5 years, 5 months ago
It wasn't until Matthew Waterhouse watched the fourth
episode of Castrovalva that he realized that he hadn't been
hungover at all.
It’s January 4th, 1982. The Human League are at number one with “Don’t You Want Me,” but are unseated by Bucks Fizz’s “The Land of Make Believe,” a song whose lyrics, by former King Crimson member Peter Sinfield, were supposedly a subtle attack on the Thatcher government. Very subtle, in fact. Also in the charts are ABBA, Adam and the Ants, Kool and the Gang, and, now in the top ten, Kraftwerk!
In real news, AT&T agrees to being broken up, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the UK is managed in Braemar, and, at least from my perspective most importantly, the Commodore 64 is introduced. Although I’m still nine months out from my debut (I’m strictly gestational for Season 19), my parents got me a Commodore 64 in the name of getting themselves one when I was about two, and my earliest memories are of playing it.
This serves, in part, as another transition point then. The fact that my entrance to Doctor Who came at the end of the Pertwee era meant that I remained absent for that in the blog. I was present for the Hinchcliffe era, but those were the stories I watched in 6th grade, largely. The Williams era I missed, but as I noted in passing on The Keeper of Traken, with Warrior’s Gate 4 watched I have now hit the point where I have, in fact, seen every single existent episode of Doctor Who, save, of course, the two as of yet unreleased missing episodes. But I’ve watched reconstructions. (I am rather glad to have had Warrior’s Gate be my last unwatched story. It was a very lovely way to go out.)
The remaining three classic series Doctors divide fairly neatly for me. Davison and Pertwee, as I’ve said elsewhere, made up the overwhelming majority of my parents’ VHS tapes. Since I was not fond of Pertwee, and in the absence of the Baker stories I desired, Davison was the first Doctor I watched with any avidness. I treated him at the time as my second favorite Doctor, behind Baker, but as I loved a theoretical ideal of Baker, this was a lie. Until I discovered the existence of Sylvester McCoy (my parents’ guidebooks all left off in the vicinity of Davison’s regeneration. I knew Colin Baker existed and that my parents hated him, but I’d been a Doctor Who fan for a solid year before I learned that there was a Seventh Doctor) Davison was my favorite Doctor. It’s a little tricky to reconstruct because I found a couple of Davison stories on mislabeled tapes after I’d started getting commercial VHS releases, but the “core” of Davison stories I remember watching young are Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday, Kinda, Time Flight, Arc of Infinity, Snakedance, Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors, Resurrection of the Daleks, Planet of Fire, and The Caves of Androzani, though I remember getting The Visitation, Black Orchid, and Earthshock all relatively early as well.
So we are, in other words, now in one of three sections of Doctor Who that I experienced as a child in the general vicinity of the target age range. But unlike the first such section, we’re also in an era I was alive for part of, and even if I wasn’t fully aware of the culture, or, really, of anything other than Big Milk Thing, there is something about the culture one was alive for. Even the things you’re far too young to remember are somewhat more real for having come about in a world you existed inside of. But with Doctor Who the sense is heightened. My parents’ Doctor Who books were mostly stuck in about 1983. Peter Haining’s Doctor Who: A Celebration was the main reference I had. In a real sense, up until late 1993 Davison was, for me, the present of Doctor Who.
All of which said, Castrovalva is an odd start. Doctor Who has very few clear-cut transitions in its time, of course. Few things do. That’s why the terminology of the “long 1960s” and “long 1980s” exists. Because it’s not as though everyone on the planet woke up on January 1st, 1980, set fire to their bell bottoms, and decided in unison that what they really wanted to be when they grew up was a hedge fund manager. But Castrovalva is oddly transitional even for Doctor Who. After the longest gap between episodes in the series’ history the basic act of picking up immediately from the previous story was an odd one. Yes, the story had rerun just recently in the Five Faces series, and there were some obvious issues to deal with immediately, but the degree to which this story follows up on Logopolis not just in terms of the Doctor and company having to escape the Pharos project but in terms of theme and villain is genuinely strange. Put simply, it’s not clear why the Master is here.
