CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Visitation / Special Edition DVD Review

‘You’re being a very stupid woman’
‘That isn’t a very original observation’

Enter Eric Saward, if you'll pardon the expression.

Christopher Bidmead, the then current script editor of Doctor Who, was on the look out for new writers and a senior drama script editor at BBC Radio recommended former schoolteacher Saward, having worked with him on a number of radio plays on Radio 4's Saturday Night Theatre.

His writing career stretched back to the 1960s, with his first radio play The Shelter, submitted to BBC Radio in 1965, followed by a series of thrillers including 1972's The Fall and Fall of David Moore, Circumstantial Evidence in 1974 and Small Monet in 1976. Saward had previously never written for television but he was invited by Bidmead to submit an outline for a story in the Spring of 1980.

His inspiration for what was then titled The Invasion of the Plague Men derived from the academic studies of a former girlfriend. She had been looking at the architecture of the rebuilt London in the post-Great Fire of London period and noted how, within months of the Fire, there was an almost total extinction of the infected flea-carrying black rats which had caused an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665, killing about 15% of London's population.

Combining this background with a desire to explore his own interest in medieval England, he also saw it as an opportunity to use his character of Richard Mace, transposing the actor-manager of his 1880s set radio plays to the 17th century. 'Victorian actor, detective, drunk and master of disguise' Mace assisted the London police in five plays: Assassin (broadcast in Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre strand in 1974), Pegasus (1975), the unproduced plays The Arch Villain and The Professor, and The Nemesis Machine, transmitted in 1976. (1)

Nathan-Turner was neither fond of the Richard Mace character nor enamoured of Saward's outline, feeling it was too similar to the pseudo-historical whimsy of 1977's The Talons of Weng Chiang. With the pressures of getting Season Eighteen on the air mounting, Bidmead and Nathan-Turner put the outline to one side and only when Bidmead was coming to the end of his tenure as script editor did he return to Saward's storyline and commission a full breakdown on 17 September 1980.
'new sense of danger and vulnerability'
Plague Rats, as it was then retitled, had to encompass some wide-ranging changes to the series, including the casting of Peter Davison as the Doctor and the arrival of three companions, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric played by Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Matthew Waterhouse respectively. Furthermore, Nathan-Turner and Bidmead were keen to 'strip away the increasing infallibility of Tom Baker's domineering Doctor' and 'the reliance on technobabble and superhuman Time Lord gifts was cut back severely' while investing in the character's 'new sense of danger and vulnerability.' (2)

Indeed, after Bidmead had commissioned Saward for four scripts, now titled The Visitation, and he had delivered them to Bidmead's temporary replacement Antony Root in January 1981, Nathan-Turner asked Saward to write out the sonic screwdriver and emphasised the Doctor should use his wits rather than a handy device to get himself out of various scrapes he found himself in.

Saward also included the final episode's Pudding Lane setting for the Great Fire of London and Root worked with him to tighten the scripts up, giving more prominence to Tegan for example. Impressed with the way Saward had handled the changes, Root recommended him to Nathan-Turner as his replacement in the script editor chair when he vacated it in April 1981 for Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85). Saward accepted the job when Nathan-Turner unexpectedly offered him a three month contract.

After problems developing John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch's ambitious Project Zeta Sigma, the story which was intended to introduce the Fifth Doctor, had forced it to be dropped from the schedule The Visitation became the second story to go into production after the studio bound Four to Doomsday. Project Zeta Sigma would be replaced by Castrovalva but Nathan-Turner kept The Visitation in its original transmission slot and, in order to give Davison time to develop in the role, decided to record his debut Castrovalva later in the schedule.

Designer Ken Starkey, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and make-up designer Carolyn Perry were assigned to the story. Starkey handled the sets in the studio, including the barn, the bakehouse and the exterior London street, all of which incorporated cost-saving glass shots to extend the sets, and the interior of the Terileptil's pod and their hidden base. On location in Black Park he again cut costs by using glass shots for the crashed pod and at Tithe Barn Manor he also removed any inauthentic reminders of the present day, hiding a burglar alarm with plastic ivy and temporarily removing an electric lamp from the front of the house.

Perry undertook some research into working people of the 17th Century at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading to complete the make-up requirements for the period. Special effects technician Peter Wragg and Dicks-Mireaux worked with Richard Gregory, of effects company Imagineering, on the creation of the Terileptils, the fugitive reptile creatures at the heart of Saward's story. Gregory built heads and bodies from Dicks-Mireaux's tropical fish-inspired designs and Wragg designed and operated the lead Terileptil's radio-controlled animatronic head, with movable gills and lips, worn by actor Michael Melia.

