The newly-regenerated Doctor, along with his companions Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa, manage to escape the guards at the Pharos project facility and make their way back to the TARDIS. Once inside, it becomes clear that the Doctor’s new persona is unstable. Nyssa and Tegan take him to a Zero Room, a place in the TARDIS cut off from all external stimuli, where his mind can be at peace. While the Doctor rests, the Tegan and Nyssa try to find a planet to which they can take the Doctor that will promote his recovery. The TARDIS data banks reveal the existence of such places, where simplicity and tranquility can restore the addled mind. Castrovalva is one of these locations. However, getting there will be a challenge. In his current state, the Doctor is of minimal help, also it appears Adric has been captured by the Master. Nevertheless, they somehow manage to pilot the TARDIS to Castrovalva. But Tegan’s sudden ability to operate the TARDIS is not the only thing that doesn’t make sense. Something about Castrovalva and its history doesn’t add up. Is this really a place of healing, or could it end up being the Doctor’s demise?
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
“Castrovalva” launched Doctor Who’s nineteenth season, and was the first full story for the Doctor’s fifth incarnation, Peter Davison. It picks up where the previous story, “Logopolis” left off–in fact, for the first time, there’s a pre-titles sequence, recapping the regeneration, in case the audience forgot Tom Baker’s not the Doctor anymore. As soon as the titles finish, however, we cut to the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan running across a field to escape the Pharos Project guards.
The story is a bit of a mixed bag. Not a spectacular first story (see “Spearhead from Space,” our introduction to the Third Doctor, if you want a great opener), but not bad either. As with “Logopolis,” writer Christopher Bidmead uses concepts from the previous season to help give a sense of continuity. The idea of changing matter through mathematics with “Block Transfer Computation” was important in “Logopolis.” In “Castrovalva,” the Master uses Adric’s mathematical skill to create the world of Castrovalva, adapting the same Block Transfer principles. In “Logopolis,” the Doctor jettisoned Romana’s room to create sufficient thrust to break away from the Master’s TARDIS. In “Castrovalva,” the Doctor jettisons a quarter of the TARDIS rooms to help propel the ship away from the Big Bang.
One of the themes explored in “Castrovalva” is recursion. Tegan stumbles onto it when talking about how to find the TARDIS Information File by looking it up in the Information File. Then, when we actually get to Castrovalva, the town square and the buildings around it suffer from recursion, which is why the Doctor and his companions have such a hard time trying to find anything. It all seems very M. C. Escher, whose pictures were clearly the inspiration behind this aspect of the story. For example:
And this is a picture of a place called Castrovalva in Italy, drawn by Escher:
I thought it a nice touch when they eventually made it to the TARDIS, and the Doctor slipped into impersonations of his First, Second, and Third incarnations, calling his companions Jamie, Susan, and Victoria.
Tegan seems to roll with a lot of punches in this story. This is only her second story, and already she seems quite comfortable with the fact that she’s traveling in a time machine with three aliens, while being hunted down by a renegade Time Lord. She hasn’t even time to mourn the death of her Aunt Vanessa at the hands of the Master in “Logopolis.” And yet here she is trying to take control of the TARDIS, nursing the Doctor, and helping Nyssa to scope out a new world.
Nyssa, on the other hand, hasn’t forgotten who used to occupy the Master’s body. As the Master’s face disappears from the TARDIS scanner, she says, “I hate that face.” There’s a lot packed into this statement from Nyssa. First, that face used to belong to her father, but is now the face of the person who killed her father, and brought about the destruction of her home planet, Traken. But she doesn’t say she hates the Master. When we first met Nyssa in “The Keeper of Traken,” we were told how the Trakens had built their society on peace, and being kind to one another, even those who would come to do evil (the Melkurs). So it would be very hard for Nyssa to hate someone, at least at this point in her post-Traken life. The most she can do is despise the face of the person she once loved because of what that face now represents.
Some not-so-special moments include Adric’s pleading with the Master while stuck in his web, which sounds a bit overwrought. Then there’s the celery on the lapel, which could be attributed to the Doctor’s state of mind, but then he continues to wear it. And the question marks introduced onto the Doctor’s clothing last season are still there, even with a change of wardrobe. I don’t mind the Edwardian cricketing theme so much, but question marks? Really? Finally, I really really really don’t like the Doctor’s closing line at the end of episode four: “Well, whoever I feel like, it’s absolutely splendid!” It makes me cringe every time. A simple, “I feel like a new man!” Or, “I’m feeling quite myself once more–whoever that might be…” would have been much better.
“Castrovalva” is good Who, but not great Who. If it’s Must-See for any reason, it’s because I said “Logopolis” is Must-See Who, and this is the conclusion to that story. Certainly not a waste of time, and a good introduction to the Fifth Doctor.