But there’s more that’s strange here. The extended time between Season 18 and 19 meant that Season 19 was shot heavily out of order. The production order was Four to Doomsday, The Visitation, Kinda, Castrovalva, Black Orchid, Earthshock, Time Flight. Castrovalva was furthermore the fifth script commissioned, with Bidmead being hired back nearly six months after he finished work on Logopolis to fill in the gap between it and Four to Doomsday. Indeed, Bidmead got the commission only a month before Four to Doomsday started filming, and was asked to incorporate things like Nyssa’s modified costume into the script. In other words, like Meglos (only even moreso) this was an example of Doctor Who going and filling in a transition.
The problem is that all of this got taken a bit too far. The desire to smooth the transition becomes, under Nathan-Turner’s brief, four episodes of Davison’s Doctor not showing up. If the point of delaying Davison’s debut to his fourth story was to make it so that he had the part down in his debut then he must have found this story, in which he essentially doesn’t get to play the character he’d developed over the previous three stories, a puzzling one.
Oh, let’s just come out and say it. Post-regenerative trauma is a dumb invention. It extends out of an egregious misreading of Power of the Daleks. Troughton’s offputting and strange nature in that story isn’t an attempt to create some tradition where the Doctor is confused after regeneration, but a necessary aspect of the jarring nature of that first actor change. Subsequent installments verge into the openly ill-advised: keeping Pertwee’s Doctor functionally out of Spearhead From Space until late in the third episode was a strange decision that works only because there’s a whole new premise to set up in the background before dropping the Doctor into it. Letts, to his credit, practically does away with it in Robot, allowing the new Doctor half an episode of comedic larking before expecting him to get on with it. But for everyone from Davison through Paul McGann the insistence on this tiresome ritual is excruciating. (Indeed, it’s probably the largest problem with the McGann movie - the fact that it forgets to introduce its main character for half the runtime.)
Even in the new series you can see producers struggling with it. It’s notable that Davies simply keeps Tennant out of The Christmas Invasion, and even still contrives to give him a big scene at the ten minute mark to get the big reveal of what Tennant’s Doctor is going to be like out of the way. Moffat uses it to build tension, letting Smith play the part basically as he’ll go on to but using the post-regenerative trauma primarily to ratchet up tension and let Prisoner Zero become more of a threat. And these solutions show what the problem with all of this actually is. The entire appeal of a new Doctor’s debut is to see the new Doctor. So when you go through the first week of a story without remembering to show us what the new Doctor is going to be like you’re fundamentally failing to deliver what your audience is there for.
And then there’s the Master. With nobody having made any effort to come up with a motivation for him beyond hatred for the Doctor the program is, at this point, facing an overt storytelling nightmare. The last time the Master made a hard drive towards overexposure, back in Season 8, he at least had schemes of world domination. So at least when he was defeated at the end of one story he could pick up again with something new. On top of that, Season 8 didn’t have the stories dovetailing into each other on a plot level. But this “trilogy” (and let’s note that a sudden interest in making things into trilogies is a dead-on symptom of egregious pretension) consists of a single twelve-episode stretch of the Master harassing the Doctor with no interruptions whatsoever and no motivation other than defeating the Doctor for the sake of it. The result is that, by the end, the Master has ended up on something like fallback plan number eight, each one more frighteningly over-elaborate than the last.
It’s astonishing. They bring the Master back to provide an epic menace for the Doctor and then, by the end, are treating him like a pathetic joke. And Bidmead really is, in the end, left with no choice beyond just having the Master be an obviously deluded lunatic at the end of Castrovalva. The scene of him trying desperately to break open the Zero Cabinet is overtly set up as a scene about a man who has gone completely around the bend and become pathetic. But while it’s the best thing to do, dramatically, with what they’ve got here it’s a dumb idea to even have the Master back.
Despite this, Bidmead copes admirably with the Nathan-Turner hell brief - certainly better than anyone not named Robert Holmes ever did. (That he was coping is evident in the anecdote that he picked the name and setting of the story based on remembering a pair of Escher prints hanging in someone’s office that Nathan-Turner hated. The reasons Nathan-Turner hated them, according to Miles and Wood, is that he believed that “art should exist to soothe, not distract.” If I had to reduce my objection to Nathan-Turner to a single fact, incidentally, that would be it.) To his real credit he thinks through the twice-weekly structure and builds a story that is functionally two two-parters on a common theme - something that isn’t done nearly enough in the Davison era.
