If you’re a Doctor Who fan who’s at least reasonably familiar with the original “classic” series, you probably recognize this serial.
It’s “The Caves of Androzani,” the best Doctor Who story ever according to the results of the 2009 Doctor Who Magazine poll where they asked readers to rank every Doctor Who story that had aired up to that point. It’s also the first Doctor Who story I remember seeing, way back in late 1984, or maybe early 1985.
That’s not to say that it’s the first Doctor Who story I’d ever seen. I couldn’t tell you which was my first; Doctor Who was something my parents watched regularly on the PBS station the cable company carried, one of the OETA (Oklahoma Educational Television Authority) stations out of Oklahoma. I believe it was KOED, out of Tulsa. From what I’ve read, OETA began airing Doctor Who with Tom Baker’s first three seasons back in 1978. Sometime in the early 1980s my parents became hooked on the show and, despite the fact that Peter Davison’s less mad, more approachable version of the title character never clicked with them, continued to watch it through his tenure.
That tenure comes to a close with “The Caves of Androzani,” a four-part story that sees the Doctor stumble into a local conflict between a wronged scientist, driven mad by his injuries and years of solitude, and a whipped government serving the interests of a powerful, amoral businessman. A chance encounter with a toxic substance adds a ticking clock to the Doctor and his friend Peri’s involvement; once they’re told it’s fatal it becomes imperative that they disentangle themselves from the conflict to get their hands on a cure.
Unfortunately for the weakened Doctor, as he fumbles for his TARDIS key he drops one of the two vials of the cure that he procured. He barely manages to get an unconscious Peri into the TARDIS, get the ship in flight, and administer the cure to his companion before collapsing himself.
This is the part I remember seeing. The Doctor collapses. He sees visions of his past companions, offering him encouragement. Then his arch-nemesis, the Master, appears, urging him to die. “Die, Doctor. DIE, DOCTOR. DIE!”
And yet, when the visions break, he sits up. Or rather, a man wearing his clothes does.
The curly-haired man in the Doctor’s clothes takes in a deep breath and smiles. After a stammering start, which the new man so rudely mocks, Peri asks what’s happened.
“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”
I had previously known that somehow both Tom Baker and Peter Davison were the Doctor, despite the fact that they didn’t look or act anything alike. I didn’t know how this worked, but I knew this was the case. Now here was a third man, and on top of that now I knew how this worked. And despite the fact that he was so sharp-tongued, at least at this early point that made him interesting. I was intrigued.
Then, on top of this mind-blowing moment on the TV screen, my parents did something equally mind-blowing. After the credits rolled, they ran it back and let me watch that mind-blowing sequence again. This was when I was first introduced to the VCR and its miraculous powers. Unbeknownst to me, they’d taped this whole thing, and we’d be able to watch this again whenever we wanted.
Alas, I never got to see any more of that curly-haired man; after “The Caves of Androzani,” OETA began running old Jon Pertwee episodes. Six months or so later, the cable company would switch out OETA in favor of KOZK, a PBS station out of Springfield, MO, which didn’t run Doctor Who. Aside from catching the occasional article in Starlog, the show went out of sight, out of mind.
A little over a decade later, 1996 to be exact, my interest in Doctor Who was revived by the Fox TV movie starting Paul McGann. I thought back to that day and rummaged through my parents’ off-air VHS recordings. To my delight, I found not only “The Caves of Androzani,” but several other episodes they’d taped before and after: “The Deadly Assassin,” “City of Death,” “The Five Doctors,” and “The Three Doctors.” I want to say there may have been one more, but honestly, those would have been enough: two of Tom Baker’s all-time classics and the two anniversary multi-Doctor stories that the classic show did. Add to those the best Doctor Who story Peter Davison was ever a part of, and you’ve got enough to fuel to hook a fan for life. The miracle of modern technology that a boy of three or four witnessed in the early 1980s provided his fifteen year old self with the seeds of one more obsession, one that wouldn’t truly take hold for some time to come …
… but when it did, boy, that thing grabbed me, dragged me to the edge of the cosmos at the end of time, then threw me back to the center of the big bang. And it probably wouldn’t have if not for that still-strong memory of a moment replayed.
“Change, my dear …”