The Caves of AndrozaniBookmark and Share

Friday, 19 May 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

I've been going through a semi-orderly survey of Doctor Who stories – not perhaps the exhaustive chronological crawl that some other fans here have done, but rather a selective hunt and peck, targeting stories generally regarded as classics, as well as few I remember vividly from my childhood. In some cases, I've certainly been delighted to find stories worthier than I expected ('Death to the Daleks,' 'The Leisure Hive,' e.g.), but in others I've been disappointed by some that didn't, in my estimation, live up to their stellar reputations ('City of Death' and 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' were two particularly sad surprises, I thought).

So I wasn't sure what I would make of 'The Caves of Androzani,' a story about which I remembered little from my own first experience with it as a teenager. The story seems to be universally loved by fanboys, and yet it is also is a 'hard-edged' war story script-edited by Eric Saward, whose vision for the series is not one I always appreciate. Add to this the fact that the venerable 'Discontinuity Guide' calls it 'overrated,' and I was a little bit nervous. Then again, I've found Robert Holmes's reputation as the grand old man of Doctor Who scripts to be largely justified, and even when his stories are disappointing in some ways (as I found 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' to be), they usually provide some redeeming elements of characterization or humor.

And indeed, as I got into the first episode of 'The Caves of Androzani,' I found it to play like Holmes's homage to the Saward years. In fact, you could say the plot 'out-Sawards' Saward in its grittiness and its focus on militarism (there not much sci-fi or philosophy at work here). But it doesn't take long to see how Holmes's gift for dramatization is raising this story above superficially similar Saward efforts like 'Resurrection of the Daleks' and 'Earthshock.' The plot is economical, yet satisfyingly knotty, with a lot of social and political commentary lining its edges, and the characters, while perhaps simple, are overall as beautifully drawn as we might hope. 

The obvious place to begin is with Sharaz Jek, who is both the ostensible villain of the piece and its main 'monster.' The script makes him both convincingly mad and suitably menacing when torturing the Doctor or drooling over Peri, but, like Li H'sen Chang and other Holmes creations before him, Jek is made complex enough that we can't help sympathizing with him, at least somewhat. He is perhaps not the best fleshed-out of Holmes characters overall – we don't get much sense of what he was like before his betrayal and injury, despite his mentioning that he was also a doctor once - and one could argue that his Phantom of the Opera/Quasimodo-like obsession with beauty is a bit of a cliché. On the other hand, this association does nicely hearken back to the interest in classic literary monsters Holmes explored so often in his work with Philip Hinchcliffe in the early Tom Baker years, and it's true that Jek's actions towards Peri seem as (oddly) protective as they do predatory, which helps to humanize the character. Plus, an aesthetic bent helps explain the character's striking costume and mask, with its bright blue false eye. And Christopher Gable's performance is remarkable, ultimately sealing the deal as far as Jek's place in the pantheon of DW villains is concerned. He handles the dialogue with a nice combination of elegance and threat, but it's in his *physical* acting that this former dancer truly excels. He makes Jek particularly pitiable when he shows him crawling under the table and covering his scarred face in shame after Peri has seen it. (Although one suspects in reality it would take more than facial burns to make a war-hardened soldier like Chellak scream like a woman. But I digress . . . .)

But the *real* villain of the piece, of course, is not Jek at all, but rather his old friend and rival Morgus, and this is where Holmes's satire really comes into play. If anything, Morgus is an even flatter character than Jek, but Holmes's clear concept of him makes him believably awful, and even quietly frightening. (Compare the character to the buffoonish, bellowing Henry van Statten in 'Dalek,' and you tell me which is the better realization of a Super Capitalist as Villain.) Holmes's treatment of the character is enormously cynical, and the way in which Morgus tries to hitch his rapacious business interests to political ideals ("Patriotism is our only viewpoint") resonates just as well in the era of Halliburton as it must have in the Reagan/Thatcher-dominated 1980s. And of course, like many contemporary giants of commerce, Morgus is ultimately shown to have his fingers in too many pies at once, and given this fact it's probably a mercy that he meets a quick end at the hands of his archenemy rather than facing the legal and political annihilation that would wait for him if he survived. John Normington gives a much more contained performance than Christopher Gable here, but it's no less effective. He is steely and unblinking in the role, and while the character's asides to the camera are a bit stagey and strange (is Morgus the narrator?), the actor plays them so well that they never become a joke. 

And although the overall tone of the story is serious and dark, Holmes does find ways to slip in his trademark wit, however grimly. He does so in extremely subtle ways, tying the humor in to the subject matter to the point where it may not seem funny the first time (as when Peri jokes about her rash early on - "I don't expect we'll die of it within the next hour" - little realizing she actually *has* been infected with a lethal disease), but which improves with subsequent viewings. Morgus's conversations with the President provide some dry amusement too, with the politician cheerfully suggesting to the businessman that Jek's terms may have to be accepted (and Morgus's head sacrificed) if the situation is not resolved soon. And Episode Four in particular contains many darkly funny surprises, notably Stotz's smiling betrayal of his fellows (double-crosses like this are common in Doctor Who, but rarely do they feel so believable, or so shocking), and Krau Timmin's cool one of her master ("Are you sitting at my *desk*?" is a wonderful line, and John Normington delivers it with just the right combination of disbelief and dawning realization).

So, 'The Caves of Androzani' is well plotted and characterized. But it's the *emotional* content, unusually, that really raises this story above the competition. As with many Holmes scripts, the stakes here are relatively small – Jek simply wants revenge against a single man, and Morgus simply wants to continue his brutal commercial efforts – but that just adds to the realism, and makes it seem all the more important for the Doctor and Peri to get out of there as fast as they can before they die. (After all, they have no universe to save this time.) And the tone of the story is so serious, and the subject of the Doctor's and Peri's illness treated so realistically (if subtly), that even two decades down the road, it does still feels like they're *really going to die* - it's *very* unusual for this show to give the impression of such danger, even in good stories. This makes the *Doctor's* stakes both large and small at the same time – he doesn't care about the war or who wins it, he just wants to get his friend medicine, fast, and he abandons his concern for anything else in his focus. The cliffhanger to Episode Three is so beautifully played, with the Doctor half-laughing (!) as he crashes the spaceship, but it's only one example of the sense of inescapable doom about this story – things seem to be genuinely unraveling in a way they rarely do in these stories. This feeling of grim inevitability is in fact enhanced by our knowledge that this is Peter Davison's final story, and especially for those of us who love the Fifth Doctor. As I said, I've been going through a sampling of Doctor Who stories more or less in order, and watching 'Caves' I realized that this was the first time in my survey that I honestly wasn't ready to move along to a new era. As for Davison's acting, his Doctor is at his most sarcastic here – he seems like he's asking for a punch in the face with his goading of Chellak in Episode One and Jek and 'Stotzie' through much of the rest of the story. But he is also vulnerable and humane, two of the best qualities of this Doctor, and, as others have pointed out, when he says "Adric?" just before regenerating, it's as if he's aware of his own failings in his final moments – an extremely moving thing, and perfectly in character for this fallible, sympathetic incarnation.

After all this, it almost seems like an afterthought to go into specifics about the production aesthetics, so I'll only mention one: while in its design, the story is a typical studio-bound Davison story (notably, we only see the crashing spaceship from the *inside*!), the exterior shots at the beginning are pretty amazing. The one of the Doctor and Peri walking away from the TARDIS with mountains in the distance is one of the most frankly beautiful I can recall seeing in this series, and so it's fitting that it should introduce such a memorable story.