Appellate Judge Mac McEntire is currently on his 12th regeneration. It's been a rough couple of days.
"I am persuasion, and this is enlightenment."
After an enormously successful, years-long run as the star of Doctor Who, popular actor Tom Baker, whom many consider the iconic face of the series, left the show, and the titular Doctor regenerated into a new, younger form, played by Peter Davison (All Creatures Great and Small). Although viewers first met Davison's fifth Doctor in the post-regeneration episode "Castrovalva," the first episode Davison filmed was "Four to Doomsday," now available on DVD courtesy of BBC Video, as part of its ongoing efforts to restore and release the series.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor (Davison) is a Time Lord, journeying everywhere and anywhere in time and space, having all kinds of adventures. He's joined by three traveling companions, young mathematician Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), genius science-girl Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and present-day Earth stewardess Tegan (Janet Fielding).
The Doctor promises to return Tegan to her job, and almost makes it. Instead, his ship, the T.A.R.D.I.S., materializes on board a giant spaceship four days before it arrives on Earth. The spaceship is filled with technological marvels, and is led by Monarch (Stratford Johns, Neverwhere), an alien being. Monarch seems hospitable at first, as do a group of colorful characters from Earth's past who also inhabit the ship. The Doctor and his friends, however, poke their noses where they don't belong and determine that something strange is going on. Can the Doctor solve the mystery before time runs out?
First, the stats: "Four to Doomsday," was the second aired episode of Doctor Who's 19th season, although it was the first one filmed. It originally aired in four half-hour weekly parts, starting on Jan. 18, 1982, and was then edited together into a feature-length two-hour version upon subsequent repeats. It is the show's 118th episode.
This technically being Davison's first time in the Doctor's shoes, writer Terence Dudley took a back-to-basics approach with the script. The bonus features reveal that Dudley was not only writing for a new Doctor, but that he'd never before written for Tegan, Nyssa and Adric as well. He went back to the scripts from those characters' first appearances, and wrote them as they were described in their introductions. Therefore, as this episode begins, Adric is the smart-but-not-wise young man, Nyssa burns with curiosity about all things science, and Tegan just whines about wanting to go back home. This simplicity is both good and bad. It's bad in that it negates any character development they've had in episodes before this, but it's good in that it allows a lot of conflict among the three of them throughout the episode. Tegan wants to get out of there, Nyssa wants to explore, and Adric believes Monarch's rhetoric. When any two or all three companions are in one scene at any given time, the sparks fly.
"Four to Doomsday" belongs to the companions more than it does the Doctor. Sure, he's here, figuring things out and saving the day as always, but as far as the emotional aspect of the tale, the three of them carry the weight of the script. First, there's Tegan's so-called "catfight" with Adric over what to do, followed by her emotional breakdown while trying to escape in the T.A.R.D.I.S. Her argument with the Doctor about whether to leave is another highlight. Nyssa shows plenty of spunk, exploring the alien craft on her own and figuring out her own ways to rescue the others, as needed.
As for the plot, it's par for the course Doctor Who alien time-twisting. Monarch and his cronies are up to something, and the Doctor gradually figures out what. Because the entire episode takes place on board Monarch's ship, you won't see a lot of chases, explosions, or long walks through rock quarries. Although there is some quirky action during the finale, this is one of the Doctor's talkier adventures. That's OK, though, because it puts the emphasis on the actors and their interactions with each other. Just because this is Doctor Who—one of the nuttier sci-fi shows out there—doesn't mean they can't do a low-key, character-based episode once in a while, right?
About that new Doctor—Davison does a fine job in his "first" performance in the famous role. He shows a lot of confidence, both in the humorous scenes and in the more serious ones. You'd never know it was his first time in the cricket-jacket-with-celery. Stratford Johns fills his villain role nicely, even under tons of green makeup. The other actors, playing various figures from different eras of Earth's history, fill their roles nicely as well.
As always, the restoration team that brings Doctor Who to DVD does great work. The picture quality has that it-could-have-been-filmed-yesterday look, making the most of the greens and browns inside Monarch's ship. The bonus features say that the ship's interior was inspired by Ridley Scott's Alien, and, sure enough, there are a lot of small details in the walls in the background that stand out with clarity, just as well as the actors do. Audio is another mono track, but it shows few to no flaws, and the classic Doctor Who theme song rocks, of course.
The commentary track, with Davison, Waterhouse, Fielding, Sutton, and director John Black, is a good one, with a lot of humor and nostalgic remembrances. For the more nit-picky crowd, a text commentary contains information about differences between the original script and the finished product, background info on the cast and crew, and references to other Who episodes. The "Studio Recording" featurette is raw footage of Davison's first few takes on his first day as the Doctor. This is less about acting and character, but more about staging, with the director's comments limited to stuff like "look over here during this shot," and "not as fast this time." This is followed by a segment from English talk show A Night at the Mill, in which host Bob Langley talks to Davison about the show, his other roles, and his favorite milkshake recipes. Rounding out the extras are a way-cool theme song music video, a photo gallery, and the episode's original Radio Times listings on DVD-ROM.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For many viewers, Doctor Who is the personification of low-budget sci-fi, and "Four to Doomsday" won't disappoint on that level. The Doctor's spacewalk during the finale is some truly silly effects, as is the big reveal at the end of part two.
Also, many plot points rely on how Monarch can view anything going on aboard his ship at any time, and the various ways the Doctor subverts that. If Monarch has technology so advanced it appears to be magic in the eyes of the Doctor and his companions, why does he rely on these big, clunky, video cameras to keep him informed of everything happening aboard his ship?
Fans of Doctor Who, especially those of the fifth Doctor, will want to snag this disc immediately. For the Who curious, know that it's not a signature episode, but it does have some fun sci-fi ideas and some great performances from the Doctor's companions.
Four to not guilty.
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