19.4 – “The Visitation”
An alien stranded on Earth decides that he would like to kill all humans and take over their world. Cliché ahoy!
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So here we are, at the beginning of the end. After a season and a half of some of the most interesting and intelligent Doctor Who there has ever been, here is Eric Saward’s audition piece for the role of Script Editor: a position from which he will be able to completely shape the course of Whovian destiny, for better or worse. Oh, who are we kidding? It was all for worse. For much, much worse.
The sad thing is, I went into “The Visitation” spoiling for a fight. I wanted to be able to say “In your faces, viewers who were baffled by “Castrovalva” through “Kinda”, who rated this and “Earthshock” as the glorious highlights of Season 19! You were idiots to enjoy this! What the hell were you thinking?!” But these episodes aren’t even interestingly detestable. Dull, yes. Predictable, very much so. But also your typical, solidly made, visually quite attractive, meat-and-potatoes Who.
If you’re a small child or an adult not particularly invested in the show, you would probably have thought “The Visitation” is everything that Doctor Who should aspire to be. The pseudo-historical is pretty much the series’ classic format, something that no other show can do as confidently and which is, crucially, not hamstrung by the tinfoil spacesuits and wobbly polystyrene corridors that tend to plague excursions into the future. As a bright 7 year old I remember being absolutely rapturous about the Pudding Lane reveal at the end. For a 7 year old, that’s a genius plot twist. An event you learned about in school, brought to life before your very eyes! With aliens!
As it happens, the end of “The Visitation” is my first clear memory of classic Doctor Who – apart from The Five Faces season a few months earlier. Fortunately, the, um, Krotons had left such an indelible impression on me that, despite Davison’s best efforts, Patrick Troughton would remain “my” Doctor to the present day.
But here’s the problem with this story – hell, with all of Eric Saward’s stories; it hasn’t an ounce of poetry in its efficient reptilian soul. Saward remembers what he likes from his own youthful memories of Doctor Who and manages to enjoy both a bit of classical base-under-siege action in the manor house and also some yomping around in the woods pursued by scythe-wielding Hammer Horror peasants, for that time-honoured Hinchcliffian feel. The rest is just whatever is required to mechanically shuttle the plot and the regulars from A, to B, to C, to D. Even technobabble acquires a peculiarly joyless ring when it comes from Saward’s pen: “polygrite”, “soliton gas”, “tinclavic mines”. They’re exactly like Douglas Adams words, unleavened of any of Douglas Adams’ boundless sense of fun.
Let us briefly consider the supporting cast (for brevity is all they merit). There is the 17th century family that we meet for a couple of minutes at the start of episode 1, before they get ruthlessly eradicated by alien home invaders. Which would be all well and good if we were given time or reason to warm to them, such that the brutal injustice of their fate came as a hard shock. But really the dad’s an irascible old drunk, the son a puritanical prude, the daughter’s just a bit wet and it’s not as though any of them are even nice to their poor old servant Ralph. And then they’re gone and I for one find them impossible to mourn.
And beyond those four, we meet exactly one other character in the whole of “The Visitation” who is not a hostile alien or minion. Richard Mace, a florid Thespian turned highwayman – because, as we’ll discover repeatedly in the near future, Eric Saward likes his bad boys and antiheroes much better than he likes that boring old goody-two-shoes Doctor. Not that he does anything interesting with the fact of Mace being something of a rogue; the actor hints a few times that he might not be averse to occasionally making free with other people’s possessions in these straitened times, gasp! One suspects that Mace “coming good” and electing to stick around to fight the Great Fire of London is Saward’s idea of a complex character arc, even if by any other writer’s standards it’s paper-thin, motivated by pure whimsy. Still, at least The Doctor is impressed (as, again, he always will be by Saward’s charmless antiheroes), to the point of letting Mace keep a piece of anachronistic alien technology with the potential to change the course of human history.
A sudden horrible notion – maybe Mace went away with his alien control panel and founded a really early prototype of Torchwood. As if we didn’t have enough things to blame Eric Saward for…
Then there are the Terileptils, almost certainly the least inspiring “classic race of Doctor Who monsters” in the show’s history. They shamble about pathetically in rubber costumes in a manner liable to tick all the boxes of “real fans” who remember the Ice Warriors and the Yeti as being cooler than they actually were. They have the obligatory classic race quirk of being lovers of grace and beauty, where that is defined in practice as owning a really garish android that Liberace might have commissioned if he’d been in the murderous minion business. Of course, none of the Terileptils ever actually behave like sophisticated aesthetes in a bad situation. They are unilaterally rude, blustery and belligerent, displaying not the remotest compunction about wiping out humanity with bubonic plague in order to have a bit more elbow room. In other words, the worst kind of unimaginative, one-note Doctor Who monsters it’s possible to do.
TARDIS Regulars Watch! In keeping with the general sheen of watchability about this story, everyone acquits themselves well on this outing. Sure, Adric tries to offer the TARDIS to the Terileptils on a plate within seconds of them walking through the door, but we aren’t even surprised at this by now, it’s just what he has to do every other week, with his selling-out-the-Doctor Tourette’s Syndrome. Thanks to Peter Moffatt’s competent directorial instincts Adric doesn’t get to be Adric in a limelight-hoggingly dim and petulant way and that’s some kind of victory really. Nyssa continues to be quietly ultra-competent somewhere in the background (which marginally beats being sent off to bed for four episodes) while Tegan gets all the funny lines this time, rabbiting on about The Doctor being from “Guildford” and otherwise hilariously deadpanning her way through the interrogation sequence.
Davison’s performance as The Doctor is not obviously undercooked despite this being the first adventure he shot; the alarming part is the material Saward’s script gives him to work with, extricating his way from situations with wrestling moves instead of his brain, and “solving” a locked door conundrum with a gun and the words “I never miss”. (All the warning signs were here in plain sight, people! Why couldn’t you SEE?!) And, of course, “The Visitation” is famously the adventure where The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is finally retired for a decade or two. Decried at the time as a magic wand that makes life too easy for lazy scriptwriters, it is of course nothing of the kind – it’s a magic wand that stops The Doctor from ever having to resort to fisticuffs, firearms and endless tedious running around to solve his problems. The “Saward era” could never have happened so easily if it hadn’t been gotten out of the way.
It looks good, it feels “classic” in all sorts of ways, it puts Doctor Who back on track for people who maybe thought it had been getting a bit pretentious over the past year or two, and it’s as dumb as the miller’s horse. Fans didn’t realise how good they’d been having it in 1980-1; they may have lapped this up but they really did deserve better… and they were going to get a lot worse. On a purely superficial level this may qualify as an impressive and enjoyable story, but with nothing at all behind the curtain, I can’t justify giving it more than a disappointing 4/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus