The Visitation is a Doctor Who story which doesn't pretend to be anything but your basic, straight forward Doctor Who tale. It is easily the most straightforward story to come out of series nineteen, especially when you look at the two stories which surround it, the mystifying Kinda and Black Orchid, which isn't even something that could be classed as science fiction. But The Visitation is probably best remembered by the fans because it is the one where the sonic screwdriver was destroyed. The story is more important from a behind the scenes perspective because it saw a lot of changes, most notably the arrival of a new script editor, the same man who wrote this serial, Eric Saward. He would remain with the series for the next three years, overseeing the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. And although it is to be found in the middle of the series, The Visitation really is the start of the Fifth Doctor's era, pointing towards the early 1980s' darker and action-heavy tone.
One thing of note is how crowded the TARDIS was in 1982, something which made story telling a little uncomfortable. The new, Fifth Doctor was joined by three companions, Tegan Jovanka, an Australian air hostess, Nyssa, the last survivor of the planet Traken and Adric, an irritating mathematical genius who had stowed away on board during Tom Baker's era of the show. It was more companions than the show had had for a long time and more than necessary from a dramatic stand point as the writers very often didn't know what to do with them all. Something which is certainly the case since in The Visitation. Behind the scenes at the time, the show had gone through three script editors during the beginning of series nineteen. And what probably didn't help was that the series was filmed out of story order, Castrovalva was the first story where Saward was credited as script editor, but The Visitation was really his first experience with the show. And it was The Visitation which lead producer, John Nathan Turner, to offer Saward the position of script editor.
Some of the tension of this story is there on purpose. The recurring bickering and tension between the main characters gave the series some tension from story to story. It was a good goal and something which was fairly innovative at the time, though it wasn't handled all that well. But this factor gives this story the best character moment of the entire story, in the fairly lengthy opening scene inside the TARDIS, it is centred around Tegan and the Doctor about whether he will be able to bring her back to modern day London. Of course, he says he will try his hardest. She doesn't really believe him and has a good moan and she does have good reason to as she knows how unreliable the TARDIS and the Doctor actually are. When the TARDIS does land, it turns out to be in the right spot but the wrong time, they are three hundred years too early. Understandably, she freaks out and storms out to collect herself. The Doctor is embarrassed but not too rattled, as he is now used to having people throwing his own failures in his face the way that Tegan does. And this is what shows us the difference between the Fourth and Fifth Doctor's. No way would Tom Baker's Doctor have put up with Tegan's tantrum, nor would he try and diplomatically apologise later.
The main problem with this plot point is that it fails to be explored any further than at the opening of the first episode. And instead of progressing this moment or moving to a new stage of the argument, Tegan spends the next three episodes making snide remarks. It is nothing short of a waste of material. As a change of pace, the idea of a companion who doesn't really want to be part of the Doctor's world, is an interesting one, it creates plenty of drama without ever having to step out of the TARDIS. Tegan's negativity is a good way of getting a story going, like it does in Kinda, where it helps the villain bend her to his will. But here, she really is given nothing to do but have a moan.
Peter Davison is obviously the only actor in this story who really makes the best out of the material he is given, not that the others don't, but Saward gives Davison plenty to do, something which Davison obviously savours. He takes the Doctor's frustration and runs with it, simmering at Tegan's, and other parochial human's comments and attitudes. He tries to stay polite but sometimes boils over. It is easy enough to see him in some scenes as being ready to push Tegan off a cliff. And this helps the story to make sense when he asks her to look through a series of notes written in an alien language she doesn't understand, just to get her out of his hair!
And if Tegan had known the exact date, when the TARDIS had landed, she would have never left the ship. It is September 2nd 1666, the day of the Great Fire of London. This makes it the second time that the Doctor has been responsible for burning down a city, the first instance being the First Doctor inspiring Nero to burn Rome to the ground in, The Romans. But the fire of London is where the story ends up, the real problem in the story concerns the almost biblical bubonic plague, which was sweeping across the world at the time. Not only that, but a shrouded figure of death stalks the countryside and the plague is proving far deadlier in the small village where the Doctor land than anywhere else in the country. While the Doctor and his companions are investigating, they team up with the out of work thespian, Richard Mace who has been forced to become a highwayman because the theatres have closed down.
It doesn't take long for the story to reveal that the true villains are of course, aliens. Reptilians called Terileptills. They are a pretty generic warlike group of alien reptiles, intent on conquering the Earth, though Saward juxtaposed their love of war with their ability to make beautiful androids. The Death figure who stalks the countryside turns out to be one of their jewel encrusted androids, dressed up as figure from folklore to keep villagers away from their base of operations. This particular group of Terileptills are a group of escaped alien convicts from the planet of Raga. Their plan, when they discover what time in history they have arrived in, is to boast the power of the plague, so that they can have the depopulated Earth all to their own. Realising that the Doctor must have used a ship that they can use for themselves, they still decide to wipe out humanity and I guess this shows that they are aliens who are willing to see a plan through.
