classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Castrovalva”

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: Tom Baker: “Logopolis”)
It’s odd now to go back to look at “Castrovalva” again and realize that so much of what looms in my memory about this story is confined to the final two episodes (of four in all). I remember trippy mindgames about “recursive occlusions” and space folding in on itself like M.C. Escher drawings and dusty books that are 500 years old yet chronicle history up to the present day and — perhaps the most mindblowing to me back then as a teenager — was an exchange, between the Doctor and the Castrovalvan librarian, Shardovan. The town of Castrovalva (named after an Escher drawing that is explicitly reference in the visuals) is a mess, dimensionally — it could well be named Moebius — and the Doctor is trying to explain. “There is something amiss with Castrovalva,” he says at one point to several townsfolk, “but because your perception is part of it, you cannot see it.” And then, to Shardovan, who had already expressed doubts that something indeed was wrong and seems to be grasping it at last:

But you do see it, the spatial anomaly? –the Doctor

With my eyes, no, but in my philosophy… –Shardovan

That was heady stuff to the intellectually disaffected teenager I was, who felt like the world wasn’t quite right but couldn’t quite put my finger on where it was wrong. And it still speaks to me today, as an intellectually disaffected adult who has a whole lot of ideas about where the world is wrong, but also as an example of how sophisticated Doctor Who could be, even as a children’s show, planting little think bombs in among the cheesy monsters and corridor-running.

For the first time ever in the series history, too, we see Time Lord regeneration as a more complex process than we had before, and as one that can be as discomforting to the Time Lord as it is to the non-Gallifreyans around him, even if Tegan and Nyssa do take the Doctor’s regeneration extremely well. (I have a lot to say about the notion of the Watcher as a projection of the Doctor’s future incarnation, but I’ll deal with that when I blog about “Logopolis,” in which the Watcher figures prominently.) This is one of the rare episodes of classic Who that is actually about the Doctor, at least in part, in the way that New Who is all the time. Regeneration had been relatively stress free for the new Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker Doctors, but here, Peter Davison’s new Doctor is confused about who he is — down to, at some moments, forgetting who he is. He shuffles through old personalities — which means we get to glimpse Davison’s impressions of his childhood Doctors, William Hartnell’s and Patrick Troughton’s — before beginning to settle into what he will be, with the discovery of a cricket bat and the acquisition of the cricketing gear: casual, athletic, open and honest and less mysterious, in some ways, than his predecessors. Or, at least, after the strange alien brain attack that this regeneration induces, he rarely comes across as mysterious: whatever is alien about this Doctor would remain mostly inside and out of our view.

And here, in “Castrovalva,” he’s as lost as we ever see the Doctor, letting himself get literally pushed around by the Castrovalvan hunting party, unable to remember which companion he’s lost, leaving Nyssa and Tegan easily able to keep the secret of Adric’s disappearance from him. (And I like to think, retconning everything to fit into my theory that Time Lords always recognize other Time Lords psychically, that the reason the Doctor doesn’t recognize the Master is because his brain is still healing.) We had rarely seen the Doctor this vulnerable before… maybe not ever, up till that point.

Also new here: most of the first two episodes are confined to the TARDIS, which we don’t see much of at all on New Who, and rarely even this much of in classic Who. It’s too bad, then, that most of what we do see isn’t very interesting:

Wait: Why is there a cricket clubhouse on the TARDIS again? Did some team of researching Time Lords investigate Earth sports, back in the days before the Doctor stole this old Type 40?

This is interesting, however:

I can’t remember if we ever saw, in the Tom Baker era or earlier, stuff behind the rondels. I think not — I think this is the first time that notion was broached. But I’ll be keeping an eye out as I rewatch classic Who.

But then a quarter of the TARDIS gets jettisoned so they can escape from the hydrogen inrush! I’ve always found that disconcerting, too, that this place of refuge could get so radically transformed. Now, with new Who, it’s become a given — certainly with how the TARDIS regenerated itself in “The Eleventh Hour” — but it wasn’t a given back then.

I find myself now wondering more about how the Master and Adric created Castrovalva and its people in the first place. Are even the people merely constructs of block transfer computations? The Doctor seems to think that Mergrave would be able to escape Castrovalva with him and the companions… and perhaps the town itself would have survived if not for the local spacetime collapsing in upon itself? And why does that happen, anyway? Did Adric screw up the equations? Did the Master screw it up by screwing around with Adric’s equations? And who supplied all the imagination to create this place and these people? The Castrovalvans seem a pleasant bunch at first, gently ribbing each other (“If we could cook your memories, Rutha, we should feast indeed”), which seems more like something Adric might invent… but the women are all but voiceless, and the men treat them like children, which seems more like a Master thing.

