Tony’s counting down.
Four To Doomsday has something of a forgettable reputation among Who-fans, which does it a considerable injustice. As with Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and his Time of Angels, the first story Peter Davison worked on as the fully-fledged Doctor is for the most part a high-point in his first season, delivering a Doctor more sure of himself after his regeneration. Four To Doomsday shows plenty of sides to this new Doctor, who could all too easily have suffered by comparison to his predecessor’s huge personality. We see his enthusiasm for science and gadgetry, his charm and humour when presenting himself and his companions to the people on whose ship he arrives, his whirring mind behind a young warm smile, and something new – if you actually look at what happens throughout the course of Four To Doomsday, the Fifth Doctor keeps his hands remarkably clean all the way along, only acting decisively to do what the humans can’t. Showing a charm that mingled Pertwee with Hartnell’s original in stories like Marco Polo, and disguising his rebellious cunning behind smiles in a way of which the Second Doctor would be proud, Four To Doomsday gives Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor what could well have become a signature characteristic – a commitment to the self-determination of the people he meets along his travels. Most of his work in Four To Doomsday involves simply talking, persuading Bigon and Lin Futu of the folly of going along with Monarch’s insane ambitions. It’s only at the end of Episode 4 that the Fifth Doctor acts against Monarch, and when he does, it’s so simple and almost thoughtless, it takes our breath away. Really though, he acts to rob Monarch of his power, because by then the Doctor knows the post-Flesh-Time humans would be prevented from doing so themselves. There are plenty of similarities between the Fifth and Tenth Doctors, but Four To Doomsday shows us a Fifth Doctor who seems, like the Tenth in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, to feel the responsibility of the Time Lord, to understand how easy it would be to take decisive action immediately and put a stop to the Urbankan insanity, but instead acts only when he has to, going out of his way until then to be merely an idea, an inspiration to revolt.
The story of Four To Doomsday, from writer Terence Dudley (who also wrote Black Orchid and The King’s Demons), admittedly doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense – giant walking froglike creatures who have moved beyond ‘Flesh-Time’ and appear to be on a permanent commute from their home planet of Urbanka to Earth and back for…y’know…Reasons, are just about believable. Their manipulation of matter, allowing them to take forms that are significantly less froglike, is nifty – and also probably saved Persuasion and Enlightenment actors Paul Shelley and Annie Lambert from a few gruelling hours in the make-up chair each morning. Humans reduced to androids with circuitry-souls…OK. One has to ask why anyone would do such a thing, but OK, we can cling on to the story that far.
When it turns out that Monarch is more or less out to strip the Earth of its mineral wealth (this time, but never before), so he can travel faster than light, go back to the beginning of time and have a chinwag with…himself, (because he’s so brilliant he must surely have created the universe)…well, OK, logic and reason have pretty much leapt out of an airlock after a cricket ball. There seems to be a lot going on in the background of Terence Dudley’s imagination of the storyline that never entirely makes it onto the screen, leaving only these bumpy impressions of ideas – Flesh-Time, and the move beyond it, Monarch’s scientific genius and his subsequently vast, narcissistic egotism.
But if you stop worrying for a moment about what Four To Doomsday is actually about, what you’re left with is an environment where a driven megalomaniac and his obedient ministers and slaves control every aspect of life, with a ticking clock of devastation to Earth and the megalomaniac’s desire to seem like a reasonable, benevolent frog-god colouring everything the Tardis team are allowed to say and do. After the confusionfest that was Castrovalva (and Logopolis for that matter), such a societal set-up was actually surprisingly simple, for all the reasoning was mad, and when you have an actor like Stratford Johns as your central megalomaniac, what you have is a situation which, however weird it might be, and however much he’s covered in green face paint and Rice Krispies, is leant a surprising amount of gravitas, subtlety and knife-edging by his performance. Persuasion and Enlightenment, while having the look (presumably deliberate given their in-story creation based on Tegan’s drawings) of Fifties noir pulp fiction characters, bring a certain suavity to the Urbankans that adds to the surreality of the situation as they flank their Monarch, underlining the difference between them.
Having some of the leading humans played by actors of the standing of Philip Locke and Burt Kwouk, (Bigon and Lin Futu) raises the stakes even further, and this is the point – the Fifth Doctor had big shoes to fill after the departure of Tom Baker. We defy any actor to succeed as well as he needed to do in a Christopher H Bidmead script, so Four To Doomsday was Davison’s first real chance to shine and establish this new Time Lord, and with actors of this quality, and a script which, subjected to even the most cursory scrutiny, results in a lot of blank looks and blinking, the Fifth Doctor could have failed right out of the gate.
That didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because Stratford Johns was a good enough actor to give Monarch some credibility in spite of the bizarre premise of the story, but more than that, it didn’t happen because Peter Davison walked into Dour To Doomsday and nailed the Fifth Doctor to every corner of the screen. You simply can’t take your monopticons off him for a second, strolling and bounding around the ship with authority, with purpose, with the cheery smile that was so unlike his predecessor’s unnerving goggle-eyed manic grin, and mastering his environment, bizarre though it was. We see the wheels turning, Troughton-like, behind the smile, we see the Pertweean politesse when dealing directly with Monarch and his ministers, and we see shades of Baker’s bluntness too, calling Adric an idiot and telling him to shut up, and similarly silencing Tegan so that she doesn’t break his concentration. But all of it is mastered by this young-looking, blonde new Doctor, sometimes trying his hand at a comedy no-one understands, and still poking at areas of his personality to see who he really is, but striding and bounding around Monarch’s totalitarian state with an air of being able, should he wish to do so, to absolutely own it, to bring it tumbling down, with just a handful of words. The terrible gift of the Time Lord, worn with a new, younger, lightness of step that make us curious all over again about the Doctor and of what, on a bad day, he might be capable. Rather more than Tom Baker’s bold performance which wears its intellectual dangers on its sleeve, Davison’s Doctor seems like an insidious idea in the midst of any autocracy, like a nuclear bomb trying desperately not to have to explode your world and hoping you never give him cause.
Now yes, absolutely, the wheels start trundling off Four To Doomsday in Episode 4, which seems determined to get its money’s worth from the ‘entertainment’ extras it’s paid for – its dragon dancers and wrestlers and aboriginal dancers and so on. Then of course there’s the overextended ‘Doctor In Space’ CSO sequence. And the unfortunate, sudden ‘Wait, what happened there?’ business of the Doctor throwing Monarch’s flask of poison straight at its owner at the end, where it somehow shatters on nothing-remotely-shatterworthy-at-all, and shrinks the Urbankan down to the size of a toad. The suddenness of that in particular unravels three episodes of building politesse that show the Fifth Doctor off to singular advantage. When the Fifth Doctor decides you can’t be saved, when the bomb of an older man’s justice in a younger man’s body finally goes off, doing what the humans need him to do, he’s something more shocking and heartless than you expect the Doctor to be. With a little more writing making its way to the screen, that could have been an edgy new element to his personality, but with the best will in the world, in Four To Doomsday, it just feels rushed and senseless, undermining three episodes of good work.
For all the unravelling in Episode 4 of Four To Doomsday though, if you’re looking for a mesmerising early Fifth Doctor performance, you’d be hard pressed to find better than his second story. Give it another spin today and remind yourself of the power of the first ‘young’ Doctor.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk