THE INVASION OF THE PLAGUE MEN & PLAGUE RATS
'THE VISITATION' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3690) RELEASED IN MAY 2013.
It’s 1666, and medieval England is in the grip of the Great Plague. But when the Doctor and his companions arrive, they discover an even greater threat: the entire planet is in danger.
As the Grim Reaper stalks the countryside, the Doctor uncovers an alien menace intent on wiping out humanity and claiming our planet for themselves. The Terileptils have arrived – and only the Doctor can stop them…
15th february 1982 - 23rd february 1982
There are not that many Doctor Who stories left that I feel are in desperate need of 2 | entertain’s special edition DVD treatment. However, one of those long overdue for an update is The Visitation from Season 19, if only to make apposite use of the DVD producers’ oft-used “Revisitation” billing.
In all seriousness though, even at the time, January 2004’s release of The Visitation seemed thin when compared to those around it, particularly those that had been brought out over the series’ fortieth anniversary year. It boasted only a few special features, none of which had any real depth save for Peter Moffatt’s near-half-hour edition of Directing Who, which was more of an overview piece looking at all his directing work than a Visitation-specific feature. Writing a Final Visitation, in contrast, focused entirely on the instant serial as it saw writer Eric Saward discussing the story’s development, but it ran only a little longer than ten minutes and wasn’t very dynamic, comprising a fairly straightforward interview with the odd illustrative clip thrown in for a bit spice. Much the same could be said of Scoring The Visitation, which was essentially just a 15-minute interview with the story’s composer, Paddy Kingsland. In fact, of all the original special features, the most successful was the commentary track. These days, the commentary is often the least exciting extra on offer, particularly with earlier stories that don’t or can’t attract the most desirable contributors, but this one boasts the story’s entire TARDIS compliment – quite a feat considering that there were four of them – and the director, and Peter Davison at least had really done his homework.
The Visitation’s verdant double-disc edition is now much more exhaustive, complementing the retained bonus material with a substantial, and welcomely innovative, documentary; a tie-in tour of the now-defunct BBC Television Centre; and, best of all, an instalment of Dr Forever! that examines the Doctor’s adventures in the audio medium, the sheer number of which now cast a dominant shadow over even the 33-season strong television series.
Expectedly it was this half-hour treat that proved to be the highlight of the new disc for me, as it recounts the potted history of not just Big Finish Productions’ exponentially-breeding Who ranges, but the off-air recordings of lost episodes put out by the then-BBC Radio Collection, and the subsequent AudioGO productions, which include adaptations of the much-loved Target range of novelisations as well as distinctive original offerings. Central figures such as Gary Russell, Nicholas Briggs and Michael Stevens are all on hand to discuss their pivotal roles in keeping the series alive during its hiatus, and indeed expanding its canvas in a post-revival marketplace, while writers the calibre of Robert Shearman discuss their aural adventures and the influence that they’ve had on the new television series. Even the matter of how one listens to audio drama is broached in a fun little segment; it’s certainly a distracting conundrum that I’d forgotten about since discovering my own walking / running / bathing methods of choice.
Above: Putting sights to sounds as Dr Forever! takes us inside Big Finish Productions
Towards its end, the featurette takes a bleaker turn, however, as the audio writers discuss threats of death and grievous body harm that they’ve received from enraged listeners, utterly shattering my stereotypical vision of the meek anorak of old. The relevance of such miserable subject matter eludes me, as I would have thought that such things are just as applicable to Who in any other medium. The programme’s focus turning to the adverse effects of piracy on Big Finish is much more understandable though, as Big Finish are a relatively modest concern whose survival is constantly threatened by bootleggers. It’s also much more entertaining, as Robert Shearman describes, with his customary dry wit and wry outrage, being presented with copied CDs to sign at conventions!
Grim Tales: Revisiting The Visitation is much brighter in every sense, sustaining itself well over its longer-than-usual running time due to its fresh format. Rather than use the standard (and very effective) documentary form employed by most of the range’s centrepiece features, this time around Turlough actor Mark Strickson takes his future travelling companions (Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding) on a TARDIS tour of The Visitation’s locations, dematerialisation effects and all. As they go in search of the Terileptil ship’s crash site and other key shooting sites, they discuss everything from disco robots to On the Buses-typecasting and tropical fish, with more commonplace clips of Eric Saward and other key players woven in between, whenever appropriate. The programme has all the genial informality of a commentary track, only set amidst flight path greenery instead of television monitors, and with edible action figures for the stars to feast upon instead of sandwiches, marking an interesting departure from standard fare.
The first part of The Television Centre of the Universe runs for around half an hour and is by turns fascinating and frivolous. I’m convinced that erstwhile Blue Peter girl Yvette Fielding was drafted in to host the feature more because it fuels a flurry of “I’ve got the same surname as Janet” gags than because of the well-documented Who / Peter connection, but either way it works splendidly, particularly when Strickson confesses to her that he used to let his smuggled-in dog relieve itself in the Blue Peter Garden. You should see her face – it looks something like mine did when I heard her Ozzie namesake’s anecdote about flashing her tits to half the crew at Peter Davison’s playful behest. But such scatological silliness is punctuated with moments of acute insight into the workings of the now-retired question mark-shaped construction, as the former Who cast wander blithely about it, recalling anxieties and incidents as they go.
The Visitation itself is one of Season 19’s finest stories, second only to the shocking Earthshock in my view. Whilst he can be a divisive fellow, I’m generally very keen on Eric Saward’s heavier-hitting, consequence-driven drama, and although this was probably his most conventional script for the show, it still has enough grit about it to still pass muster today. The sonic screwdriver-wrecking Terileptil leader is a wonderful example of Saward scripting – I love the tragic whiff about him; the idea that he’s from a race in love with beauty, but his own mutilation offends his sense of aesthetics.
More broadly, this story is emblematic of the best pseudo-historical Who in that it takes key events in history – here the bubonic plague and the purging Great Fire of London that repelled it – and puts a science fiction spin on them. The Visitation of the title isn’t just referring to the Black Death’s popular medieval euphemism, but the visitation of the Terileptil ship and, I would argue, the TARDIS travellers too. Not content to rework history to the extent of placing an alien menace behind a zoonotic pandemic, here Saward cheekily subverts The Aztecs’ rulebook, making the Doctor an unwitting component in a fixed point in time, resulting in what probably still stands as the most original day-saving device that we’ve seen in a story set in the audience’s past.
Of course, what really makes The Visitation is its performances, which are in most cases impressive and in all cases memorable. Despite being only Davison’s second adventure to go before the cameras, he’s comfortably into his stride here, and to Saward’s credit his script keeps all three members of the Time Lord’s engorged entourage occupied for the duration of the narrative – and entertainingly so, for the most part. The guest cast dazzle too, with the haunting Michael Melia and hysterical Michael Robbins keeping the balance of the piece level despite its sporadic sojourns into frantic terror and theatrical farce.
And so as special editions go, The Visitation’s revisitation is pretty damned special; so much so that it’s hard for even the most cynical of punters not to hope for future revisitations. Anything to keep the awesome analyses and retrospectives coming for just a little longer...
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