Although Antony Root was only attached to the Doctor Who production office for a few months as a temporary script editor, he made one important decision that would shape the course of the series for several years to come.
One of the scripts Root worked on was The Visitation, by a writer new to Doctor Who – Eric Saward. Root was impressed with the script and when John Nathan-Turner asked him if had any ideas about who would be a good permanent script editor, Root suggested Saward.
Eventually the JNT/Saward partnership would implode in spectacular fashion when Saward quit the series in 1986 (during production of The Trial of a Time Lord) taking his script for the final episode with him. I’m sure we’ll come back to the troubles between the two of them in future posts, but for now let’s take a look at Saward’s debut script.
By his own admission, he hadn’t followed the series very closely for some years, so The Visitation does feel like a little bit of a throwback to a previous era. It bears some resemblance to the likes of The Time Warrior and The Masque of Mandragora, both of which featured aliens interfering in Earth’s history. The Time Warrior is the closest fit, since that story was also concerned with a stranded alien using human labour to achieve his goals.
I’ve previously touched upon the difficulties in writing for three companions. So far this season, Castrovalva put Adric In the background and Nyssa only made a token appearance in Kinda. All four regulars appear throughout The Visitation and after the opening sequence Saward only features two other main speaking parts (Richard Mace and the Terileptil leader) which does help matters.
But even this doesn’t hide the fact that Adric is very much surplus to requirements. After escaping from the Manor House in episode three, he spends part of the episode hanging around the TARDIS with Nyssa before deciding to go and look for the Doctor. He quickly gets captured by the villagers and is taken away (very slowly it has to be said). Eventually he escapes and makes his way back to the TARDIS. Therefore in the course of an episode or so, he’s done very little of consequence. But a solution to the overcrowded TARDIS was just around the corner.
Nyssa’s sub-plot (building a device to destroy the Terileptil’s android) isn’t terribly interesting but it does give her something to do. That leaves Tegan, who is closest to the action during the story. But it’s clear that Saward is most interested in his own creation, Richard Mace,
It’s a feature of Saward’s scripts that they often feature characters (such as Lytton or Orcini) that you sometimes feel he would be happier writing about, without that pesky Doctor always getting in the way. Richard Mace is the first example of this, as he gets many of the best lines. And like Kinda, Peter Davison benefits by linking up with a guest actor for a good part of the story (Nerys Hughes in Kinda and Michael Robbins here).
If the majority of the story is quite traditional, with few surprises, then the opening is a little different. We’re introduced to the inhabitants of the Manor House, who we assume will feature in the story, but after this scene we never see them again and their fate is only confirmed during episode three. They’ve been disposed of by the Terileptil leader (played by Michael Melia).
Given the heavy mask, Melia’s performance isn’t particularly subtle and it’s a shame that his voice wasn’t treated – since he sounds like a man speaking through a heavy mask. But although the design of the costume is a little crude, it does have some nice animatronic touches, such as an impressive curling lip.
The Terileptil’s plan to wipe out all of humanity does recall Tom’s line from Terror of the Zygons when he queries whether the Earth isn’t just a bit too big for only six Zygons (and there’s only three Terileptils!).
Overall then, The Visitation is a good story with a strong guest performance by Michael Robbins. If it feels a little insubstantial then that’s probably due to the small number of main characters. The villagers never tend to say much apart from “kill the strangers” which means that we don’t have a great deal of perspective about the world outside the Manor House. But it’s a decent enough story midway through a solid season.