Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani
(4 episodes, s21e17-e20, 1984)

 

Davison deserved better.

The TARDIS arrives in a dry lake bed on Androzani Minor. After a small bout of exploration, Peri and the Doctor question the presence of motor vehicle tracks on an otherwise desolate planet and decide to follow them. While they travel, the Doctor muses about keeping diaries. While they explore the crystalline caves, Peri falls into a web-like substance that stings. Afterward, she asks the Doctor about his lapel celery, which turns purple when exposed to gases in the Praxis range.

Elsewhere, a monster attacks a group of soldiers. The travelers run into the soldiers, are mistaken for gunrunners and apprehended, and are taken to General Chellak. He believes that they are supplying arms to a group of android rebels and will not hear anything about their innocence. When Trau Morgus (CEO of the Sirius Conglomerate) on Androzani Major calls, the general tosses his prisoners into a closet. The communication is tense and tapped by a mysterious third party who thinks Peri is pretty. Morgus is disinterested in the travelers, unemotionally orders their execution, and engages in a little bit of fourth-wall breaking by staring straight into the camera. When more soldiers are attacked, the general orders his second, Major Salateen, to prepare the travelers for execution while he attends to the ambush. The entire squadron is decimated.

The Doctor apologizes to Peri for their predicament while tending to her web-induced rashes and watching the general as the dead squadron is returned to the base. He muses on the background of spectrox, the valuable material the humans are mining. On Androzani Major, Morgus hosts the president of the planet and reveals the nature of spectrox to the audience: It is a powerful drug produced by the bats of Androzani Minor that enhances youth and extends life. The meeting turns to the execution as the Doctor and Peri are lined up before a firing squad, and on the proper count, the Doctor and Peri are shot to death.

Except that they aren’t.

The mysterious eavesdropper, Sharaz Jek, swapped the prisoners for android duplicates. The general and major realize the deception, but cannot report it because it would end their careers. Jek also intends to keep the Doctor and Peri as unwilling companions. Jek owns a considerable share of the spectrox in the caves and can monitor troop movements. He has cost the general hundreds of troops and speculates that his inventory won’t be in jeopardy for another five years. He expects the people of Androzani Major to have rebelled against Morgus by then and wants nothing less than the CEO’s head at his feet. Meanwhile, on the surface, there are troubles among the gunrunners as they fight over failures and lack of pay.

Morgus receives word that one of his mines has exploded. Back in Jek’s caves, the Doctor meets the real Salateen (who was replaced months before) and discovers that the web they encountered earlier is a spectrox nest. Exposure is lethal, and the antidote (the milk of a queen bat) is difficult to find due to the mining operations.

So far, we have the following open threads: The spectrox war (androids vs. humans); spectrox toxaemia; the gun smugglers who are supplying Jek’s android army; a giant monster; and celery.

Stotz, the lead gunrunner, requests a meeting with Jek. Before Jek leaves, he talks to the Doctor and becomes enraged when Peri asks about his mask. The story behind it is gruesome and it hides the burn scars from an encounter with Morgus. After Jek leaves, the Doctor tries to sneak by the androids, which are programmed to kill humans on sight. The Doctor disables the android guards and takes Peri and Salateen back to the TARDIS for supplies. En route, they are ambushed and the Doctor is wounded by an android guard. Salateen saves Peri and abandons the Doctor.

The meeting between Jek and Stotz is less than productive. Stotz threatens to leave the operation, but Jek knows that he can get any number of people to wage his war with his supply of spectrox. Jek returns to his base and finds his captives missing. Meanwhile, the gunrunners meet up with the Doctor. The Time Lord hides and the gunrunners are attacked by another monster. The monster makes short work of the smugglers and the Doctor escapes. Stotz and the survivors find Jek, who reveals that the monster is a bat, and their tense confrontation is broken up by the Doctor. The smugglers are paid and the Doctor is taken captive and tortured for Peri’s location. When the Doctor reasons that Salateen and Peri have returned to Chellak’s base, the smugglers decide to take the Time Lord to the CEO on Androzani Major. It turns out that Morgus is playing both sides against each other. Fearing the president’s discovery of Morgus’s double dealings, the CEO assassinates him.

That combines two of our open threads: The spectrox war (androids vs. humans vs. Morgus and the gun smugglers); spectrox toxaemia; a giant monster; and celery.

