Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani Review

It’s hard to imagine that there are now adults walking the earth in the UK who have no memories of watching a Doctor Who story on its first transmission, unless they caught the TV movie one May Bank Holiday night in 1996. But as the programme ran so long, and more than one generation watched it, it’s surprising that there is much consensus at all as to which Doctors and which stories were the best. For example, a story like The Tomb of the Cybermen would be highly rated as for years it was lost, and all you had to go on were the scripts, a crackly soundtrack and the memories of fans old enough to have seen it back in 1967. Then the story was rediscovered, and opinion suddenly and sharply revised downwards. To be fair, in a recent poll run by Doctor Who Magazine, it still made a very respectable tenth place. (There’s a tendency to regard another Troughton story, Fury from the Deep as a missing classic, as none of its six episodes exist in the BBC archive. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never seen it and I’d love to, but if it ever turns up somewhere then we should prepare to be a little disappointed.) Twenty years ago, The Daemons might have been an easy number one: now it’s not even in the top ten.

I have to declare a bias here: I started in the Pertwee era (Claws of Axos was my first) at the tender age of six and a half. To me, Doctor Who is Pertwee and the first three years (those produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes) of Tom Baker’s era. A few years after that, disillusioned by too much whimsy and pitching towards children, much of it provoked by Mary Whitehouse’s complaints, I stopped watching and never started again, beside revisiting the stories I knew and catching up with the surviving Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee stories I hadn’t been old enough to see first time round. So, if you asked me to guess which stories would top a poll today, I’d have guessed The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars. Very “old-school” Who I don’t doubt, but no doubt strong, solid stories, They made numbers two, three and four respectively in the poll. But number one was The Caves of Androzani.

In many way, Caves is a throwback to the grittier approach of Hinchliffe-Holmes (and for that matter Pertwee’s first season). In fact, Robert Holmes is the scriptwriter, and you could easily see this story made with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, or even the Third and Jo Grant. But it’s the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) this time, and he has with him his new companion Peri (Nicola Bryant), whom he met in the previous story Planet of Fire. The TARDIS lands on the desert planet of Androzani Minor, sister planet to the much larger Androzani Major. Minor is the source of a powerful medicinal drug refined from a highly toxic substance called spectrox which is controlled by Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), hideously deformed and wearing a mask. His arch-enemy is Morgus (John Normington) who is secretly arming Jek against government troops via a group of gunrunners led by Stotz (Maurice Roëves).

This is very much Holmes territory, with plenty of echoes of past successes. We get characters that are all various shades of grey, and an intense approach to some adult subject matter, not to mention violence. Certain scenes definitely push at the boundaries of what is supposedly children’s viewing, not to mention the PG certificate. Aided by highly effective direction from Graeme Harper, Holmes serves up two terrific cliffhangers (the Doctor and Peri facing a firing squad and the Doctor crashlanding a spacecraft) and one rather duff one involving a highly unconvincing Magma Monster that really could have been done without. And Peter Davison regenerates into Colin Baker at the end.

Davison is as fully professional as he always is, and he’s supported by a strong cast. Nicola Bryant doesn’t seem quite settled yet into her role as Peri, particularly as she has not much to do apart from being lusted after by Sharaz Jek and ailing from spectrox poisoning. And as Davison points out in the commentary, there are a couple of shots where the camera aims down her cleavage. Christopher Gable was an ex-ballet dancer who played Eric Fenby in Ken Russell’s Delius film Song of Summer. Like many villains (though Jek is a partly sympathetic one), he has to act behind a mask, though his body language betrays his dance origins.

The Caves of Androzani is a fast-moving and it grips like a vice. Whether it’s the best-ever Doctor Who story is finally really a matter of personal taste and sensibility, but it’s certainly a very very good one.

Over the past few years, we have seen Doctor Who DVDs evolve from relatively bare-bones discs to elaborate double sets. This one, released in 2001, is further down the evolutionary ladder: apart from the audio commentary, the only extra specially made for this DVD consists of audio over extracts from the programme. Nowadays, we get featurettes of half an hour or more. But even so, there are plenty of extras here and fans will be glad to have them. The Caves of Androzani is, like every other BBC DVD I’ve seen, encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

The transfer is in 4:3, as befits a TV programme from the 1980s. Clearly, the quality of BBC videotape has improved in the seven years since they made The Talons of Weng-Chiang (for example). That disc tended towards the murky, admittedly a visual choice from that serial’s director, but quite a lot of Caves is shot in, well, caves, and hence low-light conditions, but the results are much clearer, with improved shadow detail. Congratulations go once again to the Doctor Who Restoration Team, and further details on the restoration can be found at their website.

The soundtrack is mono, again befitting 1980s TV. It’s recorded to the professional standards you’d expect from the BBC, with dialogue, effects and Roger Limb’s music all in perfect balance. Incidentally, by this time Who had dropped the original Delia Derbyshire arrangement of Ron Grainer’s title theme for a Peter Howell synthesised version which now sounds very "Eighties" and actually more dated than the 1960s Derbyshire recording.

The audio commentary is provided by Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and director Graeme Harper, and clearly a good time was had by all. It’s one of the most entertaining Who commentaries, with plenty of jokes and anecdotes and still finding time for a few behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts, mostly coming from Harper. Subtitles are provided for this commentary. Other subtitles are the usual hard-of-hearing ones for the main feature and Richard Molesworth’s information subtitles. These are very useful as ever, from before when they tended towards overkill in listing every castmember’s complete other work. You’ll pick up some interesting trivia from here, such as the fact that Maurice Roëves is one of the few actors to have appeared both in Doctor Who and Star Trek. My only quibble with some of these subtitles is their timing, occasionally appearing just before the scenes that they describe. So if you haven't seen Caves before and wish to avoid spoilers, watch it first time with the information subtitles turned off.

The other extras start with "Behind the Scenes: The Regeneration" (7:38) which is effectively B-roll footage of the regeneration scene: interesting if you want to know what recording TV is really like, but you’ll only want to watch it once. "Creating Sharaz Jek" (5:05) is an audio recording of Christopher Gable made before his death in 1988, overlaid on footage from the serial and behind the scenes.

This DVD has a remade opening scene from the one that was broadcast in 1984. During the desert scenes, the matte-painted background failed to integrate with the foreground, causing a wobbling effect. This has been fixed for the DVD, but you do have the option of watching the original opening scene as an alternate first chapter. Incidentally, this shows the work that the Restoration Team have done, as the original footage is much noisier and artefacted than the redone version.

There’s one extended scene (2:29), from Episode Two, which follows on from Stotz forcing one of his men to eat a poison capsule which turns out to be fake. The scene originally continued to emphasise the hold Stotz had over his men, but Harper cut it because he felt Stotz (as played by Roëves) was frightening enough to make any further explanation redundant!

There are three extracts from TV programmes dealing with the news of Peter Davison’s departure from the series. They come from the BBC One O’Clock News (0:24), a longer extract from the Nine O’Clock News (1:23) featuring a brief interview with Davison by Kate Adie, and finally a section of the local magazine South East at Six (3:37) featuring Davison and producer John Nathan-Turner, the latter wearing a particularly hideous combination of crimson Hawaiian shirt and yellow trousers.

The extras are wrapped up with a BBC trailer for the first episode (0:33) and a fifty-five-strong stills gallery, with a simple back-and-forth navigation system. Caves is unusual for a Who disc in not containing any Easter Eggs, or at least none that I could find.

Caves is excellent Who by any standard, and that’s coming from a diehard fan of the show pre 1978. The disc is up to the standards of the other BBC releases. If it doesn’t quite shape up to the labour-of-love extras blowout that have been released lately, there’s certainly plenty to be going on with here.

9 out of 10
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