Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Visitation

The Visitation
[1982 - Season 19, Serial 4]

The Visitation, Peter Davison’s fourth outing as the Fifth Doctor, seems like a good place to start reviewing his era.  It was the first script from soon-to-be-script editor Eric Saward, and it has to at least a small extent most of the flaws that so damaged the fifth Doctor’s era: thin, derivative stories; forgettable villains; plot holes; Adric; and above all, the Fifth Doctor’s inaction.  He’s supposed to be the most compassionate of Doctors, but in many writer’s hands – even good ones like Saward – he tends to do far too little.

But The Visitation is also blessed with everything good about the Fifth Doctor’s era, as well: Saward’s talent for writing mercenary characters; a competant, cool companion in Nyssa, nicely underplayed by Sarah Sutton; fantastic location filming, courtesy producer John Nathan-Turner’s ability to stretch budgets to their limits; and above all, Peter Davison’s performances as the Doctor, which are so charming and compelling that they rise above even the weakest of scripts.  Davison really was the glue that held his mixed bag of an era together.

The Visitation starts strongly, as a family in the mid-1600s meet a hostile alien visitor.  The family is nicely sketched by Saward and the actors for characters who only appear for a few minutes, and you care about those under attack from far superior technology.  It’s a short but effective opening.

Competent Special Effects?  What?!  This is an outrage!

Then to the TARDIS, where the Doctor chastises Adric (rightly) for interfering and nearly making everything much, much worse during Kinda, the previous episode.  It’s a rare Adric-centered scene that works, nailing his ineffectual character without making him overtly unlikable (which is good, because the rest of this episode won’t be anywhere near as kind).  It also has a great line from the Doctor: “Next time you want to escape somewhere, walk.”  Sarah Sutton plays the scene very well, too.  And the interaction with Tegan that follows is also effective.  I really like the Doctor’s severe reluctance to apologize to Tegan for what he considers a very minor mistake (arriving 300 hundred years early), as well as the semi-sincerity of his eventual apology.

Most of the first episode is very strong.  The location filming is terrific, and makes it feel much bigger-budget and more cinematic than most episodes.  If there’s one thing the BBC can do, it’s period pieces, and the costumes and atmosphere are excellent.  The effects are also unusually good.  It’s also enlivened considerably by Michael Robbin’s wonderful performance as Richard Mace, an eccentric highwayman/ex-actor who encounters the crew.  His interactions with Davison are consistently funny and far and away the highlight of The Visitation.

Saward, in fact, fills the dialogue with great exchanges throughout, and it’s great fun listening to his dialogue.  He doesn’t really develop any supporting characters beyond Mace, but Mace is such a great creation that he doesn’t need anyone else to carry it.

When they reach the manor attacked in the opening scene, the group splits up, and the Doctor and Nyssa go off alone.  The two work together beautifully; Nyssa is intelligent and clever, and Sutton has great chemistry with Davison.  She’s a terrific assistant, helpful and engaging.  And it’s obvious that the Doctor trusts her, and she rewards his trust with actual, you know, competence.  Take their interaction here:
Nyssa: Why are you so certain the aliens have come here?
Doctor: Well, I’m not.  For all I know, they went to the village.
Nyssa: They could also have died from the plague.
Doctor: Indeed!
Nyssa: They might be friendly.
Doctor: Well, if I’m right, the comet that actor saw was their ship burning up in the atmosphere.  They’re probably stranded here, desperate.  They could wreak havoc.
Nyssa: So, what are you going to do if you find them?
Doctor: Oh, twist their arms a bit to go back to their home planet.
Nyssa: I hope they have arms to twist.
Doctor: I’ll find something.
Doctor: Look!
Nyssa: Scarring from a high-energy weapon.
Doctor: And fired from a weapon.
Nyssa: So much for my friendly aliens.

