The Caves of Androzani

androzaniEveryone loves The Caves of Androzani, and I can understand why.  Even Peter Davison names it as his favourite, but then there is plenty of big dramatic stuff for an actor to sink his teeth into.  My own opinions about Doctor Who are not always aligned to the majority of Doctor Who fans, but this is on another level, because The Caves of Androzani is often named as the best Doctor Who story.  It has topped surveys, and is always close to the top when it doesn’t.  But let’s just start by acknowledging that this fact is a mark of nothing at all.  People in all walks of life tend to be sheep following the herd, and Doctor Who fandom is no different.  Not so many years ago The Gunfighters was the worst Hartnell story and The Celestial Toymaker was a classic.  Now the reverse of that is the received wisdom.  Neither conclusion is particularly valid.  To say that the majority is often wrong is not a giant leap, but I do wonder why anyone who names this as their favourite Doctor Who story would actually want to watch any of the others, as it exists in opposition to the values of everything else.

Partly I suspect this is a symptom of the era from which this sprang trying to play to the desires of teenage fans.  As a young child watching it at the time I hated it, but I suspect any teenagers watching would have been drawn in by the feeling of seeing something more “adult”.  But this is a typical teenage misunderstanding of what “adult” means.  The Caves of Androzani is “adult”, as in nasty and nihilistic.

To be fair, I must acknowledge the positives.  The fourth wall breaks are great.  It’s brilliantly acted and directed.  It has Robert Glenister in it.  For what it is trying to do, the script is superb.  It shines brightly, but that’s because it’s an extremely well-polished… well, let’s just say it’s an absolutely exquisite pigskin purse, lovingly crafted from a pig’s ear.  But let’s try to get past all that and look at what the story is actually doing.

Androzani is a world of death.  The planet itself is deadly.  Every character is morally bankrupt and most of them are amoral murderers.  We are actually taken to a place as a viewer where we quite like Sharaz Jek, because he is astonishingly the most likeable major character, with some attempt to turn him around to somebody who tries to save Peri’s life.  But he is a psychopath who objectifies Peri.  Just look at how the Doctor always tries to place himself between Jek and Peri.  He knows what will happen to Peri at the hands of Jek if he doesn’t protect her.  Jek is also a torturer, threatening to rip off the Doctor’s limbs:

Tear his arms out slowly. You know the power an android can exert, Doctor. After your arms, they will remove your legs.

That brings us to the astonishing violence in the story, and it is real violence, not sci-fi stun guns and the like.  Real guns, real knives.  Look at this scene, with Stotz holding a knife to Krelper’s throat:

STOTZ: It’s your rotten black heart I’m going to cut out.
KRELPER: No! For pity’s sake, Stotz.
STOTZ: The boss gave me one of these. Ten seconds, he said. Let’s see if it works.
KRELPER: Oh no, Stotzy, no!
STOTZ: Come on, you slat, bite. Come on, bite! Bite!

That’s knife violence, physical violence and a poison pill, all in a few seconds.  Even when we get a sci-fi death, it is played with such gratuitous emphasis on the pain of death that it doesn’t really help much.  Morgus’s head shoved in a glowing machine might just as well be his head in a grinder.  By that point we are almost numb to the violence.

Morgus is the big villain of the piece but never gets a big confrontation with the Doctor.  It is all about the conflict between Morgus and Jek, and the Doctor achieves nothing during the entire story, other than to help a few nasty people achieve their comeuppance.  We have a narrative solely interested in resolution by revenge.  In fact, it could be argued that the Doctor makes things a whole lot worse than they were when he arrived by destabilising everything without anything more positive to replace the corruption and greed.  Morgus’s empire remains intact, and will simply be taken over by his secretary, who will doubtless run things along the same lines.  Timmin has learnt from the best.  But with no characters who are not morally bankrupt, the Doctor does not have the ability to fit within the narrative the way we would expect, as a force for change, bringing down a cruel regime and allowing the good guys to take power.  Because there aren’t any good guys here.  Instead, virtually everyone dies, and the story revels in it.

Added to all that we have the inescapable observation that Jek is a cynical demonisation of physical disability for a cheap scare (and not a “safe” scare for children, like Doctor Who usually does with monsters – ending up like this due to some kind of accident is a real life fear), and that Peri is objectified throughout, a damsel in distressed to be leered at and rescued.

