Escher’s Castrovalva, with Doctor Who’s Castrovalva inset for comparison.

There are lots of Doctor Who stories that are inspired by fiction or by films, but these are not the only sources of inspiration available.  I have not exactly showered the work of Christopher H. Bidmead with praise so far, but to give him his due he is a great ideas man, and here he takes the road less travelled by taking the work of an artist as a starting point for his story.  It is not the first time this has happened, and the other major example was during Bidmead’s time as script editor, with Warrior’s Gate taking inspiration from the art of Caspar David Friedrich.  But of course there was only one artist that science-enthusiast Bidmead was going to use as the basis for a Doctor Who story: the greatest MC of them all, M. C. Escher.

What works so well about this is that Bidmead takes note of more than just the paradoxes in Escher’s work.  He actually works with the artistic vision as well, and his starting point was a piece of work that is actually titled Castrovalva.  It is not one of those with optical illusions, crazy staircases, hands drawing themselves or anything like that.  It is just a very beautiful monochrome painting of some buildings on top of a mountainside, and that becomes the basis for Tegan and Nyssa’s journey from TARDIS to citadel.  It is their journey through the painting to find the Escher paradox.  They are literally travelling through a piece of art, a landscape created by an artist, and this gives us our big clue to what is going on here: Castrovalva is a twisted work of art created by the Master.  And although he superficially does it because he is on his 20th mad scheme to humiliate the Doctor or whatever the case may be, he does clearly have an attachment to his art, justifying his virtual descent into madness when his world collapses.

So we have an alignment of beauty and mathematics, as we would expect from a story taking inspiration from the art of Escher, but we also have a plot built around his paradoxes.  Once again, making Doctor Who exclusively about science fails to work.  It is a square peg in a round hole, and the magic always reasserts itself.  Despite Bidmead’s best efforts, Logopolis ended up as a story about magic words.  Castrovalva ends up as a story about magic art.  And when he tries to really focus strongly on the science he gets it wrong anyway.

TEGAN: And we’re travelling backwards in time. Back to first event!
NYSSA: The creation of the galaxy out of a huge in-rush of hydrogen. We’re heading straight into the biggest explosion in history!

The creation of the galaxy?  Not quite.  Try the universe.  Structurally, the story is very good though, with two halves linked by the common theme of recursion, although the concept does get introduced with some shoehorned in dialogue:

TEGAN: How do we find the index file? Of course, if we had an index file, we could look it up in the index file, under index file. What am I saying? I’m talking nonsense.
NYSSA: Recursion isn’t nonsense.
NYSSA: That’s an example of recursion, when procedures fold back on themselves. If you had an index file, you could look it up in the index file.

Plus, the first half is far weaker than the second, feeling more like a couple of episodes of delaying tactics before we get to the proper story.  The Doctor’s regeneration sickness also feels like delaying tactics in terms of introducing us to the new Doctor, and here is where we come to the story’s big problem.  It should never have been Davison’s first story.

We have some genuinely brilliant stuff here: the Escher inspiration, the Doctor kept out of the picture for a couple of episodes, allowing the companions (not Adric, of course) to take centre stage, form an entertaining double act, and provide a real sense of danger, largely in the absence of the Doctor.  That’s all great, but would have worked perfectly as a mid-season or finale story.  But as Davison’s first story it is hugely frustrating to watch.

Any future showrunner wanting to make a post-regeneration story should watch this to gain an understanding of how not to do it, and then go and watch Robot to see it done properly.  Basically, the post-regen trauma needs to be ignored completely, or just used as an excuse for a few jokes in the first ten minutes or so of the first episode.  Every Doctor Who story that has gone big with the trauma has either been a good story despite that, or just rubbish.

The story goes that Castrovalva was held back to fourth place in the production order, to give Davison a chance to get into the groove with his Doctor before filming his debut.  That seems bizarre, because he then spends most of this story either incapacitated, being carried around in a box, or not behaving in any way like he will when he gets over the trauma and actually starts being the Doctor.  And to paraphrase Judge Judy, when something doesn’t make sense, it’s usually because it’s not true.  What actually happened is that two planned scripts fell through, leaving Four to Doomsday as the first script ready to go.  Castrovalva was made fourth because it was the fourth script available.  Beware of producers revising history to make a mistake look deliberate.