Pictured: Helpful, Useful, Engaging.  Not pictured: Tegan, Adric

She’s helpful, she asks good questions, she figures out what’s going on quickly, and she notices a couple things the Doctor hasn’t seen yet, actually adding to his effectiveness.  Compare to the Doctor with Tegan:
Doctor: How do you feel now?
Tegan: Groggy, sore, and bad-tempered.
Doctor: Almost your old self.

It’s strange that JNT and Saward were more eager to get rid of Nyssa than Tegan, who’s fairly useless.  Granted, their dialogue is sometimes funnier, and it’s not that I don’t like Tegan at all.  She’s of great use in Logopolis and Castrovalva as an audience surrogate to help smooth the transition from one Doctor to the next, particularly when his other two companions are aliens (and one of them is Adric).  Janet Fielding goes over-the-top, but it’s appropriate for an often melodramatic character.  But this episode is a great example of why she doesn’t make a particularly good companion: she accomplishes nothing besides getting captured and quickly spilling everthing she knows about the Doctor (which, luckily, isn’t much) to the hostile aliens.  I mean, Adric does better under the same pressure – at least he resists one question before saying everything he knows (which isn’t much more than Tegan).
            Adric: I shouldn’t have told him about the TARDIS
Tegan: If you hadn’t, I would have.  I don’t think he was joking about torturing us.
            Adric: We need to get out of here.
            Tegan: Well, sure, but how?

Nice, Tegan.  You’re almost being out-companioned by the boy wonder.  Not that he ultimately proves himself here or anything – I’ll get to him later.

Otherwise, Tegan does little but complain and wish she was home.  There was no reason to keep her on after Time-Flight, which had an appropriate ending for her character: finally having returned home, to her job and her life, she suddenly regrets it and wants back on the TARDIS, only to find that the Doctor has already left.  And then, by the silliest of coincidences, she gets back on in the very next episode.  When she actually did leave down in Resurrection of the Daleks, her explaination was that after all that darkness and violence, it just wasn’t fun anymore.  But she was never having fun.  The Visitation shows very vividly how effective a companion Nyssa is, and how ineffective Tegan is, and somehow Saward didn’t even notice the point he himself had made so well.

Much worse than Tegan’s ineffectiveness is the Doctor’s action at the beginning of Episode 2.  Oh, it’s fine up to a point – the Android from the opening enters wearing a black cloak, and shoots Adric (Hooray!) and Tegan (Go evil Android!), knocking them out (awww…).  The Doctor, obviously lacking weapons, shoos Nyssa and Mace out of there and cleverly lets loose volatile chemicals in the air, forcing the Android not to use its weapon.  Then, as the Android descends on him, he bravely turns tail and runs away, heroically leaving Adric and Tegan to the mercies of this Android and the so far unseen alien threat.

The very picture of courage itself.

It’s about as un-Doctorly a moment as could happen.  Granted, given that they were only knocked out, they might not be in mortal danger, but the Doctor would never intentionally leave his companions to an unseen threat.  In fact, it’s hard to believe any other Doctor would do it.  Five, however, is just nice enough that he won’t do anything to the Android, and retreats without helping his friends.  Only Five was so kind-hearted that writers could make him a wimp. (and, frustratingly, no one stopped them from doing so)

Then again, it is Adric and Tegan we’re talking about here.

And it is a little unfair to criticize too much.  He can’t single-handedly carry them both out of the cellar, and he does go up to get Mace to help him carry the two.  I suppose there are just enough extenuating circumstances to give him a freebie here, but to be honest, he doesn’t do a whole lot for the majority of the story – mostly just get captured and escape ad nauseum.  His various escape attempts are clever at least.  Granted, Davison does this with great energy, humor, and conviction, making it feel like the Doctor is the hero throughout, but the writing doesn’t quite live up to the actor.  It’s not bad, by any means, and not really noticeable until you’ve watched some of the later Davison stories where he does nothing.  The problem may be here, but it’s just a minor annoyance at this point.

