“The Visitation” (season 19, episodes 13-16. Originally broadcast Feb. 15-23, 1982.)
“The Visitation” is your basic, straight-up, no-frills Doctor Who story: The Doctor foils an alien invasion of Earth. It’s easily the most straightforward story of season 19, especially when compared to the serials just before and after it, the mysticism-laden “Kinda” and “Black Orchid,” which isn’t even science fiction. It’s probably best remembered by most fans as the one where the sonic screwdriver gets the axe, but its real importance to the series is for a behind-the-scenes staff change: This was the debut of Eric Saward, who would become Doctor Who’s chief creative visionary for the next three years as script editor for the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. Mid-season story though it is, “The Visitation” marks the start of an era, pointing toward early-1980s Doctor Who’s darker, more action-heavy style.
It was awfully crowded in the TARDIS in 1982, which made things a little uncomfortable. The newly regenerated Fifth Doctor was traveling with three companions—boy-genius Adric, placid refugee princess Nyssa, and sourpuss stewardess Tegan. That was more than usual and probably more than necessary from a dramatic standpoint, since the writers often struggled to find enough for each character to do, which is certainly the case in “The Visitation.” Behind the scenes, the series went through three script editors in the first half of season 19, which helps explain that lack of focus. (The chronology here gets a little muddled: Because the season 19 stories were filmed out of order, Saward’s first broadcasted credit was the season opener, “Castrovalva,” but “The Visitation” was his first Who work as a writer, and indeed was the script that led producer John Nathan-Turner to offer him the editor’s chair.)
Some of the tension was there on purpose, with recurring bickering and tension between the main characters to try and give the show a little running drama from serial to serial. A good goal, and a fairly innovative thing to try at the time, though it wasn’t always handled very well. Here, though it drives the best character moment of the story in the lengthy opening scene in the TARDIS, centered around an argument between Tegan and the Doctor about whether or not he’ll be able to bring her home to modern-day London. He says he will, of course. She doesn’t believe him, and has good reason not to, considering how unreliable the TARDIS, and by extension the Doctor himself, has proven to be. When the ship lands, it turns out to be Heathrow airport, as requested, but 300 years early. Understandably, she freaks out and storms outside to collect herself. The Doctor is embarrassed and not a little rattled, since he’s not used to having people throw his failures in his face the way Tegan tends to. And it shows a big contrast between Peter Davison’s version of the Doctor and his predecessor: There’s no way the Fourth Doctor would have silently fumed through Tegan’s tirade, nor tried to be diplomatic and apologize later.
The problem with this subplot is that it ceases to develop any further, and instead of resolving their differences or at least moving on to a new stage of the argument, Tegan spends the next three episodes constantly complaining and making snide comments. It’s a waste of material. As a change of pace if nothing else, the idea of a companion who doesn’t really want to be there and doesn’t completely trust or even like the Doctor is, in principle, a good one, creating plenty of potential drama without even stepping outside the TARDIS. Tegan’s essential negativity is potentially great story fodder too, as in “Kinda,” where her own personal demons helped that story’s psychic villain bend her to his will. But here, she’s given nothing to do but carp. (“Oh, great. You’ve liberated a whole lot of villagers. What about the base?”)
Peter Davison has a better time making something out of this, taking the Doctor’s frustration and running with it for the rest of the story, simmering with annoyance at Tegan and the other “parochial” humans he’s stuck shepherding, trying to stay polite through gritted teeth but occasionally boiling over. It’s easy enough to read him in several scenes as being just about ready to push Tegan off a cliff. And it helps make sense of why, in episode four, he asks her to look for clues in a pile of papers written in alien script he knows she can’t read—it’s make-work to get her out of his hair for a few minutes.
If Tegan had known exactly when they’d landed, she never would have left the ship: It’s Sept. 2, 1666, the day of the Great Fire of London. (Making this the second time, after “The Romans,” that the Doctor has been indirectly responsible for torching one of the great cities of Europe.) But the fire is only where the story will end up—the real problem is England’s other apocalyptic disaster of the day, the bubonic plague. Not only that, but—shades of The Seventh Seal—the hooded figure of Death itself stalks the land, and the plague itself is proving far deadlier in the village near where the TARDIS has landed than anywhere else in the country. The Doctor and friends investigate, teaming up along the way with the roguish Richard Mace, a down-on-his-luck actor forced to become a highwayman because the plague has closed all the theaters.
