‘May I say what a pleasure it has been to see two such dedicated trenchermen enjoying their food. Unfortunately the reckoning is rather high.’ In the end I think this is a failure, but it’s a Robert Holmes script and it’s at least an interesting failure. Broadly, I think the problems with it are that Holmes’ script is too thin to sustain the equivalent of an old six-parter, and that the direction does nothing to lift the material.
I’m not even sure Peter Moffatt understands the material. For example, Oscar’s death is all over the place, with James Saxon milking it for comedy while Carmen Gomez and Nicola Bryant treat it like tragedy. Still, it’s not Moffatt’s idea to have much of this final episode involve pottering about the sight of Seville (such as there are) and an extended comedy sequence of an Androgumised second Doctor enjoying a slap-up meal while the Sontaran plot melts away like Varl in a jar of coronic acid.
In the hands of Graeme Harper, you can see how this might have played out differently. Harper definitely picked up on the Jacobean revenge play elements in The Caves of Androzani and perhaps Holmes had this success in mind when he wrote Doctor Who’s version of Titus Andronicus (Titus Androgum, perhaps). Titus’ grotesque, over-the-top horror (so extreme it can cause audiences to laugh with revulsion) is definitely present and correct in this – not least in its ideas of cannibalism, civilisation versus barbarism, military honour and blood ties. When Shockeye wanders in waving Stike’s severed leg it recalls Titus’ various messengers bearing lopped-off limbs. Its possible that this might have been as gloriously grisly as The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Instead, we get one of the most languid Doctor Who stories ever: the whole thing has the energy of a siesta. In Moffatt’s hands, Shockeye’s pursuit of the Doctor, which should have been a life-or-death struggle, is a leisurely amble around the parched countryside, undermining the Doctor’s entirely justifiable self-defence and making it look like just another assassination by poison by this most Borgian of incarnations. The two Doctors meet and shout ‘snap!’ at each other – but Moffatt can’t be bothered to push for a take where they do it in unison, so it just looks shoddy and mistimed.
The good bits: Troughton playing a monster, briefly. Jacqueline Pearce finally getting to show some fire and blood as Chessene reverts to her racial origins and briefly declares herself dictator of the universe before she’s quickly dispatched (very Game of Thrones, this). Shockeye being memorably horrid. The rest passes by in a sort of heat haze, and a vague sense of missed opportunities. In the end, it’s mostly interesting as the final significant contribution to the show by perhaps its greatest writer. To paraphrase Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, “It’s ugly, it’s manipulative, and it’s the last great work of the master”.
Next episode: Timelash