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Doctor Who
The Caves of Androzani


Most were saying there was nothing left to say about The Caves of Androzani by the end of the ’80s, which means there’s scarcely any chance of doing so now. So I won’t claim to offer any more than reheated sauce and critiqued quotes, just as forewarning that this revisit of still one of the best stories ever may read as faintly familiar.

Much of the conversation about The Caves of Androzani – aside from its certified greatness, per the DWM Mighty 200 Poll in 2009 (it came first) – has rested on its perceived deleterious aftershocks. This was labelled “The Androzani Effect” by DWB (its creator Gary Leigh still flies the common-sense flag high, and is still frequently maligned for the same), or more specifically a piece in DWB 29/30 (Dec ’85) by fandom’s No.1 Pertwee-era terminator Paul Cornell. Cornell’s take quickly became the last word on the matter, regurgitated indiscriminately since, much like his Tory Third Doctor reading (the latter now requiring great lengths to defend it, but the damage is done; I’d say similar is true for the subsequent – to Androzani – Baker C era, but few are inclined to bother).

Cornell disses Saward’s reverence for Robert Holmes, which “infects Season 22, and nearly destroys it through over-editing”. He cites villains’ habitual lust after Peri, the profuse use of real guns (conveniently forgetting Resurrection of the Daleks went there first) and the general penchant for gratuitous violence. The problem, as he sees it, is that “only the baser elements” have been learned as lessons. As a balance, he also backhandedly compliments the “noticeable” direction, and amusingly credits Saward’s lines for the Sixth Doctor (assuming they’re Holmes’). Perhaps the most baffling part is his labelling the cliffhangers as “good”, “marvellous” and “that’s-what-it’s-all -about”, when the accurate response should be “classic”, “shit” and “classic”.

Six years later, the arrival of The Caves of Androzani on video saw Keith Topping reappraise “The Androzani Effect” in DWB 95 (Nov ’91). His intention was less to reiterate the disdain for the era that followed it than to decry its hallowed status. It was, he attested, Doctor Who’s Sgt Pepper, “an overrated piece… a triumph of style over content”. This was Bob Holmes on auto-pilot, and if it really was the best of the show, then the show was “as unimaginative and derivative as any series. Worse, it is hollow and empty” as a production can be that’s “held high and proud”. For Topping, “Its slickness is also its salvation” (he also notes the story’s “rad-fem” ideas… while admitting they aren’t really, and points out Davo’s “gentle masochism…” that makes his “ultimate sacrifice inevitable”. Following the regeneration, this was never quite the same programme again. Which is true, but it was also true after The Horns of Nimon and The Horror of Fang Rock, depending on which side of the qualitative fence you sit.

Some of Topping’s faint besmirchment can find its first flourish in an Eric – of all people – interview in DWB 57 (Aug 88) where he batted off the effusive praise for Holmes’ work by suggesting it actually wasn’t all that: “it was certainly an above average script but I think Graeme Harper had a great deal to do with the impact of the story… A lot of the elements in that story, if badly handled, could have come out as an absolute disaster”. And (Gary) was “… reading far too much in to that story. For Bob it was very much a routine story. It was a good, above-average script…” For Eric, it was, essentially, about the luck of getting Graybags.

Justin Richards recited the mantra for DWM’s The Complete Fifth Doctor, that The Caves of Androzanikilled… the television series” because, with the desire to repeat the formula “without an innate understanding of Androzani’s real strengths, the results were, at best, piecemeal” (Justin also throws in some crazy talk, suggesting the monster is far superior to the ones in Warriors of the Deep or Terminus, eye teeth or otherwise). 

Come 2009, and Rob Shearman is reciting chapter and verse of the original Cornell complaint: Shearman’s big on complaining about The X-Files when it lacks heart, so his praise for The Caves of Androzani is by way of inversion: “By removing the optimism and eccentricity and joy from the centre of the story, you miss them all the more…” Well, they’d been missed for about three years in various forms at that point. As such, it makes for a “terrible template”. One that emphasises “the ugliness and the pessimism and the cruelty”. 

