Doctor Who complete reviews: The Visitation
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Eric Saward debuts on Doctor Who with this simple but adequately engaging 'pseudo-historical'...
Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to The Big Dipper that is season 19 of Doctor Who. Marvel at the swanky production values! Shield your eyes and protect your ears from the horror that is the terrible trio of companions! Gasp in wonder at how the season lurches giddily from one extreme to the other!
Season 19 has so many ups and downs, so many polar opposites that I feel queasy just typing this. Although it could have been the chicken curry that I had for tea. So far we've had the introspective, intelligent Castrovalva followed by Four To Doomsday - a story about overgrown, talking frogs. Then we have the multi-layered, surreal tour-de-force that is Kinda. And what do you know, we then head for The Visitation, which is generally about as sophisticated as an episode of Neighbours.
Actually, maybe that's not a bad thing. Brilliant though Kinda is, can you imagine a whole season full of Kindas? It would be more heavy-going than entering a dry bread-and-butter pudding-eating contest. So it's something of a relief to return to the relatively undemanding - but still enjoyable - action adventure fare that is The Visitation. Put simply, it's about a small troupe of overgrown turtle men who want to take over the world in 1666 London. No more, no less.
One notable element of The Visitation is that it's the return of the 'pseudo-historical'. During the past four-odd years after Horror Of Fang Rock, The Doctor hasn't really dipped into the past, save for a quick trip to 16th century Italy to call upon his old chum Leonardo Da Vinci. So it's quite nice to have the genre back, and fans of history can rub their hands in glee at the increase in historical adventures over the next few years. We'll even get the first bonafide historical adventure next, something that hasn't happened since the 1960s.
The Visitation is the first script from the pen of 1980s stalwart and longtime script editor Eric Saward. It's unusual - given his future offerings - in that it's a comparitively genteel story, with less emphasis on providing shocks and gratuitous horror (apart from the ending - stay tuned). It's also much simpler than say, Resurrection Of The Daleks, which tries to cram in about a million and one subplots all at once. Here, the emphasis is on the Terileptils' plan to take over the world. That's all - no tortuous subplots about them also wanting to take over Gallifrey as well. The downside of this is that maybe it's just too linear - fans of Kinda will probably have been left wondering what the hell's happened to the multi-layered scripts. And like Four To Doomsday, the dialogue is far too simple, stilted even.
Characters are left to spout excessive plot expositions or say clunky, unreal stuff like "I have seen many falling stars, but this was without parallel!" or "I find this house full of style and quality!" or "I bet it isn't transistor radios!" And that's just a sample of the writing in part one - never for a moment does it seem real or convincing, and you can tell that the actors are just finding their lines a wee bit too artificial too.
"Saward will get better in the future - in stories like Revelation Of The Daleks - but Mace is very much a half-baked tryout"
The biggest casualty of this is the principal character, hippy highway man and one-time thesp, Richard Mace, played by Michael 'On The Buses' Robbins. It's quite a good idea in principle for The Doctor and co to team up with this down-on-his luck actor. You can imagine Mace carousing the local taverns, offering quick equivalents of open-mic night dramatic recitals in return for copious quantities of ale. But somehow, Mace just doesn't quite work. Possibly it's because he's saddled with this rather obvious thespian-style way of talking. Take the above examples - Mace tends to over-pepper his dialogue with flowery gibberish to the point where he loses the meaning of what he's trying to say. OK, so Robert Holmes tended to write for characters this way, but the lines they were given were genuinely funny and clever. Saward will get better in the future - in stories like Revelation Of The Daleks - but Mace is very much a half-baked tryout.
It also doesn't help that Robbins' performance is rather stilted too. A quick listen-in on the commentary finds the regulars in agreement too. Never has an actor got so much stick on the commentaies, but poor old Robbins is given a rough ride, apparently because he didn't care much for the experience of being in Doctor Who. And Matthew Waterhouse being Matthew Waterhouse gets to repeat every single line that Michael Robbins says in a voice that sounds nothing like Michael Robbins. Apparently, Eddie Large is not feeling threatened by the competition.
That's a shame, since there aren't really any other significant characters in the story. You get the impression that famous faces John 'Fred Elliott' Savident and Antony 'New Tricks' Calf will be big players in the story after the excellent prologue, but they're bumped off in the first five minutes, along with the squeaky Elizabeth and Ralph the croaky old servant, who can't scream for toffee (Davison has a crafty chuckle at his am-dram "Waaaarrrggghhh" on the commentary). Later on, we get a couple of half-arsed village idiot yokel stereotypes including a miller (who, with his hippy hair and beard, looks like he should be in some mullet rock band like The Scorpions), the poacher and some doddery old fool who claims to be the headman of the village, although given his demented babblings about his mind being taken over so easily, this is something of a misnomer. Because of this lack of decent characters, the story feels a bit undercooked and when the only people you get are such lazy cliches, it's less Doctor Who, more 17th Century History as imagined by The Flumps.
