21×6. The Caves of Androzani
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Graeme Harper
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri are caught amidst a power struggle on Androzani Minor between the corrupt business executive Morgus and his unstable partner-turned-enemy Sharaz Jek, while trying to find the cure to the lethal disease of Spectrox toxemia that they have both accidentally contracted, culminating in the Doctor’s regeneration when only enough of the antidote can be found to save Peri’s life.
Review: I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or ironic (or perhaps appropriately ironic?) that Peter Davison’s final serial as the Doctor is both his best in terms of writing quality and one of the most bleakly downbeat offerings that Doctor Who has ever produced. There are scenes here that, viewed in isolation, I would probably have guessed were from Blake’s 7 if I didn’t know otherwise, so matter-of-fact in their cold-hearted opportunism are some of the characters. It is perhaps not surprising that celebrated Who scribe Robert Holmes, returning to the series for the first time since Season 16’s “The Power of Kroll,” contributed to its darker and more cynical sister series in the meantime, given the tone and content of his work in this script.
The business executive Morgus and the gun-runner Stotz are probably the two nastiest pieces of work, both untroubled by committing acts of betrayal and murder to improve their own position. Morgus in particular seems to have no redeeming qualities at all, manipulating the local economy so as to force workers into indentured servitude and maintaining ties to both sides of a bloody local war. But the society that produced him is not much better: the President whom he eventually murders rules over what appears to be a deeply corrupt and plutocratic system that places profit above all, and while Morgus’s assistant eventually turns on him and exposes his crimes, she seems to do so primarily to usurp his power rather than out of any moral objection to his behavior. The local army, meanwhile, is led by General Chellak, about whom the best I can say is that he isn’t openly sadistic or treacherous, as he still carries out executions without much regret and seems driven at least partly by concern for his own political standing with the powers that be. (Though in this society, he might well fear something worse than simple demotion if he loses his standing.) In any case, it’s saying something when Sharaz Jek, who is driven by a desire for revenge against Morgus and who has a twisted obsession with Peri’s physical beauty, might come closest to being a tragic villain, if not exactly a sympathetic one.
Rarely has the Doctor seemed so powerless as he is in “The Caves of Androzani.” There are no noble resistance fighters with whom to ally, no idealistic reformers to be maneuvered into power, no day to be saved – just one desperate Time Lord determined not to let his companion pay with her life for having traveled with him to Androzani Minor. There has been something of a theme to Season 21, in that a generally idealistic and empathetic Doctor has found himself repeatedly confronted by grim situations and unable to find solutions that do not involve some form of violence. “Caves” could well be interpreted as the culmination of this theme, insofar as the Doctor declines to try to gain control over the larger situation at all, perhaps sensing that to do so would be futile, and instead carries out a simpler act of heroism by helping Peri escape back to the TARDIS and potentially sacrificing his own life. Indeed, he is unsure that he will regenerate, commenting that “it feels different this time” and expending his possible final breaths calling the name of Adric, whose death the Doctor must count as one of his greatest regrets. The regeneration scene itself, while lacking in the Gallifreyan otherworldliness that made its counterparts in “Planet of the Spiders” and “Logopolis” so memorable, is nevertheless well-executed, as he imagines the Master taunting him as well as Adric and other recent companions pleading with him to survive. Colin Baker ably makes an impression in what can’t be more than a minute of screen time, his first utterances being to chide Peri in a way that makes it clear that this new Doctor will be a very different kind of person.
Doctor Who is not, in fact, Blake’s 7, nor would I want it to be (and I say that as a Blake’s 7 fan myself), and the series would be changing its identity significantly if every serial were as dark as “The Caves of Androzani.” But as a single offering and a swan song for an idealistic but fallible Doctor, who shows the value he places on a single life by choosing to sacrifice his own, this is a remarkably well-crafted and successful piece of science fiction.
Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)