|Don’t worry, Peri. It’s just a Voord.
It’s March 8th, 1984. 99 Red Balloons continue to float along atop the charts, and will play out Peter Davison. Also in the top ten are Van Halen with “Jump” and Billy Joel with “An Innocent Man,” while lower in the charts are King Crimson and the Fraggle Rock theme, a trivia fact I included just to use the phrase “King Crimson and the Fraggle Rock theme.” Top albums are Into The Gap by The Thompson Twins and Human’s Lib by Howard Jones.
In the news, Gerry Adams and three other Sinn Féin members are injured in an attack by the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the other William F. Buckley is kidnapped in Beirut. But the real news and, in many ways, most crucial backdrop for this story comes with the start of the miner’s strike.
It is difficult to come up with a better illustration of the idea of a “clusterfuck” than the 1984-85 miner’s strike. As a pragmatic issue, the strike consisted of Thatcher’s government running rings around the National Union of Miners so as to humiliate them and break the back of what had previously been the most powerful union in the country. Thatcher’s government stockpiled coal prior to announcing the pit closures that sparked the strike, thus blunting the immediate impact of the strike and preventing the calamity of the Three Day Week. Meanwhile Arthur Scargill, head of the NUM, made an egregious political miscalculation. Faced with an accelerated schedule for closing the pits and afraid that he’d lose the vote, Scargill declined to submit the strike to a national vote. This was against NUM rules and allowed Thatcher to delegitimize the strike, which she wasted no time doing, comparing striking miners to Argentina in the Falklands.
The resulting PR coup was, quite literally, literally bloody and brutal. Backed by the redtops Thatcher unleashed the police force, which was spectacularly violent and corrupt. Indeed, the extent of the depravity is still coming out. Only a few weeks ago The Guardian ran a story observing that the South Yorkshire police, who arrested 95 people at the so-called Battle of Orgreave before having to drop prosecution on all of them due to having fabricated the evidence, would five years later be largely responsible for the Hillsborough disaster and the appalling attempt to blame the incident on Liverpool supporters. In both cases, of course, the police and government were aided and abetted by Murdoch and The Sun. The propaganda war, combined with Scargill’s inept politicking, kept the strike from gaining broad support with the public, and it ended in failure a year later, leaving the mining industry and union a shadow of its former self.
In more fundamental terms, of course, the strike is a classic example of the false opposition. Of course closure of collieries had to happen. The coal industry was increasingly unprofitable, and even in 1984 it was clear that in the medium to long term a transition away from coal mining and towards other forms of energy was necessary. Equally, however, closing the pits devastated local economies and communities. The unexamined assumption here, however, is that economic progress and development has to carry a human price. Thatcher’s government was never going to seriously consider coupling the pit closures with efforts to provide new economic stimulus to the affected regions, and Scargill opted to defend the moribund coal industry in the general case. In the end, every side was mercenary and aiming primarily to protect their own wealth.
The Caves of Androzani was written before any of this happened. Indeed, it was transmitted before most of it happened. And yet it is almost the perfect Doctor Who story for this – a bitter tale of profiteering rivals savagely cutting each other’s throats to everyone’s harm. In this regard it’s Robert Holmes at his most gloriously cynical, portraying a world where every system is rotten and degenerate, run by psychopaths with eyes only for their own wealth. Even the comparatively noble characters like General Chellak are ruthless and callous, calmly sentencing the Doctor and Peri to death despite believing their innocence.
The Mighty 200 poll, of course, declared this the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. This cannot be taken entirely seriously – in the previous iteration of the poll it was third, beaten by both Genesis of the Daleks and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. None of these three stories changed over the ensuing decade. But it is, by any measure, one of the major classics of Doctor Who. And deservedly so. It’s gorgeously tense, better directed than anything else in the classic series, well-acted, and has a razor-sharp script. Combined with the natural tendency to favor “event” episodes the idea that Caves of Androzani represents a high point for the series should be thoroughly uncontroversial.
But there’s something just a little bit odd about its reception. For all that it is hailed as the greatest Peter Davison story and one of the greatest ever, almost nobody suggests including it as the representative story for the Davison era. The consensus seems to be that its greatness is only properly appreciated when you’ve seen the rest of the Davison era, seemingly on the grounds that in order to appreciate how Davison’s Doctor is put through the wringer here you have to see him in more normal circumstances.
