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Doctor Who: The Visitation (1981)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Moffatt
Peter Davison
Janet Fielding
Sarah Sutton
Mathew Waterhouse
Michael Robbins
Bottom Line: 

Only the second story to be recorded by Peter Davison after his casting as the fifth Doctor, “The Visitation” actually came fourth in broadcast order during season 19 because of the production chaos that ensued following the last minute abandonment of “Project Zeta-Sigma”: the story originally planned as Davison’s post-regenerative debut. This was to eventually be replaced by Christopher H. Bidmead’s “Castrovalva”, which although being the last script to go into production for this series, was the first to be seen by the public. This mixed up production schedule also gives us a scattered array of script editing credits, since Bidmead’s temporary stand-in, Anthony Root, was due to take up a post on police drama series “Juliet Bravo” after three months, and was replaced after completing production on the first three stories (one of which was “The Visitation) by Eric Saward. But those three stories still end up being scattered throughout the season run, and were eventually seen by the public as the second, fourth and sixth in broadcast order, with Saward overseeing the rest.

This quick rundown of the show’s complicated production troubles at the time is necessary for helping us to explain why the fifth Doctor we encounter in Davison’s first season is rather more variable in temperament than the one we subsequently come to know: influenced by his own childhood memories of watching William Hartnell’s performance as the first Doctor back in the early-sixties, Davison’s initial characterisation for his first few recorded stories gives us rather a more tetchy and bad-tempered Doctor than the gentle, nervy soul he eventually settled into playing. Strained impatience is probably the best way to describe the fifth Doctor’s attitude towards his companions in this adventure: Adric (Mathew Waterhouse) is already being given an earful when we join the crowded console room for the first interior TARDIS scene of the story, this time in relation to his errant behaviour in the previous story “Kinda” (producer John Nathan-Turner was now keen on there being a continuing ‘soap opera’ element to the series, with incidents from previous stories constantly being back-referenced throughout subsequent adventures). Later on, the Doctor gets so fed up with Tegan (Janet Fielding) and her constant whinging, that he almost rounds on her and looks as though he’s about to tell her where to get off -- but then (sadly) manages to restrain himself at the last moment. Even goody-goody, head prefect know-it-all Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) gets an ear-bashing at one point, for questioning one of the Doctor’s apparently hastily made decisions. This is not the fifth Doctor we see in later seasons, and the transformation might have been justified if it gradually softened story by story, but the re-adjusted broadcast order means that, instead, the Doctor’s irascibility tends to flip about all over the place across the season. Unfortunately, perhaps because he was still fairly fresh off of filming “All Creatures Great and Small” at this point, as well as several sitcoms Davison was still appearing in at the same time as making his first season of DOCTOR WHO, the new Doctor occasionally slips back into the actor’s squeaky Tristan Farnon voice whenever he gets irritated!

Anomalies in the Doctor’s character aside, “The Visitation” is about as straightforward and ‘trad’ a story as the series ever delivered in the 1980s; although, paradoxically, it seemed pretty damn new at the time since, in 1982, in those far off days before the casual availability of videos and DVDs, and repeats of previous Doctor adventures only ever seemed to be broadcast to mark special anniversary occasions, historical stories set during specific periods of Earth’s history had become a real rarity, and there hadn’t really been a proper one since “The Horror of Fang Rock” in 1977. Writer Eric Saward wasn’t actually aware of this fact of course: after being approached in 1980 by current script editor Christopher Bidmead to write for the series, having previously established himself as a writer of radio plays for the BBC, Saward instinctively turned to his own memories of the show for inspiration, much in the same way Davison had done in his first faltering attempts to develop a characterisation for his version of the Doctor. Aliens plotting to wipe out humanity with a virus so that they can take control of the plant for themselves (even though in this case there are only three of them); and zombified humans being used as mindless slaves: this four-parter ends up trotting one by one through the list of alien invasion story clichés, and is in fact almost a carbon copy in  set-up to the Jon Pertwee, 1973, Robert Holmes-scripted adventure “The Time Warrior”, which managed to mix an historical setting and science fiction trappings in a way that felt fresh at the time.

