Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Visitation

Chapter The 75th, which features a dandy highwayman grabbing your attention.

The Doctor, aiming to return Tegan for the first day of her air-steward job at Heathrow Airport, gets there over 300 years too early (only a little bit longer than you're advised to allow when you're taking a long haul flight). Along with Nyssa and Adric, they stay to investigate when they find evidence that they are not the only aliens recently in the vicinity. Accompanied by local actor / highwayman, Richard Mace, because four people sharing the exposition was clearly not enough already, they discover a crash-landed party of lizard criminals, the Terileptils, who are genetically augmenting the plague that was already around, with the aim of killing all the human population and taking over the planet. The Terileptils also have an android which they dress up as Death to frighten away any snooping natives; the rest of the time they dress it up as one of Boney M, just because. The Doctor foils the plan but inadvertently starts a fire in London. It turns out to be 1666; who would have thunk it?

With the Christmas holidays nearing an end, there was a day or two left to watch a classic Who story with the whole family before we all returned to work and normality after the festive fun; strangely, not one of them (including the Better Half) moaned, resisted or absented themselves, they were all up for it. We watched the first three episodes in one sitting, following up a couple of days later with episode 4, from the special edition revisited Re-Visitation DVD. Then, weeks went by and various urgent stuff happened at home, and I had to go to Romania for the day job, believe it or not, and suddenly it's not even New Year anymore, let alone Christmas and I have only just started looking at my notes; luckily, The Visitation does not have intricate interweaving layers of plotting that would be hard to recall after a few weeks - it's pretty much as straightforward as Doctor Who gets.

First-time round:
Peter Davison's debut year was the first time I watched new broadcast episodes of Who semi-regularly. I choose the prefix carefully: I would have to miss every other episode because - Doctor Who being broadcast that year for the first time on two weekday evenings per week - one episode would conflict with a pre-existing commitment, my attendance at Second Durrington Cub Scout pack meetings. I missed episodes 1 and 3, but caught 2 and 4 - not ideal, but it could have been worse. Except, I didn't really. I feigned illness, I moaned and groaned, I weedled and persuaded as best I could. It might need spelling out to younger souls than me, but in those days if I didn't see an episode when it went out, I might have missed my only chance. There was no video recording or playing equipment in my house for another five years, and no one I knew for at least a couple more years had even heard of a video in early 1982, let alone got one. Episodes got repeated, but these were seemingly chosen and scheduled at random, so were also easy to miss.

The latter two episodes of The Visitation fell in the half term holidays when cubs wasn't on, so I should have been able to watch them both; unfortunately, a traffic jam on the way home from a family outing (a day detailed further in the Deeper Thoughts section of the blog post covering The Rescue) meant I missed episode 4, and had to wait until the story was repeated 18 months later, after a whole other new season had been broadcast (see what I mean about random scheduling), to find out how it ended.
The Visitation is an adventure in history, with a cute twist at the end to link in to a standard school text topic; what could be more Doctor Who than that? It’s what Who does: every other story or so, they go back in time, in between the alien planet or spaceship shenanigans. Right? Well, no, not really; between William Hartnell relinquishing the role and Peter Davison’s first season, you can count the number of stories set wholly in Earth’s past on two Sontaran three-fingered hands. Only after The Visitation does this start to become a regular story type again. This seems to be part of a ‘back to the basics’ push happening to make the show more like it was when it very first began, which I’ll go into a bit more depth about later.

It’s not exactly a failure and the year is diverse in its story concepts, but – particularly when watching a story in isolation – there are frustrations. In The Visitation, the first scene is an exciting cold open, where the threat of the week (remaining unseen all the while) attacks some newly introduced characters, who we’ll never see again. It’s not from the TARDIS crew’s POV, though, and when we cut to them we’re treated to a long sequence where the regulars are talking about the events of Kinda, the previous story. It squanders the energy that’s been built up and is also confusing in its detail: who cares or even remembers the TSS, a minor aspect of Kinda, so why are they banging on about it when - unbeknownst to them, but fresh in the audience’s minds - the squire’s family have just been butchered by assailants unknown? Get out of the TARDIS and start investigating, dammit. For all that they may seem slow now, those early Hartnell stories rarely dwelt in such a static way as this at the start of an adventure; they’d generally just recap the short cliffhanger end from last week, then get stuck in. 

Once it gets going, the story is a refreshingly straightforward adventure of aliens stranded in history making mischief; the Terileptils are conceptually and visually interesting and their leader is well performed by future Queen Vic landlord Michael Melia, who gets a couple of good confrontation scenes with Davison. Richard Mace, who was not an original creation but pre-existed as the lead character from writer Saward's earlier radio plays, is also fun but doesn't have much reason to be present at all: he doesn't contribute any help beyond a comic double-take now and again, and doesn't learn or grow based on his experiences. Everyone else in the piece is an underwritten cipher - has anyone living ever got referred to just as 'The Poacher'? Don't these people have names?

