Doctor Who complete reviews: The Caves Of Androzani
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Is this a strong candidate for the best ever Doctor Who story...?
A day in the life of The Doctor. Get up. Have breakfast. Land on an alien planet. Suffer lots of silly "What does it all mean?" questions from assistant. Meet aliens. Get captured. Escape. Save the universe. Go to sleep.
In the case of The Caves Of Androzani, the daily masterplan gets somewhat lost in translation. Even though it starts off as a harmless investigation on the planet of Androzani Minor, The Doctor and his new friend Peri rapidly find that they have only one mission statement: To stay alive.
Inevitably, being a regeneration story, you know what's going to happen. But since The Doctor encounters more scrapes than a paint stripper, the question on everyone's lips is how does he buy it this time? Death by firing squad? Death by shuttle crash? Death by Magma Beast?
In the end though, it can only be Death by Spectrox Toxaemia, after Peri blindly falls into a great big fuzzy ball of what looks like candy floss. The Doctor muses that curiosity has always been his downfall, and never has he said a truer word.
The Caves Of Androzani ranks alongside Genesis Of The Daleks, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and City Of Death as the Quintessential Doctor Who story. Just once, I'd love to be proven wrong, given that the above examples have received millions of superlatives heaped upon them. But no, not this time. The Caves Of Androzani really is a masterpiece, a good example of when that all-important alchemy of script and production comes together to make something very special indeed.
"Caves is a fast-paced, multi-layered cracker that's brought to the screen with much flair by Graeme Harper"
It helps that after an absence of five years, revered writer Robert Holmes comes back to the fold. His last contribution The Power Of Kroll had received decidedly mixed reviews, but this time around, he's back on blistering form. In fact, Caves runs along the same sort of lines as Kroll with its themes of gun-running and crafty double-crossing. However, whereas Kroll was prone to long, talky scenes and average production values, Caves is a fast-paced, multi-layered cracker that's brought to the screen with much flair by Graeme Harper.
Harper, in case you didn't know, had been the protégé of Douglas Camfield, who had been responsible for some of the finest Doctor Who adventures. Appropriately, Harper's direction is along the same lines - it's pacy, well-cast and most importantly of all, original. Early to mid 80s Who had boasted some strong directors, but Harper raises the stakes considerably with carefully thought-out shots, effects and cross-fades. Take the scene in which Sharaz Jek creates the androids of The Doctor and Peri. A lesser director would have come up with a boring long shot of Jek standing over a machine in anticipation. What Harper does is to quickly cross-fade shots and keep the action barrelling along in what's quite a mundane sequence on paper. Sheer genius, and elsewhere in the story, you've got lashings of hand-held camera work, innovative video effects and inspired casting decisions. No wonder Harper still stands as one of the most respected Who directors of all time.
He definitely adds to the murky atmosphere that permeates the story like a black raincloud. Caves is actually a pretty dour story, and if there's one criticism, it's that it's pretty low on smiles. It's a tale that's populated by selfish, back-stabbing bastards. Yes, practically everyone in Caves Of Androzani is a bastard - Genesis Of The Daleks had its fair share of bastards, but then you had Sevrin The Friendly Muto and Bettan The Cold Fish on the side of good. In Caves, about the only goodies are Chellak, Salateen and ironically, by the end, Sharaz Jek - but even then, these are not men that you'd invite down the pub for a quick pint.
So with that in mind, it's countdown time to see who really proves to be the toughest nut in The Caves Monsters Awards.
Bit of a long shot. With his bouffant quiff and plummy voice, The President doesn't really go in for the nitty-gritty of being a Caves Monster so much. You get the impression that he spends his time preening in front of a holographic mirror after taking his regular dose of Spectrox. He does get a fairly nasty line after The Doctor and Peri are about to be shot in the Red Cloth Ceremony: "In my day a filthy swine like that would have been shot in the back. The Red Cloth was for soldiers..." But even with a sneery line like that, he's easily duped by Morgus and more foolish still, he happens to be standing on the edge of a long lift shaft while talking to the pony-tailed one. Cue computerised Wile E Coyote death.
Poor old Krelper. With his craggy features and hangdog expression, Krelper proves to be the Ringo of the pack, pathetically following his surly boss Stotz around like a junior apprentice. In Krelper's mind, he's the tops of The Caves Monsters, but in reality, he's a bit clueless. Stotz treats Krelper like a hacky sack, pushing him to the edge of a cliff and forcing him to take a suicide pill or in the end, shooting him at point blank range. And incidentally, why is he tied to that rather dopey-looking soldier with a piece of string? Everywhere Krelper goes, Dopey goes. Maybe Dopey's his little brother, along for the ride. But Krelper's just too much of a wimp to be a real Caves Monster, a bit like the weedy nerd who follows the bullies around at school and then gets his head dunked in the smelly toilet as a reward.
Initially, Chellak's Caves Monster credentials are quite high. He treats The Doctor and Peri with disdain and comes across as a supremely pompous idiot ("And when you address me, you will call me sir"). But Chellak's stock rapidly plummets after talking to Morgus who's already cornered the market in smug pomposity without so much as a raised eyebrow. After that, he is even on the side of The Doctor and Peri after they've been sentenced to death. Eventually, Chellak manages to redeem himself and dies a hero's death. Well actually, scrap that - he gets boiled alive in a mud burst and is reduced to an icky charred corpse covered in gravy granules.
A tricky one this. On the one hand you've got Salateen The Android, who's got a nice line in creepy, jerky stares - but then he's an android - he doesn't actually emote, so technically he's not a true Caves Monster. The real flesh and blood Salateen is more of a goody than the others in the list, although he does get one key bastard sequence when he starts laughing at the fact that The Doctor and Peri are dying - and right in their faces too.
Clearly a ticket to a Frankie Boyle gig would be right up Salateen's street.
Forever trundling about like she's on wheels with a permanent expression of lax PR vacancy, Timinin doesn't really exude much nastiness initially. She's constantly tapping in figures into her state of the art TV remote control and nodding blandly at her paymaster with detached boredom - a bit like the Churchill dog on Prozac.
And then at the end, she reveals that she's actually sold Morgus out and reduced the omnipotent politician to the level of a common criminal. Now that's genius, and Caves Monster-y on a huge scale. It's not as if she's going to become a whiter than white ruler - she'll probably make Servalan from Blake's 7 look like Snow White. And ironically, she's the only guest character to live till the bitter end. But still, it might be a case of Too Much But Too Late in the nastiness stakes...
Prowling about in what looks like a gimp suit from a Ken Russell meisterwork, Sharaz Jek has, on paper, all the ingredients for a number one Caves Monster. He shouts. He screams. He wants to see people's heads delivered to him - bet that's a hell of a tale for the local Androzani postman. Heck, he even admits that he's mad.
But there's a credible reason for Jek's insanity - he's been badly deformed by a mud burst after his old working colleague Morgus tricked and trapped him. So at this point, Sharaz Jek goes from being a creepy, pervy bastard to the baddie that you actually feel sorry for. What's more, Christopher Gable's mind-blowing performance as Jek makes you wish that the character will actually fulfill his aim and kill Morgus, something that ultimately does happen in part four.
Lots of great Jek sequences - the scene in which he recounts his accident is palpably spine-chilling; the bit in which he crawls away bawling like a baby after Peri's screamed in his face is rather sad; and of course that great bit when he rips off his mask ("You think bullets could stop me now? You stinking offal, Morgus, look at me!"). Great lines, but even better, a consistently great performance from Christopher Gable. Even so, Jek isn't quite as much a Caves Monster as two other lynchpins, one of whom is...
Caves Monsters don't get much worse than Stotz - a man you'd walk across the road and into the path of a petrol tanker to avoid. Stotz is what he is - a thuggish mercenary who revels in dishing out thumps and threats like a sadistic kid who reflects the sun's rays through a magnifying glass into a glass cage full of tarantulas. So throughout Caves, Stotz gleefully shoots Krelper and Dopey, as well as Jek, and in between killings, he taunts and shoves The Doctor around. Only problem is, Stotz is a bit thick. He foolishly leaves The Doctor alone to plot his escape, and more fatally, is too busy standing around grinning to notice that Android Salateen is going to shoot him in the back. So that just leaves...
Yes, the Caves Monster title is snatched by Morgus, a man so loathsome he'd provide Schindler's List as the end-of-term Christmas film for a group of bawling primary school kids.
Morgus is the ruthless politician writ large, a man so obsessed with money, power and status that he's lost all contact with reality. What really makes him stand out is the way in which he barely raises his voice above a pompous monotone drone. He shoves The President down the lift shaft with hardly a care in the world, and then casually orders the lift maintenance engineer to be shot. It's only when his plans fall apart like smoke that he actually starts to show any sort of emotion, and you quickly realise that Morgus is rapidly going to get his just desserts. And when he gets his head fried in the futuristic hairdryer of doom, it's a real 'punch the air' moment.
Which is again a tribute to both the script and the stellar acting from John Normington, who effortlessly portrays the conniving, evil Morgus. And that bit when he talks to the camera when musing about The Doctor and the President plotting together is one of the best examples of serendipity in Doctor Who.
Morgus - bastards everywhere salute you.