Soon enough, the villains are revealed to be, surprise surprise, aliens—reptilian ones called Terileptils, a pretty generic warlike alien race notwithstanding Saward’s perfunctory addition that they love beautiful, artistic objects as much as they like killing. The Death figure is actually their jewel-encrusted servant android, dressed up to scare the locals away from the house. These particular Terileptils are escaped convicts, and opportunistic ones to boot, with goals that are as selfish as they are brutal. At first, trapped on Earth after their starship crashes, their plan is to boost the already-nasty plague to 100 percent lethality so they can have a depopulated Earth all to themselves. When they realize the Doctor has brought them a new ship to steal, they decide to take that too—but they’ll still wipe out humanity anyway, which at least shows that they’ll stick with a job until they see it through.
Since it was his first time writing for the show, Saward took a couple of perfectly understandable shortcuts. First, he re-used one of his own old characters: He’d originally created Richard Mace for a series of radio plays a decade earlier. That was certainly a good decision, because Mace comes close to stealing the show. Cowardly, swaggering, and philosophical by turns, he’s consistently fun to watch, and the only non-regular character who’s at all well-rounded—none of the others, including the Terileptil leader, even gets a name, let alone a personality with more than one side. Mace’s only real problem may be that he shows by contrast just how much less enjoyable Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa are.
Saward’s other shortcut was to go back to older Doctor Who stories for inspiration. Again, that’s not at all a bad way to start; the problem is only that he didn't put a fresh spin on the material he was trying to emulate. But he certainly chose a great story to copy in season 11’s “The Time Warrior,” the Robert Holmes-penned story that also featured a militant alien up to no good in costume-drama-era English history. The opening sequences in particular are strikingly similar, in both cases beginning inside a period dwelling (a castle, a manor house) deep in the night, as the human inhabitants are shocked by the fiery crash of an alien spacecraft nearby. Saward’s twist is that instead of reluctantly allying themselves with the humans as the Sontaran in “Time Warrior” does, the Terileptils simply wipe them out and take over their house.
But if “The Visitation” isn’t particularly original, that doesn’t mean it’s no fun to watch. It’s full of chase scenes and fights, a little Shakespearian flair in Richard Mace, and a scaly green bad guy who literally hisses—on that superficial level, hey, what’s not to like? While it’s hardly a comic romp, it’s Saward’s lightest Doctor Who script; he’d go much grimmer later, starting two serials later with “Earthshock,” which kills off Adric. (Here, the most shocking death is the sonic screwdriver’s, destroyed at Nathan-Turner’s insistence for being too easy for writers to overuse as a crutch, and also because he knew it would get the show some publicity. That stuck for a long time, too—the sonic didn’t return until the 1996 TV movie. I wouldn’t mind seeing it take a little rest in the current series too, since it’s so often basically just the Doctor’s magic wand, able to do practically anything.)
But Doctor Who at its best works on a level deeper than that too, and there’s nothing here that indicates that Saward wanted to wrestle with ideas as well as action scenes. Take the ending, for example: Everything is resolved by a brawl. The Terileptils aren’t outwitted, outclassed, or outmaneuvered in any clever way. The Doctor simply finds their base, and he and his friends show up there and beat up the other guys. “The Visitation” practically defines mediocrity. There’s nothing about it that’s actively off-putting or head-slappingly dumb, but it’s also not trying to be anything more ambitious than a fairly simple actioner.
Saward’s script aims low and gets the job done. Maybe it’s best to think of “The Visitation” as a dry run for his more complex efforts in the next couple of seasons. Even in his first script, you can see all the elements, good and bad, that wind up defining his run as script editor. Meaning, we’ve got a story here that favors action over characterization, avoids comedy in favor of a grittier tone, over-relies on violence to solve the major story conflicts, sidelines characters Saward doesn’t know what to do with, frequently keeps the Doctor passive or otherwise unable to act, and features a posturing macho “man of action” character that he clearly finds more interesting than the actual main characters. Mace, at least, is a much more likeable Sawardian antihero than the killers and thugs of later stuff like “Revelation Of The Daleks.”