Salateen and Peri arrive at Chellak’s base and expose the truth behind the major’s doppelgänger. Chellak develops a plan to remove the android from his ranks. and has no interest in Peri’s illness due to her affiliation with Jek. Salateen reveals the badges that keep humans safe from the androids and the nature of Jek’s wiretapping. The general is displeased, to say the least, but has an idea of how to turn the tide with this intel.

Chellak sends Android-Salateen on a recon mission, during which Jek finds out where Salateen and Peri are housed. Jek sneaks into the base and kidnaps Peri while the Doctor breaks free on the smuggler ship and returns it to (read: crashes it on) Androzani Minor. The Doctor runs from the smugglers and is able to get away as Stotz receives word that Morgus is on his way. The Doctor is only saved by a spontaneous mudburst that drives the smugglers away. When Morgus arrives, he orders Stotz to secure Jek’s supply of spectrox as a nest egg so he can escape the Androzani planets. His assistant has turned state’s evidence and usurped Morgus’s position. Stotz turns on his own crew, gunning them down, and joins Morgus on an expedition into the caves.

Salateen leads an assault misson on Jek’s base. As they come across an android, Salateen thinks that his buckle will identify him as a friendly, but the android opens fire and kills him. The assault team is pinned down but heroically press on. Chellak enters Jek’s base and fights the man, but is forced into the fatal mudburst inside the caverns. The Doctor arrives soon after and tries to revive Peri with the celery (supposedly a powerful restorative on Gallifrey), but is forced into the oxygen-deprived lower caverns after the bat milk. Jek provides him with one oxygen mask and looks after Peri until the Doctor returns.

While the Doctor retrieves the bat milk, Stotz and Morgus storm Jek’s lair. Jek kills Morgus, Stotz kills Jek, and Android-Salateen kills Stotz. The Doctor scoops up Peri and races to the TARDIS as the mudburst destroys Jek’s lair. Once inside, the Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS and gives her the milk before collapsing on the deck.

He says goodbye to Peri, unsure if he’s going to regenerate or not. He sees images of Tegan, Turlough, Kamelion, Nyssa, and Adric encouraging him to survive, and an image of the Master goading him into death. It is Adric — his only companion who died — that prompts him to live, and so he regenerates…

…into a rather brash man who claims to bring change, and not a moment too soon.

 

Where to begin?

This story has consistently been voted as the best in the history of the televised franchise. I don’t know what I missed. Starting with the spectrox war, I really enjoyed the idea of a conflict triangle, particularly when considered against the political atmospheres both now and in 1984. The big problem I have with the largest part of the story is that the narrative was so muddy and poorly paced. The conflict was unclear for most of the story, and while it had the benefit of placing us in the shoes of our heroes, the continued confusion quickly became frustrating.

This wasn’t helped by the acting. Morgus, the fulcrum of the conflict, came across as dull (was he reading his lines from cue cards?) and his incessant need to recap key plot points directly into the camera was distracting and unnerving. This was counterbalanced by Jek’s madness, which was plainly evident in the delightfully creepy portrayal, but the pacing sabotaged the atmosphere surrounding him by chopping up the interesting backstory with the lackluster Morgus and Chellak scenes. Among our heroes, Peri’s performance was still rocky despite it’s potential to become something more, but Peter Davison seemed off, almost as if he didn’t want to be involved anymore.

The spectrox toxaemia offered a good race-against-the-clock element to the story, and this time the frustration worked in the serial’s favor as each side has the potential to cure our heroes, but they refuse to do so because of how they view the Doctor’s allegiances. Politics in a nutshell, and while the plot devices of the inconvenient cure in the conveniently (and overly) hostile lower caves had merit, I felt that the execution was lazy.

Why? Because the Doctor could have gone after the cure at any time after being told about it and survived the story. In fact, it was his own curiosity that got him and Peri involved, and he had no reason to interfere in this conflict. Yes, there is an argument about combatting evil in even the smallest measures of good, but the body count in this story puts a giant thumb on that scale: Every male character in this serial dies, and there are only two survivors.

The red herring plot threads of the giant monster and the celery were annoying. Both of them were misdirections in an already muddled story.

All of that said, I did enjoy the boost in production value with this story, including the unique camera angles in the Doctor’s explosive run across the planetary surface.

I also plan to give the Sixth Doctor a chance to prove himself, but right now his introduction is far too cynical for my tastes.

The final score benefits greatly from the +1 regeneration handicap in this project, but it still doesn’t meet the “greatest story ever” expectations. Which is a letdown because Peter Davison deserved better.

 

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

 

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma

 

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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