A highly unusual story. I remember "The Discontinuity Guide" stating that it almost seems like Terrence Dudley doesn't seem to know what it's like to write for Doctor Who. And, as I watched this story with this premise in mind, I found this notion not only plausible but highly effective.
In the hands of a lot of other authors, "Four To Doomsday" would have resorted to many of the cliches an invasion story in Doctor Who uses. In fact, if we go back a few years to the early Tom Baker days, we have a story called "The Android Invasion" that runs along some somewhat similiar lines. Except that, of course, "Four To Doomsday" is highly intelligent sci-fi and "Android Invasion" is a pretty big load of bunk!
The greatest pitfall it assails that much of "cliche Who" has failed at is the characterisation of its main villain. Since JNT took the helm as producer in the previous season, we have seen many of the more melgamaniacal characters becoming more subdued and layered in stories like "Warriors Gate" and "Leisure Hive". This tradition continues in the characterisation of Monarch. He's very "plummy" both in dialogue and portrayal. And though, like all the maniacs in Who that are trying to take over the universe, his eventual true colours show in a complete disentegration of his personality - even this is handled with a great sense of finesse. Rather than subjecting us the OTT stuff we saw in the pre-JNT days - we get a very convincing and even three-dimensional character. And thanks to this characterisation, Monarch easilly rests in my memory as one of the better villains of the Davison era.
Counterpointing the very excellent Monarch is an equally-strong portrayal in the stereotypical "rebellious character that the Doctor allies himself with in order to take down the bad guy". Bigon is also very well-executed both on paper and in performance. He is ironically tragic as the atheist greek philosopher who has more soul than anyone else on the ship. His relationship with Monarch is also quite fascinating as the dictator allows him his existence because he sees him as a "moral galvaniser". Again, another convention we have seen in countless other stories, but Terrence Dudley gives us a whole new slant on the premise and makes this story thoroughly refreshing because of it.
Now we come to the TARDIS crew. This, in many ways, is their first "proper" story even though the current line-up has been around for two stories. Both those stories were spent dealing with the Doctor's regeneration and we really don't get much of a sense of what their relationships will be like since all the focus is on dealing with a crisis rather than genuinely inter-relating with each other. But, in this story, we definitely see what things will be like with Doctor Five at the helm. It's an awkward sort of muddle, really. Which isn't an entirely bad thing. We've only got one 20th-century human in the mix - the rest are all aliens. Thus creating a nice breeding ground for misinterpretation and even some hostility now and again. And with this new Doctor being a bit more meek like Troughton rather than assertive like Tom or Pertwee, we get even more soap opera drama between the crewmembers because he doesn't tend to "put the companions in their place" when they appear to be getting out of hand. Although this isn't always done quite so effectively in other stories of this season - I quite like how it's done here. And all the companions get fairly equal attention - something that, again, doesn't always go so well in future stories.
I also enjoyed how, for once, Adric really did join the bad guy for a bit rather than just pretend to like he has in other stories. And the scene where the Doctor "strips him down" in episode four is well-realised. Showing that this latest incarnation can lack assertiveness sometimes, but still knows when to truly take a stand and not back down. And even though Davison is a bit "shaky" in places because this is his first story in filming order, much of what would become "definitive fifth Doctor" is in strong evidence here and he shows that the character is going to move in some wonderful new directions now that old Tom has been laid to rest once and for all.
Accompanied with all this are some extremely gorgeous sets, a neat form of scanning equipment (the Monopticons) and some really well-choreographed dance sequences (did I just use "well-choreographed dance sequences" in a review of a Doctor Who story? Yes, yes I did). And, of course, the wonderful space walk sequence in episode four. Again, very cheap-looking by the North American standards I'm used to when watching T.V. - but still, a very exciting little moment. Especially with the way the Doctor uses the basic laws of inertia and a cricket ball to save the day! A very "Who-esque" moment if I ever saw one!
However, along with this, we do get some plot loopholes and things do "sag" ever-so-slightly now and again cause there just doesn't seem quite an adequate amount of story to fill the four episodes. But these problems only weigh down the story so much. "Four To Doomsday", for its flaws, is also a triumph of style and sophistication. I might even go so far to say that it is a shining example of all that is good in 80s-style sci-fi. Not just in context of the series, but the genre in general. A bit of a hidden gem that is oftentimes overlooked just because the monsters aren't quite bug-eyed enough!
Watch this one again and see just how well it has stood the test of time. It's outstanding stuff!
