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Doctor Who: Twelve for Twelve – Castrovalva Review (Fifth Doctor)

The beginning of 1982 was something of a watershed moment for Doctor Who. The show had just faced the departure of its long-time star, Tom Baker, whose toothy grin, wild curls and trademark long scarf had impressed themselves upon a whole generation of fans. However, Baker’s seven years in the TARDIS proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the show itself, which by the end of his run was plagued with falling ratings. It was clear, therefore, that Doctor Who needed to kick off the New Year with a renewal of its own…

This involved the introduction of another new Doctor, this time played by Peter Davison, a respected actor already known to television audiences primarily as the affable Tristan Farnon in veterinary drama All Creatures Great and Small. The task of following the popular Tom Baker may have been a daunting one for any actor, but Davison makes the transition from vet to Doctor seemingly effortlessly, bringing something of Tristan’s likeability and openness to the Time Lord’s latest incarnation.

At 29 Davison was by far the youngest actor to take on the role – and would remain so until 27-year-old Matt Smith – but far from putting him at a disadvantage, his portrayal of the Doctor as an old man in a young man’s body would go on to influence several of his successors, most notably Smith himself. Davison still enthusiastically continues to play an active part in the show over 30 years on, becoming the first classic Doctor to appear in the new series by way of Children in Need special Time Crash and most recently contributing the hilarious and affectionate The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot to the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Before all this, however, was Castrovalva, unusually a series opener that almost acts as a finale, completing as it does a loose trilogy based around the Doctor’s encounters with long-standing adversary the Master. The previous two stories – The Keeper of Traken and Baker’s swansong Logopolis – are recommended but not essential viewing in order to understand Castrovalva, which stands just as well on its own.

“Welcome aboard. I’m the Doctor. Or will be if this regeneration works out.”

Castrovalva is very much a story of two halves, both featuring dastardly traps set by the Master. In the first half of the story the Doctor is blissfully unaware of this, instead choosing to wander the depths of the TARDIS in search of the Zero Room, which will help him heal post-regeneration by cutting off the rest of the universe. The Doctor’s unravelling in this half is fascinating to watch, not only literally as he unpicks his predecessor’s scarf but also as his mind begins to wander through past incarnations. The moments where he emulates the First and Second Doctors are particularly strong, and other times see him mistake his companions for previous TARDIS occupants and even work in a reference to ‘reversing the polarity of the neutron flow’.

“That’s the trouble with regeneration. You never quite know what you’re going to get.”

There are also some lovely little touches and quirks as the Doctor explores his new self, attempting to play the recorder before taking up a cricket bat with enthusiasm. His new outfit – already ready and waiting for him in a corridor – is perhaps too coordinated, but the lighter tones reflect his gentler personality and the cricket theme highlights that this will be a more active Doctor whilst keeping his sense of uniquely British eccentricity. The TARDIS indeed seems keen to help out the Doctor in other small ways, later throwing first-aid supplies into his path and sending him a wheelchair as he continues to struggle.

When the Doctor does finally find the Zero Room we get an early glimpse of the type of Doctor this new incarnation will be – hands instantly in pockets he exudes a calm sense of authority, taking charge of the situation but at the same time working with his companions as a team. After he quite literally floats off to sleep, the Doctor’s two newest companions – alien princess Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Australian air hostess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) – learn that the Master has kidnapped fellow companion Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and is using the young maths genius to help fuel his evil schemes. Incidentally, the two women work well together particularly while the Doctor is incapacitated, Nyssa’s scientific know-how and levelheadedness complimenting Tegan’s brash and impulsive nature.

“We’re heading straight into the biggest explosion in history!”

