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Doctor Who (Classic): "Castrovalva"

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"Castrovalva" (series 19, episodes 1-4; originally aired 1/4/1982-1/12/1982)

"Castrovalva" is far from the worst Doctor Who would ever inflict on the TV viewing public, but the decline and fall of the show is clearly in evidence. It's not a story I would show someone if I wanted them to think Doctor Who was worth watching. It's got its moments and a fine performance by new lead actor Peter Davison, but they don't make up for its defects—chiefly an unclear and often dull storyline, poor costumes, and atrocious acting by some of the secondary characters. It's unwelcoming to new viewers, and crammed overfull of fanboy trivia, particularly in the first couple of episodes.

The Eighties were not kind to Doctor Who. While I think there's some merit to be found in the series in each of its incarnations and reinventions from 1963 onward, I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest that the gold is very thin on the ground in the period we're about to dive into, the age of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Don't get me wrong, this was never a perfect show. It always struggled with low budgets, rushed production, and the limitations of '60s and '70s TV technology. But somewhere along the line, things started to spiral down. Star Wars has the prequels. Star Trek has Voyager. And Doctor Who has the 1980s tenure of producer John Nathan-Turner, a period starting with Tom Baker's final year as the Fourth Doctor and covering a tumultuous period that may hold a record for the farthest fall from excellence in television history.

"Castrovalva" is early days in the Doctor Who Dark Ages, and not unworthy of a look, with reservations. Before I get into it, though, there's some necessary context, both on-and off-screen, to lay down. Let's deal with the behind-the-scenes stuff first. The major thing here is the loss of a very central, very outsized personality, namely Baker. His high-energy eccentricity had fueled the show for the previous seven years, but over time his performance had started to become a liability rather than the chief pleasure of the show, particularly as the tone of the writing changed from serious and even horror-driven to more comic  light entertainment. Still, the Fourth Doctor was iconic, and there was no way to replace that kind of character without either falling short or moving even further over the top. So they went the other direction, hiring  Davison, a respected dramatic actor known for playing a kindly young veterinarian in the costume drama All Creatures Great and Small. His Doctor would be similar to that character, and purposefully contrasted with the Baker persona—he was vulnerable, patient, diplomatic, fatherly, and boyishly blond and handsome, not the cryptic and moody figure Baker could be. Hiring Davison to play that kind of role was probably Doctor Who's single best move of the decade, and as with Patrick Troughton in the late '60s, Davison is often far better than the material he's given, and kept the show watchable even during the weaker serials of his era.

As for on-screen context: I suppose I'm doing "Castrovalva" a disservice by writing about it in isolation. It's a hard one to just jump into, because at this point in the series, a certain amount of soap-opera continuity had crept in. "Castrovalva" picks up plot threads from the previous season, particularly the stories "The Keeper of Traken" and "Logopolis," that you're expected to have seen, and without knowledge of which you won't be able to understand what's going on. In a nutshell: The old Doctor has just foiled a pair of plots by his longtime nemesis, The Master, who new Who viewers know from "Utopia"/"The Sound Of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" and "The End of Time." He's played here by Anthony Ainley as a black-clad, goateed, cackling villain in the Snidely Whiplash mode.

The Doctor's accompanied by Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), a teenage know-it-all and mathematical genius from another dimension in the same irritating mode as Star Trek's Wesley Crusher. Along the way he's also picked up two new traveling companions, mild-mannered alien princess Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and bossy, complaining Australian air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding). The Master, in the course of his schemes during the last two stories, has killed Tegan's aunt and Nyssa' entire homeworld. Most recently, in "Logopolis," he tried to misuse the universe-warping powers of a group of mathematicians who had discovered how to create new reality out of pure computation. In stopping the Master, the Doctor fell off a radio telescope, and regenerates.


(Oh, and there's a mysterious white figure called "The Watcher" who's been following the Doctor around; he's apparently some kind of timey-wimey deus-ex-machina future version of the Doctor who's there to make sure he regenerates properly into Davison, which is just my guess, but it's more explanation than is given onscreen.)

I'm leaving a lot out, but if I don't I'm never going to get to "Castrovalva" itself. The storyline is fairly simple. The Doctor, weak after regenerating, badly needs to rest and recuperate, but must fend off a pair of convoluted traps set for him by the Master. Although the Doctor had been temporarily weakened by regeneration before, "Castrovalva" was the first episode to make that vulnerability the central element of the story. This also means a drastic and insular change in focus—in almost every other story, the Doctor encounters new people and helps solve their problems, but this time, the danger is primarily directed at him.


