Friday, 8 November 2013

Castrovalva written by Christopher H Bidmead and directed by Fiona Cumming

This story in a nutshell: The newly regenerated Doctor needs his friends to help him get through this latest crisis…

Fair Fellow: I have developed a new appreciation for Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor since enjoying his adventures in the Big Finish audio range. I have always found his televised adventures afforded few opportunities for him to truly shine. There are a few exceptions (Kinda, Snakedance, Enlightenment, Frontios and Androzani) but on the whole I find that we have is a strong actor in a (mostly) underwritten role. Those glimpses of the older man in a younger mans body that dominate in Frontios and Androzani and show the sort of dynamo we could have had in the central role throughout his era. It doesn’t help that the quality of his stories goes up and down like an apoplectic lie detector (Earthshock/Time-Flight shows how the quality can plummet so dramatically before Arc of Infinity/Snakedance exposes how the show can suddenly ascend to new highs again). However I really enjoy his turn in Castrovalva simply because it is such a gentle treatment of regeneration (perhaps this was why it was easier to adapt to Davison’s Doctor than Colin Baker's) and there is a real attempt to show the Doctor recovering from his violent biological change. The Doctor unravels his scarf in the same fashion that his mind is being disentangled and he mentions Romana and K.9 and takes on the persona of his previous selves (Davison’s impression of Troughton is spot on and I did chuckle at his militaristic Pertwee). There is a real sense of history behind the character now that has never been exploited at the point of a regeneration before. It is something that will get out of hand later on his time on the show but it feels fresh and nostalgic here. His scenes amongst the Castrovalvan residents are some the fifth Doctor’s finest and I love his assertion that he has come to the city to find the Doctor – sheer poetry. The Doctor has wisely used the regeneration to forget all about his mathematical genius of a companion but nature abhors a vacuum and he niggles his way back into his mind. Studying the history of Castrovalva with half moon specs on, firing off theories and behaving inanely – why couldn’t the fifth Doctor be this well written all the time? Whatever my criticisms of Bidmead's charactersation of the fourth Doctor in Logopolis were (he was the ultimate expressions of the naughty undergraduate that the script editor couldn't bear and he tried to shape him into something quite against his nature), his fifth Doctor is spot on because he is the one who has the ultimate hand in creating him. It is quite telling that the next time he will be characterised quite this rivetingly is Frontios, Bidmead's next contribution. By the end of the story the Doctor is commandingly standing up to both Shardovan and the Master, it feels as though he has finally arrived.Where the wealth of companions felt like it was threatening to overwhelm Tom Baker and cramp his style, the final scenes of Castrovalva have a positive air to them. The fifth Doctor is young and beautiful and he is heading off into the universe with three faced youths (well, two fresh faced faced youths and one permenant middle aged scowl).

Alien Orphan: There’s a great moment when Nyssa sees her fathers face on the scanner waving them to their deaths and she cries that she hates his face. It must eat her up that the Master is using her fathers body to commit such awful crimes and it is such a shame that we didn’t get to explore that more. She knows so little about telebiogenesis, alas. There’s a glorious moment of absolute calm during their first morning in Castrovalva where Nyssa watches the ladies work through their bedroom window, checks Tegan sleeping calmly and then takes a stroll through the streets simply basking in the ambiance. It's exactly the sort of thing I would be doing if I were travelling with the Doctor and as a quiet moment of normality amongst all the madness it’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should do far more often than it does. It feels very Hartnell era and that is absolutely a compliment. Nyssa tries to reason with the Master but he merely tosses her across the room like a rag doll. Clearly there is no trace of Tremas left in there.

Mouth on Legs: Without a doubt one of Tegan’s (and Janet Fielding’s) best stories. Christopher H Bidmead writes so well for the feisty air hostess that he created and perhaps if he had remained as script editor we would have seen a much smoother ride for the character. It is strange because where he characterised her as an , unbearable harridan in Logopolis, she is a much more reasonable, deliberating character here. Perhaps it has something to with Janet Fielding's performance too considering this is her fifth story to be filmed and not her second. She's bedded into the role. There’s no whining and moaning about trying to get home here, Tegan recognises that this is a fraught situation and tries to do everything she can to help. She actually feels like a human being – a rare feat. The Doctor nominates Tegan as the co-ordinator, the one to keep them together during the healing process which is a role she seems determined to live up to. Tegan gets to enjoy the illusion that she is flying the TARDIS which is not the kind of aircraft she wanted to be indulging herself on but probably the closest she will get to being a pilot! There is some nice humour too (‘I could have shown him Brisbane’ ‘Not up to CAA standards but a landings a landing!’). This is one of the few stories that features Tegan that Janet Fielding doesn’t dominate with her aggressive portrayal and for that I am truly grateful. It shows that the character be made to work with the programme, rather than it working despite her.

