“The Caves of Androzani” (henceforth abbreviated TCoA) is the last episode of Peter Davison’s era of Doctor Who, and it’s considered the best episode of Doctor Who ever. That might be hard to believe for people who are primarily familiar with the modern series, that the best episode comes from the classic series (that it’s considered better than, say, “Blink”) and that it’s a Fifth Doctor episode (and not from Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, or William Hartnell), but it seems to be the general opinion among those who are fans of both the classic and modern eras that if “The Caves of Androzani” isn’t the #1 episode, it’s in the top three.
I watched it back in October or so with no idea that the episode rated so highly, with only the knowledge that it was the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration episode, and as such, I was mostly watching it to see the Doctor get embroiled in some situation, win the day, and sacrifice himself (I knew the circumstances of his death beforehand). As such, I was immensely disappointed and the episode didn’t make much of an impression on me at all. Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the show and decided to give it another go.
Before I continue, here’s a link to an article that I’ll reference at least once. It’s from a blog called Classical Gallifrey, which did in-depth analysis of all Doctor Who classic episodes. Its treatment of TCoA is a little down the page, behind the “Read More” link at the bottom of the entry. The analysis is extremely long and I only skimmed it very lightly.
Now, onwards! Spoilers ahead.
I think my second viewing of TCoA was very well-informed by my recent viewing of “The Robots of Death.” I noticed during that episode that a major part of it had to do with the personalities and relationships of the people working on the mining vehicle. In the modern show, the episodes mostly focus on the Doctor and his companions, with the guest characters forming a backdrop against which they play, but in the classic show, it seems that often the guest characters are the meat of the story, with the Doctor and companions being almost completely incidental. This is the case with TCoA. The Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet Androzani Minor and get embroiled in a political war between multiple sides. The planet produces a substance called spectrox that prevents aging, making it “the most valuable substance in the universe,” and everyone wants to control it. The main players in the war at the start of the episode are
- Morgus: The man who owns the spectrox mining operation and lives on Androzani Major
- Sharaz Jek: A strange masked man who lives down in the caves and, with an army of androids, steals the spectrox and kills off the miners
- The President: The president of the government on Androzani Major, who nominally has control but is beholden to Morgus to keep himself young and knows Morgus has bought most of the government
- Chellak: The general of the army tasked by Morgus with cleaning Sharaz Jek out of the caves
- Stotz: A mercenary who supples Sharaz Jek with weapons, but is loyal to whoever pays him
This is just at the beginning of the episode, and only the most important people each faction; there are a couple of other characters that have major effects on the story as it goes along. When we first enter the caves, Sharaz Jek has established his operation in the caves and has been holding off Chellak’s forces for six months, pretty much running circles around the army. With the spectrox mining being hampered, Morgus is not making the profits he’s used to and is getting desperate to get rid of Sharaz Jek. The episode is a tale of political and military maneuvers, as different factions learn what’s going on, stage attacks and schemes, and change allegiances.
Where does the Doctor fit into all of this? He and Peri land on Androzani Minor and enter the caves to explore. They fall into a growth of raw spectrox before being found by Chellak’s men, who accuse them of being gun runners for Sharaz Jek. They spend most of the episodes bouncing back and forth between the different factions, who each believe they are spies for some other faction. Meanwhile, they discover that raw spectrox is toxic to humans (the sickness is called spectrox toxaemia) and that from their brief contact with it, they are both dying. There’s only one antidote for it, the milk of a queen bat that lives far down in the caves where there is no oxygen. None of the factions have the equipment to go down there, and are certainly willing to let the supposed spies die.
Thus, the episode is a complex web of intrigue, some of which is due to the already tense situation in the caves, and some of which is due to the introduction of the Doctor and his companion, as each faction who finds them assumes they’re enemies and adjusts their plans based on what they think the Doctor and Peri have learned and are going to do. Meanwhile, throughout the episode, the Doctor is completely powerless, at the mercies of whoever has captured him at the moment, but his only concern is to figure out how to save Peri. From the moment he finds out that Peri is sick, all he wants to do is cure her, and when he finds out the sickness is fatal, it becomes his driving force. This desire gives him the impetus to break out of his chains (while he’s in a spaceship and captured by the mercenaries) and commandeer the spacecraft to return to the planet and acquire the milk of the queen bat for the antidote.
There are a couple of other things worth mentioning about this episode. I will note that both of these I got both of these ideas from the Classical Gallifrey link I posted above. First, the direction. This was the first episode Graeme Harper directed for Doctor Who. If you don’t recognize his name, he directed ten episodes during David Tennant’s run as the Doctor, including “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”, “Time Crash”, “Turn Left”, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, and “The Waters of Mars”.
Now, I will tell you plainly that I don’t know a single thing about directing in a show. I can’t tell you if a specific director is good or bad. I can only tell you what I see when I watch something, and to me, it looks like in TCoA, Mr. Harper took Doctor Who in a completely different directorial direction. One of the things that I sometimes have a problem with while watching the classic episodes is the feeling of unreality: the cheap sets, the brightly-lit interiors, the stodgy characters standing in a row delivering their lines to each other, the long shots of slow monsters plodding across a desolate landscape, that kind of thing. Quarries looked like quarries, and caves looked like, well, cheap sets made of papier mache. Mr. Harper turned that on end for TCoA. He used the lighting to darken everything except the most important things in the scene. He positioned the actors in natural poses and arrangements. For some shots, especially the incredibly creepy scenes of Sharaz Jek with Peri, he positioned the camera low and intimate, to draw you closer to the characters. Sure, the sets were still cheap, but he focused you on the characters and the action, and thus you don’t notice the rest. He concentrated on depicting the story, rather than shooting the script, to considerable effect.
The second thing I wanted to mention was a very short bit (probably only two seconds) that has wider implications on the story and the lore of the show. I wouldn’t have noticed this if Classical Gallifrey hadn’t pointed it out. When the Doctor has commandeered the spaceship and is returning to Androzani Minor, he’s already well into the late phases of spectrox toxaemia and, like Peri, is going to die soon. He’s sitting in the pilot’s chair staring at the viewscreen and hallucinates for a moment, seeing vertical lines covering the viewscreen screen. He concentrates and they go away. As it only lasts for a second or two, it just looks like something that was thrown in to emphasize that he’s really sick.
What Classical Gallifrey points out is that the vertical lines weren’t on the screen – they were over his entire field of vision, and if you pay attention to them and to the end of the episode, you’ll see that they’re exactly the same lines that appear in his vision when he starts to regenerate. The point of the scene was not that he was sick, but that he was dying at that moment and willed himself to delay his regeneration until he could save Peri. Up until this point, I had thought that the concept that the Doctor could delay regeneration was invented for the Tenth Doctor’s story in The End of Time, but no, the Fifth Doctor did it first. Also, his stopping his regeneration in order to continue trying to save Peri only underscores his tenacity and his devotion to this companion who he barely knows. (Read Classical Gallifrey’s discussion of this point: it’s far better than anything I could ever write about it.)
I have to admit, on second viewing, I’m still not sure about everything that happened in those caves. There were so many tricks and turnarounds that I’m not sure who ended up on top. But I was completely engaged in the story – all of the characters were intricately designed and interesting to watch, even the ones you end up hating – and I do think that this was a fantastic episode. #1? Not sure. I’d have to watch it a few more times to really grok it. But top 20, at least. I’d put this episode up against the best that the modern show has to offer, and it’ll beat out a lot of them.