Mind you, I did forget the aliens, the Terileptils. Although they're hardly among the top ranks of decent Doctor Who baddies - in actual fact, I feel quite sorry for them. There's only three of them (after another was gunned down at the start), their leader's been badly injured in the Tinclavic Mines of Raaga, and then there's that rather uncomfortable ending in which they're destroyed by fire - the leader's head melts and pops like candle wax, although it's his pitiful shrieks that are more unnerving. So they're to be pitied rather than feared, the poor devils.
I do like the animatronic face of the leader though - it may look a bit jerky and awkward by today's standards, but for the time it was made, it's a pretty neat innovation. The aliens are also more in-depth than you might think. The leader craves beauty and art (he obviously taught Sharaz Jek in the art of feeling sorry for baddies who like the finer things in life), and this shows a race which isn't just concerned about blowing things up - although as The Doctor says, he can't reconcile the Terileptils' love of artistic things with their talent for war. But like any race, it's all about survival of the fittest - hence their evil scheme to wipe out the population with a horde of genetically-enhanced plague rats. Actor Michael Melia overcomes the discomfort of his costume (filming in the summer of 1981 in a sweltering costume was ever so slightly hot) to deliver a nicely subtle performance that's not just one-note ranting. It's a shame that maybe the Terileptils never got the chance to return, in which we might have seen them become more fearless and evil rather than poor fluffy - well, in the metaphorical sense of the word - creatures.
Maybe it's because of this that The Visitation just feels that little bit bland. It's not scary enough, despite the emphasis on action. There's a couple of neat twists including the cool android, whether it's disguised as the Grim Reaper or marching around in all its jewel-encrusted glory. Even Nyssa feels a bit sad to resort to blowing it up while wearing a great big pair of Cyberman-style ear muffs. But apart from this, Peter Moffatt doesn't manage to bring out the drama - strange, considering his success with State Of Decay. The cliffhangers are rather lame for one thing - Teabag and Nyssa standing around shouting "Doct-aaahh" at a wall isn't exactly enticing, neither is the 17th century version of Four To Doomsday part three (even The Doctor says "Not again!" as he's about to get his head lopped off by a bloody great scythe).
"Peter Davison is really getting to grips with The Doctor. If there's an early example of his 'old man in a young body' routine, then it's The Visitation."
And again matters aren't helped by the companions. After a strong showing in Kinda, Teabag's back to shouting the place down. If you look closely at the TARDIS walls, the paint's starting to flake, given Teabag's talent for stripping the decor with her nails-down-blackboard shriek. Nyssa doesn't do much apart from rig up her box of tricks for destroying the android. And by now, Matthew Waterhouse has apparently given up trying with his odd reading of lines. "Why is he never around when you waaaaaaaant him?" he squeals in the TARDIS when moaning to Nyssa about The Doctor's absence - just bizarre. Oh, and he can't fall over for toffee either.
Fortunately, Peter Davison is really getting to grips with The Doctor. If there's an early example of his 'old man in a young body' routine, then it's The Visitation. His crabby temper is a real hoot, whether he's visibly tiring of Teabag's histrionics, Adric's dim-witted brain or Mace's cowardice. But there're lots of quieter moments, such as his attempts to reason with the Terileptil Leader or his sorrow at the destruction of the Sonic Screwdriver. "I feel like you've just killed an old friend," he whispers sadly after his trusty get-out-of-jail-free-card has gone up in smoke.
And despite the relative lack of scares, the visual side of The Visitation is a marvel to behold. The location filming is magnificent, as are the sumptuous interiors, which is the sort of thing that the BBC could do in their sleep, ditto the costume designs. The Terileptils are very well realised too. In fact, the only production issue is the twee incidental score, which sounds like it should have been kept for the next Look And Read 10-part serial. It's telling that the DVD documentary comparing Dudley Simpson with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop chose The Visitation as an example of how sometimes it didn't quite match up in terms of drama.
Nevertheless, The Visitation is still a diverting feast for the eyes, and an enjoyable adventure romp. While it may not be as sophisticated as some of the recent stories, at least - like the Big Dipper - it's unpretentious fun for all the family.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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