Tag Archives: peter davison

One book, two trips and The King’s Demons (1983)

kingsdemonsLate afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a train, and not a good one either. A red rattler. It’s noisy, there’s no heating and my seat’s lumpy. It’s going to be a long trip home from Sydney. Three hours.

It’s the end of a day’s shopping. My mum, y’see, likes to escape from the country and head for the big smoke. Dad can’t abide cities. So I’m my mother’s travelling companion. It’s 1986 and I’m 12.

I’m happy to trail around behind her on these occasions, as long as I get to go to the Galaxy Bookshop. A specialist sci-fi bolt hole and a haven for nerds of all varieties. Like the TARDIS, it periodically shifts locations, but I’m always able to find it. I’m a Target seeking missile, and it has more Doctor Who books per square metre than any other store.

Galaxy was always worth the trip because they flew books in from the UK, ahead of the Australian release schedule. Doctor Who books you couldn’t get anywhere else! Beyond exciting. On this particular day, I’ve secured book 108, The King’s Demons. Oh yes, I know the numbers.

I’m a King’s Demons fan. Saw it on the telly. It stars my favourite Doctor. It’s set on my birthday! It has a shapeshifting android! It’s a long trip home, but for me, it disappears. I’m engrossed.

****

Back in 2017, we’ve just got four new Target novelisations of new series Doctor Who stories. I wonder what new fans will make of them? I, like all fans of my vintage, love and revere the original range. To new fans, our attachment to these strange little novellas must seem fusty and archaic… no matter how many times we might say, “but before there were videotapes, they were our only record of the TV stories!” I mean, referring back to the age of videotape must, in this digital age, seem like quaint nostalgia indeed. But the stories we read as kids have an uncommon hold on us, and with so many Doctor Who novelisations to collect and devour, is it any wonder that hold is so unshakable? I hope kids reading the new series books get an ongoing chance to find out.

The list of things so commonly said about the Target books – their ability to bring the TV stories back to life, their ability to inspire kids to read – never seems to include something intrinsic to the experience of reading them. They were utterly inconsistent. Their covers kept changing. Their logos kept changing. Their authors kept changing. Their numbering made no sense. Stories they adapted came out in random order. (I know, right? So annoying. I hope that had no lasting effects.)

And the quality… oh, the quality of them jumped around like nobody’s business. Early books were artful embellishments on the originals, courtesy of some of the TV show’s best writers: David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. But they later settled into a regularly pedestrian mode, where Dicks wrote most of them in an economical, almost perfunctory way, only occasionally interrupted by more visceral efforts from Ian Marter, and even more occasional efforts by other TV show alumni.

In 1982, though, the same year The King’s Demons was being made, things began to change. Those occasional books by the un-Dicks were distinguished by being written by the TV stories’ original authors, who seemed to be striving for something more engaging than Dicks’ standard 128 pages of gently expanded script. Steve Gallagher’s Warriors’ Gate was an intelligent deviation from the TV original. David Fisher’s The Leisure Hive a tongue-in-cheek retelling, imitative of Douglas Adams. The Visitation, Full Circleand Logopolis, all written by their original authors, all showed there were smart, idiosyncratic alternatives to Dicks. It was a watershed year.

Consider now 1986, the year The King’s Demons novelisation was published, and extend it at either end by a couple of months. This is the golden age of the Target novels. Donald Cotton’s masterful adaptations of The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters.Robert Holmes’ only novel, a razor sharp expansion on The Two Doctors.  Rehabilitations of The Twin Dilemma, Timelash andGalaxy 4.Marter’s best in The Invasion. A epic sized Fury from the Deep. A range in such rude health, it could afford to experiment with an original novel celebrating, of all characters, Turlough. Even Dicks was regenerating, with stylish adaptations of The Mind of Eviland The Seeds of Death. The King’s Demons is another notable entry in this renaissance.

No wonder young Spandrell collected them devotedly each month. For once, the range was approaching something close to consistency.

***

Late afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a plane, travelling for work. Aged 43, I’m re-reading The King’s Demons and thinking about the story it emerged from.

The TV version, loved by young me, now feels inconsequential – a whimper that ended celebratory season 20. Even its big move, the introduction of a new robot companion, is undermined when the shiny mannequin has to be shuffled quietly off stage because all it can do is lean precariously and say its lines at the wrong times.

No wonder it’s not allowed out unaccompanied. When released on VHS and DVD, it’s been forced to fill out twin packs with other, more substantial stories. Like Kamelion, it seems The King’s Demons can’t stand up on its own.

But the Target books are great equalisers. The King’s Demons might be an underwhelming appendix of a TV story but in book form, it commands the same shelf space as any other story, four, seven or ten parter. More than most, in fact – at 153 pages, it’s luxurious by Target standards.

Inside those pages, Terence Dudley elaborates and embellishes. For him, this is no small deal. He relishes historical detail and obscure vocabulary, and wraps it all in elegant, if occasionally pompous, prose. Freed from the limitations of TV production, Kamelion’s a fully functioning technological wonder, the Master’s disguise is foolproof and the Doctor sounds just like Jon Pertwee. On top of it all, it finds time to mention the Doctor’s bum.

I smile at its sheer audacity. This mouse of a TV story that roars as a book, finally legitimised. My journey home evaporates. I’m engrossed again.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: both feature historical figures (kind of).

NEXT TIME… I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism! Praise the Company, it’s The Sun Makers.

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Dialogue, Sawardese and Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)

Could you pick a Doctor Who story’s writer from watching it with its credits lopped off? Well, you and I could of course, because we’ve got honorary PhDs in Who from Murwillumbah TAFE. But if for some reason, a new, unseen script fell through a vent in the space-time continuum, without its writers credit, could you pick the author?

I think I could do it with Eric Saward, script editor and writer throughout the 1980s. And his 1984 action fest, Resurrection of the Daleks is written in pure Sawardese. I thought I’d pull out a few examples, as part of my post Doctoral research at Wagga Wagga Institute of Technology. So here are:

Seven Saward Signature Dialogue Tells.

  1. The short, heavily laden question.

Saward has a particular prose style which can be brutally efficient, the grammar of which is so at pains to be correct, it’s awkward.  (Not unlike that last sentence.)

Consider his habit of giving characters concise, frank questions to elicit a response from another character. Often these questions try to fit in both a descriptive noun and and active verb. “The escape was prevented?” is an example. The line could be, “everything worked out fine” or “no harm was done”. But in Saward’s style, we find out two things: there was an escape and it failed. In one super efficient question!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like something anyone would actually say. See also, “you have the Doctor?” And “you fear an attack?”. And my personal favourite, from The Mark of the Rani, “you suspect another motive?”

  1. Answer one question with another.

Resurrection starts this way.

STEIN: Which way?

GALLOWAY: Does it matter?

It’s particularly useful when you want to avoid giving an answer.

STEIN: Where’ve they gone?

GALLOWAY: Where’d you think?

But it’s more likely to be used as a kind of sarcastic rejoinder.

STEIN: Is it dead?

DOCTOR: Would you care to take another look?

Here’s a famous example from The Caves of Androzani.

PERI: Doctor?

DOCTOR: You were expecting someone else?

Is this naturalistic dialogue? (You’d venture another opinion?!)

  1. Neither fever.

This one actually doesn’t turn up in Resurrection, which is remarkable because it’s widespread among stories written or script edited by Saward. It’s the habit of characters presenting the two sides a dilemma, with the second line starting with ‘neither’. Again, grammatically correct, but very clunky. The classic one’s in Revelation of the Daleks.

GRIGORY: You can’t rush this sort of thing.

NATASHA: Neither can we hang around here.

Here’s one from Earthshock.

DOCTOR: You must withdraw your men, they don’t stand a chance.

BRIGGS: Neither will we if those things get up here.

Eventually, Saward seems to be narkily correcting the grammar in other people’s scripts. From Planet of Fire:

FOSTER: Sure isn’t Greek.

CURT: Neither is it Roman.

From The Mysterious Planet:

BALAZAR: It would be murder to kill them.

MERDEEN: Neither can I free them.

From Mindwarp:

DOCTOR: They weren’t hanging about.

PERI: Neither did they look very pleased.

I’d written this off as one of Saward’s idiosyncrasies. So imagine my delight when an corker example of Neither Fever turned up in Doomsday.

ROSE: You didn’t need to kill him!

DALEK: Neither did we need him alive!

Who would have thought it? Russell T Davies channeling Eric Saward!

  1. Something, isn’t it?

The go to line of dialogue when a character really has nothing to say. “Big, isn’t it?” is the gem of a line Turlough got to say in The Five Doctors. In Resurrection he gets the equally thrilling, “Dark, isn’t it?” And “Impulsive, aren’t they?”

Lines which mean and add nothing. Pointless, aren’t they?

  1. The awkward way of saying something.

DOCTOR: I must have played truant that day. (Doctor, no one who ever wagged school would say they ‘played truant’.)

TEGAN: He didn’t intend to return. (Or, ‘he knew he wasn’t coming back’. Your choice, Tegan.)

TEGAN: Some other opportunity may arise. (Or, ‘we may find another way to help’. C’mon Teegs, you’re just not trying!)

DOCTOR: However you respond is seen as an act of provocation. (‘Everything provokes them’ would have done.)

STIEN: The Doctor without his companions would be rather incongruous. (Doctor! You’ve abandoned your companions? Incongruous, aren’t you?)

MERCER: Your bile would be better directed against the enemy, Doctor! (Eeeww.)

DOCTOR (mostly the Sixth): I am known as the Doctor. (Don’t get me started.)

  1. Expressing a laboured preference.

In which one person makes an innocent remark and another turns it into a whinge about what they want.

CALDER: Anyone want some tea?

TEGAN: I’d much rather have the Colonel back.

In Earthshock:

BRIGGS: You’ve done well, Mister. You’ll get an extra bonus.

RINGWAY: I’d rather have Vance and Carson alive.

A slight twist in Attack of the Cybermen:

DOCTOR: Merely slips of the tongue.

PERI: I rather think they’re slips of the mind.

Before the most wooden example of all in Revelation:

KARA: Please, accept my apologies.

DAVROS: I would sooner accept your money!

At which point everyone laughs awkwardly, and the big mutant head in a jar trying to crack the funnies.

  1. Lines which conjure peculiarly vivid imagery.

LYTTON: The original plan was to snatch Davros and leave, not dance to his every whim. (Oh no, I much prefer this revised plan. Go on, dance to Davros’s whims! I want to see what they are and see how elegantly these troopers can bust a move in their big Daleky helmets.)

STEIN: With the Bomb Disposal Squad duplicated, the Daleks had people to guard the warehouse who wouldn’t arouse suspicion. (That’s right, because a Bomb Disposal Squad never causes any undue attention! In fact, an old warehouse without a Bomb Disposal Squad would be rather incongruous.)

STYLES: Don’t you get funny ideas? I’d give anything for a glass of cool spring mountain water. (You’ve really thought about that, haven’t you Styles? Between running for your life and taking pot shots at Daleks. Not just water. Not just cool water. Not just cool spring water. But cool spring mountain water. I’m surprised she doesn’t specify which mountain.)

STEIN: I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! (Wow. That’s so strange, ’cause I can’t stand the confusion in my elbow.)

DOCTOR: You’re like a deranged child, all this talk of killing, revenge and destruction. (Look, I’m not here to give out parenting advice, but if you have a child, deranged or otherwise, talking about killing, revenge and destruction, you might want to cut off the red cordial and check their internet history.)

(Or check your DVD collection. They may just be binge watching Saward’s Doctor Who stories.)

LINK TO: The End of Time. Both have flashback sequences! De rigeur for both the Davison and Tennant eras.

NEXT TIME: Geronimo, allons y and Gallifrey stands, it’s The Day of the Doctor.

