Everyone 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