19.1 – “Castrovalva”

CW Series 19 - Castrovalva

Shortly after ceasing to be the longest-serving and best-loved TARDIS incumbent of all time, The Doctor is having the regeneration crisis to end all regeneration crises. A rest cure is called for, somewhere free of ambient complexity, namely the Dwellings of Simplicity, Castrovalva. But how simple can things possibly stay when The Master’s name is in the credits?

“…but the moment has been prepared for.”

There’s a strong argument for the Fifth Doctor’s debut being the most meticulously planned in the show’s history. With Tom Baker outgoing after a probably unsurpassed seven years in the role and an ambitious young producer determined to leave the 1970’s behind and make the 80’s his own, leaving anything up to chance wasn’t an option. A whole season had been given over to laying the groundwork for a new era, phasing out the old guard and leisurely introducing no fewer than three fresh-faced new companions. The “silly” humour of the Williams era was now verboten, to be replaced by smart, conceptual sci-fi. With an eye to the merchandising possibilities, The Doctor now would now wear “a costume” instead of “clothes”, prominently display a question mark brand and have at least one companion from an emerging foreign market for the show at all times.

Into this mix stepped Peter Davison, an actor cast to be as different as possible from those who had gone before. Controversially young to be taking on the role (at least at the time), his vulnerable, boyish persona was light years away from Baker’s indomitable avatar of anarchy. Whereas Baker somewhat resented sharing his limelight with even one companion, Davison’s tenure would be characterised by a TARDIS more crowded than at any time since 1965. “Castrovalva” even specifies roles for the crew; Adric becomes the Navigator, Tegan is the Coordinator and Nyssa is the, um, clever one.

And you know what? It works. “Castrovalva” fizzes with purpose. One of the most clued-up ever script editors, Chris Bidmead, was called back in to set the tone for a brainy, ambitious modern sci-fi series and he delivers in spades. Within the first minutes the TARDIS crew are working as an impressive team, with Adric playing his alien card as a distraction while Tegan steals an ambulance. A scene that also economically shows that this will not be a cozy, earthbound era: the Pharos Project’s guards are not differentiated from any other hostile intergalactic thugs in the show’s history.

Davison is often cited as the finest actor to take the part in the 20th century – though he himself would surely cede that title to his own hero, Patrick Troughton – and he certainly brings his A-game here. The production team had held “Castrovalva” back to fourth in the recording schedule to give the new lead time to perfect his performance (that “meticulous planning” thing in action, again). Through what is obviously the rockiest regeneration yet, Davison sells us on the extreme jeopardy of his situation whilst alternating between flashes of self-deprecating charm and steel, not to mention some pitch-perfect imitations of his 1960’s predecessors. Most viewers might have been missing “their” Doctor, but Davison offers a dazzling array of distractions from the loss of Tom.

When he’s not being wheeled around asleep inside a cabinet, that is. It has been suggested that the regeneration crisis is a supremely naff idea, that the last thing you want to do when trying to sell audiences on a new Doctor is withhold the main attraction, have him unconscious or not himself. This may be a fair point in general, but it doesn’t apply here. Having seven shades knocked out of him by his regeneration is not postponing our introduction to the Fifth Doctor – it’s the real deal. The most diabolical foes in the universe may have been so much water off the Fourth’s back, but there’s a new Doctor in town, and he’s not a superhero any more. If you cut him, he bleeds.

And of course, Anthony Ainley’s Master is back, for a third consecutive story, to be the enemy doing the cutting. A lot of trust was placed in Ainley; this makes three stories for three without “proper monsters” that his villainy and acting talents have to carry. To his credit, it’s only after 11 episodes of dastardliness (killing Nyssa’s sweet old dad and moving into his body, causing the heat death of most of the universe, tipping the Fourth Doctor to his death, locking the TARDIS on a collision course to the Big Bang, mocking up an entire alien culture as a trap – as evil maniacs go, he’s a real workaholic) that things start to go awry. Perhaps kidnapping Adric and chaining him up in a bondage web was where the cracks first began to appear, but animalistically ranting and raving while having to mime prying open the Zero Cabinet with a crowbar (when the prop doesn’t even have a crack for Ainley to work with) is far from the finest hour of a scientific genius who, The Doctor claims, “leaves nothing to chance”.

It’s a shame because, up until that point, the plot of “Castrovalva” is pretty much A-list. The first two episodes may be largely TARDIS-bound, but it’s fair to say that, despite the budget of tuppence, the inside of the spaceship has never felt as real (and slightly spooky) before or since. Locking the crew in a steadily overheating TARDIS on a collision course with the Big Bang creates a genuinely scary predicament, to which jettisoning a random 25% of the interior to generate thrust is a frighteningly tense solution. And this is before we even get to the part with an alien culture modeled on the artwork of M.C. Escher! There are more brilliant ideas in this four-parter than in the whole Pertwee era put together. Possibly.

Castrovalva (the place) may dismally fail the Bechdel test, but it’s otherwise beautifully realised. Director Fiona Cumming does a great job of switching the tone from folksiness to menace and back again every few minutes and the locals, including the inimitable Michael Sheard, revel in elegant, witty dialogue and some truly ridiculous hats. Mergrave placing his pharmacy at all four edges of the same map, and finding the implications thereof just beyond the limits of his comprehension, is as good a scene as Doctor Who has ever produced; and Shardovan, a being poignantly intelligent enough to have divined that his world and his very existence are a Flatlandesque sham, as great a character. If there’s a better exit line than “You made us, man of evil – but we are free!” from the last 50 years of this show, I’d like to hear about it.

Of the 11 stories that have introduced 11 Doctors to us, it’s understandable if a different one proves to be your favourite. You may like its incoming Doctor better, or the style of the era itself may be more your cup of tea. But I would staunchly defend “Castrovalva” as being the finest ever blueprint for a new Doctor and a new era of the show. If the Fifth Doctor’s tenure as a whole had lived up to its aspirations, it would have proven a golden age for the show.

“A civilization evolving out of tribal warfare into an ideal community… is a fiction.” In some ways “Castrovalva” is too good for us; it tries to re-imagine Doctor Who as a series bursting with ideas, Shakespearean in its dialogue and denouements, where the foe The Doctor must face each week could be something mind-expanding like mathematical recursion, rather than lumbering monsters in rubber suits. Alas, most golden ages are soon followed by a decline and fall but, while this one lasts, it’s an 8/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus


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