Contrary to what many fans believe, Castrovalva is far from being the worst Doctor Who story inflicted on a viewing public. What is clear though is the elements that sent the show into a slow decline before a rapid fall. It isn't a story that I would recommend to anyone trying to get into the classic series, but it is one that I would recommend to them to prove that Doctor Who is a show worth watching. It has some brilliant moments and the performance from Peter Davison as the new, Fifth Doctor. But these elements sadly don't make up for its shortcomings, particularly a unclear and muddled script, very poor costumes and some atrocious acting from the supporting cast. While the story may appear unwelcoming to new viewers, it is jammed full of trivia for old fans, particularly in the opening couple of episodes.
Its fair to say that the 1980s were not kind to Doctor Who. There is a lot of merit to be found in the era of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctor's. And as much of a massive fan of the show as I am, I think it is safe to say that this never was a perfect show. It was constantly underestimated by the BBC, had terrible budgets, rushed productions and ultimately, the limitations of 60s and 70s technology. Every franchise has its ups and downs, Star Wars has the prequels and Star Trek has Enterprise. Doctor Who has the 1980s and the period of John Nathan Turner as producer could possibly hold a record for the furthest fall from excellence in all of history.
Castrovalva is still early days during that fall and is still worth a look, if one holds a few reservations. But I suppose that there are a few things that people need to know about what was happening behind the scenes at the time, if they are to enjoy this adventure. The first thing was that Tom Baker had left the series. His eccentricity had fuelled the series for seven years but his performance had begun to become a liability rather than one of the main pleasures of the show. The tone of the show had also changed a lot. It had gone from horror at the beginning of Baker's time to highly camp comedy at the end. But the Fourth Doctor was iconic and still remains so. There was just no way of replacing that kind of character without upsetting a few people. So the producers hired Peter Davison, already a household name, famous for his series drama roles, most notably at the time, his performance as Tristan in All Creatures Great And Small. Davison's performance would be similar to Tristan, he would be calm, caring, fatherly and boyishly enthusiastic and handsome, the complete opposite of Baker. And the casting of Davison was one of the best decisions of the time, much like the casting of Patrick Troughton after William Hartnell had left. And like Troughton, Davison is very often much better than the material he was given and kept the series watchable, even during some of his stories where the quality had significantly dropped.
It also wouldn't be fair to review Castrovalva in isolation since you need to have some knowledge of what had gone before. This is another reason why this story is so hard to just jump into, there was a certain level of soap opera storytelling which had crept in at this point. The story picks up story threads from the previous series, in particular, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. The story expects you to have seen the previous two serials, so much so that when it came to a DVD release, the three were released in a boxset titled, The New Beginnings set. So, in a nut shell, the Doctor has just foiled two attempts from the Master to destroy a world and then take of the universe. This isn't the Master who new series viewers will be familiar with. Instead, he is played by Anthony Ainley, in black clad, pantomime mode.
At the time of this story, the Doctor was travelling with Adric, an irritating, alien mathematical genius from the universe of E-Space. Adric has never been one of the most loved companions, played by Matthew Waterhouse who seemed to have only just discovered that something called acting even existed! Then there was Nyssa, played by Sarah Sutton. One of my favourite companions, she wasn't well served by the television series but her time from the Big Finish audiobooks have really developed her. And then there was Tegan Jovanka, played by Janet Fielding, my favourite companion of all time. She was an Australian air hostess, who really was the Donna Noble of her time. Over the course of the previous two adventures, the Master had killed Tegan's Auntie Vanessa in Logopolis and in the same story obliterated Nyssa's world of Traken and the nearby space system. Managing to stop the Master before he literally took over the world, the Doctor fell to his death and regenerated.
Sure, I'm leaving a lot more out, but if I didn't, I would never be able to get into Castrovalva properly. Weak after his regeneration, the Doctor is in urgent need of rest and recuperation but he must fend off multiple traps laid out by the Master. While the Doctor had been weakened by a regeneration before, Castrovalva properly explores the vulnerability he has after experiencing such an event. This means another drastic change in the story's tone, in every other story, the Doctor helps other people out of their problems, but this time, it is the Doctor who needs help.
Part of the problem with this story, was that the evil was so one-dimensional. The Master is a character who skirts around pantomime villainy at the best of times. But here he is an evil genius stereotype who was motivated by nothing more than shallow revenge. Neither Christopher H. Bidmead's script or Anthony Ainely's performance manage to bring any nuance to that notion. This has always been the basic outline for the character of course, particularly when he appeared in The Deadly Assassin, but his motivations were much more complex there, using a single trap to ensnare multiple enemies, with the deeper aim to cheat death. But here, we don't get anything more than a rather cartoonish reason for him wanting the Doctor dead.
The story picks up immediately after Logopolis, with the TARDIS crew trying to escape from a group of shouty security guards, who want to put them all under arrest for trespassing. The scene is notable for a couple of characterisation pieces. Adric rather pompously announces he is the alien intelligence that they have been looking for. Tegan gives the guards a rather rude complaint before solving the situation and stealing the ambulance that the Doctor has been put into. In the ensuing confusion, Tegan, Nyssa and the Doctor manage to escape, while Adric is recaptured by the Master. Adric manages to send out a duplicate version of himself as the first part of his trap, which sees the TARDIS being sent back to 'event one', essentially, the big bang.
