19.2 – “Four To Doomsday”
Attempting to travel to Heathrow Airport so Tegan can start work on time (clearly more important than seeing the wonders of the universe in a time machine), the TARDIS lands instead in a strange place populated by interpretive tableaux of ancient Greeks, Mayans, Chinese and Aborigines, where instructive lessons about photosynthesis, nanometres, cloisters and the conductivity of graphite lurk around every corner. Against all the odds this is not the pages of a Children’s Encyclopedia, but the spacecraft of the sinister frog-alien Monarch, who has dishonourable intentions towards planet Earth.
Go on then; let’s talk about Adric…
“Four To Doomsday” is, by most metrics, a pretty good Doctor Who story. It sets up a well-above-averagely interesting science-fiction environment and then lets the TARDIS crew loose on it in a logically plotted way, not forgetting to include a few witty jokes. The sets are atmospheric, the guest actors of high quality and there isn’t even a Myrka, Magma Beast or rubber snake that might tarnish the reputation of an otherwise enjoyable story. (Okay, if you really hate folk dancing, there may be a problem.) And yet it languishes in fan opinion somewhere between obscurity and active disdain.
So what’s the beef? Well, perhaps you prefer your TARDIS crews to be likeable and act with a reasonable degree of maturity. Should that prove to be the case then “Four To Doomsday” really isn’t a story for you. Mind you, a good 50% of the crew do very well; Peter Davison is new in The Doctor’s shoes but infuses all his dialogue with a slightly crazed and unpredictable gleam just beneath the charming exterior. I was never a Fifth Doctor fan growing up but, returning to him now, I’m convinced that he is The Doctor. Likewise, Nyssa does very well for herself, single-handedly deducing both the nature of the androids and a clever way of disabling them. She’s basically the kind of companion that The Doctor wants to have with him in a tight spot.
As for Adric and Tegan? Oh dear…
Adric’s charm offensive (clue: one of those words is more appropriate than the other) begins early on with the quite incredible line “That’s the trouble with women; mindless, impatient and bossy.” Admittedly Tegan is being a bit dim and annoying, to the tune of carping that she’ll be fired for not showing up on time for work – whilst standing in a FUCKING TIME MACHINE – but two wrongs don’t make a right. Honestly, we really don’t need an audience identification figure for nerdy, spotty, badly-dressed teenage virgins who haven’t a clue how to talk to females, even if there were probably quite a few watching in 1982.
And both of them compete to get more annoying during the course of the episode. Adric, after an establishing scene in which his eyes fill with piggy greed at the idea of possessing Urbankan shape-changing technology, decides unilaterally that blatantly obvious homicidal black hat Monarch is a good egg, gleefully spills the beans about Time Lords and the TARDIS to the bad guys and pretty much has to be physically restrained from handing over the keys to the ship to his new best friends. Tegan, after going into gibbering hysterics at the mere concept of a human personality being recorded onto a microchip, flouts The Doctor’s very specific instructions to stay put where she’s safe and stomps off to the TARDIS, where she begins blubbering uncontrollably and throwing random switches on the console until it dematerialises. Not only is this the kind of insane behaviour that could easily have condemned her and her shipmates to various agonizing deaths but, on the way to the ship, she crosses paths with Adric and proceeds to have a shouting match before knocking him to the ground, not looking back even though he’s banged his head and fallen unconscious. Four wrongs… six wrongs… however many wrongs… really don’t make a right (even if this is Adric we’re talking about). Then there’s the weird thing in this episode where both Monarch and The Doctor repeatedly refer to the companions as “the children”. The actors were all at least 19 (and Janet Fielding not much younger than Peter Davison!) when the story was shot, so what gives?
It seems to me that we’re experiencing a dissonance between how writer Terence Dudley must have been briefed to write for the post-Tom show, and how things turned out in practice. It’s clear that there’s a big agenda in this new era of Who to return to the core values of the show, as exemplified by the first season of the Hartnell era. Three companions (one boy, two girls). A return to the loose story arc of “trying to get the Earthling companion(s) back home”. A Doctor and companions who regularly don’t see eye to eye, after many, many years of completely biddable “assistants”. An educational remit to the show – boy, does Four to Doomsday start to feel “educational” after a while. The only way we could get much closer to the spirit of 1963 would be seeing the revival of a purely historical adventure as part of Season 19… spoilers, sweetie!
But one thing that was never going to wash with fandom was making the companions explicitly “children”. Ian and Barbara aside, the companions of the 1960’s are generally just overgrown kids. Bright teenagers or even children in their late single figures could easily identify with these characters as “a lot like me, give or take a few years”. Unfortunately, from John and Gillian through Romulus and Remus to Angie and Artie, when the kids really are plainly and unequivocally kids, the fans fly into a blind and murderous rage. We’re happy to swear blind that the viewing pleasure of the young’uns is paramount, we’ll even let people call it a kids show, but God forbid it should actually start resembling a kid’s show, with actual kids in it. This. Will. Not. Stand.
“Four to Doomsday” clearly thinks it’s a TV show for inquiring young minds of maybe 8-12 years of age. And it’s writing the companions as if they had the identifiable emotional maturity of 8-12 year olds (paired with the bodies and aptitudes, curiously, of people twice that age). Where have we seen Adric’s behaviour before in classic children’s fiction? He is Edmund from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Anyone who reads the Narnia books and doesn’t delight in the petulant turncoat tendencies of the Edmunds and the Eustaces of Lewis’s writing is… reading them wrong, in my opinion. The characters who cause all the trouble are the best characters!
In many ways, a new era of the show starts here. Previously, companions were around for pretty cynical reasons – The Doctor can’t pad out an episode rescuing himself from a cell and The Doctor can’t explain the plot to himself. But suddenly we have companions who have found their way into the TARDIS organically, for realistic reasons. They’re orphans (Narnia again!) and they’re clever but they’re damaged, they need piecing back together or looking after at the very least. When Russell T Davies took over the show two decades later, he addressed “the Adric problem” in his very first season. What if the TARDIS crew took on a brilliant but arrogant and short-sighted companion called Ad…ahem…Adam, whose selfish actions began to give The Doctor a hard time? Davies gives Adam short shrift, one strike and he’s out, see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya. And to me that’s an infinitely more dark and mean-spirited approach than we had back in Season 19. I’m not heavily into the idea of The Doctor’s friends being some kind of morally superior elite who get gifted the wonders of the universe while those who don’t measure up are booted into the outer darkness. Isn’t that even a bit…Tory? Whereas the Fifth Doctor gathers around himself a little army of lost and confused orphans, takes responsibility for their care, refuses to give up on them even when they make his life impossible. He’s like a father to these children and they aren’t even his.
Now that’s love. And that, for me, is very much The Doctor.
If you can get past the aboriginal dance routines and the constant primary-school didactics (“Could anyone pass the sodium chloride, please?” “Sodium chloride?” “Salt.”) and the kids being kids and driving their poor dad up the wall, “Four To Doomsday” is a strange and wonderful medley of science, history, humour and just plain weirdness that I have a hard time imagining coming into existence anywhere other than Doctor Who. If Adric and/or Tegan really do set your teeth on edge then adjust downwards accordingly, but for me this comfortably merits a 7/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus