Castrovalva

“Castrovalva” picks up right where “Logopolis” left off, with the TARDIS crew struggling to get the Doctor to the TARDIS before they are caught by the Pharos project security. In many ways it almost seems that “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva” are pretty much the same narrative with no break between stories and the concept of block transfer carrying over as a key plot point from one story to the other. Of course the actual circumstances of the story are quite different, but then so were the last two episodes of many six-parters.

Sadly, I think the program’s best days are behind us now. With Peter Davison in the lead role, a general sense of blandness has set in. I don’t want to be cruel or overly critical, but let’s face it: Davison’s nice, quiet and inoffensive portrayal of the fifth Doctor is such a contrast with Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor that Davison’s most energetic moments seem very tame. For the first time in the show’s history, the lead actor isn’t the most charismatic and watchable figure on the screen, and it hurts the show. Back in 1981 I was really put out by the change and disliked Davison’s portrayal immensely. These days I appreciate him more, but he’s still a very “watered-down” Doctor, and personality-wise probably the weakest out of all the actors to play the part. He just lacks weight and gravitas, much like David Tennant’s tenth Doctor. Having said that, I have to admit that the Big Finish audios show him in a much better light, so perhaps twenty years of age and acting experience just demonstrate that he was too young to play the part at the time, and perhaps that explains many of my problems with his portrayal. Listen to “The Kingmaker” or “Eye of the Scorpion” or “Spare Parts”, or indeed fast forward on the TV side to “Frontios” or “Caves of Androzani” and Davison is outstanding, even riveting. Here in his early days playing the Doctor, he isn’t.

Regardless, after a smiling and brown-haired appearance at the end of “Logopolis” which is repeated in a pre-credits teaser, we’re presented with a blonde and obviously ill Doctor being supported by his companions as they head for the TARDIS. It’s very odd to see Davison in the fourth Doctor’s burgundy scarf and coat, and rather annoying to see him later unravelling the scarf. The shedding of coat, scarf, vest and shoes comes across as a symbolic removal of the final vestiges of the old Doctor’s persona, and the adoption of the cricket outfit early in the first episode is the final step in the process. Sadly, the primarily beige and white costume only contribute to the “bland” feeling, and the question mark collar nearly breaks the fourth wall. The Doctor is unstable and unwell after his regeneration, but Davison’s attempt to portray the effects just comes across as flat, despite the fact that he’s clearly putting a lot of effort into his performance. And he does put a lot of effort in, which is commendable. I just can’t really warm up to him at this point.

The Zero Room is a nice idea in a Christopher Bidmead script filled with nice ideas. I’ve really begun to appreciate Bidmead’s imagination and work on the series lately, and it’s a pity he didn’t stay a while longer. I do tend to wonder why the Zero Room is cut off from the rest of the universe and the remainder of the TARDIS interior is not. I also wonder how, if the room is cut off, that Adric can project an image of himself into the Zero Room to try and warn Nyssa and Tegan about the trap he’s set.

The concept of a tough regeneration gives us an interesting four episodes where the Doctor cannot always be relied on and where he seems oddly vulnerable. With Adric trapped, Nyssa and Tegan get a decent amount of screen time and are able to develop their friendship as well as work together to solve problems when the Doctor is down for the count. Judging by the rest of Davison’s first season, it must be difficult to find something for all four regular actors to do in any given story, but Bidmead meets the challenge very well. It makes more sense for the Doctor to be somewhat under the weather but still playing a part in the story than, for example, to simply have Nyssa collapse and be written out of  “Kinda” so the writer doesn’t have to deal with as many characters. Both Tegan and Nyssa are strongly defined in the early episodes, with Tegan easily panicked or frustrated, but still showing a lot of determination. She contrasts with Nyssa, who is quiet, thoughtful and calm, but just as determined when the going gets rough. The two are opposites in some ways, but play off of each other well.

