CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO : New Beginnings / Castrovalva


January 1982

A little preamble before I get into the story proper.

When the first episode of Castrovalva went out on the 4th January 1982, the Doctor Who landscape had shifted. Not only did we have a younger actor taking on the role, in the form of Peter Davison, but the programme itself had been uprooted from the traditional Saturday tea time slot and was now sitting in a twice weekday position in the schedules. Whether this was something that Nathan-Turner had planned or whether it was foisted upon him from the upper echelons of the BBC, the effect on viewing figures was dramatic and it introduced a wider audience to the show.

Consequently, from this point on we start to see the programme begin a further transformation into, some would argue, a 'soap' format. Personally, I think it took on the flavour of 'Morecambe And Wise With Monsters', to paraphrase a recent debate, but I'll talk about that much later. Just keep an eye on the guest casting from here on as it's certainly Nathan-Turner wearing his 'light entertainment' and 'variety' hats in earnest.

Oh, and Eric Saward took on the job of script-editor. More of him later.

Anyway. Where were we? Oh, yes. The Doctor fell off a radio telescope in foiling the Master's diabolical plan to subjugate the Universe, regenerated and acquired three companions. Cue Peter Davison. Or Davidson as some irritating people kept saying at the time. Castrovalva picks up where Logopolis left off and carries forward many of Bidmead's themes from Logopolis - namely block transfer computation and recursion and the abstract philosophical implications they bring into the story. Bidmead, wanting to inject some hard science into the series, does tend to make things a little dry for the palate but the concepts are not just a vital spark within the story. They also inform us about the series as a whole, the structure of story telling, the repeated ideas being used and the importance of the will.

There is a great focus here on both Nyssa and Tegan as they try to pilot the TARDIS whilst the Doctor literally unravels himself as he progresses deeper and deeper into the ship. The theme of the hero disintegrating and then re-emerging in a new form is central to this depiction of regeneration. A lot of this actually paraphrases a very popular text of the time - Joseph Campbell's 'Hero With A Thousand Faces' - which places the Doctor as a mythical figure rather than a bog standard SF hero. Campbell's notion of 'apotheosis' - the hero's ego being disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness - seems perfectly in tune with the idea of the Doctor's regeneration here. He also goes on to say that quite frequently the hero's idea of reality is changed; the hero may find an ability to do new things or to see a larger point of view, allowing the hero to sacrifice himself anew. Indeed, the Doctor has defeated the Master, disintegrates, shows flashes of his former selves and then is reconstituted. And on a larger scale, you could see each Doctor's era as a form of apotheosis - certainly with Davison we have his era bookended by two remarkable stories; this and Caves Of Androzani. The latter is very much about a final sacrifice for the hero.

For two episodes, we also get to see much more of the TARDIS and we see the Zero Room. A story which reduces the hero to zero, then? This really is about starting from scratch isn't it? From literal unravelling and disrobing of the Fourth Doctor in the TARDIS to nothing and back again as the Fifth Doctor emerges from the Zero Room. And zero implies - year zero, ground zero - the TARDIS falling back to Event One and the hydrogen in-rush and the beginning of everything. The TARDIS interior here is very much a different proposition than that depicted in 'Invasion Of Time' for example. Here, we see the rooms of the occupants and former occupants and a cricket pavillion. But all streamlined into the white corridors and roundels that again become a visual trope in this era. No swimming pools, old Victorian hospitals shot on location this time. No siree!

I really like the relationship established here between Tegan and Nyssa. They are companions in adversity and play a dominant role on the first three episodes at least whilst the Doctor and Adric are very much the male characters skirting round the edges of the their relationship, either impaired and weak, or captured and subjugated. Davison is much more confident here and it was probably a very good idea to schedule this story later in the production block. Compare him here to the rather nervous and tentative version he gives us in Four To Doomsday. The Doctor, a hero, is not only disintegrated and transformed, but his position as the lead character is also changed. The series becomes an ensemble piece rather than about the Doctor and companion. This also ties in with the vulnerability that Davison brings to the role. He's a fallible hero rather than the know-it-all super ego of the Tom Baker days. Does this change of emphasis drain the vitality out of the character, I wonder? Is the Doctor too concerned with 'getting down with the kids' from this point on?

