This is the first in a series of posts chronicling my favourite episodes of my favourite shows. Rev posted up a list of 20 in a single post but my memory doesn’t work so well these days so I’m going to post my favourites at the rate that I rewatch them. It’s going to be erratic but hopefully entertaining.
WARNING: I am going to be positive here, there will only be small traces of snark and no fury in these posts. Read on at your peril.
Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani
Okay, I’m cheating with my first choice because The Caves of Androzani is a four part story and I’m not going to choose just one of the episodes. So there. This is Peter Davison’s swan song as the fifth Doctor and is, in my mind, the best regeneration story so far. The story was written by Robert Holmes and the episodes were directed by Graeme Harper; a Doctor Who creative dream team. Robert Holmes had penned many of the series’ finest stories, such as The Ark in Space, Pyramids of Mars, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Graeme Harper was just starting out as a director but his direction was dynamic and creative from the first episode.
I first viewed The Caves of Androzani when I was six years old (it was first broadcast in March 1984) and it’s the earliest Doctor Who story that I can clearly remember watching at the time. I think I saw episodes before then but I don’t have childhood memories of them; only The Caves Of Androzani stuck in my mind and left an indelible impression. Throughout the rest of my childhood my enduring image of the Doctor was of a doomed hero, his outfit stained and torn, lying on the TARDIS floor and giving up his life in order to save his friend.
Later stories wouldn’t form such strong impressions and in fact I lost interest in the show during the Colin Baker era (forgive me Colin but your period was too scary for me at the age of six.) I still maintained my interest in Doctor Who but I read the Target novelisations of the older Doctors instead of watching the show. I didn’t return as a regular viewer until the Sylvester McCoy era; I remember awaiting Time and The Rani with great anticipation – what a fool I was, but I was still hooked on the McCoy era after that.
I was lucky though, my first episode could’ve been The Twin Dilemma and that would’ve scarred me for life.
The plot of Caves begins with the Doctor and Peri arriving on Androzani Minor, a barren planet that seemingly contains nothing of interest. Peri has the misfortune of falling into a cave system where she and the Doctor come into contact with raw spectrox (it’s alien bat poo that can be refined to make an immortality drug!) and they both contract a fatal case of spectrox toxemia. From this point on the Doctor and Peri become embroiled in a plot involving gun runners, miners, an evil corporation, androids, bat milk and bat poo, and an extremely unconvincing magma monster. The Doctor struggles to find a cure whilst avoiding the many factions vying for control of Androzani Minor. The Doctor is not central to the story at all, he’s an innocent victim in the schemes of the main players on Androzani Minor and for once he doesn’t care about the big picture, he just wants to save his friend Peri from a painful death.
There are so many players and concepts in The Caves of Androzani that it’s amazing everything holds together so well. There is an android army led by a Phantom of the Opera style villain (Sharez Jek) who are in opposition to an evil corporate CEO (Morgus) who will do anything to maximize his profits, a group of gun runners working for both Sharaz Jek and Morgus, a magma monster that eats anyone who wanders too far into the caves, and a society that uses spectrox (remember it’s processed bat guano) to delay the aging process. This story features the finest example of world building in Doctor Who as the audience learns snippets of information on Androzani society and its political situation. It’s also a Doctor Who story that combines a political thriller with gung ho action scenes. It’s a very special and rare story.
Peter Davison’s performance is brilliant; the fifth Doctor starts off at his most sarcastic and humorous as he spars with the local authority figures, but becomes more desperate and determined as the story progresses. It’s a very powerful display and throws off the fifth incarnation’s nice guy act as such behaviour becomes useless in the cut throat world of Androzani. The finale of episode three with the Doctor defiantly daring a group of mercenaries to kill him as he pilots a spacecraft on a collision course is full of wild eyed intensity from Davison, which is shocking because this Doctor never seems to get angry, just exasperated. To see him launch into a rant is shocking and powerful. Davison’s final scene at the end of episode four is fantastic (if slightly overshadowed by Nicola Bryant’s cleavage) as you really do wonder if the Doctor will survive his regeneration, “I might regenerate, I don’t know... feels different this time...”
Graeme Harper’s direction is superb; he manages to give the show a real sense of pace which was in direct contrast to many of the episodes of this era. The sequences where the Doctor is fleeing from machine gun wielding mercenaries looks fantastic, even though it’s just Peter Davison and some hairy blokes running around a sandy quarry. Harper also manages to hide the awful magma monster in shadows and use it very sparingly as it’s clear that it undermines a very good story. Harper would return to the show when Doctor Who was relaunched and he seems to now be the director of choice for the episodes with lots of action or powerful moments.
The most wonderful thing about Caves of Androzani is that it’s a tragedy. SPOILER (for a twenty-five year old story) – practically everyone dies. Few survive the conflict on Androzani Minor, not even the Doctor. Peri survives due only to the heroism of her friend. The important thing is that the characters aren’t just names on a list to be killed (like previous story Resurrection of the Daleks, which seems to introduce characters in order to kill them in the next scene), the characters in this tale are developed and given personalities before being killed off in the final episode and not one of them suffers a lackluster death. It’s grim and gritty done in the right way, the deaths matter and they serve the story.
The Caves of Androzani is my favourite Doctor Who story for many reasons but I’ll never forget that it taught a six year old me a simple lesson of determination and triumph in the face of adversity and overwhelming odds. It defined heroism for me and placed the Doctor in my heart forever.