 

 

 

Inside, outside and Castrovalva (1982)

castrovalva

Act 1: Part One and half of Part Two

Perhaps the oddest way to start a new Doctor’s era is with a re-tread of Inside the Spaceship. In that curious little adventure from Doctor Who’s dawn, the Doctor and his three companions are trapped in the Ship and have to deduce that the rickety old thing is careering towards the creation of a sun. In the first act of Castrovalva, much the same thing happens, and in both, the theme is of strangers getting to know and respect each other through adversity.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) is suffering from the post-regenerative tremors and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has been kidnapped by the Master and replaced with a mathematical model of himself (this is presumably what CGI is going to lead to. Somewhere in his TARDIS the Master must have the future equivalent of Andy Serkis in his green body sock trying to mimic Adric’s body language. “Put your hand in your pocket now, walk stumblingly forward now”. Hopefully he wouldn’t have had to mimic the young lad during his famously priapic moment suffered whilst caught in the Master’s hadron web. Yup. Totes awks, boy wonder.)

With the blokes out of action, our heroes of this segment are bold and brash Tegan (Janet Fielding) and prim and proper Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). These two become mainstays of the Davison era, but in this story’s terms, they have only just met, sharing precious few scenes together in the previous story, Logopolis. So it’s an interesting decision to put these two women – strangers to themselves and to us – at the heart of the story, and put the fate of the TARDIS and the Doctor in their hands.

Luckily, Tegan and Nyssa make for a surprisingly interesting paring. They are certainly smart, proactive characters: it’s they who steal the ambulance in Part One to rescue the Doctor, they who work out that the TARDIS is in the middle of a death plunge and they who eventually have to jettison 25% of the Ship to escape oncoming disaster. It’s refreshing for Doctor Who to so prominently place two female characters and for them to take charge while the Doctor plays a diminished role.

I love this first segment of Castrovalva and a lot of it is down to Sutton and Fielding selling the dangerous situation they’re in. Which is no small feat considering all they’ve got to help them is some ‘it’s too hot’ acting, a few TARDIS lurches and some overlaid smoke. The new Doctor wandering around the TARDIS interior and impersonating his former selves is entertaining too, but it’s the idea that the two newcomers are in charge while everything goes to hell with roundels which maintains the tension. Paddy Kingsland’s music and Fiona Cumming’s direction help to sell it as well. If only they have turned down the lights a bit we would have got a real sense of our safe, familiar spaceship truly being on the edge of destruction.

Act 2: The rest of Part Two and a bit of Part Three

Castrovalva is continually about getting lost and finding a way out. In the first act, the Doctor and his companions lose themselves in the labyrinth of TARDIS interior, the second time in as many stories for Tegan. In the third, they’re befuddled by the kaleidoscopic dimensions of Castrovalva. The second act is set in the lush, airy outdoors of the planet, but even here our heroes struggle, with their destination seemingly moving about mid journey. You can’t trust any of this story’s settings to stay stable or make sense.

This second act is the most sedate of the three, a kind of mid-story breather. It consists of an increasingly strenuous stroll through the woods for Nyssa and Tegan, while they carry the Doctor in a faux coffin. Writer Christopher H Bidmead seeks to liven things up with stumbles into creeks and misdirection about a hunting party who turn out to be gentlemen, but there’s no hiding that this is the picturesque but otherwise dull shuttle between two more interesting stops. I mean, at least have our TARDIS crew pursued by a Castrovalvan wood beast or something.

Act 3: Most of Part Three and Part Four

Once we actually get to Castrovalva, the story turns into something unique. A gentle puzzle of a story, set in a quiet, refined castle/city filled with librarians, pharmacists and washerwomen (gender stereotypes are hard to shift, clearly). Presumably there’s a milliner around somewhere too because nearly everyone wears elaborate hats. In addition, all the Castrovalvans speak in a lyrical, arcane style which means there’s a sense of poetry being interrupted whenever the regulars have some dialogue. So there must be a dialogue coach about the place too.

