“Doctor, why do wear a stick of celery on your lapel?”
A show as long-running as Doctor Who has its traditions. You’ve got your Dalek episodes, your Master episodes, and, of course, it’s always a big event whenever the Doctor regenerates, handing the role over from one actor to the next. The Caves of Androzoni is one such regeneration episode, marking the end of the fifth Doctor’s run.
The Caves of Androzani originally aired in four parts on March 8, 9, 15, and 16, in 1984, and was later editing into a single feature-length episode for rebroadcast. It is the show’s 136th episode.
The Doctor (Peter Davison, Sink or Swim), a time traveler, and his traveling companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) have arrived on the planet Androzani, right in the middle of a conflict. On one side is the sinister politician Morgus (John Normington) and his army of bloodthirsty soldiers. On the other side is the equally-sinister scarred scientist Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), and his army of killer androids. If that weren’t complicated enough, the Doctor and Peri have caught with a fatal disease, spectrox toxemia, with no known cure.
As much as it pains me to disagree with Whovians worldwide, this isn’t one of the good Doctor’s better efforts. The handful of outdoor scenes are filmed in a massive stone quarry—a Doctor Who cliché—and the rest of the tale takes place in drab caves or pastel offices. There’s a giant monster, but it’s seen only briefly. We get a lot of talk about armies of soldiers battling armies of androids, but we don’t see any of these epic battles, except for a few gunfights here and there inside the caves.
Normally, the best thing about any Doctor Who episode is the Doctor. He’s such a fun, engaging character that seeing him in action makes up for the show’s famous budget shortcomings. In this one, the Doctor’s enthusiasm gets dialed down several notches. I don’t know if this is because it was it was Davison’s last episode at the end of a season, or if it was the more serious script, but the character is subdued and somewhat bland this time around.
The “android war” and “deadly virus” plotlines should provide a lot of excitement and drama, but instead we get a lot of dry dialogue. The scenes with Morgus in his office are dreadfully dull until the end, when the tension finally gets cranked up a little. Also, oddly, at one point Morgus speaks directly to the camera in a dramatic aside. I know these old-school BBC shows have their roots in live theater, but what you can get away with on stage is not always what you can get away with on TV.
Do my criticisms mean I hated the episode? No, there are some good points as well. Sharaz Jek is a great villain. He’s got this cool mask hiding his mutilated face, and the rest of him is covered in shiny black leather—he kind of reminded me of the title character from The Phantom of the Paradise. Despite the mask, Jek comes across as equal parts charismatic and creepy. There are times when actors have their whole faces covered under a mask or heavy makeup, and that somehow this frees them to be more expressive and create a more unique character. I think that’s what’s happening with Jek. He steals the show away from the rest of the cast. Also, the big selling point is the regeneration scene, and it’s powerful and dramatic, with callbacks to past companions and stories, something these old episodes didn’t do very often.
Audio and video are as good as can be expected for a TV show of this age. Colors are a little flat and grayed out, but not so much that the picture is ruined. The mono sound is not booming or immersive, but it does the job. This special edition two-disc set ports over all the bonus features from the previous release, with a few new ones added. There’s a commentary with Davison, Bryant and director Graeme Harper, along with an amusing and informative text commentary. Featurettes cover the creation of the episode, combining anecdotes from the cast and crew with raw footage from the set. From there, we get news reports and talk show clips from the time the episode aired, extended scenes with optional commentary, a photo gallery, and the original Radio Times listing on PDF.
Is this a good episode to show someone who’s never seen Doctor Who before? I’m going to say no. We spend a lot more time with the side characters than with the Doctor and Peri, so it’ll make it hard for fans to convince newbies that the show is more than just low-budget shlock.
The bonus features heap gigantic amounts of praise onto this one, alleging that a fan poll in 2009 named this the best episode ever made—and that includes the new ones. So, it’s very possible my opinion is the minority this time around. That’s OK. If you love this episode, this two-disc set is an excellent way to relive it.