Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Caves of Androzani written by Robert Holmes and directed by Graeme Harper

This story in a nutshell: The only story where the Doctor is trying to make no impact whatsoever and as a consequence makes the biggest impact of all...

Fair Fellow: Doesn’t it make you mad that this is how good the fifth Doctor could have been throughout his tenure? One of my biggest complaints about Davison was that on his less impressive stories he look as though he had just given up, stories such as Terminus, Arc of Infinity, The Kings Demons and Time-Flight (how it pleases me that I have reviewed three of these four!) he walks through like something of a beige blur. Colin Baker, bless his very few stories, at least made every story count because he convinces that there is something truly dramatic happening. Here the fifth Doctor is a fascinating character throughout and Davison gives his most compelling performance in the series. He’s simply extraordinary to watch. The Doctor is observant, intelligent and not a pain. Did he get a merit badge for tracking when he was in the scouts? ‘It's probably quite harmless’ – hah, not if you want to turn into Colin Baker! Despite his walk through some very dark stories in his final season it still feels wrong for the amiable fifth Doctor to walk into a room and discover a consignment of gas bombs; its like a collision of two worlds, the joyful wandering fifth Doctor and the filth of the universe. He’s sarcastic (‘Well done sir’) but as soon as he is aware of the dangers he becomes fiercely angry and focused. I adore the painful look he gives Peri when she states the obvious. Davison’s blazing eyed protestations give him a lovely glow, an inner fire that we so rarely get a chance to see. He doesn’t find any form of death enticing. Curiosity has always been his downfall and he apologies to Peri for getting her into this mess. There’s a blissful moment of arrogance when Sharaz Jek admits the sight of beauty is so important to him and the Doctor gets right in his face. He is appalled that Jek suggests his intelligence is equal to his own, the very idea. What a suicidal nutter, he walks in front of an armed android playing the odds. When the Doctor is casually grazed by a bullet it feels deadly serious because the atmosphere of paranoia and death has been so expertly rammed down the viewers throat. Because Doctor Who doesn't hurt its characters like this normally it feels as though anything can happen. The torture continues with the Doctor almost having his arms torn from their sockets. The Doctor asks to be left to die. He is always on the periphery of the story, slowly dying, mistaken for a gun runner, a government spy and a presidential mole, never before has carefree wandering felt so dangerous. This is a desperate man on the run trying to save his friend. The Doctor’s insane recklessness crashing the ship into the planet is a deservedly celebrated cliffhanger. It's touching how enemies Sharaz Jek and the Doctor work together to save Peri’s life. His victory is saving his friends life at the cost of his own. It warms your heart that he is comforted by his friends on his deathbed and chills you that the Master turns up just before he changes to taunt him. It’s possibly Colin Baker’s finest minute in the TARDIS where he gets to be witty, charismatic, a total slap in the face. 

Busty Babe: Remember what I said about Peri being able to surprise you in a way Ace never could? In Caves of Androzani she is the best companion we have ever had, pivotal to the drama, important to the two lead characters and the reason the Doctor regenerates. It is very odd to see the fifth Doctor getting on so well with his companion, after the abrasiveness of Tegan for nearly three seasons (here’s a hankie if you want to weep) and it is thrilling to have somebody who finally compliments him rather than simply butting heads with him for no reason. Some part of me wishes we could have reversed the situation and had Peri throughout the Davison era and Tegan throughout the Baker era. In In a Fix with the Sontarans Tegan compliments the sixth Doctor extremely well because she is strong enough to out shout him and it makes him softer as a result. I love Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant together but it does make you think. Sarcasm is not her strong point. She is the first person to ask about the celery in his lapel rather than accepting it as a quirk of eccentric behaviour. Whilst it would become the norm next season it was quite unusual to have a companion lusted after quite so violently and this is probably the best example of how chilling it can be. Jek’s advances truly frighten Peri, he plays with her hair and touches her, it is such intense lust its practically psychological rape. In the later episodes Peri looks really ill and tired – it really is a frightening introduction to the Doctor’s travels. We are treated to the best every companion scream where Peri unleashes her horror at Jek’s features, it is a scream loaded with meaning. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The public want their Spectrox, Morgus…’
‘Do you want to know why? You? With your fair skin and features. D’you want to see the face under here? DO YOU!?’
‘Your excellency’s safety is my soul concern…’
‘Is this death?’

