“I have never been so afraid, until I met the man with scythe.”
The original Doctor Who series is famous/infamous for its small budget, leading to creaky sets, rubber monsters, and cardboard models. This is of course the cause of much unintentional comedy, but open-minded viewers who look past the bargain trappings can find interesting ideas and a fun rollicking tone.
The Doctor (Peter Davison, All Creatures Great and Small) is a Time Lord, adventuring throughout all of time and space. He has three traveling companions: earth stewardess Teegan (Janet Fielding), futuristic science girl Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and young mathematician Adric (Eric Waterhouse).
This time, it’s a trip to the past, specifically England 1666. The plague is everywhere, and survivors in the countryside fear death around every corner. This is the perfect environment for the sinister alien Terileptil and his deadly android to hide out and wreak havoc. Can our heroes stop the menace while avoiding the plague rats?
Doctor Who: The Visitation originally aired in four parts, beginning 15 Feb 1982, and was later edited together into a two-hour telefilm for syndication and foreign broadcasts. This is the fourth story arc of The Doctor’s 19th season and Davison’s first season as the fifth doctor.
Here Davison downplays The Doctor’s many quirks and wisecracks, offering more of a “dynamic man of action” take on the character. I guess this is a sign of the times. The biggest blockbuster movies of the era were family-friendly sci-fi/fantasy epics in the wake of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and its peers. So the BBC offers up a simple good versus evil adventure, with the “evil” represented by a lizard monster and his skull-faced android.
“The Visitation” is also a time travel tale, so we’ve got the 17th century to deal with. To represent the past, our heroes run into Mace (played with unending zeal by BBC radio performer Michael Robbins), who—in these harsh, plague-ridden times—has left the stage for a life of crime. He’s a charming rogue, but also a guy playing at being a charming rogue at the same time. Robbins is great as Mace, overacting (wondrously so) and stealing every scene he’s in. His gruff voice and manic physicality picks up the energy of the whole tale. Even if you’re not a Doctor Who fan, you’ve got to see this one just for Robbins’ performance.
As we get to know the villains, the clunky nature of the show’s low budget really makes itself known. The sinister Teraleptil is a rubber monster of the rubberiest kind, although one able to talk and reason with The Doctor. It delightfully dons a cape when going outside, because what’s a human-sized alien lizard monster without a cape? If you think he looks silly, check out the android. The concept is that its face looks like a skull, so the local villagers will believe it’s the Grim Reaper. That’s a cool idea, but the rest of the android is, in the words of one Mickey Smith, “disco.” Its body, arms, and legs are brightly colored, studded with gems and other shiny bits, based on the pop music scene of the early ’80s. Yeah. As for the Doctor’s companions, those familiar with Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric already know what to expect from these three. Tegan whines about wanting to go home, Nyssa is intelligent and courageous, and Adric just bumbles about.
There’s not much else to say. Doctor Who: The Visitation is a lighthearted romp.
Presented in standard def 1.33:1 full screen with Dolby 1.0 Mono audio, BBC Video’s presentation is middle of the road. A soft image transfer with murky black levels, and audio that’s understandable but hardly impressive. I suppose they did they best they could, considering the age and budget of the source material, but still.
However, the bonus material on this two-disc “Special Edition” find plenty to say about this particular story and Doctor Who history in general.
• Audio Commentary—Davison, Fielding, Sutton, and Waterhouse chime in for a commentary, with a ton of amusing anecdotes from the production.
• Grim Tales—The camera follows the above four in the modern day as they as they revisit the original filming locations of the episode and reminisce more about the episode.
• The Television Centre of the Universe, Part One—A look at the history of the famous BBC Television Centre building, where Doctor Who and countless other Beeb productions were filmed.
• Doctor Forever—A history of Big Finish, the company that has, for years, produced audio dramas based on Doctor Who, which became so popular they attracted actors and writers from the TV show.
• Directing Who—Interview with director Peter Moffat.
• Writing a Final Visitation—About crafting the script.
• Scoring the Visitation—Interview with composer Paddy Kingsland.
• Isolated Music Score—I’m not sure this screechy electronic score warrants its own track, but here you go.
• Photo Gallery
• Production Notes
• PDF Content—including Radio Times listings and a vintage BBC sales sheet.
Doctor Who: The Visitation is not an Earth-shattering, groundbreaking, legendary storyline for the series. This is a one-off tale with a little bit of swashbuckling in the woods, which is perhaps part of its charm. They can’t all be regenerations as the Daleks are in the midst of destroying the universe.