5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI
"You're such a pain, Doctor."
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK: no video available US
People often ask us why, if the Fifth Doctor is our least favourite Doctor, this website is named after one of his stories. Ah, but think about what happens to him in it...
A regeneration story's always big news, and The Caves Of Androzani has a big reputation to match. Does it live up to that reputation? Well, not entirely. Don't get us wrong: we think it's a good story, and considering it has the Fifth Doctor in it, that's stellar praise from us. Indeed, for a Fifth Doctor story it's excellent. (And in fact some of the things that are wrong with it actually end up improving it, because they're just so Fifth Doctor.) But the claims of perfection we've often seen from fans are off the mark.
There's a lot to like, but our top pick has to be the characterisation, which has rarely been so consistently good in Doctor Who. Nobody's less than good, most are great, and one's superlative. And since we're devoted fans of character, as witnessed by our incessant whining when it's missing, that's a huge plus for us.
The obvious character to start off with is the Doctor. A lot has been made over the years about the fact that Peter Davison's portrayal of him in this story is how he would have liked to play him all along. We're a bit puzzled by that, as in many areas we can't really see a great deal of difference between the Doctor here and elsewhere.
We've often accused the Fifth Doctor of being passive, for example, from the point of view that things happen around him which he doesn't do a lot to influence, and that's very much the case here. There's the Doctor rescuing Peri, and there's the whole Spectrox/Morgus/Sharaz Jek plot, and they mostly don't influence each other in the slightest. In fact, the only way the Doctor actually has an effect on the other guys is that his kidnap leads to Salateen escaping.
Arguably that's an effect that has some pretty major ripples, although we'd contend that in fact despite the high body count and the rearrangement of power on Androzani Major, not a lot's changed other than the loss of spectrox. Nevertheless, overall the fact remains that the Doctor's strangely disconnected from what's happening around him and makes very little difference to the local evil, corruption etc. Not that we object: we think it's nicely apt that a Doctor's last story contains the elements that make his character who he is. It's just that we can't see any big transformation going on in this respect.
Then there's the Doctor's utter weediness when it comes to imprisonment. He's sat in a prison cell vaguely hoping somebody'd let him out before, but here it's even worse: not only is he waiting for execution, but his companion is going to be executed along with him. It's easy to forget, in all the grand drama of the Big Rescue at the end, that earlier in the story the Doctor doesn't make the slightest effort to break out of jail, even when that would save Peri's life. (The fact that they're rescued by the villain says a lot about this Doctor.) So that's business as usual, then. (This scene actually reflects a lot better on Peri than it does on the Doctor: she refuses to let him take the blame for their predicament (fair enough, since it might have been the Doctor's idea but she came along voluntarily) and she faces her fate with obvious fear but with courage and dignity. And let's face it, she has a lot more to lose than Regenerato-Man.) And please don't tell us it was the androids by then, because that would be even more stupid.
Of course, things change, and by the end of the story the Doctor's had a fire lit under him good and proper. Shaking off three seasons of crossing his arms and looking the other way when his companions are in trouble (bye, Adric, hope you don't die or anything), he rises, or rather descends, to the occasion magnificently, bringing home the bat milk when it counts even at the cost of his own life. Hurrah! Fifth Doctor In Decisive Heroic Action Shock! And that's after bursting forth from his bonds Superman-stylee, hijacking a spaceship and sprinting all over the surface of Androzani Minor dodging bullets and toting companions. Whoah!
But it doesn't feel to us like an extreme makeover. When the Doctor's explaining to Stotz that he doesn't plan on being stopped, for a brief second he looks almost demented: this isn't a brand new Doctor, but the Doctor we know pushed to desperation. That's a good thing: it's a side that's never been forced out before, but it's recognisably him: ten out of ten for believable character development. It's a fitting end for this Doctor, and one that Peter Davison exploits to the limit.
Thereís no doubt that while this Doctorís still perfectly recognisable, heís more interesting here than he usually is: we particularly like the reflectiveness and the flashes of dark humour ("Itís like a graveyard"? How tactful, Doctor!). Had Davison got to play him this way all the time, we still would have liked him less than the other Doctors (the passivity! Argh!), but thatís just a matter of taste. At least he would have had more complexity than the confused primary school teacher we saw far too much of.
What about the actual regeneration? Well, it might seem heresy to say so, but we found it a bit disappointing. We knew his last word was going to be "Adric", and we'd kinda imagined it was going to be all Citizen Kaney, in an Adric-your-death-still-haunts-me-I will-carry-the-guilt-within-my-soul-forever sort of way. But it wasn't "Adric" at all. It was "Adric?", as in Adric-is-that-you-I-can't-quite-see-from-here. Huh. Big deal. We weren't particularly impressed by the obviously meant to strike us to the heart "Is this death?" either. You'd think after four regenerations he'd have got that down by now. Overall, it all seems a bit rushed and confused, rather than any kind of measured leavetaking - but again, what could be more appropriate for this Doctor?
It's a great story for Peri: she starts off intelligent, she shows a lot of courage, and while she doesn't have much to do for most of it other than look queasy, Nicola Bryant does that very nicely. Her relationship with Sharaz Jek is also beautifully done: she's the passive recipient of his greasy attentions, but we love the compassion she shows despite her fear. And her confusion at the Doctor's death and regeneration's the perfect counterpoint. We've always said Peri's been underestimated as a companion, and this story shows that in spades.