The end of episode 3, which I had to wait ages to see resolved, where a mesmerised Tegan reaches to open a cage and release a plague rat that will infect them all, frightened the whatsits out of me when I was a nipper; I was roundly mocked by all family members (even the 5-year old) when I confessed this. This time round, it occurred to me that never before or after this in the story do we see anyone infected by the plague, so it was quite an intangible threat (which maybe left my imagination to inflate it out of proportion). Also, does it even make sense? Could the infected fleas not jump out of the cage anyway, without a rat needing to be freed? Would the rats particularly go for anyone in the room if released anyway, or more likely just scuttle off into a corner? Best not to question, I think, or it will all fall apart

Both have a guest character travel in the TARDIS who has been plucked out of history, and who is comically bewildered by everything that's going on. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
One of those Sixties medley mixes released in the early 1980s. As I mentioned above, whether consciously or unconsciously - and there must have been some deliberate action to shape this whether or not those shaping knew of the precedent - Peter Davison’s first year in the role, ‘season 19’, echoes the first year of the programme ever in the William Hartnell incumbency: there are three companions alongside the Doctor, one or more of whom are unwilling participants that got caught up in the Doctor’s travels whom he now is aiming to get back to their professional life in contemporary London; but, he’s having difficulty in doing this as he can’t steer the TARDIS. Additionally, each story picks up were the last one left off; it’s one adventure - singular - in Time and Space. The problem with repeating this approach in the 1980s is that Doctor Who had moved on significantly since its beginnings to accept a certain degree of direction and purpose in the Time Lord’s travels, i.e. he fights bad guys and monsters in a more heightened genre. It was perhaps too late to drop all that, and they don’t really try; instead, we get an uneasy mix of old school peripatetic wanderings through educational history and science, but with standing up to alien invasions and mad scientists too.

This was the next phase of a process started the previous year to reduce the silliness of Doctor Who. Part of this involved scraping off some of the gadgets that had been felt to make things a bit too easy; the hyper-intelligent companion had gone, K9 had gone, and The Visitation says goodbye (at least for a long while) to the sonic screwdriver. William Hartnell did without the magic wand to get past locked doors, after all. Well, yes; but, for Hartnell and crew, certainly at the beginning, the locked doors were the point. They weren't on any heroic mission, they were just trying to get back to the TARDIS, and so a device which made that easier by opening any cell door would have spoiled things. When they're locked in various places, the first four regulars in 1963/64 get to spark off each other with unique takes on their situation, because that's the point - to explore the situation, more than to defeat the bad guy; by 1982, that genie would not go back in the bottle.

The four regulars in Davison's first year don't have the different and specific purposes that the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan did, because the show didn't need that anymore. As Hartnell morphed into the hero rather than the unreliable uncle character, they did away with one role to form the rough template for the rest of the sixties: intellectual hero, action sidekick + one to ask questions / get into trouble. Once the Doctor was being played by a younger man and could plausibly do his own action bits, you only needed two regulars and this was how it was for most of the 1970s. In 1982, Adric is closest to being the one that gets into trouble (he twists his ankle in The Visitation, the biggest call back to 1960s Doctor Who tropes imaginable), Nyssa asks the questions (but is also very clever in a consistency-busting way). Tegan moans. In fact, at times in The Visitation, all of them are moaning, criticising or in some way undermining the Doctor.

My guess is that writers and script editors presented with all these characters use them as a certain standard of screenwriting theory or instinct would dictate: to generate conflict. After all, what’s the point of four characters if they agree on everything.  If they can disagree or even row about the steering of the TARDIS, or the Doctor’s heavy-handed style when acting as pater familias for Adric, or whether to walk or take the TARDIS (no, really, at one point they do argue about that) then it creates story beats which form scenes. This may be true, but it starts to have a cumulatively corrosive effect. None of the people he chooses to travel with appears to respect the Doctor, our hero, and nobody seems to be having any fun. So, why exactly am I watching this show? 

Worst of all, this set-up becomes a warm petri dish in which to breed padding. In simultaneously having too many characters who need something to do, and being stripped of the devices that speed up the narrative, stories like The Visitation end up with long, long sequences of Nyssa in the TARDIS building a thing to blow up the android. It's even a sonic thing she builds, exactly like the thing the Doctor keeps in his pocket. It feels like she spends hours of screen time over several episodes working on building a big sonic screwdriver, and then, once built, it's used, and it works. There's no reversal, it's a purely linear subplot of the most dull kind. If one were to reinstate the sonic and instantly cut all that, plus limit the companions in number so you could focus on making them interesting and believable, you'd get much more compelling adventures that could be told in half the time. It's no surprise that, come 2005, that's exactly what happened.

In Summary:
Linear and padded, but still a fun throwback.

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