Part of the problem, story-wise, is that the danger is so one-dimensional. The Master is a character who skirts the edge of broad pantomime villainy even at the best of times, and here he's an Evil Genius stereotype motivated solely by shallow revenge, and neither Bidmead's script not Ainley's howlingly over-the-top performance bring any nuance to it. It's true that this had been the basic outline for the character before, particularly in the episode "The Deadly Assassin," but there his motivations had been a lot more complex, using a single trap to ensnare multiple enemies in different ways, with the deeper aim of cheating his own death. Here, we don't get more more of a reason than cartoonishly wanting to purge the universe of "the Doctor and his impossible dreams of goodness."

We begin immediately after the Doctor's regeneration, with a bit of business that really should have been tied up at the end of "Logopolis"—the TARDIS crew escapes from a trio of shouty guards who want to arrest them for trespassing. It's notable for two bits of characterization: Adric pompously announces that he's from outer space to the bored disbelief of the lead guard, while Tegan offers sour complaining but still ends up solving the immediate problem by stealing the ambulance carrying the unconscious Doctor. In the confusion, Tegan, Nyssa, and the Doctor escape to the TARDIS. Adric is captured by the Master, who sends what turns out to be a duplicate Adric (shudder) to kick off his first trap—sending the TARDIS back to be destroyed in what I assume is meant to be the explosion that created the universe in the Big Bang. (It's referred to as "the first event," but also "the creation of the galaxy from an inrush of hydrogen," which isn't even remotely the same thing. I'm being pedantic, I know, but is it such a stretch for a science-fiction program to get basic astrophysics right?)


Part of my frustration also stems from a persistent failure in Christopher Bidmead's script to properly set up or explain what's happening, and the convoluted and meaningless technobabble that superficially masquerades as hard science. I'll admit my trouble may be partly caused by the fact that I've only read plot synopses for the previous episodes recently, and haven't seen them for a long time. But the plot hinges on Adric having somehow picked up the ability of the Logopolitans to manipulate reality through mathematics, and it's never really made clear how. I'm not sure it was ever actually established in "Logopolis" that he learned it, even though Bidmead wrote both shows.

Anyway: While Tegan and Nyssa try to hold down the fort, the Doctor wanders the halls of the TARDIS in confusion looking for the Zero Room, a sort of built-in medical station designed specifically to help Time Lords recover from difficult regenerations like his. He wanders mentally as well, giving Davison a chance to briefly impersonate the previous Doctors as he tries to figure out the difference between who he was and who he is. (Along the way, he metaphorically unravels the Fourth Doctor by literally unravelling his trademark scarf.) While enjoyable, the references and winks to past continuity go on a little bit too long, a sign that Doctor Who was starting to be too caught up in its own fanboy mythology. Having said that, Davison's Patrick Troughton moment is great, projecting real, helpless vulnerability as his terror about his present condition creeps into his fugue-state waking memory of fighting the Ice Warriors in his second incarnation with the Brigadier and Jamie. (Which he never did on the TV show, by the way, making that either a memory of an untelevised adventure or, less tantalizingly, merely the confused ramblings of an ailing man.)


This is one of the surprisingly rare times we get an extended look at the TARDIS interior beyond the console room. (The others include the very early William Hartnell episode "Inside The Spaceship," the Tom Baker story "The Invasion of Time," and "The Doctor's Wife.") Here, it's a maze of miles of identical-seeming corridors that quickly confounds the delirious Time Lord and his companions, which both plays into both the episode's labyrinth motif and mirrors his mindstate. Interestingly, the TARDIS itself seems to be trying to help its ailing pilot, with medicine cabinets and wheelchairs popping up at opportune times, and even the Edwardian cricketer's uniform that will be the Fifth Doctor's outfit is presented on a coatrack missing only an Alice-in-Wonderland-style note saying "WEAR ME." But because it's not at all explained or explored, it only adds to the haphazard feel of the show.

