At the end of Tom Baker’s last Doctor Who season, he regenerated into Peter Davison, an actor best known for a supporting role on All Creatures Great and Small. Watching Davison’s run has been a very different experience from watching Baker’s. PBS — America’s main source for Doctor Who back in the day — reran the Baker episodes repeatedly so I’ve watched them multiple times. I’m not sure I’ve watched anything by Davison more than once.
The first arc, Castrovalva, has the fifth Doctor completely addled by his regeneration. To help him recover, the companions (Adric, Tegan, Nyssa) place him in the TARDIS’ Zero Room, then take him to the eponymous city of Castrovalva. Little do they realize this is all an elaborate plot by the Master to destroy his old nemesis.
Castrovalva, of course, is one of MC Escher’s paintings, and the serial runs with that, culminating in a final episode where reality and perspective become completely unmoored.
It’s a good kickoff, showing the companions, while constantly squabbling, are also competent — even Tegan, a present-day Earthwoman, is more capable than, say Harry Sullivan. Davison comes off more like Baker in this and the followup, Four to Doomsday, than I remembered before shifting into his own interpretation; IIRC, he did the later episodes first to establish his character, then Castrovalva so he could play someone caught in transition. “‘If’ is only a word Tegan — you’ve got to make it a reality.”
The Doctor attempts to take Tegan back to Heathrow Airport in Four to Doomsday but instead they land on a ship captained by the alien Monarch, accompanied by three billion of his people and an assortment of Earth humans Monarch has captured over the centuries. He’s heading back to Earth again, but this time he has a plan … This is competent, but not great, and Adric is once again annoyingly willing to side with the bad guys, plus the Doctor forgives him too easily. However the Tegan/Doctor sparring is fun; while she’s far from the only companion to get PO’d at him, she’s much more likely to say so. Plus her knowledge of Australian Aborigine language shows, again, she’s no dummy. “It’s a fact, Tegan — but not a fact of life.”Kinda is a very strange one. The Doctor lands on an Earth imperial outpost where the occupiers are dismissive of the eponymous aliens and their absurd mysticism — even if some of the outpost staff are disappearing mysteriously. However the Kinda (I doubt this will shock you) know far more than the Terrans think and while there is a threat on this planet, it’s not what anyone is anticipating. This battle against the sinister Mara is eerie and effective, with a great role for Tegan, but the BBC really cut the budget on this one. The set dressing looks cheap from the get-go and the climactic manifestation of the Mara is a very obviously fake big rubber snake (though someone quipped that possibly their physical form is a rubber snake). “Telepathy is a very boring way to communicate.”
Tegan is really ready to get back to Earth after that adventure but instead they land in 1600s England when bubonic plague was sweeping the country. The locals are terrified they might be plague carriers but there’s also an alien Visitation to deal with. Among the pluses in this one are Michael Robbins’ turn as the dignified but conniving actor Richard Mace, Tegan’s tart tongue (“At least a stopped clock is right twice a day — that’s more than you’ve ever been!”) and a solid story. “It wasn’t an argument — it was a statement!”
Black Orchid was a rare anomaly, the first straight historical story — unlike The Visitation it has no SF element beyond the time travelers — since The Highlanders (I’m not sure they’ve had one since). The TARDIS crew arrive at a country-house costume party in the 1920s, get mistaken for some of the guests and the Doctor gets to play cricket. Nyssa turns out to be an exact double for one of the locals. But inevitably there’s a murderer lurking in the wings …As a mystery it’s familiar stuff and there are some Cinema of Isolation disability cliches, but overall it’s tremendous fun. “He’s from Brazil — you know, where the nuts come from.”
Earthshock is considerably wilder. It starts with the TARDIS arriving on 26th century Earth where someone has planted a devastating doomsday bomb. The Doctor helps defuse it and then traces it back to a space freighter. What we learn before he does is that the Cybermen are out to destroy Earth — and when they recognize their old foe, the Doctor too.
I didn’t like the Cyberman designs here (more like armor than cyborg parts) but the story is a solid, grim one, ending with Adric’s death followed by a complete silence as the credits roll. “Even in captivity, the Doctor has the arrogance of a Time Lord.”
Finally the Doctor brings Tegan back to Heathrow Airport in the present — but almost immediately they’re involved in the mysterious disappearance of a Concorde passenger flight (the Concorde was a supersonic jet and very cool bck in the day). With a quick call to UNIT, the Doctor gets himself and his companions involved and before long they’re following the plane’s Timeflight back to the prehistoric past to battle the mystery figure behind it all (it wasn’t hard to guess who, but I won’t spoil it). A good story that ends with Tegan apparently left behind when the TARDIS travels away and realizing she’s not ready to quit. But don’t worry, she’ll be back next season. “Behind every illusion is a conjurer. I shouldn’t think he went to all this trouble just for our entertainment.”
Overall, a good season and Davison effectively stakes out his own place in Who history.