People's frustration with this story really stems from Bidmead's seemingly inability to explain what the hell is going on. And then there is the convoluted and meaningless technobabble that tries to masquerade as real science. The plot revolves around Adric somehow having learnt the way of the Logopolitians, who we met in Logopolis to manipulate the universe through the use of pure mathematics. The problem with this is that we never saw him learning the ways of the Logopolitans, despite Bidmead having written both stories.
But anyway, with Nyssa and Tegan trying to hold the fort, the Doctor wanders off in the corridors of the TARDIS. He is looking for the Zero Room - a sort of built in medical station designed to help Time Lords suffering from problematic regenerations. As he wanders the corridors of the TARDIS, Davison is given the chance to impersonate his predecessors as the Doctor tries to figure out who he is. He even metaphorically unravels The Fourth Doctor's scarf and while they are enjoyable enough, the references to his previous incarnations go on for far too long. However, having said that, Davison's impersonation of Patrick Troughton is particularly brilliant, projecting real, helpless vulnerability as the terror of what is happening to him begins to dawn in his fugue like state.
Castrovalva is also a rare opportunity to see more of the inner TARDIS as we journey to rooms beyond the console room. While we have seen it to a great extent in The Edge of Destruction, The Invasion of Time and The Doctor's Wife and to a lesser extent in Enlightenment and The Chase, here it is a maze of corridors and passages that manage to quickly confound the Doctor and his companions. Of course, the corridors are supposed to be a metaphor for the confused state of the Doctor's mind, but does that mean that the TARDIS can really change to mirror the state of the Doctor? As the second episode picks up, it would appear that the TARDIS itself is trying to help the Doctor get out of his state, delivering him to a medicine cabinet and leading him to where his Edwardian cricketing outfit was to be found. It is a shame then that because of the script, this isn't fully developed or explained.
Once the crew eventually find the zero room, the Doctor gets slightly better and gives Nyssa and Tegan some advice and a small pep talk before sending himself into a meditative coma. This really was the first time we see how much Davison flipped what the Doctor could be. Before him all the previous versions of the character where middle aged or old men. But really the Doctor is like Peter Pan and is beyond time, a boy who never grew up. But that wouldn't really work for Davison, Tom Baker was wild with a grounded seriousness and Davison's performance was decided to directly contrast that. Davison played the Doctor as a man who was wise beyond his years, or rather as an old man who only really looks young. That was an aspect that stayed with the show even when Davison left and is particularly apparent in both David Tennant's and Matt Smith's takes on the role. This also really plays into the TARDIS crews' dynamic. They really were a surrogate family, with him taking the role of foster father. I mean, just look at the way he has all jogging back to TARDIS at the end of the story!
Having the escape the explosion caused by Event One, means that a quarter of the TARDIS has to be jettisoned to increase the ship's power and get them away before they are all obliterated. But by jettisoning that quarter, the Zero Room is destroyed. Needing a replacement atmosphere urgently, Tegan and Nyssa consult the TARDIS data bank which leads them to fall into a second trap, which takes them to the 'dwellings of simplicity' I.E. Castrovalva. This might sound like some horrible eighties holiday village but is in fact a medieval-like city built into the side of a mountain. Just the place for a breather.
Well, not really a breather, as this is the trap. Castrovalva is an artificial construct created by the Master using Adric as a power supply. He seems to take both the name and the warped, paradox defying dimensions straight from the works of M.C. Escher. Once the crew are in the city, they will never be able to leave. Of course, capturing the dimensionally challenged city was beyond the technology of the 1980s and the effects are really rather laughable, especially now that people have seen a whole city fold over on itself in Inception. And though the effects don't really do a good job of showing us how the dimensions work, there a few things that try to help it out. Director, Fiona Cumming rather savvily and subtly lays the groundwork by having characters exit a scene and then re-enter it from a different direction that doesn't feel quite right. She manages to create a sense of confusion by deliberating breaking the standard rules of editing. And the scene in which several Castrovalvan's look at a map and realise with horror that a single house exists in several different places at once - it is hard to get more low budget than by using chalk on the back of a mirror - but it does weirdly work.
To enjoy the classic era of Doctor Who, one has to overlook the limitations and rushed productions and low budgets to enjoy even the best stories from the original 1963-89 run. And for the good episodes, it really is worth it. Look at The Ark In Space, it is a story which has a lot to offer but it is impossible to ignore the alien costuming made out of bubble wrap. But the eighties saw too many cheap-but-creative effects beginning to creep in and that, mixed with bad taste from directors and the producer, sadly renders the majority of the 1980s run unwatchable for many people. That trend starts here, most obviously in the visual effects. The lightning bolts that come from the Master's TARDIS are so embarrassing. And the costumes would gradually become a problem, who thought that the costumes for the Castrovalvan characters looked good?!
Castrovalavan society is very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and the world invented by Jorge Luis Borges'. And if the Castrovalvan's seem to be a little flat and stale then it is important to remember that they are only artificial creations anyway. They are only there to give the city a sense of realism and should, therefore, seem a little bit more cardboard. But those kind of performances only go so far, the eventual deaths of the Castrovalvan's fails to have any kind of emotional impact. Nor is there any impact to their best moment, when their leader, Shardovan, sacrifices himself to prove to the Master that they are people with free wills and not his pawns. Anthony Ainley gives a much better performance as his secondary character - the city like mayor Portreeve - actually the Master in disguise. Credited under the anagrammed form of his name, Neil Toynay, he is so much down to earth that people would have probably been fooled by the deception if they hadn't already known the secret...