Once the Zero Room is found, the Doctor stabilizes, and gives Nyssa and Tegan some advice and a pep talk before going into a meditative coma. This is the first sign of a major way that way Davison flipped the character from earlier portrayals: All the previous Doctors were middle-aged or old men who approached him as someone with both the authoritativeness of maturity and a child's sense of wonder (and occasional petulance). The Doctor was beyond time like Peter Pan, a boy who never grew up. But that wouldn't quite work for Davison, because of the decision to contrast against Baker's wildness with a grounded seriousness, and because of Davison's youth—he was only 29. Instead he played the Doctor as wise beyond his years—or rather, since he isn't human and really has all those years, he's an old man who only seems to be young. That aspect stayed with the character even after Davison left, and it's particularly apparent in both David Tennant and Matt Smith's performances. That also plays in to the way the Fifth Doctor interacted with his traveling companions—more than ever before, the TARDIS crew was a surrogate family, with him as the foster father. Look at the way he has them all jogging back to the TARDIS in the final scene of "Castrovalva," like some kind of scout leader.


Getting away from the Event One explosion requires converting a massive part of the TARDIS interior into a boost of energy, which consequently destroys the Zero Room. Needing a replacement for its calming atmosphere, the crew is led into the second trap via a faked databank entry on the "Dwellings of Simplicity" on Castrovalva, which sounds like some kind of horrible condominium complex but is really a quasi-medieval city on a peaceful mountainside. It's just the thing for a breather.

Well, not "really," because that's the trap: Castrovalva is an artificial creation of the Master's via Adric's powers, taking both its name and its warped, paradox-defying dimensions from the work of M.C. Escher. Once they're in the city, they'll never be able to leave. Capturing the dimensionally-challenged city is beyond the capability of 1981 visual-effects technology, and seems laughable-looking now that we've seen an entire city fold over on itself in Inception. But though the visual effects let the show down, a couple of less high-tech approaches do help sell the idea of an Escher-like city. Director Fiona Cumming savvily and subtly lays the groundwork for the later dimensional confusion by deliberately breaking the standard rules of editing, showing characters exiting a scene in one direction and entering the next scene from what seems like the wrong way. And the scene in which several Castrovalvans look at a map of their city and realize with growing horror that a single house seems to exist in four different places—it's hard to get more low-budget than a chalkboard map, but it still works.


You have to accept the limitations of rushed productions and low budgets in order to enjoy even the best episodes of 1963-1989 Doctor Who. And for the good episodes, it's worth it: "The Ark In Space" has a lot to offer despite that it's impossible to ignore that a major bit of alien costuming is made out of green bubble wrap. But in the '80s, too many of the cheap-but-creative touches began to look more cheap than creative, and simple bad taste made it increasingly hard to enjoy watching. The nadir of that trend is still a ways off from here, but the slide has started, most obviously in the visual effects (the lighting bolts that come out of the Master's TARDIS are just embarrassing) and in the costuming. (Why did anyone think the Castrovalvans' costumes looked good?)

Castrovalvan society is reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Jorge Luis Borges' invented world in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," only with eye-gouging taste in hatwear and Day-Glo Ewok hunting apparel. If the Castrovalvans seem a little one-dimensional and superficial, perhaps it's kinder to call that a feature and not a bug, since they are, after all, artificial people created to give the city-trap a veneer of realism, and thus should seem a little cardboard. But that only goes so far, and there's no real emotional heft to the Castrovalvans' finest moment, when their leader Shardovan sacrifices himself to prove that he's a being with free will and not just the Master's pawn. Ainley acquits himself better in a second role as the city's mayor-like Portreeve, who is actually the Master in disguise. Anagramattically credited as "Neil Toynay," he's so much more down-to-earth here that I would have been fooled by the deception if I hadn't already known the secret.


Stray observations

• "I'll follow you." [Runs off ahead.]

• "Well, that's democracy for you."

• Deleting a bunch of TARDIS rooms to gain momentum is called back to in the Matt Smith episode "The Doctor's Wife," when something similar is done to jump across universes.


• Michael Sheard, who plays the pink-clad Mergrave, had a better turn a few years earlier in Tom Baker's "Pyramids of Mars" as Laurence Scarman. But you probably know him best as Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back, who paid a high price for angering Darth Vader:

• Next week: we suffer through Colin Baker's debut as the Sixth Doctor in "The Twin Dilemma," which was once voted the worst episode in the history of the series. And after that:
July 17: "Time and the Rani"
July 31: "Doctor Who: The Movie"
Aug. 7: "The Daleks"
Aug. 14: "The Mind Robber"
Aug. 21: "The Time Warrior"
Aug. 28: "The Brain of Morbius"
Sept. 4: "Earthshock"