The story I am reviewing at number 13 in our continuing odyssey through all that’s best in the Doctor’s world, is actually my number 12 due to another attack of Countdown Clash Syndrome and it’s a story that was voted by readers of Doctor Who Magazine, as the best story ever. And although not at the very top of my personal list, it features very highly for very good reasons.
I speak, of course about the Fifth Doctor’s amazing swansong, The Caves of Androzani. It’s an interesting and staggering fact that this was director Graeme Harper’s first time at the helm. To achieve a near perfect piece of Doctor Who genius on your first outing is astonishing and firmly set him up as one of the best director’s in the show, a fact rewarded by him being the only director of the “classic” show to also direct “new Who”.
So just why is Caves so highly regarded by fans? Well basically it’s because pretty much everything works as one glorious whole.
The story is gritty, poignant and often very direct, all in equal measure. It pulls no punches and delivers some harrowing scenes, including possibly the best cliffhanger ever seen on the show. The execution of the Doctor and Peri by firing squad is genuinely shocking. I remember being stunned to see our heroes get gunned down and was even more stunned when, unlike with some previous cliffhangers, the resolution in the following episode involved no editing or rewriting of what happened. It happened exactly like we saw it the previous week, and it was genuinely shocking to see them, for all intent and purposes, dead.
The characterisation is also gritty and realistic. Jek is a credible and believable protagonist and is very different from many “villains” that pepper the John Nathan-Turner years, who are often overblown, pantomime “baddies”. Christopher Gable is simply stunning in the role and I’ve always thought it a shame Jek was killed and that we weren’t able to see him reprise his role again. And it wasn’t just Gable who was amazing. Everyone gets it right. Morgus is equally believable and Stolz is absolutely how a ruthless and cold blooded gun runner would be.
Which brings us to Peter Davison. It’s ironic but also fitting that his final story should be his best, For the first time, we see a regeneration caused directly by the Doctor giving up his life to save a companion. And Davison’s immanent demise permeates the majority of the story. Foreshadowing recent regeneration stories, the Doctor knows he is going to die and Davison’s performance is full of power and pathos and there is actually a feeling that he might not make it this time. This is also implied by the actual regeneration itself, which is by far the best seen in the history of the show. He says it “Feels different this time” and it certainly was. Having previous companions urging him to live and the Master doing just the opposite was a genius move and you really felt like that, perhaps without his faithful friends willing him on, he might not make it this time. It’s interesting that the Fifth Doctor’s final word is “Adric?” and that one word sums up the latter part of this Doctor’s time. A man haunted by the death of a companion. This the way you do a “final” story. No self indulgent moping like we got when Ten left us. Davison’s performance is utterly compelling and the Fifth Doctor leaves us as a magnificent but damaged hero. Bravo, Peter. Without a doubt one of the finest performances from our leading man ever seen. You can see why Davison cites Caves as his favourite from his time. In fact, Caves is so good as a final story that I’m hoping that Steven Moffat went back and watched The Caves of Androzani when he sat down to write Matt’s send off.
There are a couple of other nice touches in it too that are worthy of note purely from a trivia point of view. We finally find out why this Doctor wears a stick of celery and Colin Baker’s Doctor is the first “new” Doctor to get dialogue in the same episode as his predecessor and it’s immediately clear that Six will be very different from Five.
It’s just a pity that no-one realised that this gem didn’t need a magma creature that looked like a man in a dragon suit. Oh well. Nothing’s perfect.
But, The Caves of Androzani is an almost perfect example of just how good the show can be when everything works. Story, performance, design, script all come together to make it a truly memorable slice of Doctor Who history. — Steve
The 50 for 50 Top Ten is looming, but #12 follows next week…