Ah, the Master. He’s always such an anomaly himself. Here, he talks about plans against the Doctor needing to mature, but clearly, there is no plan except to kill the Doctor. So why doesn’t he just do that the moment the Doctor arrives in Castrovalva? Why all the pretense about being the Portreve? Does the Master just enjoy drawing it out? And what does he mean by this:

If escape were that easy, Adric, we could all be free of this nasty world.

So why doesn’t the Master just kill himself?

These are rhetorical questions, of course. The Master is insane. There don’t have to be reasons for what he does, or doesn’t do.

Random thoughts on “Castrovalva”:

• It suddenly struck me, after umpteen viewings of this episode, that Adric is lucky to have escaped from the Pharos Project security guards (even if it meant landing in the Master’s grubby paws). Because between his outlandish getup and his ramblings about how he’s an alien from E-Space, he would have ended up in a mental hospital, not prison, and that wouldn’t have been pleasant at all.

Not that this is pleasant:

The Master really is one twisted puppy, ain’t he?

• The moment when the Doctor first sees his new face:

Oh, the horror! And the hair:

I rather like the new look myself…

• The brainy specs make an almost immediate appearance upon the Doctor’s regeneration:

I wouldn’t have thought he’d be that concerned with hoping Tegan and Nyssa would think he’s brainy, though.

• And the beginning of the end of the sonic screwdriver:

It will be destroyed three stories later in “Visitation,” and won’t appear again till New Who.

• Celery!

“Definitely civilization,” the Doctor notes, as indicated by the presence of celery. Which is perhaps a hint — if we want to indulge in reconning — that the Master did contribute at least in some small part to the creation of Castrovalva, that it didn’t come entirely from Adric’s imagination. Because now we know that celery does hold significance for Gallifreyans, and Adric likely wouldn’t have know about the vegetable at all, since he’s from an entirely different frakkin’ universe, where all they seemed to have to eat was riverfruit…

• The 80s were simply endlessly awful when it came to FX:

Not that we realized that at the time. Or did we? I can’t remember. My memories of Doctor Who are mostly of the characters and the stories, and only the really, really egregiously cheap-looking monsters and very, very wobbly sets stand out when I think back.

• Here’s one of those things, though, that can only have been a joke among the designers, for this episode was produced in 1981 (and aired in early 1982), which is before even VHS had really caught on. So they couldn’t have known that people would be freeze-framing one day:

Some of this gets read out loud, but not the stuff about “the creation of so-called life-forms” or “adherents of Scientific Mythology.” Whoever created this screen was a Douglas Adams fan, methinks.

• If it’s really so uncomfortably hot, what with the TARDIS barrelling toward the hydrogen inrush and all:

why doesn’t Nyssa take off at least some of the fur and the velvet? Sheesh. For a smart girl, she’s pretty dumb sometimes.

• Oh, okay, can we talk about dumb girls?

The shoes are stupid. They know they’re going to be carrying the zero cabinet and 80 kilos worth of unconscious Time Lord (who seems to be having trouble keeping his promise to levitate) through a freakin’ forest, and they don’t change into, like, jeans and sneakers?


(Of course, later in this story, Nyssa does slowly shed the heavy jacket and the crown, which get left on Castrovalva; the fairy skirt is presumably still in the TARDIS wardrobe…)

• Great quotes:

“I suppose it’s some sort of neutral environment, an isolated space cut off from the rest of the universe.” –Nyssa, about the Zero Room
“He should have told me that’s what he wanted. I could have shown him Brisbane.” –Tegan

“That’s the trouble with regeneration: you never quite know what you’re going to get.” –the Doctor, upon seeing his new self for the first time

“He says he doesn’t know who he is, or why he has come.” –Castrovalvan, about the Doctor
“Oh, I admire a man with an open mind. My own is closed upon the opinion that I am Shardovan.” –Shardovan

“More strangers have arrived. They scaled the walls!” –Mergrave
“A new sport to replace hunting! Where are these supermen?” –Shardovan (the “supermen” are Nyssa and Tegan, of course)

“The books are old, but they chronicle the rise of Castrovalva up to the present day.” –Shardovan

(next: “Four to Doomsday”)