Filming began at Ealing Studios on 1 May 1981, with the regular cast joined by guest stars Michael Robbins as Richard Mace and Michael Melia as the Terileptil leader. Robbins was recommended for the part by director Peter Moffatt despite Nathan-Turner's original reservations. The Pudding Lane sequences, including the arrival of the Terileptil leader, the fight and resulting fire, were all completed before Moffatt took his actors on location to Black Park, behind Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, and Tithe Barn Manor, near Maidenhead, between 5 and 8 May. The owners of the Manor were at the time having a nuclear shelter built in the garden and the grounds were excessively muddy. The Black Park filming was also delayed by its unfortunate position on the Heathrow flight path but an air traffic controllers strike on 7 May allowed the unit to make up lost time on the schedule.

Rehearsals for studio recording took place at the 'Acton Hilton' on 11 May and the production moved into TC3 at Television Centre for two recording blocks - 20 and 21 May and 3 to 5 June. During recording of the stable scenes, complete with horse and cart, in the first block Michael Robbins aggravated his Housemaid's Knee when he was forced to the floor rather too enthusiastically during the beheading sequence. The first block also covered the interiors of the crashed Terileptil pod, the bakery, the TARDIS scenes which featured the destruction of the android, and Mace's barn.

After rehearsals for the second block on 23 May, Saward rewrote the opening TARDIS scenes at Nathan-Turner's request. On 3 June the opening prologue at the manor house was recorded in TC3, in which Squire John and his family are attacked, as were many more of the hall, cellar and corridor interiors. All the scenes in the Terileptil's laboratory and the remainder of those in the manor house were completed over the next two days as were inserts showing the boiling of the Terileptil's head in the burning bakery (a combination of Swarfega, a latex dummy and inflating balloons) and the rewritten opening TARDIS scene.

In February 1982, the serial would eventually go out in Doctor Who's new Monday and Tuesday weekday slot, a move which not only came about as a result of Season Eighteen's poor showing against ITV's Saturday night screening of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (NBC, 1979-81) but also as an experiment by the BBC where Doctor Who, along with Angels (BBC, 1975-83), was used to test out weekday slots for drama. This decision to move the programme from its traditional Saturday evening slot was not altogether welcomed and the Daily Mail directly blamed the then Director General Alasdair Milne. 

The Visitation opens directly with a 17th Century set prologue in which Squire John (a criminally underused John Savident) and his family relax after their evening meal and prepare for bed. It's a very atmospheric sequence, full of period detail. The mood is emphasised by a sympathetic use of lighting and music and director Peter Moffatt gradually builds tension as an unseen assailant lays siege to the manor house after John's daughter Elizabeth claims a portentous sighting of falling stars. Moffatt uses some great point of view shots of the intruder to underline the conflict and concludes the encounter with an unsettling montage of the now quiet and deserted manor house.

However, when we get to the following TARDIS scenes we bump right into one of the problems of the era wherein the Doctor often comes across as an harassed parent trying to deal with a a gang of unruly argumentative teenagers. Having three companions in the TARDIS was always going to put a strain on their character development, where actors struggle to make an impact through shared out lines and lack of action.

Here, Tegan and Nyssa are served best and overall Fielding and Sutton flesh out aspects of their characters, particularly when Saward folds in continuity from Kinda, including the aftermath of Tegan's possession by the Mara. Unfortunately, Matthew Waterhouse is left with little to do and his performance is lacking. For me, the struggle to generate an emotional core with the three companions ushers in the blandness which affected many of the Fifth Doctor's stories.

Davison’s performance is pretty much on the mark here as he’s managed to synthesise the ‘old man in a young man’s body’ aspect of this portrayal after his rather shaky start in the recording of Four to Doomsday. He’s also engagingly unsympathetic towards his companions, echoing Hartnell’s tetchiness and when he's finally partnered on screen with guest actors Michaels Robbins and Melia, he definitely shines. 

Once you get the Doctor and his companions out of the TARDIS the situation rapidly improves. The plot gets going with the Doctor finding the empty manor house and as they all slowly become embroiled in the machinations of the criminal Terileptils. The location work is superb, imbuing the story with a sense of English period, expanding the quality of the series beyond the confines of a studio based story like Four to Doomsday or Kinda. Paddy Kingsland's music, emulating wind and string instruments of the time, is an extremely effective addition to the creation of this mood.

