Doctor Who: The Visitation Review
Selecting which Doctor Who stories to release on DVD must be a tricky business for the Restoration Team. Should they always go for acknowledged classics, loved by everyone, guaranteeing increased sales meaning that come 2010 or so we’ll just be left with dross, or do they mix in the greats with the also rans, risking lower revenues but achieving a better representation of what the series was actually like when on? Whichever way they do it, they know they can’t please everyone, but I feel they take the more sensible second option, so that for every Talons of Weng Chiang we get a Carnival of Monsters and for every Caves of Androzani we get a Seeds of Death. One advantage of this system is that stories that are otherwise generally overlooked are brought back to the attention, sometimes surprising with how good they are. This was certainly true of Carnival, and now again with The Visitation, a less than obvious choice which generally slips under the radar of fan consciousness, but which turns out to be a fine little story with plenty of merit.
Attempting to take whiny companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) back to her own time, the Doctor (Peter Davison) accidentally lands the TARDIS in seventeenth century England, at the time of the Great Plague. There he and his friends meet up with a former actor turned highwayman Richard Mace (Michael Robbins) who tells them about odd events that have been occurring – strange lights in the sky, the locals acting strangely, and so on. At the bottom of it all are three so-called Terileptils, aliens who, having crashlanded on Earth, have decided to kill off all human life via the Great Plague and set up shop in their place. As usual it’s up to the Doctor to save the day, and in the process make sure that the aliens don’t get their hands on his TARDIS to plunder the universe.
The story is written by Eric Saward who, going on to write such infamous episodes as Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks, is sometimes cited by fans as the epitome of all that was wrong with 80s Who, with an emphasis on loud, garish, flashy tales high on style but low on substance. As such The Visitation comes as a pleasant surprise, being a simple, straightforward story told in a simple, straightforward manner – in many ways, it harkens back to some of the early stories of the sixties in its simplicity, which is no bad thing . Some would say that it was too simple – there is quite a bit of padding around the middle episodes, with the Doctor Who staple of lots of running about and being captured, as well as one too many scenes of companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) taking her own sweet time in construction of a device to bring down the Terileptil’s Android. There’s probably enough plot for a two part story, but this is told so engagingly that the time just flies by, and matters never seem to drag. The danger posed by the Terileptils never feels particularly threatening and the whole thing has the air of a cosy Sunday night period drama, which is appropriate as that is exactly what the opening couple of scenes ape.
The period setting is indeed one of the story’s main strengths, with an authentic feel and look throughout. The costumes are convincing and, although we only get to hear the one character, Mace, speak for any length of time, the dialogue sounds authentic, in a cod-Shakespearean sort of way, as well. The main set of the old house is perhaps a tiny bit sparse but never distracting and the only regret as far as the background goes is that we don’t see more of the London set, which looks very fine – in part, the exterior reminded me for some reason of the Paris look from Time Bandits. The production team evidently leant on the BBC’s well-documented expertise of this kind of setting and it pays off well, and even the woods (meant to be the future location of Heathrow airport but in actuality Black Park near Slough) look right, no doubt helped by the villagers running round in them after our heroes.
And there are plenty of heroes to run after. One thing that this story does show up is that, at this time of the show’s life, the Doctor had one companion too many. It would be pandering to a fan cliché to say that it was Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) but, frankly, there’s no escaping the fact. While Tegan serves the traditional role of being captured by the bad guy (a role she never looked comfortable with) and Nyssa is the intelligent one able to assist the Doctor in his plans, Adric just comes across as a combination of the worst aspects of the other two – he has Tegan’s petulance and Nyssa’s brains, but neither the spirit nor the charm of either. Waterhouse has come in for a huge amount of criticism for his portrayal of Adric and here it is easy to see why. He is just not very good and is at no times convincing, with particular note being given to the inept scene where he “trips” over. The other regulars are better, with Davison in particular, in only his second recorded story as the Time Lord, giving an assured and easy performance – his marked irritation with his friends a clear sign of the Production Team’s early intent to make his character a marked contrast from the easy going nature of Tom Baker’s portrayal.