The opening sequence of 'Four to Doomsday' is remarkably effective: an ominious and enigmatic score accompanies a series of panning and tracking shots of a dark, mysterious, and (presumably) gigantic spaceship; a tone both mysterious and threatening is established. The viewer (this viewer, at least) is not disappointed by what follows, for whatever the flaws of 'Four to Doomsday' it manages to work as an intriguing, textured, and sinister piece of science fiction.
Although on a plot-only level 'Four to Doomsday' is a bit long, and a bit of a drag at times, it does succeed in telling a story tinged with engaging ideas and concepts. The first two cliff-hangers rely not on a terrible fate for the Doctor, but on a revelation: the drama for much of 'Four to Doomsday' is the discovery of more and more of the details of the science fiction set up. One theme which emerges from this SF set up is that of 'difference' and 'alienness': the themus split. Perception, and the different ways different people view 'others', is everywhere. There is Adric, in his usual, petulant self-important tone, making notably bigotted comments about what he sees as being the difference between men and women and girls. The whole premise of the plot is the fact that the spaceship is full of different cultures and races, collected from Earth at various points in history by the Urbankans. And although they are not fully developed, 'Four to Doomsday' touches on questions of how we define 'cultures', and whether it is possible that cultures can be recorded, and stored, and preserved in stasis. What the Urbankans fail to see is the speed with which culture changes: their ability to alter their appearance to become 'like' other cultures is flawed, because it does not allow for natural evolution and change, and also because it is only skin deep. Culture is more than just accent and clothing and native dances.
On other levels, 'Four to Doomsday' is classic Doctor Who hokum. Questions of race, culture, and class aside, there is no doubt that the Urbankans neatly fill the role of the classic, unambiguous, atypical, nasty Doctor Who aliens we see so frequently, and hopefully will see more of soon! Monarch's eloquent, mannered, and 'civilized' English diction, rather than making him sympathetic, simply makes him more sinister, and more alien. There is a superb line during episode two (when Adric and Nyssa are suffocating) where Enlightenment notes that Adric and Nyssa "have lungs", and Monarch replies with sadistic pleasure: "Let them remember that." Chilling.
Overall, deficiencies of plot aside (well, not 'deficiences', as such'... there just isn't a lot happening), 'Four to Doomsday' is an entertaining story. And it has a brain. Recommended.
'Four to Doomsday' is a hugely underrated Doctor Who story. On the surface it is a simple story of impending alien invasion, but it is dressed up in such good scripting, acting, and production that it becomes considerably more than that.
The key to the success of 'Four to Doomsday' is Monarch. Monarch is undoubtedly mad, but he isn't just some stock megalomaniac, due to a combination of scripting and Stratford Johns' portrayal. Monarch is an egomaniac on a colossal scale, utterly self-obsessed to the extent that he believes that he is God and so arrogant that he displays a mixture of astonishment and anger when it is hinted that the Doctor's technology is more advanced than his own. But Monarch is also laid back and confident, which makes him highly distinctive. He is magnanimous throughout, allowing the Doctor and his companions to wander his ship whilst he learns about them, although by Episode Four his patience is exhausted. He cheerfully acknowledges Nyssa's revulsion at the nature of his alleged plans to transform the population of Earth (plus herself) into androids, telling Enlightenment that he appreciates her spirit, and he likewise defends his decision to have tolerated Bigon for so long because he admires free thinkers. His self-confidence is his weakness; he allows the Doctor far too much free reign, eventually resulting in his own defeat. He is also vulnerable to flattery as a result; whilst Adric's reaction to his schemes his genuine, Monarch is so delighted by the boy's interest that he agrees to spare the Doctor's life at the beginning of Episode Four, since he is unwilling to upset Adric until he has been turned into an android.
Monarch's dialogue adds to the overall effect of a highly distinctive villain. This is partly because of the way in which Terence Dudley scripted it, with a certain level of pomposity ("I would see the intrusion again"). More than this however, it is largely due to Johns' delivery; Johns seems so laid-back as Monarch that his dialogue seems unusually natural. When Bigon warns Monarch that the Doctor's hand will be against him, Monarch replies, "Then I will cut it off". He could have shouted this, or snarled it, or said it with a malevolent chuckle, but instead he states it so casually that he sounds like he's discussing the weather. It is not a threat; it is a simple statement of fact. This is crucial to the success of Monarch as a character, because he doesn't need to rant and rave, since he is already the absolute ruler of his people, has been for thousands of years, and is utterly secure in that fact. In addition, Johns makes Monarch seem entirely reasonable, most notably when he's telling Adric and Nyssa of the nature of the Urbankans. Nyssa is horrified at the notion of having her mind copied to a silicon chip, and then having her body destroyed, but whilst it is a ghastly concept, Monarch makes it sound so reasonable that it almost becomes Nyssa who sounds irrational. This effect is only brief, but demonstrates once more how natural Johns is in the role.