On the other hand, it appears that Holmes, largely unfamiliar with Davison’s portrayal, just wrote the script with Baker in mind. Lawrence Miles suggests that this fact means that the resulting episodes are darker than what Holmes had in mind, but I think this is slightly off. Yes, almost all of the banter that Davison gets and mocking of his guards and captors is Baker-esque. But on the other hand, everything about the story is set up as an inevitable march towards destruction. The Doctor gets himself killed in episode one by getting into the Spectrox nest to save Peri. This is a delightfully bitter piece of Doctor Who irony – what kills the Doctor, at the end of the day, is the fact that his companion trips and falls down a hole. Everything after that is just the unspooling consequences of the Doctor’s landing on Androzani Minor.
So the entire piece is, from a writing perspective, set up to be doom-laden. The Doctor is throwing his witticisms in the face of events so brutal that they’re going to kill him. Indeed, in the first draft the Doctor was just going to die from the sheer brutality of it all, just from the sum total of all the punishment and injuries he’d sustained. It’s difficult to imagine Tom Baker in a story like this – one where his number is up from episode one. Or, rather, it’s difficult to imagine the imperious, wisecracking Tom Baker that would be spouting Holmes’s dialogue doing it. The idea of Robert Holmes trying to write Logopolis is jarring in the extreme.
I’d suggest that while Holmes is writing for Baker here, he’s writing for Baker with the knowledge that it’s going to be Davison delivering the lines, and thus that there’s not going to be the imperious confidence of Tom Baker shining through every line. The script depends on the fact that Davison is taking a risk with every wisecrack – that he’s provoking dangerous psychopaths and that this could all blow up in his face. The episode three cliffhanger seals it. The Doctor’s mocking responses to Stoltz are pure Tom Baker – “sorry, seems to be locked” and the bit about not having much experience with the controls. But the overall content of the scene – the Doctor with nothing to lose crashing a spaceship into the planet because he no longer cares if he lives or dies – is completely beyond anything Tom Baker ever did. Holmes is giving Davison lines written for Baker, yes, but he visibly knows enough of Davison’s portrayal to know that the lines are going to turn into quips borne of a desperate mania. Whereas when Holmes wrote Baker as desperate and on edge the result was the almost humorless Pyramids of Mars. Baker’s Doctor played desperation as fear because manic joking was the normal order of things. Holmes’s script relies entirely on the fact that he knows Davison’s normal order of things isn’t this.
But that’s not quite right. It’s not that this isn’t the normal order of things for Davison. It’s that this isn’t how Davison’s Doctor acts when he’s comfortable with the situation. And this gets at why the idea that Caves of Androzani ought not be watched as one’s first Davison story is a little weird. Because what the script requires isn’t that Davison’s behavior be different from other episodes, it’s that Davison’s behavior displays discomfort. But that’s a function of Davison’s acting, not of comparison of this story with previous ones. The fact that the Doctor is hurling wisecracks at people who really might shoot him in the head and be done with him is visible from what’s on screen here alone.
On the other hand, as we talked about with Planet of Fire, people are better at identifying what they like than they are at explaining why. Which is to say that just because the explanation of why this is better if you’ve watched other Davison stories doesn’t quite wash doesn’t mean that it isn’t improved by the context of other Davison stories. Of course, as Miles points out, it’s even more improved when you don’t know that Peri is the companion for nearly the whole of the Colin Baker era. Then, given the brutal dispatching of Kamelion and the death of Adric, you can get something very rare indeed in Doctor Who – a moment where it’s genuinely uncertain whether everyone is going to make it out alive.
But even without that something about this episode shines a little brighter when put in context with the era. To some extent this is just the standard structure of a regeneration story. Given that every Doctor is in part a reaction against his predecessor, and given that a regeneration story is by definition a narrative collapse, it’s very easy to read regeneration stories as rebukes of their eras. We did so with both The War Games and Planet of Spiders, and it’s worth remembering that even if he didn’t write either, Holmes was around for both.