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Sun, Jun 06, 2010 2:04pm

Shall re-watch Castrovalva tonight.Thanks for giving me the excuse for wallowing in my childhood.
Not sure exactly how a Time Lord would commit suicide.In a mortal species it is the final act but a Time Lord presumably would just regenerate.Would The Master even have such a concept of finality? I think The Master and The Doctor,especially in classic series,are playing a game with each other since they both know that the other’s ‘death’ won’t be permanent.
Yeah,remember the FX as awful even back then.While George Lucas was expanding the possibilities of the form the BBC were exploring the possibilities of the BBC Micro as a design tool.(They were de rigeur in all the best schools in the mid-eighties so it looks like the advertising worked.)

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 3:42pm

Regarding the special effects issue… they digitally remastered classic Trek and upgraded a lot of the effects. They ought to consider doing the same for classic Who episodes, especially considering some of the really hideous fx jobs they’d done in the 80s… and the 70s… and the 60s…

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 3:58pm

Things to ponder about Castrovalva:

1) the reason for the Master’s elaborate trap and not killing the Doctor as soon as he showed up? Part of me considered that the Master wanted the Doctor fully regenerated for some purpose, needing him fully healed… I figured it had to do with the device that he had Adric trapped in, that he was going to trade up to the Doctor’s more powerful brain to control the Master’s new-found power to build his own reality. After all, Adric’s computations in creating Castrovalva was collapsing on itself: the Doctor’s mind could have constructed more reliable worlds…

2) Baker to Davidson was the first regeneration I personally witnessed: by then I had read about the earlier Doctors and understood what it meant. CHEAP LABOR! Screw contract renegotiations!

3) Shardovan to me remains one of the best minor characters in Who history: a creation of an unreality that was able to perceive the wrongness of his world – via the fact his “accurate” history books were fake – and openly rebelled against it, first by mocking the ‘traditions’ his fellow Castrovalvans celebrated and then with his heroic sacrifice to stop his own Creator. The Master made one of his puppets too smart…

4) This is perhaps one of the few episodes in which Adric wasn’t a total Wesley.

5) For some reason, the Companion Count of 3 seemed to work here: Tegan, Nyssa and Adric made for good company… well except whenever Adric carried the Idiot Ball… which was pretty much every other episode… And I still think there was something going on between Doc and Tegan. ;-)

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 5:46pm

bad sfx is part of the charm

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 7:38pm

The thing that really threw me was Davison’s emphatic unraveling of the scarf; at first I was upset, then i remembered it wasn’t the colorful one, but the somber maroon one.

Tonio Kruger
Sun, Jun 06, 2010 8:01pm

I wouldn’t have thought he’d be that concerned with hoping Tegan and Nyssa would think he’s brainy, though.

Perhaps he was trying to impress Adric…

…why doesn’t Nyssa take off at least some of the fur and the velvet? Sheesh. For a smart girl, she’s pretty dumb sometimes.

Is it too much of a plot spoiler to note that she’ll take off more than that in a future episode? (Don’t worry. It will still be a family show.)

The shoes are stupid. They know they’re going to be carrying the zero cabinet and 80 kilos worth of unconscious Time Lord (who seems to be having trouble keeping his promise to levitate) through a freakin’ forest, and they don’t change into, like, jeans and sneakers?

I’m guessing Tegan worked hard enough to earn her stewardess uniform that she wasn’t about to take it on a mere whim, no matter what happened.

Of course, a more likely reason would be a limited wardrobe budget.

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 9:07pm

This was the first ‘classic’ series story I ever watched (technically the second ever, but the TVM kind of falls into it’s own category for me), and so I have a huge soft spot for it.

I remember actually being genuinely astonished by the on-reflection patently obvious revelation that the Portreve was the Master.

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 9:14pm

Of course, a more likely reason would be a limited wardrobe budget.

Another is that apparently producer John Nathan-Turner wanted the characters to be clad in easily distinguished uniforms which they rarely changed so as to help with any potential action-figure sales (which is partly why each of the characters has their own primary colour scheme in that season; the Doctor’s mainly beige and cream, Adric’s mainly yellow, Nyssa’s mainly maroon and Tegan’s mainly purple).

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 10:37pm

Also new here: most of the first two episodes are confined to the TARDIS

Not new. The third ever Doctor Who story, The Edge of Destruction, takes place entirely in the TARDIS. OF course, I remember it as being pretty awful, so I can see why you might want to forget it.

