Doctor Who and the Visitation
|ISBN||0 426 20135 3|
|First Edition Cover||Photographic|
|Back cover blurb: Tegan, the young air hostess who quite unintentionally became a member of the TARDIS's crew, wants to return to her own time, but when the Doctor tries to take her back to Heathrow Airport in the twentieth century the TARDIS lands instead on the outskirts of seventeenth-century London. The Doctor and his companions receive a decidedly unfriendly welcome - but it soon becomes clear that the sinister activities of other visitors from time and space have made the villagers extremely suspicious of outsiders. And as a result of the aliens' evil schemes, the Doctor finds himself on the point of playing a key role in a gruesome historical event...|
"Of Terileptils, Androids and Badgers" by Jason A. Miller 6/12/16
Eric Saward, in novelizing his TV scripts in Doctor Who and the Visitation, spends a lot of time describing the scenery and foliage. You could almost mistake the opening pan of his first few paragraphs for a gentle nature travelogue:
"It was a warm summer evening. The rays of the setting sun bathed the old manor house in subtle shades of red and gold. Evening stars appeared as the light continued to fade. From a high branch, a sleepy owl watched a fox break cover and silently pad toward the west wing of the manor house. Night was awakening."This is a very elegant and evocative opening pan, very much not in the Target house style of Terrance Dicks. But, shortly after that, Saward also lets us know that this is not some gentle documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough, either:
"The owl, now fully awake, stared fixedly, saucer-eyed, at a shadow below. Suddenly he launched himself into space, and on silent wings, talons extended, sped towards a tiny harvest mouse. A moment later, the bird's hooked beak was tearing at his supper. It was the first kill of the evening."That's a pretty genius thing to bury in the opening pan -- there are about to be several more kills in the evening, including the family in the aforementioned manor house. A retired knight and his two teenaged children (all named after British royalty) are about to be massacred by the Terileptils, aliens who've just crash-landed on Earth in the year 1666. With this moment, Eric Saward has arrived in Doctor Who.
The Visitation is the first of Eric Saward's four novelizations. He would later affect an over-the-top, sub-Douglas Adams style, in his three Colin Baker books. But The Visitation is a refreshing read, because Saward at this early date is still playing it straight. The novelizaton is witty but dry; it adheres closely to his own TV scripts; and he has several characters comment on how exhausted the story's events have left them -- an earnest way to mask the fact that, on TV, there just wasn't all that much going on. Saward's later TV hallmarks were unflinching violence and massive body counts. But with The Visitation being his first story, we see him still experiment with pacing and figuring out how much more action the cast can bear... these will no longer be problems by his next story, Earthshock.
Until Earthshock gets here, though, The Visitation is as small-scale in print as it is on TV, with no additional scenes or subplots added. The story is a pseudo-historical that doesn't appear very interested in history until the final punchline. The village where the Terileptils land is never named; the Terileptils plan on releasing a genetically engineered version of the bubonic plague to wipe out humanity, but, unusually for Doctor Who, not a single person is ever infected with this plague. One suspects that the whole story was engineered backwards from the final shot of the Pudding Lane sign; Eric Saward had decided that the TARDIS crew was partly responsible for setting the Great Fire of London, and needed to contrive a means for a bunch of flammable alien technology to go kaboom!
As for the TARDIS crew, we here have a young Fifth Doctor; this was only the second Peter Davison story produced and the first to be novelized. Davison was not exactly a larger-than-life figure as the Doctor; his TV hallmarks were earnestness, charm and vulnerability. Fortunately, Saward is effective at capturing these traits. For example:
"The Doctor found he was wagging his finger at the [Terileptil] Leader like an angry schoolteacher might at a difficult class of children. He felt silly and even more frustrated because he had been reduced to such a ridiculous gesture."I also like the way the Doctor shoots down a Tegan observation "[w]ith more pomposity than he intended" or when he greets the Terileptils "as jauntily as his apprehension would allow." Sentences like this, in addition to Davison's own performance on the show, are the reason why the Fifth Doctor became my Doctor.
The main guest role is Richard Mace, a 17th-century failed actor turned highwayman, whom Saward borrowed from his own previous fiction. Mace is described quite humorously in the book, for example flourishing his pistols "[w]ith considerably more flamboyance than the situation demanded". Mace also spends a lot of time in the text daydreaming about how to take the Terileptil's technology and apply it to the theater, so that he can become rich and famous. It's a shame there's no prologue showing Mace bringing these dreams to fruition... Later, when Mace yells at the Terileptil Leader, Saward observes: "Such was the dignity the actor managed to get into such a banal statement, the Doctor almost wanted to cheer."
The companions are also captured well: we spend a lot of time with Nyssa as she tries to defeat the Terileptil Android with a science project and with Tegan as she fights against being the Terileptil's prisoner. Adric, however, is given much less POV time, and Saward allows the main guest star to reflect his own thoughts: "Mace scowled. Foolish boy, he thought."
In terms of structure, Saward nukes the prevailing Target house style. Up to this point, most four-part TV stories were condensed into 12 chapters in print, with cliffhangers neatly placed at the end of Chapters Three, Six and Nine. Saward prefers to leave his book with a poorly divisible eleven-chapter count. The cliffhangers are all buried in mid-chapter, with positively no dramatic flourishes; in fact, the Part One cliffhanger is stuck blandly in mid-paragraph, such that, when I first read the book as a child, months before seeing the TV story on PBS, I had no idea where Part One could possibly have ended. Saward also prefers to end his chapters with brief moments of disquiet rather than moments of grand tension; at the end of Chapter Three, "Mace scowled. He was not happy". Chapter Seven ends not with the Terileptil Android breaking down a door but, rather, a few beats later, as the android is leading the Doctor and Mace away toward captivity.
Saward also contents himself to spend a lot of time writing from the POV of animals. When the Terileptil escape pod crashes, Saward describes it from the POV of a fox, "who panicked and fled into the night." We also briefly spend time in the head of the Miller's horse and donkey. ("Mace snorted. The donkey joined in sympathy.") Later on, a badger briefly tries to follow the action but loses interest, opting instead to set off "in search of supper". Saward also uses the grandeur of nature, at times, to offset the death and destruction:
"Nature had decided to show herself at her best, to convince those who had time to consider such things that she was capable of creating more than plague, fear and violent death. But the Doctor and Richard Mace were among those too preoccupied to appreciate the gesture."On TV, The Visitation is a low-key story, with two really strong guest performances (Mace and the Terileptil leader) and an interesting early look at what fresh young energy Peter Davison brought to the role of the Doctor. It doesn't fall on too many Top 20 lists. The novelization is correspondingly small and is rarely held up as the model of the form. However, I love the book for many reasons: Saward's dry wit and crisp prose and the earnest storytelling, with a plot not trying as desperately hard as Saward's later Colin Baker-era novelizations (or other creative decisions within Season 22, for that matter).
It's also, when all is said and done, the only Doctor Who novel to feature the POV of a badger. For that reason, if nothing else, please give it a try.