When the Doctor finally gets on with the story he’s brilliant, but it takes a lot of patience to get to that point.  Luckily we have plenty of distractions on the way.  The TARDIS seems to be reconfiguring herself to help the Doctor, providing him with a new costume (awful, by the way – he should really chose his own clothes, or this will happen – the TARDIS clearly has no taste), and then chucking a load of medicine at him and a handy wheelchair.  The Doctor metaphorically unravels his past by literally unravelling the Fourth Doctor’s scarf.  Adric is kept mostly out of the picture, which is always a good thing, and Tegan and Nyssa are actually really good together, with Nyssa already functioning as a slightly more competent version of the Doctor, and Tegan a bit less sarky as her companion than when she is playing the same role with the Doctor.  The Master is a lot of fun, but if you want anything from the Master other than a chuckling villain with ridiculous plans then you might be disappointed.  Bidmead struggles to write good dialogue at the best of times, and the Master proves to be too much of a challenge for him:

These facile victories only leave me hungry for more conquest.

But at least this pathetic villain, who reads out hackneyed scripted lines that could only charitably be described as talking, has created something inspired by some truly great art.  Film and fiction are not the only things worth looking to for inspiration, and when Doctor Who takes a poem or a painting as its starting point it can become both fascinating and beautiful.  It should try that more often.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Important character, Yoda is.  Much confusion causes, his speech does!  If speech were made into images, we might have to give Yoda some flak for influencing M. C. Escher who in turn influenced the Master who forced Adric to create the world of Castrovalva.  Confused yet?  Well, I’m just getting started.  We’re going to that Adric-created world Castrovalva and if Bidmead doesn’t put you off, the very notion of an Adric-created world should!  Is it any wonder that the construct breaks down, not unlike Adric himself.  And did he see Escher’s painting beforehand?  I presume he must have because he does a reasonable job recreating it here.

Castrovalva, like Logopolis before it, opens up with barely a threat in sight after the TARDIS takes off.  That form of storytelling is brave, mature and often quite good.  The problem is that it can’t be sustained long-term because the audience isn’t tuning in to see the characters sitting around.  But for a single episode or a chunk of one, characters can develop and lore can be explored.  The Doctor descends into the TARDIS so we see rooms than we have ever seen before.  The Zero Room is a brilliant concept that explains so much about the Doctor’s regeneration process that it warrants a hard look all on its own.  The comfortable interior of the TARDIS is a magnificent place for an episode; there’s a sense of peace, at least until Tegan starts to speak.  And the slower pacing gives us a chance to understand how companions of the Doctor bond.  Nyssa, who we barely know and Tegan, who we don’t know at all, get a chance to work together while the Doctor is incapacitated.  This idea started gradually with Pertwee’s Doctor being out of commission for nearly his whole first story, followed by Tom in a similar style.  That style continues right into Modern Who with David Tennant being laid up for 2/3rds of The Christmas Invasion.  Tennant said that Davison was “his Doctor” and if this regeneration is anything to go by, there’s evidence right from the start.  Meanwhile, Adric is missing and frankly, does anyone notice?  Including the audience?  And there’s an inherent problem with Bidmead’s writing: he doesn’t seem to know the source material.  The very third story ever, The Edge of Destruction, has the Doctor propelled back to “event 1” aka The Big Bang but with entirely different results which doesn’t make a lot of sense and it could have been avoided with a little research.  Where are the rewinding clocks?  The doors opening and closing?  The scanner and the images over time?  Or has the TARDIS just shrugged its wooden shoulders as if to say, “Why does he keep doing this?”

When the TARDIS arrives on Castrovalva, it’s another idyllic place but things start going wrong.  What I call “The Batman Syndrome” bothers me immensely.  This is that quality where something is introduced conveniently for an episode only to vanish without a trace from that day forward.  While I love the idea of the Zero room, I hate when new lore is created solely for a single story.  Look, the Cloisters were created and they stuck around!  Why not have the Zero room for more than a single episode (not story, mind you, episode)?  This leads to an unlikely solution: they have to take the doors off to create Zero Cabinet.  Even though just one story earlier it’s pretty clear that the Doctor can make and delete rooms at leisure.  But they build a cabinet that falls apart like Ikea furniture with the slightest bump!    It also gets tiresome that The Master is constantly playing “Hyde and Seek” with the Doctor.  Yes, fellow reader, Hyde, as in, the evil alter ego that has to be located.   And he does love to hide in plain sight only to then surprise both audience and Doctor alike.  Surprise, that old lady you helped cross the street?  Yep!  The Master!  The writer of the episode Hell Bent?  You bet!  The Master!  And I love that a tapestry can be used as a video screen.  Very atypical, and probably an expensive tapestry.

Like so many opening episodes, Castrovalva is weak but it gives us a chance to allow the Doctor to transition into the role.  It gives us a chance to get to know the companions and to realize how utterly useless Adric was becoming.  And it provided us a look inside the TARDIS; something fans clearly wanted so much that we eventually named an episode Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.  But it also attempted something big and brave: it took as to a place that looped back on itself creating an M. C. Escher painting for television as only the 1980’s could.  It’s visually jarring, as it should be, but not because they pulled off any great special effect, but rather because they could not!

Davison does play a very easy going Doctor; one that is very relatable.  It’s not a surprise that David Tennant would have taken to him.  His youth lent itself well to the companions being equally youthful and that didn’t always work out well in the stories.  Gone was the maturity that accompanied Ian and Barbara (and most companions since) and the era of the young companion begins.  And it’s going to be problematic until they have to handle a very mature subject: the death of a friend in Earthshock!  For now we have to deal with Adric’s creation and an interestingly named character, the Portreeve.  Oh, wait… look at that!  It’s Hyde and Seek time once again: the actor who played the Portreeve is Neil Toynay.  Yep, the MASTER!  Also known as Tony Ainley!  Go on, anagram lovers, have at it!!  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Four to Doomsday

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Art, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Fifth Doctor, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Castrovalva

  1. scifimike70 says:

    If Castrovalva succeeded most profoundly in any way, it was established that Davison’s era would be the most dramatized classic Dr. Who era in retrospect. We had the special female-bonding for both Tegan and Nyssa. We had the 5th Doctor coming to terms with his new regeneration and all the special roles involved, from the companions to Shardovan, Mergrave and Ruther. Even when we learn that the Portreeve is the Master in disguise, the Portreeve’s elderly wisdom and comfort, making the Master’s revelation in Part 4 probably his most haunting, could help us warm up to the first of the young Doctors.

    It’s curious for new Whovians, after being accustomed to the eras of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith with their traditionally Who excitements, to enjoy an openly down-to-basics story like Castrovalva with no monsters, no specific dynamics and yet with one of the best twist revelations, regarding the truth behind Castrovalva, which I think anyone can give this one points for. After all, the movie Identity wasn’t a critical classic and yet worked for the best twist it could give the audience. Castrovalva worked for me simply because it was in its own right a nicely unpredictable kind of story. Few recently new shows like Dr. Who have appealed to me favorably that way, such as Dollhouse and Nikita (with Maggie Q). So it encouraged my faith that I would still tune into Dr. Who after T. Baker’s departure for the sake of good storytelling. I’m not saying that most of the 80s Who stories couldn’t have been better. But the 80s was a time of relative changes for SF and TV drama. So it was nice to know that Dr. Who could still move with the times within reason.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      My top five votes for the best female-bonding chemistry in SF TV drama:

      1. Janet Fielding & Sarah Sutton (Doctor Who)
      2. Lois Nettleton & Betty Garde (The Twilight Zone: The Midnight Sun)
      3. Dominique Provost-Chalkley & Katherine Bell (Wynonna Earp)
      4. Melissa O’Neil & Zoie Palmer (Dark Matter)
      5. Kate Mulgrew & Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager)

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        Adding more to this list:

        6. Lucy Lawless & Renee O’Connor (Xena: Warrior Princess)
        7. Lynda Carter & Debra Winger (Wonder Woman)
        8. Karen Gillan & Alex Kingston (Doctor Who)
        9. Caroline John & Louise Jameson (P.R.O.B.E.)
        10. Jodie Whittaker & Mandip Gill (Doctor Who)

        Liked by 1 person

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