Four to Doomsday
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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t’s mere coincidence, and yet seemingly noteworthy, that “Four to Doomsday” should be released on DVD just days after the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor (Matt Smith, who’ll take over from David Tennant in 2010) has been unveiled to the public, since before Smith, Peter Davison held the “youngest actor ever to play the Doctor” spot. While “Doomsday” wasn’t actually Davison’s debut, it was the first story he filmed, and therefore it could offer us some insight into what we might expect from Smith in his first outing. But what’s perhaps an even more interesting parallel is that following David Tennant today is probably not that far removed from following Tom Baker back in the early ‘80s. How do you follow an actor who has so thoroughly embedded himself into the public consciousness that he’s thought of by many as irreplaceable? By pulling a Roger Moore, that’s how; by doing your own thing, and putting your special stamp on it without thinking too hard about the slippery slope you’ve signed on to navigate.
Even if “Four to Doomsday” hadn’t been the first story Davison shot, it still might be considered his debut, since the Doctor spent most of his freshman outing, “Castrovalva,” in various states of post-regenerative disorder. It was our first real look into what Davison was going to do with the Doctor, and it’s something of a shame it isn’t a stronger story for the central character. That isn’t to say it’s weak, but rather that the character aspects of the tale are spread out pretty evenly over the four regulars. At this point in the series, the TARDIS was a crowded box, since the Doctor was traveling with three companions: Tegan (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). Unlike most of Davison’s first season, all of the regulars here are well drawn, with each character being given an arc of sorts throughout the four-episode tale. Of course the downside of this is that the Doctor himself isn’t allowed to be front and center, which may be exactly why this approach was quickly abandoned, and the companion character development eventually turned into stuff like “Adric spends the entire story eating” in “Black Orchid.”
But onto the story of “Four to Doomsday” itself, which is often rather convoluted, so I’ll try to describe it in a simplistic way that makes some sense, and leave you to ponder the finer details upon your own viewing. The TARDIS arrives on a massive spaceship, where the time travelers encounter Monarch (Stratford Johns), a froglike creature from Urbanka, who fancies himself to be somewhere between genius and God. Monarch and his lackeys, Persuasion (Paul Shelley) and Enlightenment (Annie Lambert), at first appear to be benevolent, civilized creatures devoted to exploration and the gathering of information, but as is usually the case in such situations, they have ulterior motives. Also on board the ship are numerous groups of people from various times in Earth history: Ancient Greeks, Chinese Mandarins, Mayans, and Aborigines. Why has Monarch collected these specimens, and what is his ultimate plan? Each member of the TARDIS crew has distinct reactions to the situation, ranging from Tegan’s “let’s get the hell out of here” attitude, to Adric’s admiration for Monarch and his intelligence. To say much more would be to ruin any surprises the story has in store – provided you feel there’s anything surprising going on at all.
The real problem with “Four to Doomsday” is that it unfolds at a snail’s pace and by no means lives up to its title, which makes it sound like an action-packed spectacle. When developments do occur, you’re often left wondering if you should be shocked by the happenings, or if the boredom you’re feeling is the real truth. Paradoxically, it isn’t an intrinsically bad story, since it’s got so many layers and peculiar twists and turns. There’s something almost daring about this piece of science fiction provided you look deep enough, and realize it’s all just so far fucking out there, that only on “Doctor Who” would you ever see something this bizarre. Is it a major misfire or a minor masterpiece? I cannot say for sure, but it’ll no doubt leave you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” as it comes to a close. As for Davison’s performance? Well, he certainly seems assured in his first outing as the Doctor, which in and of itself was a sign of greatness to come, since on paper the entire affair would’ve baffled any actor.
Special Features: A commentary with all four of the regulars as well as director John Black is an interesting change of pace for a Davison-era track. For the first time I can recall, Janet Fielding isn’t negative toward the goings-on and in fact praises the set design repeatedly. Indeed, everyone involved seems to really appreciate this story, for various reasons, which is worth taking into account after reading my review. There’s also a 27-minute piece of studio recording from Davison’s first day on set that will appeal to only the most hardcore fan, a 14-minute interview with Davison from “Saturday Night at the Mill,” and a theme music video. The usual photo gallery, productions notes option and Radio Times listings round out the features.