Monarch however is not the only well-characterised supporting character in 'Four to Doomsday'. Enlightenment and Persuasion both serve their purpose very effectively, but it is Paul Shelley's Persuasion that is the most notable since he gets more to do. Shelley brings an icy menace to the role that offsets Monarch's seeming benevolence beautifully, his matter of fact order that the Doctor be executed obviously the act of a ruthless enforcer carrying out his orders rather than some gloating sadist out for revenge. The other main character of note is Bigon, the voice of dissension in Monarch's false utopia, who plays a significant role in the story by revealing much of the truth of Monarch's plans to the Doctor and ultimately participating in Monarch's defeat. As Bigon, Philip Locke also plays his part very well, and the cliffhanger ending to Episode Two, whilst clearly signposted throughout the episode, works especially well due to Locke's rather melancholy portrayal. On the subject of the guest cast, it is also nice to see such a multicultural cast, even if they are mainly extras playing characters that are literally ethnic stereotypes. I feel I should also mention the ubiquitous Burt Kwouk's appearance in Doctor Who as Lin Futu, although he doesn't get a great deal to do.
The regulars are all used rather well in 'Four to Doomsday'. Sarah Sutton has the least prominent role, although her vocal objection to Monarch's plans for her is well performed. On the other hand, her collapse in the TARDIS during the very final scene is utterly cringe-worthy. There is little point in further ridiculing Matthew Waterhouse's acting, but the character of Adric plays an important role here. More so than in any other story, the character is thoroughly unlikable, snide and obnoxious during Episode One (his sexist comments and tantrums are notable low points), and an absolute liability later on as he comes under the spell of Monarch's charisma. The Doctor rather generously describes him as idealistic rather than gullible, but he still comes across as a complete tosser. Tegan on the other hand also proves to be a liability, but in far more understandable way. After the distraction of the Doctor's post-regenerative trauma in 'Castrovalva', she now wants solely to go home, and reference to her Aunt is a suitable reminder of how much she has been through since she first stumbled into the TARDIS. 'Four to Doomsday' is not her finest hour, but it is perhaps one of her most realistic; whereas in the past companions have joined the Doctor and faced the most traumatic and outrageous of situations with unlikely fortitude, Tegan is portrayed in a more natural light here. Her panic rings true, thanks largely to Janet Fielding; Tegan's overwhelming desire to both escape from Monarch's ship and warn Earth of its impending arrival is a convincing reaction, even though it places her companions in danger. It also demonstrates a lack of trust in the Doctor's abilities that makes sense considering how little she knows him. It makes Tegan seem unfavorable, but it also makes her seem like a normal person thrust into deeply unusual circumstances and thus is both understandable and believable. Finally, Davison continues to live up to the promise that he showed in 'Castrovalva'; his Doctor's approach to the situation is significantly different from that of Baker, whose Doctor would perhaps have antagonized Monarch form the start. Instead, the Fifth Doctor ingratiates himself in order to find out exactly what is going on, and eventually sets out to stop Monarch once he has got to the bottom of the situation. It is worth mentioning that by the end of Episode Three the Doctor sets out to beat his opponent and Episode Four consists almost entirely of Monarch's little empire collapsing as the Doctor sows the seeds of rebellion. It is also the Doctor's insight that saves him and his companions from Monarch at the end; realizing that Monarch is still at least partially in the flesh time, he kills him with his own toxin. One final note of interest; it is obvious in retrospect that 'Four to Doomsday' is the first story that Davison recorded in the role, since his performance as the Doctor is far more nervous and twitchy than during the rest of the season.
In addition to all of this, 'Four to Doomsday' benefits from great production. John Black's direction makes the most of the impressive sets and costumes and the adequate model work, and Roger Limb's incidental score also adds to the proceedings. The Monopticons also work well, proving memorable and surprisingly well realized (specifically, they don't wobble!). The various entertainments organized by the Urbankans, including the Chinese Dragon dance, are well choreographed and contribute to the gorgeous look of the story. Indeed my only criticisms of 'Four to Doomsday' are minor plot holes. The Doctor's ability to survive for six minutes in sub-zero temperatures is not inconsistent with past stories, but his seeming ability to survive in a vacuum, an aspect of space walking entirely ignored by the script, is rather less plausible. I also can't help wondering what Monarch has been doing on his previous visits to Earth; why has he taken representatives of different cultures if he's planning to exterminate life on Earth with toxin anyway? Why didn't he colonize the planet before? These issues remain unclear. Fortunately, these issues are very minor and are outweighed by the merits of the story, which ultimately is deserving of far more recognition that it usually receives.