Friday, May 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Visitation Special Edition DVD review

After eight straight weeks of intense recapping/commentary of current Doctor Who for Vulture, it was something of a shock to get back to doing some viewing and writing on a classic series tale. After imbibing in the frenzied greatness of something like “Nightmare in Silver,” a sleepy little offering such as “The Visitation” requires some mental adjustment.

“The Visitation” has actually never been a huge favorite of mine, but then it’s also difficult to complain much about it, or take it to task for this, that, or the other. It’s an efficient, pleasant work that gets little wrong, but neither does it knock down any walls. Possibly most noteworthy for being future script editor Eric Saward’s first contribution to the series, the serial has virtually nothing in common with the sort of gritty, action-driven tales he’d eventually come to be better known for – stuff like “Earthshock” and “Resurrection of the Daleks.”

The story takes places in 1666, and England is plagued by, well, the Great Plague. Into an already mad world comes a group of criminal fugitives of the Terileptil race (looking like a sort of cross between a fish, a reptile, and an insect), and their mission becomes one of the genocide of humanity, so that they may claim the planet for themselves. Soon enough, the Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), arrive to battle the Terileptil menace, but not without making an imprint on English history.

With that stance, you're entitled to your disgust, Janet.
That’s not necessarily a streamlined summary, as that’s really about all that happens in “The Visitation.” It’s an almost absurdly simplistic, paint by numbers Doctor Who story (which isn’t a bad thing), buoyed by some creative acting, nice location work - including a surplus of lush green English countryside - and characterization that’s slightly more complex than the norm of the day, a trend that would continue to develop throughout Davison's era.

What hit me particularly hard on this viewing was how much time was spent on Tegan in the first episode. This story follows “Kinda,” and the character is still recovering from her possession by the Mara, which leads to an intriguing scene between Fielding and Sutton that sort of shows why Fielding was such a boon to the Davison era. It’s followed by another scene – and an emotionally explosive one at that – in which she takes the Doctor to task for his repeated failure to get her back to Heathrow of the early ‘80s. The relationship between Doctor and companion is somewhat strained throughout the remainder of the tale as a result.

Michael Robbins as Richard Mace
Additionally, “The Visitation” features a delightfully over the top guest performance from actor Michael Robbins, playing thespian Richard Mace, who joins the TARDIS team for the duration of the story (as if the Doctor needs yet another companion!). Further, the main Terileptil, played by Michael Melia, was achieved using animatronics for various portions of its head – a first for the series. Granted, it’s all extremely basic, and not terribly convincing by today’s standards, but it’s always interesting to take note of these little technological advances within the series. Something else I learned from this DVD that I didn’t know before – Eric Saward claims that the Great Plague was, at the time, referred to by the London populace as “the visitation,” which gives the serial’s title a double meaning. “The Visitation” is also noteworthy for being the story in which the sonic screwdriver was destroyed, as producer John Nathan-Turner felt it led to lazy writing ( series, cough, cough). It would not resurface until the TV movie in 1996. 

Michael Melia as the Terileptil
DVD Extras: Everything from the previous DVD has been ported over to the first disc of this special edition, so feel free to pass your old version on to a deserving young Whovian. New to this double-disc set is an unusually lengthy making-of entitled “Grim Tales,” which runs for 45 minutes and features Mark Strickson taking Davison, Fielding, and Sutton (sadly, no Waterhouse, though he’s represented here on the commentary track) on a tour of the locations featured in the story, interspersed with the occasional talking head recorded elsewhere. At one point, Strickson presents the “Visitation” trio with a cake that should be seen to be appreciated. 

"Touch me there again, Adric. One more time. I dare you."
Following is a 32-minute piece entitled “The Television Centre of the Universe – Part One,” in which Davison, Fielding, and Strickson go on a tour of BBC Television Centre, which they apparently haven’t set foot in since their time on the show. Massive chunks of classic Who (of all eras) were recorded in this building, so far the hardcore fan it’s an informative piece that shines a light in corners normally unseen. Both of these pieces are quite likable, and if you’ve previously spent DVD time with Davison and his co-starring cohorts (and surely you must have or you wouldn't be reading this review), you can pretty much guess the sort of boisterous, borderline bawdy fun you’re in for. Interesting that the TV Centre piece is Part One (and it does end on something of a cliffhanger – or at least as much of a cliffhanger as a piece like this can have), as it would seem to indicate that Part Two will be on another Davision double-dip SE – except that there’s nothing officially on the release slate. Perhaps “Earthshock” is being readied for the SE treatment?

“Doctor Forever – The Apocalypse Element” is another entry in the ongoing series, this time highlighting the world of Doctor Who audio stories, with emphasis on the Big Finish range, as well as the works of BBC Audio/AudioGo. I was particularly taken by the start of this doc, as it highlights the LPs “Doctor Who Sound Effects,” “Genesis of the Daleks,” and “Doctor Who and the Pescatons” – all of which seduced many a Who fan on vinyl back in the day. There are also Radio Times listings in PDF form, as well as a BBC sales sheet for “The Visitation.” Finally, there’s a trailer for the upcoming SE of “Inferno.” 

Death stalks the countryside in "The Visitation"