It’s here that the Doctor realizes the Master (Anthony Ainley, heh heh heh) has maneuvered him into a trap, and that trap is Castrovalva itself. As traps go, it’s elaborate: ‘on the off chance that the Doctor survives the tumble into Event One, I’ll just use space maths to create a fake city which will collapse in on itself, and lure the Doctor into it. I’ll go as far as to populate it with oddly hatted characters who speak like 19th century butlers. Hell, I’ll even dress up as a doddery old codger and wander about in it myself.’ You’ve got to give it to him, he puts some thought into these things.

The Master’s plan is undone when the Doctor realises that the accumulated history of Castrovalva is faked, because although the books appear old, they are also paradoxically up to date. It’s an oblique point to rest a plot on, but there you go. Personally I wonder what 23 volumes of fake Castrovalvan history had in them. Tegan claims unconvincingly that the history is ‘fascinating’, but what could those dusty tomes possibly say? “Day 10,003: clothes were washed, medicants were prepared, wild boar for dinner again.” Surely the Master never expected anyone to actually read those books, as he stayed up, carefully staining the pages with cold tea.

In the end, Adric is torn out of the web, Castrovalva goes to pieces and the Master has his fancy dress torn from his body by angry fake people. The Doctor mobilises his friends into a brisk jog back to the TARDIS. Hard to imagine Tom Baker agreeing to that, and indeed although this hasn’t been an action packed story, it has consigned the fourth Doctor to hazy memory. A hungover Matthew Waterhouse looks very queasy in these scenes, and while the cameras weren’t rolling, he had a spew on some of that delightful scenery. Poor lad. An erection and gastric ejection in one story. That never happened in Inside the Spaceship.

LINK TO The Enemy of the World: in both stories, the villain keeps a small community of people in ignorance of the shocking true nature of their world.

NEXT TIME: This is a WARNing! We become companions of The Krotons. Great jumping gobstoppers!

Conniving, complications and Black Orchid (1982)

black orchid2

What a complicated life Lady Madge Cranleigh (Barbara Lane) leads. Her mutilated, mentally ill son George (Gareth Milne) is repatriated from South America, accompanied by a local tribesman, Dittar Litoni (Ahmen Khalil). So she imprisons said son within her enormous home, employing the tribesman as his nurse. Cut off from the love of his family and fiancée, confined 24 hours a day, is it any real surprise that George goes a little troppo?

He longs for contact with his fiancée, Ann (Sarah Sutton). But Ann has moved on, and is about to marry George’s brother Charles (Michael Cochrane). Madge, unwisely, keeps them all under the one roof. In hindsight, not the best move.

Things get out of hand when George, desperate to make contact with Ann, crashes a costume party. For a madman, he’s surprisingly calculating. Finding his way through a labyrinth of secret passages, he steals a fancy dress costume meant for the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison), one which fortunately conceals his face, and uses it to crash a party Madge is holding. Having stolen a dance with Ann, he attempts to steal away a few moments with her. When she takes fright, there’s a struggle with a footman, who is killed. But George has enough presence of mind to return the costume back to the Doctor’s room. Handy, and unlikely, I think.

Madge meanwhile makes a few odd choices of her own. She and the Doctor discover the body of another servant, hidden in the secret tunnels. Now would seem like a good chance to fess up. Instead, she decides to keep the whole thing to herself, and weirdly, the Doctor agrees to keep her secret. She doesn’t want to disturb her party guests with news of a murder, which is some extreme lengths to go to avoid social embarrassment. But then this is the woman who locked up her injured son to avoid social embarrassment, so she has form.

Inevitably, the footman’s murder is discovered. With two men dead, you might expect that now Madge will finally come clean. But you see, because George was wearing the costume allocated to the Doctor, she sees an opportunity to allow the Doctor to take the fall. Why she feels the need to do this is never explained. As she says herself once the Doctor is arrested, “He will come to no harm. He is innocent”. So at best, she has bought herself a little time. But to do what exactly? Perhaps she is hoping the mystery will go unsolved and she can go back to imprisoning her disabled son.