Anyway, after the Doctor fearlesslessly allows the violent, laser-firing Android to capture Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Doctor figures out a way to destroy the Android with an improvised sonic weapon from various pieces of the TARDIS, and sends Nyssa off to take care of it.  The aliens finally appear, and while the Terileptils do look a bit rubbery, they’re generally well designed.  Further, they’re the first use of animatronics in the series, and the result is an alien that looks refreshingly non-humanoid.  Saward doesn’t flesh them out very much – they’re just another alien threat to the Earth.  But the Terileptil leader’s dialogue is good, and he’s complex enough to be interesting.  All in all, they’re good enough for the occasion, if not terribly memorable.

The Doctor, Nyssa, and Mace find the alien ship and explore it.  They have an enjoyable stand-off with mind-controlled villagers, while Tegan and Adric, amazingly, manage to escape from their room, and Adric makes it out the window before Tegan is recaptured.  Nyssa is sent off to build the sonic weapon while the Doctor and Mace look for a miller who seems to be involved with the aliens.  This doesn’t go well.

The Doctor and Mace are captured by the villagers and locked up, and now the various lines are drawn clearly: the Terileptils, their android, and the hypnotized villagers against our intrepid (and less-than-intrepid) heroes, and while the rest of the story isn’t perfect, The Visitation on the whole turns out to be great fun.  Between Saward’s well-researched script, the BBC’s impeccable costumes and sets, and the atmospheric direction and filming, it’s an involving world.  The plot isn’t terribly original, but it plays out enjoyably, even if the third episode and the early parts of the fourth drag without much going on – Tegan is hypnotized and virtually disappears until the end, Nyssa just works on the device (she doesn’t use it until Episode 4), and the Doctor spends the whole episode captured (and even gets the Sonic Screwdriver destroyed – and didn’t replace it for two more lives).  Fortunately, he has Mace and the Terileptil to interact with, and it’s very entertaining.  Davison, expectedly, aquits himself very well.

"I feel like I've lost an old friend."

Saward does all he can to give the companions stuff to do, but he ultimately doesn’t help Adric’s case.  While Nyssa works on the sonic weapon, Adric makes it back to the TARDIS, and his unexpected competence in escaping from a decaying wooden room is all for naught as he stops Nyssa’s work so he can whine about the Doctor not being there.  Eventually, he gets around to “helping” her a little (mostly by whinily asking what she’s doing).  Then, over Nyssa’s protestions that there are bad guys outside, he walks right back out of the TARDIS and, hilariously, doesn’t make it twenty seconds before getting captured.

In fact, it would probably be a much stronger episode without Adric or Tegan altogether.  Remove them, and add a few more plot developments instead, and you’d have a classic.


The second half is where Saward weaves his science fiction ideas – that the black plague was an alien attempt to destroy humanity, and the Great Fire of London came from the Doctor’s defeat of these aliens.  Saward’s attention to details and gradual reveal of the plot pays off, and it’s one of the more credible versions of a sort of story done to death in the last few years – explain some historical event as alien attack, have Doctor defeat them.  It gets old, but here, at least, it works very well.  Which is good, because the second half is otherwise a bit low on plot.


All in all, The Visitation is a strong Fifth Doctor outing – atmospheric, highly entertaining, funny, and exciting, and makes up for its slow second half with a good sci-fi yarn and a great ending.


* * *


  • Tegan, on going back to her own time: “Now I’ll have to pretend that nothing’s happened.”  What, has she forgotten that her aunt was murdered on her way to the airport?
  • Oh, and right after that: “Nyssa, I know I haven’t always been the best of companions.”  This would be much less painfully true if Tegan didn’t overstay her welcome for two seasons after this.  Whatever.  It’s a good scene.
  • I like Paddy Kingsland’s synthesized score.  Not quite as good as his Logopolis score, but still solidly atmospheric and dramatic.  A lot of the synth scores in the ‘80s are dated and distracting, but this is an exception.
  • Adric: Where’s the Doctor?
    Nyssa: Downstairs.  He’s found a wall that seems to fascinate him.

    I really love Nyssa.

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