May 3, 2009

Doctor Who Geekery Report: The Visitation (1982)

The Visitation (15-23 Feb 1982, w: Eric Saward, d: Peter Moffat)

I dug out the DVD of The Visitation this morning. Although it's quite well-regarded I never quite warmed to this story, and re-viewing it did little to further endear me to it.

There are a lot of decent ingredients to this story: a few good lines, an impressive looking monster, one particularly good supporting character (Richard Mace), some decent location shooting, the destruction of the Doctor's signature prop, and an interesting premise (aliens at the heart of the Plague and Great Fire of 1666), but it's all undercut by a lack of decent plotting, scripting, directing, etc.

John Nathan Turner saddled the period's writers with having a TARDIS crew of four to attend to (the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa & Tegan). Compare with the far more effective "Kinda", which found a contrivance to keep Nyssa asleep in the TARDIS for all four episodes, and Tegan trapped inside her own mind. The crew harkens back to the early days of the program when three companions were necessary to complement Hartnell's elderly, occasionally infirm persona, and each companion had their particular function: Ian was the man of action, Barbara the nurturer, and Susan the glass-ankled innocent. But here, the Doctor is more robust and the three companions lack distinction. Although Nyssa and Adric had scientific ability, it was rarely put to use. Tegan's character served very little purpose but to whine. (Ironically, in this story, Adric is the glass-ankled one!) All three do very little except get caught, escape, look for the Doctor, etc.

A comparatively gripping opening 'teaser' sequence in which a family of generic Restoration gentry get wiped out by unseen aliens starts the first episode off with momentum, which is promptly halted by a tedious story-padding scene of the Doctor and Co. recapping the previous story, setting Tegan up for her return and then her subsequent bitching out the Doctor when the TARDIS lands some-when else. They then spend the next three and a half episodes wandering around rather aimlessly, pausing every 23 minutes or so for a weak and utterly pointless cliffhanger ("Doctor, where are you?" "Oh, not again..." "No! Don't open that!")

Save for Mace, who's all but operating in a vacuum, the supporting characters have no distinction (they're not helped by the fact that Saward has them under mind control for most of the story). One yearns for a Holmsian double-act, or, well, anything memorable.

Quite a lot of obvious effort and expense went into the Terleptil costume, but then little effort went into making the Terleptil a memorable character. Apart from an offhand reference to the Terleptils' love of beauty (certainly not supported by the ship's bland design), the Terleptils are a pretty generic race. Saward tries to get us to generate some sympathy for the Terleptil; he's an escaped prisoner, an outcast among his own people, disfigured, etc. The ingredients are there, but are undercut by indifferent writing, directing, and production design. He doesn't even get a name. Or, as it turns out, clothes.

If anything, an introductory scene featuring the team of Terleptils escaping and crashing, something to establish their characters, their backgrounds, their intentions, etc, might have gone a long way toward engendering the sympathy Saward intended. Instead we get five minutes of a domestic scene featuring characters who are promptly killed off. (If he had to go with the family, instead of being killed couldn't they have been captured, forced to do terrible things under mind control, and then liberated at the end, perhaps with the father sacrificing his life or something? That would have at least been interesting. That's arguably what Robert Holmes would have done.)

I can hypothesize that in his early drafts, Saward had set the action in the middle of London. But of course to re-create plague-ridden London in 1666 would be cost-prohibitive, so the producers had him set the action to an unnamed village outside the city (with a population, apparently, of five), only moving into London late in Episode Four so the climax, i.e. the Great Fire, could occur.

This was Eric Saward's debut on Doctor Who. One wonders what JNT saw to inspire him to hire him as script editor, other than that he wrote a story on time that fit in the budget.

Well, at least it's better than Time-Flight, but I'm not in a hurry to watch it again. At least Time-Flight is so awful that it's entertaining. This is just plain boring.

My Grade: C-

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