 Instead of the Middle Ages we this time get transported to Restoration England, more specifically the year 1666. It doesn’t take a person of particularly great insight to predict that The Great Fire of London will figure somewhere in the plot at some point, although the entire adventure feels like it becomes simply the lead-in to the big reveal in the final few seconds of episode four. “The Visitation” attempts to tick all the boxes regarding what a ‘classic’ WHO story should include in its content, but with such a perfunctory air about it that there ends up being little to the story beyond the obligatory workings out of the usual series of capture scenes followed by various escapes, occasionally broken up by some running about (this time in an Elizabethan manor house rather than the corridors of some non-descript space-ship) by various combinations of the Doctor and his ever-growing band of TARDIS companions.

The TARDIS family are much prone to bickering by this point and seem to be already getting on each other’s nerves even right at the start of this adventure; but before we join the Doctor’s latest doomed attempt to get Australian trolley dolly Tegan back to Heathrow airport circa 1980, half-an-hour after she first entered the TARDIS in “Logopolis”, Saward’s script introduces another more traditional family: a scene-setting 17th century one in fact, headed by Squire John (John Savident), and including his musket polishing son Charles (Anthony Calf) and daughter Elizabeth (Valerie Fyfer), with man servant Ralph (John Baker) attending to their needs in their candle-lit and wainscoted country manor house. The production team establish the period nicely here, with Saward’s script being full of apposite idioms and turns of phrase (‘would you like your posset before bed, Sir?’) which bring a suitable atmosphere to proceedings alongside the inclusion of certain details such as the board game Nine Men’s Morris that’s seen in the dining room as the family witness the passing of a mysterious ‘comet’ in the night sky, which turns out in reality to be a Terileptil escape pod from a prison ship transporting some humanoid lizard felons to serve out their life sentences in the tinclavic mines of Raaga.

As the manor comes under attack from the latest (and at this stage, unseen) heavy-breathing alien menace from the stars to attempt to subjugate the planet, Saward gives us a taste of the carnage that would come to be a hallmark of many of his stories later on in the series when he took up script editing duties, but with a 17th century flavour as the three surviving family members line up with rifles and flintlocks to defend their home from the mechanical grim reaper that the Terileptils have created to help them fulfil their genocidal task. It’s one of the odd features of this story in general, that after establishing this likable family of Restoration era nobility -- with future Fred Eliot Savident particularly notable as Squire John -- they disappear from the story completely soon after … presumably having been slaughtered by the android, although the bodies are never subsequently discovered piled up in the barn, the nearby dovecote or in the cellar of the manor house (the three primary interior locations used for the rest of the story), or indeed anywhere else. In fact, “The Visitation” is marked and marred by a distinct lack of notable supporting cast roles. The villagers are mostly all placed under the Terileptils’ control through the use of alien bracelets that turn them into walking automatons, and are always referred to (and refer to each other) by role rather than name throughout; thus we hear reference to ‘the Miller’, ‘the Farmhand’, ‘the Woodcutter’, ‘the Headman’ and even ‘the Poacher’, although it’s doubtful a poacher would be accepted as just another member of the community like any other. Even the bloke who nearly gets to scythe off the Doctor’s head for the cliffhanger of episode two is referred to only as ‘the Scytheman’ by his village colleagues.

The Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Adric find themselves in a 17th century woodland clearing at the start of their adventure; supposedly the future site of Heathrow Airport, the Doctor’s promise to get Tegan home having gone slightly awry. The location work was filmed in Black Park, Buckinghamshire -- famous site of many a Hammer horror film and lots of other British movies -- while Tithe Barn in Hurley, Berkshire served as the exterior of the Squire's residence. After escaping from some hostile local villagers who’ve been busy setting purification fires in the then common belief that they will help to control the bubonic plague that’s once again ravaging the population during the period, the TARDIS crew encounter former thespian-turned-highwayman Richard Mace, played here by former “On the Buses” star Michael Robbins. Basically, Mace is required to tag along with the others for the rest of the story to provide it with some 17th century colouring in what is otherwise a tale dominated entirely by rubber-limbed humanoid lizard men and jewel-encrusted robots lurching about Restoration era interiors and English countryside locations. Robbins does a fine job of enacting a theatrical flourish to his every deliberation, scattering among his enunciated lines lots of ‘Sirs’ and ‘Madams’ in the process. The role was originally offered to Freddie Jones but he was busy thanks to having just recently starred in the David Lynch movie “The Elephant Man” which saw him much in demand once again after many years in the business. Robbins gives a wonderfully fruity performance in his stead though, and manages to inject a large part of the character that this otherwise formulaic Saward runaround possesses.

The three Terileptil survivors of the crashed escape pod, two of which keep a fairly low profile until the last minutes of the final episode, are pretty run-of-the-mill monsters of the week, although their lizardy appearance is considerably enhanced by the addition of remote-controlled animatronics that are used to operate the creature’s lips and gills -- a first for the series at the time and a feature conceived by visual effects designer Peter Wragg and realised by Richard Gregory. We’re told that the creatures love beauty, art and war equally -- which explains why they make their battle-hardened war machine android look so fine, with handsomely sculpted features, a diamond-encrusted metal carapace ... and a fetching pair of cricket gloves! However, this intriguing concept doesn’t really lead anywhere. The lead Terileptil, played by renowned actor and later star of “East Enders” Michael Melia, is horribly disfigured with a missing eye, and part of his inflatable lip is ripped to reveal even more of his dainty row of serrated piranha-like gnashers: apparently a traditional penal colony punishment in Terileptil society which brings something of a “Phantom of the Opera” quality to his deranged obsession with rats and skulking about in cellars, etc. The generic, all-purpose Terileptil plan of takeover, though, merely involves genetically modifying plague-carrying black rats to create an even more virulent and lethal strain of the disease that will wipe out all life on Earth, leaving the planet to the three lumbering reptile men and their prettily designed android, whom they later dress up in a cowl and allow to roam about the surrounding area wielding a scythe to help keep interfering locals away -- Grim Reaper imagery and the Black Plague always going together happily hand-in-hand, of course.

Part of the problem with this rather lacklustre story is that the TARDIS crew members just aren’t given anything very memorable to do, as Saward relies too heavily in his story construction on a tedious grind of capture-escape-recapture sequences: Adric is his usual slightly awkward self, but by now is starting to get into petty arguments with the Doctor more often here (‘… and I try so hard!’): he even manages to trip over thin air when the group are required to run from a posse of suspicious villagers – a role usually reserved for girl companions in ‘60s DOCTOR WHO, so at least he’s striking a blow for gender equality. He does manage to pilot the TARDIS single-handedly after remembering that thumping the control console usually helps iron out any teething problems in the process, although the Doctor seems slightly peeved by his success in the matter. Tegan is her usual snarky and slightly glum self, but spends a good part of several episodes under alien mind control (again), while everyone gets so fed up of clever clogs Nyssa that she’s packed off to the TARDIS for several episodes and told to (leisurely) set about building a sonic machine out of some odds and ends while wearing some humiliatingly over-large and over-the-top earmuffs. Nyssa being Nyssa, her machine works like a charm and succeeds in blowing up the Terileptil android without disturbing any of the dainty potted plants and china ornaments decorating her bedroom (who says you never saw anything of the rest of the TARDIS until “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” two weeks ago? What about those wicker chairs?). Then it’s all off to Ealing Studios (although these scenes were actually the first ones of the series to be filmed) in order to shoot the Doctor and Mace’s confrontation with the Terileptils at their secret base in London, from where the reptiles plan on releasing their deadly new strain of pestilence. If I mention that the name of the street at which their base turns out to be located is Pudding Lane, I trust you can guess where all this is leading?