And so to Castrovalva itself, as a place. Considering the time it was made, I think the town square set, the costumes and the lighting are the real triumphs here. It's a magical place but director Fiona Cumming also manages to imbue the setting with a listless, will-less atmosphere entirely in keeping with the machinations of the Master. The location filming is also rather exceptional too, again imbued with a misty, languid aura despite its lushness. Cumming also gets good value for money out of Michael Sheard and Derek Waring. The dawning realisation that both Mergrave and Shardovan have, that they're phantoms being manipulated in an unreal world, is beautifully played by them both. And Shardovan's will to shatter the illusion brings the Moebius loop narrative to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. Certainly, the ensemble playing from Davision, Sutton, Fielding and the guest cast are one of the strengths of the story. And the scene between the little girl and the Doctor where she shows him how to count is one of great subtle power that stands out in the final two episodes.

Anthony Ainley is still hanging on in there with a half-decent characterisation of the Master and the use of disguise here is still fresh and it's only later that he'll become a caricature, 'hehehehehehehe-ing' his way rather boringly through several average stories. He's pretty good as the Portreve but the whole disguise thing does go on to be a load of old nonsense in the end, doesn't it? As a shell in which to hide on this block transfer computation of a world, it works fine, but it just becomes a pointless exercise in future stories. And Davison does some passable imitations of his predecessors (and imitation and disguise are a central theme in Castrovalva and the way it dovetails into those theories I've been babbling on about recently - the original, the copy of the original etc ). It's certainly one of many hallmarks of the Nathan-Turner period - repetition, flashback, imitation - to the point where it would seem the Doctor Who text is beginning to eat itself. The Master's trap - the block transfer computation of a fictional town on the planet of Castrovalva, itself a recreation of the Escher print - is just another instance of the way the series, from this point on, starts to fold in on itself.

So, not at all a bad start for the new series in 1982. Refreshingly different, full of lovely ideas and concepts and a promising debut for Davison. But with three companions and a Doctor in the TARDIS, it's impossible to sustain and whilst everyone gets a fair crack of the whip here, it's easy to see that keeping character development going is going to be a bit of a strain. The cracks will soon start to show.

DVD Features:

  • Commentary from actors Peter Davison and Janet Fielding, plus director Fiona Cumming and writer Christopher H. Bidmead
  • Being Doctor Who - Peter Davison discusses his casting and time as the Fifth Doctor (13 mins)
  • Directing Castrovalva - Fiona Cumming talks about directing Peter Davison's debut story (11 mins)
  • The Crowded TARDIS - by the end of Tom Baker's tenure, the TARDIS crew had grown from the usual one companion to three. This featurette examines the reasons behind this change of direction. Featuring actors Tom Baker, Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton, director John Black and script editor Christopher H. Bidmead. Narrated by George Williams
  • (11 mins)
  • Blue Peter - Peter Davison - Peter Davison interviewed on the popular children's magazine show
  • Swap Shop - Peter Davison - Noel Edmonds interviews Peter Davison, with questions phoned in from young viewers (20 mins)
  • Deleted Scenes- two deleted scenes from the story
  • Theme Music Video - a brand new remix of Peter Howell's version of the theme music for the series, exclusively remixed from the original multitrack master. Option to listen to the music in either stereo (default) or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround versions

NEW BEGINNINGS - 3 disc set (BBCDVD1331, Region 2, Released 22nd January 2007)

One Response to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO : New Beginnings / Castrovalva”
  1. Anonymous says:

    The Fifth Doctor's vulnerability is something that I found very appealing as a kid - I could identify with that, a hero who seems a little tentative. It made him feel more human; I was never a confident child and so it was a delight to find that my hero had weaknesses too.

    I have recently watched Castrovalva again - along with the other two from the box set - and enjoyed it very much. The nod to past Doctors was nice, although back in the good ol' days of childhood I hadn't watched any past Doctor stories, only now do I understand - and appreciate - the gesture. Janet and Sarah work well together, two very enjoyable companions.

    Peter was not my first Doctor, Tom was, but in some ways I do think of Peter as MY Doctor. Maybe it was because I was too young to really enjoy Tom's stories, too young to understand.

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