Hmmm. I’m meant to be ignoring accepted fan law about Doctor Who. I’m meant to be looking at everything afresh. But it’s hard to ignore when I’m aware of The Caves of Androzani’s reputation as one the greats. In fact, according to DWM’s 2008 Mighty 200 survey, the best ever Doctor Who story, up to that point at least. But it’s important to the first point I want to make about it: for me, this is the least Doctor Who-like story in the entire run. Which is ironic if you think, as many do, that this is also the best story in the entire run.
It’s breathtakingly audacious on the part of writer Robert Holmes. He tells a story that breaks all the series’ rules. There’s no planet to save. There’s no oppressed people to liberate. Hell, there’s not even any sympatheic characters for the Doctor to side with. The plot is the struggle for power of the supply of a youth-prolonging drug by three different forces: Sharaz Jek, Morgus and the Androzani army represented by Chellak. The sub plot is that the Doctor and Peri are poisoned and need to escape this world in order to survive.
That’s worth restating: the Doctor is the sub plot. In fact, he doesn’t intersect with the main plot in any meaningful way (save for one moment in Part Three, where Morgus – a unblinking and steely performance by John Normington – suspects the Doctor of being an agent of his enemies and changes his plan accordingly). When Eric Saward tries this trick a year later in Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor is at least involved in the main plot’s resolution (when he collaborates with Orcini to blow up Tranquil Repose). And in the new series’ Doctor-lite stories like Love & Monsters and Blink, the Doctor is absent, but always woven into the plot; he’s active without being present. Not here.
On any ordinary day, you could not get away with this. But this is no ordinary day. It’s Peter Davison’s last story and also it’s the return to the series after five years of Robert Holmes, former script editor and…wait, you know who Robert Holmes is, right?
Then you’d appreciate the irony in Holmes, the series’ most celebrated writer, essentially writing an anti-Doctor story. And this is a regeneration story, one of the series’ milestones! Holmes knows how big the writing out of a Doctor is, but still he chooses this critical moment to experiment with the show’s basic format. That takes, I think, an unshaking belief as a writer that you know what you’re doing, and of course, Holmes does.
But he doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that there’s no Doctor Who story for the Doctor to engage with on Androzani Minor. It’s that there’s a perfectly good one waiting for him on Androzani Major. He just landed on the wrong planet.
On Androzani Major, there is a problem to solve – it’s a planet full of drug addicts, so desperate for their elixir of youth they’ll go to war for it. There’s a corrupt government, intertwined with big business. And there’s a villain to overthrow, the insidious Trau Morgus. It’s textbook Who. It’s just where you’d expect the Doctor to show up and save the day. Holmes pushes it to the sidelines, to tell a different story.
Let’s dwell on Major for a moment. Parts One to Three tell us this planet’s story through a series of finely crafted scenes set in Morgus’ office. Normally, these sort of scenes are workaday stuff. Here, they are fascinating, rivaling the noisy action on Minor. For me, the peak of them are Morgus’ sly dealings with the President (David Neal).
Like everyone on Major, the President is desperate for Spectrox. The first thing we see him do is accept a gift/bribe from Morgus of a soupcon of the stuff. The war is being bankrolled by Morgus, so he wields as much power on this planet as anyone, as the President knows and resents. The President wants to sue for peace, but this doesn’t match with Morgus’ plans.
In Part Two, there’s a terrific scene where Morgus suggests rounding up the unemployed and sending them to ’eastern labour camps’ (such a cold war phrase), an idea the President says he’ll take further. But he also notes that these are the very people Morgus sacked from his own factories, and as the labour camps are Morgus owned too, his former employees will now be his slaves. “I hadn’t thought of that”, Morgus deadpans. And the President’s face says it all; he hates Morgus, and hates himself for consorting with him, but he and his society are too dependent on spectrox to take a stand against him.
And in Part Three, Morgus grows paranoid that the President is plotting against him, so he pushes him down a lift shaft. It’s a brutal act, with its aftermath is peppered with black jokes (“It could have been worse,” says Morgus, “it might have been me”). More importantly thought, it’s a logical conclusion to the power struggle between these two men.
Or so we think, because while Holmes has been sketching out a whole alien society in a few short scenes with two main characters, a third has been lurking in the background. It’s icy PA Krau Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn). Once Morgus, post assassination, has legged it to Minor to sort things out, his not-so-loyal deputy Timmin, usurps him. It’s delicious and she tells him the bad news via video link, feet on his desk.
So ends a series of scenes which started with Morgus at the height of his power, arranging for one of his agents to blow up a mine, and ends with his secretary bringing him down. Edited together, those scenes would make a compelling drama of their own. And the Doctor barely shows his face.
Talking of faces being barely shown, let’s talk masks again (Frontier in Space just keeps on giving). Christopher Gable’s turn as the psychotic Sharaz Jek is often praised. It’s less often pointed out that he creates this multi-faceted character from behind a sort of gimp mask splattered with white-out, making his achievement all the more impressive. Actually though, I think the mask aids rather than obscures his performance. If you listen to his dialogue, it’s often soaringly OTT. “I want to feast my eyes on your delicacy”, it floridly goes at one point. Gable gives it all he’s got… And I can’t help but wonder if we could see his face, wouldn’t it be a bit too much? It’s the mask that masks what might otherwise be too melodramatic a performance.
One last thing: it’s a blokey story. It surely can be no mistake that this story’s setting draws its name from the Greek word for man, ’Andro’. As pointed out in Cornell et al’s The Discontinuity Guide, all the men die and the two women survive. But even with Timmin victorious, this is no blow struck for feminism. This is because companion Peri’s (played with anxious fragility by Nicola Briant) role in the story is unforgivably limited; she’s sick and helpless throughout the whole thing, she’s characterised constantly by her physical attractiveness and she is effectively the prize for which Jek and the Doctor compete. It’s an unfortunately old fashioned element, in this otherwise groundbreaking story.
LINKS to The Eleventh Hour: They both feature newly regenerated Doctors (although in Androzani’s case briefly). Um, that’s all I’ve got!
NEXT TIME… Abase youself, you grovelling insect! The next stop on our journey is the Pyramids of Mars.