Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani Review (or “Has the DWM Mighty 200 Got One Right? Is This The Best Ever?”)

The DWM Mighty 200 – Doctor Who Magazine’s rating of all the Doctor Who stories as voted by the fans – has played a key role in my Doctor Who reviews.

As I go through each story, I compare what I think about them to how Doctor Who fandom as a group rates them in relation to the other stories in the series.

More often than note, I find myself disagreeing with what they have to say, with stories such as the Gunfighters, The Underwater Menace and The Monster of Peladon being criminally overlooked, while the likes of  Logopolis, Warrior’s Gate and the Curse of Peladon are massively overrated.

Well now we come to the big one; the number one rated story in the DWM Mighty 200 – The Caves of Androzani.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by asking whether or not I’ll like the story, because of course I do. As I see it, if you don’t like a story of the undoubted quality of Peter Davison’s final adventure as the Doctor, then you’re watching the wrong show.

And yet I must admit, as a child I didn’t get the fuss. It’s not that I disliked it, but for a boy of around…oh…10-14 years old, it flew over my head a bit.

I’ll explain why and also determine whether I agree with the DWM Mighty 200 assessment as the review progresses.

Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani Review: What’s This One About

Robert Holmes was given a brief; Kill the Doctor.

And that’s what he does, in a story devoid of any “monsters” to speak of (unless you’re talking about the character of the main players involved) and about greed, revenge and the Doctor’s determination to save the life of a girl he’s only just met (if you ignore the Big Finish stuff).

Thoughts – The Most Adult Doctor Who Story of All Time

Now I said above that I didn’t get the fuss about Androzani when I was a child, but then I doubt I’d have enjoyed I, Claudius at that age either.

Here's some pretty intense "Breaking The Fourth Wall" acting from John Normington. He taught Lovejoy everything he knew

Here’s some pretty intense “Breaking The Fourth Wall” acting from John Normington. He taught Lovejoy everything he knew

The Caves of Androzani didn’t seem like it was written with a youngster like me in mind, and I’ve got no problem with that.

It’s a story where The Doctor doesn’t try to save the world or overthrow a corrupt regime, but one where simply by being there, he sets off a chain of events that results in the death of the President of Androzani Major, the overthrowing of a tyrannical business owner who ruled oppressively over its population and the end of a brutal war over the stockpiling of a drug that the people of that civilisation believed was worth dying for.

That all this can happen without the Doctor doing anything so much as appearing as a captive on a video screen is genius.

As far as the Doctor and Peri are concerned, the key moment happens less than five minutes in. When Peri falls into the Spectrox Nest and the Doctor brushes it off her legs, that really is it for them; the die is cast and nothing they do between now and the end of the story can prevent the regeneration.

Throughout the rest of The Caves of Androzani we’re treated to a story of relationships, and how each of the characters react to one another. There’s Jek & Morgus, Stotz & Jek, Jek & Peri, Morgus & Stotz, Morgus & The President, Morgus & Timmin, Stotz & Krelper and finally Jek & Chellak.

Other than Peri, every single one of those characters is – in their own way – a nasty, selfish piece of work.

And what is so good about the writing of Caves of Androzani is that every single one of these relationships, deep and intricate though they are, comes to a head in Episode 4.

The story builds up until it reaches boiling point – which incidentally works wonderfully with the idea of the mud burst being set to blow up at the same time – and it kicks of big time with around 15 minutes to go. At the same time as all of this is going on, the Doctor – fighting against death – is simply trying his best to find a way to cure Peri.

I could go on for a long time about how wonderful the depth of the storytelling and characterisation is here, but I think you get the picture.

And I say it’s undoubtedly the most adult story there is. It’s bleak, the characters have no real right to be in a show considered suitable for family entertainment and there are no scary monsters in funny costumes (but for the minor cameo of that Cave monster, which is the one element the story could do without) to scare the kids.

The most gritty scene of the lot – and possibly in Doctor Who history – has to be the one in episode 2 where Stotz forces Krelper into eating what Krelper believes is a deadly pill. I mean, for crying out loud he even shouts at him “Come on you slut, bite!”. This is what Doctor Who should always be like!

The Acting

A good story is one thing, but it needs talented actors to pull it off.

"Come on you slut, bite (the deadly pill in your mouth)" shouts Stotz while holding a knife to Krelper's throat by the edge of a cliff. Perfect teatime viewing for all the family

“Come on you slut, bite (the deadly pill in your mouth)” shouts Stotz while holding a knife to Krelper’s throat by the edge of a cliff. Perfect teatime viewing for all the family

The Caves of Androzani has these in abundance.

Every actor understands their role and is cast perfectly, from Christopher Gable as the masked and insane Sharaz Jek through to John Normington as the cold and ruthless Morgus.

