Monday, March 8, 2010

6R1 - The Caves of Androzani 1

The Caves of Androzani has had so many accolades heaped upon it in the 26 years since its original broadcast that it is easy to assume that it isn't even part of the same programme as any other Doctor Who story ever made. But the best way to watch Androzani is to do what I've done and watch every episode leading up to it, because only then do you realize how out of left field this story comes.

Let's get this out of the way right now - the reason Androzani is so shockingly bold and different than anything that came before it can almost single-handedly be credited to director Graeme Harper. I had the honour of interviewing Harper at Gallifrey 21 and I can tell you (and you can hear for yourself on RFS #187) that the same energy that invaded the set in early 1984 is still alive and very much present in the man today. It will be tough to not use this phrase on repeated occasions but I will anyway - Episode One of Androzani is chock full of pace and energy.

Even the slow scenes hum along with an intensity only hinted at in previous stories. The scene between The Doctor and Peri waiting for the execution squad is remarkable. Any lesser director would have shot this scene as normal - Peri sitting on a bunk talking to The Doctor across the room. She may be sounding worried, as is The Doctor, but they don't look it. Harper does it differently. Peri's curled up on the floor, wracked with fear, with Nicola Bryant essentially whispering her lines into her knee. There is real danger in this scene because everyone is underplaying the tension. The looming inevitability of the execution and the characters' reaction to it gives this scene all the push it needs.

After this, there is a gorgeous montage of shots of a mysterious masked man strutting around his underground lair, moving unseen cameras into position, ordering troops to silently counter General Chellak. It's told in a series of short shots, almost all made with handheld cameras, and all dissolving from one to another. The director's handbook states that one should use dissolves to indicate passage of time. Harper goes for the opposite effect - the dissolves speed events up. Even though nothing onscreen is moving at a cracking pace, everything that is happening is almost too fast to keep up with. At the end of this (underscored by a haunting musical suite from Roger Limb), the action cuts back to The Doctor and Peri, behind whom a mysterious figure steps out, blacking out the scene, which then jump cuts to a harsh orange wall and Morgus passing a vial of spectrox to the President. The whole sequence is so remarkably crafted that it doesn't just burgeon on art. It is art.

And then the cliffhanger, which is so terrifyingly real that it still sends chills down my spine to this day. Look at The Doctor and Peri. They're no boisterous, nor are they ranting in a wanton attempt to try and stay the execution. They are two people who have quickly come to the realization that this is the end for them, and that no one can save them now. Even The Doctor barely whispers his final declaration of injustice loud enough for Chellak to hear it. There's no point to do anymore. Nothing will change what's about to happen. What really drives the effectiveness of the execution scene over the cliff is the use of machine guns by the guards. Machine guns don't have a stun setting. We see the troops line up, take aim, and fire multiple rounds directly at The Doctor and Peri as the credits crash in. How on Earth could they possibly get out of this?

25 minutes of landmark television, with much, much more to come.


Robert Konigsberg said...

Your writeup catches all the great things I also noticed about this episode; the dissolves, the tension, the music. The firing squad at the end of episode 1 is probably an unintentional nod to the end of The War Games Episode 1, but it's a better nod than the one at the end of Warriors of the Deep.

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