The Caves of Androzani – still the best ever Doctor Who story

Peter Davison in The Caves of Androzani

Well, I mentioned it on Friday as part of new series “Liz Shaw’s Best Bits” and the lure ever since has been irresistible. So today, the best bit from the best Doctor Who story ever – the final fifth Doctor story The Caves of Androzani.

Written by Robert Holmes, directed by Graeme Harper, Caves is without a doubt one of the bleakest of all the Who stories, with the Doctor and new companion Peri finding themselves stuck in the middle of a war on a moon that holds the key to near eternal youth: a chemical called Spectrox. Unfortunately, in its unrefined state, Spectrox is poisonous to anyone who touches it – guess who touches it. Go on – and so the Doctor and Peri have to spend most of their time looking for a cure.

The joy of The Caves of Androzani is that it’s pretty much exactly what would happen if the Doctor did end up in the middle war: he gets captured, tossed around as a pawn, and stuck in front of a firing squad, while more or less everyone around him dies. In fact, of all the many, many characters in Caves of Androzani, by the end, there are only two survivors, and neither of them is the Doctor…

As well as Graeme Harper’s incredible direction, Maurice Roëves’ mercenary, Stotz, and the sheer brutality of the story, Caves is notable for a couple of things: the use of machine guns, rather than outer-space lasers to make everything just that little bit more real; and the breaking of the fourth wall, with chief villain Morgus turning to camera at a couple of points to explain his thought processes.

Nevertheless, it’s ironic that the best bit is the end with Peter Davison’s regeneration into Colin Baker – still the best regeneration scene of them all (unless you count the lead up to David Tennant’s exit, and guess what that was modelled on). Unfortunately, within about three seconds, you can see everything falling apart as possibly the worst Doctor Who story in existence, The Twin Dilemma, is cued up.

If you want, you can watch the whole ruddy thing on YouTube thanks to BBC Worldwide (which has, unfortunately, made the whole thing unembeddable otherwise I’d stick it on here for you!)

Liz Shaw's Best Bits

Liz Shaw’s Best Bits: The Ambassadors of Death

The Brigadier and Liz Shaw

Liz Shaw: Cambridge research scientist, with half a dozen degrees in subjects including physics and medicine. A go-getter who never gave up, who could outsmart the Doctor, who saved the world with her electronic engineering skills on more than one occasion. A companion so good, the Doctor could go back to his laboratory at the end of a story, leaving her to finish saving the Earth. The best companion Doctor Who ever had, which is why she got fired.

Trouble is, not a lot of people have even heard of her. For most people, feminism started on Doctor Who with Sarah Jane Smith. And that’s not totally surprising: Liz Shaw only appeared in one season – the first Jon Pertwee season back in 1970. That’s 40 years ago.

Consisting of four stories – the four-part Spearhead from Space and the seven-part Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno – season seven was probably the most adult of seasons, with some of the cleverest stories, which is naturally why the BBC threw them into a great big dustbin. For the most part, all we have left is an odd mix of colour and black-and-white versions of episodes, which is one of the reasons (apart from that whole seven-episode thing) that repeats have been fairly thin on the ground.

So how can we get an unknowing world to appreciate the value of Liz Shaw? Well, beginning this week (although not appearing necessarily every week, since these boys take time), I’m starting a four-part project called “Liz Shaw’s Best Bits”, which as the title suggests is a compilation of all the best bits of “Liz Shaw-i-ness” on Doctor Who. That’ll save you the three hours of viewing time necessary to get you through most of them, anyway.

The Ambassadors of Death
This week, I’m starting with The Ambassadors of Death, Liz’s third story, and I’ll tell you for why. For my money, after the incomparable Caves of Androzani, The Ambassadors of Death is the best story old-school Doctor Who ever produced. It’s not perfect and the production values are very much of their time, but it’s a truly great bit of work.

The general plot is that we plucky Brits in the then near-future of 1980 (argh! UNIT dating controversy alert!) still have a space programme and have sent a space mission to Mars. Things begin to go wrong and the Doctor, exiled to Earth by the Time Lords and keeping himself gainfully occupied as UNIT’s scientific advisor, is called in to assist. It soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems and someone on Earth is interfering – and that Mars might not be as uninhabited as the first Mars mission suggested…

The Ambassadors of Death is notably the only crime story on Doctor Who – indeed, this is probably the most Avengers-esque story on Doctor Who, with Liz Shaw filling the Cathy Gale role nicely. It also plays cleverly on expectations set up by The Quatermass Experiment, that astronauts who venture into space are likely to end up different when they come back down again.

