Strange lights in the sky portend doom in mid-seventeenth century England. At least it does for a local squire, whose household comes under attack from an alien visitor, who, after killing everyone, takes up temporary residence in the squire’s basement.
Meanwhile, the Doctor, attempting to return Tegan to Heathrow airport, arrives 300 years early. When the crew set out to explore, they are accosted by locals with large sticks. Thankfully, a new friend comes to the rescue. Richard Mace is an actor turned highwayman, who uses his guns to frighten away their attackers. It seems a plague has gripped the town, which explains the xenophobic reaction to the Doctor and his friends. No-one knows where the plague came from, so all strangers are suspect. But something’s not right. Mace wears a necklace that the Doctor identifies as some kind of control device of alien origin. Worn around the neck as an ornament, it’s harmless. But attached to the wrist, according to its original design, it takes over the mind of the wearer. Now separated from the TARDIS, and without the TARDIS tracker, which Adric lost in the scuffle with the villagers, the crew plus Mace take refuge in a nearby barn. There they come across more evidence of an alien presence. The barn is on the grounds of a manor house, and the Doctor believes that’s where they will find answers. Little does the Doctor know, that manor house is under alien occupation. And a deadly surprise awaits them…
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!
“The Visitation” is the first of the two outstanding stories from this season (the other is “Earthshock”), both written by newcomer Eric Saward. Indeed, such was the quality of his work with these stories, producer John Nathan-Turner appointed Saward script editor, taking over from Anthony Root. Saward makes his mark from the outset by giving a five minute prologue that sets the scene for the story, and ends up with the residents of a manor house, including the squire, all dying at the hands of an alien invader. When the TARDIS lands, we already have a sense of what the crew are walking into.
Things in the TARDIS are a little tense. First, the Doctor and Adric squabble over the events of the previous story, “Kinda.” In that story, Adric took over a “TSS,” an armed exploration vehicle that’s controled by thought. He panicked and nearly killed one of the Kinda. The Doctor is still upset with him about that, it seems, though they do eventually resolve their argument. Then, when the Doctor misses Heathrow by 300 years, Tegan gets upset and storms out. The Doctor has to chase after her and calm her down, assuring her he will get her home. The Fourth Doctor never had this much trouble with his crew!
At this point, they could have all piled back into the TARDIS and left. But the Doctor smells sulphur, becomes curious, then they are set upon by villagers and get involved to the point where the Doctor feels morally obliged to stick around until the Terileptils either leave or are defeated.
I noted a moment ago the spat between the Doctor and Adric. It seems as if we’re building to a big moment in Adric’s story (which we are). Eric Saward also wrote Adric’s final story, “Earthshock,” so I wonder if he was preparing for that story here with all the Adric bashing going on. Part of me wants to think Saward had a plan because that would be cool. But Adric and the Fifth Doctor have had a rocky relationship from the start. In this story we see very clearly how they have transformed from the wise mentor and his young student in the Fourth Doctor era, to the older brother and his annoying kid brother in the Fifth Doctor era. While they settle their dispute at the beginning, the Doctor doesn’t congratulate or even acknowledge Adric’s achievement in successfully piloting the TARDIS to the manor house. Tegan and Nyssa don’t hold back their applause, which makes the Doctor’s lack of enthusiasm more pronounced. If that wasn’t enough, when Adric asks if the Doctor knows where the Terileptils are, the Doctor responds with sarcasm: “That’s why I’m searching for them.” Again, I like to think all this is deliberate, setting us up for “Earthshock.”
The TARDIS crew is temporarily augmented in this story with the addition of actor-turned-highwayman, Richard Mace. He’s an interesting character since he seems largely motivated by self-preservation, though he does feel sympathy for his new friends. This kind of complexity, where a character has mixed motives, and hence a bit more depth, is good, and clearly something Saward relishes. The Terileptils also are not just straight-up monsters. These particular Terileptils have escaped a penal colony where they have been brutally treated. They can’t return to their home planet, and so act out of a desperate instinct to survive. Yet, despite their aggressive manner, they have a love of beauty and art, which is reflected somewhat in the design of their spacecraft, but especially in their android, with his colorful and bejeweled armor.
We get to see Nyssa’s TARDIS bedroom, which is where she takes the sonic enhancer she has made to destroy the android. I think this is the first time since “The Keeper of Traken” we have seen her doing something technical and practical to help the Doctor. She had been pretty much sidelined for the previous two stories, so it’s good to see her more involved here. After destroying the android, she confesses regret to Adric. The android was, after all, a magnificent machine enslaved to do the will of the Terileptils. This attitude reminds us of her Traken origins, which predisposes her to peace, kindness, and seeing the good in things.
A landmark moment in this story is the destruction of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. This device had been a part of the show since the Second Doctor story, “Fury from the Deep,” making occasional appearances until well into the Third Doctor’s time when it became an established prop. Both producer John Nathan-Turner and Saward felt the sonic screwdriver had been overused as a convenient device to get the Doctor out of trouble. They wanted him to use his head more than his gadgets, so Saward wrote its demise into “The Visitation.” Little did Saward know, however, that Nathan-Turner didn’t plan to bring the sonic screwdriver back. Saward thought the Doctor would go back to the TARDIS at the end of the story and pull another sonic screwdriver out of a drawer. But Nathan-Turner’s vision held sway, marking this the last time we see the sonic screwdriver in the Classic Series.
In the end, the Doctor makes history, literally, by destroying the Terileptils, and accidentally starting the Great Fire of London in the process. Thus is explained one of history’s great mysteries!
“The Visitation” is well worth your time, borderline “Must See.” Eric Saward’s script is well constructed with good dialog and engaging characters. The BBC knows how to do historical costume dramas, so the costumes and sets are excellent. Even the Terileptil costume, while limited, isn’t bad for low-budget early 1980s sci-fi. Indeed, the use of animatronics to control the creatures “fins” and lips was considered cutting edge at the time. Definitely a story for both the die-hard and the casual Whovian.