Throughout the Doctor's life, the same characteristics have remained the same when it comes to character, the strongest of which is his restless, insatiable wanderlust as he travels the universe. At his core, he is a traveller, finding his way around the universe on no particular flight-plan and he hardly knows where he is going. He simply steps out of his ship and looks around. And from the earliest of stories, this element is what has always gotten him into trouble. This is to be expected as it is a basic element of the show: he lands somewhere, looks around, gets captured, gets out of trouble, helps defeat the real trouble and then leaves. The show would be boring without the trouble and it helps remind us that the universe is a dangerous place. You'd be a real fool to go around without a plan, armed with nothing but your wits and you would have to be super reckless to actually take someone with you. That is one of the things that The Caves of Androzani openly discusses and critiques. Here, the Doctor and Peri arrive in the middle of a deadly mess that only proves to get more and more dangerous and it is the sort of problem where the least he can hope for is to escape and survive. But in the end, even that proves a problem, he saves Peri but sacrifices his Fifth incarnation in the process and Peter Davison collapses and regenerates into Colin Baker.
The Caves of Androzani has always enjoyed a very high respect in the Doctor Who community, so much so that in 2009, it was voted the best Doctor Who story ever. I certainly wouldn't go that far, though it does make my top 10-15. For one thing, you have to take points off for the Magma Beast - a terrible attempt a monster-of-the-week and what I really didn't like the first few times I watched this story was how cynical and dark it was. Now I like dark and cynical shows, particularly ones from Robert Holmes but this one has never sat right with me. Of course, this is the whole point of this story so, I guess what I really object to is Holmes hitting the bullseye. And in the final analysis, I just can't wrap my head around this idea this is the show which shows us what Doctor Who is all about.
Still, I can see why it made the top of that poll, the narrative propels along at a terrific rate, the direction from Graeme Harper is top-notch, it is tense, dark and very dark. It also paints a vivid picture of a world corrupted by the effect of money, greed, violence and unchecked corporate power, something which has poisoned the soul of every character we meet - especially the mad Sharaz Jek, a creepy attempt at the Phantom of the Opera, played brilliantly by Christopher Gable. And the tale also makes brilliant use of the essence of regeneration, the idea that the Doctor is dying. Davison really makes the most of this final point, forcing his Doctor through the wringer and making the most of every dying breath to save Peri. Arguably, this is Peter Davison at his best, making the best out of Holmes' strong script.
The Caves of Androzani also stands out because of the mediocre era it was set in. This was the last great Doctor Who story until the Sylvestor McCoy era really hit its stride. Unfortunately, Season 21 was bookended by two train-wrecks, Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma and was helmed by the worst creative partners of the show's history - producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor, Eric Saward. Their combined vision for the show, despite their best intentions result in a show which is dull, tacky and nihilistic, full of vision, sound and fury but little else. If you were to look at Caves on paper, it almost fits perfectly into Sawards misguided view of the series but somehow, not only does the story manage to rise above the majority of that era but shows that Saward's vision for the show could have worked had they had some more brilliant writers like Holmes.
As the story begins, the TARDIS brings the Fifth Doctor and Peri to the sandy and desolate rock of Androzani-Minor, a planet which forms a twin system with Androzani-Major. The Doctor has landed on Androzani-Minor for the most boring of tasks, he needs some glass to make a new something-or-other for the TARDIS's systems. He has been in the Androzani system before but can't remember when or what he was after the last time and he certainly isn't bothered by what is going on there at that particuar moment. He just assumes the planet has been abandoned because of the deadly mud-erruptions that happen occassionally. This is the first crucial mistake he makes here because he doesn't know Androzani-Minor is famous for its Spectrox, a drug for eternal youth and is something that has made a few people on Major very rich. The economics behind the Spectrox combine the worst of oil and heroin and like those, Spectrox paints war over two opposing factions. On one side you've got the cut-throat buisnessman, Morgus and on the other there is Morgus's ex partner, Sharaz Jek who was once a brilliant scientist but has gone mad through isolation and what Morgus did to him. He has made a home for himself in the caves of Androzani-Minor with a bunch of androids who don't care what he looks like. Jek is also working with a band of pirates led by the ruthless and psychotic Stotz, who keeps him supplied with weapons in exchange for Spectrox.
