Aired 15 – 23 February 1982
‘The Visitation’ is a fairly straightforward Doctor Who tale, especially in a season laden with experimentalism and mysticism. Perhaps more important than the general quality of the script and production that stand the test of time surprisingly well, the lasting legacy of ‘The Visitation’ is its heralding of a more action-heavy approach to the franchise as Eric Saward- the man who would be so vital to the programme for the next three years behind the scenes- makes his debut.
In some respects, ‘The Visitation’ is very much a throwback to the Pertwee era as the action returns to Earth, a signal of another change of course following the bombastic and more ethereal and alien years with Tom Baker in the starring role. There are strong thematic elements reminiscent of those the great Robert Holmes would often employ, but although the aliens and historical setting certainly help to create an atmospheric and engaging story, Saward does show a bit of inexperience in his first script by not quite managing to distinguish the characters enough to truly make them memorable. While this certainly applies to the human villagers, the alien Terileptils suffer from hardly getting any explanation of their past or their desire to destroy London and receiving no trace of individuality among them.
Saward proves from the outset that he has an eye for grimness and striking imagery, and the sight of the Terileptils burning alive is realized incredibly and hauntingly well, especially after a relatively light-hearted and straightforward story with a pace that doesn’t always manage to keep up with the action. Having the gentle and even-keeled Fifth Doctor holding a firearm is certainly striking in its juxtaposition as well, though having him save the day by accidentally starting the Great Fire of London and then having the script casually treat the horrific incident and effects as a joke are rather less successful in their intent and execution. However, if any one element best signifies that a dramatic shift is imminent, the destruction of the sonic screwdriver perhaps best signifies the intent to ground the world of Doctor Who in grim science fact than whimsical science fantasy.
The expanded roster of TARDIS occupants inherently brings the potential for more interpersonal drama, and ‘The Visitation’ begins to pick up on that thread a little bit more than previous serials even if it doesn’t quite weigh the burden of consequences properly to emphasize the changes these characters are undergoing. The Doctor chastises Adric for events in ‘Kinda’ and Tegan briefly mentions that those horrifically personal events are only just now sinking in for her, but there’s no sense of occasion or true substance to make these feel like anything more than references that should be made for continuity. To be fair, Peter Davison does well with taking the frustration he builds up while arguing with Tegan about his ability to get her home and using it to great effect throughout the story, highlighting how distinct from his predecessor he is as he silently takes in what Tegan is saying and later even attempts to apologize. However, Tegan simply uses this as a springboard for further complaining as the story progresses with no other characterization or development afforded her.
In the end, ‘The Visitation’ is a perfectly serviceable first script from Eric Saward that stands up quite well, but it’s also one that looks to the past for inspiration better than it declares what it wants to do for the future. There are signs that change is in the air, but the story taken in isolation as presented here is an enjoyable if superficial display of action that never looks too far beyond the surface to try to offer something more deeply poignant.