A DVD A Day: Doctor Who — Castrovalva

I forgot to post this one yesterday, so I’m already not living up to the title…

Castrovalva is the first Doctor Who story featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, and for the first time in one of these DVDs I’ve come across something that I have quite a bit to say about.

While it was the first story of season nineteen, it has always felt to me like it was the last story of season eighteen. There are a number of reasons for that — one is that it follows directly on from the last scene of Logopolis, Tom Baker’s last story, whose ending it reprises before the credits. Another is that it was the ending of a loose trilogy (what Alex Wilcock calls The Master’s Doctor Plan) which started with The Keeper of Traken, the story before Logopolis, and all three of them are packaged together in the same DVD set (though with the new move towards making everything into season Blu-Rays, I wonder how the next generation of fans will view these).

But the most important reason is that this story is written by Christopher H Bidmead, who had been the script editor for season eighteen, had written Logopolis, and had been the principal creative force behind that oddest of seasons generally.

There is a lot to say about Bidmead, but perhaps the most telling is that he is the epitome of the creative artist who doesn’t understand his own work. In every interview, Bidmead talks about how he wanted to make Doctor Who into hard science fiction which taught kids about real scientific ideas, and which was firmly grounded in reality, not in fantasy. Instead, his season takes us through episodes on lizard Mafiosi, talking cacti and the mystical powers of Platonic solids, Lamarckianism, Hammer horror pastiche vampires, magic mirrors and the I Ching in a story that’s half Cocteau pastiche and half Adam Ant video, a Shakespearean riff on the idea of the Great Chain of Being, and then finally a world of monks whose chanting holds the universe together.

This from a man who thought that he was making something educational about science.

The scripts in season eighteen tend to hang together even less well as plots than some of those in the previous few seasons, yet what they do have is a tremendous thematic resonance. Whatever their ostensible writers, they all keep coming back to the same few themes — hidden knowledge from the past returning and upending a society; appearances not being what they seem; duplicates of people (so many duplicates); entropy and decay; worlds that operate according to pre-scientific philosophical worldviews; and recursion.

These motifs keep coming back in different forms, and so in Meglos for example the Doctor has a lookalike that’s a giant cactus, while in Logopolis there are multiple versions of the Doctor going round, and most of them seem to be tied to a particular late-seventies/early-eighties aesthetic, a post-hippie version of reality which is trying to decide whether the universe is really a giant computer, or if it’s a creation of our own consciousness, or both simultaneously. The reference points here are things like Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, and many other books which try in some way or another to unify quantum physics, parapsychology, cybernetics, and Eastern mysticism (the particular variety of Eastern doesn’t really matter, in this view — Buddhism, Taoism, whatever, it’s all that Ancient Eastern Wisdom stuff).

(I sound dismissive, but I actually have a lot of time for that kind of thing — those books are often very wrong, and a bit mush-headed, but they’re also the product of people trying to think about important questions and trying to use every tool available in their toolkit to find answers. When they’re wrong, they’re interestingly wrong, and occasionally they’re right.)

Another book that got read by the same people who read those books was Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter — a book which tries to use parables containing Alice in Wonderland characters, art by Escher, and discussion of some music by Bach, to try to explain Godel’s theorem, and also to put forward Hofstadter’s own hypothesis about one of those big questions — in this case, his belief that consciousness can be explained as a form of recursion.

Bidmead seems to have latched on to this book, and in particular to the Escher stuff, which appealed to his own aesthetic sense. Because one other thing about season eighteen that doesn’t get pointed out quite as often as those themes is that it’s often a season that’s explicitly about the spaces its characters inhabit, and that’s driven as much by the sets as by the characters — the sets tend (in the most Bidmeadesque episodes) to be reifications of the story’s themes. The logic of a lot of Bidmead’s stories is the place where the logics of early Doctor Who and of text adventure games meet. They’re all about exploring a physical space more than interacting with characters as such, and the exploration of the space leads to revelation of the story’s underlying plot.

And given that Escher, of course, drew impossible, recursive, spaces in his images, that made his work the perfect subject for a Bidmead story. And so we have Castrovalva, named after one of Escher’s etchings, but with a central revelation that comes straight from another one — the space in which the second half of the story takes place is modelled on Ascending and Descending.

The recursive space our protagonists are in turns out to have been created by the Master, using a kind of computation whose name Bidmead nicked from the instruction set of the Z80 microprocessor, but which in-story can only be performed by living minds — precisely the kind of quantum mysticism that all those books talk about (and which seems to have no basis in reality, given that to the extent that the human brain is a computer there’s no evidence that it’s not just a normal Turing machine rather than a quantum computer). The Master plants precisely the kind of false history we’ve seen time and again in the Bidmead-shaped stories previously, and everything in the story works towards a single aesthetic aim.

My favourite Doctor Who has always been the times when it seems to be grasping towards being about something much bigger than itself — that’s one reason I’m such a fan of the Faction Paradox series, which amplifies that tendency. It’s only occasionally done so on screen, and those are some of the oddest stories, the ones that can stand up most to repeated viewings — Evil of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The Space Museum, The Deadly Assassin, Shada, Vengeance on Varos. There are only a small number of creators who seemed to view the series as something that could do this kind of thing — David Whitaker, Bob Holmes, Douglas Adams, and David Maloney seem to be the principal ones — and Chris Bidmead was the last one to do it consistently.

Many of the stories with which Bidmead was involved ended up not being very good, and if you ask him what he was trying to do, what he *thought* he was doing was something I would have no time for at all. But when you look at this, or Logopolis, you see something almost visionary, something I miss in later incarnations of the series.

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4 Responses to A DVD A Day: Doctor Who — Castrovalva

  1. chukg says:

    I hadn’t thought of the Dancing Wu Li Masters for years.

  2. Greg says:

    Good to see you back writing again on this site. Any plans on reviewing the beach boys 1968 Wake the world and I can hear music sessions? Cheers

  3. dm says:

    I’d argue that Greatest Show, Ghost Light, and Survival are heirs to the tendency you describe here.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Agreed — but they’re all one-offs. I think Cartmel may have been encouraging that kind of thing in his writers, and we might have got more of it had there been more of the show.

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