Finally, we have the Doctor’s death.  This is not a heroic sacrifice after saving the universe, or facing his fears, or defeating a deadly enemy.  This is like the First Doctor stepping into an historical story in which he can change nothing and only escape from the horror, defeated and killed.  Imagine if the First Doctor era ended with the Doctor regenerating at the end of The Massacre, but with a much more lingering focus on the violence.  That’s basically what we have here, but transplanted to a sci-fi setting, and I’m giving it a great deal more credit than it deserves by even drawing that parallel.  The Doctor is not just killed, but humiliated.  He is tortured and bullied by the villains, gets poisoned and dies.  His rescue of Peri is undeniably a great, dramatic, heroic moment, but if you want the Doctor to be a traditional hero in a very traditional, physical sense, then you are probably watching the wrong series.

So unfortunately if you think this is perfect Doctor Who and you want it to be more like this, then you’re out of luck.  Doctor Who abandons its morality and hope, and becomes a nasty and violent action thriller that objectifies women and makes disability monstrous… just the once, and this is it.  This is Doctor Who’s most thorough abandonment of the family demographic, and embrace of teenage fandom.  Ever wondered how it was possible that the best ever Doctor Who story was followed by the worst?  That’s because it wasn’t.

The Caves of Androzani abandons probably the most basic premise of Doctor Who: the Doctor as an intelligent force of positive change.  Astonishingly, there is still some more downhill from here.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Roger and I don’t preplan our Junkyard views, but upon occasion we know how the other feels about a given episode from past discussion.  So, I know I will give Caves of Androzoni a more favorable writeup than my friend will.  But remember, as I’ve mentioned before, watching Doctor Who was a very personal experience for me during my youth.  I’d go so far as to call it “magical”.  And I loved when I could share it with someone. There are some very clear memories of those times etched indelibly in my head.  So let me paint a picture…

On a particular Saturday evening, when I was slightly too young for my parents to leave me watching my 7-year-younger baby sister, my cousin was asked to come over and spend the night with us until my parents returned home.  She was accompanied by her boyfriend,  her best friend Karen and Karen’s boyfriend, Kenny.  While they played games in the kitchen, I was in the living room with channel 50 turned on, long before the days of basic cable when UHF came in with all the grainy goodness that only a fan could appreciate.  It was during Peter Davison’s run, which I had started with Mawdryn Undead a mere 9 weeks earlier (9 because The Five Doctors was skipped at the time, as if the universe was determined to add to my confusion).  As The Caves of Androzani started I remained ignorant of what was coming.  I’ll remind you that when I started watching Davison, I didn’t know about regeneration but that was going to change in about 90 minutes…

Caves is part political drama, part action adventure with a dose of gun running thrown in for good measure.  Considering this was written by Robert Holmes, I would not be surprised if he were trying to make a statement, but I didn’t see it at an age when the message mattered.  What I saw was a retelling of a movie my dad and I watched together: The Phantom of the Opera.  This time, Sharez Jek, with his scarred face hidden behind a leather mask, was standing in for the Phantom as he watched the Doctor and obsessed (quite understandably) over Peri.  I was happy to finally learn why the Doctor wore a decorative vegetable on his clothing (even if it left me with a question all my life: would celery really turn purple in the presence of radiation?).  I wasn’t fond of watching Magnus break the fourth wall repeatedly though but I never forgot him pushing the president down the elevator shaft; that image stuck with me for a long time!

It wouldn’t be until I was older that the whole question of identity posed by the androids would stand out to me.  But then that was brought into the spotlight with The Rebel Flesh to far better effect, so I won’t linger on it here as much as I enjoy the subject.  Then there was this horrible disease: Spectrox Toxaemia.  It killed painfully and slowly over time and we saw the effects it had on the Doctor and Peri throughout the story.  While I may have watched this in one 90 minute block, the original viewer would have been watching the hero die horribly over 4 weeks.  This was a lot to ask of a young viewer.  Coupled with the severe backhand the Doctor receives at Jek’s hand, this was a more mature Doctor Who episode, but whether that mattered to me at the time or not, I can no longer say.  Now, we know the hero always wins so I wasn’t worried about him finding a cure, but I was surprised that he only had enough for Peri.  I was convinced there would be some unexpected solution… but it never came.  Peri lays her dying friend on the TARDIS floor, “Can this be death?

