The Caves of Androzani: DVD Special

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Graeme Harper
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1984
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try

First of all, let me just say I've dreaded reviewing this story possibly more than any other. There's been so much said about Androzani, largely involving the words "classic" "classic" and "classic" that, despite being one of the highest profile tales, I made time to review over 110 other stories before giving it the obligatory once-over.

That's not to say I dislike it, more that I'd be stuck for anything new to say. Yet is Androzani's status as a universal "classic" a little strange? After all, this is a story that, while popular, didn't even top its own DWM season poll when it first came out. And I must admit, the first couple of times I saw it I didn't really think it was anything more than a mildly above-average story. Okay, I can see now that the direction is well above standard for Who - it's absolutely fantastic - but is that the wisdom of twenty years talking or just because I've been told for so long that it is? Is the appeal of Androzani as all-conquering survey leader a decision we've all individually arrived at, or is it one massive psychological confidence trick by the fan elite?

Other things are strange. Costuming and set décor isn't particularly fantastic - some of it looks as if it was set in a cardboard portakabin with grey slacks as uniform - but the fast cuts and Roger Limb's awesome score overcome this with gusto. However, while people praise Peter's portrayal as the Doctor, claiming he'd finally "found" the role, they overlook the fact that the role he plays is absolutely nothing like the fifth Doctor we've seen in the previous twenty stories and is merely a Doctor-by-numbers construction by a briefly back to form Robert Holmes. Even sillier suggestions involve Davison not regenerating but staying for another year, this story just as a peak. Of course, the fact that the Doctor regenerates in this story is the reason for its success, its entire - as Holmes himself said - raison de etre. And that's the other thing about Androzani's appeal - it's almost atypical Who, morally and stylistically different from what went before it, if not after. It's good storytelling, of course, but its appeal seems to suggest that its supporters are embarrassed of "normal" Who and wanted it to be gritty and hardhitting. It's a damn good story, but in essence it's like Prisoner fans who state their favourite episode as The Girl Who Was Death.

The opening scene is bizarre on the original version because it has a terrible matte effect that gives the impression you're drunk while watching it. Oddly, I'd never noticed that before it was pointed out to me, either. This becomes contentious on DVD because the Restoration Team corrected what was at the time a technical glitch. Yet how far should this go? Should we erase all Billy's fluffs because if the 60s production team had our editing tools today they would never have aired? Should we take off the sound of polystyrene squeaks on Logopolis? Digitally remove Colin's gut? It's an issue open to debate, and I'm not altogether sure what I make of it, though the Team stated they wouldn't remove the "hand of Sutekh" from Pyramids of Mars as it was too infamous. Poor old Androzani - if only it had had a more well-known crap effect it'd be left untouched for future generations to snigger at.

Nicola Bryant's Peri is not only much more successful with the fifth Doctor (she even has a character for a start) but she's also proof that men prefer larger women. Peri's by no means fat, but she is likeably chunky and is probably a size 14. But by God - I so bloody would it's untrue! I'd bloody love to, I tells ya! The Magma Beast makes a brief cameo in this episode. It's camp, but by no means awful.

One thing that really strikes me this time around is just how good the dialogue is. Holmes's dialogue is often self-conscious as I've said, but here not a line is wasted, and complemented by the cast who play it all with conviction. Davison clearly relishes the wit he's suddenly been allowed to display (a brief listen to any of his commentaries ably shows how funny he can be) and, even though you might snigger at John Normington's TV remote control, you're more likely to be struck by how chilling his voice is. This is respectable Who, the sort of thing you could show to casual friends, which is another reason I suspect it's so popular. That's not to detract from those who do like it, however - it is sensational, with not a shot wasted.
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This really is such a joy to watch, actually, though it took me years to get past the hype to admit it. It has the visual and visceral appeal that the Saward era tried and largely failed to attain. Yet it also has the classic (there's that word again) Who themes of characterisation, heroism, melodrama and subtext. With Margaret Thatcher overseeing pit closures, here we get Normington as a high-ranking politician trying to do the same.

This is brilliant stuff, with genuinely astonishing direction that throws up dissolves and sexual suggestion with equal muster. Christopher Gable's bondage-clad Jek is a first-rate creation by an actor who fully understands the difference between full-on melodrama and overracting. He's exceptional, while Maurice Roëves makes Stotz thoroughly dislikeable without ever passing over into caricature. I tell you what always throws me about this particular episode, though - when Salateen finds out the Doctor and Peri are poisoned he for some reason he starts laughing like Popeye. A gag a gag a gag!
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I suppose if you wanted to knock this one, you could say that you can see the workings behind the writing, but then any television falls under that category. The President telling Morgus about the properties of Spectrox in the first episode - something he would already know anyway - is a case in point, but this is a refined piece that no amount of "why does he always wear that hood?" can corrupt. In some ways this lacks the whimsical charm of your usual Who, placing the morally ambivalent Doctor within a soulless universe. It's cold and hard, with no secondary characters that can attract our sympathy.

