The Caves of Androzani (1984 – Fifth Doctor with Peri Brown)
I had to watch this one at some point. After all, The Caves of Androzani is regarded by many sources – including a poll in Doctor Who Magazine – as the best Doctor Who story ever. So I went into it with high expectations – but does it deserve the hype?
The last classic Who I watched was the Fifth Doctor’s first full adventure – and this one is his last. The Doctor and his companion Peri land on the undeveloped planet Androzani Minor, where unfortunately, some simple wandering around lands them right in the middle of a war. In the caves of Androzani Minor, the fugitive Sharaz Jek is controlling stocks of Spectrox, the most valuable substance in the universe, and the government of Androzani Major is battling with his force of androids to get their hands on it. As if getting mixed up in this nasty business wasn’t enough, the Doctor and Peri find that thanks to one foot put wrong, they are both dying of Spectrox toxaemia – and the cure is almost impossible to get hold of.
This is quite a different story from normal as while it has the Doctor taking the TARDIS into the middle of a conflict as per usual, he doesn’t actively do anything to resolve said conflict. He’s not even interested in doing so – he refers to the war as pathetic at one point. Once he knows about the poisoning, his number one priority is finding a cure and ensuring Peri’s safety. The Caves of Androzani could be seen as two stories running in parallel and influencing each other: the war over the Spectrox, and the Doctor and Peri trying to save their own lives. But these plotlines gel just fine, and flow at a perfect pace. The overall plot is brilliantly complex without becoming impossible to follow: the two sides in the war have to keep modifying their strategies as their knowledge of what the other is up to changes, while the role of Androzani businessman Morgus further muddles things as he secretly manipulates both sides for his own ends. Appropriately, it all boils down to some inelegant hand-to-hand struggling between the central figures in Episode 4. And meanwhile, for the Doctor and Peri, something new goes wrong at every turn.
Sharaz Jek, as portrayed by Christopher Gable, may be my favourite one-off character in Classic Who so far. Everything about him makes him appear dangerous: the way he looks, the way he speaks, even the way he walks. His motives are understandable, and he gets some of the best-written dialogue in the story. There’s one scene where the Doctor is flippant towards Jek while he’s doing business with his weapons providers: he first finishes his conversation with the other men, before immediately striking the Doctor and reprimanding him – subtleties to a performance like that make a great character.
The style of filming is also really good: the caves create a suitably gloomy atmosphere, and some of the gritty scenes with the military would be perfectly at home in a war film. We learn enough about the culture of Androzani to get some idea of how it all works, without info-dumping: again, there are subtleties to this, like the President’s remark on how he doesn’t like the Doctor and Peri getting the traditional red cloth treatment for their execution. The cliffhangers of Episodes 1 and 3 are particularly good; the latter, which sees the Doctor dramatically flying a spaceship down to Androzani Minor while loudly declaring how he will save Peri no matter what, feels suitably epic for a Doctor’s final adventure. It feels like what Russell T Davies was going for with the Tenth Doctor in The End of Time, except too much in that adventure was either bland or plain ridiculous. The final ending for the Spectrox conflict feels pretty sad in spite of everything – but of course, the ending for the Fifth Doctor is even sadder.
Is there anything to fault about this story? Well, maybe a couple of little things. Nicola Bryant is the only companion I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in real life, but while she does get to show off her acting skills (such as the scenes preceding the execution in Episode 1), Peri doesn’t have much of an active role in the story, though admittedly she has the excuse of being seriously ill in the latter stages. Also, the obvious-guy-in-a-costume that is the magma creature looks rather silly, but certainly no more silly than many other monsters – I suppose it just stands out because everything else looks so good.
The Caves of Androzani fully deserves the high regard that Doctor Who fans hold it in; it’s a superbly constructed story on every level, and every fan should watch it at some point. Rating: 5/5!