April 12th, 2020

Seventh Doctor and Ace

Regeneration Day



What's the perfect Doctor Who story to watch on Easter? Well, I figured it would obviously be a regeneration story. But which one? Then I thought, which Doctor most reminds me of a bunny? I settled on Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor (though Patrick Troughton was a close runner up). The celery on the Doctor's lapel is almost like a carrot, there's something rabbity about Davison's face, and those bright white shoes sort of remind me of rabbit feet.



So, a regeneration episode involving the Fifth Doctor--that would be his first serial, Castrovalva, or his last, The Caves of Androzani. Considering the latter was voted the best Doctor Who serial of all time, and Castrovalva doesn't rank very highly for me, it was an easy choice.



What makes Caves of Androzani so great? In a word, a miracle. I guess that also makes it good for Easter. Caves of Androzani works because of things that would normally sink a story. Written by Robert Holmes, a frequent writer for the series in the Second through Fourth Doctor eras, returning after a long absence, Caves of Androzani seems like Holmes crammed together four full fledged story concepts, each clearly offering potential as stand alone stories. One would expect an ungodly, muddled mess. But because the parts lock together so perfectly, because the story follows credible logic, or at least, acceptable fantasy, at every point, all these stories serve to build a concrete argument.



Attempts to dominate any system, natural or manmade, political or military, can never be wholly successful because there are too many unpredictable moving parts in too many facets. Too many people have too many private motivations or economic motivations to ever be predicted or accounted for by any leader or system.

On the surface, you have a simple enough problem. A civilisation on Androzani Major is addicted to a life prolonging substance called Spectrox which is harvested on Androzani Minor. A conglomerate ruled by the ruthless Morgus (John Normington) has immense economic power and political pull because he's controlled the source and refining of Spectrox for years. Now, a rebel force commanded by Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable) has taken control of part of Androzani Minor and is reducing shipments of the substance to Androzani Major. It's a problem but one that you might normally expect the Doctor (Peter Davison) to jump into and untangle eventually. But when he and Peri (Nicola Bryant) turn up on Androzani Minor, unaware of all this, complications immediately arise.



For one thing, both the Doctor and Peri are immediately infected with a fatal disease after being exposed to raw Spectrox. Then they're captured by the military forces working to put down the rebellion and are mistaken for spies. Holmes gives the Doctor back some of funnier rejoinders that Davison had normally didn't have access to in his tenure--when the general, Chellak (Martin Cochrane), spells out his name and position, the Doctor doesn't pause a breath to cheekily commend him for rising through the ranks.



As we visit various scenes of drama we see that in every corner of the conflict there are additional dramas playing out. Challek has a subordinate, Salateen (Robert Glenister), who isn't all he seems, and so does Morgus. Morgus' relationship with the President (David Neal) is subtly fractious because of the President's traditional ideals--he balks at the Doctor and Peri being given a form of ceremonial execution formally reserved for soldiers and Morgus misinterprets this reaction and miscalculates accordingly. Meanwhile, when the Doctor and Peri encounter Jek, the rebel leader, they find a Phantom of the Opera pastiche nursing a grudge against Morgus and developing a rapid, creepy obsession with Peri's beauty.



For this reason, Jek proves at turns both an ally and an adversary for the Doctor throughout the serial. Morgus is also employing a group of cutthroat mercenaries and, like the Doctor with Jek, must rely on their less than scrupulous motives to get what he wants. But there's also infighting among the mercenaries so it's not clear how well even good insight can be relied upon with them. Jek is a little easier because all of his followers are androids.



The situation is so credibly out of any possible control it ramps up audience sympathy for the Doctor greatly and his every insolent quip is a breath of relief. It's also part of why our heart goes out to him when he makes that famous, desperate crash landing at the end of Part Three. He's well past trying to fix the system or save the people from Spectrox--he's pared down his goals to just seeing if he can get Peri out of the mess he's gotten her into. Maybe the idea is, in this hopelessly complex existence, it's good to find simple goals to focus on, even if they turn out to be damnably difficult to accomplish.