That was, quite simply, the best serial of Doctor Who that I’ve seen so far, and I didn’t expect to have that reaction. It was one of the first Who DVDs I bought, but despite its reputation, I don’t think I’ve got through it before without nodding off along the way. That was entirely down to me, as my attention span as a student was not what it is now, plus it isn’t your average serial, and as such it wasn’t what I was expecting back then; I wanted to see something which fitted the tropes I was used to.
So this is another glorious example of why this is the best possible way to enjoy classic Who. I’ve now seen enough of it that an unusual story is something to be savoured rather than feared, and while this one can be hard going if you watch all four parts back to back, it’s absolutely perfect when you watch an episode at a time, as each episode in itself is perfect.
Watching the serials in sequence also shows up how much a giant step forward Graeme Harper’s direction is. Were it not for the fact that it’s 4:3 and interlaced, the composition of the shots and the way they’re put together would not look out of place today. So many ambitious and ground-breaking choices combine to lift otherwise conventional sequences to new heights.
There’s a scene early on where Jek is just going about his business, to show the audience how his set-up works. Any serial prior to this would have seen this play out in real time, but Harper moves the story along by turning it into a montage. Chase sequences are peppered with unusual angles and frantic pacing, which brilliantly enhance the well-choreographed action. The one thing that was a bit weird was Morgus occasionally delivering theatrical asides, but even that seemed to work in the context of such an epic and intriguing tale.
The world that Robert Holmes creates here is so complex and fascinating that it’s a shame it was only used for four episodes – it could have made for a series in itself. I didn’t want each episode to end – I wanted to stay in this world forever, exploring more and watching all the machinations play out. Each scene was the equivalent of a page turner – by the time Morgus pushed the President down a lift shaft, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
The tension is unbearable, especially towards the end. It’s The Doctor’s desperation in hijacking the ship in order to find the antidote; his need to save Peri, because it’s his fault she got infected. It’s a bleak, bleak story. We’re literally watching The Doctor and Peri die a slow and painful death, right before our eyes. By the time that even Jek was desperately trying to keep her alive, I found myself crying out of sheer emotional exhaustion.
Jek is the highlight of the world Holmes created. He’s clearly a sex offender, and his treatment of Peri is deeply distressing, but you somehow ended up feeling sorry for him. The same is true, to varying extents, of all the guest characters. With the possible exception of Morgus, who reminded me a lot of Iago, nobody is fundamentally good or evil. They’re all real, complicated people, with motivations that are clear and relatable.
Like I say, there’s enough material there for a whole raft of stories, and it kind of felt like The Doctor and Peri were just dropping in to this world. Their presence is somewhat of a MacGuffin – they affect the outcome of events just by being there, rather than directly playing a part. Morgus brings about his own downfall because he’s paranoid about The Doctor being a spy, while Jek takes huge risks due to his infatuation with Peri, and these two factors combine to bring a bloody and vicious end to the war.
But meanwhile, The Doctor’s having his own separate story against this backdrop, which is as straightforward as it can get. They’ve got a disease, they need the antidote, so he goes on a dangerous quest. But this is Robert Holmes, and this is a rare example of the classic series doing something the new one does so well – having The Doctor lose. In the vast majority of stories, Doctor Who or otherwise, the hero does what he or she sets out to do, but not here. By only having enough antidote to save one person, the Fifth Doctor gets to go out by making the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a great way to say goodbye to an incarnation that has unexpectedly become one of my favourites. Davison’s task was arguably the hardest it’s been for any Doctor – to follow on from Tom Baker, widely regarded as the greatest of all time, whilst coping with the quality of writing and production values wildly fluctuating from one story to the next. Like my other favourite, Troughton, Davison’s screen presence was enough to boost any scene he was in, and he’s a huge loss after what feels like a ridiculously short tenure by previous standards.
It’s sad, and it’s probably exacerbated by the knowledge of what’s to come. I’m obviously going to give Colin a fair chance, and I really hope that he’s better than his reputation suggests. I’m not particularly optimistic, but perversely I’m really looking forward to his debut, just so I can see whether they really did manage to make the absolute best and absolute worst serials of the classic era back-to-back…