Then there’s Adric, whom I constantly feel the need to stick up for since he’s so vehemently bashed by some of the fandom while other less than stellar actors are given a pass. Yes, Matthew Waterhouse isn’t the the best actor ever. Neither is Sophie Aldred. Neither is Sylvester McCoy, or David Tennant for that matter. Get over it. Matthew Waterhouse has trouble with the “screaming in agony” scenes while he’s trapped in the Master’s web, but generally he does a good job, and Adric is certainly an important part of the story. Rather critically, he’s the only one who really spent much time with the fourth Doctor, and with his absence we’re spared comparisons by the companions of the old Doctor with the new. The viewer is forced to identify with Nyssa and Tegan, who are trying to get to know an unfamiliar person rather than mourning the loss of a mentor as Adric would have done. It’s easy to speculate that missing out on this particular time contributes greatly to Adric’s sense of being a fifth wheel, a character arc that will continue throughout the rest of his time on the show. The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are caught in and solve a problem and bond while Adric is trapped on his own, and though not responsible for it, he is instrumental in the circumstances which nearly kill his friends. It’s little wonder that he feels estranged from them.

Moving on, the character woes continue with Anthony Ainley’s portrayal of the Master. Having recently watched most of Roger Delgado’s stories, I can only shake my head and wince at Ainley’s melodramatic, ranting lunatic. Davison may pale in comparison to Baker’s Doctor, but he is at least not embarassing to watch. Ainley is far worse when compared with Roger Delgado. I’ve heard that it was the production team who insisted on his performance style, but I don’t know the truth of the matter. I know Ainley can act well and with subtlety when given a chance. Tremas is a fine example, as is the Portreve in this story, or indeed even the Master himself in “Survival”. So why take the character so far over the top? The Master’s credibility is, frankly, just about shot to pieces. Maybe his time as a walking corpse unhinged him. Maybe prolonging his life unnaturally also had something to do with it. Regardless, the performance is almost painful to watch and lacks all the subtlety and hints of old friendship that Delgado brought to the role. The Master’s function as the instigator of all that happens in the story is solid though, and it’s clear that the character must have been a drama major in school given his love of theatricality. Maybe that explains why he dresses up as a green thing and babbles to himself in “Time-Flight” when, with no one around to see him, he is still in disguise and playing a character. He does the same thing in “The Mark of the Rani”, dressing as a scarecrow when there’s no one around to see him in disguise. Who knows? Maybe the Master always wanted to be a famous thespian.

After all this discussion of the characters, how is the story? It breaks away from what is perceived as the Doctor Who formula in a way that few writers have managed, or at least it appears to. Yes, it’s the Master trying to kill the Doctor, but after a very direct attempt to fly him into Event One and overwhelm the TARDIS, his second approach is an incredibly convoluted and unneccesarily elaborate trap which, for all intents and purposes, is a quaint little town with sweet inhabitants which cannot be escaped from. Why the Master doesn’t just hide out in the woods and shoot the Doctor while he’s helpless, I’ll never know. As I said, he must be a frustrated theater major who’d rather play out a fantasy and give the Doctor time to recover rather than just dispatch him on the spot while he’s weak, or sleeping. It doesn’t really make any sense. Unless the Master just wants the Doctor in his right mind so he can gloat first before killing him, which I suppose is certainly in character. But he didn’t bother with that when he sent the TARDIS into Event One back in episode one, so he’s not being very consistent.

I’m picking the story apart, but it really is rather charming despite my quibbles. I can’t help but root for the characters, even though they are just creations of the Master. Ruther, Mergrave and Shardovan are friendly and helpful, even if Shardovan doesn’t appear to be either for awhile. I’m tempted to cheer when Shardovan tells the Master, “You made us, man of evil. But we are free now!”, before sacrificing his life to help the Doctor and Adric.  A Doctor Who story populated by little more than generally nice people is a rarity, and “Castrovalva” has to be appreciated for that if nothing else. The sets of the town itself convey a peaceful setting, exactly as described in the script, and the location filming in a fern-filled forest is miles away from a quarry. Nice rock face as well. It’s also nice to spend much of the first two episodes inside the TARDIS, something which the series rarely did. “Castrovalva” also a very personal story for the Doctor in a series which rarely focuses on him directly.

Overall, “Castrovalva” is pretty good, almost lyrical and poetic at times with some wonderful characters. Sadly it marks the beginning of the bland Doctor’s tenure and continues the lunatic Master portrayal. It’s still worth seeing of course. It’s not bad, but it just stars my least favorite Doctor and begins one of the more dull seasons in the series history.

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Posted in 5th Doctor - Peter Davison

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