The violence against the Doctor is a case in point as to why the story works. When Davison is struck by Jek it's really just a light tap… and the "androids" can clearly be seen trying to get a decent grip as they "tear out his arms". Yet the performances, direction (note when the Doctor is stretched into a Christ-like position the ends of his arms are out of the frame to aid the illusion) and music all combine to carry it across. And of course, seeing the Doctor the victim of not just violence, but sadistic violence, is shocking and has a real dramatic kick. (As an addition to this, in the commentary Peter reveals that actually it wasn't "just a light tap").

Full credit must go to Nicola Bryant for her distinctly unglamorous appearance in this episode. Davison's got the same disease, yet he gets to wear more make-up. I still would, but she'd have to ask nicely. Oh, and do I really have to say how superb the cliffhanger is?
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With not a single wobbly wall or duff performance, this is, at least on a technical level, probably the best Doctor Who story ever made. It achieves a level of professionalism others only aspired to, and never stumbles. Again, with its tale of molesting villains, gun running and drug-smuggling, it's not really "Doctor Who" at all, but can stand alone in much the same way that City of Death does, albeit in a completely different sense.

One notable thing about Peri here is that she tells Jek that General Chellak is planning an ambush - does she feel sympathy for him? Personally I'd say she's just saving her own skin, a surprisingly selfish motivation. Though having said that, I guess Chellak has spent most of the story threatening her life, even if he is the most humane of the guest characters.

I do feel sorry for Jek, though, despite what I've said, and his dying wish to be held is touching. You could argue that the whole story can be viewed on a Freudian level, given that it takes place in Caves and that the only two characters to live through it are women. You might be talking rubbish though. Okay, so Peri regains full make-up as soon as she gets the cure, but that's a class "death" scene from Peter. Just when you think this can't get any better… Janet Fielding, Matthew Waterhouse and Antony Ainley come on, and the Doctor regenerates into Colin Baker. Oh dear. I do wonder on what logical basis Peri leaves the Doctor alone on the floor to die (other than to set up the shot) but it's the ham dessert that drops this tasty meal a half score…
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I hate to reinforce stereotypes. This probably isn't, subjectively, my favourite Doctor Who story, but it's almost impossible to find a single fault within it. If only all Who was as good as this.
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This is one of the earliest DVD releases, and in many ways it works far better. There's no Easter Eggs, the story auto-starts if you leave it and the sound quality on the commentary isn't as sharp (was Nicola even in the same room as her microphone?) but we also get no pointless "Tardis Cams" or any of the sixth form "humour" that has begun to blight the later releases. However, one downside of this "dawn of Who on DVD" era is, again, the commentary. His Five Doctors for the US market aside, this was the first commentary Peter recorded, and he's nowhere near as likeable or funny as he normally is. A lot of this seems down to Nicola Bryant, with whom he doesn't have as great a rapport as Fielding. In fact, there seems to be two commentaries going on here - Peter, Graeme and Graeme's laugh on the one hand, and then Nicola on the other. Frequently ignored, often spoken over, and with no one laughing at her jokes, it's not the most flowing or atmospheric of commentaries. Things are pointed out that I for one was not aware of - for example, bits where Peter forgets his lines, or Nicola bounces back into shot - but, while not awkward per se, there's a distinct lack of real chemistry at work here.

Taking away the original version of episode one, then the extras on this disc last for little over twenty minutes. Yet as they're completely relevant to the piece, I find it far more essential than the newer releases that have been guilty of creating needless extras to fill up a runtime. In order of menu appearance, they are…

Behind The Scenes: The Regeneration (07'37) - A quite fascinating look at just how tedious the process of making television can be. Shots are lined up for very little material, while Nicola pulls an array of grumpy faces. (This feature also includes the warmest commentary on an unannounced optional audio track).

Original Opening Sequence (24'33) - Actually the complete first episode with unedited effects. For some reason the wobbly matte doesn't look as bad on DVD anyway...

Extended Scene (2'28m) - Some plot information goes on the end of Stotz's and Krelper's confrontation scene. It's good to see, but watch it with the commentary by Graeme and Peter and you'll agree it worked even better when it was cut.

Creating Sharaz Jek (5'05m) - An audio recording of Christopher Gable speaking about the role, played over the top of still photos, clips and behind-the-scenes footage. It's okay, though doesn't really tell you anything you don't already know, and it's saddening to hear Gable bitching about the costume and make-up of what was such a stand-out part.

BBC1 Trailer (0'32m) - Quite a slow moving trailer, belying the pace and drive of the programme proper. Gunfire breaking up the title is… interesting… however.

BBC One O'Clock News 28/07/1983 (0'22m)/BBC Nine O'Clock News 28/07/1983 (1'22m) - For collectors it's nice to have both, though the second is the most engaging, featuring a brief interview with Peter.

South East At Six 29/07/1983 (3'37m) - Definitely worth seeing, this short extract from a show with an annoying presenter has John and Peter on the couch, seemingly post-tiff. Just check out John's queeny barbs that he wants a replacement who's older and more eccentric. But what really confirms it is the body language on display…

Photo Gallery - Another plus of the early releases is that the photo galleries were navigatable, rather than a moving display with an incredibly irritating sound effect. There are 56 images in this selection.

Add to this information text and an isolated music option and it's one of the better DVD releases, particularly bearing in mind it was one of the first they did.

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