The Visitation might easily have the most highly-regarded story of Doctor Who’s Nineteenth Season but for the story that would follow it three weeks later. At the time, any badly-read eleven-year-old could tell you that while the first three stories of the season had been intriguing and strange, they didn’t really match up to the kind of Doctor Who he was pining for (thanks to Doctor Who Monthly and Target books).
Ask that eleven-year-old now that he’s forty-two, having read and seen and felt a thing or two, he’d tell you that Castrovalva, Four To Doomsday and Kinda are all wonderful in their own way and signal a renaissance in Doctor Who’s imaginative fortunes, a particularly invigorating one thanks to the arrival of brand new Doctor, Peter Davison. But at the time (February 1982), it was The Visitation that thrilled the long-term fan by taking Doctor Who back into our past for the first time in over four years – to the plague year of 1666, no less – and pitting the Doctor against proper rubber-suited monsters (the Terileptils); and, what’s more, they were animatronic for the first ever time.The Visitation is a solid and confident adventure in history, with a beautiful muted green colour palette and an extraordinarily small guest cast. Well, with four regulars to write for, this is no bad thing.
And while Janet Fielding does her usually brilliant job as Tegan, alongside Matthew Waterhouse’s equally solid Adric (I’ve no idea why you hate him – did someone tell you that you were supposed to, or were you just jealous at the time?), it is Peter Davison that is, as always, utterly sublime as the Doctor. He might even be the best Doctor after Hartnell. What’s that, you say? I omitted Sarah Sutton? Well, look; Nyssa is lovely and all that – and Davison’s always bigging her up and saying how she’s much the best companion for his Doctor – but really she’s actually rather dull. Not that Sarah Sutton doesn’t always give a reasonable performance, it’s just that she’s just a bit, well, flat. Given that she went to drama school and the ever inventive Waterhouse didn’t, why are we always sticking the boot into Adric? I’m sure you’ll tell me.
[pullquote align="right"]If you haven’t seen The Visitation before though, you’ll really enjoy this lovely and elegant bit of Doctor Who.[/pullquote] Of the guest cast, Corrie’s Fred Elliot (John Savident before he made a household name for himself) gets a lovely part in the tense and scary prologue, while former/future EastEnder Michael Melia plays the rubber-covered fish/lizard villain with utter relish and exquisite diction. But companion-of-the-week/month Richard Mace – thespian, highwayman, raconteur and discretionary coward – steals every scene he’s in. With his fruity voice and utter confusion/fascination at the events he has become embroiled in, he really is one of the best characters to turn up in any Doctor Who story.
That Michael Robbins was immediately identifiable at the time of broadcast as a balding, middle-aged comic character from a notoriously ‘dodgy’ but popular sitcom (On the Buses) must have made suspension of disbelief somewhat difficult for some viewers. I wonder now, though, with that context long gone, just what new viewers would make of him. He makes the story. He’s utterly bloody wonderful, in fact. The Doctor should have dumped the others in 1666 and taken Mace with him.
If you know the story of The Visitation then you know how it all pans out and I’m not going to spoil it here for anyone who doesn’t know. At the time, the conceit – once revealed – was very thrilling. For four episodes we were treated to a tale of atmosphere and dread. Oh, and disco robots and music from the BBC Tudorphonic Workshoppe (okay, so Tudor’s wrong, but you get my drift). It was a deliciously well-written script from newcomer and future/current (it’s complicated) script editor Eric Saward, who would later be famous for bringing blood and guts and mayhem to the series that culminated in the sadistic festivities of Colin Baker’s inaugural season. And that’s the thing about The Visitation. It was amazing at the time – and it’s still amazing – it’s just that three weeks after it finished, its writer rocked up again with a little number called Earthshock and that changed the course of Doctor Who for the next five years, both in tone and what it was actually talking about.
In a way, The Visitation was exactly the kind of Doctor Who that the aforementioned eleven-year-old had wanted to see, but then so was Earthshock, and because that later story had its tongue firmly down the throat of the series’ past, it became the story we would always remember (alongside Kinda when we got older and more pretentious), so The Visitation had to slink back into the shadows wondering why no one was talking about it anymore. Some 30 years on, we look back at this gem of a story and we see it wedged somewhere between two ‘classics’ of very different colours (Kinda, you might have guessed being the other) and it looks a bit dowdy and traditional. But at the time, Doctor Who hadn’t been quite so traditional for a while. In many ways it was ‘proper’ Doctor Who come back at last. So don’t overlook it. Give it another go and enjoy its utter Who-ness. If you’re one of those nutters that’s watching the series in order, you’ll love it.
The Visitation returns to DVD on May 6th. I say ‘returns’ because you probably already bought it in 2004. This is, of course, yet another Special Edition of a DVD that’s already out and as I’ve recently complained about that cynical bit of capitalist methodology in my The Aztecs review, I won’t bother going on about it here.
All the special features you had on your old disc are present on Disc 1: five minutes of film trims; interviews with director Peter Moffatt, writer Eric Saward and composer Paddy Kingsland; picture gallery; isolated score and a commentary from all the regulars. Of course, the new release has also been cleaned up and does look rather lovely.
The Visitation: Special Edition Extras
In terms of new special features, Disc 2 has three fairly worthwhile features you won’t find anywhere else. One of these is a seemingly out of place feature about Big Finish’s work in keeping Doctor Who alive over the years. At only 27 minutes it’s a bit brief, and the most notable thing about it is how old Nicholas Briggs suddenly looks.
Then there’s a Doctor Who-related tour and retrospective of BBC TV Centre. Here, Blue Peter’s Yvette Fielding is joined by her namesake, Janet, Peter Davison and Mark Strickson for a just about interesting trip down memory lane. Well, as far back as 1983. It really shouldn’t warrant more than half an hour, but this is only Part One… It is notable, however, for Yvette’s creepy hogging of the leading man and seemingly deliberate side-lining of The Actress Formerly Known As Tegan. Oh, and for how tiny Mark Strickson’s arms look. Most relevant to this release is a 45 minute documentary that returns the cast of The Visitation to its filming locations. Well, by ‘its cast’ I mean Davison, Fielding, Sutton and… Strickson. Not a sign of the Blue Box Boy anywhere.
Maybe he declined, maybe he was unavailable. I suspect they probably never even asked, so eager are they to stick the boot in, yet again, at the runt of the litter just because he was naïve, foolish and, for god’s sake, having a bloody good go and doing better than ought to be expected [DWM reports that Matthew Waterhouse was unavailable - Ed]. Intriguingly, throughout this one, the Mouth On Legs barely speaks at all, and I do wonder if Davison’s reference to Rolf Harris will have been cut by the time you get to see it.
If you already have this, please don’t lose any sleep about not having seen the new material; although I know some of you completists will fall for it. If you haven’t seen The Visitation before though, then go for it. You’ll really enjoy this lovely and elegant bit of Doctor Who.
Released on Monday, May 6th, The Visitation: Special Edition can be ordered now from Amazon for just £14.00.