Shearman has obviously been drinking the nu-Who Kool-Aid, so he says its “brilliant” several times and uses romantic metaphors for the Doctor/ Peri relationship (‘Caves finds Five unsure he wants that second date”). Essentially, while Shearman is able to offer the occasional inspired defence of what follows – his The Two Doctors essay is very much worth reading in About Time – he’s simply getting in line to knock the stuffing out of the Saward-in-full-effect era. I’d also disagree on a couple of specifics. The regeneration looks “gaudy and out of place”. It’s supposed to strike a contrast, but I’d disagree anyway; its eerie and macabre, and Harper’s Day in the Life allusion is a good one. Plus, I think it’s great that Davo’s haunted by two companions he got killed. 

I also don’t buy the “Spectrox isn’t all that” reasoning, hinged as it is on Morgus sucking up to the President. I mean, yes, the President looks older than fifty (David Neal was actually 51 when the story was made) but he does NOT look 84. You might argue the Doctor not having heard of it gives credence to it being no more effective than Oil of Ulay, but the populace of Major seem fairly persuaded by this snake oil, and Jek surely isn’t quite so mad that he’s completely exaggerating its potential to the object of his lust (“the key to eternal youth”).

Saward is absolutely right when he notes The Caves of Androzani could have been a disaster in less capable hands than Harper. In this case, that’s less about the urge to go OTT (Jek etc) than it is being so reliant on action. Such spectacles are often lacking even with capable hands at the tiller (Matthew Robinson), so they’re all the more startling when rigorously delivered (and there are still points here that are amiss, inevitably: the sound of studio slats; the beastie). The direction elevates the script, which is what it should do, but you particularly notice it because it’s an action story (as opposed to taking the form of filmed theatre). 

Yes, there’s probably too much emphasis on the grisly in Season 22, and the quality of writing isn’t up to Holmes’ level, but it’s the emphasis on action and mood that other directors, less capable than Harper (Iet’s face it, not even in the same ballpark), cannot do justice that casts a glaring light on deficiencies elsewhere. Had Harper directed Attack of the Cybermen, Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors in Season 22 – I’m doubtful he’d have made significant difference to or salvaged the other two stories – we might still dispute the darkness and emphasis on violence, but there’d be more balance. This was already an issue with Season 21 (the same rubric applies to Warriors of the Deep and Frontios, even Resurrection of the Daleks and The Awakening).

Harper rues some of his choices here, such as allowing Morgus his to-camera aside (John Normington getting the drop on Ian Richardson in House of Cards by six years), and Chellak talking with his back to his subject (so we see both faces), but I’m a fan of such self-conscious choices if they complement the overall tone (hey, I adore The Ipcress File). The Caves of Androzani’s a constant marvel in terms of the focussed can-do ingenuity and energy. 

I’m guessing energy is part of the reason Harper’s nu-Who work wasn’t all that. He was twenty years older. And he was abiding by a house style. But the technique here is worlds away from standard Who, be it dissolves, staging, sound effects (echo), lighting (the spot on the Doctor in the caves), use of camera (foregrounding, handheld, whip pans; the climax where the Doctor enters Jek’s lair to the sound of a fan on overdrive and flames licking the frame). It’s probably true, as Larry Miles suggests, that “this is the filmmaker’s triumph far more than it is the author’s”, but the key point is that there isn’t the remotest danger you conclude this is a silk’s purse made from a sow’s ear. Everyone comes off well, the actors – Harper knew the terrain, as a former child actor – the characters, the music (he worked closely with Roger Limb, never that great on the show prior to this), the visual effects. 

Stephen Cole (DWM 265) suggested one of the reasons this incarnation “comes across so well… is because Davison’s more vulnerable, innocent Doctor is so at odds with the brutality of the squalid little world he is initially so keen to investigate”. Indeed, it’s curious that Davo squeals on Peri (at the prospect of his arms being removed). Albeit, Peri also doesn’t so much squeal as volunteer the military’s plans later (Jek already knows about the belt buckles). The idea that Holmes was writing for Tom has been undercut by several writers pointing out the things required of the Doctor here just wouldn’t work as well with the Tom brand. Lisbeth Sandifer, obliged to namecheck the Miner’s Strike as a pre-emptory influence, observes “The script depends on the fact that Davison is taking a risk with every wisecrack…” and its true. You can feel he’s asking for it, and sometimes getting it. Miles thinks Davo makes it far darker and more dramatic than anything Holmes had in mind.

Maybe. I mean, he could imagine pretty dark and dramatic, and with Hinchcliffe often achieved it. Saward commented that JN-T “said a lot of awful things about Bob, unofficially”, and he had to fight to get him. It’s interesting that, for all the guns and intrigue, the frequently callous Holmes should make the through line so unadulterated: “Saving one life”, as Cole notes. But not in a vomitous, allonzee way, where all you do is talk about it while Murray Gold milks it, and so exponentially diminish its impact. Tat Wood offered the story a grudging defence (absurdly suggesting the Magma Beast was the best monster of the Davo era. Clearly, the beast has its fans). 

Jek: To think that I, Sharaz Jek, who once mixed with the highest in the land, am now dependent on the very dregs of society, the base perverted scum who contaminate everything they touch. And it is Morgus who’s brought me to this! Morgus destroyed my life! 

Morbius: Trapped like this, like a sponge beneath the sea. Yet even a sponge has more life than I. Can you understand a thousandth of my agony? I, Morbius, who once led the High Council of the Time Lords and dreamed the greatest dreams in history, now reduced to this, to a condition where I envy a vegetable. 

On this visit, Nicola particularly stood out (and I don’t mean when Davo’s in her lap); it’s an entirely present, affecting performance. Jek is a supremely well envisaged character, even if Holmes rather hangs him out as foolish (one moment his army could withstand Chellak another five years, the next they’ve been overrun. Go figure). He is, though, altogether preoccupied (his and the Doctor’s sole area of common ground. Indeed, the Doctor doesn’t even attempt to make nice with him via Jek’s initial courtesy; as with android Salateen – “There’s something funny about that major” – his antennae are sharp for dodgy types here). And he’s suffering acutely from Holmes Toppled Elite syndrome (see also The Brain of Morbius).

Like much of the season that follows, the essential cynicism of Saward and Holmes lends itself to a degree of the evergreen. The conspiracy framework of the story, of corporations controlling politicians and doing back deals with the very people they’re supposed to be fighting, is redolent of the likes of the CIA drug trade and all things black ops. The Elite are in the ascendent, untouchable and psychopathic to the core. And craving an adrenochrome-like drug that preserves their youth (About Time points out the Dune parallels to Spice. The public crave also crave it here, of course, and are quite ready to capitulate to terrorists to get it). 

This is also a story where duplicates of vital persons are produced in deep underground bases – if Jek had any real wherewithal, he’d be replacing key politicians – and the fortunes of a world rest on the vagaries of incipient mudfloods (well, bursts). Which, as it turns out, profoundly resets everything (rather more than 75% of the population are done for, with some fleeing off world; those that remain – Jek – have a decidedly jaundiced view of existence and their prospects). Holmes’ facility was that his stories readily apply themselves to any now, and any before too. 

The Caves of Androzani’s effectiveness has not dimmed then, and I for one preferred the season that followed to 21, patchy as it was. If Logopolis is funereal, The Caves of Androzani is doomed, in the manner of Blake or Terminal. It’s all coming to an end, and nothing can stop it. In that sense, it’s as well The Twin Dilemma started a week later, as it would have been unfair to give audiences false expectations based on a bizarre blip. As Harper says on the studio tapes, cue “A fat closeup of Colin Baker”.

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