The Richard Mace character is very charismatic, helped by Michael Robbins' fruity performance, and his partnership with the Doctor is witty yet archly cynical. The relationship between Mace and the Doctor is also refreshing in comparison to the rather unsympathetic trio of Tegan, Adric and Nyssa who are all clamouring for their own moments in the script. This often leads to underpowered performances and it is left to Davison, Robbins and Melia, as the Terileptil leader, to offer the audience consistent engagement with the story.
'realigning itself as an unashamedly action oriented sci-fi adventure show' 
The Visitation is also significant as the story in which the decision to get rid of that ‘get out of jail free’ card – the sonic screwdriver - was made. Was it a good decision? At the time it was assumed it would force the writers to come up with better solutions to the various dilemmas in each story and was probably a wise move. However, compare it to the super-fetishisation of the sonic screwdriver in the current series, as a sort of Harry Potter magic wand, and you can see that actually the writers only used the device sparingly in the classic series.

It’s certainly something the new series should consider but I suspect BBC Worldwide's marketing department wouldn’t be happy if the current producer decided the sonic screwdriver was surplus to requirement. Its demise in 1982 can either be seen as yet another element of Nathan-Turner’s radicalisation of the format or a cynical action to grab press and fan attention. A brave decision that eventually kept the prop out of the series until 1996, this change was a small but pivotal development of the Fifth's Doctor’s vulnerability under Davison’s tenure.

I’ve always liked the Terileptils too. A noble, warrior race quite subtly brought to life in the script with nifty bits of world-building (refugees of the tinclavic mines of Raga, indeed) and Michael Melia’s performance giving them a world weary sense of desperation upon finding themselves on 17th Century Earth and struggling to survive.

Again Melia and Davison play off each other very well and the debate about the rationale for war and existence, power and genocide doesn’t descend into a slanging match. It’s a measured and spirited discussion where each party manoeuveres into their moral positions with just the right amount of righteous indignation. Very simply articulated, the Terileptil 'world view' gives this ‘monster of the week’ eloquence and intelligence as well as overweening pride in their superiority.

Back in 1982, the animatronic effects for the Terileptil's gills and lips were cutting edge for Doctor Who and it remains an effective monster design even if it's obviously a man in suit. The animatronics certainly add more dimension to what would normally have been latex half-masks or full masks more heavily reliant on how good the actor was at projecting character from inside them. Melia's performance manages to get out from behind this particular mask and the Terileptil leader is a convincing character.

However, there are often moments of sloppiness in the script. The ending particularly doesn’t work because as we all know the Terileptil’s ship and base is still sitting there even after Nyssa’s comment about giving future archaeologists a bit of a headache during the Pudding Lane in flames scenes. More than just a headache I would presume, Mr. Saward. Perhaps we can ret-con it and assume that an early version of Torchwood (BBC, 2006-11) sequestered the technology.

Peter Moffatt’s direction is workmanlike despite the effective opening prologue. Considering the excellent job he did on State of Decay, this feels a little staid despite his affinity for period drama. Some of the blocking and fight sequences require more dynamism and Moffatt has a tendency to lock off the camera and just let the actors get on with it. The fight sequences at the end of the story, especially where Tegan is attempting to brain one of the Terileptils, suffers from this laid back approach to fight choreography. There are less of his previous visual flourishes but the ample location filming adds texture to the story and the staging of the Pudding Lane sequences, especially the TARDIS arrival sequence and the glass painting extending the set, offer a sense of scale to the story and are well lit and realised.

Eric Saward’s first script for the series is a fairly traditional affair compared to what he has in store for us later when, under his influence, there is a definite shift away in Doctor Who from the 'more openly philosophical signatures of the Bidmead stories' and with it 'realigning itself as an unashamedly action oriented sci-fi adventure show'. (3) Here, The Visitation's traditional tropes encompass a return to the 'pseudo historical' genre where science fiction and historical/period adventure merge.

Although, this harked back to the formula of The Time Warrior and its further re-emergence as non-specific period pastiche in stories such as The Masque of Mandragora, The Talons of Weng Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock, Saward's story plays with history in a straightforward manner and places the Doctor's battle with the Terileptils, as a science fiction adventure, within the established web of history, where the story must bring about events such as the Great Fire, as an historical certainty which every viewer knows from their school lessons.

(1) Andrew Pixley, Doctor Who Magazine Archive, The Visitation, Issue 275, March 1999
(2) Philip MacDonald, Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, The Complete Fifth Doctor, 'Too Much Too Young?', 2001
(3) Philip MacDonald, Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, The Complete Fifth Doctor, 'Too Much Too Young?', 2001

Other sources:
Andrew Pixley, Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, The Complete Fifth Doctor, 'Prince Charming, 2001
Shannon Sullivan, The Visitation, A Brief History of Time (Travel) website

Special Features:

