“I’ve never been able to reconcile the Terileptil’s love of art and beauty with their love of war.” – The Doctor
It helps set the atmosphere for this story if you already know that a “visitation” was a commonly used European phrase for a wave of the plague devastating an area. Thus we enter a pseudo-historical tale of disease and rats and the Grim Reaper with an alien origin—a strong story for the Davison era. It starts out with an unusual cold open in which events lead up to a frightened 17th century family lined up to fend off an attack by creatures they don’t even understand—and then a sudden jump to their silent and empty house obviously a good while later. We’re left not knowing what happened or what to expect from the quiet setting. That’s partly the point, however—when the TARDIS crew arrive, we watch them wander through the home throughout the first episode worrying if the attackers we had seen might be waiting for them around the corner. That’s pretty much the pacing of this story–slow moving discovery and explanations—but that feels more natural anyway (not a sudden swoop into danger and action) and much of the appeal of the episode is a chance to show off the period village setting and characters.
Most of the story is fairly straightforward—an alien menace appears in history and seeks to take over the planet through subterfuge. As they plan to release a stronger plague to destroy the population, it’s interesting that the Doctor pointedly gives them an out but their greed for more makes them refuse. There are a few surprises along the way, not the least of which is the sudden destruction of the sonic screwdriver! (As the Doctor says, “I feel as though you’ve just killed an old friend.”) There is also one of those fun Doctor Who moments where we learn that the Doctor actually created an established historical event, we get to see the fire started at the defeat of the Terileptils begin burning down Pudding Lane, the starting point of London’s Great Fire of 1666.
As far as the production, there are a lot of little things that could have been better—I don’t know why 80s Who had to focus so much on big baubles like the control bracelets (which look ridiculous and could have been simple discs on the hand) and why they couldn’t voiceover the Terileptils instead of having them obviously speaking from behind masks. The glam android is also a bit of a mistake. On the other hand, they do a great job at several of the effects like the Doctor going through the brick wall or the crashed escape pod which was done by a simple glass overlay. I also like the decision to make the telepathic communication of the controlled villagers so strained and obviously painful for their untrained mind.
We see many character traits of the new Doctor come to the fore in this story—his high pitched tone when pushed to irritation, his being so nice he can barely pull off being stern. The script also plays up the petty arguments and family-like squabbles amongst all the TARDIS crew at the beginning. I think they do it just so they can make a point of the characters showing their true care for each other instead when they face danger. Overall, I really like Nyssa in this story—she comes across as exceedingly capable and adult, no longer the innocent child she once was. Her technical skill puts her on par with the Doctor (no one else gets to call out his ideas as not being sound) and, instead of getting caught up in emotional responses that lead the others into danger, she doggedly stays on task in the TARDIS and ultimately defeats the most dangerous enemy. She’s even very Doctorish in her reaction to stopping the android, regretting having to destroy such a magnificent creation despite the fact that it had just been trying to kill her.
Richard Mace deserves special mention as a character in this. His presence kind of makes the episode. In watching the commentary, I learned that he was actually created by the same writer for radio (though set in the 19th century at that time), so it’s no wonder he comes across as a fairly robust character here. When we first encounter him he seems to be the consummate gentleman-robber. Though we soon learn he’s not quite a suave as he seems, you can’t help but like him; the actor brings him larger than life and steals the scenes he is in. He gets a ton of memorably verbose and hilariously ironic lines:
“For the last night or two, fortune has made me itinerant.”
“You must be new to the world, sir. Have not you heard there is plague?”
“I fear the gentleman who built this wall knew his trade too well.”
“Oh, I’m dead. I’m afraid my frame was never designed for rapid acceleration”
“Sir, you have a very mean way of exposing a man’s cowardice.”
“Shush, shush, sir! Thievery is a matter of stealth, not hearty greetings!”
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
As the Terileptil burns in the fire moaning in pain, the costume itself bubbles and melts in the heat before our eyes. I am not sure if it was intentional but it looks like a horrific death for the creature. In terms of the danger of the story, I like how you can feel the Doctor’s frustration at being stuck with two companions knocked out and almost dying as he scrambles across the floor between the two of them, slapping the ground in anger as he realizes he must run away and leave them. It’s a rare instance of the Doctor feeling totally out of ideas and out of control of the situation.
The vials of the enhanced plague are destroyed in the fire but what about the rats left behind in the prison room at the manor? Was there almost a new plague let loose by them? On a different note, why does the Doctor say “Not again” when his head is about to be cut off? It seems to imply he’s had it happen before!
They really missed a trick by not showing the android in its Grim Reaper form at its first appearance in the household. Not only would it have been a shock for the characters, but it would have been an interesting surprise and confusion for us as the audience as well. Unfortunately, we instead get a full view of the bizarre glam design of the android instead which unfortunately adds a bit of unwanted absurdity to the otherwise tense scene.
It’s not so critical but I don’t like the use of the synthesizer for the medieval scenes. Classical instruments would have sound much better. It also irks me that they have Tegan going on about getting back to Heathrow in order to return to normal, seemingly forgetting she’s going back to the day her Aunt Vanessa died and all the fall out of that.