Pudding Bowl Haircut: Matthew Waterhouse who hasn’t the ability of a stunt man so his little scrap with the police at the beginning of Castrovalva is marred by bad time and tame kicks and punches. Although I suppose we should give credit where its due, this is the second time in two stories where he has affected a decent diversion and escape plan. 

Panto Beard: It's interesting to note that every time a huge impact was made with a brand new Master the production team decided to play his story out over a handful of stories. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks creating the Doctor’s Moriarty and had him feature in every story for an entire season. John Nathan Turner and Christopher H Bidmead re-invented the character in the form of Anthony Ainley and enjoyed a three story marathon (over 12 episodes). And when Russell T Davies decided to bring him back for the New Series there was a stonkingly epic three episode tale to revel in his madness. It would seem that one story isn’t enough and we need prolonged exposure as proof that this is the version that is sticking around for a while. He’s such a devious sod that he needs to install traps inside traps as a back up just in case his initial trap doesn’t work! It says something about his confidence in himself (or rather his confidence in the Doctor) that he knows he is going to fail and have to try again!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘One of the advantages of stark simplicity…’
‘The solution. Oh my little friend if only you were.’
‘Definitely civilisation’ - biting into a celery stick!
‘You made us man of evil but we are free…’
‘Well whoever I feel like, it's absolutely splendid!’

The Good: Pre-title sequences are tenapenny these days but back in the day these were rare treats and this is one of the best, a reprise of the events at the end of Logopolis with some gorgeous Paddy Kingsland music scoring the emotive transformation. Whoever said that The Parting of the Ways was the first optimistic regeneration obviously hadn't paid attention to this story because everything about the fourth Doctor’s regeneration is about a young man stepping from an old man's life. Pleasingly he sits up with a smile on his face. I always really enjoy the first episode because it is so different from anything else in Doctor Who – a brand new set of regulars  trapped inside the TARDIS and trying to heal the Doctor, getting used to each other and falling into one of the Master’s most devious traps. Am I the only one who thinks it is very cute to have a changing room for cricketers inside the TARDIS? Why not in a ship of infinite rooms? Like Peter Grimwade before her Fiona Cumming manages to convince with a handful of sets and some clever editing and camerawork that the TARDIS is a labyrinthe of many passageways and different rooms. Between Logopolis and Castrovalva we have Chris Bidmead to thank for really exploring the potential of the TARDIS as an alien and unknowable setting. With Castrovalva he puts an equal amount of weight behind the characters and it makes a huge difference to the overall piece. The consequence of being able to gain enough momentum to escape Event One is to delete 25% of the TARDIS – I love how Bidmead uses clever science to get the Doctor out of this situation and as a small side note his description of momentum here helped me to pass a GCSE exam question. Cheers Bidmead! I’m quite keen on TARDIS imagery (my desktop is usually a TARDIS photoshop that some genius has dreamed up) so I love the look of the ship lopsided sticking out of the ferns. I’m also a massive fan of long walks in the leafy British countryside and so the location work in Castrovalva is some of my favourite, passing streams and banks with the birds singing and the grass fresh and vibrant, it's just gorgeous. Add to it some stunning Kingsland mood music and it is one of the few times I don’t care that the narrative has taken a massive pause because I am simply drinking in the atmosphere. How ironic that Castrovalva should be a made up location because it feels like one of the most realistic foreign locations the show has ever given us. A bustling town, full of life and packed with lovely detail such as the washer women, hunters and a unique poetic dialogue of their own. The sets are marvellously designed and built with imperial pillars, marbles steps, balconies and flaming torches all mixing to create a rich effect and Cumming adds much atmosphere by lighting the scenes appropriately for day and night. Populated with characters such as Mergrave, Ruther, Shardovan and the Portreeve, Castrovalva is warm and wonderful place to visit and recuperate. A shame it's all a nasty trap on the part of the Master but he gets full marks for creating a genuinely restful location. The first time I watched this story I had no idea that the Portreeve was being played by Anthony Ainley. It’s a fantastic performance, throaty and aged and after this is and his lovely turn as Tremas it is breaks my heart to see Ainley stuck with the interminably pantomimic role of the Master because it is clear he has so much more the give. I was sure Shardovan was the Master. The end of episode three is always knocked for it's dodgy final effect and yes it isn’t quite up to scratch but the work that is done by Fiona Cumming and the actors to convince that every route leads back to the square really sells the idea of a labyrinth turning in on itself for me. I can think of no better example of free will as the Master’s puppets turn on him and hold him back whilst the Doctor escapes with his companions. I have to mention Paddy Kingland’s score for Castrovalva which is one my favourites in Doctor Who’s entire run. It is one of the most affective and lyrical of scores and adds a great deal of tension and excitement to the early scenes (I love the music as they approach Event One).