Another sign of the slim nature of this story is that there are only two main characters other than the TARDIS regulars (although look out for a cameo from a pre-Coronation Street John Savident in the prologue). Michael Robbins as actor Mace seems to divide fans with his traditional performance as a theatrical ham – I thoroughly enjoyed it, but then I always like that kind of character. It is mannered, certainly, but that is the whole point, and he carries with him an entertaining charm. Michael Melia as the lead Terileptil has a harder job, trapped behind an early example of an animatronic head which restricts the amount of impact he can have. He does the best he can but is never more than a generic villain, and isn’t memorable. The only other actor to appear in all four episodes is Peter van Dissel as the Android, but his is a silent hulking character and as such has no room for manoeuvre. The rest of the villagers are nondescript, and are there only as background filler.
The story’s director, Peter Moffatt, is another contributor who fans like to criticise, and this outing demonstrates both his strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue scenes are, in general, well orchestrated, and never stutter, but he struggles when it comes to action sequences, the most jarring being the Android’s attack on the TARDIS. Slow and stagey, there is no sense of urgency about it and the attack takes about three times as long as it should do. Considering it is one of the story’s climaxes (as I said above, Nyssa seems to take about half the story building the rather unimpressive gizmo she will use to bring down the robot) it is disappointing and, worse, unconvincing. However, the sheer simplicity of the story means that he can’t do too much damage, and aside from a rather unsubtle approach (witness the way we first see the Terileptil in all his glory – there’s no dramatic reveal, he just strolls into the scene, a mistake Moffatt would later repeat in The Two Doctors) it doesn’t detract too much. Neither does the music which verges dangerously at times at the edge of being too loud but never quite crosses the line. Sounding suitably Elizabethan, what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in atmosphere.
The Visitation is never going to win any awards for either originality or depth, but as standard runarounds go, it is one of the best, certainly from this period of the series’ life. The look is good, there is occasional wit in the script (especially in Mace’s contributions) and Davison is on fine form. There are a few flaws and it’s a shame that Adric is about, but overall it’s a good tale which doesn’t disappoint.
A generally clear print, impressive for the age of the source, but there are quite a few cases of light flare and one noticeable case of microphony distortion (something that seems to affect quite a few of the Who DVDs). Not bad overall though.
Only a mono track, but a very clean one which sounds good and does its job.
Writing a Final Visitation
An interview with Eric Saward about how he came to write the story. It’s low-key but interesting, and Saward is frank about what he thought of the resultant production. Odd title though.
Directing Who – Peter Moffatt
Although he’s not a favourite director, he comes across very well in this half hour retrospective of his Doctor Who contributions. His enjoyment on working for the show is nice to hear, and he evidently takes pride in what he did. A very entertaining documentary, with some nice clips, and a very sweet man.
A few outtakes and extended moments, but nothing very revealing. There’s a bit of amusement to be had from the scene where a foot frantically stamps out the flames during the filming of the climatic fire, but it’s very brief.
Scoring the Visitation
I haven’t been a big fan of these music snippets on past Who DVDs, but this is very interesting. Mark Ayres, who oversees all the musical aspects of these releases, interviews the story’s composer Paddy Kingsland extremely well, asking interesting questions and raising points the non-musically minded amongst us would never have thought of. Kingsland, while not seeming to share Ayres’ assessment that he particularly enjoyed scoring this tale (“It seems to me you had a good time doing this one.” Long silence. “Yes.”), is open and even critical of himself at one pointing, saying that he sometimes felt he overdid things.
The publicity blurb describes this commentary as a “typically anarchic affair”, a reputation that Peter Davison’s yak tracks are slowly becoming known for. It’s actually not that bad, although, featuring as it does the four main regulars and director Moffatt, has perhaps one person too many on it – you’d hardly notice Sarah Sutton was there at all – and isn’t over burdened with insight into the production. Having said that, it’s good fun, and how many other commentaries are there where the participants hail the arrival of coffee been brought into them, as well Davison’s amusing instruction to the others “not to flag” at the beginning of episode three – evidently an instruction from the production team.
Aside from a couple of pictures of make up people working on the Terileptils costumes, a very boring collection.
Isolated Music Track
Does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s not an exciting score, but is there for completeness sake.
Another host of continuity announcements, for the second, third and fourth episode. As a completist, I like these types of eggs, and the quality here is pretty good.
Although nowhere near being a classic, The Visitation is an entertaining example of early 80s Who, and hasn’t aged badly at all. We were spoilt last year with a plethora of two disk sets bulging with extras and in comparison this disk feels a little sparse in that department, but there is no lack of effort and in fact it’s difficult to know what else could have been said about this story, aside from perhaps a look at the animatronic Terileptil head. Either way, it’s another quality package from the Restoration Team, who have yet to put out a disappointing disk, and is well worth a visit.