Okay, now I have to go back and watch The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords to see whether it contradicts this story. Why wouldn’t the Master’s regenerations correct whatever was screwy with his brain?

Tonio Kruger
Sun, Jun 06, 2010 10:39pm

I remember actually being genuinely astonished by the on-reflection patently obvious revelation that the Portreve was the Master.

So was I the first time I saw this episode. And apart from “Shada” and portions of “The E-Space Trilogy,” I had been watching every episode since Tom Baker’s “Robot.”

BBQ Platypus
BBQ Platypus
Sun, Jun 06, 2010 10:41pm

This is the only story written by Bidmead that I actually enjoy. And even it has its problems. Tegan and Nyssa carrying the Doctor goes on for a bit too long, for instance. The first two episodes are pretty slow going.

Davison, Ainley, and the concept of Castrovalva itself are the positive itself. I give this one a 7.

This was pretty much a “transitional” story between Bidmead’s era as script editor and Saward. A shame – I’ve always liked the IDEA of Bidmead, in any case.

Sun, Jun 06, 2010 10:49pm

All the talk about recursion in this episode makes me remember fondly what google asks when you type in “recursion”:

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 1:45pm

Peter Davison always suffered in my mind simply for not being Tom Baker. I first started watching Doctor Who on PBS and my local station had no concept of continuity but was heavy on Tom Baker (at least at first). There was also no way of knowing which episode they’d happen to play on any given Sunday but I’d always be there. After getting completely hooked on Tom Baker suddenly there was this new guy. (I had seen Robot so I wasn’t completely clueless about regeneration but hadn’t caught Logopolis) I disliked him simply for not being what I wanted.

I have now gone back and am re-watching the shows in order (I started with Robot about a year ago and am now about halfway through Peter Davisons run) and have found that I judged him too harshly and he’s moving up in my mind.

That being said it seems like this story was padded into a four parter. It would have made a great three episode arc but now those first two episodes drag horribly and I hated that he spent way too much time in the silly box. Once the story picks up it’s great even though I never liked Adric or Nyssa as companions. Actually come to think of it my favorite companions are always from Earth as the aliens never work as well for me.

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 4:38pm

This is the episode that got me hooked on the show. I had tried to watch it before but couldn’t make head nor tail of it. That was when the local PBS was showing Tom Baker’s episodes in their original 24 minute format. I landed in the middle of a story, was totally lost, and gave up. But…hmm, a 90 minute episode? That cute guy from All Creatures…acting all confused…he did what? Regenerated? WHAT?

As I say–that one story did it. Turned me into a club-joining, convention-attending, fan-fiction writing Whovian. Well done, Mr. Davison! Still love ya! :)

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 4:40pm

Oh, and @stegmi, re: Time Lord suicide–according to the Doctor Who Unbound story Exile from Big Finish which starred Arabella Weir as the Doctor, Time Lords who commit suicide regenerate as the opposite sex.

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 7:27pm


Time Lords who commit suicide regenerate as the opposite sex.

say what!? is that supposed to be some form of punishment? i have to get some of those BF stories (even if they *did* reject mine!)

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 8:24pm


They didn’t get into the philosophical issues of suicide=gender change. I guess you could take it as shock therapy, as in “you thought it was bad as a male/female, try life as a female/male for a change.” Or, for a more positive spin, if life is so unbearable for you as a male/female that you want to end it all, maybe things will be brighter for you as the opposite. Who knows, it was probably just a plot device to justify having a female Doctor!

I’d be happy to send you my copy of Exile to listen to if you’d like. It’s flamingly weird. Best part is David Tennant playing a stuffy bureaucratic assistant Time Lord who’s trying to track the Doctor down. MA has my e-mail address–or I could just send it to her and you can both listen. Let me know.

Corey Tamas
Mon, Jun 07, 2010 9:21pm

I like the part where Tegan and Sarah not only drop the wheelchair into the stream, but that it catches fire once they do.

I mean, your luck really has to suck rocks to set a wheelchair on fire while it’s in a stream.

Corey Tamas
Mon, Jun 07, 2010 9:39pm

Oh, and my other favorite:

I smell caption contest.

Mon, Jun 07, 2010 11:25pm

@weimlady: that would be incredibly whovish of you! i will ask MAJ about the email address. (she also has mine, obviously) and i’ll happily pay for the postage!

Rass Isca
Rass Isca
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 3:59pm

“Not that this is pleasant:”

If you look closely, Mr Waterhouse is enjoying it.