What’s It About?
The Doctor and Peri materialize on Androzani minor, a planet with an intricate network of caves where the immensely valuable Spectrox is mined. But they soon get trapped in a power struggle between the rebel Sharaz Jek, gunrunners, military soldiers, and corporate interests.
Is This Death?
What makes this story work so well?
Is it Robert Holmes? This is the first Robert Holmes script for Doctor Who since “The Power of Kroll,” an admittedly uninspired story. But some elements of “Kroll” reappear here, namely gunrunners. But “Caves of Androzani” is in a whole other league when compared to “Kroll.” This is a tragedy. Some of the Holmes tropes are there. Sharaz Jek is a play on Phantom of the Opera, referring back to the horror stories which inspired Hinchcliffe and Holmes when they ran Doctor Who. Many of Holmes’s scripts would target sectors of society that Holmes had little patience for: stuffy bureaucrats (The Deadly Assassin), tax codes and tax collectors (The Sun Makers). Here, the target is aimed at corporations who play two sides against one another for profit, immoral economics. And, of course, there is the lava monster. Holmes was from the era when Doctor Who had to have monsters. Excise this monster from the story, and you don’t lose much. But as I watched the story, I began to question how much of this was by Robert Holmes and how much was by Eric Saward. This is a tragic story. It is bleak. Once more, we have no survivors. More than any story so far, the Doctor is virtually useless here. He is in way over his head and the only thing he manages to accomplish is to save Peri’s life. Apart from this, he does not solve the problems in the story. He does not call people to a higher calling or morality. This is another story where everyone kills each other, and the Doctor and companion get away—only this time, the Doctor is killed as well.
But most striking is the lack of humor. Humor is a Robert Holmes staple, and there is none here. Now, it isn’t unheard of for writers to try different things or to occasionally break type, but the lack of humor stands out in this story. It is dark, ominous, and tragic. So I return to my question, what makes this story work so well? Is it Saward’s script editing?
Is it Graeme Harper? Hands down, this is one of the best-directed stories in classic Who, and most-certainly the best of the Davison era, which is quite a statement because Peter Grimwade and Fiona Cumming set the bar pretty high. That Harper was able to surpass them speaks volumes to his talent and to why he was invited to direct for new Who. This is a visceral story. It is an emotional story. The scene where Jek is first unmasked (and the viewer doesn’t see it) is probably the most emotionally and viscerally intense scene in Doctor Who since Vasor threatened to prey upon Barbara in The Keys of Marinus (the subtext in that story was rape but it was never actually stated). Even the power struggle between the gun runners is framed perfectly with the positioning of the actors conveying strength and authority. “Caves of Androzani” is a masterpiece of direction.
Is it Peter Davison? I had never warmed to Davison’s era before, but this time through (my first time through in sequence) I got it. He was always a great Doctor, but he was a different Doctor. He was more down-to-earth, more polite and sweet. He was a human Doctor. And because of that portrayal, this story kills him. This story breaks him. From the moment the Doctor gets involved, he is in a position of weakness and he never recovers. And yet he struggles on in an attempt to save Peri. Even Sharaz Jek helps him in the end, showing his humanity rather than playing the villain completely.
Honestly, no one person is responsible for the success of this story. Everything came together to send Peter Davison off. For me, this was the most emotional regeneration story since The Tenth Planet. I’m rather sad to see him go because for the next couple seasons I will be witnessing more Saward bleakness, but now with a Doctor who isn’t afraid to do the hard things to stay in control. I don’t have a problem with a Machiavellian Doctor, but I’m a little concerned about the darkness of Saward’s vision of the show.