Four To Doomsday
I love Peter Davison’s era; it was the era that I grew up on, if only through the realm of the DVDs. The era has some triumphant highs and some hilarious lows, but on a purely conceptual level none of them interest me more than Davison’s first recorded story, Four To Doomsday. On a first watching, the serial is patently ridiculous; frog men from outer space are coming to invade Earth! This does reflect in some of the lines - there’s a certain gimmickyness to the serial that it never really escapes from – but when you get down to it Johnny Byrne’s script provides some funky sci-fi ideas.
Now if you haven’t seen the story, I’d recommend you go do so before I spoil the surprise. The biggest plot twist is that the villains of the story, the Urbankans, and their ship filled with humans in period costumes, are in fact all androids. Despite the dodgy effects, this means that the half-way cliffhanger (made more important to reflect the new bi-weekly broadcasting schedule) is an absolute smasher. My reaction on first viewing sums up why I love this story so much. After laughing at Tegan knowing some obscure aboriginal language, and at her suddenly impressing artistic skills, I was blown away by that completely unexpected layer of sci-fi, which made villain Monarch’s plan that more brilliant.
And what a villain. Stratford Johns, known for crime dramas like Z-Cars, may be hidden under a pile of makeup, but it’s his performance that ultimately shines through. The image of the megalomaniac who almost innocently believes himself to be a god, struck with the impression that he can break the laws of physics and go back to meet himself at the dawn of time. But he’s that great kind of affable evil; he’s like that weird Uncle who only comes down for weddings who’s probably been inside a few times, or so I heard, who will still give you a pat on the head. Even Adric can’t help but like him.
But it is the initial subtleties of those sinister undertones that really allow the story to build in the way it does. One of my favourite lines is when The Doctor identifies Monarch’s “Minister of Persuasion”; in that one line-read, Davison banishes any inklings of doubt about the Urbankans’ intentions, and any doubt that he is the right man for the lead role. Sure, the story may have some goofy line reads here or there, but if you let the story speak for itself, then you’ll find a more captivating hundred minutes than you could ever have imagined.
Ah, the Pure Historical. It’s a well-worn staple of Doctor Who, especially in the 60s. Someone along the line decided that they weren't fun enough, and so we’re left with the Dark-Times-sized 16 year gap between William Hartnell’s The Gunfighters and Peter Davison’s Black Orchid, a story set in the Roaring Twenties that comes as a breath of fresh air after a few seasons of Serious Business. It’s also a glorious two parts long, which means that I can pop it on whenever I’ve got an hour to kill.
Here, our TARDIS team of Nyssa, Tegan and Adric are seen to simply be having fun for the most part; Adric and Tegan don’t actually get involved with the story’s murder-mystery plot at all, and The Doctor only stumbles into it because someone stole his costume. It’s that which donates to the story’s sense of levity, really, coupled with that quaint Interbellum British attitude that you see in places like Jeeves and Wooster and even other Who stories, like 2008’s Unicorn and the Wasp.
The most standout scene is near the beginning, which follows a rather unconventional path; the gang are taken from a train station to a field, where Peter Davison gets to show off his cricket skills and Nyssa gets mistaken for her identical body double. It sounds and feels like an episode of Heartbeat, but it’s also got a deformed aristocratic explorer, a South American speaking with an Indian accent, and, the most important thing for Adric, an extensive buffet. On the DVD commentary, the actors complain that the story isn’t fun enough; bully them, I say! Black Orchid is a barrel of fun, whether it’s the little idiosyncratic character ticks that allow our characters to actually be themselves, or the expansive period costumes that the BBC does so well. It’s a big relief before the darkness of the following story, and I wouldn’t be without it.
There’s got to be a reason why Doctor Who has such a long-lasting appeal, and at least part of that reason is that no matter how wrong an episode’s production goes, there’s always something fun. If a story like The Invasion of Time is the introductory thesis, then Season 19’s Time-Flight is the dissertation. There are so many various things that turn people away from this story, but it’s all of those things that draw me to it. You may not be able to root for the heroes or try and work out the Master’s plan, but you can certainly have a good laugh.
Anthony Ainley’s third appearance shows just how much he enjoys the role, and he appears in yet another one of his disguises. The brilliance of the Khalid disguise is exactly in how useless it is; The Master has displayed just how Crazy Prepared he really is by making sure that if The Doctor does somehow appear, then he’ll be ready for him. And it works, for the first episode at least. The other villains, the Xeraphin, are an awesome concept that despite a neglected execution still manages to be one of the serial’s more interesting and long-lasting ideas. They also gave us one of Davison’s best lines in the entire season; “I think The Master has finally defeated me!”
By far the most memorable thing about the serial is simply the setting. The first few shots of Heathrow Airport in the first episode are actually really well done. The backdrop for Prehistoric Earth, which is an expansive matte painting clearly a few metres behind out actors, is almost necessary in breaking the boundary between simple bad and this story’s glorious shade of So Bad It’s Good charm. Had they gone to some far off desert, shot it on film and given us wide, sweeping landscapes, then the script would have been inexcusable. Instead, it all fits together in one quirky mess that just gets funnier and funnier with every viewing.