Director Peter Moffatt was a big fan of matte paintings being used in his drama to flesh out the cramped studio scenery and they’re indeed utilised to extremely good effect throughout this story, adding a sense of spaciousness and almost a cinematic quality to the pleasingly picturesque countryside location which provides the backdrop for the crashed, half-buried Terileptil pod. The device is particularly effective in creating the illusion of a London street in the 1660s during the period before rebuilding work necessitated by the Great Fire swept away the medieval-era thatched dwellings then still rife during the era.  “The Visitation” then, especially during its filmed portions at any rate, looks rather lovely quite often; yet this is strictly middling WHO of a type that probably seemed rather refreshing at the time of transmission (after a run of ultra-serious and rather esoteric high concept SF tales dabbling in Buddhist mysticism and higher mathematics, etc.) but which now comes across as rather unimaginative and uneventful. Although the Terileptil costume allows for better facial articulation than usual thanks to the animatronic additions to its design, it still restricts Melia to shuffling about like an upright pantomime horse in rubber, and hardly allows for anything one might consider a nuanced performance. In fact, one might feel rather sorry for the poor Terileptils when it comes to the big punch-up at the end of episode four: due to the extent of their restricted movement the three lizard men are no match even for Tegan, who seems to make rather short work of one of them by cudgelling it to death with the butt of a rifle!

The serial remains one of those likely to divide present day viewers then, into those who have gained an attachment to it through first seeing these episodes at just the right age to have been taken with the uncomplicated nature of the storytelling, yet were too young to be aware at the time of its utterly generic nature, and the rest of us – who see merely its join-the-dots by rote plotting that does little of interest with the enticing milieu it has at its disposal. In fact, “The Visitation” does earn a small place in DOCTOR WHO history by default, as it’s the story in which they destroyed the sonic screwdriver. Indeed, it didn’t return to the series at all until the TV movie with Paul McGann, because John Nathan-Turner had always thought it offered too easy a way for the Doctor to get out of every scrape he found himself in. These days, it would be used to achieve in five seconds what it takes Nyssa two episodes to organise, but then they had four episodes to fill back then and Matt Smith’s Doctor has to clear up his problems in the space of forty-five minutes every week.

This 2-disc special edition of “The Visitation” applies minor spit & polish to the 2003 release of the story, bringing the video quality up to current levels of clarity and carrying over all the extras from the former disc as well, headed by the original’s audio commentary featuring Peter Davison, Mathew Waterhouse, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and director Peter Moffatt. The cast take part in what is often an irreverent look back at these episodes which, while being fairly low on imparting very much information, is frequently high on humour as each of the participants rib one another mercilessly about the quality of each other’s then twenty-year-old performances and cringe at the perceived inadequacy of their own. Janet Fielding is as vocal as ever, although most of her vitriol here is reserved for her early-eighties Steve Strange hairstyle which looks, according to the actress, like ‘someone nailed a dead rat to my head!’ We’re reminded of what was going down in popular culture at the time when we learn that the eighteen-year-old Sarah Sutton was obsessed with Adam Ant during this period, much to the puzzlement of a not-very-with-it Peter Davison; and director Peter Moffatt reveals that he didn’t think much of Paddy Kingsland’s electronic score, which he describes as ‘turgid’. This is a fairly light and frothy track, quite entertaining to listen to for sure, but for hard info viewers should look to the optional text-based production notes instead, which furnish one with all the assembled minutia of facts and anecdotes concerning the original shoot one could wish for, covering the development of the storyline from the initial “Invasion of the Plague Men” draft outline onwards, then examining later changes made to the shooting script by the actors themselves, particularly Davison and Robbins. As well as relevant information of the above nature, the usual actors’ resumes and previous screen credits are included for many of the guest stars.