THE MAGMA MONSTER
So The Doctor and Peri evidently don't have much hope in an oasis of malevolence. It's a shame that there weren't more stories with the 5th Doctor and Peri, since they make a great team. They have the same sort of wry humour and gentle banter, and Nicola Bryant turns in one of her best performances for the show. Admittedly, Peri is no more than a hapless victim figure, but Bryant really hammers home the sheer desperation and trauma of Peri's plight.
And of course there's The Doctor. It's both ironic and rather sad that this is Davison's last regular performance as The Doctor since it's easily his best. It's a great mix of ready wit ("I eat the celery - if nothing else, I'm sure it's good for my teeth"), naive recklessness ("I got us into this, Peri") and great heroics. The 5th Doctor has never really had a great opportunity to be the hero, but The Caves Of Androzani finally gives him that chance. What makes it so heroic is that the stakes are so small. The Doctor's not out to save a planet or stop a nasty alien, but just to save his companion's life.
The best moment of this is of course the cliffhanger to part three when The Doctor hijacks Stotz's ship from under his nose and sets it hurtling on course to return to the planet. It's a relentless barrage of fast jump cuts and manic shouting from both Stotz and The Doctor. And Davison is fantastic in these scenes, portraying a man who's had enough of being treated like scum by the evils of the universe - "So you see, I'm not going to let you stop me now!!" Sterling work from Graeme Harper, Maurice Roeves and especially Peter Davison, who uses that manic breathlessness to blistering effect. One of the best Doctor Who cliffhangers ever.
"Out of all the regeneration sequences, it's not the most emotional, but it is the most spectacular"
And the story really squares the circle of the 5th Doctor's arc. The Caves Of Androzani proves that no matter how good someone's intentions are, sometimes the evils of the universe just can't be beaten. The 5th Doctor finds this to his chagrin - everyone's standing in his way of staying alive. Morgus and his petty political ambitions. Chellak and Salateen and their gung-ho heroics. Sharaz Jek and his twisted love for Peri. It's telling that even though Morgus, Stotz and Sharaz Jek are all dying in flames, The Doctor just single-mindedly barges into the room, picks up Peri and leaves. Not one attempt to help anyone but his companion.
And so the 5th Doctor dies a hero after half of the bat's milk (the antidote to the Spectrox Toxaemia) has spilled onto the ground. He gives the remainder to Peri and is forced to regenerate again. Out of all the regeneration sequences, it's not the most emotional, but it is the most spectacular. Graeme Harper has said that he directed the sequence taking inspiration from the final crescendo of noise at the end of the Beatles' 'A Day In The Life'. And that really comes across in the regeneration. The video effects and the specially shot floating cameo heads of companions and The Master all build up to a visual and aural maelstrom of colour and sound.
And then Colin Baker.
It's a perfectly executed sequence (pervs can salivate at Peri's cleavage too) and it's a fitting end to one of the most underrated Doctors in the show's history. Too bad that Baker's disembodied gurning head kind of spoils the effect after muttering "Change, my dear - And it seems not a moment too soon!"
The Caves Of Androzani completely deserves its formidable reputation. The script from Robert Holmes is exciting, tense and painted in shades of grey rather than broad strokes of black and white. Sharaz Jek isn't an out and out baddie, more a man driven into madness by a terrible experience that's left him mentally and physically scarred for life. It's attention to detail, as well as plenty of killer lines ("Make that half a minute") full of black, Holmesian humour that really make the script such a fine one.
Graeme Harper's direction matches the script perfectly, and overall, the production values are top notch. The set designs from John Hurst are excellent - it's not easy to make realistic studio cave interiors, but these are very convincing. Even the incidental details like the lighting and music are pitch perfect. The lighting is subtly done, with some moody shadows for the cave interiors. Roger Limb finally delivers his best music score for Doctor Who, with several atmospheric touches like the doomy funeral bell sound and the oft-repeated background Ahhhhhhhs, which kind of sound like a funereal Blue Monday by New Order.
The only downer is the Magma Monster, which looks like Green Claws, blundering about at the end of part two and beginning of part three, but this isn't a problem. It's wisely kept to the shadows where possible by Harper, and it's not as if it crops up all throughout the story. If it bothers you that much, go and make a cup of tea whenever it rears its unrealistic plastic head.
The Caves Of Androzani is a Grade-A masterpiece. It's got everything that makes Doctor Who so great: Plenty of scares and shocks. Atmosphere in abundance. Excellent production values. Great acting and strong characterisation. A well-written, finely tuned script. Black humour. And tragedy, mustn't forget that. A marvellous parting shot for Peter Davison then, and also a strong candidate for Best Ever Doctor Who Story.
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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