“Four to Doomsday” was Peter Davison’s second serial to broadcast in his freshman season of “Doctor Who,” but it was his first to film, and that makes the difference.
Producer John Nathan-Turner felt it risky to thrust Davison into the rough challenges of “Castrovalva,” the regeneration-gone-wrong story that would introduce audiences to the Fifth Doctor, so early in his tenure, and so work on that serial would be postponed, allowing Davison to get his feet wet with three other stories first. By the time “Castrovalva” would be shot, the actor would already have a lock on the character and therefore provide a more solid launch in January 1982.
And so we see some peculiarities in “Doomsday,” as writer Terence Dudley was given the unenviable task of crafting a script around characters not yet developed. Nathan-Turner was still fleshing out how best to contrast this new Doctor against Tom Baker’s seven-year run in the role, and he was constantly at odds with Davison over the details. The result in “Doomsday” is a Doctor a little different than we’d see him in the stories to follow – although that’s not always as troublesome as it sounds.
Davison’s Doctor is more playful here than usual, often tossing out corny jokes better suited to Baker, while such gimmicks like having his pockets stuffed with random objects (that, the intent would be, would get him out of a pinch in each story) reveal intriguing ideas quickly abandoned by the production staff, a hint at what might have been for the character. Davison’s youthful charm (at 29, he was the youngest actor in the role, a record that would remain until the recent announcement that 26-year-old Matt Smith will play the part next year) would be played up more than in later episodes, mostly evident in a sense of boyish curiosity that carries him through the first episode’s opening scenes.
But there’s also an antagonistic quality that would remain throughout the season, laying the foundations for the Fifth Doctor’s overall personality. For all the griping fans have made over the years over the “crowded TARDIS” aspect of season nineteen, the grumpiness on display throughout is a clever (and at times rather welcome) change from the random gallivanting of a Time Lord and his single companion, and a nice throwback to the tone of the William Hartnell days. A theme of this season was that no matter how hard the Doctor tried to steer his TARDIS back to 1980 Heathrow, the landing was always just a bit off, a plot device allowing for an uncertainty (a traveler not in complete command of his own ship, but willing to enjoy the errors) that I miss in the modern version of the show. Earlier “Who” stories would make use of an unreliable TARDIS, but rarely as often, and with such specific intent, as in Davison’s first year.
It also helps explain why some companions would be so willing to put up with so much death and danger – unlike a Rose Tyler or Sarah Jane Smith, eager to risk peril in order to experience the wonders of an infinite universe, Tegan Jovanka was just a poor soul stuck along for the ride until she could get home. (That wouldn’t stop her from eagerly re-joining the Doctor the following season. Nathan-Turner would eventually drop several of the ideas he put in place for season nineteen, while his plans for a more disagreeable Doctor would only grow, especially once Colin Baker would take over in 1984.) As the brassy, bitchy Tegan, Janet Fielding had the unenviable task of nonstop complaining in the middle of awe-inspiring revelations.
Another oft-maligned companion was Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), originally envisioned as a Dickens-esque orphan pickpocket, eventually turned into a Wesley Crusher-esque boy genius. In “Doomsday,” we see a bit of the character’s original intent, a companion whose allegiances could easily be swayed and should always be questioned. Dudley’s script doesn’t quite follow through with this plan – Adric is only tempted for one episode, really, and all too quickly changes his mind when the plot needs him to – but such actions would have made more sense had the other serials of the season maintained this course. (Again, Nathan-Turner would revive his ideas, later adding Turlough, the so-called “evil companion,” the following season.)
Only Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa would appear essentially in the same manner as in later episodes. The bright young scientist is as natural a companion for the Doctor here as she is throughout her entire run on the show, the only notable difference being a few brief mentions of her age, where she’s presented here as slightly younger and more girlish than following stories would suggest. Ironically, Nyssa’s smarts contradict Nathan-Turner’s intents to rid the show of “too clever” companions (I never understood that; how could anyone complain that characters are too smart?), as she shares plenty of traits with the Romana character she replaced (in season eighteen).
So that’s how “Doomsday” stacks up against other Fifth Doctor adventures. But how does it stand on its own? Incredibly well, actually. Dudley fills his script with epic notions and terrific characters, presented at such a pace that hides the fact we’re looking at a limited story confined to a few basic sets.
Attempting to return to Heathrow, the Doctor miscalculates and lands the TARDIS on a spaceship heading toward Earth. They meet the frog-man Monarch (Stratford Johns, in a deliciously grand performance) and his peculiar shape-shifting assistants Persuasion (Paul Shelley) and Enlightenment (Annie Lambert). They’ve made several visits to Earth before, picking up humans of cultures now long gone; this time, they’ve come to wipe out humanity and re-colonize the planet with the survivors of their dead home world. Other curiosities include androids in disguise, omnipresent floating spy globes, and a seemingly unending array of Aborigine dance recitals and Greco-Roman wrestling scrimmages (don’t ask).
It’s all fabulous stuff, fueled almost entirely by a sort of intellectual cat-and-mouse between the Doctor and Monarch, whose devious schemes are revealed slowly. He’s a fascinating villain, blind to his own crimes, delighted at the prospect of intelligent debate and discussion. Indeed, “Doomsday” is packed with smart talk; Dudley’s script seems just as eager to ruminate on the mechanics of deep-space, long-time travel as it is to thrill us with cliffhanger danger.
It’s exciting stuff all around – even the effects work and set design are impressive, an admitted rarity for “Doctor Who.” This is sharp storytelling, gripping and challenging and just plain fun. It might be off the mark character-wise in relation to future Davison serials, but it’s also ripping entertainment all around.