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Doctor Who: The Visitation (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 Visitation originally aired in 1982.

It’s survival, Doctor. Just as these primitives kill lesser species to protect themselves, so I kill them.

That’s hardly an argument.

It’s not supposed to be an argument. It’s a statement!

– the Terileptil is in no mood for debate with the Doctor

As far as writing débuts go, The Visitation is not a bad first script. Writer Eric Saward had experience writing for radio, but The Visitation was his first live action script to be produced. It’s a pretty solid piece of Doctor Who, even if it’s not anything exceptional. Then again, Robert Holmes’ first script was the perfectly average The Krotons. So there’s room for improvement, and The Visitation is not a bad place to start from.

Of course, Holmes feels like the appropriate comparison here. Not only was Saward a massive fan of Robert Holmes, with the treatment of the ailing Holmes during The Trial of a Time Lord serving as one of the reasons for his departure from the show, but it also seems that The Visitation was very clear attempt to emulate Holmes’ approach to Doctor Who. In fact, it feels like an attempt to update Holmes’ Third Doctor story, The Time Warrior.

Death stalks the countryside...

Death stalks the countryside…

Which, on the face of it, is a little weird. I like The Time Warrior. I like The Time Warrior a lot. However, it’s very hard to imagine any particular subset of circumstances where The Time Warrior is a goal to strive for. If you are going to emulate Robert Holmes, there are better choices. If you want to do a period story with science-fiction trappings, there are better choices. Virtually the only category in which The Time Warrior is absolutely the correct choice is “the story most deserving of a remake from Jon Pertwee’s final season.”

Which, admittedly, something to be proud of, but it makes it a fairly odd choice for the series to emulate at this point in its run. Okay, if I squint hard enough, it makes a bit of sense. Each regeneration is, after all, a reaction against the previous occupant of the role. So the bohemian Tom Baker contrasts with the establishment Jon Pertwee, and the timid Peter Davison contrasts with the overwhelming Tom Baker.

Now, Doctor, it's not polite to gag...

Now, Doctor, it’s not polite to gag…

So there is a reason the show might prefer a homage to a Pertwee-era story rather than a homage to a Baker-era story. Indeed, John Nathan Turner apparently disliked the first draft because he felt it was too much like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which is a very weird sentence to type. I guess the aesthetics of the Pertwee era are far enough away that recycling them might seem a little fresh at this point in the show’s run.

There’s also something to be said for the show’s clear desire to reign things in and bring them back to Earth. The Graham Williams’ era of the show felt increasingly disconnected from Earth, after Hinchcliffe had completely cast off the last relics of the U.N.I.T. era. In fact, before Tegan, Sarah Jane was the last companion from contemporary Earth. The introduction of Tegan as a character, the character arc about getting to Heathrow on time, and even the decision to have Tom Baker regenerate on contemporary Earth all speak to a desire to anchor the series on Earth again.

Nyssa's ambitions to be a house DJ go sadly unfulfilled...

Nyssa’s ambitions to be a house DJ go sadly unfulfilled…

Okay, perhaps not to the same extent as during the Pertwee era of the show. I don’t think Nathan Turner ever wanted to see the Fifth Doctor join U.N.I.T. or anything like that. When the Brigadier eventually turns up in Madwyn Undead, it’s more because the production team couldn’t find anybody better. However, there’s a very clear attempt to bring the show back down to Earth to an extent. It’s no coincidence that The Visitation is followed by Black Orchid, famously the first historical without any overt science-fiction elements since The Highlanders, and that the season climaxes with the spectacle of a Concorde flight in Timeflight.

So, I suppose, there’s something a little bit logical about the decision to emulate The Time Warrior, which is a perfectly serviceable and entertaining Robert Holmes script. Besides, it would have been hubris for a still-developing writer like Saward to attempt a more lofty work from the great writer. And, for all the flack he gets and for all his problems as script editor, Eric Saward demonstrates a great deal of talent here.

Glambot!

Glambot!

The Visitation is light, it’s fun, it’s pacey. It moves at a brisk pace and hits all the sorts of checkboxes from a science-fiction “historical”, if you assume that the BBC have scribbled out the “horror” option from the bottom of the form. It is, honest-to-goodness, entertaining. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot here that needs improvement – but the foundations of the script are solid, and all indications are that Saward has a talent that will only develop as the series continues. Although there are some missteps along the way, I think Revelation of the Daleks proves that.