Disc 1
Chat track with director Peter Moffatt and cast members Davison, Sutton, Fielding and Waterhouse. Peter Davison and Janet Fielding have no compunction about taking the piss out of themselves, their performances and the show and if you're not a production trivia hound then it's an entertaining get together. Matthew Waterhouse chips in occasionally but would rather obsess about his on screen self having his hands in his pockets all the time and then very annoyingly reads out the cast and crew names at the end of the episodes.
Film Trims (5:33)
A collection of additional dialogue, scenes and retakes filmed on location but cut from the finished episodes. In the main, it's Michael Robbins stuck up a tree and some mute film sequences for use on scanner screens.
Directing Who - Peter Moffatt (26:15) Moffatt recalls how he was initially approached to work on Doctor Who by producer Graham Williams and then took up an offer to direct after John Nathan-Turner took over the show as they already knew each other from Nathan-Turner's stint on All Creatures Great and Small. This engaging little interview takes us from his excellent work on State of Decay, were it was very trying in the studio because Tom Baker and Lalla Ward weren't speaking to each other, to The Visitation and working again with Davison on Mawdryn Undead and with many Doctors on The Five Doctors. His final work was The Twin Dilemma, where he advised Colin Baker on how to play the role and dealt with inexperienced twin actors, and then filming in Seville for The Two Doctors. Moffatt is definitely old school as a director but comes across as gentle and affable, willing to calmly negotiate his way through problems. 
Writing A Final Visitation (12:52)
A brief recollection from Eric Saward about the script, its development and what influenced him to write it. He worked with Antony Root, who took over briefly from Christopher Bidmead, to develop the script before Davison replaced Tom Baker and the need to include three new companions. The interview reflects on his interest in history, the 'pseudo-historical' nature of The Visitation and his re-use of the Richard Mace character from his radio plays.
Scoring The Visitation (16:20)
Mark Ayres interviews composer Paddy Kingsland and he briefly offers some analysis into this particular score and its Elizabethan influences.
Music-only option
Paddy Kingsland's atmospheric score as an isolated track.
Photo Gallery
Brief gallery of colour stills from the production.  
Production Subtitles
Always fun to watch in combination with the audio commentary and, as usual, full of trivia about the script development, the actors and the production, this text is wittily presented and written by the ever reliable Nicholas Pegg.

Disc 2
Grim Tales - Revisiting The Visitation (45:10)
Dan Hall and Russell Minton's nostalgic return to the early 1980s production of Saward's first Doctor Who story brings together the original TARDIS crew of Davison, Fielding and Sutton with stowaway Mark Strickson to explore, or get lost in, the story's Black Park locations. Saward also discusses the story's origins and Tegan's bad temper, designer Ken Starkey chats about his work on the episodes including the filming of the pod scenes on location. We are then whisked off to Tithe Barn Manor where much reminiscing is done, while everyone sits down for cake, about the location shoot, Michael Robbins, John Savident and Michael Melia's guest roles, the design and creation of the Terileptil with costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and the android played by Peter Van Dissel. A suitably celebratory documentary.
The Television Centre of the Universe - Part One (32:13)
Rather serendipitously, as Television Centre closes, here Davision, Fielding and Strickson are taken on a tour of the Centre by Yvette Fielding and regale us with BBC parking and dressing room etiquette and Janet's boob tube incident. We meet Floor Manager Sue Hedden, who remembers Tom Baker living in his dressing room for a short period and rash-inducing Silurian costumes, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, Production Assistant Jane Ashford and make up designers Carolyn Perry and Joan Stribling. Their recollections are interspersed with brief model sequences which display the layout of the Centre, both offering a real sense of the building's day to day activities. Can't wait for Part Two.
Doctor Forever - The Apocalypse Element (27:31)
The audio history of Doctor Who, from sound effects records, Genesis of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Pescatons LPs to the hugely successful Big Finish Doctor Who adventures and the audio recordings of novelisations. Michael Stevens, Nick Briggs, Steven Cole, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell tell us the story of how the BBC licensed new audio adventures and how writers Joe Lidster, Rob Shearman, Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies became involved in the world of audio Who, casting couches and death threats.
PDF Materials
Radio Times listings and the BBC Enterprises sales sheet for the story. And the Doctor Who - The Making of a Television Series book is still conspicuous by its absence.
Coming Soon
'The sound of the planet screaming out its rage!' can only mean the Inferno - Special Edition is on its way.

Doctor Who: The Visitation (Special Edition)
BBC Worldwide / Released 6 May 2013 / BBCDVD3690 / Cert: U
4 episodes / Broadcast: 15 February to 23 February 1982 / Colour / Running time: 96:31 

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One Response to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Visitation / Special Edition DVD Review”
  1. KAOS says:

    Oh, well said, sir!

    I'm sure if this DVD had been released now, the Making of a Television Series book would have been included as a PDF, as the annuals often are...

    Hopefully they'll revisit all these earlier releases at some point.

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