“Greed, heedless of caution, lures many a man to his death” – Sharaz Jek
This one is considered by many to be Peter Davison’s best and a top DW episode over all and I cannot entirely figure out why. For me, the story is fairly average, has some bad characterization, and there are misfires on effects and costumes that have to be overlooked throughout. Why such love for this episode? It may be that it fit well within the popular 80s theme of corporate greed or that Peter Davison does give a strong performance (especially in the crash scene) or simply rose-colored glasses at the Fifth Doctor’s sacrifice and final episode. Of course, it is Robert Holmes so there is some nice writing and a flow to the story at least. The fourth episode is particularly exciting and well-paced as events all come together, so it does leave a good impression by the end.
The story opens with some horrible voice over and odd banter between the Doctor and Peri. She sounds whiny and he sounds exasperated. The run around with the mercenaries and army is okay but I find the switch to the Doctor and Peri being androids at the end is a bit of cheat. It introduces the character of Morgus whom I find rather cartoonish. I absolutely hate his monotone delivery of his lines (and as he returns to a more normal manner of speech at the very end it shows that it’s an acting choice not a bad actor). Holmes does get to revisit a common theme in his work about corporate manipulation of the masses (“The irony is while you’ve been closing plants here in the west, you’ve been building them in the east. So if the unemployed were sent to the eastern labour camps, a great many of them would be working for you again, only this time without payment.”) It’s hardly a surprise that it is quite satisfying when Morgus gets his comeuppance by his abused secretary taking over at the end.
Sharaz Jek is also a bit of a stereotype in the vein of Phantom of the Opera but he is much more interesting as a character for how well his fits of madness are acted. There is quite a scary intensity in his explanation of his hatred for Morgus to the Doctor (“I want the head of that perfidious, treacherous degenerate brought to me here, congealed in its own evil blood!”) Yet we feel pity for him as he scampers away whimpering when Peri reacts to his disfigured face. Of course he also oozes creepiness at the beginning as he lusts over Peri and fondles her hair while talking about them being together forever. (I like how the Doctor pointedly steps between them to defend her without saying a word.) It’s also quite interesting how his death is sidelined in a flurry of other activity and yet still remains poignantly dramatic as he falls into the arms of his beloved android creation.
The Doctor does quite well in this story, especially as he gets overwrought and his exasperation sets in (“I am telling the truth. I keep telling the truth. Why is it no one believes me?!”) The crash scene and his interaction with Stotz offers a great example of the Doctor being pushed to the edge and is often highlighted as Peter Davison shining in his role .There are also some fun Doctor/Peri moments: “When was that?” “I don’t remember. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the future.” “You’re a very confusing person to be with, Doctor, you know that?” I have to assume the Doctor’s had a bit more interaction with Peri prior to this story for them both to care for each other so much. His drive to save his companion (and eventual sacrifice for her) are of course remembered as quite significant to his character and a big part of the story. (“Is this death?”)
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The story gets a bit dark at times in very surprising ways. It’s almost disturbing how undramatic the death of Salateen is after it seemed he’d been building up to play a major role in the battle. He’s shot down with the group in mid-sentence and we simply move on. Probably the darkest moment, however, comes when Stotz seems to walk away from his companion mercenaries with a begrudging respect and then we see him suddenly walk back around the corner and coldly mow them down.
There are several little irritations to me in this story, most of them related to Morgus’s character. One other big one is why a toxin strong enough to kill a Time Lord with just a bit on the hand does not kill a human covered in it much more quickly. Also, I think I’m especially offended that people will derisively denigrate bad costumes in some of my favorites stories and yet will look past the entirely laughable magma creature here!