Reviews

The Fifth Doctor vs the Grim Android Reaper: 'Doctor Who: The Visitation (Special Edition)'

The Fifth Doctor dons his Celery lapel to defend 1666 England against alien invaders and bedazzled androids in this inventive, classic saga from the Peter Davison years.


Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC
Cast: Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding, Michael Robbins, Michael Melia, Peter Van Dissel, John Savident
Network: BBC One
UK Release date: 2013-05-06
US Release date: 2013-05-14
Amazon

Doctor Who fans have great reason to rejoice as the current (2005 – present) continuation of the longest running Science Fiction show on television gains new fans and boosts the popularity of all 11 (to date) incarnations of the title Doctor. As that audience continues to grow exponentially, the market for and budgets for loaded Special Edition DVDs of all available (read: not “lost”) episodes in the Doctor Who programs rises accordingly.

This is, in this case, especially good news for the ever-quirky fifth Doctor, as portrayed by Peter Davison as his four-episode fourth serial “The Visitation” is given the special edition treatment by the BBC. This is a Special Edition worthy of the Tardis. To begin with, the audio and video remastering is masterful which brings out both the complexity and the innocent simplicity of this era of Doctor Who.

While today's new Who episodes are rich in computer generated imagery and high-budgeted set design, great pains are still taken to keep the show rooted in its “ray gun science fiction” past. This can range from the innovative to the cheesy, often combined in one package, a fact exemplified by the beautiful remastering into a much higher definition than we have ever seen for this program. Until this (and the previous UK-only 2004 DVD release) fans had only their VHS copies or PAL-ported original broadcasts to look at.

The lower definition may have been something of a blessing when looking at the rubber-suited monster that serves as this story's main villain, the Terileptil (as portrayed by veteran tough guy actor Michael Melia). While the reptilian alien does have a certain naïve charm, befitting of the technology and budget available for this 1982 saga, there is a deeper layer that the digital hi-def does enhance wonderfully, the animatronics that brought the creature's face to life.

True, this is no CGI or special makeup masterpiece like we might see during the 11th Doctor's run, but this, the first use of animatronics on a Doctor Who serial exemplifies the hard work, attention to detail and budget stretching that went into the best episodes of the series. Like the best of the series, these touches come together well enough that one forgets that this is, in fact, a rubber suit we are looking at.

A similar dichotomy is seen in the story's setting of 1666 England where the fifth Doctor and all three of his then-current companions pour out of the Tardis to Heathrow airport... just a few hundred years before it exists. Instead they find a village terrorized by the grim reaper himself in the form of the Terileptil's ornate android in disguise. This leads the Doctor and his companions into this strange mixture of futuristic technology and post-Shakespeare England, fighting superstitions as well as real alien threats during this strange “Visitation”.

“The Visitation”, as written by Eric Saward is remarkably clever and more than a little vital in the continuity of Doctor Who. While many of the elements introduced here were throwaway gags at the time, they have had lasting implications in the series at large (both in the Doctor's future and his past).

In 2007's Children in Need special “Time Crash” (to date the only direct crossover between a new-series Doctor and an original series Doctor), David Tennant's Tenth Doctor alludes to Davison's Fifth Doctor's lack of use of a sonic screwdriver, preferring to use a piece of string in a most MacGyver-like fashion. The reason for this is explained in “The Visitation”, as the sonic screwdriver is unceremoniously destroyed (at the behest of producer John Nathan-Turner, who saw this tool as an all-too convenient mulligan).

We wouldn't see the screwdriver again until the Eighth Doctor's premiere in 1996. Similarly the Fourth Doctor alludes to having been accused of starting the Great Fire of London, much to his confusion. This reason is explained in “The Visitation”.

These are only a few facts gleaned by this impressive Special Edition of “The Visitation” (a title that alludes both to an alien invasion and to a euphemism for the omnipresent Plague). The DVD Extras here are excellent in that they enhance without overriding the feature itself, but manage to make said feature even better. The prerequisite commentary by director Moffatt, Davison and all three actors who portrayed his companions in this saga. Deleted scenes, photo galleries, promotional materials and the musical score are also welcome additions.

However, the thorough, interesting and fun featurettes take the proverbial Tardis cake here. Peter Moffatt's recollection of his several episodes of Doctor Who is something of a fan's dream come true, along with Eric Saward's 13 minute interview on the writing of the period episode and the visit to the BBC One headquarters with a focus on Who. Best of all is the return of Davison and companion actresses Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding to the location at which the serial was filmed. Their informal remembrances and commentaries celebrate this feature-long story called “The Visitation”, how much fun it was to make and how many memories the cast has invested in the story itself.

That is the main endorsement for this two disc DVD set. Not only is this an excellent treasure trove for the true Whovian, but it's also great fun to watch, both in the main program and the special features. Those of you inclined to slide on a pair of trainers and apply a stick of celery to your lapels should do so right away when popping this impressive collection into their DVD tray. Enjoy your “Visitation”.

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