For many, Doctor Who ended with the departure of the fourth Doctor which quite frankly is a load of nonsense. Say what you will about post Baker, but there are many stories that stand up there with the best of them. Among them I am going to look back at one of my favourite fifth Doctor stories. Even Lily Savage referenced the events of this story in one of her sketches. And it is due for release on DVD once again as a special edition filled with extras and remastered on Monday (May 6, 2013). It is one I could watch again and again and is one of the few perfect pseudo historicals alongside Tooth and Claw. Here we go, back to medieval England and the Terileptil invasion.
Written by Eric Saward, the show’s new script editor at the time, it was transmitted in 1982 in twice weekly parts between 15th-23rd February, the Visitation was the fourth story transmitted of Peter Davison’s debut season but was in fact the second one recorded. Four to Doomsday was the first. The thinking behind this was that then producer wanted to let Davison get a feel for his character before recording his first full story Catrovalva.
Originally called the Invasion of the Plague Men, we have the Doctor trying to return air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding) to her own time when the Tardis lands in the right place but several hundred years back in the past. At this point, Tegan was not a happy bunny and takes her anger out on the Doctor when she compares him to a broken clock, “At least it’s right twice a day!”she yells before storming out of the Tardis.
It isn’t long before they realize something is wrong when they smell sulphur in the air and are attacked by local villagers. Rescued by Richard Mason (On the Buses star Michael Robbins), a local actor and con man,they discover the area is in fear of a plague. But something else is amiss. Something fell from the sky, something that wiped out an entire family and has set up a base beneath their house,hidden with holographic walls and guarded by a jewelled demon. On top of that, some of the villagers are not acting quite like themselves.
An alien race called the Terileptils (Eastenders Eddie Royal, Michael Melia) have escaped from a prison planet and want to convert Earth to their new power base. They have a robot servant, a beautiful design that many talk about to this day, who stalks the woods wearing the guise of the Grim reaper (left) to keep the locals at bay and stir fear and superstition. The Doctor and his friends are attacked in the lab and they lose Tegan and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) who are interrogated by the Terileptil. Once he learns of the Tardis he intends to have it for himself. Adric escapes but Tegan is put under mind control via a bracelet. As the Doctor and Richard battle the locals and are almost beheaded, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton returns to the Tardis to create a sonic weapon to destroy the robot. The Doctor tries to reason with the aliens to no avail and he discovers that the Terileptils have used the plague and enhanced it,infecting rats with a super version,the Black Death to wipe out humanity. A controlled Richard and Tegan almost kill themselves along with the Doctor when the Terileptil leaves them in a locked room with infected rats but the Doctor manages to knock them out and remove the bracelets. In the meantime Nyssa and Adric battle the robot in the Tardis and manage to destroy it and take of. By a miracle they reunite with their friends and they follow the Terileptils to London where a fight ensues in a bakery where the other Terileptils are hiding. A fire breaks out and as the story ends we see the street name,Pudding Lane.
What the Visitation does so well is tie up a true historical event,in this case, the Great Fire of London and the Black Death plague, with a sci-fi element, the Terileptils. The story is fast paced and moves along well with great cliffhangers. The Doctor begging the possessed Tegan not to open the cage of infected rats stands as one of the most nail biting climaxes ever.
However, from the opening of this story,you can tell is is going to be a superior one as a family witness the crashing ship which they mistake for a falling star, a sign of a bad omen. Within minutes their home is under attack by an unseen entity and they die together defending their home. It smacks of old Doctor Who as they are fully-fledged people rather than cyphers for the slaughter. Add to this the shots of the Grim Reaper walking through the woods terrifying locals and how brilliantly done they are.
Even the companions are given more to do here,with Nyssa’s scientific skills to the fore and Tegan showing just why she remains a fan favourite. Dobbins puts in a performance of a life time completely against the comedic label he was associated with and many felt he should have joined the Tardis crew. He is the Del Boy of his time and his amazement at the new world of spaceships and aliens he is plunged into is very like Jamie’s reactions when he was with the second Doctor.
The Terileptils themselves were an impressive addition to the Doctor Who universe. The masks worked well as they were partly animatronic and they had a culture created in one story where many never do. They breathed certain gases to survive the Earth’s atmosphere, they mined the Tinclavic mines of Raaga and their technology in virus making was second to none. They see war as an art form and love a weapon. And the scarred face with the gouged eye was stunning. They would return as a hallucination in Time Flight and be referred to in the Awakening and they are a monster fans would like to see return someday. The script sparkles with great dialogue, especially Richard’s and makes complete sense. Mason was actually a character Saward had written for a radio show but transplanted him here to great effect.
Given this is Davison’s second time out in character he really is a tour de force and a complete change from Tom Baker. He achieves it quite quickly and is often seemingly hurt by Tegan and his constant letting her down. He is young , full of energy and can do hand-to-hand combat with the best of them. We get that he is an old man trapped in a young body as he says such lines as ‘Not again!’ just as he is about to be beheaded by villagers. And while he would grow as a character this is where we see the fifth Doctor for the first time.
Part of John Nathan Turner’s mission was to make the Doctor more human and vulnerable and, to this end, the sonic screwdriver was destroyed in this story and wouldn’t appear until the Paul McGann movie years later. It was seen as a handy device that could solve anything rather than the Doctor doing it himself. Now it seems inconceivable to have the Doctor without it but times change.
Special mention must go to Paddy Kingsland for the wonderful incidental music which helps breathe even more life into the scenes. It is a story filled with iconic images. the literal robot Grim Reaper, the cage of rats, the burning screwdriver and the hooded Terileptil being transported by a horse and cart. Everything sings quality and it will be one I never tire of.
The story was popular at the time and has remained so to this day. It’s no surprise then that it will be re released on DVD given the quality of this production. It shines on every level and for once I have no problems with buying it again. A true classic reborn.