, to be fair…

Then he gets to Adric. “And Adric, Adric with his badge for mathematical excellence. Adric is the navigator. He knows the way. He knows me, my old self. Adric, you must help me heal the disconnection. Your role is very crucial.” Of course, Adric isn’t there to hear the talk. Handily though, his role is so insignificant that he can just hand the coordinates over. And the Doctor seems to find his new personality fine, only rescuing Adric after he has defined his new self. In fact, the Doctor struggles to even remember Adric on Castrovalva.

Still, the companions are secondary here, even if you can see them falling into familiar patterns. This is Davison’s show. And it feels like the script is acknowledging just how big a role he is stepping into. Indeed, the adventure starts with Davison wandering around wearing Tom Baker’s outfit, which creates a suitably effective image. The Doctor is wearing clothes that are too big for him. He’ll have to grow. One of the first things that he does after regenerating is unravelling Tom Baker’s iconic scarf. He might as well jettison the jelly baby storage room while he’s at it.

The Cabinet in the Woods...

The Cabinet in the Woods…

We get a nice sequence of Davison trying to find the right pitch for the character. It is a lovely moment because you can see Davison channelling his predecessors. And it’s great because it isn’t just idle mimicry or impersonation. You can tell which previous Doctor Davison is resurrecting almost instantly, despite the fact he mostly steers clear of caricature. (Although, in Troughton’s case, it’s hard to avoid. But I do like that he channels the mournful and understated “where’s Romana?” version of the Fourth Doctor.)

As if to emphasis the Doctor’s youthful appearance (Davison being the youngest actor at the time to assume the role), the show has him wander around the TARDIS console in a motorised wheelchair, and putting on “the brainie specs” to help him read the panels. It’s a delightfully surreal little image, and it demonstrates that Davison is willing to be a good sport. It is a great image, and one that underscores the contrast that Davison brings to the character. Like Matt Smith, the only younger actor to take over the show, Davison is effectively playing an older man in a younger body. The wheelchair isn’t the most subtle way of expressing that, but it works.

Well, at least the design is better than the Nimon...

Well, at least the design is better than the Nimon…

And then Davison also gets to make the role his own fairly quickly as well. That might sound like a fairly basic requirement, but Castrovalva also expects him to impersonate other actors, try to find a new look, drive round in a wheelchair and be carried around in a box. As such, that the Fifth Doctor feels like the Fifth Doctor at the end of the show is quite impressive, and to Davison’s credit as an actor.

There’s a lovely small scene where the Doctor interacts with a young girl. It is the type of scene that doesn’t feel like it was written specifically for the Fifth Doctor, but Davison manages to make it a moment that feels like it could only work with him. He’s counting his companions, but having difficulty.

One, two.

Three, sir.


Three, sir, is what comes after two.

Do you know, that’s exactly what I thought?

It’s a delightful, albeit short, interaction – but it captures Davison’s version of the Doctor surprisingly well. Moffat’s first story as producer would borrow a few small elements from this regeneration. Notably, the Eleventh Doctor has a similarly sweet (though more important) interaction with a little girl, and the TARDIS lands sideways. Given Moffat is a massive fan of Davison, I don’t imagine these two aspects of The Eleventh Hour were a coincidence.

It's all a little askew...

It’s all a little askew…

Castrovalva also builds upon some of the Buddhist symbolism used in Planet of the Spiders concerning regeneration, and – as such – feeds forward into the pseudo-Buddhist imagery of Kinda. The notion of a death that is also a birth seems to resonate with the New Age version of Buddhism, the idea of the endless cycle of reincarnation where what we were informs what we will be. The Fourth Doctor was loud and domineering, the Fifth Doctor is polite and understated.

Again, like a lot of the Buddhist imagery the series uses, it feels a little mangled, but the Fifth Doctor very clearly tries to find peace with his regeneration through a process similar to Buddhist meditation. “I get it,” Tegan remarks of the Zero Room. “The Zero Room cuts out all interference.” The Doctor’s attempts to quietly and peacefully come to terms with the universe reflects the notion that meditation brings both insight and serenity.

We'll zero in on the problem soon enough...