The original release also included a number of ‘making of’ interview featurettes at the time, all of which have been carried over here too. “Directing Who – Peter Moffatt” is a 26 minute interview with the soft-spoken TV director of “The Visitation” who has five other 1980s DOCTOR WHO serials under his belt as well, and has worked with five of the original Doctors. Moffatt mentions how he was first approached by Graham Williams back in the late-seventies but that his schedule at the time meant he had to wait until John Nathan-Turner took over the reins of the show as producer in 1980 before he got his first experience of directing the show. Moffatt had worked with Nathan-Turner before on “All Creatures Great and Small” when JNT was a lowly Production Unit Manager and Moffatt, as the director of many of the episodes of that series, was more used to being his boss. The two got on so well that Moffatt had no qualms about swapping rolls when he was asked to direct “State of Decay” with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor during Nathan-Turner’s first year as producer of DOCTOR WHO, although Moffatt relates how he had to take Baker out for a pint one afternoon to ask him to stop trying to direct the episodes himself, and to let Moffatt get on with doing his job! It seems an afternoon pint is always the way to the be-scarfed one's heart and Moffatt relates how he had no further trouble from the mercurial star after that! The director sprints through brief anecdotes about each of his serials, which include “The Visitation”, “Mawdryn Undead”, “The Five Doctors”, “The Twin Dilemma” and “The Two Doctors”. Most of Moffatt’s comments relate to specific actors he enjoyed working with, and he has kind words to say about the experience of working with Patrick Troughton in particular on “The Two Doctors”. Moffatt died in 2007, so it’s nice that some of his thoughts about working on the series have been preserved in this featurette and on the audio commentary.

“Writing a Final Visitation” is a 12 minute interview with Eric Saward, in which the show’s former script editor and writer of this story is honest about the strengths and weaknesses of various aspects of the production. It was a workmanlike and unsophisticated story he believes, but it worked -- although it was hampered by a Terileptil costume which wasn’t designed with the fact that an actor would actually have to wear it born in mind. It seems Saward had envisioned something along the lines of the current series’ Silurian design and his vision of the android was also substantially different to what ended up on the screen. Saward talks about how the character Richard Mace had already appeared in one of his older radio plays called “The Assassin”, where he started life as a Victorian thespian-turned-amateur detective. He also mentions how the family seen in the opening five minutes of episode one were really just a device to establish the period, but that he was surprised to see John Savident cast as Squire John, considering how small the role actually was.

“Scoring the Visitation” is an extremely interesting analysis of Paddy Kingsland’s score which takes the form of a conversation between the composer and Mark Ayres, who also wrote many an incidental score for the series later in the eighties. They cover everything from choosing arrangements to some of the problems one can encounter in, for example, bridging tightly edited scene changes or adapting the score so that it doesn’t clash with other sound effects. Ayres pays close attention to particular cues from “The Visitation” and discusses Kingsland’s compositional choices with the musician in an informed and intelligent manner which brings great insight to the process. This is an extremely enjoyable addition to the extra features.

Disc one also includes film trims from the location shoot (5 minutes, 32 seconds) a picture gallery (5 minutes, 12 seconds) and there is also a music only option which allows one to watch all four episodes with an isolated audio track featuring Paddy Kingsland’s full score without the rest of the audio present.

