So said Mark Gatiss in his intro to this month’s ‘Doctor Who at 50’ screening, at NFT1 on Saturday 4 May. The story that the BFI selected to represent the Fifth Doctor’s era was The Caves Of Androzani – a popular choice. Everything came together on Caves – script, performance, direction and score – to create what readers of Doctor Who Magazine in 2009 voted the series’ best story of all time. Where to go in the TARDIS? For a large section of fandom, Androzani Minor is the destination.
Yet, in some ways, Caves was also a strange choice of story for this event. It’s Peter Davison’s swansong – his Doctor regenerates in part four. It also stars Nicola Bryant as Peri, a companion who has just two adventures with the Fifth Doctor, rather than any of the longer-serving actors from Davison’s three seasons – actors who were invited to talk at this event (Bryant will, I assume, be a guest at next month’s screening, The Two Doctors). By showing the story in this context, it felt a bit like we’d overshot the target.
Still, I can’t deny that, on the big screen, Caves looked great. It’s not my favourite Doctor Who adventure, but I’d certainly place it in the top drawer of Fifth Doctor serials, and I think it’s a great ambassador for the series.
“There’s something amazing about this story that I don’t think anyone really appreciated at the time,” said Mark Gatiss in his introduction. “I can distinctly remember the incredibly pissy preview that Starburst gave to it, and [yet the story] is absolutely magnificent.”
He acknowledged its main flaw – the man-in-an-obvious-monster-suit that is the magma beast – but even then he admitted that it’s “really beautiful” close up. “It’s a political thriller that, if you took away the space suits and things, it would be just a sort of action thriller. It’s bleak and it’s almost nihilistic, but actually in the end the Doctor saves the day, because he always does, but in such a personal way. I think it’s just a masterpiece, really.”
Of the Fifth Doctor era in general, Gatiss said: “I think Peter’s a magnificent Doctor, and it’s a very special period, this – really because it’s sort of revolutionary. There was nothing safe about Peter’s casting… and I still find that first season of his as fresh as paint. It’s full of ideas – it’s actually more like something from the late ’60s. It’s quite trippy. And there are amazing stories, like Kinda and Snakedance, that really have a kind of visual stylishness to them, and they’re just full of ideas… And I think that with the three companions it’s almost like a reboot to the very beginning of the show.”
Those three companions are Tegan, Nyssa and Adric, played by Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Matthew Waterhouse, all of whom appeared on stage after the screening, alongside Peter Davison and Graeme Harper, the director of The Caves Of Androzani. Earlier in the evening, composer Roger Limb – creator of the celebrated score for Caves – was also interviewed and spoke about his work with the Radiophonic Workshop.
Limb described working with Harper as “wonderful”, praising him for his musical direction: “I was quite prepared to be… not shot down in flames but have some constructive criticism. And in one or two places he did come up with what I would call constructive criticism, but most of the time he was very enthusiastic about what I’d done, and I think he was quite pleased.”
It was the first time that Sarah Sutton had seen the serial, and she seemed impressed: “It looked so different from anything that I had done connected to Doctor Who. It had a completely different feel to it. It looked like it had moved on leaps and bounds, the whole thing, since I’d left. And it wasn’t really that long. But I thought it looked great.”
There was praise, too, from Graeme Harper for Robert Holmes, the author of Caves: “It was a terrific script. When I read it, I knew I was dealing with something… I’d better be good at this; I’d better make sure I really knew what I was doing, or try to make sure.” While Matthew Waterhouse noted: “Not every good story is a good script. It’s not necessarily the same thing. The thing about this is that it’s a fantastic story, but it’s also a fantastic script. The dialogue is fantastic.”
Waterhouse, as usual, came in for a fair bit of ribbing from his one-time colleagues – especially Davison and Fielding, who appeared to still see him as a wet-behind-the-ears teenager. “You haven’t banged your head recently, have you, Matthew?” enquired Davison at one point. At least Waterhouse took it all in good spirits.
Fielding and Davison, meanwhile, traded insults in the manner of two good friends who enjoyed the sport. “Beneath this veneer of insults lies a huge, thick morass of affection and love,” said Davison. “And bitterness,” added Fielding, to much laughter. While arguing about episode lengths and formats, Fielding suddenly had deja vu: “Is this beginning to sort of pan out the way the TARDIS did? Sarah keeping the peace?”
Possibly because of the type of story that The Caves Of Androzani is, talk soon turned to the actors leaving the show. Sutton admitted: “It wasn’t my decision to go. I would have stayed longer, yes, if it had been up to me.” She said that she found filming her final scenes “quite traumatic”, though she was “quite pleased” with the way her character went: “I think it was quite Nyssa-like, the way she was given a job to do, and it was medical and it was helping other people – that was very much in her character.”
Davison also used the word “traumatic” with regard to filming his regeneration scene. “Making the decision to move on is entirely different from moving on in that last story,” he said. “I mean, there is something truly painful [laughs] – and I don’t mean this in an unpleasant way – about seeing Colin Baker come in and lie down… Because deep down in your subconscious there’s the thought that they can’t possibly continue after me, can they? Surely they’ll just have to stop the programme? But of course they don’t.”
Davison said that he thought Adric’s death was a fantastic way for a companion to exit the programme, which led to him revealing: “When David Tennant was the Doctor and Rose was the companion, there was a rumour that went around the country that Rose was going to die in the next episode. And my children were so upset by this that they were sobbing, so I thought, if she really does die I really can’t let them watch it.
“So I sent a message to Russell T Davies, saying: ‘Can you just reassure me that Rose doesn’t die in next week’s episode, as my children are very upset.’ And he sent a message back saying: ‘You killed Adric. What do you care?'”
After the series’ cancellation in 1989, did Davison think that it would ever return?
“When Doctor Who went off the air,” he said, “I always felt it would come back. And the way in which it came back – which is a bit like the lunatics running the asylum – was the most fantastic thing for the show. So I’m not surprised that it’s still going. And I’m very happy that it’s now a prestigious show. In our day it was immensely popular but it wasn’t a BBC prestige show, and now it is, and that’s wonderful to see.”