Saturday, August 7, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Castrovalva"

The show had changed lead actor in the Doctor role four times by 1980 but the next change was going to be particularly tricky....

Tom Baker, after seven years, finally decided to give up playing the Doctor. Tried and struggling with burgeoning alcohol and love-life problems the strain on Baker had begun to show on set more and more often.

The big problem was who did one find to replace one of the most popular Doctors in the history of the program? Jonathan Nathan-Turner's response to that was to offer the role to 29 year-old Peter Davison.

J N-T liked Davison as an actor but his motives were not entirely based on an appreciation of Davison's skill. Davison was immensely popular at the time, thanks mostly to his role as Tristan Farnsworth on the hit series All Creatures Great and Small. J N-T knew that anyone following Tom Baker would suffer inevitable comparisons and there would be many viewers who might be tempted to jump ship with his leaving. The hope was that, by signing an already popular actor to the role, fewer people might be tempted to leave and additionally more people who had followed Davison on All Creatures Great and Small but perhaps never or seldom watched Doctor Who might be willing to follow him over. On the other hand, J N-T was taking a risk that long-time fans of the program might consider Davison too young and handsome for the role.

For his part, Davison honestly did wonder if he was too young for the role. He did not immediately jump when offered the part and spent some time considering all of the pros and cons. In the end, though, he knew that Doctor Who was a kind of cultural institution and he might be offered this role only once in his lifetime. In the end, the opportunity to play the Doctor was just too good to pass up. Davison later admitted, though, that once he accepted he drew a blank on just how he wanted to play this new version of the Doctor. In the end he took inspiration from a fan at a Q & A session on a BBC entertainment program. The fans suggested that Davison play the Doctor like Tristan Farnsworth only with bravery and courage.

In addition to Davison, J N-T had steadily been building up the TARDIS team in the waning days of Baker's tenure; thinking that having more familiar companions around might help Davison fitting into the role. Matthew Waterhouse's character of Adric was already well established, having been introduced in "Full Circle". Added to this was Janet Fielding whose character of Australian airline flight attendant Tegan Jovanka had been introduced in Tom Baker's last story "Logopolis". Rounding out the cast was Sarah Sutton. Her character of Nyssa was supposed to be a one-off in the story "The Keeper of Traken" but the production team ended up liking her and thinking she would add something to the mix so she came back for "Logopolis" and stayed to become a permanent companion.

The show also, for once, had the benefit of time. Because Davison had already contracted to do another series the Doctor Who team had to wait to start filming. Because of this they pushed the launch back for a year -- giving them plenty of time to write scripts and start filming episodes. Knowing that Davison would face stiff comparisons with Tom Baker, J N-T wanted Davison to be confident in the role for the first episode since this would be where viewers would get their first good look at him. As such, with the extra time allotted, the decision was made to film Castrovalva fourth.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

The Plot: The Doctor has regenerated after falling from the gantry of the radio telescope at the Pharos Project but something is going wrong! Tegan, Nyssa and Adric struggle to get the Doctor back into the TARDIS. There is no safety even there, though as the Master has set a trap and managed to kidnap Adric and now uses the boy's mind to create illusions and influence the TARDIS. With the Doctor weak and confused, the group of new friends take him to Castrovalva -- where the TARDIS says he will be able to heal. The city of Castrovalva, though, is both more and less than what it seems and the Master is still out there attempting to destroy the Doctor. If this regeneration goes wrong who knows what might happen?

My Take: Bit of an uphill climb here, in more ways than one. I understand writer Christopher Bidmead wanting to inject some dramatic tension and uncertainty here but Davison squanders most of four episodes as the Doctor being befuddled or unconscious. It's tiresome and it doesn't give viewers enough of an idea as to who and what his Doctor is going to be; instead we learn more about the companions.

On the other hand, we can see even more of the Production team's insistence on "hard science" creeping into the stories. There are discussions of recursion in mathematics, "hydrogen inrush" causing the 'Big Bang', and the effects of mass on thrust in space flight. There's also a healthy dose of the works of M.C. Escher who mixed math, art and visual illusion.

The performances are roundly about what you would expect. There are some really lovely turns by the guest cast as the inhabitants of Castrovalva but Anthony Ainley as the Master is.... well, let's just say Ainley had a reputation of loving to ham things up whenever he appeared as the Master. There are some who love this aspect of the performance from him and some who are less than thrilled. Matthew Waterhouse has some good moments -- for example, when Adric tries to distract the Pharos Project guards by claiming to be an alien (which, of course, he is) -- but he also does his fair share of going over-the-top while imprisoned by the Master. Sarah Sutton turns in a pretty good performance as Nyssa -- in particular she really sells the idea of Nyssa slowly growing to become friends with Tegan instead of just traveling companions. Janet Fielding's Tegan would later get a reputation for being loud and argumentative but in these early days that isn't so much in evidence. Instead she comes off as forceful and determined and actually very caring. And then there is Davison. Reportedly Davison did enjoy those moments where he goes about imitating the Doctor's previous incarnations. While Davison is something of a poor mimic (sorry, but it's true) it does lend a little something to the idea that the regeneration is unstable and instead of elements only of his previous self bleeding through ALL of his previous incarnations are bleeding into his current one. It does take a bit for Davison to get going, thanks mostly to the script, but once he does viewers can see the Doctorly elements creeping in. With Davison, though, unlike with Matt Smith who also had youth working against him, there is little about his performance that seems necessarily 'alien'. There is intelligence and a certain amount of sympathy and sensitivity but there is little here that sets his Doctor apart from humanity and I think that makes it a bit harder to accept him as authentically a 'Doctor' right out of the gate.

Of benefit here is the fact that there are few special effects really -- most everything is accomplished with sets and camera trickery and that helps the series immensely. There are also some really nice sets which, for a change, aren't woefully overlit and there is some absolutely gorgeous location footage which really does convince the viewers that the setting for Castrovalva is a place of peace, tranquility and simplicity.

Overall, "Castrovalva" perhaps isn't the best 'Changing of the Guard' story but it is better than some with some well written and well performed scenes and lines of dialogue which really stick with you. Plus, "Logopolis" and "Castrovalva" together actually flow one into the other in such a smooth way that they feel like one, continuous story which is a nice effect and something that few other regeneration sequences can boast of.

Trivial Pursuit:

When the Doctor is wandering through the TARDIS looking for the Zero Room he imitates his First incarnation, his Third incarnation (complete with mention of the Brigadier), and his Second incarnation (including calling Adric 'Jamie').

Later, when looking at himself in a mirror, he spots a recorder lying around and picks it up and tries to play it with little success. This is a reference to his Second incarnation -- who occasionally liked to play a recorder. Obviously his musical ability has been lost somewhere down the line in subsequent regenerations.

Curiously, the First Doctor didn't know what cricket was but by this time the Fifth Doctor finds an entire room filled with cricketing clothes and equipment.

The Doctor seems to have acquired a power wheelchair somewhere over the years.

When trying to tell Nyssa and Tegan how to escape from the Master's first trap the Doctor mentioned reversing the polarity of the neutron flow -- this was a phrase particularly associated with the Third Doctor.

He also calls Tegan 'Jo' -- which was the name of one of the Third Doctor's assistants.

He mentions K-9 -- which was the little electronic dog which, in various incarnations, traveled with the Fourth Doctor.

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