Over on disc two we get three lengthy and highly enjoyable new documentaries, probably some of the best we’ve seen in the DVD range for some time. “Grim Tales” is a great 45 minute piece in which three of the principle cast members involved in the filming of “The Visitation”, Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton, return to Black Park in Buckinghamshire and Tithe Barn in Hurley to be interviewed by another of their traveling companions from later on in the series, Mark Strickson. Black Park was a popular filming location with the BBC because it was within twenty-five miles of BBC Television Centre, which meant that the company wasn’t obliged to pay an ‘overnight fee’ for hotel placements for the cast and crew. Instead the members of the production arrived at BBC TV Centre at eight o’clock for make-up, and then travelled down on a coach for the day’s filming. Unfortunately, Black Park was under the flight path of Heathrow Airport, which meant that filming was disrupted approximately every three minutes by the sound of overhead aircraft. This production struck lucky though, thanks to a strike by air traffic controllers on the third day of shooting which allowed filming to be completed on time. The happy, jokey atmosphere as the four wander around the site after materialising in the TARDIS, forms the framing device for a series of anecdotes by other members of the production crew, whose observations and memories are intercut with those of the principle cast at the appropriate moments. Writer Eric Saward and designer Ken Starkey are the main contributors, with costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and actors  Michael Melia (who played the head Terileptil) and Peter Van Dissel (the android) adding to the discussion about the suitability of the costume designs. There is plenty of new material here and the gossipy, irreverent tone makes this even more engrossing than the usual extras ‘making of’ featurettes. Strickson later takes his three companions to revisit Tithe Barn, and the current owners are interviewed about their attitude towards finding out that their home has become a part of DOCTOR WHO history.

“The Television Centre of the Universe” (32 minutes, 12 seconds) is equally as riveting and even more gossipy as the foursome of Davison, Sutton, Strickson and Fielding return to London’s now decommissioned and sold-off BBC TV Centre for the final time, to re-live old memories of filming DOCTOR WHO at what used to be ostensibly one large ‘factory for making television’. All the various TV departments used to be based in this one building, from executive level down to make-up, so there are plenty of juicy anecdotes and offbeat stories to be shared, while producer Russell Minton executes the same structure here as was seen in the previous documentary, whereby the four are joined by former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding who elicits stories and anecdotes as she conducts them on a tour through the building for a re-enactment of a typical working day in the life of making DOCTOR WHO, while their memories are augmented by a panoply of contributions from former friends and colleagues in separate interviews: these include traffic supervisor Neville Withers (who relates an anecdote about his encounter in the lift with Jon Pertwee dressed in full third Doctor costume), assistant floor manager Sue Hedden, costume designer  Odile Dicks-Mireaux, production assistant Jane Ashford, make-up artists Joan Stribling and Carolyn Perry, and BBC producer and writer Richard Marson. It’s an effective structure which mixes humour with information in an extremely enticing manner. Part two of it will be featured on a future release.

Finally, we have the latest instalment of “Dr Forever – The Apocalypse Element”: the documentary series which looks at how DOCTOR WHO was kept alive during its absence from TV screens after its cancellation in 1989. This time the series tackles the legacy of the audio drama range initiated by Big Finish Productions with their Bernice Summerfield adventures starring Lisa Bowerman. Today, Big Finish have continued to develop a vast range of DOCTOR WHO related audio dramas, bringing in surviving past doctors Colin Baker, Peter Davison, Paul McGann and Tom Baker to take part in innumerable brand new stories written for audio by a range of new writers, some of whom have gone on to write for the post-2005 series. AudioGo have also managed to find success with their audiobook readings of the original Target novels, as well as with the release of the narrated soundtracks to the missing Sixties episodes. Contributors include: actors Colin Baker, William Russell and Lisa Bowerman, new series executive producer Russell T. Davies, Big Finish executive producers Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs and Gary Russell, Big Finish producer David Richardson, BBC range editor Steve Cole, writers Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, Paul Cornell, Joseph Lidster and Justin Richards, and AudioGO commissioning editor Michael Stevens -- all ably interviewed as ever by the delightful Ayesha Antoine.

Programme subtitles are included for all documentary extras and PDF files of Radio Times Listings and BBC sales brochures can be viewed from a PC or a Mac. Finally, the ‘Coming Soon’ trailer for the third Doctor adventure “Inferno: The Special Edition” is included.

“The Visitation” is solid but unspectacular DOCTOR WHO, but the new documentaries are of a high quality and eminently watchable, making this another tempting excuse to double-dip for hard-core fans.  

Read More from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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