Sharaz Jek. Ah, yes. This story is supposed to be the Doctor's big moment, but we can't help but find Sharaz Jek by far the most compelling character. Christopher Gable with his dancer's grace effortlessly overcomes the handicap of acting from behind a mask, and he's simply mesmerising. He might very well be the sole exception to our usual We Hate Mad Villains position. Of course, his concern for Peri which does so much to humanise him and give him complexity's based on absolutely nothing more than him thinking she's pretty. However, by the end they've managed to forge a real connection, of a weird kind, which makes the concern he shares with the Doctor and his cooperativeness in finding a cure powerfully touching. It's not a new story, but it's very nicely done.
Morgus is an interesting one: heís pretty much a Robert Holmes Corporate Villain Type 1, very nicely acted, but just when you think thatís all there is him, here come those weird Shakespearian soliloquies straight to camera. Yes, very dramatic and all, but huh? Why suddenly start breaking the fourth wall for just one character? But if you can leave aside the sheer strangeness, thereís no doubt that they work like a charm - why, itís practically Real Drama!
The other character that demands a mention is Stotz. On the page, he looks like a bog-standard ruthless gun runner, but wow. A blistering performance from Maurice Roeves makes him absolutely riveting. We were seriously impressed.
So much for the characters. What about the writing? Robert Holmes when he's on form is one of Doctor Who's top writers, but good as it is, we don't think The Caves Of Androzani's his best work. Yes, there's some good Holmesian dialogue (our prize goes to Sharaz Jek's line about "the mouth of a prattling jackanapes") some great characters and a nicely depressing atmosphere, and weíre also impressed by how deftly Holmes manages to spoonfeed us big chunks of exposition without us even noticing heís doing it. However, as we see it it's still not quite up to the sheer brilliance of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. The dialogue isnít as zingy, for a start, and there really arenít any double-acts to touch Who's best secondary duo, Jago and Litefoot. Overall, The Caves Of Androzani's definitely no Power Of Kroll, but in terms of the sheer gobsmacking impressiveness of the writing, it trails Talons by some margin.
And the plot? It frequently isn't Holmes's strong point (it isn't in Talons either) and Caves Of Androzani is no exception. Apart from the whole dying thing, obviously, there seems like quite a bunch of action but not a lot actually happens that makes much difference. The Doctorís day trip to Androzani Major, for example, gets him back precisely where he started plotwise. And thereís heaps of yer usual escape/recapture and a whole lotta shooting, but itís rendered pretty much redundant by the fact that even if they hadnít been shot by their commanding officer or munched by a Magma Beast they all would have been parboiled at the end. Itís not like it drags or anything: thereís too much going on for that (and we love it. Sex and violence? A winning combination if ever we heard one). Itís just that when itís all over and youíre trying to figure out What It All Meant, you end up with a bit of a hollow feeling.
That isnít helped, either, by plot holes you could navigate an ocean liner through. Why, why, why donít they just send Jekís androids down to do the bat milking? How does the Doctor know what the right amount of bat milkage is so that he knows thereís only enough for Peri? Why do dormant bats have milk? How does he get the stuff, anyway? No, cancel that, we donít want to know. (As we were watching, a plaintive voice came up from one of the Androzani Viewing Sofas: "I donít want to watch the Doctor milk a batÖ") When, exactly, does Jek swap the Doctor and Peri for androids, and how did he whisk up the androids so quickly?
Having said all that, however, itís only relative. Despite the rumours, itís not perfect, but this is still one of the most entertaining and impressive Fifth Doctor stories by a pretty wide margin. And we canít say fairer than that.
DVD: An entertaining commentary by Peter Davison, Graeme Harper and Nicola Bryant, although Nicola gets a bit steamrollered by the other two. A shame, because sheís not only witty but insightful. After hearing Peter Davison moaning at length about having to hurf Peri across the landscape for days on end, however, youíre unlikely to see the closing scenes in quite such a heroic light. Other extras include an interesting feature about Sharaz Jekís makeup and interviews with Davison about his decision to leave. Worthwhile.
MORAL: Want to pin something to your lapel? Donít pick the celery. Pick the bat.
FIGHT! HA HA, ONLY JOKING
"What do we do?" "Surrender." A Fifth Doctor line if ever weíve heard one.
Why does the Doctor, after following the tracks which will presumably lead him to people, run away and try pathetically to hide behind a rock when he actually runs across some?
NO, BUT YOU DO
All that celery "Does it offend you?" dialogue clunks like a big clunky thing, so we were relieved to find this was a Saward addition and not the work of Holmes, who wouldnít have written dialogue like that in a fit.
MAKE UP YOUR MIND
Why do the people who capture the Doctor always instantly assume that heís guilty of whatever the accusation of the week is? Hasnít anyone ever heard of innocent until proven guilty? And then after that the General zooms wildly off in the opposite direction, deciding he believes in the Doctorís innocence with no more evidence than he had for thinking him guilty.
The firing squad cliffhangerís absolutely brilliant, not to mention delightfully ugly when the bodies slump forward. But if the firing squad are using projectile weapons, why are there no holes in the robes?
"Even I canít bear to see or touch myself." Giggle!
ANYONE FOR A PICNIC?
Feast my eyes on your delicacy? What, is she carrying a tin of caviar?
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK: no video available US