Almost immediately things go badly for the Doctor and Peri. Firstly, while exploring the caves, Peri falls into a big hole and has to be rescued by the Doctor. The pair get covered in a web like substance, seemingly harmless at the time but it turns out to be Spectrox in its raw form and it condemns them to slow poisoning. Continuing on, they walk straight into the gunrunners weapon cache just in time to caught by the miliarty services and brought to the general, Chellak. They are cursorily interrogated and accused of being spies for Jek. Then they get sentenced to death.
Holmes seems to take particular delight in ramping up the tension for the Doctor and Peri by never giving them a safe place to rest and shifting them between the fire and the frying pan. Sure, Jek rescues them but he is no friend. He only does anything in this story for them out of some creepy facination he has for Peri and he isn't interested in the Doctor at all. The Doctor manages to convince Jek's other prisoner, the real Salateen, not the android in the army camp, to help them escape. But of course, Salateen betrays them, leaves the Doctor for dead and takes Peri back to the army camp where he explains what has been happening. Salateen's escape eventually leads to the downfall of both Morgus and Jek, his knowledge of the base's defences allows for the army to break through, destroying the stalemate. And this is finally where the Saward thing of making the hero weak really works, all the Doctor has to do is convince Salateen, who has been Jek's prisoner for months, to act. The Doctor certainly had no idea how significant this would be, he just wants to get himself and Peri to safety. That is his main driving force throughout the story, he doesn't really care about what happens to the bystanders. He just has one thing he does that has any real consequences for Jek and Morgus and that is also by accident and it pushes all the remaining dominos over. As soon as this happens, the Doctor's task is pretty much over as far as the larger story is concerned, even though he has the fantastically exciting cliff-hanger at the end of episode three to deal with! He commendeers the spaceship owned by the gun-runners and crashes it into the planet just so he can get back to Peri and rescue her and get to the cure for Spectrox. Finally, after spending much of the story getting beaten down, the hero gets to strike back but it is more of a hail-mary and not a decisive strike to save the day. All of this is thrilling because it really shouldn't work!
This is also a story where there are no real heroes, just several domineering villians. Stotz is psychotic, asserting his power over his underlings by threatening their lives in a way that cavemen would be proud of. Morgus is a fan of murder-by-a-long-fall as he kills the president of Androzani-Major by pushing him down a lift-shaft and despite Jek's flamboyance, Morgus is the overall baddie. Thanks to his connections, he has the army under his thumb. And because it is good for the Spectrox price if the supply is being interrupted, he pays Stotz to supply Jek with his arms. This also gives him the excuse to close down as many factories on Major as he pleases and he converts them into prison-slave houses where people work for their lives. Without the supplies Jek gets from Stotz, which really come from Morgus, all of this would have ended years ago, without the Doctor ever needing to show up. If they knocked Morgus out of the equation then things would have gotten better. That is all assuming that his successor Trau Timmons doesn't turn out to be just as blood-thirsty as he and I think this is just a happy ending that Holmes wants us to imagine happened. There isn't much innocence to be found in the Androzani-system.
Perhaps the only person who does care about the lack of innocence in this story, bizarrly is Sharez Jek, who is fixated on Peri, not only because she is pretty but because she is one of a few people who hasn't been corrupted by the darkness of the story. Jek, like Morgus has been deeply corrupted by the events surrounding the story and also like Morgus, it has been through Spectrox. And he doesn't appear to have any honorable intentions for it either. Jek falls nicely into the typical Holmes' villian-type, a twisted monstrousity who hides underground and is driven by a dark and perverse need for a secret life and vigor. It is the type of villain that Holmes went for four times before, all the villains in The Deadly Assassin, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng-Chiang - were like this as well. Jek is slightly different though, he isn't seeking eternal life or youth as he already has it in his control through the Spectrox and he knows this still isn't enough. Like the Phantom of the Opera, he is too complex to be either good or evil. He has real grievinses with Morgus, who really deserves everything Jek has planned for him. He is as dangerous and deadly as a snake but his deep trauma makes him pitiable as well as creepy and perverse.
