Doctor Who: Four to Doomsday Review
Although it was aired second in his debut season, Four To Doomsday was the first story Peter Davison ever made as the Fifth Doctor. Both for reasons regarding the readiness of certain scripts, and also because he and Producer John Nathan-Turner hadn’t exactly pinpointed what kind of Doctor he would be, Davison was the first actor in the role to be given the luxury to grow into the character over the course of this and two subsequent stories, The Visitation and Kinda, before he finally filmed his on-air debut in Castrovalva. In actuality, while a good idea, he didn’t really need it – his performance in FtD, while obviously a little tentative at times, is pretty true to how he would end up playing the role, although inevitably his Doctor does demonstrate the odd tic that would never show up again. That this was his first is one of the two things that the story is most known for, the other being a sequence in which the Doctor, with only the very flimsiest of protection, goes for a space walk and returns unscathed, but it’s a little unfair to Terence Dudley’s script to remember it solely for those two things. While hardly a classic, it has a quirky charm to which its undistinguished reputation doesn't quite do justice.
The four-parter opens with the Doctor and his three companions Adric, Nyssa and Tegan (Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding) materialising on a giant spaceship four days away from Earth. There they meet its captain Monarch (Stratford Johns) who is that quintessential baddy combination of brilliant scientist and homicidal madman, and who despite all the evidence to the contrary is pretty certain that he’s God. For millennia he has been travelling back and forth between his home planet Urbanka and the Earth, kidnapping the finest human minds down the ages to help him discover the secrets of faster-than-light travel which he believes will help him prove his claim. He’s already made a good start, having mastered the secret of eternal life – no longer is death the obstacle it once was for his human scientists for when they reach the end of their natural lifespan he simply transfers their consciousnesses over to a robotic replica, the old misery not even giving them half a day off to recover from the trauma before sending them back to the laboratory to continue their work. That said, he still has to work on the whole infallibility thing, as one unfortunate side effect of his experiments have been the complete environmental destruction of his home planet (whoops) but he’s not especially phased, planning simply to move into the Earth and carry on. His ultimate aim is to use warp speed to travel back in time to the Big Bang and kick it off, thus proving once and for his claims to being the Almighty.
And yet, despite the delusions of grandeur, he’s not the most energetic of villains, spending most of the time sitting on his throne watching a bank of monitors as the TARDIS crew wander around the ship trying to foster rebellion amongst his robotics underlings. Although the progression of the story is strictly formulaic – the Doctor arrives, explores the ship, persuades the oppressed to rise up against their evil master, and wins the day - there are vague hints along the way that Dudley had something more in mind than just a simple runaround. Questions as to the nature of free will and the class system are raised, even if not explored in any great detail, while Monarch himself is not all bad; he genuinely believes that what he is doing is for the best for his people, even if coincidentally it also means he becomes lord and master of all. Although the secondary characters such as the Greek scientist Bigon (Philip Locke) are functional, there is some mildly interesting character work done for both the villain and also, unusually for the Fifth Doctor's era, the Doctor's companions. Adric, the perpetual whinging child of the TARDIS, reveals a naive gullibility when he is temporarily taken in by Monarch’s claims which at least gives him something more than to do than just complaining while Tegan, demonstrating a splendid moment of believable human frailty all too rare in Classic Who, decides she’s had enough and scarpers back to the TARDIS, fully intending to fly away and leave the others to it (although, of course, this is never subsequently mentioned once she rejoins the crew).
But this latter scene is a good example of the fact that Dudley’s script has a sense of the unexpected and manages to throw in some effective curve balls en route to its slightly silly climax. The first two cliffhangers, which reveal twists in the story rather than being the normal Doctor-in-peril stuff, are easily among the strongest of Davison’s first season, if not his tenure as a whole (even if the second is very similar to several others from earlier stories.) Equally, there’s a quirkiness about the set up, in which the futuristic look of Monarch’s ship is contrasted with the “Entertainments” in which the Earth scientists are invited to watch traditional dancing and other amusements from their era – given how the story opens, there can’t be many viewers who were expecting to see before the end lengthy (arguably too lengthy) scenes of Chinese dragons dancing and Trojan wrestlers going at it (fortunately not, as tradition would strictly dictate, in the nude). There’s a visual incongruity to the tale, not least in seeing, amongst others, a Greek philosopher, Chinese scientist and fully-decked-out Aborigine working together in a lab which makes for a pleasing ambience and brings to life what in other circumstances would be a very run-of-the-mill tale.
