Set in the seventeenth century, but scored throughout with twinkly electronic music,The Visitation feels both old and new – or at least 1980s new.
It also has one the best opening scenes in Doctor Who. A gentrified family in restoration England are home at night. We get to know this little family; grumpy father, son, daughter and manservant. We start to like them. Then their house is infiltrated by an alien something and all are killed. We fade through a few shots of the empty house in daylight, as alien machinery thrums. Tightly written, stylishly directed.
But leisurely. New Who does these sort of opening gambits – monstrous nasty kills people we’ve just met – all the time, but they’re much shorter and pacier and usually done before the opening credits. Think Tooth and Claw, Gridlock or The God Complex, to name but a few.
But back to The Visitation. After the opening scene, it’s over to the TARDIS to see what our heroes are up to this week. The Doctor (Peter Davison, early in his term, but firmly established as the Time Lord next door), awkward teenager Adric (played by awkward teenager Matthew Waterhouse) and alien noblelady Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, in the sensible shoes) are preparing to take mouthy air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding, all hair and purple power uniform) back to Heathrow Airport in 1982. It’s all very domestic: the Doctor and Adric are bickering about things which happened last episode. Tegan is busy putting on some very 1980s make-up. Nyssa is standing in the console room reading a magazine (of all things. Woman’s Day? DWB?). There’s a family squabble when they realise that they’ve landed at the right spot, but three hundred years early. Tegan cracks it and storms out of the TARDIS in a huff. The other three follow her out and into the story proper.
Scenes like that one – Neighbours with roundels, I think they’ve been called – seem too inconsequential for modern tastes. Enough with the day-to-day dramas of the TARDIS crew, and get on with telling the story, the argument goes. And fair enough too. But it’s worth remembering that this sort of interaction between TARDIS crew members, unnecessarily argumentative though it is, was a novelty by Doctor Who’s 19th season. For years, the Doctor and his companion would just leap out into a story, leaving us no hint of any life lived between adventures, let alone any ramifications of such. It’s refreshing to briefly peep through that console room door, and see what goes on when they’re not battling power mad loons or giant frogs.
Once outside, our pals quickly meet actor turned highwayman Richard Mace (a fruity performance from Michael Robbins). Now as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve no beef with having three companions on board, and The Visitation – at least in its first two episodes – does a good job of splitting the action up between them. But I find it perplexing when writers feel a need to add a de facto fourth (The Impossible Astronaut, I’m looking at you too). It’s clear that writer Eric Saward is more interested in Mace than any of the three companions he has to hand, and gives him all the best lines. “It is only with the aid of these properties,” he says waving his flintlocks around, “that I am able to command the attention of an audience nowadays.”
He also performs useful plot functions such as explaining the set up. He’s on hand to describe the strange events of the last few days, from which the Doctor can deduce that there are likely to be survivors nearby. And so there are, the reptilian Terileptils. As Doctor Who monsters go, they’re not bad, their leering lizardy heads being most effective. Unfortunately their arms seem permanently affixed to their bodies down to the elbow, making them look like they’re continually miming the carrying of a box. When they lash out at someone it’s not done with a savage swipe of a claw, more a gentle nudging of the forearm.
Still, everything rolls along at quite a clip in those first two episodes. Tegan and Adric are captured by the chief Terileptil, giving the Doctor a chance to escape in the TARDIS with his favourite companion. He doesn’t though. He decides to attempt to elicit help from the local Miller and sends Nyssa back to the TARDIS to build a machine which will vibrate (stop it) the Terileptil’s bejewelled android to pieces.
This leads to some of the dullest scenes ever committed to videotape. Nysaa collects her tools. Nyssa puts the frame of the machine together. Nyssa pushes the frame from the console room to her bed room. Nyssa tinkers with the machine. And so on. This is her whole contribution to Part Three. On and on these scenes go, with only the incidental music to (and I use the word cautiously) enliven them.
Adric drops by briefly, having escaped from the Terileptils, but he’s of no use building the machine and after a quick mope leaves again and is quickly recaptured. ‘Poor old Adric’, sighs Nyssa in that first TARDIS scene, and I can’t help but agree. There’s a gradual degrading of Adric’s character over his time in the series. Back in season 18, he was technically competent; remember it was he who built the story ending gizmo in The Keeper of Traken with Nyssa’s help. But here their roles have reversed; Nyssa is the technician, Adric the assistant. ‘And I try so hard’, he sulks at one point, his outsider-ness a neat foreshadowing of his forthcoming demise in Earthshock.
Anyway, back to Nyssa and her box of tricks. She puts on some big ear muffs and tests the machine, vibrating a few nik naks of her dressing table. Goodness know how she plans to attack an android with this thing, which is the size and shape of a small petrol-powered generator. Luckily, in an extremely contrived bit of plotting, the Android comes to her. It boards the TARDIS, helpfully walks rights into Nyssa’s room and is shaken to death. It lies smoldering on the floor. Nyssa rushes to get a fire extinguisher. Nyssa puts out the fire. Nyssa sits on her bed and quietly wonders why she never got her own spin off series.
The story picks up towards the end when the Doctor and his four companions take the TARDIS to London where they blow up the Terileptils and their hideout. There’s a particularly gruesome shot where the lead lizard’s face bubbles and pops in the heat of a freshly started fire. Leaving Mace to fight the fire, the Doctor and company leave, and the final shot is of the sign ‘Pudding Lane’, instantly indicating to anyone au fait with the period that the fire in question is the Great Fire of London (but leaving little 9 year old Spandrell watching in Australia completely mystified).
And like The Visitation’s opening scenes, its closing scene is something special. It’s Doctor Who‘s first use of the ‘closing moments’ surprise reveal. And it’s still an impressive trick if you can pull it off; Steven Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace repeats it years later, right down to the tell tale writing on the wall.
Something old, something new and half an hour of Nyssa building a story stalling gizmo. The Visitation is ahead of its time, but also deeply embedded in it.
LINK to The Smugglers. Both are set in the seventeenth century. And both feature Squires. Love an easy one.
NEXT TIME… Suffering catfish, it’s The Time Monster. Come Kronos, Come!