Looking back at the idea of the Doctor travelling recklessly, this has been something that has gone back to the earliest days of the show even though it has hit some eras harder than others. The First Doctor's trip with Ian, Barbara and Susan almost got them cannibalised by cavemen and for a long time their adventures were driven by their desire to get back to the TARDIS, if they had been seperated from it. Later though, the series seemed to settle into the idea that the crew were happier to see what the universe had to throw at them, from the crafty Second Doctor to the flambouant Third and the adventurous Fourth. The Fifth Doctor seemed to be a reaction to all of that. Although he was younger and fitter than he ever had been, he was also vulnerable and frail in a way he hadn't been since William Hartnell. In Castrovalva, Peter Davison's first story, he was damaged after his regeneration and nearly died from exhaustion. Earthshock saw the death of his companion Adric and showed the audience that this was an incarnation of the Doctor who would loose from time to time. And the buildup in Davison's final series was more evidence of that fact. Warriors of the Deep ended with the massacre of all but the main characters, his travelling companion, Tegan, left at the end of Ressurection of the Daleks having seen a massacre close up and personal and at the end of the following story, Planet of Fire, the Doctor had to mercy-kill his robot companion Kamelion only to loose his other companion, Turlough who was going to return home. Oh and the Master seemingly burnt to death after the Doctor hesitated to save him.
So given all that, what sets apart The Caves of Androzani from the rest of that final season isn't its grim tone but the competant way the story has been put together. The script from Robert Holmes does two things that Eric Saward's never did right. He isn't afraid to populate the script with shady and dodgy characters but he never looses sight of who they are and what their actions say about them. And as dark and horrible the lives in the Androzani system are, Holmes never asks us to believe in the honor of his hired thugs or assassins like Saward did in Revelation of the Daleks.
Saward was also, slightly questionably, facisinated by stories where your traditional heroes were weakened and eventually collapsed, resulting in stories where the Doctor and his companion were put on the sidelines. This is one of the main reasons why the majority of the Sixth Doctor era is so hard for fans to watch but Robert Holmes takes that idea and makes it work. He makes the Doctor and Peri's desire to survive weave into the action and events unfolding around them without intersecting them as much as possible. Although their arrival gives a little disruption to the local power which eventually leads to the downfall of Morgus who sits at the apex of the story, the larger problems in the story resolve themselves without the Doctor and Peri. They are basically small players in someone else's story. The best course of action that the Doctor can offer here is to get Peri and himself out of harm's way and avoid a swift and brutal death leaving nothing behind but a blood smear and a smoking panama hat. And at the end of the day, he fails miserably. This is miles away from the modern Doctor's we're used too who can reboot the universe with some clever handwritting and some deliberate technobabble.
There is a brilliant case to be made that this vulnerability is an essential part of the show and a mode it needs to keep close too nowadays in order to stay true to the essence of the show and it is what Doctor Who is all about. The First Doctor and his friends were constantly in trouble and often were unable to do anything but try to survive until they could get back to the TARDIS at the end of the story. That has been one of the central points about the show, it is a very dangerous universe and heaven help anyone who gets lost in it.
But throughout The Caves of Androzani illustrates this point brilliantly but it also makes a point of the other side of the argument - even with all this danger, it is brilliant to travel around the universe. Because this is also the other point of Doctor Who, it is an amazing universe out there, full wonder and it is a rare privilege to get lost in it. This is the point that the next era Andrew Cartmell went back to in the late 1980s, the universe suddenly became brighter and magical again...