Written by:
Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1982
Video Availability: Try

One of my oldest reviews this, so apologies if it's even more unstructured than usual…

Having watched Castrovalva very, very recently for my Davison overview (On an earlier version of this site) I was a bit dubious about seeing it again so soon. Yet in many ways it's a perfect choice for an "episode by episode" review as no other story I can think of varies so wildly in quality throughout its parts. The second half isn't actually that bad, but the first half is like a pair of dirty girl's pants.

Where it really fails is in having the Doctor take a back seat to the companions. Fine if your "left over from Tom" trio are Sladen, Jameson and Ward. But when it's the am dram shouting of Fielding and the slappable plankdom of Sutton. God, they are awful! AWFUL!!! Nyssa - bloody act, for God's sake!! When she tells Tegan they're about to collide with event one she says it less like a life-threatening situation, more like she's having a poo on the toilet. The bit where Tegan picks her handbag up and finds the Tardis Information System is excruciating. Oh, God, please, both of you - shut up!!! Tegan's coming out with would-be profound, overstated triteisms, the plank's plankdom is coming out with wooden goobledegook and I can't bear it any more!!! In comparison, much-slated Waterhouse is Olivier material.

Things open with what I regard as probably the worst special effect in the series' history - that cartoon biro blast from the Master's Tardis. The class season 18 has only just ended and already we're going down the toilet. Davison is actually pretty good, but crushed by the twin forces of technobabble and anorakkism. Regeneration is a narrative device, not a story device. Davison never had viewing figures this high afterwards, showing a high drop-off of the hyped-up "casual audience". What would the Troughton impressions mean to anyone anyway? The episode is cleverly edited to make the Tardis look huge (and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the most we've ever seen of the interior? Oh, no, Invasion of Time had more, didn't it?) but like the regeneration, a story set aboard the Tardis is a fan dream that's a nightmare in reality. When the cliffhanger sees the Tardis about to explode you almost wish it would.

Davison's fine, but a camp villain and three totally crap companions make this an awful slice of television and a terrible slice of Doctor Who.
* *

A slightly better episode this one, with Davison's knowing, understated humour and authority taking more of a central role. He gets reading glasses, too, to accentuate the "old man in a young man's body" routine. Even Tegan and Nyssa up their game when he's around. And I like his Pertwee take-off here. In contrast, Ainley's only interested in exploring the outer reaches of ham.

The escape from event one is too visual an image for the budget to represent, so it's left as a very abstract resolution. The Doctor in that silly cabinet loses him dignity, but Davison pulls it off. Not only that, but the location shoot also helps. Who always looks better on location. It can be ponderous, though, with over a minute of silent tracking shots where Tegan and Nyssa push him along. Is the bit where Nyssa falls in the river a mistake? Because that bit where she says "urrgh!" has to be the only convincing bit of acting she's ever done. Mind you, she has got quite a nice arse.

The guys in the masks are quite a nice design, and bring some much-needed dramatic tension to proceedings. All in all, a much superior episode to the first.
* * *

"We've got to find the Doctor. Until he's properly regenerated he's terribly vulnerable." There's another thing about an episode by episode review. What seems an innocent comment is really a recap for new viewers tuning in. Mind you, ain't all Nyssa's lines stinkers? "I know so little about telebiogenesis". It's no wonder the plank has problems with her delivery.

The episode begins with one of my least favourite things about Who - the switch from filmed location to studio recreation of exterior shot on video. However, interestingly, the two sliding rock walls in which the Doctor is taken do resemble the female member. It's as if in order for this Doctor to be reborn, he has to be taken back into the womb. (File under: pompous psychological cobblers).

The Castrovalvan people work well with Davison, even if much of their dialogue is sub-sub-sub-sub-Shakespeare. Only thing that distracts is Anthony Ainley with two white bowler hats on his head. Of note is that the Doctor has been telling the Shardavan (off screen) about either Day of the Daleks or Frontier in Space. Or both. This is neither good or bad, I just thought I'd mention it.

There are some good scenes in this one. The bit where the young girl teaches Davison how to count is one of my favourites from his era. The Escher-inspired trap is also wonderful, though calling it a "recursive occlusion" makes it too esoteric for the average audience member. However, the incidental music for the story, particularly for the "action" bits, forces the mood rather than enhances it. A good episode, though, the best one of the story.
* * *

More good stuff abounds here, such as the Doctor realising that Castrovalva's history books go up to the present date, as well as the Doctor's expression that "it's on the tip of my mind." However, Castrovalva is really lacking in several key areas of drama, particularly conflict, and its core themes are a little too obscure. On a repeat viewing it stands up less as a story in its own right, more of a continuing, soap-like narrative. Don't get me wrong, as a fan it's good. But looked at from a non-fan's perspective would this really appeal?

More pompous ponderings: the "death and rebirth" theme is again invoked when the Doctor's zero cabinet is carried along like a coffin.

However, what is a fairly good episode is undermined by the reappearance of the Ainley Master. When your protagonist is a send-up panto dame then you have no story, no tension. My God he's crap. Ainley actually got better in the role, and was almost bearable in Survival. His claims that JN-T was behind him sending it up cannot be proved or disproved as he's so far turned down Big Finish. His Tardis in the fireplace is almost as bad as the Rani's. I do like the nightmarish final shot of him being dragged to his doom, but his appalling cries of "My weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeebbbb!" drag down a decent episode into a meagre:
* * ½

Better than I remembered, watching Castrovalva episode by episode has helped me appreciate it more. For while the first part is abominable Doctor Who, 2-4 are, on the whole, thoughtful, enjoyable television. Not the best debut story, but on reflection reasonably effective.
* * *