Of the guest cast, I think my favourite performer is Maurice Roeves as Stotz.

Stotz is – to be blunt – a maniac, and Roeves knows exactly how to play him. It would have been wrong to write and perform a character like him as a guy who is always shouting and bawling, so the idea that he’s often quite relaxed and yet is more than capable of killing his colleagues when their backs are turned is fantastic.

That scene I describe above wouldn’t have worked were it not for the intensity of Roeves’s performance.

As to the regular cast, Nicola Bryant is far better as Peri than she was in her debut, but most credit has to go to Peter Davison.

Davison has saved the best for last, with a multi-layered and thoroughly confident performance as the Doctor. You look at the likes of Pertwee or Tom Baker in their last story and get a sense that they’d ran out of enthusiasm and it was time for them to go.

But Davison’s performance here shows that there’s life in the old dog yet. It wasn’t his time to go, and his character – written more like the character of the Fourth Doctor before he became all comedic and then maudlin – is far better than it has been probably in any of his previous stories.

He’s just superb, from his interactions with Jek through to his breathtaking performance in the cliffhanger to Episode 3.

The Direction

What takes Caves of Androzani over the limit of being an excellent story into a genuine contender for the #1 slot though for me is the direction.

I don’t want to say that the standard of direction we’ve seen in the show up to this point has been primitive, because that’s not necessarily true. There’s been a range of quality from very poor to pretty darn good, but Graeme Harper leaves them all trailing in his wake.

The fade outs, the fast movement, the choice of camera angles, the accidental-but-brilliant fourth wall break by Morgus; it is literally awesome compared to what we’ve seen before.

What I love about it most is that Harper has invested in what he’s doing. He’s not some freelancer going through the motions just to pick up a pay-cheque at the end of the shoot; he’s put his heart and soul into it.

The little things, like the way we see the same effect used in the regeneration clouding over the Doctor’s eyes only for him to shake it off is brilliant. There’s nothing in the script about it and it’s never mentioned again, but the idea – straight from Harper’s own vision of what’s happening – is that he’s about to regenerate there and then but manages to hold it back. I mean, how good is that?

Harper is a cut above, and it’s no surprise he’s been used so many times since the series returned (although suspiciously never by Steven Moffat).

The Fifth Doctor Timeline

So this is it; it’s time to count it all up. The Caves of Androzani I believe takes place over two days, so that leaves us with…

  • Castrovalva (2 days)
  • Four to Doomsday (1 day)
  • Kinda (2 days)
  • The Visitation (1 day)
  • Black Orchid (Story lasts an afternoon, but they stay for maybe 3 days to attend funeral)

    Here's the one thing Caves of Androzani could have done without

    Here’s the one thing Caves of Androzani could have done without

  • Earthshock (Half a day)
  • Time Flight (One and a half days at a push)
  • Arc of Infinity (1 day plus an unknown amount of time between stories)
  • Snakedance (2 days)
  • Mawdryn Undead (1 day)
  • Terminus (1 day)
  • Enlightenment (2 days at a push)
  • King’s Demons (1 day)
  • Five Doctors (1 day plus an unknown amount of time between stories)
  • Warrior of the Deep (1 day)
  • The Awakening (1 day and then they stay there for a week’s holiday)
  • Frontios (1 day)
  • Resurrection of the Daleks (The same day)
  • Planet of Fire (1 day)
  • Caves of Androzani (2 days)

Therefore, on-screen, the Fifth Doctor’s entire tenure lasts for between 27 and 34 days.

At no point does the Doctor travel alone, and though perhaps as much as a year passed between Time Flight & Arc of Infinity, and maybe some time elapsed between The Five Doctors & Warriors of the Deep, for a man who’s supposed to be around the 1000 years old range, his Fifth incarnation really was as fleeting visit.

Random Observations

  • As amazing as Caves of Androzani is, there are still one of two niggles. The cliffhanger to Episode 3 isn’t resolved all that well, with the Doctor not actually crashing the ship but landing safely.
  • Also, the Cave monster is a bit crap as I’ve said, you have to ask why the Doctor didn’t get enough bat’s milk for himself (and if he did and he dropped it getting into the TARDIS, which was the original intention, why would he not have drank it straight away in the cave), and you must also wonder why the Doctor didn’t tell Jek about the Spectrox Toxemia earlier? Considering Jek had a vested interest in keeping Peri alive, he would have helped sooner.
  • I’ve been very critical of Roger Limb’s efforts at Incidental Music up to this point, but he gets it spot on here.
  • Knowing that this was going to be the last story Peter Davison appeared in but that the season would continue with the new Doctor, the cliffhangers to episodes 1 and 3 must have been really exciting to watch the first time around. Viewers will genuinely have wondered whether or not he actually did die.
  • And how brave would it have been if he had done; if he’d regenerated at the end of Episode 3? The story would have suffered, but it would have been the bravest piece of plot development seen in Doctor Who in years, perhaps ever.
  • If you are to assume that the best story ever has to have everything, where this suffers compared to the likes of the Talons of Weng Chiang and Blink is in the sets and costumes. As an unfortunate by-product of where and when this is set,
    Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!

    Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!

    the designers had to go “Space Age” and that never looks as good or as genuine as period drama or modern-day stuff.

  • My heart sank at the end of this one, seeing Colin Baker turn up. I think Baker is very good in the Big Finish audios, but his TV stuff – as I’ll expand on in the future – is often brutal.
  • To me, Robert Holmes is a hit & miss writer. A chunk of his Dr Who output ranges from mediocre to crap (and the worst is yet to come) and yet when he’s on form, he’s capable of writing some of  the – if not the –  best stories ever written for the show. It’s just difficult to know how to rate him based on his entire body of work.
  • Did you know that Graeme Harper wanted to cast Michael Craze as Krelper but JNT vetoed it? I only found that out last night.
  • Robert Glenister has some great “Eye Acting” as the android, does he not?
  • I’m perfectly alright with the idea that the Doctor and Peri travelled together for some time in between Planet of Fire and this, as it’s never speficially stated that they’d only just met here and many of the Big Finish stories with the two of them are good. However, what I do believe is extremely tenuous is the Big Finish story that takes place during the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration sequence involving Nyssa.
  • The regeneration sequence itself is probably the best one up to this point in terms of storyline, but it’s still not a patch on the very first one for the quality of the special effect.
  • And why is the Doctor thinking about Kamelion?
  • DWM Mighty 200 Rating: #1, but you knew that

Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani Review: Final Thoughts

The Caves of Androzani is an excellent story. It builds throughout with tension, drama, top quality acting & directing and finishes with all the linking and complex storylines and relationships coming to a head.

The greatest pity when watching it is knowing that this is how good Doctor Who could have been around this era, with a motivated and talented lead actor, strong supporting cast members and an excellent director. And yet it so often isn’t this good, or anywhere near it.

What’s wrong with the likes of Eric Saward and John Nathan Turner – the latter of whom thought this didn’t have the potential of the Twin Dilemma – that they couldn’t see that the best stories are done with minimal interference from talented writers. It’s bizarre and makes no sense.

We’ll see the baffling situation where following on from this – the top rated story of all time – we move onto the story that finished last in the same poll.

So I guess you have to ask yourself this; much like Ian told Barbara that Autloc was the odd man out rather than Tlotoxl, is Caves of Androzani just a blip? Is it that Doctor Who couldn’t reach this standard by anything other than an accident in this period of its history, or is it that the people in charge of the show genuinely misused it so that it rarely got anywhere near its full potential.

Who knows? I suppose we should just be grateful for what is a work of art and a genuine contender for my Best Story of All Time.

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4 Responses to Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani Review (or “Has the DWM Mighty 200 Got One Right? Is This The Best Ever?”)

  1. Slavin Ivanov says:

    Fantastic review but you know that already!
    Do you think that they should have ended Doctor Who here?
    And can you imagine Peter Davison in Season 22?
    Would there have been a hiatus?

  2. sgmilne says:

    Cheers.

    I certainly wouldn’t have ended the show here, but I do think that if he had stayed in the show, it probably wouldn’t have been cancelled.

    From what I’ve gleamed, Michael Grade didn’t like the show or Colin Baker. Davison’s Doctor was far better,

  3. Professor Thascales says:

    I also think it’s a great story. But I don’t think every story should have been like it–at least in terms of tone. (In quality, yes.) If every story was like it, the series would become relentlessly bleak and lose most of its charm–Doctor Who needs more variety.
    In season 22 and 23, they used Caves as a template (or so I’ve read)–they kept doing a bad imitation of Caves, in a way–and it made the series nasty and fairly hopeless. (As well as the 6th Doctor being almost totally unlikeable, and a companion who just suffered and didn’t want to be there, and who could blame her?)

    I sometimes think of it as “Blake’s 7 done right.” One thing that makes it work better than most of Saward’s tenure is that, in such a grim setting, the Doctor isn’t trying to bring peace or save the day. He’s just trying to save himself and Peri, and succeeds at the latter, and sort of succeeds at the former. So the story doesn’t clown him out, as in (say) Warriors of the Deep or Resurrection–it’s a crapsack setting he’s in, but he succeeds in what he sets out to do.

  4. sgmilne says:

    I’ve never really thought about that before – that the Sixth Doctor era tries to replicate the mood and tone of CoA.

    It’s a good point.

    And yes, I agree with the point about how it shouldn’t always be like that, but I meant in terms of the quality of storytelling rather than the type

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