And it’s easy to read The Caves of Androzani this way. Davison’s portrayal doesn’t gain much in contrast with past stories, but the apocalyptic tone of the story still resonates in contrast with past stories. The story sticks out vividly in part because Davison’s Doctor hasn’t ever been pushed like this before. He’s way past talking about the pleasures of a well-cooked meal here, and he’s more likely to be in the pile of bodies than standing above it fretting about other ways.
The problem is that so many previous stories have used Davison’s Doctor as a moral contrast instead of as an agent in the story. He doesn’t have to actively overthrow the fanatical regime of Sarn, he just has to point out that they’re intellectually bankrupt. He doesn’t have to stop the Daleks, he just has to inspire Stein to blow himself up. Even in the hands of quite good writers like Gallagher and Clegg the Doctor serves to point out the situation to other people so they do the right thing. He’s been used to pass judgment on genres instead of to destabilize them and subvert them. There have been exceptions, most recently Frontios, but the bulk of the time the Doctor has been restricted to inspiring other people to act. Here, however, the Doctor is in a situation with real teeth and he’s forced to act.
The heart of this change, of course, gets back to where we started – the fact that this is an exquisitely political story. But note that it’s clearly not political in an allegorical sense. This isn’t the crass “Arthur Scargill as angry badger person” politics of The Monster of Peladon. No, this is political for the simple reason that it’s material, and that’s what makes the situation so fraught with danger for the Doctor. It’s not some facile fable that exists primarily to illustrate an abstracted moral point. This is a situation that is designed to look like real situations with the volume turned up to melodrama. And that is what makes this story spark so gloriously – the fact that for the first time since taking on the part Davison is shoved into a situation that acts like a world.
The secret to alchemy is material social progress, and the fact of the matter is that the show has been very, very far away from the material. For all its violence the viscera of history have been dangerously absent. Despite this there have been flashes of quality – we’ve known since Davison’s first few stories that his Doctor could be at the heart of a truly great story. But now we see the secret – now we see how well he could do when put into a situation that required more than symbolizing a moral point.
In entries past, this would be where I transition to the glorious conclusion – a carefully cadenced bit about the Doctor facing an inevitable destruction. Themes of narrative collapse would intertwine with proleptic allusions that start to form the basis of the next act of the narrative. The act of recognizing this era’s failings would be read as exorcism, the pathos of the Doctor dying in the dirt used as a lead-in to a glorious rebirth, a gesture towards the endless possibility of the series.
It’s a pity, then, that I’m doing The Twin Dilemma on Friday. Much has been made of the terrible gulf of quality between these two stories – the fact that the best and worst stories on the Mighty 200 poll are, in fact, consecutive. But let’s be real here. It would be one thing if The Caves of Androzani was an earned conclusion to the entire run of the Davison era. But it’s not. Everything here could have been done before. The fact that the Doctor does die at the end of this story doesn’t mean that a high-tension story where the Doctor has his back against the wall could only be a regeneration story. And who seriously thinks it could be? Are we just pretending Pyramids of Mars and The Seeds of Doom don’t exist now?
As we saw, the problem this time isn’t a failing in the conception of the Doctor. It’s not the logical endpoint of a phase of the series history where we see that something has to change. Yes, the story looks great in contrast with everything around it, but that’s not because it pays off any buildup from them. It’s because they were often a complete mess and this story isn’t. Yes, this story looks like an absolute giant compared to the rest of the Davison era, but that’s as much because of their flaws as its merits.
The fact of the matter is that they couldn’t get the Davison era to work until his last story. They drove the best actor they’d had since Troughton away with the crap scripts of Season 20, and by the time they gave him a truly brilliant script he’d already decided to leave. And they only got the era to work by turning back the clock and hiring Robert Holmes to do it. Yes, he outdid himself, and yes, the production work here is phenomenal, but the fact of the matter is that this is the de facto director of swaths of Warrior’s Gate and a writer who’s been on the show since 1968.
No, this could have been done in 1981. It isn’t some earned capstone to an era. This is the production team taking three years to get the show to work despite having a phenomenal lead actor. This is what the era should have been all along. The fact that they finally got it right after three years shouldn’t have inspired any high hopes that they’d get it right out of the gate with the next version.
Speaking of which…