By Eric Saward
Transmitted from 15-23 February, 1982
‘War is honourable, Doctor. Even on this planet it is considered so.’
‘Oh, I know. But, by your admission these people are still primitive. What’s your excuse?’
The Doctor is anxious to return his traveling companion Tegan Jovanka to Heathrow Airport (and who can blame him?). However, his attempt to land the TARDIS in 20th Century London goes astray and instead he finds that while the location may be correct, the time period is off by almost 300 years! The nation is suffering from the pangs of bubonic plague, but is also prey to the manipulations of a malevolent alien race… one which the Doctor must deal with in order to protect humanity once again.
This was the third story that the Fifth Doctor appeared in on screen, but it was actually the second to go into production. Script editor Christopher H Bidmead who had made such a strong impact in Tom Baker’s final season was ready to leave. John Nathan-Turner’s transition into the role of producer was not a smooth one and put a hefty amount of pressure on Bidmead who found himself struggling to get the scripts lined up for the 19th series which would introduce a new Doctor. The premier story was abandoned. Project Zeta-Sigma by the writing duo John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch who had already contributed Meglos was found to be unworkable, throwing the production schedule into disarray.
This led to Davison recording Four to Doomsday, Kinda and The Visitation before his first story, the mind-boggling Castrovalva. John Nathan-Turner felt that this was a wise decision as it would allow Davison time to settlle into the role of the Doctor. It also meant that The Visitation was not written for the Fifth Doctor at all. In fact, it was developed during Tom Baker’s reign when Bidmead approached Saward for a script based on his success in radio. Never mind the fact that an undecided new Doctor would be featured in The Visitation, it would also include three companions, requiring extensive rewrites by Anthony Root after Bidmead’s departure. Surprisingly, this is one of the few adventures that puts good use of the larger supporting cast.
To that end, I should note that only Janet Fielding comes off favorably in this story. Poor Sarah Sutton is incredibly wooden and the less said about Matthew Waterhouse, the better. It is still amusing to me that Waterhouse was apparently ‘giving pointers’ to experienced actor Richard Todd during the filming of Kinda. Portrayed as he was originally envisioned, a sci-fi version of the Artful Dodger, Adric works quite well. But when he starts spewing out technobabble to Nyssa or whinging on, he is insufferable. Luckily, Davison makes the most of the situation and manages some friction between the Doctor and Adric that translates well. The Doctor clearly resents Adric’s intelligence, but is frustrated by the young man’s emotionally erratic moods and reacts to them in kind. Even so, the Doctor tries to mend bridges and remind Adric that he is fond him, if only in an awkward way. It’s very touching and adds to Davison’s performance.
An already accomplished television actor, Davison settled into the role of the Doctor very well. His dry wit and tetchy, nervous behavior marked him as an ‘old man in a young man’s body.’ He positively shines in The Visitation, showing a youthful exuberance and sharp deductive mind joined by frazzled anxious nerves. Unsettled by Tegan and Adric, the Doctor is shown to be flawed at the opening of this story, unable to control his TARDIS or, it would seem, his emotions. As the story unfolds, this new Doctor exhibits brilliance and bravery in equal parts.
Finding themselves in a sylvan glade, the Doctor urges Tegan to make the most of the opportunity to experience history. After encountering some violent locals, the adventure proves to be more dangerous, but luckily they are rescued by an extravagant actor-turned-highwayman, Richard Mace. Mace leads the Doctor to a nearby deserted manor house formerly inhabited by the local miller. The house is vacant, but the Doctor discovers an alien presence in the cellar, one which is busy manipulating human history for its own ends. Backed by an army of mind-controlled villagers and an android, the stranded Terileptils seek to exterminate the human race by taking advantage of the plague. The Doctor attempts to stop them, but in the course of his actions puts his companions, and himself in terrible danger.
Branded a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story, The Visitation is often overlooked which I view as an error. Saward’s first outing win Doctor Who (he would go on to become the script editor through the remainder of the Davison era and into Colin Baker’s reign), the plot and concept are inspired. The combination of a period setting and a new alien race is ingenious and plays to the strengths of the program. I often find that Doctor Who works very well when it is set in the past as it allows the various departments to utilize previously used concepts and material. In this case, that extends to wonderful location filming in Buckinghamshire, despite the interference of air traffic.
The Visitation is also a visually impressive story with great camera work and the first use of animatronics in the program’s history. Fans of the current series are all too used to seeing Cybermen, Weeping Angels and Daleks marched before the screen to imagine a time when Doctor Who aspired to create new ‘monsters.’ The Terileptils are a noble attempt at introducing a new alien race, one that is both technologically advanced and culturally different from anything that had been seen before. Saward’s script efficiently develops the Terilptils on screen as sophisticated, skilled and deadly while refraining from transforming them into a stock monster.
Actor Peter Davison was intent on making his Doctor less of a magician by utilizing household items to accomplish his goals, such as the length of string used to identify the false holographic door. This of course led to the landmark destruction of the sonic screwdriver, the device created on the spot by Patrick Troughton in 1969 during Fury From the Deep. The Doctor, in the opinion of many members of the production crew, had become far too powerful, aided by his mind, robot dog, genius assistant and multipurpose universal tool that not only opened doors but solved nearly any problem he encountered. The ‘new’ Doctor would be flawed and forced to work harder at solutions than before, so the sonic screwdriver was destroyed and struck from Doctor Who until a brief re-appearance in the 1996 TV Movie.
Davison’s muted beige uniform of the Doctor fit with his notion of the character remaining in the background, appearing benign until the eleventh hour when he would snap into action. The Visitation also sees the nature of the compassionate side of the Doctor, eager to find a peaceful solution with the Terilptils rather than destroying them outright. In many ways, this hearkens back to the Doctor’s insistence of co-existence with the Siluriuans in his Third incarnation. But in this case, the Terileptils are already working toward the genocide of the human race, using rats to spread the bubonic plague throughout the civilized world, leaving them with the spoils. Even so, the Doctor can empathize with the aliens, being an alien himself, and attempts to appeal to the Terileptils’ better nature in embracing what may appear as a lesser race of beings as equals. But it is obviously far too late for that.
Finding his companions trapped by the Terileptils and himself nearly executed as a witch, the Doctor is forced into action. He destroys the Terileptil’s crashed space craft, disables the mind control devices and his companion Nyssa makes quick work of the android. Rescuing Tegan and Adric from the Terileptil base, he tracks the stranded Terileptils to their hideout in London where he witnesses their master plan in motion. Desperate to talk sense into the aliens, the Doctor attempts to talk reason into the creatures but has little luck. Far too proud for their own good, the Terileptils are immune to the Doctor’s charms and a conflagration erupts. Disgusted at the unnecessary loss of life, the Doctor finds to his pleasure, that he has participated in an historic event, the beginning of The Great Fire of London which was key in the eradication of the plague in England.
One of the earliest stories of the Fifth Doctor, the Visitation is a solid story with a strong script and high production values. It also has plenty of activity for the over-crowded TARDIS (at least until the third part) and introduces a new alien race, one that is not merely a dastardly world-destroying race of baddies but members of a complex and truly alien culture. This was a period when Doctor Who was looking to reinvent itself, stretching away from the realm of fantasy and high comedy and back into sci-fi adventure. For all that, it is a marvelous success.
The Visitation is available on DVD and can also be found streaming on Netflix. It comes highly recommended for a Saturday afternoon accompanied by a dry white wine, fresh fruit and flat bread (or a crusty local loaf).
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