The Bad: I can understand the logic of having the first handful of stories being filmed before the opening story of the season because the regulars in Castrovalva are gorgeously presented. The flip side is that you go from a story like this where the actors are relaxed around each other to Four to Doomsday where suddenly everybody seems unsure and nervous and unsure. It's such a shocking contrast from one to the other that I’m not sure in hindsight that it was the best idea. The chase back to the TARDIS would be much more dynamic if it wasn’t just a couple of feet away – I don’t know why they don’t just run rather than go to all the trouble of stealing an ambulance. Atmospherics aside, Tegan and Nyssa are a bit rubbish when it comes to getting to Castrovalva. First they lose the wheelchair in the stream, then Nyssa falls in, then they dump the Zero Cabinet and then they are shocked to discover the Doctor has gone walkabout. I don’t know if I would want this two watching my back. The mirrored effect of the Doctor and company crossing the Bridge is possibly a bit too simple to suggest the occlusion.

The Shallow Bit: The fifth Doctor’s costume is probably the least offensive of the Doctor’s that JNT catered for but it still feels remarkably cobbled together and more like a uniform than anything that came before it. The jacket is far too stylised and I hate the colour (surely the blandest of Doctor’s should be given something other than the blandest of colours to wear?) but I love the cricketing jumper underneath. There is something quintessentially British about the fifth Doctor that makes me smile. Nyssa’s fairy skirt is like something out of Lewis Carroll on speed and I was very pleased to see she swapped it for a pair of trousers to trudge around in outside. The less said about Adric’s pyjamas and Tegan’s unflattering air hostess uniform the better. It has to be said that there is something remarkably kinky about the Master keeping Adric trapped within a webbing of metal torture devices – it's probably the closest to sado-machoistic bondage you get to enjoy in Doctor Who if that is what floats your boat. Some swear there is a scene where you can see Adric's stiffy...but, well...who would want to go looking for that? It's well worth having a close look at Tegan’s stockings when she dabs her hand in the Doctor’s blood – there is a massive hole the size of her thighs. 

Result: A gloriously sedate, warm and wonderful opening story to introduce the fifth Doctor. Critics that say Bidmead can only write cold science (me in the last story then) should rewatch the Castrovalva sequences which are imbued with a depth of character and wonderful lines and observations on the new TARDIS crew. The opening two episodes are a little short on incident but this is more than made for by watching this new team of regulars find their way with each other plus a great chance to explore the depths of the TARDIS. Both the location work and the design are beautiful and it really feels as though JNT has upped the budget tenfold since the all studio days of the latter end of season seventeen. As the Doctor says ‘trim time ship and a ship shape team’ which is exactly what the show needed after Tom Baker’s seven year span and it genuinely feels like this is an exciting and optimistic new direction for the show. Visually and tonally there has never been anything like this before and since and I think its rather wonderful: 9/10


Paolo Sammut said...

Great review as ever. I always wondered about the unravelling scarf scene here. Rewatching Logopolis I always wanted to see the Doctor dangling from the scarf rather than dangling from the wire on the Radio Telescope. But it does make more sense really in this scene where as you say his old mind is unravelling and reforming and it also serves as a thread to guide his way in the TARDIS.

Cheers Paolo

Anonymous said...

I can understand the logic of having the first handful of stories being filmed before the opening story of the season because the regulars in Castrovalva are gorgeously presented

As I understand this story was a late commission since the story was that was to have been the first to be made fell through hence why Four to Doomsday was shot first

Joe Ford said...

I understand it but not when it comes at the expense of consistent characterisation throughout the season.

Seeley said...

Aside from a couple of overly silly moments I love this story. The acting is great and the atmosphere is wonderful. It's totally oddball, but done with class. Being a watcher and listener(Big Finish) of Sci-Fi, I tend to try to figure out what's going on, so the ending was great because, looking back, it makes perfect sense yet it managed to come out of left field totally unexpectedly. TO make things even better, the Master's plans actually was clever this time.

Of course the problem is, the Davison years pretty much go downhill from here.

Joe Ford said...

'Pretty much' is a bit more of a grand statement than I would make but aside from that I entirely agree with your sentiments. The Davison era (for me) is one of the most inconsistent runs during the shows time with gems such as Earthshock, Snakedance, Enlightenment, The Five Doctors, Frontios and The Caves of Androzani rubbing shoulders with Time-Flight, Arc of Infinity, The Kings' Demons, Warriors of the Deep & Planet of Fire. It is a scatter shot overview of pretty much everything that is good and bad about Doctor Who.

Anthony Pirtle said...

As 5th Doctor stories go, this is one of the better ones, but the blatant errors in astrophysics do niggle at me whenever I watch it. That's the problem with writing a more 'scientific' Doctor Who. The closer you get to discussing real science, the easier it is for people to notice when you cock it up. It's sort of the 'uncanny valley' of sci-fi writing.