However, having said that, there’s no way that Saward is ready to be script editor on the show. Quite frankly, he doesn’t have the experience at this point, making it a huge gamble for Nathan Turner. Of course, Andrew Cartmel had even less experience when he took over, so you can make a compelling case that sometimes the risk pays off. However, Saward doesn’t seem quite ready to be script editor. It’s notable how many scripts during his time on the show are fairly explicitly written or extensively re-written by him. Robert Holmes, of course, did something similar, but Holmes was a phenomenal writer in his own right before he took over.

Hitting a wall...

Hitting a wall…

If you had asked Robert Holmes to take over as script editor after The Krotons, I’m not sure he would have done the job even half as well as he eventually did. In fact, even Holmes’ first season as a script editor was a bit rocky, and he wasn’t writing for the show quite as often as Saward. Of course, it’s also notable that – despite Saward’s abiding respect for Holmes – Holmes wasn’t a fan of the show’s continuity, who preferred to avoid recycling aliens. Saward, on the other hand, almost seemed a continuity fetishist.

For example, Holmes script edited a pretty terrible Cybermen story in Revenge of the Cybermen, but you got the sense that it was a result of his lack of interest in the monsters. Saward script edited (and allegedly wrote) a truly dire Cybermen story in Attack of the Cybermen, which seemed bizarrely rooted in his love of the monsters. Holmes’ failure was a result of lack of interest, while Saward’s seemed to be due to an excess of interest. Anyway, that’s all in the future.

Reflecting on past adventures...

Reflecting on past adventures…

Here, however, Saward is channelling Holmes. One of the things about Saward as a writer for Doctor Who is that he’s actually something of a chameleon. He channels the voices of other writers remarkably well. I’d argue that The Visitation and Revelation of the Daleks are attempts to write in the style of Robert Holmes. I’m fonder of Resurrection of the Daleks than most because it’s quite clear that Saward is brutally parodying Terry Nation’s style of scripting. Even Earthshock feels like an affectionate tribute to the “base under siege” stories of Patrick Troughton era.

That’s quite a knack for a writer to have, but it has one fairly substantial draw-back, and it’s obvious here – even if we hope he might eventually out grow it. Quite simply, it’s very difficult for an imitation to surpass an original. Saward is trying to write in the style of Robert Holmes, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever accomplish that goal as well as Robert Holmes does simply by virtue of… being Robert Holmes.

Four of a kind...

Four of a kind…

There are signs of that in The Visitation. Comparing it to The Time Warrior, it’s quite obvious that The Time Warrior is the more “Holmesian” of the two. And, since that is the bar that The Visitation sets for itself, it ends up feeling a bit inferior. Most obviously, there’s almost a complete lack of characters in The Visitation. I mean, there are aliens and robots and villagers, all of whom seem to exist to serve one plot function or another. But there are no characters.

The Time Warrior made a point of giving the Sontaran Linx a distinct personality – one that has ultimately characterised one of the surprisingly popular Doctor Who aliens. In contrast, the Terileptils don’t even get names – let alone personalities. They’re just a handy threat for the Doctor, a bunch of aliens who want to destroy London because that’s just what aliens do. They’re apparently escaped prisoners, but we really don’t get more than a couple of lines of exposition about them.

"The only morality in a cruel world is chance..."Oops... wrong script...

“The only morality in a cruel world is chance…”
Oops… wrong script…

None of the human supporting cast are as well-developed as Irongron was in The Time Warrior. Richard Mace comes close, but it’s worth noting that he is not an original creation. He was a character that Saward originally wrote for radio, so he wasn’t conceived as a part of this story. Even if you argue that Mace is a well-rounded guest character, he is just about the only one in the script. It is, sadly, less than ideal.

The script also contains a number of elements that connect it with the rest of Saward’s work for the show. While Holmes was always cynical, Saward seems almost gleeful grim. The Visitation is his most light-hearted adventure, but the closing scenes still treat us to the sight of the Terileptils burning alive – something rendered in almost horrific detail by virtue of the wonderful animatronic masks. It feels a little weird, and a little “hardcore”, which is arguably Saward’s calling card as a writer.

Mind (control) over (country) matters...

