Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Fifth Doctor’s week, featuring Earthshock and Caves of Androzani. For those looking for another good episode to understand the Fifth Doctor, also look at The Resurrection of the Daleks.
The Caves of Androzani is the sixth serial of the 21st season in Doctor Who. This four-parter was Peter Davison’s last , which was first broadcast in four twice-weekly parts from 8–16 March 1984. It was Peter Davison’s last regular appearance as the Fifth Doctor, and is the first appearance of Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. In 2009, The Caves of Androzani was voted by fans as the best Doctor Who story in history.
What a great episode! Science fiction is often known for showing shades of grey, forgoing that black and white morality for more interesting questions. The Caves of Androzani manages this brilliantly, with a cast which is pretty much all morally questionable.
The story takes place on Androzani Minor, a desert planet which is home to the drug “spectrox” which has life-extending abilities. This spectrox is controlled by Trau Morgus, a (not at all surprisingly) corrupt businessman, while the masked rebel Sharaz Jek and his android forces attempt to overthrow him. The third party involved is a group of gunrunners for Sharaz Jek who are only after money, but are revealed to be funded by Morgus.
The Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet and are instantly in trouble. This story is a brilliant executed example of how a story with many different characters can be engaging and fleshed out, while having excellent pacing and tension throughout. At the very beginning, the Doctor and Peri step into the web-like matter of a spectrox nest which turns out to be potentially fatal later on. Their discovery of their earlier stumble is great – there’s nothing like a ticking timer to create tension, but there’s plenty going on elsewhere which means the time travellers must focus their attentions on the bigger picture before being able to save themselves.
The war against the rebels have been going on for long enough that when the “good” side – that is, the side that is currently in power – captures the Doctor and Peri under the assumption they are gunrunners, they are more than happy to execute them without trial. They do escape, however, and it is shown that the rebel side is not much better. This side consists of the masked Sharaz Jek, his androids, and the help of the mercenary gunrunners. While Jek fights against the big corrupt corporation, he isn’t much better, motivated primarily by vengeance. His case isn’t helped by the fact that he obsesses over Peri’s beauty and intends to keep her as his everlasting companion. Creepy.
The Caves of Androzani is a stunning episode, painting a world full of greedy, corrupt people. Interestingly, the Doctor doesn’t seem to make much of a mark on their society – perhaps it was just too rotten to even attempt to begin? In addition, he is dealing with being poisoned by that pesky raw spectrox, which doesn’t leave much time for speeches and grandstanding.
I quite enjoyed the Fifth Doctor’s reign, and this episode cemented his position as one of the best episodes in Doctor Who history for me, and for many other fans.
This story is voted as the best Doctor Who story ever (so far) and it is easy to see why. The story has enough complexity to make it interesting, yet isn’t so convoluted as to get completely lost in. The characters are fleshed out well, and all of them get time in the limelight. The characters are also believable to a certain extent – Peri certainly is, showing a level of fear at the prospect of being shot without having to resort to screaming. There are also no obvious ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’; merely a group of morally grey characters, most who are simultaneously sympathetic and unrelatable. Overall, it is easy to see why this story is voted so highly amongst viewers.
The pace is set as right from the get-go, as the Doctor and his new companion Peri fall into a pile of sticky web-like things, which turn out to be toxic. From that moment on they get captured, threatened with execution, manhandled by androids, impersonated, and threatened by a horribly deformed genius. A war over the supply of a basic ‘immortality’ drug has been waged on the planet, Androzani Minor, the two companions have landed on, and they get caught in the middle. The war is between the mysterious Sharaz Jek, who is leading a rebellion against the forces of Androzani Major, which are led by General Chellak, under the funding of Trau Morgus. With monsters, gun runners and smugglers, greedy corporations, vengeful maniacs and giant dinosaur bats with magical healing milk, the story is both dark and fast paced, and very enjoyable.
All the characters aside from Peri and the Doctor are in a very moral grey area, with the possible exception of Morgus. Chellak and the military are initially seen as brutish thugs, and even execute Peri and the Doctor, although obviously events happen which prevent that from actually killing them. On the other side of the coin, they are war weary veterans who are desperately seeking a way to end an endless war of attrition with the elusive Sharaz Jek and his army of androids. Sharaz Jek himself is a hideously deformed man, although brilliant, with a strong love of beauty and an endless supply of the life prolonging drug. He is sympathetic is some ways, having been exiled and betrayed by Morgus, his former mining partner, and is consumed by his crusade to exact revenge on the conniving and greedy businessman. On the other hand he kidnaps the Doctor and Peri, threatens them, and intends to keep them both his prisoners for eternity, especially Peri, as he considers her beautiful. The smugglers, who provide Sharaz with the weapons to continue his war, are shown to be both thugs but also not the grandest of villains.
The overall feel of this story is basically Shakespeare meeting Phantom of the Opera, via Dune, with the poor old TARDIS team getting caught up in the middle. Although it is the Fifth Doctor’s swan song, it highlights his caring nature the best: when he is faced with a choice, he prefers to sacrifice his own life in order to save that of a companion, something only the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s have done since. Peri shows she is no wallflower either, although she spends a good amount of time out of it due to illness; she gives the Doctor a fair amount of playful lip during the early part of the story. As an interesting aside, she is only one of two characters to actually survive to the end of the serial (the other being Morgus’ secretary) and they are both women (unless you wish to count the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration).
In conclusion, The Caves of Androzani is easily one of the better Doctor Who stories out there. Even if you don’t watch the older stories because of their laughable graphics (this one has its moments, especially the giant dinosaur-bat creature), you should watch this story, just because it is a highly enjoyable story, dark and violent enough to be engaging, although not horrific; with enough plot twists to be interesting without being convoluted; and with characters who are suitably grey to allow the audience to sympathise and empathise with both sides. Overall, this almost operatic serial is a great watch, and should be seen by any Doctor Who fan worth their salt.