The Good Stuff: The approach to Androzani, the TARDIS landing on the foggy sands, the voiceover, the long shot with the mountains in the distance…this story makes an instant impression. The camera tracks the Doctor and Peri from behind the sand dunes giving a simple dialogue scene a real sense of pace. The Doctor and Peri are both brought to the edge of death by Spectrox which Peri falls into and he touches before they even enter the plot, it's such a casual accidental moment. Morgus’ direct addresses to the camera are very dramatic, even if they were a complete fluke. John Normington is perfect for the role, delivering quiet menace and an almost robotic, detached delivery. His is the voice of a schemer who is willing to waste lives in order to stay in power. Death under the red cloth is a military procedure that sees your ashes wrapped in the red cloth of execution and disposed of as per your instructions. It's a detail that tells you all you need to know about this time period. Androzani is such a beautifully fleshed out world (Holmes at his best), steeped in politics and violence and the story is pitched at such a serious level it feels like a real place. Milky Spectrox holds back age, it’s a terrifying restorative that acts as a catalyst for war. I love the blink and you’ll miss it solution to the end of part ones cliffhanger as the android slides in behind the Doctor and Peri’s cell. Graeme Harper is one to watch, directors on Doctor Who during this period aren't usually this savvy. The Doctor and Peri being gunned down in a hail of bullets is the shows best ‘how they fuck are they going to get out of that?’ moment. Morgus is closing plants in the west and opening them in the east and forcing unemployed labour, an expolitative move that has more impact in this day and age of political evasiveness and cynicism than ever. Poor Ensign Cass is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Has Doctor Who ever been as darkly violent as the scene where Krelper is taken to the edge of a mountainous precipice by knifepoint and forced to swallow a suicide pill? You wouldn't want Doctor Who to be like this every week but every now and again it is good to see how far the envelope can be pushed. Jek is an unstable psychotic character but is afforded real depth by Christopher Gable who makes this revenge drama something special. Like Enemy of the World this is the story of two men and their pathetic rivalry and all the innocents that are dragged into the wake of their conflict. Morgus’ half-minute silence for the men he had killed tells you everything you need to know about this evil bastard. Robert Glenister’s dual roles are dramatically contrasted; one a cold eyed icily logical android and the other hysterical, half deranged soldier. To show how much Graeme Harper cares about his debut he even manages to coax a decent score out of Roger Limb who poisoned most of season 20. The androids are typical of Androzani’s simplistic yet frightening design. Harper employs some dizzyingly dramatic handheld camerawork and striking silhouette lighting. The sight of the burning android is unforgettable. I’ve always loved doppelganger stories and Androzani goes one better by letting the duplicate not be one of the regulars (I love the super creepy moment where android Salateen stares through the wall at the real Salateen silencing Peri). Morgus shoves the President down a lift shaft after warning him that his life could potentially be in danger – is there no depths this bastard wont sink to (‘Have the lift engineer shot’). Gable plays Jek’s torment so well you get a real chance to understand his previous existence as a privileged, self-important fellow who mixed with the highest in the land. Scenes of the Doctor dodging bullets amongst the sand dunes are the most exciting action the classic series gave us; it really feels as though he is on the run for his life and it is breathlessly exciting. Salateen being blown backwards by bullets is so brutally casual it comes as a total shock. Has a final episode every felt this dramatic and climactic before? Chellak’s reaction to Jek’s face and his death by mud burst do not disappoint, you might need to pause for a moment to get your breath back. Krau Timmin smugly deposing Morgus is the one moment of justice in all this sickness but even she fails to display any heroic qualities. She's as exploitative as everybody else. A bell tolls towards the end of episode four, signalling an important death. Holmes saves the reveal of Jek’s face for the momentous confrontation between him and Morgus, which could only end with both characters reaching a painful end. Returning to the TARDIS has never felt so vital, so desperate. The regeneration is visually dramatic which is nice after the off screen one in The War Games, the gentle transformation in Planet of Spiders and the spellbinding merging in Logopolis. 

The Bad Stuff: The TV remote is really obvious; you can see the volume and brightness symbols. A shame the view outside Morgus’ window looks so flat but I appreciate they were suggesting his status by having him work so far above the city. The Magma creature spoils an otherwise flawlessly realised story.

The Shallow Bit: Poor Peter Davison upstaged in his moment of glory by Nicola Bryant’s incredible attributes. 

Result: Climaxing the fifth Doctor’s era with style, this is Doctor Who at its most devastating, violent and dramatic. Caves of Androzani is the most powerful classic Doctor Who story and features Robert Holmes’ tightest script with razor sharp characters, a frantic pace, dialogue bristling with confidence and a stunningly satisfying last episode. Graeme Harper makes it his personal mission to make this story as stylish and dynamic as possible and he kicks off his astonishing run of stories with blissfully high production values. The highest praise needs to go to Davison though and he takes hold of this awesome opportunity to show his audience everything he was capable of. He’s astonishingly good. This has been touted as the best Doctor Who story of all time and whilst there are a handful I would say are personal favourites it is so good I can completely buy into its reputation. Another example of how blisteringly good eighties Who could be when it pulled out all the stops:10/10


Anonymous said...

I'm pining still for a series of audio stories with Six and Tegan, it would be a BALL to hear!

Sometimes it's diffucult to watch this story and think about all Five and Peri have spent together with Erimem ;)

Edward Azad said...

I need to point out that Davison DID try to invest emotion and urgency into his first two series, but he was saddled with Ainley and the Myrka. He ended up looking like a twat, going broad even when the adventure should be by all rights small potatoes. You can hurt a story by underplaying as well as overplaying.

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Daniel Leonard said...

What? Not a mention of Maurice Roeves's Stotz? The single most mesmerising psychopath in the show's history?

Anthony Pirtle said...

This story would have fit right in during Season 13. We could have had The Phantom of the Opera to add to the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde, and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.