There are many plus points to Ambassadors: we have a proper villain who’s only in it for the money. He’s going around shooting people and burying the bodies. He switches allegiances whenever it’s convenient. He reports to a boss whose motivation isn’t world domination but who is simply misguided and trying to help the world wake up to what he thinks is an imminent alien invasion. And the aliens aren’t the baddies. It’s a human crime story with an alien backdrop and without the near-textual comments on morality the close-runner Doctor Who and the Silurians has.

It also has fantastic direction, probably the best ending to any Doctor Who story and Liz Shaw, being smart, offering witty one-liners, and getting captured (but hey, so does the Doctor), but still lording it over the villains. So, if you’ve 20 minutes to spare, peruse the first of Liz Shaw’s best bits: The Ambassadors of Death.

Part 1 – in which she speaks French without the aid of a TARDIS, masters technology, outsmarts the Doctor over a computer, uses a Geiger counter, does science, has a car chase and engineers an escape.

Part 2 – in which she tries to escape again, encourages a scientist to defect, insults a villain, gets offered a job, helps the Doctor build a machine to escape captivity then mops up the whole mess.

Audio and radio play reviews

Review: The Companion Chronicles 4×9 – Shadow of the Past

Shadow of the PastLiz Shaw: brilliant companion from the brilliant seventh season of Doctor Who. Yet it’s been over three years since she last featured in one of the Companion Chronicles, The Blue Tooth. Hooray, she’s back!

Doubly hooray, it’s Simon Guerrier who’s writing for her, Guerrier being responsible for the brilliant Home Truths and The Drowned World. Can so much excellence all in one place lead only to excellence or is this going to be a letdown?

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Audio and radio play reviews

Review: The Companion Chronicles 4×7 – The Suffering

The-Suffering-cover.jpgFeminism and Doctor Who haven’t exactly been easy bedfellows. Most female companions are notable for their lack of character development, their tendency to scream and get captured rather than do anything useful, or having been hired mainly as eye candy. Even when the show has tried to embrace feminism through the companions, it’s not really worked – cf Liz Shaw (fired for being too independent and self-confident) and Sarah Jane Smith (marked tendency to scream, get captured and just hector people a lot about women’s lib rather than actually do anything).

So it was with an air of trepidation (and the idea that the play’s title would be only too accurate) that I began to listen to The Suffering, a Companion Chronicle featuring both Steven (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) that’s set during the time of the Sufragette movement. My fears were calmed slightly by the fact that:

  1. It’s written by a woman, Jacqueline Rayner, who can do reasonably good Companion Chronicles.
  2. It’s a Hartnell Companion Chronicle and they’re usually better than the others

I’m not going to say it’s great and it does tread a very fine line between bludgeon-level subtlety and something a little deeper, but it’s okay. But did it really need to be two CDs-long?

No. It really, really didn’t.

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Audio and radio play reviews

Review: Doctor Who – 131 – Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest coverWhen last we left the seventh Doctor in Big Finish land, he’d decided it was a cracking good idea to take a time-travelling Nazi scientist on a grand tour of the universe with him.

As you do. Can’t see anything going wrong there, can you?

Nevertheless, said scientist, Dr Elizabeth Klein – who is from an alternative universe in which the Nazis won World War 2 – is now the Seventh Doctor’s companion in his travels through time and space.

Of course, with the great big ‘Nazi’ thing hovering over her, do you think the Big Finish writers could resist writing a story about the struggles of a ‘master race’ trying to obtain lebensraum? Of course not, which is what we have with Survival of the Fittest.

Nevertheless, despite its occasional ladelling on of the sub-text, Survival of the Fittest is actually a very decent, intelligent hard SF story. It’s also preceded by an equally interesting episode-long flashforward to Klein’s future which sees a guest visit by the eighth Doctor.

Unfortunately, there’s also the concluding part of The Three Companions tacked on the end. Couldn’t go five for five, could we?

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