The Master’s trap takes shape as the crew discover that the TARDIS’s pre-programmed destination is ‘Event One’, otherwise known as the Big Bang. Getting away involves jettisoning a quarter of the TARDIS interior which leaves the Doctor without his Zero Room, but luckily an alternative is found in the TARDIS databanks – Castrovalva. Nyssa makes the Doctor an unsettlingly coffin-like ‘Zero Cabinet’ out of the Zero Room’s remains, Tegan makes a rather haphazard landing, and the two companions begin to carry the Doctor to their destination. If only they’d landed closer this part of the story might not suffer from such uneven pacing, and it’s honestly difficult to see what would be lost if the Event One section and journey to Castrovalva were simply cut out.

“Definitely civilisation.”

Fortunately the plot picks up in the second half when the Doctor and his companions finally reach Castrovalva, a city inspired by the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher in both name and design and inhabited by the friendly and welcoming Castrovalvans, fans of simple living and silly hats. The Doctor begins to recover under the positive influence of the city, encountering the sinister librarian Shardovan and the elderly Portreeve along the way, but although more stable he is still in a state of confusion. This leads to a rather sweet scene with a little girl who helps him to eventually notice Adric’s absence, the Doctor’s genuine concern for his missing companion from this point on demonstrating his caring nature.

 “We’re caught in a space-time trap!”

The Doctor and his remaining companions attempt to escape Castrovalva, but find it easier said than done. Writer Christopher Bidmead draws on Escher’s themes of recursion to create a truly compelling situation for the Doctor, who finds he cannot escape from the city as corridors and staircases fold back onto themselves. Rather than use brute force or complicated technology, the Doctor reasons through his dilemma using logic, his keen sense of curiosity and his pair of brainy specs to discover that Castrovalva is a fake, but who is behind it? The Doctor is able to look beyond his – and our – first impressions to finally discover the culprit and rescue Adric, helped by a particularly heroic moment from one of Castrovalva’s own.

“You made us, man of evil, but we are free!”

The marvellous Anthony Ainley plays a blinder in this story; as the moustache-twirling pantomime villain that is the Master he is an unabashed joy to watch, even if he never does seem more than one step away from actually tying the Doctor to some train tracks whilst cackling menacingly. If anything is lacking it is that although his eventual encounter with this Doctor is promising, on this occasion it never really gets going, instead leaving the dynamic between them to be explored in future stories.

With the Master’s plan foiled Castrovalva begins to collapse, but Adric is able to lead the rest of the TARDIS crew safely away. The Master, however, is not so lucky, and our final image of him being trapped with a hoard of panic-stricken Castrovalvans is genuinely disturbing, before the city disappears for good.

So, is Castrovalva a success? Bidmead’s imaginative concepts may have been thwarted by the difficulty of translating them onto screen – one can only wonder how this story would have looked with today’s technology – but the ideas themselves manage to carry the story through, helped by a witty script, well-characterised companions and a strong supporting cast. It also does well in managing to subvert viewer expectations throughout which makes for a genuinely engaging plot, even if the pacing of it is somewhat off-kilter.

“Well, whoever I feel like, it’s absolutely splendid!”

The real triumph, however, is how well Castrovalva works specifically as a post-regeneration story. Basing the plot around the Doctor’s struggle to adjust to his new form whilst escaping traps created for him is an inspired move, and the Fifth Doctor’s warmth, charm and vulnerability shine through, all portrayed with great skill and subtlety by Davison. The Fifth Doctor is, essentially, a very human and fallible soul who isn’t always sure of himself and his actions; it is a brave way to depict the Doctor particularly following his confident and uniquely alien predecessor, but one which ultimately works very well.

When he finally jogs back to the TARDIS with his companions at the end of the story and attaches a stick of celery to his lapel, it feels like the Fifth Doctor has finally arrived. Castrovalva is a solid start for the Fifth Doctor, setting him up nicely for a satisfying character arc which culminates with him once again saving his companion, this time on the bleak world of Androzani Minor…

Tomorrow: Change, my dears, and not a moment too soon – at least according to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, whom TGT writer Ben will be looking at in his review of The Twin Dilemma.