And yes, even given the positives, it’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. Monarch, while in his green make-up making for an arresting sight, is too lumbering and reactive to make a truly threatening villain, while the episodes are talky and not always evenly paced – much of the second episode, for example, is taken up with the Doctor and Tegan watching an Entertainment while Adric and Nyssa explore the ship. The sets never escape a very obvious studio feel, even though one can feel set designer Tony Burrough working his hardest to make each area look unique, and the alien look of everything is now distinctly retro. Of course, the major criticism people have of the show, the infamous space walk, is not without justification, although I can’t help feeling that people who quibble about such a splendidly daft sequence need to lighten up a bit (although the scenes in which Adric tries to tackle Monarch’s two underlings Persuasion and Enlightenment while the Doctor floats around outside are rather poorly staged).
However, it is still far better than I remember it being, and I’d even go so far as to say that the fact it’s Davison’s first story is not the main point of interest. Of course, watching the remarkably fresh-faced Doctor is fascinating as he tries out various affectations – his overtly cheeky insouciance, for example, didn’t last very long – but, while unsurprisingly it’s not his best performance in the role, it is notable that much of what he does do here lasted throughout his reign. Indeed, in a story which sees a bunch of squabbling companions, a Doctor who works quietly but effectively to do his thing and a script which was good but given a bit more work could have been great, the template for his ultimately frustrating era is laid down rather well, but even so, this was a far more promising start for him than is perhaps remembered these days and is a story worth revisiting.
The story is presented in the same way as all the other Classic Whos in the range – a grey amaray case holding the disc and an accompanying four page booklet with a short piece on the story and details of the DVD’s contents. The Menus are the same too with looped clips of the series running alongside the options – the submenu, in this case, opening with perhaps one of the most exciting extracts ever seen on one of these discs when Monarch's sidekick Persuasion tells Nyssa “You may keep the pencil!” If that doesn’t make you want to watch further nothing will.
The Video and Audio presentation is as good as we’ve come to expect from the Classic Who DVDs. Being completely studio-bound, the story is completely shot on video but the transfer looks clean and the colours are vivid. There’s the odd compression problem, and of course a softness to much of the material, but it looks fine, on a par with any of the other DVDs from this era, as is the Audio which is clear and distinct.
The Extras are, compared to some in the range, rather sparse. The Peter Davison Commentaries have become rather infamous for their ultra-critical appraisal of the stories, especially for those in which he is joined by Janet Fielding, but perhaps they have been told to tone it down somewhat as this one is untypically quiet and non-condemnatory. Unfortunately it is also rather dull (although I hasten to add not because of the lack of carping!) as the commentators sound tired and the conversation wanders off the subject of the story in question far too often. Director John Black joins Davison, Fielding, the ever-quiet Sarah Sutton and Matthew Waterhouse for what is generally an uneventful track. Far more interesting is the Studio Recording (27:14) of Davison’s very first day recording the serial, taken from JNT’s own archive. There is no sense of history being made as cast and crew go about in a methodical fashion shooting scenes from the first episode, but it does give a good indication as to how quickly they had to work and thus how little time Davison had on his first day to think about what he was doing. To complement these two features, there is also the usual Photo Gallery (6:41) (in which the only thing of note are a couple of pictures of Stratford Johns getting into makeup), the ever-informative Production Subtitles and PDFs of the listings for the story in the Radio Times. In addition, there is a Music Video (3:36) in which the Restoration Team's Mark Ayres has gone back to the original masters for Howell’s version of the theme and remixed them into either a Stereo or 5.1 mix, set to the opening and closing sequences for both Tom Baker and Peter Davison’s Doctors. Rounding up things, there’s also a thrilling trailer for The War Machines DVD (1:06) which, like so many other of the others on recent DVDs, makes the story look about a hundred times more exciting than it really is.
As most of the supplementary material from this time in the show's life was rightly put onto the New Beginnings set, it's unsurprising that there's not a lot in the way of extras on this standard Who release. The story itself, on the other hand, is pretty good and has enough about it to merit having a look at.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:32:08