What a finale!
Peter Davison's tenure as the Doctor was often nothing short of frustrating. Whilst the series was enjoying great popularity and a polished and expensive look (well, for the '80s) thanks to divisive young producer John Nathan-Turner, and the stories were certainly serviceable, Davison himself was notably reserved in his portrayal of the title character. Whilst his young energy and charisma is frequently used to good effect, Davison's gift for comedy and characterization was toned down for fear of comparison to his immediate predecessor, the formidable Tom Baker. The end result is a Doctor who exhibits the traits of his former selves in small, half-buried measures, and the effect is less a masterful work of subtlety than an exercise in bland writing and direction. Starting in 1980, the TARDIS became crowded, with multiple companion characters of varying quality vying for screen time each week. With its redoubled emphasis on continuity (stories begin to drudge up old characters from years, even decades past) and style (in its costumes, synthesized music and set design), the show started to feel more mannered and laborious rather than scary and fun. Of course there was always an exception to the rule, and this fact both salvages the show’s legacy in this decade and also underlines the frustration it often imbues.
“Caves of Androzani” is not typical “Doctor Who,” regardless of era. ‘70s stalwart Robert Holmes returns to the series to pen a script that is immediately adult, tense, emotional and imaginative. A dark story involving gun-runners, government corruption, political crimes, torture, violence, lust, desperation and selfless heroics, “Caves of Androzani” plays out as an intense political and psychological action-thriller with a few sci-fi trappings thrown in for good measure. The characterizations are highly memorable. The villains, the paranoid businessman Morgus and the masked and revenge-mad Sharez Jek, are mesmerizing. One is a powerful and devious mogul who spouts soliloquies and sees conspiracy in every shadow, the other a tragic victim whose genius and love of beauty have been twisted to forward a lust for revenge. Ancillary characters, from androids to presidents, secretaries and soldiers all fare well and are cast impeccably.
Holmes litters his script with witty repartee which all the actors relish, none more so than Peter Davison, who gives the performance of his life. Pushed to his limit, the Doctor is seen to be raw, bitting, funny, ironic, desperate, selfless, heroic, stoic and furious - as fully-fleshed out a characterization as anyone could hope for, and every emotional and physical trauma the Doctor experiences, Davison sells to the audience with distinction. Nicola Bryant as Peri also fares well, as her scenes with the enamored Sharez Jek are unsettling, and her chemistry with Davison is carefree and inviting (which makes the decision to have her character largely despise the Sixth Doctor seem even more boneheaded). In the middle of the epic game of war between the two villains, the Doctor and Peri are consumed solely with trying to stay alive, and in the end only one of them will survive. Lower stakes than “Doctor Who” usually offers, but the intensity of the story makes this highly effective, and it’s a refreshingly simple exit story for the lead character - no bigger distractions for the Doctor beyond just keeping himself and his friend alive.
The direction of the story is especially effective. Russell T Davies’ series director Graeme Harper makes his directorial debut here, showing an energetic and fresh style which is both cinematic and enthralling. Some of the best cliffhangers of the series are in this story.
If there are faults, they always tend to be budgetary. The pointless inclusion of a monster creature leads to a bad costume and several laughable scenes, but fortunately this is not a major plot point. Again, this is an atypical story, and not everyone will be so enamored with the very human drama, pathos and tragedy which involves less in the way of futuristic settlings, bug-eyed monsters and family-friendly storytelling the series usually is known for. That does not make the Doctor’s heroism and sacrifice any less rewarding and admirable, however - no one could ever accuse this Doctor of being a bad role model, least of all in this story.
I would certainly recommend the viewer see at least a couple Fifth Doctor stories prior to this one (“Earthshock,” “The Five Doctors” and “The Visitation” are pretty safe bets). It makes the loss of Peter Davison’s Doctor that much more emotional. No lead “Who” actor has had as fine a swan song as Davison was afforded, and what better note to sign off on?