But no, it can’t be that because her next step is to confess all to Charles. The audience is kept away from that revelation, but perhaps it went like this:

LADY CRANLEIGH: So Charles, I have some news. Your brother’s not dead. He’s alive and horribly disfigured. Goodness knows the fuss this would cause, so I’ve been holding him captive in a secret room in this house. No, it’s fine, I’ve given him a private nurse. Yes sometimes he has to be tied to the bed, but it’s for his own good, don’t you agree? Anyway, it was all going swimmingly until he killed a servant, escaped, dressed up in the Doctor’s costume, assaulted Ann (whom he still believes he’s engaged to. Yes, that will need sorting out at some stage.) and killed James the footman. Anyway, it seemed best to let the police think the Doctor was responsible and Sir Robert’s such a dear old friend, I’m sure he won’t charge me with obstructing a murder investigation. While they work out that the Doctor’s innocent, we should work out some way of making both murders look like unfortunate accidents and then we can go on keeping George locked up out of sight. So thinking caps on! Shall we get James to fetch us some tea? Oh no, that’s right, he’s dead.

*****

The Doctor leads a pretty complicated life too. But sometimes the situations he finds himself in seem served up to him a little too conveniently. In The Doctor’s Wife we find out that the TARDIS chooses many of his destinations. Surely Black Orchid is one of those occasions. How else would the cricket loving Fifth Doctor be manoevered so neatly into a scenario where he can indulge in his favourite sport? And where his companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton again) can meet Ann Talbot, her exact double? As this Doctor said in another adventure, “what worries me is the level of coincidence in all this.”

Look, Black Orchid doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if we wrote off Doctor Who stories on that basis, we’d be condemning a large swathe of the series. Still, there’s stuff to admire here. Sure, Part One is full of unlikely incidents (the Doctor takes the place of another cricketing Doctor, the Cranleighs readily accept that the Doctor has no name), but in Part Two when these oddities finally start to be questioned they serve to increase suspicions about the Doctor and we feel him sliding into real trouble. Also, the silent killer in the harlequin’s costume is nicely spooky and it gives the story its most enduring image. And the whole thing looks very handsome in an acclaimed BBC period drama kind of way.

Plus it gives Sarah Sutton a chance to display her versatility, playing a gushier, more ebullient character than prim and proper Nyssa. (Although points must be deducted for the perfunctory and confusing way we’re shown Ann before the TARDIS arrives. Where’s the big reveal when Ann turns around and we see she’s Nyssa’s twin?)

Sutton’s a capable actress and Nyssa is a pleasant enough character, so it pains me to say that Nyssa’s a little too bland to be a fully engaging companion. Peter Davison’s on record as saying he thought she should be his Doctor’s sole companion, but surely Nyssa just doesn’t have enough spunk to hold an audience’s interest?

Davison was comparing Nyssa favourably to fellow companion Tegan (Janet Fielding), who too often was left to complain her way throughout a story. But in Black Orchid she’s a delight; feisty but fun loving and fun to be around. She’s exactly the companion you want Tegan to be, but she rarely is. However you have to question her judgement when late in the story she hotly declares that “the Doctor is no imposter!”. When actually, having taken that tardy cricketer’s place and kept quiet about it, that’s the one thing he clearly is and everyone knows it. Better lay off those screwdrivers, Tegan.

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) fairs worst of all the regulars. He should have been left behind in the TARDIS to do some sums or something, as he’s completely surplus to requirements here. The most he gets to do is eat his own body weight in BBC buffet during the fancy dress ball. Terence Dudley’s vivid novelisation of this story at least offers him a smidgen more interest when he gets asked to dance by a man. 

A conflicted Adric then sets about overcoming his fear of dancing, and despite his earlier reluctance finds he has something of a latent talent in the toe tapping department. “All at once a wave of happiness overcame Adric,” the book gushes. “He was doing it. Yes, he was doing it and felt wonderful!”. I like to think of it as Adric’s out and proud moment. If only to liven the whole thing up a bit.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “Top hole,” says Charles in Part One. “Top ho,” say the subtitles. Where is this ho exactly?

LINK TO Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Both feature misguided, rather than evil villains.

NEXT TIME: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to The End of the World.

Old, New and The Visitation (1982)

visitation

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!