And this was the night that changed my view of the show forever.  Before my eyes, he changed into a new man.  The first regeneration story I had ever seen was Peter Davison into Colin Baker.  (Sadly, the next week was not going to help; channel 50 did not have the rights to Baker’s era yet, so the following week saw Jon Pertwee fall out of the TARDIS… but that’s another story.)  For me, the magic of Doctor Who was solidified; there was no going back.  Caves crystalized the magic into something undeniable.  This show was unlike anything on television at the time or since; the lead actor could be replaced without changing the core of the character.

On its own merit, Caves is interesting because by the end it seems the Doctor’s presence created more harm than good for everyone involved, himself included.  But for me personally, it was one of the best for sparking the imagination and it left an indelible memory of my cousin’s involvement on that special day.  So while, I’m sure, Roger’s sentiments will be well founded, it would be hard for me to dislike this episode.  Unless he convinces me of something I missed entirely…   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twin Dilemma

About Roger Pocock

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4 Responses to The Caves of Androzani

  1. ML says:

    Funny – if I had a bet before I read this, it would have been about the violence. I grew up with all the horror movies of the generation from Halloween and Freddy, Friday the 13th and The Shining, Alien and … I could go on. For me, the violence was still tame by comparison to some of the shows I had seen at a younger age than Caves. Over the weekend, I spoke to my mom about that weekend and she remembered it was during the colder months of 1984 that my cousin watched us. That would have put me at 12 years old and about 6 months after the airing in the UK.
    I think for it to have been seen as particularly violent for me, there would have had to have been blood, which was coming in 2 more stories. But even then, I think I was watching with the awareness that TV violence wasn’t real.
    Of course, I realize that doesn’t mean other children had that same level of exposure. Where I will agree is that the Doctor is totally incapable of bringing anything good to Androzani. But then, maybe that was the point: when violence prevails and can’t be beaten, the character dies.

    Great write up though and I can totally understand all of the points you made!


    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think the horror film comparison stands up because Doctor Who doesn’t play in the same playground as those. Or at least with a broadcast slot at the time of 7.15 it shouldn’t. The films you mention were all 18 certificates at the time I think. At 12 years old you were on the edge of what I described as the demographic (and the only demographic) the series was shooting for. As a younger child I was excluded. But it’s not just about that. I still see the story as an adult as something that simply doesn’t fit with the rest of Doctor Who. If the point is as you suggest: when violence prevails the character dies, that’s a fundamentally anti-Doctor Who message. The Doctor is better than that. When he is unable to find a way to make things better the series ceases to have a purpose. I think there’s a valid reason why this has never been emulated since, despite its popularity. Perhaps too much of a narrative collapse, to render the Doctor almost entirely pointless?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    The Caves Of Androzani was an easy favorite for me personally at the time (nearing m mid teens) because it was a time when I was developing my own adrenaline for TV episodes and movies that gave me a boost of energy when I needed it, either to combat boredom or enjoy a bike ride. After seeing the airlock sequence in Star Trek: Into Darkness a couple times in the cinema, it was most energetically profound for me at that point to recognize such frictions, even violent depictions like with The Caves Of Androzani, as the allowance that even our favorite shows must often make to avoid something even more problematic for audiences that violence. Namely leaving audiences including children unprepared for the realism that they need to acknowledge in reality, which has now been more dramatized for TV than ever before thanks to crime dramas and even reinvented sleuthing heroes like Sherlock and Batman via Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

    So I for one am grateful enough to The Caves Of Androzani for that, which is not saying that I’ve still got issues to this day about classic Dr. Who stories that could and should have been done a great deal differently. These days I hardly watch any TV at all, which my preferences now being reminiscence with stuff on YouTube and Netflix. One of my vary rare-nowadays cinema outings, given its own obvious SF issues with futuristic violence, was most recently Blade Runner 2049. This was a film whose action climax was remarkably similar to that of The Caves Of Androzani, coupled with its own message some good may come out in the end. Because to be far enough we’re thankfully given the salvation of Peri for the 5th Doctor’s era to end on that much. But it’s additionally rewarding to know that there are moments, regarding the Doctor’s involvement with specific stories, where the Doctor being a circumstantially problematic influence can be okay if, thanks to Peter Davison’s brilliant acting, the Doctor can at least spare us and himself from his overwhelming potential of nearing losing his way. In that sense, I indeed prefer The Caves Of Androzani to The Waters Of Mars or The Eaters Of Light.