Mind (control) over (country) matters…

We also get one of Saward’s favourite images, the normally technically pacifist Doctor using a firearm. While his handling of the character here isn’t nearly as cynical as his portrayal of the Doctor in Resurrection of the Daleks or Attack of the Cybermen or even Earthshock, the script still finds a way to blame the Fifth Doctor for starting the Great Fire of London by accident. So, in effect, the Doctor saves the day… but by starting a blaze that left seven out out of every eight residents of the city homeless. (The show treats this as a joke, but it’s a very grim one at that.)

In fact, one of the story’s lasting legacies to the show is decidedly “Sawardian.” The Visitation destroys the sonic screwdriver, which would not reappear until the television movie. I am a little torn on the matter. On one hand, the screwdriver is a fairly arbitrary narrative tool, to the point where it seems capable of doing anything the writer needs done, and it’s easy to treat it as the resolution to a particular threat. There are points in the revived series where the sonic screwdriver can heal wounds and fix worlds.

"Yes, Leader is ACTUALLY my name. Can we drop it now?"

“Yes, Leader is ACTUALLY my name. Can we drop it now?”

On the other hand, it also provides a nice way of skipping unnecessary scenes and cutting through the same old routine so the Doctor can get into the drama faster. It means that a locked door can’t stall the character, and it means that we get to the heart of the story that bit quicker. After all, when the show gets rid of the sonic screwdriver, we spend a lot more time watching the character fidgeting with wires and just using another technobabble solution to the problem facing him.

So I’m not convinced that destroying the screwdriver removes a narrative crutch – there’ll always be technobabble and arbitrary science-fiction dialogue that can be used to fill the void. However, the destruction of the sonic screwdriver seems mostly symbolic. One of the recurring suggestions in Eric Saward’s Doctor Who is the idea that the show needs to “grow up” and recognise an increasingly cynical and less magical universe. The destruction of the screwdriver, then, is symbolic of the death of innocence. The series is effectively destroying the Doctor’s magic wand.

Get Rich quick...

Get Rich quick…

While  Saward’s script is generally quite solid and entertaining, Peter Moffat’s direction feels a little sedate and relaxed. At points it seems like he has trouble keeping pace with the script. It doesn’t help that he hams up quite a few aspects, shooting certain scenes in the most cheesy manner possible – the robot picking up the scythe, for example, or Adric’s near-miss of the villagers finding the TARDIS. It’s not too hard to believe that The Visitation might have been better served with a more dynamic director.

There’s also a sense with The Visitation that the series is still struggling with the “soap opera” dynamic that it is trying to foster among the four regulars. Improvements are being made, but not fast enough. We’ve reached the point where the show seems to realise that actions need to have consequences, but isn’t entirely sure what those consequences are. For example, the serial opens with the Doctor lambasting Adric for that stupid thing he did in Kinda, even if it’s a conversation that doesn’t feel like it is going to have consequences. I mean, you could argue that it pays of in Earthshock, but the connection doesn’t feel tangible.

"Not again," he scythed...

“Not again,” he scythed…

I also love how the Fifth Doctor seems somewhat impatient with these seemingly obligatory scenes. Nyssa is so bored that she’s reading a magazine. When the Doctor and Adric have finished, the Doctor sort of sighs, “Is Tegan ready?” You can hear the resignation in his voice – the “here we go again” tone. One of the most frustrating things about this period of the show is the fact that it seems like nobody actually wants to on the TARDIS with the rest of the characters, except maybe Nyssa. And, even then, it would seem to be because Nyssa doesn’t really have a personality to speak of.

The Visitation also includes a scene with Tegan dealing with the events of Kinda while putting on make-up, which seems like an arbitrary scene included merely so the script can claim to be building on the previous adventure. “It’s only sunk in properly,” she states, “what happened to me on Deva Loka.” It’s a weird moment, because it’s a reference, but it’s never quite expanded upon. The script gets the facts right, but there’s no real sense of an emotion connection.

This is starting to look a lot more like an Eric Saward script...

This is starting to look a lot more like an Eric Saward script…

I mean, we can intuit why being trapped inside your own mind with an alien parasite is a bad thing, but show needs to do a bit more to make us care. After all, it’s not a problem that we can relate to, so it’s not something that lends itself to soap opera drama. We need a hook – we need something we can latch on to about it. The show seems to grasp that Tegan has been through a lot, and that she’s been hurt, but it can’t seem to connect meaningfully with that.

When the Doctor explains that she’ll have only been away for thirty minutes, she remarks, “Some half hour. Now I have to pretend that nothing’s happened in the mean time.” Fielding does her best with the material, but there’s no real sense of substance. It feels more like the script is trying to do drama for the sake of doing drama, and it thinks that having the crew yell at one another will be enough. “Call yourself a Time Lord?” she asks the Doctor at one point. “A broken clock keeps better time than you do! At least it’s accurate twice a day, which is more than you ever are!”

Not out of the woods yet...

Not out of the woods yet…

The script seems to understand that we need these more emotional companions in order to foster that sort of “soap opera” dynamic, and it has figured out that character continuity from one adventure to the next is the way to do it. Unfortunately, it hasn’t figured out that this needs to tie together. To use an example, the fact that the Terileptil uses mind control on Tegan should connect with the fact that she spent the last adventure being trapped inside her head. The robot breaking into the TARDIS should strike a chord with Adric’s botched double-agent scheme from Kinda.

Character continuity isn’t just about knowing what happened and referencing it, it’s about connecting that to an evolving idea of the character, and allowing it to inform that way that characters act and evolve. You could make a case, for example, that the script is leading towards a romance between Adric and Nyssa. Just ignore all the stuff that we take for granted that would prevent that from being the case.

Cloaked in another persona...

Cloaked in another persona…

Let’s pretend we don’t know that Adric is doomed. Let’s pretend that John Nathan Turner doesn’t have a “golden rule” about “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” And let’s ignore that Matthew Waterhouse can’t act his way out of a cardboard box. That’s a lot of stuff to ignore, but let’s just go with it. I’d argue that the one thread of character continuity running through this first season has nothing to do with the Mara or Adric’s fake betrayals or the Master’s murder of Nyssa’s people and Tegan’s aunt. Instead, entirely accidentally, the show seems to be pushing Nyssa and Adric together as a couple.

Let’s look at the way their characters have evolved. Adric is a teenage boy on a ship with two young beautiful women. Nyssa seems to be close to his age, while Tegan wants off the ship. At the start of The Visitation, talking about Tegan, the Doctor advises him, “Sometimes we humanoids try to disguise our… our true feelings.” In Four to Doomsday, Nyssa and Adric teamed up, with Adric complaining to her that he wasn’t good with his hands. It was a cute line, even if the series didn’t seem to pick up on it.

The right Mace at the right time...

The right Mace at the right time…

Here, Nyssa invites Adric into her bedroom… while they’re alone in the TARDIS together… to experiment. “Won’t it damage the TARDIS?” Adric asks. Nyssa responds, “It’s less likely to here than in the console room, and I’m not really sure it will work at all.” Yes, Nyssa. I’m sure that’s why you’re inviting Adric to carry his cable into your bedroom, and not doing this even further away from the control room, where it would be even safer. She even runs out of the TARDIS to greet him, which is something I don’t think she’d do for Tegan or the Doctor.

Of course, all of these things are easy to explain. Nyssa builds the device in her room because it’s a standing TARDIS set, and saves the production team the bother of building a new one. Adric is alone with her because Tegan is busy being mind controlled. Nyssa runs out to greet him because there’s needs to be that scene with the robot chasing her. All these individual points make sense on their own, but character comes from tying all these little bits together and constructing a picture that makes sense. Referencing plot points from last week’s adventure and then forgetting them completely is not enough.

Oh, Adric!

Oh, Adric!

It’s not something that the show is able to do yet, despite its best efforts. That’s why some nightmare-inducing unholy relationship between Adric and Nyssa seems to be the most likely character development stemming from this first run of episodes, even though it is undoubtedly something that never crossed the production team’s mind. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll try to eject that particular mental image from my own head.

There is some nice Fifth Doctor stuff here, though. I especially like the fact that he tries to do right by the Terileptil, even after he finds out they were prisoners. “I can take you anywhere you want,” he begs. “A billion light years from your home planet. You’d never be found.” That’s a nice Fifth Doctor moment, underscoring that this is a version of the Doctor who really just wants everybody to have a happy ending, without any judgement on anyone involved. Even this early on, it’s lines like that which turn the Fifth Doctor into a tragic figure.

Cut it out...

Cut it out…

The Visitation is a perfectly fine adventure, even if it is nothing exceptional. It’s a pretty solid début, and there’s a sense that the show is slowly finding its feet again after a radical transformation.

How do you feel, now?

Groggy, sore and bad-tempered.

Oh, almost your old self.

– the Doctor demonstrates that Tegan’s no the only passive-aggressive TARDIS resident

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