Four-gettable

Review of Four to Doomsday (#117)
DVD Release Date: 06 Jan 09
Original Air Date: 18 - 26 Jan 1982
Doctors/Companions: Five, Adric, Nyssa of Traken, Tegan Jovanka
Stars: Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding
Preceding Story: Castrovalva (Five, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan)
Succeeding Story: Kinda (Five, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan)

When I selected Four to Doomsday (4tD) to appear in my series of stories with bad reputations, I suspect I had given it more bad-credit than it deserves. Perhaps it's because on first viewing I gave the physics of the climactic "Doctor uses a cricket ball to fabulous effect" moment such serious side-eye. Mostly, though, I think 4tD simply flies too far under the radar as a middle-of-the-road installment. It is so unremarkable as to be forgettable.

The Doctor's first attempt to return Tegan to Heathrow Airport so she can finally start her new job goes (predictably) wrong, and the TARDIS crew lands instead on some sort of spaceship. The technology present is advanced enough to delight the Doctor and Nyssa as they explore. The crew soon find three slightly ominous beings in charge of the strange vessel. They introduce themselves as Monarch, Enlightenment, and Persuasion, and inform the Doctor that they are from the now-destroyed planet Urbanka.

Meanwhile, the TARDIS team also find several people who are obviously from Earth, including an ancient Greek philosopher named Bigon, an Australian Aboriginal man named Kurkutji, one Princess Villagra of the Maya, and an imperial Chinese official named Lin Futu. The circumstances surrounding the presence of these people and their subordinates on a ship filled with (unseen) Urbankan refugees are part of the mystery to be solved.

This is the Era of the Crowded TARDIS, with three full-time Companions to juggle, and this script does a surprisingly good job of it. The party gets split in a number of creative twists, and in various combinations. Each Companion has a different reaction to the situation, and we get some serious sparks between Tegan and Adric.

I've tried hard to give Adric a fair shake, but he's not doing himself any favors in this adventure. Right off the bat, he acts like an utter prat, making broad, insulting remarks about "women" aimed at Tegan. When Nyssa takes umbrage, holding herself as a counter-example, Adric dismisses her, saying that she's "only a girl." (This, by the way, is a social dynamic I've never understood. Nyssa is apparently meant to be quite young, but aside from being shorter than Tegan, I can see no vast difference in their ages. While Wikipedia informs me that Janet Fielding is some eight years older than Sarah Sutton, Sarah would already have been 20 or 21 at the time of filming—an age at which I would certainly qualify her as a woman rather than a girl.)

Adric continues to prove himself an absolute doorknob when he allows Monarch to sway him with questionable promises of his place in a glorious (authoritarian) future. He blabs everything he knows, ignoring Nyssa's protests, and barely even says a word when Nyssa is escorted away to be subjected to unspeakable horrors.

But he isn't the only part of 4tD that causes me to raise a dubious eyebrow. There is an early moment when they meet Kurkutji where Tegan speaks to him in his own language. Nothing about the character suggests that Tegan should know an Aboriginal tongue—aside from the fact that she's Australian. Even if we gloss over the gross generalization that a white Australian might know some basic phrases of an Aboriginal language, we later find out that Kurkutji was taken from Earth some 36,000 years ago. No language remains the same for that long; there should be no way that even a native speaker of the modern-day version of that language would be able to understand Kurkutji. (And I'm ignoring the TARDIS translation circuits here, because Kurkutji's speech was not rendered into English on-screen, and the Doctor didn't appear to understand him.)

Further, when we get to the "recreationals," the events presented are exceedingly stereotypical: gladiatorial fighting or Greco-Roman wrestling from the Greeks, a supposed native dance from the Mayas, a similarly stereotypical dance from the Aboriginal people, and a lion dance from the Chinese. On the one hand, it's nice that the script tried to represent each culture; on the other, I'm pretty sure that at least two of these cultures still use some of these "entertainments" regularly in their original contexts. All four cultures still exist in some form. I had a hard time not cringing at the insensitivity every time we returned to a recreational.

There are always ways in which any given episode of Doctor Who is a product of its time. The recreationals are, of course, one. However, it was a different one that really threw me for a loop, in part because it was so unexpected. Throughout the story, there is mention of both the Urbankan refugee population and the population of Earth. Both are pegged at 3 billion.

Even in 1982, that number was outdated. Apparently Earth passed the 3-billion mark somewhere around 1960; by 1980, it was closer to 4.5 billion. Today we're over 7.5 billion, some two-and-a-half times the quoted population. Thus, every time they talked about how many humans on Earth would be wiped out by the Dastardly Plan™, it threw me out of the story. It felt like a strange detail to get stuck on, but somehow I just couldn't get past it.

Similarly, I have a hard time getting past the cricket ball thing, but if I pretend that trick actually works, I can look back at the overall adventure with a fair amount of satisfaction. There are cringey bits, both intentional and not, but the story holds together better than I remembered, and I felt the handling of the large main cast was skillfully done.

So there would be worse fates than to be "doomed" to watch 4tD again. Just don't ask me what the title means; I've never figured it out.

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