    If they’re going to make the Doctor a dramatically bad influence for one story, then it should be dramatically for the right reasons. The 5th Doctor is driven by redemption for how his habit of curiosity as a downfall got Peri into trouble to begin with. Given how the Doctor’s dilemma for classic stories like Planet Of The Spiders and The Face Of Evil have often worked well in that regard, it worked enough for me.

    As for Sharaz Jek’s disfigurement quite understandably rubbing people the wrong way for the inevitably obvious reasons, I must admit that it’s always been a bit too disappointing when we observe futuristic SF adventures (like Star Trek’s The Menagerie) where medical cures for all horrible disfigurements somehow don’t seem as available as we might expect in an advanced future. Travis in Blake’s 7 quite willingly refused to have his face properly fixed because, with blatant menace, he didn’t want to be mistaken for anyone else and especially by Blake. So it naturally makes us reconsider our own personal impacts with such characters. Davros was a mutation, which may or may not be more accurate in his case than a disfigurement, which for character-development (especially for his relation to the Daleks) was okay enough for fans in regards to what Dr. Robinson said in the Lost In Space movie: Evil always finds its true form. Sharaz Jek was more tragic as a villain and Christopher Gable was mesmerizing enough for audiences to cheer on his final revenge on Morgus, even if it was boldly violent. I once read somewhere that David Bowie was considered for the role. That would have been great even though Gable was the right actor for the role.

    Going back to my recent point on Dr. Who being a tangent of an SF/fantasy series for the sake of special freedoms for the audience, even bones to pick with upsetting stories, I’m forever indebted mostly to Dr. Who for motivating my own equilibrium on appropriated and misappropriated shows and films. Thank you both for your very pivotal reviews on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Basil says:

      To clarify my point about not still having big issues with bad Dr. Who in the past: I just think it’s healthier to not dwell so much on regrettable TV or film in a negative way. Because it’s the education way that’s more positive. What I can educationally take away from a violent story like The Caves Of Androzani is that it was the first in a sense to show that Dr. Who’s format wasn’t always necessarily SF/fantasy. Because, additionally for my point about the most realistic shows making us understand that violence is a reality, even one that should be avoided, we know that the characteristic darkness we see from most of the cast, with a nice-enough exception at least with the doomed President, can happen on real-life Earth.

      If a show like Dr. Who, even if originally and in some ways at the point still an SF show for children, became too bland or too pantomime (a problem that was faced with both the 6th and 7th Doctor’s eras to some extent), then that can be even more desensitizing. There’s a vintage Dr. Who documentary from 1977 called Whose Doctor Who which interviewed a bunch of children and psychologists about why the realism of violence in Dr. Who was (as with the classic Star Trek) an educationally good thing. So much so that the documentary even mentioned an autistic child who found a valuable coping mechanism via his reaction to the Daleks. So my point is: Was The Caves Of Androzani a realistically well-praised or Whoniversally appropriate story to doing what it did? One can argue that Dr. Who was in all fairness attempting to mirror the SF times of the early 80s because of The Terminator, Blade Runner and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. But that’s just me trying to be fair as usual and giving a cherished show the benefit of the doubt.

      I’m just going through a sort of process right now where I’m somehow more forgiving of a lot of things, which doesn’t mean forgetting, but remembering for better reasons. And it’s this renewed Dr. Who review site that encourages my own words because, as my mother once assured me out of her own wisdom, no matter how familiar the story or the subjects may be, it’s our own individually unique words that make the story unique. That was how Dr. Who and Star Trek always appealed to me in childhood and adulthood. So thank you again for your reviews that prompt each of us to allow our own words.

      Liked by 1 person

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