And despite giving him a bad set of directions the basic idea here is sound. Bidmead was absolutely the right person to have do this story because the particulars of his style are so distinctive and so vividly animated the series over the six stories prior to this. Giving the new cast a chance to establish themselves in a Bidmead-style story provides a needed continuity of theme to the series. And as it descends further down the rabbit hole of embracing continuity in everything but tone and theme, this is sensible.
That said, there’s not a huge amount new to say regarding Bidmead’s approach. He creates a mathematical and logical game, he conceptualizes his ideas in terms of visual event, and he works out a quite nice introduction to the idea of recursion. He’s got another technobabble concept that works out of pure linguistics - “recursive occlusion” belongs firmly in the pantheon of “chronic hysteresis” and “charged vacuum emboitment.” He also ends up defining much of the modern lore of what the TARDIS is. Even though The Invasion of Time is the first big “run around the bowels of the TARDIS” story, there it came off as a desperate attempt to stretch out the story by an episode and get away with doing all location shooting. Here there’s actually a unified aesthetic to the TARDIS that continues the sense from Logopolis of it being an actually scary place.
But the real credit and revelation here has to go to Peter Davison. Steven Moffat has suggested that Davison is the best actor to take the part during the classic series. I’m skeptical mostly because of Patrick Troughton (and indeed, Moffat’s claim that Davison is the only one with a successful post-Doctor Who career was also wrong. Troughton had an extremely busy post-Doctor Who career), but it’s clear from his first appearance that Davison is more of an actor (as opposed to a performer), but it is clear from this story alone that Davison is more of an actor than the series has had before. The most obvious moment is his mimicry of Troughton and Hartnell, which is not impersonation as such, but something altogether subtler. He at once clearly evokes the Doctor he’s imitating and does so in such a way as to make it seem like an echo of them instead of a return. Even Pertwee - a gifted voice artist who probably could have done the mimicry - would be hard pressed to do it in such a way that it felt like Pertwee’s Doctor imitating Hartnell.
But more impressive is just the range of emotion that Davison gets into the Doctor. Davison declines to take on the dashing hero role that the Doctor has been for over a decade now, instead continually reacting to events. It sounds like an utterly basic thing, but this is actually the first time since Troughton that the tone which the Doctor responds to another character is actually dictated by what the other character says or does. Davison has the range to portray the Doctor as something other than an immovable force, and it’s a revelation.
The key scene - and one of the best in the story - is where the Doctor shows the Castrovalvans how strange their world is by having them draw a map and then asking them to locate where things are on it. It’s something that simply wouldn’t have happened in the Baker or Pertwee eras - the overt decision to give the “figure it out” moment to another character instead of giving the Doctor an explanation. This is how it’s going to be for the next three years - the Doctor is going to interact with the worlds of the stories instead of just imposing himself on them.
While it’s the Doctor’s absence from this story that allows Nyssa and Tegan to really take center stage, it’s the fact that Davison is a much less domineering presence than his predecessors that allows them to stay there. Added to this is the fact that Sutton and Fielding have fairly solid chemistry and make a good double act. Though this has disastrous effects on Waterhouse, whose acting finally falls out of the “minimally acceptable” range around here in no small part because he’s stuck on the outside after this. Nyssa and Tegan form a sensible unit, Davison’s style doesn’t require a sidekick to ask him to explain things, and Adric becomes completely superfluous. But Nyssa and Tegan are helped enormously by this new style. Tegan still has her problems, but it’s here that Nyssa reaches the point of being a functional Doctor surrogate. The Doctor may tag Tegan as the “coordinator” of the bunch, but it’s obviously Nyssa who keeps everything going here, her own restrained style working well as a parallel for Davison’s.
So while Castrovalva is a confused story with obvious narrative faults it serves as a useful transition. It’s recognizable both as the sort of story that follows from Season 18 and as the sort of story that will define the next three seasons. The second most difficult regeneration of the classic series has been successfully accomplished. On with the Davison era.
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