Given that this was his first experience writing for Doctor Who, Saward took a few perfectly understandable shortcuts. The first of these was the reuse of Richard Mace, a character he had created for a radio play a few years before. This was a pretty good idea because Mace, or rather the actor, Michael Robbins, comes close to stealing the show. Cowardly, swaggering and philosophical, he is consistently fun to watch and he is the only non-regular character to be well rounded in this adventure. Even the Terileptill leader doesn't get a name, nor does he get a personality more than just one side. The only real problem with Mace is that he shows us how uninteresting Tegan, Nyssa and Adric are, in this story.
The second shortcut that Saward used was his going back into Doctor Who's history. The Visitation is clearly based on the Third Doctor story, The Time Warrior, the adventure which introduced Sarah Jane Smith to the show. The problem is that he didn't try to give it a different twist. The opening scene is particularly similar, with a crashed spaceship landing near a dwelling in the middle of the night. The only twist that Saward gives us is that the alien, rather than allying themselves with the locals, like the Sontaran in The Time Warrior, the Terileptills decide to wipe them all out.
But even if The Visitation isn't particularly original, it doesn't stop it from being fun to watch. It is full of chases and fights. There is a little Shakespearian flair to Mace and it gives us an alien who literally hisses and on that level, what isn't to like. It is hardly a comic romp and it proves to be the weakest of the scripts that Saward gave us and the series, he did go much grimmer later on, beginning with Earthshock, a story which was only two adventures away, which saw the death of companion, Adric. Here, the only death is that of the sonic screwdriver, destroyed at the pleading of John Nathan Turner, who wanted to give the Doctor new ways of getting out of trouble. This was something which stuck with the show until the Paul McGann movie in 1996. I wouldn't mind seeing the sonic screwdriver being removed from the new series, as it is basically used as a magic wand that always gets the Doctor out of trouble.
Doctor Who works even better when it goes into layers deeper than just chases and fights. But there is nothing in this story that tells us that Saward had any interest in giving us a story beyond fights. Take the ending of the story as an example, the plot is resolved by...a brawl. The Terileptills aren't outwitted or outmanoeuvred, the Doctor and gang simply find their base of operations and beat them all up! Really, The Visitation defines mediocrity. There isn't anything about it which is outstanding but there isn't anything about it which is really dumb.
It is almost as if Saward's script aimed low just to get the job done. Maybe it is just best to look at this story as a dry run of what Saward would go on to write. Even in this, his first Who script, you can clearly see what works, what doesn't and what needed more development, all the elements that would define his time as script editor. We got a story which focused more on action that any actual plot, a story which avoided comedy for a darker tone and one which relies on violence to resolve the plot. Saward side-lines the characters he doesn't know what to do with, leaving the Doctor frequently impassive and instead gives us a 'macho-man', to carry out the main bulk of the action. At least Mace is more enjoyable than the thieves and killers and general perverts who plagued Saward's later story, Revelation of the Daleks.
It is of course possible that I am a little too focused and harsh on the overall writing of the story. But I can't help it, I'm an author, seriously check out Shaw and Sullivan on Amazon, (what a shameless piece of self-promotion!). But I'm an author, so making sure a story flows is something that I feel is important and it really bugs me when it doesn't. What is also to note is that this story is tepidly directed by Peter Moffatt and features far too many scenes where they are needlessly dragged out and bland. The worst of this story is Nyssa's subplot. It stretches out to a ridiculous three out of four episodes and is jaw droopingly inert, badly staged and unfortunately, indifferently performed by Sarah Sutton. And it is sickeningly obvious that her plot was put in at the last minute, when Saward realised he hadn't given her anything to do. She is tasked by the Doctor to construct a machine that will destroy the Terileptill's android, which she knows because she has seen it, is an immediate threat to the lives of her friends. Nyssa heads back to the TARDIS to build the machine but first, she needs to make her bed, tidy her room and changes her outfit before making a machine. In her following scene she spends 35 seconds slowly dragging the machine from the console room to her bedroom. And at one point, she declares that the machine is nearly ready to use, not actually ready.
But it is once Adric returns to the TARDIS to give Nyssa someone to explain the subplot to that she goes from being slightly useless to actively promoting complete uselessness, by telling Adric not to go back and help the Doctor and Tegan, who at this point has been recaptured by the android. Sadly she comes across in this story as a dreary, stick in the mud, who doesn't want to endanger herself by stepping foot out of the TARDIS, so much so that she watches Adric get clubbed down by the android and she does nothing. She goes to help him and then decides nothing. You can actually see her sigh, shrug her shoulders and almost mutter, 'ah, to hell with it!"
All that subplot almost makes me appreciate Adric a little bit more. Silly old Adric is of course, the fandom's most hated companion and this isn't for nothing. Actor Matthew Waterhouse, was very inexperienced at the time and didn't look like he had ever heard of something called acting but he did manage to get across the whole character of Adric - naïve, nerdy and immature, a would be rescuer who finds himself in need of rescue. He was the Robin to the Doctor's Batman. If Adric's obnoxiousness had been toned down then he might have been a little bit more bearable. If he hadn't pestered Mace with idiotic question like what beer tasted like, he would have been a lot easier to like. And at least he is willing to throw himself into something to help people, even when it means doing something idiotic like trying to pilot the TARDIS to rescue the Doctor and Tegan. And that was something that neither Nyssa or Tegan would have done, even if they had the technical ability to pull it off. It almost makes me wonder if Earthshock killed off the right character...