We’ll zero in on the problem soon enough…

Similarly, when Nyssa and Tegan have to carry the Doctor to Castrovalva, he promises, “I’ll make it easy for you, I’ll be levitating.” While – according to The Miracles of Buddha – Gautama Buddha himself levitated across water, levitation is, again, one of those practises that came to be associated with the New Age spirituality in the 1960s and 1970s. While Ed Saunders might have been trying to levitate the Pentagon “not in a Buddhist way but in a Western magical way”, there was  clear overlap in public consciousness.

This decidedly New Age approach to the process of regeneration feels like a logical continuation of its portrayal as a cycle of death and rebirth. In fact, the final episode even features the Zero Cabinet used to symbolise a coffin as a funeral procession marches through Castrovalva. People even argue over who might be the pallbearer. Of course, the twist is that the Doctor is not in the Zero Cabinet. The Doctor lives!

Sadly, this is NOT the first Oscarbait Doctor performance...

Sadly, this is NOT the first Oscarbait Doctor performance…

I also like, as an aside, the portrayal of the inside the TARDIS as a mostly sterile environment. Admittedly it plays down the idea of the TARDIS as a living organism, which the revived series captured so well with the coral design. Still, on the budget of the show, I like that the inside of the TARDIS seems so white and so clean – it feels almost ethereal and otherworldly. It’s a wonderful way of creating a distinctly alien environment on a tiny budget.

I realise that I’ve actually gotten this far without discussing Christopher Bidmead’s script, which is a shame. I’m fonder of Bidmead than most, even if I disagree with his assertion that there is a single valid way to do Doctor Who. I like his approach, but I also appreciate the work of people like Douglas Adams and Philip Hinchcliffe. On a strictly functional and formal level, I like that Bidmead actually structure his episodes so that Castrovalva took advantage of the changed broadcast structure of Doctor Who.

A funereal good time...

A funereal good time…

As a trial run for what would become Eastenders, this season of the show aired twice weekly in 1982. So Bidmead rather cleverly structures Castrovalva as two two-part adventures, if that makes sense. The first two-parter would have aired the first week, featuring the Doctor in the TARDIS. The second two-parter aired the following week with the Doctor investigating Castrovalva itself. Bidmead really is the only actor to follow that format this year, and he deserves recognition for that very simple – but very clever – use of the new schedule.

As with a lot of Bidmead’s work, it’s tied together by a scientific concept – in this case, recursion. Like Bidmead’s better ideas, it’s an idea that is played out dramatically, through wordplay and also literally. The Doctor and Nyssa both separately use the word “recursion” in fairly common circumstances, before Bidmead applies the logical concept to Castrovalva itself. The Doctor asks Mergrave how he can know that Mergrave is trustworthy. Mergrave responds, “Because, sir, I maintain I am, and I am a man of my word.” The Doctor responds, “A perfect example of recursion, Mergrave. And recursion is exactly what we’re up against.”

Sorry, I keep Peter-ing on...

Sorry, I keep Peter-ing on…

It’s a fantastically clever science-fiction concept. However, as with a lot of Bidmead’s ideas, there’s a sense that show might not have been in the best place to realise it in 1982. Generally the execution is fairly okay, with quick cuts allowing the Doctor and his companions to leave the set from one exit and enter through another entrance. However, when the show tries to convince us that reality is overlapping, things get a bit weird. It’s an effect I’d like to see the modern show take a shot at.

Still, there are worse problems to face than the fact that your script is beyond the abilities of the BBC in 1982. I actually really like the concept of Castrovalva, and I admire Bidmead’s scripts for the fact that they are unashamedly driven by those sorts of high concepts. There’s a wealth of good ideas here. Some of Bidmead’s other scripts suffered because they played themselves too straight, making it impossible to take the dodgy effects in good spirits – instead, everything was too serious and you got the sense that you shouldn’t be giggling at that silly ray effect.

Well, it'll do...

Well, it’ll do…

Here, Davison is solid enough to convince the audience to go along with it. (While Tom Baker played the role as a much more worn-out Doctor, with barely the energy to move, let alone convince us those red lines were dangerous.) Castrovalva is actually a fairly neat introduction to Davison, who has a pretty decent first year on the show. The fact that he manages to escape Tom Baker’s shadow in a single story should be proof enough of his abilities.

In fact, I feel quite like my old self. Well…


Well, whoever I feel like, it’s absolutely splendid.

– the Doctor and Nyssa

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