It’s possible that I focus too much on the flaws in the writing; I’m a writer, so the flow of the story is the thing that always draws me in more than any other element of a show, and bugs me when it’s not working. But it’s important to note that “The Visitation” is also tepidly directed by Peter Moffatt, with many scenes that are needlessly slow, draggy, and bland. The worst is Nyssa’s subplot—stretched out to ridiculous measures over three episodes, it is jaw-droppingly inert, badly staged, indifferently acted by Sarah Sutton, and scripted as if they realized only a few minutes before filming that they hadn’t actually written anything for her to do yet. Tasked by the Doctor to build a machine that can wreck the Terileptils’ android, which she knows is a mortal and immediate threat to her friends, Nyssa heads back to the TARDIS, and wastes no time getting to work by … making her bed, tidying up her room, and changing her clothes. In the next scene, she drags a box across the floor, slowly, taking 35 seconds of screen time. You get the picture. At one point, she declares that she's almost ready to prepare to test the device, which is at least three big steps away from “actually use it.”
Once Adric returns to the ship and gives her someone to talk to, Nyssa goes from merely being useless to actively promoting uselessness in others by repeatedly telling Adric not to go back and try to help Tegan and the Doctor, who at this point have been captured and threatened with imminent death. She comes off as a dreary stick-in-the-mud who is so unwilling to set foot outside the TARDIS and possibly endanger herself that she literally watches Adric be captured and dragged away by three burly villagers, thinks about going to help him, and then decides not to. You can actually see her sigh, shrug her shoulders, and think “ah, the hell with it.”
All of which makes me appreciate Adric all the more, surprisingly enough. Twerpy old Adric, of course, is probably the Doctor Who fan base’s most-hated companion in the history of the series, and not for nothing—he is often a deeply annoying character, by design. And although Matthew Waterhouse is certainly, shall we say, inexperienced as an actor, he does well enough at capturing what Adric is, after all, meant to be: a naive, nerdy, and immature boy whose eagerness to help always gets him in over his head, a would-be rescuer often in need of rescuing—a sidekick Robin to the Doctor’s Batman. If only Adric’s obnoxious dorkiness had been toned down a little, so that he didn’t do things like pester Mace with idiotic questions about what beer tastes like, he would have been a lot easier to like. At least he’s willing to jump in and try to actually do things, like gambling foolishly that he can pilot the TARDIS himself to rescue the Doctor, something that it’s hard to see either Tegan or Nyssa attempting even assuming their characters would have the technical ability to do it. It makes me wonder if maybe “Earthshock” killed off the wrong character.
• The BBC will announce the actor who’ll play the Twelfth Doctor tomorrow, so this is the last chance to speculate wildly in the comments section about who you think it will be, or should be. (Peter Capaldi? Judi Dench? Idris Elba? Adam Sandler?)
• “The Visitation” is newly out in a double-disc special-edition DVD with a wealth of behind-the-scenes material and a short but interesting look at the Doctor Who audio dramas. Even though I’m not terribly keen on “The Visitation” itself, the extras make this one worth owning.
• The Terileptil costume is striking, and was also something of a technical achievement at the time, using animatronics to help give it facial expressions and to move its mouth in sync with actor Michael Melia’s voice. But the costume’s other design flaws far outweigh its electronic gadgetry, limiting what Melia can do on a practical level— because he cannot move his upper arms, he moves awkwardly, and his voice is often muffled because he’s trying to be heard from deep inside a large rubber mask.
• The Terileptil base turns out to be in a bakery on Pudding Lane in London—the very place, according to history, where the Great Fire really did start.
• In the last scene, the Doctor hums a bit of the traditional song “London’s Burning,” not to be confused with the Clash song.
• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):
• Aug. 17: The First Doctor visits Paris during history’s worst tourist off-season in the newly restored historical “The Reign Of Terror.”
• Aug. 31: The Third Doctor is trapped in a fascistic alternate universe that’s about to die by fire in 1970’s “Inferno.” And he’s out of marshmallows!