There may be no volcanos on the dusty planet of Androzani Minor (see the previous story, “Planet of Fire”), but things are far from temperate. The mysterious Sharaz Jek is waging war against a conglomerate owned by Trau Morgus that is mining for precious spectrox, a substance produced by bats that is deadly in its raw form, but has remarkable restorative properties when properly refined. Sharaz uses androids to collect the spectrox and help him disrupt Morgus’s efforts, relying on arms supplied by gunrunners to fight off Morgus’s military offensives. This is the situation the Doctor and Peri encounter when the Doctor’s curiosity leads him to follow tracks into a cave. They end up prisoners of Morgus’s troops, accused of being two of Jek’s gunrunners. The Doctor and Peri are thrown into a cell where they await execution. But that may be a blessing in disguise, since, on their way into the cave, they encountered a nest of raw spectrox. Unless they can escape Morgus’s forces and find an antidote to the spectrox toxemia, they face certain death. Unfortunately, their only hope for survival could be Jek, who appears to have taken quite a shine to Peri…
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 Caves of Androzani” marks Robert Holmes’s return to writing Doctor Who after a six-year absence. And what a return! Since it aired in 1984, it has been consistently ranked among the best Doctor Who stories by fans–even topping the list in 2009, four years into the New Series. And the accolades are well-deserved. It also marks the end of Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor with one of the most dramatic regeneration scenes in the Classic series.
The story has two threads. The first has to do with Sharaz Jek wanting to control the flow of spectrox, and Morgus’s conglomerate wanting to make money from that spectrox, selling it to Androzani Major. These two desires conflict, hence the battle between the two sides over ownership of the spectrox. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri chance upon the cave system containing this valuable spectrox, as well as Jek’s headquarters. They accidentally come into contact with the webby substance, which they soon discover is not only poisonous, but lethal, and the only antidote is the milk from the queen bat which resides in the lower levels of the cave system. So the second thread is the Doctor and Peri’s quest to find the milk and leave before they succumb to the poison. Along the way, they stumble into the conflict between Jek and Morgus, which ultimately leads to their capture by Jek. However, unlike many other Who stories, the Doctor and Peri don’t appear to precipitate or hinder the downfall of either Jek or Morgus. It’s possible Peri’s sickness distracts Jek enough to make him careless. But neither the Doctor nor Peri actively assist Jek or Morgus. It’s not their battle, and they have no interest in the outcome. There’s no-one for the Doctor to save except Peri. No planet to rescue. The universe is not in peril. The Doctor could have ignored the caves, ignored the tracks, gone back into the TARDIS, and left. But he’s the Doctor, so of course he couldn’t!
Since the Doctor and Peri have no friends, and no real allegiances in this story, they find themselves facing Morgus’s firing squad, and then facing the lecherous Jek, who wants to keep Peri for himself, and considers the Doctor disposable. Indeed, Jek only helps the Doctor locate the queen bat because Peri’s dying. And he only cares about Peri because she’s a thing of beauty, and he wants to have her around so he can admire her. Surrounded by such quality people, it’s no wonder our heroes are desperate to leave! I think this scenario is part of the story’s appeal. In most other Who stories, our heroes quickly attach themselves to a sympathetic character whose cause they take up. There are no such sympathetic characters here on Androzani Minor, which adds to the tension and the edginess.
But Doctor Who is more than just a story well told. The acting is first rate, from the main cast to the extras. Even Peri’s faux American accent is more tolerable than usual (I hasten to add, Nicola Bryant’s acting is great–it’s just that accent). The sets and costumes are good, the make-up is good (especially the blistering on the Doctor’s hands from the spectrox toxemia) and the direction is well paced and thought out. The only design fail is the magma beast, which suffers from the fact that it’s a Doctor Who monster made on a 1984 Doctor Who monster budget–i.e., next to nothing. It’s rubbery and not very convincing. Thankfully, we don’t see much of it. There are also a couple of times Morgus breaks the “fourth wall,” speaking directly to the camera. It seems this was the result of a communication break-down between the director and the actor, and they didn’t have enough studio time to fix it. This is unfortunate since it comes off a bit cheesy.
There are so many excellent story points, though, that a couple of *sigh* moments really don’t count for a lot. The episode one cliff-hanger is subtly prepared for in the preceding sequence, where we cut away to Jek watching the Doctor and Peri, particularly Peri, on his monitor screen, and then preparing equipment. As we learn in episode two, he was readying the android doubles he would use to rescue them from the firing squad. The episode three cliff-hanger is regarded as one of the best ever in Doctor Who, where the Doctor is attempting to land Stotz’s ship manually, which may result in his death. But since he’s dying of spectrox toxemia anyway, he doesn’t much care. During this sequence, there’s a brief shot where I’m convinced the Doctor has a premonition of his regeneration. The same pattern we see during the regeneration sequence at the end of episode four appears very briefly as the Doctor is piloting the ship. It’s almost as if death is reaching out for him, but he holds it off until he can save Peri. And then there’s the regeneration itself. “Is this death?” the Doctor asks, fearing something different about the process this time. He sees his companions calling out to him to hang in there and live, but then the Master cuts in crying out “Die Doctor! Die!” Excellent stuff.
What more can I say? If you’re a Whovian and you haven’t seen “The Caves of Androzani,” you simply have to. If you’re new to Classic Who, and you want to see how good it can be, this is the one to watch. “The Caves of Androzani” is simply MUST-SEE Doctor Who. Period.